The Left and Identity Politics

Adapted from last night’s Twitter.

Eric Hobsbawm

I realised this past few days that I haven’t a notion what people are talking about regarding ‘identity politics’. I mean, I hear all these people talking about it but they never bother to specify what it is.

So I decided to do some reading. OK, it was one article, but it was interesting considering current controversies. It’s Identity Politics and the Left, by Eric Hobsbawm, from New Left Review 217 in 1996. Hobsbawm was (among other things) a historian of nations and nationalism, a communist, and a Jew who was witheringly opposed to Zionism. Those things seem to have some bearing on what he defines as identity politics, but also, on what he defines as the Left.

It’s a 20-year-old article but Hobsbawm is pointing out that identity politics has already been around for 30 or so. He highlights the emergence of three variants of identity politics in the 60s: ethnicity, the (post suffragist) women’s movement and the gay movement, and ponders why these have become central.

One surface reason is to do with elections: ‘constituting oneself into such an identity group may provide concrete political advantages’. But a deeper factor is an ‘extraordinary dissolution of traditional social norms, textures and values’, following a weakening of the nation state, and a weakening of class-based political parties and movements. ‘Men and women’, he says, ‘look for groups to which they can belong, certainly and forever, in a world in which all else is moving and shifting.’ Citing Orlando Patterson, he states that they ‘choose to belong to an identity group’, predicated on ‘an intensely conceived belief that the individual has absolutely no choice’.

Hobsbawm emphasises a negative, exclusive dimension to identity politics: not them, us. We are Insiders, they are Outsiders. One example he provides is ‘Unionists and Nationalists in Belfast’. There’s something worth reflecting on here, which Hobsbawm doesn’t appear to consider in his example. Irish nationalism normally encompasses Irish republicanism. But republicanism as a political ideology is not exclusive in its claims. In certain expressions, which have had varying levels of prominence over time, it means a republic for people in Ireland, not a republic that is Irish in essence. That is, it draws on universalism, not particularism. More of that later.

(Reading this, I did wonder how much of this is influenced by his holiday home getting burnt down, reputedly, by Welsh nationalists.)

Hobsbawm continues: ‘identity politics assumes that one among the many identities we all have is the one that determines or at least dominates our politics: being a woman, if you are a feminist, being a Protestant if you are an Antrim Unionist’. Whether it is adopted by individuals depends on the context: ‘paid-up, card-carrying members of the gay community in the Oxbridge of the 1920s who, after the slump of 1929 and the rise of Hitler, shifted, as they liked to say, from Homintern to Comintern.’

Hobsbawm contrasts the particularist, exclusivist character of identity politics, as he defines it, with the universalism of the Left. The latter embodied ‘great, universal causes through which each group believed its particular aims could be realized’. But he recognises that identity politics also manifests itself within the Left. For him, the ‘proletarian identity politics’ of ‘Militant ‘economist’ trade unionism’ was a factor in the rise of Thatcher, since it ‘antagonized the people not directly involved in it to such an extent that it gave Thatcherite Toryism its most convincing argument’.

The Left ‘is universalist: it is for all human beings’. ‘It isn’t liberty for shareholders or blacks, but for everybody’. Against this, ‘identity groups are about themselves, for themselves, and nobody else’, since ‘they are not committed to the Left as such, but only to get support for their aims wherever they can’, and since ‘’whatever their rhetoric, the actual movements and organizations of identity politics mobilize only minorities’. Hobsbawm advances these claims as ‘pragmatic reasons to be against identity politics’.

‘The decline of the great universalist slogans of the Enlightenment’ has ‘saddled’ both Left and Right with identity politics. As a remedy, Hobsbawm proposes citizen nationalism, which he calls a ‘comprehensive form of identity politics’, ‘a common identity’. It’s interesting to encounter this post-Podemos, post-France Insoumise, and with Corbyn’s Labour Party in election campaign in flow. These have all sought to mobilise, in different styles, a Left citizen nationalism, seeking to contest the nationalism of the Right.

Some thoughts on all this. First, Hobsbawm’s conception of identity politics relates mainly to representation: the building of parties and the formation of governments through representative elections. Second, he has little to say about how ‘the great universalist slogans of the Enlightenment’ have been used to suppress and exclude. He was no longer with us when the slogan ‘Black Lives Matter’, which addressed the murderous racism of the US state repressive apparatus, was countered with the phony universalism of ‘All Lives Matter’. It would be interesting to get his thoughts on this morning’s news, in which the mayor of Paris has called for a black feminist festival to be banned, claiming that it was ‘prohibited to white people’, and the prefect of police promising to protect the ‘rigorous compliance of the laws, values, and principles of the republic’ – the republic being one of the ‘great, universal causes’ (according to Hobsbawm). However, he was around for French colonialism.

Hobsbawm does not have much to say in this article either, on how the Left’s claims to be for everyone in theory often fall a great deal short in practice -and nothing on the initial revolutionary outlook and activity that drove the 60s movements that he focuses on. A ‘Homintern vs. Comintern’, between public and private spheres, did not apply here.

It’s worth pointing out that universalism predates the modern Left. For example: ‘There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28)’. But you could hardly say the Catholic Church has operated ‘for everyone’, whatever its claims. So, we can’t presume that claiming to embody a given set of ideals means that you act according to them. From this perspective, ‘identity politics’, specifically the post-60s movements cited by Hobsbawm, have narrowed the gap in many cases between image and reality regarding the Left’s claims to universalism. Still, Hobsbawm is against ‘identity politics’.

All this may seem to bear a very dim relation to the criticisms levelled at ‘identity politics’ in contemporary controversies. There are some echoes, though. Consider this Jacobin article, proposing, against ‘liberal identity politics’, ‘a unified “we”’, ‘beyond the regulation of the logic of identity’. The trouble with this, I think, is that the universalist logic of the State -which ends up featuring in ‘citizen nationalism’- also regulates. It produces ‘in’ groups and ‘out’ groups, with the latter having to fight for recognition and for freedom from oppression, usually under adversity. To allow such struggles to be lumped together as forms of ‘identity politics’ can only reproduce the phony universalism of the State.

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