It was, I think, about 30 years ago that I was first presented with the question, “Why is it less offensive to use the word ‘faggot’ than ‘nigger’?” It was a rhetorical question, so, naturally, I tried to answer it. It took me a while, but eventually I realized what ought to have been obvious: It is a class issue. That is, 30 years ago, one assumed that anyone who was Black, or Latino, or American Indian*, was also poor, or at best working class; so one reacted to the derogatory term with a sort of extra layer of disgust. How should I say this? At no point did one believe that “faggot” was somehow okay to use–but “nigger” was even worse. Hearing that word, the bile would rise in one’s throat, and to this day I have trouble writing it, and even more trouble saying it. The struggle for equal rights (in the parlance of my youth, “Negro equality,”) was emphatically part of the class struggle, and nearly all of the Black leaders from Martin Luther King to Huey P. Newton (and even Malcom X in the latter part of his life) saw it that way.
By contrast, the Gay Rights movement emerged from middle-class radicalism. And even though, at heart, it is a class issue (compare the problems of a George Takei to those of a gay auto worker), it was never publicly presented as anything but an issue of identity. The defining characteristic of middle-class radicalism is and was subjective idealism–the belief that the problem is all in the head of the individual, and all you need to do is to change people’s ideas, and inequality will vanish.**
Feminism falls into an odd place in between. By long tradition, it was part of the working class movement and (with some important exceptions) saw itself that way. The Left saw equal rights for women as a vital part of organizing ever since Engels’ Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State. The labor movement learned–often the hard way–that when it ignored the struggle for women’s rights it shot itself in the foot. But sometime in the mid-60’s, around the time Feminism was being called Women’s Liberation (or, dismissively, “Women’s Lib”), it began to transform itself, to move toward issues that (in the opinion of its leaders) could be solved under capitalism: language, personal and family interactions, public perception. I still remember the point when it became less important that a political party fought for full equality then that there were x% women in leadership roles in the party.
But for a long time, the struggle for the equality of non-whites was still very much seen, by anyone who called himself a Leftist, as a part of the fight for the independence of the working class. Exactly what is so pernicious about today’s “Social Justice” supporters–that is, those who favor the politics of identity–is that, now that there is a significant black middle class, even ruling class, those who stand to lose by the destruction of capitalism are running as fast and far from the working class as possible. What started as the belief that if you just hired enough Black cops, and maybe elected a Black mayor or two, poor Blacks would no longer face police violence has become, today, a determined rejection of any and all class issues. It has become a fight for equality by and for the middle class. Obama, of course, represents the highest expression of this milieu.
So, then, to me, these are the questions one ought to answer: Can there, in fact, be equality under capitalism? If not, can capitalism be destroyed in any way other than by organizing the independent power of the working class? If not, what effect will identity politics have on uniting the working class?
Many–probably most–people reading this blog will have different answers than I have to each of those questions; but it seems worthwhile to at least pose the issue the way I see it.
*It is significant that I’m using “Black” and “American Indian” rather than “African-American” and “Native American.” Why? Because I am rejecting the terms used by the petit-bourgeois radicals in favor of the terms you’ll actually hear if you hang around with working class Blacks and Indians. Think about it.
**Which, I suppose, is true–in the same sense that, if one is in the middle of the ocean drowning, one only has to get out of the water, hence there is no need for a life preserver.