Marxism is about human liberation, not just economic justice, explains Colin Wilson.
Marx condemned oppressions such as racism and sexism throughout his life. On racism, for example, he wrote that “labour in the white skin cannot emancipate itself where in the black skin it is branded.” He made substantial notes about women in different cultures, from which his collaborator Engels wrote The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State as part of the struggle against women’s oppression.
Marxist authors have traced how oppression is rooted in capitalism. Previous cultures had no concept of “race” based on features like skin colour. The concept developed in the contexts of slavery and colonial empire. The growth of Islamophobia in the last ten years in the context of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars shows something similar today. LGBT oppression also developed under capitalism. The idea that only a minority of “homosexuals” experienced desire for the same sex first emerged in the Victorian era as part of defending the respectable family.
The oppression of women had existed for thousands of years before capitalism, but was reshaped to meet the needs of the new society. Women’s lives were to centre on the family, on nurturing and support the current and next generations of workers – who were key to capitalism’s ongoing profitability. Under neo-liberalism, as publicly provided care services are cut, the centrality of the family to capitalism and to women’s oppression remains.
Marx wrote comparatively little about oppression, and three large volumes of Capital about political economy and class. This wasn’t because he thought it was unimportant, but because he believed that understanding and destroying capitalism made possible a society without oppression. Capitalism was hugely productive – for the first time, an equal society was possible without everyone living in equal misery. It also created the working class, which could only take power collectively – there is no point controlling my desk and computer in isolation, for example. Workers must take power through revolution, because the ruling class would not give up power, but also because only in a revolution could most workers be won from long-standing beliefs like racism and sexism – what Marx called “all the muck of ages”.
Since then, workers have united to reject oppression in many revolutionary and near-revolutionary situations. The best example is the October 1917 Revolution in Russia. Despite centuries of anti-semitism, one of the main revolutionary leaders, Trotsky, was Jewish. Laws against sex between men were abolished. The new government began to take over the burden of childcare from women: 150,000 children were fed in Moscow schools every day.
Seeing the fight against oppression in this way, as part of the anti-capitalist struggle, is vital. It gives us a strong argument – that workers should reject ideas like sexism and racism, not because it makes them morally better, but because oppression divides the working class and the movement. It is in the self-interest of men, white and straight workers to reject sexism, racism and homophobia.
The huge struggles of the 1960s led to the modern anti-racist, women’s and LGBT movements. But they also gave rise to a different approach to fighting oppression, based on the assumption that each oppressed group should lead the fight against its own oppression. This approach is now reflected in the structures of many unions and the NUS. Those structures reflect the fact that oppression is taken seriously, and were a step forwards. But there are also serious problems with the ideas behind them.
The first problem is the idea that protection for oppressed groups must be guaranteed by structures, because non-oppressed people don’t know how to fight oppression at best – and at worst, are the cause of it. In reality, while many white people accept some racist ideas, for example, many have also been part of anti-racist and anti-fascist campaigns.
Also, the idea that each group fights its own oppression has often involved the assumption – until black feminists in the 1980s began to stress what’s now called intersectionality – that oppressed groups were more or less separate. Finally, such ideas exaggerated how much oppressed groups have in common – terms like “the LGBT community” overlook important differences, such as those of class. American anti-racist struggles of the 60s and 70s made possible the growth of a “black bourgeoisie” of elected officials and professionals which has little in common with black workers. Barack Obama is part of that trend. It was good to see a black person elected president, but his presidency has seen the gap in wealth between white and black people increase, not lessen.
The fight against oppression needs to be fully integrated into the fight against capitalism and for socialism. Opposing sexism, racism and homophobia is something everyone should do, not just those most affected. That’s the only way to make the vision of Marx, and millions of socialists since, into reality.