Date: Monday 27th July
Time: 17:30 - 21:00 (London time)
In the current period, identity politics are in vogue. Along with the related trend of intersectionality, these ideas stress the importance of self-identification, personal experience, and the various layers of oppression people experience on racial, sexual, gender and other lines. What is the basis for identity politics? Why are they so popular with the youth in particular? And how do they square with the Marxist method of solidarity and class struggle? Our speaker, Ylva Vinberg, is a leading activist of Revolution, Swedish section of the IMT.
- Marxism vs Identity Politics
- Women before, during and after the Russian Revolution
- Care work or domestic slavery?
- Women’s struggle and class struggle
- From the rice fields to the modern day call centers – Marxism vs. Feminism
Ylva: Comrades, take a look at the world around you. Police violence against black people in the US. Border controls and shots fired against refugees on the Mediterranean. The murder of women – femicides in Mexico. This is the system we live in. A world where people face harassment, violence, being seen as a second class citizen, because of your gender, sexuality, the color of your skin, your ethnicity or your religion.
Despite all the talk about gender equality from the leaders of the world, the situation for women and girls is not getting better, but worse. In the world of the rich and famous it is hailed as a great step forward when a woman becomes Prime Minister, or a Hollywood celebrity gives a speech on gender equality when winning an Oscar. In the real world the oppression women face condemn a majority of them to a life of poverty and discrimination.
60 % of the worlds chronically hungry are women and girls, and women make up more than two-thirds of the world's 796 million illiterate people. In the real world, 50.000 women across the world are killed by a member of their own family every year. So how do we struggle against oppression? In this talk I will be discussing two opposing views: the views of Marxism and the views of identity politics
For Marxists the struggle against oppression is connected to the struggle against capitalism because all oppressions are rooted in class society. Oppression under capitalism is a mechanism used in order to split the working class and the poor.
Fomenting sexism, racism, homophobia and other reactionary ideas, capitalists and politicians pit different sectors of the masses against each other so that workers see each other as the enemy instead of the capitalists and the capitalist system itself.
And we see this today – how reactionary politicians like Trump, Bolsonaro and Boris Johnson, try to rally a part of the most politically backward sectors of the masses against trans people, women’s right to abortion, immigrants, to keep workers from uniting, to keep them from struggling against capitalism.
Oppression is also very profitable for the capitalists. Immigrants and other parts of the working class are paid less and that puts a pressure on the other more well-paid parts of the working class to lower their wages and accept reduced working conditions in order to not be replaced. By lowering wages for one sector of the working class, the capitalists can therefore lower the wages for all workers.
The way to fight oppression we say is through class unity. The stronger the unity of the working class, the harder it is to use oppression to divide the workers. And the more support a movement against oppression has among the broader layers of the working class, and the more the working class takes an active role in leading that struggle, and the more that that movement threatens the very system – the more gains can be won. This is because of the working class position in capitalist production. Capitalism is based on the exploitation of the workers for profit. This means that workers can organize and attack capitalists where it hurts. Strikes that stop production, means capitalists lose profits. And that gives working class a power that other groups in society does not have.
It’s not an accident, for example, that the biggest gains made for women in Sweden, where I am from, which is the same in many other countries, were a product of the class struggle. For example, the right to vote, women's right to vote was won in Sweden in the revolutionary period of 1917-1918, that forced the Swedish ruling class to make concessions since they were scared that the revolution would overthrow the entire capitalist system as it had done in Russia.
The struggle against oppression is part of the struggle against capitalism because a socialist revolution cannot succeed unless workers unite. It is essential, for example, that workers understand for example that it is the capitalist system that is to blame for unemployment and cuts, and not immigrants as politicians want workers to believe. It is essential that they understand the need to struggle together against oppression if they want to fight for their own liberation.
And it is precisely in periods of great class struggles, and more so in revolutions, when workers understand that they have much more to gain by uniting and that the capitalists are trying to use oppression to pit them against each other. It is then that they learn who the real enemy is. It is in a revolution when workers on a mass scale begins to question all that society has tried to teach them. And this we have seen time and time again in revolutions.
Women who participated in the 2011 revolution in Egypt, said that during the high point of the revolution women could be outside all night on the Tahrir square of Cairo without being harassed. As one woman said who participated: “No one sees you as a woman here; no one sees you as a man. We are all united in our desire for democracy and freedom.” Also, the majority of the working class of the world are women, or part of some other oppressed group, that is on top of the exploitation and the oppression that all workers face as workers.
The idea that a socialist revolution would not also mean a struggle against oppression is quite ludicrous, because when workers move to change society they put forward all their issues, all their troubles and struggle for a total liberation from all exploitation and oppression. So every period of great class struggles and revolutions also awakens the struggle against oppression.
We have seen this during the last decade. With Black Lives Matter in the US. The mass movement that we saw this year against Modi's citizenship law which was aimed against Muslims in India. The 5.3 million that came out during the women’s strike in Spain in 2018. We have seen massive movements against oppression around the world in recent times, because we are living in a period of a deep crisis of capitalism that has provoked class struggle and revolutions.
Feminists often claim that Marxists don’t care to struggle against oppression, nor for any reforms that would improve the lives of oppressed workers. They say we are only waiting for the revolution. But on the contrary, it is only in the day to day struggle for improved living conditions and against injustice and counter-reforms that workers can learn how to struggle against capitalism. But what we do explain is simply that you cannot reform away oppression. And that there can be no collaboration with the ruling class in the struggle against oppression.
The capitalists, no matter if they are men or women, black or white, gay or straight – profit from oppression as capitalists. Any attempts to collaborate with the ruling class or their political representatives will always end up with them derailing the movement, or trying to derail the movement, into something that does not threaten the capitalist system or the profits of the capitalists. So as Marxists we have a clear understanding of how to struggle against oppression and how we can abolish it. But the forces of Marxism are still a minority, too small to be able to offer our advice on how to struggle to the broader masses – and to lead mass movements. Most who seek ways to fight oppression encounter the ideas of identity politics such as intersectionality, queer theory, and the different strands of feminism, like radical feminism.
Now, identity politics is all based on the idea that all struggles against oppression has to be led by those directly suffering under that specific oppression. It’s women who must lead the fight against patriarchy, it’s trans people who must lead the fight against transphobia, it’s black and people of colour who must lead the fight against racism. For them the struggle against different oppressions are all separate struggles. And they understand oppression as a structure more or less separated from capitalism. They say that women's oppression is based on patriarchy – a structure of men's domination over women that does not completely rely on the capitalist system. Racism is due to white privilege, that is not based on the capitalist system.
But what is white privilege? What is patriarchy? The dominant trend within identity politics is to understand oppression as a result of a series of unfortunate ideas or norms, as they say.
The struggle against oppression for them is therefore, first and foremost a struggle to convince people and society to stop having these oppressive ideas and behaviours. This is what Marxists call idealism, which in philosophical terms means that you view society, the way the world operates as a consequence of the ideas, morals or norms people have. Marxism holds the opposite view, as materialists we understand that the ideas that people have, the ideas, the dominant ideas of society, are shaped by how society is built.
The task therefore is to change society. For example we explain that the ideas of racism, arose to justify slavery and colonialism, and exists today to justify imperialist exploitation and racist discrimination. Women's oppression we explain arose alongside class society, where women went from being equal and well-respected within the old egalitarian hunting and gathering societies to being subordinated to men within the family. It was the rise of private property, in men’s primary field of work in agriculture, which led to the relegation of the position of women in society. In order to maintain their private property and pass it on to their heirs, men forced monogamy upon women, so that they would know that their children were really their children. And thus, men came to dominate women, who were now confined to the home. It was on this basis that the control of women and their sexuality in the family arose.
Under capitalism many women have gained a greater economic independence from men, by being drawn into production, becoming part of the working class and making a wage for herself. But capitalism is still dependent on the family, and the domestic labour of women in the household in order for new workers to be brought up for capitalists to exploit. Women are paid less, work more part time, and are therefore still economically dependent on men. And, as long as that economic inequality exists, as long as society rests on the family, then men will have power over women. And with that also follows violence, harassment and sexist stereotypes. These ideas reflect the real world we live in.
But, it is the ruling class that spreads prejudice and hatred against oppressed minorities which workers are not immune to – through the media, through the state, throughout society. And oppressions are concrete things that can't simply be educated away. An American company that exploits the natural resources and cheap labour of a poor country, does not stop being exploitation and a mechanism which upholds the racist world order if that company gets a Black CEO, or calls itself anti-racist or whatever.
You cannot simply convince the big monopolies of the world to “stop exploiting the poor countries”. You have to overthrow the imperialist system we live in. It is not a matter of prejudice – but of the way society is built. So we say we have to struggle for a society, a socialist society, where oppression will not be upheld by the system. Only by getting rid of the material basis for oppression can we lay the basis for prejudice, harassment and violence to gradually disappear.
But, identity politics on the other hand says that those who are to blame for the existence of oppression are those who are not oppressed in the same way: men are responsible for women's oppression and benefit from it, white people are responsible for racism and benefit from it, heterosexuals are to blame for homophobia and so on.
As the intersectional academic Frances Kendall put it, she said:
“Any of us who has race privilege, which all white people do, and therefore the power to put our prejudices into law, is racist by definition, because we benefit from a racist system”.
Feminist Heidi Hartman, says the same on women’s oppression in her text “The unhappy marriage of Marxism and feminism,” from 1979, where she says that “men have a material interest in women's continued oppression.”
The fight against oppression is therefore for them a struggle of women against men, black and people of colour against white, trans people against so called cis-people, that is non-trans. Those who do not suffer from the same oppression are privileged and as they say, must “check their privileges,” which means question your privileges, and they can only be supporters or allies to those who must lead the struggle.
That means that the majority of those who are the oppressors are workers and poor around the world and the struggle is one of worker against worker, oppressed against oppressed. The way identity politics puts the blame on the so-called privileged workers actually mirrors the mechanisms of maintaining oppression by capitalism.
Capitalists want white workers to think that they benefit from racism, they want men to think that they benefit from women's oppression – they want workers to be pitted against each other. And identity politics reinforces this saying the same thing. For example, some feminists in Sweden have claimed that more well-paid male workers in male dominated sectors should not go on strike, because they are already so well-paid and privileged.
But it is not women workers in the public sector with lower wages that would benefit from these workers not going on strike and demanding more in wages. It is the capitalists that these workers work for. And it is not the male workers that want to keep down the wages of women workers in the public sector. It is the politicians that are eager to defend capitalist profits by spending less on welfare that do not want to increase the wages of nurses, care workers and others.
The day to day advantages that some workers get from not being doubly oppressed is nothing compared to what they would gain if they united and struggled for more. So for us it is not a struggle between different allied groups for their own interests but a common struggle for common interests.
Identity politics started to get prominence towards the end of the 80's and during the 90's. This was a period of an ebb in the class struggle, the era of Reagan and Thatcher, the fall of the Soviet Union and the supposed final defeat for communism. The academics who had witnessed the great movements of the 60's and 70's drew the conclusion of the impossibility of the workers defeating capitalism.
While socialism in their mind seemed to be no way forward, capitalism also did not seem to offer a brighter future for humanity. They drew the most pessimistic conclusions and became advocates of different variants of post modernism – which is the philosophical roots of identity politics.
Though still sometimes using Marxist phraseology, these ideas were used to challenge and wipe out support for Marxism in academia at the great satisfaction of the bourgeoisie. And from academia, it spread into the left and the Labour movement at a time when the labour movement was emptied of workers as a result from the ebb in the class struggle and the rightward shift of the Labour movement. Middle class careerists took the workers’ place and eagerly embraced these so-called “new” ideas.
If one looks closer at the ideas of identity politics, one can find the ideas of postmodernism all over it. The rejection of an ability to understand the objective world we live in, the rejection of a so-called grand change of the world. Instead of the revolution – the small groups or the individual struggle against “power”. The idea that only I can understand my oppression, my reality and no one else's.
As the prominent intersectional feminist Patricia Hill Collins says:
“No one group has a clear angle of vision. No one group possesses the theory or methodology that allows it to discover the absolute ‘truth’”.
Marxism or rather what was thought to be Marxism, had already been challenged as a tool for analyzing oppression by feminists in the 70's. But the Marxism that many left-wingers came into contact with in this period was not Marxism but Stalinism. There was also a tendency in the reformist labour movement to regard the issues of more oppressed workers as less important, basing themselves on the most well-paid workers with the most illusions in reformism.
The inability of the labour movement to take a lead in the struggle against oppression, and the existence of Stalinism that claimed that they had achieved communism in the Soviet Union despite not having gotten rid of women’s oppression, the state, inequality, led to some thinking that Marxism and the Labour movement was not the answer in the struggle against oppression. This gave an impulse to separatist organisations and a search for “new ideas” – like radical feminism.
One example of how the feminists of the 70’s viewed Marxism was a black feminist lesbian group in the US called Combahee river collective: that in 1977 they released a statement, where they said that they agreed with Marx’s theory when analysing economic relationships – but that Marxism could not explain the oppression of Black women. They said:
“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.”
And in the end of their statement they quote Robin Morgan, who said:
”I haven't the faintest notion what possible revolutionary role white heterosexual men could fulfil, since they are the very embodiment of reactionary-vested-interest-power.”
Ironically enough, all these feminists actually borrowed extensively their ideas from Marxism, or rather what they thought was Marxism, but just like the other postmodernists they took those ideas and turned them into their opposite. And the consequence of those ideas is what we see in the movement today.
Some feminists think that because they focus so much on women’s oppression that means that they are the ones who take the struggle against women’s oppression most seriously. But if one has an incorrect idea or an incorrect understanding then that will lead to a counterproductive strategy. The idealism of identity politics leaves it open to be fooled by the system.
If the idea is that we just have to check our privileges, and if we just have to struggle against the ideas of sexism and racism – then one can easily be fooled into think that real progress has been made simply because a leading politician or capitalist says that they are feminist or anti-racist.
Just like politicians can swear that they take the climate crisis very seriously and then do nothing, politicians can say they are for gender equality whilst at the same time attacking women’s living and working conditions.
Companies can initiate small things, like all those companies that claim to support Black Lives Matter, where they can appear to be with the movement, or “support the movement” all the while exploiting their workers in the same manner as before, profiting from oppression. And if the idea is that women have to be represented by other women, that we need more female leaders: then one can easily be fooled into supporting leaders from an oppressed group being elected as party leader or a leader of a government – no matter what politics they actually stand for or what class interests they represent. It leaves the door open for class collaboration.
In Sweden, one party after another have become feminist since the 90's precisely in the period where the gains made in the post-war period were beginning to be rolled back through cuts and privatization. Ebba Busch Thor – the leader of the Swedish Christian Democratic Party, she calls herself a feminist while she is a conservative who would like to curtail the right to abortion. The Liberal Party of Sweden has a Black female leader, and she represents a shift to a more open racist profile for that party because she wants to bring the party closer to the racist Sweden democrats.
The Social Democracy that is now in power, has claimed that it carries out “feminist foreign policies” while apparently means selling weapons to Saudi Arabia that has been used in the war on Yemen. All of these politicians, all these party leaders, they use labels and their identities as a way to distract from the real policies that they carry out.
Feminism has become a mass industry in Sweden – where a myriad of academics can thank feminism for their career, they claim that they are doing important work against women’s oppression through something as we call in Sweden, gender pedagogy in schools and at work places, where they challenge gender roles.
All these people can lead a comfortable life as part of the establishment – patting themselves on the back for their commitment against oppression – all the while the same establishment has torn apart the welfare state once built up during these past 30 years. What has this official feminism given working women in Sweden? A lie – that is what they are given.
The same can be said with the NGOs in the poorer countries – they have become an industry that allows a small layer of middle class people to lead a comfortable life whilst all they offer for the masses of poor women is a lot of empty talk and charity.
Identity politics is not as those who advocate it would claim: a means to make sure that the struggle against oppression is made a top priority of the political leaders. It is a facade these leaders use to cover in the best case a lack of action; in the worst case cuts and austerity. This is true for the capitalists, the right-wing parties, and the Labour movement.
Identity politics is also used as a way to stifle left-wing and revolutionary elements within the Labour movement. By putting forward candidates from an oppressed group as an alternative to left-wingers in the movement, or by claiming that men take up too much time of the debate, or that something they say is sexist or racist. In the British Labour Party, the right-wing used false claims of anti-Semitism to attack the left-wing.
And as identity politics claims that only those suffering under oppression can define what that oppression is: you cannot question their claims of sexism or racism – and left wing elements in the Labour movement often stand very vulnerable against this sort of attack: because they are so eager to prove that they are against oppression, that they are the best feminists, the best intersectional feminists. So in the Labour party many left-wingers more or less accepted all those claims without question.
And we see the same phenomena in protest movements. During the Black Lives Matter movement in Sweden this summer, the solidarity demonstrations, a young woman outraged by the police violence and inspired by the movement in the US decided to spontaneously organised a demonstration in Gothenburg through Facebook, and this was the first political thing that she had ever done.
But since she was of Middle Eastern origin and not Black, she was immediately bombarded with harassment, that “you cannot organize this, you should hand it over to Black people.” Which she did. And, at the end she was so demoralised by the treatment, that as far as we know, she didn’t even turn up to the demo. This is only one example, but there are many simple or exactly the same examples as this one.
Marxists meet those we disagree with, through political discussion and debate. We understand that we cannot simply forbid prejudice and pretend that it will all go away if we just shout at or insult anyone that we disagree with. The methods of just shutting down a political proponent is something we usually reserve for fascists or trolls who simply want to disrupt political activities.
But in the identity political movement these are methods that are considered fair-game to be used against pretty much anyone who dares that disagrees with them. By declaring a boycott against them, bombarding them with hateful comments, demanding that they be removed from their job or position. This creates a mood of fear and serves to stifle the debate and divides the movement.
We denounce all these methods and ideas. We say it should always be the policies that decide what candidate to support – not their gender, sexuality or colour of their skin. Because experiences of oppression is not enough to know how to fight it and does not give one the right to claim leadership of any movement. One has to know where oppression comes from, why it exists today, to understand how to get rid of it and know what methods and which demands to put forward in the struggle. That is: one has to study history and analyse society.
The knowledge in how to fight women's oppression is not something you are born with simply because you’re born a woman. You have to learn it. As Marxists we are not fighting for a minority from an oppressed group to have a career within the capitalist state. We don't fight for the oppressed to be “represented” by a few individuals but fight for a communist society – with no state, where everyone runs society.
What we need is not to be equally represented by the capitalists that exploit us or the politicians that uphold their system – what we need is to destroy the system through its revolutionary overthrow. What we need is not a myriad of different organisations for different oppressed groups all carrying out their separate struggles – but a united mass movement of all oppressed under the leadership of a revolutionary labour movement.
Though the majority that call themselves feminists and many who favour intersectionality only mean that they want to fight oppression, we do not call ourselves feminists or intersectional Marxists – precisely because these ideas no matter in what form you find them in cannot explain oppression or how to fight it effectively. Because the leaders of feminism and intersectionality do not understand the need to end capitalism to end oppression, they end up adapting to the capitalist system. Not only that – they are also in general reformists or even liberals.
But just look at the Left Party of Sweden, that party likes to view itself as the most feminist party in Sweden. They once campaigned for 200,000 new jobs in the public sector and a 6-hour working day. Now these are reforms that would’ve greatly improved the lives of working class women. Those demands are nowhere to be seen today, the leadership does not push these demands anymore. Because the party leadership is so eager to collaborate with the Social Democrats so that they have dropped all the more radical demands to accommodate to them.
It is the same with all the other examples as I gave – the Left Party has become feminists precisely in the same period as they’ve moved to the right. So, our problem with those leading figures of feminism and intersectionality is not that they take the struggle against oppression too seriously, it is the opposite.
We say: you don’t do enough in the struggle against oppression, you’re afraid of challenging the system. You don't believe that the working class can overthrow the capitalist system and run a socialist society. You have become convinced that only the capitalists and politicians can run society. They end up being the same way as all other politicians and capitalists who say: Don’t take to the streets, leave all your problems in our hands and sooner or later things will get better.
We say: take to the streets, struggle now against all the ills in society struggle now for your full and complete liberation. Struggle now for a world revolution to destroy this barbaric system, to destroy it once and for all, to end all exploitation, injustice and with it, all forms of oppression.
Sam: Hi everybody, I’m Sam from London. And I bring you revolutionary greetings from Socialist Appeal – the British section of the IMT. I wanted to build on Ylva’s excellent leadoff by talking more about the central role of class in fighting oppression.
As Marxists, we believe the main contradiction in society is the antagonism between waged labour and capital. But, we don’t believe the exploitation of the working-class is any more severe than the pain felt by the myriad of groups oppressed under capitalism. By placing the primacy on class, we are not trying to minimize or dismiss peoples’ oppression. We merely understand that the conditions of waged labour under capitalism make possible the formation of class consciousness. And this consciousness can take hold of the broad mass of the working class which can utilized its economic power to bring about revolutionary change. The same is not true for oppressed groups: that’s why class is so important. Because the working class holds the power in its hands to smash capitalism. And this will lay the basis for the destruction of all forms of oppression.
This is an opposition to the ideas of identity politics which maintains that only oppressed groups themselves can fight their oppression. We’ve seen throughout history attempts to unite oppressed groups in struggle, and never to be broken down on class lines. This is because bourgeois and petit-bourgeois members of oppressed groups only ever want to take the struggle so far. They only want to acquire the same privileges and positions as their peers from non-oppressed groups. Once they’ve achieved sufficient form, the happy reform, they’re happy to abandon the struggle.
An example of this is the British Suffragette movement. The Suffragettes were a group of women who fought for the right to vote for women in the early 20th century. Emmaline Pankhurst was the main leader of this movement. But her main objective was not to gain universal suffrage. Instead, she fought for votes for women on the same basis as men. And at the time, this meant that only people with a certain level of wealth were allowed to vote. So instead of fighting for women as a whole, the Suffragettes were actually fighting just for the rights of wealthy women.
This contradiction was brutally exposed by the First World War: Emmaline Pankhurst fully supported this reactionary imperialist slaughter. She reached a rotten deal with the Conservative government: suspend all the Suffragettes’ protests. She received funding from the government to mobilize the Suffragettes to support the war. When more radical Suffragettes protested this betrayal, they were ruthlessly silenced.
As the war drew on, women were pulled into the war industries where they were ruthlessly exploited. But Emmaline urged them not to strike or protest, but instead, to do their patriotic duty.
Emmaline also became a prominent opponent of the Bolsheviks. And, in June 1917, she was sent on a mission to Russia. This was organized and financed by the British Conservative government and her purpose was to support the provisional government and encourage Russia to stay in the war. The irony being that the successful Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 gave women the right to vote in Russia for the first time.
After the war, Emmaline was handsomely rewarded for her services to the ruling class and became a Conservative MP. A section of the movement led by Sylvia Pankhurst, one of Emmaline’s daughters, opposed this betrayal. Sylvia counterposed the tactic of individual militancy with mass struggle. She conducted work among working-class women and believed Suffragettes should reach out to the Labour movement as their main allies in the struggle. She continued to fight and organize, opposing the war, and went on to fight to become a founding member of the British Communist Party.
This is just one example of a pattern that has been repeated in struggle throughout history. A certain layer only want to use the struggle to gain concessions that benefit themselves. And once they’ve achieved these privileges, they give up the struggle. Bourgeois and petty-bourgeois oppressed people can afford to cushion themselves from their oppression in a way that working-class oppressed people cannot. And some people from oppressed groups are actively members of the ruling class. So despite their theoretical approach to oppression, they have a stake to defending capitalism.
This is why it’s impossible for an oppressed group to successfully lead a struggle on their own – because the movement inevitably breaks down class lines. But, because they don’t understand class, proponents of identity politics fails to see that. Instead, the solution of identity politics is to seek to identify more privileged layers and exclude them from the movement to create an even smaller subsection of oppressed groups. But all this achieves is to further divide the movement, and diminish its power.
As Marxists, we’re not interested in making the movement smaller – we want the opposite. We want the biggest and most powerful movement possible. And the biggest and most powerful group in the world is the working class. So, we must seek to overcome all divisions in the working class. To bring together all oppressed groups in a struggle against their common oppressor. And, the real oppressor of a Black worker isn’t their White colleague – it is their boss and the capitalist system. So that’s why the struggle against oppression must be a struggle against capitalism, and the workers of the world are the only people that can wage that struggle successfully.
Thank you comrades, that’s all I had to say.
Marie: Hello, and revolutionary greetings from the Revolutionary Socialist – The IMT in Denmark. If you look at identity politics, I can see why it attracts a lot of radicalized youth who are indignant and who wants to fight oppression. Identity politics seems radical and even revolutionary – like wanting to do something serious about the problems.
But the thing is, it isn’t revolutionary and it’s not equal to fighting oppression – quite the opposite actually. It focuses on all these different kinds of oppression in the individuals. So it looks at the individual struggles, and not the collective struggle. But the struggle against oppression cannot be found on an individual basis.
If you look at identity politics, they look at all these different kinds of oppression: sexism, racism against women, and some of them even talk about classism as one kind of oppression. So it seems almost like Marxism or like socialism – but it isn’t. It’s very different. They see classism: the oppression of the working class, as something idealist, something in the discourse, something in the way we speak about the working class/the proletariat.
But, as Marxists, we see the oppression of the working class as rooted in the economic structures of society. And that means that the oppression of the working class is different from the other kinds of oppression. The oppression of the working class cuts across all the other forms of oppression. You can have a capitalist who is Black, you can have a worker who is Black. You can have a woman who is a capitalist, and you can have a woman who is a worker. But you don’t have the workers being capitalists.
And you can see how the companies handle this now: it’s become confession. They all take on the rainbow flag, as promoting themselves. But you won’t see them take on the red flag or the hammer and sickle. And the thing is, the capitalist class is a tiny minority, as we’ve also explained. And they will use all means to divide the majority: the working class, on all different dividing lines that they can. They will use the media, education system, the church – everything to spew out this poison of racism, sexism, homophobia, and so on.
So you can also find these kinds of ideas in the working class, among the working class. But for them it’s very different. The racism or sexism that exists within the working class from the sexism that exists within the capitalist class. For the capitalist class, it is a necessity. For the working class, it is an objective disadvantage – it weakens them; it is against their objective interests.
And that why we see in struggle, as Ylva mentioned, in Egypt or in strikes and so on, that all these dividing lines in the working class, they disappear when you struggle side by side. And you see the opposite thing happening in the capitalist class. When class struggle tightens up, the ruling class will always choose their class side: the female capitalists will be on the side of the capitalists, not on the majority of women.
So that’s why the fight against oppression is a fight completely linked to the fight against the economic system. Because it is rooted in this economic system. And the working class consists of all these: of women, of Black people, of homosexuals, of trans persons, and so on – it consists of all of us. It’s a lie that it is only White males who are workers. So, the working class fight is a fight to liberate all these people from oppression, and that are the only group in society who can.
Because it’s the only group who can change the economic structures of society. But in this fight, the necessary thing is to focus on what unites us, what unites the working class. And that’s where identity politics goes wrong – it focuses on what sets us apart. It focuses on the individual. It doesn’t mean that we don’t fight for the rights of women or the rights of, or the oppression against any form of sexuality in this society.
But, as Sam also explained, we use this fight to unite the working class, to show the limitations of capitalism, and to explain the need to fight for socialist revolution. Because that’s the only way that we can remove oppression, by a truce. And that’s why we need the Marxist theory, because that’s the only theoretical base that can be used to take this fight. Thank you.
Serena: Hello comrades. When we Marxists say that the struggle against women’s oppression, and the struggle against any kind of oppression must be connected to the class struggle and to the struggle against capitalism, that is not an abstract concept invented by us, the Marxists. It derives from the material roots of any form of oppression, and it is a living demonstration in the experience if we consider periods when all important achievements in the form of civil rights that have been conquered.
In my contribution, I will refer as a demonstration to this, to the events in Italy in the 70s. A decade during which some crucial reforms in the field of women’s rights were conquered. For instance, the right to divorce, the right to abortion, the equality between husband and wife inside the marriage. And by the way, I would like to remark that all these reforms were first in Italy and then later in the “advanced countries” in the 70s. And they were not at all gifted by the government of the time, but conquered through hard struggle.
Why in revolutionary Russia, were these measures were among the first to be put forward by the Bolsheviks after the 1917 Revolution? These reforms are often referred to as the recess of the feminist movement of the time. But this is a very superficial explanation of what really happened. In fact, we cannot describe such achievements to sectorial struggles exclusively in the fields of civil rights. But we must adopt a wider outlook which consists of the whole character of that epoch. An epoch of intense class struggle that almost led to the taking of power by the working class in the revolutionary opportunity in the so-called “Hot Autumn” in 1969. A revolutionary opportunity which was lost for the harmful role played by the reformist bureaucracy of the trade unions and the bureaucracy of the Stalinist communist party.
The revolutionary character of this epoch was evident not only in Italy, but on a global scale. In all other advanced capitalist countries, think about the May ’68 in France, and also in the form of colonial countries. So, although this revolutionary opportunity was lost, it opened up a whole period of struggles in front of which the ruling class was compelled to consider other reforms. Not only in the industrial field, but also in the field of civil rights. A classic example of reforms that are the by-products of a revolution, as Ylva already explained in her leadoff.
It is true that at the time, there was the development of a number of feminist groups emerging especially from the university milieu. Some of them put all the emphasis on the question of culture as the main cause of oppression. From that you see that political activity on the self-consciousness and not taking part in the struggle for civil rights. Others were very active in these struggles, and even considered themselves Feminist-Marxists, which is a contradiction in terms. In fact, their methods, such as separatism, and their slogans such as, “housework wage” went in the direction to divide the women workers from the rest of the working class, showing a total lack of understanding of what Marx thought about the progressive role of participation of women in the production process.
So, although some feminist groups made very active propaganda in the struggles for civil rights, the mass character of these movements went far beyond the roots that had been able to bead among the women and especially among the working class women.
In fact, the mobilization of women’s rights were really messy at that time. More than 19 million people voted in defence of the right to divorce in the referendum in 1974. With an overwhelming majority of nearly 60%. But the struggle was not only in the poles. Huge demonstrations on the question of women’s rights took place in that period with tens of thousands of women participating. The biggest one being one in Rome in 1976, with 50 000 people fighting for the right to abortion. And not very long afterwards, abortion was legalized in Italy.
Now, something similar happened a few years ago, during the Non Una di Meno movement and the women’s strikes against violence against women. When we have seen huge layers of radicalized young women and female workers that were determined to fight, but most of them were not influenced by a feminist, but bourgeois strategies, such as separatism or strange linguistic habits. So we must realize that such movements, then as well as today, express something much different from the level of discussions that categorize the feminist circle. They are the expression of a character of an entire epoch.
By the “Hot Autumn” in Italy, women workers were among the first layer of workers to take initiative. Even before the great strikes and factory occupation of 1969, confirming what we have seen many times in history. For example, in the first stage of the Russian Revolution which began on International Women’s Day in 1917 – the fabric of a revolution.
So, what about today? Just think about the key job sectors that were, that are on the frontline during this pandemic. Health workers, supermarket workers – in all these branches, women play a key role. And think about those women workers compared to the so-called “smart working” taking care of their children at the same time because schools were closed. This situation is having a big impact on their consciousness. And, once again we see young women and women workers among the most radicalized layers of the class.
Anyway, there is one fundamental difference with the experience I referred to in the 70s. Then, the capitalist system had experienced a very long boom and had some margins, some accumulated resources to grant to, to concede to some achievements and concessions. Today, the system has no margins, no room to consider reforms. So the importance of reformists and the need for a revolutionary alternative would be clear to bigger and bigger layers of the youth and the working class, especially the women.
So, we must be prepared to intervene in this mood to be the revolutionary party that is needed to put an end to the final code of exploitation and oppression: capitalism.
Joel: Thank you, thank you Ylva for the great presentation. Honestly, I don’t think it’s surprising that there’s been an explosion of struggles against different forms of expression around the world. There’s the movement against racism in the US, the MeToo movement, the women’s strike in Spain. Many of these struggles have taken place in the most advanced capitalist countries. And, I think this shows the oppression cannot be abolished under capitalism. In the best of all capitalist worlds, everyone knows the oppression is still alive and well.
Now, these struggles are very progressive and must be supported. However, we must be enthusiastically involved in the struggle, but we also need to bring in a clear Marxist program of how to fight against oppression. And in order to do this, we need to understand how the various theories of identity politics actually directly undermines these struggles.
If we had to sum up a central pillar of identity politics, as Ylva explained, this would basically be that someone from an oppressed group knows how to best fight oppression they experience. But, just experiencing oppression does not mean you have all of the knowledge of what is the best way to fight against that oppression – that takes study. And, I just want to give a few examples, recent examples, of how this general idea which focuses on the identity, rather than the ideas. I want to give you a few examples of how this has extremely reactionary results.
For example, in Montreal, where I am based: when the recent movement against racism and police brutality exploded in the US, it had its reverberations on the ground here and there were demonstrations called. And these were organized by Black organizations. However, just because they all were Black, doesn’t mean they had all the same ideas. It’s kind of like a national liberation movement in some senses, with different classes of Black people involved. Some of them more left-wing, some of them revolutionaries, and some of them liberal.
So one of organizers invited the Montreal police – which are quite well-known for the racism, brutalizing people of colour, killing them. And eventually, they were forced to rescind this invitation under outrage and pressure. But at the demo, they also had the leader of the Liberal Party of Quebec speak, who is a Black woman. To give you an idea, this person used to be the president of the current government party in Quebec, the CAQ, which is a far-right xenophobic party, and has more recently joined the Liberals and now leads them. Who, to be honest, aren’t much better – they’ve been in power for most of the past 20 years.
But, following identity politics to the logical conclusion leads you to things like this. The only real reason why she was invited to speak was because she is Black and a political leader. So, I think identity politics is reactionary because it is an attempt to turn off your brain and just look at someone’s identity and judge that they’re therefore good, or that whatever they are going to say is inevitably good.
Another example, which I think is even worse, far worse is related to the events in Portland. Now the movement in Portland has become a widespread revolt against the state and against the armed forces of the state: repression. Wide layers of the population have come out and opposed Trump’s clampdown. You have lines of what they call “Momtifa” which is like moms locking arms, protecting the demonstration. And “Dadtifa” which is basically dads with leaf blowers blowing the teargas back at the police, which is obviously wonderful and shows off the creativity of the working class. And, it’s quite an advanced movement: many of these people are armed. And as I said, it involved all layers of the population, many of these people are white – which is the most progressive thing, it’s not just about Black people anymore.
But there have been many identity politics, activists online complaining about this. Saying it was “centring” white bodies, or white people. So, they’re basically trying to keep the movement, make it not spread and actually make the movement not win – make it weak. Which is the logical conclusion of identity politics: it is to focus on the form, not the content.
This actually leads directly to liberals co-opting these movements. Ylva gave many examples of this in Sweden. There’s one final example of here in Quebec. The right-wing government has passed a law that is basically a hijab-ban or niqab-ban, similar to laws that have been passed in Europe, which is a total reactionary, Islamophobic law. And, there was a big debate within the left-party about this, because the leadership didn’t fully oppose it for reasons of identity because he history of the Quebecois, the secular people, etc. But then there was the sector of the party membership that wanted to fight against the leadership by mandating people of colour in leadership positions. But again, this was focusing on the form and not the content. There are leaders, people of colour leaders of the party, and they didn’t oppose this law either. And the two public figures of the party that opposed the law were white.
So again, I agree with Ylva, we criticize them that they don’t actually do enough to fight against the oppression. It actually doesn’t have anything to do with fighting oppression with what they’re doing. And it allows liberals to give tokenistic concessions to placate the movement. But the existence of this movement in the US proves that people are sick of that: that people are sick of this stuff. That they’re no longer happen with this kind of tokenistic concessions.
So I believe that we have a historic moment to actually connect to these movements with our politics. With a Marxist perspective, that only a united class struggle can end all kinds of oppression. Thank you.
Ylva: I think we’ve had an excellent discussion. All the interventions were really, really good. Now, a lot of points were brought up and I won’t be able to touch on all of them. Put I have some points I want to add.
So, Joel made some very good, he had some very concrete examples of how reactionary identity politics is, how it divides the movement. And I think he phrased it really well – that it really is the methods and ideas of identity politics is really aimed at not making the struggle win, not making it spread.
Now, another example of this, it’s an example that we speak of often, is precisely the women’s strike in Spain in 2018. Where the feminists who were leading that strike, they demanded that only women were supposed to go on strike. And that the men should take the women’s place at the work, therefore acting as strike-breakers. It really shows – as all the examples that Joel said, the absurdity of these ideas.
Now, Marie spoke about the importance of a class analysis. And she mentioned how intersectionality, identity politics in general, but it’s specifically very common in intersectionality to just view class as simply another form of oppression. The so-called “classism” where they focus just like with all other oppression, on the experience of being a worker, and what really does it mean to be a worker: who is a worker and who is not a worker, what is the culture of workers.
As Marxists, we have a completely different approach to class. We’re not interested in deciding at an individual level who is a worker and who is not a worker. “Hmm could that individual be said to be a worker or a petty-bourgeois person, because they started at the university, but they have this job” – that’s the kind of approach thy have. But rather, we look at the working class as a whole – its role in production, and how the working class will move in the class struggle, how different sectors of the working class will move.
And similarly, we’re not interested in deciding who is a “real woman,” who can be a part of the women’s struggle – which is the approach of identity politics. And we’ve seen recently, a struggle between queer feminists and trans activists, and radical feminists and some liberal feminists on the other hand, where the radical feminists and the liberal feminists are precisely obsessed with defining who is a “real woman,” and see trans women as a threat to their movement.
We’re not interested in defining at an individual level who can really be said to suffer from racism. But rather we look to the oppression as a whole and how to fight against it. But in the identity political movement, you see this competition of who is the most oppressed. Or the way you identify the identity of this movement, I don’t feel included – which just leads to division and in-fighting.
Now, Sam also talked about the role of the working class in the struggle against oppression. And, he talked about how you’ve seen this time and time again. How feminists and other identity political movements, how the petty bourgeois leadership are content after they’ve won some partial gain and then become defenders of the establishment/of the status quo of capitalism. And he used the Suffragettes as an example.
Another example is this feminist group in Sweden called “Group 8” that was the main feminist, radical feminist group in the 70s. In the beginning, they didn’t call themselves feminists, but Marxists. And they focused on different issues concerning working class women, but mainly the struggle against abortion. But once that was gained in 1974, then they started receding from the struggle and became feminists – radical feminist. And started focusing on elevating female art and female culture, organizing small groups of women just talking about their individual experiences of oppression. And many of these became/had a great career in academia in the 80s, taking a step back from the struggle and becoming a part of the establishment.
Now, another point I would like to make that I didn’t have time to go into in my leadoff. I touched on the fact that many feminists have claimed that Marxists don’t care about oppression and this is partly due to Stalinism and how it viewed oppression, but that’s not the whole explanation. It’s also clear that many academics have not cared to truly understand what the early Marxists wrote on the issue of oppression.
Some of them have clearly read Marx, some have even read Engels’ book The Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State. They might not all be familiar with the wealth of material written by early Marxists, especially in the communist Third International, on oppression. Nor the Marxists’ true record of struggling against oppression. But quite of few of them have read some things, and have still draw the conclusion that Marxists do not care about oppression.
What is clear is that their method, and this is true of all those academics who have used Marxism in order to them revise or it discard it, is that they pick and choose quotes and ideas that suit their own interests. And that they often approach Marxism with already made up minds of what we will say. When reading Marx or Engels, they’ll be looking for words that today may be considered politically incorrect. And then they say, look Marx or Engels was racist or sexist because they used this term.
One example I remember vividly was one feminist who told me that she had read a text by Lenin about women’s oppression. But what she told me that Lenin said was actually the complete opposite of what Lenin was arguing. Other times, they cannot really discard what early Marxists have written on the question, but then they simply call those Marxists, feminists. So Rosa Luxemburg, Clara Zetkin, August Bebel, Alexandra Kollontai – they’ve all been called feminists despite the fact that they were Marxists who struggled against a bourgeois feminist movement at the time.
The real tradition of Marxism has been buried under a heap of lies, and it’s our job to bring forth the real tradition. Now, Serena talked about how the gains made in Italy in the 70s were a part of a product of the class struggle, and not just the feminists as it said in the feminist struggle. And it’s the same in Sweden, and we see that throughout the history of Sweden – that all the gains made by women is always ascribed to the feminist movement and as their achievement. But also in Sweden, they were very much a product of the class struggle.
But also in Sweden, so you had massive gains made for the working class and for women that were also in the interests of capitalists. The welfare state for example, enabled the capitalists to draw in women into production, and at the time of the boom they needed those women to expand production.
But just like Serena said, today we’re in a completely different epoch. A period of the crisis of capitalism where they are not interested in expanding the welfare state, but attacking all the gains made by the working class in the past. Which means that it’s not just that we need to end capitalism to finally end oppression, but even to make any bigger steps forward to improve the living and working conditions of the oppressed workers necessitates an end of capitalism.
And, as we have seen, these attacks against the working class – the attacks in all countries against the working class, has provoked massive struggles. And as Joel said, these movements will not be content with what identity politics has to offer. And once they become too big, the identity politics people they simply cannot contain the movement and introduce their methods anymore. And we’ve seen this with Black Lives Matter in the US for example.
So, we’re living in a period of great class struggles where the socialist revolution is on the order of the day. But a socialist revolution cannot succeed unless the working class has a revolutionary Marxist leadership. So if you’re watching this and you’re burning with a fire to fight for a socialist society, take the step. Join us in the IMT to build the forces of Marxism and fight together with us to bring these ideas into the movement and into the labour movement so that our period is not another story of how the leaders of the working class betrayed it, as is the story of so many revolutions in the past. But that the story told in the future was that we succeeded in destroying capitalism so that future generations can live in a united communist world where all remnants of class society has died out. Thank you.