Identity Politics is Not Enough: Why the Left Needs Universalism to Survive

Civil Rights Activists

Civil Rights activists holding hands in song in front of the bus. "The consciousness of the great movements of the 1960s was not one of identity politics, but just the opposite: it was a consciousness based on the shattering of social identity and the reaching out at the deepest possible levels to achieve solidarity with people utterly unlike oneself," writes Zaretsky. Credit: Steve Schapiro.

In the Hebrew Bible, when God creates the universe, she doesn’t simply reveal her work to the whole of humanity. She picks a particular people and gives them the burden of living with the knowledge that there is only one God. This sets them aside from all other peoples of their time, who believed that there were many gods, assigned to many peoples. Although God has not picked this people because of any superior traits, their experience of being chosen gives them a feeling of specialness, but it also makes them resented and even hated.

I tell this familiar story to indicate how fraught and complex the relation between particular identities and universal ideals has been. I think we can draw from the story two lessons relevant to understanding the stirring and powerful defense of what is normally called “identity politics” published by Paul Von Blum in this issue of Tikkun.

First, God doesn’t make herself easy to discover. Rather, at least since the days of the Patriarch, she has been what Pascal called a “hidden God.” The knowledge she represents is extraordinarily valuable and can be acquired only through complex processes of reflection, not by attending to what is obviously the case.

Second, every identity is related to a universal idea. Some forms of identity recognize this relation, others deny it, but none escape it. And, contrariwise, universal ideas realize themselves only through particular cases, through what Kant called “the crooked timber of humanity.”

Who cannot be moved by Von Blum’s wonderful story? He speaks with passion as a white man who has been a leading figure in African American studies, a participant in the Civil Rights Movement who lived to see an African American president, and an intellectual who can see the commonalities in the oppression of women, gays, Asian Americans, Latinos, and disabled people. I appreciate how he sees the need to include a critique of social and economic inequality alongside his affirmation of identity politics.

Nonetheless, I think there is a better way to tell the story that Von Blum tells. Let me try to do so by taking up three fundamental moments in his essay: the Obama victory in 2012, the role of identity politics in the New Left, and the case of Paul Robeson, a great figure of the forties and fifties.

How Occupy Wall Street Aided Obama’s Re-Election

According to Von Blum, the 2012 election demonstrates the political strength of the identity politics approach. No one who watched the TV coverage of the Democratic Convention would fail to agree that it was a marvelous demonstration of a party largely composed of female, gay, Latino, and African American delegates. Members of Obama’s political team originally based their strategy on the theme of identity or, as they put it, demographics as opposed to economics. They portrayed the Republicans as waging war on women, as anti-immigrant, and as older fat-cat white men who don’t understand how the country has changed.

These themes were powerful, and they certainly helped Obama, but there is good reason to think that had Obama restricted his campaign to them, he would have lost the election. Twelve to eighteen months before the election, Obama looked like a failed president.

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The text above was just an excerpt. The web versions of our print articles are now hosted by Duke University Press, Tikkun‘s publisher. Click here to read an HTML version of the article. Click here to read a PDF version of the article.

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