My parents grew up in communist Yugoslavia, a market socialist state that, despite its flaws, was largely supported by its multi-ethnic and culturally diverse population. The state provided its citizens with a solid economic base by putting a priority on social needs. Education and medical care were free, housing was widely available and affordable, the economy was based on socially owned cooperatives that were worker self-managed, jobs were good (with a guaranteed right to an income), and free time was plentiful.
But despite this being a socialist country, the population was not all culturally homogeneous liberals; cultural conservatism was widespread. Even though the young students in the city could be quite progressive and socially liberal, Yugoslavia as a whole was full of traditionalist religious folk who had no material interests in fighting for progressive cultural issues. Much of the population held orthodox views on marriage, gender roles, and religion, and could be made uncomfortable by the progressive, open minded, and free loving young city folk. Others simply didn’t care one way or another, as these things had little to no impact on their lives.
I argue here that this is not a major problem for socialism and that convincing everyone to be open minded and culturally “left” is not a precondition for a universal leftist movement. In Yugoslavia, it didn’t matter if you were culturally liberal or conservative, nor did it matter if you were a farmer or an academic, everybody benefited from the socialist system because everyone had the same basic material and economic needs. Solidarity was built along rigid class lines rather than flexible cultural ones.
Today, we are seeing a struggle between traditional socialist politics – which rally around universal policies for the benefit of the entire working class – and identity politics, which actively subverts class struggle by fetishizing the marginalized. Marginalization is a problematic term for socialism since socialism is, by definition, a universal and democratic movement. This is by no means meant to imply that marginalized people aren’t important in socialism. On the contrary, it is the marginalized communities that will benefit most from a socialist movement. The poorest and most oppressed in our society tend to be the very same marginalized people that identity politics loves to fetishize, and a solid economic base would undoubtedly help those people the most.
And be weary of neoliberal demagogues who try and appeal to your emotions by playing identity politics, making us lose focus and putting aside real political change in exchange for market-friendly compromises. Over-focusing on marginal issues helps keep the social order humming along while capitalist political parties go back and forth on minor reforms. It is clear now that these tactics have divided us and made us weaker in the face of authoritarianism. We’ve sown divisions along cultural lines instead of building solidarity along economic ones. We’ve alienated cultural conservatives and have refined the “left” to only the ultra-virtuous urban elites who continue to purify their ranks by ostracizing one another in an endless performative civil war.
This refined “left” has abandoned the idea of working class solidarity in favour of a collection of marginal issues with no universal democratic movement behind them. They have ceded unifying ideas about material well-being, self-determination, and free speech to the right, who will use this socialist language to rally people around regressive conservative governments. If the left doesn’t unite people around popular ideas, the right will only get stronger by scooping up those that have been ostracized, alienated, and deemed morally unsalvageable by the left.
We need to be building our movement, not chipping away at it. This means an end to the destructive practices of identity politics and this means solidarity with the entire working class, including cultural conservatives. The reality of things is that a good chunk of the working class today is culturally conservative. These are the material conditions we have to work with, whether we like it or not. If we choose to ignore this fact, we risk leaving the realm of materialism and venturing into idealism.
Of course, with cultural conservatism can often come sexism, racism, homophobia; bigotry in all of its terrible forms. This is why basic human rights need to be, and have been, foundational components of socialist countries, making any types of bigotry, at best, a twisted personal preference and, at worst, an arrestable offence. Socialist countries have historically been very progressive in this regard, often being decades ahead of their capitalist counterparts on issues of social justice. The Soviet Union immediately extended equal rights to women, Yugoslavia brought together and preserved the identities of over 28 different ethnicities, and Cuba, a bastion of anti-racism, has also made tremendous progress in their LGBT rights, recently deciding to provide gender reassignment surgery and hormone replacement therapy free to its citizens.
In any case, it is unlikely that human rights in the West would regress if a socialist transition were to occur, considering how much has been fought for up to this point. It’s difficult to argue that a socialist society based on economic equality would want to ban gay marriage, segregate minorities, or take away the right to vote from women. On the contrary, women’s rights, civil rights, and LGBT rights were, historically, struggles that were largely spearheaded by radical left wing and socialist organizations. Right wing movements are the ones that clamp down on rights and demand an obedient uniformity from their people. They are the ones that use identity politics to create scapegoats and fake enemies, dividing the working class along bigoted lines.
Class oppression is different than any other form of oppression because it is the core of the capitalist system; it is its very essence. Many forms of racial and gender oppression stem from this fundamental class oppression. And yes, we must at all times fight all forms of oppression, but without class oppression as the central antagonist, we risk losing the popularity of our movement, making way for working class divisions and the rise of the right wing.
The main goal of any socialist movement is the communal ownership of the means of production, not because other issues aren’t important but because this provides freedom from the most universal form of oppression we face today and is the logical next step towards human liberty and self-determination. As a result of this central goal, socialist policies have included ending poverty and homelessness, implementing free healthcare, education, child care, public transport, and building sustainable industries.
Regardless of how you feel about the realisticness of these ideas – and let’s be fair, conservative politicians like to cut taxes and gut public services with no real plan, improvising during the chaos – these are universal positions that few would oppose if implemented. Just look at how vehemently the citizens of the USA protect their social security and how proud Canadians are of their health care. This is not the result of an enlightened or virtuous citizenry, it is a simple defense of self interests. These are not marginal issues or niche preferences, they are the markings of a free and democratic society because they are universal policies. Whether you’re a cis-gender white Christian or a transgender black atheist, these are policies that would benefit you.
A free society is one where its people aren’t struggling to pay rent, buy food, or get medical care. When people are unable to do this, pressures build up and downtrodden people can often turn to scapegoating and bigotry (they then enter into a feedback loop with the right wing media and conservative politicians, who also promote scapegoating and bigotry). When you’re taken care of, it’s a lot harder to have irrational, pathological hatred towards your fellow humans. Just look at how capitalist liberals have welcomed with open arms any and every marginalized group. Wealthy celebrities and philanthropists are always first in line to show off their virtuousness. It is easy to be accepting when you’re not struggling.
But what about those stubborn deep rooted conservatives who won’t give up their prejudices even with a comfortable life? For those folks, an economic base can allow them to distance themselves from anything that makes them uncomfortable. A socialist society can actually provide people with a small dose of alienation, and I argue that this is a good thing. You don’t have to worry about others or be imposed on, you can take comfort in your solitude. Yes, alienation is commonly thought of as undesirable, but being able to retreat into your own life without worrying about anyone else’s is an attractive proposition for some people. When you’re not fighting for scraps, you can be as introverted or as outgoing as you like.
I want to now make an important disclaimer here and say that I don’t at all believe we need to capitulate to or compromise with the beliefs of white supremacists, neo-nazis, or the alt-right. Fascism is one of the natural reactions of a capitalism in crisis and this crisis needs to be dealt with urgently and with the utmost seriousness. While extreme white supremacists are a small minority, they are growing. This is largely a result of tough economic conditions under capitalism, the divisiveness of identity politics, and right wing opportunists who are using this crisis to stir up hateful politics for their own personal gain. The good news is that this is still an extreme minority and that most working class people just want peace and a comfortable life. It’s that majority that needs to be united.
So when you’re feeling disheartened by your conservative relatives or “evil white people,” don’t lose hope. We all have the same basic material interests and we need to organize along those shared interests. We don’t have to love each other by any means, but solidarity does not require love. Solidarity is a union of material and self interests and a universal struggle for freedom. The easiest thing to do is to show solidarity towards your friends and loved ones, but what takes courage is extending that solidarity to people far outside of your social group, people you might even morally despise.
This is a prerequisite to any leftist movement serious about bringing radical change and creating true democracy. Socialism is not about creating a “friendlier” and “more inclusive” capitalism, it is about moving beyond capitalism and taking that next step towards human freedom.