For the past few years, but particularly in the aftermath of the 2016 US Presidential election, the theme of identity politics has dominated political discourse on both the left and the right. Countless books, articles, blogs and comments have been written on the subject, but we ourselves have dealt with it only in passing.
The definition of identity politics remains elusive. Used as a catch-all term, often in a derisive manner, it has been blamed for the weakness of the modern “left”, the rise of the so called “alt-right” or the electoral victory of Donald Trump itself. Those “accused” of identity politics often point out the racist, sexist or class reductionist attitudes of those “united” under the anti-identity banner. This is the context in which Asad Haider, “left wing academic” and member of the Student-Workers Union at the University of California, wrote Mistaken Identity: Race and Class in the Age of Trump. The primary reason why this particular book is worth reviewing, among many others covering the same theme, is that Haider also happens to be the founding editor of Viewpoint Magazine.1 This magazine, in its own words, aims to “reinvent Marxism for our time”, often drawing on autonomist and feminist sources of the past. Haider approached the writing of this book from the perspective of someone who believes in “the project of universal emancipation, of a global, revolutionary solidarity [that] can only be realized through organization and action”.2 As such, it stands to reason that the book should be of interest for those seeking revolutionary perspectives regarding the question of identity today. But does it provide any answers?
Setting the Record Straight
Let us first briefly clarify the position of the communist left. As already pointed out, we have used the term identity politics only sparingly, often in the context of the nationalist resurgence in the face of an ongoing capitalist crisis, e.g.
“If the ruling class is making a frontal attack on the working class there is a danger of a class response. To avert this what better vehicle than identity politics […] and what is a more obvious identity than the notion of “the country” or the nation? […] against all nationalist mystifications we take a class position which is to oppose all capitalist ideologies of identity.”3
One does not need to search long to find examples of how, not just national, but all kinds of identity have been used to mystify capitalist relations.4 The persisting myths of a national capitalism as a solution to the problems of national oppression, of state capitalism as a solution to the exploitation of workers, of black capitalism as a solution to the oppression of black people, or pink capitalism as a solution to the oppression of LGBT+ people, etc.5 It remains up to communists to show how, rather than gradual reforms (which can always be reversed), class collaboration (which tends to benefit the ruling class only), or minorities carving out a political/economic niche within capitalism (which ends up reproducing the same oppressive relations), it is the working class that holds the key to a new world without oppression. This is nothing new. At the onset of the 20th Century, Lenin polemicised against the workerist approach of Rabochaya Mysl (Workers’ Thought),
"Inasmuch as [political] oppression affects the most diverse classes of society, inasmuch as it manifests itself in the most varied spheres of life and activity — vocational, civic, personal, family, religious, scientific, etc., etc. — is it not evident that we shall not be fulfilling our task of developing the political consciousness of the workers if we do not undertake the organisation of the political exposure of the autocracy in all its aspects?"6
The fact that communists cannot "confine themselves exclusively to the economic struggle" rings just as true today. If communists abstain from either the economic or political struggles of the class, the politicisation of those struggles will take a bourgeois form (which is arguably what has happened with the obliteration of the international communist movement in the 20th century). This is why in the long term it is detrimental to shy away from the issues which identity politics (however defined) raises or claims to address.7 Long before concepts such as identity politics or intersectionality entered popular discourse, Marxists tried to grapple with questions of oppression along lines of nationality, ethnicity and gender. Communists, at least in principle, always stood for the unity of the working class regardless of identity. Since the working class is diverse – encompassing all kinds of identities – prejudice or discrimination, whether in the form of sexism, racism, etc., should have no place in any communist organisation worth its name. Such attitudes only serve to divide workers along arbitrary lines, often delineated by the most reactionary institutions in modern society (the State, the Church, etc.). But at the same time, Marxist theory has questioned the abstract discourse of rights through a class struggle lens, and tried to demonstrate that concepts such as nation or gender in every case conceal a definite historical content – reinforced at the individual as well as institutional and structural level. In other words, the position of the communist left is that of opposition to every form of oppression, but also inherently against separatism whether based on gender, race or nationality, and against cross-class alliances. This position has not changed with the advent of identity politics. As one of our documents put it,
“Action without compromise against all racist shenanigans, discrimination, exceptional laws and administrative practices is an essential basic condition for the production of class unity.”8
Haider spends much of the book discussing terminology. He starts with the subject of the book – identity politics. The dictionary definition is that of “politics in which groups of people having a particular racial, religious, ethnic, social, or cultural identity tend to promote their own specific interests or concerns without regard to the interests or concerns of any larger political group”.9 But Haider points out how the term has changed meaning over time, and how it originated in a 1977 statement by a black feminist group called the Combahee River Collective, where it was employed in the following way:
“We realize that the only people who care enough about us to work consistently for our liberation are us. Our politics evolve from a healthy love for ourselves, our sisters and our community which allows us to continue our struggle and work. This focusing upon our own oppression is embodied in the concept of identity politics. We believe that the most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else's oppression. […] We are socialists because we believe that work must be organized for the collective benefit of those who do the work and create the products, and not for the profit of the bosses. [...] We are not convinced, however, that a socialist revolution that is not also a feminist and anti-racist revolution will guarantee our liberation.“10
Haider continues this line of digging for the source of terms, doing the same to white privilege (from the 1960s anti-revisionist POC – Provisional Organizing Committee to Reconstitute a Marxist-Leninist Communist Party in the United States) and intersectionality (from 1980s legal studies, in the works of academic Kimberlé Crenshaw). This in itself is not particularly insightful. Political terminology, no matter how radical, changes meaning or gets co-opted all the time (the popularity of “socialism” today stems from how much confusion there is around the term – to many, it is simply synonymous with social democracy and state intervention). The fact that liberalism has co-opted this terminology does not tell us much. Especially at a time when the ruling class lacks an economic solution to the capitalist crisis, it instead looks for political manoeuvrers to artificially extend the life of the system. Identity politics, socialism, nationalism – all of these ideologies of the left and the right can (and will be) used to rally the working class around the state, no matter their origin.
Despite seemingly setting out to criticise identity politics, Haider’s attitude towards identity politics is never quite clear. At one point he states that “we have to reject ‘identity’ as a foundation for thinking about identity politics” and that identity politics appropriates “[emancipatory legacies] in service of the advancement of political and economic elites”.11 But then at another point he seems to make the case that identity politics has been usurped from its radical origin by the likes of Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and Bill Cosby, that instead he wants to root his analysis in the experience of the likes of Combahee River Collective, Malcolm X and Huey Newton (and it is never clear if for Haider these groups/individuals belong in the identity politics camp or not). And so it goes, never really providing a coherent framework for grasping what identity politics really is or what is really wrong with it (the scattered blog-like nature of the book does not help). The trappings of identity politics are actually evident from the very first pages as Haider begins by outlining his identity as a kid born in the United States to Pakistani parents and the trials and tribulations his identity, often externally determined, put him through. He for the most part side-steps the question of gender (instead recommending the reader have a look at Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble), because his own personal identity formation was primarily racial than gendered. From then on he makes multiple references to his “own personal experience” all throughout the book (because, as we are led to believe, rooting politics in your own experience is most radical), to the point where one might confuse it for an autobiography. That is not to say that there is nothing to learn from or relate to in his recollections of his youth radicalisation, the 2003 Iraq protests, the 2011 Occupy movement, the 2014 Ferguson uprising and the Black Lives Matter movement, or the various student protests and occupations he took part in. But it is unfortunate that at every step it feels like the author is trying to justify his critique of identity politics through his own identity and experiences.
Haider ends the book by saying we need to set aside identity and instead embrace an “insurgent universality”.12 Again, this is nothing new. 170 years ago Engels had already made it clear that communism requires “a universal revolution and [it] will, accordingly, have a universal range”.13 Haider says what we really need instead of identity is “program, strategy and tactics”. This is an odd way to end a book which spends most of its pages discussing …identity… and claiming to be in the tradition of the Combahee River Collective, Malcolm X and Huey Newton. At no point does he help to clarify for us the “program, strategy and tactics” for today. The book is very much a personal voyage through the contradictions of identity rather than the programmatic text which Haider himself believes we need. Let us however set aside the identity debate for a moment to focus on the most concerning aspect of the book, the fact that among Haider’s “emancipatory legacies”, from which we are supposed to draw, sits the corpse of Stalinism…
The Legacy of Stalinism
Mistaken Identity is a constant stream of quotes and references. Haider attempts to critically understand and problematise terms like identity politics, white privilege and intersectionality. The chapters where he discusses the complexities of race and slavery, and the changing composition of the working class, while not original, provide some basic materialist analysis. But he never extends the same kind of analytic thinking to anti-imperialism, mass partyism and national liberation, nor to the roots of these terms which are simply taken for granted. Tracing the history of identity politics to the residues of the New Left, Haider instead harkens back to the “good old days” of 1930s community organising as exemplified by the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) and the heights of the Civil Rights Movement, which according to him constituted “the closest US equivalent to the mass workers’ movements in postwar Europe”.14 He mourns the way left wing discourse has been reduced to the policing of personal identity instead of having a link to a popular will.
This is where the problem lies. Most of Haider’s reference points belong firmly in the camp of Stalinism and Maoism. The CPUSA, the CPGB, the New Communist Movement (POC, the Black Panthers15 , etc.). This is to the degree that he completely omits cross-racial organising by the likes of the IWW (the first major industrial organisation in the USA to make an effort to organise black workers). He does not criticise Stalinism or Maoism, the fact that they linked the fate of the working class movement with the survival of the Russian and Chinese states, that they trapped workers into the dead-ends of trade unionism, parliamentary politics or adventurism. Haider keeps referring to “progressive nationalism”, “anti-revisionism”, “black self-determination” etc. without much critical engagement. Sure, in the abstract one can admire and take lessons from the organising capabilities of organisations from across the political spectrum (even reactionary groups like Hezbollah etc.). But there remains the question of means and ends. Why did Stalinism and nationalist groups require mass movements and where did it lead these movements to? This cannot be brushed aside. We have to openly question the counter-revolutionary legacy of Stalinism and national liberation struggles otherwise we are bound to repeat their errors ad nauseam.
“...nationalism did, at one time, appear as a potentially revolutionary ideology. The construction of new parallel institutions mobilized a general antagonism against a social structure based on the systematic exclusion of black people. [...] But the mainstream incorporation of the parallel institutions, marked by the electoral success of the black elite, demonstrated the capacity of the capitalist state to absorb the nationalist challenge. […] Even a revolutionary nationalism continues the assumption of a unified black ‘community’ with unified ‘interests.’”16
In these passages Haider finally does criticise the premise of “revolutionary nationalism”. But he does not link it to the ideologies of Stalinism and Maoism. Indeed, the terms Stalinism and Maoism do not appear a single time in the whole book! So we are forced to ask the question – is this a subtle attempt to rehabilitate the ideas of Stalinists? Does Haider’s attempts to reclaim Althusser elsewhere confirm a pattern?17 Regarding the CPUSA, Haider sees its failure in the “complicated history of political disputes within [it], along with the state repression of the Communist movement”.18 “Political disputes” is putting it lightly: we are talking here of the counter-revolution in Russia, the mass murder of revolutionaries carried out by its state apparatus, and the total submission of the international communist parties to the will of the Russian state….
In Mistaken Identity there is no recognition that in the 1920s “the transformation of cadre parties into mass parties was not a result of a different tactical approach [but a] change in strategic objective”, that with the prospect of international revolution declining, it was adopted by the Third International “in order to create a sort of security zone around Russia”.19 There is no recognition that today national liberation or so called anti-imperialism is “the policy of subordination of the proletarian political forces to the national bourgeoisie”, and that historically it has “led to the massacre of tens of thousands of workers by the national bourgeoisie, the destruction of workers organisations and the extinction of revolutionary struggle”.20 For Haider, mass partyism, national liberation and anti-imperialism constitute guiding principles, next to the likes of internationalism and opposition to oppression. There is no understanding of how they work directly counter to the independence and self-organisation of the struggle of the working class (which after all Haider also claims to stand for).
For Haider organisations like those grouped under the umbrella term the New Communist Movement represented a positive attitude towards identity in that they were not separatist, all of them being a part of a wider movement and taking part in coalitions. It seems he sees the ends and means of that movement to be irrelevant. Even if we assume for a moment that all of these groups fought for the establishment of a stateless, classless, moneyless society without exploitation, national frontiers or standing armies (which they did not), the criticism of Stalinism and Maoism remains important, because, despite the challenge that groups like the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement or the League of Revolutionary Black Workers posed to capital, the state and the unions, despite their declared dedication to working class self-organisation, in the end many of their militants ended up being drawn back into trade unionism and parliamentary politics. The Stalinist dogmas of the time trapped workers within that paradigm. To fail to criticise this is to do disservice to the attempts of those workers to find their way towards revolutionary perspectives.
In the end, identity politics (both its pro and anti wings) is just the latest trend in bourgeois discourse. Dodgy ideologies are being smuggled under both wings, and in the case of Haider and his “anti-racist” and “universalist” alternative, however well meaning, we are also being sold subtle Stalinist nostalgia. The central thesis of Mistaken Identity is that “our identities are not foundations for anything; they are unstable, they are multifarious”, that “we have to find ways to become comfortable with that, and part of how we can do that is by creating new ways of relating to each other, which can come through mass movements”.21 It is true that through common struggle workers of all identities can find a common ground. But that is not enough. What we need is also a real sense of class independence and self-organisation, the meaning of which this book obscures. What we need is a shared vision of a world without capital and profits, based on direct democracy, where production is for need. And to that end – an organisation with a coherent vision of a new society and how to get there.
- 1Many of the central thesis of Mistaken Identity are actually already present in a 2017 article in the Viewpoint Magazine. viewpointmag.com
- 2Mistaken Identity, p.6
- 4This includes class identity, and for this reason it might be better to speak of class consciousness instead: “class consciousness is identical with neither the psychological consciousness of individual members of the proletariat, nor with the (mass-psychological) consciousness of the proletariat as a whole; but it is, on the contrary, the sense, become conscious, of the historical role of the class. [...] Every momentary interest may have either of two functions: either it will be a step towards the ultimate goal or else it will conceal it. Which of the two it will be depends entirely upon the class consciousness of the proletariat and not on victory or defeat in isolated skirmishes.” marxists.org
- 5“...adapting to the demands of bourgeois society is hardly ever an efficient means of emancipation.” gegen-kapital-und-nation.org
- 7Admittedly, the tiny groups of the communist left that exist today have found this difficult to do.
- 11Mistaken Identity, pp.11-12
- 12Mistaken Identity, p.114
- 14Mistaken Identity, p.15
- 15Ironically, it appears it was an FBI informant that introduced the Panthers to Maoism. jacobinmag.com
- 16Mistaken Identity, pp.76-79
- 18Mistaken Identity, p.61