In Japan there’s a complex of hot springs, and a species of monkey, the Japanese macaque, that frequents it. The dominant family spends its winters relaxing in the warm pools, while the others shiver in the snow. When a monkey from outside the dominant family tries to access the pools, he or she is chased off and sometimes beaten severely. Fair enough; no doubt the alpha macaques simply worked harder to get where they are. Or perhaps the spa water trickles down.
The old-school lefties among you will likely be pissed off that we’ve produced an issue on Class within a larger series on identity. Though both class politics and identity politics exist within the realm of what is loosely referred to as leftwing politics, there is a considerable amount of distrust, exasperation and antipathy between the two.
For most of the last century, Marxist-influenced class politics was pre-eminent. That began to change in the 1980s, when women, queer people and people of colour began to assert their own struggles as separate from, and equal to, class struggle.
The idea that people might have a whole range of legitimate ways to describe themselves politically, beyond mere reference to their “class”, was a blow to socialist values of working class solidarity. Some saw identity politics as an outright threat; one prominent Marxist scholar claimed that the whole movement was a CIA plot to undermine the proletarian cause. Most Marxists continue to insist that identity politics is beside the point, that all forms of oppression are the result of capitalist power relations, and that the only way to achieve true emancipation for women, queer people and ethnic minorities is for the working class to unite and overthrow capitalism.
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All of which, of course, was diversionary crap, because the reality is that the old left had big problems with racism, sexism and homophobia—and its attempts to convince marginalised groups that their causes were secondary to the “real” struggle against capitalism was a thinly-veiled command to fall in line, and to submit to a movement led invariably by straight, white men. “Solidarity” is a laudable virtue in many contexts, but when it’s being used—as it frequently has—to cover up allegations of sexual assault against male socialist leaders, you can see why there might be a problem.
The left has always been prone to self-cannibalisation, but identity politics was the upstart that couldn’t be eaten. So badly did the old left trash its reputation in the process that class was barely discussed in the 90s (though the end of the Cold War definitely had a lot to do with this) and the first half of the 00s.
The last five to ten years have seen a revival. We all now have at least a vague awareness of corporate bailouts, of bankers’ bonuses, of the idea of the one per cent. Greece elected Syriza (granted, that hasn’t exactly worked out for them), and the British Labour party looks likely to appoint a new hard-left leader. We’re once again beginning to realise that class, despite the innumerable forms of edifice, myth and ritual that have sprung up around it, really is just about one group of monkeys hogging the spa. And many of us, myself included, are waiting for a class-based movement that we can get on board with, without feeling the need for a shower.