The article below was written by Lola Ogunsanya last year and was published in Megaphone magazine, the publication by Socialist Students.
Socialism and revolutionary practice: are we intersectional?
Rightly or wrongly, the traditional perception of Socialism has been that of the white working class man organizing and fighting against their exploitation by the white male Capitalist. Intersectional ideas, very broadly, try to help us consider the specific experiences of oppression caused by a complex racist, patriarchal, Capitalist system towards, for example, racial minorities, the LGBTQ+ community and the disabled. However, more recently there has been resistance against a focus on individual categories of injustices and accusations that intersectionality has, in fact, become another form of identity politics; dividing activists and, with the best of intentions, distracting us from the overall class struggle. By looking briefly at the history of some of these ideas, we make the case that intersectionality in practice (as opposed to just in theory) causes the opposite of division; it is a tool for gaining greater knowledge of how people are affected by different forces of oppression based on their specific social and material experience, and a tool for building a movement through and with these various experiences. We argue that this approach both informs and invigorates the Socialist movement towards a politics of unity that might begin to destroy these different branches of oppression, and overcome the very Capitalist system that relies on them.
It is first important to revisit some of the foundations of intersectionality in order to grasp why it can be so useful for socialist practice. Intersectionality is a social theory that looks at the specific experiences a person may have and how these different experiences interact and cause new and multiple oppressions. For example, an non-EU woman in temporary employment may face racial discrimination towards people of colour, non-EU visa conditions, gender discrimination that may mean such work pays less, and an insecure casual contract. Understanding these complexities, and that such complexities create new and unique experiences, is in fact of very practical importance if we want to change that situation for the better. ‘Intersectional’ ideas are often traced back to the 1960s and 1970s, to black feminists who critiqued the exclusionary nature of a white feminist movement that failed to address the issues they faced, but can be traced throughout the history of the Women’s movement – in 1851 Sojourner Truth gave the famous speech remembered for the line ‘ain’t I a woman?’ at the US Women’s Conference in Ohio.
The term ‘intersectionality’ was coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw, who drew attention to the extent to which issues of gender and race were considered separately and independently in US law. From the early 1990’s the ideas of intersectionality were increasingly discussed in the feminist movement, leading to growing consideration of the experiences of minorities in the women’s movement. Despite continued controversy, the growth of intersectional thinking has helped feminism reach out to a greater number of people with a wider range of experience, and, at its best, led to a more inclusive movement, more effective in campaigning as more people become involved. For example, the 2015 #MyFeminismIs campaign started by Ms. Foundation for Women, was hugely successful in attracting people from all backgrounds to talk about different feminist issues through the internet using twitter and various YouTube videos; central to their reach and success was their commitment to intersectional ideas. During this campaign many claimed to have never supported feminism as they felt excluded from the movement; however, the focus on individual experiences made it more relevant to them. Intersectionality can therefore similarly contribute to the Socialist movement by shifting the focus to the different ways people are oppressed by Capitalism, an emphasis entirely consistent with Marxist principles and the best Socialist practices.
Bringing together a diversity of people is essential to class struggle, and so it is crucially important that we develop a practice through and with people’s experiences. Class division, in all of its complexities, remains the central division of our times, one in which all other struggles are hopelessly wrapped up in. Racism, for example, has deep roots in the historical development of the Atlantic slave trade. In ancient Europe it was common for black people to live amongst white Europeans, and in Ancient Rome in the second century AD there ruled a black emperor, Septimius Severus. Even during the early stages of the slave trade, the racial divide was not so clear, with the majority of those enslaved in North America in the early 1600’s being white as they were cheaper to buy. Racism and the technologies of slavery develop over time as African slaves became cheaper and it was increasingly economical to use large numbers of Africans as labourers. At this point it became increasingly useful to ingrain the ideology of racial superiority in order to justify the growing brutal oppression. As this was still a period of time when white servants and black slaves worked together in plantations, it was especially important to creating racialised divisions that would the prevent white servants and black slaves revolting together. This historical background shows that although slavery was originally a capitalist means for cheap labour, it contributed to a racist branch of oppression in a very particular historical context that reproduces itself to this day.
In Britain working class solidarity is desperately needed. We have seen historic austerity and welfare cuts hitting the most vulnerable people in society. Incredibly, 33% of people in paid work are now in poverty or insecure temporary employment. It is well known that austerity has especially affected women, people of colour, the disabled and the mentally ill. According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, in 2015 15.7% of white men were paid less than the living wage, whilst 57.2% Bangladeshi men were on similar poverty wages. The foundation also state that approximately 70% of people in national minimum wage jobs are women, and that black women’s employment was 16% lower than white women’s. There is a dangerous culture of bigotry and discrimination being propagated by the media and by politicians, which has worked to further tensions and distrust between people. The result of this division has been a lack of collective power to defeat the Tory government, and the growth of parties such as UKIP who have successfully used scaremongering to attract voters. But solidarity works both ways. If struggle is led by, and focuses on, issues that primarily affect certain more privileged groups it risks isolating and marginalizing the very people who are most affected. For example, in a University context, it is common for temporary staff on short term 9 month or 75% contracts not to be represented by their union because they fear they will not be rehired by their University if they join. A lack of intersectional practice has, in the past, led our academic trade union, UCU, to focus on the pay and pensions of the most secure staff while, in reality, doing little to fight ongoing casualization of the workforce. 54% of all academic staff are now on insecure contracts.
So are Socialists intersectional? We should be, and we are well placed to be. We can and should make the effort to work with people with a range of experiences of capitalism, to understand that we all have multiple and various oppressions. For example, creating discussion groups and safe spaces that encourage people with certain experiences to organise and speak out. These groups can help us further understand how capitalism works to oppress certain groups and what actions could be taken to dismantle these oppressions in their context. This could lead to greater inclusivity in Socialist groups, increasing numbers and therefore effectiveness of campaigning. Again, solidarity works both ways. Another way that we could embrace intersectionality is by making contacts with groups fighting specific oppressions and helping them with activities such as demonstrations or other protest activities. This will help us to create links with a number of groups that can help increase the numbers and the power of campaigns. An example of successful group affiliations is the Black Lives Matter movement who made connections across the black and LGBTQ+ communities in the U.S. and beyond; with LGBTQ+ BLM activists recently shutting down Toronto pride demanding local community spaces, full rights to self-determination, better representation of all marginalized groups, and space at the town hall for all marginalized groups to be able to come together and make decisions. This inclusive approach has helped bring thousands to Black Lives Matter protests across the world, but has also politicised a generation of young people many of whom are then drawn to socialist ideas. As socialists we should seek to bring together such tendencies, building a politics of solidarity through a celebration of mutual differences. Something we can all be a little better at.