Frantz Fanon’s internal critique of nationalism as well as of orthodox Marxism offers some illuminating insights on more modern understandings of class and identity. His understanding of revolutionary praxis blows away the mystification of both categories into “identity politics” and “class reductionism.” The speech he gave at the Congress of Black African Writers in 1959, “Reciprocal Bases of National Culture and the Fight For Freedom,” is especially useful. Much of the following is a paraphrasing and reformulation of this speech and Fanon’s ideas.
Identity is our consciousness of self, of our group’s historical positioning in the world. What is commonly considered to be “identity politics” says that politics are first shaped through a social group’s particular identity, whether it is nationality, race, class, religion, gender, sexuality, age, etc. or intersections of these. Politics are reduced to identity. The identity of an individual or group is assumed to lead to a particular political consciousness.
Class is a stratification of people into a hierarchal ranking of socio-economic groupings. What is commonly considered to be “class reductionism” says that conflicts of race, gender, sexuality, etc. can be boiled down to class inequality, i.e. between those who own and control the means of production, exchange, service, discipline, communication, etc. and those who don’t. White supremacy and patriarchy are seen as separate and auxiliary to the universalizing class struggle.
There are obviously many limitations to both these understandings of class and identity, and a critical analysis of both is necessary.
In Fanon’s view, revolutionary praxis (the intersection of revolutionary activity and consciousness) is not a constant, but an open-ended possibility. In dialectical fashion, Fanon argued that the particular, not the parochial, is the only thing that will give us a universal dimension. The affirmation of oppressed people’s identities should provide the basis for an opening, not a closing, of the door to revolutionary class consciousness. But rather than the limitations of identity and class analysis giving rise to development between the two, the differences remain stuck in a mutually exclusive shouting match, a dialectical gangrene of the left.
“Identity politics,” like nationalisms, are often considered by “class reductionists” to be a stage of the past—signs of backwardness that ought to be set right. But Fanon, however, considered the backwardness to lie in the wish to skip the step of the particular in the struggle for the universal. But don’t miss the point. Fanon did not think that nationalism in of itself was enough to bring about a transformation of society. He would take a similar stance on the emergence of “identity politics.”
Fanon contended that there would never be new departures or changes in colonized identities within the framework of colonial society. Here and there valiant attempts were made, but the repercussion was nil. A revolutionary movement does not repair the value and shape of oppressed people’s identities; the struggle which aims at a fundamentally different set of human relations cannot leave intact either the form or the content of the identity. In Fanon’s language: the disappearance of oppression is the disappearance of the oppressed/oppressors.