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Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist)
Thursday, 12 April 2018 09:24

On Identity Politics and Caste Question : P J James

Roots of Identity Politics

The terminology “identity politics” appeared in social theory in the beginning of the eighties as an inalienable variant of post-Marxism and postmodernism. Like the postmodernist affinity towards fragmentation and localism and distrust of “meta-narratives”, from its very inception, identity politics is also oriented to the disaggregation or dismemberment of the oppressed and the marginalized into different “imagined identities”. Though Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, who emerged from the postmodern wing of academia that flourished in the 1980s and became popular through their well-known book, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics, are considered as the originators of identity politics, its roots can be traced to the rejection of the fundamental Marxist notion of working class as the leading revolutionary force in social transformation by the so called critical theorists of the Frankfurt School. The Frankfurt school and its scholars proposed that diverse movements among students, ethnic groups, women, sexual minorities, etc., constituted “the elements of a new revolutionary subject of history.” Following the critical theorists and totally deviating from the Marxist approach to emancipation as an all-embracing comprehensive project, post-Marxist and postmodernist scholars, taking advantage of the ideological and political setbacks suffered by the international Left since the seventies, usurped the centre-stage of social theory and based on a methodologically individualist conception analyzed that interactions between individual subsystems can be seen as possible without the mediation of a totality that wields together these subsystems. All those exponents of “neo-critical theory” and “new-left school” including Laclau and Mouffe, the leading proponents of post-Marxism have argued for replacing class-based politics that places working class as a “privileged agent of social change” by the multitude of “culturally constructed identities”. They also upheld the autonomy of the state in relation to economic and social life. No wonder, from the very beginning neoliberalism has embraced identity politics as its ideology since the celebration of “multiculturalism”, “multiple histories”, “fragmentation”, etc., espoused by identity theorists could be effectively used to obfuscate the global operations of finance capital including the ways in which the various “local” and “fragmented” narratives/identities are shaped by imperialism.

All the proponents of identity politics or post-Marxism describe society as made up of a whole range of autonomous, mutually exclusive, free-floating antagonisms and oppressions, none more important than any other. Accordingly, each sphere of oppression requires a separate sphere of struggle. Related to this is the specific definition of oppression by identity theorists. They regard oppression as an entirely subjective phenomenon. This is at variance with the position of Marx for whom both oppression and exploitation are objective, but consciousness being subjective. When put into practice, therefore, identity politics becomes problematic as, according to it, only those who feel they are oppressed face oppression. If this logic or abstraction is taken for granted, then, for instance, an upper caste youth may feel severely oppressed if feels that unemployment occurs simply because of the existence of caste-based reservation for the lower castes and not due to the neoliberal policies. On the other hand, at its worst, even the most clear-cut instances of systematic caste-based brutality or untouchability are not necessarily oppression, if the oppressed low castes are not conscious of being oppressed. Even Laclau and Mouffe argue that even serfdom and slavery do not necessarily represent relationships of oppression, unless the serfs or the slaves themselves “articulate” that oppression.

The concept of autonomy of struggles and definition of oppression as subjective as analyzed by identity politics remain only at the sphere of abstraction as, in the real world, forms of oppression and struggles against them often overlap, as for instance, both white or upper caste and black or lower caste women are bound to unite against women’s oppression and patriarchy in general. The proposal of identity theorists that every struggle must be fought separately and only by those who are subjected to that oppression, if adopted, may lead to greater and greater fragmentation and eventually to disintegration even within a group organized around a single form of oppression or injustice. If the abstract theory of identity politics is accepted, then only the dalits can fight for caste annihilation and only those who are born as religious minorities can resist Hindutva fascism in India, as the latter is often targeted against the former. Those who are born as upper castes cannot become allies in the struggle for a casteless society. All men will be enemies of women, all Hindus will be enemies of Muslims and so on, thus goes the logic. In brief, with its emphasis on “difference” rather than “commonality”, identity politics completely rules out friends and allies in struggles and precludes united front strategies against oppressors and enemies. Eventually, there is little likelihood of ending oppression and exploitation. The only organizational strategy identity politics offers for different groups of oppressed people is to fight their own separate battles against their own separate enemies. Therefore, like postmodernism whose hallmarks are angst and despair, at the ideological level, identity politics is highly pessimistic implying complete rejection/negation of the potential to build a broad united front of the oppressed together with all progressive democratic forces against all forms of oppression and exploitation.

From theoretical and practical standpoints, the conceptualization of state as autonomous or as neutral body by identity theorists is intended to serve the interests of the ruling classes rather than the oppressed, as the state in all historical contexts has consistently served to represent the interests of the class/classes in power. Laclau and Mouffe even move further in their abstraction by insisting that even the different branches of government are autonomous and neutral among each other. In their view, executive, judiciary, legislature, police and different layers of administration are all separate entities and independent of each other. At the level of theory, therefore, identity politics denies the fundamental truth that oppression is built into the capitalist-imperialist system, that state is the key instrument for the enforcement of that oppression and that judiciary, police and all law enforcement authorities are entrusted with the task of harassing and brutalizing the workers, the oppressed and the weaker sections of society in the interests of capital. It is not an exaggeration to say that the real motive of identity politics is to keep the system intact since armchair identity theorists imbued with methodological individualism are least concerned with even building a movement directed against oppression. Regarding academics, Marx had noted: “The philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.” This observation of Marx is aptly suited to modern-day identity theorists under whom identity politics itself has become a fetter on people’s struggles.

Marxist Perspective on Oppression

Awareness of oneself as a member of an oppressed group and the consciousness associated with that awareness are, no doubt, of crucial significance. “Identity” emerging from this personal experience is an important element in shaping one’s political awareness of oppression. Casteism in India and racism in America and patriarchy in general which are built into the very social and institutional mechanism, for instance, are experienced on a very personal level by the victims. No brahmin in India or white in the US can ever understand what it is like to experience untouchabiltiy or racism. At the same time, every type of personal experience (identity) is different too. The experience of caste oppression by a dalit youth in Kerala may be substantially different from the one in Bihar or that of a dalit woman will be different from that of a dalit man. However, such personal experience or personal identity and real politics are separate things. Politics involves strategies and tactics for fighting against oppression and discrimination, and personal identity becomes political only when it moves beyond the realm of personal experience and assumes a social character, leading to the emergence of social and people’s movements backed by theory. Such an approach is lacking in the conceptualization of identity politics. Therefore it is not proper to mix up one’s “identity” with the theorization of “identity politics”.

For Marxism, as already noted, oppression is not a matter of one’s subjective perception, but of concrete and objective material reality. Hence there is nothing in common between Marxism and the theory of identity politics. At the same time all oppressions irrespective of their forms—racism, casteism, patriarchy, etc.—are inalienable components of the emancipatory project of Marxism. The proponents of identity politics including the so called subaltern theorists in India could be seen arguing that Marxism is incapable of dealing with the caste question as it requires the subordination of the fight against caste oppression (caste oppression) to the fight against the exploitation on workers (class struggle). This is nothing but a caricature Marxism. Today under the ubiquitous and all-embracing hegemony of finance capital over every realm of society including economy, politics and culture, all forms of exploitation and oppression are interwoven to maintain the tyranny of capital over humankind. Not only the workers, but all the oppressed are confronting the same enemy everywhere. Defining revolution as the “festival of the oppressed and the exploited”, Lenin stated without any iota of doubt: “Working class consciousness cannot be genuine political consciousness unless the workers are trained to respond to all cases of tyranny, oppression, violence, and abuse, no matter what class is affected.” It is through this process that the working class transforms from a “class in itself” into a “class for itself”. The fundamental question is building up solidarity with all those who are oppressed and exploited by imperialism in diverse forms and this training has to take place both at the realm of ideology and in the context of struggle. Self-satisfied academics like the identity theorists having no political experience in movements and who always put “group self-assertion” as primary cannot comprehend this basic law of social transformation. Consequently, identity politics cannot acknowledge the potential for mass consciousness to change.

The argument here is not indented in any way to deny the basic truth that struggles against oppression should be led by the oppressed themselves. Actual historical experience amply proves this fact. Initiative for the struggles for women’s liberation has come from women themselves who had to lead the struggle for women’s suffrage and the fight for abortion rights. Same is the case with the struggle by former slaves against slavery, anti-caste struggles in India and struggle by African Americans for Black Liberation as exemplified in the Black Panther movement of the 60s and 70s and so on. However, the historical context of these struggles of the oppressed was also important. As far as the global struggles of the 60s and 70s are concerned, they were inspired by the Vietnamese resistance against Yanki imperialism. The civil rights movement got active support from vast number of whites while the women’s movement of the 60s was supported by hundreds of thousands of progressive men. In India right from very early times, a number of well-meaning upper caste people did come forward exposing and opposing the inhuman and irrational caste system. This refutes the prognosis of identity theorists that only those who actually experience a particular form of oppression are capable of fighting against it. Put it differently, personal experience of oppression was not at all a necessary condition for one to become committed to opposing it. Conversely, as the examples of Barack Obama, an African American elevated as the CEO of American finance capital, dalits elected to strategic position in Indian state, etc. show, there is no such thing as a common, fundamental interest shared by all people who face the same form of oppression. Similarly, putting all white people or upper castes or non-dalits in the enemy camp is a distorted option that ultimately helps the ruling classes to carry on the exploitative system ad infinitum.

Identity Politics and Divide and Rule Strategy of Imperialism

Over the ages, the ruling classes have always relied on the “divide and conquer” policy to maintain its anti-people rule. Since the First War of Indian Independence, the British colonialists in India had effectively employed this strategy by nurturing the communal strife between the Hindus and Muslims which ultimately led to the division of the continent into India and Pakistan. Often the usual strategy of the ruling classes to divide the people is the creation of a “false consciousness” among them. A best example has been the impression created by the ruling classes in America and Europe that white workers stand to gain from reduced wages and welfare benefits to black workers and immigrants. In fact, the objective historical facts are diametrically opposed to this super-imposed false consciousness. In the US, for instance, in the southern states where racism has been the strongest, the earnings of white workers are much lower than even black workers in the North. Similarly, under the neocolonial/neoliberal division of labour, large scale employment of cheap women workers is used by finance capital as a means of pushing down wage rates of male workers and in general reducing the share of wages in national income. Today, outsourcing of work to cheap labour economies enforcing competition between workers in imperialist countries and neocolonial countries is the method used by finance capital to intensify the process of surplus value extraction at a global level. In general, whenever capitalists succeed in enforcing competition between higher paid workers and low paid workers who are segregated from the former on the basis of colour, caste and gender, wages tend to drop. Often, ruling class intellectuals and vested interests try to create the “false consciousness” among people that affirmative action, reservation, women-orientation in economic policies, etc. are the reasons for low wages and unemployment. And the true beneficiaries of this malicious propaganda which has no factual backing are finance capitalists themselves. In this, the neoliberal ideology of identity politics that emphasizes group self assertion is effectively used by ruling classes to spread false consciousness and for destroying the fighting unity of all exploited and oppressed against the ubiquitous hegemony of finance capital.

Communist Movement and Caste

As a matter of fact, the self-professed communists themselves are responsible for the allegation by identity/subaltern theorists that the Communist Movement in India has failed to address the question of caste. The mechanical approach to caste as a mere super-structural phenomenon that will be weakened and may even disappear once revolution takes place is still widespread among a wide spectrum of the so called left in India. This erroneous perspective is invariably linked up with the mechanical understanding of class, mode of production and social formation held by the institutionalized parties like the CPI and CPI (M). Here it is to be reiterated that the dialectical method of Marxism has nothing to do with the non- Marxist class/caste dichotomy attributed to the pseudo-communists. For, while analyzing the mode of production and the social formation of capitalist countries particularly that of Britain, Marx was not oblivious of the complexities connected with the application of the dialectical method developed by him to the concrete realities of other countries which have fundamentally different social formations, though he had no first-hand information other than the secondary sources of published literature on such aspects.

A best example in this regard is his conceptualization of the “Asiatic mode of production”, especially for identifying classes and the mode of production in India with reference to the notoriously inhuman caste system having deep-rooted and inseparable ramifications at the base and in the superstructure. According to Marxist analysis, the whole essence of a social order is ultimately determined by the character of the ownership of the means of production. Naturally, ‘Eurocentric’ analysis of the mode of production is inapplicable to India where the oppressed castes, a major chunk of the population who for millennia are condemned to live in the periphery of the ruling structure and are historically denied ownership of the means of production including land on account of “extra-economic” factors, resulting in a unique pattern of economy, polity, society and culture in this part of the world. As such, in almost all writings of Marx such as German Ideology, Poverty of Philosophy, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy and above all Capital, his magnum opus, and including even articles to the New York Daily Tribune such as “Future Results of British Rule in India”, Marx was particularly keen to refer to the crucial role of caste in the Indian sub-continent. In that sense, the categorization of “Asiatic mode” itself is a proof of the unparalleled far-sightedness and ingenuity displayed by Marx in his analysis.

However, this sharpness and clarity of thought towards the concrete realities of class formation displayed by Marx were seldom visible even among those who are acclaimed as Marxist theoreticians and leaders in India. Still more significant was the incorrect approach that the then CPI leadership had taken towards Dr. Ambedkar who put forward the perspective of caste annihilation linking it with a fundamental transformation in the ownership of land, the principal means of production. CPI’s antagonistic attitude towards Dr. Ambedkar made it difficult the badly needed unity and solidarity between the working class movement and the anti-caste movement of the oppressed to materialize. Adherence to mechanical materialism prevented the CPI and later the CPI (M) leaderships even to acknowledge the progressive positions of Ambedkar on caste annihilation and abolition of landlordism. Very revealingly, the thousand page book entitled History of Indian Independence Struggle authored by EMS, but for a casual incorporation of a photo of Ambedkar in it, does not even mention a word on the latter’s role in India’s political history. At the local level, while the communist cadres took initiative and became activists in various anti-caste struggles in different parts of the country (the communist movement got roots mainly in such places), the ideological bankruptcy of the leadership to dialectically weld together the working class movement with the anti-caste movement continued unabated. No doubt, this has provided an alibi in the hands of various brands of post-Marxist and postmodernist academic theorists belonging to identity politics, new social movements, NGOs etc. to vehemently proceed with their anti-communist propaganda.

It is in this context that the Ninth Party Congress of the CPI (ML), based on a concrete analysis of the Indian society, in the Path of Revolution opines: “The caste question, or oppression based on caste system, instead of weakening has only strengthened in new forms during the last six decades. It is incorporated in to the ruling system through the emergence of caste based parties serving ruling class interest, and through the creation of caste based vote banks. Along with these, identity politics, tribalism like reactionary ideologies are created and promoted by imperialist centres to channelize the struggles against oppression based on caste, tribe, etc. to harmless paths, to keep these downtrodden sections way from revolutionary path. The weakness of the communist movement so far in developing uncompromising struggle against caste system also has helped the efforts to institutionalize caste system and tribal oppression through various means by the imperialists and the comprador rulers.” Emphasizing the importance of linking anti-caste struggles with agrarian revolution, the document continues: “Caste oppression was intensified by keeping the dalits away from land ownership, reducing them to mere tillers. They were compelled to do all menial jobs to serve upper caste sections. So the backbone of the caste system can be broken only through agrarian revolution based on land to the tiller slogan. Along with intensifying the struggle to carry forward this agrarian revolutionary program, vigorous campaigns and movements should be taken up against various forms of caste based oppression on dalits and adivasis and other backward sections including untouchability in various forms still prevalent all over the country. The caste based discrimination against the dalits in various forms should be fought. Inter-caste marriages should be promoted. The reservation based on the caste system should be defended and struggle against diluting it should be waged as a democratic right for the socially and economically backward sections. Along with these, the reactionary ideologies like identity politics, tribalism, etc. should be exposed and fought against.”


At an ideological level, the theory of identity politics dwells at the highest level of abstraction and by taking identity or personal experience to the extreme, it hinders collective social action against finance capital’s oppression in diverse forms. As such, identity politics is a convenient tool in the hands of imperialism and ruling classes to divide people along the lines of caste, community, religion or ethnic identities and divert people’s fighting unity to safe channels. The ideological and political weakness committed by the Left with both its mechanical and dogmatic deviations, making it incapable of concretely evaluating new developments has enabled imperialism to manipulate the whole situation in its favour. More particularly, the deviation of the institutionalized left that has already degenerated to ruling class positions from the genuine issues of the oppressed castes, ethnic and religious minorities has provided identity theorists to brand the communist movement as elitist. The pro-oppressed posture of identity politics is a mask used by the ruling classes to break up the class solidarity of the people who face the same enemy everywhere, though its manifestations or forms of exploitation/oppression are different. The mushrooming of several sub-castes among the backward castes backed by the growing influence of identity politics having close links with imperialist financial and intellectual centres in recent years is a neoliberal phenomenon. This challenge can be taken up only by the revolutionary Left which while firmly upholding the right of the oppressed and the marginalized to fight for their identity (which is different from the identity politics propped up by neoliberal theorists) and recognizing the fact that experiences are “multiple” should come forward organizing the exploited and the oppressed on all fronts and in the process uniting them against the common enemy thereby developing further Marxist theory and practice.

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