Socialism most pernicious problem has never been about how to throw off the yoke of capitalist oppression, but rather how to deal with the thorny issue of intersectionality: race and gender are just as important as class in the lived experiences of people, but don’t have the same theoretical heft in old school socialism. For many socialists these therefore are either threated as secondary oppressions arising from capitalism, or ignored all together Laurie Penney and Richard “Lenny” Seymour nail why both approaches are problematic and real socialists should tackle gender and race head on:
LP: That brings us back to the crux of the question, which is – are we asking too much? Is it a waste of precious time if we demand that a revolution be ‘perfect’ before it begin? That’s the issue that I’ve seen raised time and again when it comes to powerful men within movements and sexism or sexual violence, or to matters of fair representation, often by those seeking to defend or excuse the violence, but not always. If someone is a galvanising figure – like Brand – or an important activist, like Julian Assange, should we then overlook how they behave towards women?
Because of course, there are elements of socialisation at play that make it almost inevitable that powerful men within movements who are attracted to women will have a great many opportunities to abuse that power, especially because those movements so often see themselves as self-governing. One of the biggest problems with the crisis in the SWP was that the victim, W, was offered no support in going to the police with her complaint of rape and assault. The fact that she might have expected better treatment from the Met, with their track record of taking rape less than seriously, than she received at the hands of the Disputes Committee, says a great deal.
I believe that socialism without feminism is no socialism worth having. Clearly we need to be strategising a way to have both pretty damn quickly.
RS: As I see it, the problem was posed most acutely by Occupy. They appealed to the 99 percent, the overwhelming majority of working people against the rich 1 percent. And I sympathise with that: you can’t hope to win unless you bring an overwhelming majority with you, because the Party of Order is too powerful otherwise. And I agree that class is what unites the majority.
But, how do you unify people who are divided not just by nationality, region and prejudice, but by real structural forms of oppression like sexism? The old (white, bourgeois male) answer is to say, “don’t talk about ‘divisive’ issues, ignore them for now, they’re secondary”. They’re merely ‘identity politics’. They’re somehow not as material as class. Judith Butler put her finger on what was wrong with this – what is less material about women wanting to work less, get paid more, not be subject to violence, not be humiliated? And why should class ‘compete’ with race or gender? Aren’t they contiguous? Austerity is a class offensive, but is it a coincidence that cuts to welfare, the social wage, disproportionately affect women and black people? And at any rate, it won’t work: if you try to impose a ‘unity’ that depends on people shutting up, they will just drop out. Gramsci was right: you can build broad alliances, but only if you genuinely incorporate the interests of everyone who is part of that alliance.
So, in place of a unity in which the oppressed preserve a tactful silence, we need a complex unity, a unity-in-difference. This is what ‘intersectionality’ means to me. It is the only strategy that will work. We aren’t asking too much; we’re demanding the bare minimum that is necessary for success.