What is intersectionality?

New movements against oppression have brought with them a new vocabulary. The concept of “intersectionality” is prominent among them. Shanice McBean outlines her understanding of the term and its relationship to Marxist theory.

Intersectionality says three core things. First: we should fight all manifestations of oppression. Second: the experiences under capitalism of one person differ from that of another person because of one’s place across material lines of oppression and exploitation.

These first two ought to be common sense to Marxists. But intersectionality also says a third, easily forgotten thing which my reading suggests the SWP’s theory on oppression seriously falters on. This is that one form of oppression can be shaped by and can shape other forms of oppression. Racism, for example, can be sexualised, or women’s oppression can be racialised – and this happens in such a way that it becomes impossible to view different oppressions as separate.

We already know that all oppressions are connected by having material roots in capitalism. And by claiming that all oppression and exploitation intertwine, there is at least a vague recognition by intersectionality that all oppression is rooted in the same societal structures.

But intersectionality makes the further claim that you cannot, for example, say that a black woman experiences sexism on the one hand and racism on the other, as separate to that sexism. In reality, the sexism that black women face is often shaped by their blackness and the racism they face is shaped by their gender. The result being women’s oppression for black women is intimately connected but also has nuanced differences to women’s oppression for white women. Similarly we understand how women’s oppression for the ruling classes differs to that of the working class.

Marx knew nothing of intersectionality as it exists today, but he speaks in similar terms in his sixth thesis on Feuerbach: “But the human essence is no abstraction inherent in each single individual. In its reality it is the ensemble of the social relations.”

Different experiences of oppression matter

So the experiences of oppression can differ depending on who you are. We know this – so why is intersectionality useful as a descriptive tool? As an example we can look to the history of the women’s movement in Britain. The third demand passed in 1971 at the Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM) national conference in Skegness focused on reproductive rights. In particular it demanded that women have access to abortion and contraception on demand.

Of course, this demand benefited all women – black or white. In particular it benefited working class women who did not have the resources to be able to afford anything but backstreet abortions. Contraception also meant avoiding unwanted children, an economic gain for both working women and men.

But I would argue these demands for reproductive rights were incomplete. The WLM failed to see how sexist restrictions on reproductive rights were also racialised and affected by sexuality. Had they noticed this they would have also demanded adoption rights for lesbian women and made anti-sterilisation demands in solidarity with women of colour in the US.

The failure to make these demands was in part due to the material conditions of homophobia and racism within the movement, particularly in the US. But it is also the case that their incomplete theory led to incomplete practice. The WLM had blind spots regarding how women’s oppression affected certain women, which then reflected what they fought for, who they related to and who they recruited into the movement. These blind spots ended up alienating lesbians and women of colour, which I would argue played a significant role in the later fragmentation of the WLM (along with other factors).

There are times when SWP’s theory of women’s liberation today seems to come solely from a white perspective. For example, in our meetings on women we often talk about the fact women have been fighting for the right to not be mothers. This is true enough, of course, but there’s an important nuance concerning race.

During the slave era African-American women were not seen as mothers, but rather as breeding fodder. It was common practice for slave masters to rip children away from their slave mothers and sell them as slaves, much as we remove young animals from their mothers on breeding farms.

We can still see the remnants of this morbid way of conceiving black motherhood today. Black women, particularly in the US, are seen as unfit to be mothers and are regularly encouraged to not reproduce. Women of colour have been primary victims of sterilisation. They have had to fight to be considered fit mothers. And we can see similar issues in Britain today – see how Muslim women are accused of reproducing “too much” and becoming drains on welfare.

This is not to say common conceptions of femininity and motherhood have escaped black women entirely. In the early years after slavery, for instance, black women were often employed as domestic servants looking after the children of middle class white people (this spawned the “Mammy” stereotype). But we still see how the sexism that affected black women had its roots in slavery – which means it is raced and thus materially different to the sexism typically faced by white women in the West.

Does intersectionality lead to fragmentation?

Some argue intersectionality tends towards fragmentation. If you talk about women, you could talk about black women, and if you talk about black women you could talk about black, gay, disabled women – and so on. What can be said in response to these arguments?

Firstly, I don’t see what’s wrong with talking about the oppression of black, gay, disabled working class women under capitalism. Attempting to relate to as many people as possible by talking about the specificity of their oppression is a good thing. The question, however, is whether such concerns over the specificity of experience lead to divisions and separatism.

In fact the way intersectionality is used today – for example on campuses – operates in precisely the opposite direction: intersectionality is as a call to unity! The argument is that everyone concerned with oppression should naturally be concerned with the nuances of everyone else’s oppression. That is not fragmentation – it is the basic building block of solidarity.

Fragmentation can arise, however, if intersectionality is married to other notions: for example, the idea that oppressed people themselves are the only effective organisers against their oppression. If intersectionality is married to that position, we can see how women organising separately can become black women organising separately, and then gay black women fragmenting from that and so on.

But we have to have theoretical clarity here: there is no inherent connection between intersectionality and separatist organisation of oppressed groups; to suggest otherwise is to accusing intersectionality of positions that it does not argue for. History is full of people attempting to marry Marxist principles with Stalinism: that does not mean those principles are in themselves Stalinist.

How does class fit in to intersectionality?

Others argue that intersectionality sees class as simply another form of oppression and therefore fails to be compatible with Marxism that place the working class at its root. I’d say this depends on the explanatory framework intersectionality is used within. We must not forget that intersectionality is not an explanatory theory in itself: it does not aim to explain why oppression exists. In its most basic form, it rather tries to describe the nuanced experience of oppression that arises from the mingling of different structures of oppression, and the way that all this plays out in our lives.

So intersectionality only treats class as another form of oppression if the explanatory framework you use it within also treats class as oppression. For example, if you put intersectionality within the framework of privilege theory, then there are a whole host of criticisms we could draw out against intersectionality. But we should be careful not to confuse criticisms we have of privilege theory with those of intersectionality. If you place intersectionality within the framework of privilege, you should not blame intersectionality for the conclusions that privilege theory leads to.

If you use intersectionality within the framework of Marxism, however, then the problem of class is immediately remedied. Once you put it in a Marxist framework, intersectionality can become an important descriptive study of the way in which differing social relations intersect to shape the lives of oppressed and exploited groups of people.

Capitalism today is characterised by a global economic crisis and neoliberal economic policies. Class antagonisms are taking centre stage, and the fact that increasing numbers of young people are even speaking of class because of the influence of intersectionality is a step forward – even if they’re mistakenly labelling class exploitation as a form of oppression.

From my experience, feminism amongst young women on campuses is very strongly intersectional. That means these feminists are very open to class politics in a way that is quite foreign to the experience of those who were Marxists during the WLM period. Intersectionality argues that we must take all forms of oppression and exploitation seriously, including class exploitation. And this new theoretical terrain raises new questions about our relationship to feminism. Feminism is no longer a route out of class politics, but now operates for many young women and men as a first step towards it.

The politics of experience

I’ve also heard that intersectionality is based on the “politics of experience” in a way that privileges personal experience above material reality – and for this reason ought to be rejected. Again we should stress that intersectionality describes experience but does not explain it. As Marxists it is absolutely imperative that we learn from the experience of workers – and then explain that experience through historical materialism from which we can generalise the lessons to be learned and put them into practice.

The same applies to intersectionality. If we begin with the experience of black gay women, we can then explain that experience using the Marxist method. We can then show gay black women that Marxism does not just offer an understanding of their specific oppressions, but also offers and explanation and thus a means for them to fight for their liberation.

The significance of intersectionality for Marxist organisation today

Why is all this important? How many other gay, young black women are in the SWP? I only know of myself – I suspect there are not many. But there are many in the working class. Of course we recruit oppressed groups through struggle, no doubt. Stop the War and the Anti Nazi League saw an influx of black members to the party. But how many were retained? Not many, I’ve been told by one leading member of the party.

But if we’re not even talking about the specificity of oppression faced by working class people, how do can really expect to recruit and retain oppressed groups? Surely what we want is to build a party full of LGBT black women? As Tony Cliff once wrote, we want leaders to emerge who will be 19 year old black lesbians (I’m 20 now, so I’ve missed my chance).

That kind of project is not an automatic process. Nor is it not one we can deal with by sitting patiently and waiting for the next time there is a high level of struggle. If we’re not thinking about these things now, during times of high struggle we could end up forgetting our key role of creating a party worthy of being called the tribune of the oppressed – of all the oppressed. We need to be revolutionaries who can chime with and speak about the experiences of the oppressed – and bring them to a revolutionary understanding of fighting back.

Would we expect to recruit women to the organisation if we never spoke about women’s oppression? No. Then what does it say about us if we are lax about talking about, for example, black women or transgendered women? Are we simply not fussed if these people do not see the SWP as as organisation that has something to offer them?

The importance of political battles against oppression cannot be overstated. Oppression seeks to divide the working class and keep us weak. For that reason we need to be seen to be the best fighters against oppression – in the immediate – in order to draw black and white, women and men, trans and cis folk, gay, straight or bi (etc) together into battle against capitalism.

If our politics are to truly speak to the global working class we have to talk about the global working class, with all its specificities and nuances. What have we got to say about the global womanisation and racialisation of the working class and how this affects state sanctioned sexual abuse against women of colour, for example?

As revolutionaries we cannot know in advance what issue will spark mass revolt against capitalism in Britain. But history shows us that often what invigorates and energises workers are movements around questions of oppression. As Jonas Liston notes on his blog, the anti-racist work undertaken in the 1930s by the Communist Party USA meant when it came time to organise black workers with white workers in common economic struggles, the organisation held a substantial amount of weight. They had proven in practice they were serious about black struggle.

We’re living in a time where intersectionality is becoming more popular, and struggles of specific groups of oppressed people are becoming more visible – particularly within young activist circles. In particular, there are the first whispers of a transgender liberation movement and strong signs that black feminists and their struggles are becoming increasingly visible within modern feminism.

During the economic crisis, women of colour have been hit hardest relative to other women. Transgender women are the most likely victims of homelessness, unfair dismissal from work, sexual and physical abuse, police injustice – but judging by how much the left speaks about these issues, you’d never know.

For these reasons I think even if we don’t like the word “intersectionality” we should learn from its method. Particularly: at all times we need to fight against all kinds of oppression. But the first step in doing this is understanding what it means for certain people to be oppressed under capitalism. That is why the intersectional method is important: it reminds us that not all women experience women’s oppression in the same way and it pushes us to discuss those nuances so that we’re relating to the broadest group of the oppressed. As Eamonn McCann said in the closing rally of Marxism 2013, socialist organisations are taken seriously by oppressed groups and others when there’s a serious engagement with the experience of those groups.

What does this mean for us in practice?

The most difficult question from this discussion so far is what does this mean for us in practice. I don’t claim to have the experience or knowledge to answer this, but I can raise important suggestions and questions.

First, we ought to take a look at our theory on women’s oppression and expand on and deepen it, bearing in mind the crucial tenant of intersectionality that “woman” is not a homogeneous block. We ought to speak more about the specificity of oppression in our publications.

We need to organise more around the local issues of oppression. For example, the racist UK Border Agency has been operating heavily in London – what are the possibilities for action around this? In what ways can Defend the Right to Protest be used in localities around questions of stop and search and police brutality? What can we do to bring political struggles around questions of oppression into the workplace more often? What more can we do to bring the trade unions to grassroots struggles that emerge around questions of oppression?

My political instinct is that answering these questions could lead us to the kind of practice that makes a revolutionary organisation fit to be called a tribune of the oppressed: one that is full of black women, trans people, lesbians, disabled folk – and wider elements of the working class – crushing divisions and all fighting side by side for a revolutionary future.

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Note: This piece was published before rs21 was established as an independent organisation in January 2014. rs21 was founded by a group of people who had been in the opposition within the SWP and who left in response to its persistent mishandling of rape and sexual harassment allegations against a leading member.



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