The tyranny of identity politics

The left’s cry ‘the personal is political!’ sounded radical once, but it has been used to legitimise state interference in our lives. If what we do in the bedroom is ‘political’, why shouldn’t the authorities regulate it?

James Heartfield

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Twenty years ago, I worked as a clerk for the education offices at Haringey Council, London, when the then Conservative government introduced an anti-gay clause (‘Clause 28’) into its 1988 Education Act. The clause, which forbade the ‘promotion of homosexuality’ as a ‘pretended family relationship’ by any local education authority, was aimed directly at Haringey Council, which had a reputation for its liberal policies on lesbian and gay rights (1).

Many understood that this was an emblematic struggle over gay rights, and I and other council workers started to organise a campaign amongst the workforce to refuse to implement the clause if it became law; we called ourselves ‘Council Workers Against The Clause’. The group we got together was mixed straight and gay, much to the horror of the council’s own Lesbian and Gay Unit, a small office of full-timers recruited by the council to develop its policy on lesbian and gay (L&G) issues.

As appointees, the L&G unit’s first instinct was to lobby the elected councillors. We, the Council Workers Against The Clause, argued that the councillors were not to be trusted, but the workforce had every interest in opposing this law. The council tried to stop us using council property and resources for the campaign, insisting that any action should be taken by the L&G unit.

We organised a day of action in which we wanted to get council workers to wear a sticker saying that they opposed the clause, going round from office to office. I teamed up with Valerie from the L&G unit. I thought that it was our job to persuade the clerks and secretaries. But the first time someone dared say no to Valerie, she turned on her and said: ‘If you do not support the council’s policies, why do you continue working for it?’ Instead of asking for solidarity, my fellow agitator was trying to hint that failure to support us was a sacking offence. Of course, the woman had no intention of being bullied into a progressive position. It took me a good half hour to talk her round after Valerie had gone.

Eventually, the L&G unit, as a part of the legally incorporated Municipal Council, cooperated with the implementation of the anti-gay clause, reining in all of the education policies that had offended the government. We had persuaded workers to refuse to implement the clause but the one group that resisted the non-implementation strategy was the L&G unit itself.

Lucy Robinson’s excellent account of ‘how the personal got political’, Gay Men and the Left in Post-War Britain, tells the story of Clause 28 and some of what happened afterwards, but mostly it tells of what went before – the brief flourishing of the Gay Liberation Front in the 1970s, outstripping the more moderate approach of the Campaign for Homosexual Equality, and the debate within the left over gay rights.

Robinson is sharp on the way that the Labour Party’s move away from class politics to address people as groups of consumers laid the basis for the emergence of identity politics in later years. Her telling of the early years of law-reform lobbying balances the frustration of more radical approaches with due respect for those early champions of liberalisation. The story of the radical left’s evasion and then embrace of gay politics is well told, too.

Good as it is, I have to argue with some of the central theses of the book. ‘The personal is the political’ seemed like a challenging idea in the 1980s, when ‘family values’ were aggressively reasserted as a central pillar of a moral reaction. But Robinson, it seems to me, takes the argument as read. In her telling, left-wing politics were preoccupied with class struggle, ignoring the politics of identity developed by gay men, black people and women. Radical concerns should not end with the struggle over wages, but needed to embrace the struggle for sexual liberation, for equal custody rights and so on, argues Robinson.

It is true that up until the 1960s, the left – the Labour Party, the Communist Party and the more radical groups – did surrender authority on questions of rights and other political issues to the establishment, restricting their campaigning to questions of working-class living standards. Grotesquely, Labour and even Communist supporters at times collaborated in discrimination against black migrants and women and in the persecution of gay men. Even the more radical Trotskyist groups were often guilty of dismissing the question of oppression as a ‘non-class issue’. I was a member of the Revolutionary Communist Party at the time, and we were attacked by other leftists for being preoccupied with racism and the war in Ireland instead of concentrating on ‘bread-and-butter’ issues (2).

But Robinson’s contrast between the left’s ‘workerism’ and the gay left’s identity politics does not quite get it right. ‘Workerism’ – there really was such a word – was the original ‘identity politics’. Marx’s revolutionary humanism was never a politics of workerism. On the contrary, he argued that the higher goal was the abolition of the working class, with the abolition of the conditions of its exploitation, capitalism; this was a revolution that the working class would make, Marx said. ‘Workerism’ was a descent from Marx’s goal, embracing the prejudices of the working class in its brutalised form. Fighting oppression, from the Marxist point of view, was not a charitable impulse, but the only way that the working class would break from the prejudices of the day and assert its independence.

Identity politics, gay activism, women’s groups, black sections – these were not a corrective to prejudices in the working class; they were an adaptation to those prejudices. In the radical upsurge of the late 1960s and 1970s there was a chance to overcome those limitations. Working-class prejudice was not, as Robinson shows, deep-seated, stemming more from above than below (3). But the failure of the forward momentum tended to exacerbate divisions. Defensively, the left tended to cleave to its militant trade unionism, and it put the Gay Liberation Front contingent at the back of the march against the Industrial Relations Bill (4). Of course oppressed groups were bound to organise themselves independently, but the left’s silence on oppression reinforced the idea that they could only rely on themselves – still, that separatism meant that identity politics could all to easily be co-opted by the authorities when it suited them.

It is not entirely fair to criticise a book for what it does not cover, but a more detailed account of the later trajectory of the politics of the personal would put the radical claims of identity politics into perspective. Reading that Beatrix Campbell challenged workerism in the Communist Party, for example, does not seem to do full justice to where Campbell took identity politics later on. It is a bit like reading that Enoch Powell championed the rights of Mau Mau prisoners in Kenya – that is, it isn’t the full story.

Under the cover of ‘identity politics’, the Communist Party’s leadership was moving away from its previous support for trade unionism. Campbell and others championed minorities as much to dislodge the union officers that had been the party’s key organisers (5). Worked up into a fury, Campbell’s hostility to the working-class ‘lads’ she denounced in her book about crime, Goliath, was intense. That anti-working class prejudice made Campbell champion the detention of children in the child abuse panic of the 1990s (6).

The intensity of the Thatcherite campaign for ‘a return to Victorian values’, and the cranking up of anti-gay repression, disguised the trajectory of the gay activists. But in the midst of the clash over ‘Clause 28’, gay activists were finding their own niche in the status quo. Having been pushed to the margins, gay activists were grateful that they were given jobs in council offices, and loyally supported their Labour Party chiefs.

The big transformation in the standing of the activists was the spread of the Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) and the public health campaign that followed. AIDS was caused by the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) which spread mainly through sharing blood and sexual contact. As most people knew, gay men were at a much higher risk of contracting AIDS than was the general population (7). But leading gay activists colluded with the Department of Health to exaggerate the threat of an epidemic. AIDS activists took government money to promote a ‘safe sex’ campaign (8). Once poachers, the gay activists turned gamekeepers, and helped the Conservative government to promote a ‘responsible’ lifestyle.

‘The personal is political’ sounded radical but it was the opposite. Far from an assertion of independence, it became the argument for direct state intervention into private life. If what goes on in the bedroom is political then the authorities would have to regulate it. Of course, they did so already on the margins. But the new politics of the personal meant that everybody’s personal life was now open for scrutiny and reorganisation by the authorities.

Once the political settlement shifted and the generation of identity politicians made the move over from college and local government into parliament and cabinet, a much more intense regime of regulation was imposed upon personal life. Laws on children’s rights, harassment and incitement and the founding of the Child Support Agency gave the authorities much more leverage on personal behaviour. Gay activists were by no means wholly responsible for the changes, but they certainly did play their part in framing this new, illiberal regime of control.

The separation of the personal and the political was not, it turned out, a vicious instrument of the ruling order, but a necessary defence against it, and one that has been dangerously undermined.

James Heartfield is author of Green Capitalism: Engineering Scarcity in an Age of Plenty, published next month. Visit his website here.

Gay Men and the Left in Post-War Britain: How the Personal Got Political, by Lucy Robinson is published by Manchester University Press. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

(1) Part of this story is retold in Haringey Councillor Davina Cooper’s book Sexing the City, Rivers Oram Press, 1994. (In an unconscious slip, Robinson calls the borough ‘Haringay’ (see p.171 of her Gay Men and the Left in Post-War Britain) and she also calls Glasgow Hillhead, Glasgow Hillend.)

(2) Robinson takes issue with the RCP for standing against Peter Tatchell in the Bermondsey by-election of 1982, but since Tatchell had agreed not to discuss homosexuality, the RCP candidate Fran Eden was the only one to argue for gay rights.

(3) Robinson tells us that Allan Horsfall’s ‘Bugger’s Club in Burnley’ was largely tolerated. See p.44 of Gay Men and the Left in Post-War Britain.

(4) This did not stop the Evening Standard from making fun of the Gay Liberation Front as a way of mocking the march. See p.83 of Gay Men and the Left in Post-War Britain.

(5) For an account that is sympathetic to Martin Jacques of the Communist Party, see Endgames and New Times, Geoff Andrews, Lawrence and Wishart, 2004.

(6) See A Family Tragedy, Beatrix Campbell, Marxism Today, July 1988; and Seen but not heard, Beatrix Campbell, Marxism Today, November 1990; and my review of Goliath in the Marxist Review of Books.

(7) Michael Fitzpatrick and Don Milligan openly said so in their pamphlet The Truth About the AIDS panic, 1987. See also The Tyranny of Health, Michael Fitzpatrick, Routledge, 2001.

(8) See ‘The Aids Establishment’, Living Marxism, July 1992.

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