What’s wrong with privilege theory?

Issue: 142

Esme Choonara and Yuri Prasad

Can those who are not oppressed be part of the battles for liberation? Are all white people complicit in racism or can they be part of the fight for the emancipation of black people? Can gay and straight really unite against discrimination? Can men be part of the struggle for women’s rights? These are just some of the issues at stake in discussions about privilege theory and oppression.

All those who are committed to a world without oppression share a common interest in the fight against chauvinism and discrimination. People with differing views about the world make common cause to defend those under attack because of their race, nationality, gender, sexual orientation and so on. They do so both because they are revolted at the bullying nature of society and also because they understand that standing together is the only way we are strong enough to resist the powerful forces that stand behind prejudice. Yet behind this unity lie important differences that can take the movement in a variety of directions. The origins and functions of oppression, the manner in which we fight it and the ultimate goals we set ourselves are all political questions that socialists have distinctive ideas about.

This article takes a critical look at some of the theories of privilege and concepts of intersectionality (the interaction of multiple oppressions) that increasingly dominate battles for liberation. These ideas are not new, but have grown in influence in recent years. Privilege theory has its origins in the US where academics, diversity trainers, writers and others have produced a growing body of studies, teaching aids and personal memoirs developing ideas of privilege. In Britain the ideas are currently more concentrated in student politics, in academia and among bloggers and activists but have also begun to enter the mainstream media, with regular debates in the Comment section of the Guardian and elsewhere.

Our starting point is that socialists should engage positively with those fighting oppression but that such an engagement is not helped by hiding our theoretical differences. As such we analyse privilege theory and intersectionality, and their strategic implications, from a Marxist point of view to show how and why we differ. We argue that privilege theory, by concentrating its focus primarily upon individual relationships rather than the oppressive system of capitalism, tends to direct people away from the kind of social solidarity necessary to beat oppression.

We believe that Marxism, with both its long track record in many different movements for liberation and its rigorous analysis of how and why people are oppressed, remains the most valuable tool for all those who want to live in a society without discrimination.

What is privilege theory?

At the heart of privilege theory is the idea that oppression works through a series of unearned advantages enjoyed by those who do not suffer a particular oppression. So all men, white people or straight people, for example, will gain privileges that come from not facing sexism, racism or homophobia. The beneficiary of these privileges may be completely unaware of them—in fact much emphasis among privilege theorists is on what they would describe as “making privilege visible”1—alerting people to the unearned advantages they may take for granted. Similarly individuals do not choose whether or not to have these “privileges”—they are automatically bestowed by virtue of someone’s race, gender, sexuality and so on. Through this framework, class becomes just one of a myriad of oppressive divisions in society.

Privileges are often seen to operate at a psychological level, as unconscious (and therefore inescapable) bias. This is why much of the practice of privilege theorists consists of exhorting others to “check your privilege”—in other words suggesting that the actions or ideas that are being challenged come from the unconscious prejudices that flow directly from someone’s “privileged position”.

One of the most influential pioneers of privilege theory, US activist Peggy McIntosh, famously described privilege as an “invisible knapsack”. Considering her own position as a white woman, she writes:

I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was “meant” to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, assurances, tools, maps, guides, codebooks, passports, visas, clothes, compass, emergency gear, and blank checks.2

She goes on to list 46 areas of her everyday life where she is able as a white woman to take things for granted that most black people could not. At one level, this can be taken as an exploration of some of the ways in which racism impacts on everyday life. Yet behind the description McIntosh offers an explanation of how oppression works and how it can best be challenged. McIntosh is explicit about this, arguing: “The conditions I have described here work to systematically overempower certain groups. Such privilege simply confers dominance, gives permission to control, because of one’s race or sex”.3

In seeing the world through the prism of “unearned advantages” privilege theory reflects the common sense appearance of how oppression functions—men on average do earn more than women; white people are proportionately less likely to be stopped by the police than black and Asian people. But to understand how oppression works, we have to look beneath the surface at how society functions and in whose interests. As Karl Marx argued: “All science would be superfluous if the outward appearance and the essence of things directly coincided”.4

In many ways privilege theory reflects much older narratives about who benefits from oppression—arguments for example that men benefit from women’s oppression and that all white people gain from racism. Those who allegedly hold privilege are seen to benefit automatically from, and to be complicit in, the oppression of others. Privilege theorist and diversity consultant Frances Kendall argues, for example: “Any of us who has race privilege, which all white people do, and therefore the power to put our prejudices into law, is racist by definition, because we benefit from a racist system”.5

This is a very pessimistic and disarming theory—seeing individuals as unable to escape their prejudices or their role in the oppression of others. The best that can be hoped for in such circumstances is for increased self-awareness and mitigation of the worst forms of individually oppressive behaviour in order to become suitable allies of those facing oppression, though to what end is generally not clear.

Once you accept a framework of understanding inequalities in society as forms of privilege, the concept itself can become very imprecise. So, while many privilege theorists focus on clear questions of oppression such as racism, gender, sexuality or disability, some expand the concept to practically all social phenomena. The Transformative Justice Law Project of Illinois, for example, lists many forms of privilege that activists should check including education privilege, body size privilege, “life on the outside” privilege (the “privilege” of not being in prison) and “passing privilege…the privilege to be able to ‘pass’ as a more privileged group, such as a light skinned person of colour passing as white”.6

This approach confuses symptoms with problems. Inequalities and prejudices around body size are not factors that exist independently; they are a direct consequence of sexism and concepts of gender. Similarly the vast inequalities in the likelihood of being in prison or of being able to access education are the consequence of racism and social inequality. Reeling off a list of “privileges” in this way simply states the existence of an unequal society—it does not help us to understand it or to challenge it. In fact the recognition of inequalities becomes an end in itself.

Where does privilege theory come from?

Privilege theory builds on the theoretical framework of the identity politics that dominated the left during the 1980s and 1990s. These politics reflected the fragmentation of the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s and the political pessimism of the Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan years. In Britain this meant a shift from struggles that challenged the power of the state to either seeking accommodation with it or retreating into increasingly lifestyle-focused or identity-based politics that ignored the state and questions of structural inequality altogether. In many cases, in Britain at least, the state actually encouraged such fragmentation, with the funding for example of discrete “ethnic” projects.7 Identity politics essentially argued that only those who experience something can really understand it or be relied upon to challenge it. Privilege theory largely accepts this premise, but in many ways is the flip side of this framework—focusing not on the oppressed, but on the supposed “privileged” oppressor.

The theoretical backbone of identity politics was the rise of post-Marxist and postmodernist theories in academia.8 This break with Marxism held that the era of “grand narratives”—attempting to understand society as a whole—was over. The stress was now on uncertainty, indeterminacy, and the multiple and fragmented character of reality. Postmodernism reflected the politics of a generation of activists and academics demoralised by the defeat of the mass movements of 1968 as well as the general pessimism of an era in which Francis Fukuyama could famously announce that the triumph of liberal capitalism signalled the “end of history”.9

The political terrain has shifted significantly since the 1990s. The battle against the World Trade Organisation in Seattle in November 1999 symbolically ushered in a new era of radical politics characterised by a renewed desire to generalise, and for unity rather than fragmentation.

We are now 14 years on from Seattle and more than five years into a profound capitalist crisis and associated austerity attacks—which has raised questions about how capitalism functions and in whose interests. But despite the rise of dramatic social movements across the globe, the organised working class remains a marginal force in most struggles. Therefore the Marxist argument about the central role of the working class in forcing change remains obscured to many activists.

The fundamental theoretical and political framework shaping both left academia and movements against oppression has not changed significantly, despite the rise of social movements and some limited revival of an interest in Marxist economics. As Colin Wilson explained in this journal in 2011 in relation to LGBT politics, the movements since Seattle “have been characterised by a desire for unity, and an explicit rejection, for example, of 80s-style identity politics and its divisive moralism. At the same time, no political alternative has replaced identity politics as the basis for organising”.10 This creates a contradictory and unstable situation. Today, while it is true that the genuine growth in the desire for unity and the opportunities to generalise struggles remains, the rise of privilege theory as a common sense outlook on oppression risks resurrecting some of the same divisive moralism we hoped to have put behind us.

Power and privilege

Many of the core ideas of privilege theory reflect—directly or indirectly—the ideas of the post-Marxists that gave such a boost to identity politics. Post-Marxists rejected classical Marxism’s concerns with class and class struggle as the central driving force of history and the working class as the agent of socialist change. Influential writers such as Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe explicitly argued for the left to reject Marxist notions of class as reductionist, conjuring a highly distorted version of Marxism in order to bolster their argument.11 They saw the rise of social movements based on identity as the foundation for a new radical politics that rejected attempts to explain “totality” in favour of “partial discourses” and a focus on subjectivity. Thus for Laclau and Mouffe society is divided by “various subject positions” and “diverse antagonisms and points of rupture” that “cannot be led back to a point from which they could all be embraced and explained by a single discourse”.12 In other words, they were arguing that it is wrong and futile to attempt to understand how the variety of oppressions fit together into a wider picture of how society works.

If Laclau and Mouffe were the theoretical backbone of the identity politics of the 1980s, it is another post-Marxist, the French theorist Michel Foucault, whose ideas have arguably had the most lasting influence on debates around power and oppression. Foucault is in many ways a more complex and contradictory theorist than Laclau or Mouffe. His writings on the social construction of sexuality, for example, are thought provoking and inform much of current theory around LGBT oppression.13 However, he shares with Laclau and Mouffe a rejection of attempts to see society as a totality.

Foucault’s distinctive concept of power is hugely influential on theorists and activists dealing with questions of oppression. His central argument is that “power is everywhere”—it is omnipresent. Alex Callinicos summarises Foucault’s theory thus:

Rather than being unitary power is a multiplicity of relations infiltrating the whole of the social body. Consequently no causal priority can be assigned as it is by Marxism, to the economic base. Moreover, power is productive: it does not operate by repressing individuals…but rather by constituting them… Finally, power necessarily evokes resistance, albeit as fragmentary and decentralised as the power-relations it contests.14

So what does this mean? It means that power is not something that some people have and some people don’t have. According to Foucault, it is not concentrated in the hands of the capitalist class or the state as the classical Marxist tradition would have it, but is something that is distributed throughout society and exists therefore in all social and interpersonal relationships. Clearly, this has implications for how to understand and to challenge injustice and inequality.

Foucault explicitly argues that power does not reside in the ruling class or the state: “Neither the caste which governs, nor the groups which control the state apparatus, nor those who make the most important economic decisions direct the entire network of power that functions in a society.” He argues that there must be a “multiplicity of points of resistance” and therefore “there is no single locus of great Refusal, no soul of revolt, source of all rebellions, or pure law of the revolutionary. Instead there is a plurality of resistances, each of them a special case…by definition, they can only exist in the strategic field of power relations”.15

This outlook informs the notion running throughout privilege theory that every individual is inescapably part of a multiplicity of oppressive relationships—what Patricia Hill Collins calls a “matrix of domination”. Collins is best known for her writings on intersectionality and black feminism, concepts that we will return to later. While she is at times critical of postmodernist concepts of oppression, her theory of power also embraces notions of individual privilege and interpersonal domination arguing that “each one of us derives varying amounts of penalty and privilege from the multiple systems of oppression that frame our lives”.16

Anyone encountering or reading material on privilege theory will be struck by the overwhelming focus on the individual—the many confessionals of the “privileged” describing how they came to terms with their privileges17 or the exhorting of others to check theirs. Yet despite the focus on individual change, most privilege theorists acknowledge that there are wider and structural inequalities behind the privileges that individuals are alleged to have bestowed upon them. Michael Kimmel, for example, argues that individual solutions are not enough: “Inequality is structural and systematic as well as individual and attitudinal. Eliminating inequalities involves more than changing everyone’s attitudes”.18

However, while it is right to state that structural and systemic inequalities exist, the real question is why? Furthermore, if structural inequalities and systems of oppression are not seen as rooted in the economic system of capitalism, or in class society more generally in the case of women’s oppression, then these systemic inequalities can seem to exist as autonomous spheres of dominance. Either this means that these oppressions are age old and an inevitable product of difference—men will always be sexist because they are men and so on, or it means simply ignoring this question altogether.

Some privilege theorists do attempt to trace the historical and economic roots of oppression, especially around the question of racism. Influential US writer Tim Wise, for example, accepts that the origins of racism are bound up with capitalism and slavery.19 However, he suggests that after slavery racism became so deeply entrenched that “white racism can now take on an auto-pilot effect” in which it is sustained not by the needs of the ruling elites and capital, but by white people themselves.20 So racism as a power structure becomes detached from capitalism. In this argument, Wise is in many ways following the writing of US theorist David Roediger whose writings on race are extremely influential in informing notions of whiteness and privilege. Roediger offers a serious challenge to Marxist theory and his ideas underpin much of privilege theory, so we shall examine his arguments in more detail.

Wages of whiteness

Whiteness theory is largely concerned with understanding how the concept of “white” people as a separate entity emerged and what implications that categorisation has had since. It seeks to reassess history by examining how it has been shaped by “white identity” and “white privilege”, but also calls into question the way today “white” has become synonymous with “normal”, relegating “non-white” to the status of “other”. Many proponents share with Marxists an understanding of the way concepts of racial superiority have been socially constructed in order to justify discrimination and slavery. But while Marxists understand that all forms of consciousness are rooted in social being and that racism like all ideologies is structured by material realities, many whiteness theorists believe that racism is largely free from such constraints. As a psycho-cultural phenomenon, racism functions completely independently of the system, and any idea that the ruling class have played a particular role in its maintenance and development is dismissed as crude economic determinism.

David Roediger, probably the most influential theorist in the discipline, says that, “The main body of writing by white Marxists in the United States has both ‘naturalised’ whiteness and oversimplified race”.21 To ram the point home, he continues:

The point that race is created wholly ideologically and historically, while class is not wholly so created, has often been boiled down to the notion that class (or “the economic”) is more real, more fundamental, more basic or more important than race, both in political terms and in terms of historical analysis.22

Rather than the slave traffickers and plantation owners, and the whole productive, financial and state edifice built upon them, being to blame for instigating racism, Roediger argues that it was the product of the emerging working class. Nineteenth century European-American artisans and craftsmen, fearful of being driven into servitude and drudgery by the capitalists and their factories, began to define themselves as white “freemen” in opposition to those black slaves who were in chains. The “whiteness” is crucial as it lays the basis for racism. So Tim Wise argues that being white means:

Defining ourselves by a negative, providing ourselves with an identity that [is] rooted in the external—rooted in the relative oppression of others… Inequality and privilege [are] the only real components of whiteness… Without racial privilege there is no whiteness, and without whiteness there is no privilege. Being white only means to be advantaged.23

Roediger says he bases his analysis on the great historian and activist W E B Du Bois. In his 1935 book about the post Civil War Reconstruction period in the US, Du Bois sought to explain why racism won out over inter-racial labour solidarity, and outlined what he called a “psychological wage” paid to the white labourers:

They were given public deference and titles of courtesy because they were white. They were admitted freely with all classes of white people to public functions, public parks, and the best schools. The police were drawn from their ranks, and the courts, dependent upon their votes, treated them with such leniency as to encourage lawlessness.24

Roediger cites the paragraph but deliberately misappropriates it to lend himself credibility. Du Bois’s crucial point was that it was the bosses who paid psychological wages to divide workers. After all, who else could grant them the kind of “privileges” that Du Bois talks about? The aim was to offer small concessions to white workers in order to make them believe they were superior to non-whites, and therefore strategically to divide all workers:

The theory of race was supplemented by a carefully planned and slowly evolved method, which drove such a wedge between the white and black workers that there probably are not today in the world two groups of workers with practically identical interests who hate and fear each other so deeply and persistently and who are kept so far apart that neither sees anything of common interest.25

An altogether more appropriate use of Du Bois’s concept of the psychological wage comes from historian Jack M Bloom. He argues that racism and the attempt to imbue the white poor with a sense of belonging to a superior caste were a response to the fear of an uprising from below that swept the Southern ruling class in America in the wake of the Civil War. He says that “the planters and their successors, the merchant-landlords, could not rest without fear of losing control. For much of this time they were under attack, and they responded with the program of white supremacy to make themselves preeminent”.26

This “programme of white supremacy” included handing out petty advantages while planning an attack on the voting franchise that would end with the elimination of most black voting. The spectre of black domination was raised at every opportunity. If the white members of the working class were as advocates of whiteness theory describe them, we should expect that the white poor welcomed attempts by the merchant-landlord class to drive black voters from the rolls. Instead most of the opposition to the move came from dissident whites. Why? Because many activists in the Populist movement of the late 19th century understood that the voting restrictions were really aimed at them and so did not fall for the racism used as an attempt to blind them. They knew that every property qualification or poll tax had the effect of wiping poor whites off the electoral register too.27

Whiteness theorists have difficulty explaining any kind of working class anti-racism because it appears as if workers are acting against their own interests, be they real or imagined. If white workers have developed a theory of superiority that permanently prevents them from seeing the world in a class conscious and inter-racial way, how is it that in periods of high class struggle so many come to question ideas of superiority they may have lived with their whole lives?

Every revival of working class militancy in the US has created its own challenge to racial division—from the mass strikes of the 1930s in which the Communist Party helped usher in an era of multiracial trade unionism to the new worker militancy of the late 1960s and early 1970s which saw black and white workers united in struggles from the car plants to the docks and beyond. No one would argue that racism does not act as a serious impediment to working class struggle, either in the past or today—or that victories over racism are always permanent. But history shows us that in the course of struggle even the most trenchant divisions can be worn down. To argue, as proponents of whiteness theory do, that we must eradicate racism from workers’ minds before they can challenge the system leaves us trapped in an endless loop of despair.

Who benefits from oppression?

Instead of seeing oppression resulting from a power play between individuals locked into competition with each other, Marxists start from a different place. We see it arising in class society, benefiting the ruling class, with the particular forms of oppression shaped by the economic basis of society. To take one example, racism was first developed by white plantation owners as a justification for the enslavement of black Africans. It persisted in a radically changed form after slavery’s end both because it provided a useful justification for colonial domination and because it offered a distraction from the real causes of poverty, exploitation and misery.

US economist Michael Reich looked at income distribution in 48 metropolitan areas in the 1970s and found that the greater the divide between black and white incomes, the greater the inequality between white incomes themselves. That is, the more racism divides workers, the more the capitalist is the beneficiary.28 Reich observes that:

The divisiveness of racism weakens workers’ strength when bargaining with employers; the economic consequences of racism are not only lower incomes for blacks but also higher incomes for the capitalist class and lower incomes for white workers. Although capitalists may not have conspired consciously to create racism, and although capitalists may not be its principal perpetuators, nevertheless racism does support the continued viability of the American capitalist system.29

So although life for black workers is often significantly harder than for white workers, racism has the effect of damaging the interests of both. That is true both in the narrowest sense—when comparing incomes, education, housing and so on—but also in a broader sense because racism makes the possibility of united and effective working class struggle more difficult as it cuts against the solidarity that it rests upon.

When analysing forms of oppression that predate capitalism—specifically women’s oppression—it can be more difficult to see who benefits. That is because those prejudices are often regarded as being so deep rooted and engrained in society that they do not seem to perform the same functional role for the system that racism does and must therefore be the result of something more fundamental, such as biology. Yet the oppression of women is not something that has always existed; it emerged with the ability to produce surplus food, the resulting division of society into classes, and the rise of family forms that aided the handing down of wealth through the generations. In most circumstances a small group of wealthy men came to control society’s resources and this in turn encouraged the emergence of patriarchy in households. So the family was a consequence of the development of class, rather than an age-old hierarchy in which women have always been oppressed.30

Under capitalism the function and the form that the family has taken have been radically altered so that its primary role is now as a place where the next generation of labour is created and nurtured. In order to understand who benefits from women’s oppression today it is vital to grasp the impact that the capitalist family has on the perceived roles of both women and men. First, the system ensures that the cost of reproducing the next generation of labour is privatised, shifting its cost in time and money almost entirely onto the family. Current attacks on the welfare state add to this—meaning women in particular are increasingly carrying the burden of care not just for children, but for elderly and sick relatives too. Second, women’s labour outside the home is cheapened because of the assumption that their primary role is as a carer to a family. Third, responsibility for the financial maintenance of the family unit is still widely assumed to fall on the male, thereby allowing capitalism to wash its hands of any responsibility and creating for the man a fear of failing his family if he is unable to find work to support them.

In this way the ideology of the family acts as the central justification for the oppression of women. Despite the fact that most people in Britain do not live in the nuclear family, the idealisation of this unit means that it is still promoted as the most “natural” and desirable way to live.

It should be clear that both racism and the oppression of women work in the interests of the capitalist system. It does not follow, however, that Marxists see all such divisions as being engineered by the ruling class in a conspiratorial fashion. Certainly, some among that group—media barons, for example—are consciously involved in ratcheting up divisions and actively seek out ways to divert attention from the real causes of hardship for the working class towards those who have no reason to be blamed. But in general, divisive ideologies function in a less carefully constructed way. For some of the ruling elite, their stoking of oppression reflects deep-rooted prejudices passed down through generations of their class. For others, their behaviour is based on pure opportunism.

These ideas percolate through society and operate with a certain amount of independence from the economic base but are at the same time constrained by it. So Frederick Engels writes:

Political, juridical, philosophical, religious, literary, artistic, etc, development is based on economic development. But all these react upon one another and also upon the economic base. It is not that the economic position is the cause and alone active, while everything else only has a passive effect. There is, rather, interaction on the basis of the economic necessity, which ultimately always asserts itself.31

But what of the rivalries, jealousies and downright prejudices that can be found among many workers today? Tim Wise argues that “before any substantial alteration in the class system can become possible, we will have to attack white racism and substantially diminish it”.32 But this creates a circular argument in which white workers cannot act to change society because they are too racist, but they are racist because they have been unable to change society. Marx’s answer to this was to say that struggle can play a crucial role in breaking the hold of reactionary ideas and transforming society. Because capitalism forces workers to fight for even the basics of life, it generates class struggles that test and clarify ideas. For example, it is not possible to understand how it is that prejudice against black and Asian people in Britain was pushed back from the 1980s onwards without looking at the crucial struggles in the workplaces, schools and communities that came before. These were battles that encouraged black and white workers to act together, sometimes over strictly economic issues, and as a consequence forced many white people who accepted racist stereotypes to reappraise them. For Marx, struggle has a cleansing effect:

The materialist doctrine concerning the changing of circumstances and upbringing forgets that circumstances are changed by men and that it is essential to educate the educator himself. This doctrine must, therefore, divide society into two parts, one of which is superior to society. The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity or self-changing can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionary practice.33

Marxists see struggle as fertile terrain in which all the backward ideas that surround us are up for challenge—on the proviso that there are individuals and groups that are determined to do so.

Marxism and oppression

Opponents of Marxism often claim that the theory reduces everything to a question of class and therefore cannot help us understand or counter oppression. Even some on the radical left repeat the charge that Marx and Engels romanticised workers while trivialising the divisions among them. So Patricia Hill Collins caricatures Marxists as saying: “If only people of colour and women could see their true class interests, class solidarity would eliminate racism and sexism”.34

If this were really our attitude then you would expect Marxists to have ignored struggles for liberation, treating them as a diversion from the necessary business of class struggle. On the contrary, Marxists have always thrown themselves into such battles—from the earliest movements of working class women in east London, in which Eleanor Marx played a crucial role, to the role played by Communists in the fight against segregation in the American South during the Depression years, to the mass movement against Thatcher’s anti-gay Section 28 law in the 1980s.

Neither does Marxism as a theory ignore oppression. Even a cursory reading of Marx and Engels shows that they both rightly viewed chauvinism and prejudice as a cancer in the working class movement—one that required the utmost attention from socialist organisations of the day. Describing the anti-Irish racism of the 19th century, Marx wrote: “This antagonism is the secret of the impotence of the English working class, despite its organisation. It is the secret by which the capitalist class maintains its power. And that class is fully aware of it”.35

Long before women won the right to vote in Britain, Marx was arguing (using the sometimes unfortunate language of the time) for them to be admitted into the leadership of the working class organisations internationally, writing, “Everyone who knows anything of history also knows that great social revolutions are impossible without the feminine ferment. Social progress may be measured precisely by the social position of the fair sex”.36 And, as British newspapers spewed racist bile about the often bloody 1857 Indian Mutiny, Marx defended the insurrectionists and their methods, writing: “There is something in human history like retribution, and it is a rule of historic retribution that its instrument be forged not by the offended, but by the offender himself”.37

It is true that Marxists place an emphasis on class, despite knowing that an individual’s class position or background does not always trump their gender, race or sexuality in the way that it shapes their lives. We do so for two specific reasons. First, a class analysis is crucial to understanding the roots of oppression, that is how and under what circumstances it began, and why it continues today. Class analysis helps us understand in whose interest oppression functions, and how it is linked to the capitalist system as a whole. Developing such an approach allows Marxists to avoid the main pitfalls that befall other attempts to explain oppression which tend to see it as either the result of poor education and lack of appropriate training, or as something innate and biologically written into our brains. Second, class analysis is vital because, by locating the problem within the system rather than within individuals, and identifying a force that can overthrow the system, it holds out the only real possibility of fundamental and permanent change. Marxists argue that capitalism can be overthrown, and with it will go the whole baggage of backward ideas that the system depends on.

Dominant ideas about race, gender and sexuality have undergone a massive transformation in the decades since the Second World War. But the changes, in nearly all cases for the better, did not come about by accident or through gradual evolution—and they certainly didn’t come about because of a wave of enlightenment passing among the ruling class. Rather they are the product of the changing needs of capitalism and of people’s struggles to shape the world they live in.

Marx argued that the working class is the only group in society that has both the power and a material interest in overturning society and creating the world anew. He understood class as a social relationship that exists independently of whether people identify themselves as part of it. Viewed in this way, class is radically different from the categories created by oppression and the working class should not be regarded simply as a group that also faces discrimination to be added to a list.

An important consequence of seeing workers breaking from chauvinism is that people who face oppression can start to envisage those workers as potential allies, rather than hostile competitors and enemies, raising the prospect of united struggles that may have seemed impossible not long before.

Strategies and implications

Where does privilege theory get us in terms of strategies for change? One implicit suggestion of seeing the world as structured by unearned privileges is that the “privileged” should own up and give up those advantages. Consider, for example, the question of the wage gap between men and women. This is what sociologist R W Connell and others have called the “masculinity dividend”—the unearned benefits that allegedly accrue to men, just for being men.38 Guardian columnist Ally Fogg suggests that we should stop seeing women as underpaid in relation to men, but instead see men as overpaid in relation to women.39

Should men therefore take a pay cut in the interests of equality? In case this seems far-fetched, it is worth remembering that this is precisely the approach that many local authorities took to funding equal pay claims for the lowest paid women council workers during the single status disputes of 2005-7. Of course they did so not in the interests of justice, but to save money, but it is a sharp practical reminder that the question of equal pay has to be seen as a class issue to stop employers attempting to play one group off against another.

Most privilege theorists would also agree that the “privileged” should not be called on to give up their advantages—though primarily because they believe that privilege is something that cannot be got rid of, not because of a need for wider solidarity. As Michael Kimmel puts it, “One can no more renounce privilege than one can stop breathing”.40 This is a very pessimistic theory—just as someone cannot renounce their privilege, they cannot avoid being complicit in oppressing others. They can only aspire to greater awareness of their “privilege” and attempt to curb or legislate against the worst expressions of it.

Ironically the idea that we can’t escape our “privileges” seems to echo the Marxist notion that “being determines consciousness”—someone’s ideas and behaviours flow directly from their position of “privilege” or “penalty”. But this highly reductive and deterministic view of how oppressive ideas are formed is, as we have seen, a long way from Marxism. First, someone’s “being” in this sense cannot just be reduced to a sum of what oppressions they do or don’t suffer. Second, there is a range of ideas across society, including among the oppressed—and there is no direct correlation between ideas and the level of oppression an individual faces. People’s ideas are not fixed—otherwise why bother with argument, political organisation and so on? Finally people are not just passive objects—we constantly act on and interact with the world around us. In particular the antagonism at the heart of capitalism compels people to fight back, creating a situation in which human agency changes not just the world around them, but also the people themselves.

Privilege theory also expresses a form of elitism—we are all seen to be inescapably bound to innate bias and oppressive ideas except the theorists themselves who have been able to reach a degree of enlightened self-awareness. Those who see us all as prisoners of our unearned advantages can only ever expect to persuade a minority to acknowledge their privileges. In this way, despite superficially appearing to be rooted in material reality, privilege theory actually collapses into idealism—seeing ideas as the crucial factor. That is why for privilege theory the key focus is education and awareness.

This approach has a lot in common with liberalism—a focus on educating individuals and a moral imperative to strive for justice, without believing that inequality can be completely overcome (presumably without wiping out men or white people or heterosexuals at least).

Much of the privilege theory literature focuses not just on challenging others, but on challenging oneself. Even an author with such a broad historical scope as Collins argues that “change starts with self, and relationships that we have with those around us must always be the primary site for social change”.41

There is, of course, nothing wrong with individuals being self-critical about their attitudes and interactions with others. And it is right to challenge all manifestations of oppressive behaviour, language and attitudes. But the struggle against huge systemic divisions such as racism, sexism and homophobia cannot rely on the individual self-reflection of a number of progressive individuals.

These arguments are not new. Writing more than 20 years ago, Ambalavaner Sivanandan pointed to the dangers of an approach that focused primarily on the personal and interpersonal: “By personalising power, ‘the personal is political’ personalises the enemy: the enemy of the black is white as the enemy of the woman is the man. And all whites are racist like all men are sexist”.42

Privilege theory tends to reduce political argument to moral appeal and personal feelings, in which who is saying something often becomes more important than what they are saying. This is one reason that the notion of privilege is potentially corrosive to debate and actually risks letting oppressive behaviour off the hook. If someone speaks or behaves in a racist or sexist way, it is surely better, and more educative for all concerned, to challenge them by explaining that what they do or say is racist or sexist, rather than attributing it to an automatic expression of their “privileged” gender, race, sexuality and so on.

Even when supporters of privilege theory move away from the relentless focus on individuals and involve themselves in wider campaigns they insist that the “privileged” can play at most a supporting role to the oppressed. Frances Kendall, for example, argues that the point of checking our privileges is to become “an ally”, able to build “authentic relationships” with those who do not share our privileges.43

The focus on trying to change ideas in ourselves and others before a meaningful challenge to wider structural inequalities is possible is getting things the wrong way round. Most people who enter into struggle, whether for better rights at work, to stop a war, against racism, sexism or some other campaign, bring with them a mixture of contradictory ideas. They may accept some reactionary ideas, and reject others. It is precisely in the struggle for change that most people learn new insights into how capitalism functions, and old assumptions and prejudices can be broken down. This is because in battling for change, people’s direct experiences come into the sharpest conflict with the view of the world propagated by the institutions of capitalism.

Privilege and intersectionality

The concept of “intersectionality” is very popular among privilege theorists. Intersectionality is essentially a recognition that individuals and groups can face multiple oppressions, and an approach to the question of how these different oppressions impact on each other—how they intersect.

Privilege theory and intersectionality are not the same thing. However, there is a big overlap: many privilege theorists use intersectionality to explain how people can be “privileged” in some areas and face oppression in others. For example, Courtney E Martin writes in the New Statesman that when Peggy McIntosh drew up a list of her “unconscious privileges” she had “started thinking intersectionally (in her case, not just about being a woman, but about being a white, heterosexual woman)”.44 In other words, she had realised that not all women share the same position—this depends on class, race, sexuality and so on.

Similarly the key proponents of intersectionality tend to use concepts of privilege to argue how those who face multiple oppressions are marginalised within wider struggles. So Kimberlé Crenshaw writes that black women are marginalised both by white women and black men: “the focus on the most privileged group members marginalises those who are multiply burdened”.45

Intersectionality has grown in influence as a framework for understanding oppression. So “My feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit!” became a prominent online slogan among some feminist bloggers last year. The concept is popular among many younger activists—the student council at Edinburgh University, for example, recently voted to designate their student union as a space that embraces intersectional feminism. There has also been a huge growth in academic research and writings in recent years that claim to use an intersectional approach or to study those at the most marginal “intersections” of society. It is beyond our scope to engage with this work in its entirety. However, we will try to explain and to evaluate a few of the key ideas of intersectionality, especially in relation to how they occur among activists and how they interact (dare we say intersect?) with privilege theory.

Intersectionality operates at two levels—first at the level of description. In many ways, this descriptive role is the main function of intersectionality. In particular, intersectionality rejects an “additive” approach to multiple oppressions. So the oppression that a black woman faces cannot be understood by just adding racism plus sexism. The specific intersection of those oppressions creates something that is more than a sum of its parts. Racist ideas, for example, operate through specific gendered stereotypes of what it means not just to be black, but to be a black man or a black woman.

Second, the concept of intersectionality, especially as currently used by activists, often reflects a theory of power that adopts a very similar framework to that of privilege theory. We will return to this question after looking in more detail at some of the history and key ideas of intersectionality.

The concept of intersectionality is usually seen as originating in the late 1980s and early 1990s with US legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw or with US academic Patricia Hill Collins. However, the central ideas of intersectionality go back further to a body of writings by black women in the US who were highly critical of the women’s movement of the 1970s and 1980s, and of the black liberation movements, for ignoring and excluding the specific experiences of black women. This body of work has become known as black feminism—and formed the subject matter and title of Collins’s seminal study Black Feminist Thought.46 The concept emerged, therefore, as a way of understanding the position and oppression faced by black women, but has since been taken up and broadened to try to understand the connections between a wide variety of oppressions.

Black feminism and the roots of intersectionality

The emergence of black feminism was in many ways a response to the specific character of the US women’s movement. The women’s movement emerged later than others such as the civil rights, Black Power and Anti-Vietnam War movements and was largely formed as a reaction against the sexism activists faced within these movements.47 Unlike in Britain, the US women’s movement developed in a situation where the socialist left was extremely weak, trade union membership was low and even mainstream reformist organisations were absent. In this context, despite its initial radical politics and mass impact, by the mid-1970s the women’s movement became increasingly narrow and conservative in base and focus and separated from wider struggles. It was this narrowing that strengthened the basis for theories that all men oppress all women.

A number of black feminists developed a sharp critique of the claim of those at the centre of the women’s movement to speak on behalf of all women. In particular they pointed out that the movement reflected the concerns and experiences of white middle class women to the exclusion of others. As Audre Lorde put it:

By and large within the women’s movement today, white women focus upon their oppression as women and ignore differences of race, sexual preference, class and age. There is a pretence to a homogeneity of experience covered by the word sisterhood that does not in fact exist.48

In many ways, the black feminists were right about this. The women’s movement had come to rest largely on a layer of middle class women—predominantly white—and their concerns and methods reflected that. However, many black feminists wrongly generalised from their experience of the women’s movement to see a seamless history of all white women activists at best marginalising black women, and at worst being instrumental in racism against them.

Not all white feminists accept that the US women’s movement as a whole ignored issues of racism and imperialism. Many activists came to the women’s movement from struggles against the Vietnam War and involvement in the civil rights movement and brought these concerns with them. In its early days the movement was active against the war and protested against state persecution of the Black Panthers. US activist Lise Vogel, for example, has rejected the idea that feminists ignored questions of race and class until the 1980s. She argues that some of the earlier general politics was lost in the collapse and retreat of many of the radical social movements at the end of the 1970s.49 In other words, the problems with the women’s movement were about politics, not about the privilege of white women.

The black feminist text most commonly seen as the foundation of what would come to be known as intersectionality is the 1977 statement by the Combahee River Collective. Their statement captures some of the main themes of intersectionality:

The most general statement of our politics at the present time would be that we are actively committed to struggling against racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression, and see as our particular task the development of integrated analysis and practice based upon the fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking.

They go on to say that they are motivated to organise separately by their experiences in wider liberation movements and around the “white male left”, that they had identified a need to “develop a politics that was anti-racist, unlike those of white women, and anti-sexist, unlike those of Black and white men”.50

Their statement sounds very radical, stating for example that “the liberation of all oppressed peoples necessitates the destruction of the political-economic systems of capitalism and imperialism as well as patriarchy”. However, their politics are eclectic to say the least, and in reality highly contradictory. So they state that they are “in essential agreement with Marx’s [economic] theory”, but end by approvingly quoting a passage from a feminist text Sisterhood Is Powerful that argues: “I haven’t the faintest notion what possible revolutionary role white heterosexual men could fulfill, since they are the very embodiment of reactionary-vested-interest-power”.51 While black feminists may have criticised the concerns and makeup of the wider women’s movement, they didn’t necessarily reject their methods. So the Combahee River Collective focused on study groups and consciousness raising, and its splits over the question of sexuality reflected the arguments about separatism and identity seen in the wider movement.

Black feminism as a body of thought coheres around a number of themes, yet that does not mean it is coherent. That is not surprising—just the fact of being black and female doesn’t determine someone’s political views. Yet there is an attempt, for example in Collins’s Black Feminist Thought, to present these ideas as a coherent whole. Collins herself states that she overemphasises this for political ends. There are in fact important debates among key figures in the tradition. Bell hooks, for example, while sharing with many other black feminists a sharp critique of the women’s movement, sees the decision by the Combahee River Collective to organise separately as black women as a reactionary move that essentially abandons the field of struggle.52

However, the black feminists had some justification for their criticisms of the women’s movement. Marxists are also critical of the notion of an undifferentiated “sisterhood” in which all women share common interests. The framework adopted by some feminists that projects the unity of all women obscures the differing interests of women of different classes. Of course, all women suffer from women’s oppression—but ruling class women can use their wealth to mitigate against some aspects of sexism. And when it comes to challenging the system as a whole, working class women all have an interest in challenging the system, whereas those in the ruling class have a stake in maintaining it as a source of their wealth.

It is also true that there is no automatic unity of the oppressed—and that some feminists have played a reactionary role in relation to other oppressed groups. Take, for example, the role played by many mainstream feminists in France and elsewhere in arguing against the rights of Muslim women to choose to wear the hijab. However, these questions are all political—about how we understand oppression and exploitation to operate. They are not the unconscious operation of privilege as some would have it.

How does intersectionality inform strategy?

The body of work known as black feminism has produced some thought-provoking writings that have increased our understanding of elements of history, including slavery. Angela Davis, bell hooks and others have written widely and authoritatively on this subject53 as well as on debates in the struggle for women’s suffrage and analysis of racist sexual imagery. What has become known as an intersectional approach is also useful in the field of social policy to consider, for example as Crenshaw does, what specific needs black and other minority ethnic women might have. What are the additional barriers, for example, that migrant women might face trying to access domestic violence services? However, what intersectionality seems to do here, as Laura Miles has argued in this journal, is to “name the reality”, that is to remain at the level of description.54

Description is important, of course—it is useful to better understand the mechanisms of the slave trade, in part because history informs the present. It is useful to consider how sexist imagery is simultaneously racialised and vice versa, because it can help us to understand how oppressive ideology works. However, on its own, it is not enough.

Intersectionality as a concept pulls in two directions. In many ways its current popularity reflects a desire for greater unity. Many feminists and other activists assert that they are “intersectional” to make clear that they want an inclusive politics that can acknowledge different experiences and in particular be welcoming to black women. This is clearly a positive development, particularly for those of us who have endured years of divisive and moralistic identity politics.

However, intersectionality does not necessarily involve a rejection of identity politics or of post-Marxist notions of power. Crenshaw, for example, makes it clear that she explicitly sees intersectionality as an attempt to fuse struggles against oppression with elements of postmodernism.55

In fact, the whole framework of intersectionality hinges on questions of identity. The Combahee River Collective, for example, argue that: “the most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else’s oppression”. Intersectional politics are therefore exposed to the same risk of fragmentation and moralistic division as previous forms of identity politics.

Much of this approach shares with privilege theory and identity politics an elevation of subjective experience as the key source of understanding. This is why Collins is able to argue that:

The overarching matrix of domination houses multiple groups, each with varying experiences with penalty and privilege that produce corresponding partial perspectives… No one group has a clear angle of vision. No one group possesses the theory or methodology that allows it to discover the absolute “truth”.56

Some authors and activists seem to suggest that just living at the intersections of oppression is resistance in itself. Yet for many others who embrace intersectionality, the aim is not just to name, but to struggle to challenge oppression. Many writers and activists talk about coalition building not just to challenge individuals but to strive for social justice. Socialists share these aims and these struggles. A shared commitment to common goals does not, however, remove the need to better understand what we are fighting or to debate strategies for resistance.

One of the main limitations of intersectionality is that as an approach it is content to remain at the level of experience, rather than attempting to understand the sources of the intersecting oppressions that it describes. By contrast the method outlined by Marx involves moving beyond the recognition of the complexities of life through abstraction to find what Marx called the “simplest determinants”—in this case to locate the sources of oppression within class society. But this is not the end of the picture. Marxists have to apply the insights gained through abstraction to complicated concrete realities—what Marx calls “rising from the abstract to the concrete”.57 In this way, we can both understand the sources of oppression and, in grasping this, also better understand how people’s experiences are shaped under capitalism.

Two other points flow from Marx’s method. First, Marx insists that seemingly separate phenomena must be seen as part of the totality of society—so forms and experiences of oppression cannot be understood in isolation from the wider questions of how society functions. Second, the concrete is always historical. In the case of oppression, this means recognising that particular forms and experiences of oppression change over time. For example, structural changes in capitalism over past decades have brought millions more women into the workforce worldwide, changing both the nature of how women experience oppression and the possibilities for resistance to that oppression.

Marxism’s strategic insights flow from this method of understanding the world. By locating the sources of oppression in class society, we can see the structural capabilities and potential power that workers have within capitalism. While intersectionality rightly points out that there are many interrelated divisions in society, like privilege theory it relegates the question of class to just one of a series of oppressions. This misses out what is unique about class in capitalism. It is a source not just of oppression—but of power—and is the potential basis on which people of many backgrounds and intersecting oppressions can unite. Marx called the working class the universal class not because everyone in the working class is the same, but because all working class people share a common relationship to capitalism and together form the unique force that has the power to abolish class society altogether.


Because privilege theory’s primary focus is on the inequality between individuals it cannot arm us for a fight that is ultimately against the system as a whole. But the damage is not just in the way it limits the horizons of struggle; it also risks hampering the battles against prejudice and discrimination that are taking place here and now. Take, for example, one of the most pressing issues facing the left and all those concerned with injustice—the vicious wave of scapegoating of immigrants being whipped up by politicians and the media. The only way to drive back this poison is a struggle that combines white and black working class people, most of whom are not currently being subjected to the same abuse from the Tories and the hard right. But privilege theory tells us that many of those we need to mobilise are either consciously or unconsciously complicit in racism and “white supremacy”.

The current wave of scapegoating is not the result of the “privilege” of white or British people, but of the needs and opportunism of a vicious ruling class determined to divert blame for economic misery. Understanding this creates the potential for winning an argument for class unity as the most effective way to resist. Of course, class unity is not automatic and many working class people continue to fall for divisive politics and lies. This is why there has to be a political fight, not just with the ruling class, but crucially with others in our own class. But by attempting to make white activists feel defensive about being involved in struggles against racism, privilege theory risks driving away potential allies and leaving migrants to fight their battle alone.

In many ways the fights against oppression stand at a crossroads. The battles of previous generations have opened the door to a layer of the oppressed to advance into positions in the middle and ruling class. For this stratum, the struggle for equality is reduced to one for equal access to the opportunities of their class, that is to be allowed enough seats at the top table. So we can have a black president in the most powerful country in the world and a female chancellor, Angela Merkel, in the most powerful country in Europe. Gay marriage is legal in Britain and the rights of disabled people are recognised in law, even if in a totally inadequate manner. And, while a few at the top attempt to set an agenda for the struggle that suits their own needs, down below oppression and inequality persist, and life is getting harder for most as austerity bites. This raises many debates about how to fight for real liberation—debates in which Marxists have much to offer. For some of today’s activists, privilege theory is primarily a way to assert opposition to oppression. That can be a good starting point, and expresses concerns that we share, but it is not a framework that can move the struggles forward. In this situation, the left has a big responsibility both to work with others to make all the many struggles against oppression as vibrant and broad as possible, but also to fight for a politics and a strategy that can win.


1: Kimmel and Ferber, 2010.

2: McIntosh, 1988, p14.

3: McIntosh, 1988, p21.

4: Marx, 1972.

5: Kendall, 2013, p151.

6: TJLP, 2012.

7: See Choonara and Prasad, 2012,

8: For a detailed account and critique of identity politics see Smith, 1994.

9: Fukuyama, 1992 (building on his 1989 essay “The End of History?”). On the background, see Callinicos, 1989, chapter 5.

10: Wilson, 2011.

11: Laclau and Mouffe, 1985.

12: Laclau and Mouffe, 1985, p191.

13: Wilson, 2008.

14: Callinicos, 1989, p82.

15: Foucault, 1981, pp95-96.

16: Collins, 2010, p234.

17: See, for example, Wise, 2011.

18: Kimmel and Ferber, 2010, p9.

19: For a detailed Marxist account of the origins of racism, see Olende, 2013

20: www.timwise.org/f-a-q-s/

21: Roediger, 2000, p6.

22: Roediger, 2000, p7.

23: Halley, Eshleman and Vijaya, 2011, p11.

24: Du Bois, 1965, p700-701.

25: Du Bois, 1965, p700.

26: Bloom, 1987, p26.

27: Bloom, 1987, p49.

28: Reich, 1978, p524.

29: Reich, 1971.

30: For a detailed discussion see Harman, 1994, and German, 1989.

31: Engels, 1894.

32: www.timwise.org/f-a-q-s/

33: Marx, 1845.

34: Collins, 2009.

35: Marx, 1870.

36: Marx, 1868.

37: Quoted in Husain, 2006, p89.

38: Kimmel and Ferber, 2010, p6.

39: Fogg, 2013.

40: Kimmel and Ferber, 2010, p9.

41: Collins, 2010, pp234-235.

42: Sivanandan, 1990, p14.

43: Kendall, 2013, p171.

44: Martin, 2007.

45: Crenshaw, 1989, p140.

46: Collins, 2009 (first published in 1990).

47: See German, 1989.

48: Lorde, 2000, p289.

49: Vogel, 1991.

50: Combahee River Collective, 1977.

51: Combahee River Collective, 1977.

52: hooks, 1992, p150 (first published 1982).

53: Angela Davis is generally included in the category of black feminists as she examines the connections between gender, race and class politics, even though her politics do not always share the framework of many other black feminists. In many ways this illustrates the problem with lumping together many black women writers into the same category based on identity, not shared politics.

54: Miles, 2014.

55: Crenshaw, 1991, p1244.

56: Quoted in Mann and Huffman, 2005, p62.

57: Marx, 1857.


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