A Critique of ISO on Identity Politics

A Chinese Poster displaying the alliance of all oppressed peoples fighting Imperialism

A poster from Maoist China displaying the alliance of all oppressed peoples fighting Imperialism

In an article “The politics of identity” published in the journal of the International Socialist Organization (ISO), a Trotskyist group in the US, Sharon Smith argues:

“At the most basic material level, no one group of workers ever benefits from particular forms of oppression.”(1)

Smith’s reasoning: “Whenever capitalists can force a higher paid group of workers to compete with a lower paid group, wages tend to drop. . . . The only beneficiaries are capitalists, who earn bigger profits, while ensuring the survival of the rule of the profit system.”

Smith’s argument, an attempt to undermine identity politics and “counterpos[e] to it a Marxist analysis,” greatly oversimplifies the problems of race, gender, and sexual orientation. Rather than a Marxist analysis, a concrete analysis of concrete conditions, the argument reduces social reality and its multiple contradictions into a single abstract contradiction between Labor and Capital.

While the contradiction between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie is the fundamental contradiction in capitalist society, the social relations in capitalist society are too complex and particular to be reduced to extensions of the fundamental contradiction. These social relations have their own histories and particularities. They have to be understood in their own right.

All revolutionary-minded people share the commitment to developing a movement to end all exploitation and oppression. Class reductionism holds back this process.

In the final analysis, no groups of oppressed and exploited people have a historic interest in capitalism. However, the system is structured in ways that different classes and strata effectively play roles of maintaining oppression.

Within capitalism, these classes and strata do benefit “at the most basic material level” from certain forms of oppression of others. Material interests under capitalism need to be distinguished from the larger historic interests of oppressed and exploited people. These larger historic interests can only be understood from the perspective of revolutionizing the existing social conditions.

Smith’s reasoning and the only reasoning offered in the article for her position — “[w]henever capitalists can force a higher paid group of workers to compete with a lower paid group, wages tend to drop” — comes essentially from a trade unionist, not a communist, perspective. It is confined within the logic of the capitalist system.

As long as the only issue at stake is the increase or decrease of wages, as long as the discussion does not break out of the realm of possibility of capitalist production relations, the solution for higher paid groups of workers to wage competition is to restrict the labor market and support protectionist trade policies, rather than fight oppression.

As demonstrated by the ugly history of the labor movement in the U.S., from the exclusion of women and Black people by unions to the campaigns against Asian immigration and the ethnic cleansing of Chinese people throughout the West Coast, from the chauvinist “Buy American” campaigns to the collaboration of the AFL-CIO with U.S. imperialism, the trade unionist perspective in this country inevitably leads to reaction.

Furthermore, Smith’s reasoning cannot explain the role of oppression on its own economic terms. If there exist stable groups of lower paid workers, why don’t capitalists employ more of them? Why are the unemployment and underemployment rates among oppressed people consistently higher than, even double or triple, the national rates?

It is only from a communist perspective, from the standpoint of the abolition of wages, the crossing of the narrow horizon of bourgeois right, and the abolition of the proletariat as a class, that the role of oppression in capitalist society becomes clear. The oppression of non-white people, women, and LGBTQ people helps to reproduce the conditions of capitalist production by preventing a combined political challenge to the system.

The system prevents this political challenge and the development of revolutionary movements of exploited and oppressed people through the relative material privileges extended to all white people, all men, and all heterosexual people based on their membership in these groups. Recognition of this is the key element missing from Smith’s piece. These material privileges reinforce racist, sexist, homophobic ideas. The fight against the structures that create these privileges and ideas is central to the development of revolutionary consciousness.

Lenin used the concept of “privilege” to describe the national privileges extended to oppressor nationalities under imperialism.(2) In her path-breaking essay “The Question of Women’s Leadership in People’s War in Nepal,” Comrade Parvati, a leader of the Nepali Maoists, used the concept of privilege to describe male privileges, such as the “monopoly on mental work” granted to men by the “old traditional division of labor” and the corresponding relegation of women to manual work, and argued that male cadre in the revolutionary party must struggle to “[relinquish] the privileged position bestowed on them by the patriarchal structure.”(3)

The concept of “false consciousness,” which Smith employs, does not explain why racist, sexist, and homophobic ideas are widespread in this society and why people act on them. Saying that the effects of these ideas on people’s behaviors “vary from individual to individual” and “change according to changing circumstances” does not explain why these ideas, and not others, are dominant.

The contradictions between white people and non-white people, between men and women, between heterosexual people and LGBTQ people are rooted in material reality. As Lenin made the distinction between oppressor nations and oppressed nations, Marxists today must make the distinction between oppressor and oppressed in each of these social relations.

Saying, as Smith does, that “Both exploitation and oppression are rooted in capitalism. . . . In each case, the enemy is one and the same,” overlooks the fact that all white people, all men, and all heterosexual people perpetuate oppressive social relations through their normal participation in society, even though these relations are indeed rooted ultimately in capitalist state power and can only be fully uprooted through proletarian state power.

Furthermore, each of these contradictions must also be understood in its particularity and resolved in its particularity. The contradiction of race, inseparable from the system of national oppression in the U.S. and the existence of the U.S. as a prison-house of nations where a dominant Euro-American nationality oppresses entire subject nations and nationalities, will be resolved differently than the contradiction of gender, which predates capitalist society and is bound up with the existence of private property. As Mao wrote, “Qualitatively different contradictions can only be resolved by qualitatively different methods.”(4)

Smith’s solution — “[build] a united movement against capitalism” that will “train workers to act in solidarity with all those who are oppressed and exploited by capitalism” — does not deal with the need to deliberately uproot the contradictions of race, gender, sexual orientation, as well as the contradictions between mental and manual labor, between urban and rural areas, and others.

Resolving these contradictions in their particularity is part of the communist transformation of society. This transformation begins in our mass organizations and revolutionary parties, to the extent possible in the old society, and continues under the dictatorship of the proletariat until humanity reaches a classless, stateless world. Marx summed up the goal of the communist project and Zhang Chunqiao gave it the name of the “Four Alls”(5):

“[S]ocialism is the declaration of the permanence of the revolution, the class dictatorship of the proletariat as the necessary transit point to the abolition of class distinctions generally, to the abolition of all the relations of production on which they rest, to the abolition of all the social relations that correspond to these relations of production, to the revolutionizing of all the ideas that result from these social relations.”(6)

1. Sharon Smith, The politics of identity, International Socialist Review, January-February 2008, http://www.isreview.org/issues/57/feat-identity.shtml.
2. V.I. Lenin, Theses on the National Question, June 1913, http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1913/jun/30.htm.
3. Com. Parvati, The Question of Women’s Leadership in People’s War in Nepal, January 2003, http://www.monthlyreview.org/0203parvati.htm.
4. Mao Tse-tung, On Contradiction, August 1937, http://www.marx2mao.com/Mao/OC37.html.
5. Chang Chun-chiao, On Exercising All-Round Dictatorship Over the Bourgeoisie, 1975, http://www.marx2mao.com/Other/ARD75.html.
6. Karl Marx, The Class Struggles in France: 1848-1850, October 1850, http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1850/class-struggles-france/index.htm.


4 responses to “A Critique of ISO on Identity Politics

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  2. You don’t seem to really believe your own theory. If you feel that the oppression of minorities can only end after the destruction of capitalism then wouldn’t it make sense to focus on overthrowing capitalism first? You say the oppressions can “only be fully uprooted through proletarian state power” but then you want everyone to focus on ending the oppression first, which you say yourself cannot be done until after a revolution. So wouldn’t it make sense and be the most humane for everyone to focus on the fastest path to revolution rather than sidetracking and delaying things with identity politics? Just mobilize the working class who has the greatest numerical advantage of any of your oppressed groups and have them secure victory. Then the rest of the problems, according to theory, will be ended.

  3. Thanks for your comment.

    Posing the problem as a strategic choice of whether to overthrow capitalism first or end oppression first is mechanical and wrong.

    Oppressive social relations can only be -fully- uprooted under socialism. But, revolutionary consciousness and organization — the subjective element that makes socialism possible — develops through the struggles against specific instances and structures of oppression in this society.

    wat wrote: “Just mobilize the working class who has the greatest numerical advantage of any of your oppressed groups and have them secure victory.”

    This is basically an economist and syndicalist representation of communist revolution.

    The significance of the working class as the revolutionary class doesn’t come from its numbers. In each of the three milestones of the communist movement — the Paris Commune, the Bolshevik Revolution, and the Chinese Revolution (and the GPCR in particular) — the working class was a minority of the population.

    The revolutionary character of the working class comes from the fact that it has nothing to lose but its chains (the double freedom that Marx talked about — free to sell its labor-power and free from the means of production) and it has the collective discipline forged through the increasingly socialized character of the productive forces.

    Communist revolution is fundamentally not just a “mobilization of the working class” (By who? How? Towards what end?). It’s a transformative process to abolish the Four Alls, lead by the proletariat and its revolutionary parties, encompassing its class allies.

    As the history of the 20th century painfully demonstrates, the victory of socialism is never secure. Socialism is a transitional society where classes have changed positions, but continue — and intensify — their struggle. The class struggle under socialism takes place over an entire historical era. As long as any of the production relations, social relations, and ideologies of capitalist society remain, capitalism can be restored.

    The contradictions of race, gender, and sexual orientation don’t disappear automatically under socialism. They have to be deliberately uprooted. Socialism makes this possible, but doesn’t guarantee it.

    To use an example, inequalities in educational institutions won’t disappear automatically under socialism – admission practices have to be deliberately transformed, curriculums have to be changed, and the very institution of the University where knowledge is stored and advanced separate from the broader society has to be revolutionized and eventually abolished – in order to break down the division between mental and manual labor.

    The establishment of proletarian state power is just the beginning of a stormy revolutionary process that will take place over decades and centuries.

    I recommend Charles Bettelheim’s book Class Struggles in the USSR to get into the character of socialist society as a transitional society.

  4. Pingback: J.P. Sartre – Austropithecanthropus

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