“Capitalist society, in the final phase of decline, is giving birth to a whole variety of “identity crises”. The atomisation inherent in the system of generalised commodity production is reaching new levels, and this applies both to social life as a whole and to the reactions against the increasing misery and oppression spawned by the system. On the one hand, groups and individuals suffering from particular oppressions are encouraged to mobilise as particular groups to fight their oppressions – as women, as gays, as transgender people, as ethnic minorities and so on – and not infrequently compete with each other directly, as with the current confrontation between transgender activists and certain branches of feminism. These manifestations of “identity politics” are at the same time co-opted by the left wing of the bourgeoisie, all the way up to its most distinguished academics and most powerful political echelons (as with the Democratic Party in the USA).
Meanwhile, the right wing of the bourgeoisie, while superficially decrying the rise of identity politics, rises up in defence of its own form of identity-seeking: the search for the Real Men threatened by the spectre of feminism, the nostalgia for the glories of the White Race facing displacement by foreign hordes.
The quest for these partial, and sometimes entirely fictitious identities and communities, is a measure of mankind’s self-estrangement in a historic epoch in which a universal human community is both possible and necessary for the survival of the species. And above all, like other manifestations of social decomposition, it is the product of the loss of the one identity whose affirmation can lead to the creation of such a community, also known as communism: the class identity of the proletariat”.
Four years ago, the sterile competition between different identities claiming the prize of being the most oppressed category led to a crisis in the anarchist milieu in the UK. A clash between transgender activists and a particular brand of feminism at the London Anarchist Bookfair was the last straw for the group that had been organising these large gatherings for some years: they announced that they would not be organising any more bookfairs and this once annual event has never really recovered. At the same time, there was a polarisation between those sections of the anarchist milieu more favourable to various forms of identity politics and those who call themselves “class struggle anarchists”. The main anarchist grouping in the UK, the Anarchist Federation, went through a split and the “class struggle” wing set up the Anarchist Communist Group, which seems to have grown and become more active than the AF.
Thus, the ACG was born out of reaction against the increasing drift towards identity politics among anarchists, and it is therefore appropriate that among a number of pamphlets produced by the group, they have now published The Politics of Division: an Engagement with Identity Politics.
The attempt to affirm a class perspective runs counter to the dominant atmosphere of social decomposition in which the proletariat is suffering directly from the numerous divisions imposed on it by bourgeois society. And this process of fragmentation is being accelerated by the growth of identity politics. In this sense, the ACG’s pamphlet provides some evidence of a proletarian current within the great sea of confusion that characterises the anarchist milieu, which has always included petty bourgeois and openly capitalist political tendencies as well as some healthier proletarian and internationalist elements.
In particular, the pamphlet argues that identity politics obscures the search for the root cause of all particular oppressions and thus obstructs the development of a movement which calls capitalism itself into question:
“Identity politics is more than fighting one’s own oppression. It can be defined as moving from experiencing the often horrendous consequences of social difference to then identifying with that oppressed group and giving that group essential characteristics that then differentiate from other groups who are equally exploited and oppressed. Instead of seeing the oppression as part of a wider system -capitalism – the focus is on the discrimination and oppression experienced by one group” (p6-7)
Against this focus on different identities and oppressions, the pamphlet insists that only a class analysis can cut through all the divisions in society, divisions which are used by the ruling class to prevent the working class from grasping its real position in society:
“Class is the fundamental division in our society, not because it is more important in terms of affecting people’s lives than oppressions such as racism or sexism, bit because it is the one thing that united us into a potential revolutionary movement for an anarchist communist society. The vast majority of people are in the working class – they do not own the means of production and are forced to sell their labour to survive. We need to abolish the ruling class – whatever their gender, ethnicity, age sexuality” (p14)
This passage is followed shortly afterwards by a section headed “Identity politics leads to cross-class alliances” and points out that “if people feel they have more in common with others ‘like them’ – in other words, Black, women, trans, disabled etc, than with other members of the working class then you end up with alliances across class and co-option of the struggle by the ruling class.” (p15)
There are also valid points made about the censoriousness of “woke” culture as a means of suppressing real debate, and how “hierarchies of privilege” – competing claims about who is the most oppressed, or the most privileged – further reinforce divisions and play on feelings of guilt, even verging on a kind of biological determinism in which some groups – white males in particular – are incapable of ever understanding the real experience of other “identities”. The example is given of “white people who paraded their shame at their privilege at BLM demonstrations in the summer of 2020, lining up to cry on podiums in parks across the world.” (p19). This focus on guilt and personal responsibility is rightly rejected as a barrier to discovering the real possibilities of uniting against a common, historic oppressor – capital.
Out through the door, in through the window
But alongside the above-mentioned points, with which we agree, the pamphlet contains certain key weaknesses, which show that the ACG’s break with identity politics is only partial, and even acts as a ‘left’ cover for it.
In the section “Alternatives: fighting capitalism and oppressions”, where the ACG seeks to elaborate their positive perspectives, they suddenly pull a rabbit out of the hat in the form of “the self-organisation of oppressed groups into autonomous groups, that still have a link to the general working class movement. Others in the working class can show practical solidarity, furthering the self-activity and empowerment of these groups. This is an alternative to identity politics as well as to a class reductivist approach.” (p22). In response to the criticism (by “many left organisations”…) that the separate autonomous organisation of specific groups “is diversionary and contrary to a class politics analysis”, they claim that “we are clear there is a difference between identity politics on the one hand and autonomous organisation on the other. The first focuses on the oppression of the group; the latter recognises that there is no anti-capitalist perspective that may see other workers as the enemy”.
But this argument is anything but clear, and it is not helped by the absence of any concrete example of such autonomous groups who, while being composed of one particular gender or ethnicity or other identity, adopt a class-based, genuinely anti-capitalist perspective and are not part of a “cross-class alliance” campaigning for legal or other changes.
It’s perfectly true that there can be proletarian struggles which are initially composed of, say, women or black people – but precisely because such a struggle is on a class terrain it must seek to widen towards and include all workers. Two examples: the February revolution in Russia which began with women demonstrating against bread shortages rapidly developed into a mass strike involving the majority of the working class. More recently, the textile workers’ strike in Mahalla, Egypt, in 2007, began with women workers marching through the plant calling on their male co-workers to join their struggle, and this action made it possible to call into question the traditional gender hierarchies of Egyptian society.
What other kinds of groups could the ACG be referring to? Political discussion circles, or groups of combative workers who get together to draw lessons of the past struggles and prepare for future conflicts? Again, such groups may begin with workers from a particular gender or ethnicity, just as they may originate in a particular trade or sector. They may initiate discussions about racism and sexism at the workplace or in society in general, but if they are part of a proletarian dynamic, they will conclude that the only way to fight sexual, racial or other divisions and prejudices within the class is for all workers to unite around their common interests. Freezing such expressions along gender, racial or other lines would become a new barrier to this perspective. Being really “anti-capitalist” means from the very beginning aiming to go beyond all divisions in the class, however difficult that may be.
And if they are talking about political organisations, we see no role whatsoever for having separate groups for women, trans, black people…This was already an issue posed in the Russian social democracy where Lenin and others argued against an “autonomous” organisation for Jewish revolutionaries (the Bund). It remains a basic principle for any communist organisation that membership is based solely on agreement with its platform and organisational rules, irrespective of ethnicity, gender, sexuality or other division.
- The ACG want to avoid “class reductivism”, but first we have to recognise that this term is already an ideological weapon of the theorists of intersectionality and identity politics, who, while arguing that that you can’t reduce everything to class (which is true, but banal) then seek to portray class as just one oppression among many, and workers as just one identity among others. Defending the position that class is the most fundamental division in this society involves:
- a thorough-going theoretical critique of all these ideas, which have become the official ideology of large parts of academia. Although the ACG’s pamphlet pose a few general questions about identity in a broader human perspective, we are convinced that anarchism does not provide us with the analytical tools needed for this work, and that the marxist historical method is the only one that can really clarify the origins of all the various oppressions and divisions that have hampered the human species for millennia;
- a clear denunciation of the practical consequence of identity politics: the division of the working class in the service of the bourgeoisie.
Thus, for communists, the task is not an “engagement”, even veiled, with identity politics, but an open combat against it.
 The ACG’s failure to complete the break from identity politics is an expression of a more general dynamic of the group which we think is negative. But we will come back to this more general assessment in a future article.
 This simple phrase hides a multitude of ambiguities. The ACG has sometimes said that it does not see itself as part of the “left”, but it has never provided a clear class definition of the “left”.