A new generation of activists is looking for ideas to guide them in the struggles ahead. If we think about the period since 1999—the successful shutting down of the WTO meetings in Seattle by the Teamster-Turtle Alliance to the present day—the last 15 years have seen a multitude of struggles that have posed, and continue to pose, daunting challenges to those who want to build the fight back.
Since Seattle there has been 9/11 and the international anti-war movement, which mobilized the largest number of people in the streets in history to that point. As well we saw Occupy Wall Street blossom into a movement that spread around the world. At the heart of this movement was an identification of the 1% and the 99% (otherwise known as the ruling class and the rest of us) and a clear understanding that it was the rest of us who were paying for the economic meltdown of 2008, whose effects are still reverberating around the world to this day.
In Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries we saw the Arab spring, which brought down dictators like Mubarak, who had ruled with an iron fist for over 30 years with the financial and military backing of Western governments. And although many of these revolutions are now facing serious problems in their attempts to carry the movement forward, there is still immense potential and ongoing struggles.
In Quebec, we saw the Printemps érable (the Maple Spring), obviously inspired by events in Egypt. It started as a student movement protesting the raising of tuition fees in Quebec but came to encompass a much more broad-based struggle for social justice that involved millions of people marching in Quebec and elsewhere, as solidarity actions spread around the globe.
These struggles are reflected in the ideas that spring up to explain what’s happening in the world, as in any other historical epoch. These ideas find their expression on university and college campuses, but can become the common sense of the movements as well.
Just as the ideas of postmodernism became hegemonic in the 1980s and 90s, a period where it seemed that the revolutionary tide of the late 1960s and 1970s had failed, the ideas of intersectionality are becoming common currency on many campuses today.
Postmodernism was a set of ideas that basically argued that it was impossible to really understand the world in which we live and that the best we could hope for was a partial description from our own perspective or subjectivity.
Many of the important texts of postmodernism, such as Jean-François Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition, labeled Marxism a “totalizing” theory that claimed to provide a clear analysis of the world and a way forward. This was suspect to Lyotard and many of his co-thinkers, many of whom had been disillusioned by events in Paris after the failure of 1968 to break through and create the new society. Revolution had failed and therefore it was necessary to look to other ideas.
The problem was that much of postmodernist theory was incoherent and inaccessible to most ordinary people. It was also on many levels a new “idealism,” that argued that there was nothing outside the “text” and no basis on which to distinguish between one course of action and another.
The interest in the ideas of intersectionality in academia, as a way of dealing with questions of oppression, seems to be a much more positive development, in the sense that it is an attempt to give voice to the real experience of oppression.
Intersectionality emerged from Black feminism in the US. The term was first coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989, and several other Black feminist writers (such as bell hooks and Barbara Smith) used these ideas as a challenge to white feminists in the 1970s and 1980s—as the mainstream women’s movement moved further and further away from its radical roots in the revolutionary movements of the 1960s and took on much more of a reformist project. This project appealed mainly to white middle class women, who could hope to gain equality with their white male counterparts, but which would do little to improve the lives of poor or working class women, or women from racialized communities, who faced the double burden of racism and sexism.
As Audre Lorde wrote, “there is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.” Intersectionality highlights the multiple forms of oppression that interact to shape an individual's experience. So racialized women experience both racism and sexism, the sexism they experience is reinforced by racism, and vice versa. For example, the Quebec Charter is both racist and reinforces sexism against Muslim women, a fact ignored by some feminist organizations supporting the Charter.
The focus on the intersectionality of various oppressions can bring to light research and experience that has been hitherto ignored by academia, which has often been the preserve of white men. This is an attractive option for young women interested in the ideas of feminism and wanting to connect the fight against sexism with the fight against racism, disability oppression, homophobia and transphobia.
As a theory which can explore and highlight the experience of oppression, intersectionality can be a useful tool. This is no small achievement, given how much of people’s real experience has been marginalized or erased, particularly for those at the sharp end of various forms of oppression.
Class and revolution
However, we must also recognize the limits of intersectionality, in terms of pointing a way forward. While it describes the experience of reinforcing forms of oppression, it does not explain where these oppressions come from come from and how we can end them.
This is related to its tendency to conflate class as just another “identity,” and of “classism” as another intersecting form of oppression. But class society and capitalism, based on economic exploitation, is also the source and driver of oppression—from LGBT oppression and sexism to racism. The working class, which unites all oppressed groups, has the revolutionary potential to win real liberation from exploitation and oppression by overthrowing its source.
As Marxists we want to be a part of the new movements that are fighting for social justice. We have much to learn from their experience, and we want to connect this to the revolutionary potential of that class in society which encompasses all of us—women, men, people of colour, LGBT, people with disabilities.
Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin wrote the following in 1905, in the midst of a revolution which was a precursor to the successful 1917 revolution which overturned centuries of autocratic rule: “Revolutions are the festivals of the oppressed and the exploited. At no other times are the masses of people in a position to come forward so actively as creators of a new social order as at a time of revolution.”
In contrast to the caricature of Marxism that is sometimes put forward in academia and elsewhere, the Bolsheviks built a revolutionary organization, not based on the suppression of the many identities encompassed in the struggle (women, national minorities, Jews, Muslims, lesbians and gays), but on the understanding that the only way to win true liberation was to unite these struggles into one powerful enough to overturn the system as a whole, based on the class that could break the chains where they were forged.