[Discussion Article] Marxism & Intersectionality

Eleonora Roldán Mendívil

Summary: This review of Ashley J. Bohrer‘s, “Marxism and Intersectionality. Race, Gender Class and Sexuality Under Contemporary Capitalism” examines whether or not the book succeeds in providing an unifying analysis of intersectionality and revolutionary Marxism – Editors

Intersectionality has become one of the most important leftist terms of reference in recent years. Politics should be thought intersectional, that is, inclusive activists and/or scholars cry out. Social difference is not perceived as an obstacle but as a possibility for a diverse left political practice. Divided into three sections, Ashley J. Bohrer attempts to bring Marxist analyses into critical conversation with analyses stemming from an intersectionality theory approach. To do so, she traces the histories of the respective political traditions, as well as the dominant debates surrounding Marxist approaches to gender, “race” or sexuality, and intersectional approaches to social analysis. Her focus is largely on the United States, even if this is not explicitly made clear as a specifically historical-geographical lens throughout the book. This makes the historical tracing seem like a global-historical one—something it does not deliver.

Bohrer traces both traditions as mutually overlapping; an account that is at least confusing, since intersectionality as an analytical lens is usually located in U.S. debates of the late 1970s, and the historical beginning of Marxism as a critique, method, and political perspective can be located in the first half of the 19th century. For Bohrer, however, there are voices of Black radicals as early as the 1920s, for example, who located the interconnectedness of the “race” question with that of the woman question in economic terms as well. Here the first problems arise: whoever says “race’” gender and class—in no particular order—does not necessarily mean intersectionality. Yet Bohrer makes a particularly eclectic use of various discussions on these topics years before the emergence of intersectionality theory. For example, by naming Black female figures of the worker’s movement like Claudia Jones, an outspoken and influential member of the Communist Party U.S. first and after her deportation to the UK in 1955 of the Communist Party of Great Britain, whose writings and political engagement around working-class Black women’s issues in particular stand out, Bohrer positions Jones within an intersectional tradition [ii]. As a political and soon after also academic current, intersectionality and intersectionality theory actually emerge much later.

A number of very interesting and important contributions by theorists from a range of radical political activisms, such as Frances Beal, a member of the Third World Women’s Alliance, can be found as well. These critiques do stem from an honest critique of left politics of the time and can surely be translated to our political times today, as they have not lost their relevance:

From Beal’s perspective, hiding or denying the real systematic harm done to impoverished white communities only plays into capitalism’s strategy. However, recognizing the injustice done to poor whites does not exonerate or explain away their complicity with racism; on the contrary, the only way to fight for liberation is to understand the ways in which different configurations of oppression and exploitation stem from the same system and to hold people accountable for their complicity in that system. For Beal, complicity and victimization are not counterposed positions, but rather ones that are constructed in and through one another. [iii]

Particularly noteworthy here is Bohrer’s truly mistaken understanding of what dialectics is, and thus what dialectical historical materialism entails. Under the title “Dialectics of Difference,” [iv] Bohrer attempts to trace both a Marxist and an intersectional understanding of dialectics. In doing so, she claims Marx points to “the dynamic movement of conflicting opposites”—she does this without any quote from Marx himself. The whole chapter reads only shaking one’s head, as one false assertion about dialectics after the other comes to light: dialectics is not about the resolution of opposites into a unity as she claims, it is about “true opposites” and about tracing them. Not once is Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel named or quoted—a big mistake since a big part of what later Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels methodically apply to the capitalist class society changing before their eyes as scientific socialism comes from Hegel. Bohrer thus reduces dialectics to the question of social opposites and overlooks that the centrality of the appearance of certain social phenomena is the starting point of a Marxist critique of society: How does society appear to us in a way that obscures what actually lies behind a phenomenon like sexism or racism in society? How do processes of capital accumulation mediated by gender, sexuality, and “race” hide behind patriarchal and racist ideological formations? And at what point do patriarchal and racist logics leave any functionality for capital accumulation and exist in relative autonomy to the economy?

Bohrer locates intersectionality as a place where dialectics—in her sense of the concept—would actually be lived: the dialectics of personal experience with those of political theory. Both would be brought into political harmony in their contradictoriness, as neither personal experience nor political theory would prevail; in intersectionality, both exist as important sub-moments of political cognition and knowledge. None of the above has anything to do with Marxist dialectics —but this is not a problem for Bohrer, who believes that intersectionality is the more consistent “dialectics”. [v]

The term socialism also hardly appears. For Bohrer does not strive for a socialist world revolution—she wants more openness from both spectrums for the analytical and abstract political concerns of the other side.

I diagnose in contemporary organizing a tendency to think about solidarity as constituted through some sort of shared condition or a recognition of sameness despite different circumstances. Explaining the ways in which this produces a politics of the “lowest common denominator,” I articulate an alternative conception of solidarity, one grounded in differences and relations rather than sameness. Rather than organizing from the lowest common denominator, I argue that revisiting the question of coalitions can provide us with a way of organizing towards our highest and most expansive goals. [vi]

Basically, the status quo of atomized activism—so-called social movements—is to be continued and an abstract relating to each other is to be offered. [vii] At the same time, the question of tactics, strategy, and even the goal of the respective politics is not raised at any moment, let alone the fact that there are very different goals for socialists on the one hand and for intersectionalists on the other. If Marxism degenerates into “yes economics is important too and contradiction between capital and labor must not be forgotten,” it is not surprising that Bohrer does not see any fundamental contradictions between a Marxist and an intersectional political tradition.

Ultimately, Bohrer’s project of merging Marxism and intersectionality fails, because this common terrain that Bohrer is convinced to have traced, historically does not exist. Just because people call themselves socialists, or because they say class, does not mean that they have a dialectical-historical materialist analysis, let alone that they are socialists in the sense of working towards a world socialist revolution of the directly and indirectly wage-dependent masses, the necessity of founding socialist workers’ parties, and so on.

The book can be recommended for its detailed summary and long bibliography of texts on intersectionality theory, as well as discussions on preceding approaches like the jeopardy approach, standpoint theory etc. Bohrer’s selection of Marxist texts on the relationship of class, gender, sexuality, and race is limited and often not necessarily committed to a socialist project— moreover, there are manifold blind spots related for instance to European, Latin American, and West Asian Marxist discussions of the 20th and 21st centuries. Thus, while the selection is consistent with the hegemonic (i.e., U.S.) academic-activist canon, it does not engage with the various contradictory debates within diverse socialist and communist parties and organizations (such as labor unions but also socialist groups) of the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries in the Global North and South.



i This review is based on an earlier review written in German: Eleonora Roldán Mendívil: Marxismus und Intersektionalität, https://diefreiheitsliebe.de/politik/marxismus-und-intersektionalitaet/, 14. December 2022.

ii p. 32-35, 47-50.

iii p. 58.

iv p. 207-229.

v p. 224-225.vi p. 26.

vii p. 259-260.


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