The Marx Engels monument at Schloßplatz, Berlin, Germany The Marx Engels monument at Schloßplatz, Berlin, Germany. Source: Photogoddle / Wikicommons / cropped form original / shared under license CC BY-SA 4.0 / license linked below

In the third part of the series on class, Chris Nineham explains why a class analysis is needed to understand and fight oppression

Part One: The Great Denial – why they don’t want us to talk about class
Part Two: Whatever happened to the western working class?
Part Four: Capitalism and class consciousness
Part Five: Southern Storms – class in the developing world
Part Six: the working class and revolution

Marxism views society as a totality. It attempts to understand all aspects of our world as interconnected and shaped by the capitalist system we are all born into. Because capitalism is driven by our rulers’ relentless search for profit, Marxism puts class at the centre of its analysis. Marxists sometimes get accused of being reductionist for this. Such criticisms are based on misconceptions. Far from playing down the many ways people are oppressed in modern society, a class analysis involves understanding the specifics of oppression and attempting to combat all discrimination. It also involves grasping these specifics together in a whole picture of violence and exploitation.

For Marxists, class is not one identity amongst others. In fact, in the context of the massive expansion of consumer goods, seeing class as an identity has helped to obscure real class distinctions. Commentators like to insist that the dwindling of a caricatured ‘old working class’ with cloth caps and overalls means that we are mostly all middle class, or classless. The fact that people from different walks of life sometimes wear the same brand of trainers or use the same mobile phone is presented as proof positive that we are living in a post-class society where patterns of consumption trump our position in the world of work.

Class for Marx was first and foremost an objective category, a way of understanding people’s roles in the basic functioning of society, however they may actually think about themselves. As societies are defined first and foremost by how they produce the necessities (and the luxuries) of life, this means understanding how individuals fit into the process and relations of production.

Capitalism is a system more shaped by its economic functioning than any other in history. As Marx wrote in the Grundrisse, there is in all class societies, ‘one specific kind of production which predominates over the rest, whose relations thus assign rank and influence to the others. It is a general illumination which bathes all the other colours and modifies their particularity. It is a particular ether which determines the specific gravity of every being which has materialized within it.’[i]

But in developed capitalism, commodity production shapes society to an unprecedented degree. It has above all simplified class relations:

‘In the earlier epochs of history, we find almost everywhere a complicated arrangement of society into various orders, a manifold gradation of social rank. In ancient Rome we have patricians, knights, plebeians, slaves; in the Middle Ages, feudal lords, vassals, guild-masters, journeymen, apprentices, serfs; in almost all of these classes, again, subordinate gradations.

The modern bourgeois society that has sprouted from the ruins of feudal society has not done away with class antagonisms. It has but established new classes, new conditions of oppression, new forms of struggle in place of the old ones.

Our epoch, the epoch of the bourgeoisie, possesses, however, this distinct feature: it has simplified class antagonisms. Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other — Bourgeoisie and Proletariat.’[ii]

As we have seen earlier in the series, as a result of the extreme nature of its exploitation, the working class has no ability to exploit others and no interest in the continuing oppression of any group. For the working class to be liberate itself, it has in fact to end all other oppressions. ‘Workers,’ Marx wrote in 1844, ‘formed a class which cannot emancipate itself without…emancipating all other spheres of society’.[iii] This was a central insight of Marxism, one to which Marx returned again and again.

Marxism and oppression

Grasping that it is in the interests of workers to oppose oppression, however, is very different from reducing oppression to class. If understood properly, it actually means the opposite, it means that the working class movement has to pay special attention to the way all oppressions work. Both Marx and Engels were in fact very concerned with the specific mechanisms that led to particular oppressions. In the German Ideology, for example, they traced the origins of women’s oppression to changing family relations which, while related to wider historical developments, have their own dynamic:

‘Thus when monogamous marriage first makes its appearance in history, it is not as the reconciliation of man and woman, still less as the highest form of such a reconciliation. Quite the contrary. Monogamous marriage comes on the scene as the subjugation of the one sex by the other; it announces a struggle between the sexes unknown throughout the whole previous prehistoric period.’[iv]

Engels developed this analysis in The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State, where he argued the development of the family was linked to the rise of private property. The association of property with the family household led to the idea that it should be heritable through the family. This in turn led to what Engels called ‘the historic defeat of the female sex’ because in order to ensure that their property could be inherited by their biological children, men sought to control the women with whom they wanted to have children. This was the source of the patriarchal family, the key organising structure of women’s oppression.

Marx returned to the issue of women’s oppression and the changing role of the family a number of times. In fact he saw the extent to which women were free and equal as an index of the progress of society. His discussions of the relations between work and family life are dialectical and nuanced, not at all reductionist. In Capital, for example, Marx wrote that as women entered the workforce, they potentially gained power in their private lives since they now contributed financially to the family’s upkeep and they were no longer under the control of a man at home all day. On the other hand, long working hours for women and men tended to undermine the family and lead to a situation in which children were not properly cared for. In a later passage he draws the conclusion that these developments too point in the direction of ‘a higher form of family’ in which women and men could be true equals.

Marx and Engels approached racism too as a product of complex historical developments with their own dynamics that needed to be carefully studied and challenged. Marx identified anti-Irish racism for example as one product of the brutal colonisation of Ireland by the English:

‘The ordinary English worker hated the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers his standard of life. In relation to the Irish worker he feels himself a member of the ruling nation and so turns himself against Ireland, thus strengthening their domination over himself.’[v]

Marx saw a parallel situation in the US where the racism generated to justify slavery poisoned the minds of the white population. ‘Every independent movement of the workers,’ he wrote, ‘was paralysed so long as slavery disfigured a part of the Republic. Labour with a white skin cannot emancipate itself where labour with a black skin is branded.’[vi] Once these patterns had been established, they were deliberately sustained by the ruling class to keep working people divided.

The British establishment, for example, worked hard to fan the flames of anti-Irish racism, which was ‘artificially kept alive and intensified by the press, the pulpit, the comic papers, in short, by all the means at the disposal of the ruling classes’. For Marx, such racism was famously, ‘the secret of the impotence of the English working class’.[vii]

Given the extent to which mechanisms of oppression were embedded in the structures of society, combatting oppression required much more than simple appeals for unity. Specific and concerted struggle was needed. Marx and Engels were particularly proud of the record of British workers in supporting the struggle of the northern US states against the slave-owning south in the US Civil War. They themselves were centrally involved in organising a campaign against the oppression of the Irish in England. Under Marx’s leadership, the General Council of the International made supporting the Irish a central plank of their agitation in Britain.

Politics and economics

There are a number of conclusions from all this, which together have an important bearing on contemporary discussions about oppression. Firstly, adopting the idea that oppressions are embedded in the economy of society is not to downplay their importance. It is in fact the very opposite. It involves facing up to the seriousness of the issues by recognising that oppressions are deep seated and tenacious because they are a product of the central drives of the system. It is to argue that fighting oppression is not just a matter of recognising particular identities, of changing peoples’ attitudes, or even of winning political rights, important though those things are. It has to involve challenging the power structure itself.

Seeing oppressions in this way as structured around the needs of capital leads to a second conclusion. If we reject the idea of class as an identity, and understand it, like Marx, as the driving social relation in society, class becomes absolutely central to the project of wider human liberation. Because of their economic position, organised working people have a unique power and capacity to paralyse the system and to begin to supersede it. In Marx’s view such a transformation was necessary to liberate the whole of society. That liberation remains, however, only a possibility.

What is needed is for the movement to understand, consciously expose and combat every aspect of oppression in order to root it out effectively.

Marx and Engels fought for political freedoms, for equal rights, against discrimination, for universal suffrage, for all the promises offered and rarely delivered by the bourgeois revolutions. These struggles were important in themselves, and they were crucial in overcoming divisions amongst working people.

Marx and Engels also understood however that oppression could not finally be overcome by purely political or legal means. The separation of the political from the economic is one of capitalism’s survival strategies. Restricting struggles to political rights means leaving untouched the structures and forces that generate oppression in the first place. A fight to the finish against oppression requires tackling every instance of discrimination and injustice directly. It also means however taking on the economic system from which they flow.

The limits of identity

Not all contemporary radical politics exhibits this kind of generalisation. There is a strong tendency to focus on the particularity of experience rather than understanding oppression as structural and seeking common ground on that basis. All confident assertions of identity by oppressed groups or individuals raise some kind of challenge to the prevailing set up. But though what is sometimes called ‘identity politics’ started out as an attempt to force marginalised experiences into the mainstream, it has often led to the prioritisation of personal experience over general understanding. As Asad Haider argues in his assessment of contemporary identity politics, on its own, the assertion of identity risks leaving the sources of oppression unanalysed:

‘It is based on the individual’s demand for recognition and it takes that individual’s identity as its starting point. It takes this identity for granted and suppresses the fact that all identities are socially constructed. And because all of us necessarily have identities that are different from everyone else’s, it undermines the possibility of collective self-organisation. The framework of identity reduces politics to who you are as an individual and to gaining recognition as an individual, rather than your membership in a collectivity and the collective struggle against an oppressive social system.’[viii]

Without any guiding take on the power structure of wider society, a politics of identity can lead in self-defeating directions. Writing in the 1960s, soon after desegregation had opened up some space for black professionals, managers and business people, Black Panther Huey Newton warned that black identity or nationalism can be harnessed by the emerging black elite to take control of the radical movement and suppress the demands of black working people who in reality had very different interests. As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor points out in her discussion of the murder of Freddie Gray and the revolt that followed in Baltimore in 2015, this process has come on leaps and bounds:

‘There have always been class differences amongst African Americans, but this is the first time those class differences have been expressed in the form of a minority of Blacks wielding significant political power and authority over the majority of Black lives. This raises critical questions about the role of the Black elite in the continuing freedom struggle – and about what side are they on. This is not an overstatement. When a Black Mayor, governing a largely Black city, aids in the mobilization of a military unit led by a Black woman to suppress a black rebellion, we are in a new period of the Black freedom struggle.’[ix]

The struggles for civil rights and multiculturalism have won vital victories and raised all kinds of possibilities. In the context of neoliberalism and the growth of a wealthy managerial elite that likes to pride itself on its inclusive values, those victories risk being reduced to what Catherine Liu has called ‘identity protocols’; the roll out of diversity training and quotas for top jobs. This is fine for the tiny minority of people from oppressed groups who make it into elite jobs, and it is of course important that such opportunities are widened. Experience in the US, Britain and elsewhere has shown, however, that having more women, trans people or people of colour in positions of power and influence does next to nothing for the lives of the majority of the oppressed. They continue to suffer structural racism, sexism and discrimination. The system that generates these oppressions and the exploitation at its heart go unchallenged and is even perhaps strengthened by being able to appear inclusive. Amongst the newly enriched professional and managerial class (PMC) the stress on race and gender discrimination has become a useful mechanism for both virtue signalling and deflecting concerns about class inequality. In the words of Catherine Liu:

‘As a class, the PMC loves to talk about bias rather than inequality, racism rather than capitalism, visibility rather than exploitation. Tolerance for them is the highest secular virtue – but tolerance has almost no political or economic meaning.’[x]

Such diversification of the elites is welcome, but without a challenge to the fundamental economic structures of society, it also opens up space for the right to

make headway with its own brands of identity politics. These involve protesting against the alleged abandonment of white workers and defending national culture and traditions against liberal, multicultural elites. In this situation the left needs to develop an independent politics that fights for oppressed groups more effectively and as a whole, but also provides a way forward for working people in general.

The need to unite

Dealing with class as another ‘intersecting’ identity isn’t the answer here. This is because recognising one’s membership of the working class involves the beginnings of understanding the way the system operates as a whole. It therefore opens the possibility of moving beyond identities which are inevitably framed mainly by the prevailing system. One indication of this universality is that the working class contains within it the overwhelming majority of the oppressed and therefore provides at least the possibility of a fighting unity in practice.

The potential of the working class to develop a holistic understanding of the world has deeper sources however. We have seen that, for workers, overcoming divisions of race, sex or gender is a matter of strategic urgency, a matter in the end of the day of life and death. ‘Unity is strength’, ‘united we stand, divided we fall’ are slogans that emerge organically from the very nature of working class struggle, from the position of workers in society.

Linked to this is the fact that workers experience of exploitation gives them a unique vantage point from which to understand the way the system works, ‘to see society from the centre as a coherent whole’ as Georg Lukacs put it.[xi] Recognising this doesn’t mean reducing every aspect of society to class. Whereas the ruling class needs to do everything possible to obscure the way society operates, for the working class, a complete understanding of all the complexities of capitalism is essential for achieving fundamental social change, for liberating itself.

Such holistic understanding doesn’t emerge automatically as we shall see later in this series. The division of labour, the reified nature of work and the fact that workers produce a whole social world that they do not control create limits to understanding most of the time. It means there are always possibilities for our rulers to open up divisions in our ranks and that there needs to be a relentless campaign against all forms of prejudice and backwardness within the movement.

As the primary object of a more and more vicious and exploitative system however, the working class provides a unique baseline of opposition to capitalism from which effective resistance to the system can be launched. It is a system that has to be overturned if we want to end oppression.  

 

[i] Karl Marx (1973) Grundrisse, Penguin, London, p.106.

[ii] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (2015) The Communist Manifesto, Penguin, London, p.2.

[iii] Karl Marx (1844) ‘Introduction to Hegel’s Philosophy of Right’, in Karl Marx (1975) Early Writings, Penguin, London, p.256.

[iv] Friedrich Engels (1978) The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, Foreign Languages Press, Peking, p.75.

[v] ‘Marx to Sigfrid Meyer and August Vogt In New York’, in Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (1975) Selected Correspondence, Progress Publishers, Moscow, pp. 220-29.

[vi] Karl Marx (1976) Capital Volume 1, Penguin, London, p.329.

[vii] ‘Marx to Sigfrid Meyer and August Vogt in New York’, in Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (1975) Selected Correspondence, Progress Publishers, Moscow, p.220.

[viii] Asad Haider (2018) Mistaken Identity, Verso, London, p.24.

[ix] Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor (2016) From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation, Haymarket, Chicago, p.80.

[x] Catherine Liu (2021) Virtue Hoarders: The Case against the Professional Managerial Class, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, p.8.

[xi] Georg Lukács (1971) History and Class Consciousness, Merlin, London, p.69.

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Chris Nineham

Chris Nineham is a founder member of Stop the War and Counterfire, speaking regularly around the country on behalf of both. He is author of The People Versus Tony Blair and Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukacs.