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  • Published in Opinion
Idealism. Photo: Nichole Burrows / medicalofficecareers.com

Idealism. Photo: Nichole Burrows / medicalofficecareers.com

The pervasion of identity politics limits our ability to truly liberate ourselves from oppression, argues Elaine Graham-Leigh

This article will attempt to explain and offer a critique of the use of identity politics to understand oppression. The question of identity politics has come to the fore recently, perhaps most obviously in the debate which arose around the US elections in 2016, where the defeated Hillary Clinton was accused of relying too much on identity politics, and where her victorious opponent, Donald Trump, made his opposition to such politics a badge of honour, and made clear his contempt for a range of oppressed groups. Identity politics has become a weapon in the hands of the liberal elite as well as in the hands of the left. It is important to remember this because it puts some recent debate on the left into a wider context.

This sometimes-contentious debate is over gender identity, and particularly the rights of transgender people. Such rights have come under attack from conservatives and the right-wing media. They have also sometimes been controversial on the left, especially with a layer of feminist women who question whether transwomen’s rights might affect them in a negative way.

It is important to state at the very outset of this discussion that any socialist stands in unconditional solidarity with transgender and other gender non-conforming people in the face of the violence, bigotry and discrimination that they face, especially as such discrimination is widespread. For 50 years now, socialists and feminists have recognised the need to stand full square in opposition to all forms of oppression. For Marxists in particular, these oppressions are seen as the result of class social relations and a system of class exploitation which has at its heart the need to divide and rule those whom it exploits.

Our critique of identity politics is not about whether or not one fights against oppression and supports the struggle of the oppressed. It is about how one understands the roots of that oppression and the strategic and tactical positions that result from different analyses.

Crucially, we see oppression and exploitation as a totality, one in which oppression arises from an exploitative system. The politics of identity, on the other hand, seeks to consider these oppressions as separate from the class system of exploitation under which we live.

What follows from our approach is not just the essential starting point that one must be in solidarity with the oppressed. To most socialists this is obvious. More difficult to understand is the second essential point: there is no natural unity among the oppressed. Jews and Palestinians are, for instance, both oppressed. But unity can only be based on a complex understanding of the roots of oppression, and its relationship to capitalism and imperialism.

Where there is no natural unity of the oppressed, any consideration of oppression has to recognise that there may in certain circumstances be conflicts. These conflicts can be overcome, but to do so they need to be discussed and grappled with. To do otherwise is to ignore the totality of oppression and exploitation and, paradoxically, to weaken and divide the different groups of oppressed.

The origins of oppression

In his The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, Frederick Engels theorised that the ‘historic defeat of the female sex’ came about as the greater material wealth produced in the new agricultural societies of the Neolithic agricultural revolution encouraged the development of private property. As a minority of men began to amass personal wealth, the only way they could ensure that it was heritable only by their offspring was also to control women, and this led to the development of the patriarchal family, with men as the heads of the households and the women as chattels.[1]

It is often said that women are oppressed because of their biology. This can be taken as a statement that the biological differences between men and women are the cause of women’s oppression. These biological differences are real, but do not give rise automatically to patriarchal social forms. The non-class societies in which women are not oppressed despite their female biology demonstrate this. Engels showed how the development of private property and class led to the development of women’s oppression. It also shows us that women’s oppression was always linked to female biology rather than the gender roles which developed in those and subsequent class societies. The driver of women’s oppression was the need for the emerging ruling class to control the material, sexed bodies of women in order that property could be inherited through the male line. While part of women’s oppression has been that women are required (with varying degrees of coercion) to behave in approved, ‘feminine’ ways, this oppression battens onto female biology, as opposed to being rooted in the performance of femininity.

The system of women’s oppression benefited ruling classes from the ancient states, through feudalism, to capitalism, both by fulfilling the continuing need for the control and inheritance of their property and by buttressing their power over the lower classes. The patriarchal system made lower-class men responsible for the cost of feeding and caring for ‘their’ women and their children, ensuring the reproduction of labour at minimal cost to the ruling class. It could also serve, at times imperfectly, to give some heads of households sufficient incremental benefits to give them a stake in the system in which they were exploited.

The nature of women’s oppression changed as that system of exploitation changed, so, for example, the change in women’s roles to allow them to work outside the home as the site of production shifted under capitalism from the household to the factory. Such processes are always contested. So for instance, the form of the household and women’s place within it may be led by the needs of ruling-class exploitation but it is also shaped by the needs and struggles of working people. What may appear as the traditional family, in which the man goes out to work and the woman stays at home to look after the children, was the result of a prolonged struggle in the early nineteenth century by workers who saw that the low wages which compelled women and children to work in factories alongside the men were killing their children.[2]

Similarly, modern capitalists have embraced the possibilities for them inherent in an emancipated female workforce who expect to have jobs like the men. Women, of course, benefited from this development, but capitalism did adapt its system of women’s oppression to accommodate them.The point is that these changes in society come about through the dialectical relationship between resistance and exploitation. To recognise how modern ideas about how women should behave serve capitalist interests does not negate the scope of women’s achievements in fighting for liberation. It does show, however, what the point of the system of oppression is.

Other forms of oppression also have their origins in the way that they serve to support and extend ruling-class power. Again, the way in which they develop has to be understood historically, as part of an ongoing struggle in which the ruling class attempts to extend exploitation, and the lower classes resist, using the processes and ideas already existing within the society. The origins of modern racism are a case in point. That modern racism originated in the service of European colonialism, and specifically the slave trade, is often recognised, but less so is the point that this development was not encouraged by European ruling classes out of nothing. The treatment of the Irish by medieval Anglo-Norman conquerors, for example, was accompanied by racist tropes very similar to those which, centuries later, would be employed against black people.

The context that enabled this development of racism was the use of proto-racist ideas in the feudal societies from which the capitalist, imperialist states developed. In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the intensification of feudal control and extraction of surplus labour in medieval western Europe was accompanied and enabled by what has been called ‘the formation of a persecuting society’.[3] This saw the construction of various groups and individuals (Jews, lepers, heretics, millers[4] etc) as deviant and suspect, subject to official persecution and sometimes to mass violence. It is clear that this represented not a popular reaction to exploitation but part of a ruling-class strategy for increasing their ability to control and exploit the rest of society. Pogroms against Jews, for example, usually seem to be inspired by lords and knights rather than by popular anti-Semitic fervour.

As this medieval persecuting society developed, so too did a tendency to reify the groups being persecuted. This is clearest in the development of European anti-Semitism. In the early middle ages, you were Jewish if you practised the Jewish faith. If you converted to Christianity, you were no longer in any sense Jewish. Similarly, Christians who converted to Judaism (reasonably common in southern Europe in the early medieval period) became just as Jewish as anyone else in the Jewish community. In the course of the central middle ages, however, being Jewish became not a condition which arose from your religious practice but an essential personal characteristic; an identity, in fact. Thus, when violent pogroms against Jewish communities in Spain at the end of the fourteenth century led to mass conversions, the new Christians became a distinct group known as conversos, who were still subject to anti-Semitic persecution.

This reification of Jewishness from a behaviour to an essence prefigures the reifying tendencies within capitalism, which underlie the system of oppression on the grounds of race, and other attributes such as sexual behaviour. Human biodiversity is a reality, but the idea that humanity can be divided into distinct ‘races’ like African, Caucasian, etc is a construction of systemic racism with no scientific validity.[5] In the same way, while people will have experienced homosexual desire in all societies, it is only capitalism which places them within the reified category ‘homosexual’, and then persecutes them to a greater or lesser extent depending on the relative importance of child-bearing households for the current extraction of surplus value.

Assigning people to reified identities, which are constructed as their innate and defining properties, is, therefore, an essential element of how oppression is systematised to aid exploitation. Reification, as explained by Hungarian Marxist George Lukács, has the effect of hiding the reality of capitalist exploitation from the workers, of making the system created by capitalists appear innate and natural. It is only by exploiting the limitations of capitalist commodification and overcoming reification that we can overthrow the capitalist system.[6] Since oppression is not a separate phenomenon from exploitation but a support for the exploitative system, it is surely impossible to regard the results of reification as a route out of oppression. If you are in chains, declaring that they are kinky and empowering is unlikely to set you free.

Identity politics and intersectionality

It is in these reified identities, however, where identity politics do indeed look for liberation. The roots of identity politics lie in the development of postmodernist politics in the 1980s and 1990s. In essence, postmodernism argues that material reality is a positivist delusion. There are no objective circumstances, only different subjective realities constructed through words, images and ideas. When applied to struggle, these ideas indicate that fighting according to your material relation to the means of production – whether you control capital or have to sell your labour to live – is to miss the point. Old-fashioned socialists might still have been grubbing around at the economic base, organising working-class struggle, but those enlightened by postmodernism looked to the ideological superstructure. Here, the agents of change in society became not the working class but those oppressed on cross-class, ideological bases like sex, race or sexuality.

In the context of the rise of neo-liberalism and major defeats for the Left like the Miners’ Strike of 1984-5, it’s easy to see how a politics located in the realm of signifiers rather than the material realities of exploitation might have seemed attractive. If you doubt your ability to change the world, you might wish, as A Sivanandan put it in his critique of postmodernist politics, to amend Marx’s famous phrase and state that while philosophers have interpreted the world, ‘our task is to change the interpretation.’[7] What this created however was an understanding of society in which the key fact about individuals was to which oppressed group they belong.

In contrast to a Marxist understanding of oppression, the politics of identity thus rest on the idea of a normative identity in society – male, white, heterosexual, cis[8] – from which people are oppressed if they depart. Since the personal is political, any activity, any choice carried out by oppressed people in recognition of their membership of an oppressed group is activism; indeed, this exercise of agency is the essence of activism. There is an obvious tendency here for these groups to splinter in opposition to each other, particularly when they are involved in competition for scarce government resources, most notably in the fracture of political Blackness into Afro-Caribbean, Asian, Arab and so on.[9]

The theory of intersectionality, first posited by Kimberle Crenshaw, attempts to overcome this fragmentation by understanding how different oppressions interact with and are made more complex by each other. The limitation of this, as pointed out by Feyzi Ismail, is that ‘it tends to see the interrelation between oppressions in a descriptive and formal way…rather than…concretely analysing the distinct ways in which oppression and exploitation interact.’[10]Crenshaw’s argument was that black women were minimised in feminist campaigns which saw white women’s experiences as the default, and by Black liberation struggles which focused on men. As she said, ‘discrimination, like traffic through an intersection, may flow in one direction, and it may flow in another. If an accident happens at an intersection, it can be caused by cars travelling from any number of directions and, sometimes, from all of them. Similarly, if a black woman is harmed because she is at the intersection, her injury could result from sex discrimination or race discrimination.’[11] Black women could experience discrimination as women, as black people, and sometimes specifically as black women, ‘not the sum of race and sex discrimination, but as black women.’[12]

This is an important insight, but it does not amount to an entire systemic understanding of oppression. To be fair to Crenshaw, it was not her intention to provide one.It is perhaps an indication of the difficulties of understanding oppression through identity politics that intersectionality theory is left to do all the heavy lifting here. The term intersectionality is commonplace in online discussions of oppression, as for example in the popular phrase ‘my feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit’.[13] In its least nuanced form, however, it can become little more than a ranking system, ordering people according to how many different axes of oppression they can claim.

Identity and the shift to immateriality

The identities under consideration in the identity politics of the 1980s and 1990s were primarily identities which related to individuals’ history, behaviour and physical characteristics, such as sex, skin colour or sexuality. There were, and still are, contested areas of gatekeeping around particular identities, such as the shifting definition within Israel and in some diaspora Jewish communities about who does and does not count as ‘really’ Jewish, but in general, these identities could be understood as material and not subject to change.[14]

This does not, however, make sense within a postmodern understanding of the world as essentially subjective. After all, what matters is not objective reality but individuals’ subjective perceptions of it. It follows therefore that the important identity is not the one to which you belong by virtue of your descent or your biology, but the one with which you identify. In this view, women, for example, are not oppressed because of any relation to their female sex, but because and to the extent that they identify as women and signify this through their performance of femininity. The reality of the sex of their bodies is as unimportant as all material reality. It therefore follows that the identification as a woman, which is important, does not have to proceed from having a female body, which is not. The identity has become unmoored from the physical reality.

Within this postmodern logic, that choice to identify as a woman and therefore be subjected to women’s oppression could be a completely arbitrary one. If identity does not have to proceed from any objective reality, because that objective reality is unimportant, then people could simply pick any identity they wished. This would be a difficult argument politically, however, as it would mean that people were choosing and therefore potentially complicit in their oppression. Arguably in response to this possibility, the understanding has developed of identification not as a choice, but as a realisation. While identification does not indeed in many spheres have to relate to material reality, it is not arbitrary. It relates rather to an immaterial reality about an individual which they discover as part of the process of assuming an identification.[15]

It is noticeable at the same time that the physical reality of sexed bodies is downplayed in discussions of identity and gender. The original understanding of transgender people was that they were people who were suffering from dysphoria, a sense that they should have been born into the other sex. Often expressed as that they were ‘born in the wrong body’ or had a ‘female brain in a male body’ or vice versa, it was very much rooted in the physical reality of their sexed bodies, their feelings about them and the process of changing them to better align with their internal conception of what they should be. While trans people obviously still seek various kinds of gender reassignment surgery, hormone treatments and so on, this is no longer seen as essential for a trans identity. Indeed, trans people who continue to insist that some level of dysphoria or discomfort with your sexed body are sometimes criticised by other trans activists.

Physical sex is frequently claimed to be a myth erased by new developments in biological science; a spectrum on which it is often impossible to establish where individuals sit; and something of small importance compared to gender. Nor does assuming external markers of a particular gender take the place of the need for a physical transition in trans identity. While again, many trans people will, for example, choose to dress in clothes stereotypically worn by the opposite sex, there is a clear argument that this is not required in order to be trans. The apogee of this decoupling of gender identities from the physical is the transwoman Danielle Muscato, who has identified as a transwoman for some years despite retaining until recently, in most online images at least, an entirely male presentation, including male clothes and facial hair. In this understanding of identity, Muscato nevertheless is and always has been a woman by virtue of her sense of her innate gender identity.[16]

It is true that not all identities have been as completely removed from a relation to objective circumstances as have those relating to gender. The case of Rachel Dolezal (who faced vilification and dismissal from her NAACP position when it was discovered that she was from a white family and grew up as white) showed that the view that all you need to claim an identity is a feeling of identification has not yet become hegemonic in relation to race politics.[17] The subsequent row over a paper by Rebecca Tuvel in philosophy journal Hypatia, in which she argued that transracialism had the same theoretical validity as transgenderism, shows how far this is still contested territory, as well as how vituperative and damaging debates around the theory of identity politics tend to become.[18]

Marx versus idealism

It is therefore clear that modern identity politics represent a profoundly idealist understanding of the world, concentrating as they do on reified identities at the expense of material, objective conditions. Such ideas have a pedigree going back, via Hegel, all the way to Plato, but this does not mean that they are helpful ways of understanding our oppression and how we can fight against it. In an idealist view, what matters is our internal relation to the oppression we experience. The experience of oppression is transformable not by changing the oppression but by changing how we relate to it. If the only thing ‘real’ is our perception, how else would you do it? Thus, nothing is inherently oppressive or exploitative, it depends on how you decide to experience it.

This understanding underlies much of what is sometimes dubbed ‘choice feminism’, which holds that women choosing to participate in otherwise sexist activities like lap-dancing, being a Playboy bunny, calling their boyfriend master as part of a sub/dom relationship, etc is empowering if it is their choice. As a young woman argued in a video produced recently by The Guardian on non-binary identities, if she, as someone who identifies as non-binary, wears flowery dresses and other trappings of traditional femininity, this is not conservative but queer and subversive, because of her nevertheless imperceptible non-binary identity.[19]It may also sound familiar from the approach to workplace stress that holds that the solution lies in a quick course of cognitive behavioural therapy rather than such wacky ideas as better working conditions.

The idea that oppression and exploitation are in the heads of the oppressed and exploited is obviously useful for those benefiting from the oppression and exploitation. This should be a hint that such idealist conceptions of the world are unhelpful in changing it. Marx and Engels argued in their first collaboration, The Holy Family, written in 1844, against the Young Hegelians, the idealists of their day, who were similarly trying to locate oppressive forces as essentially in the subjective experiences of those who were oppressed. For the mass of working people to rise from their knees, Marx and Engels wrote, ‘it is not enough to do so in thought and to leave hanging over one’s real sensuously perceptible head the real sensuously perceptible yoke that cannot be subtilised away with ideas.’[20] The exploitation and oppression of working-class people has a real, material reality, and so must be fought on that basis, rather than as a subjective experience.

That this is at odds with the identity politics understanding of oppression indicates how necessary it is to look at oppression within a Marxist framework. For a system of thought based around individuals identifying with various oppressed identities, and within which talk about groups being particularly oppressed is omnipresent, identity politics is particularly poor as a guide for how any of this oppression can be countered.

Class and identity

In the first place, of course, identity politics’ omission of class in favour of cultural identities is an immediate blind spot, fatal to any claim that this can represent a real or useful understanding of oppression and exploitation. If this were all, it would be easy enough though to add class as one of the axes on which people can be oppressed. This would be to miss the point, however, that leaving class out is a more serious error than simply forgetting a category of oppression. Adding class to the identity politics mix can simply be to cast class as another possible cultural identity. There is a trend, within the sort of establishment discourse which wants us to believe that class struggle is just so 1970s, that indeed argues that class is about what TV channels you watch and whether you wipe your mouth after eating with a napkin, a serviette or your sleeve.[21] The aim of this is to disarm struggle against exploitation, not to strengthen it.

Adding class as just one other possible group of identities locates class as a subjective understanding rather than as a material fact proceeding from your relationship to the means of production. If you control capital, then you are part of the bourgeoisie, whether you live in a castle or use your trust fund to pay for a studio in Shoreditch. If you have to sell your labour power in order to live, then you are a member of the proletariat, flat caps and whippets optional. These facts are objective reality, as is the fact that if you are proletarian selling your labour power, you are being exploited. How you feel about this exploitation is immaterial, because it is a facet of the economic system in which we all live and exists whether you, personally, are aware of it or not.

A defence of identity politics here might respond that the various oppressions to which people are subject on the basis of their gender identity or their race are more important than the exploitation which they face as workers. To attempt to foreground exploitation could be portrayed as a privileged effort which only someone who is not personally exposed to oppression could make. The point however is not to argue that class-based exploitation is worse than identity-based oppression, but that grasping the objective reality of exploitation reveals a systemic basis which is lacking from identity politics’ understanding of oppression.

Fighting oppression with identity politics

As discussed, identity politics locate the oppression of different identities with individuals who are part of the normative identity. These normative individuals do not quite come to their oppressive ideas on their own at random, since postmodernism allows for the development and spread of society-wide discourses by which individuals are influenced, but broadly, oppression is individual. Thus, the source of oppression of trans people is cis people; of black people, white people; of non-binary people, binary people, and so on. Since what matters, in this view of the world, is subjective experience rather than material reality, the oppression perpetrated by individual cis, white, or binary (etc) people is whatever is experienced by the trans, black, or non-binary (etc) people being oppressed. It therefore follows that there can be no general campaigns against different oppressions. If oppression is subjective experience, and the oppressors are the people who do not share the oppressed identity, then clearly the only people who can fight that oppression are the oppressed people themselves. Involving other people would be to bring in those who at best do not understand the experience and at worst are oppressors themselves. 

This is flawed firstly because it is not the case that individuals will always be the best and most reliable witnesses to their own oppression. Our consciousness is shaped by our experience of living under capitalism,[22] and this includes not only our experience of work but our existence in a society in which we are encouraged to view ourselves and our place in the world in a certain way. This includes the doctrine that the fact that people with regional accents are now allowed on the BBC means that we live in a classless society. It also includes sexist views like a woman attacked in a dark street was asking for it for daring to walk down it alone. We are all influenced by these discourses and can therefore espouse beliefs which aren’t actually in our own interests as proletarians and members of oppressed groups. Thus, women may deny that there are any battles for feminism still to win, black people may argue that there are no structural reasons for poverty in black communities, and so on. An understanding of oppression arising from identity politics would hold that women who claim not to experience women’s oppression are in fact not subject to it, whereas clearly such claims should at least be treated with scepticism.

Secondly, for all that identity politics purport to represent a progressive view of society, this view of oppression as being only something which the oppressed themselves can fight buttresses the neo-liberal argument that society is irrelevant. Mrs Thatcher famously stated that is no such thing as society, only individual men and women and families.[23] If this were accepted as true, it would be reasonable to posit that individuals should fight the oppression they experience themselves, as the only people affected. It is only if, on the other hand, we perceive the importance of social, communal bonds, that we can fight against oppression to which we are not ourselves subject but which we don’t want to exist in our society.

The view of oppression inherent to identity politics replaces a collective view of the necessity to fight oppression with a situation in which you are permitted or not to oppose it on the basis of factors entirely outside your control. Since identity is innate, rather like in the Calvinist doctrine of predestination, you are either one of the elect or one of the damned. If you are not born into a particular oppressed identity, there is nothing you can do to oppose the oppression that identity faces. You can, of course, be an ally, but given the number of articles on various sites defining good ally behaviour as to be as quiet and imperceptible as possible, this does not seem particularly satisfactory. Fundamentally, the concept of solidarity is antithetical to identity politics, which consequently fails to represent a constructive way of opposing oppression.

In place of the different identities of identity politics, seeing oppression as arising from exploitation indicates that the struggle against one has to be an integral part of the struggle against the other. It is in the class interest of working-class women and working-class men to end women’s oppression, just as it is in the class interest of working-class black people and white people to end racism, gay and straight people to end homophobic discrimination, and so on. These struggles are not in a different sphere from more obviously economic struggles like strike action, they are different facets of the same fight.

Identity and trans

Consistent with its origins in identity politics, the position of some trans activists is that transwomen and transmen are in essence the identity they assume. Transmen are men, indivisible and indistinguishable in any important way from natal men. Transwomen, similarly, are women. This is maintained by these trans activists and allies as the non-negotiable red line between acceptable differences of opinion and bigotry. It relies however on a definition of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ that cannot move beyond the circular ‘a woman is anyone who identifies as a woman.’ If we accept subjective identification as the only important signifier, this follows logically, but it does require that postmodern rejection of the material in favour of the subjective to work. This position therefore imposes on women an understanding of women’s oppression arising from identity rather than from sex, along with the damaging inference that women who don’t like it could just identify as men, or, even worse, that the fact that they don’t like it shows that they must really be men.

At the same time, discussion of aspects of sex-specific oppression which women do still face becomes more difficult if, as some trans activists argue, we should no longer talk about pregnant women, women seeking abortion, or menstruation, for example.This seems to take us back to a time when women in the West were taught that the realities of female bodies were shameful and unmentionable, and it is important that we resist any return to this. Since we live in a society in which women are still at risk of male violence and systemic oppression, we need to be able to organise just with other women when we require it. We also have to retain a right to certain sex-specific spaces like changing rooms, domestic violence centres and so on. A dogmatic insistence that transwomen are simply women whose access to these spaces is unproblematic helps neither women nor trans people but harms both, while making building solidarity to fight against oppression and exploitation more difficult. Genuine solutions can be found in the provision of more facilities for those who are oppressed, not enforcing competition between oppressed groups, far less starting a culture war over provision.

The identity politics that developed in the 1980s fractured an understanding of Black as a collective solidarity against structural racisms into different groups competing for resources. Their modern incarnation are now busily pitting women against trans people in a fight for resources which austerity has made even scarcer. In the face of this, the most defiant action we can take is to retain our solidarity with each other. Women are not the enemies of trans people; we are part of the struggle against the very real oppression that trans people face every day. Despite a degree of recent progress in the visibility and social acceptance of trans people, it was after all as recently as 2013 that teacher Lucy Meadows committed suicide after Richard Littlejohn decided to make her transition the subject of his Daily Mail column.[24]As feminists, we must and do stand with trans people against this sort of bigotry. In the same way, trans people need to be part of the struggle against the oppression of women.

Just as different groups of migrants can be turned against each other (and the US is, to an important degree, built on this method) so can any two or more groups of the oppressed. There are real differences between the ways in which women are oppressed and the related but distinct oppression of trans people. Many trans activists, in fact, acknowledge this, otherwise, why distinguish between trans women and ciswomen? These differences cannot be obliterated by a turn of phrase, but they can be overcome in common struggle. The basis for a united struggle exists, but it cannot be created in an atmosphere of abuse and intimidation, nor simply by wishing it were so. It has to be politically constructed on the basis of a thorough and effective explanation of women’s oppression and the oppression of those whose sexual and gender orientations depart from the establishment approved norms. This article has attempted to open a path for such discussion.


[1] Frederick Engels, The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State, (1884), London 1972. For a fuller version of this discussion of the origins of women’s oppression, see Elaine Graham-Leigh, ‘Where does sexism come from?’, Marxism and Women’s Liberation, (London 2016), pp.13-30.

[2] Lindsey German, Material Girls. Women, men and work, (London 2007), p.55.

[3]R I Moore, The Formation of a Persecuting Society. Power and Deviance in Western Europe 950-1250, (Oxford 1987).

[4] Everyone in a village would be dependent on the miller’s good graces to get their grain ground, but the mill would usually be outside the village, so the miller would be under less communal oversight than other villagers. Powerful figures living in liminal spaces are obvious candidates for suspicion and for identification with supernatural forces.

[5] See for example Marek Kohn, The Race Gallery. The Return of Racial Science, (London 1996).

[6]Georg Lukács, History and Class Consciousness. Studies in Marxist Dialectics, trans. Rodney Livingstone, (London 1974), pp. 83-222. See also Chris Nineham, Capitalism and Class Consciousness. The ideas of Georg Lukács, (London 2010), pp.19-28.

[7]A Sivanandan, Communities of Resistance. Writings on Black Struggles for Socialism, (London 1990), p.21.

[8] I am using ‘cis’ throughout simply as the least inelegant way to say ‘non-trans’. I do not mean to suggest that people who are not trans identify with the traditional gender role for their sex. For the problems with ‘cis’ as a description beyond ‘non-trans’, see for example https://glosswatch.com/2014/04/24/9-reasons-why-cis-isnt-working/

[9] Sivanandan, Communities of Resistance, p.32.

[10] Feyzi Ismail, ‘Race, Class and Women’s Oppression’, Marxism and Women’s Liberation, pp.31-43, p.38.

[11]Kimberle Crenshaw,‘Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine,Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics,’University of Chicago Legal Forum, Issue 1, article 8, (1989), pp.139-167, p.149.

[12] Ibid.

[14] For a useful discussion of gatekeeping, see Gary Younge, Who Are We? And should it matter in the 21st century?, (London 2011), pp.89-110.

[15] As coined by Gilbert Ryle in his criticism of Descartes, The Concept of Mind, (1949).

[20]Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The Holy Family, or Critique of Critical Criticism, trans. Richard Dixon and Clemens Dutt, (Moscow 1975), p.97.

[21] A recent example was the 2013 Great British Class Survey which purported to assess class yet didn’t ask for participants’ occupation. For an excellent discussion of this, see Chris Nineham, How the Establishment Lost Control. The Left and the return of mass politics, (London 2017), p.75.

[22]Anchor Lukács, History and Class Consciousness. pp.83-222.

Elaine Graham-Leigh

Elaine Graham-Leigh

Elaine has been an environmental campaigner for more than a decade, focusing on issues of climate change and social justice. She speaks and writes widely on green issues and is a member of Counterfire. Her book, A Diet of Austerity: Class, Food and Climate Change, will be published in April 2015 by Zero Books.


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