Monday, January 31, 2011

"Identity and class"(EPW)-Economic & Political Weekly

*** (only subscribers)
"Identity and class"-- original unedited article
A treatise on internal debate within Marxism(it will amuse only those interested in academics-- purely for an academic purpose of studying Marxism as a theoretical formulation)

“Identity” and “class"

                                                                                           Sabareesh Gopala Pillai

(Sabareesh Gopala Pillai is a research scholar in Sociology with the University of Kerala)

              There has been a recent debate within the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI(M)) in Kerala, whether identity-based politics is part and parcel of communism or is communism entirely about class-based politics. The ideological leanings of a certain section of the intelligentsia towards post-modernism has probably prompted them to vouch for identity based politics within communism.  But the state secretary of the CPI(M), Pinarayi Vijayan immediately clarified that the ideological basis of the party is rooted in class struggle and there was no base for a demand for a broad-based discussion on identity politics.  He elaborated this position by pointing to the role of class struggle in eliminating social evils such as untouchability and ushering in social development in the state of Kerala.

              This official position of the state unit of the CPI(M) is in tune with the original Marxist theory, which considers development of “other” identities as symptoms of weakening of class solidarity.  Multiple identities will only intensify what Marx called “false class consciousness”, thereby weakening class solidarity and ultimately acting as a deterrent against revolutionary tendencies. Marx had rightly distinguished between a “class in itself” and a “class for itself”.  A “class in itself” is simply a group of people who share the same relation to the forces of production.  It is a class only in the objective sense and the social group will fully become a class only when it becomes a “class for itself”.  At this stage the members acquire class consciousnesses and class solidarity.  Class consciousness means that false class consciousness has been replaced by full awareness of the true situation of exploitation and dominance of the ruling class over the subject class.  Hence, at this stage a new class identity is formed as the members of the group find that they share common interests which are more important than other identities based on religion or other primordial ties.

              Identity politics will only ensure the continuation of a “class-in-itself” because class consciousness is diluted through the development of identity consciousness.  A dalit bourgousie may get support of the dalit proletariat class and this will aid him in exploiting the entire working class under him.  Similarly a woman bourgousie entrepreneur can bolster her position by building gender-based solidarity within her company and thereby dividing the working class on the basis of gender.  Thus identity-based politics can be used cleverly as a strategic tool by the capitalists for the illusory and partial “incorporation” of a section of the working class into the bourgousie domain, thereby weakening and ultimately exploiting the entire working class.


 Rather than considering the categories of “identity” and “class” as binary entities, it has to be understood that the concept of “identity” is subsumed under the concept of “class”.  This will in fact help in bringing together people belonging to different idenetities and ultimately result in a broad-based harmony and unity of the entire working class.  Class-based politics, if implemented properly, has the extraordinary ability to obliterate to a great extent the parochial divisions within the society based on caste, creed and race.  Moreover, this doesn’t mean that class based politics is silent about the social realities of race, caste and gender.  It strongly acts against all form of exploitation but the modus operandi is different.

              Discrimination against dalits is countered not by strengthening dalit identity but by integrating them into the wider sections of the society under the label of working class.  Similarly, gender-based identity politics will only intensify what sociologist Ulrich Beck calls the “battle between sexes” and weaken institutions such as the family.  This can create myriad problems for social harmony.  Radical feminists who stand for strong gender-based identities have called for the abolition of the family and mothering role while Marxist feminists have taken a more pragmatic viewpoint like calling for restructuring of the family, the end of domestic slavery and the introduction of some kind of collective method of carrying out child-rearing and household maintenance.  However, Marxist feminists believe that these solutions will be an obvious reality once a communist society based on true equality is established.

              Thus, class can be effectively used as an instrument for the hitherto non-existing integration of excluded sections in the society. The dalit, who is considered an outcaste in the Hindu social organization were not allowed to have any kind of identity in society. Class based organisation gives them the opportunity to acquire a new identity which is not exclusive to them alone. They will be able to identify with other groups in society and interaction between diverse groups will strengthen class solidarity.  While caste system in traditional India had maintained social equilibrium through hierarchy, exclusion and exploitation, class-based politics will help society in moving towards a stage of harmonious egalitarianism by weakening the erstwhile differences based on primordial identities.  Thus, class based politics has the potential of ushering in a caste-free India. Identity based politics can turn out to be extremely divisive and has the potential of threatening social equilibrium in the long run.  On the other hand, class can be used as an effective tool for integrating a plural society with multiple identities.