Through studying the history of organizing and reflecting on my own experiences trying to organize, I became a Leftist. What I learned was that Leftists had a history, a beautiful, powerful history, of building movements. They were the fiercest fighters in people’s freedom movements. I learned that Leftists see as their task to build beyond single issues and challenge all systems of oppression. Leftists fight racism and patriarchy as central to class struggle whether on the job or in communities, locally or globally. My choice to become a Leftist, meant that I came to believe that people around me, and around the world, are being oppressed by a system. I came to believe that this system needs to be fundamentally changed, so we can live in a different type of world.
Mise-en-Place: Inheriting the debate, setting the stage
In the U.S. in the 1970s, Leftists in our social movements were heavily influenced by the Marxist-Leninist politics of the Russian Revolution and Third-World Revolutionary movements in China and Cuba, and they focused on building large working-class organizations. These movements tended to be strong on their analysis of the objective conditions facing us as a result of capitalism, but weak on their analysis and practice of gender liberation. Simultaneously, women’s and gay liberation movements, though they fought for powerful cultural and political changes, were criticized for being too disproportionately white and not rooted in the working class. These were both critical influential tendencies, with significant overlap and good people who waged collective struggle and won material gains for the people. Unfortunately, however, the tension between them and the weaknesses of both continue to plague our movements, and I especially want to reflect on how this affects young radicals and our organizing.
My generation has responded to this history and tension with a thought trend that I’ll call postmodern intersectionality. It is characterized by an emphasis on the subjective experiences of individuals, a race and gender analysis that raises up difference over universality, and the importance of individual transformation and emotional safe space. It has a strong analysis of the roles that imperialism, ecological destruction, gender oppression and national oppression play in people’s lives. I think that people politicized by this thought trend try to consistently raise the need for care work, inclusive decision-making processes, and individual transformation, but do not simultaneously address the need to connect individual choices to collective action, and the need to build power towards fundamental social change. Because this trend has dominated Left thinking in academia, student organizing and social justice non-profit organizing, we do not have enough young radicals becoming organizers, prioritizing the need to wage collective struggle, and figuring out how to incorporate the important insights of postmodern intersectionality and gender liberation struggles into the work of building and shaping large, fighting, working-class organizations.
Instead, I’ve seen many of my peers de-prioritize thinking strategically about their work, not creating long-term plans to win, because centering strategy is associated with the mistakes of Left movements past, unloving and masculine. I’ve seen this pattern encourage many small-scale, “pure” projects, at the expense of figuring out how to build large-scale fighting organizations – which we also need if we are to make large-scale impact! I’ve seen postmodernism’s identification of language as a site of struggle confuse people; folks seem to think that just raising correct ideas (“calling someone out”) can make change, rather than the slow work of transforming consciousness through engaging people in collective action. I know that we have the collective knowledge and ability to fundamentally change society, and I raise these concerns from a place of long-term commitment and love for my people, who are trying to figure it out.
I believe we need to correct the mistakes of postmodern intersectionality if we want our movements to thrive. I want to argue instead for a historical materialist intersectionality, an understanding of the intersections of oppression that is rooted in the need to organize, build collective power, and challenge the structures of oppression. I am introducing this framework out of my own struggle, not only to understand my personal experiences, but to build an organizing practice that incorporates the best insights from different movements.
Clocking in: my path to union hotel work
I am a 27 year old, straight-identified white woman who grew up in a comfortable working-class Jewish home in Northeast Philadelphia. My parents were both union members who worked in the Philadelphia Public School system. I went to public school, Northeast High, and had to go to the college that gave me the most scholarship money, Ursinus College. Growing up in this environment, I saw discrimination towards my Black (American born), Asian and Puerto Rican friends and immigrant friends from Russia, the Ivory Coast, and China. I experienced sexism while struggling with my own identity and sense of self as a woman, and I saw the effects of lack of funding and resources in my school and city. When I got to college I had seen the interconnectedness of racism, sexism, capitalism, and US imperialism, so when I became politicized by postmodern intersectionality I felt like it resonated with my experiences.
I came up against some of the strengths and weaknesses of postmodern intersectionality while doing campus organizing as part of United Students Against Sweatshops campaigns. This organizing taught me a lot, and I saw the power of an organizing campaign to win a concrete victory. In USAS, we valued postmodern intersectionality in the way we created caucus spaces and identified privilege and oppression as elements shaping our internal dynamic and work together. However, we failed to tie that insight about intersecting oppressions into our organizing campaign or programmatic work. We were never able to tackle the question of how we integrate the two, because as they existed they were in fact incompatible. Our thinking about oppression was individualized and only shaped the way we handled internal dynamics. We stopped there, and never conceptualized intersectionality as a framework we could use to understand the system as a whole, beyond our individual life experiences.
After I graduated college, I started doing workplace union organizing by getting a job at a hotel. I wanted to apply what I had learned about postmodern intersectionality to my organizing practice, and as in my experiences growing up in Philly, at the hotel I was confronted with the undeniable interconnectedness of race, gender and class. I tried to use postmodern intersectionality in my organizing and it literally didn’t work. I quickly realized that if I wanted to be successful organizing my hotel, where the only thing we all had in common was having the job, I needed to change my approach.
Short-changed: Becoming an Organizer
Early on in my work, I made mistakes because I was relying on the power of moral arguments instead of organizing a base and acting collectively. I called out a well-liked chef (manager), who routinely would violate our contract by working as a cook on the line while my coworkers were sitting at home with no hours, no work. On principle, I called him out one day for violating our union contract, because he unnecessarily came out onto the floor and started to do my job, taking orders from my tables without my permission. I thought it would turn out well because it was so clear to me that I was in the right, and I was proud of myself for having the courage to stand up to him. He was so pissed and it stirred up much conversation. My pride was short-lived, because soon, many of my coworkers who I had been cool with before were now cold, and thought I was wrong. The chef had been successful in organizing my coworkers against me, even though on principle, he was in the wrong. I realized then that I needed to change my approach, pick my fights more strategically, and organize a base before taking a stand. The outcome wasn’t determined by right and wrong, it was determined by the balance of power, and I needed to figure out how to build power.
With a heightened consciousness of the need to build power and not just pick fights on principle, I became determined to figure out the material and strategic implications of our workplace dynamics for our organizing, including the interconnectedness of race, class and gender. At the hotel, a racialized and gendered division of labor structurally poses people against each other based on the jobs we hold. Generally Black and immigrant women (Puerto-Rican, Mexican, Filipino, Albanian, Ukrainian, Liberian) are in housekeeping, quantifiably the most back-breaking, lowest-paid and invisible work, while white women are mostly servers and bartenders – highly visible and higher-paying positions. Most Black men (American born) are housemen and cooks, constantly in work-related tension with (women) housekeepers and wait staff, while most white (American born) men are banquet servers, bartenders, servers and bellmen – the highest-paid positions in the hotel.
I learned that the framework of postmodern intersectionality was only partially transferable to the context of organizing my hotel. The assumptions and language I had been given were highly academic and too referential to upper middle class culture and values. I had a framework – intersectionality – but not the tools for how to organize with it. I needed a structural framework for how to build power using my understanding of intersectionality.
Earning seniority: Principles to guide practice
In my five years working and organizing in the service industry among majority working-class women of oppressed nationalities2, I’ve concluded that Leftists need to be good organizers, capable of applying our theory to practice and building power that people can see and exercise. Through intentionality, trial and error, collective study and a willingness to learn from my mistakes, I came to a historical materialist understanding of intersectionality and a new set of guiding principles for my organizing:
(1) Just calling people out on bad behavior is not effective feminist practice. People change in relationships and learn by doing. In order to raise political consciousness, we must first build deep personal relationships and engage people in collective struggles against oppression.
(2) We must wage strategic fights that affect material conditions in the lives of many working-class people, centering women and prioritizing oppressed nationality women in particular. To correct the mistakes of often internally-racist women’s rights and labor movements, we focus on leadership development of oppressed nationality2 women in building working-class organizations. To significantly build the power of working-class women, we must constantly be wrestling with how we build large-scale fighting organizations with large-scale leadership development through waging struggle.
(3) We must seek the correct balance of inclusive process and care work with the urgency of our need to win. We don’t just want soldiers, but critical thinkers and healthy, democratic and sustainable organizations. But on the other hand, we must be grounded in what’s at stake for the whole working class. We cannot focus on internal process if it means we lose our sense of urgency and lose power. We must be accountable to the entire class, not just the group of people immediately around us.
The first guiding principle uses the materialist understanding that consciousness follows action, and the (feminist) wisdom that transformation happens by way of deep personal relationships. As conscious organizers we constantly ask ourselves: How do we effectively challenge sexism, racism and homophobia when it manifests in the people we organize among? In my experience, my co-workers of all races and genders with sexist or homophobic ideas are not bad people and shouldn’t be patronized. Ruling class institutions every day bombard us with ideas like individualism, deference to authority, racism and sexism to maintain and perpetuate capitalism and U.S. global dominance. Using a historical materialist approach, we can understand the ideas people have as a reflection of the society within which we exist. Because I see the primary cause of oppression to be systemic rather than interpersonal, I do not believe that simply “calling people out” is an effective practice.
Many of us cultivated by post-modern intersectionality learned that it’s “not our job” to wrestle with people with a degree of relative privilege to us; for example, that as a woman I should never have to wrestle with a man over his sexism. While we are all wounded by the power struggles in our lives, the individualistic assumptions of postmodern intersectionality can lead us to not understand how class fits into the picture. Without a class analysis, for example, you would not be able to distinguish between a white male coworker and a white male general manager. The difference, which is significant, is that one has agreed to act as an agent of the system of oppression, the other has not – and in fact, my coworker is part of the class, the “we,” someone I need to build with in order to fight the system. If you are not focused on building collective power, it is easier to “opt out.” However, if you are trying to build power among the class as a whole you are forced to wrestle with systemic solutions to systemic conditions.
What I propose is a framework for challenging one another’s oppressive ideas, while understanding that ultimately, we need strategies for systemic transformation, and that individual transformation will not on its own overthrow oppressive systems. Rather than challenging every instance of oppressive behavior on principle, I look for openings to make real breakthroughs with my co-workers, really understanding who people are and introducing challenges to their ideas slowly, over time, and as part of someone’s participation in collective action. A person’s willingness to wrestle with ideas and change their mind depends on relationships of trust and respect, alongside concrete experiences that challen