Identity politics finds critics everywhere. Throw a rock at a rack of newspapers and you’ll probably hit an editorial condemning it. Conservatives such as Republican House speaker Paul Ryan blame it for polarisation, while liberals like the Columbia University historian Mark Lilla hold it responsible for Donald Trump’s victory, applying the baroque logic that letting people use their preferred gender pronouns is why Democrats struggle to be seen as the party of working people. The US left is showing signs of life, but to defeat its enemies requires ideas – Haider’s riveting book offers several.
Haider is also a critic of identity politics, but with a crucial difference: he knows the history of the term and is working from within the tradition that produced it. As he explains, the idea has radical roots. It originated with the Combahee River Collective, an organisation of black lesbian feminist socialists in Boston who published a landmark statement in 1977: “This focusing upon our own oppression is embodied in the concept of identity politics. We believe that the most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else’s oppression.”
This is the original demand of identity politics, and it’s one that Haider embraces: for a revolutionary practice rooted in people’s identities as racialised, sexed, gendered and classed individuals who face interlocking systems of oppression. These systems have to be fought together, by organising people of different identities in what Haider calls “a project of universal emancipation” devoted to dismantling all of the structures that make them unfree, including and especially capitalism itself.
But if anticapitalist revolution is where identity politics began, it has since become something quite different, and is now invoked by certain liberals and leftists to serve distinctly non-revolutionary ends, Haider argues. It involves members of marginalised groups demanding inclusion, recognition, or restitution from above – a seat at the table. These demands are made in response to very real injuries endured by those groups. But their method, he says, ends up strengthening the structures that produced those injuries in the first place.