We need to consider at every turn the ways in which our thinking and action may be influenced by the positions of relative privilege from which we normally benefit. We need to search out connections and contradictions and address them before they become elephants in the room that we must then pretend we do not see, simply because we don't have time to stop for "that kind of discussion right now."

Intersections: Organizing All the Oppressed To End All Our Oppressions

by Malik Guevara, courtesy of Freedom Road

What I hope to do in this presentation is to underscore a number of points that have already been made, to elaborate a bit on them, and to add a few new ones. The several points I wish to discuss are as follows:

  1. the need for us to grasp, theoretically and politically speaking, the intersection and interpenetration of multiple principles of social organization such as race, gender, sexuality and class, in US society;
  2. the fact that oppression and abuse are basically identical in their effects upon human groups and individuals in US society;
  3. the reality that patriarchy is not only about how men treat, and mistreat, women and girls; but also about how males treat other males; and
  4. the necessity to remember that if we are to truly be/come revolutionaries, we must learn how to organize all our oppressed to end all our oppressions.

I will try to make my remarks as brief and substantive as possible given our time constraints. I’d like to touch on each of the above issues in turn.

The Interconnections between Oppressions

There are at least two crucial points to be made regarding the meaning of “intersectionality,” or “simultaneity,” as the concept was originally articulated during the 1970s by the African-American feminists of the Combahee River Collective. First, the concept of simultaneity, or intersectionality, refers to the fact that multiple principles of social organization operate within the same social and institutional spaces [1] in which we live and work in this country. The second point is that none of these principles of social organization (which can also be understood as forms of oppression and principles, or poles, of identity formation) operates independently of the others, but, rather, each operates interdependently [2] with all the others. Another way of conveying the same meaning is to say that race, class, sexuality, and gender never exist in society or social situations in isolation from one another. Instead, the impact of each principle or form is always influenced or shaped by all the others. Let us consider these two points more closely.

When we usually think about slavery in the United States, many of us (perhaps even most) think of it as a terrible and multi-faceted reflection of the myriad ways in which race served as a foundational principle for conceiving, creating, and maintaining peculiar kinds of societal arrangements. Despite the fact that social science scholars and social activists alike have often underestimated the role of race in the United States [3], we nonetheless regard race as central to the dirty business of buying, selling, and using certain groups of human beings to benefit other groups of human beings. Yet in all of our careful analysis of slavery, we often overlook and underestimate the fact that slavery was not merely a consequence of calculations based upon race. Slavery also established standards, conventions, structures, processes, and ideals that were expressions of gender, sexuality, and class. The establishment of relations of oppression that were raced, gendered, sexualized, and classed occurred simultaneously, within and often through the same or similar structures, social processes, and stereotypes! Even if the varied expressions of discrete principles of organization occurred with unequal prominence within particular social contexts, these expressions occurred interdependently–shaping, and shaped by, one another.

The fact that we do not customarily “see” this complex intersection and interaction of types of domination should not be taken to mean that the interdependence does not exist. We continually fail to clearly see this intersection and interdependence largely because of our institutional conditioning, and the partial and narrow ways that we sometimes apprehend social reality. Looking closely at our own lives, we can see that our own racial identities cannot be understood in isolation from our identities as classed, gendered, and sexualized beings in this social order.

Many of us have evolved politically during the past several decades holding to the notion that oppression is most usefully understood as rooted in a single principle of social organization–class–and that everything else that undermines our humanity flows from the operation of this single principle of stratification. This is a very problematic notion that has been repeatedly addressed by numerous activists within civil society. Some have been Marxists. Others have not. Yet there is much that we can and should learn even from a number of writers who have not been Marxists–if we are serious about “Left Refoundation.” In fact, if Left Refoundation means anything at all, one of its requirements is that those who intend to use Marxism to make revolution within the United States must expand our understanding of the terrain of oppression and resistance within which that revolution must be grounded.

The past three decades or so has witnessed considerable investigation and analysis by feminists–especially feminists of color–in the United States [4] that provide us with new points of departure for understanding more fully the complex ways in which oppressions operate. Many of us are quite unaware of these contributions, largely as a consequence of the theoretical, political, and organizational narrowness of the different organizations and movements from which we have emerged. Yet the fact that many of us may as yet be unaware of the contributions of feminists in this country does not render those contributions meaningless or irrelevant. We might also want to take a moment of humble reflection to remember that in the absence of conscious struggles to understand and embody feminist insights, many of us have unwittingly reinforced the very kinds of structures, processes and ideals that feminists have been trying to critique! Provided that we are willing to “see” the privileges of gender and sexuality (and of race and class) from which we unwittingly benefit, there is much that we can still learn from certain feminist analyses of oppression about how to advance a politics inclusive enough to help us connect more deeply and broadly with the masses of our people with whom we must make the revolution.

We must now rethink the silences and exclusions that have characterized “radical” organizations of the Left for so long. We must be honest (and yes, self-critical) about the fact that a number of willing fighters have left organizations–including this organization–or declined to join their ranks. And we must honestly and carefully acknowledge that a number of comrades have moved on, not because they have been counter-revolutionary or divisive, but because the theoretical grasp of oppressions so often set forth by numerous contemporary movement organizations[5] has not adequately acknowledged the conditions of their lived experiences. And if our theoretical grasp has not enabled us to adequately acknowledge and illuminate certain experiences, then it is understandable that our day-to-day politics of movement-building have not been capable of reflecting and informing the lives of a number of people.

We must therefore ask ourselves how we could have expected to advance political plans and projects that reflect the needs, hopes, and visions of those so continually excluded and/or marginalized. Undoubtedly, a number of sincere people have not seen any way to bring all of themselves into this organization, or the movements we have been trying to build. How can anyone be expected to willingly enter, or remain within, an organization or movement-in-formation which requires (consciously or unconsciously) that s/he downplay or ignore or reject certain “unacceptable” aspects of her/his lived experience to become a “comrade”?

Here we will do well to ask ourselves why it is that the received wisdom of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Mao, and others has seldom adequately addressed the ways in which race and gender and sexuality have shaped class experience, while also being shaped by it? It is at least partly because our revolutionary forefathers have seldom acknowledged the importance of considering the theoretical, and thus the political, centrality of understanding the intersection of multiple forms of oppression.[6] This brings us to a very important concern that is currently troubling a number of us.

A number of comrades are concerned that if we begin to acknowledge the intersectionality of race, gender, sexuality, and class, we will be sliding down a slippery slope of making these principles of social organization and oppression equally significant. Moreover, if these forms of oppression are equal in their presence and power in our lives, how can we possibly think, speak, or act to address what we have for so long interpreted as “the principal contradiction”? Perhaps we should pause here to distinguish between the significance of given forms of oppression (as forces that shape and damage people’s lives) and the salience of these forms (as reflections of how oppression works) in particular societal circumstances and encounters.

Numerous feminists during the past three decades have tried to underscore the fact that while ALL experiences of oppression are significant, given their destructive effects on people’s lives; all forms are not equally salient or prominent under all conditions. African-American feminist Deborah K. King addresses this point in her essay “Multiple Jeopardy, Multiple Consciousness: The Context of a Black Feminist Ideology.” Consider, for a moment, the following insights from that essay:

Unfortunately, most applications of the concepts of double and triple jeopardy have been overly simplistic in assuming that the relationships among &…various discriminations are merely additive. These relationships are interpreted as equivalent to the mathematical equation, racism plus sexism plus classism equals triple jeopardy. In this instance, each discrimination has a single, direct, and independent effect on status, wherein the relative contribution of each is readily apparent. This simple incremental process does not represent the nature of black women’s oppression but, rather, I would contend, leads to nonproductive assertions that one factorcan and should supplant the other… Such assertions ignore the fact that racism, sexism, and classism constitute three, interdependent control systems.[7]

Even as King acknowledges the interdependent interaction, of multiple forms of oppression and discrimination within specific social spaces, she acknowledges that each form is not equally salient.

The importance of any one factor in explaining black women’s circumstances thus varies depending on the particular aspect of our lives under consideration and the reference groups to whom we are compared… In the interactive model, the relative significance of race, sex, or class in determining the conditions of black women’s lives is neither fixed nor absolute but, rather, is dependent on the socio-historical context and social phenomenon under consideration. These interactions also produce what to some appears a seemingly confounding set of social roles and political attitudes among black women.[8]

One of the things that Marxists can learn from feminists emerging from social movements treated as “outside” the boundaries of working-class movements[9] is that when we underestimate the revolutionary potential of certain groups (that is, the potential of their experiences of oppression to move them toward radical action); we hinder our abilities to appreciate their ways/means of resisting. We thus can lose opportunities to join with them in expanding the ranks, reach, and theoretical unity of revolutionary struggle. Too many of us have for years operated against our best intentions of “uniting all who can be united” because our organizational and personal understanding of revolutionary tasks have generally dismissed gender, or sexuality, or patriarchy as “significant” theoretically. In our evolving-yet-still-narrow efforts to build broad social and political movements, we have embraced notions of revolutionary theory and practice that have taken these “other” forms of oppressive experience to be “secondary” to class.

In turn, by viewing the lived experiences of many as being of “secondary” importance, we have looked askance at their potential contributions to actions that could lead to social reforms even as we continue to struggle for complete social transformation. We have all too often overlooked the fact that in the United States, class is lived in many diverse ways within a populous and complex working class. Can we safely conclude that with such muddled thinking we can cogently argue that the faltering of revolutionary experiments has had absolutely nothing to do with failures to theoretically and politically grasp different experiences of oppression? Are we really willing to assume that we can conclude, despite the failure of many of us to really engage in a careful examination of failed and faltering experiments, that what feminists have discovered about them, or that what we don’t know about them, is irrelevant?!

The Similar Effects of Oppressions

Here we can underscore the significance of our second point for consideration: the relative similarity between the effects of oppression and abuse on our lives and those of other human beings. Quite often within organizations purporting to make revolution we find some comrades who become uncomfortable or uneasy when questions and criticisms of sexism and homophobia arise. Comrades who raise these taboo subjects are made the targets of dismissive and derisive remarks about how they have confused “personal” with “political” matters. The assumption is then made that since the focus of a “radical political” organization is issues of politics and not personal concerns (personal “stuff” being important, perhaps, to individual people but not really pertinent when measured against the really weighty matters of politics); the discussion should table the “personal,” to address the “political.” This kind of dismissive dynamic has had a very corrosive force in the historical and contemporary development of social movement struggles in this country.

A particularly troublesome matter in all of this is the very distinction that so many well-intentioned comrades make between personal and political. First of all, this familiar rationalization ignores the momentous struggles of women in the United States during the late 1960s and 1970s to reveal connections between their personal experiences of oppression and the political character of gender and sex as principles for organizing social life. The unequal relations of power that have been socially constructed have generally privileged males at the expense of women, while also privileging heterosexuals at the expense of human beings who are lesbian, gay, and/or transgendered.

Yet the distinction between personal and political has also helped to obscure the basic similarities between ways in which large groups of human beings as well as individual persons are categorized, robbed of dignity in society, and dominated for the ends of others. This is a simple, but profound, point that can be lost amidst the intoxications and seductions of various forms of privilege that characterize the social interactions of movement organizations and society in general. Too often many of us assume that because we have come together in order to make radical social change, we have shed all our “isms” at the door, like so many dirty clothes. But there is no great divide isolating any of us from the oppressions that characterize this social order. And once we recognize the similar ways in which human beings are disempowered and devastated by others–whether through systemic oppression of a social group, or the repeated physical, emotional, and mental devastation of individuals subjected to forms of abuse–we will be less inclined to be duped by simplistic assertions about the need to “just get over” personal stuff and maintain our focus on political matters.[10] If we are on a mission to generate and nurture revolution and liberation, we conscientiously try to avoid actions, arguments, and assumptions that reinforce and recreate domination, pain, and alienation within the ranks of the very movements in which we purport to engender new forms of community and citizenship.

The problem of patriarchy is at last being brought home to us. The women who have labored to bring this crucial matter into view in revolutionary organizations deserve our gratitude (as well as our attention) for their unflagging zeal and unflinching courage in repeatedly pushing us, individually and collectively, amidst enormous resistance, to seriously address this matter. That we have reached a juncture at which males in this organization have now become willing to take up this question of patriarchy should not be taken as any evidence that those males are now “the good guys.” Even as White comrades must continuously strive to remain vigilant in their pursuit of an inclusive and humane anti-racist politics; men who aspire to be more than petty patriarchs must continuously work to develop understanding and practice that enable us to see how patriarchy positions us for privilege even as it provides for our oppression. Allan G. Johnson offers some very instructive insights in his book, The Gender Knot: Unraveling Our Patriarchal Legacy:

In short, we ignore and take for granted what we can least afford to overlook in trying to understand and change the world. Rather than ask how social systems produce social problems such as male violence against women, we obsess over legal debate and titillating but irrelevant case histories… If the goal is to change the world, this won’t help us. We need to see and deal with the social roots that generate and nurture the social problems that are reflected in the behavior of individuals. We can’t do this without realizing that we all participate in something larger than ourselves, something we didn’t create but that we have the power to affect through the choices we make about how to participate.

That something is patriarchy, which is more than a collection of individuals (such as “men”). It is a system, which means it can’t be reduced to the people who participate in it…We are not patriarchy, no more than people who believe in Allah are Islam or Canadians are Canada. Patriarchy is a kind of society organized around certain kinds of social relationships and ideas. As individuals, we participate in it. Paradoxically, our participation both shapes our lives and gives us the opportunity to be part of changing or perpetuating it. But we are not it, which means that patriarchy can exist without men having “oppressive personalities” or actively conspiring with one another to defend male privilege. To demonstrate that gender oppression exists, we don’t have to show that men are villains, that women are good-hearted victims, that women don’t participate in their oppression, or that men never oppose it. When oppression is woven into the fabric of everyday life, we don’t need to go out of our way to be overtly oppressive in order for an oppressive system to produce oppressive consequences. As the saying goes, what evil requires is simply that ordinary people do nothing.[11]

The foregoing means that it is not enough for us to focus on changing behaviors that privilege men and disadvantage women. Such changes can be helpful, but if men in this organization regularly organize childcare, and cook for gatherings such as this one, those welcome activities will not guarantee that the political development of anti-patriarchal women (and men) will become permanent priorities of our work! For our organization to nurture the political development of women as well as men, all of us–and not just the women–must work to create an environment, an organizational and movement culture, in which each of us considers the possible ways in which we may be contributing to the reproduction of patriarchy in all aspects of our work.

How Males Treat Other Males

If we are to really confront patriarchy, we must also consider how it ensnares men in our relations with one another. A very clear example can be drawn from the varied ways in which we tend to emphasize certain characteristics as “natural” and “normal” features of masculinity. What is more, we need to become better at distinguishing how patriarchal positioning of males changes under specific historical conditions.

Let’s take a minute to consider how this focus on patriarchy might influence our work against empire. How many of us have stopped to reflect on the many ways in which the attacks of 9/11 have contributed to an intensification of aggressive expressions of what we might call “John Wayne” masculinity? How many of us have noticed, and questioned, the ways in which notions of the aggressive, hyper-sexed masculine male are being played out as the build-up for imperialist war has moved into full gear?! And how many of us have considered the possible value of having conversations with friends and loved ones about the connections between the strivings of young males to be “more manly” and their falling prey to the drums of the recruiters for war?

Admittedly, having such difficult discussions will not be enough to stop the maiming and killing of imperialist aggression. Yet if we were to listen to the counsel of feminists who have been articulating a vision of masculinity and citizenship that does not require human beings to become fodder and beasts in the service of US imperialism, what might we learn about new ways to intervene politically in the lives of those we love? We can also see terrible consequences of aggressive sexist and heterosexist masculinity in the continuing violent attacks experienced by women and men of varying sexual orientations. A precipitous increase perceived in violent attacks has most recently been noted within communities of color as well. As revolutionaries, we have some responsibility to find ways to concretely address this climate. A number of comrades may well scoff at such a thought. Yet let us be careful about the smugness with which we dismiss interventions that we have neither considered nor tried. Being Marxists does not mean that we have to arrogantly assume that we know all that we need to know. The state of social reality should clearly dispel such foolish thinking.

Organizing All the Oppressed

The last point I want to make is very simple indeed. Many of us have been trying for years to advance agendas of work that could move larger and larger numbers of people into radical social movement. Yet all too often, no matter how deliberately, thoughtfully, and artfully crafted, those well-intended action agendas have been based on narrow social bases, on the experiences and needs of woefully small sectors of the working class and the US body politic. Our agendas have reflected the conditions and visions of some, yet they have been silent and exclusionary on the conditions, experiences, needs and capacities for resistance of too many more! We can do better than we have done, and our revolutionary ranks can be increased! But we must be willing to become more inclusive and more conscientious in our efforts to connect with many who are different from us. And this requires change of us.

If we really want to transform this society, we must find ways to win and join with as many oppressed human beings as possible in this vast country, especially those of the working class, to struggle against all forms of oppression. We may think that if we carefully craft new principles and bases for unity–grounded in our current thinking and practice–we can make it clear to those who want to join us that they are “welcome.” “But just don’t raise this set of questions, and just don’t try to bring that aspect of your life into this organization, ’cause we are revolutionaries and we don’t deal with that kind of apolitical, personal, emotional, bourgeois stuff!

Or we can try something different. We can try to examine our existing ways of thinking and doing things. We can be honest about the reasons some comrades have left, and we can work to not create conditions that will reproduce similar exits. We can return to those honest comrades (have all of those who left been “opportunists”?) and try to see if they can help us understand where we may have faltered in our theory, our organization, and/or our political initiatives. We can try to learn things that we may not have even considered worth knowing. We have the road before us. But, as two very effective architects of social change and mass education, Myles Horton and Paulo Freire, might say: “We must make the road by walking!”


Walking an unfamiliar road can be dangerous, especially when that path is one that twists and turns amidst dense forests, hidden ditches, rocks, and holes criss-crossing with busy freeways. We need to consider possible dangers as we try to make sense of the challenges we must undertake in light of our current conversations. One such danger will be that some of us will assume that all this talk of inclusion and “diversity” is quite nice to some extent, yet it really is not very instructive for some of our most important work, such as developing the programmatic political unity in moving toward establishment of a revolutionary party. This is an understandable sentiment and reaction, given the unenlightened way in which many of us have tried so hard to turn partial analyses into revolutionary agendas for so many years. This is not intended as a snide criticism! A number of very committed and thoughtful comrades have unwittingly operated without sufficient insight into our patriarchal legacy, and some of our work has suffered from a lack of inclusive vision.

What is required now is that we begin to see more clearly that if we have had a limited understanding and a contradictory practice within our organization, we really need to tread thoughtfully as we are moving forward to join with representatives of other organizations. If we don’t try to apply new insights and new theoretical questions (at least “new” to a number of us) to our practice, how can we ensure that the work is not going to exclude and marginalize as we have done previously? The ugly and quite predictable reality is that we can’t.

If, for example, we are interacting with other revolutionaries from a different organization with different views regarding patriarchy, how will we conduct discussions about our collective experiences in addressing this matter practically? Will we look askance at their efforts to address sexism, heterosexism, and patriarchy in their daily work? Will we be honestly self-critical about the extent to which our theoretical and organizational culture has proven problematic with respect to the links between class and race and gender and sexuality? Or will we quietly caucus amongst ourselves about the need to keep discussions of patriarchal practice and blindness on the down-low so as not to disrupt the really significant discussions of programmatic unity? Do we still not see that there are very definite connections between what we think, how we act (both inside our organization and outside) and what we decide to do to move forward?

We have much to learn about how revolutionary work has been impeded in the past and present. To say this does not mean that we stop all work so we can have sensitivity sessions and gaze at our navels. It means that in all aspects of our work, we must try to see what has been invisible to us in the past. We need to consider at every turn the ways in which our thinking and action may be influenced by the positions of relative privilege from which we normally benefit. We need to search out connections and contradictions and address them before they become elephants in the room that we must then pretend we do not see, simply because we don’t have time to stop for “that kind of discussion right now.” We can and must move forward, as individual agents of change, as an organization, and as one of a number of organizations earnestly seeking align to seriously advance socially transformative struggles. Yet how do we walk a new road to freedom if we assume that we already know the way?

Malik Guevara is an activist and labor educator in the trade union and Black Liberation movements. He is also a member of the BRC.


[1] For many who would be Marxists, the very notion of simultaneity or intersectionality seems untenable, since it challenges the reductionist and monist tendencies to view only a single principle, or form, of oppression as primary–in most cases, for traditional Marxists, class. Historically and contemporarily, this way of thinking about oppression has often made the work of feminists seem a distraction from a “revolutionary” understanding of class. Numerous activists and scholars have tried, in recent years, to underscore the foundational roles played in the construction of US oppression by principles of social organization other than class. Omi and Winant, for example, have sought to develop an adequate theory of race. Many feminists, most notably socialist feminists of color, have tried repeatedly to develop an adequate theory of how gender and sexuality operate interdependently with race and class. One of the concrete suggestions to be gleaned from our current conversations should be the need for more systematic study of radical analyses previously ignored.

[2] The importance of this second point is that we must not only acknowledge that there are multiple principles and forms of oppression that exist in society and social spaces, but that the ways in which different people and groups experience oppressions reflects the diverse ways in which these oppressions influence one another and become salient in different ways within different contexts.

[3] This extremely important point has been repeatedly emphasized in contemporary times by scholars such as Robert Blauner (1972) and Michael Omi and Howard Winant (1994).

[4] In truth, there is a wealth of feminist analysis and intervention from the Third World, or the global South, from which revolutionaries in this country might learn. For one brilliant example, consider the work of the Zapatistas in Mexico. This model of revolutionary change is certainly not without its problems, limitations, and missteps. Yet consider the profound transformations being generated with respect to gender amongst men and women by the Zapatista model!

[5] We are now confronting what a number of movement veterans have rightly defined as weaknesses or limitations of social movement culture(s) within the United States. We can thank scholars and activists such as Charles Payne, Barbara Ransby, Barbara Smith, and Curtis Muhammad (to name only a few) for such insights.

[6] The work of a number of socialist feminists, such as Lise Vogel and Zillah Eisenstein, and Nancy Hartsock can prove very instructive on this matter.

[7] A most useful resource is the volume entitled Black Women in America: Social Science Perspectives, edited by Malson, Mudimbe-Boyi, O’ Barr, and Wyer (1990). See p.270.

[8] Ibid., p. 272.

[9] All too often we are confounded by the notion that “working-class movements occur over here,” while “racial movements and/or feminist movements occur over there.” We forget that in a number of instances, people in social movements have multiple characteristics and ways of identifying! There is, as Robin Kelley has suggested, no necessary distinction between waging class struggle and being feminist, or being a representative of a racial-ethnic group that is not white. We need to consider the extent to which a number of us still view “working-class reality” through the lens of whiteness!

[10] Feminist scholar and activist Aurora Levins Morales has made this point quite eloquently and effectively in her relatively recent book, Medicine Stories: History, Culture, and the Politics of Integrity.

[11] The Gender Knot: Unraveling Our Patriarchal Legacy, Allan G. Johnson, 1997, Temple University Press, pp.77-78.