One of Karl Marx’s main contributions to social science was his demonstration that societies (because they are part of nature) evolve in much the same way as the rest of nature does– that is, on account of their internal contradictions.
In the natural world, contradictions– between two struggling and opposing forces– hold an object together, allowing it to move and to develop, either transforming it into a new object or causing it to disintegrate. But how is society similar? Marx demonstrated that the forces of progress in society are not based on ideas but on the extraction of materials from nature and their use in the production of resources necessary for sustaining life, which, in turn, leads to the development of ideas, culture, and everything else in society.
In other words: the development of society is based on work … and workers. At the foundation of a society’s growth and development is the contradiction between those who produce life’s necessities (the workers) and those who control the means by which these necessities are produced (the owners). The latter have power yet they are dependent upon the work of the former in order to gain greater power and to keep the existing structure of society in place. As the strength of the workers’ productive force increases, through increasing oppression by the owners, the producers become conscious of their power to transform society; and then they move to overthrow the political, economic and social basis of their oppression, and, in the process, they transform the system of power. This is called revolution: a qualitative change in society, as it leaps forward to the next stage of history.
So, now a question may arise: is there any reason a working class, cisgender, heterosexual white man in today’s society would be less revolutionary than a working class Black or Brown person, particularly if they are transgender or queer or a woman (or all the above)? My answer is: yes and no.
First the “no” answer: there isn’t any law in the natural or material world which states that a working class person will be more politically conscious on account of their identity, if they are Black, trans, queer, or a woman (or, again, all the above). In fact, there isn’t any requirement by nature that such a person would possess revolutionary consciousness even on account of their status as a worker.
Revolutionary consciousness isn’t guaranteed by systemic oppression, whether it’s based on strictly economic terms (which are, actually, never just about economics) or it’s based on one’s identity as a woman, a gay person, a “person of color,” a transgender person or some intersection of these identities.
It isn’t an automatic thing that people will become revolutionary, because people are not automatons. Nearly all of us absorb on a daily basis the ideologies of the ruling class through the institutions that it controls. We buy into the values, beliefs, and the views of the wealthy class, based on how much money and power we have, and also based on our ability to climb higher up within the existing structure, an ability which we may use no matter who we need to step on during our ascent. The contradictions of the larger society are present in each class level and, furthermore, in each individual who is part of their class. The ideological force of the ruling class works upon our many lives, and our internal contradictions, because– if we wish to survive, and gain access to resources– we must go along with its dominant force. However, some people must continually resist these ideologies in order to survive, because this stronger force is mostly seeking to exploit them, and prey upon their weakened condition, a condition which has come about because the ruling class has stolen their power and is now out to destroy them: they become useless to the system, utterly unnecessary for its purposes of more power and control.
And this is why the answer is also “yes”– a working class, cisgender heterosexual white man may be less revolutionary than a transgender woman of color, although their political analysis is the same, and although their income and “net worth” are fairly close. This may be true, in fact, even when a Black trans woman, trans Latina, or trans Indigenous woman has more money than the working class cis-het white man (or woman).
Marxist theory demonstrates that societies evolve and move– or what we might call “make progress”– on account of the antagonistic relationship between the ruling class and those whom it rules. This dialectical struggle, in Marxian terms, is between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. However, since we’re talking about capitalist society, and a global economic system that has existed for over five hundred years (ever since Europe began its invasion of Africa and the Americas), we’re also talking about the political category of “whiteness” and the power of this identity over those who are not identified by capitalism as “white”: African, Indigenous, Latinx, Arab and (generally speaking) “people of color.” This too is a dialectical struggle, just as patriarchy is a key class factor in the political, economic and social arrangement of capitalism.
So far we have been trying to speak in objective terms. Objects are held together by their contradictions. Societies change in much the same way: increasing class antagonisms between the owners of production and the actual producers eventually lead to revolution, or a complete transformation of systems. However, people aren’t objects. People are subjects. They may be objectified by a system of power and its ruling class, yet their humanity itself struggles to remain intact. Members of objectified classes remain subjects just by surviving and living, as a people, as a community, and as an individual inside their community. And when a people becomes conscious of their oppression, they do so not as objects that are launched forward as the engines of social change, but as humans who think, feel, hurt, love, hate– and who create an identity.
And this is why cisgender heterosexual white men– and, to some extent, all whites in general, are not forces for revolutionary change. Revolution requires a subject– a revolutionist. If you’re European, you’ve already had your revolution; especially if you’re a white settler in the United States: a monarchy was overthrown, and an old system of power was tossed out, and then you seized control of the colonies, not as the colonized and the enslaved, but as the colonizer and the slaveholder. This was a bourgeois democratic revolution, which meant progress for the white population, but which also came at the expense of Indigenous peoples on their occupied lands, and at the expense of Africans stolen from Africa who have been forced to produce the riches and power of the growing “American” empire across these occupied lands. This was our revolution. And this struggle of the ascendant white, bourgeois settler class is still going on. Because revolutions don’t end when the war is over, or even when the new constitution has been written– this is where revolutions truly begin, and the real work of preserving the existing social structure.
For this reason, working class whites are among the most reactionary people on the planet. And if they are cisgender, heterosexual, Christian (or atheist/agnostic) “able-bodied” men, their status as a reactionary subject of social changes grows and grows with each layer of identity or political category.
But white people in general– regardless of economic status, sexuality or gender identity– are a reactionary force within nature because we seek to preserve and expand an existing system: this capitalist democracy on occupied land which was created through violence and can only survive through greater violence, not only against kings and “tyrants,” but against potentially revolutionary forces from below. And the potential forces of revolution in this global economic system are Africans, Indigenous peoples, and Latinxs– the actual producers of white wealth and power. Without their work, and the resources extracted on their land, capitalism could not exist, and neither could the political identity of white people.
It’s not that a cisgender heterosexual white man can’t be revolutionary; it’s just that it’s typically not in his interest to be a subject of struggle and resistance. This patriarchal, racist, capitalist system has been created for his benefit, and for the benefit of all whites. As a result, we might ask: what’s he struggling against anyway? The cisgender heterosexual white man in the United States is struggling against King George III, and against rebellious Africans and Native peoples who may threaten to overthrow his system, his power: which is capitalism. Again, this is our revolution: a capitalist democracy, a great leap forward from feudalism and the “Dark Ages” of Europe. It’s the revolution that created the United States, not the socialist state which may threaten our own wealth and power. Our subjective struggle, as part of the white identity, is to escape the oppressive forces of an earlier age. How? By stretching across a continent, and by extracting the labor, resources and culture of the global proletariat, either through chattel slavery or through wage-slavery, while these productive forces (the working masses whom we oppress) create progress for “America,” or what we call “upward mobility” and “peace and prosperity.” Why should a cis-het white guy fight against a system created and expanded for his benefit? Why would whites overall gain a revolutionary consciousness when we are the main beneficiaries of capitalist rule?
And we can take this analysis one step further: as subjects for revolutionary change, a cisgender heterosexual white man can only be who or what he is. The same is true for any white person: transgender, gay, disabled, a woman. Even if we support Africans who are struggling for freedom from this system of oppression, a white person (no matter how revolutionary) cannot be the subject of an African struggle. This seems to be an obvious point. Yet it’s not so obvious to European or white revolutionaries who believe that– just by learning the right theory, or aligning with oppressed people in the right way– we can join forces with African or Black revolutionaries and be part of their fight. No, we are simply taking up additional space. The only people who can liberate Africans are Africans: “We Are Our Own Liberators” (to quote the title of Jalil Muntaqim’s book).
Whites can align with Black Power by paying back some of the wealth we’ve stolen (in the form of reparations and material solidarity). But our identity as white people dictates– whether we’re conscious of this fact or not– that our interests will be aligned with our own empowerment. And it’s not even that white socialists will have the wrong theory. Or the wrong identity which (to some extent) can’t be “wrong.” We just can’t be the subjects of a struggle against a system of power built for the benefit of our identity: whiteness. Mostly, cisgender heterosexual white men must get out of the way. Whites must get out of the way, and it doesn’t matter (very much) how right we are. Right or wrong, we have more power, as part of the political identity of whiteness, because our elevated status has come at the expense of oppressed identities.
In fact, many individuals in oppressed classes and communities also have the wrong ideas. Capitalism has taught them to exploit, hurt and even kill people who belong to marginalized identities within their own class or community, so that they can climb over the bodies of their victims on the way toward the enjoyment of more wealth and power (for themselves, not their communities). And how could such a thing as “African power” or “Indigenous power” teach individuals in oppressed communities these violent ideologies? European power destroyed their societies, for the benefit of whites– including “liberal” or “progressive” whites who support gays, and trans people, and are “anti-racist.”
The progress of capitalist democracy, with its greater wealth and its increasing recognition of human rights, has created poverty and chaos for the rest of the world. This is one of the internal contradictions of bourgeois society: as our consciousness of humanity grows, and we begin to recognize the inherent worth of each person in this society (through schools, media, nonprofit organizations, and other institutions controlled by capitalism), the distance between our progressive values and the objective status of whiteness (which is based on colonial genocide) also grows. Then we rush to join forces with colonized communities in their movements against white supremacy and patriarchy, while simultaneously enjoying the benefits of a racist, sexist, transphobic system of capitalist exploitation.
In effect, anti-racist and revolutionary whites often try to be a self-negating force, yet revolution is about gaining more power because you have less. Revolution is about struggling to reach our highest potential as a person, through the growing consciousness that self-fulfillment and development can only happen under a system which empowers and encourages the identity of the subject to flower– that is, through mass movement and revolution (positive action for a positive identity).
I spent most of my life– as a transgender woman– self-negating my identity. I don’t need or want to practice any more self-negation. Whites who align with Black liberation by (apparently) sacrificing the self out of their wish to contribute to the greater empowerment of Africans and Black people may be more successful in this endeavor if they haven’t struggled just to live as their authentic self: the subject, and the contradictions that hold it together, may have been resolved to the point where the fight for their own success is no longer primary. It may be easier for such an individual to be a generic white person (if that’s even possible), and just to bury their resolved and apparently solid self beneath a selfless role as an ally or accomplice in the cause of African revolution. What goes on beneath the surface of this white person is their business, but my business is to find soil that allows my identity to blossom and flower. Self-negation is not an option when the subject is a transgender woman who never felt she could grow in this poisoned ground of capitalist “America.”
Of course, Africa must be free. Black people must have power. And, as the subjects of their own struggle, as their own liberators, Africans and Black people will be free. And they will be free not just on account of having the correct theory, or even through the correct practice of this theory, but on account of the fact that they are Black, they are African– that is their identity. Freedom and power are always predicated on the existence of some liberated subject, some identity who has been empowered. The concept of “freedom” doesn’t exist outside history and nature, and neither does “race” or identity. A subject conceives the idea of freedom, just like identity conceives everything else, including itself. So the only question is: who is the subject? Black people conceive Black liberation, because Black people conceive Blackness.
One might argue that Black people aren’t even “black”– that is, they are not the “race” that has been conceived by this racist, patriarchal global economic system: capitalism. Prior to Europe’s invasion of Africa more than five hundred years ago, Africans defined the African identity. European power violently disrupted and qualitatively changed the ability of Africans to define their own identity. Europe did this by stealing their resources and labor– the basis of the ability to self-define. So, Africans were objectified by white colonizers as “black”– and were called many other names as well, all but their own.
However, Africans have resisted, survived, and blossomed into their own self-defined identities: Africans became Black, which is absolutely not the same as the white definition of “black.” Blackness, like the transgender identity, began as a negation of identity, a definition of the subject which was imposed on an entire community by an objectifying outside power. Blackness is a process of becoming. Any time a Black person or an African resists, struggles, survives, succeeds, or is destroyed– and any time they express joy, anger, pain, sorrow, or experience anything as a Black person– they are contributing to the identity of Blackness, which belongs solely to Black people. The good thing about being Black– in a global economic system that is violently anti-Black– is anything you choose to be is Black.
However, even if we support the empowerment of Africans everywhere in the world, whites and “non-Black people of color” (“NBPoC”) will never be Black. This may seem to be an obvious point, even when we don’t hold the mistaken (and racist) wish to be “black.” But it doesn’t seem so obvious to the legions of white saviors, white allies, white accomplices and all non-Black people who appropriate “blackness,” and “black” revolutionary consciousness, not realizing that authentic Black identity and empowerment can only come from Black people/Africans.
The correct theory can educate us about objective reality. Yet it doesn’t change the subject who has been educated. It doesn’t change their history and their political identity, and how these have been shaped by the capitalist system of power. As long as capitalism is still allowed to exist, whiteness will exist, as well as white supremacy. And what is the source of white supremacy, or whiteness (since both are the same thing)? White people. Whites can only be white, according to historical and material factors beyond our control. This is particularly true of white people in the United States.
Revolution is a process, a series of quantitative changes, as the subjects of this struggle move toward a qualitative change to the system of power: and this also makes revolution a process of becoming the very subjects who can wage this struggle. This is why Black culture and the Black identity– embracing Blackness– are so important to resistance against a racist system– by Black people. Capitalism not only negates Black power; it negates Black people, and Blackness. At the same time, capitalism not only creates power and wealth for white people; it creates white people and affirms our identity. We’re everywhere.
But once the question of identity is resolved or settled, then the racist system, as well as the white people created by this system, can settle on a continent– as settlers. Due to the superior power of capitalism, white “Americans” believe identity is static, to the point where it becomes irrelevant to the empowered subject: “I’m just a person. An American. We’re all the same.” This static irrelevance of identity is one of the benefits enjoyed by the white settler in the U.S., although their ability to enjoy “generic” personhood may be considerably less if they are transgender or belong to some other marginalized identity within the colonizing population. The very system that benefits the European (or white) transgender woman also moves to negate them, because their exchange value to capitalism is worth less than the “default” identity of the cisgender white woman or cisgender white man above her. This creates a contradiction.
Revolutionary consciousness for a white transgender woman may lead to the recognition that her identity is also a process of becoming. A crack has appeared in the solid grayish white structure of the bourgeois colonial class. This weakness can be exploited and leveraged against the larger structure of capitalist society. Such a division can be gradually increased by any member of the colonial class in this society whose own identity runs against the ideological force of the ruling class.
Nothing guarantees that the struggling subject will ever reach this point of consciousness. But they may be more likely to reach some level of revolutionary consciousness than the colonizer whose identity is in closer alignment with patriarchy. The unresolved subject who is the transgender woman, and whose identity is in the process of becoming, rather than in some perceived state of being (legitimatized by the State), may choose to leverage this division within the white identity against itself, and struggle to resolve their identity on terms outside the existing system of power.
There’s no rule or law of nature that says enslaved Africans– once robbed of their culture and identity– were required to become Black at any point, as opposed to the “black” identity that a white supremacist system forced on them. In terms of an objectifying force of colonial oppression, being defined as “black” was not a choice. By definition, this identity was imposed on Africans by the white capitalist power. However, Blackness (also, by definition) became a choice of the subject who is resisting a racist power which attempts to lock them into a static, negative role for all time. Historical and material realities have compelled each oppressed people either to give up their identity (and their very existence), or to resist as subjects of their own struggle and thereby create their own self-defined identity– in essence, to engage in the revolutionary process of becoming their fullest selves.
European transgender women– who are part of the oppressor white nation or class– have the responsibility to resolve the contradictions of our identity (that is, to become our fullest selves) by moving against the existing system of power, even as we simultaneously benefit from it. That is, if we value human rights, European trans women must exploit those cracks that have opened up in the grayish white edifice of capitalist society as it attempts to negate our identity.
Of course, this struggle is a choice for European or white transgender women. And it seems most European transgender women will choose to side with capitalism and its dehumanizing force, especially if this means enjoying greater wealth and power for ourselves. Even so, our negated identities have put our humanity at odds with capitalism in such a way that, if we choose, we could engage in the process of becoming subjects for revolution by using our identity to move against the system (just as it is moving against us) as we aim to resolve our own being or personhood outside its existing class structure.
Can a cisgender heterosexual white man engage in this same process of revolutionary struggle? Sure. But as a solid being whose identity has been resolved within the capitalist class structure, what exactly is he resisting? He may have the correct theory and he may confirm this theory with correct practice. Yet people are not empty vessels simply moving from Point “A” to Point “B.” And if our struggle consists mainly of going around and showing solidarity with this identity and that, then we might ask: what is inside our own identity which needs to be resolved– through revolution– and is also in the process of becoming? We can’t be solidly attached to that solid gray concrete block and just show up in solidarity with various identities, participating in their struggles to resolve the contradictions of society on their own terms, as revolutionary subjects. Or maybe we can. But, whatever their theory or their practice may be, it seems such an individual would just be taking up additional space. Identity matters because Black people– who have chosen to become Black on their own terms, rather than just being “black” on the terms of their objectifying oppressor– are the only people who can be Black, and therefore be free and Black.
Marxist theory may lead us to believe– at least if we are white– that there are generic workers and generic capitalists, and it is only the class antagonisms between these two soulless forms that can determine revolutionary change in society. Yet capitalism has never involved generic participants on either side of the dialectic: it has always been about the oppression of Africans by Europeans, women by men, transgender women by cisgender people, as well as the exploitation of impoverished workers by the wealthy, exploiting owners. This is true of Marxist theory even if Marx didn’t say it himself.
The conclusions of Marx himself are less important than the method of argumentation by which he reached these fluid, ever-changing conclusions: the dialectical and historical method, with material or objective reality as its basis, applied to each identity and circumstance and defined according to their subjective goals. If we look at Marxist theory through this lens, perhaps we can locate the fissures in the current society, the cracks in the gray concrete block of capitalism, and then choose to leverage our contradictory identities against this larger structure, in order to bring the whole thing down.
And if we are transgender, our identity should allow us to recognize these cracks in the grayish concrete: but how to organize our identity, and how to use this mass force as a tool for qualitative change … that is an another question, and one that is far more difficult for the white trans woman to answer.