Book Review: Ashley Bohrer - Marxism and Intersectionality (2020). Reviewed By: Carlos L. GarridoRead Now
In her 2020 text Marxism and Intersectionality: Race, Gender, Class and Sexuality under Contemporary Capitalism, Ashley J. Bohrer sets out to demystify the erroneous conception that the traditions of Marxism and Intersectionality are incompatible. In finding that in academia the interactions between these two traditions have been “grounded more in caricature than in close reading,” Bohrer sets out to expose and correct what she calls the “synecdochal straw person fallacy” present in the way each tradition has interacted with the other (AB, 14, 20). In noting that both traditions represent active ways of “reading, understanding, thinking, and dreaming beyond the deep structures of exploitation and oppression that frame our world,” her starting point is historical, i.e., she begins by outlining the historical precursors of the intersectional tradition (AB, 21). In doing so, she situates the origins of intersectional thought in spaces inseparably linked to communist and socialist activism, organizations, and parties. Nonetheless, it is important to note before we continue that her goal is not to ‘synthesize’ the two traditions, or to subsume the one under the other, but to articulate a ‘both-and’ approach, in which the conditions for the possibility of “theoretical coalitions between perspectives, in which the strengths of each perspective are preserved” arises (AB, 23).
Bohrer sets the groundwork for her project by situating the historical unity of the intersectional tradition and socialism. She begins by examining the 19th century thinkers Maria Stewart, Sojourner Truth, and Ida B. Wells-Barnett. Bohrer argues that these three central foremothers of the intersectional tradition had concerns not limited to the dynamics of race and gender, i.e., the three understood that concerns of “labor, class, capitalism, and political economy” were inseparable from concerns of race and gender (AB, 35). In Stewart she demonstrates the presence of an early (1830s) notion of surplus value at hand in the analysis of enslaved black women’s work, who she saw as performing the labor that allowed for the profits of the owner. In Truth she examines her lucid development of the structural role reproductive labor played for capitalism, and more specifically, how the exploitation of this reproductive labor takes a variety of forms according to race. Lastly, in Wells-Barnett she examines how her groundbreaking work on lynching not only demystifies the narrative of the black male rapist, but postulates that “lynching was predominantly a tool of economic control,” used to keep the black community economically subordinated to white capitalist (AB, 40).
Bohrer proceeds to examine the three key intersectional forerunners of the first half of the 20th century: Louise Thompson Patterson, Claudia Jones, and W.E.B. Du Bois, all which were at some point members of the Communist Party. In Patterson we see the development of the concept of ‘triple exploitation’ used to describe the unique position black working-class women have under capitalism, placing them in a context in which they are exploited as workers, women, and blacks. Influenced by Patterson’s notion of ‘triple-exploitation’ and the Marxist-Leninist concept of ‘superexploitation,’ Claudia Jones refurnishes and expands on both – reconceptualizing the former as ‘triple-oppression,’ and redefining the latter to account for the uniquely exploitative position black women occupy under capitalism. In postulating black women’s position as ‘superexploited,’ Jones considers black women, not the white industrial proletariat, the “most revolutionary segment of the working class” (AB, 50). Lastly, in Du Bois we see expressed a profound understanding that race, class, and gender are tied with “simultaneous significance” to the structural contradictions of capitalism (AB, 51). This simultaneous significance of the three requires an individual and systematic understanding of oppression to be fully comprehended.
Bohrer closes out her historical contextualization by looking at the last half of the 20th century. She begins by looking at the three approaches to thinking about the relations of class, race, and gender that arise in the 1960s-80s. These three are: double and triple jeopardy, standpoint theory, and sexist racism. Bohrer argues that although these three played a great role in the development of the intersectional tradition, they are still “distinct from a full theory of intersectionality,” for they contain, in different ways, the reifying, homogenizing, and essentializing ways of thinking of race, class, and gender that intersectionality attempts to move beyond (AB, 35). Bohrer then examines the anti-capitalist critiques present in the intersectional thought of the Combahee River Collective, Patricia Hill Collins, Angela Davis, bell hooks, and Audre Lorde. In the Combahee River Collective, we see the inclusion of class, race, gender, and sexuality as interlocking systems of oppression that “permeate all moments of capitalist exploitation” (AB, 74). The same sentiment, conceptualized in various ways, permeates throughout the work of Collins (matrix of domination), Davis, hooks (white supremacist capitalist patriarchy), and Lorde (white male heterosexual capitalism).
Having contextualized the historical unfolding of the intersectional tradition, Bohrer moves on to examine what she considers to be the best forms of intersectionality, i.e., the ones that do not leave class behind, and the best forms of Marxism, i.e., the ones that do not consider race, sex, and other forms of oppression secondary and epiphenomenal to class-based exploitation. Beyond this, she also examines the disputes each side has with the other, and how these end up being largely based on synecdochal straw person fallacies.
Bohrer begins by attempting to lay out as refined a definition as possible to the question ‘what is intersectionality?’. To get to the refined, Bohrer starts with the general, stating that broadly “intersectionality is a term that brings together a variety of positions on the relationships between modes of oppression and identity in the contemporary world” (AB, 81). From here, Bohrer goes on to postulate five definitions of intersectionality as presented by some of its key theorists: Kimberlé Crenshaw, Leslie McCall, Patricia Hill Collins, Ange-Marie Hancock, and Vivian May. By showing there is disputes between intersectional thinkers on how intersectionality should be thought of, Bohrer breaks the conceptions of intersectionality as a homogenous theoretical approach, and demonstrates that there is plurality, disputes, and discussion actively happening within the tradition. Nonetheless, she marks six central postulates of intersectional thinking that permeate in most intersectional theorists. These are: 1- anti single axis thinking – the various forms of oppression are enmeshed within each other and inseparable; 2- anti ranking oppressions – no one oppression is any more important than another, i.e., being constructed relationally, you cannot solve one without solving the others; 3- Think of oppression in multiple registers – structurally, individually, representationally, etc.; 4- Identity is politically and theoretically important – identity is never pure, it is always “multi-pronged, group-based, historically-constituted, and heterogenous;” 5- Inextricable link of theory and practice – activism and the theoretical are linked; and 6- Power is described and attacked – intersectionality is not neutral, it is both “descriptive and normative,” it describes and critiques power (AB, 93, 95).
Having laid out the plurality of approaches, and also the unifying central postulates of intersectionality, Bohrer proceeds to examine the ways in which some Marxist theorists distort and fallaciously critique intersectionality. I will here lay what I take to be the six (out of eight) most important and frequent critiques of intersectionality, and the responses Bohrer gives to each. The first critique argues that intersectionality is individualistic, and thus, in line with the ethos of capitalism. But, as we saw in the previous postulates, identity for the intersectional theorist is group based and historically constructed. The second critique reduces intersectionality to postmodernism and poststructuralism. In doing so, Bohrer references Sirma Bilge in arguing that what is taking place is the “whitening of intersectionality,” i.e., a framework originated and guided by black women is subsumed under a white man predominated field (AB, 107). The third critique postulates intersectionality as liberal multiculturalism, falling within the logic of neoliberalism. Bohrer argues that although intersectional discourse is whitewashed and misused by neoliberal representationalism, intersectional theorists are ardent critics of this and fight to sustain the radical ethos of intersectionality. The fourth critique argues that intersectionality does not sufficiently account for issues of class. Bohrer contends, through Linda Alcoff, that in order to properly understand class, one must understand it enmeshed in race, sex, and gender. The fifth critique argues that intersectional theorists fail to account for the historical causes of that which they describe and critique. Bohrer responds that the intersectional theorists do account for the historical causes of the matrices of domination, but that instead of attributing the cause to one thing, they take a multi-dimensional approach. The last critique we will examine states that intersectionality multiplies identities and makes it harder for solidarity to arise. Bohrer’s response to this is that we must refrain from thinking of solidarity as the lowest common denominator of sameness, solidarity must be thought of as the building of coalitions of difference, united by a sameness in interest, not identity.
Bohrer now embarks on repeating with Marxism what she just did with intersectionality. She begins by devoting her time to demonstrating that what she calls the reductive ‘orthodox story’ of Marxism, which postulates Marxism “as a fundamentally class-oriented, economically-reductionist, teleological theory of waged factory labor,” is not the only form of Marxism (AB, 124). Bohrer approaches this task by postulating seven assumptions the ‘orthodox story’ makes, and then responds to each in a way that demonstrates how Marx, Engels, and queer, feminist, anti-racist, and anti-imperialist Marxists have addressed these questions free of the reductive assumptions of the ‘orthodox story.’ Some of these non-reductive approaches include: 1- looking beyond waged labor to examine the labor that is structurally necessary but unpaid; 2- looking at how the division of labor is racialized and sexualized; 3- examining the necessary role violence and oppression attendant in colonialism, land expropriation, and slavery played in the development of capitalism, not just as a function, but as an integral structural part of the system; 4- looking at the non-homogeneity of capitalism, i.e., examining how it can take different forms; and 5- looking at the politico-social apparatuses developed to reinforce these practices.
Building on the non-reductive forms of Marxism she just espoused, Bohrer now embarks on the task of showing how many critiques of Marxism coming from the intersectional tradition, like the Marxist critique of intersectionality previously examined, are based largely on misunderstandings or understandings limited to the reductive ‘orthodox story.’ Concretely, Bohrer examines four common criticisms of Marxism from intersectional theorist:
1-“Marxism is economically reductive”…; 2-“it necessarily treats all other forms of oppression as mere epiphenomena of the ‘true’ oppression of class”; 3-“Marxism is inherently a male, Eurocentric form of analysis that can therefore never speak to the oppression of women, people of color, and people from the Global South”; 4-“a Marxist understanding of exploitation is founded on the binary opposition of capitalist and proletarian, making it incapable of thinking through the complex and nuanced organizations of exploitation and oppression” (159).
Bohrer argues these critiques are largely limited in scope to the ‘orthodox story’ of Marxism which she has already established is merely one form out of many in the Marxist tradition. These intersectional critiques of Marxism become unwarranted when the form of Marxism examined is of the non-reductive type she appraised in chapter three.
The theoretically novel portion of her text begins by her looking at the relationship between exploitation and oppression. She argues that instead of reducing one onto the other, like has been done by the intersectional and Marxist traditions in the past, we must conceive of the two as having an ‘elective affinity,’ i.e., a “kind of consonance or amenability.” (AB, 200) This means, she argues, that we must think of the two as ‘equiprimordial’, i.e., related to each other as “equally fundamental, equally deep-rooted, and equally anchoring of the contemporary world” (AB, 199). In order to fully understand a phenomenon in capitalism we must understand how exploitation and oppression “feed off and play into one another as mutually reinforcing and co-constituting aspects of the organization of capitalist society” (AB, 201). Beyond this, she argues that “a full understanding of how class functions under capitalism requires understanding how exploitation and oppression function equiprimordially” (Ibid.). Therefore, four central points must be understood to capture capitalism non-reductively: “1) capitalism cannot be reduced to exploitation alone; 2) capitalism cannot be reduced to class alone; 3) class cannot be reduced to exploitation alone; 4) race, gender, sexuality cannot be reduced to oppression alone” (AB, 204).
Although the equiprimordial lens Bohrer introduces for thinking of the relationship between oppression and exploitation may be helpful, the development of the concept is stifled by her limited understanding of the notion of class in Marx’s work. Bohrer argues that instead of limiting class to being constituted only through exploitation, like in Marx, thinking of class equiprimordially allows us to see it constituted through exploitation and oppression. To expand on her point Bohrer references Rita Mae Brown who states that, “Class is much more than Marx’s definition of relationship to the means of production. Class involves your behavior, your basic assumptions about life[…]how you are taught to behave, what you expect from yourself and from others, your concept of a future, how you understand problems and solve them, how you think, feel, act…” (AB, 202). Although Marx never provides an explicit systematic study of class, for when he attempts the task in Ch. 52 of Capital Vol 3 the manuscript breaks off after a few paragraphs, we can nonetheless see his conception of class throughout his political works. Examining how Marx deals with class in his 18th Brumaire on Louis Bonaparte shows the previous sentiment from Brown and Bohrer to be problematic. In relation to the French peasantry, he states that,
Insofar as millions of families live under conditions of existence that separate their mode of life, their interests, and their culture from those of the other classes, and put them in hostile opposition to the latter, they form a class.[i]
This constitutes a notion of class that although influenced, is not reducible to the group’s relation to the means of production. It would seem then, that Marx’s notion of class is fundamentally relational in two ways, first as a relation a group bears to the means of production, and second as the relation a group’s mode of life and culture bears to another. Thus, unlike Bohrer states, already in Marx’s conception of class, when understood fully and not synecdochally, class can already be constituted through exploitation and oppression.
Bohrer also develops what she refers to as the ‘dialectics of difference’ present in both traditions as the way of understanding capitalism as a “structure and a logic” (AB, 208). In demonstrating how both traditions show capitalism developing contradictions in the real world, Bohrer’s first move is rejecting the reductive Aristotelean binary logic that finds contradiction to designate falsehood and which attributes normative statuses of ‘superior’ and ‘inferior’ to the polarities. Instead, Bohrer argues that in both traditions the world is understood dialectically, i.e., in a way in which the plurality of the ‘middle’ that binary logic excludes is included, and in a way in which the polarities of the binary are taken to be in a dynamic tension, not a static opposition. Dialectics of difference does not ignore or flatten polarities and contradictions but engages with them and resists through the inclusion of the excluded middle. This dialectic has nothing to do with the simplified and progressivist triad (thesis-antithesis-greater synthesis) present in popular conception. Instead of the beaten down reductive triad, Bohrer concludes by offering three metaphors for modeling dialectics: Collins’ matrix, the Frankfurt school’s constellation, and the prism metaphor. These three metaphors, to be effective, must be used together as “overlapping on one another” (AB, 229).
Having examined the descriptive potential of a non-reductive dialectic, Bohrer proceeds to espouse its prescriptive implications, i.e., “how do we organize from these contradictions? how do we put the dialectic of difference into transformative practice?” (Ibid.) Bohrer begins by postulating that we must develop a theoretical framework that accounts for the intergroup differentiation logic of capitalist incommensurability (the inconsistent logics of racialization: logic of elimination – natives, logic of exclusion – blacks, and the logic of inclusion – latino/a) and that accounts for the intragroup homogenization logic of capitalist commensurability. Her response is a redefinition of how we conceive of solidarity. Solidarity must not be understood as the lowest common denominator of identity sameness, but as based on coalitions of difference and incommensurability united by mutual interest in transcending a system in which life is suppressed and molded in and by structures of exploitation and oppression. These coalitions, she argues, are to be built from the structural interconnectedness that capitalism already provides. It is, therefore, solidarity based on unity, not uniformity. As she states:
Capitalism thus links us together, in a tie that binds us, often painfully, in relation to one another. This moment of relation is the true ground of solidarity. Solidarity does not require the erasing our differences or the rooting of our political projects in the moments that our interests are aligned. Solidarity is thus the name for affirming the differences that exploitation and oppression produce within and between us; it is also the name for recognizing that every time I fight against anyone’s oppression or exploitation, I fight against my own, I fight against everyone’s (259).
[i] Marx, Karl. “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte” In The Communist Manifesto and Other Writings. (Barnes and Nobles Classics, 2005), p. 159.
Carlos is a Cuban-American Marxist who graduated with a B.A. in Philosophy from Loras College and is currently a graduate student and Teachers Assistant in Philosophy at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. His area of specialization is Marxist Philosophy. His current research interests are in the history of American radical thought (esp. 19th century), and phenomenology . He also runs the philosophy YouTube channel Tu Esquina Filosofica and Co-Hosts the Midwestern Marx Podcast, the Midwestern Marx hosted 'The Chapter 10 Podcast' and does occasional Marxist Theory videos on the Midwestern Marx YouTube Channel.
4/25/2021 07:43:32 pm
Great review. Not sure if I’m fully down with the intersectional model, but you sure made it sound convincing!
4/26/2021 01:45:25 pm
Thank you - I’ll be picking up Bohrer’s book now.
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