Pink campaign buses, discounted event tickets for ethnic minorities, conferences where straight white men are not welcome; these are but a few recent instances of the Labour Party using race, colour, and sex as political tools – of the Party being enthralled by the lure of identity politics.
If these first visible effects of this enthralment are relatively harmless, the underlying ideology is a deeply insidious one. It posits that only those who are oppressed can comprehend the nature of oppression, and how to overcome it. Put plainly, a white person who mentions the state of racism, a rich person who speaks about the poor, a man who criticises abortion; they all open themselves up to accusations of insensitivity, condescension, and discrimination.
It is remarkable how far such reactionary closed-mindedness has permeated the British and American Left. There is no question that we must listen and learn from the victims of oppression and discrimination; we must sympathise with them and try to understand their experiences. This is what it means to be progressive – and it is unsettling that those who have always purported to stand for this ideal now defend its polar opposite. The experiences of certain groups, says the new left-wing orthodoxy, can only be discussed usefully by those who have lived them; to everyone else, they are inherently alien.
Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto, wrote Terence; I am human; I think nothing that is human alien to me. He was more a victim of oppression than anyone in Britain today: an African man, he had been captured and brought to Rome as a slave.
Yet, once freed, he did not seek revenge, nor defend only those similarly oppressed; rather, he espoused the shared humanity of all – enslavers and enslaved, patricians and plebeians – as the essential principle behind a free, republican society. The enduring influence and near-universal appreciation of his plays through the ages – from all sides of the political spectrum – testify to the merit of his ideas.
Not, of course, that we need to look as far back as the Roman Republic to find such defences of humanity over group identity. Marx himself may have believed in class consciousness – in the Proletariat recognising its group identity; but this recognition was, for him, to lead to class warfare, and to an abolition of what had made the Proletariat distinct in the first place. The goal was a classless society, with no differences between any group – and indeed no ‘groups’ at all. Group identity, in the sense in which it is used today, was simply a distraction from the real fight between Proletarians and Capitalists.
More recent leftists, too, would have been appalled by the idea of identity playing so large a role in politics. Popper, the great philosopher of science traditionally admired by Labour moderates, argued that progress is achieved by individuals acting rationally; collectivism, for him, must be rejected. Particularly worrisome he finds the ‘selfish’ collectivism of groups that aim to further their own interests. There is no doubt that he would abhor the identity-based groups that the modern Left so enthusiastically embraces – and to whom his description of a ‘selfish’ collectivism perfectly applies.
More recently still, we find the philosophers of choice for the more extreme wing of Labour: the Frankfurt School. But they, too – and amongst them Adorno in primis, but Marcuse and too – abhorred group identities, and saw in identity-based collectivism the roots of totalitarianism and repression. This is not to say, of course, that these attacks on group identity have ever been uncontroversial. There have always been those who have defended as essential a feeling of unity between those who look, speak, and feel alike – but these opinions have always come from the right, rather than the left. Those who affirmed the importance of peoples, races, and shared experiences were never Adorno or Popper – but Heidegger, Gentile, and Rosenberg.
But here, too, has the Left – and especially the Labour Party in this country – historically committed to the view that somebody’s sex, colour, or education should not be a political matter. But this principle worked both ways. ‘Privilege’ neither qualified nor disqualified: if Attlee and Blair were public school boys, Wilson and Brown were state-educated. The aim was always to guarantee that one’s personal background does not limit the people with whom one can speak, the issues with which one can engage, or the heights to which one can rise.
Yet today, ‘the privileged’ – to wit, middle- and upper-class white men – are criticised and ridiculed for daring to comment on the ‘wrong’ issues: from abortion to same-sex marriage, from integration to welfare.
Issues that ‘belong’ to one group of people have, effectively, become off-limits to rational discussion. This development is all the more surprising given the ideological turn that the Labour Party has taken under Jeremy Corbyn. Labour – and indeed the Left more generally, from university campuses to media outlets – have moved further left than it has been for over 30 years, and has re-embraced Marxist and Neo-Marxist ideas on policies both economic and social.
It would do well, then, to remember some of the most cherished principles of its re-discovered heroes: the use of group identity as a political tool not only limits our equal rights as individuals – but, by artificially alienating us from each other, threatens the very nature of our democracy.
Martin Seiffarth is a graduate of King’s College London.