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Non-Identity and Negation: “Identitarianism” & The Affirmation of Difference | Ross Wolfe

Ross Wolfe

In a classic 1952 essay on “The Historical Invariance of Marxism,” Amadeo Bordiga identified three contemporary forms of opposition to Marxist theory. First of all there were the bourgeois apologists, who denied the validity of Marx’s critique of political economy. Next there were the Stalinists, who verified Marx’s insights in word but falsified them in deed. Last but not the least came the renovators, who tried to modernize Marx’s concepts — i.e., the “self-declared advocates of revolutionary doctrine and method who nonetheless attribute its current abandonment by most of the working class to defects and initial gaps in the theory which must be rectified and brought up to date. Deniers — falsifiers — modernizers. We fight against all three, but we consider the third group [of adversaries] to be the worst of the lot.”

Bordiga’s hardheaded “invariance” was of course largely strategic, meant to sustain a set of principles against unwarranted revisions, additions, subtractions, etc. Marxism addresses itself primarily to history, to changing conditions which must be dealt with on their own terms. Principles, while not totally sacrosanct, should not be compromised at a whim, in order to accommodate regression or to rationalize defeat (Stalin’s motto of “socialism in one country,” for example, was only adopted after it became clear that proletarian revolution had failed in the West). Recently, however, it has again been suggested that Marxism must be supplemented, augmented, or otherwise updated so as to be more inclusive or appeal more to a broader range of people. LIES: A Journal of Materialist Feminismat least poses this as an open-ended question: “How do we assess the many different theories that attempt to describe the structure of race, gender, and class?” Questions like this seem to suppose definite answers, though, which invariably prove weaker than the original line of inquiry.

Yesterday, in a discussion about how to conceptualize race under capitalism, one ostensible left communist remarked that “there are any number of left communists who are ready to explain to you where ‘intersectionalism’ fails, but how many of them can account for why it exists?” Another discussant then asserted that “a left communist fusion with identitarian points of view is necessary. We need to do more than dismiss a whole perspective just because of differences in language and analysis.” Terms such as “identitarian” and “identitarianism” are of fairly recent vintage, stemming from several sources, hence polysemic. Black socialist critics like Adolph Reed use these terms to denote “essentialized ascriptive identities, commonly referred to as identity politics.” Here the identities in question are multiple, referring to discrete groups whose distinct characteristics, fluid social relations, are fast-frozen and held aloft as if solids. Or else they are snatched from the air, from the misty realm of ideology — as the reified distillate of cultural stereotypes. For the critical theorist Theodor W. Adorno, “identitarian” signified just the opposite, the idea of a harmonious social totality in which every antagonism had been surreptitiously removed.

Anyway, I objected that a fairly widespread identitarian movement already exists across Europe and the United States. It is one with which socialists must not fuse, however, under any circumstances. Since 2002, the extreme right-wing nationalist Bloc Identitaire has been active in France. Now it has managed to set up a branch in England and establish a foothold in America. Generation Identity, as it calls itself, is the logical culmination of the “identity politics” foolishly embraced by many parts of the Left these last few years. “Our only inheritance is our blood, soil, and heritage,” reads their headline, with clearly fascist overtones. “We are heirs of our destiny.” Just a couple months ago, the National Policy Institute (NPI) held an entire conference devoted to identity politics in Washington, DC. Claus Brinker, who covered the event for the website Counter-Currents, reported that it aimed to ascertain “the future of white racial identity politics.” In the comments thread of a post several years ago by Red Maistre, “On Identitarianism: In Defense of a Strawman,” Maoist veteran Carl Davidson argued that the real enemy was tacit “white male identity politics.”

Tacit or not, it is clear that formations like Generation Identity and Bloc Identitaire represent something new. When I brought them up, the aforementioned discussant did not seem to appreciate it. “You must have been confused by my terminology,” was the reply. “I did not mean that particular brand…” My response was to ask what the approved brands of identitarianism might be, expressing my concern that drawing distinctions of this sort is reminiscent of the attempt to distinguish “good” from “bad” nationalism. Special pleading routinely accompanies support for the “nationalism of the oppressed,” and relies on a similar logic. One wonders if a similar rationale might not be used to justify cheering on various national liberation projects, like every other Maoist and Trotskyist sect. Even anarchists can get in on some of this action now, with the PKK’s Bookchinite municipalism. Why not just ditch the whole left communist schtick if what you really want is to wave a Palestinian, Kurdish, or Naxalite flag?

Affirmation of Difference

Regardless, it is mendacious to suggest that left communists and communizers have altogether failed to address the desiderata of race, gender, and sexual orientation. Bordiga wrote a book-length essay on “Factors of Race and Nation in Marxist Theory.” Loren Goldner of Insurgent Notes has written a two-part piece on “Race and the Enlightenment.” Maya Gonzalez of Endnotes has written a detailed analysis of “The Logic of Gender,” while Roland Simon of Theorie Communiste has connected the dots between “Gender Distinction, Programmatism, and Communization.” A variety of left communists and Marxists have sought to engage with identity politics and intersectionality, moreover, like Michael Rectenwald. For my part, I’ve attributed their existence (as well as their failing) to the missing category of the social totality — without which the complex interconnections of race, gender, and class cannot truly be grasped. The shortcomings of an overly narrow focus on class have been readily acknowledged, without trying to compensate for these deficiencies by incorporating the latest trendy “discourses” of the academy. In one of his 2010 theses for discussion, Goldner added:

Concentrated as we are, at least for the moment, in the United States, we necessarily recognize that the “color-blind” Marxism of many left communist currents — a proletarian is a proletarian is a proletarian — is simply…blind Marxism. The largely black and Latino population of U.S. prisons (1% of the U.S. population) or the black and Latino youth gunned down with impunity every year by the police, are excellent “first approximations” showing that the legacy of 350 years of white supremacy in American history is still with us, if somewhat deflated since the 1960s. Similarly, gender and “normative sexual” questions are hardly resolved, either within the class or in the larger society. We hardly consider it an accident that most of the incremental progress on these questions since the 1960’s, however piecemeal and fragmentary, has mainly benefited what can be broadly characterized as “middle class” and “professional” elements among blacks, Latinos, women and gays. (Our use of the term here is not to be confused with the repellent and ideologically- charged American use of “middle class” when referring to the working class.)The dynamic between class, race, gender, and sexual orientation varies widely from one concrete situation to another. But since the ebb of the vaguely Marxist or pseudo-Marxian climate of the 1960s and 1970s, when many of these oppressed groups (we are thinking first of all of the black and Latino nationalists of that period) still felt obligated to articulate their agendas within a broader (mainly Stalinist or Third Worldist) “proletarian internationalism,” the emergence of “identity politics” starting in the late 1970s dispensed with that framework altogether. A whole industry of NGOs backed by foundation money came into existence to cement this fragmentation of different groups and bury the question of class, becoming an important anti-working class force, the first line of defense against communist politics in different communities. It was hardly an accident that this ideology and these NGOs and foundations emerged and thrived during decades of defeat, rollback, concessions, and factory closings that decimated the living standards of the working class — white, black, or brown.

Goldner traces this politics of identity to the remnants of the New Social Movements, which went from being anti-institutional in the 1960s and 1970s to being the institution by the 1980s and 1990s. Theoretically, they adopted fashionable poststructuralist thought, with its stress on ontological difference. “Behind the all-too-facile attacks on ‘master narratives’ and bureaucracy, the capitalists and their ideologues — the theoreticians of ‘difference’ — were after the unitary working-class ‘subject’ which had seriously frightened them from 1968 to 1973,” asserted Goldner in his polemic against poststructuralism. Instead of the proletariat as the simultaneous subject-object of history, he maintained, “the ‘identity politics’ of various groups insisting they have nothing in common with anyone else.” Foregoing the Hegelian “labor of the negative,” so central to Marx, the protagonists of difference proposed to posit a new kind of (non-)program.

Place Adorno’s melancholic negativity in Negative Dialectics (1966) alongside the schizophrenic positivity of Gilles Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition (1968). “History progresses not by negativity and the negation of negation, but by deciding problems and affirming differences,” he argued. “It is no less bloody and cruel as a result. Only the shadows of history live by negation: the heroes enter into it with the power of a posited differential or difference affirmed… Contradiction is not the weapon of the proletariat, but rather the manner in which the bourgeoisie defends and preserves itself.” Jacques Derrida likewise spoke of an “affirmation of différance…, an affirmation foreign to all dialectics” in celebrated 1968 lecture. Gayatri Spivak, Derrida’s poco disciple, explained deconstruction’s orientation toward radical alterity as “an affirmative call or appeal to the wholly other.” Meanwhile, the gender theorist Judith Butler joined the literary critic Edward Said in upholding a diasporic ideal of “cultural heterogeneity, negotiating difference, indeed affirming difference or plurality.” Rodolphe Gasché, another champion of the deconstructive approach, summarized its in his contribution to The Making of Political Identities, a collection edited by Ernesto Laclau. “Deconstruction is ‘affirmative,’ …insofar as it seeks its legitimate possibility from what in thinking remains an appeal to the Other to respond to thinking’s attempt to coil upon itself …in a gesture of autoaffective self-positioning.” And so on down the line, with more confounding jargon along the way.

One might mention any number of other examples. The point is that this tendency is part of a general drift away from the singular negation of the status quo, and toward a plurality of particular positions, which Benjamin Noys has dubbed “affirmationism.” In his 2012 book The Persistence of the Negative, Noys grapples with “[an] affirmationist bloc committed to locating points of resistance supposedly intractable to capitalist capture or deterritorialization.” Affirmationism has, on the one hand, a propensity to “ontologize resistance as a perpetually occluded actuality,” while on the other hand “the impulse of affirmationist theory is a politically-inspired rupture with a non-positional stance.” Simultaneously, it attempts to latch onto nodes of resistance (which cannot be subsumed by the logic of capital) while also striving to exceed the accumulated conditions of history (which can be surpassed only by outrunning them). Hearkening back to the self-referential negativity of Marx’s line about “expropriating the expropriators,” Noys champions the determinate negation signaled by the German word Aufhebung, or sublation: “Negativity is not only correlated to a violent dissolution of existing positivities, but also to a ruptural preservation of past and existing negations of capitalist relations.”

Sam Kriss is somewhat off the mark, in his otherwise insightful reflection on Chibber, when he includes Adorno as one of several “partisans of the particular” — together with Heidegger, Derrida, and Spivak. Adorno does caution against facile procedures that would contemplatively subsume the particularity of the object under the universality of the concept, but not in order to ensure the one should forever remain inaccessible to the other. Nor is he interested in condemning the adequation of subject to object. Indeed, this is the only goal worthy of successful revolutionary transformation. Rather than view Adorno as a partisan of the particular, it is more accurate to regard him as the theorist of non-identity par excellence. The negation of identity is not identical to the affirmation of difference. He is concerned not with reconciliation as such, but with false reconciliation achieved by conceptual cleverness or mere wordplay. Under the aspect of identity, real irrationalities are rationalized away; such is the original sin of philosophical idealism, according to which the real is the rational. Consciousness and existence, thought and being, subject and object, universal and particular, theory and practice, etc., are disunited historically (not ontologically, as Heidegger and his heirs would have it) and can be reunited only by an historic act of revolution. “Dialectics is the teaching which shows how opposites can be and how they happen to be (how they become) identical — under what conditions they are identical, becoming transformed into one another — why the human mind should grasp these opposites not as dead or rigid, but as living, conditional, mobile, becoming transformed into one another,” Lenin recorded in his notebook on Hegel.

For a revolution to occur, the latent contradiction between wage labor and capital must be made manifest. Non-identity is key to understanding the antagonisms which seethe beneath the placid surface of bourgeois civil society. “Regarding the concrete utopian possibility,” wrote Adorno, “dialectics is the ontology of the wrong state of things.” The proletariat is a symptom of this wrong state of things — integral to, but not identical with, capital. It is scarcely even identical with itself.

Negation of Identity

Joseph Kay, a left communist blogger, examined the poles of positive and negative in an incisive 2008 post which asks, “Politics of Affirmation or Politics of Negation?” By “politics of affirmation,” he means something close to what Gegen Kapital und Nation meant when they defined it as “any politics whose goal it is to facilitate the emancipation of oppressed groups by affirming and empowering the members of such groups in their respective collective identities.” Kay hears in the affirmative rhetoric of difference an echo of Nietzschean “slave morality,” fueled byressentiment. He contrasts this with the incipient negativity of the proletariat:

Our subversive potential comes not from being oppressed, but from being alienated, separated from the potential our own activity creates. By contrast the politics of the oppressed sees self-determination as the reassertion of the repressed identity or subject position. An assertion of national independence or black pride. It is a politics of affirmation, affirmation of oppressed subject positions. Communist politics is not about affirming ourselves as workers, or as women, or ethnic minorities, or nations… but at destroying these categories along with the capitalist social relations to which they have come to belong. Being a woman or having a certain skin pigmentation, or sexual preference, or country of origin should carry no more implications for a person’s social role than their eye or hair color or height or blood type generally does today; they are not sources of pride, much less revolutionary subjectivity. Similarly, for communists the working class is not something to be celebrated, but the class against work and classes.

Most striking in this passage is its inclusion of “worker” among the identities to be repudiated. All too often identities based on race, gender, nationality, or sexual orientation are demeaned in favor of class identity, which was somehow thought to constitute a more fundamental or decisive reality. But this entirely misunderstands what made the proletariat a revolutionary subject for Marx and his best followers: not its identity with itself, but its non-identity with capital. Vulgar workerism, which affirmed labor as such, laid the groundwork for subsequent identity politics. The different forms of identity politics associated with the social movements coming out of the New Left during the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s (feminism, black nationalism, gay pride) were themselves a reaction, perhaps understandable, to the miserable failure of working-class identity politics associated with Stalinism coming out of the Old Left during the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s (socialist or mainstream labor movements). Georg Lukács indicated already in 1920 just how far genuine proletarian consciousness was from the empirical self-understanding of most workers. “[W]e must never overlook the distance that separates the consciousness of even the most revolutionary worker from the class consciousness of the proletariat,” he wrote. “Proletarian consciousness only perfects itself by annihilating and transcending itself, by creating a classless society through the successful conclusion of its own class struggle.”Working-class identity politics — admittedly avant la lettre — was based on a crude, reductionist understanding of politics that urged socialists and union organizers to stay vigilant, on the lookout for so-called “alien class elements.” Every form of ideological deviation was thought traceable to a petit-bourgeois upbringing. One’s political position was thought to flow mechanically from one’s social position, i.e. from one’s background as a member of a given class within capitalist society. Anyone whose working-class credentials were not impeccable was expected to perform rituals of self-criticism or “autocritique” [самокритика] confessing one’s incorrigible bourgeois intellectual habits in order to purify himself or herself. Maoism radicalized this with application to Third World and minority contexts. In any case, who one “is” should matter less than the kind of change he or she seeks to bring about in the world. José Carlos Mariátegui is worth reading not because he was Peruvian, nor because he was a wheelchair-bound amputee, but rather because he brilliantly analyzed the situation of indigenous peoples in modern life and participated in the Left Opposition of the Third International. Rosa Luxemburg is worth reading not because she was Jewish, or because she was a woman, but rather because was the most lucid critic of reformism and nationalism within German Social-Democracy. CLR James is worth reading not because he was black, or because he was Trinidadian, but rather because he was a first-rate historian of the Haitian Revolution and a skilled interpreter of Hegel.Kay quotes the famous passage from Gilles Dauvé’s Eclipse and Reemergence of the Communist Movement, in which he explains that “the proletariat is the negation of this society, its dissolution, thus also its own destruction.” Dauvé was of course here paying tribute to some classic lines by Marx and Engels from The Holy Family: “The proletariat is compelled as proletariat to abolish itself and thereby its opposite — private property — which determines its existence and makes it proletariat. It is the negative side of the antithesis, its restlessness within its very self, qua dissolved and self-dissolving private property, …and is therefore self-abolishing.” (Significantly, Lenin underlined this precise passage in his 1895 conspectus of the work). Noys has shown how this meaning was preserved by certain theoretical groupings. In his introduction to the volume Communization and Its Discontents“The Fabric of Struggle,” he wrote: “Endnotes and Theorie Communiste retain the traditional Marxian language of the proletariat, but insist this is a mode of self-abolition and not an identity. We cannot reinforce ‘working-class identity,’ or try to replace this with another identity. Rather, the negativity of the proletariat consists in the fact it can only operate by abolishing itself.” Bordiga’s entire importance for Dauvé could be explained by the fact “he [Bordiga] regarded all of Marx’s work as an attempt to describe communism, which exists potentially within the proletariat as the negation of this society.” Maurice Merleau-Ponty expressed something close to this when he wrote in 1955 that “materialism affirms that the dialectic resides in the matter of the social whole, which is to say that the ferment of negation is supplied by an existing historical formation — the proletariat. From this comes the conception of the proletariat as Selbstaufhebung, or yet again the idea of permanent revolution, of a continued negation that is immanent in the internal mechanism of history.”“Dialectics unfolds the difference between both the particular and the universal, dictated by the universal,” Adorno wrote early on in Negative Dialectics. “As the subject-object dichotomy is brought to mind it becomes inescapable for the subject, furrowing whatever the subject thinks, even objectively, but it would come to an end in reconciliation. Reconciliation would release the non-identical and thereby rid it of coercion (including spiritualized coercion), opening the road to a multiplicity of different things and stripping dialectics of its power over them.” In order for reconciliation to ever come about, it is essential to recognize the presently unreconciled state of affairs. The Italian Marxist Antonio Labriola was aware of these objective disunities already in the 1890s. “When we now compare, after a lapse of fifty years, the presentation of antinomies in their concrete details as shown in the third volume of Capital, with the general outlines provided in The Poverty of Philosophy, we readily comprehend the nature of the dialectical thread which holds these analyses together,” Labriola explained. “Proudhon wanted to solve these antinomies abstractly, on the ground the reasoning mind condemned them in the name of justice, but they are now seen to be contradictions in the social structure itself, so that the very process itself engenders contradictions. Once we realize that these irrationalities are born of the historical process itself, we are then liberated from the simplemindedness of abstract reason and come to understand that the negative power of revolution is relatively necessary in the cycle of the historical development.” Lukács thus sought to retrieve the methodological core of Marxist theory against the revisionists, who “attempted to eradicate the dialectic from Marxist thought [by] claiming that it is an obsolete legacy of Hegelian philosophy.” He recalled Marx’s demonstration, in Capital, of the “negation of the negation” — paraphrased, of course, as the expropriation of the expropriators. In a manuscript unknown to Lukács at the time, the young Marx declared that the “outstanding achievement of Hegel’s Phenomenology and of its final outcome is the dialectic of negativity as the moving and generating principle.” Marx thus continued: “Communism is the position as the negation of the negation, and hence is the actual phase necessary for the next stage of historical development in the process of human emancipation and rehabilitation.” Bordiga also dwelt “On the Dialectical Method” in 1950. “Negation of the negation; ‘the expropriators are expropriated’,” he wrote, “but not in the sense that the capitalists are expropriated of the workshops and fields so as to reestablish generalized individual property in the instruments of production. This would not be socialism, corresponding to the formula of ‘every man an owner’ of the petite bourgeoisie (and today of the PCI). Rather, the instruments of production are transformed into social property because those ‘acquisitions of the capitalist era’ that have made production into a ‘social’ reality are preserved.”The material basis of all these various forms of identity (gender, racial, ability) is not so much natural or biological as it is historical and sociological. In the case of gender, it derives from relations of reproduction and what was traditionally called the sexual division of labor (the consignment of roughly half the population to child-rearing and the domestic sphere, hence prevented from owning property). Here the anatomical determinant was primarily genital, but was reinforced through conventions of dress and supposedly characteristic behaviors or dispositions (women tend to be more caring, it is said). With race, it has more to do with the historic emergence of bourgeois civil society and the relegation of certain portions of the total population to specific sectors of the workforce (e.g., the fact that Jews were barred from entering some lines of work but allowed to lend money, or the exclusion of blacks from wage-labor altogether in the form of racial chattel slavery). Here the anatomical determinant was either based on skin “color,” what Fanon called epidermalization, or on notions of “blood” stemming from Romantic nationalist ideology or racial pseudoscience. Even ability/disability seems to be mediated by the social division of labor, defined as one’s capacity to enter the workforce and become a “productive member of society.”


Ross Wolfe is a Marxist historian and architecture critic living in New York.

This article was originally published in The Charnel-House.

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