Readings — From the September 1993 issue

The Left, Lost in the Politics of Identity

( 2 of 3 )

The intensification of identity politics is inseparable from a fragmentation of what I will call “commonality politics”–a frame of understanding that acknowledges “difference” but sees it against the background of what is not different, what is shared among groups. In large measure, things fell apart for the left because the center could not hold. For chronologically, the breakup of commonality politics predates the thickening of identity politics. The centrifugal surge, on campus and off, is obviously, in part, a product of the last quarter century of American demographic trends: growing immigration from Latin America, Asia, and Africa; white flight from cities; the integration of campuses in the wake of civil-rights victories; growing competition for scarce resources. These upheavals have taken place within the longer history of emancipatory politics that has snaked forward through the West since the revolutions of 1776, 1789, and 1848.

During the last two centuries, believers in a common humanity clustered around the two great progressive ideals: the liberal ideal enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and, later, in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of Citizens; and the radical ideal that crystallized as Marxism. Such legitimacy as the left enjoyed in the West rested on its claim to a place in the story of universal human emancipation. Whatever its immense failures, defaults, and sins, the left aspired to address itself not to particular men and women but to all, in the name of their common standing. Whether liberals or socialists, reformers or revolutionaries, the men and women of the left aimed to persuade their listeners to see their common interest as citizens.

Liberals emphasized the “unalienable rights” to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”–ideals that, however trampled in practice by those who were white and male and propertied, nevertheless could at least in principle be appealed to by oppressed groups. Marx, too, framed his politics in universal terms, arguing that a universal class, the workers, were destined to overcome their particular differences and realize a common identity: the human being as maker, realizing his “species being” in the course of transforming nature.

From this point of view, the intellectual radicalism of the early 1960s can be seen as a search for a universalist politics that might take the place of a Marxism that by then had lost its legitimacy. The left turned to participatory democracy and civil rights. But participatory democracy, though theoretically available to everyone, was in practice tailored to students who had the time and energy to spend at endless meetings. And the civil-rights movement, initially framed in universalist terms, could unify the left only until legal segregation was defeated in 1964–65. Once integration and voting rights had been secured, at least on paper, the alliance between liberals and radicals, integrationists and separatists, was strained to the breaking point. Blacks began to insist on black leadership, even sometimes on exclusively black membership in the movement.

Soon, too, the pioneers of women’s liberation rose against male supremacy. One grouping after another demanded the recognition of its difference. Difference came to be felt more acutely than commonality.

More from Todd Gitlin:

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