In recent years there has been a mounting attack on "identity politics,"
political groupings that push agendas based on race, ethnicity,
gender and sexual orientation. Such politics, it has been argued,
hardens boundaries between oppressed groups and, further, prevents
them from mobilizing collectively around the more important issues
of class division and economic inequity.
In his 1995 book, The Twilight of Common Dreams, Todd Gitlin
characterized "identity politics" as "groups overly concerned with
protecting and purifying what they imagine to be their identities."
Not only are these groups self-deluded, but, according to Gitlin,
"Identity politics is an American tragedy ... a very bad turn, a
detour into quicksand."
Since 1995, Gitlin's thesis has found wide currency among straight
white men on the
left. Their common argument goes along these lines: No substantial
or unified left exists today. Instead there are "several small lefts"
and "disconnected shards." (No quarrel yet.) Among these fragments
are remnants of the '60s civil rights movement, some segments of organized
labor, some environmentalists and various activists for the disabled,
the aged and the homeless. Towering above all these, the vanguard,
as it were, are the "identity movements," the multiculturalists, each
group out for itself, none with an analysis of what unites people.
The critics of identity politics (including some gay critics, like
Andrew Sullivan) insist that multiculturalists must "stretch beyond"
their cultures and identities, beyond a shaky coalition of outgroups,
beyond the demands that have, according to Michael Tomasky, "nothing
to do with a larger concern for our common humanity and everything
to do with a narrow concern for fragmented and supposedly oppositional
cultures." Others who have inveighed against identity politics usually
do so in comparably patronizing terms. Ralph Nader told us, for
example, that "gonadal politics" are a trivializing distraction
from the genuinely important agenda of economic issues.
Those on the left who inveigh against identity politics assume
that "class" is the transcendent category, and issues relating to
gender, race and sexuality are marginalized as comparatively insignificant.
Among the many confusions in attempting to establish a hierarchy
of what is the "most" or "least" important social issue is a bottom-line
unawareness of how these struggles intersect.
The labor movement itself can quite reasonably be described as
historically based on identity politics: For a long period it exclusively
defended "its own." Class solidarity was reduced to protecting union
members against the great unwashed, unorganized mass of female and
nonwhite workers. Indeed, racism, sexism and homophobia in the workplace
inescapably affect how and whether workers will see their grievances
as ones held in common. Until the CIO came along in the '30s, black
workers were essentially barred from union membership, and are still
not fully welcome in some industries like construction. Many working-class
whites have long since chosen to identify with their skin color
rather than with "alien others" (especially blacks) who share their
class oppression; it has been more important to declare their superiority
to blacks--and their primary bond with fellow whites of all classes--than
to collaborate with "inferiors" in a protest movement based on class.
In other words, long before identity politics purportedly pushed
the white working class to the right, its own conservative cultural
views had long since solidly planted it there. "Class," in other
words, is inherently a cultural issue; solidarity based on economic
issues can never come about until divisions based on gender, race
and sexuality are recognized (even if not resolved) as central to
achieving such a goal. As Amber Hollibaugh has argued in her recent
book, My Dangerous Desires: "I don't think the union movement
can survive if people don't see it as part of their culture. ...
Issues that are specific to their individual social experiences
have to emerge ... but gay people are working-class people ... they
need to be able to bring their queer, working-class selves out to
the union. ... Does the union movement want its children or not?
That's the real question."
To which I would add a second "real question": Is the gay movement
ever going to be willing to take on the class dimensions of its
own struggle? To date, it has not. And that is why most national
gay organizations push for agendas (gay marriage, gays in the military)
that do not resonate for, say, working-class dykes concerned about
issues relating to shrinking real income or dead-end jobs or HIV
or substance abuse or domestic violence.
If we in the gay movement need to recognize class-based issues
more, the critics of identity politics need to understand that issues
relating to gender and sexuality are not trivial, but central to
Instead of such recognition, we are subject to lectures about the
relative unimportance of our issues, chastising us for our "narrow"
concern with our "supposedly" oppositional cultures. Our critics
continually refer to identity politics as a "distraction." They
refer to "faux-radical multiculturalism" and its "superficially
But declaring certain ideas superficial does not make them so--especially
since it is far from clear that these critics have remotely understood
them. They need to draw their chairs in closer and listen harder
to the intricate conversations taking place on the multicultural
left. The radical redefinitions of gender and sexuality that are
under discussion (and contention) in feminist and queer circles
contain a potentially transformative challenge to what has been
called "regimes of the normal."
The critics of identity politics give no sign that they have actually
read, let alone absorbed, the work of queer theorists like Eve Kosofsky
Sedgwick, Jeffrey Weeks, Michael Warner, Wayne Koestenbaum or Judith
Butler--to name only a few of the more prominent. A large body of
work now exists that, taken together, presents a startling set of
postulates about such matters of universal importance as
the historicity and fluidity of sexual desire, the performative
nature of gender, and the complex multiplicity of attractions, fantasies,
impulses and narratives that lie within us all.
These are not small, narrow, superficial matters of concern only
to the self-absorbed few--ignorance alone allows them to be so characterized.
Were the anti-identity politics crowd to open its ears and refuse
to settle for Reader's Digest versions of feminist and gay
analysis, it would have to come to grips with any number of discomforting
To understand how and why sexual and gender identities get socially
constructed is, in fact, to open up a new way of talking about politics,
of talking about how relations of power get established, about the
role of the state in reinforcing and policing that set of relations
in the name of maintaining the stakes of the already privileged.
Try to imagine the consequences, for example, of reconsidering,
as feminist and queer theorists have been asking us to do, traditional
definitions of gender. Is it fair to men (we know it isn't
fair to anyone else) to be viewed as inflexible, driven engines
of action, accumulation and domination? A freer definition of the
male self, the heightened ability of men to embrace the varied
impulses within, could loosen their iron drive for control, their
over-representation in positions of power, their unmodulated resort
to violence as the preferred means for resolving conflict. These
are emancipatory possibilities--for everyone. They could
lead us back to that unfinished dialogue from the '60s about the
nature of "human nature," about the need for personal transformation
to precede or accompany any lasting social transformation.
This is hardly an ersatz sideshow. It is instead a matter of the
non-feminist, non-queer left not bothering to listen, not
taking seriously the foundational work being done on gender and
sexuality. If it were listening, it would find potent tools at hand
for informing the struggle against entrenched class (and race and
gender) hierarchies of privilege and power about which they care
The ideas being generated on the multicultural left are not "supposedly"
oppositional; they are fundamentally so. They have everything
to do with the "larger concern for our common humanity" that our
critics loudly insist is absent from identity politics. Perhaps
henceforth, when we talk about "re-envisioning the left," we need
to put high on the agenda (it is now nowhere in sight) the patronizing
inability or unwillingness of many on the left to take seriously
the far-reaching work being done in feminist and queer circles.
Moreover, a long-standing debate has been going on among multiculturalists
themselves about the inadequacy, incompleteness or possible transience
of identity labels like "black" or "gay" or "Latino." Many minority
intellectuals are troubled about the inability of overarching categories
or labels to represent accurately the complexities and sometimes
overlapping identities of individual lives. We are also uncomfortable
referring to "communities" as if they were homogenous units rather
than the hothouses of contradiction they actually are. We're concerned,
too, about the inadequacy of efforts to create bridges between
marginalized people and then extensions outward to broader constituencies.
Yet we hold on to a group identity, despite its insufficiencies,
because for most non-mainstream people it's the closest we have
ever gotten to having a political home--and voice. Yes, identity
politics reduces and simplifies. Yes, it is a kind of prison. But
it is also, paradoxically, a haven. It is at once confining and
empowering. And in the absence of alternative havens, group identity
will for many of us continue to be the appropriate site of resistance
and the main source of comfort.
The anti-multiculturalists' high-flown, hectoring rhetoric about
the need to transcend these allegiances, to become "universal human
beings with universal rights," rings hollow and hypocritical. It
is difficult to march into the sunset as a "civic community" with
a "common culture" when the legitimacy of our differentness as minorities
has not yet been more than superficially acknowledged--let alone
safeguarded. You cannot link arms under a universalist banner when
you can't find your own name on it. A minority identity may be contingent
or incomplete, but that does not make it fabricated or needless.
And cultural unity cannot be purchased at the cost of cultural erasure.
Martin Duberman teaches history at CUNY. This article
was adapted from an essay in his most recent book, Left Out
(Basic Books). His play on the life of Emma Goldman will be produced
this coming season at Rattlestick Theater in New York. He is completing
a novel on the Haymarket Affair.