A ruling class is the class that has the most power to shape society according to its own strategic interests. But ‘shaping society’ means exercising power over and against the rest of us. We represent a real challenge to the ruling class—oppression is their answer to that challenge. We should think of the power of the ruling class to rule as the context of racial, sexual, religious, and every other kind of systematic oppression that we see around us. As Marx pointed out, oppression is necessary for every division between rulers and ruled: “An oppressed class is the vital condition for every society founded on the antagonism of classes.”
Just as the dictatorship of the proletariat and the transition towards a fully liberated society constitutes the strategic vision of the revolutionary working class, modern day oppression is the very essence of the capitalist class’ strategy for hegemony. And we need to grasp it as such.
Of course, even members of the ruling class can suffer from oppression. Hillary Clinton, for example, is not lying when she claims to have experienced sexism; in spite of this, as a member of the ruling class, she has also been responsible for a great deal of sexual oppression as well. You can’t expect to create an expansive system of oppression that grasps all of society without suffering some blow back.
The difference is that oppression defines the working class as a class. But we don’t all experience oppression the same way. In part, this is because the ruling class makes different uses of different strata of the working class. I think this fact is especially important for understanding racism in North America. For example, as I’ve argued in an earlier article, anti-immigrant racism is not about keeping immigrants out, it is a tool by which the ruling class manages the labour force that is available to it—and imperialism means that the West has access to the impoverished, dispossessed, and refugee population of the rest of the world as a potential source of surplus labour.
Now it should be clear that if oppression is constitutive of class society, then we cannot possibly hope to be fully rid of oppression until we get rid of capitalism. But we clearly cannot wait until after the revolution to challenge oppression today. How can the working class hope to overthrow capitalism if it is divided against itself by racism, sexism, homophobia, etc.? How can it hope to be strong enough to defeat the most powerful ruling class in history if it allows trans-workers, disabled workers, undocumented workers to be weakened and vulnerable? The strength of the whole class is sapped by these special oppressions, and we cannot hope to win the revolutionary struggle without also improving the position of the vulnerable sections of the class. So the question is, how can the working class overcome the divisions and weaknesses which capitalism has foisted on it?
Change yourself by changing the world
The ABC of Marxism is that ideas change in the struggle itself. In other words, every effort, even very small ones, to challenge capitalism also shakes up dominant ideologies. The class struggle has a kind of accumulation of its own—the more workers struggle, the more likely they are to discover their strength, the more other workers are likely to join them, the more they are forced to reckon with who can really be an ally and who the real enemy is. And the more struggles deepen, the more they come up against chauvinism and bigotry that we have absorbed, the more fundamentally are we required to rethink our understanding of the world and each other. As Marx puts it, only through a mass popular revolution can the working class “succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew.”
Without an understanding of the transformative nature of the class struggle, the entire socialist project falls down. This is the cornerstone of Marx’s politics—and this is why the very fact that workers must struggle, often simply to survive, gives us confidence that oppression really can be overcome.
But much turns on how we interpret this idea. Marxists more optimistic than myself like to point out that the stratification of the working class has a contradictory dynamic—that the constant restructuring of the labour force also means that many work places are quite diverse. A single factory can employ men and women, whites and people of colour, straights and queer people, cis- and trans- people, etc.
On this basis, an article in the UK’s Socialist Worker titled “How do our ideas change?” points out that: “When people go on strike, for example, they find themselves in a collective battle against the bosses. When this happens, ruling class ideas can begin to break down. Racist and sexist ideas make less sense when black and white people, men and women, stand together against a common enemy. When this happens, the conflict between workers on one hand and bosses on the other is laid bare.”
Of course, I don’t exactly disagree with any of that, but I think it would be facile to stop there. For one, I think it underestimates the degree that segregation continues to exist in the workplace. But more importantly, I think it underestimates just what a powerful fortress oppression is for the ruling class. We need to avoid “economism” in our image of what constitutes the class struggle. On its own, the article can suggest a certain passivity regarding racism or sexism as the though the logic of the strike can be trusted to sweep them away. It is only a slight improvement to say that a strike provides anti-sexists and anti-racists with an excellent opportunity to make their arguments.
But specific articulations of oppression such as racism are such powerful weapons for the capitalist class’ rule, that unless they are challenged directly and considerably weakened the working class struggles in vain.
English workers and the Irish Question
One of the most frequently cited texts by Marx on racism concerns the anti-Irish chauvinism of the English working class in his day. What is less often noted is that this is one of the most important documents of Marx’s theory of revolution as it relates to the problem of oppression, and I want to take a close look at it.
Marx says that the antagonism between English and Irish workers is the “secret of the impotence of the English working class, despite its organisation. It is the secret by which the capitalist class maintains its power.” The English working class was one of the best organised in the world. In spite of this organization, it was still unable to overcome anti-Irish chauvinism and the hostility against the English workers that this inspired among the Irish. This was the root of what Marx goes so far as to call their “impotence” and the secret to the English ruling class’ power.
As Marx studied the Irish Question, he became convinced that the colonial oppression of the Irish was the most important stronghold for English capitalism. He gave a number of reasons for this, but believed that the antagonism generated within the working class itself was the “most important of all” these factors. In an earlier letter on the same topic, Marx had written that the English workers “will never do anything decisive here in England before they separate their attitude towards Ireland quite definitely from that of the ruling classes ... Every movement in England is itself crippled by the dissension with the Irish...”
Marx’s conclusion is radical even in terms of socialist theory: he says, “the decisive blow against the English ruling classes (and it will be decisive for the workers’ movement all over the world) cannot be delivered in England but only in Ireland.”
What I find interesting for our purposes is what this implies for the English working class. There are three key implications:
Firstly, The English working class could not hope to emancipate themselves until the colonial oppression of Ireland had been ended.
Secondly, The development of the English working class as a revolutionary class capable of overthrowing capitalism depended utterly on the independent, self-activity of the oppressed Irish people. This point needs to be emphasised. The English working class could not overcome their anti-Irish chauvinism on their own. To a considerable extent, their development hinged on the actions of the Irish—that is to say, on the resistance of an oppressed minority.
Thirdly, it has implications for how revolutionaries should approach the problem of working class unity. In a sense, this has something to do with what we would today call the “vanguard” of the working class. Marx is so convinced of the need to support Ireland that he threw himself into solidarity work with the Fenian struggle even though this put him into opposition with the mainstream of the English working class. His advice to his German immigrant comrades in the US was similar. “The greatest achievement you can bring about now,” Marx suggested, would be a “coalition of the German workers with the Irish workers” adding only in a parenthetical “(and of course also with the English and American workers who are prepared to accede to it).”
This is not because Marx thought revolutionaries in the US could afford to ignore American workers, but because revolutionary activity with those workers could not be done on the basis of opportunism regarding their bigotry. Marx trusted that, with patient work, the struggle of this coalition could provide the basis for a challenge to mainstream chauvinism and therefore lay the foundation for principled shared activity.
Marx thought this had implications for the responsibility of socialists in England in relation to the Irish struggle. According to Marx, it was the task of English socialists to “make the English workers realise that for them the national emancipation of Ireland is not a question of abstract justice or humanitarian sentiment but the first condition of their own social emancipation.”
The point was not that English socialists and workers had nothing to do with the Irish struggle. It was absolutely necessary to very actively take the side of the Irish in it; my point, rather, is that the most important factor which made it possible in the first place to take their side at all was the simple fact that they themselves were resisting.
Early American Trotskyists and Black liberation
It is remarkable how much this approach parallels the approach of Trotsky, CLR James, and the American Socialist Workers Party towards what they called “Negro Question” in the 30s and 40s.
In presenting the material for the SWP’s discussion of this issue, CLR James begins by showing that the American ruling class had often and very consciously deployed anti-Black racism against the working class. Attacks on blacks were very often the cutting edge of a wedge that eventually hurt all workers.
Trotsky uses the theory of the “aristocracy of labour” to frame his approach. This is not the place to debate the validity of that framework, but I think that his strategic conclusions are fundamentally sound. Commenting on the racist policy of labour unions in the US, Trotsky argued that the work of revolutionaries in North America “is further complicated by the abominable obtuseness and caste presumption of the privileged upper strata of the working class itself, who refuse to recognize fellow-workers and fighting comrades in the Negroes. (This policy) ... is at the present time the most effective guarantee for the successful subjugation of white and colored workers alike. The fight against this policy must be taken up from various sides, and on various lines. One of the most important branches of this conflict consists in enlightening the proletarian consciousness by awakening the feeling of human dignity, and of revolutionary protest, amongst the black slaves of American capital. ... this work can only be carried out by self-sacrificing and politically educated revolutionary Negroes.”
The SWP went so far as to predict that the political backwardness of white workers and the particularly intense oppression faced by Black workers meant that it was possible (even likely) “that the Negroes will become the most advanced section” of the class, “they will then furnish the vanguard” of the American proletariat. In a similar vein, CLR James argued, “the place of the Negroes is in the front of the (class) struggle.”
More than anyone else in the American SWP, James tried to theorise the dialectical relationship between the independent self-activity of Blacks in the US (which he saw as “of fundamental importance for the political development of the proletariat”) and the class struggle more generally. He argued that the “independent Negro movement is able to intervene with terrific force upon the general social and political life of the nation...” even if it is not waged under the banner of socialism but limited to “democratic rights” and even if it is “not led necessarily either by the organized labor movement or the Marxist party.”
The struggle for Black liberation strikes at the very root of capitalism in the US, even today. For the early Trotskyists, the hope was that as it developed, the class differentiation within the black community itself would come to the fore. Its middle class sections would tend to steer it towards cooptation as their own interests within capital start to be impinged. In this context, organic intellectuals from within the Black working class could emerge to struggle for leadership. This was not thought of as automatic, it depended on the political development of the black working class.
The strategic perspective was that as the struggle develops and capital itself faces a challenge that becomes more and more systemic, other sections of the working class are themselves forced to take sides, but in a new context—in the context of the real and present resistance that is taking place before them. This struggle can therefore be the signal that calls on the working class as a class to take on its revolutionary responsibilities. In James’ words, “the independent Negro mass movement ... by their agitation, resistance and the political developments that they can initiate, can be the means whereby the proletariat is brought on to the scene.”
It is for this reason that the American SWP challenged “any attempt to subordinate or to push to the rear the social and political significance of the independent political Negro struggle...”
Of course, the SWP as an organisation wanted to be a part of the development of the Black liberation movement. It hoped that its members could even exercise a leadership role in that movement—but not from the outside. Rather it wanted to be a part of that layer of “politically educated revolutionary” blacks that it believed the mass movement must develop.
The responsibility of white socialists was “critical but unconditional support.” White socialist workers had to fight for demands that the movement itself raised. In other words, the terms in which solidarity could be had were to be set by the Black liberation movement itself.
So the revolutionary approach of the SWP towards Black liberation was to trust (and also participate in, if it could) the agency and self-activity of the oppressed Black population—even though it understood all too well that this involved a great deal of class heterogeneity. But this was not in any sense a form of identity politics whereby all Blacks are assumed to have all interests in common, and that only Black people can fight for Black liberation.
Rather, they insisted on the self-activity of the oppressed because this was the only basis for the kind of solidarity that could reveal the duplicity of the middle class Blacks and the necessary unity of the entire working class. It is only by this activity that Blacks could “draw the revolutionary elements and more powerful elements in the proletariat to their side.”
The struggle is a school for politics
These points should underscore the significance of the resurgence in Indigenous nationalism or the appearance of Black Lives Matter. The crisis of neo-liberalism is breaking the ideological stranglehold of the right, and almost everywhere, the most powerful blows have been struck by the struggles of the oppressed.
Without these fights the working class would be dead in the water. This is a lesson that Black workers in the US clearly learned: the Fight for 15 did not make independent anti-racist struggles redundant, they furnished the Black Lives Matter movement with some of its best activists.
Genuine Marxism cannot treat these battles as secondary to the class struggle. The lessons that the working class must learn for self-emancipation cannot be learned exclusively in the fights for “bread and butter issues.” The struggle must be a school for politics as well as for economics. We should also remember that precisely because these struggles involve class mixing, there is an internal class struggle within them that is every bit as necessary as the struggle of rank-and-file workers against conservative union bureaucrats. The struggle itself will provide the opportunity for arguments against identity politics to win the day. To seize that opportunity, revolutionaries need to put the struggle for liberation at the heart of our politics.
There is a methodological principle that informs the best theorists in our tradition. This is simply that the ideas of Marx, Trotsky, or CLR James did not come from clever brains being clever. It came from clever activists who respected and took seriously the agency, intelligence, and power of the oppressed.
Where liberals see in the oppressed only victims who must be helped or raised up, a particular current of revolutionary Marxism saw the force on which rested the very possibility of revolution and the fate of the entire working class. This vision is as necessary today as it has ever been.