Marxism and Intersectionality by Ashley Bohrer (Columbia University Press, 2020)
“After years of defending intersectionality in Marxist circles, and of defending historical materialism in intersectional ones, I became convinced that these conversations would continue to stall without a piece of scholarship that placed the two into actual conversation, leaving behind the various straw persons and scarecrows that too often form a barricade between these two perspectives.”
Ashley Bohrer has provided this important piece of scholarship with her new book, Marxism and Intersectionality: Race, Gender, Class and Sexuality under Contemporary Capitalism. As she writes,
“both Marxism and intersectionality are ways of understanding the world that are irrevocably linked to activism; they both came out of deep, embedded politics among exploited, oppressed, and disenfranchised groups and continue to be mobilized most often in community organizations, coalitions, marches, campaigns, and myriad other forms of real, embodied resistances.”
By providing a history of these two activist traditions and their reciprocal influence, she draws out the debates both between and within them. This approach, in a format that is well-organized and full of footnotes for further reading, encourages an ongoing dialogue.
As she begins, “in order to better understand the contemporary divergence between the intersectional and Marxist traditions, it is necessary to historicize this divergence by considering their shared history.” Both Marxism and the precursors to intersectionality began alongside each other in the mid 19th century.
Marx and Engels linked their economic analysis to multiple forms of oppression: “both thinkers were committed to thinking of capitalism as a structure with deep roots in the oppression of women, as well as in the racist and militaristic expansion of European capitalism through slavery, colonization, and imperialism.”
At the same time, Sojourner Truth, the foremother of intersectionality, connected the racialized sexism that Black women experienced to the exploitation of their labour under slavery:
“the refrain of her speech ‘ain’t I a woman?’ poses the problem of using essentialist understandings of womanhood in order to ground a feminist politics. Her speech also highlights the differences between the treatment and social position of enslaved women and enslaved men…Truth thus highlights not only how an analysis of labor is central to understanding slavery, but also, crucially, that women’s labor consists not only in the manual labor on the field, but also in her reproductive labor.”
These two traditions became most closely linked in the Communist Party of the US in the 1930s, but “the memory of black women’s leadership in the US Marxist movement has been erased, obscuring the ways in which communism influenced the much better known and studied activism of black women in subsequent decades.”
The CPUSA campaigned to unionize domestic workers, who were disproportionately Black women. As Louise Thompson described, Black women were “the most exploited section of the American working population…Over this whole land Negro women meet this triple exploitation—as workers, as women, as Negroes.” Claudia Jones developed this theory further, challenging the women’s movement and the trade union movement to centre the liberation of Black women as part of a broader strategy for women’s liberation and working class struggle:
“Only to the extent that we fight all chauvinist expressions and actions as regards the Negro people and fight for the full equality of the Negro people, can women as a whole advance their struggle for equal rights. For the progressive women’s movement, the Negro woman, who combines in her status the worker, the Negro, and the woman, is the vital link to this heightened political consciousness.”
A generation later during the movements of the late 1960s, Frances Beal, founding member of the Black Women’s Liberation Committee of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (which became the Third World Women’s Alliance), wrote “Double Jeopardy: to be Black and Female”, describing how capitalism uses racism and sexism to divide and conquer:
“Much in the same way that the poor white cracker of the South, who is equally victimized, looks down upon black and contributes to the oppression of blacks, so by giving to men a false feeling of superiority (at least in their own home or in their relationships with women), the oppression of women acts as an escape valve for capitalism.”
But after the 1960s, Marxism and the precursors to intersectionality began to diverge. In 1977 the Combahee River Collective challenged the way racism and sexism impact the economic exploitation of Black women. While they identified as socialists they were also critiquing the version of Marxism they encountered at the time:
“We need to articulate the real class situation of persons who are not merely raceless, sexless workers, but for whom racial and sexual oppression are significant determinants in their working/economic lives. Although we are in essential agreement with Marx’s theory as it applied to the very specific economic relationships he analyzed, we know that his analysis must be extended further in order for us to understand our specific economic situation as Black women.”
In 1988, Deborah King published “Multiple Jeopardy, Multiple Consciousness: the Context of a Black Feminist Ideology,” criticizing Beale for not recognizing that “racism, sexism, and classism constitute three, interdependent control systems”, a perspective which Borher describes as a “bridge between the jeopardy approach and intersectionality.”
From its precursors—which converged and then diverged with Marxism, and also differed among themselves—Bohrer summarizes intersectionality, first coined by Kimberle Crenshaw in 1988. Bohrer begins by acknowledging some of the differences between intersectionality theorists: for Crenshaw, intersectionality is a framework for describing the specific employment experiences of Black women which can’t be reduced to sexism or racism, while for Patricia Hill Collins intersectionality is a theory for explaining how these forms of oppression are organized through a “matrix of domination.” But they share a common perspective: that oppressions are mutually constructed and can’t be ranked in importance or causation; that they operate at the individual, structural, representational, and discursive levels; and that intersectionality developed through both activism and academia, not to naturalize identities but to highlight different experiences in order to build broader coalitions.
With this framework, Bohrer addresses Marxist critiques. She first rejects the straw-person claim that intersectionality is simply post-modern identity politics that leads to fragmentation. Pointing to coalition work as a central tenet of intersectionality, she highlights that
“by subsuming intersectionality under the aegis of (largely) white Euro-American postmodern theorists, women of color and the content of their writings are effectively de-centered from intersectionality scholarship, a practice Sirma Bilge has called the ‘whitening of intersectionality’.”
She then explores the real debate about class, and the relationship between economic exploitation and oppression. While intersectionality theorists have challenged Marxists who reduce everything to class, other Marxists have challenged this over-correction that reduces class to another form of oppression. As Martha Gimenez explains, “To argue, then, that class is fundamental is not to ‘reduce’ gender or racial oppression to class, but to acknowledge that the underlying basic and ‘nameless’ power at the root of what happens in social interactions grounded in ‘intersectionality’ is class power.”
Having considered intersectionality and Marxist critiques, Bohrer then examines Marxism and intersectional critiques. She begins by challenging the “orthodox Marxist bogeyman” claim that Marxism is simply Eurocentric, economically-reductionist theory about the wage of white men in factories. Instead she outlines how Marxists have written about the gendered and racial division of labour, the link between waged and unwaged work in social reproduction, ecological writings on land and labour, and anti-colonialism (including the recent writings of Dene scholar Glen Coulthard):
“While in many leftist circles, Marxism is caricatured as an essentially white and Eurocentric perspective, this characterization systematically neglects the generations of anti-colonial revolutionaries who considered a Marxist critique of capitalism to be central to any liberation project.”
She then addresses intersectional critiques of Marxism, which come back to the question of class. As she describes, a major concern is:
“investigations into oppressions that consider class and gender or class and race or class and sexuality, but not to accounts that understand the deep connections, historical and structural, between gender, race, and sexuality themselves…The criticism of mainstream or hegemonic Marxism as race and gender-blind is a criticism shared by both intersectionality theorists and a whole series of feminists, queer folks, people of color, disabled people, and people from the Global South who locate themselves in the Marxist tradition.”
There’s also the debate on privilege and who benefits from oppression:
“For intersectional theorists, the binary conceptualization of class has often led Marxists to deny or minimize the ways in which members of the working class themselves participate and/or materially benefit from systems of oppression, neglecting an analysis of the complicated and contradictory position of working class people as inhabiting both oppressed and oppressive positions within capitalism.”
But she also highlights activists who have explored these contradictions from a Marxist perspective, like US Communist organizer Theodore Allen. Influenced by the concept of the “psychological wage” described by WEB DuBois (another theorist and activist included in both Marxist and intersectional traditions), Allen wrote about:
“the complicity of white working class people in the system of racism without identifying them as the source of racial oppression…holding simultaneously that working class people may indeed hold both material advantages and deep psychological investments in oppression, but they are ultimately neither the cause nor the greatest beneficiaries of systematic oppression.”
Rejecting the economically-determinist claim that exploitation simply causes oppression, and the intersectional claim that exploitation is simply another form of oppression, Bohrer argues for a dialectical understanding of economic exploitation and oppression:
“Even class must be reconceived as constituted through both oppression and exploitation. Many Marxists balk at even the mere intimation that class might be an oppression, and this is evidenced by the derision aimed at the term ‘classism’ in many Marxist circles… Conceiving of class wholly as an issue of oppression, without recourse to a structural understanding of exploitation, does indeed obscure the fundamental structures of capitalist accumulation, as a fundamental aspect of its logic. However, class cannot be reduced exploitation alone.”
This leads to reaffirming a Marxism that is intersectional, and an intersectionality grounded in anti-capitalism:
“Capitalism is a central determinant in the constitution of not only class, but also race, gender, and sexuality in the contemporary world. While I do privilege ‘capitalism’ as the name of the system dominating us all, I do not hold that 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. Slavery, colonialism, heteropatriarchy, white supremacy–all these were developed in and through capitalism, at least in their modern and contemporary forms.”
From convergence to divergence and back again
While Bohrer begins the book by stating that Marxism and intersectionality diverged in the late 20th century, it would have been helpful to explore the reasons why— which would strengthen her presentation of debates within these two traditions. These include the impact of Stalinism and McCarthyism, the decline of struggle after the 1960s and the contradictory impact of the academy in partially reflecting but also blunting ideas that emerged from struggle.
As she described, women’s liberation and anti-racism were central to Marxism, from Karl Marx to Claudia Jones. But a generation later, the Combahee River Collective felt Marxism was only concerned about economic exploitation. This was the partly the result of Stalinism, which subordinated struggles against oppression (which undermined class struggle). In WWII the CPUSA subordinated the fight for civil rights, women’s rights and union rights to the war drive, and Trinidadian Trotskyist CLR James explained the results: “The line changed from one that at least attempted to be revolutionary to one which is today openly tied to American imperialism and the Roosevelt war machine. The result was immediate and unmistakable: of their 2000 Negro members in New York State, the CP has lost over 80% and the same thing happened all over the country.”
Then the McCarthyist backlash attacked the left—deporting leading Black socialists including James, Jones and DuBois. While some Marxists like Angela Davis continued the socialist tradition, the form of “Marxism” that came to dominate—especially in the academy, as struggles of the 1960s receded—was just the sort of race and gender-blind, economic reductionism that intersectionality theorists (and other Marxists) came to criticize.
It was also in the context of declining struggle that intersectionality emerged. Bohrer quotes Ange-Marie Hancock in Intersectionality: an Intellectual History: “while more recent intersectionality scholarship has been criticized for neglecting class, the more complicated history of intersectionality suggests that it has instead fallen out of the discussion of intersectionality among the interpretive community, a different dilemma worth wrangling on its own term.”
Both intersectional scholar Patricia Hill Collins and Marxist critic Delia Aguilar agree that intersectionality emerged as Black feminist struggles transitioned into the academy, but they disagree on the significance. For Patricia Hill Collins, “When public protests waned in the 1970s and 1980s, it appeared that social movement activism had died off. More accurately, these decades marked a change in location but not necessarily in substance…The ideas of social movement politics became named and subsequently incorporated into the academy.”
But for Aguilar, this marked:
“a pronounced change in the works that emerged expounding on the themes of gender, race and class. The view that a meaningful exposition of their interaction demands an understanding of capitalist operations was soon to be swept away by the collapse of social movements and the onset of conservatism. By the mid-to late 1980s, conservatism was becoming entrenched, necessitating adjustments in intellectual perspectives in order to remain au courant in an increasingly complicit academy…‘multiple oppressions’—the notion of ‘class’ now merely designating income, occupation, or lifestyle detached from mooring in the social relations of production—became embedded not in capitalism but in ‘matrices of domination’.”
Fortunately there is now a rising level of struggle. There are movements, from Black Lives Matter to climate justice and decent work, using intersectional frameworks to centre those who are multiply oppressed and exploited. And there is a renewed interest in socialist politics that can address economic exploitation, multiple oppressions and the climate crisis. The current context offers the opportunity to rediscover intersectional politics applied to class struggle, and Marxism rooted in anti-oppression. Marxism and Intersectionality provides a helpful guide for the ongoing dialogue that can build movements of solidarity by bringing these two traditions back into convergence:
“Certainly, the refusal to take questions of identity and oppression seriously have been debilitating for anti-capitalist left organizing, alienating many would-be socialists and reproducing the same forms of domination and exclusion in organizing spaces that are central to capitalist logic… Recognizing the centrality of oppression to capitalism centers the structures of colonization, dispossession, heteropatriarchy, ableism, and imperialism in ways that could prove strategic in widening the scope of anti-capitalist organizing… Solidarity is thus the name for affirming the differences that exploitation and oppression produce within and between us; it is also the name for recognizing that every time I fight against anyone’s oppression or exploitation, I fight against my own, I fight against everyone’s.”
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