There’s a distinction between the way intersectionality views the unique types of liberation struggles that the different societal groups wage, and the way that Marxism views them. Intersectionality views them as coming from innately different places, from origins that can be fully separated from each other. The key word is “fully,” because there are indeed different characteristics to the fight for racial justice, the fight for women’s rights, etc. What intersectionality aims to do is negate the characteristic that all of them have in common, and that Marxism does recognize they share. This is the characteristic of being class struggles.
When Marx wrote “The history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggles,” he was talking about the struggle of the first women who’d been put under a gender hierarchy during ancient times. He was talking about the struggle of the Hebrews under the Pharaoh. He was talking about the struggle of America’s slaves. To say that all of these weren’t class struggles would be absurd. The peoples caught in these oppressive systems were fighting against forms of class oppression. That they were subjugated and exploited due to being part of certain gender, national, or racial groups doesn’t take out the class character of their experience.
When proponents of intersectionality use the phrase “class reductionism” against those who take class struggle seriously, their accusation is that we’re trying to use class to discredit the need for rectifying the particular kinds of injustices that the different identity groups face. When they’re talking about faux-populist white supremacists like Tucker Carlson, this accusation is true. Yet what about when this rhetorical practice is applied in reverse? When instead of reactionaries like Carlson saying “don’t think about injustices against minorities, only think about class,” it’s liberals or radical liberals saying “don’t think about class, only think about the identity struggles.” The latter is far more common in our discourse than the former, because usually reactionaries lack Carlson’s awareness of how relevant class is. Overwhelmingly when class gets brought up in mainstream rhetoric, it’s an optional afterthought that follows statements of (pseudo) advocacy for racial, immigrant, women’s, or LGBT justice causes.
This is because these causes are the ones that liberals can best co-opt, and divert into reformist projects that reinforce the Democratic Party’s dominance over what’s considered “the left.” The way that the Democratic Party and its narrative agents carry out this co-optation is by acting like these causes are inherently separate from class. As if black people, especially black women, don’t have their labor exploited at some of the highest rates out of any demographic. As if immigrants aren’t restricted from becoming citizens in the millions because this allows them to be paid lower and with fewer labor restrictions. As if gay and trans people aren’t disproportionately impacted by poverty and mass incarceration, and aren’t being targeted in order to build a fascist resistance effort against the class struggle.
A major idea that supports this “anything but class” ideological element of the left, as Parenti called it, is intersectionality. Intersectionality at first appears to be a way to reconcile those ways in which I’ve described identity politics and class politics share key traits. But for it to truly be compatible with Marxism’s class-based perspective, it would have to be able to act as a framework for understanding that all of the identity struggles are themselves class struggles. That it’s ridiculous to place class struggle in a different category from black liberation, women’s liberation, gay and trans liberation, and so on.
What happens when a Marxist acts like intersectionality is reconcilable with Marxism? They come to accept the liberal arguments about how to interpret our conditions, how to view global affairs, and how to engage in practice as a communist. Because ideas have consequences, especially when they’re ideas that were created as a liberal substitute for the Marxist analytical framework.
“Intersectionality” is a quite new word in relative terms. It was created out of America’s critical legal studies discipline for interpreting racial inequities, and came into being in the late 1980s—the same time Marxism was being forced to retreat both around the globe and within the United States. The formulation of this new “you don’t have to bring up class if you don’t want to” system for analyzing social injustice, building upon the already established “New Left” with its aversion towards talking about class, enabled the attacks against Marxism that the traitors in our movement would carry out following the USSR’s downfall. When Frankfurt School students like Angela Davis renounced their previous pro-Soviet sentiments, and carried out an equivalent of Perestroika by taking the movement in a Democrat-compatible direction (see their Committees of Correspondence project), intersectionality was their narrative basis for doing this.
The way in which the Democratic Party’s narrative managers advance this project to co-opt communism, to turn “communism” into just another reformist project analogous to “democratic socialism,” is fascinating. When you’re aware of the context I just described, this part from a 2020 New York Times profile on Davis is able to be dissected extensively:
“Intersectionality” is a neologism introduced in 1989 by the Black law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, who teaches at U.C.L.A. and Columbia University. The concept invites us to see various forms of inequality as a prism. Its original organizing principle — that Black women are subject to discrimination based not just on race, class or sex but the interaction of all of them — has since been applied to other groups and animates much of today’s progressive political conversations and activity. Yet as Davis knows from her work in the ’70s, asking various advocacy groups to embrace this philosophy is easier to demand from a podium than to write into policy, where efforts have been stymied by self-interest and personal prejudices. But as we discuss her past, I detect no cynicism, no despair nor frustration — this despite decades of glacial progress and the current White House occupant’s vision of America as white nirvana. In America’s deepening income inequality, Davis sees a chance for us to re-examine capitalism, which she views as irredeemably flawed. Her optimism is particularly remarkable when you consider how long she’s believed that America could change. No, her generation did not get their revolution. And yet in so much of what they did accomplish — with civil rights, women’s rights, L.G.B.T.Q. rights, the environment and scores of other issues — they have radically shifted America’s expectations and norms.
It’s in paragraphs like this that the perils of upholding intersectionality as a Marxist become apparent. Why would a publication that promotes imperialist psyops every day, and therefore shows itself to support the worst kinds of violence which come from our social system, at the same time regularly put out these motivational pieces in favor of social justice activism? Because within the ideological framework put forth both by the Times and by Davis, social justice activism can only take a form that’s incapable of threatening the capitalist state. When the Times uses the word “revolution” in an aspirational way, it’s not talking about an actual revolution. It’s talking about reforming the existing state to become a force for social progress, which itself isn’t realistic at this stage in capitalism’s decline.
It was realistic during the era of the Civil War, and the state actually did get reformed in this way for a time when Reconstruction brought astonishing racial equality gains. (Gains that were soon reversed, and still haven’t truly been restored.) What the reformists obscure is that ever since capitalism became fully developed into its monopoly stage, and the USA became a global imperialist power, it’s not been feasible to make the state into a revolutionary force of any kind. After the Civil Rights movement, the state simply switched to a new form of Jim Crow by implementing mass incarceration, because we can’t expect the imperial state to give up its systems of racial capitalism. It’s an ailing parasite that must increasingly feed off of its internal colonies, and off the labor of its ever-more exploited broader working class, as its overall profits decline and U.S. hegemony fades.
That’s the framework through which we must view our conditions: U.S. hegemony is the primary global contradiction, the biggest obstacle to revolution in the core, and therefore the most important thing for us to combat. When you don’t recognize this, you can be led to the anti-revolutionary conclusion that the Democratic Party wants you to embrace. This conclusion is that social justice—or what the framework of intersectionality defines as social justice—is so important, you should be willing to set back the anti-imperialist struggle if you’re told this is what’s necessary for advancing “intersectionality.” Which in contemporary left discourse is seen as synonymous with advancing human rights.
This is how the Democrat discourse managers dissuade leftists or Marxists from supporting Russia, or from supporting anti-imperialist projects in the U.S. that are independent from the Democratic Party (and therefore authentic in their principles). They tell us that if you defy the Democratic Party, or at least go too far in defying it, you’ll end up helping the reactionary right. Think of when the Democrats used Russiagate to make support for Russia associated with being pro-Republican. Think of when left sectarians recently attacked Rage Against the War Machine as white chauvinist. They’ll use whatever reasons they can find to discourage anti-imperialist practice. To be effective anti-imperialists, and therefore actors who can genuinely threaten the state, we have to reject the anti-Marxist analytical framework the Democrat discourse agents use.
Why I’m Pro-Russia & Pro-Rage Against the War Machine: Anti-Imperialists Can’t Win with Idealism
What Parenti Warned Against: Making Workers’ Unity Impossible by Fixating on Their Racial Differences