KOREA COLUMN 16
Marxism and Oppression
One of the most common criticisms of Marxism, especially in university circles, is that it is inadequate when it comes to issues of oppression such as racism, sexism and homophobia. The charge is either that Marxism has neglected these questions or has ‘reduced’ them to them to the issue of class, suggesting that blacks, women, gays etc should ‘subordinate’ their struggles to the class struggle, or simply wait for the socialist revolution to solve their problems.
Before responding to these arguments theoretically it is worth pointing out that the historical record shows that, far from neglecting these issues, Marxists and Marxist organizations have played a leading role in the struggles against all forms of racial and sexual oppression.
On the question of slavery, Marx and Engels not only strongly supported the North in the American Civil War, but also plated a significant part in ensuring that this position was adopted by the British workers’ movement despite the dependence of many British workers’ jobs on cotton from the Southern states. ‘ Labour with a white skin cannot be free’, Marx insisted, ‘while labour with a black skin is in chains’. Similarly Marx and Engels took up the question of anti- Irish racism (of crucial importance in 19th century Britain) and far from telling the Irish to wait for socialism argued that a necessary condition of revolution in England was the prior separation and independence of Ireland.
The theme of women’s emancipation appeared in Marx and Engels’ writings from the very beginning. ‘ Everyone who knows anything of history’, wrote Marx, ‘knows that great social revolutions are impossible without the feminine ferment. Social progress may be measured precisely by the social position of women’. In 1884 Engels, working from Marx’s notes, wrote The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State which opened the way to understanding the roots of women’s oppression. Eleanor Marx, Marx’s daughter, both organized working class women in the East End of London and wrote the important pamphlet ‘ The Women Question’.
In Germany before the First World War the Marxist Clara Zetkin organized a mass working class women’s organization that fought for equality and socialism, while Alexandra Kollontai pursued similar aims in Russia.. The Russian Revolution established complete legal equality for women and also legalized homosexuality. At this time women in Britain had still not got the vote.
The most important achievement of the US Communist Party, despite its Stalinism, was its role in the fight against racism in Harlem and in the South in the 1930s and Marxists played significant roles in the black and women’s movements of the sixties and seventies. The Jewish Marxist, Abram Leon, a victim of the Nazi Holocaust, wrote The Jewish Question, which remains the crucial book on the causes and history of anti-semitism. The tradition continues to this day with Marxists round the world taking up the fight against the new racism of Islamophobia.
This historical record, of which the above is only the briefest overview, has a political and theoretical underpinning. The political aim of Marxism is the self- emancipation of the working class for which its unity, nationally and internationally, is essential. Marxists therefore have an absolute duty to combat all forms of structural and ideological oppression , such as racism, sexism and homophobia, which weaken or threaten that unity.
Theoretically Marxism does not ‘reduce’ other forms of oppression to class but it does show how their fundamental roots lie in the division of society into classes, which is quite a different matter.
Marxism argues that the second class status of women derives from the structure of the family which makes childcare and housework primarily the responsibility of women and either cuts women off from paid employment and public life or, if they do go out to work, saddles them with a double burden. In the aforementioned Origins of the Family Engels showed that the male dominated family developed with the transition from hunting and gathering to herding and agriculture and the emergence of private property and class divisions, with the family ensuring the inheritance of property and the wife being treated as the property of the husband.
The form of the family has undergone many changes but still today it remains the prime site of child rearing and domestic labour and the principal factor underlying the subordination of women. The capitalist class, for all its lip service to equality, has a massive vested interest in this state of affairs: it provides them with the reproduction of labour power at minimum cost, a source of cheap labour and an entrenched division in the ranks of the working class. Homosexuality is stigmatized because it is seen as a deviation from, and threat to, the family.
Marxism sees racism towards non- white peoples as the ideological reflection and justification of the slave trade which transported millions of Africans to labour on the cotton, tobacco and sugar plantations of the Americas, and the primitive accumulation of capital (looting) in the colonies, which played a crucial part in the development of capitalism back in the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Racism was further refined and consolidated by capitalism’s imperialist phase in the late 19th and early 20th century when the European powers took over most of the rest of the world.
Today we live with the legacy of this history ‘modified’ to focus on the supposed threat posed by immigrants and refugees, who provide capitalism with ideal scapegoats for the failures of the system and another mechanism of divide and rule. On top of this we have Islamophobia as the accompaniment of Western imperialism’s ‘war on terror’ – in reality its struggle to control the energy supplies of the Middle East and Central Asia and prepare for the challenge of China.
The advantage of this Marxist analysis is that it avoids two pitfalls into which other approaches commonly fall. The first is the superficial and complacent view that racism, sexism etc are merely prejudices based on ignorance which will be overcome, in due time, simply by education. The second is the opposite, but often complimentary, view that bigotry is ‘natural’ and therefore inevitable. Both these positions weaken the fight against oppression, the Marxist materialist approach strengthens it.
Marxism does indeed argue that the complete eradication of racism, sexism and homophobia requires the overthrow of capitalism but it never tells the oppressed to wait for the revolution. On the contrary it sees the struggle against all forms of oppression as essential to the struggle for socialism.
20 Jan 2007