How can we end oppression?

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Emma Davis looks at how socialists understand oppression

We live in a society blighted by oppression. This February, David Cameron gave a speech about the country's supposed problems with immigration and diversity - on the same day the racist English Defence League took to the streets in Luton to intimidate Muslims. Despite significant gains over the past century women earn an average of 17 percent less than men. Homophobic and transphobic attacks are on the rise.

Marxism is often accused of being "economistic" and therefore not interested in confronting oppression. It's true that socialists argue that class is central to the structure of capitalist society - and oppression cuts across class lines. A woman who works in a call centre suffers from sexism, but so does a wealthy woman who works for an investment bank. But their experience of oppression is completely different, because of their different class positions.

For example, working class women often provide a free service for capitalism - they rear a new generation of workers. Rich women can afford to hire working class women to provide childcare. Similarly, women (with male allies) had to fight tooth and nail to make abortion a legal right. Rich women had a stake in this too - but their class position meant they were always likely to be able to pay for an illegal abortion.

Socialists always fight side by side with people challenging oppression. But there is not a unity of interest within oppressed groups - because they are divided along class lines. When Margaret Thatcher was prime minister, she didn't think twice about wrecking the lives of working class women. She acted in the interests of her class.

Starting with a class analysis is not to downplay oppression - but it does mean starting from a position of our strength. Workers have a common interest in challenging capitalism. Their unique position as the creators of wealth in society means that, if united, they can derail the system which creates oppression in the first place. This means working people of whatever gender, race or sexuality have to unite in common cause.

However, as Marx observed, "the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas". So while Cameron and his crew are attempting to smash up the welfare state - an attack on all working class people - they try to sow the seeds of division by blaming society's problems on oppressed groups, such as Muslims or immigrants. These ideas, echoed in the media, exert a pressure for us to unite with our rulers, instead of with other working class people.

Oppression has always been shaped by different forms of class society. So Marx's lifelong collaborator, Frederick Engels, argued that in early hunter-gatherer communities there was a gender-based division of labour but no oppression of women. This only appeared with the emergence of class divisions around 5,000 years ago (and more recently still in some parts of the world).

Racism against black people hasn't always existed - it emerged to justify the transatlantic slave trade in the 18th and 19th centuries. In many societies sex between people of the same gender has been celebrated.

It is when people begin to fight back against capitalism that age-old oppressions (or new ones) can start to melt away. The Russian revolutionary Lenin called revolutions "festivals of the oppressed." Indeed, the Russian Revolution in 1917 led to the transformation of the lives of the most oppressed groups in society. Homosexuality was decriminalised, abortion was legalised, and the first communal child care and food centres were set up. This was all far in advance of what existed in the "advanced" capitalist countries of the time. These gains were not simply implemented by decree from above, but were won by workers who were leading their own emancipation.

A similar process began in Egypt this year. The protests in Tahrir Square were composed of people from all walks of life - women, men, students, pensioners, Muslims and Christians. This offered a glimpse of how ordinary people are capable of not only organising their own lives, but of shaking off the most rigid walls of oppression which have been built by class division - what Marx called "the muck of ages".

Workers' collective position within the production process means that they are capable of leading a revolution that can liberate all of humanity. Socialists must fight against all oppression. In the process of doing so we can overcome the boundaries erected to divide working class people - and ultimately smash the barbaric system which creates oppression in the first place.