Battle of Lewisham 1977, when black and white united to stop the NF

This week the ‘key text’ in our series is an article written by Tony Cliff on Marxism and oppression, introduced by Vladimir Unkovski-Korica

Sexism, racism and homophobia still blight the world we live in, and violently so. Last year, women in the UK earned 14% less than men, but still performed the bulk of housework. Domestic violence has increased since 2009 alongside austerity.

In the US, black men were nine times more likely to be killed by police than any other Americans. Tens of thousands of people drowned in the last few years in the Mediterranean trying to get to Europe and escape conflict and poverty in Africa and Asia.

Homosexuality is still illegal in more than 80 countries, while in the UK there was a shocking rise in homophobic hate crimes by almost a quarter in 2015.

In this piece, Tony Cliff argues that capitalism breeds oppression. Capitalism atomises workers generally. Workplaces can make workers compete according to skills and results, but also by pitching workplace against workplace. This is one of the secrets allowing capitalists to undermine united working class resistance.

Yet various forms of oppression allow capitalists to drive even deeper wedges among workers. Racism arose with the need to justify the slave trade. Sexism in its modern form emerged to justify passing the burden of reproduction of future generations of workers on women. Over time, capitalists have developed ways to exploit different and seemingly unchangeable identities among workers to divide and rule.

Attaining working class unity is key to overcoming capitalism and therefore the divisions it fosters. The working class cannot, therefore, ignore oppression, argues Cliff.

The working class movement needs to go the extra mile to prove it fights oppression in its own ranks and in society in order to attain the confidence of those facing the brunt of attacks. By challenging not just economic but all forms of inequality in society, it can expose capitalism’s claim to universality and show itself as the first movement in history to truly fight for human emancipation.

Marxism on oppression

The heart of Marxism is that the emancipation of the working class is the act of the working class itself. At the same time Marx argues that the prevailing ideas in society are the ideas of the ruling class. One important form these ideas take is the break-up of the unity of workers into different races, nationalities and gender.

Oppression of blacks by whites, of women by men, etc., divides the working class, and the policy of divide and rule strengthens the power of the capitalists.

How does the oppression affect the condition of workers who belong to the oppressed section? Black workers in Britain are exploited as workers. Being discriminated against as blacks sharpens the exploitation. They get lower wages, their conditions at work are worse, they suffer from bad housing and other social deprivations. The same applies to women workers, who are forced to suffer a double burden of earning wages plus looking after the children and the house. Their jobs are very much more marginal; they have less opportunity for attaining skills; they are forced to give up work to look after the young children; their oppression sharpens their exploitation.

How does the oppression affect workers who belong to the oppressing section? Of course they believe they are superior to the “inferior” workers. But do they really benefit from this? White workers in the Southern states of the US think they benefit because they earn more than the blacks, have better housing, and so on. But white workers earn far more in the North; in fact blacks in the North earn more than Southern whites.

Protestant workers in Northern Ireland may think that beating the Catholics is good for them, otherwise they would not do it. So the Protestant worker is more likely to have a job and be better off than the Catholic worker, but the same worker earns less than a worker in Birmingham or Glasgow.

The same applies to the relations between a male and female worker. He earns more than her, therefore on the face of it he benefits from her oppression. But this is a very shallow view of the situation. Think about it. A male worker writes to his friend, “Have you heard the marvellous news? My wife gets peanuts in wages, the nursery costs the earth, her job is under threat all the time, and to put the cap on it, she is pregnant again and there are no means to get an abortion. Marvellous news!”

If I’m travelling on a filthy dirty train, as a white man under capitalism I will have a seat next to the window. The woman or the black will have a seat away from the window in even worse conditions than me. But the real problem is the train. We all have to endure the same train, We have no control over a driver who is taking us all into the abyss.

The most oppressed section of the working class always reflects the extreme horrors of capitalism. Trotsky once wrote that if one wants to grasp the need for change to a new society, one needs to look through the eyes of women. If one wants to grasp the nature of decaying, senile capitalism, one needs to look since the last world war, through the eyes of Jews. If one wants to grasp the nature of British society today, one needs to look through the eyes of Neville and Doreen Lawrence, the parents of Stephen Lawrence, the black youth murdered by five Nazis, the latter protected by the British police.

To achieve unity between white and black workers the white workers must move toward the black workers and go a mile further. To achieve unity between male and female workers, the male worker must go out of his way to prove that he is not part of the oppressors. Lenin put it very simply in 1902. He wrote that when workers go on strike for higher wages they are simply trade unionists. Only when they go on strike against the beating of Jews or of students are they really socialists.

A strike involving black and white workers helps to undermine racism. A strike strengthens solidarity, and therefore has an impact beyond the immediate issue. The spiritual changes in workers is the most precious result of the strike.

But solidarity can start from an anti-racist demonstration that leads to a feeling of unity with black workers that has an impact on future industrial disputes. The meetings in London in solidarity with the Lawrences are very large, composed of black and white people, and no doubt will have a big impact not only on the attitude of millions to the police but also will inspire increasing solidarity among workers on a whole number of other issues.

A strike in which men and women stand shoulder to shoulder helps to overcome sexism. One should remember the Paris Commune where the women fought brilliantly, causing one British reporter to say that if all the Communards were women they would have won.

In a meeting in London a short while ago I said, “Come the revolution, and the chairperson of the workers’ council in London will be a young black woman aged 26, and a lesbian.” I chose these characteristics because all of them break the taboos of capitalism. Young is bad. Black is bad. Woman is bad. Lesbian is bad. After the meeting a young black woman approached me and said, “That’s me. I am black, I’m a woman, as you can see, I am aged 26 and I’m a lesbian.” I said to her, “I’m sorry, sister, you have missed the boat. The revolution will be in ten years time. You’ll be too old.” Of course my words should not be taken literally. The chairperson of the London workers’ council can be an Irishman aged 70, a grandfather of 15 kids.

A revolutionary has to be extreme in opposition to all forms of oppression. A white revolutionary must be more extreme in opposing racism than a black revolutionary. A gentile revolutionary must oppose anti-Semitism more strongly than any Jew. A male revolutionary must be completely intolerant of any harassment or belittling of women. We must be the tribune of the oppressed.

Tony Cliff

Born in Palestine to Zionist parents in 1917, Ygael Gluckstein became a Trotskyist during the 1930s and played a leading role in the attempt to forge a movement uniting Arab and Jewish workers. At the end of of the Second World war he moved to Britain and adopted the pseudonym Tony Cliff, later founding the International Socialists, and the Socialist Workers Party. Cliff’s works are available on the Marxist Internet Archive. For more on Cliff’slife see his autobiography ‘A World to Win: Life of a Revolutionary’ and Ian Birchall’s  'Tony Cliff: A Marxist for His Time'