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.


  1. “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)”

    Yes, this is almost unbelievably politically illiterate.

    The link to the Weekly Worker piece about #sexyracistchairgate isn’t working, though. Please rectify.

  2. So you didn’t like it then. The problem is precisely that there is not one source for all oppression and that different kinds of oppression (of women, for example) then reinforce the others (of the working class, for example). And then it is unfortunately the case that some men in left organisations (for example) get a bit of power they were denied under capitalism and enjoy it at the expense of women, a little bit of compensation for them, but which then makes the struggle for socialism more difficult. Marxism alone does not account for that, and that’s why we need to take other analyses (from feminism, for example) seriously. The correct link for the ‘kinky split’ is at I’ll correct it in the version of this article at where this article on intersectionality is the third in a series of articles on keywords for the new left (which you might not like either). If you disagree with this, then please say why, for this is a testing out of the concepts in struggle and in the left. Ian Parker

    • If you read and understand Marxism you will discover that there IS one source of all human oppression, it is called capitalism and it imposes, independently of will and consciousness social relations of production that are oppressive to all human beings on the planet, even the capitalists themselves . The fact that in general working-class class men oppress working class women, that white people oppress black people, that they all, in general oppress gays, lesbians, transgender people, disabled people is NOT a biological or problem of the mind but a problem of the social relations of capitalism itself.

      When we say ‘in general’ not all white male middle class people commit these offences, and even if they inadvertently do so through omissions because of not being conscious of the all pervading values of capitalism they fight it in themselves and in others.

      In this way a revolutionary vanguard and a revolutionary party is formed which can set about the task of overthrowing capitalism by winning the best elements in all sectors of the oppressed to that cause. The relevant quote is from Lenin in What is to be Done, “the model for the social democracy is not the English trade union branch secretary but the tribune of the people who fight every manifestation of oppression no matter where it is found to demonstrate the commitment to liberate all sectors of society”. (approximately, from memory)

  3. ‘leadership of the party that will speak for and direct the working-class vanguard’

    The vanguard is ahead and just as often behind the masses, it does not direct the working class. Likewise the vanguard is ahead and just as often behind feminism.

    Marxism is scientific precisely because it is open to new ideas, from every progressive quarter. Marx wanted his theoretical conceptions to be tested by practice, he did not believe he had all the answers. His critique of capitalism is still bang on the money, still correct.

    Without the vanguard you have insurrections but no revolution.

    • Oilgasworker, your comments contradict each other.
      “Without the vanguard you have insurrections but no revolution.” is the Leninist theory of the revolutionary party. Trotsky’s “the revolutionary party us like a piston box, without it the steam of the masses is dissipated but nevertheless what moves is the steam and not the piston and box”.

      But then you had just said the complete opposite,

      “The vanguard is ahead and just as often behind the masses, it does not direct the working class. Likewise the vanguard is ahead and just as often behind feminism.”

      Here the working group and feminism, by the by wrongly equated as forces for revolution, are made into abstractions as if the question of consciousness was an insignificant or at least secondary factor in making a revolution. Putting it ‘on the running board’ as Plekhanov said.

      True the escaping steam alerts the party to the fact that they are missing the movement, ad the Bolsheviks initial attitude to the striking women workers in January and February 1917. But they did readjust, they did learn the lesson, they did lead they greatest revolution and greatest single event in world history. Their mistakes were secondary to that.

      • ‘Without the vanguard you have insurrections but no revolution.” is the Leninist theory of the revolutionary party’ Which Trotsky also subscribed to.
        In his History of the revolution he describes how the ruling classes find insurrections useful to their own ends, disposing of administrations that the masses are no longer willing to tolerate.

        Trotsky described the necessity of an insurrection by the masses to make revolution, but he emphasized the necessity for the insurrection to have a brain which could give the insurrection a direction beyond the immediate demands of the masses, to overthrown not just the present bourgeois government but to take control of all the administrative functions of the state, including the civil service and the armed forces and not just change the ministers of state. Lenin and Trotsky were in complete agreement as to the necessity a of revolution party, a vanguard.

        When Lenin first arrived in Russia after the February revolution, he was isolated from the party. The party and even Lenin had not anticipated the insurrection but Lenin soon caught up with the masses. On his arrival he had to reorientate the party because of the lead given by the working class of Petrogad. He was the first to grasp that the party had to leave behind the idea of a strictly bourgoeis revolution, he knew the Russian bourgoeisie was too weak, that Tsarist reaction would triumpth if the party did not help the insurrectionary workers to an eventual victory with an alliance with the poorest and what he refered to as the middle peasants.

        The struggle for womens liberation is an integral part of the class struggle and not separate from it.

  4. Capitalism poses the question of the abolition of class society and commodity fetishism. But, in the absence of socialism, it can intensify other forms of oppression.
    For instance;
    – The destruction of peasant agriculture by agri-business in Africa is leading to the mass exodus of migrant labour and to racism in Europe.

    – Due to lack of socialised childcare facilities, women workers are often forced into the lowest paid forms of precarious labour.

    – Rampant property speculation and lack of jobs means hits the youth hardest.

    The theory of Intersectionality may be of some use to academics and social workers, but it’s not much use in politics. This isn’t just a question of an “unhappy marriage; it’s totally incompatible with Marxism.
    It tries to replace the Marxist “class struggle” with a matrix of competing factors.
    The intersection of these factors determines your brownie points on the “Matrix of oppression”

    Trotsky dismissed “multiple factors” in history while he was in prison in Odessa.
    All he had to go on was a book by Labriola, a history Freemasonry and the right methodology.
    Shame his exercise book got lost.

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