THE SEVENTIES had come to an end with Western Leftism in a thoroughly confused state.
Actually Existing Socialism still held sway over most of the Eurasian continent. Admittedly, the Chinese variant bore less and less resemblance to the original Soviet model, which had rounded off the Seventies by invading Afghanistan. It was, however, extremely hard to like either of the Communist behemoths. Of the French revolutionary credo: Liberty, Equality, Fraternity; the actually existing socialists had mastered only equality. Although Cuba and the recently liberated Portuguese colonies of Angola and Mozambique were making slow but steady progress towards fraternity.
For Western Leftists, Actually Existing Socialism’s evident failure to promote liberty proved to be a deal-breaker. After all, what had the Sixties and Seventies been about – if not freedom? The anarchist firebrand, Emma Goldman, had written to Lenin in 1917: “If you make a revolution, and there’s no dancing, then I’m not coming.” The New Left felt exactly the same about freedom. When Actually Existing Socialism finally embraced liberty, wild horses wouldn’t be able to keep the Western Left away, until then …
But, if class-based revolutionary politics found itself becalmed, the so-called “New Social Movements” movements arising out of the struggle for Black civil rights in the USA and South Africa, feminism’s second wave, and the energetic pursuit of gay and lesbian liberation, had storm-force winds in their sails. As the Eighties dawned, it was almost impossible to engage in left-wing politics without acknowledging these new emancipatory movements, or avoid incorporating their radical insights into the Left’s revolutionary praxis.
Predictably, the New Social Movement’s hardest sell was to that part of the Left which still clung to the ideas of Karl Marx. It wasn’t that the Marxists were incapable of recognising the oppression of Blacks, women and gays, merely that they regarded the struggle of these subordinate groups as mere skirmishes within the overarching and all-important battle between Capital and Labour. Class consciousness was the “Open Sesame!” to the free and abundant world that socialism would make possible. Since exploitation was indivisible, the struggle against it had to be the same. Unity – not Identity – was the watchword.
The fighters for racial, sexual and gender equality were having none of it. They would not be subsumed in the “world historical struggle” whose ideological generals all seemed to be straight, white, and male. If the personal was political, then these unconscious beneficiaries of white supremacy and patriarchy had some serious shit to work through.
Enter the Tripod Theory. According to its promoters, subsuming all other emancipatory struggles into the one great struggle between capitalists and proletarians was a mistake. Exploitation wasn’t purely a question of economics, it was a vast, multi-faceted collection of struggles in which racism and sexism featured hugely. Far more could be achieved, they argued, by recognising the co-equal status of race, gender and class in the “triple oppression” of humanity.
Each of these buttresses of oppression depended on and was upheld by the other two. Patriarchy provided capitalism with an already elaborate framework of sexually-charged power and control, while white supremacy had made possible the vast accumulation of slave-generated wealth that set the capitalist system in motion. Race and gender thus raised profound cultural issues that could never be accommodated comfortably in the narrow economism of class politics.
The Tripod Theory gave rise to another metaphor, one in which the Left, by embracing the concept of the “three oppressions”, constructs a fighting platform upon which Blacks, women, workers and gays can fight white supremacy, patriarchy, homophobia and capitalism side by side – each group aiding the other. Race, gender and class thus become the three legs of the Left’s footstool, distributing the revolutionary load equally.
In an attempt to draw the separate struggles of the traditional socialist Left and the New Social Movements into a useful theoretical and political dialogue, Rob Stevens, a progressive academic based at the University of Canterbury, bravely launched the journal Race Gender Class in 1985. It ran for 14 issues and ceased publication in 1995.
Glancing through the issue released in 1991 it very soon becomes clear that if Stevens and his editorial collective had hoped the ideologies related to race, gender and class might, by virtue of being brought together on the pages of a single periodical, somehow give rise to a new and powerful revolutionary praxis, then they must have been disappointed. Not even the tender ministrations of Bill Birch, Ruth Richardson and Jenny Shipley: which had, in that bitter year, 1991, dramatically raised the Misery Index for unionised workers, solo mums and the whole beneficiary underclass (in which Māori and Pasifika figured so disproportionately) could generate the intersectional fightback anticipated by the Tripod Theory.
And just in case any unreconstructed class warriors out there feel moved to lay the blame for this failure at the feet of the race and gender contingents of the broader emancipatory movement, it is worth recalling that it was the Council of Trade Unions which refused to call the general strike that would, undoubtedly, have brought together workers, women, people of colour, and gays on the one platform where real and durable alliances are formed – the barricades.
What the 1991 issue does make clear, however, is the dramatic progress made by those who elected to march under the colours of race and gender. It’s not just the familiar names of Jane Kelsey, Moana Jackson and Vincent O’Malley that catch the eye, but also that the issues they wrote about have such a contemporary feel. Thirty years ago, discussions about the implications of the Treaty “partnership” were confined to a tiny minority of senior public servants, academics and activists (pretty much the readership of journals like Race Gender Class). Thirty years later, the issues debated by the ideologues of race and gender in 1991 constitute the political agenda of the 2020s.
But, if the Politics of Identity have thrived over the course of the past three decades, the Politics of Class have dwindled and faded. Which is not to say that the vast gulf separating the human-beings who keep the capitalist system running, and those who pocket the profits, has not widened since the days of the tragically optimistic Tripod Theory. Nor that the rate of global exploitation has eased in any way. Merely that 1991 was also the year that the Soviet Union fell to pieces.
Turns out that the only thing keeping Western Leftism remotely credible was Actually Existing Socialism. With the reality of class-based politics removed – along with the Berlin Wall – the Politics of Identity, now on two legs, race and gender, was free to run away and join the capitalist circus. What these identarians have yet to appreciate, however, is that Capitalism remains the ringmaster. Thirty years on, all that the politics of race and gender have become is the entertainment.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 18 August 2022.