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On March 9, the popular leftwing website in Quebec, Presse-toi à gauche published an article entitled “The ‘Wokes’: A Fox Trap for Bears,” which was widely circulated on social networks by trade unionists, anarchists, members of Québec solidaire, and other left-wing activists. The article is signed by Francis Dupuis-Déri, an UQAM professor who is well known on the Quebec left.

Unfortunately, we believe that this article is a caricature and a straw man, and does not help to have a real debate about the best methods and ideas for fighting oppression.

A caricature

Dupuis-Déri begins by rightly denouncing the reactionary rants produced by tabloid columnists Mathieu Bock-Côté, Sophie Durocher, and Richard Martineau, who constantly attack those they call the “wokes.” However, then he turns his criticism to the “left” which “plays into the hands of conservative forces” and sets “a trap for feminists, anti-racists, and anyone else who would dare not want to unite to fight the sole enemy, capitalism.”

We shall let Dupuis-Déri speak for himself:

“They [the wokes] are told repeatedly that we must unite to bring down capitalism and emancipate the lower classes. Certainly, but we forget then that members of the lower classes fight against sexism and racism, and we never explain what this sacred union would concretely consist of. Let’s think about the great popular mobilizations of the last year: should Black Lives Matter merge with Québec Solidaire and stop talking about racism? Should the women of #MeToo become members of the CSN, without mentioning sexual assault? Should the Wet’suwet’en join the IWW, without talking about colonialism? The Maison d’Haïti become the ‘Maison du prolétariat’? Feminist studies be replaced by Marxist studies?

“In short, the progressives criticizing the wokes offer them nothing concrete, except to keep quiet, so that we can finally sing the Internationale in harmony.”

Who the hell is he talking about? No quotes are provided, no examples are given, other than groups and activists long since dead. All we have is the caricature of an anti-capitalist left that supposedly asks oppressed groups to stop talking about specific oppressions.

This same method is employed a little further down in the article:

“I am very aware that it is healthy for the university to be impacted, as it so often has been, by progressive social movements. That conservative and reactionary forces are concerned about this is only natural. But why on earth would progressives share this concern? Why not listen to these social and popular movements and express solidarity with them, or even participate in them?”

Again, who is he talking about? Who among the “progressives” is worried about the impact of progressive social movements on universities? Who is suggesting that we not participate in movements like Black Lives Matter (BLM)? Where and when has any group on the left said anything like this?

Anyone who suggests that the oppressed should leave aside the struggle against oppression has no place in the movement. The eruption of the fantastic BLM movement, the waves of sexual assault denunciations, or the increasingly combative and wide-ranging Indigenous struggles, should be greeted by anyone fighting for a better society with the utmost enthusiasm. These movements are proof that the oppressed want to mobilize and fight back.

Yet Dupuis-Déri suggests that “progressives who criticize wokes” are suggesting that anti-racist, anti-sexual assault, and Indigenous activists “keep quiet,” and that these progressives don’t want to participate in or show solidarity with movements against oppression.

By this sleight of hand, a false equivalency is created between these mass movements and the ideas defended by the “wokes.” By criticizing the latter, one opposes the former.

Any possibility of debate is thus eliminated: if you are against our theoretical framework, it is because you are against the movement.

It is this myth that must be defeated.

Identity politics

What do the “wokes” stand for? Francis Dupuis-Déri does not really explain this, but the quote from Christine Delphy at the beginning of the text gives us a good idea:

“And it is quite true that it makes no difference, for men, if male violence against women is eradicated tomorrow or in 100 years. And that it makes no difference to white people if racism is eradicated tomorrow or in 100 years.”

A more depressing perspective than that presented by Delphy is hard to imagine. What future is there for the struggle if men or white people don’t care about women’s oppression or racism?

It is indeed rather surprising to see an article widely shared on the Quebec left that opens with a quote from a notoriously transphobic activist.

Indeed Delphy, a “materialist feminist,” posits the struggle of women as a struggle against the “class of men,” then falls into the trap of having to define precisely who is a woman, and excludes trans women. Starting from the identity point of view of fighting for women, she ends up reinforcing the oppression of trans women. This is the kind of ultra-reactionary trap that identity politics leads to.

And we can’t criticize these ideas without helping the right? Using the spectre of the old Maoists (who were notoriously homophobic and transphobic) as an argument while quoting a transphobic feminist at the outset is certainly something.

In another recent article published by Presse-toi à gauche defending the “wokes,” the “political objective” of “identity politics” is explained:

“It is no longer a question of a working class, mostly of French-Canadian descent, taking to the streets against the English bosses, but of occasional alliances between the precariat (people with precarious incomes), youth (students), and people who have been racialized over the centuries […]” [emphasis added]

In various forms, left-wing identity politics puts forward the idea that each oppressed group carries out its own struggle separately. At best, there may be “occasional alliances” between different oppressed groups.

This is the crux of the debate. Is it possible to unite beyond identity and mere “occasional alliances” for our common and particular interests? And on what basis can we unite?

Again, the damned class struggle!

Dupuis-Déri presents the facts as if there were movements against oppression on the one side, and the class struggle on the other. In reality, these movements against oppression are themselves permeated by class contradictions. For example, disputes have recently arisen within the BLM movement. On the one hand, the BLM “Global Network Foundation,” which has proclaimed itself the leadership of the movement, wants to promote the development of Black-owned businesses, even going so far as to found a special bank to do so! On the other hand, there are grassroots activists who feel that this is detached from the work of rank-and file of the movement. Isn’t it clear that we have two different class perspectives here?

Closer to home, we have seen the same phenomenon in the movement in Quebec. Last summer, when the movement against police brutality and racism spread to Quebec after the murder of George Floyd, groups of black activists organized demonstrations in Montreal. At the second demonstration, some of the organizers invited the Montreal police to participate as well as Dominique Anglade of the Quebec Liberal Party to speak. This provoked public outrage and calls to boycott the demonstration. Again, what is this if not two different class perspectives? One is trying to fight racism within the system, and the other has no faith in capitalist politicians and their institutions and seeks to fight them. This is a common phenomenon within any liberation struggle.

Those who put forward a class perspective will often be accused of “class reductionism.” But are we saying that class struggle is everything, and that the struggle against oppression is nothing? This caricature has nothing to do with Marxism.

Dupuis-Déri uses the example of the Black Panther Party to support his point, but the history of the party shows us otherwise. The BPP was formed during the impasse of the civil rights movement, which could not win on a purely identity-based basis. The party moved in a revolutionary direction, with leaders like Fred Hampton arguing that it was necessary to unite with poor workers of all skin colours against the state and the capitalists. In Hampton’s famous words, “We’re going to fight racism not with racism, but we’re going to fight with solidarity. We say we’re not going to fight capitalism with black capitalism, but we’re going to fight it with socialism.” Hampton was trying to put forward the class question and the struggle for socialism, and to cut across identity-based divisions. This is the position that Marxists hold today.

Not putting forward the class question leads to precisely the situation we have today: the Liberals can co-opt struggles against oppression. Justin Trudeau calls himself a feminist and an intersectionalist. So does Hillary Clinton. Montreal Mayor Valerie Plante is feminist and anti-racist, but she’s increasing the police budget. Kamala Harris was celebrated as the first racialized woman to become U.S. Vice President—but what have we learned from the Obama years? Right-wing leaders of the civil rights movement like John Lewis, instead of joining the Black Panthers, joined the Democrats, became senators and ended up supporting Hillary Clinton against Bernie Sanders.

Identity politics suggests that people of the same identity all have the same interests, and thus opens the door to co-optation by the liberal bourgeoisie. Any way you look at it, it comes back to the question of (the horror!) class.

The working class, to which oppressed groups disproportionately belong, has interests directly opposed to those of the capitalists. But according to the article quoted above, the working class is not “universal.” It is hard to see exactly what this means. Do people of different identities not have jobs? Is this not a universal objective fact?

The poverty of the workers is the source of the capitalists’ wealth. And this class division runs through the whole society. Oppressed groups do not form a united mass with the same opinions and interests, on the contrary.

For this reason, Marxists call for a class-based struggle against oppression. We see that, ultimately, workers of different genders, backgrounds, sexual orientations, etc., all have a common enemy, the capitalist class. It is this enemy that possesses the resources that could be used to emancipate each individual group, and the class as a whole. This struggle requires fighting oppression here and now within the labour movement, because the necessary unity cannot be achieved if one part of the working class oppresses another. As Marx said, “A people that oppresses another cannot be free.”

For class unity

The struggle against oppression is not simply a question of attitude, but a concrete struggle for the improvement of material conditions of life. As Stokely Carmichael of the BPP said, “Racism is not a question of attitude; it’s a question of power. Racism gets its power from capitalism. Thus, if you’re anti-racist, whether you know it or not, you must be anti-capitalist. The power for racism, the power for sexism, comes from capitalism, not an attitude.” Again, this is exactly the analysis that Marxists defend today.

Real emancipation of different oppressed groups will require more than equality on paper. We need to demand changes that will concretely improve the lives of oppressed people.

This kind of change requires resources. To quote Martin Luther King:

“You can’t talk about solving the economic problem of the Negro without talking about billions of dollars. You can’t talk about ending the slums without first saying profit must be taken out of slums. You’re really tampering and getting on dangerous ground because you are messing with folk then. You are messing with captains of industry. Now this means that we are treading in difficult water because it really means that we are saying that something is wrong with capitalism.”

This is why the class struggle is not a separate struggle from the struggle against racism or the oppression of women. For example, to improve the condition of women, we need equal pay, valuing (monetarily, not just in words) occupations dominated by women, massive social programs such as affordable and quality social housing, extensive networks of free reproductive health clinics, enough free quality childcare, etc.. The same is true for other oppressed groups.

A complete, real and lasting emancipation of the oppressed will necessarily require addressing the economic question: Where will the money come from? Who will pay for all these resources? From whom do we demand all this?

Resources will necessarily have to come from the pockets of the wealthy. It so happens that the wealthiest are the ones who own the corporations. They are also the ones who take advantage of sexism and racism to pay women, immigrants, racialized people, etc., lower wages and make more profits. They are the ones who own the big media that sow racist and sexist ideas day after day. They are the ones who control governments and own armies of politicians, lobbyists, and lawyers, who write discriminatory policies and laws in their own interest. These people have a name: capitalists.

The real Marxist tradition

Where Dupuis-Déri is right is that it is true that different layers of activists were disgusted with the “Marxist” groups that existed in their time, and that this contributed to the rise of identity-based groups. The example he gives of En Lutte is a testament to the latent homophobia in Stalinist and Maoist circles. Recall that Stalin recriminalized homosexuality in 1934 (after it had been decriminalized under Lenin in 1922), and that homosexuality was only decriminalized in China in 1996.

Stalinism and Maoism did a lot of damage to the movement. In Quebec, Maoism was the dominant current, and has rightly left a bitter taste in the mouth of anyone who wants to fight oppression. It left the caricature that Marxists are only interested in “class” and consider the struggle against oppression as secondary or insignificant. But nothing could be further from the truth.

Authentic Marxists take no responsibility for the sectarian, misogynistic, homophobic excesses of the Stalinists and Maoists. This straw man (where are those big Maoist groups now?) does not serve to inform the debate on methods of struggle against oppression today.

Dupuis-Déri’s ironic reference to “singing the Internationale in harmony” demonstrates the problem with his perspective: he does not seem to believe in the possibility of the oppressed uniting against the capitalist system that reproduces and reinforces oppressions.

This irony is misplaced. Marx’s ideas have lifted up the most oppressed colonial peoples around the world for over 100 years, which cannot be said of the identity politics developed in Western universities.

In reality, the Marxist movement is based on a solid tradition of struggle against oppression in all its forms. Fightback takes it as its duty to help the movement rediscover this tradition.

As early as 1848, Karl Marx called for the abolition of the bourgeois family. In 1910, Clara Zetkin and other Marxist activists launched International Women’s Day (as “Working Women’s Day”). From 1917, women gained all the basic democratic rights in revolutionary Russia, while the rest of the capitalist world kept women in a state of brutal oppression.

In 1919, Lenin and Trotsky founded the Third International and called on workers of all backgrounds to join the movement. The 2nd congress of the International in 1920 was held under the slogan “Workers and oppressed peoples of all countries, unite!”, in order to emphasize the need to fight for the emancipation of colonized peoples.

For a genuine democratic debate

The identitarian nationalists are leading an offensive against the “wokes.” It is an entirely reactionary crusade that is really aimed at attacking the entire left. The left, the labour movement, and the student movement must fight this offensive with all our might, but this does not mean that we should defend identity politics or refrain from criticizing them. More than ever, the left needs a real democratic debate about the right methods to fight oppression. It doesn’t help to equate any criticism of identity politics with a refusal to support the fight against oppression. We would argue that it is precisely this attitude that falls into the trap of the right, which tries to make us believe that the left cannot tolerate criticism.

Dupuis-Déri says that the critics of the “wokes” “don’t propose anything concrete.” We have something to propose: We propose uniting workers against all forms of oppression and the capitalist system on which they all rely. We propose not giving an inch to the ruling class so that they can fake being progressive like Kamala Harris and Justin Trudeau. We propose fighting all manifestations of oppression here and now, within the labour movement as well as in society at large: not keeping quiet about oppressions, but bringing them to the forefront at every turn to better fight them. We propose that the workers and oppressed take control of the economy, of the immense resources that are in the hands of the ultra-rich, in order to satisfy the needs of all. 

We hope that this text will contribute to a necessary discussion within the left and the labour movement about the best methods to fight oppression in all its forms.