Serena Winther Self Portrait 1

I took part in a discussion on ‘Identity politics, communalism and multiculturalism’ at the Secularism Conference 2017. This is something of what I said.

‘All politics is identity politics.’ And ‘Without identity politics there can be no defence of women’s rights or the rights of minority groups.’ So run the two most common contemporary defences of identity politics. As criticism of the politics of identity has become more developed and fierce, so has the defence. So, I want here to begin a critique of the critique, as it were, and in so doing reassert the necessity for challenging identity politics.

Identities are, of course, of great significance. They give each of us a sense of ourselves, of our grounding in the world and of our relationships to others. At the same time,  politics is a means, or should be a means, of taking us beyond the narrow sense of identity given to each of us by the specific circumstances of our lives and the particularities of personal experiences. As a teenager, I was drawn to politics because of my experience of racism. But if it was racism that drew me to politics, it was politics that made me see beyond the narrow confines of racism. I came to learn that there was more to social justice than challenging the injustices done to me, and that a person’s skin colour, ethnicity or culture provides no guide to the validity of his or her political beliefs. Through politics, I was introduced to the ideas of the Enlightenment, and to the concepts of a common humanity and universal rights. Through politics, too, I discovered the writings of Marx and Mill, Baldwin and Arendt, James and Fanon. Most of all, I discovered that I could often find more solidarity and commonality with those whose ethnicity or culture was different to mine, but who shared my values, than with many with whom I shared a common ethnicity or culture but not the same political vision.

Politics, in other words, did not reinforce my identity, but helped me reach beyond it. If I was growing up today, though, it is quite possible that my political education would be much narrower, because it would be shaped primarily by my personal identity and experience, rather than providing a means of transcending it; because all politics has, for so many, come to be seen as identity politics.

To understand the characteristics of contemporary identity politics, we need first to go back to the origins of modern politics, at the end of the eighteenth-century. This was when the distinction was first established between the left and right as we understand them. It was also when the distinction between identity politics and its critics first emerged. Of course, identity politics was not then called identity politics. Nor was it associated with the left or with struggles against oppression.

In fact, the very opposite. The origins of identity politics in the late eighteenth century lie with the reactionary right. The original politics of identity was racism and nationalism, and it developed out of the counter-Enlightenment. These early critics of the Enlightenment opposed the idea of universal human values by stressing particularist values embodied in group identities. ‘There is no such thing as Man’, wrote the French arch-reactionary Joseph de Maistre in his polemic against the concept of the Rights of Man. ‘I have seen Frenchmen, Italians and Russians… As for Man, I have never come across him anywhere.’

Where reactionaries adopted a particularist outlook, radicals challenging inequality and oppression did so in the name of universal rights. They insisted that equal rights belonged to all and that there existed a set of values and institutions, under which all humans best flourished. It was a universalism that fuelled the great radical movements that have shaped the modern world – from the almost-forgotten but hugely important Haitian Revolution of 1791, to the anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggles of the twentieth century to the movement for women’s suffrage to the battles for gay rights.

Magritte Double Secret

The relationship between left, right and identity changed in the decades after the Second World War. In the wake of Nazism and the Holocaust, overt racism became far less acceptable. The old politics of identity faded, but a new form emerged – identity politics as a weapon wielded not in the name of racism and nationalism, but to confront racism and oppression, and as a means of challenging inequality.

The struggle for black rights in America, in particular, was highly influential in developing ideas both of black identity and self-organization. Squeezed between an intensely racist society, on the one hand, and, on the other, a left largely indifferent to their plight, many black activists ceded from integrated civil rights organisations and set up separate black groups. It provided a template for many other groups, from women to Native Americans, from Muslims to gays, to look upon social change through the lens of their own cultures, goals and ideals.

In the 1960s, identity politics provided a means of challenging oppression, and the blindness of much of the left to such oppression, and was linked to the wider project of social transformation. But as the old social movements and radical struggles lost influence, so the recognition of identity became an end in itself. ‘The demand is not for inclusion within the fold of “universal humankind” on the basis of shared human attributes’, as the feminist and sociologist Sonia Kruks put it; ‘nor is it for respect “in spite of one’s differences”. Rather, what is demanded is respect for oneself as different.’

The meaning of solidarity has transformed. Politically, the sense of belonging to a group or collective has historically been expressed in two broad forms: through the politics of identity and through the politics of solidarity. The former stresses attachment to common identities based on such categories as race, nation, gender or culture. The latter draws people into a collective not because of a given identity but to further a political or social goal. Where the politics of identity divides, the politics of solidarity finds collective purpose across the fissures of race or gender, sexuality or religion, culture or nation. But it is the politics of solidarity that has crumbled over the past two decades as radical movements have declined. For many today, the only form of collective politics that seem possible is that rooted in identity.

‘Solidarity’, therefore, has become increasingly defined not in political terms – as collective action in pursuit of certain political ideals – but in terms of ethnicity or culture. The answer to the question ‘In what kind of society do I want to live?’ has become shaped less by the kinds of values or institutions we want to establish, than by the group or tribe to which we imagine we belong.

The question people ask themselves is not so much ‘In what kind of society do I want to live?’ as ‘Who are we?’. The two questions are, of course, intimately related, and any sense of social identity must embed an answer to both. But as the political sphere has narrowed, and as mechanisms for political change have eroded, so the answer to the question ‘In what kind of society do I want to live?’ has become shaped less by the kinds of values or institutions people want to struggle to establish, than by the kind of people that they imagine they are; and the answer to ‘Who are we?’ has become defined less by the kind of society they want to create than by the history and heritage to which supposedly they belong. The frameworks through which we make sense of the world are defined less as ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’ or ‘socialist’ than as ‘Muslim’ or ‘white’ or ‘English’ or ‘European’.

It is not, then, that all politics is identity politics. It is that it has come to seem as if all politics can only be identity politics because the alternative, which formed the heart of the great, progressive social transformations over the past 200 years, has so badly eroded. As the universalist viewpoint has faded, largely as many of the social movements that embodied that viewpoint have disintegrated, so the social space vacated by that disintegration became filled by identity politics.

Michael Murphy Staphanie Tubbs

This takes us to the second critique of the critique: that identity politics is simply another name for struggles against racism or women’s oppression or homophobia, and that those who challenge identity politics are turning their backs on such struggles. In reality, the debate is not whether we should challenge oppression. It is about how we should do so. Most of us who criticize identity politics do so from the perspective of having challenged oppression and injustice for most of our adult lives.

In practice, contemporary identity politics does little to challenge the roots of oppression. What it does do is empower certain people within those putative identities to police the borders of ‘their’ communities or peoples by establishing themselves as gatekeepers. It has allowed self-nominated authentic voices or community leaders to consolidate and protect their power. As solidarity has become redefined in terms of ethnicity or culture, so those who demand to be the voices of those ethnicities or cultures are afforded new privileges. From the perspective of identity politics, the African American academic and activist Adolph Reed observes, ‘a society in which 1% of the population controlled 90% of the resources could be just, provided that roughly 12% of the 1% were black, 12% were Latino, 50% were women, and whatever the appropriate proportions were LGBT people.’ That is why, he adds, the more aggressively ‘working people of all races, genders, and sexual orientations’ have their protections dismantled and their lives broken, ‘the louder and more insistent are the demands from the identitarian left’ that ‘the crucial injustices in the society should be understood in the language of ascriptive identity.’

At the same time, as the new anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim movements and the rise of the identitarian right reveal, the reactionary forms of identity politics has returned with a vengeance. If other groups can protect their particular history and heritage and cultural identity as essential to their social being, runs the argument, why can’t whites? Many liberals now defend ‘racial self-identification’ as simply another form of identity politics. One of the consequences of the mainstreaming of identity politics is that racism has become rebranded as white identity politics.

Contemporary identity politics is less about confronting injustice than about rebranding it. So, no, all politics is not identity politics. And only by challenging identity politics can we truly challenge inequality and injustice.


The images are, from top down: ‘Self Portrait 1’ by Serena Winther, an entrant in the 2012 Saatchi Gallery / Sunday Telegraph Art Prize for Schools; René Magritte, The Secret Double; Michael Murphy’s 3-D sculpture of Stephanie Tubbs Jones.


  1. Great post, Kenan! This “identity politics” sounds to me like a re-run of a nonsense from 30-40 years ago: namely “collective rights” as distinct from, equal to or even better than “human rights”. It was a favourite slogan upheld by tin-pot dictators, authoritarian regimes, and any leader who liked to use their power and control to tyrannize individuals both within and without their particular group (i.e. identity).

    • Thanks. Yes, there are major problems with the notion of group rights, the belief in which is probably stringer now than it was 30 years ago.

      • Patrick S. O'Donnell

        There are perfectly cogent and compelling reasons for the development of the notion of “group rights,” particularly within the contours of international law. Such rights grew out of the experiences of colonialism and imperialism (including cultural ethical imperialism) and the oppression of indigenous groups and minority “nations” within nation-states and are tied to the idea of collective self-determination insofar as that has been denied to such peoples. Group rights are thus a product of some of the more egregious flaws in the international system of nation-states, international law, and a purely “individualized” concept of human rights in the law. They are an historical by-product of the sundry and sordid effects of various kinds of ethno-nationalist ideologies that motivated the genesis of particular nation-states around the planet. None of this implies that a conception of group rights should trump individual human rights (including the fundamental idea of human dignity which in several important respects is at the core of the notion of human rights), indeed, it should be morally and legally parasitic upon the latter, assuming the fundamental metaphysical and moral priority of human rights as conventionally understood. Hence recognition and protection of “group rights” may be one important means whereby we protect individual human rights.

        Group rights are intended to give meaning, substance or “reality” to the notion of collective self-determination when that has been denied or distorted by the comparatively far more powerful states within which these groups or “nations” of indigenous peoples reside. They are subject to the constraints of political legitimacy and ultimately justice. As Allen Buchanan writes in Justice, Legitimacy, and Self-Determination: Moral Foundations for International Law (Oxford University Press, 2004), “Human rights as exclusively individual rights—rights ascribed to individuals—are an inadequate account of justice for a justice-based moral theory of international law. Put more positively, this is the claim that the conception of justice appropriate for international law must include group rights, as well as individual rights.” Buchanan reminds us that international law already recognizes various forms of group rights, as in the legal rights of state or the legal rights of corporations. Buchanan’s book has, I think, a persuasive argument for the recognition of another class of group rights, namely, the

        “rights of self-government short of independent statehood. …[T]he protection of individual human rights requires both international legal recognition of a limited right to secede and international support for intrastate autonomy arrangements [e.g., Native Americans, Tibetans, the Bedouin…] that accord rights of self-determination short of full statehood to minority groups, including indigenous peoples.”

        The notion of group rights invoked here need not threaten, indeed it should support and further, conventional human rights: “A theory can take individual rights as morally primary, but make plenty room for the moral necessity of recognizing legal rights that are group rights.” This is especially urgent when it comes to the prevention and struggle against “ethnic cleansing” and genocide (including ‘cultural genocide’), which assumes or presumes this or that conception of “group rights.”

        I’ll put together a basic reading list on this topic should anyone be interested in the better moral, political and legal arguments made on behalf of supplementing human rights international law with a concept and praxis of “group rights.”

        • Patrick, what you say is correct. However, you are just giving a single example of the point that any recognisable social entity has “rights”. If it didn’t have rights, it would not be able to exist. This applies to a company, to an NGO, to a family etc. The violation of these rights can never be justified. The problem in the past with “collective/group rights” was that it was used to cover over or even justify the violation of “human rights”. And, as you would expect if my argument is correct, there is a similar problem with companies, NGOs, and even families — they use their rights to abuse the individuals within them or under their control. Not pretty.

  2. I have posted many things about identity politics over this past election, and this is by far the best most thorough article I read on the subject.

  3. Excellent piece. A few typos which should be fixed:

    *So, I want here to begin a critique [of] the critique, as it were,
    *That is why, [he] adds, the more aggressively ‘working people of all races,
    *‘The demand is not for inclusion within the fold of [“universal humankind”] on the basis of shared human attributes’,
    *As solidarity has become redefined in terms of ethnicity or [culture],

  4. The problem with identity politics is not just the “race war” perspective, or that it’s ineffective at achieving its goals, but that it makes people stupid and lazy. If that sounds harsh, consider these thoughts from Kant’s “What is Enlightenment”:

    Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed minority (Unmündigkeit, also dependency or immaturity)….Dare to know! (Sapere aude.) “Have the courage to use your own understanding,” is therefore the motto of the enlightenment.

    Laziness and cowardice are the reasons why such a large part of mankind gladly remain minors (unmündig) all their lives, long after nature has freed them from external guidance. They are the reasons why it is so easy for others to set themselves up as guardians. It is so comfortable to be a minor. If I have a book that thinks for me…then I have no need to exert myself. Those guardians who have kindly taken supervision upon themselves see to it that the overwhelming majority of mankind…should consider the step to maturity, not only as hard, but as extremely dangerous. First, these guardians make their domestic cattle stupid and carefully prevent the docile creatures from taking a single step without the leading-strings to which they have fastened them. Then they show them the danger that would threaten them if they should try to walk by themselves. Now this danger is really not very great; after stumbling a few times they would, at last, learn to walk. However, examples of such failures intimidate and generally discourage all further attempts.

    In Kant’s time the guardians were the state and the church; now, it’s the people you designate as gatekeepers.

  5. The argument made in this article is compelling yet historically incorrect. The European enlightenment and French revolution was, as a matter of fact, identity politics of the bourgeoisie against the aristocracy. 19th century Marxism was working class identity politics, the late 19th/20th century suffrage movement was women’s identity politics. Black identity politics did not begin in post-war America, but at least as early as in the 1930s/40s with the anti-colonial Rastafari and négritude movements in the Caribbean. Any politics for minority rights is, ultimately, identity politics.

  6. Susan DuMars

    Thank you for this article, I found it very helpful. I wonder if you have heard of the ‘Cop On Comrades’ movement in Ireland? In May of this year, a writer called Frankie Gaffney published an opinion piece in which he asserted that identity politics were causing divisions on the left. Nearly 500 women signed a petition shaming not only Gaffney but any left activist men who shared the article (women who shared it, like me, were erased from the common history). What has followed has been two months of these half dozen men, the unrepentant sharers and Gaffney himself, being viciously defamed, harassed, and threatened across social media. They have been branded ‘anti-feminist’ because of this one incident. As a woman and feminist, I feel deeply troubled by this. I don’t see how the petitioners’ behavior amounts to anything more than bullying. Your article has given me a context for these troubling occurrences, which I appreciate.

    • katherinejlegry

      So… You blame what happened to Gaffney for the women for speaking up Susan? Why? Did Gaffeny change his views or just get thrashed? We all get thrashed… especially if we are female, so what’s the problem?

  7. katherinejlegry

    Easy for a MAN to say. eh? Unless U dig Margret Thatcher I mean…
    what is true is that “Identity politics” is being used to divide people that should come together against the real tyrant(s) that are the corporate authoritarian take over of many world governments.
    And you should be saying this in a much more accessible way… by admitting white supremacy is policing you and or rewarding you to keep your “manhood.”
    What I mean to express is that…
    I don’t believe you.
    You didn’t convince me.
    It’s not my lack of understanding…
    You too are patriarchal.
    I like James Baldwin too… and I didn’t read him (interpret him) the same way as U. I also listen to Blind Willie…
    go figure.
    The reason for “identity politics” is because you do not get to set the bar for what my culture/gender is. You do not define me. Most of the girls and women in the world are sold into slavery and marriage. They are legally sold and worked and raped. Of course we need to establish our identities apart from you.

    So what would YOU know? I mean who cares about your education?

    Did you read this book by Ibram X Kendi? What do you think of his P.O.V.? I like him. I adore Tavis Smiley… he’s not optimistic. He’s a realist with hope.

    • Hoimrdengr

      > I don’t believe you.
      > You didn’t convince me.
      Is that your definition of reasoned argument?

      > The reason for “identity politics” is because you do not get to set the bar for what my culture/gender is
      Why should there be bars in the first place? So that *you* can set them?

  8. From the perspective of identity politics, the African American academic and activist Adolph Reed observes, ‘a society in which 1% of the population controlled 90% of the resources could be just, provided that roughly 12% of the 1% were black, 12% were Latino, 50% were women, and whatever the appropriate proportions were LGBT people

    An example of this is the ‘liberal’ response in The Guardian and in the BBC’s own News to the revelation of the high pay received by the BBC’s presenters. Whereas the response a few years back would have been disgust at the high pay given the pay cap on other public sector workers the middle-class Left have redefined this story in terms of a ‘gender pay gap’.

    The story is not that some people are disgustingly highly paid, it’s that half of the disgustingly highly paid aren’t women.

    We’ve gone from challenging the 1% to fighting for representation within that 1% as if having more rich women would somehow lift other women out of poverty.

    It’s trickle-down economics for the 21st Century.

      • Needs more commas:

        Whereas the response a few years back would have been disgust at the high pay, given the pay cap on other public sector workers, the middle-class Left have redefined this story in terms of a ‘gender pay gap’.

    • katherinejlegry

      Well… no, speaker to the animals… you are only HALF right. Being that women have never had pay equity due to the male rule, your disgust with having them ever want to reach the same level of greed that white men and most men have entitled themselves to over all others, does not hold as a flaw in women…
      You do not comprehend equity or equality as far as I can see or understand the real problems.

      • You inherit a fantasy-world, in which all men are Perpetrators and all women are Victims.

        In the world of reality, however, many women are Perpetrators (and many men are Victims).

        If you doubt this, ask yourself this: who would you rather be – a rich, well-educated woman (a BBC presenter say) or a dirt-poor man hoeing the ground in the developing world (or thrown onto the scrapheap by Capitalism in the West)?

        Truth is, given half a chance, women are as greedy and oppressive as men. To deny this is merely reverse-sexism.

        Thus the real issue is Money – not Gender.

        And until Feminists admit this, they will continue to be part of the problem – even for other women – not the solution.

  9. The 1980’s brought about a collapse of the Left in general, from which it didn’t even begin to recover until the 2007/8 financial crisis.

    Many on the Left took refuge in political correctness or identity politics – neither of which has helped anybody, however.

    And which have driven many people away from supporting the Left in any form.

  10. Nax mahimi

    Much of what you say rings true. As an Indian, I hold many identities and this comes naturally to most of us. Ascribing to just not one religious or otherwise text, these multiple identities do allow for fresh ideas and a general and sometimes reluctant acceptance of other different ideas and persuasions. But not everyone in the world is of the same construct. Is it not so. The clash of civilizations is evident. Religious terrorism exists and is perpetuated and aided by ignorance of history of the ruling dispensations. While the liberals have for long run amock with disdain for others, the conservatives have become violent in speech and action, it is therefore but natural that fear will take hold on the individual, mostly in the middle, and he/she/it will take refuge closer to some identities and its politics. This is the time/age where the pendulum world over has gone to the right for it has stayed too long with some of the most corrupt and bogus left and liberals. One day, not anytime soon, the pendulum will move back closer to the center and thats what we all hope for, I think..

  11. GWB

    Good piece, but I think that, at the same time as looking at the problem of identity politics, you need to address the problem of assimilationism. It’s fine to abandon identities and “merge with the whole”, but what is the standard that we should assimilate to? Unfortunately the standard is largely subjective (though not entirely), and, in the absence of an agreed objective standard, European, male heterosexual, standards become the default, and everyone is increasingly pressured to assimilate to that. That’s the problem.
    Ideally there would be no groupism – no labelling of self or labelling of others, but have we really got to the point yet where we are so enlightened that human rights issues will just sort themselves out without group action?

    • GWB. The issue is not whether everyone should merge into one identity. Clearly, they should not. We have multiple identities at multiple level. There is our uniqueness. There is our family identity. There is a community identity. And a cultural identity etc. The political question is how you apply rules/policies to everyone without violating an identity. For that you need to recognise universal human right principles. If those are protected then you should be able to let every other identity go its own way i.e. group identity (or family identity or religious identity etc) are not allowed to violate certain basics of what it is to be human. Because groups have a track record of deliberately harming individuals, minorities and outsiders, the universal identity as a human being must be affirmed at all times.

      • GWB

        I agree that it’s better to work towards universal human rights rather than group rights. Activists are gradually taking this on board (for example arguing for “marriage equality” rather than “gay marriage”), however, as I said, a universal human identity is subjective. It’s wonderful, but incredibly vague. As Patrick has commented, there is still a role for self-identifying groups which can identify oppression and discrimination that is not even on the radar of universal humanity. Universal humanity did not stop homosexuals being executed or imprisoned, it was homosexuals themselves getting together, organising and raising awareness.

        The term “identity politics” is part of a whole vocabulary including “thought police,” “politically correct,” and “liberal elites”, used by the Right to try to silence those the Right themselves have labelled as other. As you have said, identity politics is a tool of the right wing dictators etc, and human rights activists should not enter that toxic frame, however, until the Right stops singling out sections of humanity as inferior, criminal or mentally ill, the people so labelled will still need to get together to stand up for themselves.

  12. Lara

    Thank you for posting this. I needed to re-check my reality ‘radar’ – it has become a bit skewed here in SA over the last year.

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