Intersectional class struggle: from shared oppression to unified resistance

  • August 21, 2021

Work & Workers

The history and practice of intersectional class struggle harbors a rich tradition of working class resistance against white supremacy, patriarchy and imperialism.

Protesters in Cali, Colombia – May 1, 2021. Photo: Farhanah Ali /

A fifth of the way through the 21st century, our world is riven by conflict and catastrophe and COVID-19 is accelerating our crises. The global pandemic has killed millions of people, with race, poverty and gender being leading determinants of mortality. The global income gap continues to grow as a tiny sector of financiers and industry titans amass unprecedented wealth off the backs of workers.

A single individual, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, controls upwards of $200 billion and the US billionaire class has collectively gained over $1.8 trillion during the pandemic, minting several new billionaires — many from the pharmaceutical industry. Wall Street, through a series of speculations, has ballooned the wealth of a few tech and logistics firms, while “essential workers” in those industries work with heightened risk of exposure to the virus and die apace. Health care workers, farm workers, meatpackers and grocery workers are particularly hard hit.

With the COVID-19 pandemic, the intersectional nature of inequality and class struggle are staring us in the face, but we as activists and scholars struggle to recognize and live up to this moment. Indeed, mainstream and even left discourse fails to capture the varied and complex nature of 21st century class struggle as it is being revealed in the pandemic.

To further movements for liberation in the face of such unprecedented global crisis, we need working-class movements that directly confront the power of property and the intersecting oppressions faced by all our struggles together. The global pandemic is a wake-up call to recognize the nature of our world and to build intersectional movements of popular power to turn the tide.

COVID-19, Race and Class

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated existing crises of inequality in which class and race reinforce one another. Consider these numbers: in the UK, Black people have roughly one-eighth the wealth as white people, while fewer than half of Black Caribbean, African and Bangladeshi residents have £1,000 in savings. In the US, total average wealth for Black families is $17,150 — one-tenth as much as white families. In Brazil, the country’s six wealthiest billionaires — all white — have as much wealth as the bottom 50 percent of the population, roughly 100 million people, with Afro-Brazilian poverty rates twice that of whites. When the pandemic hit, those deemed “essential workers” had little choice but to work through the risk, exposing themselves to the disease in frontline service and logistics jobs.

We can see that poverty, race and COVID-19 mortality correlate. The global poor live in dense housing, have diminished access to health care, scant sick leave and fewer resources for emergencies. This all results in greater mortality. In Latin America, people of Afro-descent are disproportionately impacted by COVID-19: take again the example of Brazil, where Black people die at a rate 30 percent higher than white people. In the US, Indigenous, Black and Pacific Islanders experience death rates one-and-a-half to two times that of white and Asian populations. In the UK, Black and POC communities are at higher risk of infection.

But there is perhaps no greater intersection of class, race and the pandemic than in vaccine property rights and the maintenance of global patents. While western countries including Germany, France and the US stockpile oversupplies and witness large vaccine resistance movements, much of the developing world struggles to vaccinate even one percent of their populations. In the entire continent of Africa, only one percent of the population is vaccinated and it will be difficult to achieve the modest African Union goal of 20 percent by the end of the year. Chad, Burkina Faso and the Republic of Congo have vaccination rates at point-one percent. Elsewhere in the world, Pakistan is at 2 percent, Jamaica at 4 percent and in India just over 7 percent of the population is vaccinated.

This crisis of distribution is partially caused by pharmaceutical companies in Germany and the US that refuse to wave patent restrictions on production. The World Trade Organization has reached no agreement on waiving patents because of private obstinance as the companies reap windfall profits in the meantime.

Pfizer forecasts tens of billions of dollars in additional revenue — its first quarter numbers for 2021 up more than $14 billion already, a 45 percent increase on 2020. The industry has created seven new pharma-billionaires since the pandemic began and companies like Pfizer and Moderna will now increase the cost of COVID-19 vaccines to European countries. OXFAM International reports that vaccine profits have made global COVID public health initiatives five times more costly.

Countless people in the Global South will die for property rights and private gain.

An incomplete analysis of class

As we reflect on this moment, and what got us here, it is clearer than ever that class is a major factor in society and a primary cause of our current crises. Yet ideas about class among the international left are failing us. They fail us because in mainstream international discourse, even among the left, class as a social phenomenon is not well understood.

Mainstream ideas about class correlate it to income or education, while some left thinkers tie it strictly to a relationship to “the means of production.” In some contemporary activist circles class is thought of an identity and “classism” as a form of discrimination akin to racism or sexism.

These ideas about class are not wrong, but they are incomplete. They highlight only a part of the complex social phenomenon that is class. The US and the UK are perhaps the worst in this regard. Mainstream discourse on class equates many working-class people with the “middle class,” a poorly defined group categorized as neither rich nor poor. Middling notions of class hide the class struggle in daily life that are plain for all to see if we chose to look.

On the left, magazines like Jacobin and other left journals are different, but also offer a limited perspective. They tend to argue that class is at base a “material” condition, different from other forms of social struggle and more fundamental than the others. By tying class strictly to material conditions, a relationship to the means of production, these ideas unnecessarily delimit working-class struggle.

As British historian E.P. Thompson demonstrated 60 years ago, class struggle is not solely material, but a product of class consciousness, which can come from many different vectors of identity, experience and conflict.

Intersectional Class Struggle

Right before our eyes lies another tradition of class politics — one that I call “intersectional class struggle” — present in both workers movements and in ideas born from those struggles. Very simply, intersectional class struggle is a tradition of anti-capitalist working-class movements against white-supremacy, patriarchy, imperialism and other forms of social oppression.

Given the vectors of race, gender, sexuality, ability, citizenship, ethnicity, etc. present in our societies and our workplaces, it would be shocking if working-class struggle did not emerge as intersectional in these ways.

If we look at the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, or the Arab Spring in 2011, or the Chilean feminist uprising of 2019, we see that all are demonstrably intersectional class struggles in movement composition, the nature of their demands and the forces opposed to them in conflict. The history and current forms of working-class struggle demonstrate that when we resist, it is necessarily intersectional.

Toward the end of the 20th and into the 21st century, scholars and theorists began to catch up to the experience of working-class people. Many of these thinkers built and modified Marxist material and structural analysis of capitalism to incorporate culture, gender, race, social oppression and power. Here, theories of racial capitalism from Cedric Robinson, materialist feminism from thinkers like Silvia Federici and Selma James, Black feminism in theorists like Patricia Hill Collins and the Combahee River Collective all made strides toward a meaningful intersectional analysis that took race, gender and class struggle as variable but co-equal parts of social struggle.

While scholars today continue to work within these distinct traditions, intersectional class struggle is a synthesis of all these ideas, evident in the practice of working-class movements, that brings feminist, anti-racist and anti-capitalist thought together. In this way it builds on a legacy of anarchist ideas and social movements, from Yiddish writers like Rudolf Rocker to organizations like the Industrial Workers of the World which organized “one big union” for all workers regardless of social divisions. The anarchists sought to facilitate working-class solidarity across borders, between peoples of different races and ethnicities, for all genders, in the broad interests of a liberated humankind.

Coming from the combined traditions of workers’ struggles and a variety of social theory, intersectional class struggle highlights both the material and cultural composition of class politics. It shows that individuals and identities are formed in a process of collective social conflict and in relation to key pillars of social structure, like property, white violence and patriarchy. It says that even with difference, we have shared collective interests fighting against capital and oppression.

Finally, intersectional class struggle demonstrates a path of resistance and a way to organize and fight for a more humane and liberatory future. In this way, intersectional class struggle can better help us understand — and more importantly, facilitate — liberatory social struggle.

From Colombia to Alabama

Perhaps the best contemporary example of intersectional class struggle is the national general strike in Colombia. The South American country was ravaged by COVID-19, with deaths spiking early in July, on top of poverty increasing by 7 percent in 2020. When the government under President Duque tried to pass tax reforms that would heavily burden regular Colombians, militants took to the streets in Cali, where they were met with a brutal police response that went on to kill 53 people across the country.

With a massive general strike emerging, the tax proposal was quickly withdrawn and ministers forced to resign. The strike, though, has continued, pushing for health care for all, a universal payment package, a stop to police violence and other reforms.

Most impressive, the general strike coordinating body is made up of unions, student groups and social movement organizations with contributions from Black, Indigenous, rural and young people. When Indigenous self-defense groups came forward to support the strike, they recognized that their interests to stop environmental collapse and state violence against Indigenous peoples were aligned with the strikers. Both fought against the state and capital, and therefore Indigenous movements were indelibly linked to the workers’ struggles against tax hikes and for socialized medicine.

As the movement gains strength, the intersectional nature of the struggle is reflected in both the demands and composition of the movement.

Another current example comes from the global strikes against Amazon, as the company callously put workers at risk during the pandemic. In Bessemer, Alabama, a mostly Black city in the American south, a unionization campaign failed this spring in the face of staunch Amazon opposition, including apparent violations of the law. At the core of the campaign was the cause of dignity and racial justice for the mostly Black workforce.

At Amazon, the front line workforce is disproportionately Black, with Black workers making up 85 percent of Amazon workers in Bessemer. During the campaign, union organizers were called racial slurs and workers viewed the campaign for unionization as a way to be treated humanely on the job.

At the same time that the Bessemer workers were organizing, Amazon workers in Italy also went out on strike. In a one-day strike and boycott they took up the same cause, called for a “humane working schedule” and highlighted the international nature of their struggle, carrying signs that read, “From Piacenza to Alabama — One Big Union.” Despite the initial loss in Alabama and the limited one-day action in Italy, the struggle continues for dignity and self-determination on the job at Amazon.

At war with oppression

What these contemporary struggles demonstrate is the intersectional nature of class struggle. When working people step into conflict with the state and capital, conflicts become intersectional. Struggles against bosses become struggles against borders, against racism and other forms of oppression. And as movements advance, they necessarily must fight against multiple forms of power simultaneously.

One past example with relevant ideas comes from Clarence Coe, a Black worker during the Great Depression. Coe grew up in rural Tennessee, where he was subject to racial violence. To escape, he moved to Memphis, where he worked in poor conditions at mattress and tire factories. When he organized union drives, he was singled out and attacked by white supremacists — both for his union activity and because he was Black.

His organizing then was simultaneously against racism and against capitalist exploitation. In forming unions against white supremacy, he tried to bring all workers together. “Everybody was in the same boat, and realized it,” he told an interviewer. Coe shows that we have a shared, collective interest in fighting white supremacy and building workers’ power.

Another example is the working-class women of Lowell, Massachusetts at the origins of industrial capitalism. The “factory girls,” as they called themselves, worked 12-hour days, with incrementally greater productivity demands and decreasing pay. To even speak on labor issues, they had to fight patriarchal norms that silenced women’s voices and relegated women to the domestic sphere. The factory girls came to see that “we are a band of sisters” and must have “sympathies for each other’s woes.”

They organized strikes, petitions and public rebukes to the intersections of their exploitation — capitalism and patriarchy. Indeed, their more militant voices explicitly recognized this and came to “war with oppression in every form, with rank save that which merit gives.” Although they were the leading edge of class struggle in the 1840s, many of the male-dominated unions did not support them. They faced ridicule for being politically active working-class women and had to struggle simultaneously against patriarchy and capitalism.

Although these struggles are different based on race, gender, national origin and other factors, they are all part of the class struggle. In the 1860s, American labor organizer William Sylvis called the emerging social order a “never-ending antagonism” between labor and capital. For him, the class struggle was fought over ownership; whether wealth and property are to be owned by a few — and benefit those few only — or if the propertyless can effectively organize to wrest control from the wealthy in the interest of collective, progressive humanity.

In the 21st century, Sylvis’ prediction about a permanent antagonism in capitalism still rings true. We have witnessed decades, centuries, of business disregard for human life and the very fate of the planet in their quest for individual, short-term profit. His estimation was clear then as it is today: we live in a permanent antagonism, one in which capital “is, in all cases, the aggressor.” Although the aggressor, capitalism is not the sole vector of struggle. Since his time, working-class movements and theorists have learned that white-supremacy, patriarchy, the state, are all forms that must be struggled against simultaneously.

The Organizing Tradition

Recognizing intersectional class struggle is one step, but we must also ask ourselves how to best build movements based on these connections. More often than not, the differences of race and gender, sexuality and ability, nationality and ethnicity, are used to divide workers rather than bring us together.

Today’s left too often plays into these divides and seems doggedly focused on fracture and marginalization. Building solidarity across difference is very different from seeking to speak from one or another position of disempowerment and to attack or call out those who do not sufficiently agree.

Equally bad, another camp of the left places the strictly material and economic aspects of class as paramount to other forms of struggle, isolating itself from the working class for whom these are crucial, everyday issues. In many contemporary social movements, a left tradition of class organizing to build solidarity across these differences has been forgotten.

But there is an alternative, even in our immediate histories. In the US context, Charles Payne calls it the “organization tradition.” Developed by regular people over a century or more of struggle, the organizing tradition is one of bringing people together on shared interests, of talking one-on-one with workers and of sustaining disruptive organizations. Its core is building connections between issues and people to further working-class power.

This tradition emphasizes slow and patient “spadework,” as civil-rights organizer Ella Baker called it; popular education, creating organizations of struggle, talking to people across difference to build solidarity.

The Black, Indigenous, student and worker-led movement in Colombia shows us the power of coming together in this way. The national general strike there is pushing for movement victories that will benefit working-class Colombians against the rich, disproportionately serving the most oppressed. And they are creating solidarity across difference and building popular power to effectively do so.

Intersectional resistance

In these experiences there is no one working class or singular working-class interest. Instead, a multiple and varied working class experiences race, sexual orientation, ability, gender presentation, work and others factors differently. But difference and diversity does not mean that we do not also have shared interests as a class. For example, opposition to wages, a system of exploitation that has us working for the profit of others. Or unpaid housework, which helps capitalism exploit us at the same time it shackles and devalues domestic labor, primarily done by women.

We all have experiences with capitalism and oppression and we all experience it in different ways. Intersectional class struggle demonstrates that the working class is made up of ourselves, in all our varied, diverse and contradictory experiences. It shows us that we can fight collectively against the forces that divide and oppress us.

In today’s movements of Amazon workers, healthcare workers, farm workers, precarious academics and gig economy workers, the struggles are not the same, but if we listen, they carry deep and familiar echoes. Intersectional class struggle shows us not only the interconnectedness of our oppressions, but the ways to successfully fight against them.

In Colombia, in Italy and in Alabama, the struggles of working-class peoples demonstrate that when we resist, it is necessarily intersectional. Further, when we organize across sectors — with workers, students and oppressed communities — our struggles are stronger. It behooves us to recognize these intersections.

There is no circumventing the core issues that have plagued our societies for centuries; the only way forward is against capitalism, white supremacy and patriarchy. And like the current pandemic crisis, if we are to survive, the cure must include all of us together.

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