Identity politics: The ruling class’ favoured weapon against the left

Promoted by some activists as a means of combating oppression, identity politics is increasingly being used by the establishment to attack the left and the labour movement. Workers and youth must fight back with revolutionary class struggle.

Originally published on on 9 December 2022 |

With the coronation of Rishi Sunak as prime minister, right-wing and establishment politicians and commentators have taken the opportunity to pat themselves on the back for being part of such a modern, progressive society that has a member of an ethnic minority as the country’s leader.

Sunak’s premiership is also accompanied by another politician of Indian heritage as home secretary, Suella Braverman. It would be fair to say that their government is not only very reactionary in general, but also specifically towards immigrants. In fact, Braverman singled out Indians as the worst breachers of Britain’s borders.

Thanks to events like this, it has become increasingly obvious to many on the left that identity politics is not only hollow, but is in fact a cynical tool of the right wing to sow confusion and division.

Trojan horse

In fact, through a process of trial and error, the ruling class has settled on identity politics as their primary weapon against the left. It has discovered that the subjectivism of this trend, and its appearance as being left-wing or progressive, is invaluable.

Leaders of left-wing organisations are afraid to reject false accusations of racism or misogyny for fear of appearing reactionary. Like the citizens of Troy, the left has accepted and internalised the weapons of the enemy. Consequently, the movement increasingly finds itself being attacked from within its own walls.

What distinguishes identity politics is its subjective individualism. It is not interested in the objective causes of oppression, nor of proposing any way of fighting collectively to end this oppression. Instead, it simply talks about the experiences of members of oppressed groups as individuals.

It assumes that only individuals from the oppressed group in question have any ability to understand – or right to represent – that oppressed grouping. And it insists that any accusation of racism, sexism etc. must automatically be accepted when made by a member of an oppressed group. If this accusation is rejected by anyone, that is itself, automatically, an act of oppression.

This subjectivism is very useful to the ruling class. Not only does it relegate any understanding of how capitalism and class society necessarily produces oppression, but it also allows them to undermine the left by dissolving its collective organisations in favour of tokenism.

Rather than fighting for a political programme that can liberate oppressed groups, right-wing or apolitical individuals who happen to personally be members of an oppressed group can be promoted and even given leading positions – all with the appearance of being a step on the path to liberation.

Representation and oppression

It is now the case that almost all trade unions, workers’ parties, and other left organisations have quotas or reserved seats in leading bodies for members of minorities and oppressed groups. This is accepted almost without question.

Corbyn Image Garry Knight FlickrIt was obvious to everyone that Corbyn’s left-wing politics completely outweighed questions of personal identity / Image: Garry Knight, Flickr

This is supposedly to ensure sufficient representation for groups who have historically been very underrepresented and oppressed. Yet on closer examination, it is clear this policy has very little to do with how to liberate these groups as a whole, and is instead based on giving a few individuals token positions. It is as if it is more important that a few individuals get to ‘be a voice’, a ‘role model’ for oppressed people, than that we effectively fight for liberation.

This becomes clear when advocates of these politics attack white people, or men, for daring to have an opinion on how to fight racism or misogyny. The objection is not that their ideas are wrong, but simply that these individuals cannot possibly understand what it is like to experience racism or misogyny, and that by speaking they are taking up the time and space of people from oppressed groups.

But such an objection completely misses the task of the workers’ movement, which is not to ‘give voice’ to the experiences of oppression, but to understand the historic basis for it and to propose political solutions.

Karl Marx never worked as a wage slave, but that is not a problem because the purpose of Capital is not to describe the experience of being an exploited worker. It is a theoretical, historical materialist analysis of the laws of capitalism, and as such it explains why capitalism must exploit the working class and must periodically have economic crises.

Would we be better off ignoring Marx’s theoretical insights, and instead basing our movement simply on detailed descriptions of what it is like to be an exploited worker?

The insincerity of identity politics in the labour movement is clear when we consider how inconsistently it is applied.

On the left of the Labour Party, for example, the system of quotas for oppressed groups finds almost unanimous support. And yet, when Corbyn stood against Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall, not a single left-winger suggested voting for these female candidates against Corbyn, even though they stood to be Labour’s first ever female leader.

In the circumstances, it was obvious to everyone that Corbyn’s left-wing politics completely outweighed questions of personal identity. It was clear to Corbyn supporters that his politics would have been better for working-class women than those of Liz Kendall, despite the fact he has never experienced misogynistic abuse.

We even had the phenomenon of ‘Grime4Corbyn’, which was a spontaneous expression from musicians in the Grime music scene, an overwhelmingly black genre, even though Corbyn is white.

In the 2015 leadership election won by Corbyn, Chuka Umunna initially stood (he withdrew his candidacy before the end). Umunna is of Nigerian heritage, but he is also an ardent Blairite. Had he become Labour leader, what are the chances we would have seen ‘Grime4Umunna’? It seems highly unlikely, because Umunna is obviously an establishment politician.

What does that tell us about what inspires many young black people? It tells us that they understand that someone’s politics, their principles, are far more important to the struggle against injustice, than their personal identity.

When Corbyn was leader, right-wingers attacked him for having too few women in the top positions in his shadow cabinet, calling him a ‘brocialist’. These attacks were revealed for the cynical game of identity politics they were when, in the 2020 Labour leadership election, the same right-wingers backed Keir Starmer over Rebecca Long Bailey. Suddenly, what counted was one’s political position, not personal identity.

Racist ruling class

It is never stated openly (for fear of sounding insensitive or racist), but in reality everyone recognises that the personal identity of members of oppressed groups does not guarantee they have a correct understanding of the very oppression their own group suffers from.

ObamaBailey Image Socialist AppealShaun Bailey and Barack Obama show that personal experience of racism does not automatically produce a good position on the struggle against racism today / Image: Socialist Appeal

What do those on the left, who are opposed to racism, think about politicians like Shaun Bailey? He was the Tory candidate for London Mayor in 2021. Not only is he a Tory, but in 2005 he said that “accommodating Hindus robs Britain of its community and turns the country into a crime ridden cesspool”. Should we uncritically take his advice on racism, since as a black man he has most likely been on the receiving end of it?

The same can be said for many other reactionary politicians from oppressed identities: Suella Braverman, Rishi Sunak, Kwasi Kwarteng, Priti Patel, Kemi Badenoch, etc., etc. Of course, their views on racism – and everything else – are wildly at odds with those of the majority of black, Muslim, and Asian working-class people. Nevertheless, politicians from ethnic minorities with reactionary positions on racism and immigration certainly do exist, and some of them hold positions of power.

It is also not uncommon for middle-class members of oppressed groups to blame working-class members of their own group for their oppression.

Barack Obama is a typical example. In 2008, speaking on the topic of racism and black ‘underachievement’, he said that: “We cannot use injustice as an excuse. We can't use poverty as an excuse. There are things under our control that we've got to attend to.”

In another speech in the same year, he said that:

“We need [black] fathers to realise that responsibility does not end at conception. We need them to realise that what makes you a man is not the ability to have a child – it's the courage to raise one... It's up to us – as fathers and parents – to instil this ethic of excellence in our children.” 

In other words, for the likes of Obama, many of the problems of racism are actually the fault of black people, whose culture is apparently insufficiently proactive. What this shows is that personal experience of racism, which Obama has undoubtedly had, does not automatically produce a good position on the struggle against racism today.

Quotas and careerism

The use of quotas to guarantee a desired proportion of people of colour or of women in positions of power is a completely artificial and bureaucratic method. It does nothing to diminish racism or misogyny, or to remove the real material barriers that prevent the most oppressed and exploited layers of society from engaging in politics.

Paul Holmes Image Socialist AppealUnison's tokenistic policies have done nothing to help the plight of working class black people and women / Image: Socialist Appeal

In the labour movement, any method that is bureaucratic is to the detriment of the working class as whole, because it discourages rank-and-file involvement and the formation of class consciousness.

The working class is not strengthened by the careers that a small minority of their class are bureaucratically rewarded with. The more they are discouraged from collective participation, in favour of bureaucratic guarantees for a small number, the easier it is for the ruling class to get what it wants. What the ruling class fears more than anything else, is a mass movement of the working class.

Unison, the biggest trade union in the country, has for decades had a set number of seats on its National Executive Council (NEC) that can only be filled by members from various groups. For example, there are four seats that can only be filled by black members of the union. That means that no white members of the union can stand in the elections for those seats.

In practice, this often means that the candidates for these seats are unopposed, because not enough black members put themselves forward for a competition. As a result, those who do put themselves forward are automatically given the position.

What this means is that they do not hold these positions on the basis of a campaign. In reality, they lack a base of support in the membership and are unknown to them. They do not have these positions because they have a radical programme to fight for the interests of the black working class. Instead, their seat on the NEC is exactly what it is: the filling of a quota as a substitute for fighting for the interests of workers.

In 2016, Unison’s leadership proposed to reduce the number of seats reserved for black members in favour of an extra seat for a disabled member. This led to the unedifying sight of black members of the union spending their energy at the conference campaigning against this decision – essentially arguing with disabled members over which oppressed group needed reserved seats more than the other.

Instead, these members could have spent the week campaigning for a fighting programme so that the union would lead the struggle against austerity. Given that Unison organises an extremely large number of low-paid black workers in the public sector, such a programme would be of enormous benefit to black workers. Instead, all their energy went into fighting for a bureaucratically-guaranteed seat.

These policies have been in place in the labour movement for decades now. We are entitled to ask: what results have they given for working-class black people, or for working-class women?

After decades of such policies, inequality between ethnicities and the sexes has either not changed or has worsened; we have seen the rise of vicious anti-immigrant politics; we’ve seen attacks on benefits for working-class women; and there has been years of massive austerity, which has disproportionately harmed women and black workers.

There is no evidence that these tokenistic policies have done anything to help prevent or mitigate these disastrous changes. In fact, they worsen them, by providing the illusion that something is being done, and by discouraging conscious, mass participation from black and female workers, in favour of fixed quotas.

Accusations and apologies

The same subjective idealist position lies behind the position that an accusation of racism, sexual abuse, or misogyny must automatically be accepted in the labour movement.

The argument given for this is twofold. Firstly, there are very few false accusations of sexual and racist abuse in society, but there are very many sexual and racially-motivated attacks that go unpunished. Therefore, we should always accept any such accusation, because it will most likely be true, and this will even slightly redress the balance.

Secondly, instances of abuse can only be understood by the victim; and other parties – especially if they don’t share the victim’s ethnic or sexual identity – are not in a position to judge.

We do not have to look very far to find out what the repercussions of this ideology are for the labour movement. We have witnessed the so-called antisemitism scandal in the Labour Party, for example; and more recently, the debacle in Unison regarding the alleged racism of the left-led NEC.

In both cases, the entrenched right-wing bureaucracy launched campaigns of accusations regarding racism. In both cases this worked, because the left leaders capitulated to the moral panic the accusations generated.

In both cases, despite the accusations being patently false, the left’s leaders apologised for their ‘racism’ and thereby gave credibility to these slanders.

The Forde inquiry has confirmed (in hindsight) that the Labour right wing was cynically utilising antisemitism accusations for factional purposes. Nevertheless, John McDonnell and other leading left-wingers would regularly say the party must apologise to the ‘Jewish community’ for its ‘problem’ with antisemitism. And under Corbyn’s leadership, left-wing MP Chris Williamson was suspended for saying they had apologised too much over the matter.

In the leadership election following Corbyn’s resignation, left-wing candidate Rebecca Long Bailey said that Labour "owed Jewish people an apology". And at one leadership hustings, she agreed it was “anti-Semitic to describe Israel, its policies, or the circumstances around its foundation as racist”.

Thanks to the left’s tendency to accept these bogus allegations and apologise, making unfounded allegations like this is now the right wing’s preferred method for destroying the threat from the left.

It is now standard practice whenever a left-winger wins a position, for the right wing to trawl through their social media history and dig up some post that can be construed as in some way racist, even if it was from when they were a child.

One doesn’t even need to find an accusation from an alleged victim, one simply needs to show some perceived insensitivity to racism or misogyny by the left winger.

Unison’s left-wing NEC, for example, was accused of racism purely because the proportion of their activists who are black was not as high as it could be. The NEC made the grave mistake of admitting to this ‘racism’ and apologising for it, obviously fearing the inevitable ‘confirmation’ of their racism had they been so bold as to deny being racists.

By now it is clear that to go along with this moral pressure, and accept any accusation regardless of its credibility, means nothing short of agreeing to liquidate any left-wing organisation.

With these ideas, all any enemy of the left needs to do is hurl an accusation, no matter how absurd, and the left will immediately collapse in order to atone for the sin of which they are accused.

Morality and hypocrisy

Under class society, official morality is always hypocritical. Morality serves class ends, but is presented as if it is above such interests; as if there are timeless moral laws one must apply, above and regardless of the interests of the working class.

HodgesStarmer Image Socialist AppealThe moral code seemingly never applies to those on the right wing / Image: Socialist Appeal

One must be seen to say the ‘right thing’ – which is easy enough to do, since words are cheap. What one actually does is, of course, another matter!

Naturally, any mass movement will have within it individuals with prejudices; and abuses can and will take place in such movements. Unfortunately, there is no way for the left to perfectly seal itself off from capitalist society and its horrors.

Any such instances of abuse must be dealt with by the movement in a serious and firm manner, to make it clear that there is no tolerance for discrimination and abuse within the movement, which only serves to weaken and divide the working class.

But the effect of bowing to this moral pressure from the class enemy and automatically accepting each and every accusation promoted by them means the liquidation of any gains the left makes.

Of course, a genuine fighting organisation of the working class must also be one as free from prejudice and abuse as possible. But it is absolutely impermissible to threaten the viability of a revolutionary organisation, or of a broader left movement of the class, by automatically accepting accusations, no matter who is throwing them and to what ends.

It must also be understood that accusations that are cynically used for political ends, as in the case of alleged Labour antisemitism, do not help to bring about some degree of justice; nor do they help to make discrimination unacceptable.

In fact, the obvious cynicism and dishonesty behind these accusations only serves to produce more cynicism in society, and most likely actually increases racism.

There will be confused people who supported Corbyn, and then saw him relentlessly, falsely attacked over antisemitism, who as a result wrongly conclude that there is a Jewish campaign against the left. In reality, it was a right-wing campaign that was using the existence of Jewish oppression to achieve its own ends.

As with all moral crusades of the ruling class, this was characterised by hypocrisy. The moral code never applies to those on the right wing. Hence, Labour right-winger Margaret Hodge recently felt confident enough to attack the ‘Campaign Against Antisemitism’ after it criticised Keir Starmer, tweeting that she is:

“Fed up of CAA using antisemitism as a front to attack Labour. Time to call them out for what and who they really are. More concerned with undermining Labour than rooting out antisemitism.”

One can only imagine the outcry had a Corbyn supporter accused a Jewish organisation of deceitfully using antisemitism to attack Labour, such that it needed to be called out ‘for what it really is’. Strangely, Hodge’s tweet sparked no controversy in the press.

The hypocrisy of this moral campaign against ‘antisemitism’ was clear at the time – most notably from the fact that the Tories received no such campaign, even though it is known that the party has far more racists – including antisemites – within its ranks; not to mention the fact that its leaders actively promote racist policies.

But whenever this was pointed out, the establishment’s moral crusaders would smugly reply: “So, you’re saying that racism within the Labour Party is ok, and we should ignore it, because the Tories have similar problems.”

It is also important to note that in this campaign, the supposedly ‘left-wing’ Guardian newspaper carried far more articles accusing Corbyn’s supporters of antisemitism than any other paper. According to Declassified UK:

“Since January 2016, The Guardian has published 1,215 stories mentioning Labour and anti-Semitism, an average of around one per day, according to a search on Factiva, the database of newspaper articles. In the same period, The Guardian published just 194 articles mentioning the Conservative Party’s much more serious problem with Islamophobia. A YouGov poll in 2019, for example, found that nearly half of the Tory Party membership would prefer not to have a Muslim prime minister.”

This underlines the point that identity politics is so useful to the ruling class because of how sensitive the left is to accusations of racism or discrimination of any kind.

Who better than to wield this weapon of antisemitism accusations than the paper with a reputation for being ‘left-wing’? That was far more damaging than if the accusations were mainly publicised by the Daily Mail.

Revolutionary struggle

The strength of this line of attack lies in the political weakness of the left, and in nothing else. If the left confidently refuted patently false accusations – and rallied its supporters to go on the offensive, pointing out the hypocrisy of the racist ruling class – this method would be quickly abandoned.

Socialist Appeal march Image Socialist AppealThe labour movement must fight racism and inequality by mobilising its members around a socialist programme / Image: Socialist Appeal

Likewise, if the labour movement fought racism and inequality by mobilising its members around a socialist programme, laying the blame for racism, misogyny, and other forms of oppression at the feet of the capitalists, it would inspire far more black and female activists to get involved than the promise of a few guaranteed seats.

The labour movement needs to understand this. Understanding it is also part and parcel of understanding that capitalism cannot be reformed in the interests of the working class, and that the ruling class’ interests are irreconcilable with those of the workers. This is why the accusations it lays at the door of the workers’ organisations cannot be taken at face value. 

In the words of Leon Trotsky:

“It is impossible to accomplish this task [of building a revolutionary party of the proletariat] without complete independence from the bourgeoisie and their morality. Yet bourgeois public opinion actually now reigns in full sway over the official workers’ movement…

“A revolutionary Marxist cannot begin to approach his historical mission without having broken morally from bourgeois public opinion and its agencies in the proletariat. For this, moral courage of a different calibre is required.”

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