A materialist analysis of roots & nature of oppression
By Laura Fitzgerald, Socialist Party (Ireland)
Marxism is a philosophy and world view that seeks to materially analyse reality. Although it was not possible for Marx and Engels themselves to adequately address all questions of oppression, as well as other issues in their writings, they did specifically address women’s oppression, racism linked to slavery and imperialism, and also the oppression of national groups, such as the Irish. Any interpretation of Marxism, either by political groups, or Marxism as it’s often portrayed in academia, that present it as advocating a crude economic determinism does no justice to genuine Marxism. The tools of Marxism do allow us to develop today a complex, real, many-faceted and accurate analysis of the nature and roots of various oppressions that exist in capitalist society today, as well as, crucially, the means to organise to challenge and ultimately, to end, the intersecting social forces that combine to victimise, to discriminate and to oppress.
In relation to women’s oppression, for example, Engels made an invaluable and revolutionary contribution in Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State. The most important conclusion that he drew was that women’s oppression, though in existence for many thousands of years, was not something inevitable, immutable, ordained by a God, or flowing from the innate nature of men. He pointed to primitive societies in which women’s role was valued as part of a group in which no class division existed, and each group member was essential to the survival and thriving of the whole group. He linked the development of ingrained and systematic oppression of women to the onset of class society, when the development of productive farming freed an elite at the top in society from labour. Perpetuating of class division began to be connected to passing on private property through a male line, necessitating the subjugation of women.
This development was linked to the sex division of labour that was often a feature of hunter-gatherer societies, albeit non-hierarchical division. With private property linked to a male line, women’s sexuality had to be controlled and the model of the patriarchal family suited this purpose. In contradistinction to ahistorical ‘patriarchy theory’ that sees all men as asserting power vis-a-vis all women, a Marxist view is an optimistic one that holds that a struggle for a classless, socialist society, by its very nature is, and has to be, a struggle to develop a society free of division and the economic basis to – and over time any and all cultural expressions of – women’s oppression.
When Marx and Engels first analysed the nuclear family under capitalism, they saw it was central to passing on private property for the ruling class that owned it. Furthermore, at the time of Marx, women in the factories were suffering so acutely working throughout pregnancies, child-birth, nursing etc., that it was detrimentally affecting the health and output of the workforce. In these circumstances, even the working class felt negatively about the dissolution of the nuclear family. It also fed into the ideological promotion of the nuclear family by the ruling class, to ensure from the point of view of the employers, that women played a role in reproducing and caring for a healthy, strong workforce and future workforce, an essential ingredient in the making of profit.
This role in ‘social reproduction’ for capitalism is still a central economic tenet of women’s oppression today, as indicated by the reality of the fact that women still, in all continents, take on the substantial burden of unpaid domestic work. It has also been used by capitalism as a means of social control and has been, and continues to be a means of pushing backward gender roles and is central to the subjugation of women.
In Ireland, the weak capitalist state from its foundation leant on the power and authority of the Catholic Church. This backward connection of Church and State has not been broken, meaning that this ideology is taken to extreme in women’s healthcare and in law, with the constitutional ban on abortion and the assertion, even by a UN official, that women are treated as ‘vessels’ by the state. The model of the traditional, nuclear family has been hugely undermined, with most people participating in a myriad of family arrangements. The most far-sighted sections of the ruling class will tolerate this, once the ‘social reproduction’ role is being fulfilled. With the policy of austerity being implemented by the ruling elite across Europe, furthering the dismantling and privatisation of public services, things are getting worse for women and the working class generally in this regard.
The entering of women into the workforce en masse has been a huge factor for progress, in raising women’s confidence and expectations. In the post-war period in the US, advertisements consciously pushed the nuclear family and unashamedly promoted women’s role in the home, dependent on a male bread-winner. Today, the mass media and huge sex-industry push the sexist objectification of women’s bodies. In 1950s US it was a conscious ideological backlash in the aftermath of an upsurge of women in the workforce during the war period. Today, it is a by-product of profiteering by major industries that inevitably reflects the position of women in society. In both cases, despite their differences, a similar result is obtained – the pushing of harmful sexist ideas that contribute to women’s oppression and feed into violence against women.
‘Intersectionality’ and ‘Privilege Theory’ (both explained below) can be classed very loosely as falling under a broader umbrella of ‘Identity Politics’. Identity Politics has been prevalent within an isolated US left for over two decades, and particularly the two ideas mentioned are quite popular now amongst a new generation of activists in Ireland in the abortion rights movement, and many countries globally in the growing challenge to sexism in its various manifestations; including sexist media, street harassment, sexual violence and intimate partner violence, and generally in the LGBTQ movement.
Identity politics can be defined as viewing society as comprising of interest groups. Sometimes the interest groups intersect and over-lap, but there is not any over-arching framework in which to analyse society. The fact that the use of social media by those wanting to fight inequality and oppression is so common in today’s world, means that most of the women that have been politicised or have gotten active in relation to sexism and women’s oppression will have come across these ideas in some way.
Intersectionality and Privilege theories both generally hail from the late 1980s, into the 1990s, “third-wave feminism”, or post-feminism time-frame. Third Wave or Post Feminism tended to focus on feminising the ruling elite, as opposed to a struggle of the women’s movement. It was a huge retreat and was characterised by a deep illusion that capitalism as a system was capable of providing equality and liberation for women. At this time, the crisis of capitalism in the 1970s and 80s had exposed the reformism of the official leadership of the Labour and Trade Union movements. They sided with the system and sold-out, leading to defeats and setbacks. This coincided with the onset of neo-liberal capitalism, the collapse of Stalinism and the capitalists’ claim of “the end of history” – read the end of class struggle.
This period of defeats also fed into a very significant falling back in class consciousness and the authority of the labour movement. Politically and economically, neo-liberalism ruled the roost – attacks on organised trade unionism, privatisation, shift to short-term, low-paid work and de-industrialisation and the overarching drive to remove all barriers to making a profit. Its ideological cousin, post-modernism, prevailed.
Post-modernism is the rejection of all ‘grand narratives’ – attempts to develop an overarching analyses and viewpoints. It holds that you can’t truly analyse and assess objective reality. It is personal, subjective and idealist and rejects any attempts to have an overarching analysis or viewpoint of material reality. This feeds into analysing oppression from a subjective or personal viewpoint. Needless to say, the voices and the personal experiences of those that are oppressed are extremely important. But to have the best insight into the nature and roots of oppression, as well as having the voices and experiences of the oppressed front and centre; a materialist analysis of broader social forces at work, that the oppression flows from, is necessary. We need to have a clear vision as to how to best challenge and end that oppression.
Much ID politics does consciously reject bourgeois, or liberal feminism – in other words feminism that is utterly co-opted by capitalism and seeks change only within that framework, usually focusing on feminising the ruling elite, with more female bosses and politicians that continue to perpetuate the profit-system of inequality and oppression. Nonetheless, the focus on the personal, on the individual, that’s inherent in ID politics in a different way does not effectively challenge the status quo. In rejecting ‘grand narratives’, there is no overarching critique of how the system perpetuates, racism, sexism, heterosexism.
Nancy Fraser, a left-wing feminist academic who has excoriated how, in her eyes, the feminist movement has become ‘capitalism’s handmaiden’, bemoaned the shift to ID politics. Fraser perhaps overstates the degree to which the 1960s and 1970s feminist movement took up class and socialist politics – though undoubtedly there was such an important thread in the movement – her criticism of what came after is very insightful.
“Whereas the ’68 generation hoped, among other things, to restructure the political economy so as to abolish the gender division of labor, subsequent feminists formulated other, less material aims. Some, for example, sought recognition of sexual difference, while others preferred to deconstruct the categorial opposition between masculine and feminine. The result was a shift in the center of gravity of feminist politics. Once centred on labor and violence, gender struggles have focused increasingly on identity and representation in recent years… the feminist turn to recognition has dovetailed all too neatly with a hegemonic neoliberalism that wants nothing more than to repress socialist memory.” (Fortunes of Feminism: from State-Managed Capitalism to Neoliberal Crisis, 2013, p.160)
Fraser counterposes this approach with her recogntion / redistribution model – i.e. that challenging the economic aspects of women’s oppression and the cultural or mis-recognition aspects must be inextricably linked in order to effectively challenge women’s oppression. For Marxists, this is an ABC point and it’s positive that a prominent feminist is advocating it. For example, the struggle for reproductive rights is incomplete if it focuses solely on legalities while ignoring the reality that in Ireland, the public health system, not only is Catholic influenced and backward in its approach to women and reproduction therefore, it is also grossly underfunded and overcrowded, often leading to unnecessarily difficult experiences for those giving birth in the public system.
It’s crucial that the struggle for reproductive rights, is connected with a struggle for a progressive, secular and state of the art public health service, that’s free at the point of delivery. Given the weak nature of Irish capitalism (it’s such a neo-liberal model) – as well as the current austerity drive, the steady creeping towards a privatised health model on top of the reality that Irish capitalism has never delivered a comprehensive NHS type health service for its population – an anti-capitalist challenge is necessitated. This means challenging the private ownership of wealth to allow for the democratic use of wealth and resources. In this instance, for the development of a democratic and comprehensive health service.
A primary concern of ID politics is the naming of and characterising of oppressions, and in the case of intersectionality, of how oppressions intersect. Lots of this can undoubtedly be informative and useful and could potentially add to and inform a socialist viewpoint. The caricature portrayed of Marxists and socialists in relation to oppression, is that they have a fetish or obsession with social class. It’s absolutely the case that class is central for socialists. Class is the key and overarching division in society. There is the ruling class, in today’s parlance sometimes encapsulated in the term, the 1%; those that own and control the means of production and who appropriate profit.
The other main class in society is the working class. A broad definition of the working class is those various ‘wage-slaves’ who have to sell their labour in life, in order to survive and to live. Broadly speaking their families, also pensioners and the unemployed all connected with workers in this way, are also part of the broad working class. There are middle layers in between the two major classes that could side with either conflicting class in the context of a struggle. But generally speaking the working class, not only is the largest class in society globally, but is also growing; with the rural to urban draw in the likes of China and India, with the continued entering of women globally into the workforce, and with the increase in numbers of workers in Ireland in recent decades.
The working class is the most powerful force in society, if it’s united and conscious. We’ve seen this on numerous occasions in history, because profit ceases to be made with workers’ strikes and society can be paralysed because of the lever that workers are inside the economy and society at crucial pivots everywhere. For example, we saw a glimpse of this a number of years ago in Egypt when a workers’ general strike delivered the knockout blow to the dictatorship of Mubarrak. Unfortunately, the lack of a socialist force and consciousness limited the scope of the movement and counter-revolution has prevailed subsequently, but the process of revolution is still developing and undoubtedly new struggles will emerge. However, Egypt illustrates that workers’ power and consciousness has to be consciously and consistently built for.
The working class is heterogeneous, with a myriad of different experiences, attitudes and levels of exploitation. The need for a programme and political and industrial organisation to unite the working class across these divides is crucial. In Ireland, the lack of the latter has allowed austerity to be implemented. This happens to have directly worsened the situation for women who are both disproportionately represented as (often low-paid) workers and users of public services. The bureaucratic trade union leadership did not effectively challenge a fostering of a division between public and private sector workers by politicians and media, and through their commitment to a social partnership model and outlook – that’s based on a denial of the fundamental conflicting interests of the ruling class and working class – the trade union bureaucracy failed miserably to challenge the implementation of austerity.
The centrality of class is not a denigration, relegation or denial of special oppressions. Crucially, is the fact that a united, organised and conscious working class has the most power to challenge the oppressive system of capitalism; a system that has a vested interest in maintaining oppressions, often for economic gains from them, but also from the point of view of dividing workers to cut across unity and struggle.
Working class struggle is the most effective challenge to the ruling class – a ruling class that not only have economic power, but also political and state power. It has a state apparatus and also a corporate or state controlled media that puts forward its ideology.
If you look at the example of a worker who is also a woman in an abusive relationship, most likely her oppression as a woman is the single biggest obstacle and source of malaise in her life at that moment. Having said that, the fact she’s a worker is also significant. Firstly, as a low-paid woman worker, for example, her economic reality could limit her options and possibilities. However, it’s also true that as a worker, you are alongside others that may be in a similar position as you. Your labour outside the home can raise your personal confidence. You’re potentially powerful as a worker that can strike alongside colleagues fostering unity and solidarity that can impact on personal confidence and know-how to find the tools to potentially get out of the abusive relationship.
Power, privilege and oppression
Furthermore, socialists recognise that all women are oppressed, including women from the upper sections of society, similarly with non-whites or LGBTQ people. Of course the working class and poorest sections of these oppressed groups will suffer most acutely in the vast majority of cases. However, bourgeois women are killed by partners and ex-partners. Recently in the news was the case of Reeva Steenkamp; a rich, white South-African woman, killed by her boyfriend. Or similarly, Oprah Winfrey, one of the richest women in the world suffered abominably in her youth as a black woman, with rape, teenage pregnancy and dire poverty all part of her early life. All oppression has to be fought but here, the fact that Winfrey was on a salary of $75 million in 2013, means she has a vested interest in maintaining the status quo and therefore is highly unlikely to be won over to the type of radical struggle that’s necessary to end oppression.
No doubt, some middle layers in particular in the women’s or LGBTQ movement have been, and can and will be won over to a radical, anti-capitalist struggle. But a characteristic of class is the defining impact it can have on one’s outlook. Just like the bourgeois suffragettes who ended up explicitly opposing the working class movement and cheering on the imperialist powers in World War One – movements that comprise of oppressed groups from the different class layers in society, when confronted with a decisive social or tactical question, often reflect the class divide. In this instance, the bourgeois suffragette women were swept up with the jingoistic propaganda spun by men of their class.
Sylvia Pankhurst broke with her suffragette sisters and mother over this question where she chose to consciously side with the working class, against the imperialist warmongering elite. Class is more than just a question of there existing a working class identity and a societal discrimination against those from this group, (i.e. ‘classism’ that’s referenced often in ID politics), it’s an underlying objective reality and divide that feeds into all aspects of society in a fundamental fashion.
It’s also the case, that the absolutely most oppressed sections of society are so trampled upon by the system on an abominable myriad of levels, that they are not necessarily the most likely sections of society to lead a social movement for change. For example child victims of abuse such as those in the horrific Rotherham case in Yorkshire, England, or victims of sex-trafficking, who are literally enslaved in bonded labour. Of course, such sections often happen to represent the most oppressed groups within the broad and heterogeneous working class itself.
British Miners’ Strike
When there has been examples of powerful workers’ struggles in the past, it was often a reference point for the oppressed generally in society. This year is the 30th anniversary of the Miners’ Strike in Britain, when a powerful and unionised workforce were targeted ruthlessly by Thatcher’s neo-liberal capitalism, and waged an heroic struggle of resistance. The miners’ heroism in taking on all that ‘Thatcher, the milk-snatcher’ represented, including ruthless capitalist profiteering and the destruction of working class solidarity and organisation that was a barrier to the latter, was an inspiration.
Working class women, the wives, mothers, sisters, daughters of the striking miners played a crucial role in this titanic class battle. Similarly, Thatcher at the time was passing a homophobic law, and the gay and lesbian community blocked with the miners, as did the black and Asian community. For all oppressed groups the miners were an immediate reference point for their own struggles, struggles that could have otherwise been isolated and quite easily repressed by the ruling class.
In the context of the miners’ strike, there was a discernible shift in the attitudes of many miners to women, as well as to the gay and lesbian activists, and black and Asians who supported them. They saw women who had become working class organisers and activists in a different light, increasing both their respect for them as human beings, but also recognising more the difficulties that women who were in the home faced as the miners took on housework and child-rearing when the women were organising meetings and solidarity actions in the course of the struggle. Furthermore, the class battle provoked a string of break-ups, particularly as women’s confidence and life expectations were raised, spurring them on to end unhappy relationships.
The views of Michel Foucault on power can be lurking behind much ID politics. Foucault was a leftist, affected by the defeat of the revolution in France 1968, that precipitated the postmodernist shift in thinking. Foucault’s vision of power in society saw it as moving through everything in society. He failed to recognise the ultimate and most essential power in society – that of the ruling elite – derived from control of the means of production but expressed in the state, in control of the propagating of ideas in society, etc.
Neither is the somewhat crude valorising of the working class that some on the far-left have counter-posed, accurate in my opinion. The ISO and the SWP have purported that essentially there are no power gaps within the working class itself, and specifically, tend to very bluntly and crudely assert that working class men don’t benefit from women’s oppression. They contend that the ruling class alone benefit. Paul D’Amato has written, for example:
“Atomized and separate, encouraged to go for each other’s throats, workers are powerless. So when a male worker abuses his wife, he is acting not out of power, but out of powerlessness, out of weakness. And when a white worker acts in a racist manner toward a Black worker, the white worker is not expressing their own power, but the power of the system over them.”
This tends to understate the situation. For example, is it credible to suggest that a group of men on a stag’s night who buy a woman’s body to use sexually are doing so out of powerlessness? In reality, they are objectifying a human being and are subjugating her aspirations and sexuality as subservient to theirs. And in general and on average, working class men do benefit to some degree from women’s oppression. It does in general not only result in more leisure time each week, but also less of a domestic burden, given that women often assume overall responsibility for running the house, caring for others and managing finances.
The SWP have had a flawed theoretical approach on the question of women’s oppression, derived from Tony Cliff, SWP founding member, and his assertion in Class struggle & Women’s Liberation that it was incorrect to focus “consistently on areas where men and women are at odds – rape, battered women, wages for housework – while ignoring or playing down the important struggles in which women are more likely to win the support of men: strikes, opposition to welfare cuts, equal pay, unionisation, abortion”.
It’s not necessary to understate divisions that do exist within the working class in order to build unity. In fact, fully recognising and characterising divisions makes it more likely you can do the same. Trotsky, when discussing how it was inevitable that anti-semitic ideas would resurface under the bureaucratic, inefficient and poverty-stricken Stalinist state in the Soviet Union wrote that, “Of course we can close our eyes to the fact and limit ourselves to vague generalities about the equality and brotherhood of all race. But an ostrich policy will not advance us a single step.”
Crucially, working class men have absolutely no vested interest in keeping a system that oppresses women in place. The same social forces that push women into low-paid jobs, that promotes sexist ideology that precisely impacts on the attitudes and behaviour of many men, are the same social forces that mean unemployment, poverty, forced emigration, yellow-pack work that’s an increasing part of life for young and working class women and men under neo-liberal, austerity capitalism. Fundamentally, the ruling class benefit from division inside the working class, be it on gender or on racial lines, as it can cut across an effective challenge to their rule. Furthermore, there are direct economic gains for capitalism for a low-paid female or migrant workforce. Fundamentally, an accurate portrayal and depiction of oppression is necessary. If sexist or racist attitudes and their import that exist inside the working class are glossed over, oppressed groups will be not be won to a united struggle, the route to liberation.
Interestingly, the glossing over by the SWP of differences that exist within the working class, vis-a-vis men and women is turned on its head in regard to the national question and opposing imperialism. In this instance, any class analysis is jettisoned completely as workers’ unity is seen as virtually impossible and possibly even undesirable. Regarding the North, the SWP have historically given support to the IRA, including advocating votes for Sinn Féin, despite the fact that such a strategy would utterly alienate the Protestant working class, therefore cutting across opportunities for socialists to organise and lead mass working class struggle across the sectarian divide to challenge capitalism, imperialism and oppression. Similarly, with regards to Israel / Palestine, the SWP write off Jewish workers and have a non-class approach.
Intersectionality is often explained as a theory of how different oppressed groups intersect. Many who subscribe to intersectionality do so from a progressive point of view. Sometimes, out of a rejection of transphobic feminism, i.e. feminism that is not accepting, or even hostile to the transgender community. Or out of a rejection of liberal or bourgeois feminism that ultimately serves the interests of the most privileged sections of women and imagines change only very much within the remits of the capitalist system. However, the true nature of intersectionality doesn’t provide a strategy that can win, and can be quite problematic in practice.
Kimberle Crenshaw coined the term intersectionality. In this way, it has liberal roots, as it was conceived as a means to improve services offered to black women in the US who are victims of intimate partner violence. This of course is useful and important, but it is interesting that intersectionality was from its outset, not specifically developed as a means to end oppression, more as a tool to ease the worst affects of it. Often references are made to the Combahee River Collective Statement of black feminism from 1977 as the radical roots of intersectionality, but the word is not used in the text. Crenshaw herself’s description of intersectionality is quite insightful:
“I conceive of intersectionality as a provisional concept that links contemporary politics with postmodern theory. In examining the intersections of race and gender, I engage the dominant assumptions that these are essentially separate; by tracing categories to their intersections, I hope to suggest a methodology that will ultimately disrupt the tendencies to see race and gender as exclusive or separable categories. Intersectionality is thus in my view a transitional concept that links current concepts with their political consequences, and real world politics with post-modern insights… The basis function of intersectionality is to frame the following enquiry: How does the fact that women of color are simultaneously situated within at least two groups that are subjected to broad societal subordination bear upon problems traditionally viewed as monocausal – that is gender discrimination or race discrimination?” (Beyond Racism & Misogyny: Black feminism & 2 Live Crew by Kimberle Williams Crenshaw, in Feminist Social Thought: A Reader (Routlege, 1997)
Crenshaw overtly places intersectionality in the post-modern context. Her professed primary concern is to categorise and characterise oppression, rather than to develop a strategy to end it. Her assertion that race and gender are not essentially different is not accurate, and an unnecessary remark that will only serve to leave correct analyses of how race and gender intersect to deepen oppression, open to question. This inaccuracy spills into other aspects of her analysis. For example, she asserts that the experiences of a woman of color in a violent relationship are qualitatively different, to the experiences of a white woman in a violent relationship. There’s no question that in the case of a woman of color, particularly a working class woman of color, the likelihood of being victim-blamed, of experiencing mis-treatment at the hands of the police or judiciary as a victim, are greater. Also, there’s no question that looking into this reality, analysing it, and documenting it is worthwhile.
However, is it really true to say that there is a fundamental difference with what a white woman, particularly a working class white woman in an abusive relationship would experience? In fact, building unity of any and all working class women, in particular those that are oppressed by male violence, in organising and campaigning for services to assist them, for public housing to assist women to leave abusive relationships, and to challenge the sexist and macho culture fostered under capitalism that feeds into violence against women of all classes, would be an effective method to challenge male violence against women.
Of course, within that, women of colour require the opportunity to voice and challenge their own particular and unique experiences and concerns, and in some instances, separate campaigns might be necessary and effective. However, a central problem with the intersectional approach is that in its concern with personal experiences of the oppressed, and categorising the layered oppressions heaped upon the most marginalised and victimised sections under capitalism, it can underestimate or disregard opportunities for solidarity of different oppressed groups working in unity. Most specifically and crucially, it doesn’t have a reference point for the ending of oppression. In other words, it subscribes to the postmodern view of an end of class struggle, and therefore stops at the point of categorising and characterising oppressions, rather than using the raising of consciousness of specific oppressed groups with their own demands and campaigns and concerns, to feed back into the building of an anti-capitalist working class movement that has the power to end the profit-system and the rule of the 1%, which has a vested interest in maintaining division to prevent a united challenge to its own rule, as well as profiteering directly from various forms of oppression.
bell hooks, a black feminist, academic and intersectional advocate and theorist has made salient criticisms of naked bourgeois or pro-capitalist feminism – the feminism of Sheryl Sandberg CEO who is insultingly telling us to ‘lean in’, or of Beyonce and her worshipping of greed and wealth and individualism in music. bell hooks from the outset has a more explicitly radical tone and goal, than, for example, Crenshaw’s material. However, her goal of smashing capitalism and smashing patriarchy – in a problematic inference that these are two separate struggles – is without strategy.
Capitalism simply cannot be defeated without the front and centre participation of women, particularly working class women, close to half the workforce in many countries and over-represented in the lowest paid, most exploitative sectors. Similarly, in the US, where the African American population continue to experience the harshest exploitation and victimisation at the hands of US capitalism, a significant level of multiracial working class challenge to division and racism that’s fostered by the ruling class, would be essential to building a challenge to US capitalism that had any chance of threatening, let alone ending, the rule of the 1%. The growing movement in the US to fight for a $15 minimum wage, which has already scored a victory in Seattle, has this multiracial quality with low-paid workers of colour playing a really prominent role in the struggle.
In Ferguson, Missouri in August 2014, a localised uprising of the impoverished black population, targeted by a racist, mainly white police force, has illustrated the potential for a new civil rights movement in the US to develop. Such a movement, not only could inspire the working class of other and all ethnicities who themselves are disillusioned with the ‘American Dream’ fantasy of US capitalism and identify with the 99% coined by the Occupy movement; it could challenge racist ideas that exist within the working class and could be a spur to a wider anti capitalist movement. Such a movement would feed into and strengthen a new civil rights struggle. And such unity would maximise the potential to transcend the inordinate power of the US capitalist state – in Ferguson local police are decked out in full combat army gear and have utilised tear gas, an army tank, and helicopters – to inflict violence and repression to maintain the status quo.
The political is personal?
In second-wave feminism of the late 1960s and 1970s, particularly as it emerged in the US, the maxim, ‘the personal is political’ aptly summed up that the new movement was ensuring that violence, rape, lack of control over ones reproductive health, the isolation and mental distress that can emanate from being in the home doing unpaid labour and more, were all social issues and questions that required a social movement and social change to address. They were not simply adversities that women had to face on an individual level. They arose in a given political and social system and required political and social change to address them.
Much of the feminism prominent from the 1990s, has turned this hugely progressive guiding maxim on its head. It has become – ‘the political is personal’. That is evident in bell hook’s writings that express her own raw anger at experiences of sexism and racism, a raw anger that in many ways doesn’t seek to develop either a materialist analysis of the nature of oppression in society, and furthermore that is not channelled in a fashion that can aid the building of a movement to end this oppression. In killing rage: Ending Racism (1995), hooks embodies this subjective, “the political, is personal”, approach:
“Ironically, many whites who had struggled side by side with black folks responded positively to images of black victimization. Many whites testified that they looked upon the suffering of black people in the segregated South and were moved to work for change. The image of blacks as victims had an accepted place in the consciousness of every white person; it was the image of black folks as equals, as self-determining that had no place – that could evoke no sympathetic response. In complicity with the nation-state, all white Americans responded to black militancy by passively accepting the disruption of militant black organizations and the slaughter of black leaders.”
In essence, hooks is dismissing out of hand the work of, for example, the original white ‘Freedom Riders’ in the early 1960s who defied Jim Crow laws in an attempt to aid the burgeoning Civil Rights movement. White freedom riders, often middle class white students, of course had never been in the shoes of poor black people from the South, but they engaged in dangerous action as the Freedom Rides were a focus for KKK violence and attacks, to help to highlight the ugliness and injustice of segregation. hooks is displaying a highly cynical view that is so categorical (re all whites in the US for example), that it inevitably overlooks the complexities of reality, as well as the potential for changes in attitudes. Is it possible that some Freedom Riders, for example, as products of their environment, were operating off wrong notions about their superior education and ability to organise and lead a movement? – yes, of course it is. But it’s also the case, that such young people would likely have been hugely influenced in their attitudes through the Freedom Ride experience as they saw black people, including poor, not formally educated black people, taking the lead in organising and fighting the elites, the system, and violent KKK mobs with courage, ingenuity and dextrous ability.
It’s also ridiculous to claim that every single white human being in the US reacted negatively to the black power and Black Panther’s movement. Some whites joined and worked in collaboration with the Black Panthers. If anything, the Black Panthers and black power movements were an inspiration to the most radical young people, women and workers who wished to challenge their own subjugation, in an era of revolutionary turmoil around the world. No doubt it challenged bad attitudes, prejudices and stereotypes of black people still enduring even amongst those most conscious sections. hooks also rules out the existence of any working class empathy that some sections of white workers would have felt for their extremely oppressed brothers and sisters of colour – an oppression and exploitation that they could relate to given their own experiences as workers.
Denial of victimisation aids neo-liberalism
Furthermore, hooks’s reference to victims is also problematic. Being a victim is not a character trait. It simply denotes someone who is victimised by someone or something. Workers in the public sector can be victims of austerity, and also through collective action, agents in fighting it. Women in abusive relationships are victims of their partner’s violence and abuse and can also be unionised workers, anti-austerity campaigners and / or campaigners against Intimate Partner Violence. Similarly, the black population in the US are victims of the ingrained state racism, and particularly of state racism against African-Americans that has been a feature of US capitalism from its outset.
Kajsa Ekis Ekman has written that “the neoliberal order hates victims”, that “if there are no victims, there can be no perpetrators.” Being a victim of oppression is a reality. The denial of the reality of victimisation, be it by a racist police man and force in Ferguson, Missouri, or of a racist US capitalism, lets the perpetrators and fundamentally, the system, off the hook.
Privilege Theory is another strand of ID politics that has been growing in popularity in the growing new feminist circles, that also emanates from the third-wave / post feminism era. The theory was developed by Peggy McIntosh in a 1988 essay, White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack. McIntosh suggests that, for example, white upper class men carry around an invisible knapsack that contains various unearned advantages that they can draw upon as they mediate their way through life.
She, as a white woman, carries around certain unearned advantages over the non-white population, also.
Many who subscribe to privilege theory do so in an attempt to recognise and challenge oppression and inequality in all its various guises, forms and layers, which of course can be an important step in the direction of engaging in action to challenge oppression. However, the central problem with the privilege theory approach is quite simply its focus on individual solutions to challenging oppression. Inherent in privilege theory is a view that ending oppression is making people aware on an individual basis of their ‘unearned advantages’, in order to ensure that they don’t use them.
“Although systemic change takes many decades, there are pressing questions for me and, I imagine for some others like me if we raise our daily consciousness on the prerequisites of being light-skinned. What will we do with such knowledge? As we know from watching men, it is an open question whether we will choose to use unearned advantage, and whether we will use any of our arbitrarily awarded power to try to reconstruct power systems on a broader basis.” (McIntosh from White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack)
In reality, privilege theory hugely underestimates the depth and scope of different forms of oppression, particularly class oppression. It neglects to grasp the overarching social forces leading to oppression, and utterly underestimates state racism, the profits gleaned from women’s oppression via unpaid and low paid labour under capitalism etc. Telling people on an individual basis that they are privileged over other sections in society is an ineffective strategy for change. It’s a subjective, individualistic, liberal approach that is steeped in illusions in the system. The hugely oppressive nature of capitalism is missed in a moralistic approach to try to show one’s awareness of oppression, in order to ‘call out’ the ignorance of others. It’s trying to create an oppression-free island of social circles of those who are more enlightened. In this way, it’s not unlike the political approach of those who have opted out from the norms of capitalist society through collectivised communes. But in such a scenario, oppression and inequality remain in society at-large. What’s needed is a dynamic intervention into it, in order to both change attitudes, as well as to challenge the class roots of oppression.
Fundamentally, privilege theory also underestimates how much sexist and racist ideas propagated under capitalism in so many ways actually impacts quite deeply on attitudes of individuals – it will take more than a checking of one’s privilege to genuinely transform attitudes and human relations. For example, ‘privilege’ doesn’t explain why sections of men are violent towards women. The social phenomenon of male violence against women, that a section of men in society are the perpetrators of, is more than just that some men choose to use their ‘unearned advantages’. The prevalence of male violence against women, as well as sexual abuse of women and of children, must be understood and analysed in the context of thousands of years of the nuclear, patriarchal family ideology, the continued subjugation of women in society, and the pushing of sexist ideas under capitalism – a system that, in contrast to previous social and economic systems, has an unprecedented and ever-growing ability to propagate its ideology.
There is no getting away from the need for active struggle against oppression in all its guises, and against the capitalist system itself, in order to eliminate the material roots of oppression and inequality. We need to build a socialist society based on human need of the majority, as opposed to profit for a tiny minority, that has human solidarity and co-operation at its heart. Such a change must be fought for and is defended through collective, mass struggle and action in order to begin to build the basis to eliminate racist and sexist attitudes, and to foster human personal and sexual relationships based on equality, consent, choice and respect.
The tradition of genuine Marxism has a rich and instructive history in challenging oppression. As far back as 1902, in Lenin’s seminal pamphlet, What is To Be Done?, he makes the argument that it’s essential that socialists who base themselves on the power of the working class to change society, must agitate inside the workers’ movement against all forms of oppression, including that which affects the middle and upper classes. He mentions the state repression meted out to the clergy and students.
For Lenin, not only is it principled and correct for the workers’ movement to stand on the side of the oppressed, but it is also essential in educating the working class in the workings of all aspects of the capitalist system so that they are not simply concerned with their own day to day struggles, but have a whole-sale critique and analysis of the system and a view of the need for working class unity and struggle across boundaries to achieve the ending of oppression.
“Working-class consciousness cannot be genuine political consciousness unless the workers are trained to respond to all cases of tyranny, oppression, violence, and abuse, no matter what class is affected … The consciousness of the working masses cannot be genuine class-consciousness, unless the workers learn, from concrete, and above all from topical, political facts and events to observe every other social class in all the manifestations of its intellectual, ethical, and political life;…”
Communist Party USA 1920s
James P. Cannon, US socialist with the IWW and Socialist Party, the Communist Party, and later close collaborator with Trotsky, wrote about how the Socialist Party of America had a very crude approach to black workers at the beginning of the 20th century. The view of leader Eugene Debs, was that the Socialist Party had only global working class unity and the socialist vision to offer African Americans – that there was no specific campaigns, demands or approach on questions directly related to the specific oppression that black people experienced. In reality, there was a suspicion on behalf of many white workers in the Socialist Party of the ‘reformist’ nature of specific campaigns and demands of the African American community for equality, and there were even some racist ideas to be found inside the Party.
Cannon explains how, after the October Revolution in Russia, 1917, the approach on the left changed entirely. US socialists were inspired by Lenin’s theorising and action in relation to standing resolutely for self-determination of oppressed nationalities as a way of transcending nationalist feeling to empower and activate working class unity and socialist struggle across national divisions. Using this approach in relation to developing the new Communist Party’s approach to organising amongst the black population, the (over time, Stalinised) CP USA developed specific demands and literature in relation to black liberation and incorporated this into its programme and action. This meant that the CP in the 1920s and 1930s recruited thousands of African Americans, with the Party becoming a significant force and reference point in the black community for a period in time.
Power of a working class movement
The working class movement and struggle can be the greatest force for change, and if it adopts the correct programme, an absolute inspiration and vision for the building of a united movement that can be a beacon of light for oppressed groups who themselves can join but raise their own demands within such a movement. We saw the synthesis of a struggle for freedom for students hemmed in by a conservative establishment that were pedalling backward gender roles and division in the universities in France, and a workforce engaged in a massive general strike with revolutionary potential in France in May 1968 creating a powerful and inspired social force that, had the Left been up to the task, could have broken with French capitalism and laid the basis for socialist change in France and further afield. We also saw the synergy of working class women, gay and lesbian groups, the black and Asian community, and the powerful miners during the British miners’ strike of 1984-’85.
It’s essential that socialists and Marxists agitate against all forms of oppression and develop demands and a rounded-out programme in order to maximise the potential to build such a synergy. In relation to women’s oppression, socialists must take up for example reproductive rights, sexism in the media, violence and sexual violence as well as workplace inequality and austerity’s impact on women. Such an approach will essential to ensure that the majority of the emerging, if ill-defined new women’s movement can be won to a socialist position and effectively challenge the class-inequality-roots of women’s oppression.
Radicalisation on social questions
In Ireland, there’s been a sea-change in attitudes on social questions, such as abortion rights and marriage equality, particularly in the South. Young people, both North and South are increasingly becoming radicalised on social questions and the broad yearning for a secular, democratic and progressive society can increasingly be an entry point for young people, women and LGBT people particularly, into left, anti-capitalist and socialist ideas. The global burgeoning of a new generation self-identifying as feminist is a really progressive and positive development. Amongst these sections, many are navigating their way through ID politics, through intersectionality and through privilege theory, representing a sincere, inspiring and radical searching for answers as to how to change society.
It’s essential that socialists enter the debate sensitively, find common cause in action and struggle with all those who wish to fight oppression, but also agitate against a capitalist system that is characterised by growing inequality and has had racism, sexism and homophobia stitched into its fabric from the outset. A socialist programme that puts a working class struggle to put the key wealth and resources in Ireland and across Europe, and globally into the democratic public ownership and control of ordinary people, is the necessary programme and struggle to create the conditions that could begin to end poverty and oppression.
Big tasks for today
The utter abandonment of the former social democratic parties and the trade union leaderships across Europe of a left position as they themselves capitulated to the ‘end of history’ neoliberal and postmodern era, means that the potential power of a fighting working class is not the reference point to politicised young people that it has been in the past.
The need to re-energise the working class movement, re-learn working class traditions and develop working class consciousness, including through the building of new left, working class political forces and the challenging of bureaucratic Trade Union leaderships, is also a necessary struggle and task. It’s inextricably linked to building up the theoretical and physical strength for a new left movement that can challenge oppression, inequality and capitalism with a view to spreading the working class revolt against capitalism globally that had the ending of oppression inextricably linked to its programme.
As part of this general struggle, the building of a strong Marxist force that itself is a crucial point of interaction of oppressed groups, individuals who are empowered to bring anti-capitalist and socialist ideas into the heart of movements of oppressed groups, is also necessary.