Ollie Douglas reviews 'Marxism and intersectionality: race, gender, class and sexuality under contemporary capitalism' by AJ Bohrer
Earlier this year I wrote two letters to this paper - both of which urged comrades to take questions of identity politics seriously, but on Marxist terms.1 What better way to do that than look at a book on intersectionality that claims it is not
speaking for either Marxism or intersectionality, but rather ... speaking with, of trying to find a way of clearing the space for deeper, more productive conversations, for thinking new horizons, for organizing stronger and more resilient movements, for being more open and more accountable for the deep criticism and reflection that changing the world requires (pp26-27).
Despite these bold aims, the content - as far as intersectionality goes - is not exactly mind-blowing to those well versed on the subject. As for Marxism, it amounts to poor understanding and crude, straw-man arguments. Who exactly was this written for?
All that said, the book does provide an extremely useful footing for a Marxist critique of intersectionality and modern identity politics - even if you do have to rummage around to uncover what is really going on beneath the surface. Rather than the book-length critique that this deserves, I will try to highlight the essential arguments.
The author, Ashley Bohrer, is quite correct when she says: “Those who are looking for a deep or systematic account of the writings of Marx or his collaborator, Engels, are bound to be disappointed by the approach I take here” (p19). Rather than Marxism, we are treated to the scholarly insights of ‘self-identified’ Marxists and
Marxish thinkers - academics and activists who use, deploy, work and rework concepts from Marx or the Marxist tradition in order to explore new problems, expose different arrangements of exploitation, and excavate the vast and varied topography of capitalism (p18, original italics).
This is, of course, a major let-down. The use of a tame, ‘academic-friendly’ Marxism that is deployed en masse to sociology students on their A-level or undergraduate courses continues unabated. Bohrer states that the “orthodox story” of Marxism - the “economically reductionist, teleological theory of waged factory labor” - is “patently false”, but then proceeds to use it to represent Marxist thought throughout the rest of the book regardless.
The second major error from the get-go is the method of the “loving critique” (pp22-23). Such a style of engagement is common to traditions within identity politics, but is totally alien to the scientific method of Marxism. Allow me to offer an ‘unloving critique’.
A great deal of effort is spent on a historiography that seeks to link Marxism and intersectionality together through a “shared history”.2 To do so Bohrer assembles a motley crew of a dozen individuals, who, broadly speaking, fit into three categories: abolitionists and early black feminists; members of the Communist Party USA; and intersectionalists, who are given a sort of ‘class kudos’, or are said to have been inspired or heavily influenced by some form of class politics.
The author is very clear that the exploration of this ‘shared history’ is not an argument that “the intersectional tradition came from Marxism, or developed out of it, or is essentially Marxist” (p33). I think it is clear that the opposite is true - that intersectionality was theoretically and organisationally shaped by trends and events within the workers’ movement - particularly those of US Maoism, ‘official communism’ and the long legacy of Stalinism. This is a heritage that takes intersectionality further from Marxism, not closer.
The cases Bohrer gives in regards to black abolitionists and feminists of the 19th century (Maria Stewart, Sojourner Truth and Ida B Wells) are clearly limited to the politics of their time and conditions. While very important to the intersectionalists in terms of their very early critique of ‘white’ feminism - of the bourgeoisie - for rejecting the struggles of black women, from a class point of view they are lacking. Their solution can be likened to the modern slogan of ‘equality of opportunity’ - hardly a Marxist rallying cry.
As we shall see later with intersectionalists, the politics of coalition default to these demands. You ‘fix’ racism or sexism, so that oppressed groups are treated with full equality under capitalism - a tiny minority of black or woman capitalist exploiters and an overwhelming majority of black or women workers being exploited. This is the logic of bourgeois official anti-racism and is antithetical to any notion of progress (other than for the handful who take their new place in the elite).
Bohrer takes the time to relay the class pedigree of various intersectionalists (Frances Beal, Deborah King, ‘Bell Hooks’ and Audre Lorde) and, as you might expect, they are pitiful. She also highlights Angela Davis’s slow but steady adoption of identity politics, which has been on the increase since she left the CPUSA in 1991. Far more interesting are the cases of two other CPUSA comrades - Louise Thompson Patterson and Claudia Jones.
Thompson’s theory of ‘triple oppression’ paints a vivid picture of the abject poverty and suffering faced by black women in New York in the 1930s, but, more than this, it makes the analytical jump that the “most exploited section of the American working population” consists of black women: “Over this whole land, negro women meet this triple exploitation - as workers, as women and as negroes.”3
Of course, there is nothing unMarxist about recognising the quantitative differences in exploitation. The danger comes, however, when the general becomes the personal, and the additive approach (often caricatured as the ‘oppression Olympics’) is replaced with a qualitative one. Claudia Jones - CPUSA heavyweight, then a member of the ‘official’ CPGB (after her exile to Britain), and founding organiser of the Notting Hill Carnival - expanded the concept of ‘triple oppression’ to mean just that. As Bohrer outlines,
For Jones, black women’s position as superexploited people uniquely placed them as “the most revolutionary segment of the US working class, thereby challenging orthodox Marxist postulations that industrial (white male) workers represented the [revolutionary] vanguard” (pp49-50).
The almost anarchistic logic that the most oppressed is naturally the most revolutionary clearly comes out of an understandable frustration with the class movement and the wish to take short cuts to revolution. It also has the distinct flavour of Maoist ‘vanguard periphery to the mass centre’ formulations that would come decades later. It therefore seems that, while not fully intersectional - which requires the rejection of quantitative/additive oppression in favour of the equality of all oppression - it is an early example of a bridge between the two.
To say that it was ‘the new left/communist movement what done it’ would be too reductive, despite the clear influences. In order to work out what went so wrong and why - despite Bohrer’s claims of spontaneous originality and independence, these comrades took the path away from Marxism - we must make a serious analysis of the strategic deficiencies and errors of the class movement in that period. In the absence of that, this historiography does not come close to providing satisfactory answers.
Moving on, we are repeatedly confronted with implications that the Marxist definition of class is white/androcentric/Eurocentric. Bohrer helpfully reminds us that “the perspective that there is something uniquely universalizable about straight, white, male factory workers ... is, just simply, undigested racism and heterosexism” (p251). Luckily for us, such a formulation only exists in the minds of intersectionalists.
But Bohrer’s fictional Marxism of white Europeans reaches its zenith in the proceeding passage:
No Marxist I know of - or at least, no Marxist in the north - grounds their analysis in, say, the position of Bolivian women, using their situation - the development of capital in Bolivia, its specificities over and against other countries in the global south - as the base situation from which an analysis of white, European, working class men could be derived, albeit with slight tweaks (p169).
These myths have never held any credence and come across as ridiculous after even the mildest engagement with Marxist theory and practice. The programme of the Parti Ouvrier (dictated by Marx himself) states in its excellently to-the-point opening line: “... the emancipation of the productive class is that of all human beings without distinction of sex or race”.4 From this it should be evident that the assumptions about the Marxist “perspective” are a total falsehood. But let us indulge ourselves in a bit of actual Marxian class theory anyway.
The proletariat is the whole social class which is dependent on the wage. Characterised by its lack of ownership of capital or the means of production, the proletariat consists of not just workers, but their families, the unemployed, students, etc. Therefore it is not the workers’ closeness to the means of production which provides the revolutionary foundation for socialism, but the fact that their separation from the means of production objectively drives them toward collective organisation. This collective organisation cannot be achieved on a society-wide basis without an equal engagement in ‘political’ issues that exist both inside and outside the workplace.
So what is the intersectional solution to this imaginary problem of “Marxism’s reliance on an overly simplistic characterizations [sic] of oppression, grounded in a binary understanding of class relations”?5 Ditch it, of course! What “intersectionality demands” is a
more nuanced discussion of the way in which proletarianization is experienced and lived in a variety of ways - often in ways that give certain sectors of the proletariat power and privilege over other parts - and of the way in which that power and privilege is often exercised in petty and oppressive ways (p175).
Intersectionality adopts soft-Maoist interpretations of the labour aristocracy concept to atomise the class antagonism which, in effect, says that there are no oppressed and oppressors: just different levels of oppressed. The labour aristocracy concept is decontextualised and taken beyond its logical limits, so that the bourgeoisie can be oppressed and the workers can be the culprits. In this way the bourgeoisie can be portrayed not as a ruling class, but one that can be oppressed just as much as their wage slaves. They should put aside their petty (class) differences and join the fight against real oppression: ie, racism, sexism, etc.
Rather than being internally divided by its nature, the Marxist understanding directly posits the objective need of the proletariat to achieve solidarity with other oppressed groups and peoples through the political struggle. The fact that reactionary bourgeois ideology and the ‘divide and rule’ strategy is hegemonic is not evidence of the eternal racism, sexism, etc of the working class, but of the weakness of revolutionary forces - the lack of a real and fighting, mass Communist Party.
Whilst various forms of labour aristocracy do exist, Marxism provides a revolutionary solution that does not atomise class. The oppressive gains made by this labour aristocracy and petty bourgeoisie are only temporary and subject to the whims of capital or its state. The proletarian revolution, on the other hand, offers real and permanent gains. Why be the toady of the ruling class when you can become part of the ruling class of the future? This applies to racists, sexists, etc, just as it does to Israeli Jews and Ulster Protestants.
Redefining class itself was never going to be enough. Bohrer is clear that she does not think “class, as an isolatable economic or social determination, gives us a privileged understanding of capitalism - or at least it does not do so any more than race, gender or sexuality” (p204). Statements like this slip through without elucidation as to its explicit contradiction with Marxism. Indeed it points to perhaps the most important theoretical failing of intersectionality - even on its own terms. ‘Understanding’ capitalism is only one part of the jigsaw puzzle.
Intersectionality is very committed to telling us the various forms of oppression it is against - but what is it actually for? Phrases like ‘social justice’, ‘liberation’, etc are bandied around, but what sticks out like a sore thumb is the universal substitution of ‘anti-capitalism’, where Marxists would employ the word ‘revolution’ (or an equivalent term).
It is easy to point to the horrors of capitalism and call foul. Indeed Marx spent decades systematically analysing it in Capital, while Engels gave perhaps the most vivid description of the reality of industrialisation in his Condition of the working class in England, and there is no shortage of critique in Marx’s writings on India, China, US slavery, colonialism, etc. While intersectionality too provides a negative critique, this generally comes in the form of a second-hand analysis, which is slightly tweaked to integrate the equality of oppressions, etc. Whilst much has been made of this ‘lack of a theory’ within intersectionality, as far as a Marxist critique is concerned, this is only a side issue.
Marxism famously began as an inversion of Hegelianism. For Hegel, society had a universal element that represented its needs and it was the bureaucracy which provided a stabilising force. Marx took the opposite view: it was a revolutionary force that embodied the dialectical will of society - the proletariat. Marx and Engels became convinced of the universal nature and potential of the proletariat to become a revolutionary class in the interests of the whole society.
This revolutionary theory was not born out of pity for the workers because they were oppressed as individuals, but precisely because they were oppressed as a class. Intersectionalists claim that they can mediate between individual and structural oppressions, but this is to miss the point. Outside the simple ‘capitalism is bad’ analysis there is a clear demarcation between individual or group oppression and structural oppression - this lies at the heart of Marx’s revolutionary theory. The oppression of the proletariat - as a class - is not only quantitatively greater than all other oppressions, but it is qualitatively unique in its potential. The working class provides “a sphere which has a universal character by its universal suffering and claims no particular right, because no particular wrong, but wrong generally, is perpetrated against it …”6
This is the basis for Marx’s positive analysis. Whilst the irrationality, barbarity and inhumanity of capitalism are obvious and are expressed in many particular ways, this system has also developed and made social the productive forces, crucially creating “a class with radical chains, a class of civil society which is not a class of civil society, an estate which is the dissolution of all estates” - the proletariat. A class
which can no longer invoke a historical but only a human title; which does not stand in any one-sided antithesis to the consequences, but in an all-round antithesis to the premises of the … state; a sphere, finally, which cannot emancipate itself without emancipating itself from all other spheres of society and thereby emancipating all other spheres of society, which, in a word, is the complete loss of man and hence can win itself only through the complete rewinning of man.7
This does not result in a workerist or economistic theory. It is not a case of crude ‘class reduction’, which argues that struggle against forms of oppression not expressed directly through class conflict are to be ignored in favour of a ‘class, class, class!’ approach. It is a basic deployment of historical materialism - something to which Bohrer argues intersectionality is not antagonistic - in opposition to the contradictions of existing capitalism.
The undifferentiated ‘people’ are incapable of winning change. Popular front alliances are only capable of reforms within the existing system and inevitably become a hegemonic ideological expression of its hegemonic bourgeois elements. The revolutionary proletariat, on the other hand, requires real democracy, equality and collectivity if it is to establish a new society on its own terms - “From each according to their ability …”
In order to complete its great mission to liberate not only itself, but the whole of oppressed society, organisation within the sphere of production is not enough: social revolution necessitates engaging with society and crucially the state. For this the proletariat must win revolutionary allies and split the forces of counterrevolution. How the communists seek to win these oppressed but petty bourgeois or reactionary forces over to the side of the workers without the ditching of theory and principle, without political prostitution and ‘unholy’ alliances, is a matter of Marxist strategy that must be explored.
There is a well-known joke on the Marxist left that certain comrades tend to over-employ dialectics in a purely abstract manner, when either they have nothing good to say and wish to come across as more intelligent than they actually are, or they wish to conceal their true motives behind an incomprehensible wall of logical diarrhoea. This is very much the case with intersectionality’s so-called ‘dialectic of difference’.
The Marxist understanding of solidarity is painted as a form of “lowest common denominator” organising, which
seems to require, as political principle, that women of color ignore grounding elements of their lives and their structural relationship to capital as a gift of solidarity to the white, male, waged factory workers, who are never asked to reciprocate (p251).
Bohrer characterises the Marxist version of solidarity, where all differences but class are ignored, as “unidirectional”. This is then counterposed to a “multidirectional” conception of solidarity which is realised in the intersectional “coalition”. Supposedly, when antagonistic social intersections are put together, “our creativity can spark like a dialectic” (p224). It may be true that such a coalition of difference would produce some sort of dialectic. However, here it is just assumed it would be a positive one. It is a lot more likely that such a naive deployment of abstract dialectics to practical politics would lead to conflict and the breakdown of said coalitions into a number of turf wars between oppressed groups.
Interestingly, in rejecting what is seen as Marx’s reductive reading of Hegel (binary contradictions, rejection of the ‘law of the middle’), Bohrer denies outright the possibility of a society not built on antagonisms and conflict. The higher unity of communism
seems committed to the notion that the reconciled world would be one not of difference, but of absolute sameness, that the path to overcoming the painful and oppressive conditions of contemporary life lay in divesting ourselves of differences for a total, unproblematic, utopian unity (p216).
And again: “The liberated world, for the liberal critic, is one in which our differences melt away to reveal the underlying fundament of humanity shining forth from each one of us” (p226). Amazingly, this tiny disagreement between the “liberal stance” of communists and the ‘truly dialectical’ intersectionalists is not explored further.
On an organisational level, the ‘dialectic’ stipulates that coalitions are constantly evolving in order to resolve the contradictions of embracing intra-antagonistic forces. Thus these coalitions work on the basis of “episodic segregation” and will simply absorb or eject interest groups as necessary (p253). Each group has a veto and, as Mike Macnair has previously pointed out, contemporary ‘Polish parliaments’ such as the social forums movement are classic examples of the total impotence which this method produces.8 As with the classic ‘labour must wait’ dictum, radical elements will be forced to take the back seat and self-censor for the benefit of the ‘acceptable’ elements or face being purged.
As many comrades will have worked out by now, the intersectional coalition is nothing more than a flashy regurgitation of Dimitrov’s 1935 strategy. As such, Marxist - or pseudo-Marxist - involvement in these intersectional coalitions produces much the same result: they are reduced to a shell of economism by leaving non-class oppressions up to other ‘interest groups’ (‘community’ leaders, the clergy, charities, celebrities, bourgeois NGOs, etc).
The obvious quest for ‘realist’ achievement will lead to the subsumption of revolution by reformism, and the theoretical ghettoisation of Marxism leads it to become a mere academic appendage of the trade union movement. After all, how can the workers’ movement do feminism better than the ‘pure’ feminists?
Clara Zetkin is portrayed as a classic example of Marxism’s futile strategy towards non-class oppression - an assessment that could not be further from the truth. Supposedly “she only considers gender and class and she severely downplays (to the point of near-omission) the sexism of men in the working class (p140).
Such lazy bashing deserves to be challenged. Whilst it is true that there were many struggles that women faced within the communist movement, Zetkin was in no way complacent. She was herself the subject of many uncomradely and sexist attacks for both her position within the German party and the Communist Women’s Movement (CWM). In response to these attacks Zetkin was uncompromising.9 As Daria Dyakonova reminds us, she did not hold back on criticism against her own comrades:
In 1921 she pointed out that “leaders all too often underrated the importance” of the CWM, because “they [saw] it as only ‘women’s business’”. Zetkin stressed that “in most countries, the gains of the movement [CWM] have been achieved without support from the Communist Party; indeed in some instances against its open or hidden opposition”.10
Zetkin was particularly scathing in her critique of the Second International’s attitude towards women’s liberation. As one might expect, during the early years of Comintern - especially at its second congress - she highlighted the distant attitude and perhaps the ill-fated nature of the old international:
It is true that representatives of the Socialist Women’s International were permitted to attend congresses of the Second International. But they had no formal right to take part in its proceedings. And in the International Socialist Bureau the Socialist Women’s International enjoyed no representation and no voice.11
She lambasted the British, Belgian and French sections of the Second International for their capitulation to the demands of bourgeois feminism. The demand of universal women’s suffrage was treated with “platonic parliamentary resolutions” rather than real struggle in France. She contended that “even today the proposals of the social democratic Belgian Workers Party lag behind those of even the clericals”.12
Zetkin attacked the trade unions of Europe, which after the imperialist war joined calls with their own bourgeoisie for “Women out of the jobs, women back to the home!” rather than link men and women workers in solidarity against their own imperialists, who had just sent millions to their deaths in 1914-18. Zetkin argues that this “gives new life to the old petty-bourgeois, reactionary ideology of the ‘only true, natural calling’ and the inferior worth of the female”.13
These absolutely valid (although one-sided and selective) criticisms of the Socialist International are then used as a rallying cry, calling on communist women to agitate for their respective party’s application to the new international.14
The second part of Bohrer’s original claim, which implies a lack of engagement with racial and colonial oppression by Zetkin - head of the women’s section of the Communist International - is, quite frankly, just an insult to our intelligence.
The Marxist strategy can be characterised by, on the one hand, a negative analysis - a critique of capitalism and the inability of bourgeois solutions to offer any meaningful resolution - and, on the other, a positive analysis: the ‘good news’ that the revolutionary proletariat have an interest in the emancipation of all humanity and hence the fight for socialism as a liberating force.
For the sake of logical argument, let us continue to use the Theses for the Communist Women’s Movement as an example of the Marxist approach.
Following the obligatory critiques of the role and position of women under capitalism, Zetkin moves on to critique the reformist demands of the feminists:
In practice, however, realising feminist demands results primarily in reforming the capitalist order for the benefit of wives and daughters of the possessing classes. Meanwhile, the huge majority of proletarian women - the women of the toiling people, still unfree and exploited - are abandoned, their humanity stunted, and their rights and interests neglected.
As long as capitalism survives, a woman’s right to dispose freely of her property and her person signifies the final stage of the emancipation of property and a broadening of the scope for capitalists to exploit proletarian women.15
Indeed, the further integration of women into the capitalist machine - bourgeois feminism’s ‘breaking the glass ceiling’ - actually has the effect of “sharpening economic as well as social conflict between the sexes”.16 Here we draw parallels to the intersectional coalitions: bourgeois elements will outright veto any demands which contain even a modicum of radicalism, leaving only reformist demands which will only benefit the bourgeois and petty-bourgeois strata of oppressed groups.
This then sets things up nicely for the positive analysis:
Communism, however, the great emancipator of the female sex … can be realised only through the common class struggle of women and men of the exploited proletariat against the privileges and power of men and women of the possessing and exploiting classes.17
The victory of the proletariat through revolutionary mass actions and in civil war is impossible without the participation of the women of the toiling people - confident of their goal and of the road forward, prepared to sacrifice, determined to struggle. For they constitute half … of the working people, and their role in social economy as well as in the family is very often decisive for the outcome of class struggles between exploiters and exploited, as well as for the conduct of individual proletarians in these struggles. The proletarian conquest of power must also be the work of convinced, communist, proletarian women.18
Clara Zetkin and the women’s movements in both the Second and Third Internationals were - despite their flaws - exemplary of the Marxist strategy towards non-class oppressions and, in spite of Bohrer’s insinuations, were highly effective at organising millions of women, agitating for revolutionary demands for women’s emancipation, as well as making real and substantial gains.
Whilst I have given prominence to the example of the CWM, it is pretty clear that even the early (pre-1924) Comintern was flailing around with strategic formulations in order to break the isolation of the Soviet republic. If we are to best understand the Marxist strategy towards non-class oppressions and their link with the economic struggle of the workers, the pre-October Bolsheviks and pre-1914 revolutionary social democracy in Europe provide the best starting point.
To quote the most well-known example of Lenin’s merger formula, as translated by Lars T Lih:
... the ideal of the Social Democrat should not be a secretary of a tred-iunion, but a people's tribune who can respond to each and every manifestation of abuse of power and oppression, wherever it occurs, whatever stratum or class it concerns; who can generalise all these manifestations into one big picture of police violence and capitalist exploitation; who is able to use each small affair to set before everybody his socialist convictions and his democratic demands and to explain to each and all the world-historical significance of the liberation struggle of the proletariat.19
Whilst we must be clear that communists do not rule out tactical alliances with reactionary or bourgeois elements, the Marxist strategy is clear that winning over the petty bourgeoisie (splitting the police, army, etc) and winning revolutionary solidarity from oppressed groups is necessary, but that in doing so we must defend the political and organisational independence of the proletariat. ‘Official communism’ turned tactic into strategy, while Eurocommunism and intersectionality turned it into a principle.
Grasping at straws
This book was always going to fail in the attempt to mediate two deeply antagonistic theories. Hence in order to perform this Sisyphean task Bohrer has to reject reality itself in favour of academic bastardisations and falsehoods relating to Marxism. It is sad to see such a waste of paper.
Whilst Marxism offers real revolutionary strategy and theory in the form of the universal proletarian class and its world-historic mission, intersectionality is left to grasp at straws in order to give itself any semblance of meaning:
... how are we to understand the oppression of racialized business owners or postcolonial elites? How are we to understand heterosexism in the lives of women and queer capitalists, especially when they are neither subject to workplace exploitation or to the exploitation of their socially reproductive labor (when, for example, they live alone, pay others to do this labor, and/or have partners who perform this labor)? (p191).
As tempting as it is to give silly answers to silly questions, we as Marxists should at least provide a serious response when we have one. The Marxist method shows that in the current debate on Marxism and intersectionality neither unMarxist, crude economism nor blind acceptance of intersectionality’s popular front principle and abstract identity politics provides a useful explanation. Instead we need a rethinking, and ultimately a strategically coherent, mass Communist Party, based on the classic Marxist minimum-maximum programme, democratic centralism and revolutionary discipline - exactly what the left currently lacks.
See Letters, December 17 2020 and January 21 2021.↩︎
“Rather than bringing together two completely exogamous traditions, bringing intersectionality and Marxism together does justice to the deep history of these traditions interweaving” (p78).↩︎
A J Bohrer Marxism and intersectionality: race, gender, class and sexuality under contemporary capitalism 2020, transcript publishing. p171.↩︎
K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 3, p186.↩︎
‘Getting beyond capitalism’ Weekly Worker July 5 20 2018: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1210/getting-beyond-capitalism.↩︎
johnriddell.com/2018/09/13/the-dawn-of-our-liberation-the-early-days-of-the-international-communist-womens-movement, quoted from Kommunistische Fraueninternationale Vol 1, No2-3 (1921), p55.↩︎
C Zetkin, ‘Thesis for the communist women’s movement’ Workers of the World and Oppressed Peoples, Unite! Vol 2, Pathfinder 1991, p1245-46.↩︎
LT Lih Lenin rediscovered: ‘What is to be done?’ in context Haymarket 2008, p746.↩︎