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Our movement will be intersectional or it will be bullshit

I’ve paraphrased the iconic words of my title from an amazing Tiger Beatdown blog, and although that was referring to feminism, the message is central to the legitimacy of every movement. At times, the left can be guiltier than middle class white feminism of sidelining its marginalised members in order to focus on the ‘main problem’.

I might not be being cynical enough, but perhaps it partly has something to do with confusion around the term. To me, intersectionality is not a difficult concept to get to grips with at all, but I’ve heard many knowledgeable comrades struggling with the term.

Intersectionality is the not-so-new, not-so-radical idea that all oppressions intersect and that to be successful in fighting any one oppression, the others must be taken into consideration and fought alongside.

Comrades need to stop excusing their passivity in liberation efforts by claiming ‘come the revolution, there will be equality’ and therefore all efforts should focus on fighting capitalism. For those of us who live in the present and suffer oppression or discrimination daily, that is of little comfort. I acknowledge that the end goal for many comrades involves a society in which everyone is liberated, and that there cannot be liberation without the downfall of capitalism, but capitalism will never fall whilst groups remain oppressed.

I’ve heard vague arguments against intersectionality about divisiveness: that if we all categorise ourselves in terms of oppressions, we’ll split off into different directions, and harm any greater cause. This argument comes from a poor understanding of intersectionality. It’s not about turning away from those who are not suffering the same oppression as you; it’s very much the opposite. Capitalism promotes racism, sexism, disableism etc. to maintain its existence, as ‘divide and rule’ tactics. Intersectional activists directly fight this and work to pull different groups back together.

Intersectionality recognises complex identities, and allows me to say: “Don’t make me choose between being a woman, being black and being queer.” As civil rights activist Audre Lorde said, “There is no thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.”

Perhaps people fail to be intersectional because it is difficult. Intersectionality makes you call out friends, family and comrades. In some circles it may mean you’re the one who always brings gender into the discussion, in some you’re always making it about race. Intersectionality means you complain about inaccessibility of events that may have been fantastic in every other way. It means you find faults in people’s favourite songs, films, books, or fashion items, because they perpetuate racism, sexism, homophobia, trans*phobia, disableism, islamophobia, or other oppressive attitudes. Intersectionality means people may start to find you very annoying.

Intersectionality is especially difficult if you don’t face much oppression. It means being an ally to a lot of people, and it means recognising your own privilege and educating yourself on problems some people face, that you may never have to.

But as difficult as it is to be intersectional, it is so necessary. So long as the left is splintered and incoherent as we all struggle individually, we can never build the kind of strength we need. As a movement, we have to challenge and fight each facet of capitalism simultaneously and with equal amounts of energy and commitment.

Our movement must be open and accessible to every oppressed or marginalised group, but we must also remember that that does not mean the privileged few extending patronising invitations to others. The movement belongs to everyone in it equally, and that means we have a duty to be informed and active allies in everyone’s respective battles.

By Wandia, LUU Revsoc

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3 comments on “Our movement will be intersectional or it will be bullshit

  1. Sick article, as is the Tiger Beatdown.

    It seems like there’s a tendency for people from Marxist roots and Leninist parties to react intuitively against ideas like intersectionality, without recognising the considerable degree to which it shares core principles. Thats not to say that it has to come from the mouth of Lenin or Marx to be right. But you should save the political tension for when its necessary, not for the sake of it. I think you can see the principles of intersectionality, which developed out of the needs of struggle, reflected in ideas about base and superstructure and the tribune of the oppressed.

    As with a lot of things, the argument has often been falsely polarised. The New Left reacted against the idea of base and superstructure as didactic, because when mutilated by Stalinism it was. As a metaphor it was a little weak, a little too easily open to determinism – Marx ended up using far more concrete metaphors later on, and started talking about B/S as ‘bone and flesh’.

    I think that in a reaction to the reaction to base and superstructure, socialists have sometimes done what you’ve said. If they have they’ve not been very good at reading their own theory. Lenin’s whole point about the tribune of the oppressed was not that anti-oppression struggles were to be ticked off on the shopping list as a means of recruitment, or ‘the privileged few extending patronising invitations to others’ but that they were, in themselves, struggles against the contradictions of class society and had to be respected as such. When comrades polemicise against the limits of liberation struggles by arguing the centrality of the working class they miss the point, and actually end up echoing the idea that the process of history is divided into ‘factors’ with their own logic, rather than as a totality. More crucially, class struggle cannot be counterposed to struggle against oppression. Class struggle needs struggle against oppression.

    The strength of intersectionality seems to be the recognition that ‘factors’ do not emerge purely within their own logic, independently of transformations in society. Actually to argue that they do, especially in the case of forms of oppression, ends up edging towards a position which presents those oppressive ideas as natural rather than conditioned.

    Barbara Fields put it like this: ‘Only if race is defined as innate and natural prejudice of colour does its invocation as a historical explanation do more than repeat the question by way of answer. And there an insurmountable problem arises: since race is not genetically programmed, racial prejudice cannot be genetically programmed either but, like race itself, must arise historically.'(http://newleftreview.org/I/181/barbara-jeanne-fields-slavery-race-and-ideology-in-the-united-states-of-america)

    Marxism cannot be, and was not for Marx, the claim that a) class struggle is more ‘important’ than the struggle against oppression or that b) the working class achieves liberation on behalf of oppressed groups.

    Oppression has existed before capitalism. It can be challenged under capitalism, and will probably exist, transform through a revolutionary process many times before it disappears. But its relation to class society does mean that it is not an eternal and natural fetter, and that the sell-by-date of class society is a use-by-date for oppression – it fundamentally alters the structure of society in favour of those who are oppressed.

    I think its exciting to see people fighting oppression move towards these positions, they seem to be a route into revolutionary politics, as supposed to the postmodern identity politics in the late 1980s which were, in some instances at least, a route away. Failing to recognise the importance of intersectionality out of a false belief its incompatible with Marxism is an error that no serious struggle will forgive.

    P.S. This talk by Jen Roesch is also really good, not on intersectionality as such but base and superstructure and the false opposition between class struggle and oppression. http://wearemany.org/a/2011/07/base-and-superstructure

  2. Ben Watson
    July 4, 2013

    Intersectionality is of great interest to me, as a poet and Freudian, because it relates to intersex which was the subject of a great feminist book by Catherine Harper – which shows that we grow BETWEEN genders rather than being assigned exclusively to one or other pole. My slogan is: WE ARE ALL INTERSEX. Pun intended of course – I am a poet.

  3. Chris
    January 30, 2014

    We all know what “intersectionality” means in practice: screeching at people who beat you in arguments to “shut the fuck up” and “check your privilege”. It’s not exactly comradely.

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This entry was posted on July 3, 2013 by in Social Oppression and tagged , , .

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