O is for oppression

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One of the common accusations thrown at Marxism by others in the movement is that it is "economistic" - it reduces everything to the economy and class relations and therefore can't deal adequately with questions of oppression.

On the surface this can seem a reasonable point.

Oppression doesn't mirror class but cuts across it. All women suffer from sexism, whether an Indonesian factory worker or a highly paid (though not as highly paid as her male counterparts) London City trader. A factory worker's experience of her oppression, however, is very different to that of a rich woman.

Class shapes every aspect of our lives, and those other unequal human relations - between black and white, men and women, gay and straight - are all rooted in specific forms of class society. So, for example, the role that working class women play for capitalists is clear: they take primary responsibility for childcare (rearing the next generation of workers) and housework (maintaining the current generation of workers - including themselves) and they do it out of love and/or necessity (for free). Ruling class women do not fulfil this role, but rather employ working class women to do it for them.

There is no automatic unity inside oppressed groups because such class divisions exist within them. There have always been ruling class women who, while suffering sexism themselves, have recognised their interest in fighting to maintain their class power. Rich Parisian women celebrated the arrival of troops to smash up the Paris Commune by poking women communards in the eyes with their umbrellas.

Margaret Thatcher suffered torrents of sexist abuse, but it didn't stop her thwarting millions of working class women with her policies; Condoleezza Rice certainly could not be said to be helping raise the position of black people or women in the US or anywhere else in the world.

Equally there is no automatic unity between different oppressed groups - because women are oppressed and Muslims are oppressed it doesn't mean they will necessarily stand together. In fact, the opposite can be the case, as people who are under attack may hit out at those considered below them. The pressure of the ruling ideas - which seek to separate us into different and competing groups and unite us with "our" rulers - is strong.

Another reason for the perception of Marxism as economistic is the distorted form of it created by Stalinism. In order to justify the rigidly hierarchical USSR they had to rip the heart, guts and brain out of Marxism and put together a rigid "theory" which put economic development above all else.

Marx does start from the "economic base" of society, but by this he means nothing more or less than the production and reproduction of life itself. Human beings have always laboured collectively in order to feed, clothe and house themselves, and the way in which they do this - whether in pre-class hunter-gatherer societies or advanced capitalism - shapes everything else about that society, from politics to art to how we bring up children.

But this is not a one-way process: the need of a ruling class to maintain its position can hold back further developments in the economic sphere; political struggles can open the way for new economic developments. Marx's whole account of history is one in which struggle takes place on many fronts, but the way in which we organise production is the primary factor.

The working class is strategically important in capitalism because of its collective role in production. Marx didn't say, "Oppressed peoples of the world unite!"; he said, "Workers of the world unite!" because he saw that this collective force could lead a revolution which could liberate all of humanity.

Despite the backward ideas which may exist among workers - sexism, racism, homophobia, etc - there is nonetheless a pressure for unity because of all workers' common economic interest. Taking collective action means standing alongside black workers, women workers and immigrant workers.

Starting from a class analysis of oppression is not to downplay it, but to start from our strength as a united class, not our weakness as a divided collection of different people. There is no separate solution for a black boy in south London and a starving woman in Bangladesh: capitalism is the problem and revolution is the answer.

It is the experience of struggle, the feeling of confidence that comes from fighting together, that wins people away from divisive ideas. The experience of revolution does this magnified a thousand times. In the first few months following the Russian Revolution of October 1917 women were granted the right to vote and to stand for office, abortion on demand was legalised, divorce was granted on demand, homosexuality was decriminalised and the peoples of the east were granted freedom of religion and language. A previously anti-Semitic society saw Jews elected to the leadership of the biggest soviets.

This wasn't the result of enlightened Bolsheviks passing policy on behalf of backward people, but rather the active involvement of the mass of people in shaping their own lives. The details of everyday life, in which reside our most intimate experiences of oppression - the husband who beats you, the racist who bullies you - become questions of public debate which can then begin to be resolved.

Trotsky wrote in 1923 of the difficulty of assessing the changing role of the family through the revolution because "formerly all the troubles and dramatic conflicts in the working class families used to pass unnoticed by the workers themselves; whereas now a large upper part of the workers occupy responsible posts, their life is much more in the limelight, and every domestic tragedy in their life becomes a subject of much comment."

A revolution which liberates the means of production from the control of a minority also liberates every aspect of our lives, allowing that "jump from the realm of necessity to the realm of freedom".

Sally Campbell

Further reading:

  • Marxism at the Millenium by Tony Cliff, Bookmarks
  • Racism: Myths and Realities by Hassan Mahamdallie in International Socialism 95
  • Material Girls by Lindsey German, Bookmarks