A flying Union Jack. Photo: PxHere A flying Union Jack. Photo: PxHere

Lindsey German on social division, the ruling class and why anti-oppressive advances need protecting

The row over the queen’s former lady in waiting who repeatedly demanded to know where domestic violence campaigner Ngozi Fulani was from has made headlines. Racism at the palace is hardly a shocker, but the temerity with which Lady Susan Hussey questioned Fulani, and the fact that this was witnessed by two others, forced a rapid disavowal. But surely no one should be surprised that the royal household, upholder of unelected privilege, immense wealth and entitlement, harbours within its ranks a bunch of reactionaries. This is the same household where allegedly a senior member queried what colour Meghan Markle’s baby would be. The supposed young progressives, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, faced protests over slavery when they visited the Caribbean last year. And Hussey is the widow of Marmaduke Hussey, central to the lockout of unions at the Times in the 1970s.

The receptions and honours for those involved in charities and campaigns are intended to present a public face of caring in an egalitarian and diverse society. The reality is very different. And every time there is a royal row over racism then the reactionaries in print and broadcast media step up to defend the indefensible and attack those who are standing up for themselves. They hate the fact that many people in Britain recognise the existence of a deep racism which runs through society and want to change it. As this latest incident shows, however, the question of race remains as central and contested as ever. And the behaviour of one palace reactionary is only the tip of the iceberg.

Which is why when in trouble the right uses racist scares as its get out of jail free card. The grumbling about migrants, refugees and asylum seekers is always present from the media and politicians. But it is reaching a crescendo as MPs demand the cutting back of all immigration, the immediate deportation of those who arrive on boats, the fast tracking to Rwanda of those seeking asylum, a ban on all Albanians claiming asylum, vying with each other to promote the most inhumane and brutal policy against desperate and poor people.

The census figures last week which showed that Christianity was a minority religion in England and Wales, (losing it to atheism rather than other religions) and that Birmingham, Leicester and Luton were now greater than 50% minority ethnic both brought the predictable howls from right-wing bigots across the land. The issue is at the heart of British politics. Nigel Farage claims that there are several Tory MPs poised to defect to his Reform Party, Suella Braverman dreams of deportation flights, the Tories use racism to try to prop up their ‘red wall’ seats, and Labour joins in the general clamour to keep immigration down.

For the British ruling class there are several contradictions on this question. Take the increase in numbers of immigrants by around 500,000 over the past year, trumpeted by the right as a source of grave concern. Around half of that number are accounted for by international students, whose numbers are increasing rapidly and who are absolutely central to the profitability of many British universities. So sections of the ruling class want student numbers excluded from the figures because they are not ‘real’ migrants and will return to their country of origin after 3 or 4 years. More fundamentally the much tighter immigration rules for European citizens following Brexit have slowed down the supply of labour and made the labour market in Britain much tighter. So many employers want relaxation of some immigration rules to allow in workers for certain industries such as agriculture and hospitality, and crucially to relax the higher wage level for entry.

At the same time, the demands for restriction of immigration continue and are major issues in all the developed countries. They help to create one of the major divisions within the working class and have the function of weakening working-class organisation. They also encourage working-class people to identify with their own rulers rather than with other workers with whom they have a common interest in fighting against exploitation.

We are at a time in Britain where this is particularly dangerous. Wages have fallen in real terms for more than a decade, the cost-of-living crisis is acute, public services are at breaking point, the government is weak and divided, and the opposition offers no fundamental alternative to the existing system. There is a growing strike movement which is now involving very large numbers of public sector workers, and some private sector as well. There is also growing discontent within society on a range of issues from cost of living to climate change. These movements have the potential to challenge capital and also to weaken racism within the working class, as growing numbers of workers focus on the real enemy. 

But the outcome of these strikes and other movements is crucial. If they are sufficiently successful then they will help build confidence and organisation across the working class and demoralise the employers and ruling class. But if they dissipate or end in defeat then the converse will be true. Then the racism can come much more to the surface and be used politically by the right to gain traction. This is why we need a strategy which can extend and deepen the strikes, and where union leaders don’t settle for drawn out negotiations and settlements much lower than what is required. And why we need socialist arguments against racism, and in defence of migrants.

Women’s oppression: still central to capitalism

I was quite shocked to read of the decision by Oxford University Students’ Union to abolish its role of women’s officer, which can only be seen as a reactionary move. The reasoning, that the women’s officer role dates from the time before women could receive full degrees at Oxford, is demonstrably false. The post of vice president women was established in 1990, and all the university women’s officer posts, to the best of my knowledge, were created from the late 70s onwards in the wake of the women’s liberation movement. Women have received full degrees from Oxford for 100 years. More worrying than this lack of understanding is the politics behind the decision. The move was supposedly to adopt an intersectional approach and to consider other minorities with a new role termed ‘VP Liberation and Equalities’.

There is a role for such a post but surely in addition to VP Women, not instead of it, which will of necessity lead to the deprioritising of women’s issues. The present VP Women, Ellie Greaves, questioned the change but has since apologised for allegedly ‘trans-exclusionary’ views and regretted contributing to ‘a bio-essentialist, narrow-minded narrative of what being a woman is’. There is something badly wrong when defending a post of women’s officer is seen as an attack on other oppressed groups.

There also seems to be an assumption that issues concerning women’s oppression have diminished in recent years. Yet we only have to consider some of the issues facing women students – rape, spiking, sexual harassment, attainment gaps, sexual stereotyping – to realise that is not the case. When they go into employment they find the odds stacked against them. The diminishing of women’s oppression has been a real feature of the official equality, diversity and inclusion agenda promoted by businesses and HR departments. To admit that half the population has not reached anywhere close to equality is a bit too painful for them to acknowledge – and redressing these inequalities too expensive for capital.

Women’s oppression is rooted in the family and their unpaid role in domestic labour and social reproduction. It is therefore their biological status which is used to create their economic and social oppression. This is a widespread analysis on the Marxist left and not a product of ‘narrow-mindedness’. It seems to me that those who refuse to acknowledge women’s biology is used to construct their oppression are themselves repeating a dogma which has no foundation in reality. But even if one disagrees over the nature and cause of women’s oppression, and there are many different analyses, surely one should not have to apologise for those views.

Trans women and men have the right to political representation in students’ unions, as do all oppressed groups. However, oppression is very much structured into capitalism and needs to be approached in this way. Intersectionality theory is often favoured as a means of trying to do so, but its weakness is that it describes different oppressions without looking at their roots within class society and therefore is inadequate in dealing with the real nature of exploitation and oppression. It provides a list of oppressions rather than an analysis. In approaching the question in this way, the theory frequently tends to diminish both class and women’s oppression. This is to misunderstand the central role both play to capitalism, and to weaken the struggle against it.

This week: I am looking forward to the Stop the War Coalition annual Xmas fundraiser and auction this Thursday. Join us online. There’s a good series on Sky Arts about film noir which I’ll be watching, as well of some of the films which are being screened alongside it. Very much enjoyed Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake in The Glass Key, adapted from Dashiell Hammett’s book.

Before you go

Counterfire is growing faster than ever before

We need to raise £20,000 as we are having to expand operations. We are moving to a bigger, better central office, upping our print run and distribution, buying a new printer, new computers and employing more staff.

Please give generously.

Lindsey German

As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.

Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.