We are publishing a letter from a sympathiser who took part in a recent online discussion meeting and raises some questions about our approach towards ant-racism and “identity politics”. Our response follows.
Thoughts on ICC meeting 14.6.2020
I have been around ICC meetings all my life, and they around me, but have only been to a couple of public meetings (in the quaint old days when people could sit in halls together). Yesterday was the first online, non-public meeting I have attended and it sparked a lot of thoughts and reflections. These are some of those.
Nick’s intervention struck me as particularly important. As someone on the peripheries of the academic world, I am all too aware of the cult of the new, of the production of intellectual work for the sake of it, and the economic, cultural and political logics driving it all. This of course mirrors wider logics in society that generate a million ‘new’ ideas, products and movements that embody processes and imperatives (Capital, profit, exploitation) that are little changed since Marx’s day, but which in their outward form may appear – (green technologies, antiracism …) - to offer solutions to the crises of the moment. Accosted by the proliferation of old, worn ways presented as the endless possibilities of the perpetually new, it is no wonder people become confused, and see causes of crises as solutions. (Apologies for my academic style of writing – it’s a habit that is difficult to unlearn).
This is why I think Nick was precisely right to remind us of the advice of a late comrade: the role of revolutionaries is to repeat. As people get lost in the misdirections that capitalism generates as a matter of its ‘natural’ course, it is vital that revolutionaries resolutely offer perspectives that cut through the noise and which are grounded in concepts and theories that generations of experiences in struggle and thought have shown to be accurate and effective. Nick also pointed out that this is not meant as a mechanical repetition. By this, I understand that the comrade meant that this should be a reflexive kind of repetition that learns and adjusts – in very careful, critical ways - in response to the shifting conditions of the moment. I envision this kind of repetition as more of a spiral than a circle, repeating but never returning to exactly the same place twice.
This for me raises an important question: how to be conceptually and practically responsive to shifting conditions and social-ecological-productive relations of capitalist society while also holding a clear revolutionary course. How to get the balance right?
At one point during the meeting, it was stated unequivocally that “there can be no revolutionary anti-racism”. I understand the antipathy towards antiracism and towards the ways that various identities – and the concept of identity itself - are exploited by capitalist ideologies on the left and the right in the maintenance of our current, apocalyptic mode of production. Liberal antiracism can only envision, at best, equal exploitation for all ‘races’ under capitalism and will not undo the social relations that require, create, and maintain hierarchies, whether those are based on gender, colour of someone’s skin, or any other category. This restates the position of the ICC in relation to feminism as laid out here https://en.internationalism.org/internationalreview/199604/3709/transformation-social-relations
At the same time, my feeling is that these kinds of statements are often repeated in a more or less a mechanical sense, giving the impression that marxists can be quite flippant about race and gender issues. Not because they don’t take these issues seriously, but because they sometimes don’t want to think about their own selves in relation to these categories of being that run to the heart of capitalist power. Like it or not, everyone, revolutionaries included, are products of capitalist society – itself a varied stew of other authoritarian, patriarchal, egalitarian, feudal etc. social forms - and we embody its ways of doing, thinking, and being, inevitably and unavoidably. Believing everyone is equal, that race and gender are constructs, an ideological tool of the ruling class, etc, is not the same as being free of the more and less subtle cues, modes of speech, gestures, and so on that racism, sexism and so on exist in and perpetuate through. These are incredibly pernicious and sticky, hard to spot, and hard to get rid of because they infuse everything they touch. For example, in the article inserted above, we read that proletarian movements are necessarily engaged in “unceasing combat against the penetration of the ideas of the ruling class within its ranks.” This is an important statement which is nevertheless written in the imperial language, and couched in militaristic terminology taken directly from bourgeois playbooks and discourse.
It might well be asked “well how else should we write this kind of statement? This is the language we use, we are engaged in a war.” At that is exactly the point because colonial modernity has built an entire world of its own image. We must necessarily transform the world to something else from within that world and in order to do that it is necessary to pay very close attention to ways in which we might change everyday modes of practice and discourse in order that we don’t perpetuate the divisions that work so well to divide the class. These are not ‘just’ identitarian or politically correct mystifications but have real implications for cultivating class solidarity and strength. It takes work – in practice and in theory – to overcome our own enculturation. It does not magically disappear because someone holds to theoretical perspectives that are antithetical to the capitalist order, or accurately reflect the world. There are whole bodies of literature borne out of decolonial, indigenous, and black struggles that can attest to this and just because many of these struggles might not align entirely with proletarian revolutionary struggles, does not mean we cannot learn from them.
Clearly, liberal, leftist ideology is having far more success in capturing the passions of a broader sweep of the working-class than are marxist organisations at the present. There are many reasons for this, including centuries’ long, vicious campaigns of propaganda. Partly, however, I think that this is also because organisations such as BLM, and other liberal organizations are doing the necessary self-reflexive work, are reading those broader literatures, in order to cultivate solidarities among those who have suffered differently under capitalism because of the identities capitalism uses to divide and rule. Ultimately, of course, these solidarities work in the defence of capitalism but I don’t see why revolutionaries cannot even imagine forms of anti-racism, anti-sexism etc that work towards the greater aim of opposing capitalism along a class basis. In fact, I think not trying to imagine these will likely get in the way of cultivating the solidarities we need, and actively make the chance of broad and meaningful revolution less likely to occur. At the least, I think this is a valid conversation to pursue rather than something that is entirely and finally resolved.
First we want to welcome your contribution to the reflection on the combat of our class against the effects of decadence and (by extension) the decomposition of capitalism, in particular the oppression of the different categories (identities) of people. We also welcome your participation in the contact meetings of the ICC. It is a first step to overcoming a sterile academic approach - “the production of intellectual work for the sake of it” - towards the questions you pose in your letter.
In your letter you develop mainly two points. The first is
“I don’t see why revolutionaries cannot even imagine forms of antiracism, antisexism, etc. that work towards the greater aim of opposing capitalism along a class basis. In fact, I think not trying to imagine these will likely get in the way of cultivating the solidarities we need, and actively make the chance of broad and meaningful revolution less likely to occur.”
To start we want to note that you have a rather glamorous image of the defenders (protagonists) of what we call “partial struggles” (some of which are nowadays also called identity struggles) such as anti-racism, anti-sexism, etc, when you tell us that “organizations such as BLM, and other liberal organizations are doing the necessary self-reflexive work, are reading those broader literatures, in order to cultivate solidarities among those who have suffered differently under capitalism”
You seem to forget here what you say elsewhere that, since such movements for the emancipation of specific oppressed “identities” develop their politics and activities within the boundaries of capitalist society and “are products of capitalist society”, we can be sure that they are not free from what you have defined in your letter as “a varied stew of other authoritarian, patriarchal, egalitarian, feudal, etc. social forms”, and we don’t see why it should be otherwise.
In order to make our point clear about the nature of these “identity” movements, we would like to develop on the question of antiracism, as it is a key example of struggles against the repression of particular groups of people under capitalism.
You might agree with us that oppression is inherent to capitalism and that capitalism without different kinds of oppression can’t exist: be it oppression based on ethnicity, gender, race, age or something else. Like the oppression of women, racial oppression (of black people certainly, but also the millions of indigenous people that have been partially or completely wiped out by the Spanish Conquistadores during their conquest of Americas) is imprinted in the genes of capitalism. Slavery of African, Indian and Javanese people was an indispensable element in the global expansion of capitalism. Thus, in order to eradicate racism, it is necessary to do away with the capitalist mode of production.
But, as you write in your letter, “liberal antiracism will not undo the social relations, that require, create, and maintain hierarchies”. And we agree with you. But what to think about more radical forms of antiracism, for instance the one that makes the link with the struggle for anti-capitalism? Will this kind of antiracism be able to undo the social relations of capitalism? For the ICC there is no fundamental difference between the liberal and the radical version of antiracism. Even radical antiracism, as defended for instance by Angela Davis (briefly in the Black Panthers, then a long time Stalinist and, more recently, a social democrat), who states that “we can't eradicate racism without eradicating capitalism”, will certainly not end up in challenging the basis of capitalist productive relations.
The reason for the failure of each fight against racism to challenge capitalist domination is the fact that any particular antiracist movement does not fight for the emancipation of oppressed humanity as whole, but only against discrimination, directed towards their particular category. One of the six main demands of BLM is the exclusive “independent black political power and black self-determination in all areas of society” (Platform of BLM). Such a movement, taking racial differences as the point of departure for its struggle, to fight for more power for the people of your own “race”, by excluding other “races”, perpetuates the racial divisions introduced into society and in the working class rather than serving to overcome these divisions and to build class solidarity in order to defeat the bourgeoisie and destroy capitalism.
Worse: the ideology of the anti-racist protests takes place on a terrain that can easily be manipulated by leftists and well-publicised factions like “the Democratic Socialist current within the Democratic Party in the USA” (see “Report on the impact of the decomposition on the political life of the bourgeoisie of the 23rd ICC Congress”) They are even a welcome gift for these factions of the bourgeoisie since, by focusing on particular aspects of capitalism they deflect attention from the historic crisis of the present system. In your own words “the ways that various identities – and the concept of identity itself - are exploited by capitalist ideologies on the left and the right in the maintenance of our current, apocalyptic mode of production”.
At first sight a grass root organisation like BLM (not having a well-defined and hierarchical structure, but decentralised, with the emphasis on local organising) seems to be very spontaneous and open-minded. Its structure gives room for local organisations to develop their own initiatives where efforts to do “self-reflexive work” and “reading those broader literatures” are enabled. But this doesn’t make this organisation a proper means for the development of an effective struggle against capitalism. For such a struggle to be developed something completely different is needed.
It may be that the antiracist movements do cultivate a kind of solidarity “among those who have suffered differently under capitalism” and it is always good to see expressions of solidarity among people. But the essential questions are: what kind of solidarity and on what material basis? The solidarity of “white allies” with the struggle of black or coloured people, for instance, is completely different from proletarian solidarity. While the first is an activity motivated by indignation about the injustice inflicted towards another group of people and will be constrained by racial divisions, the latter solidarity is based on common material needs and historical destination. Workers’ solidarity is not constrained by the divisions capitalism has imposed on society, but is universal. Inherent to proletarian solidarity is the capacity to transcend all divisions, whether racial, sexual, corporatist or national: it’s the expression of a class whose autonomous struggle is destined to develop a fundamental alternative to capitalism. “The proletariat is the first class within which there are no conflicting economic interests, and in this sense, its solidarity announces the nature of the society it is fighting for” (see Orientation Text 2001: Confidence and solidarity in the proletarian struggle, Part 2).
For instance: is it possible for people from antagonistic classes, participating in the same movement, to cultivate strong ties of solidarity in their ranks? We don’t think that this is possible. This kind of solidarity will always be superficial and volatile. Therefore, in contrast to what you think, these liberal organisations (like BLM for instance) cannot “cultivate solidarities among those who have suffered differently under capitalism”.
BLM as the exponent of the bourgeois racial struggle
Let’s examine Black Lives Matter a bit further. Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation (BLMGN), the official name of the organisation, calls itself “a Movement to fight for Freedom, Liberation and Justice” for black people in the US. It was founded in 2013, following increased police violence against black people.
Already in 2016 the Ford Foundation and other corporations set up a fund for BLM and started to back its activities with huge amounts of financial support which, together with the millions of dollars of donations it raises every year, gave BLM it the possibility to construct a bureaucracy of salaried staff and lobbyist positions. Much of this money is spend on salaries, consultants and travel; however there is no real transparency on the level of finances as is shown by a Statement of the Frontlines of the BLM of 30 November 2020. In this public statement 10 local chapters of BLMNG published deficits in leadership, organisation, and financial accounting. “In our experience, chapter organizers have been consistently prevented from establishing financial transparency” (“It is Time for Accountability; Statement from the Frontlines of BLM”)
Since the very beginning BLM leaders have been active towards the Democratic Party. “Leading Black Lives Matter spokespersons made repeated trips to the White House in 2015 and 2016 to hold meetings with President Obama and his representatives. The Democratic Party was conferring official authority upon the group”. (“Black Lives Matter cashes in on black capitalism”; WSWS; 4 April 2017) Thus, even if BLM is not affiliated to and has no formal links with the Democratic Party, BLM has developed close ties with the Democratic Party.
In the 2020 race for the presidency, the leaders of BLM have actively propagated participation in the democratic elections. They regularly addressed the leadership of the Democratic Party to accede to their demands. In August 2020 Alicia Garza said for instance that, when Joe Biden chooses his running mate, that it would be better to choose “A Black woman in particular and not just a woman of colour”. Patrisse Cullors in turn said that she was “calling the Democratic Party to the table”, in order to change the party platform to more boldly address police brutality and racial injustice.
After it was clear that Biden had won the presidential election, BLM published a statement in which it said to “congratulate Joe Biden on becoming President, and particularly Kamala Harris, on becoming the country’s first woman - a Black woman — to serve as Vice President. This historic win is a testament to the work Black women have been doing in the streets, in this campaign, and at every level of politics.” (Statement of BLMGN About Biden-Harris Victory; November 7, 2020)
Thus the policy of BLM is essentially capitalist, and the social justice rhetoric (“defund the police”) only throws a veneer of radicalism over it.
The capitalist trajectory of BLM is the direct product of its antiracist ideology, which argues that each oppression can be fought on its own terms, without the abolition of all forms of oppression within capitalist society. For the working class such a struggle is no option. For the workers there can be no end to the struggle if the demands of one sector of the class has not yet been granted. The slogan of the International Workingmen's Association (IWA) was “all for one, one for all”. This slogan was put in practice for instance in the mass strike in Poland in 1980, when workers, whose demands were conceded by the government, decided not to return to work before the demands of all the workers in Poland had been met.
Therefore, in contrast to what you think, it is these antiracist, antisexist, etc struggles that actually “get in the way of cultivating the solidarities we need, and actively make the chance of broad and meaningful revolution less likely to occur”. Anti-racism only ties the protesters more to the bourgeois state. These kinds of struggle are a barrier to the development of working class struggle, its solidarity and its consciousness, the only instruments that are able to achieve a broad and radical overthrow of the basis of racism: the capitalist mode of production.
The impact of the dominant ideology on revolutionaries
The second point you develop in your letter is about the fact that even revolutionaries are not “free of the more and less subtle cues, modes of speech, gestures, and so on that racism, sexism and so on exist in and perpetuate through”. (…) “Everyone, revolutionaries included, are products of capitalist society – itself a varied stew of other authoritarian, patriarchal, egalitarian, feudal etc. social forms - and we embody its ways of doing.” (…..) “Our own enculturation does not magically disappear because someone holds to theoretical perspectives that are antithetical to the capitalist order.”
In face of the weight of this legacy of capitalist society on the revolutionaries you also make a suggestion for a solution: “we can learn from literature borne out of decolonial, indigenous, and black struggles that can show how to fight our own enculturation”. Evidentially “it takes work – in practice and in theory – to overcome our own enculturation”. But you think that Marxists “sometimes don’t want to think about their own selves in relation to these categories of being that run to the heart of capitalist power”.
It is true that “everyone, revolutionaries included, are products of capitalist society (…) and we embody its ways of doing”. And revolutionaries are not “free of the more and less subtle cues, modes of speech, gestures, and so on that racism, sexism and so on exist in and perpetuate through”. But you admit that we are not passive victims of these behaviours, since “we can learn from literature borne out of decolonial, indigenous, and black struggles that can show how to fight our own enculturation”.
To limit ourselves to the question of racism, the ICC has already written articles that express our view on the question of racism and antiracism and, in preparation for these articles, we have discussed that question many times. In these discussions we also refer regularly to “literature borne out of decolonial, indigenous, and black struggles”, varying from W.E.B. Du Bois to Franz Fanon to more recent academic works. So, we can assure you that revolutionaries do not accept being unconscious victims of these racist behaviours, and neither do they advocate ignorance of whatever serious studies are being produced by various writers and academic institutions. But they do start from a different theoretical framework, based on the traditions of the workers’ movement.
Revolutionaries are militants of the class who fight for a communist society and in that framework their behaviour cannot be in contradiction with the goal they want to achieve, for such a behaviour would precisely stand in the way not only of “cultivating the solidarities that are needed”, but also of developing a fraternal culture of debate, of organising an effective struggle, of founding a solid combat organisation, etc.
The participation in a revolutionary organisation and the ideological and theoretical struggle that takes place in such an organisation, makes these revolutionaries less vulnerable to the weight and influence of the bourgeois or petty bourgeois ideology than any individual militant of the class.
In this framework it is not completely clear to us what you mean by your remark that Marxists “sometimes don’t want to think about their own selves in relation to these categories [race or gender issues] of being that run to the heart of capitalist power”. It may be that this is sometimes the case, but it depends on what you mean by “Marxists” and whether you mean all Marxists or only by certain elements pretending to be Marxists.
Revolutionaries do not limit themselves to self-reflection on an individual basis, to a kind of therapy, (which, by the way, they do not reject). But the self-reflection in the revolutionary sense of the word is carried out in a collective framework, on a collective basis, as an associated whole, by drawing the lessons of previous struggles, by clarifying the stakes of the situation, and by looking for better means to develop their political capacities in order to contribute to the struggle of the class against all forms of oppression.
Moreover, the ICC does not share your position that issues such as race and gender “run to the heart of the capitalist power”. The central question within capitalism is the contradiction between capital and wage labour, between the bourgeois class and the working class. The liberation of race and gender from oppression by capitalist society can only come from the struggle of the main class in capitalist society, the proletariat, because it is only this class that contains and brings together the universal suffering of all oppressed in the world. It is the latter that must take up the struggle against racial and sexual divisions as an integral part of its struggle towards its unification.
The proletariat is the class of dispossession, without any property, and submitted to a precarious existence, in which it has only its labour power to sell. It is a class that has no economy to defend. The class, by definition, has nothing to lose … but its chains. This makes proletariat a revolutionary class that is able to abolish all oppression.