Reflections on Identity Politics and Revolutionary Organizing
the left |
opinion / analysis
Wednesday June 28, 2023 19:29 by Ara Avasin
Critical reflections on identity politics and separatism, acknowledging intersectionality and getting inspiration from the revolutionary struggles in Turkey and Kurdistan.
Aiming to reflect common strategies to move forward in our revolutionary organizing.
For a wild Pride!
Pride is not an event widely celebrated in Rojava, but for us it is an important date and a reason to reflect on the current state of the queer struggle and the situation of the LGBT+ movement. On this occasion, we want to share something more than just a solidarity picture. A comrade wrote this text reflecting on their experience in Rojava. These are some lessons we can draw inspiration from.
The text doesn’t represent the position of our organization, but it aims to contribute to the discussions on these topics.
For a wild Pride!
Down with rainbow capitalism!
- Tekosina Anarsist
Reflections on Identity Politics and Revolutionary Organizing
When I was first being politicized, a world opened up for me. I felt like I finally found words to describe the experiences I had been having. I thought I had been alone with those experiences, but through my journey into politics, I began to understand the systemic nature of them, identity based politics were a big part of this for me. This also ignited a fire and anger in me. In those early days, I directed this anger towards individuals of those groups who oppressed me. I blamed the individuals and thought it just to demonize them. I organized in separatist groups and was dismissive and without hope for those individuals that were part of oppressing groups.
I have moved from being on the extra-parliamentary left, an “activist” one might say, to becoming a more ideologically motivated and educated revolutionary, for who the struggle is not just something to do in my free time, but struggle is the basis of my daily life. During this transition I realized that the way I was directing my anger was not constructive in progressing the struggle against oppression and for a free life. Not that I think my anger was unjust, simply that I now think that I can do better things with my anger than release it on the nearest man. I was with my own hands creating division and conflict among comrades who I was supposed to struggle alongside with. I needed to overcome the framework of identity politics, because it splits us up, and weakens the revolutionary struggle. I went looking for perspectives with more nuance and wanted to aim toward unity of oppressed peoples, at the same time I searched for ways to incorporate some of the valuable lessons that identity politics had taught me. Here are some of the things I learned along the way so far.
What is Identity Politics?
Identity politics is when people organize mainly according their identities of gender, race ethnicity, sexuality, religion, etc. The logic of identity politics is often used to organize as single-issue activism or separatists, this means that a group of people organizes along the lines of a common identity. For example women separatists (a group of only women), or people of colour separatists (a group of only people of colour). These days there are many groups organized with this method. Many of those group use the rhetoric of revolution but are very liberal in the praxis, focusing almost exclusively on right and reform, though there are a few that also have more revolutionary praxis. This text aims to address some of the short comings of identity politics and separatist organizing. It will also consider some of the strengths and lessons we could and should take from separatist organizing. Moreover it will offer one possible alternative that strives to incorporate the contributions coming from separatist spaces while working to unite rather than split revolutionary organizing.
Coming together with those who experience the same or similar oppressions as oneself can be a very validating experience. It can help to contextualize personal experiences and hardships within capitalism, thereby coming to understand the events in one’s personal life through a wider lens. In turn understanding experiences of oppression through an anti-capitalist framework can combat isolation that some people feel in their experiences. In gathering with others with similar identity some people can find a space and calm to heal from oppression related traumas or problems, as well as gathering the strength to continue to live and take part in struggle. Moreover, it is often times from such “safe spaces”, in which one is temporarily somewhat shielded from people of the oppressive dynamic,that there is room to reflect. From this reflection new analysis and theory are conceptualized, therefore it can have an important function in developing analysis and theory that brings us forward. For these reasons groups or spaces based on identity, in which oppressed identities are cared for, explored and celebrated, are very valuable to oppressed individuals, and can make great contributions in our fight against patriarchy and capitalism.
Causes and Shortcoming of Identity Politics
I think separatist spaces do also have downsides that we should be careful of if our aim is the overthrow of capitalism, classless society and the genuine change of social relations in society. When identity politics become the main approach to organizing, this results in oppressed people being pitted against each other and pitting themselves against each other. One way this happens is by identity based organizing more and more niche, for example a women’s group becoming a queer women’s group, becoming a neurodivergent queer women’s group, etc. There is of course nothing wrong with those individuals wanting to seek connections with others that have similar experiences, like was outline in the previous paragraph, but taking that identity as the basis of organizing ultimately weakens our power. It distances us for other people that we could and should ally ourselves with.
An other unfortunate outcome of identity based politics can be that experiences that contain multitudes and nuance are erased in favour of black and white narratives, this contributes to issues of intersectionality (such as misogynoir, transmisogyny, transmisogynoit, etc.) to be overlooked. An example of where we can see this is in class reductionism. Class reductionism creates a mentality of “we are all working class, so we do not need to talk about race or gender or ability”. It poses that the working class background makes all the other differences among people irrelevant. This of course is not the case, those difference are very much relevant and important.
Why does this happen? Because we live in a capitalist society, and it is in the interest of the rich and powerful (capitalist class) to keep the working class divided. If working and other oppressed people consist of many small groups that fight among themselves, rather than unite to fight against the capitalists, this is an obvious advantage to them. Therefor those voices and actions that are in favour of the status quo are supported and those that threaten the status quo are side-lined or demonized by liberals and conservatives. Any discussion of the root causes, the capitalist system, are avoided, dismissed or silenced. A very obvious example of this is the parts of the white working class in western and northern Europe blaming immigrants from poorer countries for “stealing their jobs/changing the culture/destroying the country/taking over the country”. The immigrants are not the problem, they are the scapegoats. The problem is the exploitation of the working class by the capitalist class that results in harsh working and living conditions.
How does this happen? Through the ideology of liberalism, by which we are absolutely surrounded, the focus is laid on the differences in identity and how individuals oppress other individuals in daily life. It manifests in the creation of increasingly specific in-groups, and their respective out-groups. The out-group is often seen as an inconsolable aggressor. For example, LGBTI+ people as the in-group and cis-hetero people as the out-group, cis-hets being seen as unchangeably oppressive towards LGBTI+ people, and a dismissive attitude towards cis-het people is taken on. Or women as the in-group and men as the out-group, with the hope of men changing being little to none, dismissing them as a group.
I understand this desire to organize or even live in a separatist manner, because living in this world as an oppressed person is exhausting and separatist spaces can be a safe haven from that. However, if we call ourselves revolutionaries and want to earn that title, we need to organize with the whole working class and all oppressed peoples, not just those most similar to ourselves. I said it before, but I think it bears repeating since this is such a crucial point: a result of this identity driven politics is that the working class and oppressed people are split into small, easily governable groups, divided rather than united by their different identities. The focus lies on the difference. We cannot meaningfully liberate ourselves if oppressed peoples cannot see and understand the common roots of their problem, namely the capitalist system.
Identity politics are a response to legitimate issues. In order to unify the working class and all oppressed peoples, we must take these issues seriously in our approach to class struggle. To do this a move needs to be made from using identity-based politics to divide, to valuing our differences. We need to be open to learn from each other. We also have a duty to teach each other. We do not need to teach every random person about (our) oppression and help them understand it, but for those who we consider our comrades and friends, those we are organized with, we should. Yes there is google, but googling things as complex as oppression, how oppressions intersect, how to dismantle and overcome them, is often not the most fruitful strategy if we want to grow stronger together. We will have to discuss, explain, teach, listen, fight and change. Frustration at oneself and one’s comrades is a part of coming together. We will also disappoint each other, because we will make mistakes. In the face of those mistakes and shortcomings we cannot just throw out the comrades that messed up, because we all make mistakes from time to time, so this is not a strategy that will get us very far. We need to give a serious effort to correct the mistakes of our comrades, not just try one method, but try all the ways we can think of. Do not give up on each other so easily.
Ideas from Turkey and Kurdistan
All this is of course no easy task. To overcome these challenges we will need willingness, commitment, and a plan. One way to achieve this is by looking at the methods and approaches of the revolutionary movement from Turkey, which has currently also grown its reach to areas outside of the borders of the Turkish state, and Kurdistan. The revolutionary movement in those places has been predominantly communist, communard and apoist (following the ideology of Abdullah Öcalan), though anarchist groups have also been present. The Turkish and Kurdish revolutionary movements have been fighting in its current form for over 50 years against the fascist Turkish state and oppression all over Kurdistan. It has faced many challenges and learned a lot of valuable lessons over that time. Since the ‘90’s great progress has been made in the involvement and position of women comrades in this struggle. A big pioneer in the creation of these structures was, and is, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), who in their 1987 established a women’s structure, the YJWK, inside the PKK. I doubt a copy paste of their methods will suit organizing in Europe and North America, but I absolutely think it is worth our time of day to consider how we can learn from them and how to apply that.
In these movements, in many collectives, groups, organizations and parties, there are women’s sub-organizations that function semi-autonomously. These women’s groups/organizations are connected to the overall collective/organization, and the vast majority of all work and actions are carried out through the overall collective/organization. However on issues specifically related to women, these women’s groups have decision making power.
What exactly women’s issues includes is decided by the women’s and overall organization together through discussion. The women’s groups can work autonomously in giving education about patriarchy and all topics connected to it, and reach out to other groups or collectives to collaborate, they can make zines, events, talks to comrades, friends, and whoever wants to listen, etc. Moreover the women’s group is responsible for supporting the women in the collective/organization/network on issues of health, patriarchal violence, and can address women’s internalized patriarchy. It is also a space for women to discuss their experiences, analyze and theorize them.
This way they incorporate many of the functions I mentioned before as being very important of separatist spaces, like space for recovery and healing, building up of strength, discussion and analysis. But unlike separatist groups/organizations they remain connected with people of other identities as well, they engage, discuss, educate the comrades of the overall collective/organization. This connection comes about through that the women comrades are first and foremost organized in the overall collective/organization and secondly in the women’s group. The women’s group is ultimately accountable to the general collective/organization. Its aim should always be to strengthen the overall collective/organization, not undermine it. The women’s group should engage, or at least inform, the overall collective/organization as much as possible in the works and discussions it is having. The basic assumption necessary for any of this to work is of course that our enemy is patriarchy. Individual male comrades will make mistake and have patriarchal behaviors, but they are not our enemy. They are our comrades, and we are struggling together.
This hybrid that includes an overall collective/organization that welcomes people of all identities as well as some aspects of separatism can provide us with a good way forward in which the organizational structure will be better equipped to take on the issues related to specific identities and simultaneously remain focused on uniting oppressed peoples rather than dividing them. We can learn and take inspiration from the method of organizing and incorporate it into our own organizing in ways we think relevant and current. In the revolutionary movements from Turkey and Kurdistan this method is only used to set up women’s organizations (until now), as far as I am aware, but I imagine that this method can be used more broadly, for example through LGBTI+, PoC and other oppressed groups.
This is just one proposal, but even if this is not something that fits within your collective/organization, I urge everyone to think about how to solve the problems brought up by identity politics. These are some central questions of our time, we can look to revolutionary struggles around the world, past and present for inspiration on how we can solve them. I am confident we will solve them, together. We have to, because the current state of our society is unacceptable.