Oppression  •  Theory

Intersectionality – not the basis for the liberation struggle

15 November 2013

The methodology of ‘intersectionality’ is currently gaining increased support on the left in the UK. Joy Macready argues why it shouldn’t be used as the basis for a socialist approach to liberation
‘Intersectionality’, or the study of how multiple systems of oppression or discrimination interact, is gaining prominence amongst the left in the UK. For example, in the lead up to the Left Unity founding conference on 30 November, the Equalities Commission has suggested that the new organisation “adopt a form of approach to liberation politics based on intersectionality”.
In many meetings, particularly in the student and academic milieu, this approach is held up as the way to recognise diversity and address the sexism, racism, homophobia, etc that can manifest within the left, trade unions and broader social movements – by highlighting how these oppressions overlap in the everyday lives of people to produce an identity that is unique to them in degree and composition.
It is understandable how, on the surface, intersectionality seems like a progressive approach to liberation. As its proponents argue, it gives the most vulnerable in society a “voice” that challenges the dominant paradigm of white, male, heterosexual, binary gendered, able-bodied and class privilege.
However, what intersectionality obscures is the importance of the question of class within all liberation struggles, whether women, black people, LGBTQ, or disabled and other oppressed sections of society. It effectively treats class as another category of oppression.
Of course class is not a “trump card” of oppression, being a worker does not make you more oppressed than any other, but starting from a class analysis enables us to locate the essential agency for socialist revolution: the working class; female and male; gay, straight and trans; black, Asian or white; disabled or not; and from all nationalities.
Socialist revolution not “only” opens the road to all liberation, but without it liberation is impossible. However, this does not mean that the struggle against oppression must wait for socialism or subordinate itself to a narrow and economistic definition of the class struggle.
The struggle against oppression, in society in the labour movement and in the revolutionary organisation, is an integral part of the socialist programme. The fact that some organisations that claim to be Marxist, Leninist or Trotskyist have ignored this and behaved in the most economistic and outright sexist way does not mean that the Marxist approach to this question must be rejected.
Intersectionality origins
Black American feminist Kimberlé Crenshaw first coined the term “intersectionality theory” in 1989. However, many feminist academics locate its origins in black feminist politics a decade earlier, specifically the Combahee River Collective, an organisation of black lesbian socialist-feminists active in Boston who advanced the concept of “simultaneity”. They wanted to expose the fact that the white, heterosexual middle-class woman’s perspective, that they believed dominated the feminist movement, didn’t represent the totality of that movement. In the Collective’s statement, they wrote:
“This focusing upon our own oppression is embodied in the concept of identity politics. We believe that the most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else’s oppression…”
Crenshaw’s theory of intersectionality was developed in response to the identity politics that came to dominate the feminist movement in the 1980s. She wrote: “When we don’t pay attention to the margins, when we don’t acknowledge the intersection, where the places of power overlap, we not only fail to see the women who fall between our movements, sometimes we pit our movements against each other.”
However, what these different strands of feminism have in common, despite their important insights into how gender is constructed by institutions, ideology, the family, society, etc, is that it is a pan-class ideology and therefore cannot put forward a consistently materialist world-view, because it either does not recognise capitalism and class, or regards these categories as being only another oppression, not especially more or less fundamental than another.
These movements are therefore condemned to be “sectional” (as also are other “autonomous” movements of the oppressed, like black nationalism, gay liberation, etc), effectively approaching the struggles of other oppressed groups as potential allies with whom one strikes agreements on the basis of a sort of “activists’ diplomacy”.
Although intersectional politics arose in opposition to this, as a result of “sectional” identity politics’ inability to account adequately for the experience of people who suffer from more than one oppression, it nevertheless addresses the problem either by reducing the sectional basis of its proposed forms of organisation to a kaleidoscope of ever-narrower “intersectional” identities, or by reducing things to a matter of unique individual identities within a broad amorphous movement.
In addition, intersectionality effectively reduces things from the level of the politics of a collective to the level of individual choices about identity.
This can be clearly seen when intersectionality is used in common practice. In many social movements intersectionality collapses back into the very “hierarchy of oppression” conflicts it arose to combat, that is, the idea that those who can tick the greatest number of boxes (woman, transgender, gay, disabled, black, etc) deserve the most respect and political weight in a meeting. Whereas others have to “check their privilege” and acknowledge that those with greater oppression are more qualified to determine the course taken or the policies adopted.
Marxists should reject this approach. Just because a person subjectively experiences a specific form of oppression does not necessarily mean that they are best placed to come up with a strategy for liberation. Contrary to the Combahee River Collective’s statement, the most oppressed in society are not automatically the most radical, militant or revolutionary.
At every given opportunity, socialists should listen to and champion the struggles of oppressed layers in society, but we also can bring into those struggles a revolutionary strategy, based on consciousness of the class as a whole.
The Left Unity Equalities Commission draft tries to qualify an intersectional approach: “We don’t however in doing this take this approach on the basis of agreement with those who reduce the question of class to the question of an identity – but indeed none of the other issues we deal with directly are solely questions of identity but are based on material realities.”
But this evades the question of the working class as the driving force of revolutionary change. It is the working class and its organisations that can – providing it understands the nature of oppression and is constantly struggling against it – unite the oppressed and exploited in a common struggle against capitalism and all its oppressive manifestations.
Fighting oppression
The working class is the class with “radical chains” that cannot be broken except by uprooting capitalism and in doing so the last form of class society. This ending of class society is the objective and indispensable necessity for ending all forms of oppression. This includes those like racism that flow from slavery, colonialism and imperialism and those that flow from the oppression of women via the institution of the patriarchal family.
To this latter are related all the oppressions relating to sex and gender and the ideologies that sustain and defend it and oppress those who reject it or just live differently.
Marxists don’t believe – as many opponents of Marxism and many bad Marxists claim – that just by seizing power and expropriating the capitalists will oppression vanish, anymore than classes and economic inequality themselves will do. Building socialism is precisely a process of struggle against all forms of oppression.
Moreover, long before the socialist revolution, revolutionaries and their organisations have to be champions of all the exploited and oppressed. Lenin famously stressed in What is to be Done? that “the Social-Democrat’s ideal should not be the trade union secretary, but the tribune of the people, who is able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it appears, no matter what stratum or class of the people it affects.”
Marxists have – since the days of Clara Zetkin and Alexandra Kollontai – long recognised that special organisations and movements of the oppressed inside and outside the revolutionary party are necessary to draw the maximum number of them into the struggle against capitalism and its inherent sexism, racism, homo- and transphobia etc. They also recognised that prejudices and oppressive behaviour exist amongst workers and revolutionary communists, and have to be constantly fought.
Instead of promoting intersectionality, socialists have their own methods to fight sexism, racism, homophobia, etc that can and do manifest themselves within a left organisation, trade union or other social movement – as recent events in the SWP have shown all too clearly. Socialists should advocate the right of women and other oppressed groups to caucus, that is, to meet to discuss any issues relating to their oppression and the struggle against all examples of sexism or oppressive behaviour, and should be able to submit proposals for dealing with these issues directly to the membership and the leadership.
But to restrict the making of a party’s policy on these issues only to those who suffer a specific oppression will just bring us back to the old conflicts of the “hierarchy of oppression”. And to reject founding our politics on the subjective experience of identity certainly does not equate to the assertion that oppression doesn’t matter, or must be “subordinated to the class struggle”, meaning to the trade union struggle or even to struggles by workers alone.
That is “economism” or “workerism”, and in no sense represents Marx and Engels’ or for that matter Lenin and Trotsky’s position.

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