The failure of identity politics: A Marxist analysis

by Sarah Garnham • Published 20 August 2021

“Union Jack”, an anti-imperialist artwork by Spanish artist Santiago Sierra, was pulled from the 2021 Dark Mofo festival amidst a storm of controversy. The plan for the artwork was to drench the flag in the blood of the victims of British colonisation. Sierra invited groups colonised by Britain, including Aboriginal people, to donate their blood to the project.

This clearly anti-colonial piece was met with widespread outrage, manifested in a Twitter storm and flurry of denunciatory articles in the liberal media. For these critics, there was no generosity; no attempt to recognise that, while something may be misguided or in bad taste, it should be understood in the spirit it was intended. Instead Sierra was denounced as racist and his work as an exercise in colonisation.

Artist Jamie Graham-Blair wrote on Instagram: “Indigenous bodies are not tools to be used by colonisers. We are not props for your white guilt art”.[1] Caz Lynch argued in Overland journal that the piece could easily be interpreted as “celebrating the domination of Indigenous people by the British empire” and as leaning into “the glorification of the gore and violence of colonisation”. She even compared the artist’s request for voluntary blood donations from supporters of the work with invasion and genocide itself, claiming that it was “an extractive exercise that repeats the loss of blood suffered as a result of colonisation”.[2] The very commissioning of the artwork “drives home how racist this country still is when a progressive arts festival can’t even get this right”, according to Kira Puru, while Rachael Sarra branded the gallery hosting the festival as “culturally unsafe”.[3]

An honourable few, including the chairman of the Tasmanian Aboriginal Land Council Michael Mansell, disagreed, arguing that: “The artist challenges Tasmanians about whether Aboriginal lands were peacefully or violently taken, and uses the blood-smattered Union Jack to express his view”.[4] Mansell also argued in response to the backlash that “people have every right to disagree with the artist’s depiction of the discussion and may be offended by his methods, but they are not sound reasons to stifle the artist’s freedom of thought”.[5]

But it was the former voices that won out. Museum of Old and New Art founder David Walsh and Dark Mofo creative director Leigh Carmichael apologised profusely for the supposed inappropriateness of the art. Other institutions have now cut ties with Sierra and removed his other work from their galleries.

Episodes like this are typical of discussions of oppression today. There are strict moral codes about who can express an opinion and how they may do it. Breaches lead to condemnation and sometimes censorship, often couched in terms of “cultural safety” or preventing harm. It is difficult, however, to see how the withdrawal of this anti-racist artwork has advanced the struggle against Aboriginal oppression. The flag that was going to be symbolically drenched in blood will presumably now remain dry and unsullied, like the Australian flags proudly flown atop hundreds of courthouses, parliaments and other government buildings. These ostentatious displays of support for the empire are so normalised they barely provoke comment, let alone outrage. Yet an artist seeking to draw attention to the barbarism concealed by this familiar symbol has had his reputation destroyed.

Even if Sierra’s work was inadvertently racist, drawing an equivalence between a work of art and the actual genocide of Indigenous people invariably trivialises the history of Aboriginal oppression. In a similar vein, one of the main demands made in this debate was for Aboriginal voices to be centred and for their opinions to prevail. The problem here, however, is deciding which Aboriginal voices should take precedence, as they were on both sides of the debate.

This episode provides a snapshot of modern identity politics, and the issues it raises are widespread. These ideas inform the political assumptions and strategies that have come to dominate discussions of oppression across the cultural sphere, the academy, the public sector, and the NGO industry, through to activist milieus and even the socialist left. This article is an attempt to critique this liberal common sense from a Marxist perspective, one that sees oppression as a central feature of capitalist society and that aims for the overthrow of both.

What is identity politics?

Identity politics is a set of ideas and practices that aim to build recognition of and expand representation for particular identity groups. It reflects the social, political and career aspirations of a particular layer within these groups, who seek to hegemonise their political approach to oppression among all those concerned with challenging it. The starting point is the elevation of select identity groups to moral and political pre-eminence, while implicitly or explicitly subordinating others. Different advocates of identity politics see the world through different identity lenses, usually the ones that they are personally connected to.

To the extent other issues are incorporated, it is not because the framework demands an understanding of and sensitivity to all forms of oppression and exploitation, but rather in order to deflect potential criticism from equivalent advocates claiming to represent other identity groups. The popularity of the concept of “intersectionality”, for example, can partly be explained by the eagerness of many modern feminists to demonstrate they are not racist or transphobic. But despite the apparent prevalence of intersectionality, it is usually one or two categories of oppression that are prioritised in liberal discourse at any one time. These can change, but the general effect is to create a highly moralistic attitude towards particular favoured categories and their anointed spokespeople, regardless of the political context.

There are some general theoretical and political assumptions about the organisation of society that underpin identity politics. The first and most important of these is an essentialist view of identity, in relation to both social identity categories and personal identity. The second is the assumption that those with “lived experience” of oppression are automatically, and exclusively, political authorities on challenging it. Related to this is the assumption that the subjective experience of marginalisation is the defining feature of oppression. Two other concepts at the heart of identity politics are intersectionality and privilege, which are used, to varying degrees, to justify the political tactics associated with identity politics.

Identity essentialism

Though it is difficult to imagine, the concept of identity was barely used prior to the 1960s and ’70s. Marie Moran, who has researched the history of the term, reports that a survey of popular literature and political texts written before that time reveals barely any references to it. It came into use during the social movements in the late 1960s, and by the 1980s and ’90s, “identity was completely embedded in the popular, political and academic lexicon”. This shift indicated not only a massive increase in the popular usage of the term, but also a change to its meaning. As Moran points out, identity once referred to an “abstract formal property of an entity (any entity), namely, its ‘oneness’ or sameness to itself”. It now references “a substantive human property or attribute – something which may be personally or collectively possessed, or indeed, lost”.[6] These two interwoven concepts, of collective and personal identity, warrant some explanation.

Collective identity refers to social categories of people defined by their race, gender, nationality, sexuality, class, or a number of other traits. These categories are both objectively and subjectively defined. On the one hand, they have been created and shaped by capitalist society. Many were invented in the first instance to codify the oppression of a particular group of people. Often they have then been reinforced, or have even emerged, from below, as oppressed groups have sought to define their oppression in order to collectively resist it. The reality is that these social categories are both necessary and important for understanding the complexity of society but, at the same time, these categories on their own oversimplify the reality of social divisions and how they work in practice. However, through the lens of identity politics, these categories represent permanent communities that share immutable characteristics and interests. Women for example have a commonality not only because they all share experiences of sexism but also, because they are a fundamentally fixed social group with a shared path to social advancement. Identity categorisations are considered so powerful that they override the tensions and divisions between members of an identity group, in particular the political and economic divisions.

This outlook is manifest everywhere throughout political and cultural discussions. It is particularly useful for powerful people, who can use their identities to make their power or class position seem less relevant. For example Kamala Harris has staked out a political career by pursuing law and order campaigns, defending neoliberal economic policies and championing US imperialism. As the vice-president of the United States, she now occupies one of the most overtly political and powerful offices in the world, yet the liberal media frequently present her identities as Black, a woman and of immigrant parents as her most significant qualities and as reason to champion her regardless of her politics.[7]

While most proponents of identity politics refer to multiple identities, including class, in practice some are clearly considered more important than others. In all of the glowing tributes to Harris in the liberal media, her ruling-class position is mostly ignored. It is typical for discussions of identity to brush over class. Where it is mentioned it is presented as a source of historic disadvantage or privilege, yet rarely incorporated as a dynamic or dominant influence over behaviour and attitudes. The one exception to this, proving the liberal nature of identity politics, is the “white working class” which has become a stand-in term for white racists.

The view that collective identity categorisation determines social behaviour goes alongside, and is reinforced by, the second concept: personal identity. Personal identity refers not simply to the personal experiences that people have as a result of the identity categorisations they fall under. Michael Kimmel, editor of Privilege: a reader, argues that these categories are the “foundations of individual identity”, and that “our membership in dominant if invisible groups and our membership in visible yet marginalized groups – define us, providing the raw materials from which we fashion an identity”.[8]

The idea that everybody has “an identity” is a relatively recent one. This is not to say that there were not previously notions of selfhood, nor that people in the past had a purely detached and external relationship to their identities. It is natural that people personally identify with and internalise aspects of their social categorisation. But this is different from the political view that everyone has “an identity”, akin to their soul, which defines who they are at the deepest level. It is this concept that results in the essentialising of identity categories. Whether or not someone believes social identity categories to be “constructed” or “natural”, this essentialist view elevates the characteristics that get ascribed to personal identity, making them the encryption codes for someone’s inner essence. In this sense “personal identity” is an empty classifier, to which any social characteristic can be attached. Traits that get most commonly associated with personal identity are to do with race, gender and sexuality, as well as disability and mental illness.

Connected to this, is a political attitude that sees declarations and affirmations of personal identity as a positive phenomenon that by their nature strike a blow against oppression. It’s true that becoming more personally invested in identity can be a positive insofar as it raises political consciousness and leads to struggle. But insofar as it allows people to go on an inner journey of self-discovery, or as a means to advance individual careers, it has no role to play in the fight against oppression.

Personal experience

Identity politics combines identity essentialism with a strong focus on experience. It is the act of belonging to, or more accurately being, a certain identity that gives someone exclusive access to the “truth” of that identity and the oppression attached to it. As a result, “lived experience” is presented as the key to social insight and authenticity, and as a substitute for objective social analysis or engagement with political argument.

But the complexity and overarching structures of oppression cannot be understood from the vantage point of individual experience. For most people, the direct mistreatment and abuse that they encounter from family members, acquaintances and strangers, and particular agencies of the state, will be the most obvious and often the most emotionally hurtful manifestations of their oppression. But experiential accounts, while undoubtedly providing insights into the specificities of particular forms of oppression, do not necessarily help elucidate the structures that underpin them.

The idea that experiences of oppression are the key to political insight also leads to the valorisation of experiences of oppression, especially those that are traumatic. If experience confers knowledge, it follows that those who have experienced the most trauma will possess the most insight into the horrors of our society. According to this view, refugees who have been tortured physically and mentally for decades, denied contact and engagement with society, have been given the best social education available. While refugees are often politicised by their experiences, the torture many experience is so extreme, isolating and unrelenting that many are totally broken by the experience, or come to conclude that their oppressor can’t be challenged. There is nothing inherently radicalising or educative about trauma.

It also means that those who have experienced oppression are seen as having unassailable moral authority that cannot be challenged or debated, regardless of their political perspective. In a piece entitled “an open letter to white ‘allies’ from a white friend” author Caitlin Deen Fair recounts an incident highlighting the absurd conclusions that are drawn from this standpoint:

I was told by a fellow member of a group that I belonged to that the first step in the liberation of Black folks was to kill all the White women because they were tools of re-colonization… I knew I couldn’t engage him on that; primarily because I don’t know what his lived experience has been. He may very well have had legitimate experiences that tell him that this is the most reasonable and effective solution to the problems that we face… That being said, it is safe to say that it would be imprudent to challenge or engage in a “discussion” (read: argument) about it, particularly in movement spaces.[9]

According to this logic, it is impossible for those who have not experienced a particular oppression to disagree with those who have, or to take up debates over strategies and tactics. Those who don’t fall into a given identity group can only be “allies” – the defining qualities of which are deference and passivity.

The idea that experience affords authority falls down, once again, due to the inevitable diversity within oppressed identity groups. There are as many experiences as there are members of any one oppressed group, and these can be vastly divergent. For example, the experiences of a poor Aboriginal person locked up in prison cannot be equated with those of a wealthy Aboriginal entrepreneur. Naturally these experiences lead to different political conclusions. The main way that this tension is resolved in practice is by someone setting themselves up as the arbiter of which experiences are most valid. Those who take on this role are mostly those who are relatively advantaged in comparison to the rest of the group, and who have an interest in becoming spokespeople in order to push a particular agenda. As Olúfémi O Táiwò puts it in an essay critiquing this phenomenon:

In my experience, when people say they need to “listen to the most affected”, it isn’t because they intend to set up Skype calls to refugee camps or to collaborate with houseless people. Instead, it has more often meant handing conversational authority and attentional goods to those who most snugly fit into the social categories associated with these ills – regardless of what they actually do or do not know, or what they have or have not personally experienced.[10]

This situation arises repeatedly in student unions, where the people elected to identity-based departments assume the authority to preside over all political activity that relates to their identity category. The Australian National University student union recently passed the following motion:

Autonomous Department officers are elected members of the SRC that have the lived experiences and speak for the marginalised community they represent. Hence, it is imperative that anyone who is doing student advocacy that concerns a specific marginalised community properly consult with the department officers. This ensures that their campaigns and/or protest can truly reflect the needs of marginalised students on campus and avoid any kind of white knighting.[11]

Policies such as these are regularly used to censor solidarity and maintain control over politics on campus. In this case the policy was introduced after activists had been condemned for initiating a campaign against the privatisation of on-campus health services, and for moving a motion opposing the introduction of a Liberal think tank, the Menzies Institute, at another university. In both these cases, the activists had made the apparently grave error of failing to consult with relevant student union office bearers and clubs. In the case of the healthcare campaign they were attacked as white knights because they had not consulted with the queer officer or the BIPOC officer, despite the fact that queer people need healthcare and racism is endemic in the medical system. It was also a failing to not consult the BIPOC officer in relation to the Menzies Institute motion because Liberal Prime Minister Robert Menzies was a racist.


Another aspect of identity politics today is a focus on marginalisation. As we can see with the above student union motion, as well as the definition of oppressed groups provided by Kimmel, marginalisation is one of the most frequently referred to aspects of oppression, and is often used as a synonym for oppression. Marginality is also often equated with moral virtue.

Marginalised groups are those that are particularly small, peripheral and excluded in relation to other, comparable identity groups. This generally means being discounted and under-represented in culture and politics. Marginalisation is a factor in the oppression of several groups, but oppression cannot be reduced to this. Some oppressed groups, such as the working class and women, are too large to be consistently marginalised. On the other hand, there are plenty of marginalised groups who are not oppressed, such as people who live in the country or a range of small religious groups. And for oppressed groups who are small and marginalised, it is not necessarily the experience of marginalisation that is the most severe or relevant part of their oppression. For instance there are relatively few representations of trans people in politics and the media. While this reflects their ongoing oppression, it is clearly far less significant than the difficulty in accessing health services, lack of social acceptance and political attacks from the right.

The focus that identity politics places on marginalisation, which is also often interpreted in a highly subjective way, flows from the importance attributed to personal identity and identity expression. The lack of affirmation of particular identities in certain settings is not necessarily a clear indication of where oppression exists or how it operates. For instance, in response to the recent Australian census, some same-sex parents complained that their identity was being erased by questions about the biological fathers of their children. Mary from West Preston was apparently left “distressed” after filling out the census for her two children because, despite allowing for people to indicate whether they are same-sex parents, the census “forces you to say where the father is from”.[12] This question was not aimed at erasing LGBTI people, but rather was used to generate statistical data about biological lineage.[13] Besides which, it is hard to believe that anybody of any marginalised identity or otherwise feels truly “seen” by the census, it is after all a giant bureaucratic survey involving millions of people answering a handful of formulaic questions in drop-down boxes.

At the same time that oppression is reduced to the experience of marginalisation, there is also a fetishisation of marginality that equates it to moral purity. The mere existence of minorities that defy mainstream norms and conventions is seen as an important political statement and act of resistance against the status quo. This often leads to a rejection of rights-based campaigns, aimed at giving oppressed groups access to more social inclusion and civil rights, as “assimilationist” and reflecting an aspiration to join the mainstream. An example of this was the hostility from some within the LGBTI community to the successful struggle for marriage equality.[14] This outlook puts the people who hold to it on the wrong side of many important struggles against oppression and rests on the defeatist conundrum that marginality is both the basis of oppression and the basis of resistance to it.

Another outcome of this approach is the argument that the most marginalised groups inherently represent the vanguard of struggle and must be centred at all times. An example of this is the insistence from some that trans women and sex workers lead International Women’s Day marches.[15] While it is important to acknowledge the diversity inherent in any oppressed group, it is not the case that the smaller or more marginalised a particular group is the better they will be able to lead struggle. This is a matter of political approach, not identity. But more often than not the preoccupation with elevating the most marginalised is not about strengthening struggle at all, but about demonstrating moral worthiness.

The political interest taken in sex workers also raises a number of other issues. Sex workers are a marginalised social group in terms of their size and insignificance to the economy or any major institutions in society. They are also stigmatised because the sex industry is only semi-legal, and is associated with low morals, and seen as a threat to family values and social order. But being involved in a stigmatised or semi-legal industry does not make people left-wing. In fact, the experience can draw people closer to their bosses. Many advocates for sex workers within activist milieus also advocate on behalf of the industry and deny that it is inherently sexist and exploitative. Instead it is purely the marginalisation and stigmatisation of both the workers and the industry that constitutes oppression. For these advocates the occupation of sex work is often talked about as a form of sexuality and as a personal identity trait, indicative of inner essence. The industry is the lifestyle and community that springs from this identity, and is often seen as part of the broader queer community. Therefore, the key struggle for sex workers is for a society in which this supposed identity and lifestyle can be embraced and allowed to flourish. Some even talk about this as a campaign for “self-determination” for sex workers.[16]

But sex workers are a qualitatively different kind of group from trans people, lesbians or gay people. Sex work is not a practice that represents the desired activity of an oppressed layer, and sex workers are not a group who share a gender or sexuality. Sex work is an occupation, not a personal identity, and the oppression that sex workers face is not based upon their (confected) identity expression being unvalidated or reviled. The disproportionate focus on marginality disguises these important differences and takes us further away from any serious understanding of oppression.


Intersectionality has become a core term in the identity politics lexicon. It is most often used to express political support for a range of oppressed groups simultaneously. Sometimes it is also held up as a method of social analysis. The overarching concept of intersectionality is that there are multiple forms of oppression in society and that they interact like “traffic in an intersection, coming and going in all…directions” as Kimberle Crenshaw put it in her 1989 essay that coined the term.[17]

Since it was coined, the term intersectionality has been tied retrospectively to Black feminism, and specifically to the critique that radical Black feminists made of mainstream second wave feminists, in arguing that both race and class were important to understanding women’s oppression. For this reason, intersectionality is often presented as an alternative to conservative, single-issue variants of identity politics. But in reality intersectionality exists within the framework of identity politics, and it arose as a concept, not within radical movements but rather within the legal academy as a means to codify legal precedents. For Crenshaw, intersectionality was a way to overcome the lacuna in anti-discrimination law at the time, which could not account for the fact that Black women are affected not just by racism or by sexism, but experience a specific kind of discrimination because of their multiple oppressions. These legalistic origins demonstrate that intersectionality is neither theoretically nor politically based on the fight to overthrow oppression; it is limited to describing personal experience and finding resources for individuals within the system.

The application of an intersectional approach to personal identity is in close keeping with the prioritisation of personal inner essence and the focus on personal experience that we have already discussed. Kimmel, who is an advocate of this approach, describes how it is used:

It’s clear that the different statuses we occupy – by race, class, gender, sexuality, age, and so forth – all shape and modify one another. Sometimes one of these becomes a master status through which all others are filtered and in which all others become sort of adjectives to its noun. At other times, they shift and sort and collide in ways that can give you a headache. It’s complex, and one always runs the risk of a slippery slope into an infinite regress, and by the time you’re done enumerating all the different statuses you occupy, you are the only one of that specific combination, and therefore immune to any and all generalizations.[18]

A phenomenon connected to this chaotic quest for individual identification is the pejoratively named “oppression olympics”, in which contestants compete over how many intersections they occupy and which ones represent greater moral value. Of course, some forms of oppression do affect people more harshly and some forms of oppression have been historically dismissed or ignored. Illuminating these nuances can have relevance for our struggles. But, more often than not, these games are about personal grandstanding. Take for example the petty territorial disputes surrounding which colours should appear, and in which order, on the pride flag attached to the new Pride Centre of Victoria.[19]

Another way that the language of intersectionality is used is to signal political support for a broad range of oppressed groups and social justice issues. This approach is encapsulated in the slogan: “My feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit”. Today it is common for individuals and organisations to highlight these credentials by providing exhaustive lists of all forms of oppression they oppose or all the identity-based struggles they support. Though in some ways harmless, this tedious and arbitrary name-checking reflects an implicit theoretical position that rejects the term “capitalism” to describe the single social system in which all forms of oppression are rooted.

This brings us to intersectionality as a method of social analysis. Intersectional approaches to understanding oppression sometimes referred to as “intersectionality theory”, have been popular in the academy for some time. Different theorists present different models of intersectionality, from Kimberle Crenshaw’s traffic metaphor through to Patricia Hill Collins’ “interlocking systems of oppression” that form a “matrix of domination”.[20] All of these models take experience as their starting point and see the ways that different oppressions intersect as primarily experiential. So for example a Black woman will experience both racism and sexism, and it is on this basis that we can deduce that racism and sexism intersect, rather than any concept of how the two may be structurally connected. For models of intersectionality that include class, the same methodology applies; class is one of many potential sites of experiential oppression. Involved in this a rejection, mostly made explicit by intersectionality theorists, of the Marxist understanding of class, which is to see it not only as a source of oppression but also as the key determining social relationship of capitalism. Used in this way, class relations can make sense of the contradictory totality of capitalist society, which in turn provides an explanation for the root cause of every other form of oppression.

Instead of seeking to understand different forms of oppression as based in a totalising set of social relations, intersectionality models assume society to be fundamentally fragmentary. Its components may intersect, they may be interlaced, or even interlocked in a grid, or map or matrix, but they all have no necessary connection to one another. Marxist Delia Aguilar has argued the result of this is that:

The identities that intersect are divested of their structuring material ground, resulting in a purely discursive analysis characteristic of postmodernism/post­structuralism… The existence of a multiplicity of modes of domination and oppression, the litany of which can be lengthy, is incomprehensible when dissociated from capitalism as a system.[21]

In the absence of a coherent materialist explanation of how different forms of oppression are tied together forming constituent parts of a coherent whole, categories of oppression and identity are static and discrete, and products primarily of cultural patterns. Hill Collins, who is notable for the fact that she mentions structures throughout her work, ultimately falls back on cultural reductionism:

The foundations of intersecting oppressions become grounded in interdependent concepts of binary thinking, oppositional difference, objectification, and social hierarchy. With domination based on difference forming an essential underpinning for this entire system of thought, these concepts invariably imply relationships of superiority and inferiority, hierarchical bonds that mesh with political economies of race, gender, and class oppression.[22]

This view of oppression accepts as a given the identity categories as they currently exist, as well as the ideological constructions that surround them. Each oppressed identity group is therefore oppressed by its culturally dominant inverse; Black people are oppressed by white people, women by men and so on, each operating on their own binary axis. Intersectionality is an attempt to transcend the single-issue approach that dominates the politics of various forms of oppression, but an incoherent one that cannot solve the underlying problems.


Connected to this is privilege theory, which proposes that identity categories are not only the source of multiple forms of oppression, but also of multiple forms of privilege. According to this logic, non-oppressed identity groups enjoy unearned privileges as a result of their identities. These privileges are immovable, as Kimmel puts it: “one can no more renounce privilege than stop breathing”.[23] This means that those with privilege have an ineradicable interest in maintaining the oppression of others.

One of the most influential texts informing this approach is Peggy McIntosh’s “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”.[24] Today this proverbial knapsack is unpacked well beyond activist circles. It is a staple resource in the cultural diversity seminars and workshops. There are also many spin-off knapsacks, listing the invisible privileges enjoyed by men, by settlers, by non-disabled people and more.[25] The number of privileges that any one individual can have is limitless. At the same time, they need to be weighed against the oppressions someone suffers. This can result in some tricky calculations and is another way in which the “oppression olympics” comes into play; the weight given to specific privileges and oppressions is necessarily fraught and contested. One example of the tangles this produces can be found in a piece entitled “The peculiarity of Black trans male privilege” in which the author provides an account of all of the ways they are supposedly a beneficiary of male privilege, while also clearly being oppressed as a result of the combination of their identities.[26] The only insight to come out of this somewhat tortured discussion is that an individual can experience multiple things simultaneously and have no idea how to understand any of them. Privilege theory adds more fragments to the intersectional matrix, while still avoiding any form of analysis that can draw them together.

Notable in this regard is the kind of privileges that privilege theory tends to focus on and those that it tends to ignore. The day-to-day experiences people have when they go to the shops, apply for jobs or engage with culture are the main sites of privilege that are highlighted. Privilege here becomes associated with the absence of specific forms of discrimination or brutality meted out to others. It is a privilege to not be targeted by the police, a privilege to not be sexually molested, a privilege to be eligible for welfare, a privilege to not live behind bars. None of these are privileges in any meaningful sense of the word. Worse, defining privilege in this way mirrors the discourse of the right, who insist that welfare is a privilege rather than a right in order to more effectively withhold support for the oppressed.

At the same time, larger patterns of social inequalities that can be observed by looking at overall wealth distribution, how production is organised and who wields political power are rarely discussed. If anything, there is a class blindness that is manifest in privilege theory. Oftentimes the everyday supposed privileges that are pointed to are a result of class inequality as much as they are a product of racial or gender inequalities. For instance McIntosh’s references to being able to afford housing and to being able to easily find a publisher are largely attributable to the advantages of being middle class, as opposed to white. And the idea that even these two examples can be put on the same plane seems like calculated political ignorance; one is a basic human right, the other is an irrelevance outside tiny circles of academics and writers. Its inclusion however is an indication that the people most invested in identity politics move in these circles. Another example is a 2019 Overland article entitled “Where are all the disabled academics?”, in which author Amber Karanikolas discusses the traumatic experience of learning that she may one day have to disclose her mental illness, which is part of her identity, in order to be admitted as a lawyer. The upshot is that she successfully became a lawyer.[27]

Another aspect of this class blindness is the decontextualisation of the relative advantages and disadvantages afforded to different groups within the working class. Racism, sexism and other forms of oppression lead to inequality within the working class. This takes the form of wage discrepancies, unequal access to services, biased treatment at the hands of the state, cultural discrimination and myriad other forms. This means that workers who do not face oppression as a result of their (other) identities will have relative, situational advantages over others. One example that is often pointed to is job interviews, where one worker may receive a job because a specific form of discrimination works against another applicant. There are plenty of studies which show that this happens regularly throughout all of the stages of the job market. The most important factor in these occurrences however is the job market itself, which is controlled not by workers, but by bosses who benefit from its ruthless and dehumanising logic. To focus on the supposed privileges of individual workers in these scenarios is to ignore the key dynamic of social privilege at play. Worse still, this framing often results in drawing an equivalence between bosses and workers on the basis of their identity, which both trivialises the chasm of privilege between these two social layers and wrongly presents workers as co-conspirators in the oppression of other workers. Far from this being the case, the reality is that inequalities based on oppression within the working class, that supposedly constitute privileges, actually reinforce the oppression of the whole working class.

Following on from our discussion of cultural reductionism in relation to intersectionality, privileges are overwhelmingly thought of in a similar way. Members of non-oppressed identity groups have a shared interest in oppression because they are culturally dominant. This collapses vastly divergent layers of people into one group, and it confers onto other oppressed layers and individuals the full weight of the crimes and brutality of the capitalist state. For example Sarah Maddison has argued, as part of the growing field of settler-colonial studies, that all non-Indigenous people are settlers, including all migrants and anti-racists:

Settlers are a diverse and multi-ethnic group, whose identities have been shaped by settler colonialism in a range of ways, but who in different ways are all complicit in sustaining colonial relationships… [S]ettler privilege means that some combination of our economic security, citizenship, relationship to land and place, mental and physical health, cultural integrity and spiritual life, family values and career aspirations are literally not possible were it not for the dispossession of Indigenous people.[28]

Throughout her book The Colonial Fantasy, she uses the terms “settlers” and “settler state” interchangeably, effectively arguing that there is no separation between the two. For Maddison, colonisation, and the ongoing racist treatment of Aboriginal people, is not primarily the result of the economic and political interests of the ruling class but is rather the result of the cultural domination of non-Indigenous people. Non-Indigenous people, simply by existing in Australia, have a settler mentality and are perpetrators of racism. The idea that colonisation is the imposition of a different set of values on another group greatly diminishes the real story of violence and genocide that marked the colonisation of Australia. Moreover, to claim that the current racism towards Aboriginal people is the result of an ongoing cultural clash is social evolutionism of the most patronising kind. In this reading Aboriginal people are an historic, unchanging race of people encoded with a set of unchanging cultural beliefs. It is the denial of this supposed essence that constitutes Aboriginal oppression, rather than the litany of crimes committed by the modern state: murders in custody, child removal, land dispossession, entrenched poverty and underfunding of Aboriginal communities resulting in, among other things, a life expectancy for Aboriginal people that is ten years lower than the average.[29]

Flowing from this is a focus, becoming increasingly dominant in identity politics discussions, on the psychological state of mind that supposedly comes along with privilege. Those from non-oppressed groups purportedly think in privileged ways, regardless of their overall social position or their politics. Privileged psychology manifests in a series of political beliefs and ideas, ranging from outright bigotry, irrational fear, ignorance, entitlement, and even staunchly anti-oppression politics. As an explanation for explicitly bigoted opinions, this erases all of the structural and ideological processes that produce these political ideas. It also ignores all of the social conditions that may lead people to personally adopt these distorted views. It instead proposes that bigoted ideas are not a distortion; they are a valid and natural way for those in non-oppressed groups to think about the oppressed. It is in fact those who take on anti-oppression values that are at odds with their true nature, and are destined to be in constant torment as a result. Robert Jensen elaborates on this in his piece “The Fears of White People”, which is also a popular resource for cultural diversity training:

Virtually every white person I know, including white people fighting for racial justice and including myself, carries some level of racism in our minds and hearts and bodies. In our heads, we can pretend to eliminate it, but most of us know it is there. And because we are all supposed to be appropriately anti-racist, we carry that lingering racism with a new kind of fear: What if non-white people look at us and can see it? What if they can see through us? What if they can look past our anti-racist vocabulary and sense that we still don’t really know how to treat them as equals? What if they know about us what we don’t dare know about ourselves? What if they can see what we can’t even voice?[30]

The absurd assertion that everyone is a racist at heart sums up the fatalism and passivity at the heart of identity politics.

Political strategy

The overarching objective of identity politics is to maximise the recognition of and representation for particular identity groups. Given the assumption that people have a set of shared interests based on their identity, the idea is that individuals in powerful positions who are drawn from particular identity groups will effectively represent the interests of that group. Of course, there is the possibility of betrayal; some of those who make it into positions of power will cross the Rubicon, hence the criticism of #girlbosses or their Black, brown, gay, trans equivalents. But these individuals are seen as aberrant, and the solution is to find the “right kind” of representatives who will remain loyal. This is the key strategy of identity politics, uniting its right and left proponents.

At the same time, the inbuilt fatalism means that oppression can never really be overcome. Those who are not racially oppressed can never become genuinely anti-racist, and the same goes for all equivalent identity groups, who will inevitably seek to reproduce their own privileges. Where possible, however, material privileges should be renounced. This does not mean that the capitalist class should be expropriated. It means that highly paid and more comfortable sections of the working class should give up their advantages. In Australia, there is a long history of feminists calling for male workers to give up their “masculine dividend” in the form of wage cuts.[31] Another phenomenon that plays into this was the wave of individual donations to Black people in the US during the 2020 Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests. While many middle-class allies with means and white guilt cheer this on as a successful procurement of “reparations”, the reality is that it misdirects blame away from the governments and companies responsible for racism. And rather than a focus on protest and joint struggle, it marketises and individualises solidarity in a way that is ineffective, patronising, and mired with petty scandals.[32]

The more prominent remedy for privilege is, however, personal salvation achieved by sustained introspection aimed at deprogramming our inner bigot. Hence the popular call for people to “decolonise your mind”. Redemption can never be fully realised, but there is moral virtue in spending a lifetime doing penance, especially if it is highly publicised. This modern day “white man’s burden” is particularly suited to the lifestyle of academics like Maddison. It is also the basis for a booming cultural diversity industry.

This pessimistic and fundamentally conservative outlook also leads to a focus on cultural, rather than structural, reform. This both fits with the view that structures arising from dominant identity group interests are unassailable, and with the narrow interests of the self-selecting minority of representatives from oppressed groups, who want to find a place for themselves in the system. The focus on cultural reform is twofold. One side to it is the proliferation of campaigns aimed at raising the cultural profile of certain groups by incorporating cultural iconography into the branding and practices of various institutions. The growing presence of rainbow insignia and other statements of LGBTI inclusivity is testament to this. As is the wave of pro-Indigenous cultural support, from Australia Post’s brave decision to update their addressing guidelines to include traditional place names through to the tokenistic acknowledgement of Aboriginal elders before many events, including at congregations of the direct oppressors of Aboriginal people, such as government ministers and mining bosses.

The other side of cultural reform is the establishment of an identity politics “rules-based order”. These rules include knowing where each identity group is situated on the moral hierarchy of oppression, observing strict guidelines of allyship, and using the latest language without questioning its ideological content, for example calling every non-Indigenous person a settler. Observing rules like this takes the place of political debate and education. Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who has recently been on the receiving end of such rules-based moral puritanism, has written an essay about this phenomenon titled “It’s Obscene” in which she accurately describes the atmosphere that has developed around discussions of oppression as one of intolerance, intellectual poverty, and “angels jostling to out-angel one another”.[33] It has also become fodder for the right wing, who are better able to crusade against so-called “political correctness” and “cancel culture”, when they can point to this phenomenon to discredit the struggle as a whole.

By far the most important rules of identity politics are those concerning authenticity and legitimacy; who has the right to speak on questions of oppression, and in what ways. This frequently comes up in discussions about art and literature, as I foreshadowed in the introduction. Another example is the criticism directed at Craig Silvey’s 2020 book, Honeybee. Silvey is a cis man; however, the central character in his book is a very sympathetically portrayed trans man. Most of the criticisms of Silvey reflected the competition for territory in the book industry, reflecting the extremely unrepresentative interests of trans novelists, who use their criticisms of Silvey to claim themselves as representatives of the whole trans community and promote their careers.[34] In one of several articles debating whether Silvey had the right to write and publish this book, The Guardian asked: “Even if it’s written well, should it have been written at all?”[35] It has become commonplace for censorship to be suggested on the basis of the identities of authors, yet it jars with hundreds of years of literature in which authors have necessarily, and largely uncontroversially, written characters based on imagination and social observation, rather than on biographical reporting. This aspect of literature should be defended as something that contributes to our collective understanding of and empathy towards a range of human experiences.

There is an even longer history of empathy and humanism in political and social struggle. On countless occasions, those who have not had direct experiences with oppression have fought alongside those directly oppressed, both because they are passionate about injustice and, often, because they recognise that their own struggles are intimately bound with the struggles of others. Yet the logic of identity politics is to eschew this.

In response to the murder of George Floyd in the US in 2020 there was an unprecedented wave of protests across the globe. In Australia, African immigrants, who are regularly victimised by the police and demonised in the media, felt moved to call solidarity protests. Their attempts were neutered when they came under heavy fire from Aboriginal activists and their army of white supporters. The young African activists were denounced as “settlers”, were accused of not centring Aboriginal people, and failing to recognise that only Aboriginal people had the right to call Black Lives Matter protests. Meriki Onus, one of the leaders of activist group Warriors of Aboriginal Resistance (WAR) took to Twitter to attack the young Africans: “Imagine the audacity to organise a BLM protest on stolen Aboriginal land without the involvement of mob…most importantly families who have had loved ones taken by the racist Australian system”.[36] The Africans promptly agreed to take down their event, explained that they were deeply sympathetic to the racism faced by Aboriginal people and had never intended to monopolise the rally. These explanations did nothing however to abate the barrage of attacks.

The effect of this was to prevent a group of people victimised by racism from protesting for their rights and expressing solidarity with other, similar struggles against racism. Denying oppressed people the right to protest has nothing to do with fighting oppression. This, and all of the other examples and problems I have gone through, reflect the fact that identity politics is not just a set of misguided assumptions. It is a form of politics that systematically points us away from the system responsible for oppression, and from the forces that have an interest in fighting it. It is a block to solidarity and struggle. It focuses instead on individuals and the most superficial of cultural phenomena, and provides political cover for petty mindedness and self promotion.

The roots of identity politics

Originating in the US, identity politics as we know it today became established in the late 1980s across the Western world. It was a product of the defeats and distortions of the social movements of the previous decades. The decline of social struggle and rise of neoliberalism drove back the working class and the left. At the same time, a layer of middle-class professionals from various identity groups emerged and became entrenched. Within the academy, this layer developed ideological justifications for the social movements’ retreat from the goal of liberation, and helped to develop a more progressive face for neoliberalism. Simultaneously, governments established identity-based bureaucracies, allowing a cohort of diverse professionals to advance their careers within the system while providing governments with cover for neoliberal reforms. This model continues to be used in government and the corporate world today. A substantial section of the capitalist class and the political establishment is wild for diversity.

This section is divided into three parts. We will begin by looking at the social movements and their decline. We will then look at the academisation and ideological degeneration of radical anti-oppression politics. The final section will discuss the institutionalisation of diversity and identity politics, and the implications that has for the struggles against oppression.

The social movements and their decline

The late 1960s and ’70s saw impressive campaigns against oppression of various forms. These were part of a global radical upsurge in struggle. Students were revolting, and were turning to anti-capitalist politics. In Europe, a number of countries were brought to the brink of revolution. The anti-Vietnam War movement was highly significant, especially in Australia and the US. Various anti-racist movements, inspired by the anti-colonial struggles and the civil rights movement in the US the decade before, also sprang up. There was a women’s liberation movement, and then a gay liberation movement. All these movements put forward radical demands and were tactically centred on protest and struggle, which helped to inspire and grow a new, radical, left which argued that these movements were interconnected parts of a greater struggle against capitalism.

The specific politics of the upsurge did, however, vary between countries. One of the most important variables was the participation and influence of the organised working class. Despite the revisionist narrative that only students were involved, in many countries workers played a major role. This was especially the case in Australia. Working-class militancy was on the rise at the time, and this made a big political impact on the student radicals and the emerging new left. It also meant that the movements, in particular the anti-war movement, were led not only by students but also by trade union, Labor left and Communist Party leaders. It was also these organisations that provided the main base for the demonstrations, especially in Melbourne where the workers’ movement was strongest. The women’s liberation movement, though quickly dominated by middle class women, was initially influenced by these factors. It was established by student radicals and had been preceded by an early victory for equal pay won by the left-wing and male-dominated unions.[37] The Aboriginal radicals fighting racism and for land rights were also deeply connected with the left-wing militant unions, which initiated strikes and black bans that were critical to the struggle.[38]

In the US the culture was different. Militant Black workers had played an important role in the anti-racism struggles of the period, and workers were disproportionately opposed to the war. But the trade union bureaucracy was more right wing and the broader workers’ movement less radical. Connected to this, the socialist left was relatively weak. This meant that the social movements were more dominated by students, and were under greater influence from liberal politics. It is logical, therefore, that it was in the US that precursor currents of identity politics began to develop.

One of these was privilege theory. As Candace Cohn, a revolutionary socialist active at the time, explains: “The specific use of white-skin privilege concepts…to analyse oppression began in one tiny section of the Stalinist left”.[39] It was far from mainstream during the radical phase of the movements, when people were looking for points of unity rather than division. Two Maoists, Noel Ignatin and Theodore Allen, coined the term “white privilege” in the 1967 pamphlet “White Blindspot”. They argued that:

The US ruling class has made a deal with the (mis)leaders of American labour and through them with the masses of white workers. The terms of the deal are these: you white workers help us conquer the world, and enslave the non-white majority of the earth’s labouring force, and we will repay you.[40]

As Cohn argues, this position was informed by their sectarian politics. They viewed the primary struggle in the world as that “between the revolutionary Third World and US imperialism” and they “counterposed questions of Black and Third World oppression to the American class struggle”. More than this, they were explicitly hostile to the struggle of American workers, rejecting the idea that they needed to organise around their own needs and their own oppression and presenting American workers as “little more than potential cheerleaders for Third World Liberation struggles, cheerleaders who must renounce their imperialist privileges – that is, their wages, benefits and possessions”.[41]

A similar political approach began to emerge within sections of the women’s movement that saw women’s oppression as a product of a mutually beneficial alliance between ruling-class and working-class men. This idea coalesced as “patriarchy theory” and became increasingly theorised throughout the 1970s.[42] Another precursor of identity politics that arose early on in the women’s movement is embodied in the slogan “The personal is political”, which emerged alongside the establishment of “consciousness raising” sessions. People often enter politics due to a personal awakening about their own oppression and these sessions, in part, were established to facilitate this. At the same time, many of them were set up with a specific political methodology in mind: women would come to these sessions to discuss their personal problems and then attempt to draw political conclusions from them.[43] These discussions of personal problems could lead people to take social action on the streets or to turn inwards, towards introspection and individualist lifestyle solutions. As the women’s movement, along with the other social movements, began to go into decline, this latter strategy became more pronounced.

Another strand of identity politics developed out of a sub-section of the Black feminist movement in the US. As I have mentioned in relation to intersectionality, Black feminism saw itself somewhat in opposition to the mainstream feminist movement and was, throughout the 1960s and early ’70s, a more radical variant of it, one that sought to bring questions of race and often class to the fore. However, by the mid to late ’70s, Black feminism was becoming dominated by middle-class politics. The Combahee River Collective was one manifestation of this. One of the activities of the collective was to host retreats involving Black, lesbian women, most of whom were academics. A statement written by the collective that came out of one of these retreats in 1977 is widely credited with coining the term “identity politics”. While the statement is filled with radical verbiage, and makes reference to the enemy of capitalism and the need for collective action on the road to liberation, it also argues for an isolationist and sectional approach immediately identifiable with modern day identity politics:

Above all else, our politics initially sprang from the shared belief that Black women are inherently valuable, that our liberation is a necessity not as an adjunct to somebody else’s may because of our need as human persons for autonomy… 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.[44]

It is no coincidence that the acute pessimism articulated here, in the argument that those outside of narrow identity categories can never sincerely fight against the oppression of others, surfaced at the time that the struggles of the previous years were in severe decline. It was emblematic of the direction in which many leading figures from the movements were turning.

The period of the late 1970s and early ’80s was one of profound defeat for the social movements, for the working class, for the oppressed and for the left. However, this defeat did not play out evenly, and its impacts have been contradictory. The working class was singled out for special punishment. The most important attacks of the early neoliberal period were against working-class organisations, with the explicit aim of crushing rank-and-file industrial militancy. In some countries this was achieved with naked class warfare. In Australia unions were “brought to the table” and union leaders became some of the key peddlers of neoliberalism. But regardless of the method used, across the world the working class was subject to the most aggressive ruling-class attacks since the Great Depression.

The effect on other identity groups was more mixed. The social movements had a major impact on public opinion and succeeded in winning significant reforms for legal equality. These could not easily be wound back. Nor was it in the interests of large sections of the ruling class to do so, at least not openly. Many of the most important reforms, for example equal pay and land rights in Australia, were undermined throughout subsequent decades. On the other hand, some changes continued to take place, especially on secondary issues such as representation, symbolic inclusion, and so on. This was driven by a growing layer of middle-class professionals drawn from oppressed identity groups, who began to find homes in government bureaucracies and the academy. As this layer shifted upwards, they also shifted rightwards, working to deradicalise the politics of oppression and to facilitate the smooth incorporation of a diverse range of identity groups into the system.

Theorising identity politics

As the struggles were sent into retreat, discussions about oppression became more centred in the academy. Academics with a focus on oppression were no longer oriented by vibrant resistance from the oppressed, and they were given opportunities to climb further up the ranks of the academy. As Aguilar argues, this led to a

pronounced change in the works that emerged expounding on the themes of gender, race and class. The view that a meaningful exposition of their interaction demands an understanding of capitalist operations was soon to be swept away by the collapse of social movements and the onset of conservatism. By the mid-to late 1980s, conservatism was becoming entrenched, necessitating adjustments in intellectual perspectives in order to remain au courant in an increasingly complicit academy.[45]

In keeping with the fragmented nature of the university, academics focused on “their own” issues of oppression and developing specialised theories to respond to them. Rather than aiming to understand society in its totality, this approach centred academics’ preferred issues and built a partial picture of society around that arbitrary focal point. Core to this was a shift away from materialist methods of analysis and from seeing class divisions as fundamental. It involved a sharp turn towards subjectivism and a focus on ideology, culture and discourse. Framing questions of oppression around identity rather than structures of inequality was the result. As Moran puts it:

By the 1980s and ’90s, identity was completely embedded in the popular, political and academic lexicon – the language of “identity politics” was de rigueur in activist and academic spaces; questions of cultural, racial, gender and sexual identity dominated the social sciences, arts and humanities.[46]

This shift was part of a broader assault on materialism and on Marxism that was underway in the academy and throughout activist milieus and the left, not only in the US but also across Europe and most of the rest of the world. Described by Ellen Meiksins Woods and others following her as the “retreat from class”, this phenomenon was the perfect intellectual complement to neoliberalism.[47] Postmodernism and post-structuralism emerged as the main theories that both arose from and justified this shift. Postmodernists reject the existence of objective reality and deny the possibility of objective knowledge. They suggest instead that everything is culturally relative and created through discourse. Society is nothing but a discursive contest over different realities – or more accurately, narratives – none more valid than another.

French philosopher Michel Foucault, while providing some valuable insights into the nature of sexuality and sexual oppression as well as the history of prisons and state punishment, was one of the earliest forerunners of postmodernism.[48] His position on power is one of the most influential aspects of his work. He rejected the Marxist view that power is based on social control and argued, alternatively, that power is dispersed throughout society:

Power should not be conceptualized as the property of someone who can be identified and confronted, nor should it be thought of (at least in the first instance) as embedded in particular agents or institutions. Power is not a possession of the Monarch or the Father or the State, and people cannot be divided into those who “have” it and those who don’t. Instead, power is what characterizes the complex relations among the parts of a society – and the interactions among individuals in that society – as relations of ongoing power… Power, then, is…a fluid, all-encompassing medium, immanent in every sort of social relation.[49]

If power is present everywhere and nowhere in particular, then the social layers who own capital and run the state are not especially powerful. This has immediate implications for how we understand oppression. Rather than seeing it as rooted in institutions and structures controlled by the ruling class for their benefit, it has no root source and is reproduced everywhere. By the same measure, the struggle against oppression should not be aimed at capital or the state, nor can it attempt to mobilise the latent power of the working class; such a defined source of power does not exist.

Society, for Foucault and his followers, must be understood, and interacted with, as a fragmented sphere of cultural relationships that are constituted and reconstituted through language and symbols. Therefore, the way to challenge oppression is to deconstruct dominant cultural paradigms, by creating alternative symbols and narratives that centre the oppressed. This is possible because individuals move “fluidly” through the world and, given there are no structural sources of power, all have equivalent social agency. Individuals can therefore discursively redefine themselves and their reality.

In many ways Foucault was the consummate neoliberal theorist. While formally critical of neoliberalism, he saw it as a potentially positive cultural process that allowed for greater fluidity and helped give rise to the “neoliberal self”, an individual defined by their consumer choices and their individual choices of identity.[50] In this way he completely ignores the class dimension of neoliberalism, which consisted not primarily of elevating individuals to consumer status but of attacking the ability for the working class to collectively organise. There is also no attempt to deal with the fact that individuals do not all have equivalent “market power” and that neoliberal reforms were about weakening the economic position of the working class. Instead, Foucault accepts the ideology used to promote neoliberalism as an accurate portrayal of society As Jane Hardy argues in the International Socialism journal:

Foucault uncritically borrowed terms from bourgeois economics that recast workers as “entrepreneurs” possessing “human capital”, cutting against the Marxist understanding of the working class as possessing only its ability to labour. Such an understanding collapses the central conflict between workers and capital in the process of production.[51]

Another two theorists who heavily influenced the development of identity politics were self-described “post-Marxists” Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe. In their key 1985 text Hegemony and Socialist Strategy they take for granted Foucault’s starting point and argue that society is just an “ensemble” of “discrete elements” not derived from, or even necessarily connected to, material reality. In this view social class has no structural meaning; the way people are organised in relation to production has no real impact on their social agency or the shape of society as a whole.

Despite this renunciation of materiality, Laclau and Mouffe did recognise identity categories as meaningful. This is not because identities are reflective of structural divisions and inequalities – which, of course, don’t exist in their framework – but because they are culturally articulated through symbols and language. These identity categories are perpetually unstable because:

A conception which denies any essentialist approach to social relations, must also state the precarious character of every identity and the impossibility of fixing the sense of the “elements” in any ultimate literality.[52]

This means that identity can be differently articulated at different points, new identity groups can emerge, and others can disappear. For Laclau and Mouffe, who wholeheartedly subscribed to neoliberal talking points, the working class in the 1980s was a disappearing identity. It was being politically and culturally marginalised and, therefore, was becoming obsolete. This vacuum would be filled by the cross-class identity groups that had come to the fore during the social movements. These groups would drive the discursive struggles through which the elements of the ensemble could be rearranged. In this sense they argued for something resembling a totality whilst simultaneously defying the very concept:

This ensemble is not the expression of any underlying principle external to itself – it cannot, for instance, be apprehended either by a hermeneutic reading or by a structuralist combinatory – but it constitutes a configuration, which in certain contexts of exteriority can be signified as a totality…an articulated discursive totality, where every element occupies a differential position.[53]

Although elements share no common properties, they can be assembled via discourse, allowing for Laclau and Mouffe’s political ambition, which is to build a “hegemonic social project”. Within pluralistic democracies, identity groups can be brought together through the use of symbols, and can then win cultural hegemony throughout society. Here we have adherence not only to neoliberal ideology, but to one of the key liberal fantasies about Western capitalism: that it is a system based on pluralism and democracy.

Postmodernism, and its relatives, post-structuralism and post-Marxism, offer no way to overcome, or even challenge, oppression. The spread of these theories served to entrench the conservative drift of movement leaders and activists as they became further removed from significant struggle. At the base of these theories is a profound fatalism that accepts, and even embraces aspects of, the system as it is. By ignoring structural reality, and especially by ignoring structural inequality, these theories relegate struggles against oppression to minor disputations over language and culture, encouraging fragmentation, individualism and passivity. All of these are core elements to the ensemble that is identity politics.

Though Foucault, Laclau and Mouffe developed these theories several decades ago, there has been no serious break with the logic they laid down within the academy. This is particularly the case for theoretical work related to identity and oppression. There have been several theories that have emerged within this field that are described by their proponents as new, and even as representative of a break from identity politics.

Queer theory and intersectionality theory are the two most obvious examples of this. However, there is nothing fundamentally new in these theories. Queer theory, despite its claims to be a radical rejection of identity essentialism, is based, as Marxist Sherry Wolf describes, on “the middle-class idea that we are all oppressed primarily as individuals by other individuals and therefore any resistance to oppression must be individual… In effect, queer is a/n (non)identity that is supposedly unique to every individual”.[54] Intersectionality theory similarly claims to be an advance on postmodernism and traditional identity politics. But, as we have discussed, it relies on the same postmodern subjectivism that fails to account for the structural underpinnings of oppression and the fundamental class divisions in society.

Moreover, while some of the contemporary theorists operating within these theoretical frameworks can provide some useful insights through their focused research, there is today an overwhelming prioritisation of personal reflections and anecdotes over attempts to theorise the social basis of oppression.[55] To paraphrase Aguilar, outside of the work of small handfuls of Marxists, the majority of sociologists, feminists, race theorists and queer theorists make the system behind oppression disappear, and in so doing, render it, along with the identities and oppressions it creates, eternal and invariant.[56] This, more than anything, is the legacy of the “retreat from class” within the academy.

Diversifying the system

While these intellectual developments lay the foundations for identity politics, it was the incorporation of the oppressed into the institutions that govern capitalist society that really entrenched and popularised the ideas. The contradictions are dramatic. On the one hand, oppression continues to ruin and damage the lives of millions, and structural inequality and discrimination are baked into capitalist society, along with ideologies of bigotry that back them up. At the same time, modern capitalist society, particularly in the West, has also shown itself able and willing to absorb suitably tamed representatives of oppressed populations into the highest positions in the state and the economy. Opportunities have increasingly opened up for oppressed faces to move into high places, whether it be within government bureaucracies, corporate management structures, or various cultural institutions.

This has led to a degree of diversification among those who rule and manage the system. Though there are growing numbers of CEOs and politicians from oppressed backgrounds, the biggest changes have been in the middle classes, where there are now multiple pathways for career advancement. This is both a generalised phenomenon across nearly all sectors and institutions, and a product of the proliferation of organisations and bureaucracies established specifically to promote the rights of the oppressed. These material shifts have led to increasing political and cultural acceptance of diversity, and the common sense idea that progress against oppression primarily consists of cultural reform and expanding representation. They have also given rise to a layer of professionals and bureaucrats who have an active interest in promoting identity politics.

The process of incorporating more diverse layers into the system began during the social movements themselves. This represented a concession forced on the ruling class by the strength of sentiment generated by the movements. Yet it was also an attempt to neuter them. At the height of the Black rights movement in the US, President Richard Nixon famously used the slogan of “Black Power” to make a case for the cultivation of the Black bourgeoisie in order to quell the struggle.[57] In this and other ways, far-sighted sections of the ruling class hoped to stabilise their system.

Starting in the 1970s but particularly throughout the ’80s and ’90s, there was a period of organic experimentation with top-down diversification. Initially it was women who were afforded some opportunities to climb the ranks of state bureaucracies and the corporate ladder. Over time, to a lesser extent, the same began to happen for various racialised minorities and other oppressed groups. Out of this process it was comprehensively proven that the recognition and inclusion of oppressed identity groups posed no threat to the system. Not only did it present no challenge to class inequality, it also presented no fundamental challenge to the oppression of those groups themselves, merely giving it a new gloss.

This process was also readily incorporated into the neoliberal agenda of the time. As members of oppressed groups moved into prominent and powerful positions and whole industries were created around the celebration of particular identities, the individualism at the heart of identity politics came into its own. Identity diversity became a marketing ploy, connected to rampant consumer culture and cynical corporate branding. Much of this involved ghoulishly incorporating the slogans and symbols of the liberation movements that preceded it. No movement underwent this transformation as comprehensively as Gay Liberation. The rise of the pink dollar, and with it the rise of a gay bureaucracy spanning both the private and public sector, has partially redefined the fight for equal rights to one based around individual expression and consumerism.

Over subsequent decades, the capitalist system has only shown more enthusiasm for identity diversity and the corporate co-option of social justice issues and even protest movements. The most recent example is BLM, which was aggressively seized upon by corporate America. Along with advertising gimmicks, this has resulted in a new round of affirmative action within the upper echelons of society, as this Financial Times report, written in the aftermath of the 2020 BLM protests reveals:

As scrutiny of white, male corporate boardrooms intensified during the worldwide demonstrations following Floyd’s murder, 148 S&P 500 companies appointed a Black director, up from just 52 appointments in the same period a year earlier. From July 1 2020 to May 19 2021, a third of newly appointed directors were Black, up from 11 per cent from the same period a year earlier… Nasdaq has proposed new listing rules that would require companies to have two diverse directors – including one who self-identifies as female and one who self-identifies as Black or another under-represented minority group.[58]

The value of identity diversity for the capitalist system goes further than “woke” corporate brand building. It is also key for the political branding of a particular section of the ruling class. It has allowed sections of the establishment to present themselves as progressive while presiding over obscene levels of inequality and injustice. Again, this was particularly useful during the neoliberal period which saw both inequality and injustice increase sharply. Nancy Fraser describes the role played by the new “progressive spirit” of identity politics in this period:

Exuding an aura of emancipation, this new “spirit” charged neoliberal economic activity with a frisson of excitement. Now associated with the forward-thinking and the liberatory, the cosmopolitan and the morally advanced, the dismal suddenly became thrilling. Thanks in large part to this ethos, policies that fostered a vast upward redistribution of wealth and income acquired the patina of legitimacy.[59]

This progressive posturing continues to be favoured by a section of the political class, as well as the liberal media outlets that back it. This is not a minority current within the ruling class. Despite the fact that there continues to be a vocal and well resourced right wing that coheres itself on the basis of opposing social justice and identity politics, the tide of establishment opinion is flowing in the other direction. Joe Biden’s performatively diverse cabinet appointments are an example of this. In Australia, the Victorian Labor government, led by Daniel Andrews, is ostentatiously “progressive”, and takes every opportunity to demonstrate its identity politics credentials. For example the government’s high profile infrastructure project of building level crossings on the train line is adorned with symbols of its supposed commitment to diversity and equality. The project has its own gender affirmation policy, a focus on engaging women in the project, is proudly “Steminist”, has committed to incorporating Aboriginal culture into the design and construction of the crossing, has a program to recruit Indigenous, disabled and refugee young people to the workforce, has a trans Inclusion Capability Officer assigned to the project, and has a podcast dedicated to issues of identity inclusion run out of the project.[60] Even governments and political parties that are not concerned with presenting themselves as progressive are often willing to engage in harmless virtue signalling in relation to particular oppressed groups.

The benefits of diverse integration and representation for the ruling class go much further than public relations. Over the past 50 years it has proven very useful as a way to carry out with impunity policies that entrench oppression, to neutralise sections of the population that may otherwise be adversaries and to build political and electoral power bases. The process of state integration of various identity groups means that there is a permanent pool of existing and aspiring bureaucrats and professionals, drawn from these groups, who have similar interests to governments in generating superficially progressive demands for recognition and representation.

In Australia, the federal Whitlam Labor government began the incorporation of social identity groups into the state. This was both in response to the social movements and was part of Whitlam’s broader agenda of shifting the ALP from its historical roots in the workers’ movement to being a party oriented to and led by the progressive middle class. One of the first groups to be integrated was women, beginning in the early 1970s. The Whitlam government appointed Elizabeth Reid as the world’s first women’s advisor to a head of state in 1973. Reid fitted the bill perfectly as a senior tutor of philosophy at the ANU and associated with the bourgeois Women’s Electoral Lobby (WEL).[61] WEL represented the right wing of the women’s movement and from the outset its activities had received positive encouragement from sections of the ruling class.[62] Reid’s appointment marked not just the entrance of women into positions of authority that they had previously been excluded from but the emergence, more specifically, of the femocrats: a layer of feminist bureaucrats and academics who occupy positions that are specifically about representing women’s interests from a feminist perspective. Feminist sociologist Anna Yeatman describes it in this way:

It is a labour market which depends on the persisting legitimacy of the ideology of feminism. It is the political force of feminism which leads governments to create these advocacy positions and which demands of their female occupants a commitment to feminist ideology.[63]

This process was not isolated to women. A study into the proliferation of identity politics in the Australian state conducted by Elizabeth Fells describes that, from the 1970s onwards: “Australian governments began to be active in the area of social identity, introducing a number of social identity portfolios – Aboriginal Affairs, Islander Affairs, Ethnic Affairs, Youth, the Aged and Multicultural Affairs”.[64] These portfolios were tied to budgets and, often, departments which existed ostensibly to “ensure that the concerns of the groups are considered and addressed. In addition, they implement policy and program responses to promote equity and provide support services to assist these groups”.[65]

On the surface, the turn away from state spending on services and welfare that characterised the neoliberal period appears to conflict with the expansion of these bureaucracies. Throughout the 1980s and ’90s various programs, services and bodies relating to social identity underwent severe funding cuts or were sometimes dissolved entirely. But despite money being taken out of programs that had some benefits for the oppressed, the facade of social inclusion was largely maintained. There was a growing recognition that having particular identity groups on board could be used to help to sell right-wing policies.

For example, the femocrats were useful supporters of the Hawke government’s attacks on the working class in the mid 1980s. Hawke established a body called the Social Security Review, headed up by feminist sociologist Bettina Cass. The review led to a number of regressive welfare reforms, including a policy that required custodial single parents (mostly women) to pursue non-custodial parents (mostly men) for child support payments before becoming eligible for welfare assistance from the state. This measure resulted in redistributing the burden of welfare off the state and onto the working class. It also played to the right-wing anti-working class prejudices about “deadbeat dads” and it made it harder for working-class women to break ties with men, including those who had been abusive. For Cass and other middle class feminists it was celebrated as a means to redistribute wealth from men to women.[66]

Both sides of politics in Australia have recognised the value of this model. An interesting observation made by Fells based on the data she collected is that the funding and maintenance of portfolios and departments related to social identity do not necessarily correlate with the expected politics of the major parties: “social identity activity, innovation, emulation and commitment do not appear to have a partisan explanation”.[67] Both the ALP and the Liberal party have repeatedly cut funding to services and programs related to social identity, and have consistently invested, both politically and financially, in identity-based communities according to their political interests. Although the ALP ties itself more to social identity groups who are perceived as being connected to progressive left campaigns, such as the LGBTI lobby, both parties have successfully used the banner of “multiculturalism” to recruit bureaucrats from migrant constituencies. Both parties have also successfully cultivated their own layer of loyal Indigenous spokespeople and bureaucrats. In exchange, the members of oppressed groups who become staffers, committee members and heads of agencies can become the active oppressors of their own communities.

Bringing representatives of Aboriginal communities to the table has other benefits too, particularly around the issue of land rights. Negotiated outcomes with trusted leaders can give governments and corporations important access to land and resources by drawing a line around complicated processes and mapping out a mutually agreed pathway that avoids decades-long court cases. This simultaneously provides certainty for investors and state officials while integrating the struggle for land rights into state structures, all under the guise of “community consultation”.

The treaty process currently being conducted by the Victorian government is a good example of these dynamics. Negotiations are conducted between the state government and traditional owner groups/corporations. Officially the state government is working with a range of these groups, but in reality the organisation they have fostered and that heads up the process is the undemocratic and untransparent Federation of Victorian Traditional Owner Corporations (FVTOC). This body receives major funding and a seat at the table to be part of a “nation building” project spanning five years, that consists of making decisions about the land that have to be constantly scrutinised and approved by the Department of Premier and Cabinet. The government refers to this as “self-determination”, yet in reality it represents a way for a select group of Aboriginal-run corporate entities to advance and to become delivery partners for the state government, while also offering the ALP a way to build up a layer of loyal Black bureaucrats.[68]

Beneath this layer of higher level bureaucrats, there are several layers of “street level bureaucrats” working in social services, the community sector and identity-based NGOs. Though many of these organisations can administer useful services and roll out programs that can provide important support to oppressed groups, they are locked into the system in several ways. They are mostly dependent on the state for funding and are beholden to a moderate political outlook necessary to fulfill the requirements of contracts and grant applications. Within all of these organisations and the wider milieu they are part of, there are many opportunities for career advancement for those who play their cards right. This means promoting a set of politics about oppression and identity that are individualistic and conservative. Talking about the system responsible for oppression is anathema; instead the focus is on piecemeal and superficial cultural reforms. An example is the recent overhauling of the Safe Schools program, a government-funded intervention aimed at making schools more inclusive for LGBTI students. In the face of homophobic and transphobic attacks from the right-wing media, the contract of Marxist co-founder of the program Roz Ward was terminated and the content watered down so as to make it clear that there is no intention to make political arguments about oppression, only a focus on fostering respectful interpersonal behaviour.

Another example of the inbuilt conservatism that has come along with the institutionalisation of oppressed identity groups is the recent craze of cultural diversity and safety training. A whole industry has been developed around the idea that the only way to combat oppression is to educate people about cultural tolerance. The books, seminars and ongoing programs that aim to do this are generated by many of the identity-based organisations that I have described, both in the public and private sectors. Bosses everywhere are happily taking up these programs. The individualised and symbolic nature of their teachings means that bosses and managers can easily attain certification as an “anti-racist” or “LGBTI-inclusive” workplace, while at the same time acquiring another set of tools and language to intimidate and bully workers with. Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility, a book that has been widely used as part of corporate anti-racism workshops, provides a perfect example of this dynamic. Louise O’Shea describes:

What to many might be an encouraging sign in the apartheid-like conditions of the US – that most workers forced by their boss to undertake diversity training frequently express a pre-existing opposition to racism and take umbrage at the corporate diversity trainer accusing them of it – is to DiAngelo simply evidence of ever more stubborn fragility and egregious prejudice. We’re supposed to relish her tales of dragging workers over the coals for minor transgressions and delight in their transparent displays of fragility and “racial stress” when they object. But this is no win for anti-racism. It is a win for the parasitic diversity industry. It is a win for bosses who have bought themselves some protection against discrimination proceedings through hiring people like DiAngelo.[69]

The Marxist alternative

Identity politics is a dead end for the oppressed and anyone looking to seriously challenge injustice. Marxism offers an alternative. As a theory it is based upon understanding society as a unified, contradictory totality. This means that it can be used to explain the complexity and variability of different forms of oppression, while also recognising that each exist within and because of the domination of one social class by another. These social relations point to where power lies and how it might be challenged and the material basis of oppression done away with.

Oppression and capitalism

Oppression will continue to exist, in different forms, so long as the structures of capitalism remain. Even when certain effects of oppression are mitigated through reforms and cultural shifts, and even when some individuals or layers drawn from oppressed groups can alleviate their own oppression, the system will continue to generate divisions in the population, backed up by both structural inequality and ideology. Examining the core dynamics of this system is an essential starting point for understanding oppression.

The fundamental social division in the capitalist system is between workers and capitalists, because this division is the basis for production, without which there would be no society. Production is controlled by the capitalist class and is based upon the frenzied and competitive accumulation of capital in order to make profits. The minority ruling class depends upon the exploitation of the labour of the majority, the working class, to make these profits. Given this precarious dynamic, oppression is an indispensable tool to maintaining the economic and political power of the ruling class. The working class itself is socially discriminated against and oppressed in multiple ways, for example the denial of access to decent healthcare and housing. In addition other groups are marked out for oppression in order to serve the interests of particular sections of the capitalist class. Some forms of oppression, for example against women, pre-dated capitalism and were incorporated because they proved useful.[70] Others arose with capitalism, such as the development of biological racism out of slavery.[71] Other forms have emerged as a result of imperialist campaigns, both historic and recent; think for example of Islamophobia. And still others have emerged as a result of existing structures of oppression, for example homophobia and transphobia developing from women’s oppression.

It is this oppression, and the reactionary ideologies created to justify it, that generate identities in the first place. In order to justify the singling out of particular groups for specialised forms of discrimination, arbitrary characteristics are amplified and presented as justification for that treatment. For example, the use of Africans as slaves on the cotton plantations laid the basis for the idea of black skin inferiority. With the creation of such racism came the creation of race-based identity groups.

As well as being imposed from above in this way, group identification is also often reinforced and even cultivated from below. For example, struggles against racism have been strengthened by, and in some ways necessitate that, those being racially discriminated against identify themselves as collective. Some identity groups have been very consciously forged by the oppressed group itself. Gay people, and more recently trans people, have had to fight to define themselves as an identity group, rather than as people medicalised for behavioural deviance. In all cases, social identities are more than cultural; they are categories that are rooted in the social relations of capitalism, and it is because of this that they take on a real material basis and become significant political categories. And, at the same time, these categories are inherently contradictory and impermanent, and will be abolished under a classless society that has no need for oppression.[72]

Class, while being the basis for identity groups itself, is also a major factor in the composition of all other identity groups. All identity groups, except for groups based on class, consist of people from different classes. The class divisions within identity groups have become more substantial, and more politically important, in correlation with the diversification of the system, and over the time that identity politics has become more entrenched. Because it is now more possible for members of oppressed groups to be part of the ruling class and the middle class, the wealth divisions within these groups are widening.[73] But more important and indicative of these wealth differentials are the differentials in social power between classes. Those who have substantial decision-making power over their own lives and the lives of others are bosses and leading politicians and, to a lesser extent, managers and high-ranking professionals and bureaucrats. The fact that more people from oppressed groups now occupy these positions is one of the clearest indications that the favoured strategy of identity politics, expanding representation, does not have a meaningful impact on the lives and forms of structural oppression experienced by substantial layers of people within those same groups.

Moreover, those who have power and receive privileges as a result of their position in the system have an interest in preserving these positions and in preserving the system itself. In this sense it is precisely the success of identity politics, in winning more diverse representation, that undermines its core political premise: that non-class identity is the fundamental line of social division.

Solidarity and Revolution

Solidarity is the enduring catch-cry of all serious struggles against oppression. Solidarity is often misunderstood today as a term that refers to symbolic gestures of support or as interchangeable with the concept of allyship, which is about passive support and assumes a fundamental opposition of interests between identity groups. It is neither of these things. It is fundamentally about power not symbolism, and it is based on an understanding of the unity of interests between different layers of society, embodied most importantly in the working class.

Solidarity is firstly the process linking together struggles in order to make each more powerful. This is a necessity because of the system that we are up against, and it is especially important for groups that are the most marginalised. It is impossible for example for Aboriginal people, trans people, or refugees to win liberation without significant support from other social layers. They are simply too small and socially peripheral to confront the ruling class and its state. It is necessary for social movements that aim to achieve meaningful victories to win over significant minorities of the population, if not majorities, to their cause.

This is not to say that within particular movements the leadership and input of those directly affected by oppression is not crucial. In fact, precisely because of these experiences, they will often be the most motivated to initiate struggle and are uniquely placed to inspire others to join the movement. But it is not sufficient to then call on others to gather around like a cheer squad. Building solidarity is not based upon moral chastisement, nor on sympathetic paternalism. It is based fundamentally on the recognition of shared interests and a collective, democratic struggle.

One of the main ways that a common interest between oppressed groups is established is by recognising the common oppressor. Even without a thoroughgoing analysis of capitalism, this often becomes clear to people, especially in the course of struggle. Different groups are oppressed by the same governments, scapegoated by the same media outlets, attacked by the same police. As well as having a shared experience of oppression at the hands of these forces, when our side deals a blow to them on one front, it is a victory for all of us. For instance, forcing a government into backing down on one regressive policy can often have the effect of making them less willing to go after other groups, as well as giving the broad left more confidence. And because there is a tendency for struggle to break down the hold of bourgeois ideology, the more that people engage with struggles not just against their own oppression, but also against that directed at others, the more that the ideas that can divide us are undermined.

The movement that the term solidarity is most closely associated with is that of the working class. There are a few reasons for this. Firstly, it is the working class that, of all oppressed groups, has the most social power. In fact it has a social power that is unique across the entire span of human history, the power to stop the flow of profits at the point of production. This economic strength gives working-class demonstrations of solidarity serious muscle. On multiple occasions the deployment of this power has played a crucial role in struggles against oppression, for example winning equal pay and land rights in Australia. Today there is a lack of awareness of this important aspect of solidarity, both because identity politics has pushed people’s conception of struggles against oppression into the realms of culture and symbols, and because the workers’ movement is weak. This in turn makes all of our other struggles weaker. Workers still make up the majority of most demonstrations today, but usually as individuals, rather than as an organised force prepared to take strike action or initiate industrial bans on behalf of the movement. It is undoubtedly the case that such actions would have substantially strengthened the recent BLM protests, the climate strikes, and every other social movement.

The other reason that the working class generated the solidarity principle is because it is a collective class. Workers have no power as individuals; they can only threaten production collectively. This is true within workplaces, but the collectivity of the working class goes beyond this. Under capitalism, production is divided into millions of processes carried out across millions of workplaces. The more that workers can link up with struggles at other workplaces, the more power they wield.

A couple of important things flow from this. One is that workers have an interest in extending solidarity to other groups of workers, and in breaking down sectionalism and the appearance of competition between different sections of the working class. Another is that workers have an interest in overcoming all forms of oppression. The working class consists of all other oppressed groups, but also oppression sows ideological and political divisions which are a barrier to collective struggle.

For workers to get to a point where they have enough power to challenge the ruling class for power, thus overcoming their oppression, there needs to be a high level of democratic coordination across many sections of the class. For this to happen, workers need to be conscious of the oppressive and divisive tactics of the ruling class, and to have a strong sense of common purpose with groups of workers from many different identity backgrounds. In this sense, conscious political opposition to oppression is not distinct from or an optional add-on to class consciousness. High levels of class consciousness – meaning an ability for workers to understand their collective class interests and objectives – necessarily implies opposition to oppression. This is not to say that workers come to this consciousness automatically. Struggle, and even more so, revolution, play a big part in shifting views. Also crucial is political intervention and argument.

More than just challenging oppression throughout the course of struggle and revolution, workers represent the only force that can eradicate oppression altogether. A socialist society ruled by the working class will necessarily be run democratically and without arbitrary forms of discrimination. This comes back again to the nature of the working class in relation to production. It has no ability to exploit any other layer because it does all of the work. And it is a majority class that is only powerful as a collective. Therefore under workers’ rule there is no material basis for arbitrary divisions or discrimination. Without these material underpinnings, there is no reason for cultural norms and backward ideas that spring from inequality to continue. After a period of development under socialism, oppression in all of its forms will be eradicated. Where capitalism cannot survive without oppression, socialism cannot survive with it. The working class is the only force capable of building such a society and in this way it represents the only universalising social agent, capable of delivering its own emancipation and, at the same time, liberation for all of humanity.

The Marxist tradition

Marxists have always taken seriously the task of eradicating oppression, and have been at the forefront of struggles against it. For Marx and Engels it was essential to understand as much as possible about oppression. They dedicated serious time to investigating the roots of women’s oppression, understanding the struggles of various national minorities, coming to grips with the dynamics of colonialism in India, slavery in the US and the occupation of Ireland. All of this was important for building a picture of capitalist society and its historical development. However, more important than these specific areas of research were their theoretical breakthroughs about the core dynamics of capitalism.

It is this that has made Marxism the most enduring framework through which the specificities of oppression have come to be understood. Over the past 150 years, every serious attempt to theoretically understand any form of oppression has involved an engagement with Marxist ideas. And I would argue that the most useful insights have been those developed by Marxists. It would not be difficult to provide a lengthy list but I will limit myself to a few examples: Eric Williams’ brilliant 1944 work tracking the dialectical entwinement of the roots of racism, the slave trade and the birth of industrial capitalism; Walter Rodney’s study How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (1972); CLR James’ work on the Haitian revolution and on the struggles for Black rights in the US; the contributions of British Marxists Chris Harman and Lindsay German on the history of the nuclear family and its centrality to the oppression of women; the more recent work by a range of Marxists into the roots of trans oppression. The argument raised, often within academic circles, that Marxism cannot explain anything but the economy and that other theories must be used to understand oppression, is not based in fact. It instead comes from an anti-Marxist, liberal political perspective and is justified on the basis of identity politics moralism. It is a shame that some socialists have capitulated to this sentiment and themselves argue for a watering down of Marxism by calling for it to be merged with counterposed liberal theories like intersectionality.

Not only have Marxists always taken seriously the task of theorising oppression but also, and intimately connected to this, the real Marxist tradition is one of fierce resistance to every manifestation of oppression. Revolutionary Marxists can be found all throughout the history of capitalism on the frontlines of the struggles of the oppressed. From the revolutionary communards of Paris 1871 to the recent struggles for abortion and women’s rights in Latin America, we have fought against women’s oppression. From the Russian revolution through to the struggle for Palestinian liberation today, we have fought for the liberation of oppressed nations. From the anti-slavery revolts through to the ongoing fights for Black and Indigenous rights today, we have stood against racism. From opposing the bloodshed of World War I to opposing the crimes of the Western wars in the Middle East, we have stood against imperialism.

Some of the threads of this tradition have been contorted by Stalinism, but the real Marxist tradition has nothing to do with support for authoritarian regimes and the oppressive crimes that have been committed in their name. The real Marxist tradition is summed up by the often quoted statement from Lenin that the revolutionary party must become the “tribune of the people”.[74] In some ways more important today is the rest of the quote from which this phrase is taken. It is Lenin’s argument that the revolutionary party must become the “tribune of the people” and must “react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it appears, no matter what stratum or class of the people it affects”.

The second part of this quote is often left out however. It is not enough, as the first part in isolation suggests, for socialists to stand shoulder to shoulder with the oppressed. The task of revolutionaries is to use this position to argue for the oppressed and their supporters to take up the vantage point of the only force that can win true liberation. As Lenin goes onto say, revolutionaries must

generalise all these manifestations and produce a single picture of police violence and capitalist exploitation; who is able to take advantage of every event, however small, in order to set forth before all his socialist convictions and his democratic demands, in order to clarify for all and everyone the world-historic significance of the struggle for the emancipation of the proletariat.[75]

In other words, in order to win liberation for each, we need liberation for all, and it is only the struggle of the working class that points the way. It is the role of organised socialists to fight for this perspective in practice, and to provide the theoretical and political arguments for it.


Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi 2021, “It is obscene: a true reflection in three parts”,, 15 June.

Aguilar, Delia D 2012, “Tracing the roots of intersectionality”, Marxist Review Online, 12 April.

Aguilar, Delia D 2015, “Intersectionality”, Marxism and Feminism, edited by Mojab Shahrzad, Zed Books, pp.203-220.

Allen, Ted and Ignatin, Noel 1967, “White Blindspot”,

Amedi, Roj 2017, “The Victorian Pride Centre’s brown and black stripes are a bandaid solution”, SBS, 26 August.

Australian National University Students Association 2021, “Agenda – ANUSA Student Representative Council (SRC) 4”, Motion 6.8: Department consultation, p.4, 11 August.

Arrow, Michelle 2017, “Working inside the system: Elizabeth Reid, the Whitlam government, and the women’s movement”, Australian Women’s History Movement, 5 March.

Baradaran, Mehrsa 2019, “The real roots of ‘Black Capitalism’”, New York Times, 31 March.

Bloodworth, Sandra 1990, “The Poverty of Patriarchy Theory”, Socialist Review, 2, Winter,

Cohn, Candace 2020, “A Marxist Critique of the theory of ‘white privilege’”, Red Flag, 4 July.

Combahee River Collective 1977, Combahee River Collective Statement.

Crenshaw, Kimberle 1989, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics”, University of Chicago Legal Forum, 1, 1989.

Duke, Jennifer 2021, “Gay parents frustrated by ‘biased’ father and mother questions in census”, Sydney Morning Herald, 12 August.

Dzotsi, Emmanuel 2020, “The least you can do”, Reply-all, 162 [Podcast], GIMLET, 18 June.

Fells, Elizabeth 2003, “The proliferation of identity politics in Australia”, Australian Journal of Political Science, 38, 1.

Feltscheer, Mitch 2017, “VIC Pride centre adds Brown & Black stripes to LGBTIQ Flag for P.O.C”, Pedestrian, 1 August.

Fieldes, Diane 2005, “Equal pay: The insurance industry struggle, 1973-75”, Rebel Women in Australian Working Class History, edited by Sandra Bloodworth and Tom O’Lincoln, Red Flag Publications.

Foley, Gary 2001, Black Power in Redfern 1968-72, PhD thesis, Victoria University.

Foucault, Michel 1980, Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, edited by Colin Gordon, Pantheon Press.

Fraser, Nancy 2019, The Old Is Dying and the New Cannot Be Born: From Progressive Neoliberalism to Trump and Beyond, Verso.

Garnham, Sarah 2018 “Against Reductionism: Marxism and Oppression”, Marxist Left Review, 16, Winter.

Gilio-Whitaker, Dina 2018 “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack of Settler Privilege”, Beacon Broadside, 8 November.

Hanisch, Carol 1970, “The personal is political”, Notes from the Second Year: Women’s Liberation, edited by Shulamith Firestone and Anne Koedt.

Hardy, Jane 2021, “The myth of the ‘neoliberal self’”, International Socialism Journal, 171, Summer.

Hill Collins, Patricia H 2000, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness and the Politics of Empowerment (2nd edition), Routledge.

Hill Collins, Patricia and Sirma Bilge 2020, Intersectionality (2nd edition), Polity Press.

Humphreys, Jordan 2017, “Foucault’s ‘History of Sexuality’: A Marxist Engagement”, Marxist Left Review, 14, Winter.

Humphreys, Jordan 2021, “Capitalism, colonialism and class: A Marxist explanation of Indigenous oppression today”, Marxist Left Review, 21, Summer.

Hyde, Justine 2020, “Interview: Craig Silvey on writing from a trans perspective: ‘A novelist is required to listen, to learn’”, The Guardian, 30 September.

IWD Narm Melbourne [Facebook page].

Jefferson, Dee 2021, “Dark Mofo festival weathered the backlash against Union Flag and a First Nations boycott, but the impact will be lasting”, ABC News, 6 July.

Jensen, Robert 2005, The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism and White Privilege, City Lights Publishers.

Karanikolas, Amber 2019, “Where are all the disabled academics?”, Overland Journal, 15 July,

Kimmel, Michael and Abby Ferber 2017, Privilege: A Reader, Routledge.

Kochhar, Rakesh and Cilluffo, Anthony 2018, “Income Inequality in the US Is Rising Most Rapidly Among Asians”, Pew Research Center, 12 July.

Laclau, Ernesto and Chantal Mouffe 1985, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, Verso.

Lenin, Vladimir Ilych 1902, What is to be done?.

Level Crossings Removal Project 2020, “Training for the Future online resources”.

Lynch, Caz 2021, “Asking for our blood”, Overland, 22 March.

Maddison, Sarah 2019, The Colonial Fantasy: Why White Australia Can’t Solve Black Problems, Allen & Unwin.

McIntosh, Peggy 1989, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”, Peace and Freedom Magazine, July-August.

McLaren, Jesse 2020, “Marxism and Intersectionality”, Monthly Review, Spring.

Moran, Marie 2018, “Identity and Identity politics: a cultural materialist history”, Historical Materialism, 26 (2).

Onus, M [@Meriiki] 2020, [Tweet], Twitter, 31 May.

O’Shea, Louise 2011, “The campaign for equal marriage rights”, Marxist Left Review, 2, Autumn.

O’Shea, Louise 2020, “White Fragility is a Corporate Cult”, Red Flag, 23 July.

Peetz, David and Georgina Murray 2017, Women, Labor Segmentation and Regulation: Varieties of Gender Gaps, Palgrave Macmillan.

Purnell, Derecka 2020, “Why Black progressive women feel torn about Kamala Harris”, The Guardian, 12 August.

Rosebourne, Stuart 1988, “Economic management, the Accord and Gender Inequality”, Journal of Australian Political Economy, 23.

Ross, Selina 2021, “MONA’s David Walsh apologises for Dark Mofo flag controversy as calls grow for Carmichael to go”, ABC News, 24 March.

Self Determination Reform Strategy n.d., Victorian State Government.

Táiwò, Olúfémi O 2020, “Being in the room privilege: elite capture and epistemic deference”, The Philosopher, 108, Autumn.

Temple-West, Patrick 2021, “US companies step up pace of hiring black directors in wake of George Floyd murder”, Financial Times, 26 May. 1242-496b-9371-100bcc1327a3

Williams, Eric 1944, “Capitalism and Slavery”, University of South Carolina Press.

Wolf, Sherry 2009, Sexuality and Socialism: History, Politics, and Theory of LGBT Liberation, Haymarket Books.

Women’s Electoral Lobby, “WEL history: How it Began” n.d.

Wood, Ellen Meiksins 1985, The Retreat From Class: A New “True” Socialism, Verso.

Wood, Katie 2015, “Australian unions and the fight for equal pay for women”, Marxist Left Review, 10, Winter.

Yeatman, Anna 1990, Bureaucrats, Technocrats, Femocrats: Essays on the Contemporary Australian State, Taylor and Francis.

[1] Jefferson 2021.

[2] Lynch 2021.

[3] Ross 2021.

[4] Ross 2021.

[5] Ross 2021.

[6] Moran 2018.

[7] Purnell 2020

[8] Kimmel and Ferber 2017, p.12.

[9] Fair in Kimmel and Ferber 2017, pp.290-291.

[10] Táiwò 2020.

[11] Australian National University Students Association 2021.

[12] Duke 2021.

[13] Duke 2021.

[14] See O’Shea 2011 for a discussion of these political attitudes and an overview of the equal marriage campaign.

[15] See IWD Narm Melbourne [Facebook page].

[16] See for example

[17] Crenshaw 1989, p.149.

[18] Kimmel 2017 p.26,

[19] See Feltscheer 2017 and Amedi 2017 for some of the commentary on this.

[20] Hill Collins and Bilge 2020.

[21] Aguilar 2015, p.211.

[22] Hill Collins 2000, p.71.

[23] Kimmel 2017, p.10.

[24] McIntosh 1989, pp.10-12.

[25] See for example Gilio-Whitaker 2018 and Shea in Kimmel and Ferber 2017.

[26] Ziegler in Kimmel and Ferber 2017 pp.209-211.

[27] Karanikolas 2019.

[28] Maddison 2019, p.14.

[29] See Humphreys 2021 for a Marxist analysis of Aboriginal oppression, from colonial invasion to today.

[30] Jensen 2005, p.38.

[31] Rosebourne 1988.

[32] Dzotsi 2020.

[33] Adichie 2021.

[34] See Ernest Price’s comments in Hyde 2020.

[35] Hyde 2020.

[36] Onus 2020.

[37] For an overview of the struggle see Wood 2015 and for an important case study see Fieldes 2005, pp.107-131.

[38] Foley 2001.

[39] Cohn 2020.

[40] Allen and Ignatin 1967.

[41] Cohn 2020.

[42] See Bloodworth 1990 for a critique of patriarchy theory.

[43] See Hanisch 1970 for an endorsement of “the personal is political” and an account of consciousness raising groups.

[44] Combahee River Collective 1977.

[45] Quoted in McLaren 2020.

[46] Moran 2018.

[47] Wood 1985.

[48] See Humphreys 2017 for a Marxist discussion of Foucault’s work on sexuality.

[49] Foucault 1980.

[50] Quoted in Hardy 2021 (from Foucault’s 1979 lecture series).

[51] Hardy 2021.

[52] Laclau and Mouffe 1985, pp.231-232.

[53] Laclau and Mouffe 1985, pp.254-255.

[54] Wolf 2009, p.195.

[55] See Hill Collins and Bilge 2020 and Kimmel and Ferber 2017 for examples of recent books, on intersectionality and privilege respectively, that reflect this trend.

[56] Aguilar 2015, p.215.

[57] Baradaran 2019.

[58] Temple-West 2021.

[59] Fraser 2019, p.16.

[60] Level Crossings Removal Project 2020.

[61] Arrow 2017.

[62] Women’s Electoral Lobby, n.d.

[63] Yeatman 1990, p.61.

[64] Fells 2003, p.104.

[65] Fells 2003, p.105.

[66] See Yeatman 1990 for a useful discussion of this.

[67] Fells 2003, p.109.

[68] Self Determination Reform Strategy, n.d.

[69] O’Shea 2020.

[70] Bloodworth 1990.

[71] See Williams 1944.

[72] See Garnham 2018 for a more detailed discussion of identity categories and their contradictions.

[73] See Peetz and Murray 2017 for a discussion of how the wealth gap between women in Australia has widened. See Kochhar and Cilluffo 2018 for data about the gaps between high earning and low earning sections of the Black, Asian, and Latino population in the US.

[74] Lenin 1902.

[75] Lenin 1902.

Against reductionism: Marxism and oppression

Sarah Garnham critically examines theories on the left that have emerged in response to identity politics.

Foucault’s 'History of Sexuality': A Marxist engagement

Jordan Humphreys argues that Foucault’s explanation of sexuality under capitalism can be incorporated into a Marxist understanding of sexuality and serve to clarify and enrich it.

The freedom to be: Marxism, gender oppression and the struggle for trans liberation

April Holcombe writes an extended review of Laura Miles, “Transgender Resistance: Socialism and the fight for trans liberation”, Bookmarks 2020.

The poverty of patriarchy theory

In this important piece, Sandra Bloodworth critiques feminist theories of women's oppression, focusing

The origins of women’s oppression – a defence of Engels and a new departure

Sandra Bloodworth revisits Engels’ arguments about the origin of women’s oppression.

The Marxist tradition and women's liberation

In an important article later republished as a pamphlet, Tess Lee Ack outlines a Marxist theory of women's oppression and a strategy for liberation

Marx and Engels on women’s and sexual oppression and their legacy

Friedrich Engels published his The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State in 1884. He argued that women’s oppression arose with the development of classes in society.  Most feminists of the 1960s and 1970s recognised Engels’ work as a key text, whether inclined to agree with or oppose him.  Yet for all the debates about the book, there is very little understanding of the actual content and importance of not just Engels’, but also Marx’s contribution to establishing the basics of a fight for women’s liberation.