Trees, Nets, and Other Curiosities: Marxism and Intersectional Feminism

What the most sophisticated modern feminists, such as Butler and Lorde(1), have in common is that they are weavers of nets. A net, of course, is the most elegant way of conceiving oppression in terms of the intersectional framework Butler, Lorde, and others subscribe  to. Unlike the old liberal (“white”) and radical feminisms, this perspective clearly denies a that a basis unity of experience – a universal sisterhood- exists among women. Rather any sisterhood is cut across by differences of class, sexual orientation, race, and other such factors. Furthermore, this perspective finally acknowledges the existence of transgender and non-binary individuals, something radical feminism is theoretically incapable of doing. Intersectional feminists understand that people can be an are oppressed and exploited in a multitude of different ways. That is the basic intersectional claim, but it is also immediately obvious from the merest glance at society. The unique claim of intersectional feminism as a political project (stated explicitly by Butler) is, however, that while all these kinds of oppression exist and interact (intersect), they are not interdependent and there is no hierarchy among or causal link between different forms of oppression. A net of oppression is formed by the overlapping ropes of oppression and people exist on the knots in the net- the intersections in the rope- yet each rope can be clearly traced and even removed from the net without impacting the others, they coexist but are not codependent. This perspective is the basic similarity between Butler and Lorde, there they take their leave of each other to address different audiences, explore different problems, and embrace different solutions. Yet it is worth lingering at this crossroads (intersection?) between the two a because it is here that they both make a basic error and it is here that Marxists must take our leave of both.

The intersectional perspective describes oppression as an all-encompassing net, but reality doesn’t quite conform to that. A tree is growing at the crossroads of Lorde and Butler, a tree of oppression and exploitation that neither of them adequately describes or predicts- but one would hardly expect them to, they are not Marxists after all. Oppressions overlap, certainly, but they also intertwine and grow out of one another. There is a causal link between oppressions, there could hardly be otherwise, and they are interdependent. Observation reveals, not a net, but a tree. Everything stems from the roots, from the material (economic) underpinnings of society. This is not to say that every intense of oppression immediately leaps back to economics, but that in last analysis the class division of society is the root of all oppression and explication. Oppressions build on each other and interact dialectically, creating new forms of oppression (which are, naturally, more removed from the initial socioeconomic basis), and, in this sense, it is correct to speak of certain forms of oppression being more fundamental (but not more objectionable, difficult to bear, or morally pressing) than others.

Likewise, while intersectional feminists might speak of classism, or class oppression, as one oppression among many; Marxists must again object as the use of the terms classist and classism obscure the nature of class society by making the question one of ideological prejudice rather than a physical relation to production. Class oppression cannot be compared to oppressions such as racism or sexism because class relationships reflect concrete- exploitive- relations to production and capital; whereas sexism and racism are ideological constructs arising from material relationships, class society is the material relationship itself. Black people are not actually inferior, women are not actually less rational, and so on. The proletariat, however, actually is the laboring class and the bourgeois actually does own the means of production.

That is not to say that other forms of oppression are less important or easier to endure than class oppression, but that they are part of the sociopolitical structure, rather than the material-economic base, of society and it is incorrect to assume that it is possible to simply strike at the the material basis of society, without also conducting an immediate struggle against all forms of oppression found in society. It is impossible to deal the tree a fatal blow without first struggling with all the leaves and branches. Class society will not be overthrown by people who refuse to engage in battle with the various oppressions created by it (racism, sexism, transphobia, etc.) and only in struggle against all those forms of oppression  can the necessary forces to challenge the material foundations of present society be mobilized. Only be struggling against all forms of oppression and carrying the struggle all the way to the overthrow of the capitalist world order and the establishment of communism- the liquidation of class society- can all oppression and exploitation finally be ended.


(1) See Judith Butler, “Subjects of Sex/Gender/Desire”, Gender Trouble (1990), Routledge, New York and Aurde Lorde, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle The Master’s House”, Sister Outsider (1984), Ten Speed Press, New York


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