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(NOTE: I have gone into the question of intersectionality and identity in more detail in chapter 2 of Confronting the Democratic Discourse of Librarianship on “Vectors of Oppression”).

I don’t pay much attention to OLA’s OpenShelf, but when John Pateman’s post on identity politics and intersectionality was sent to me, I felt I had to respond. I am automatically suspicious of any “political” statement, especially one that claims a radical or progressive political position, that supports the dominant line of the profession and of public library management (Pateman is CEO of Thunder Bay Public Library).

Pateman’s post fits squarely into recent debates around deplatforming and intellectual freedom which I’ve argued before has exposed a division within the profession that is in at least some senses generational. These “generations” are not merely categories of age - we’ve seen examples of generational divide between feminist waves, and there are definitely “generations of Marxism” which disagree not only on details but sometimes on the fundamental approach to politics. I’ve critiqued Pateman’s OpenShelf posts before, and I’ve come to the conclusion that much of our disagreement stems precisely from our generations of Marxism. While there are definitely synchronic disagreements within Marxist tendencies (Marxist-Leninists see a lot of things very differently from, say, anarcho-communists), the diachronic or generational differences can be just as striking. Previous generations of Marxists, like previous waves of feminism, can find it hard to deal with certain questions around identity, especially when intersectionality is brought into play.

However, I came away from Pateman’s post with the distinct impression that he doesn’t understand what intersectionality is. At one point, he refers to it as a “form of politics”, and he seems to equate it with what he understands as “identity politics” 1. For Pateman identity politics seems to equal intersectionality, and both these things are isolated from and independent of something else called class politics. While Pateman allows that “there is also a class dimension to intersectionality”, in fact he holds these categories as separate things, related, if at all, only externally. This, to my mind, indicates a static, formal understanding of the network of concepts, rather than a properly dialectical one. For Marx, such external opposition of concepts was the mark of vulgar or dogmatic criticism rather than true critique, and I think that, unfortunately, is what Pateman is engaged in here. True critique must look beneath the surface categories to understand how they came to be, what political issues they were summoned to confront.

If identity politics and intersectionality are not the same, what is their relationship? Luckily, the concept of term2 intersectionality is traceable back to its origins: Kimberlé Crenshaw’s 1989 article “Demarginalizaing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory, and Antiracist Politics”. Crenshaw argues that any category of identity when taken in isolation serves to bury the differences that categorize Black women’s experiences. For a Marxist, the burying of differences must be recognized not only as mystification but as deeply political, and should not be ignored. Crenshaw writes that “neither Black liberationist politics nor feminist theory can ignore the intersectional experiences of those whom the movements claim as their respective constituents. In order to include Black women, both movements must distance themselves from earlier approaches in which experiences are relevant only when they are related to certain clearly identifiable causes (for example, the oppression of Blacks is significant when based on race, of women when based on gender)”. I think Pateman is falling into the same trap, seeing class oppression as only relevant when it is based on class position, rather than recognizing the intersectionality of class itself. More importantly, Crenshaw suggests that identity politics is not the same as intersectionality, a suggestion she makes explicit in a later paper, 1991s “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color”. “The embrace of identity politics,” she writes, “has been in tension with dominant conceptions of social justice. Race, gender, and other identity categories are most often treated in mainstream liberal discourse as vestiges of bias or domination - that is, as intrinsically negative frameworks in which social power works to exclude or marginalize those who are different. According to this understanding, our liberatory objective should be to empty such categories of any social significance. Yet implicit in certain strands of feminist and racial liberation movements, for example, is the view that the social power in delineating difference need not be the power of domination; it can instead be the source of social empowerment and reconstruction”.

By my reading, Pateman is attempting precisely to “empty [identity] categories of any social significance”, for example when he writes that “activist communities need to work harder to make it possible for people of different classes, genders, ethnic origins, sexual identities, etc. to be together in respectful and beneficial ways.” It is hard, for example, to understand how a Marxist can propose the idea that “people of different classes” should “be together in respectful and beneficial ways” without emptying the concept of class of all its social and political significance. What is class-struggle besides the rejection of such tolerance.

But for Pateman, as for many Marxists of previous generations, class is not an identity. It is, rather, an objective economic category, a position within a relationship of objective, scientifically readable process (production). But, as Marx famously said, “all science would be superfluous if the outward appearance and the essence of things directly coincided”. Class is an economic category, to be sure, but it is also an identity - how else can we explain ideology and class-consciousness. Workers would not need to develop class-consciousness if their class position was immediately transparent to them; workers would always identify as workers, rather than adopting the ideology that allows them to identify with the bourgeoisie. Put another way, class as economic category is available to us as an identity. It is hard to understand how a Marxist could make this claim about identities other than class without seeing that working-class politics does this all the time: “Call-outs, shaming, and other forms of “weaponized” communication shut down conversation and political debate, and more importantly, limit the number of social spaces where differing points of view can be heard and respected”. We would not include capitalists or management in a union meeting, precisely because we already know what they are going to say based on their class-identity, and respect for another’s position, in this case, is detrimental to class politics and gives up class struggle without a fight. Pateman seems to imagine the possibility of a progressive politics without struggle, an odd position for a Marxist to take.

Besides the privileging of class as objective over identity as subjective, I suspect that Pateman is also making one of the foundational mistakes in the Marxist playbook, one Marx identifies and analyzes at the very beginning of Capital. Marx calls the process of mistaking social relations for things (social relations of production for commodities, for example) as fetishism. Georg Lukacs, in a nuanced exploration of this idea, refers to it as reification, making things out of social relations. Pateman has made the same mistake here, thinking of “identity politics” and “intersectionality” as things (“identity politics selects…”, “intersectionality is here to stay…”) rather than as social relations. It suggests that, in fact, Pateman doesn’t really understand what identity politics or intersectionality are. That identity politics, like all progressive politics, is recuperable and actively coopted by capital is no surprise: class politics is not immune to this, why should identity politics or the concept of intersectionality? What is more important than looking at the surface (reified) manifestations such as call-outs or deplatforming, is to understand the roots of identity politics in oppression and intersectionality as differentiated oppression.

Indeed, I suspect that what is going on here is a bracketing of class oppression from other kinds of oppression (of race, gender, sexuality, disability, etc). However, this is the kind of privileging of the class experience of one particular kind of person - the white, male, industrial worker - that feminist Marxists in particular have challenged. Silvia Federici, for example, in her classic Caliban and the Witch makes the historical case that, while Marx focused on the experience of the male industrial worker in England, the truth of capitalist development is that both colonial exploitation (and the construction of race) and what Federici calls a genocide against women were fundamentally necessary for the development of capitalism. Any contemporary Marxism must then take the intersection of race, gender, and class seriously. Intersectionality and identity politics do not come out of nowhere, are not unconnected with real lived experiences and structures of oppression, but reflect real social and power relationships present within racialized and patriarchal capitalism3.

Unfortunately, I think Pateman’s critique of intersectionality is not only based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the concept, but that it is based not on a commitment to a politics of the disenfranchised, but on tone-policing. When Pateman writes that “It’s hard to see how people in deprived communities can get excited about a form of politics that regards much of what they think, say and do as a form of abuse”, it indicates not only the misundertanding of identity politics, but also that the crux of the matter is the question of tone. It is also a straw-person, identity politics is no more marked by regarding what people think, say, and do as abusive than any other form of politics. Indeed, we just have to look at the treatment of April Hathcock at ALA Midwinter in 2019 and the ALA’s subsequent response to understand how important an intersectional approach is, and how tone policing often spills over into abuse in and of itself.

Pateman’s undialectical reification of the concept of intersectionality leads to another straw-person argument: that intersectionality and class politics must be “reconciled” so they “work in tandem”. “Both theories must have equal billing going forward, or they will become exclusionary.” Much of the best work in Critical Race Theory, feminism, and contemporary Marxism already do this work of “reconciliation”, but reconciliation is in fact the wrong word4, as it implies the smoothing out of contradictions, tensions, and differences. In fact these differences, while they may be painful, are immensely productive, and so what is needed - and indeed, what is being done - is not a reconciliation of differences but a properly intersectional reckoning with them. The work of W.E.B. Du Bois and Frantz Fanon, among many others, shows how race and class interlock; the work of Federici and Nancy Fraser, among many others, shows how gender and class interlock; the work of Crenshaw, among many others, shows how gender and race interlock. There is no shortage of “identity politics” work that displays precisely the kind of nuance Pateman accuses it of lacking. And this is not only true of academic work: intersectionality is present in the best radical antiracist anticapitalist egalitarian movements. Pateman’s worry about co-option is not unjustified, but his fear that poor and marginalized populations and communities will be put off by identity politics or intersectionality is unfounded.

More worrying, though, is how Pateman’s fundamental argument falls in line with the dominant conception of intellectual freedom and neutrality in libraries. I’ve come to realize, in my reading of recognition politics, that the reason libraries absolve themselves of responsibility for what gets said in them is that they see their role as purely one of platform: they bring together differing points of view and ensure that the rules of civility and respect obtain. Pateman’s post supports this perspective and does not recognize the structural role libraries play, the enormous power imbalance at work, and the harm done by libraries in legitimating harmful perspectives. This too is a problem with generations and identity: to identify as a librarian is to uphold the core values without question; previous generations of “critical librarians” see critique as properly directed outside the profession. As a result, they are at a loss when the critique is directed at the profession itself.

There is no fundamental dichotomy between “identity politics” and “class politics”, they are already related: any contemporary Marxism must (and indeed, does) take intersectionality seriously. The category of identity is not distinct from the category of class. As a result, there is no need to “bring them together” unless, for some reason, you have already split them apart, reifying them, and falling for the mystification inherent in reification. What Pateman is afraid of is not, I think, identity politics and intersectionality properly understood, but the same tired “lack of civility” backed by an unconscious dimissal of race or gender, sexuality or disability as structures of real oppression and harm that marks liberal centrist politics in the current conjuncture. As I have mentioned before with respect to “community-led libraries”, Pateman’s own view of the politics of libraries is easily recuperable to a politics of austerity and neoliberal dismantling. I suspect this is because he continues to believe in the democratic discourse of librarianship, and sees the proper target of critique outside the profession. However, it is becoming more and more clear that the work being done in the current generation of critical librarianship - critiquing the profession itself - is a turn whose time has come not a moment too soon.


Crenshaw, Kimberlé. 1989. “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics.” University of Chicago Legal Forum 1.

Crenshaw, Kimberlé. 1991. “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color”. Stanford Law Review 46(6): 1241-1299. doi:10.2307/1229039

Fanon, Frantz. 2007. The Wretched of the Earth. New York: Grove Press.

Fanon, Frantz. 2008. Black Skin, White Masks. New York: Grove Press.

Federici, Silvia. 2004. Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body, and Primitive Accumulation. Brooklyn: Autonomedia.

Honneth, Axel and Nancy Fraser. 2004. Redistribution or Recognition: A Political-Philosophical Exchange. New York: Verso.


  1. I’m tempted to think of identity politics as a “boundary object”, i.e. in this case a concept which is sufficiently flexible to mean particular, sometimes incompatible things, in different contexts, but which is well-enough defined at a larger scale to be recognizable. 

  2. Thanks to David James Hudson for pointing out that while Crenshaw may have coined the term, the concept of intersectionality had been around in Black feminist circles like the Combahee River Collective in the 1970s. 

  3. Just as wrong in this context as it is increasingly exposed as inadequate to settler-Indigenous relations in Canada. 

  4. Indeed, Marxism already has a concept that comes close to intersectionality: overdetermination 


Sam Popowich

Discovery and Web Services Librarian, University of Alberta

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