The concept of ‘identity politics’ is central to a great deal of mainstream political discussion, both on the left and right. On one side, it is a form of politics that asserts the rights of marginalised groups against entrenched cultural (white male) privilege. On the other, it is an elitist drive to curtail free speech and undermine traditional values. But how does it relate to a more radical left-wing project? Has identity politics become a politics of the establishment? What kind of role must it perform in a mass movement for radical social change? In his new book, Mistaken Identity: Race and Class in the Age of Trump, Asad Haider considers the history and modern form of identity politics, and what it means for the development of collaborative social movements. In the following interview I discuss some of the important points he raises.
Asad Haider is a founding editor of Viewpoint Magazine, and author of Mistaken Identity: Race and Class in the Age of Trump (Verso, 2018)
How was the emergence of identity politics in the 1970s important as a critique of the socialist politics of the time? Does modern identity politics continue to perform the same function?
Asad Haider: I advocate being very specific about terminology, so I associate the emergence of the term identity politics with the Combahee River Collective’s statement in 1977, which posed an essential challenge to the class reductionism of past socialist movements – that is, the assumption of these movements that economic exploitation was experienced in a unitary way, that other forms of domination were peripheral, and that struggles against other forms of oppression were subordinate to class politics. It was also a challenge to the black liberation movement and the feminist movement, because the specific position of black women was not taken into account. ‘Identity politics’ in this case meant producing a more radical struggle against all forms of oppression.
In my book, I jump from the introduction of that term to its usage during the 2016 primaries in the US, during which it was used to defend the Democratic Party elites and their agenda against challenges internal to the party, but which were riding the wave of previous social movements. ‘Identity politics’ in this context was seen in opposition to socialism, which was represented as necessarily exclusionary. This was not an attempt to enrich socialism and realise an emancipatory potential that had been suppressed by exclusion; it was a weaponised deployment of identity to prevent a shift to the left.
The point is that, like any word, the meaning of ‘identity politics’ is highly contested, and that its usage today is frequently diametrically opposed to its original usage. I am sympathetic to those who want to reclaim its original usage, but it seems to me that this will be very difficult, because the whole apparatus of the media and the liberal intelligentsia have appropriated the term, and have reshaped its meaning in such a way that it carries new effects; it will never simply return to its ‘pure,’ original usage, but will now also carry with it the resistance to coalitions, the opposition to socialism, the reduction of politics to a demand for recognition by the state. My intention in the book is to recognise the valuable and necessary contribution of the founders of the term, while criticising its contemporary appropriation and beginning to look for other languages that can carry on that emancipatory project. READ MORE