Anti-Oppression Politics in Anti-Capitalist Movements

Edited by Sharmeen Khan with in interview with Gary Kinsman from Upping the Anti No. 1, 2005:

I include only the Introduction and my responses to questions here. For the rest of this broader interview go to the UTA site above.

The modes of resistance and struggle that came out of liberation movements in the latter part of the 20th century gave rise to anti-oppression organizing and politics. Anti-oppression arose out of the left’s failure to develop a nuanced approach to questions of oppression and to consider various forms of oppression as “class issues.”

In recent years the rise of the anti-globalization movement has influenced, and been influenced by, anti-oppression analyses, as the movement sought to address the effects of global capitalism on different communities and peoples, and to understand the varied effects of power, privilege and marginalization in individual communities, as well as in national and international contexts.

Among social justice activists organizing around anti-oppression politics, many questions have come up as to how to envision and create a transformative politic around issues of racism, sexism, heterosexism and able-ism within an anti-capitalist analysis. The current separation of identity politics from class struggle does not speak to the experiences of marginalized and exploited people in our communities, and we need ways to discuss and organize around the connections between various oppressions and capitalism. As anti-oppression activists, we need to develop a critical discourse that connects the socio-historical contexts of capitalism and class to race, gender, sexuality and ability.

To the annoyance of some leftists who argue that capitalism and class form the fundamental basis of all oppression, anti-oppression organizing seeks to understand the connections between racism, sexism, heterosexism, colonialism and class. Anti-oppression politics have the potential to provide a useful antidote to reductionist perspectives which leave out the fundamental roles of patriarchy and racism in determining both capitalism and class relations.

But is this happening? Or are anti-oppression activists repeating the same mistakes made by proponents of identity politics in the 1960s and 1970s, and being co-opted by the claimed multiculturalism of the Canadian state? Do anti-oppression politics expand the analysis of radical organizing, or are they merely “reinventing the wheel” by addressing individual behaviors? Can anti-oppression politics provide a model for a multi-faceted analysis that addresses oppression and class exploitation as distinct but nevertheless intimately interrelated social relationships?

The dynamics of anti-oppression politics often reinforce notions of oppression that we should be trying to debunk. People of colour, for example, are often deemed anti-oppression “experts,” and are expected to do anti-oppression work for primarily white organizations. What are systemic issues then become problems stemming from individual behaviour, which can lead to the de-politicization or political paralysis of activist groups. As the radical roots of anti-oppression in feminist, anti-racist and queer movements become co-opted, the education model developed by anti-oppression activists is being taken up by mainstream, “multiculturalist” and liberal discourses.

The following is a roundtable discussion based upon interviews with three activists who have engaged with anti-oppression politics in the context of radical political organizing. These interviews address the relevance, influence and problems of anti-oppression politics for these activists. We encourage feedback and further discussion on the ideas expressed here. If you would like to write us with your own observations on these questions, or contribute an article for the next issue of our journal, please get in touch with us.

UTA: Please introduce yourselves.

Gary Kinsman: I got involved in the revolutionary left in the early 1970s and, shortly after, came out as a gay man and got involved in queer organizing.1 I come from a white middle class background and I am now a university professor. I have been involved in the Sudbury Coalition Against Poverty and Autonomy and Solidarity.

UTA: What has been your experience with anti-oppression politics?

Gary: My first grappling with anti-oppression politics in the context of anti-capitalism and the left took place around queer struggles and queer liberation as we struggled to have lesbian/gay liberation integrated into the politics of the Revolutionary Marxist Group, and later, the Revolutionary Workers League in the 1970s. There were years of battle against the notion in much of the left that gay/lesbian liberation was a ‘marginal’ or ‘peripheral’ issue compared to the ‘centrality’ of a narrow political economy notion of class and class struggle.

In the context of this struggle, I also became profoundly affected by feminism and later by anti-racist movements. When it became clear to me that the Leninist left was not going to be able to learn in any profound way from feminism and the queer movements I left it in 1980. For a period of time (and still), I was very influenced by Sheila Rowbotham’s socialist feminist critique of Leninism developed in the book Beyond the Fragments. One of the main points developed in this book was the inability of the Leninist left to be transformed by feminism and other movements coming out of experiences of oppression, and how feminism could provide at least part of the basis for a new left that could move beyond the fragments.

For the next sixteen years I was a left activist in the gay liberation and AIDS activist movements with a little bit of anti-war organizing at the time of the first Gulf War. I was involved for a number of years in Rites magazine, which attempted to develop a more radical queer politic by making links between different forms of oppression, as well as between oppression and class. I also worked with Gay Liberation Against the Right Everywhere (GLARE). I was involved in the resistance to the police raids on gay men’s bath houses in the early 1980s in Toronto, and later in AIDS ACTION NOW! I learned a lot from my involvement in these struggles and movements.

In the mid-1990s, in the context of the Mike Harris neo-liberal ‘common-sense revolution,’ I once again joined a radical left organization. This time it was the New Socialist Group, which I thought held out some promise for developing a broader class struggle politics that could include feminism, queer liberation, and anti-racism. In the context of this group I again tried to help facilitate learning from feminist and queer struggles with some success. At the same time, this project was limited by the fact that a lot of feminist and queer struggles that were at one point extremely radical had been transformed into more moderate movements. In relation to queer organizing, this had to do with a shift in the class composition of queer movements with a new professional-managerial queer strata gaining hegemony. A critical class analysis was now necessary to grasp what was going on in queer movements and community formation. The more recent focus on same-sex marriage as the end game of our struggle has made the moderate direction of the mainstream queer groups very clear. For me it is almost impossible to be a queer activist anymore given the connections that need to be made with class and other social struggles if these struggles are to be made radical again – radical as in getting to the root of the problem.

UTA: What, in your opinion, has been the greatest influence of anti-oppression work in anti-capitalist movements? How has it contributed to the consciousness of anti-capitalist activists?

Gary: While I have learned a lot from feminist and anti-racist movements, I have also become committed to a politics of responsibility in relation to fighting oppression. This is far more than a politics of solidarity based on learning to support other social struggles and learning from these struggles. We need to recognize our own social locations and our implications in social relations of oppression and to begin to challenge white and male privilege. As someone who identifies as male and white, this has been especially important in trying to develop a politics of responsibility in challenging patriarchal and white hegemonic relations from within my own social location. In addressing my own implication within, and responsibility for, white hegemony, the following quote from Himani Bannerji’s Thinking Through (in which she refers to white academics she has worked with), has served as a useful starting point;

“And sitting there, hearing claims about sharing “experience,” having empathy, a nausea rose in me. Why do they, I thought, only talk about racism, as understanding us, doing good to “us”? Why don’t they move from the experience of sharing our pain, to narrating the experience of afflicting it on us? Why do they not question their own cultures, childhoods, upbringings, and ask how they could live so “naturally” in this “white” environment, never noticing that fact until we brought it home to them?”

For me a politics of responsibility is crucial to developing anti-oppression politics. Those of us who participate in producing relations of oppression need to challenge them from our locations to open up more space for those who directly experience oppression. We don’t have to wait to be asked to act against oppression, we can take our own initiatives and begin to undo oppression from our places within it.

UTA: How do you feel about anti-oppression politics and education now being used by hierarchical and capitalist institutions such as union bureaucracies and the state? What are some of the contradictions and problems you have found with anti-oppression politics?

Gary: While there have been major insights in anti-oppression politics as they have been developed there are also major contradictions and limitations. Each form of oppression has its own specific social character – its own autonomy so to speak – and there is a danger of flattening out the differences in the social organization of the various forms of oppression in developing a common anti-oppression politics. Sexism is not racism and is not heterosexism, even though they are made in and through each other and are connected to class relations in a broad sense. Each specific social form of oppression requires its own autonomous movement and struggle, while at the same time we have to see how forms of oppression and class exploitation mutually construct each other. It has been understandable that in response to the narrow “class first” politics of much of the left, activists rooted in movements against oppression have developed a distinct politics separate from class and anti-capitalist politics. At the same time, this also opens up space for the deployment of new strategies of regulation and management of movements and communities of the oppressed including formal legal equality (which is not the same as substantive social equality), multiculturalism, strategies for producing layers of a middle class elite that can speak for and be the ‘legitimate’ representatives for various communities, and various strategies of integration into the existing order of things (same-sex marriage as the end-game of our struggle being one of these strategies).

Often this revolves around a politics of inclusion and representation which poses the struggle as one of representation within and integration into existing forms of social organization rather than a radical transformation of existing social relations. These strategies of regulation construct a rigid separation between social identity and community and a radical critique of capitalism, thus denying the social and historical connections between community formation and class relations. This helps to create the space for the emergence of middle class elites in various communities and movements to rise to the top and shift politics in a more pro-capitalist direction. We have to reject this separation, and discover instead how to build a broader notion of anti-capitalist and working class politics that includes anti-oppression struggles at its core. Anti-capitalist politics cannot currently be developed without addressing its links to the various struggles against oppression.

In my view, this is the only way that anti-capitalist politics can be made actual as a revolutionary praxis. Anti-capitalist politics needs anti-oppression politics and radical anti-oppression politics needs a broader anti-capitalist perspective.

While anti-racism and feminism have been far more successful than queer politics as forms of radical anti-oppression, they (along with anti-disability and anti-ageist forms of organizing) are all crucial to the development a new anti-capitalist politics that addresses oppression as central to class politics. Most recently, I have found currents within autonomist Marxism (see my article “Learning from Autonomist Marxism” in this issue of Upping the Anti), that develop a broader notion of the working class and anti-capitalism that includes the struggles of housewives, students, and peasants. Broadening notions of working class struggle is very useful in bringing together anti-oppression and anti-capitalist politics. Autonomist Marxism has also grasped the need for the autonomous struggles of working class women against patriarchy, people of colour against white supremacy, and queers against heterosexism. While not resolving the problems we face, autonomist Marxism can provide us with tools that are key in the development of an anti-oppression politics that is at the same time anti-capitalist. Until we have broadened our understanding of anti-capitalist politics and working class struggle, it is vital to stubbornly hold onto anti-oppression politics (despite their imperfections), and to prevent them from being subordinated to a narrow notion of anti-capitalism. At the same time, on the level of forms of organizing and tactics, some of the acquisitions of the global justice movement (including direct action politics, affinity groups, spokescouncils, etc.), can also help us create the basis for a radical anti-capitalist anti-oppression politics.


1. See Gary’s interview with Deborah Brock for Left History called “Workers of the World Caress” on organizing around queer questions in the revolutionary left in the 1970s at

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