Whenever controversies around issues like race, gender or sexuality erupt in the left, they always seem to produce a fairly predictable set of responses. As if by clockwork, a certain set of male leftist writers spring into life to churn out another attack on “identity politics” and “intersectionality”, eager to defend what they claim is the purity of class politics against the dangers of contamination. What’s curious about this phenomenon is that the arguments of the diehard anti-intersectionalist warriors, when examined, don’t actually seem to offer that much in terms of practical suggestions for how to take the class struggle forward. Instead, in their eagerness to attack “identity politics”, they tend to abandon the basic perspective which antagonistic, materialist class politics is based on, and instead ground their arguments on a set of straightforwardly liberal principles.
For the benefit of readers who might not have encountered these arguments, a quick introduction to a few of the more noisy and visible anti-intersectionalists: there’s Ross Wolfe, a valiant opponent of identity politics who writes articles about subjects like “Marx called Bakunin fat, so that means that there can’t possibly be anything problematic about publicly shaming women for their weight” along with other weighty issues facing workers in the age of austerity, such as early Soviet architecture; James Heartfield, a member of Brendan “look at me look at me LOOK AT ME LOOKATME!” O’Neill’s bizarre Trot-turned-tory clique; and the CPGB, a small and almost entirely male group of Kautsky enthusiasts and leftist trainspotters with a knack for the fine art of unintentional self-parody, who regularly publish articles defending Marxism against the feminist menace, alongside other topics of pressing concern to workers everywhere, like how the Socialist Platform of Left Unity’s refusal to exclude the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty demonstrates their lack of principles, or attacking the Socialist Party and the Communist Party of Britain for their failure to write more articles about the Socialist Workers’ Party.
As representative examples of the genre, I’ll take James Heartfield’s rants against intersectionality and Charlie Winstanley’s article on a recent row about race and sexuality within the International Socialist Network, itself a recent, libertarian-leaning, split from the SWP. These pieces aren’t identical, but they share enough common ground that, taken together, they can be treated as fairly representative of the anti-identity camp.
These articles always tend to be a bit short on suggestions as to how to deal with the actual problems that intersectional approaches aim to address – most notably, the issue of people with certain privileges, and especially men, acting in ways which completely devastate the organising efforts they’re involved in. From Gerry Healy to Tommy Sheridan* to Julian Assange to Martin Smith, the behaviour of powerful men becomes an issue time and time again, and if the approaches suggested by intersectional feminists aren’t sufficient to deal with it, then we urgently need to find a more constructive alternative. Sadly, the anti-intersectionalist warriors don’t seem to have a huge amount of time or energy for this particular task, preferring to concentrate on other issues, like explaining why they think feminists are silly.
When dealing with critiques of “intersectionality” and “identity politics”, it’s important to address the truths that they’re based on. It is certainly the case that many people influenced by these perspectives tend to have a habit of getting into quite heated and vicious arguments on the internet, particularly on twitter (of course, this is to be contrasted with the behaviour of everyone else on the internet, where people just have calm, rational and respectful exchanges). Watching, let alone taking part in, these arguments is often quite tiring and depressing, and it’d be ridiculous trying to pretend that everything said in them is in any way justified. But if we’re to judge ideas by the behaviour of the people who hold them, then anarchism’s tainted by Proudhon’s anti-Semitism, Kropotkin’s support for WWI, and the CNT’s collaboration with the government, Marxism’s fatal flaws can be identified by looking at the jaw-droppingly stupid positions held by at least 99.9% of all Marxist groups that have ever existed, from defending the USSR as a workers’ paradise to insisting that it’s possible to reclaim the Labour Party in 2014, and intersectional feminism is discredited by the fact that some of its supporters are unnecessarily abrasive on the internet, so we might as well just junk all the ideas gained from past efforts to abolish exploitation and oppression and start over from scratch. For myself, I think that a society without government is still desirable no matter how many anarchists say stupid or embarrassing things, I think that historical materialism is still a useful way of trying to understand the world despite all the repressive dictators who’ve claimed to be inspired by Marx’s ideas, and I think it’s worth trying to understand how different forms of oppression intersect with each other even if some other people who share my ideas are unhelpfully rude when they get in arguments on the internet.
But the Heartfield/Winstanley camp aren’t just offended by the tone of the intersectionalists: they also seek to attack the intersectional project on a more basic level. For Heartfield, the problem “is a philosophy, the philosophy of anti-humanism… The main claim of the anti-humanist philosophy is a rejection of the assertion of a common human essence. All such claims to the anti-humanists are false and ideological supports to oppression. Claiming, for example, that men and women, or white and black are fundamentally the same, in this argument, is to hide the oppression of the one by the other under the appearance of equality.”
In his post-script to Heartfield’s article, Wolfe complains about people who “hold the view that thought is not universal, but embedded, not true for all, but specifically attached to races and groups.” Similarly, Winstanley objects to “the intersectionalist assertion… that all intellectual disagreements sit within a broader system of oppressions, directly manifested by the ethnicity, sexuality, race or gender of the individual involved. In essence, within the context of any discussion in any environment, it is impossible for an individual to remove themselves from these characteristics.” In short, these gentlemen seek to object to the idea that people are shaped by their experiences, and that having different life experiences can lead people to form different ideas.
For the likes of Heartfield, Wolfe and Winstanley, individuals are not the products of their environments, and there’s no need to look for material factors to explain the course of human affairs: we’re all just pure, abstract citizens engaged in a reasonable discussion of ahistorical, universal truths. This is, of course, the classic position of liberalism, but it isn’t the only way of seeing of the world. Against the liberal position, there are those who believe that a genuine human community is possible and desirable, but it cannot exist within this society, so it needs to be created by the active, conscious destruction of all the structures that separate us from each other. This is the perspective on which intersectional feminism is based, but there’s an older name for it: this idea has gone by a number of names, but it has sometimes been referred to as “communism”.
Antagonistic class politics always relies on the insight that the truth is not a simple, objective thing, but reality always looks different depending on the perspective you approach it from. The pyramids meant different things to the pharaohs and to their slaves, just as Britain today looks different depending on whether you’re viewing it from Downing Street or Benefits Street. Class politics is all about seeking out the perspectives of those who’ve traditionally been denied a voice. It’s about viewing World War I through the eyes of the soldiers who fought in it rather than the generals who ordered the slaughter, the USSR through the eyes of the Kronstadt sailors or the Hungarian rebels rather than the various ideologists and central committees, and the reality of free-market liberalism from the perspective of those who’ve always paid the price for it, from the slaves and industrial workers whose blood and sweat laid its foundations to those being exploited by neoliberalism today, not the abstract, free-floating individuals dreamt of by liberal theorists. And it’s this insight – both the project of seeking out and amplifying perspectives that have traditionally been repressed and ignored, and the realisation that these perspectives exist at all – that also defines the approaches that get labelled as “intersectionality”.
But my problem with the hard-line anti-intersectionalist approach isn’t just that I find its theoretical foundations to be questionable. I also find it difficult to work out how exactly this vision of a pure class struggle untainted by questions of race or gender plays out in practice. A note of humility here: I’m not claiming to be an unsung hero of anarcho-syndicalist organising. I’m not Big Bill Haywood or Lucy Parsons or Durruti: I’m a young(ish, even if not quite as young as I used to be) worker who, like most people of my generation, hasn’t taken part in any mass workplace struggles comparable to things like the Miners’ Strike, and I’ve spent most of my working life alternating between more-or-less insecure temporary work and periods of unemployment. But by now I’ve spent a reasonable amount of time within workplaces trying to think about how to strengthen my fellow workers’ sense of solidarity and self-organisation, and I’ve played a minor part in a few attempts at community organising: again, I’m not talking about campaign that beat the Poll Tax here, but I’ve tried my best to do what I can.
In my experience, it’s fair to say that, in most cases, workplace organising consists of trying to identify the informal groups and networks that always already exist, and then trying to strengthen their internal sense of solidarity and confidence to challenge management, as well as trying to break down barriers between the different informal groups that exist and bring them together. In other words, it’s about paying attention to other people, and thinking seriously about who they talk to, how they talk to each other, who they look out for, who’ll stick their necks out to protect other people and who they’re prepared to do it for, and who has whose back.
To me, it seems unimaginable that anyone could spend any time paying this kind of attention to their fellow workers and still think solely in terms of class, without at the very least taking gender into account. Depending on where you work, you might have an all-white workforce or a workforce with no workers who are openly, visibly not straight, but there is at least some gender mix in the vast majority of workplaces, and, in my experience, the composition and behaviour of these kind of informal social groups is always heavily gendered. To go into a workplace determined to only see workers and bosses, without seeing the way that gender intersects with these relationships and plays out in all kinds of ways, is to blind yourself to a crucial part of the ways that power operates within a workplace, and to ignore a whole set of challenges and opportunities that are deeply relevant to the task of building workers’ power at a grassroots level. If you don’t want to use the language of intersectionality to talk about these things, then that’s up to you, but these issues are worth thinking about for anyone seriously concerned with class struggle.
Likewise, let’s say that your organising project, whether in the workplace or the community, is going well, and starting to make some ground. You can more or less guarantee that, very early on, your opponent will seek to divide you by buying some people off. This may or may not take place along the lines of “identity” – divisions like permanent versus temporary workers are just as useful for the bosses – but if you’re interested in trying to build a movement that won’t just collapse at the first hurdle, you need to think about the potential faultlines that exist within the group you’re trying to organise, and the ways that your opponents can exploit these to turn people against each other by giving some of you access to limited benefits. In other words, to think about the kinds of questions that people who talk about privilege are talking about. Again, I don’t care that much about whether you find the language of privilege useful for discussing these questions, but if you display the kind of frothing-at-the-mouth hostility that some leftists do to even thinking about the idea of privilege, then you’re not going to be able to deal with these issues when they inevitably arise.
On closer inspection, the whole question of “serious class politics versus post-modern liberal identity politics” is a false one. The crusade against intersectionality means abandoning class politics for liberalism in theoretical terms, and it has nothing useful to say about practical questions of organising for class struggle. It’s not about class politics versus identity politics: it’s just a choice between an approach to the class struggle that starts from people’s lived experiences, which in turn means taking into account all the different identities which affect those experiences, or a toothless, abstract liberal universalism.
*to be clear, by including Sheridan in this list, I’m not trying to say that his behaviour is the same as that of Julian Assange or Martin Smith, but if we’re considering “powerful leftist men with big egos who act in damaging ways” as a category, then I think a strong case can be made for including him.