Jessica Cassell of Fightback in Canada explores the ideas of Marxism and intersectionality, contrasting the different views between these theories on where oppression comes from and how we can fight for an end to sexism, racism, and all other forms of oppression.
The crisis of capitalism has given rise to a mood of questioning and mass movements across the world. From the Spanish Indignados, to the Syntagma Square in Greece, and more recently the Nuit Debout in France, youth are starting to take action and challenge the capitalist system. As part of this general mood, recent years have also seen a number of spontaneous movements erupt against the multiple forms of oppression that different layers of the working class experience under capitalism.
Inspiring movements such as Idle No More, Black Lives Matter, the worldwide demonstrations against violence towards women on March 8, and elements of the anti-Trump movement are just a few recent examples of the increasing desire among workers and youth to fight oppression and discrimination. A prevalent outlook adopted by the leadership of many of these movements—often members of, or influenced by, the academic left—is that of ‘intersectionality’. Therefore it is not surprising that a layer of young people and students who are becoming politicised as part of these movements come to view oppression through this lens. But what does intersectionality mean, is it useful for fighting oppression, and is it compatible with Marxism?
Intersectionality is most commonly used to describe the existence of multiple and overlapping forms of oppression which intersect in different configurations for each individual, creating unique experiences and sets of social barriers. The ‘need to be intersectional’ is a common phrase used in the movement, implying that any given struggle must be inclusive and representative of individuals experiencing overlapping oppressions, as opposed to narrowly focused on one group or form of oppression.
Marxists agree that individuals or groups can experience multiple forms of overlapping oppressions simultaneously, and that each configuration presents a unique set of social barriers. From a Marxist standpoint, no one form of oppression can be understood or overcome in isolation, and the struggle against oppression and exploitation must draw in and include all layers of the oppressed. Marxists also firmly oppose discriminatory attitudes and behaviours and argue that these only serve to divide us, preventing the unity of the working class required to achieve emancipation. On the surface, then, it may seem as if Marxism and intersectionality are complementary. However, if we look beneath the surface into the theory underpinning intersectionality, we can see that in its understanding of oppression and how to fight it, it is very different from Marxism. Intersectionality, despite the best intentions of many of its proponents, cannot adequately explain the origins of the varying forms of oppression, and therefore the solutions.
It cannot be overemphasized that Marxists fight against all forms of oppression. Critiquing a differing approach to understanding oppression in the movement is not equivalent to disregarding the reality of multiple forms of oppression; on the contrary, because it is our ultimate goal to end all forms of oppression and exploitation once and for all, it is our duty to advance the ideas and methods which the workers and youth need to achieve emancipation. Hiding our differences does not do the movement any good.
‘Intersectionality’ in context
In order to understand the limitations of intersectionality from a Marxist perspective, we of course have to consider the main tenets of intersectionality itself, and the historical context in which it gained ascendency. The rise of intersectionality coincided with a defeat of the revolutionary waves of the 1960s and 1970s, followed by reaction in the 1980s that culminated with the collapse of the Soviet Union. During the resulting ebb of the class struggle, identity politics gained ascendency. Identity politics, having developed in that particular period, are based on defining people based on personal characteristics (ethnicity, sex, etc) rather than their class or political viewpoint.
This has been used by the ruling class to promote the advancement of careerist petty bourgeois elements which are easily incorporated into the capitalist system. Identity politics are used by the labour movement bureaucracy and by the ruling class against the left and class struggle positions within the movement. This increased orientation towards separate axes of identity and oppression was the result of the failure of the labour, social democratic, and Stalinist leadership in leading the workers in the overthrow of capitalism, which could have eradicated the social and economic basis for the various forms of oppression.
Stalinism in particular played a treacherous role. While the Russian Revolution of 1917 led by the Bolsheviks under Lenin and Trotsky had made major advances for women, lesbian and gay people, and oppressed nationalities, the degeneration of the Soviet Union under Stalin saw many of these gains clawed back. The isolation and backwardness of the Soviet Union meant that scarcity continued and the Stalinists used all the old divisions and forms of oppression to maintain their power and put a brake on international proletarian revolution. Stalinist policies such as re-criminalizing homosexuality in the Soviet Union, reflected in discriminatory practices in Stalinist Communist parties around the world, understandably repelled many workers and youth living under the burden of oppression from the socialist struggle. Such policies have nothing in common with genuine Marxism and influenced the splintering of the movement into separate axes of struggle, while genuine Marxism stands against all forms of oppression and calls for class unity.
Intersectionality, an offshoot of feminism, was actually a reaction against traditional identity politics which tended to cordon off the movement into separate struggles. Black women in particular had been highlighting for decades that the women’s movement was largely dominated by white, upper-class women who ignored the reality and needs of black, working class women, and that the anti-racist movement was dominated by black men who often trivialized the oppression of women—not unimportant critiques. However, the ideological foundation of intersectionality rests on post-Marxist theories such as postmodernism and poststructuralism, theories that gained popularity in academic circles precisely in a period of capitalist reaction and the collapse of Stalinism, when the labour and left leadership abandoned even the pretence of struggling for socialism, and came out openly for a more “humane” capitalism.
Whereas radical social and economic transformation was the emphasis in the preceding period, the realm of ideas, thought and language became the target of analysis and change during the ebb in the class struggle that followed. Having lost faith in the working class’s ability to radically transform the economic and social foundation of society, the academic left retreated to an emphasis on changing how individuals think. Stemming from this ideological trend, intersectionality emphasizes subjective experience and individual thought, language and behaviour as the lens through which to understand and overcome oppression.
This is a profoundly idealistic approach which is based on the idea that in order to change society, you need to change people's views first—or even worse, that by changing “discourse” you can transform reality. The truth is that the dominant ideology in a class society is that of the ruling class. The ideology of the people who carry out revolutions, the exploited and oppressed masses, is imbued with all the reactionary ideas and prejudices imposed by the ruling class. It is in the course of the struggle to transform society that people (in large numbers) become transformed and change (to a large extent) their points of view. This is very well explained by Marx in The German Ideology:
“Both for the production on a mass scale of this communist consciousness, and for the success of the cause itself, the alteration of men on a mass scale is, necessary, an alteration which can only take place in a practical movement, a revolution; this revolution is necessary, therefore, not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew.”
African-American legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw is attributed with coining the term ‘intersectionality’ in 1989, specifically to describe how the US court system failed to account for compound discrimination that black women experience in the workplace. In her article “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics”, Crenshaw cited several court cases in which the court would only consider either claims of sexual discrimination or racial discrimination in the workplace, refusing to acknowledge that black women experience compound discrimination, not just as women or just as black individuals, but as black women. For example, in the case of DeGraffenreid v General Motors, the court dismissed the plaintiff’s complaint of sexual and racial discrimination because General Motors had hired white women and black men in the preceding period.
There is no argument to be made against the reality that black women and other groups experiencing compound discrimination fall through the cracks in the capitalist legal system. These are structural gaps which pose a real significant barrier for oppressed layers of the working class to achieving a genuine equality of rights. Marxists support legal reforms that allow for an increased ability for workers and oppressed layers of the class to fight for their rights and improve their living conditions. But we must also explain that racism and sexism are rooted in class society and the needs of capitalism which the court system ultimately exists to defend.
The class nature of bourgeois justice cannot be reformed out of the court system as long as it rests on a capitalist foundation. So while Crenshaw’s demand was for the creation of a new designation of a protected minority within the court system for black women, we must stress that this would not fundamentally change the material and social conditions that gives rise to the compound discrimination she aptly highlighted that they experience in the workplace and broader society. While the writings of some intersectional feminists have contributed insightful observations about how compound discrimination is experienced by those living under multiple oppressions and the barriers they face, Marxists explain the need to move beyond observation. An infinite number of categories could be created within the court system to reflect all the possible intersections of oppression, but as Marxists we must pose the question: Why does that oppression occur in the first place, and how can it ultimately be eradicated?
Thought and social reality
In a TED Talk entitled “The Urgency of Intersectionality” given in 2016, Crenshaw referred to the failure of the court system to address the double discrimination black women were experiencing in the workplace as a “framing problem”. The suggestion is that if judges or policy makers had a better frame for understanding oppression and the nature of compound discrimination, individuals or groups experiencing overlapping oppressions wouldn’t fall through the cracks. Discriminatory attitudes held by judges which influence their rulings obviously have an impact on the lives of oppressed groups and perpetuate their marginalization. While black men and women experience high rates of police brutality and killings while killer cops enjoy impunity, judges in the US and Canada have repeatedly let white male sexual assault offenders walk free. It is glaringly clear that judges are free to act on their disgusting discriminatory attitudes, and that this works to sustain oppression in society and keep oppressed groups subjugated. But where do these attitudes arise from and how can we rid society of them?
The harmful discriminatory attitudes of judges and policy makers reflect the needs of the capitalist system. The capitalist state and its court system exist to uphold the rule and profits of the capitalist class. Under this system, where justice officials are unelected, campaign promises are broken as soon as politicians come to power with no option for recall, and many of the most important decisions are made behind closed doors with unelected officials (i.e. bankers and executives), there is no genuine democracy or accountability. Similarly in the workplace it is very difficult to hold employers to account for discriminatory practices because they control our livelihoods and there is no democratic oversight in capitalist production. While discrimination lawsuits have been hard fought and won, this often involves years in court, astronomical costs, and many other barriers that make this an impossible route for many oppressed workers to pursue, especially considering that the employer can always afford a better legal team and that the justice system is already skewed in their interest. When the bosses do receive penalties, it is often small change to them, while the complainant’s life has been dragged through the mud. So while attitudes can clearly play a pernicious role in perpetuating oppression, it is the social and economic foundation that these institutions rest on that are the real barrier to overcoming oppression. To put it another way, it is the capitalist nature of the institutions that is the root of the problem, not the attitudes of the officials who hold posts in them.
For Marxists, then, it is not fundamentally a problem of ‘framing’ or how people think about oppression. The notion that thought and language are the dominant forces shaping social reality stems from philosophical idealism, whereas Marxists approach history from a materialist standpoint and argue that it is social reality that shapes thought. We aren’t born with worked-out worldviews, nor do the ones we develop over time drop from the sky. What we learn and come to believe about the world will be influenced and shaped by the material and social conditions of the historical epoch that we live in and which mode of production lays the basis for how the rest of society is organized. This doesn’t mean that every single thought or element of culture is a direct product of the economic base of society, but that the economic base lays the general foundation for the dominant views of any given epoch and sets certain limits on how we think.
Of course it is not just individuals in powerful positions who hold and wield discriminatory ideas in their own narrow interest. Every-day working and poor people are socialized with these attitudes as well. The dominant ideas in society are those of the ruling class, which under capitalism is the bourgeoisie. The capitalist class relies on discriminatory attitudes to keep the working class divided on the basis of race and ethnicity, language, sex and gender, religion and many other divisions. These divisions serve multiple functions such as creating a downward pressure on wages and a “race to the bottom” between competing workers and nations and keeping the majority of exploited and oppressed from uniting against their common oppressor, the bourgeoisie. The bourgeoisie owns and controls the prime means of disseminating ideas such as the major media and cultural outlets. The ideas of the ruling class are also reproduced through the church, the education system and the family. The content of our thought is shaped by these institutions, which reflect capitalist society.
Capitalism forces the working class into a dehumanizing and cut-throat competition that distorts how we relate to ourselves and each other. People are not born inherently greedy or discriminatory, but are raised in an individualistic society that pits us against each other and uses powerful divisive messaging to keep us from uniting. Challenging how we think without changing the material and social conditions that give rise to discriminatory attitudes is therefore a limited approach to fighting oppression. The emphasis on thought and ideas divorced from their social and material origins inevitably results in an individualist subjective understanding of oppression, detracting from the economic structural roots and risking atomizing the movement.
In the last analysis, the material base of all social division is scarcity. A society that can provide a good job, a home, and schooling to its citizens will not need to blame an “other” for the lack of housing, schooling, or employment. Conversely, a society in crisis will see a rise in these attitudes. Marx put it well when he said, “When want is generalized, all the old crap revives”. Such attitudes cannot be completely eradicated while scarcity persists. Under capitalism, scarcity is entirely artificial, as we have such advanced means of production that we already have more than enough wealth and resources for everyone to have a good standard of living. The problem under this system is that a majority of the wealth is appropriated by a tiny minority and the rest of us are left to fight for crumbs. This is why Marxists call for the expropriation of the the capitalist class, so we can put all of this wealth to use in the interest of the majority and eradicate the material roots of division and oppression.
Root of oppression: subjective or objective?
In intersectional feminist writings there is often reference to “structural” oppression, but from an idealist standpoint rather than a Marxist, materialist one. For example, in regards to the multiple and intersecting forms of oppression, bell hooks states that, “For me it's like a house, they share the foundation, but the foundation is the ideological beliefs around which notions of domination are constructed.” In line with this view Patricia Hill Collins asserts that “Empowerment involves rejecting the dimensions of knowledge, whether personal, cultural, or institutional, that perpetuate objectification and dehumanization.” Thus, the roots of oppression are seen to be in a society’s belief system around superiority and inferiority of different groups and the end to oppression entails rejecting those beliefs. The main limitation with this approach is that is does not explain why and how such beliefs came to exist, and therefore cannot provide a way to eradicate those beliefs on a mass scale.
By making how we conceptualize reality the primary target for change, the implication is that oppression is predominantly perpetuated at the individual and interpersonal level. From this standpoint, everyone who isn’t experiencing a given form of oppression is complicit in perpetuating it and benefits from it. As there are infinite configurations of overlapping oppressions and dominant characteristics, intersectionality theory posits that we all exist in an infinite web in which we are all simultaneously oppressing and being oppressed by each other. The working class becomes the enemy instead of the ruling capitalist class.
While it is obvious that discriminatory and oppressive attitudes and behaviours are carried out by individuals and within interpersonal dynamics (which must be condemned and fought by revolutionaries), these attitudes have social and historical origins and are rooted in the structures of class society. Similarly, what is considered a dominant characteristic that is systemically favoured by society has also developed historically. White supremacy and racism, which are inherently social and structural phenomena, were developed by the ruling classes of colonial European nations to justify colonial conquest and slavery, which the development of capitalism was built upon (read more on the origins of racism here). The oppression of women has not always existed, but emerged with the split of society into classes and the establishment of marriage as an institution meant to control women’s sexuality in order to ensure paternity for the purpose of passing down property. Racist and sexist attitudes reflect these material and social processes.
While individuals can certainly hold and act on discriminatory attitudes in very harmful ways, these attitudes and actions ultimately only benefit the ruling exploiting class. However, the concept of ‘privilege’ is often evoked in the movement by proponents of intersectionality to imply that those who are not victim to a particular form of oppression have an interest in maintaining it over others, or actively contribute to it by receiving unearned benefits. Marxists agree that people who are oppressed in multiple and overlapping ways experience greater social barriers and the impacts of compound discriminations. However, what are often described as privileges should in our view be considered human rights that everyone should be equally afforded. We have to abolish the system that stratifies the working class and deprives oppressed layers of these rights, keeping us divided and fighting for scraps under the table of the bankers and bosses. We say, “Don’t equalize down and create an equality of poverty. Equalize up, and take what we need from the exploiting and oppressing class!”
The oppression of one group works to sustain the capitalist system which exploits and oppresses all of us in different ways. It is not in any worker’s interest for the domination and oppression of another group to continue. On the surface it may look like some workers get benefits at the expense of others and therefore benefit from their oppression. For example, it is well known that men get paid more than women all over the world for the same work. However, men don’t get paid more because women get paid less or vice versa. There is more than enough wealth for everyone to get a massive pay increase, but a majority of the wealth generated by the workers gets appropriated by the minority ruling class. The capitalist class benefits from underpaying or discriminating against women workers, immigrants, racial and gender minorities, because as previously explained it puts a downward pressure on all wages and forces layers of the working class to be more “flexible” and available for precarious, part-time work.
Marxists actively work to educate the working class that it is not in their interest to oppress and discriminate against each other. It is mostly through the concrete experience of struggle that individuals will become transformed, and their ideas will change accordingly. A so-called “privileged” worker that perpetuates discriminatory attitudes is actually contributing to pushing their own wages down via low wage competition by more oppressed workers, which sustains the profits of the bosses and the capitalist system that exploits and oppresses all of us. Workers who are not experiencing multiple oppressions have a lot more to lose by perpetuating oppression towards others as it only perpetuates their own exploitation. All workers have the world to win by uniting in the struggle for socialism, which would allow for a massive increase to everyone’s standard of living. Instead of class solidarity, intersectionality puts forward the concept of “allies”, suggesting different sectors of the working class and oppressed have different interests and should have their own separate organizations. Marxists argue for a common struggle based on common interests, organized through mass socialist and labour parties and the trade unions that fight against all oppressions inflicted upon the workers, and against class exploitation—that is, fights against the whole capitalist system and all that it upholds.
The danger with “privilege politics” is that it leads to activists trying to convince sectors of the workers that they actually do benefit from oppressing other layers of the working class and therefore have opposing interests from them, instead of explaining how it is in all of our interest to unite against the capitalist class. This plays right into the hands of the capitalists who actively try to perpetuate this myth and who use racism, sexism and other forms of oppression and discrimination to justify it. When “privileged” and oppressed workers unite against the bosses and demand equal pay and conditions, then the power of that unity allows all sectors to win more from the exploiting class.
The oppression and discrimination of some layers of the working class also serves as a convenient scapegoat for the ruling class. When capitalism is in crisis, the ruling class and their representatives in the state blame the impasse on this or that oppressed or marginalized group, trying to pit us against each other. When people are struggling to survive and no genuine left-wing alternative is being presented, these ideas can take hold. This was clearly demonstrated in the US elections: Once Bernie Sanders was removed from the ticket, Donald Trump was able to rise to power by whipping up racist, misogynist and xenophobic sentiments amongst a frustrated layer of workers (notably, only 25 per cent of the population actually voted for him) who saw Hillary Clinton as representing the status quo. Polls have suggested that significant numbers of this layer could be won over to a left-wing platform that attacks the “billionaire class” instead of scapegoating oppressed groups. Those who voted for Trump were not born inherently oppressive or discriminatory, but were fed these ideas as an explanation for their own poverty and hardship. This is a concrete example of how discriminatory attitudes are rooted in the structures of class society, reinforced by scarcity, poverty and frustration with the capitalist system, especially when the left is unable to provide a genuine alternative.
It’s not difficult to imagine how much less traction discriminatory ideas would have if everyone was guaranteed a high standard of living with universal access to skills training and post-secondary education, childcare, healthcare, transportation, housing, recreation, culture and so on. It would be difficult to blame any one group for another's suffering when everyone was guaranteed access to the resources and opportunities that lead to a high quality of life. However, this is not possible under capitalism which is based on production for profit instead of human need. A united class struggle is required to unify all layers of the oppressed in the struggle against the capitalist system that exploits and oppresses all of us.
Class struggle and the fight against oppression
Marxists are against the sectioning off of people on separate axes of oppression and argue for the need for unity. The struggle of any one oppressed group cannot be understood separately from other forms of oppression and the capitalist system that gives rise to them. Yet while proponents of intersectionality argue against sectioning off of people into single-axis issues, the outcome of the subjectivist approach is instead the sectioning off of people according to an infinite number of configurations of compound oppressions and privileges, with no overarching common denominator between them. This is what is suggested by intersectional feminist theorist and scholar Patricia Hill Collins, in her work Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment (1990), when she states that “the overarching matrix of domination houses multiple groups, each with varying experiences with penalty and privilege that produce corresponding partial perspectives…No one group has a clear angle of vision. No one group possesses the theory or methodology that allows it to discover the absolute ‘truth’”.
This outlook is rather pessimistic, leaving us with only our partial subjective realities and nothing to explain the origins of oppression or how to overcome it once and for all. It is a point of view which leads to individualism and self-contemplation rather than collective struggle to transform reality. The world exists concretely outside of our thoughts and feelings. Our understanding of that world is by necessity partial and individual, but it remains a reflection of an objective reality and our ideas about that reality are continuously tested in practice against it. The set of social and economic relationships that make up capitalism exists objectively. If you don’t believe so, see what happens if you don’t work for a living or pay your rent! Because the vast majority of us live under capitalism and are exploited by it, class analysis and struggle represents the greatest “angle of vision” and greatest theoretical tool towards uniting and achieving emancipation for all.
While intersectionality views all forms of oppression as equally fundamental, Marxists highlight that class is the fundamental dividing line in capitalist society. The capitalist mode of production is based, at its core, on the extraction of surplus value from the workers by the owners of the means of production, the capitalists. This does not mean that class exploitation is the worst form of oppression in terms of suffering, or that the working class is in any way superior to other oppressed groups. It means that as long as we live in a society where a parasitic ruling class exploits and oppresses the majority, no one oppressed group can ever be genuinely emancipated as there will always be systemic inequality. Any representative of the minority ruling class, regardless of their gender, race or sexual orientation, will ultimately serve their class interests which relies on the division and oppression of the majority of us.
The massive profits accumulated by the capitalist class represent the unpaid labour of the working class who are not paid the full value of their labour. This is what Marxists mean by class exploitation—not to be confused with “classism”, which refers to discrimination of poor people perceived to be of a lower class, rather than an economic relationship. While Marxists acknowledge the significant role of discrimination and oppression in maintaining the capitalist system, the economic reality of exploitation puts workers in a unique position to bring the system down, as they are the ones who produce all the wealth in society. Additionally, while not all workers experience overlapping oppressions, the vast majority of the oppressed are exploited as workers or declassed, unemployed or living under modern-day slavery. This makes class exploitation the unifying factor for all the oppressed. The working class encompasses the vast majority of oppressed layers of society and it is precisely the class struggle which can unite all layers of the oppressed against our common enemy, the exploiting class, serving to break down discriminatory attitudes in the process.
Unfortunately, most leaders of the student and labour movements have failed to organize a militant class struggle that can unite all layers of the oppressed. Meanwhile, these same bureaucracies often adopt intersectional language to mask the reality that they are not fighting for meaningful reforms to advance the conditions of the students and workers. Tokenistic policies like gender parity and other identity-based quotas are employed without consideration of one’s class outlook or political orientation, which in reality results in a few advantageous positions for a handful of bureaucrats who are not committed to mobilizing a fight for the conditions that would alleviate oppression and exploitation for the majority who make up the rank-and-file and broader society. The ruling class uses similar policies to try appease the oppressed while leaving their system of exploitation completely intact. One has to look no further than many of the largest banks’ websites, which boast about the diversity of their employees, to see this. Representation of oppressed groups in banks and large companies does not change the reality for the majority of oppressed layers of the working class, and without changing the material conditions that give rise to oppression, representation in our student and trade unions on its own won’t either.
The idea behind “representation” is that if only more people from oppressed groups were to take up positions (as elected officials within student and workers’ organisations and in electoral politics, as well as CEOs, company directors, etc, in the private sector) that would help eradicate or alleviate their oppression. It’s important to understand that oppressed groups are not oppressed because they are underrepresented; they are underrepresented because of systemic oppression in society that create barriers to participation in public life and politics. The best way to achieve genuine representation of oppressed groups in the movement is to build militant fighting organizations that can actually begin to eradicate those barriers as part of the struggle to end these oppressions. This would enthuse wider layers of historically oppressed and marginalized groups to unite and strive to overcome the systemic barriers that have hindered their participation. Such a struggle will encourage the development of genuine leadership from below, rather than tokenism from above. Socialism is precisely about drawing in all layers of the exploited and oppressed into the struggle for a better world. Our representatives must be elected based on their politics and capacity to lead a genuine fight.
The election of women like Margaret Thatcher, Angela Merkel, Theresa May or Hillary Clinton to some of the highest political offices possible has not served to advance the cause of women’s emancipation, and revolutionaries actively campaigned and continue to campaign against them. The same can be said of, for instance, IMF director Christine Lagarde, and the list goes on. Similarly, standards of living for black Americans continued to decline under Obama. As revolutionaries, we would support a left-wing politician against any of them regardless of their sexual orientation, gender, race or ethnicity. Representation is a powerful tool in the hands of the ruling class as they use it to create illusions in supporting leaders who represent the interests of capitalism solely because of their race, sexual orientation, gender, etc, instead of their class interests.
Members of the ruling class like Hillary Clinton have even adopted the language of intersectionality to garner support. To their credit, Crenshaw and other proponents of intersectionality condemned this and highlighted that since “women” is not a homogeneous category, Hillary does not represent the interests of all women due to her imperialist policies. However, the fact that intersectionality does not target the root of oppression means that it is ultimately not a threat to the capitalist class or their reformist allies, which is why they can so easily adopt its language in an effort to seem more progressive. It doesn’t threaten members of the ruling class to highlight that there are multiple and overlapping forms of oppression, as long as the question of why and in whose interest is avoided. There is a reason why the HRCs of this world are not adopting Marxist language on the need for all layers of the oppressed to unite in class struggle and overthrow capitalism!
Reform or revolution?
Does this mean that Marxists suggest that persons and groups experiencing multiple layers of oppression should put their struggles on the back burner in the name of the class struggle, and that nothing can be done to combat or alleviate oppression until after the socialist revolution? That is not the case at all. Marxists stand firmly against all forms of oppression and discrimination in the here and now, and fight divisive and discriminatory attitudes in the movement and broader working class tooth and nail, as they only play right into the hands of the ruling capitalist class. Marxists go further to highlight that we cannot change ideas en masse without changing their material origins, namely scarcity and competition. This is one of the reasons why Marxists participate in the day-to-day struggle for reforms and link them up with the need for socialism.
As reforms are never handed over willingly by the ruling class without a struggle, the best way to win any reform is through mass, militant, and collective action from below that make the bosses and politicians sweat for fear of revolution. The struggle against oppression and for any reform to alleviate it should not just be the responsibility of the group experiencing the particular oppression or discrimination in question, but must involve the whole working class, encompassing all oppressed groups. Men and heterosexual workers have a vested interest in standing up for women’s and LGBTQ rights, white workers must join the struggle against racism, and so on. Our strength is in our unity, and a gain for any layer of the working class is a gain for the whole class and all of the oppressed.
It is through the united class struggle that the masses begin to learn about their unified strength and about the limits of capitalism to be able to provide meaningful improvements to their lives. If we look around the world today it is very clear that new reforms are not the norm. On the contrary, workers and oppressed people everywhere are fighting to keep the very basic human rights and gains won in the past. So while we fight for reforms that would alleviate oppression and improve living conditions for the working class, we explain that no reform is sustainable under crisis-ridden capitalism. In order to permanently win improvements they must be combined with the struggle for the socialist transformation of society.
When profits are threatened and capitalism enters into crisis, the bosses and bankers and their friends in the state will not hesitate to claw back everything we’ve fought for and won in the past. This also tends to lead to a rise in racism and other forms of prejudice as right-wing populists and a section of the media point the finger at various oppressed groups as being to blame for cuts and austerity measures. The only way to hold on to gains of the past, fight against oppressive attitudes today, and advance to a truly equal society is to put an end to production for profit so that the vast wealth and resources already in existence can be put to democratic use in the interest of the majority.
The revolutionary transformation of society
This doesn’t mean that discriminatory attitudes would disappear overnight following a socialist revolution. Oppression in all its forms has existed for generations and in some cases thousands of years, stamping its mark on the consciousness of the human race. However, mass movements have a profound impact on consciousness as people come to see each other for their shared interests and commonalities instead of seeing each other for their differences, as competitors. It is much more difficult to hold on to discriminatory attitudes towards women, immigrants or LGBTQ individuals when they are out on the streets fighting for the same thing as you, putting their life on the line. During labour strikes it becomes clear that workers do not have any interest in discriminating against each other, as this would only undermine the strike. During a mass movement this understanding is reached on a massive scale.
One recent powerful example is the Egyptian Revolution of 2011 that saw the fall of Hosni Mubarak. While women in Egypt have historically experienced high rates of discrimination and violence and Muslims and Christians have been embroiled in bloody conflict for decades, men and women of all religious backgrounds came together in Tahrir Square. Discriminatory and stereotypical thinking about oppressed groups broke down through the struggle against a common oppressor. While the Egyptian Revolution has not yet overthrown capitalism, this is just a glimpse of what can occur on a generalized scale through a socialist revolution and the collective effort to build a new society.
By radically transforming the economic and social foundation of society along socialist lines, the structural and economic roots of oppression would be eradicated. Without a minority exploiting class producing for profit, there would be no social or material drive for the majority to be divided and stratified along sex, gender, orientation, ability, race, language, religion or any other category. When we are no longer forced to compete for employment, education, child care spots, food, water and affordable housing, the way we relate to each other will change on a fundamental level.
Democratically elected and immediately recallable leaders in our workplaces in addition to democratic oversight over hiring processes can serve to prevent discriminatory practices in the workplace. Collective and democratic ownership and control of the media and educational institutions will go a long way towards combating discriminatory attitudes in society and ensuring that the beautiful diversity of humanity is both taught and celebrated. Changing the socio-economic foundation of society would see a profound change in the world outlook and attitudes of the masses.
Marxists are often criticized for having a top-down, one-size-fits all solution for everybody. On the contrary, socialist revolution is about everyday people taking their fates into their own hands and building a new society for themselves. The Marxists wish to guide the masses in the successful overthrow of capitalism and establishment of a socialist society, creating the social and economic foundation where inequality, oppression and exploitation no longer have a material basis. From there, historically oppressed groups will have the opportunities and resources they require to address their own unique needs arising from generations of oppression and discrimination. On this basis of genuine social equality, people can begin to relate to each other on a fundamentally more genuine and humane level; through the building of a new society, a new collective consciousness will be made possible.