The personal is political: so what’s wrong with “identity politics”?

Women in Workers’ Liberty are reading, thinking and discussing towards writing a new socialist feminist pamphlet. As part of this we’re revisiting articles from our 1986 pamphlet – The Case for Socialist Feminism. In this month’s Women’s Fightback paper we reprinted this article, to start a debate about the role of “identity” and “experience” in feminist politics.

It talks about how experience, subjectivity and identity came to be the defining reference points for feminist activism in the late 1980s. This emphasis has become important to some strands of feminist activism today, in different ways.

Workers’ Liberty is not hostile to issues of identity and experience in political struggles. For instance we are sympathetic to the national identities of peoples who have been suppressed by bigger, stronger states. The fight for national rights, is often just and necessary. But ultimately such a fight is judged on whether it is a step towards building a strong united working-class movement against all the inequalities created by capitalism and imperialism.

Similarly building a recognition of gender identity and other experiences of oppression, of race, sexuality into our Marxist politics is important. But the purpose of our discussion is to “objectify” experience. It is not the same thing as using “experience” as the end point for understanding the world. Strong and effective anti-capitalist and socialist feminist alliances will be built by keeping constantly in mind the systematic structural causes of oppression.

We welcome contributions, including radically different ideas!

“The politics of experience” – from The Case for Socialist Feminism – by Lynn Ferguson

personal political“The personal is political” was one of the main slogans of the women’s movement of the late 60s and early 70s. It meant making “personal” issues into issues for collective action; telling women that their problems were not just a matter of personal inadequacies, but part of a social oppression directed against all women; and enlarging socialist ideas with a wider humanism.

With the ebb of the movement, the slogan has been inverted: the political is personal. This is obviously so for the versions of radical feminism concerned with “releasing our Selves” and asserting the hidden “Cosmic Commonality of women”. But the same approach also emerged amongst socialist feminists. Sheila Rowbotham argued in Beyond the Fragments (1979) that:

“Our views are valid because they come from within us and because we hold a received correctness. The words we use seek an honesty about our own interest in what we say. This is the opposite to most left language which is constantly distinguishing itself as correct and then covering itself with a determined objectivity.”

A Marxist critic commentated:

“Sheila Rowbotham appears to believe that the less well thought out ideas are and the more spontaneous the better. Difficulties are experienced by women because of our conditioning, particularly in analysing ideas and articulating our thoughts. However, the last thing we need is to glorify these difficulties and mystify them under the guise of sisterhood (or, as it might be today, ‘autonomy’). Sheila Rowbotham sees subjective experiences as being pure and honest. However… subjective attitudes can be extremely dangerous and reactionary,” (Pat Longman, Workers’ Action no.149).

More women can be mobilised to oppose abortion rights than to support them. Some women campaign for peace: others wave flags for troops. There is no single subjective “women’s view”.

Any politics basing itself on women’s essence thus has to argue that some women are not real women. If what you say is the authentic feminist line because it reflects authentic women’s experience, then anyone saying different is either a man (of course) or a woman whose experience is not really a woman’s experience or who is brainwashed.

Often women do feel the need to claim authority for personal experience, for example in trying to get issues open for discussion in the face of resistance by arrogant and articulate men. But something different is happening today.

Susan Ardill and Sue O’Sullivan put it like this:

“With the increasing dominance of ‘identity’ as the organising factor of so many feminist activities and discussions…’naming’ and ‘claiming’ came to be invested with a particular moral authority. Just to name yourself as part of a given group is to claim a moral backing for your words and action. What was being invoked was a particular feminist ideology… an analysis of the world as made up of a fixed hierarchy of oppressions… around gender, sexuality, race and ethnicity, age and ability; and notions of the ‘authenticity’ of subjective experiences — experience which can be understood only with reference to the hierarchy. In this context, any clash, whether between groups or individuals, becomes a matter of rank determining righteousness. Taken to extremes, if there are divisions within the same ‘rank’ or group, suppression becomes necessary, so as to protect the ‘official’ version’s claim to define and describe the oppression” (Feminist Review No.23).

Ardill and O’Sullivan are writing about a dispute where some political lesbians tried to ban sadomasochistic lesbians from the London Lesbian and Gay Centre. Here “naming’”and “claiming” was being used not to swat down arrogant men, but to proscribe other women.

And the argument can go further.

Jayne Egerton (in Sweeping Statements, pp. 199-202) defines “male sexuality as the crucial instrument of our control” and concludes:

“I cannot see (a feminist sexual politics) as being synonymous or compatible with the pursuit of pleasure, given that we live under male supremacy and may have internalised male sexual values…What gives us pleasure may not always be in our best interests…Our needs, desires and preferences have all been constructed under male supremacy and our subjective response to our powerlessness and subordination cannot be prioritised if they further enslave us.”

Here the politics of experience have come full circle.

True “female values” are buried so deep under the influence of male supremacy that only a few women can perceive them; but in the name of those values, those few women condemn the “desires and preferences” of most women.

Jayne Egerton is in fact criticising a feminist journal which argued for a libertarian attitude to sexual politics, including pornography: the same sort of argument has been used against women having heterosexual sex because they want to. “Q. But I like fucking. A.Giving up fucking, for a feminist, is about taking your politics seriously” — Leeds Revolutionary Feminists, 1979). Only lesbian sex, and only the right sort of lesbian sex, is permitted! A Victorian moral code could hardly be stricter.

In the 1980s the “politics of experience” has been substantially exploded within the women’s movement by the protests of black and Jewish feminists. The result has been, however, not a return to rationalism, but the construction of more and more hierarchies of oppression and the oppressed-group identities conferring moral authority.

In truth the Palestine question is the most dramatic illustration of the unviability of the politics of experience. In terms of “the views that come from within us’”, Israeli Jews and many non-Israeli Jews are Israeli nationalist. Palestinian Arabs are Palestinian-Arab nationalists. Jews are oppressed, Palestinian Arabs are oppressed. Yet neither Israeli nationalism nor Palestinian-Arab nationalism can provide a progressive solution. It is necessary to rise above all instinctive, subjective responses, to analyse objectively.

This is the condition of all scientific thought. Generally, science demands that we distance ourselves from immediate reactions and impressions. No individual can claim that her personal experience represents or sums up the universal experience of all women. Indeed, she can only know that her personal experiences are even typical of women’s experience to the extent that women’s experience is objectively analysed and described. And then conclusions follow from the objective analysis and description, not primarily from the individual experience.

Hegel stated the case boldly when he condemned “the sort of ecstatic enthusiasm which starts straight off with absolute knowledge, as if shot from a pistol, and makes short work of other points of view simply by explaining that it is to take no notice of them… Since the people of common sense appeal to their feeling, to an oracle within their breast, they are ready to meet anyone who does not agree. They have simply to explain that they have no more to say to anyone who does not find and feel the same as themselves. In other words, they trample the root of humanity under foot. For the nature of humanity is to impel people to agree with one another, and its very existence lies simply in the explicit realisation of a community of conscious life. What is anti-human, the condition of mere animals, consists in keeping within the sphere of feeling pure and simple, and in being able to communicate only by way of feeling-states” (Introduction to the Phenomenology of Mind).

Feminism generally has been a daughter of rationalism and humanism here enounced by Hegel. It appeals against the common-sense appearance of women’s subordination as a fact given by nature to the higher authority of rational analysis; it appeals against sexist dehumanisation of women, to a principle of treating every human being equally as an individual. Not only the ghetto-feminists, but also “rainbow coalition” politicians, who see politics as a range of oppressed groups all striving for status, have here broken from classic feminism, and from the foundation which classic feminism shares with democracy and socialism.

Science and logic as they exist have, it is true, been shaped by men; and probably that has warped them. But Simone de Beauvoir gave the reply to any feminist who might therefore wish to abandon science and logic:

“Culture, civilisation, universal values, have all been the work of men, since it is they who have stood for universality. Just as the proletariat, challenging the bourgeoisie as the dominant class, does not throw out the whole bourgeois heritage, in the same way women have to use, on an equal basis with men, the instruments men have created, not reject them totally” (quoted in Juliet Mitchell and Ann Oakley, eds., The Rights and Wrongs of Women).

Better this approach than one which reproduces the old sexist notion of “feminine intuition” in a new feminist guise.

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About womensfightback17

Women’s Fightback is a socialist feminist paper and blog produced by members and supporters of the socialist group Workers' Liberty. Workers’ Liberty is a revolutionary socialist organisation fighting as part of the labour and student movements, and in campaigns, for a socialist alternative to capitalism, based on common ownership and democracy.

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