The return of idealism: identity and the politics of oppression

Excellent and refreshing contribution on how gender identity (and other identity-based) politics:
– Flout the marxist understanding that oppression is rooted in exploitation.
– Are divisive to solidarity amongst the oppressed.
– Prevent us from fully relating to female-pattern physical needs and aspects of oppression.


Published March 1, 2018 at Counterfire.

The pervasion of identity politics limits our ability to truly liberate ourselves from oppression, argues Elaine Graham-Leigh

This article will attempt to explain and offer a critique of the use of identity politics to understand oppression. The question of identity politics has come to the fore recently, perhaps most obviously in the debate which arose around the US elections in 2016, where the defeated Hillary Clinton was accused of relying too much on identity politics, and where her victorious opponent, Donald Trump, made his opposition to such politics a badge of honour, and made clear his contempt for a range of oppressed groups. Identity politics has become a weapon in the hands of the liberal elite as well as in the hands of the left. It is important to remember this because it puts some recent debate on the left into a wider context.

This sometimes-contentious debate is over gender identity, and particularly the rights of transgender people. Such rights have come under attack from conservatives and the right-wing media. They have also sometimes been controversial on the left, especially with a layer of feminist women who question whether transwomen’s rights might affect them in a negative way.

It is important to state at the very outset of this discussion that any socialist stands in unconditional solidarity with transgender and other gender non-conforming people in the face of the violence, bigotry and discrimination that they face, especially as such discrimination is widespread. For 50 years now, socialists and feminists have recognised the need to stand full square in opposition to all forms of oppression. For Marxists in particular, these oppressions are seen as the result of class social relations and a system of class exploitation which has at its heart the need to divide and rule those whom it exploits.

Our critique of identity politics is not about whether or not one fights against oppression and supports the struggle of the oppressed. It is about how one understands the roots of that oppression and the strategic and tactical positions that result from different analyses.

Crucially, we see oppression and exploitation as a totality, one in which oppression arises from an exploitative system. The politics of identity, on the other hand, seeks to consider these oppressions as separate from the class system of exploitation under which we live.

What follows from our approach is not just the essential starting point that one must be in solidarity with the oppressed. To most socialists this is obvious. More difficult to understand is the second essential point: there is no natural unity among the oppressed. Jews and Palestinians are, for instance, both oppressed. But unity can only be based on a complex understanding of the roots of oppression, and its relationship to capitalism and imperialism.

Where there is no natural unity of the oppressed, any consideration of oppression has to recognise that there may in certain circumstances be conflicts. These conflicts can be overcome, but to do so they need to be discussed and grappled with. To do otherwise is to ignore the totality of oppression and exploitation and, paradoxically, to weaken and divide the different groups of oppressed.

The origins of oppression

In his The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, Frederick Engels theorised that the ‘historic defeat of the female sex’ came about as the greater material wealth produced in the new agricultural societies of the Neolithic agricultural revolution encouraged the development of private property. As a minority of men began to amass personal wealth, the only way they could ensure that it was heritable only by their offspring was also to control women, and this led to the development of the patriarchal family, with men as the heads of the households and the women as chattels.[1]

It is often said that women are oppressed because of their biology. This can be taken as a statement that the biological differences between men and women are the cause of women’s oppression. These biological differences are real, but do not give rise automatically to patriarchal social forms. The non-class societies in which women are not oppressed despite their female biology demonstrate this. Engels showed how the development of private property and class led to the development of women’s oppression. It also shows us that women’s oppression was always linked to female biology rather than the gender roles which developed in those and subsequent class societies. The driver of women’s oppression was the need for the emerging ruling class to control the material, sexed bodies of women in order that property could be inherited through the male line. While part of women’s oppression has been that women are required (with varying degrees of coercion) to behave in approved, ‘feminine’ ways, this oppression battens onto female biology, as opposed to being rooted in the performance of femininity.


Article continues here





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