In Viewpoint magazine, Salar Mohandesi examines how the concept of identity politics changed from a radical analysis of interlocking forms of oppression to a superficial idea of “diversity.” He begins his analysis with the Combahee River Collective, a group of black feminists in Boston in the 1970s who rejected the misogyny of mainstream leftist movements and who were the first to use the phrase “identity politics.” Here’s an excerpt from Mohandesi’s important piece:
Over the next few decades, these insights were codified into what we now understand as “identity politics.” But in the process, what began as a promise to push beyond some of socialism’s limitations to build a richer, more diverse and inclusive socialist politics, made possible something very different. Rooting political action in the identity of subjects offered a promising response to the most pressing political problem of the time, but it left an opening that would soon be exploited by those with politics diametrically opposed to those of the Combahee River Collective.
This strategy was recently on display when Jennifer Palmieri, Hillary Clinton’s former communication director, attempted to explain the burst of anti-Trump protest following the inauguration. “You are wrong to look at these crowds and think that means everyone wants $15 an hour,” she said in an appearance on MSNBC in February. “Don’t assume that the answer to big crowds is moving policy to the left … It’s all about identity on our side now.”
In Palmieri’s hands, identity politics no longer signals the fight against interlocking oppressions, but is now counterposed to struggling against exploitation, to improving all workers’ lives, whatever their gender, race, sexuality, or citizenship status. In this conception, politics is not about changing the world, but your consumer choice in fashioning an identity:
Women who are rejecting Nordstrom’s and Neiman Marcus are saying this is power for them. Donald Trump doesn’t take me seriously, well, I’m showing you my value and my power, and I think it’s like our own version of identity politics on the left that’s more empowering …
Far from helping to build socialism, identity politics of this kind is now explicitly wielded by the Democratic Party to keep it at bay. In this context, it’s understandable that many have come to decry identity politics as an obstacle to socialist unity. Forgetting the roots of identity politics in radical social movements, many critics have mistakenly come to see it as wholly alien to socialism, proceeding to denounce all its partisans – including other socialists – with a vehemence most of us reserve only for our vilest enemies.
To make matters worse, instead of offering a positive alternative, most of these critics resurrect hackneyed formulations, uncritically brandishing words like “class,” without trying to take into account the legitimate needs of many radicals who have come to rally behind some form of identity politics. The flaw of these critiques is their lack of acknowledgment of the emancipatory origins of identity politics, and the historical circumstances from which they emerged. To move forward, we have to trace how the emancipatory politics of the Combahee River Collective have given way to the reactionary ravings of Democratic Party hacks like Jennifer Palmieri.
Image: Members of Combahee River Collective, Boston, 1979. Via abolitionjournal.org.