The crisis over sexual violence inside the SWP provoked an attempt by some of those involved to try to explain what happened then, and since in some of the new organisations that emerged from the crisis, in terms of ‘intersectionality’ writes Ian Parker. And then something very peculiar happened, this new keyword, intersectionality, itself became the target, treated by some old leftists as the reason for all their woes. It’s a tangled story in which intersectionality was twisted and turned into something quite unrecognisable to the Black feminists who developed it in order to grasp the connection between different forms of oppression. So, what is intersectionality, why does it help us make sense of what happened, and how was it distorted to suit the agenda of the organisations it had been applied to?
The term was developed as an alternative to accounts of ‘multiple’ oppression in which the combined identities of different groups – workers, women, Black people, and so on – could be accumulated and counted up to determine who was most oppressed, who was at the bottom of some kind of overall hierarchy. Even the attempts to take seriously the combined effects of different kinds of oppression did not themselves intend to involve those kind of divide and rule mechanisms, and there were serious radical attempts to take different kinds of ‘identities’ on board in progressive politics. Even so, the reduction to separate ‘identities’ posed problems for those trying to build alliances, interconnections between those oppressed by reason of their class, race, gender or sexuality. Salma Hayak’s comment that ‘You can’t be more bottom of the ladder than Mexican, half-Arab and a woman over 40 in Hollywood’ illustrates where some of the problems with an approach based on the multiplication of identities leads.
The key step away from identity towards intersectionality was taken by the Black feminist US legal theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989. The key case that provoked this step comes from working-class struggle where a group of five Black women sued their employer, General Motors, for discrimination. They were told that they could make a complaint on grounds of race discrimination or sex discrimination, but any kind of legal case based on the particular combined effects of two or more forms of oppression would be thrown out of court. Crenshaw came up with a commonsensical term from the metaphor of what in the US is called an ‘intersection’, or crossing, where there are different streams of traffic, and where there might at times be a collision between cars in which it is difficult to work out from the marks of the cars on the tarmac exactly which direction each of them were coming from. The case of the five women against General Motors could then, quite appropriately, be understood in terms of a car crash metaphor. The metaphor is actually a bit more complicated than it first appears, and it certainly avoids a reduction to the fixed ‘identity’ of the cars or drivers involved. The problem lies not in each of the cars or streams of traffic but at the intersection as such. This is why the term has also been embraced by some US revolutionary socialists, for it better does justice to the struggles of Black working-class women mobilising themselves across identities and against the attempt by the legal system to divide them from each other.
One of the side-effects of the crisis in the SWP – a side-effect that might actually turn out to be one of the best main effects – was that women leaving the organisation realised that the phenomenon of sexual violence raised questions of feminism. Then in some of the organisations that developed later the debates in feminism were also about the many different kinds of oppression that had been side-lined under the bigger heading ‘working class’ (something which mostly meant compensating working-class men for their lack of power under capitalism, something which is itself an intersectional issue). Gender, sexuality and race quickly came onto the agenda, and as these were debated and worked through the SWP rubbed its hands with glee as some of the conflicts at the intersection came out into the open. Some unwise comments about the representation of a Black woman in an art installation led to what was termed the ‘kinky split’ in one group, for example, but instead of asking what was going on here and how intersectionality could make sense of it, the old male left piled in to blame intersectionality itself. The term was being twisted from being a keyword to help us describe the way in which different forms of power intersect and create new, quite different problems that the left needs to respond to, can only respond to if it takes debates in feminism seriously. It was twisted to make it seem that if we all stopped talking about ‘intersectionality’ then everything would go back to the way it was and everything would be fine. Some hope, bad lesson.
It wasn’t helped that some liberal feminist accounts of intersectionality muddled the old multiple oppression and identity arguments and ran them all together. Some of those in old left traditions (that actually have their origins in the SWP many years ago) now moving toward libertarianism eagerly took the opportunity to spitefully confuse things by claiming that the approach was really ‘sectional’ and ‘sectarian’. When the University of London Union refused a room booking for the annual SWP Marxism event, the ULU statement was quickly condemned by other left groups who have long been suspicious of feminism, and they detected the malign influence of ‘intersectional feminists’. That brings us full circle, back to the very problem that intersectionality was grappling with. The old male left that sees feminism as an enemy of class struggle rather than as an integral part of the history of feminism in alliance with revolutionary Marxism, turns intersectionality back into identity. Now it is the ‘intersectional feminists’ who are the enemy, treated as if they are a particular group that we have to avoid to stay pure.
That purity of Marxism disconnected from other kinds of political struggle is exactly what intersectionality questions. It questions identity politics and then questions Marxism which itself sometimes configures itself as a form of identity politics obsessed with prioritising and idealising the working-class vanguard (and, of course, privileging the leadership of the party that will speak for and direct the working-class vanguard). It also questions the turning of Marxism into some kind of cover-all quasi-religious system that will explain anything and everything, including the ‘diversion’ from one true path. Marxism is not a form of identity and it does not explain all history everywhere. Intersectionality is a way of grasping not only the historically-constituted nature of apparently little struggles under capitalism but poses some big questions about what we are up against and where we are going. There are some really good lessons there too.