Socialism, Rising Tides, and Identity Politics

Cait is one of the people who donated to help get me to Women in Secularism 3. In return, she asked me to address an argument.

I know a fair number of socialists whom I usually like but who have presented me with one version or another of this argument too many times over the years. Various versions of this argument were made as General Assemblies sorted themselves out in the Occupy movement. I’m sure it predates me as well. It goes something like this.

We need to address class issues. Women are severely affected by poverty. Racial minorities are severely affected by poverty. We must put aside these issues of identity politics to focus on what we all have in common, which is our relationship to capital. If you play identity politics, you’re serving the interests of the current owners of capital.

Here is one particularly lofty and recommended form of this argument, lest I be accused of strawmanning it.

Where identitarianism seeks to somehow unify the world’s often highly contradictory personal narratives of oppression into a coherent idea of social justice, Marxism looks at what makes the system itself tick, and finds that the vast majority of people have something very real in common: their position within the economy, i.e. their relationship to capital and the means of production. It’s around this that it seeks to rally people – not around moral or personal judgement, but around their objective common interests. Ideologies of social division, in the socialist view, mainly exist to keep people from realizing precisely those interests. Divide and conquer, as they say.

Socialism does not seek to unify people on the level of social, national or cultural identity; it is inherently internationalist and transcultural, because it operates on a completely different level. But that’s precisely why socialism is emancipatory by necessity: because to unite the working class means to unite people across the barriers of identity. The concept itself is inclusive, and cannot be realized without the inclusion of the majority of people, including people of all social identities. Nor does it exclude those who wish to see systemic change but belong to the upper classes; after all, it’s about reorienting the goals and methods of the system, not about personal moral judgement or the condemnation of people because of an accident of birth. Socialism does not posit some sort of economic equivalent of Original Sin that makes people unable to see beyond their own lives.

It’s got all the hallmarks: reduction of things like sexism and racism into mere personal interactions, implying that identities other than class identities are made up, the idea that critiquing socialists is playing into the hands of capitalists, calls for the vague ideal of “unity”, equation of privilege with sin. But boy, the words are big and the horse is high. More importantly, it has the same failure that all arguments of this stripe exhibit. The author of this piece is unwilling or unable to address the fact that not all power comes from capital.There are two unconscionable aspects of that failure. First of all, the understanding that there are multiple sources of power is inherent in the most basic of the language we use to talk about power. We would not even have the word “plutocracy” if capital were equivalent to power. There would be no tools socialists could use to fight for more equal access to capital if capital alone decided everything.

Secondly, treating class as the only systemic inequality elides the clear and continuous drum-beating of the scholars and activists who have brought and continue to bring transparency and awareness to the ways that sex, gender, race, sexuality, physical and mental disability, religion, and so much more are baked into our systems in ways that benefit some to the detriment of others. Everyone who pays serious attention to these issues is aware of this work, much of which had at least its start in the same kind of analysis Marx applied to class. Leaving it out when talking about identity politics marks the speaker as either broadly ill-informed on their chosen topic or intellectually dishonest.

“Everyone is affected by their class” is a generally true statement within our “system”, but it isn’t an exclusive statement. Everyone is also affected by their sex and gender. Everyone is affected by their race. Everyone is affected by their sexuality. Everyone is affected by their religion. Everyone is affected by their level of ability. The only people who think these things don’t affect them are the people who are considered the “default” of each. Patriarchy really does hurt men too. Whiteness exists even when we don’t name it.

For all that these socialists sneer at those taking an intersectional approach to justice, I have yet to see any intersectional analysis that ignored issues of class. These scholars and activists understand that economic justice is essential to all justice. They just didn’t stop looking at the system in the 1800s.

The moment you include an honest picture of intersectional scholarship, the whole “Klasse über alles” argument falls apart. When you do look at the large body of scholarship on the relationship between various kinds of identity and political power, it becomes apparent that systemic issues of identity continue to need to be addressed under any economic system. A few of the issues socialism doesn’t solve:

  • Socialism does not ensure that police and legal systems are well-educated on issues of domestic and sexual violence. Myths around those issues interfere with access to justice, and many of those myths are predicated on identity. “Women lie.” “Men can’t be raped.” “Black people are sexually aggressive.” “Asians are sexually passive.” “Crazy people and drug addicts can’t be trusted.” “Those people had it coming for X.”
  • Socialism does not ensure that police and legal systems are free of prejudices about which racial groups are criminal. It doesn’t change judgments about when violence, invasive searches, or abusive questioning are “reasonably” applied to minority populations.
  • Socialism does not ensure school systems free of prejudice about who is suited to study what or pursue what career. It doesn’t urge teachers to praise and encourage based on interest and ability rather than stereotype.
  • Socialism does not ensure that all medical treatment is equally accessible. In Ireland, even with socialized medicine, abortions are severely restricted.
  • Socialism does not ensure that sex workers are heard on matters involving their health and their lives. The “Swedish model” of prosecuting those purchasing sex work and third-party involvement (e.g., brothel owners) was not wanted by sex workers and has been criticized for increasing the stigma they face.
  • Socialism does not ensure that immigrants are accepted, either legally or socially. Denmark has internationally recognized problems with racism, both structurally and socially.
  • Socialism does not ensure that the mentally ill have access to the treatment they need to maximize their participation in society. Sweden has only recently reversed a treatment mandate that was based in economics, not efficacy.

All of these boil down to the fact that socialism does not ensure equal representation and voice in matters of governance, and who is in charge matters. It matters when we have a de facto plutocracy. It also matters when our lawmakers are almost exclusively wealthy or white or male or heterosexual or without mental or physical disability or a host of other things because there’s no one there to tell them what they’ve overlooked–not because of “Original Sin” but because they’re human and limited in their experiences just like all the rest of us.

It particularly matters when those in power refuse to hear the voices of people who have experiences they don’t. They may do it because they code those voices as “angry” or “uncivil”, which is something that can be fixed with education and perspective. When they do it by coding those voices as “divisive”, however, they’re sending a clear and ugly message. They’re telling us that they consider differing perspectives and priorities to be inherently bad. They’re telling us that not only is representation something they don’t want now, but also that it will never be acceptable as long as there’s an issue that matters to them more. A socialist movement that vilifies people for looking at the world through any analytical lens aside from class, that vilifies people for demanding representation among those in power, will consist of those who aren’t motivated to such analysis and don’t have to make such demands. Once that happens, it doesn’t matter how much those people talk about inclusion and representing the interests of everyone. It’s just talk. It’s a movement that can’t effectively think about justice for all, much less deliver it.

Socialism, Rising Tides, and Identity Politics
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26 thoughts on “Socialism, Rising Tides, and Identity Politics

  1. 1

    Not to nitpick, but I think most of the Socialists who talk about Class Uber Alles wouldn’t consider what Sweden or Denmark have to be socialism in any meaningful sense, and they would be correct: it isn’t. The existence of infrastructure, while something socialists tend to favor, is not in and of itself a socialist position (social safety nets, education and single-payer healthcare are all aspects of infrastructure, and there are certainly people who favor capitalist economies that understand why infrastructure is a good thing to have, although most of them are still ignoring quite a few things). That said, it is perfectly true that socialism per se, especially the form preached by the Fourth International (and I think I recognize the echo of their rhetoric in your paraphrasing) doesn’t address the problems you listed. I feel I should note, though, that Socialism is an economic concept, and expecting economic changes to fix non-economic problems strikes me as going a bridge to far. The fact that they have this expectation is one of the reasons I haven’t got much use for the Fourth International, despite broad sympathy with their aims. A revolutionary platform that doesn’t address the non economic problems of the downtrodden is only half a platform, at best.

  2. 2

    Quite true about the choice of countries, but I figured looking at the failures of social democracies, which have greatly improved quality of life overall, was better than pointing to the human rights abuses of socialist dictatorships.

  3. Ash

    Love this. I get so frustrated with the “one-solution-to-rule-them-all” magical thinking.

    I’m a pretty die-hard communist, but I came to that position because I believe in equality. To me, some version of socialism/communism is the logical result of choosing to treat every human being with respect and dignity.

    To say that elimination of class is the solution to inequality completely ignores the fact that class is the direct result of a belief in inequality. Trying to impose an egalitarian system on a group who has yet to come to a belief in fundamental equality is to force people into a mold they aren’t ready for, and the results are easily evident in every failure of a communist or socialist system.

  4. 4

    Socialism has intersectional cultural impacts which are, for lack of a better term, “anti-hierarchical.” A “we are all in this together” ethos is toxic to societies stratified along lines of unearned privilege. Perhaps a more egalitarian worldview with respect to (economic) class is a necessary-but-not-sufficient factor in dismantling systems that perpetuate an unjust status quo? I don’t know. But capitalist systems, in practice, reward and entrench unearned privilege among multiple axes.

  5. 6

    I see the argument cited as putting the cart before the horse in terms of Marxism. Marx saw a history of exploitation of labor. Marx would never deny that race, sex and religion were tools used to further that exploitation. Marx offered class as a method of unifying disparate “peasant armies” to join and fight the exploitation. Identity politics helps in the struggle when the focus is on taking one of those tools off the table. It fails when it continues “The Peasant Wars” rather than trying to unite forces. And then there is that whole confounder of the hegemony of the white male….

  6. 7

    Everything depends on what version/kind/type of Socialism one is discussing, much like religion there are many types, for example “Democratic Socialism” can be summed up as “We the People”. Then in the USA, the more conservative, “Red” states, tend to pay less in taxes but get more from the Government meaning, the more liberal or “Blue” states pay more taxes, but more of it goes to help the “Red” welfare states, than their own. Also, their is the “Trickle Up” also know as “Socialism for the wealthy” in the USA, along with “Socialism For non-breathing living persons” like corporations, and of course religious institutions. Either way, there are only two ways to look at any community, country, society; is the focus on “Profits before people”? Or “We the People” matters more. One being “conservative” the other being “liberal”, and the wording is different in some countries, confusing the situation more, so again I simply it: 1. Making money is the most important goal, making a few wealthy and powerful, causing oppression, or 2. Making sure all people are treated equally and have the same opportunity to become the best they can be, which inturn helps the whole.

  7. 8

    The failure is not to look at the economic basis of this unjust and hirarchical society, but exactly in forgetting that there are more things at play. It’s also one of the reasons many of the socialist countries failed: They alsways thought that by simply changing the economic model all these other things would nicely move along.
    Many socialist countries had big successes when it came to dealing with the structural problems. The GDR had a much higher percentage of women in the workforce, of women in STEM, much higher levels of daycare and protections for working mothers than western Germany. But the interpersonal hirarchy was not adressed because, well, because they were godsdamn socialists.
    I am a socialist. But I have never been treated as badly as by some socialist men who thought that because they’re socialists and working for the greater good they can just make use of me.

  8. 9

    I see some processes happen with both atheists and socialists (and/or other left-leaning folks) — “I oppose this major contributor to oppression, therefore you can’t suggest that I’m not sufficiently addressing all forms of oppression.” We see straight white cis atheist men who demand credit for opposing racism, sexism, cis-sexism, homophobia, etc., even while they’re really not doing much (if anything) to deserve that credit; same thing goes for socialists.

  9. 10

    Cory Mondello

    Everything depends on what version/kind/type of Socialism one is discussing,

    Indeed; adding to the confusion, two entirely different economic systems are both sometimes described as Socialism: State ownership of the means of production and worker ownership of the means of production. The first (which for convenience of distinction I prefer to describe as Socialism) does little or nothing to address hierarchical structures except those specifically opposed by the power of the State. For instance, as Giliell notes, many of the Soviet Bloc countries had much less structural discrimination against women than the West, but just try being queer and see where that got you, for instance. Furthermore, the underlying problems of class that the whole Soviet Revolution was supposed to address was, in practice, replicated under a different name, and with marginally less hereditary component. Ownership by the state is no better, and in the end different in mostly cosmetic ways, than ownership by private capitalists*.
    Worker ownership, OTOH (which, for the reasons mentioned above, I shall hereafter call Communism, although both economic systems are known by both names, much to my frustration), is another kettle of fish entirely. As irisvanderpluym notes, communism, like atheism, attacks a major source of hierarchicalism at its roots, and is, to borrow an excellent phrasing, a necessary but not sufficient component of destroying privilege on all its axes. Political democracy is a joke when all economic activity is ruled by a collection of autocrats who can destroy ten thousand lives with a tap of the keyboard. The thing that the Fourth International types miss is that, while the class war is essential, it isn’t everything, and just because you’re fighting on one front is no reason to pretend that the other fronts don’t exist, or refrain from wading in when they need reinforcements. I tend to focus a lot on the economic side because I know more about it, and have a better grade of systemic solutions to offer, but that shouldn’t, and doesn’t, stop me telling people off when they pull out their racist/misogynistic/homophobic/transphobic/etc bullshit, or accepting my telling off when I put my own foot in it.

    *Caveats: Partial state ownership of some enterprises is a valid mode of economic development. Actual quality of outcome may vary based on local political system and other factors. Void where prohibited by natural law.

  10. 11

    The thing is that from my reading it’s the peculiar definition of “socialism” that Americans tend to use that calls something “socialism” when what you’ve got is essentially a capitalist economy with social welfare provisions.

    Then the strawman is knocked down by claiming “socialism” of itself doesn’t address problems like domestic and sexual violence or health care when in fact while of itself the philosophy probably doesn’t *in practice* those countries that have social welfare systems do better in terms of health care and a whole raft of other things because they do things like ensure that a basic level of healthcare is given to the whole population irrespective of whether they can pay or not. And because it’s not linked to employment, neither can your employer interfere with your healthcare choices like use of contraception. The fact is healthcare is rationed everywhere, the difference with the US is that its rationed by what the insurance companies will fund in their policies. Or they have provisions to address poverty like benefits for sole parents and extra assistance for low income families. Those things do help with reducing inequality and do help address social problems that are associated with low socio-economic status.

    This does vary a bit from country to country, but you can’t really point to one and claim e.g. because Ireland has restricted abortion that can be generalised to all (for example the UK and Australia have much more liberal policies, and too boot little sign that like in the US a whole raft of measures will be passed to try and restrict it. Same with family violence, the same attitudes are persuasive. But those countries do have both legal and social measures like violence prevention programmes. Ditto with racism, it’s not limited to any one country but many countries do have legal and social policies that work against it e.g. New Zealand, where the Waitangi Tribunal hears grievances against the Crown and you have the office of Human Rights Commissioner that hears claims where people have been discriminated against and so on. So prejudicial attitudes aren’t just left.

    Plus that Swedish link is somewhat different to what is present as it says the intention was to “use the best methods to decrease the number of people who become disabled as result of depression and anxiety” by using evidence-based treatment. So it would seem to be the reverse and instead of treatment based in economics, not efficacy it happened that they unfortunately ended up spending lots of money on a treatment that wasn’t particularly effective because they relied on a poor list of what treatments were considered to be effective.

  11. 12

    It is not a strawman to point to the way an economic system is actually practiced rather than guess at what the effects would be were it practiced ideally. If you can, however, feel free to point out where more ideal practice has, in reality, fixed these problems.

    Additionally, my point is not and never has been that socialism doesn’t help with various problems. It certainly does. However, it doesn’t eliminate them, which is what requires direct advocacy on those issues.

  12. 13


    It is not a strawman to point to the way an economic system is actually practiced rather than guess at what the effects would be were it practiced ideally. If you can, however, feel free to point out where more ideal practice has, in reality, fixed these problems.

    Yeah, but those countries aren’t practising socialism. They aren’t socialist countries, they don’t define themselves as socialist, their economic systems aren’t socialist. Former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder might have belonged to the party that was founded by Bebel, but he was no socialist, he was a rather conservative pro capitalist guy who greatly damaged the German welfare system.
    This should be very clear when you see that people who live in those countries fight for socialism. They are socialists and define themselves in opposition to the current system in their own countries.
    Or to use another example: because the Democratic Republic of Congo is a hellhole doesn’t mean that democracy is horrible.

  13. 14

    What can you point to where socialism in any degree of practice has fixed the things I mention? If you can’t, arguing over the countries I chose is a pointless distraction.

  14. 15

    I don’t really get what you’re arguing.
    I won’t even dispute that socialism in any countries that were actually socialist really fixed those problems and I think it’s a good and valid discussion why it didn’t fix them, what should be done in the future and so on.
    But you can’t claim that something is not working by pointing to cases where it hasn’t been tried.
    If you want to find out whether a new drug is effective, would you accept data about people who didn’t actually take it?

  15. 16

    The only way your drug analogy works is if you’re saying that social democracies are not even partial implementations of socialist principles. If you are, you’re disagreeing with general consensus on that.

  16. 17

    Well, so make the drug analogy to people who don’t comply with the prescription and only take it whenever they fancy taking it.
    Is somebody who only takes their antibiotics once a day every other day instead of three times a day a good candidate for evaluating the antibiotic?
    Those countries have implemented some of the ideas, I agree. Still that does not mean that you can evaluate socialism by looking at them. You can evaluate socialised healthcare. Or various approaches to educational principles. But one of the deciding factors of socialism is, as has been noted, the economic basis. As I have said, there’s no shortage of countries where you can actually analyze the failures of socialism alone in those very aspects. I don’t disagree with you on the conclusion. I, and others, disagree on what countries actually qualify as a good data basis.

  17. 20

    Those were communist countries. Modern socialism is no more represented by them than by social democracies, and arguably less. They were highly authoritarian to dictatorial as well, and rooted in earlier mores. I would be no less accused of strawmanning if I used those as examples. Probably more.

  18. 23

    Yes, I meant to leave it there.
    People have told you that your characterisation of socialism is off.
    Scandinavian countries are not socialist. Having public healthcare is not sufficient. Those countries do not define themselves as socialist, their systems do not meet certain criteria they would have to meet in order to qualify as socialist, the people living in those countries most certainly don’t think they are living in socialist countries.
    So I gave you examples of countries that are/were socialist, because they meet many of the criteria. And you claim that they were “communist” instead. Which is simply wrong. Those were not classless, money-free societies in which the government slowly ceased to exist.
    Maybe it has something to do with how the terms are used. “The Communist Block” does not mean that those countries were indeed communist.

  19. 24

    Stephanie Zvan #20

    Those were communist countries.

    They were not, in any meaningful sense; see my #10. The Soviet Bloc countries fell firmly into the State ownership category, and had no real incidence of worker ownership of much of anything.

  20. 25

    “And so,” the father said, closing the book gently, “what do you think the moral of that story was?”

    The girl thinks hard for a minute, and responds, “I guess… the sneetches with stars learned that it was silly to treat the other sneetches without stars differently, just because they looked different. Sneetches should just treat each other the same, no matter if they have stars or not.” She pauses, then adds with a smile, “That way all sneetches on the beaches can be happy.” She looks to her father’s face to see whether she’d gotten it right.

    The father suppresses an eye roll at the naive response. Struck with concern at the social justice ideology (the agenda he’s seen regularly pushed at her school) seeping out of her response, he knows he’ll have to buckle in and set the record straight.

    “Well, that’s a good guess, but… completely wrong.” His daughter frowns, and he continues, “In reality, the moral is much simpler than that.” He’s pleased to see her expression change to intrigue as she leans forward to learn.

    “You see, sweetie, at the start of the book, the sneetches with stars had more capital – that is, more money – than sneetches without stars, which made them more powerful. That’s why they could be so mean to the sneetches without stars, and it’s also what made the sneetches without stars feel sad and jealous.” He pauses to smooth his daughter’s blanket. “And when McBean took the money from all the sneetches, then all the sneetches had the same amount of money. And once all the sneetches had the same amount of money, they stopped caring about who had stars. So the moral is really that, only once there was no difference in wealth to separate the two groups, all the sneetches could be happy.”

    He pauses; clearly his daughter is pondering this concept. After a few seconds, she speaks up. “So… so if McBean gave all the sneetches their money back, then…”

    “… then the star-sneetches would go right back to being mean again!” The father beams; his daughter was starting to get it! “In fact, anytime you see one group of people being mean to another group, the reason they’re being so mean is because they have more money; and the way to fix it is to share the money between the groups equally.”

    The girl begins to nod, then suddenly stops and forrows her brow. “But daddy, the story didn’t say that the star-sneetches started with more money, it said ALL the sneetches had money for the star-machine.”

    Her father smiled, pleased to see the pieces falling into place for her. “The book didn’t HAVE to say they had more money; it was obvious! Like I said, it’s very simple: having more wealth is the only real reason the star sneetches would’ve wanted to or been able to exclude the no-star sneetches to begin with.”

    Feeling that this is probably enough for her to absorb in one night, the father concludes, “Now, that’s enough learning for tonight – it’s after bedtime and time for lights out.” He gives his daughter a kiss, walks to the door, and turns off the lights.

    “Daddy?” comes the voice from the darkness.

    “Yes, dear?”

    “Um, what does “ad hoc” mean?”

    There’s a short pause before the father speaks. “Shhhhh… quiet sweetie, it’s after your bedtime and you need to go to sleep.”

    The father walks away, the darkness hiding the fact that his daughter had completely failed to suppress an eyeroll.

  21. 26

    Socialism (successfully implemented) wouldn’t solve the racism problem, but it would help distinguish classism from racism disguised as classism, and racism from classism disguised as racism (not to mention that racism and classism feed off each other). So it would be a big step in that direction.

    The same is true, mutatis mutandis and in different degrees, to other forms of bigotry.

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