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Dialectic allows us to see that a thing can simultaneously exist and not exist, be both dead and alive, he explained. But does the difficulty of determining a precise moment of death really imply that at some point a creature is both dead and alive? What could that possibly mean? This entire rhetorical sand castle was demolished in a single sentence by philosopher Sydney Hook: "State a proposition that would be false according to conventional logic, but true according to dialectic.

Others who invoke this analytic tool seek to convey sympathy for the poor, but Marxism adds nothing on this score to what is found in the Torah or the Sermon on the Mount. For others, it means a materialistic interpretation of human motives, but the history of Marxism itself refutes this claim. For still others, it signifies a fascination with revolution. But after a century of Lenin, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot, surely we have learned that far from constituting a leap "from the kingdom of necessity to the kingdom of freedom," as Marx put it, revolution has more often been a leap into a bottomless abyss of human suffering.

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Marxists have criticised intersectionality scholars and vice versa. But there has also been a series of interesting and important attempts to synthesise these frameworks, forging a productive and nuanced theory that is able to respond dynamically to the complexities of oppression in the twenty-first century.

In particular, these debates have significantly coalesced around questions of identity politics, or the ways in which identity can, is, and should be related to the structural conditions of capitalism. In the context of debates around identity politics, having a deeper and more nuanced understanding of the history and relationship between Marxism and intersectionality, which in some ways is the contemporary paradigm for understanding identity, is absolutely crucial for contemporary activists and academics alike.


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  • This paper proceeds in three sections. The first section describes the key tenets of intersectionality and its critiques of Marxism. The first is the claim that Marxism relies on binary structures to explain the world. The second is that Marxism reduces analyses of oppression to class oppression, only or primarily, and considers all other forms of domination like sexism, racism and heteronormativity to be merely epiphenomenal to primary class-relations.

    While these charges are certainly true of many traditional Marxist theorists, I argue that the vibrant and rapidly transforming tradition of Marxist feminisms [2] has developed quite substantially and has proven able to incorporate these very criticisms into its theories. The second section explains the Marxist-feminist criticisms of intersectionality, which often revolve around the idea that many intersectional theories have underdeveloped analyses of class.

    While many intersectional theories discuss class or name it as one of the axes of oppression in the contemporary world, few delve into the specificities of structural class relations or engage in a holistic critique of capitalism. I argue that a nuanced and specific critique of capitalism as a structure is vitally necessary to theories of domination. I argue that this criticism is misplaced, can much more accurately be levied against poststructuralist feminism, and that while intersectionality and poststructuralism certainly share common elements, their frameworks are fundamentally different.

    Thus, this criticism seems to be a failure on the part of Marxist feminists to actually engage with intersectionality. Since the claim that intersectionality and hence identity politics are essentially poststructuralist notions is a constant feature of the debate around identity politics, understanding this argument is essential to grounding a clearer understanding of how identity politics is constructed than is often present in the Marxist literature on the subject. The last section attempts to develop an intersectional Marxism or a Marxist theory of intersectionality, one that uses key insights from both frameworks.

    In doing so, I argue that Marxism needs intersectionality, and in its best and most-thoughtful iterations has been intersectional, even if it has not used this term.

    McLuhan rejects Marxism

    I argue further that intersectionality can benefit from a robust theory of capitalism. In highlighting the mutual insufficiency of these two theories on their own, I hope to move toward the development of a theoretical framework that can adequately account for relations of domination and exploitation organised around race, class, gender and sexuality. Developed by women-of-colour feminists, intersectionality sought to theorise the specific problems experienced by women of colour, problems that often involved racism, sexism, classism and heterosexism, and that were often overlooked by single-axis theories.

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    In its most basic form, then, intersectionality is the theory that both structurally and experientially, social systems of domination are linked to one another and that, in order both to understand and to change these systems, they must be considered together. Intersectionality thus critiques theories that treat forms of oppression separately, as well as attempts to locate one axis of oppression as primary.

    Francis Fukuyama

    It is from this perspective that the most frequent criticisms of Marxism are made. In the first place, intersectionality theorists allege that Marxists reduce all social, political, cultural and economic antagonisms to class.

    In this sense, the criticism of mainstream or hegemonic Marxism as race and gender-blind is a criticism shared by both intersectionality theorists and feminists who locate themselves in the Marxist tradition. While there were and continue to be many attempts by Marxist feminists as well as critical race scholars and postcolonial theorists to correct this gross omission, many of these attempts proposed inadequate solutions. Others argued that patriarchy and class-based exploitation were indeed historically mutually constructing and, because they have empirically shaped and continue to shape the world around us, an analysis of both is necessary, but also that the logic of capitalism is itself gender-blind Meiksins Wood.

    Gender, in these accounts, emerges as a technique of social control in the service of capitalist accumulation. In other words, this kind of theory had the benefit of being able to discuss the ways in which gender and class emerged together as forms of social control that mutually reinforced one another. However in the Meiksins Wood iteration, it also had the effect of treating gender as a kind of epi-phenomenon of the more-primary social cleavage of class; class relations were the true logical core of capitalism, while gender relations were mere empirical fact — incredibly important to analyse as empirical fact , but ultimately of a different analytic order and existential weight.

    While the logical is never in these accounts expressly predicated as superior to or more fundamental than the empirical, this implication is clear. While other forms of single-systems theory did not mark this distinction between the logical and the empirical in this way, intersectional theorists have still critiqued Marxist-feminist single systems theory in two distinct ways. In the first place, often though not exclusively Marxist-feminist unitary theory focused only on two aspects of life — gender and class — in ways that implicitly or by omission seem to suggest that race, sexuality, ability and nationality are of secondary or incidental importance.

    At the very least, they tended not to mention or treat with a sustained analysis the multiple ways in which gender as a structure and as a concept was raced and sexualised, as well as deeply embedded in histories of colonialism and imperialism. In another way, intersectional theorists critiqued unitary theorists for their focus on the housewife as the primary locus for understanding the relationship between gender and capitalism. Much of single-system theory accounts of domestic labour, especially in the first wave of Marxist feminism from the s to the s, presumed a heterosexual, single-income married couple, often with children, in ways that did not explain or incorporate analyses of queer couples, dual-income households, or of single-parent households.

    It was especially the latter two of these exclusions that led some prominent black feminists including Angela Davis to argue that the model of the dominant trend of Marxist Feminism of those years implicitly assumed a white, heterosexual, middle-class frame of analysis. In this way, single-system theories that discuss gender and occasionally race only as secondary after-effects of capital relations, cannot adequately account for the specific forms of oppression faced by women of colour, working-class queers, or gender non-conforming people.

    These theories seem still to take white, employed, married, heterosexual men and their wives as the only subjects of inquiry. Both dual-system and single-system white Marxist feminisms of the s and s tended to essentialise and homogenise the women they were discussing. These accounts nearly always assume that women are in heterosexual couplings with a male breadwinner. They equate the ability to become pregnant with womanhood itself. They assume that the experiences of middle-class white women are definitive and universal determinants of womanhood itself.

    There is a pretense to the homogeneity of experience covered by the word sisterhood that does not in fact exist. Certainly there are very real differences between us of race, age, and sex.

    Marx at the Movies

    But it is not those differences between us that are separating us. It is rather our refusal to recognize those differences. Marxist feminists have responded to the above-articulated critiques in a variety of ways. Some have simply dismissed intersectionality; [18] others have attempted to nuance their positions and adopt more-sophisticated understandings of the structures of domination.

    As I have argued elsewhere, [19] Marxist feminism underwent a radical shift in its assumptions after the dissolution of the Wages for Housework campaign in North America and the disbanding of central Marxist-feminist organisations like Lotta Feminista in Italy, which were producing the most developed Marxist-feminist theories in the s.

    In particular, responding to the above-explained critiques from women of colour around the world, many Marxist-feminists shifted their perspectives radically to account for race as a primary structure of oppression, neither secondary to nor epiphenomenal of class.

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    They began also to develop situated accounts of the role of women in the global geo-political economy that recognised the simultaneity of oppressions based on race, gender, class and country of origin. Marxist-feminist theorists have not only engaged in the two above-named strategies — they have also offered critiques of intersectionality theory. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many of these criticisms allege that intersectionality has an underdeveloped analysis of class as a fundamental axis of oppression.

    Gimenez argues that there is something distinctive about the organisation of class oppression that makes it different in kind from either race or gender. This differential treatment requires a wholesale analysis of capitalism as a system and a structure of material relations of production and reproduction, accumulation and dispossession, which has its roots in political economy and effects in the multifaceted realms of culture, ideology and politics.

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    The lack of focused and sustained analysis of political economy has led some Marxists to accuse intersectionality of reinforcing certain tenets of bourgeois liberalism. In a widely read and distributed pamphlet, Eve Mitchell alleges that the focus of intersectionality on identity politics constitutes a reinforcement of specifically capitalist ideas of individuality.

    However, intersectionality theory replicates this problem by simply adding particular moments, or determinant points; hooks goes on to argue for race and class inclusion in a feminist analysis. This selection highlights two related but slightly different criticisms. The second but related criticism that Mitchell levies concerns the nature of identity as it is discussed by intersectionality.

    Marxism, as a perspective grounded in historical materialism, generally views identities as effects of structural, material and historical processes. Hence, accounts of identity that are only descriptive and do not speak about the structures enframing, creating, policing and maintaining these identities lack, from a Marxist perspective, the crucial and necessary explanatory element of theory that would be grounded in a historical perspective of the power of structures and institutions.