Getting beyond capitalism
Mike Macnair completes his critique of intersectionality and identity politics
In the first part of this series of four articles I looked at Kimberlé Crenshaw’s work and at ‘Marxist-feminist’ critiques of intersectionality in Science and Society, which focussed (gently) on the insufficient analytical significance given to class by writers working within the ‘intersectionality’ paradigm.1
In the second part I examined the fiercer critiques at Nonsite.org, especially by Adolph Reed and Walter Benn Michaels, and Reed’s support for the alternative ‘Labor Party US’ approach of a movement based round common, purely economic, class issues.2
In the third I reviewed two books: the How we get free reprint of the Combahee River Collective statement with associated interviews; and Asad Haider’s Mistaken identity - both of which appealed from the liberal identity politics/intersectionality of the 2010s to the soft-Maoist origins of the ideas in the 1970s.3
The first three articles have shown recurring themes of the roles of class, party and ‘united fronts’ or ‘coalitions’. This week I hope to bring some of these themes together and shift to some extent from the negative to the positive.
I begin with the point that many of the critiques I looked at assumed that the liberal exploitation of ‘identity politics’ against the left, which became obvious in the Clintonistas’ race-baiting and gender-baiting of the Sanders campaign, is new. Unfortunately, this is merely untrue.
Low-grade rightist science fiction writer GC Edmondson’s 1980 book The man who corrupted Earth has as its hero a buccaneering aerospace entrepreneur hero, Gus Dampier. He has a black business partner, Albert, who plays up to racist assumptions by pretending to be Gus’s chauffeur as ‘protective coloration’. This team sends a young black man and a young white woman into space to prospect the asteroids for minerals, using reconditioned, decommissioned space shuttles which have been left in orbit, plus solid rocket boosters. For funds, the heroes team up with a Gulf State princeling, Mansour, who has saved up the millions from his allowance, which he has pretended to spend on high living. The whole theme of the book (whose plot and characterisations are ultra-clunky) is the capitalist hero of anti-discrimination:
Gus shook his head in disbelief. “Why couldn’t they [a federal agency] have just asked me?
[Albert] “Oh, dey never asks us minorities. They always know what’s good for us.”
Mansour began to suspect that some of the subtleties of American dialect might be eternally beyond him. “Mr Dampier is of a minority?” he asked.
[Albert, or Gus] “How many of us millionaires you think there are in the United States?” (p129).
Edmondson is transparent because his writing is crude. But the basic idea was far more widespread: anti-discrimination, if coupled with anti-statism, can be a banner for the protection of the rights of the ultra-rich and of corporations.
The Libertarian Party was founded in Colorado in 1971 on just such a platform. Western US small-l libertarian rightism went partway down this road. Pure rightist cynics, like SF writer Jerry Pournelle (1933-2017), did so in High justice (1974) and Exiles to glory (1978); though the large bulk of Pournelle’s writing is far more traditionalist on gender roles, and so on. For a couple more SF examples, Larry Niven’s short story ‘Arm’ (1975), set in a liberal rather than libertarian future, adds trans rights, while anarcho-capitalist L Neil Smith’s The probability broach (1980) adds animal rights. In short, it was already obvious to rightists before the date of the 1977 CRC statement that anti-discrimination ideas could be deployed for pro-capitalist projects. Why?
It should be clear enough that it is not the old aspiration to universal emancipation - to quote yet again the claim that “the emancipation of the productive class is that of all human beings without distinction of sex or race” (Programme of the Parti Ouvrier - 1880) - which can be deployed against the left. It is, rather, the opposition between an ‘economist’ labour movement, on the one hand, and, on the other, the movements of the oppressed as independently grounded, separate struggles against patriarchy, racism, homophobia, transphobia, and so on. The CRC statement ‘figures’ this opposition by identifying Marxism with Lassalleanism; Reed’s arguments for an economistic labour movement (and nostalgia for the early-1960s left of the Democratic Party) ‘figure’ it on the other side.
This opposition carries with it entailments which enable the libertarian stance - when diluted into Carter’s ‘human rights’ policy, ‘Clintonite’ neoliberalism, and so on - to function as an opening wedge in divide-and-rule operations.
There has been a feminism of the ‘party of liberty’ since the English Whigs in around 1680 at the latest. There has been an anti-racism of the party of liberty (in the form of anti-slavery, but explicitly denying that ‘a negro’ can be claimed, as such, as property) since the 1690s. This is not to say that either trend has been an invariable or even usual majority in the party of liberty. Moreover, there has been a feminism of the ‘party of order’ also since the Tories around 1680 at the latest: this argues that ideas of liberty are merely ideology for male exploitative libertinism at the expense of women, or little-boy irresponsibility.4 And some forms of black nationalism and separatism can be party-of-order forms, aiming to set up an autonomous, black, patriarchal purity regime.5
Modern identity politics - and ‘intersectionality’ as an outgrowth of identity politics - is not a continuity of any of these trends (though forms of identity politics may borrow from any of them). It begins with ‘official communism’ in the period of the ‘people’s front’ policy, which aimed to resist the threat of fascism by uniting with the ‘democratic’ wing of capital (ie, the party of liberty) on terms whereby the workers’ parties would not go beyond what was acceptable to the party of liberty.6
The point is not that the Communist Party USA became for the first time left promoters of feminism and anti-racism in the popular front period. It is rather that the popular front policy led them to treat ‘official’ women’s movement leaders, and ‘official’ black community leaders, as ‘legitimate representatives’ of group interests wholly separate from the class interests of the working class - and to begin to elaborate ‘class, gender and race’ as a trinity.
The ‘trinity’ and the underlying people’s front approach inherently carried with it the idea that the specific interests of workers would be defended by the workers’ movement - and that these would be essentially, economic, trade union issues; that the specific interests of black people would be defended by the black community, and black nationalists and ‘community leaders’; and that the specific interests of women would be defended by a women’s movement and its liberal leadership. It already, therefore, entailed acceptance of the ideas of the Rooseveltian Democrat trade union bureaucrats that gender and race issues, and so on, were not ‘trade union’ issues: what Lenin in What is to be done? called trediunionizm and the “bourgeois politics of the working class” - he transcribed an English word into Russian to describe what in 1901-02 looked like a peculiar British phenomenon.
In theory, the defects of the various single-issue operations recommended - trade unions for ‘worker’ issues’, women’s groups for ‘women’s issues’ and so on - would have their defects made up for by the role of the party. This might have had some plausibility if the party was an operation on the scale of the German Social Democratic Party or the Italian or French communist parties, but would hardly be plausible for a relatively small organisation like the CPUSA.
Moreover, in reality the concepts of the united front and of the people’s front defended at the 1935 7th Congress of Comintern were - as I quoted Dimitrov in my June 7 article - predicated on the party actually self-censoring in order to maintain unity. The logical consequence would be that the party could not substitute for the economics of the unions, ‘pure feminism’ of women’s groups, and so on.
The logic of the policy was thus, precisely, to drive the issues of class, gender and race apart, rather than to pull them together. The consequence was, in turn, that the party’s primary self-censorship drives would focus on protecting relations with the party’s most powerful imagined potential allies - the trade union bureaucracy and the left Democrats. This would necessarily push women and black activists towards oppositional and independent policies and the rejection of the party itself.
Since the 1960s
Western ‘soft Maoism’ in the 1960s-70s added to these conceptions three interlocked issues:7
- the ‘hardened’ concept of the labour aristocracy as an irredeemably privileged caste, derived from Lenin’s Imperialism, but exaggerated from that text;8
- the idea of ‘surrounding the cities’, derived from the Maoists’ (apparently) winning the countryside first, and conceived both as a ground for third-worldism and for the more abstract idea of proceeding ‘from the periphery to the centre’; and
- ‘speaking bitterness’, the Maoist technique of political education in land reform campaigns through drawing on peasants’ personal experience.9 In the late 1960s-70s women’s liberation movement this technique became ‘consciousness-raising’.
‘Speaking bitterness’/‘consciousness raising’ carried with it the corollary that personal experience was to be the only guarantee of veracity. This has the consequence, as Adolph Reed pointed out in relation to Jesse Jackson, and continues to point out in relation to the ‘black leaders’ of the 2010s, that there can be no criterion of political trustworthiness other than authenticity of ‘position’ (as woman, as black, and so on) - and as a result mountebanks and agents of the establishment can set themselves up as leaders of the interest groups. ‘Terf wars’ - ‘who is a woman to speak as such’ - provide another example of the destructiveness of the method.
The Maoist antecedents of the ideas rather rapidly disappeared. The reason is that China became a much less attractive left political model after Nixon’s 1972 turn brought China ‘onside’ as a cold war ally of the US, which became visible with the Chinese backing for the 1973 coup against the Popular Unity government in Chile, and especially after the fall of the ‘Gang of Four’ and rehabilitation of Deng Xiaoping in 1976. Hence, the dilute-version of Chinese ideas were repackaged as new inventions of the western left and the women’s and black movements.
Indeed, the Chilean coup also drew attention to the defects of the people’s front as a left policy: that what the liberals chiefly demanded if the left were to ally with them was loyalty to the constitution, which implied not antagonising the armed forces - thus facilitating the armed forces making a coup against both the left and liberals.
The logic has played out in the same way but a different context in the contemporary USA. Here the hoped-for alliance with ‘progressive’ Democrats implies not vigorously criticising the exorbitant power given to the judiciary by the US constitution - and this silence facilitates the Republicans and Christianist extremists taking back what was imagined to have been gained by women, black people and so on, through litigation between the 1950s and the present.
But if the people’s front policy proved not to be a viable left policy, to abandon it would be much more difficult. That would be to fall either into ‘Trotskyism’ or into ‘Second International Marxism’. And the Great Patriotic War of 1941-45 - the grand alliance of the west and the USSR against Hitlerism - seemed to supporters to stand as the largest possible confirmation of the people’s front policy even against the repeated and savage disconfirmations of this policy (not just in Chile, which was merely the case most visible to the ‘western’ left). The popular front policy was thus as hard to get rid of as the tendency to ‘talk about the Nazis’ in political rhetoric more generally has proved to be.
If the people’s front approach was to be hung onto, the case against class politics needed more theory. It got it - masses of it - in a wide range of forms. Gramscianism and the work of Stuart Hall and other Marxism Today writers was one of them.
The academic deployment of Michel Foucault was another, and has remained the most popular. Foucault was particularly helpful because his work actually targeted mainly the bureaucracy and the state, and was if anything sympathetic to neoliberalism.10 It argued, moreover, for the primacy of conceptual structures over untheorised practices, and thus precisely against the possibility that common objective interests (arising from class, but equally from race, and so on) could form the basis of political action. If Foucault is right there are no such interests.
The reality is that Foucault’s historical arguments for these claims - beginning with Madness and civilisation and going all the way through to the late ‘biopolitics’ lectures - are deeply misconceived history, flowing from his projecting back the late development of capitalist ‘modernity’ in France onto the whole of Europe, and ignoring the untheorised practices which arose in the Italian city-states, in the Netherlands and in England before their systematic theorisation in the enlightenment. This would not matter if Foucault was merely a bad historian of the ‘early modern’; the problem is that his ideas are constantly cited in order to work an intellectual closure against thinking about class politics.
The further the ideas used to justify the people’s front and anti-class versions of anti-racism, feminism and so on went from Marxism, the more they could be deployed by the right. Already by 2002 ‘postmodernist critiques of enlightenment’ and Edward Saïd could be deployed in support of Islamist versions of the party of order ... funded by US ally Saudi Arabia.11 The more recent move to ‘white identity politics’ was already predictable from this development.
Our aim is universal human emancipation. It is delusional to imagine that racism or sexism will be overcome with capitalism remaining in existence.
Walter Benn Michaels’ argument makes the point trenchantly, as I indicated in my June 21 article. Getting rid of racism, while maintaining capitalism could only be an equality-of-opportunity argument, producing a few black people in the top-income quintile, and 45% in the bottom quintile (where 45% of the US population as a whole are). And so on for all the other categories. Moreover, the anti-discrimination argument entails that, for those who are in the bottom quintile, this must either be the result of some form of discrimination - or their own fault. The necessary result of anti-discrimination politics, black nationalism and so on is thus ‘white identity politics’. Vote Clinton - get Trump.
Secondly, as I argued in my third article (June 28), the only possible road to universal human emancipation is one which gets beyond capitalism; and this will require us to cooperate. It is the requirement of cooperation for a future beyond capitalism which forms the ground of the centrality of the working class: because the working class is compelled to cooperate to achieve immediate objectives.
It is not that the working class is oppressed and therefore revolutionary; and hence, the fact that sections of workers have won (temporary) privileges from capital does not justify the ‘anti-class’ line.12
It is not that the working class is full of virtue. It is that the middle classes are prone to ‘turf wars’ over their particular interests, and to appealing to the ‘man on horseback’ or to the judge with his gavel, as a saviour from on high to deliver; and these methods lead merely back to capitalism by a short and painful route - or a long and painful one.
More immediately, a populist project will necessarily be a project of the populism of the party of liberty (Democrats, etc) or of the party of order (Republicans, Tories, etc). Without actually seeking to discriminate against capitalists and landlords, ‘the people’ will turn out to be dominated by them.
What immediately follows capitalism is therefore the dictatorship of the proletariat: not the immediate abolition of the middle classes, but the working class taking the leadership of the society away from the capitalist class and holding the middle classes in subordination.
It is this logic, in turn, which poses the question of an independent workers’ party. Capitalism will not end through strikes, or through one big strike - because one big strike implies an immediate need to run the economy without the capitalists, and thus for developing working class decision-making capabilities.
Capitalism will not end through the gradual growth of cooperatives as an alternative mode of economic management. The reason is that, as 20th century British history shows, the capitalist state will intervene to take over cooperatives or to ‘regulate’ them into political insignificance. Cooperatives thus in practice - if they are not merely to be forms of capitalist enterprise - depend on an interrelationship with both trade unions and a political party, which will defend them against the constitution and against the executive, legislative and judicial powers.
The working class needs to take leadership of the society. That implies that it needs to go beyond the ‘guerrilla struggles’, as Marx put it, over immediate wages and conditions, to the properly political struggle to propose laws which bind the whole society.
It needs, similarly, to formulate and fight for its own international policy: because, as long as it remains trapped in the framework of loyalty to the nation-state, it is also trapped in the framework of loyalty to the capitalist party of order or the capitalist party of liberty.
These are the basic reasons why the working class needs under capitalism a political party, which aims to make laws, and hence aims to fight and win elections. It is through this struggle that the working class can become self-conscious of its own ability to lead the society.
It is for this reason in turn that the idea of a purely economic ‘Labour Party’ is delusional. As the US 1996 Labor Party effort (discussed briefly in my June 21 article) shows, a party which really tried to offer nothing but an economic alternative would be derailed as soon as the capitalist parties turned to focussing attention on war, or on race and immigration as undermining wages, or on gender issues.
It is quite possible that we are about to see the illusions of the Corbynistas in this respect exposed by some new and this time successful Tory manoeuvre - or by the press and the Labour right driving home the knife of the identity-politics ‘Labour anti-Semitism’ campaign into Corbyn’s back before we get to a general election.
Such a party is, as I said in the June 28 article, the sort that was called ‘social democratic’ before 1914 and ‘communist’ after 1918.
The workers’ party is concerned with the working class developing, as a class, its own ability to lead society in cooperative activity. It is not a mere ‘general staff of the revolution’ or some other form of military device (‘combat party’ and so on). This was the error involved in the militarisation of the Russian Communist Party in the wake of the Russian civil war, and in the 1921 ban on factions. By militarising the party, its ability to function as a political decision-making mechanism or political leadership for the class was destroyed.
There was a dragged-out death over the 1920s, ending when the central apparatus round Stalin in 1927-28 brought the police into the party against its left - and immediately proceeded, once the principle was established, to deploy the same police tactic against its former allies in the party right in 1928-29.
As long as official statements cannot be contradicted, the result of the decision-making process will necessarily be ‘Gigo’ - garbage in, garbage out - and the practical result is ‘They pretend to pay us; we pretend to work’. This last is as true of the local activists in the British Socialist Workers Party as it was of Soviet workers (except, of course, that the SWP apparat pretends to lead, rather than pretending to pay ...).
How does this relate to ‘identity politics’? A workers’ party which was democratic in character would be defined by its common programme, and by ‘programmatic intransigence, tactical flexibility’. Hence, it would not attempt to micro-manage every local or sectoral initiative. It would recognise the general right of individuals, branches, etc, to associate and communicate within the party.
Such a party would merely by virtue of these commitments give space forthe oppressed; and be able to voice, as a party, the commitment to “the emancipation ... of all human beings without distinction of sex or race”.
It would do so because it would not be operating any sort of veto on what could be said in the interests of the apparat, or in the interest of self-censorship for unity in Dimitrovian ‘united front’ or ‘people’s front’ alliances with bureaucrats, liberals, nationalists, clergy and so on. It would thus provide the space for women communists, black communists, etc to raise issues, persuade other members, and mobilise their own forces and those of the party for public campaigning.
Such a party would be the natural champion of universal human emancipation - and hence of the specific emancipation of women, black people, etc.
The left has gone in the opposite direction. The endeavour to maintain a ‘military’ party with ‘iron discipline’, and the interest in self-censorship for the sake of unity, produces as its corollary bureaucratic control both of speech and of association within the party (bans on or strict regulation of factions, prohibition of unofficial communication and so on). The logic is to require either ‘official’ black, women’s, etc, caucuses - which are actually demobilising - and the struggle for a caucus veto to counterpose to the apparat’s assumed right of veto. Or else - full separation of black nationalism, radical feminism, and so on.
The radical theory to justify this separatism denies that common humanity can ground politics, because this idea is a form of enlightenment foundationalism. Thus Haider. But the problem is that there are really only two possible politics. The first is to appeal to the man in charge (sic: the male gender is normal, though not universal, and part of the implicit assumptions of such appeals) to be your ‘saviour from on high’. The second is to appeal for solidarity from your fellow human beings. This is a moral appeal. If common humanity is rejected, ‘white identity politics’ and ‘millionaires as a minority which needs to be protected’ are perfectly morally valid arguments.
The separatists are thus forced to enter into ‘coalitions’ - as the Combahee River Collective pointed out. ‘Intersectionality’ suggests that such coalitions can be built on the basis that each grouping has a veto. They cannot.
The social forums movement ran on the basis of ‘consensus’: ie, that all those involved had a veto. That would be like the aristocratic constitution of the old Kingdom of Poland and would have the same result - nothing at all could be done. It turned out that in reality the Brazilian Workers’ Party had a veto in the World Social Forums, not others; in the European Social Forums Rifondazione Comunista had a veto, not others; when the ESF came to London, the London mayor’s office had a veto, not others.
The right to voice can be and should be had. The right to organise can be and should be had. The right to a veto can only be had by the bureaucracy (of the Workers’ Party, of Rifondazione, of Ken Livingstone’s guys) and is demobilising in effect.
Given this, ‘coalitions’ depend on persuasion, and on willingness to give something to get something and on some degree of more or less democratic decision-making process. Persuasion, in turn, depends on the appeal to common interests and solidarity to arise from common interests - at a minimum, from common humanity.
Solidarity can set us all free. Anti-solidarity, in the shape of all forms of sectional politics, including ‘intersectionalism’, can only serve our masters.
1. ‘Intersectionality is a dead end’, June 7.
2. ‘Race and class’, June 21.
3. ‘Mistaken versions of Maoism’, June 28.
4. For feminism of the party of liberty, and of the party of order, see, for example, SJ Owen Restoration theatre and crisis Oxford 1996. ‘Cannot claim a negro as such’: Chamberlain v Harvey (1696), 5 Modern 182 (1697), Carthew 396.
5. Compare, for example, M Marable, ‘Black fundamentalism: Farrakhan and conservative black nationalism’ Race and Class No39 (1998). I regret that the nearest I can come to an ‘anti-racism of the party of order’ is Aphra Behn’s novel Oroonoko (1685), which dramatises the idea of genetically inherited nobility through the person of an enslaved African prince. Political Islamism, Hindutva, etc, are of course party-of-order forms which may be used as types of ‘anti-racist’ politics by diaspora members in the imperialist countries, but are in their domestic contexts in no sense anti-racist.
6. There are many general discussions. Charlie Post’s ‘The popular front: rethinking CPUSA history’ (https://solidarity-us.org/atc/63/p2363) has the merit of not expecting more of the CPUSA than it could possibly have delivered - and therefore pinning down points where the policy did lead the party to reinforce the Democrats and the union bureaucracy and weaken the working class.
7. I have written more about this in ‘A useless product of 1970s radicalism’ Weekly Worker April 11 2013.
8. For two recent examples of the argument, see Bernard D’Mello, ‘What is Maoism?’ Monthly Review November 22 2009; and http://moufawad-paul.blogspot.com/2013/01/the-theory-of-labour-aristocracy-and.html (2013).
9. Eg, Guo Wu, ‘Speaking bitterness: political education in land reform and military training under the CCP, 1947-1951’ Chinese Historical Review No21 (2014).
10. D Zamora and MC Behrent (eds) Foucault and neoliberalism Cambridge 2015. See also M Dean and K Villadsen (eds) State phobia and civil society: the political legacy of Michel Foucault Stanford 2016.
11.Compare my ‘The politics of purity’ (Weekly Worker July 21 2004), reviewing among others John L Esposito’s and Azzam Tamimi’s 2002 Islam and secularism in the Middle East.
12. It is a secondary point that ‘labour aristocracy theory’ is merely false as an account of the political differences between sections of the class, with the underclass and unorganised sections commonly more reactionary-loyalist in politics than the notorious skilled workers.