In Life and Fate, his epic novel of family, Stalingrad and totalitarianism, the Soviet-era journalist Vasily Grossman wrote:
“Human groupings have one main purpose: to assert everyone’s right to be different, to be special, to think, feel and live in his or her own way. People join together in order to win or defend this right. But this is where a terrible, fateful error is born: the belief that these groupings in the name of a race, a God, a party or a State are the very purpose of life and not simply a means to an end. No! The only true and lasting meaning of the struggle for life lies in the individual, in his modest peculiarities and in his right to these peculiarities.”
Grossman maybe stretches his point a little too far. Nevertheless his polemic makes a powerful and important point: that groups can become forces of oppression, not just against other groups but against individuality and humanity itself.
This happens when they become ends in themselves, when they take on a life of their own and become self-sustaining. In Grossman’s Soviet Union this is what happened to the Communist identity – once it became a pre-requisite for career advancement and entry to nomenklatura, it lost its idealistic elements and became a malign force.
On 2nd March , Labour Uncut published an article of mine about contemporary liberal-left identity politics, in which I questioned the continuing existence of All Women Shortlists (AWS) and other forms of positive discrimination in Labour Party processes. The article provoked a (generally) considered response on LabourList from Luke Akehurst of the NEC, plus plenty of other lively responses on comment threads and elsewhere.
The background to what I was arguing in the piece was summed up in this sentence:
“Institutionalising separate identities as we do is a road to nowhere and nothingness.”
So what does this really mean? After all, when we talk about identity problems we normally mean lack of identity: for example that Ed Miliband lacks identity, or that the Labour Party could do with more identity.
My own interpretation is that identity itself is often the problem.
Consider some of the identity conflicts of recent history: from Protestants and Catholics in Northern Island to Hutu and Tutsi, Sunni and Shi’a and any number of poisonous football-related rivalries in this country: Rangers v Celtic, Chelsea-Tottenham and Manchester United v Liverpool to name but a few.
The active motion to each of these conflicts is provided by separate identities feeding off each other for sustenance and fulfilment. One side could not exist without the other, and the oppositional aspect prevails over any intrinsic meaning the groupings may have.
Identity can offer something to gather around and defend when discrimination and prejudice are being exerted against us. But we should always try to bear in mind that to define is to exert power and control (over ourselves as well as others), and to take on definitions made by others, even when inverting any value judgements on them, is a sacrifice of freedom.
We can see the inherent difficulties engendered by identity separation in the school playground. As the sociologist Richard Sennett pointed out in a recent interview, schoolchildren from different cultural backgrounds mix happily with each other at the age of six or seven, but “by the time they are 14 it is like a chemical separation – no longer speaking to people with different colour and accents. When they have to deal with each other they are at a loss”.
Most group rights advocates put a lot of emphasis on “representation” – understandably given the low proportions of minorities and women in many professions, including politics. We would do well however to ponder professions in which women for example are disproportionately highly present, like primary school teaching, human resources and retail. There are choices involved here, and we do people a disservice by implying that they are somehow victims of oppression and objectification for having made the choices they have.
Most of us tend towards those things which will least conflict with how we view ourselves; in other words, with our identities. So in trying to break down gender, racial and class divides, we are going to have to start breaking down identities.
In Labour Party politics, we would surely all like more diversity in involvement. But “representation” presents a problem here, because there is a clear contradiction between an identity-based approach to candidate selection and the reality of our constituency-based political system.
Do we favour centralised control of the process and the centralised patronage that comes inevitably with this? Or do we prioritise local democracy and community involvement, with all its uncertainties and imperfections?
The crux of this whole matter is what our values really are. Are they about equality, fairness and liberation of the people – right now? Or are they about a future state of equality, fairness and liberation that is conditional on a sacrifice of principles for a time?
Our political system, with its safe seats syndrome, has an in-built prejudice against all change. My preferred solution would combine some form of mandatory re-selection along with a drive to get local communities involved in selections – preferably via membership.
But we would also do well to bear in mind those six and seven year olds playing happily together in the school playground. They do not have much in the way of identity, and they are all the better for it.