Dear Comrade Femme #7: Left Unity? Identity politics, love, and conflict

"Dear Comrade Femme," is an advice column meets queer theory daydream meets insurrectionary love letter. With her toolkit (working-class roots, queer femme modality, a PhD, and a little magic), Comrade Femme responds to your questions about politics, sex, identity, feelings, work, family, friendship, astrology, and the intersections of them all. Write to her at raechelannejolie@gmail.comand put "Dear Comrade Femme" in the title. xo



Dear Comrade Femme,


I'm currently four months into a very passionate and deep romantic relationship with my boyfriend. We've known each other for about three years, but only recently got together when both of our marriages ended earlier this year. We previously worked together and kept in touch afterward. Not sure if it's relevant, but I'm 30 and he's 46.


We are incredibly compatible, intellectually, emotionally, and physically. I'm a Capricorn, he's a Scorpio. The reason I'm writing is that he is a longtime member of a socialist political party, and I have always considered myself "left," and certainly left of the democratic party (although still voting within it). He is incredibly well-read and well-researched on Marxism, Socialism, and Trotskyism. I find myself in agreement with him and his politics on many levels, but unfortunately, we disagree firmly on things of great importance to me, namely "identity politics." For him, class is the only category that seems to matter. This means we disagree on things like feminism, black lives matter, #metoo, etc. To him, these identities are a tool of the democratic and republican parties in order to keep us separated and not united as one under the banner of class. My argument is - why can't it be both? Why can't I be a feminist and a socialist? Even if capitalists use identity politics against us, that doesn't mean that using our experience and our reality to fight oppression is inherently bad or wrong.


I'd love your advice on how to either help make my case, or how to continue in such a relationship where we would need to agree to disagree on things that are so important. I genuinely feel that he is the love of my life, and we share such a special connection.


Thank you,

Left-ish Feminist


Dear Left Feminist (I left off the “ish” because I think you’re underselling yourself),

Oof. I want to say up front that I trust your love is a great love and that, in so many ways, he is a wonderful person. I say that up front because I might get a little fiesty in my response -- (your bf is not the first Leftist man I’ve encountered with such an approach to identity).


Before I delve into a defense of (or at least a more nuanced approach to) identity politics, a brief word on the near-inevitable power dynamics between people socialized male of a certain age and people socialized female of a younger age. I’ve been in such a similar boat. Twice. I had two really intense relationships with very well-read Marxist men who were significantly older than me. In both cases the men were feminist-identified and in both cases they actively wanted to dismantle oppressive hierarchies both structurally and interpersonally, and yet...In both cases I found myself often feeling like a student rather than an equal member of dialogue. Some of this was completely okay: they knew more than I did about certain things! But some of it, I believe, was a bad mess of gender dynamics and age difference creating some really unequal playing fields. In my second of these two relationships (which was longer and more serious and much healthier), I was able to voice this concern explicitly. I explained that sometimes I felt like my opinion didn’t matter as much, and that sometimes I felt like he thought I was naive or not a good enough radical. Some of this I was projecting, but not all of it. Thankfully, instead of getting defensive, he listened to my concerns and our communication adjusted. He went out of his way to affirm the work I did, and to really engage with my perspectives. It was an important shift, and I would invite you to reflect on whether or not a conversation like this might be warranted with your fellow too?


Okay, onto the main event! Identity politics! First, I want to define this concept because I think misconceptions around the term are what create the majority of the problems for Leftists. Identity politics, as a concept, was originally theorized in the 1970s by a group of Black, lesbian, socialist women known as the Combahee River Collective (CRC). After being consistently marginalized in Lefty spaces (anti-war groups, Communist meetings, feminist circles, and so on), these women got together to address the ways in which Socialism and Feminism (which, at the time in the US, manifested as primarily White, Cis, Het movements) failed black folks, queer folks, and women. As a result, they wrote:


“We realize that the only people who care enough about us to work consistently for our liberation are us. Our politics evolve from a healthy love for ourselves, our sisters and our community which allows us to continue our struggle and work. This focusing upon our own oppression is embodied in the concept of identity politics. We believe that the most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else's oppression.”


In this context, identity politics explains a way of approaching struggles for liberation that center people’s unique and distinct experiences under capitalism. The CRC members were explicitly anti-capitalist, so there was never a question about whether or not class mattered, but they were also painfully aware of the ways in which their lives as Black, lesbian workers were unique from the experiences of white workers. And these differences matter--to how we organize, to how we rebel, to how we rebuild.


Another group that was able to simultaneously assert an economic analysis and a racial one was, of course, The Black Panther Party. The Panthers were Communists and weren’t quiet about being followers of Lenin and Mao’s teachings. At the same time, they organized around the specific ways that Black communities were violenced by capitalism and white supremacy. Similarly, the radical roots of the gay liberation movement centered both the experience of exploitation under capitalism as well as the heteropatriarchy. All of these things can be managed at the same time--humans, and the movements they organize, will never be single-issue because, to quote Audre Lorde, “we do not live single-issue lives.”


As any good socialist ought to, we must look at the historical roots and material reasons for the emergence of particular phenomena. Identity politics did not begin as a liberal project, and so rather than reject it entirely, could we not look towards restoring its more radical inclinations?

This seems especially fundamental in relationships to the contemporary examples you named (BLM, #metoo). To be fair to your partner’s critiques of the movements, both of them have been, at time, packaged in ways that serve a liberal rather than radical agenda. #MeToo in particular has emerged in some spheres as a decidedly bourgeois white feminist rallying cry, and one that perpetuates a kind of carceral feminism that supports the strengthening of the State. For certain, these maneuvers are not a help to the project of proletariat revolution. And yet to outwardly reject these movements seems to me also counter-revolutionary.


What BLM and especially #metoo have that radical anarchist and socialist groups do not is numbers. And the far Left does not have the luxury of poo-pooing the masses. #MeToo appeals to people because it agitated a particular experience that masses of women (and other genders) have endured and it put it into language that was identifiable and literally hashtaggable. And that’s important for anti-capitalist movements to take note of, not just to consider how this could work in the context of agitating around economic oppression, but how agitating around economic oppression must include the recognition of the unique struggles of groups who are differently marginalized. In the case of #metoo, for example, it started gaining traction after some high-profile actresses spoke out against a big-name producer (note: this is when it started making headlines, but it’s important to note that Black civil-rights activist Tarana Burke is the actual founder of the movement). The foundation of these actress’s stories was ultimately about labor issues--the women needed work and they were being coerced by the boss. Shortly after, numerous writers and activists made sure to share how those in jobs more precarious than Hollywood actor--hotel cleaners, waitresses, and so on--endure #MeToo moments in more dire conditions. How could we possibly dismiss a movement that is emphasizing the nature of capital in a patriarchal society?


We could say the same for BLM. Different iterations of the movement have come to articulate different things, but it inevitably highlights the corrupt nature of the police. This seems like an obvious ally to any anti-capitalist movement, which should understand that the police are just the armed guard of the State. Further, this State army disproportionately targets people of color, and BLM draws brutal and necessary attention to that.


Even if BLM and #metoo (and any other identity-based movement) didn’t have easy affinities with anti-capitalism, socialists should be supportive of organized pushes that attempt to reduce harm against marginalized communities. That doesn’t mean we, as anti-capitalists, can’t critique the liberal manifestations of identity politics. In fact, I think it’s our responsibility to point out the flaws in carceral feminist pushes that strengthen the prison system, to voice concern with knee-jerk anti-gun policy that would bolster police power, to reject measures that solve problems solely through representation (more Black cops, for example, or more women CEOs). But to be overtly antagonistic to mass movements that at their core are trying to assert the value of lives the white supremacist heteropatriarchy deems worthless? That’s dead-end politics.


Our goal as Marxists is to build power. But we can’t build power if women are constantly afraid of being assaulted. And we can’t build power if trans people have no place to pee at our meetings. And we can’t build power if our Black and brown comrades are too busy (and traumatized) with funerals to attend an action. And we can’t build power if our disabled movement siblings are erased from discourse about what it means to be a worker.


Inclusivity and intersectionality have been admittedly utilized in ways that do not inherently threaten our economic system. But we can’t threaten our economic system if we don’t cede to the importance of meeting people where they are, to healing trauma, and to naming how difference matters under capitalism.


I don’t know if I’ve written anything in here that you haven’t already said to your partner. Perhaps something in here will resonate with him, perhaps it won’t. So the next question would be how to cope with such conflicting views? To answer that, I think it’s important to consider what your partner’s motivations are. Is he a Socialist because he believes in making a better world for oppressed people of the world? Does he believe his method is the path that will get us that world? Despite his disdain of ID politics, is he still committed to anti-racism and anti-sexism (etc)? Does he still treat you with respect despite your disagreements? If you can answer yes across the board, perhaps you can find content that your goals are generally the same but that you have different means of approaching them. It will likely create frustration at times, but so goes life on the divided Left.


Or maybe, just maybe, sweet Left Feminist, you’ll find some harmonious common ground. For the sake of your relationship, (and for the sake of the Left!), I hope you find it. <3


Xoxo,

Comrade Femme

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