Marxists are sometimes accussed of being dismissive of oppression, preferring to emphasise the importance of class. Sara Bennett explains why socialists argue for working class unity as the best way to combat, and ultimately abolish, all forms of oppression
Forty five years ago being gay in Britain was a criminal offence. Today there is a good chance we could see gay marriage legalised by the government before the end of its term in office. This is just one example of many huge strides forward we have achieved in the fight against oppression, whether of LGBT people, women, black people or other oppressed groups.
But despite this significant progress, oppression is still very much a reality. In March a Christian group peddling a "gay cure" attempted to place advertising on London buses that said "Not gay! Post-gay, ex-gay and proud. Get over it!" Disabled people are being denounced as "work-shy" and "lazy" in order to justify the government's attacks on one of the most vulnerable groups in society. But the range of oppression goes well beyond these examples and includes Gypsies and travellers, single mothers and even people who are overweight.
Some aspects of oppression are overtly enshrined in the laws and institutions of the state, such as whether or not you have the right to live or work somewhere other than your native country, or whether you have the right to marry someone of the same gender. But oppression can also result from the more informal way the state or society operates - something that can be seen, for instance, in the much higher proportion of young black men in prison compared to their white counterparts, or the relatively few women who sit on the boards of big companies. To many people this may just seem like "the way things are".
But oppression also creates resistance - and not just from those considered its direct victims, as we can see in the widespread outrage at the killing of Trayvon Martin in February simply for being black and wearing a hoodie in a Florida gated community. What's more, it is often through the experience of oppression, either direct or indirect, that people are drawn towards socialist politics.
Liberation at the heart of Marxism
One of the more frequent accusations against Marxism, however, is that it is rigidly "economistic" and that its emphasis on the importance of class in society means it dismisses sometimes difficult questions relating to oppression. This is not the case and any investigation into the history of Marxism will reveal examples of Marxists addressing different forms of oppression - national, racial and sexual among others - not only theoretically but in practice. After all, at its heart Marxism is about human liberation in a society where "the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all", as the Communist Manifesto put it.
So what is oppression? Firstly, oppression is not depression - it's not a psychological state. You don't need to consciously experience your oppression to be oppressed. Women are oppressed under capitalism, but that doesn't mean there aren't examples of women who embrace their role of housewife and others who "choose" lap dancing as a career. Of course, depression and many other psychological or physical illnesses may well be linked to oppression but it is important not to equate the two. Oppression is not a term that simply describes a relationship where someone feels dominated or controlled by another individual. To believe that could lead us to thinking blacks are able to oppress whites, or a man can be oppressed by his partner.
We also need to make it clear that oppression isn't the same as exploitation. Some activists talk about class oppression as simply another form of oppression, running in parallel with sex and racial oppression. But while we might talk generally about the working class being oppressed by the ruling class, this doesn't reveal the roots of the relationship between the classes that lies at the heart of capitalism. The key to that relationship is exploitation, that is, the extraction of surplus value from workers and the subsequent alienation of workers from their labour.
So for Marxists oppression is not a state of mind or feeling of being oppressed, dominated or controlled by an individual or group of people. Neither is it simply "natural" that some people are racist, sexist or homophobic and so on.
History of oppression
Marx recognised that oppression, far from being a natural and thus a permanent feature of human society, is a historical invention. True, the oppression of certain groups of people in society existed before capitalism. For example, Marx's collaborator Engels traced the origins of women's oppression to the formation of the family with the rise of class society. Despite the many changes to the family over the centuries, it persists to this day because it plays a crucial role in the continuation of the system, by bearing the brunt of the cost for caring for present and past generations of workers and the rearing of the next - all at our own expense. So, despite the fact that the majority of women in this country who can work do work, their role in the family means they still accept lower wages and fewer career opportunities.
Other forms of oppression have arisen with the emergence of capitalism. So racism was created to justify the slave trade and imperialism and is perpetuated by the need to keep workers divided. Towards the end of the 19th century a new sexual identity, the "homosexual", was invented and portrayed as a threat to society and the maintenance of the family. What is common to all forms of oppression, however, is that they have a material basis and arise from the structures and dynamics of class society. Oppression serves to reinforce the interests of capitalism.
But while Marx understood that some forms of oppression existed before capitalism, he also grasped the way the nature of oppression under capitalism was different to what had gone before.
Under feudalism or slavery the mass of the population were either slaves, the property of masters, or serfs tied to particular pieces of land and bound to a lord. Such societies were rigidly hierarchical and were based on the idea that everyone had their "rightful place". Notions of freedom for those other than the rulers in society were rare and subordination in society was widely accepted.
When new societies emerge so too do new ideas. The bourgeois revolutions that overthrew feudalism and paved the way for capitalism did so under the banner of "liberty, equality and fraternity", as the French Revolution put it. This was a huge step forward for humanity compared to previous societies.
Under capitalism production takes the form of creating commodities to be sold in the market. Everything becomes a commodity, including our ability to labour. Workers are no longer tied to individual lords and masters. The new ideas of individual freedom and equality under capitalism reflect this new way of organising production. But in reality freedom for the vast majority of the human race is simply this ability to sell their labour power to one or another capitalist (provided, of course, that there is sufficient demand). Capitalism holds out the promise of liberation, but then denies it to the majority of society.
Capitalist production increasingly comes to depend on the mass cooperation of workers, but as capitalism brings workers together so too it divides them from each other. Workers are forced to continually compete against each other - for jobs, overtime, housing, even access to decent healthcare provision. Oppression helps to create and reinforce divisions between workers. For example, the mass media and mainstream government encourage us to see immigrant workers as inferior to native-born workers. While it may be acceptable for immigrants to participate in our workforce when there are plenty of jobs, as soon as jobs become more scarce,immigrants are portrayed as less deserving of work, and therefore a threat.
These divisions are underpinned by the alienation of workers under capitalism from control over their labour. This results in a sense of powerlessness, especially when workers do not fight back collectively. In this situation,some workers may gain a feeling of empowerment by looking down on others and feeling superior. So a white person may look down on a black person or a man on a woman. And it is not just non-oppressed groups who feel superior to oppressed groups - it cuts across oppressed groups too. For example, a "second-generation immigrant" can feel superior to a recently arrived immigrant, or a gay man ca feel superior to a disabled person.
As a result, some people argue that sections of workers have an interest in sustaining oppression, rather than seeing that all oppression works to allow the continuation of capitalism by providing it with material benefits.
So we hear arguments that men benefit from women's oppression, or that all whites benefit from the oppression of black people. While it's true that non-oppressed groups do not suffer in the way that oppressed people may, it is wrong to think they therefore have some interest in the continuation of oppression. For example, the fact that women in full-time work still earn around 15 percent less than their male counterparts does not allow men's wages to increase further - it simply means it's easier for the bosses to keep all wages down. The best solution to this would be for male and female workers to fight together for decent wages for all. This may be easier said than done for a woman at work being sexually harassed by a male colleague, however. After all, she experiences her oppression through his sexist commetns and gestures. But while he may be the immediate culprit, the causes of oppression run much deeper - they are rooted in capitalism. Socialists have to fight all forms of oppression through the struggle for class unity.
Alienation and distorted notions of freedom and equality also mean that people are not necessarily conscious of their oppression and can lead them to actively embrace some of the worst aspects of it. With the emphasis under capitalism on the individual rather than the social whole, we are made to feel that the worst symptoms of our oppression must be through some fault of our own. Here capitalism steps in to sell us the very "solutions" we need. So we have a whole industry of self-help books in the UK which is estimated to have earned publishers some £60?million in the past five years. In a similar vein, the answer to women not feeling "sexy enough" is to attend pole dancing "fitness classes", or undergo cosmetic surgery. There are even skin-lightening techniques for black people.
A divisive system
Capitalism works quite hard to ensure we keep believing our main enemy is some other group of ordinary people in society rather than the nature of our distorted relationships under capitalist society. The mass media have to continuously pump out horrific anti-immigrant, anti-traveller, anti single mum propaganda. Capitalism maintains its hold by dividing those workers who collectively could overturn it, and ideology plays a significant role. And this means it has to work to undermine the reality of our lives that actually brings us into constant contact and cooperation with all types of people, whether Muslim, gay, disabled and so on.
While many non-Marxists fight with us against oppression, there is often disagreement about our emphasis on the working class as the key agent of change. After all, oppression affects all classes, not just the working class. This means some people believe that the oppressed group itself is the key to overcoming its own oppression. At a recent demonstration at Cambridge University over the visit of former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn, one of the chants was "The women united will never be defeated." It's not hard to see why this might seem like common sense to some; after all, every woman can be a victim of sexual assault. But which women are we uniting with? Christine Lagarde, Strauss-Kahn's replacement, is central to the imposition of draconian austerity measures across Europe, driving the living standards of millions of women and men down - something that in turn will increase the pressures on people's lives and place more women at the risk of violence.
It's true that oppression doesn't simply affect the working class. Homophobia, sexism and racism affect people of all classes, and a ruling class woman can be oppressed as a woman just as a working class woman is. But the difference is that wealth and power help mitigate the worst effects of the oppression - for example, rich women can employ nannies and cleaners and they are more likely to have the material means to escape domestic violence.
The emphasis revolutionaries place on the question of class, therefore, is not about brushing aside the issue of oppression. Socialists will always defend the rights of oppressed groups to self-organise. Instead it flows from an understanding that the real division in society that causes our oppression and alienation is not our gender, our sexual orientation or our skin colour, but class. The role of revolutionary socialists, therefore, is always to seek to build maximum unity across the working class. We understand there is no automatic unity of the oppressed, and that it is our role to expose how the racism, sexism, homophobia and so on of the system divide us and make us weaker.
While we fight for and welcome changes in the law which extend or protect the rights of discriminated groups, and we understand the importance of education to undermine prejudice, it has always been during periods of class upheaval that leaps forward have been taken in the fight against oppression, for example in the ferment of the late 1960s, where class struggle was also accompanied by a rise in the struggle for women's, black and gay rights, and consequently real gains were made.
More recently, in Egypt, women have found the strength to stand up against the most deplorable acts of sexual intimidation and violence by the military in defence of the revolution they see as theirs. However, in terms of the fight against oppression, nothing can quite match the achievements of the Russian Revolution of October 1917, where among many others, the right to same-sex marriage, abortion on demand and attempts to socialise domestic chores were introduced. This makes the Tories' talk of concessions to gay marriage pale into insignificance.
Working class unity
The working class is facing the biggest attacks in decades. Unity across our class will be crucial if we are to see a fightback capable of victories. In this situation revolutionaries must seek to lead in the struggle not simply as the best class fighters but, as Lenin put it, as the "tribunes of the oppressed". The working class today is more female, more multi-racial, more openly LGBT than ever before. Class unity can at once be the key to defeating the austerity plans of the ruling class but also to overcoming the most divisive aspects of oppression that so many of us face today.