“As soon as the situation calls for the total transformation of the social order, the masses must participate in it directly, and they must have an understanding of what is at stake and what must be won. This is what the history of the last half-century has taught us.” Engels 1895
The goal of socialist revolution is the abolishment of class society. Let’s keep that target near to us through this essay.
In Decomposition or Conquest of the State, Martov makes a canny critique of Anarchism and in fact of the Soviets too: “The very possibility of the process of transforming the capitalist order into a socialist order is subordinated to the existence of a social form whose mould, we believe, can only be furnished by a more or less developed socialist economy. This confusion is typical of the Anarchists. If it is obvious that the destruction of the basis of private economy, the transformation of the whole natural economy into socialist economy, will do away with the need of having an organization rise above the producer in the shape of the State-the Anarchists deduce from this that “the destruction of the State,” its “decomposition” into cells, into “communes,” is a prerequisite condition for the social transformation itself.” Martov is accusing Anarchists of putting the cart before the horse, and I would extend this critique to the Marxist resistance to integrating social justice movements into its analysis and public commitments. By “social justice” I mean the movements organizing around race, gender, sexuality, ability, or other “non-class” based identifications.
Just as Anarchists would wish to abolish the state directly, so too would most Marxists wish to abolish away identities directly, or see their artificiality as a pacifying veneer on naked class antagonisms. As Lee and Rover put it in Night-Vision: “In class society what is man-made is always disguised as the natural, the biological, or the Holy. What we think of as race or gender or nationality is class in drag.” This is a pessimistic reading of drag, in the sense that the artificial is seen only as a covering over of class, and not as forming or suggesting any alternatives to it. I read drag somewhat more optimistically because of the individual’s agency in their own articulation or performance of identity via the drag. While the drag itself may or may not become politicized (I would argue it often does, due to the disciplinary functions in society or among nation states), the experience of creating one’s own drag can be one of authenticity, rather than artificiality. By taking one’s own performance seriously, an incipient political will is formed, and a notion of the self as for itself rather than instrumental is accessible.
For instance, the queer femme or drag queen that performs femininity not for the gaze of the patriarchy, but for her/their own enjoyment. This enjoyment independent of the normative system that defines the “ideal” performance (the asymptotic performance that serves to discipline and reproduce the system of power relations), even if it is not total but only partial, is a potential source of empowerment for that subject. It is a concrete position from which she can examine the disciplinary functions of her society and ask, if they are not there to help my enjoyment or growth, what function do they serve? Or better yet, what subject position do they serve? The proletariat must ask itself the same sort of questions: if productivity doesn’t reduce scarcity in society, what is it doing? So just as we need a dictatorship of the proletariat in order to abolish the bourgeois state before the state itself withers away, I offer to you, mostly jokingly, the dictatorship of the queer, or of the particular.
Of course, at the bedrock is class. I reminded us of our goal to abolish it at the beginning, and I will repeat it here: that is precisely our goal in supporting “particular” or “identitarian” struggles. One of our most quickly gained advantages along this path will be to avoid the ahistorical pitfalls of cosmopolitan identities with specifically (but implicitly) white genealogies. In the short term, this spares us the baggage weighing down other social movements such as New Atheism, in which the uncritically accepted ahistorical subject of the “atheist” permits all manner of reenactments of colonial and sexist violence, perhaps most notably against Muslim women. So while a New Atheist would have trouble constructing solidarity with a Muslim woman, we need not hit such an obstacle at the outset, even if we are the sorts of Marxists that are at odds with religious thought. Up until that argument, if it ever becomes one, she has contributions to make to our struggle to abolish class society that we can’t make from outside of her subject position. But as Wendy Brown asks, “What kind of political recognition can identity-based claims seek-and what kind can they be counted on to want-that will not resubordinate the subject itself historically subjugated through identity categories such as “race” or “sex,” especially when these categories operate within discourses of liberal essentialism and disciplinary normalization”?
She answers with a summary of Marxist resistance to the emancipatory value of identities worth quoting at length: “In a reading that links the new identity claims to a certain relegitimation of capitalism, identity politics concerned with race, sexuality, and gender will appear not as a supplement to class politics, not as an expansion of Left categories of oppression and emancipation, not as an enriching complexification of progressive formulations of power and persons-all of which they also are-but as tethered to a formulation of justice which, ironically, reinscribes a bourgeois ideal as its measure. If it is this ideal that signifies educational and vocational opportunity, upward mobility, relative protection against arbitrary violence, and reward in proportion to effort, and if it is this ideal against which many of the exclusions and privations of people of color, gays and lesbians, and women are articulated, then the political purchase of contemporary American identity politics would seem to be achieved in part through a certain discursive renaturalization of capitalism that can be said to have marked progressive discourse since the 1970s.”
The central contradiction of “identity” as delivered by Brown is that it would exist independently of capitalism, but within it has been commoditized for the reproductive process of the system, blunting its revolutionary potential: so, can it be salvaged? As a potential solution, I define identities as a model and make some guesses at what the model could help us compute. I choose model to recognize that, “all models are wrong, but some are useful.” Identity is a model of the net result of histories that individuals are forced to experience in the language they experience them. We gain several advantages from using this model.
1. We can gain from critical theory on identity, which has already come to the persuasive conclusion that identities are socially constructed. So in identities we can find histories, though they may be imperfect or unreliable. This is strong ammunition against essentialism sneaking back in, with reactionary opportunism hot on its heels.
2. The articulation of identities are a potentially credible and useful source of data on structural oppression, adding more granularity to our analysis of the reproduction of capital. (By tracking its attempts to commodify or recommodify identities.) With higher granularity of analysis, we can tailor better organizing tactics.
3. Identities are the available mode of agency for most political actors, and may be the only politics a citizen of a capitalist society experiences explicitly at the beginning. This is in counter to the systemic language of history, which is by necessity a statistical language more often than not, and thus harder to narrativize agency into.
Again, the goal is for someone to experience solidarity with the working class as something they personally can participate in, but the experience of agency itself in a capitalist society is at the outset an alienated one. Because identities are socially constructed, carrying with them histories and the possibility of change, a transformative role can be played by the experience of an available identity—any available identity, which is experienced as less alienated. While we won’t solve alienation without attacking capitalism, by prioritizing a less-alienated citizenry, we bring more to consciousness of that eventual goal.
My optimism is born from the observation that as Marxists, we can find by any path of particular oppression, the fundamental source of its reproduction in the mechanisms of capital, because all identities have been commodified. But different identities will reach the goal of authenticity (articulation independent of capital) in different ways, if at all. Whiteness, for instance, can be seen as a history of the assimilated capitalist identity, and will not contribute positively to socialism. (Its chief role will be its own deconstruction.) That being said, whiteness can serve a purely formal function, in that when the subject is an able-bodied, cisgender, hetero-normative white male, their oppression by capital directly is (in a mathematical sense) very clear: capital is not able to weaponize any other identities to obscure its own machinations. Essentially, what else oppresses the privileged subject but capital itself?
If you will forgive the analogy, essentially each subject position is a math equation that needs to be solved (in a Marxist branch of rather esoteric algebra) for a value that is equal to working class solidarity, which remains a constant. Taking the mathematical definition of marginalization (as a clever extension of my analogy), we seek to marginalize identities so that they can be summed out of our equation. In other words, we define all variables that must be balanced out algebraically in order to reach our target value. This does not mean whiteness is the equation to aspire to, but in fact shows its inability to model the material world effectively, as it fails to model relevant “latent” variables in anti-capitalist struggle that ultimately prevent the formation of universal solidarity. Within a white subject position, it would be impossible to really form socialism–to solve for our value of workers solidarity– because variables would be hidden from us. While we know the target value, we must acknowledge different ways of solving for it given different initial parameters.
We can’t force or universalize variables upon all subjects by being reductive: in a philosophical sense this would be idealism, and in a practical sense it would violate the transformations available to a higher dimensional object, the subject position beyond the normative. In other words, the underprivileged must be disproportionately supported in the movement (using more sophisticated dimensionality) in order to equalize their participation. Only then can the revolution reach its full potential. This is in contrast to an insistence on equality to start with as a principle without practical measures abolishing social relations that reproduce our original deficiency; to be blunt, there is no starting from scratch.
If you believe the individual must identify with revolutionary change for systems to be revolutionized, bringing us back to Engels’ observation about the potential limits of the vanguard offered at our start, then you must respect the process by which individual agents reach revolutionary solidarity and what they bring to complicate that model. If you don’t believe this, I can only warn you that oppressed subjects do not want Marxist saviors. On the contrary, if we’re lucky, they may be the saviors of Marxism.