WSM Points of Unity Explained: 7 - Oppression and Intersectionality


'7. We actively oppose all manifestations of prejudice within the workers' movement and society in general and we work alongside those struggling against racism, sexism, [religious] sectarianism and homophobia as a priority. We see the success of a revolution and the successful elimination of these oppressions after the revolution being determined by the building of such struggles in the pre-revolutionary period. The methods of struggle that we promote are a preparation for the running of society along anarchist and communist lines after the revolution.'

Human beings are complex. We have many sides, many needs, wishes, strengths and weaknesses, many different obstacles and opportunities in life. So while acknowledging the huge harm caused by capitalism and the state, our concerns naturally do not end there. The Workers Solidarity Movement are anarchists because we want the total liberation of humankind, the full realisation of our need and wish to fed, sheltered, clothed, respected, in charge of ourselves, within a real community, to be our true selves, and the rest of the rich tapestry which makes a good life. And so we recognise that patriarchy, racism, queerphobia, ableism, religious domination and sectarianism, xenophobia, and every way that joy is sucked out of our lives, that we are stifled, attacked, are important forms of oppression and marginalisation in their own right which must be eradicated. While capitalism and the state are instrumental in spreading these oppressions, and while these oppressions are instrumental in sustaining capitalism and the state, they have their own independent existence and reasons to be replaced by healthier relations between people.

The WSM’s politics are fundamentally intersectional. ‘Intersectionality’ is a fancy word for some rather basic ideas. You can think of it as ‘overlap-ism’ instead, or perhaps a holistic approach to politics. There are three main points, 1) that each person needs to be seen as a whole, 2) that no power system exists in isolation, and 3) that all forms of oppression and exploitation should be uprooted at the same time. These ideas were put together in coherent form in in 1960’s/70’s U.S.A. by black feminists who faced problems of racism within the supposedly universal ‘sisterhood’, and sexism within the supposedly class-united left.

The first point refers to the fact that real people aren’t cartoons. We are each complicated and multi-dimensional. For instance, a person is not just working class. They also have a gender (and a race, and a world view). In general, life for a working class woman will be significantly different than for a working class man, not only because a woman is oppressed by sexism but because class itself is experienced differently according to your gender.

This leads to the second point. Being precise, there is no such thing as ‘gender’ as a free floating thing. As a practical example, note how wealthy women can afford to travel to England for abortions but poor women often cannot. We can see here the effect of class and gender ‘intersecting’ or overlapping. Notice how this example shows both that gender is different depending on class (wealthy and poor women), but also that class is different depending on gender (cis male workers don't personally need abortions). Gender does have its own independent existence in a sense, but for each person it is coloured by everything else in their world. The same is true of any social system or phenomenon.

The third point says two things: that single issue politics don’t work, and that no struggle is the ‘most important’ or primary struggle. The most common case of single issue politics on the left is socialists stating that we must focus on the ‘class struggle’ because capitalism, which tramples on all working class people, is our real priority. The reality is that, as described above, class doesn’t exist in isolation, people aren’t one-dimensional. There is no cartoon worker. In practice, putting a priority on 'class' at the expense of struggles against specific oppressions like patriarchy and racism means side-lining those oppressed people in favour of what is usually the straight, white Irish, settled, cisgender, male citizen. Saying that capitalism is the ‘most important’ raises the question of ‘most important for whom?’.

Furthermore, the idea that capitalism can be overthrown without being part of a broader movement against oppression is false. For example, how are the working class to succeed if over half of them (women and non-binary people) are being repressed? All power systems are linked, or overlap, or are part of a greater whole.

Equally we reject the liberal distortion of these ideas, unfortunately also referred to as 'intersectionality', which advocates for fairer treatment of all groups while under the tyranny of capitalism and the state. It’s the flipside of the above. Attempting to achieve our freedom by picking away at issues without tying that into a broader project of replacing the economic and political system as a whole will fail. Capitalism and the state function to support and spread all forms of oppression worldwide, keeping us divided, busy, brainwashed, and if it comes to it, incarcerated.

The model of 'bring capitalism down, and the rest will come down with it' is overly simplistic. Even in the Spanish Revolution, sexism was rife among anarchists and women were compelled to organise themselves separately to advance their rights in the Mujeres Libres (Free Women). In Rojava today, this mistake has been learned from and gender liberation is at the heart of the revolution. Considering all of the above, it’s clear that we can't wait until 'after the Revolution' to root out these oppressions or even for them to magically disappear by themselves, they must be worn away constantly in the present. A revolutionary movement which makes these affronts to humanity a low priority is not so revolutionary. The groundwork must be put in today, and after all revolution is a continuous process, to free the whole person.

See our Anarchism, Oppression & Exploitation position paper for more detail.

This is one in a series of short articles explaining the WSM Points of Unity.
To listen to all these pieces together, click here.
To read all the WSM Points of Unity, click here.
To read about the next Point of Unity - Imperialism - click here.