A critique of identity politics

Submitted by martin on 20 July, 2020 - 10:34 Author: Fraser Andrews
Mistaken Identity

Mistaken Identity is a concise six-chapter exposition and critique of “Identity Politics” from a broadly Marxist perspective. It a reasonably accessible text with a bit of effort made by the author, Asad Haider, to write in a not-too-academic style, using autobiograpy or biography, analysis, commentary and historically relevant episodes to make the arguments.

The first chapter, “Identity Politics”, draws on a host of socialist references – the Combahee River Collective, The Black Panthers, C L R James and others – in order to excavate the obscured history of class-based racial struggles. It quickly becomes clear that Haider has well-rounded "from below" class-struggle politics as he consistently focuses on the agency of the workers' movement, and other forms of struggle.

I thought one of the strengths of the first chapter (and the book) is the connection made between the ideology of modern identity politics with liberalism and the state. Haider makes it clear how manifestations of identity politics function to serve the interests of the ruling class through the way the state funnels grievances about oppression into categories of identity.

In the context of American history Haider is careful to draw class lines within the black community – highlighting the conservative influences of "black elites" through organisations like the NAACP.

Chapter 2 is a personal account of the disruption that identity politics has caused in demobilising social movements, and chapter 3, "Racial Ideology", provides a historical account of how we arrived at the notion of "white privilege" and a forceful argument for expunging it from political practice.

Haider is careful, however, to rally against "class reductionist" critiques of identity politics, where certain kinds of radicals try to subsume liberatory struggles underneath purely economic demands. The chapter goes on to explain the political roots of white supremacy in the USA.

Chapter 4 misses the mark in a variety of respects. It recounts the political biography of a Nation of Islam member on their journey to socialist politics. It’s an interesting perspective, but the person at the centre of it was also known to have produced poetry littered with anti-semitic conspiracy theories, something Haider declines to address.

Chapter 5 is an excellent analysis which draws heavily on Stuart Hall’s work Policing the Crisis which showed how the state deployed racist ideology in order to command a shift in social values in order to open the gateway to transform the political economy of the UK to the right.

Black workers and the unemployed were the primary agents of resistance and victims of the state. Haider uses this to show that racial struggles very often have an anti-capitalist dimension, even if it is not explicit.

Overall this book is a valuable contribution to the debate, and especially relevant at this moment in time. Haider is raising the banner for universalist, emancipatory class-struggle politics. Although it is a short book, it is content-rich without being intimidating, and it was a useful tool for introducing socialist ideas into a book group.

Sometimes it feels like the book was written in a bit of a rush, and the flow of the argument seems to jump around quite a bit, with loose threads left a bit hanging. Certain chapters are written in a style which makes rendering the key concepts a little arduous.

Curiously, Haider cites his primary Marxist influence as Louis Althusser, who was not necessarily a theorist I would associate with the style of analysis that the book offers. It is very much a handbook for action with a sharply defined sense of agency located with workers, students, and the self-initiative of the masses.

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