Dialectics / Dialogue: a review of Ashley Bohrer's Marxism and Intersectionality

Ashley Bohrer's latest book brings Marxism and intersectionality into dialogue, offering a groundbreaking reading of the two traditions, but a limited view of collective struggle.

Marxism and Intersectionality: Race, Gender, Class and Sexuality Under Contemporary Capitalism sees Marxist scholar Ashley Bohrer attempt a reintroduction of two liberatory frameworks often taken to be at odds with each other. This book is intended as a corrective to accounts which overstate the difference between Marxism and intersectional theory. As Bohrer’s introduction has it: ‘much of the contemporary debate between these traditions arises out of a mutual dismissal based on not reading or not understanding what is read.’ Bohrer’s primary aim is therefore to read key texts from these two traditions (with a slant towards intersectionality and black feminism), and to bring them into a new and better informed dialogue. Marxism and Intersectionality is clearly structured and ambitiously inclusive, ranging from historical accounts of anti-racist thinking’s development across time, to the introduction of fresh terms of art (such as ‘equiprimordiality’) to better bring the two schools into alignment.

In the intriguingly titled ‘Chapter Zero’, Bohrer focuses on the merged roots of Marxist politics (at least in the US) and intersectionality. Although the term ‘intersectionality’ itself is much more recent, the question of how racism shapes black womanhood has been addressed over a much longer period. 19th century figures including Maria Stewart, Sojourner Truth and Ida Wells-Barnett are surveyed for their influential insights into the interplay of class, gender and race, through to mid-20th century communists such as Claudia Jones, and from later 20th century Standpoint Theory, and other frameworks developed by the New Left. Intersectionality is contrasted with older theories such as ‘Sexist Racism’ and ‘Triple Jeopardy’ (a term originally coined by the Third World Womens’ Alliance), and those who used clear precursor terms (Audre Lorde, without naming it as a principle, observed that oppressions ‘intersect’). Finally, we arrive at theorists who explicitly described their framework as intersectionality (the best known being Kimberlé Crenshaw, although Bohrer explores various theorists who claim to have coined the term). This chapter satisfyingly demonstrates intersectionality’s origins within the broader context of US anti-racism: Bohrer describes this work as identifying an ‘intersectional tradition’—a tacit reference to black Marxist scholar Cedric Robinson’s ‘Black Radical Tradition’.

Chapter One further elaborates on this tradition, including identifying the key features, and in particular the analytic elements that are distinctive to intersectional thought. Most interestingly, Bohrer casts intersectionality as a framework which refuses primacy to any particular axis of oppression. This contraposition has been described by Audre Lorde as establishing a ‘hierarchy of oppressions’, and by Elizabeth Martínez’s more derisive formulation ‘oppression olympics’. This also implicitly distances intersectional accounts from more recently fashionable anti-racist intellectual currents such as Afro-Pessimism. Any account which brings a particular form of oppression into ‘ontological’ view, rather than considering them as multiply operative, is at odds with an intersectional approach. Emphasis on this feature of intersectional thinking seems important given Bohrer’s position as a white scholar writing on black feminism. (Confessional writing is avoided entirely throughout the book, in contrast to Asad Haider’s recent offering on the politics of identity.)

It’s also this principle which led to the dynamism intersectionality introduced to feminism: with no single form of oppression granted primacy, new opportunities were offered within liberatory movements for previously marginalised groups to assert their own perspectives, and develop leading roles.

This chapter also tacitly aligns intersectional thinking and Marxism through arguing that intersectionality ‘is not a neutral, disinterested account of that power; rather it is a critique of the way that power operates.’ While illuminating for many social scientists, intersectionality will always be more intimately enmeshed in movement politics. While the origin of the term intersectionality itself was legal scholarship, it has never been primarily disseminated as a scholarly apparatus. Those familiar with these terms are as likely to have encountered them through movement politics or informal channels such as social media, as part of their formal education in a classroom. In other words, the aim of intersectionality is not only to describe power as it finds it, but challenge it.

Chapter Two addresses Marxist criticisms of intersectionality. Bohrer’s argument against lazier efforts to group intersectionality with poststructuralist theory seem like a decisive open and shut case. Highlighting the critiques of intersectional theory by the renowned Deleuzian decolonial scholar Jasbir Puar, Bohrer succinctly shows that most post-structuralist traditions are actually obviously at odds with intersectional approaches.

The engagement with Marxists who go beyond lazy dismissals becomes less reliable, beginning with black Marxist Feminist Eve Mitchell’s essay ‘I Am A Woman and a Human’. Bohrer addresses primarily Mitchell’s most polemical arguments: that identities appear in intersectional analysis as ahistorical and idealistical, which reveals the entire approach as ‘bourgeois’. However, these overblown rhetorical points aside, Bohrer leaves unaddressed one of Mitchell’s much more interesting and unusual positions. While Mitchell certainly oversimplifies the class composition of intersectional theorists, the basis of her objection is based on a feminist politics informed by the humanism of Frantz Fanon, in particular his treatment of ‘negrophobia’ as undermining universalism in Black Skin, White Masks. This existentialism-tinged approach to analysing oppression seems to offer a means for ensuring that the individual does not disappear from view when we survey the systemic forces that direct their circumstances. Adding ‘axes’ of oppression may refine an approach, but it cannot correct its orientation on this level. As Mitchell puts it:

Patriarchy and white supremacy are not objects or “institutions” that exist throughout history; they are particular expressions of our labour, our life-activity, that are conditioned by (and in turn, condition) our mode of production....A historical understanding of patriarchy needs to understand patriarchy from within a set of social relations based on the form of labor. In other words, we cannot understand the form of appearance, “womanhood,” apart from the essence, a universal human.

Mitchell’s Fanonian point here is not simply to expose a potential compatibility between capitalist economics and intersectionality, but rather to undermine investigation of the systemic from any non-humanistic orientation. While it’s certainly unfair to charge every thinker in Bohrer’s ‘intersectional tradition’ of falling short of humanism in this sense, it seems undeniable that this stands as a continual risk of social analysis.

Bohrer is fairer in her reading of US Trotsykist Sharon Smith, who serves as something of a foil for Bohrer’s own position throughout the book. Bohrer skilfully rebuts Smith’s framing of intersectionality as a mere additive to a sound underpinning of Marxist analysis. Engaging extensively with Smith is in one light understandable, given her multiple publications on the topic over several years. These writings were largely distributed via official publications of the International Socialist Organisation (or ISO), a US Trotskyist organisation. Smith was a leading member of the ISO, which abruptly disbanded in spring 2019 in the wake of a sprawling scandal, involving both accusations of rape against a leading member, and a cover-up conducted by several more. Prior to its dissolution, Smith was a leading member of the group, and has recently been one of the few who’ve publicly defended the behaviour of its former leadership. This seems to make Smith’s perspective as a feminist considerably less relevant today, and perhaps too much of an easy target. With that said, her view that sexism, homophobia and racism can dissolve ‘in a matter of days’ in the context of a strike is certainly not limited to members of the former ISO.

It seems a little unfair to present, as Bohrer does, the account offered by David McNally and Sue Ferguson as suffering from these same failings. McNally’s chapter in Tithi Bhattycharya’s edited collection Mapping Social Reproduction Theory (2017) was among the most savvy in its acknowledgment that ‘SRT’ is partially a game of catch-up between Marxist Feminism and insights usually associated with Black feminism.

However, McNally and Ferguson share with Bhattycharya and other Social Reproduction Theorists a view that intersectionality serves as primarily descriptive concerning oppression. They take this to be in contrast to the explanatory power of Marxism’s historical materialism: capitalism is not taken for granted, but considered for why it behaves as it does, with reference to its historical development. Bohrer offers no full response to this argument, but argues (buried in a footnote in Chapter Four) that McNally and Ferguson’s position: ‘seems to suggest that the same categories, relations and theories initially developed to respond to white, working-class, heterosexual, married, cisgender, able-bodied, women (social reproduction theory) can remain essentially unchanged, and respond productively, sensitively, and profoundly to the situation of people who fit none of these social locations’. This position would be considerably more powerful had Bohrer offered a more even handed engagement with Eve Mitchell: as it is, it seems that stricter Marxist treatments critical of intersectionality are treated as inappropriately repurposing decontextualised universalising frameworks, while critiques explicitly drawing from the heritage of anti-colonial thought are passed over. In truth, Marxists of a range of traditions and personal social positions have found intersectionality unfit for purpose as an explanatory framework. Reading the framework of McNally and Ferguson through the shortcomings of earlier Marxist Feminists seems no more decisive than associating all intersectionality theorists with Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.

Neither is the chapter’s response to Marxist suspicion of intersectionality’s origins in legal theory altogether satisfying (even though I take this ‘appeal to origins’ to be one of the weakest possible lines of attack on any school of thought). While, as Bohrer argues, it is true that scholars such as Crenshaw staged a critical approach towards legal theory, that the courtroom came to be viewed as the key battleground by so many radicals was a result of a historical drift towards professionalised activism after the triumph of the New Right. Although often caustically critical of the justice system, the careers of radical legal scholars remained (and remain) primarily directed towards attending to it as a theoretical focus. The scope of this research often restricted itself to improving as best they could the lot of those marginalised populations obliged to pass through the legal system’s unforgiving processes. The same tack was taken by a later generation, exemplified by the trans theorist Dean Spade, founder of the NYC gender nonconforming-orientated Sylvia Rivera Law Project, which ran legal support primarily for impoverished trans people of colour. (Spade is also cited approvingly by Bohrer.)

This is one of the few moments of this largely scrupulous book where it seems like a more substantial dose of historical contextualisation might have been helpful. The same political moment that made lawyers and academics seem so unavoidably important, and arguments for overcoming racism and sexism through the power of the unifying strike (as made by the likes of Sharon Smith) seem so fantastical. The decline of the workers’ movement was broad and near infinitely corrosive in its scope — from the diminishing populations working unionised jobs, to the ebbing of the strike across the Anglophone world, to the extension of ‘at will’ employment across more and more of the US. This produced the apparent requirement for a consolidation of leftist energies towards rearguard appeals to the judiciary, a system that in previous eras leftists might have hoped more easily have been bypassed. It reduced emancipatory movements to concerning themselves with questions of ‘representation’ in elite institutions and media depictions. It also resulted in widespread arguments that theories which historicised class society had themselves become outmoded, that positing a unifying social revolution that would overturn currently naturalised relations of exploitation could only amount to ‘totalitarian’ visions. At once, radical frameworks which downplayed questions of class came to prominence, and holdout circles of Marxists grew overly guarded towards the ‘post-structural’ menace. It’s against the grain of this context that efforts to twin Marxism and intersectionality must work.

Chapter Four (‘Intersectional Critiques of Marxism’) is clearly a counterpart to Marxist attacks on intersectionality in Chapter Two. But this second run-through seems rather less specific: Bohrer avoids naming and citing critics of Marxism, although each of the arguments she addresses are certainly commonplaces among non-Marxian activists and academics. It’s possible that these criticisms of Marxism, while familiar, are largely unpublished. Critics of Marxist analysis have charged us variously with economic reductionism, Eurocentrism, excessive focus on questions of production, and a homogenising view of the working class. Bohrer alternates between defending the Marxist tradition through a reading of Engels (including an illuminating exegesis of what is meant by ‘determining’), and conceding to criticisms by treating other Marxists as expendable losses. Bohrer again uses the example of Sharon Smith as an example of Marxist thinking which is hamstrung by the failings identified by intersectional theorists.

Rather more could have been done here to identify the extent of overlap between arguments made by intersectional revolutionaries, and ‘post-Marxist’ theorists of a more liberal bent. One slip-up also appears when Bohrer (perhaps being tongue in cheek) describes Marx’s references to ‘men’ shaping history as ‘problematically androcentric’. While certainly problematic, this androcentrism is purely the work of a translator: in the original German, Menschen means people (and generally appears as a universal term, as in Menschenrechte, or human rights), unlike the male Männer.

At times, Bohrer seems to concede rather too much to intersectional critics, the following passage being a case in point:

No Marxists I know of — or at least, no Marxist in the North — grounds their analysis in, say, the position of the Bolivian women, using their situation, the development of capital in Bolivia, its specificities over and against other countries in the Global South, as the base situation from which white, European, working class men could be derived, albeit with slight tweaks.

Benedict Anderson (an impeccably Western Marxist) began his 1983 monograph Imagined Communities by citing as a great historical turning point the three way conflict between the socialist states of Cambodia, Vietnam and China. Anderson considered this a decisive moment in the fortunes of nationalism, with hopes of a communist internationalism clearly floundering in the face of vying states applying what looked considerably more like realpolitik. It’s also hard to know what to make of the ‘Marxist in the North’ proviso: are Marxist scholars working in the Global South generally exempt from the sweeping statements of their traditions’ cruder critics? Are they likely to be any less methodologically Eurocentric than Marxists based elsewhere, or indeed Global South academics from other traditions? And is there not a certain North-centricity to proposing intersectionality as a globally applicable framework, given that Bohrer has extensively demonstrated its origins in responsiveness to racialisation as a gendered process dominating the United States? One could easily argue that it’s exactly the internationalism of Marxism that leads to its often ostentatious hostility towards scholarly trends unmistakably centred in the Anglophone world.

Chapters Three (‘Queer, Feminist, Anti-Racist and Anti-Imperialist Marxisms’) and Five (‘Oppression and Exploitation Beyond Reductions’) are best considered together, and offer a run through the sub-currents within Marxism to which Bohrer herself belongs, followed by an attempt to introduce the term ‘equiprimordiality’ as a means of understanding oppression and exploitation as co-constituting features of class societies.

Effectively another attempt at refuting intersectional dismissals of Marxism via more subtle means, Chapter Three begins by arguing: ‘Totalising claims about Marxisms’ disinterest in questions of oppression are false, even if many of the approaches contained within these sub-traditions of Marxism have not always been understood or adopted by more mainstream Marxist theory and activism.’ Bohrer demonstrates this through outlining an ‘Orthodox Story’ of the origins and operations of capitalism. This ‘Orthodox Story’ appears to be much the same notion as Eric Hobsbawm’s ‘vulgar Marxism’, effectively taking Capital Volume One as an authoritative work to dogmatise around. Bohrer examines each of the claims made in this ‘Orthodox Story’ in light of Marxist scholarship from the tradition she herself is advancing. Through reference points ranging from queer Marxists (Peter Drucker, Petrus Liu and Holly Lewis) to Marxist theorists of of colonality and racism (Anial Quijano, Dipesh Chakrabarty, Iyko Day), the limits and oversimplifications of the Orthodox Story are shown up with the cutting edge of Marxist research. Somewhat confusingly, frameworks from scholars who are explicitly non-Marxian are also included (Achille Mbembe’s necropolitics and Jasbir Puar’s terrorist assemblages).

This chapter demonstrates Bohrer’s prodigious familiarity with revolutionary writings from a wide range of contexts. The approach of setting out a conventional ‘story’ to then disassemble point by point is quite different from the more historical working-through of the intersectional tradition, but this seems appropriate given the disparate threads of subaltern scholarship the chapter weaves together. The resulting analysis shows that there exists an expansive set of historical materialist traditions exploring questions from racialisation to sexuality—even when complaining that few Marxists have tackled questions of desire, Bohrer is able to muster four citations that do just that. However, Bohrer aims equally to demonstrate why approaches to class analysis that cling to the ‘Orthodox Story’ will only ever be inadequate, and non-responsive to the existing tradition of Marxism. This is exactly because of the flexibility and pervasiveness of economic relations through other forms of oppression. As a consequence: ‘Exploitation in the strict sense alone is certainly insufficient to explain capitalism, if one conceives of it as the multivalent, dynamic, shifting, proliferating regime that it is.’

In the face of this fluid and variegated capitalism, any framework able to offer explanations will avoid reducing economic relations to any single process (the most relevant one in question between the extraction of surplus value often centred to a fault by vulgar Marxists). Bohrer sees a distinction between exploitation and oppression as key, insisting this be followed through with an acknowledgement that all axes of oppression (including class) play out in relation to both. Any rhetorical flair aside, ‘equiprimordiality’ appears to be closer to the best of multi-systems analysis, in that it identifies multiple forms of oppression without any one taking primacy (this links with Bohrer’s analytic work in Chapter One to suggest that the new theory is truly intersectional, accepting no hierarchy). However, it also seems clearly at odds with recent efforts by Cinzia Arruzza, David McNally and Sue Ferguson to further develop what Lise Vogel originally termed a ‘unitary theory’.

Unitary theories of capitalism have centred social reproduction exactly because it seems to demonstrate at once how modes of production are reliant on particular intergenerational processes, and because it does not accept that the oppression which appears in households or the street requires a wholly different analytic to that which presents itself on factory floors or in office spaces. The explanatory potential of social reproduction theory, as McNally and Ferguson see it, originates in it being ‘holistic and unitary’. In other words, what social reproduction theorists generally share is an account of oppression following an understanding of capitalism as a historic system that both came to its current position of global dominance and sustains itself across generations through the operation of racism, hetero-patriarchical households, and so on.

While Bohrer approvingly cites Arruzza throughout, her introduction mentions in passing that she herself takes ‘racism, colonization, heteropatriarchy, and/or sexism’ to be systems, requiring explanation beyond an analysis of capitalism. While equiprimordiality is not framed explicitly as a rival to unitary system approaches, it seems unclear why it should be favoured over them, or if it should be considered compatible.

Chapters Six and Seven close the book, offering a deeper consideration of intersectionality and Marxism. Chapter Six addresses dialectics, and is the books most theoretically innovative moment. With especially engaged reference to political scientist George Ciccariello-Maher’s Decolonising Dialectics, this chapter convincingly argues that intersectionality already pursues an approach that Marxists would typically term dialectical. Rather than dialectics being something that Bohrer’s putative ‘intersectional tradition’ falls short of, and needs added to it, the same ends have been achieved in different terms. Bohrer casts the best of intersectional theory as demonstrating flexibility and ambivalence of the kind necessary for social explanation. This allows intersectionality to be favourably compared to much of Marxist thinking:

Intersectionality’s embrace of the contradictory character of subject formation, all the way down to the level of experience, is a certain radicalisation of the concept of dialectics, able to take the contradictions of the world and see how they are written on to the body, into our speech, and into our desire.

Chapter Seven tackles the question of solidarity, and is perhaps the least forgiving of existing Marxist thought in the book. Bohrer objects to typical socialist appeals to solidarity as based around what she calls ‘lowest common denominator’ appeals to shared interests. She rejects even the ‘universalism from below’ posited by her fellow queer Marxist Holly Lewis as inadequately responsive to the ways in which capitalist divisions leave our experiences incommensurable. While Lewis advocates a ‘Politics for Everybody’, for Bohrer any appeal to solidarity which does not explicitly include and work from distinctions will not suffice. Appeals to commonality always risk homogenising those engaged in struggle, in contrast to Audre Lorde’s account of variations between women and lesbians as a ‘house of difference’. Bohrer argues that this runs the risk of leaving would-be revolutionaries in a state of denial about the material forms oppression takes — rather than being centred and worked through, differences are treated as secondary or even negligible, when compared to shared interests that play out at a baser level. This produces political alliances effectively reliant on denial.

While this concern should be responded to carefully, there is a problem opened up by Bohrer’s thorough-going refusal of more traditional Marxian appeals to class interest. This outlook is not possible to reduce to ‘class reductionist’ readings of Marxism, with its foundation being firmly rooted in Marx’s own development of alienation. The oppression faced by the proletariat is not merely their exploitation, but also the conditions that oblige them to actively participate in it. In Marx’s account of freedom, capitalism has achieved its dominance exactly through the capture of these base animal functions (requiring food, rest, shelter). Capitalism obliges its workforces to participate in economic life in order to secure these needs, correspondingly coercing us into a shared position of striving to avoid personal deprivation.

To put it simply, humans in any era will need to feed themselves. In a capitalist context, this need is served through selling workers a sandwich, with the predicate that they perform enough wage labour to afford one. It’s being left in this position (far more than involvement in exploitative labour strictly defined) which draws together the proletariat both in terms of experiences, and interest. The reduction of human enjoyment and cultural focus to these animal functions that provides the most demeaning and constricting limits on the capitalist workforces’ freedom. While we cannot reduce our lives to these limits, in any class society those who find themselves exploited can never escape them.

Accordingly, freedom becomes shaped around participation in the workforce: one might take on paid employment to avoid the dire fate of living in an abusive family home, or save up earnings in the hope of being able to afford migration to a less oppressive national context, or cling to an otherwise intolerable working environment in order to hire a trauma therapist.

While it may be that ‘lowest common denominator’ lines of affinity may seem unsatisfying in one light, this shared plight is from another view the shared state of being freed from the means of production which draws together the proletariat. Being left in the position of selling one’s working hours is at once a position and experience, which provides those left in with remarkably similar pressures and burdens if they wish to survive. This deprivation is distinct from direct participation in exploited labour, and far more decisive. (To avoid performing exploitable labour for an entire lifetime is possible for a member of the proletariat, but it provides no form of escape from the lived condition of signing on, begging from friends or relying on loved ones, negotiating with an endless procession of state bureaucrats, anxiously grocery shopping as best one can, and the rest). To be part of the proletariat can only be to have one’s creative potential constrained and delimited by more rudimentary forms of fulfillment being rendered starkly conditional.

This may seem a wholly negative account of shared interest, but the horizon for solidarity in this account is that of abolition: Marxist accounts of proletarian life do not simply bemoan these conditions, but historicise them with a view towards ending them. Similarly, Bohrer’s account stresses the universalising nature of political struggle:

Solidarity is thus the name for affirming the differences that exploitation and oppression produce within and between us; it is also the name for recognising that every time I fight against anyone’s oppression or exploitation, I fight against my own, I fight against everyone’s.

This account of solidarity is striking for its divergence from deconstruction. True to the book’s earlier distancing from post-structuralism, this intersectional Marxist strategy proposes celebrating, rather than critically collapsing distinctions. But I can only express ambivalence at the prospect of affirming differences stemming directly from oppressive contexts. In particular, one would hope that whatever identities exist to sustain and oversee exploitative relations would meet their abrupt end along with the overturning of class society.

Marxism and Intersectionality serves as a groundbreaking and regrettably unprecedented critical examination of two traditions which are often all too crudely cast as competing rivals. Marxism and Intersectionality is commendable both for its legwork compiling a much wider range of scholarship than any one book would usually allow, and carefully demonstrating the commensurate features without dismissing differences. At its best (especially Chapter Six) the book serves as a genuine work of ‘translation’, teasing out explicitly linkages which might otherwise have gone overlooked. At a particularly bleak juncture for revolutionaries of whatever persuasion, this book should be taken as a contribution to making sense of an on-going and shared struggle.

Ashley J Bohrer’s ‘Marxism and Intersectionality: Race, Gender, Class and Sexuality Under Contemporary Capitalism’ is published by Transcript Publishing in Europe, and by Columbia University Press in the US.


Jules Joanne Gleeson (@socialrepro)

Jules Joanne Gleeson is a writer, comedian and historian. She has published essays in outlets including Viewpoint Magazine, Invert Journal and VICE, and performed internationally at a wide range of communist and queer cultural events. She is the editor with Elle O’Rourke of Transgender Marxism.