GUEST BLOG: Alex Birchall – Identity Politics is a Class Politics


Recently the meaning of the term ‘identity politics’ and to what it is supposed to be referring has been put into question. The question of how this ‘identity politics’ relates to the seemingly opposed ‘class politics’ has also been put, and indeed whether this is a false opposition. This appears to be the product of considerable term confusion and an attempt of several commentators to rewrite history. In what has become fashionable style for the Left, the term has been ‘debunked’ by some as being false because its force is reflective of the malevolent interests of certain white heterosexual male individuals who wish to claim Left-oriented politics for their own seemingly malicious and exclusionary ends. However, despite this ‘debunking’ claim, there is a history to this term that extends well beyond the meanings to which it has been said to be put by this apparently mean-spirited group of people. Identity politics relates, in fact, to a discrete form of organisation which emerged during the civil rights movement in the United States, in its late phases – a product of what is often called the ‘New Left’, and its ‘New Social Movements’. Groups such as Black Power and the Combahee River Collective organised on the basis of ‘common experiences’ and membership of particular group identities. This was not borne out of political strategy but a believed cultural necessity. The racial split between ‘black’ and ‘white’ identities in the US soon gave way to further racial splitting, and then division along lines of gender, sexuality, and the pacifist groups.

This is starkly different to how the labour movement, and indeed the civil rights movement was first organised. The civil rights movement began as an integrated collective before the splits to form specifically African-American organisations. So too did the labour movement. The Communist Party was instrumental in organising black workers, particularly in the South, against the tyranny of their exploitative bosses. The labour movement was not without fault, but it does not deserve the treatment some commentators (who probably know very little about its history, anyway) give it, making claims that it was inherently and unavoidably discriminatory. Despite vitriolic anti-Marxism from Western liberals, the Marxist-inspired international labour movement still has considerable force throughout South America and in parts of southern and western India where communist parties are held in high esteem. But in other parts of the world, as Kenan Malik describes in his book Strange Fruit, the turn to cultural essentialism mimics the nihilistic turn to racial essentialism that intellectuals made at the end of the nineteenth century. In both cases, emancipatory groups drifted to conservative explanations of inequality that naturalised oppressive systems and produced certain groups as ‘victims’. In the nineteenth century, racial theories and race pseudoscience explained inequality in terms of arcane atavisms. In the twentieth century, capitalism, colonialism and patriarchy seemed to prove insurmountable for the Left to transcend. As a response to exaggerated worry about left-wing racism, the concept of ‘culture’ was used to describe the incommensurability of different groups and their ways of apprehending the world, supposedly as a mode of leverage. But this move itself redeployed the language of race. Although ‘race’ became an outmoded term after the horrors of the Holocaust, its legacy lived on in this new incarnation of the concept of ‘culture’. Culture was now thought of in racial, and increasingly, generally ‘groupist’ terms.


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It is here in this movement to identity politics that the powerful ideas of the Enlightenment – universalism, a belief in the emancipatory right of freedom for all human beings, the right to knowledge, toleration – were abandoned for radical particularism and a retreat to bordered identity groups. Identity politics was essentially an admission of defeat by certain sections of the Left which viewed Marxist class politics as a lost cause. Although the New Social Movements achieved exceptional advances for minority groups that had faced discrimination and abandonment in politics for a long time, recent developments in an even further conservative, relativist and anti-Marxist direction, as well as developments in global capitalism, have rendered it anachronistic. The idea that ‘culture’, or, put another way, tradition rooted in biological descent, determines the way we see things is related to the Romantic idea of the ‘inner voice’ – the soul’s interior that speaks to every individual or group. This idea was appropriated by reactionary and conservative thinkers before the liberal Left began to employ it for its own uses. ‘Culture’, in anthropology, used to be a thing that was made by human actors but now it is a marker of group identity (often a byword for ‘race’) that defines humans. In this sense, culture has been essentialised. Ironically, this essentialism comes at a time when it is most irrelevant. Immigration and globalisation has created newer still patchworks and hybrids out of those that already existed. The problem with identity politics in this respect is that it denies this capacity for culture to transform and insists on a framework of incommensurability of ‘different’ cultural groups.


Around the world, but very prominently in New Zealand, the turn away from class politics to identity politics as the principal organisational form of the Left occurred just as the social democratic compromise was undone and inequality began to rise again. Unlike class politics, which unites workers of all colours, genders, and sexualities to oppose capitalism, identity politics was not able to deal with this reconsolidation of power by the capitalist and new financial elite. Instead, its group-based initiatives could only win its disparate movements advances within the capitalist system. We are now seeing the deepening of class conflicts within those historically marginalised groups as a result of this process. Although it was never the case that all Māori, women, or queer people could claim a ‘common experience’, this assumption of identity politics has become even less realisable because of a rejection of it by many of the members its movements claim to represent. In New Zealand, the Iwi Leaders Group, the Gay Auckland Business Association, and corporate CEO feminists are exemplary of the edifices of elite power that have now been created as part of the increasing incorporation of identity politics by the state. The perception that identity politics is an ideology of the middle class and elite is confirmed by the vitriolic anti-Marxism that exudes from its mainstream representatives. Also, the celebration of ‘difference’ is no longer limited to the parties of the centre-left. The current National Government has seen gay marriage, Treaty of Waitangi claims, and platitudinous amendments to human rights legislation pass into law with majority support from its party’s MPs, at the same time the welfare state was further dismantled and inequality further increased. With the hijacking of centre-left parties around the world by right-wing factions, leading to an eradication of social democratic policy from their manifestos, the politics of difference was all that remained. This political gap between the centre-left and the centre-right has now been bridged. The centre-left’s affiliation to the working classes became symbolic at best, and that more than anything is responsible for their newfound irrelevance and supervenience by right-wing populists.


It is because of these factors that I argue that the distinction between ‘class politics’ and ‘identity politics’ often made by commentators is partly inaccurate. Instead, we should be clear that identity politics is in fact a kind of class politics – the politics of the middle-class and elite ‘Left’ that supports capitalism or at least accepts its inevitability. Left critics of identity politics worth their salt do not believe that discrimination along the ascriptive categories of nation, race, gender and sexuality is an unworthy issue – that is drivel made up by anti-Marxist identitarians themselves. When the group of critics I belong to talks about ‘identity politics’, we mean the capitalist politics of anti-solidarity and anti-unity that is relied on. Identity politics is thus essentially a contemporary continuation of the admission of failure of the Left’s original objectives. Often when practitioners of identity politics claim to be ‘intersectional,’ and insist that they are in fact inclusive of class in their framework, this rarely, if ever, goes beyond idle gesture. The articulation of class as just another group identity demonstrates a crude misunderstanding of class as a structural phenomenon with characteristics that race and sexuality clearly do not share. Capitalism is a material, economic system; racial and sexual ideology are borne out of ideological imaginaries that are affirmed through practices and discriminative acts. Identity politics often attributes to racism and xenophobia a kind of historical agency that it does not have. Marxism is often rejected on the basis that class unity is impossible because of racism and sexism, naturalising those forces among the working classes and fatalistically viewing them as unchangeable. Thus, it is trapped in a vicious circle. This is often why leading members of identity-based movements participate in the demonisation of the working class – see, for example, the latest derogatory tweets from professional antiracist Tim Wise, a man who has made thousands of dollars per speech about ‘white privilege’, about Rust Belt voters in the United States. This demonisation occurs because identity politics has disavowed or rejected as unworkable any ‘attitude adjustment’ options (due to the perceived ‘original sin’ inevitability of white racism) or anything that would empower the working classes and realise that unity.


Identity politics in the postmodern relativist, neoliberal world is completely compatible with that world’s configurational assumptions. Academic theories, such as privilege theory, idealist forms of critical race theory, and intersectionality, are now popular in tenets of social science. Privilege theory from its inception was a specifically anti-Marxist political framework; critical race theory and intersectionality were designed by African-American academics in the legal disciplines that likewise showed no commitment to class politics or economic transformation. Solidarity has been replaced by disparity between ‘groups’ as the method of programmising political action. Logically, then, it is absolutely fine for such practitioners if one percent of people still controlled ninety percent of the wealth around the world, if the one-percent elite met all the diversity targets. Yet despite, or perhaps because, of this theoretical anti-class hegemony in the academic and political world, and its incorporation into neoliberalism, those of liberal rather than conservative persuasions now insist on illiberal measures that curtail universal ideals, such as the freedom of speech and of the right to offend. This is because of the rise in cultural relativism and the recent anti-Establishment, populist surge on the Right which threatens to strip away that liberal relativist ascendancy. Originally part of the ‘liberal Left’, the emergence of identity politics’ fundamentally illiberal character has now protruded from what were thought to be progressive impulses. Because identity politics has done nothing to stem the neoliberal entrenchment of class divisions, and shows no sign of reversing the trend, it is now perceived as corrupt by the general public. This includes a considerable share of the members of marginalised groups that identity politics assumes it represents. A resistant, xenophobic politics of white racialised identity has now taken form for right-wing populists to harvest, using the same group-based nativist logic as the forms of identity politics adopted by the Left. The irrelevance of identity politics is brought into sharp relief when one considers recent tone-deaf public statements (such as Black Lives Matter founder Yusra Khogali labelling Justin Trudeau a ‘white supremacist’ for supporting immigrants vilified by Trump), or indeed the defending of sheltered political elites like Barack Obama from racism.


The academic influences of identity politics, such as the New Left and postmodernism, are largely to blame for recent attacks on knowledge and truth in politics. Before the turn to identity politics, the Marxist critique of ideology was the prime Left method of criticising the capitalist media’s manipulation of information to suit particular agendas. This critique, later on, also took Freudian psychoanalytic and structural-linguistic forms. The purpose of this critique was to distinguish between the lies told by the media and the truth about the exploitation and immiseration suffered by people in capitalist society. It is now difficult to fight the anarchy of lies, disseminated daily by a vast array of spurious media outlets, cemented into the public consciousness by their audiences operating in disjointed information bubbles on the Internet and social media. This fight was compounded in difficulty upon the turn to identity politics. Postmodernism, as well as theories with some factional link to it (postcolonial theory and queer theory) has as an academic movement promoted an epistemic form of relativism. It is the argument that there are no truths or lies in the world, only ‘understandings’ that differ across discrete ‘cultures’ and societies. Everyone has their own individual ‘perspective’ or point of view from which to apprehend the world. In the words of Michel Foucault, each society is said to have its own “regime of truth”. Such a distorted epistemological view discards the possibility of commonality in struggle altogether, as well as a framework through which to critique, organise and unite on any basis. This idea that different groups have different understandings has also motored the divisive tendency of identity politics. It was what split the civil rights collective in America: the idea that different ‘groups’ had to organise autonomously on the basis of supposed ‘common experience’. This only fragments and divides social movements, never unifying them. It is also based on false consistencies that do not exist, and should expect to be challenged by unwilling members of those ‘groups’ who disagree with the way they are being represented.


Identity politics, and the recent turn around the world to right-wing populism, are linked in a confirmation feedback loop. The fatalistic practitioners of identity politics, unaware (or perhaps, in some cases, exploitative) of their own methodological flaws, despair and hand-wring at their inability to organise for transformative change, and project its failures onto the populace by demonising them. This, in turn, has led right-wing populists to totally write off identity politics as a project largely borne out of a university-educated liberal elite. The problem is, this claim today actually has considerable truth to it. Identity politics has indeed become incorporated by the professional-managerial elite and can no longer suffice as a radical Left strategy. Instead, identity politics, in response to right-wing populism, can only compound the fatalistic moralism even further. This is a downward spiral of doom that must be transcended. Firstly, it is no good of commentators to go around saying ‘identity politics’ is a mythological term invented by white men. Not only is this completely false (the term is used by early practitioners themselves such as Kimberlé Crenshaw, the inventor of ‘intersectionality’), it smacks of a desperate attempt to halt the conceptualisation of the real, desperate problems with this politics and its distorted academic influences. The opposing illiberal poles of identity politics and right-wing populism have led to extreme fragmentation of the world and an immersion in lies and mutual demonisation. Now, more than ever, we need to understand the world at the level of what Fredric Jameson calls the ‘totality’ or what sociologists would call the ‘social structure’. The identity moralism of the political and capitalist classes must be rejected for an inclusive class politics that seeks to end, not diversify, capitalist imperialism and patriarchy.



Alex Birchall is a researcher and postgraduate student in sociology. Born in Whangarei, his family hails from the north of New Zealand and Rotuma (Fiji). He is currently researching the limits of current housing policy in Auckland. Alex’s academic interests include: Marxism, the politics of racial ideology and nationalism, the philosophy of social science, the politics of globalisation, and the sociology of knowledge and education. His work has been published in New Zealand Sociology and sonic art journal Writing Around Sound. He identifies as a ‘left communist’ and a ‘critical Leninist’.


  1. Your last sentence says it all. The problem is that “capitalist imperialism and patriarchy” have a stranglehold on the USA( and thus the rest of the Western world) through the American military machine (imperialism) and Americas warped ideas on Christianity ( patriarchy). Both must end as you say, but it won’t be pretty!

  2. Yes, I agree that the last sentence is important. It suggests that just because capitalists dismiss identity politics, that doesn’t mean they have become more left-wing.

    Centre-leftists can still ignore the working class while also dismissing identity politics. In fact, this is far more common than radical left politics

  3. This is essential reading for all first year students in uni. The idea that you can rank different schools of thought and so on, is lunacy, because students are coming in, in no position to know with what they’ve experienced, and it will get worse next year.

    So Alex Birchal comes from at best decile 2 (no offence Alex) so an entire teaching staff gets graded like this is beyond belief. so you get varying amounts of funding and reource ect because youre in a region.

    How you can rank teaching across all levels shows how little academic charlatans understand the diversity of offerings that are in side the education system.

    If you are a student wanting real change you shouldnt rely on the system and must burn the middnight oil and look outside your classes for ideas that pressure for change, and its vital it’s vital those ideas come from students and the public.

  4. Personality cults are a substitute for ideas.

    The fact is, those in control have only one basic idea: acquire more of ‘the cake’ for themselves and their mates.

    And the fact is, the majority of those who are not in control have only one basic idea: they want a different distribution of ‘the cake’.

    The idea that ‘the cake’ is getting smaller, that there are always more mouths ‘at the table’ and that ‘eating the cake’ is not sustainable is not thinkable by anyone in politics that I am aware of.

    Hence, politics has become irrelevant in the real world.

  5. I heard a word – I think it was on The Humanist Report after Hillary’s defeat – which was used to describes the feminist who does not raise all women.

    The stalling and degrading of the middle class has enabled the ‘shitty Right’ to capture the abandoned (who the righteous Left,in their comfort, have forgotten: that paying the bills and having a job matter more for the working class lesbian than university safe spaces or a woman PM) and shift their focus to those ‘bloody entitled’ – while still getting shafted by these same outrage-swinging Conservatives.

    This is why Hillary Clinton failed and Donald Trump won. Untill these righteous Leftist understand where the real need is -right here and now -we will carry on inflaming (ironically) – the flames against identity issues.

    • The Clintons have lost all speaking rights, theyre worth a fraction they where when nobody new theyre carefully constructed corporate media identities is a total shame, now that every one is in on the game i think is will be harder for PR merchants to spin doctor with some one calling BS

  6. This is complete and utter nonsense.

    First, it needs a stiff edit. But because it’s really just stream-of-consciousness, with no real polemic structure, it would be hard to edit. Less than half of it would survive.

    This style of long-form diatribe has had its day. It is an example of just how lazy and marginalised some segments of the Left have become, and just how bereft of critical thinking skills we are.

    You do not need 2000+ words to describe the problem; the Left was ideologically invaded and colonised by Intersectionalists, who used Maoist forms of criticism and bullying tactics to shut down all opposition. However, the problem of Class Struggle remains the same as ever. This article tries to paper over this defeat with a retrospective justification of the conquerors’s position, to make it appear that their complete capitulation was actually a reasoned position. It is not.

    Intersectionalism and Identity Politics is NOT about Class Struggle. Identity Politics is polarising and was specifically designed to atomise the Working Class into racial and biological camps from which they can NEVER escape. Workers are then posted over these Identity Gulags to police themselves forever, making every thought, word and deed subject to the approval of a group of self-appointed pseudo-intellectual Elites and their Capos. Once again, popular aspirational Marxism is subverted by authoritarianism and institutional power.

    As a way of undermining Class Struggle, and throttling Marxism, you have to admire Identity Politics for its perfection. But like any deadly virus, no matter how elegant, it must eventually be eliminated from the Body Politic by hard work on the ground.

    This article tells us many things, though not by intention; it tells us that the Working Class no longer has any serious intellectual representation to speak of. It tells us that the conquest of the “Left” of academia is now complete. And finally, it tells us that it is left entirely up to the last few Marxist activists who genuinely give a shit about poverty and inequality to reconsecrate themselves to genuine, unadulterated Class Struggle through mass organising.

  7. You should have a go at reading it…

    “This style of long-form diatribe has had its day. It is an example of just how lazy and marginalised some segments of the Left have become, and just how bereft of critical thinking skills we are.”

    Not reading long-form articles is probably a better example of laziness.

    “Intersectionalism and Identity Politics is NOT about Class Struggle”

    That’s the author’s point: “we should be clear that identity politics is in fact a kind of class politics – the politics of the middle-class and elite ‘Left’ that supports capitalism or at least accepts its inevitability.”

    • Far be it for any one else to piont out that doing the same things over and over is making New Zealand poorer in ugly ways, not richer in pretty ways. What ever language you want to use to discribe bad management is fine with me so long as the solutions are unambiguous, easily repeated and creates upward mobility.

      This isn’t class warfare, this is survival class.

    • My point was that that statement…

      “we should be clear that identity politics is in fact a kind of class politics – the politics of the middle-class and elite ‘Left’ that supports capitalism or at least accepts its inevitability”

      is a confused, run-on sentence which is simply incorrect.

      Identity Politics is not Class politics and cannot be Class politics. Identity Politics is politics predicated on Identity instead of Class, not “as well as” Class. Identity Politics permits gay Billionaire Industrialists like Tim Cook to gain social credit by “leaning in” together with gay Apple workers his company is simultaneously exploiting, because they share a common sexual orientation. Identity Politics repudiates class. They are mutually exclusive. How many more ways can I say it?

      Class can be changed. Workers can become Middle Class. In a Socialist revolution, the Working Class and the poor can become the new ruling class, and can prosper. There is class mobility. That is the entire point of Socialism.

      It is precisely that potential which so horrifies the Ruling Class. They will do anything to prevent it if possible. They want Workers locked into their strata of society, permanently incapable of movement or action. Which is why Neo-Liberalism loves Identity Politics. It is “classless”, and in Identity Politics, there can be no “mobility”, no “revolution”.

      You are locked into your identity from birth. Gender, ethnicity, race, genetics, all of these traits are reductionist, and permanent. They are also naturally alienating, setting every group and individual against every other group and individual. It is permanent political Balkanisation. Even when extreme circumstances demand solidarity, every political project becomes horrendously difficult and expensive, requiring endless negotiation with the Intersectional power brokers at every level, from top to bottom.

      Elites of course will have none of this twaddle. They understand Class perfectly. They could care less what colour your skin is or where you came from. They just want to know how much money you have. The old aristocracies are dead. Now a Chinese magnate and an Indian Billionaire have perfect common cause when it comes to money. WE taught them that, through 150 years of Class Struggle.

      When you understand Identity Politics properly, you can only admire its evil genius. Workers, powerless prisoners of personal traits they can never change, are forever unable to find common cause with any other Worker unless that Worker happens to share their exact same Identity. At which point neither one of them has any power or identity whatsoever, since nothing distinguishes them as special. Such a diabolical invention!

      The only solution is to restore Class Consciousness, with no regard whatsoever to sex, gender, race, skin colour or ethnicity. We are all completely equal in Class Struggle, because there are no distinctions which cannot be alleviated or remedied. As Marx and Engels well understood.

      • “Identity Politics is not Class politics and cannot be Class politics. Identity Politics is politics predicated on Identity instead of Class, not “as well as” Class. Identity Politics permits gay Billionaire Industrialists like Tim Cook to gain social credit by “leaning in” together with gay Apple workers his company is simultaneously exploiting, because they share a common sexual orientation. Identity Politics repudiates class. They are mutually exclusive. How many more ways can I say it?”

        Yes, and that was the author’s point – identity politics is used by the middle-class and elites. I’m not sure why you struggle to understand the point. It’s pretty clear.

        Everything you’ve said reinforces or repeats the blog post

  8. identity politics helps socialites to remove the grubby dirty working class while screaming misogyny and racist to make sure they are keep as quiet as possible
    and they wonder why labour is still in oposition?
    listening to a small but loud percentage has out the working class back decades

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