Dead end of intersectionality
Only the working class can unify the oppressed, argues Mike Macnair. This is an edited version of his talk at the July 29 London Communist Forum
I have recently written four articles on intersectionality in the Weekly Worker and I am not going to base this talk on them.1 But it may be worthwhile summing up their content.
The first looked at the discussion of intersectionality in Science and Society - a theoretical journal associated with the Communist Party of the USA, where a number of ‘Marxist-feminist’ authors commented on the question; I took the opportunity also to look at a Kimberlé Crenshaw article, which first coined the expression, ‘intersectionality’.
The second article was addressed to the critique of identity and intersectionality politics which appeared in the web journal, Nonsite, and the attempt of one of the authors to build an alternative on economist foundations - writing out of the equation everything that is not related to questions of economic inequality.
The third reviewed the 2017 republication of the famous Combahee River Collective statement from the 1970s - one of the foundation documents of intersectionality before the term had been invented - together with interviews with the participants in that movement; and a 2018 book by Asad Haider called Mistaken identity: race and class in the age of Trump. Both try to appeal to the ideas of the 1970s left, which developed into intersectionality, against its modern pro-capitalist expressions.
In the fourth article I tried to think more positively about the issue: why it might be the case that the capitalist class, particularly the US ruling class, has developed some enthusiasm for anti-discrimination and intersectionality. This was already part of the platform of the Libertarian Party in the USA, when it was founded in the early 1970s - very soon after black nationalism, radical feminism, and so on, appeared as a phenomena on the left. Both the Libertarian Party and people who were sympathetic to it within the Republicans could immediately see it as something that could be used as a wedge to break up left projects and trade union solidarity at the point of production. The use of anti-discrimination law for breaking up trade union struggles, and what was called the ‘New Deal Democrat coalition’ in the 1970s-80s, has actually been the subject of at least one book, although I have not reviewed it.
I am not going to rehash all that now, but instead want to talk a little more generally, perhaps more abstractly. I want to concentrate on five points: firstly, the nature of intersectionalist policy in contemporary politics; secondly, its political consequences; thirdly, the background to it; fourthly, a couple of points about its logic; and, finally, some points about possible alternatives. I will not go back to Kimberlé Crenshaw’s original arguments and what the technical meaning of intersectionality is.
Intersectionality arguments claim that there is a series of competing sectional claims - race, gender, sexuality, transgender issues, disability, class - which ‘intersect’, in the sense that people experience multiple oppressions. The nature of the politics that arises, however, is grounded on the authority of personal experience.
I was involved in Gay Liberation Front offshoots in the early 1970s, and the authenticity of my personal experience as a self-identified gay man at that time might perhaps - for intersectionalists - give me some authority to speak about that issue: it is claimed that those who do not have that personal experience have no authority to speak about it. British Eurocommunists and US Maoists already had that idea in the 70s; those Trotskyists who were involved did not, but by the early 1980s they too were beginning to accept it.
There is a close association here with ‘safe spaces’ and speech controls, designed to secure space for people who are oppressed in various different ways.
A central idea was that it was no good waiting for socialism. On the face of it, that means that we should fight now on issues of race, gender, etc, as well as class issues; but actually the interpretation was and is that, because we cannot achieve socialism in the immediate future, yet we can achieve an end to various forms of oppression apart from class, we should just concentrate on those immediate aims.
Intersectionality meant that we are not for separatism, but there must be respect accorded to each of the ‘sections’. This implies coalitions of caucuses based on particular experiences, which have vetoes - although they may not always be formally described in that way. I was involved in 1987-88 in an attempt to construct a coalition for a positive campaign for legislation for lesbian and gay rights. We had a conference in which there were caucuses, each of which had a veto - the result of which was that no proposals at all were agreed. The youth caucus vetoed anything that did not include the abolition of the age of consent, while the lesbian mothers’ caucus vetoed anything that did.
Claims about the primacy of personal experience formed the basis of this conception of coalitions in that framework.
I am going to concentrate on the negative consequences, although, of course, there are positive consequences, in the sense that we have through these various campaigns got rid of a whole raft of discriminatory legislation of one sort or another.2 When I first went to university in 1972, Oxford had five women’s colleges and 26 for men. It had as recently as 1957 abolished a rule setting a maximum of 25% women students, but the system of separate colleges meant the rule was preserved de facto. This institutionalised form of discrimination was overturned in the 1970s-80s.
But there are negative consequences of intersectionality as a policy, which I do think mean that it has come to be a dead end.
Firstly, there are ‘safe spaces’ and no-platforming controversies. It is reasonably clear that such policies are a useless waste of time and energy, which actually reduce the possibility of improved understanding.
Secondly, we have the ‘Terf wars’, whereby ‘trans-exclusionary radical feminists’ are set against (usually male-to-female) transsexuals.3 This is pretty clearly a negative phenomenon, as there are problems with the arguments on both sides. The form it takes at the moment - which depends on the claim of the authenticity of personal experience - leads nowhere apart from ‘no platform’ and back to square one.
Thirdly, there is the anti-Semitism witch-hunt, which is going on at the present time. This is based on smearing Jeremy Corbyn and the leadership of the Labour Party as racist, on the basis that they are discriminating against Jews by refusing to accept that the Jews as a group have the ‘right to national self-determination’ within the territory of Palestine. The implication is that anti-Zionism is inherently anti-Semitic. This is not traditional rightwing politics: it is intersectionality weaponised against the left!
Fourthly - and clearly connected with this - is the fact that the Clintonites in the US presidential election campaign accused the left wing of the Democratic Party, and those outside it who mobilised around Bernie Sanders, of being racist, because they refused to place Black Lives Matter, etc ahead of economic issues; and they were sexist because they refused to prioritise the election of a woman president. It was claimed that it was essential for the Democrats to create a coalition of black people, women, Hispanics, lesbians and gay men, etc - plus tech companies and Wall Street.
Fifthly, there is white identity politics. If you Google this - or ‘Christian identity politics’ - you will find a great many references to it. A lot of this feeds into Trumpism, while Jacob Rees-Mogg is selling English identity politics - as did David Cameron on the morrow of the Scottish independence referendum, championing the rights of the English to decide on their own affairs without the ‘interference’ of the Scots.
This is a dirty story, because it is about Stalinism. The Communist Party of the USA in the 1930s developed the idea of race, gender and class as the trilogy of oppressions with equal standing. The problem was, how could there be a people’s front without a mass peasantry? In the US you cannot talk about an ‘uncompleted bourgeois revolution’ either.4
So how do you arrive at the idea that there are allies out there which the working class needs, and for whose benefit the working class has to subordinate its demands in order to create a ‘broad democratic alliance’ - a class coalition - against the bourgeoisie? The race-gender-class theory could account for that. There was a large concentration of black people in the southern states and both the CPUSA and some Trotskyists had the line that there was a question of national self-determination for blacks. They constructed this idea of race, gender and class as three separate oppressions, and this would provide the basis for the claim that the liberal women’s movement and nationalist black movement were allies of the working class.
Going along with this is the ban on factions, of which there are two aspects. First, people who want to raise issues of race or gender within the party have to do that in some sort of official caucus - otherwise it would be a case of ‘factionalism’. So the ban on factions leads to the conclusion that there must be such caucuses. The Trotskyists and the Socialist Workers Party in Britain did the same thing, as did the International Marxist Group in 1977-78, when it concluded that unofficial women’s caucuses would be a bad idea and there had to be official ones.
The other side of that, however, was the ‘official communist’ claim that factions had to be banned, because they represent ‘opposing class interests’ within the party - there is inherently a process of class struggle within the party. This idea of explaining ideological differences by class interests within the party is more developed amongst American Maoists. The same idea was also present in, say, the (Trotskyist) Workers Revolutionary Party in Britain in the 1970s - any opposition must of necessity be ‘petty bourgeois’.
The next step relates to the theory of the labour aristocracy and privilege theory.5 My understanding is that the labour aristocracy theory - that sections of the workers’ movement, particularly skilled workers, are on the right wing of the workers’ movement because they are privileged - goes back to Lenin and Zinoviev. Bukharin had a different line, in that he said that under imperialism the strength of a given state in the international pecking order affects the position of the working class as a whole: ie, just as much the unemployed as the most skilled and advantaged sections. Therefore the consequence of imperialism is that the working class tends to get pulled behind the nation-state and its bourgeoisie.6
If we look at this in practice, the skilled workers have at times provided the basis of the right wing within the trade union movement. That applied to the British union movement in the 1880s and the US trade unions in the 1920s. However, when we look at British trade unionism in the 20s, the skilled men (it was a very gendered labour market) provided the hard core of the left wing - the boilermakers, the engineers ... The big general unions - in particular the Transport and General Workers Union - were the hard core of the right wing. And that turns out to have been the case in the United States as well. Once the Congress of Industrial Organizations had come into existence, there was a transition for a period of time in which there was a radical left within the skilled unions - for example, the Teamsters.
There is an interesting article by Barry Eidlin, in which he looks at why the Teamsters moved from the left to the right. The answer, fairly straightforwardly, is state intervention.7 And that is also the answer in relation to the German trade union movement and the TGWU.
The capitalist class consciously manages those below. It engages in divide-and-rule tactics - which is why managers want to retain the right to hire and fire, limit the intervention of employment tribunals, etc. It is why they want to keep wage agreements private and do not like collective bargaining. Managers resist having to disclose sex discrimination in pay precisely because they need to manage those below in every way they can.
Part of managing those below is controlling trade union leaders either directly by paying them off or by putting in policemen; or by cultural incorporation, which is what happened to TGWU’s Ernest Bevin - ‘You are invited to visit the queen’; ‘Isn’t it good to be on nodding terms with ministers?’ So there is beer and sandwiches in Downing Street, etc, etc. In return the trade union bureaucracy is expected to ‘manage the members’.
In the 1960s in the US, the AFL-CIO under the leadership of George Meany was gung-ho for the Vietnam war, but the polls, which were not published until afterwards, showed that the AFL-CIO membership was more hostile to the war. Meany and co were able to hang onto control. Between the 1940s and the 1960s, the left was purged with the assistance of the police, who arrested, prosecuted and jailed communists in order to enable the leadership to keep control.
In British Leyland Cowley, where I worked for a while, there was media and state intervention against the Socialist Labour League leadership at the plant in order to get back control for the TGWU bureaucracy.
This ‘active management’ leads to control by the rightwing leadership, which may appear under the guise of ‘privileges’ for skilled workers. But the reality is that the capitalists go after the leaderships of the most organised sections of the class. The unorganised need less managing; they can usually be trusted to follow pro-capitalist demagogues.
Perhaps this has been a slight diversion, but it is important to stress the significance of the labour aristocracy. However, this is all an application of the policy of the people’s front - the idea that the proletariat has to enter into alliances with and subordinate itself to other classes. It was an application of the people’s front in the context of an advanced capitalist country, where it was impossible to talk about an ‘uncompleted bourgeois revolution’, the need to ally with ‘the peasantry’ - or still less with the bourgeoisie against the aristocracy.
Then there is ‘speaking bitterness’. This was a technique the Chinese communists used to mobilise peasants in particular for land seizures in the last years of the ‘liberated zones’ period before the fall of Chiang Kai-shek in 1949 and in the first years of the revolutionary regime. The idea was to bring the peasantry together - separate from the landlords, and separate from the priests and the middle class - to talk about all their grievances in order to raise their consciousness, so that they would go and storm the manor house, seize and redistribute the land. In the mid-60s, in the United States in particular, Maoism became an attractive idea for large sections of the American left.
The Trotskyists had a delusion in the USA. JP Cannon said in 1947 that the US SWP, which at that time had about 1,500 members, could replace the CPUSA (which had around 85,000 members) and become the mass party of the working class. The vast bulk of the US far left came out of the Communist Party directly or indirectly, and among the biggest attractions was Maoism and versions of it. Some were orthodox versions, while others were very unorthodox, soft versions. And the unorthodox, soft versions in particular picked up on ‘speaking bitterness’ and consciousness-raising.
It was for that reason that this tactic was adopted by the radical black and women’s liberation movements, as well as by the gay movement, in the late 1960s. Let me stress that this was not a new technique invented by those movements: it was a technique of Chinese Maoism, which they had adapted for their purposes. It made much less sense than in the Chinese context, where it was used, as I have said, to mobilise the peasants for immediate action. The peasantry was a class which was perfectly capable of taking collective action, but on the whole tended not to have the time and coordination to contemplate doing so, unlike the working class.
Once again from my own experience in the workplace, people were always grumbling and wondering whether some sort of collective action was appropriate. Of course, this was in the 1970s, when the union movement was a lot stronger. But the working class is forced into collective action and almost automatically considers it, whereas the peasantry does not.
While consciousness-raising for workers may often be a waste of time, for women, blacks and gays and lesbians it is a different story. They are hardly in a position to overthrow the exploiter, and their oppression is more diffuse. There is more atomisation. Consciousness-raising may produce radicalisation - but not the ability to move from here to immediately decisive action. The result is as often as not forms of demoralisation.
So this was the background - the CPUSA and the race-gender-class trilogy. The people’s front idea, the ban on factions and the idea of class struggle in the party, the theory of the labour aristocracy and white privilege, and then ‘speaking bitterness’ and consciousness-raising - arising out of this was the idea that authority to ‘speak as a woman’ or whatever always grows out of personal experience.
What I have not talked about in relation to Stalinism is, of course, socialism in one country and the ‘national road’. But in reality that was taken for granted, whereas this stuff was not considered part of the fundamentals.
Both the points I am about to make are taken from an American literary scholar, Walter Benn Michaels. The first is about agreement and disagreement. I said that the ban on factions leads inexorably to the idea of class struggle within the party and to official caucuses. Michaels makes this point in an article he wrote in 2000, called ‘Political science fictions’:
Ideological conflicts are universal [in other words, the ideological conflict between capitalism and communism], precisely because unlike conflicts of interest they involve disagreement. It is the mere possibility of disagreement that is universalising. We don’t disagree about what we want - we just want different things. We disagree about what’s true, regardless of what we want.8
This is really a rather fundamental philosophical point: in order to be able to accept that there are disagreements, which are not merely conflicts of interest, you have to accept that there are universals. When people reject universalising arguments from an intersectionality point of view (‘There are no universal values, only my point of view’), in doing so they are rejecting the possibility of legitimate disagreement. So the fact that what follows is no-platforming is just the natural consequence of explaining all disagreements by conflicts of interest.
The second point relating to logic is from Michaels’ book, How we came to love diversity. The point is, when we say we cannot wait for socialism and so we must go for the women’s, black or transgender issues, this involves a concept of inequality in which it is morally acceptable if 90% of the wealth is held by 5% of the people, as long as that 5% are made up of 50% women, 13% black, etc.
Why is social and economic inequality morally acceptable? Because if we eliminate formal discrimination we are creating equal opportunity! But if you still are poor when there is ‘equality of opportunity’, whose fault is that? The corollary of this conception is that it is bound to be the case that, given the fact that the majority of poor people in the United States are white, that we see a rise in white identity politics (and Christian identity politics) - just as in India we have seen a rise in Hindu identity politics, which has currently taken over the state. In Europe too there is Christian identity politics, most strongly in Poland and Hungary.
This is Michaels’ point, and I think it is absolutely correct and devastating. The natural and probable logic of putting the question of socialism, of class, on the back burner is that the politics of white, Christian and patriarchalist (‘restore the family’) identity will take its place. The natural consequence of this intersectionalist dynamic is to create Trumpism, etc.
As I said in my second article, to endorse these criticisms of the foundations of intersectionalism is not to endorse the ‘economist’ alternative, which denies capitalist racism altogether. The capitalist class can rule either by divide-and-rule through racism, patriarchalism, and so on, or through divide-and-rule anti-discrimination. The first is the idea of the Party of Order, the second of the Party of Liberty. Our rulers move to and fro between the two sides; and if we do not pursue our own aims we will merely tag along behind either ‘democratic capital’ or ‘national capital’.
First of all, we must recognise that what exists is a regime of class rule - a regime in which the capitalist class for its own benefit exploits not only the working class, but also the lower middle class through rent and interest, etc. In order for it to be a successful exploiting class, other people must be held in subordination.
Our aim is universal emancipation, not ‘equality of opportunity’ or an anti-discriminatory capitalism. That means emancipation from forms of permanent subordination to other people, which in turn requires us to get beyond capitalism.
It is in the nature of money that in order for it to function there must be a limited quantity (if it is unlimited, what results is Zimbabwe 2008-09 or Germany 1922). But if, with a limited quantity of money, transactions are reiterated over and over again, with complete randomness and without any unfair advantages, what will result is 5% of the people holding 90% of the wealth. That is in money’s nature. If people are employed for wages, that produces an even more pronounced system of inequality.
We have to get beyond decision-making about the allocation of resources via the market and money, because otherwise the problem of radical social inequality cannot be overcome. That means a cooperative commonwealth, whose possibility arises because the working class is forced to cooperate - it is defined as a class by the non-ownership of the means of production. Dentists can walk out of the national health service and run small businesses (yes, they get loans, etc on advantageous terms, because the Tories wanted to break up the NHS). That is an example of the individualistic action available to the petty bourgeoisie.
But this is not something wage-workers can do. We cannot restore generalised petty commodity production. Moreover, if we did, what would result would be worse gender inequality, etc, since small business is even worse on this front than big capital. The working class is driven to cooperate, irrespective of how much it is exploited by the employers or how many gains it can make. For that reason the working class is naturally driven to look for something beyond capitalism.
The need to make decisions cooperatively carries with it the obligation to think about decision-making mechanisms. We cannot assume that decisions will be made simply through the inherent logic of a plan or rely on Gosplan-type specialists. That has been tried and it plainly does not work! So we need to think about political democracy as part of our alternative. In other words, we need both a class perspective and a perspective for political democracy.
There must also be a perspective under capitalism for working class political action: not just demands for sectional strikes, but action for gains affecting the whole of society. This is a very fundamental point, constantly repeated by Marx from the 1850s, yet somehow forgotten by the left. The working class needs to take leadership over the society as a whole and thus propose policies for the society as a whole - everything from local arrangements to foreign policy.
That in turn implies a party. We need (in Gramsci’s terms) a hegemonic policy for the whole of society rather than a corporative policy, whereby the interests of the working class are defended on the basis that capital will continue to rule. The concept of a party should not be that of a ‘combat organisation’ or of a ‘centraliser of experience’ of strikes and other struggles. It must be a political collective grounded on a political programme. At the end of the day its political platform will be one for government, for legislation.
The corollary of that is it has to be the case that the party accepts that there will be disagreement, precisely because we are aiming for universal human emancipation - we take the universal as our starting point. We accept that the working class can only act through cooperation, but that there will be disagreement over the direction. That is why it is essential not to ban factions - we can only control our leadership by organising against it if necessary, just as we can only counter the aim of the bosses to impose their will on us by organising against them.
A party that aims to go beyond capitalism and achieve a cooperative commonwealth must also look to combat state constitutions as an instrument of class rule. We must look beyond the sovereignty of the United States supreme court, beyond the counter-majoritarian structure of the US Senate, beyond the monarchy in the UK, beyond directly elected presidents, beyond the sale of justice through the marketing of legal services.
If we look at the Socialist Party of America, as it was from 1900 to 1914, it was not like what was intended for the Labor Party USA in 1996, which was to create a purely economistic party. The Socialist Party of America called for an end to the colour line. It called for votes for women. It characterised the US judiciary as a corrupt agency of the ruling class.
Much of the left regards the Social Democratic Party of Germany at the turn of the 19th-20th century as a hopeless reformist organisation. But its policy was way to the left of the electoral platforms of the SWP, the Socialist Alliance, Respect or Left Unity. By contrast the SPA and the SPD - and indeed the early CPUSA - did fight for women’s rights, for breaking the colour line and colour bar. It is true that they did not fight on issues of sexuality and so on, but they operated within the framework of what they knew. They took seriously the very basic claim, from the 1880 Programme of the Parti Ouvrier, that the emancipation of the working class is the emancipation of all human beings without regard to sex or race.
That did represent an alternative. In a certain sense that could also be seen here in the miners’ Great Strike of 1984-85. By going on strike and mobilising in such a militant way, the miners pulled behind them much broader sections of society. The class perspective has the potential to unify the oppressed - what intersectionality claims to offer, but fails dismally to achieve l
1. ‘Intersectionality is a dead end’, June 7; ‘Race and class’, June 21; ‘Mistaken versions of Maoism’, June 28; ‘Getting beyond capitalism’, July 5.
2. I am not sure if gay marriage should be regarded as a gain, as opposed to the 80s proposal for the ‘denationalisation’ of marriage: ie, a contract between two individuals alone.
3. There is from time to time actual persecution by the state of people not fully self-identified as female-to-male transsexuals, who are prosecuted for having sex with other women by deception.
4. Even in the UK, of course, such talk is nonsense, despite the continued existence of an aristocracy, an established church and a monarchy.
5. Yassamine Mather has correctly pointed out that what I said about this in the referenced articles was a little undeveloped and problematic (Letters, July 12).
6. Lenin did not go along with that at the time, because it seemed to carry a hint of Bukharin’s ultra-leftism.
8. New Literary History Vol 31, No4, autumn 2000.