Image: an 1875 portrait of Karl Marx, the prolific Prussian writer, philosopher, and author of The Communist Manifesto.
It is the job of the left-wing radical (hereafter referred to simply as ‘the radical’ for succinctness) ultimately to destroy the sociocultural, economic, and political institutions that create, recreate, and enforce systems of oppression within our modern world. The radical recognizes the centrality of this task to attaining true freedom, peace, justice, equality, and, ultimately, quality of life for all. The radical does not buy the neo-colonial, neo-liberal, neo-conservative, neo-what-have-you guises of these phenomena propagandized by the very institutions that are sustained by oppressive systems. So, while many may criticize and debate the role of US foreign policy—even of supposedly ‘radical’ candidates such as Bernie Sanders—the radical recognizes that the institution of US foreign policy is built upon the interventionist facade of ‘defending’ the values listed above, while instead benefitting from their subjection, regardless of how ‘progressive’ it purports to be. Agreement between groups of radicals generally stops at this point—the centrality of radicalizing or abolishing institutions in the fight against systems of oppression—as the question of logistics arises. Marxism and anarchism share an important recognition of the emergence of class society in the post-Neolithic revolution period as the basis of modern-day systems of oppression, but from this starting point we shall diverge somewhat from the typical debate between the two ideologies. In confronting the ultimate abolishment of class society, we’ll have to ask a more contemporary question: how can we best balance post-identity-politics intersectional radicalism with the ‘grand narratives’ approach taken by Marxist and related thinkers?
Marxists traditionally fall into a camp of radicals who posit that oppressive systems derive directly from a common foundation whose nature is understood by means of a ‘grand narrative’ that characterizes not only the foundation in question—the ‘base’—but also how this foundation produces and sustains sociocultural and political institutions—the ‘superstructure.’ In Marxist thought, the ‘base’ is capitalistic forces and relations of production, which must be abolished in order for the oppressive institutions of the ‘superstructure’ to crumble. By means of its ‘grand narrative,’ Marxism can, in theory, explain every facet of society in regards to the relation between the ‘base’ and the ‘superstructure.’ Thus, clear lines can be drawn from every form of oppression back to its roots in the economic base.
However, after the identity politics craze of the 1980s and 90s, leftist radicalism began to view these connected oppressive systems through a different lens: intersectionality. While still acknowledging the interlocking nature of oppression, intersectionality focuses on the multiple gravitational centers of power in a Foucauldian sense. Instead of drawing clear lines between the ‘base’ and the ‘superstructure,’ as Marxism does, intersectionality views power and oppression as existing in a more chaotic way. Intersectionality is perhaps better imagined as a ‘strange attractor.’ The reader may not be familiar with the particulars of this mathematical concept but they will know one of its most famous examples: the butterfly effect. Essentially, in mathematics ‘attractors’ are sets towards which a certain system tends to evolve. By extension, ‘repellers’ are sets away from which a system evolves. A ‘strange attractor’ has a fractal structure, meaning that it has a repeating pattern at every scale—you may have seen those videos zooming into Mandelbrot sets, for example. Two arbitrarily close initial points in a strange attractor, after an arbitrary number of iterations, will be arbitrarily far apart and after arbitrarily further iterations will be arbitrarily close again. These points behave in this way because of the chaotic effect upon them by the attractors and repellers within the system. If you’re still with me, we can try to apply this to intersectionality. Two humans starting from positions of arbitrary proximity—perhaps simply ‘being human’—will, throughout their lives, have experiences both arbitrarily different and arbitrarily similar to each other, as determined by the pull and push of the ‘attractors’ and ‘repellers’ at work within their lives—these ‘attractors’ and ‘repellers’ being the gravitational centers of power within our societies. Thus, while intersectionality refers to how different experiences of oppression may ‘intersect,’ these intersections and their effects upon individuals are anything but static or deterministic.
For some Marxists, this shift of the political left has meant that radicalism has become detached from political reality. Another, somewhat more moderate, yet still sharp view is that intersectionality—and, more importantly, the privilege theory that it often implicitly involves—unnecessarily divides those who should be banding together to fight against oppressive institutions. But how accurate are these accusations? In parsing out this question, we’ll make use of one of philosophy’s most famous allegories: Plato’s Cave.
Plato’s Cave describes a situation wherein a group of prisoners is bound up within the depths of a cave. They have always been in this cave and thus know nothing of the outside world. Their only interaction with the outside world is by means of a walkway that is elevated behind them, along which people carry a variety of objects. However, the prisoners, being bound, cannot turn around to see these people or the objects they carry. Instead, the prisoners see only the shadows of these objects, which are projected onto the wall in front of them by a fire. Naturally, the prisoners think that these shadows are real and that what they can see of the cave is the entirety of ‘reality.’ They even invent a system of competition and reward based upon studying the shadows (sound familiar yet?). Eventually, one prisoner escapes and ascends to the real world. After a long process of acclimatizing to the brightness of the outside world and of accepting the reality of what they see, the prisoner discovers the beauty that exists in such a free world and pities those still imprisoned in the cave. Yet, when the freed prisoner returns to the cave to free the other prisoners and to inform them of what lies above, the freed prisoner is met with hostility and threats of violence for challenging the prisoners’ ‘reality.’
Now, using this allegory, we can position the freed prisoner as the radical, the chains as the ‘base’ in the Marxist sense, the fire as the active agents of hegemonic institutions propagandizing the ‘shadows’ of reality onto the ‘cave walls’ (i.e. ‘society’), and the shadow games played between the prisoners as the sociocultural norms that maintain perceived meaning and mutual acceptance between the members of ‘civilization.’ All radicals will agree that the ultimate responsibility of the freed prisoner is to lead the other prisoners to freedom outside the cave. Marxist critics of intersectionality would assert that the goal of the radical must be breaking the chains of the imprisoned so that they may be free to exit the cave. However, didn’t the prisoners not only disbelieve the freed prisoner but also threaten them with violence for challenging the ‘reality’ of the cave? Would these prisoners really be willing to simply follow the freed prisoner out of the cave now that their shackles are destroyed?
While these questions offer reductionist views of Marxism and its proponents, they are necessary to highlight the reductionist Marxist critiques of intersectionality previously mentioned. Marxists such as Choonara and Prasad may decry intersectionality as “confus[ing] symptoms with problems,” this is an unfair judgment. Intersectionality recognizes that the shadows on the wall are not the same as the chains themselves—yet, they play an integral role in keeping the prisoners happy with their chains. Thus, as Foucault asserted, power “[r]ather than being unitary … is a multiplicity of relations infiltrating the whole of the social body”—just like the multiple shadows of objects projected on the cave walls. There is power in discourse, not only from the ‘fire’ but also between the prisoners themselves in their game. Thus, “power is productive: it does not operate by repressing individuals … but rather by constituting them…” Though the prisoner who best studies the shadows may hold power over the others, we can all recognize that this power doesn’t truly serve any of the prisoners but rather serves those who would rather keep them in the cave. Intersectionality seeks to identify and to understand all of these ‘intersecting’ centers of power, not to detract from the centrality of breaking the prisoners’ chains but so that, once the prisoners’ chains have been broken, they may be convinced not to kill the freed prisoner and, ultimately, to exit the cave.
Marxism still has much to offer the radical—a fact that most radicals readily recognize. It is the Marxist ‘base,’ after all, that forms our ultimate chains, as it is from the development of class society since the advent of agriculture that capitalistic exploitation in all its colonial, imperialist varieties has sprung. Marxists should provide positive reinforcement to modern radicals that focusing on economic factors must thus go beyond simply acknowledging ‘class privilege.’ This would allow the radical to find common impetus with those experiencing and fighting at different intersections of oppression. This must be done in a way that still respects the primary concerns of those who do not see economic oppression as foremost in their personal experience. Those Marxist critics of contemporary radical thought, particularly of privilege theory and intersectional radicalism, would thus do well to balance an appreciation of Marxist thought and revolutionary action—which has historically worked in conjunction with some of history’s most important civil rights movements and liberation struggles—with acknowledgment of the developing trajectory of political radicalism. It would be a shame if Marxism itself became an institution in need of iconoclastic purging.
Adrian Jennings is a junior at Wheaton College, studying Chinese and Mathematics.
Image Attribution: “Karl Marx” by John Jabez Edwin Mayall, licensed under Public Domain.