Towards a marixist theory of oppression

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David McNally
Oppression is a widely used – and misused – term. Marxists, social democrats and some liberals all agree that something called “oppression” exists; that certain groups in society do not enjoy the full legal, political or economic rights enjoyed by others. But, not all these groups agree as to what “oppression” is. Liberals and social democrats, for example, will sometimes argue that whites can be oppressed when black organizations refuse to hire them, or that men can be oppressed by dominating wives. For Marxists, however, if the concept of oppression is to be a useful category, for understanding specific features of the system we aim to destroy, then it must be something clear and precise. It must mean something more distinct than a catch-all for describing every relationship in which someone feels dominated or mistreated. Otherwise, we are left with a concept that is essentially psychological in nature – one that is based on relationships simply between individuals.

  1. A Marxist Concept of Oppression?

Marxists have addressed various forms of oppression – national, racial and sexual in particular. But rarely has the general concept of oppression in capitalist society been discussed. On the basis of Marx’s method of analysis, I want to sketch what I think should be the outlines of a Marxist theory of oppression. This is not meant to be a complete theory of oppression, but an attempt to establish the framework for such a theory.

All liberal theory starts with the category of the abstract, isolated individual. Liberalism conceives of society as an addition of individuals. For the most part, then, society is best understood in the liberal view by understanding human nature. Marx, on the other hand, starts with the total society. For Marx, individuals are born into and shaped by a society not of their choosing. Thus Marx writes:
“It is above all necessary to avoid postulating ‘society’ once again as an abstraction confronting the individual. The individual is the social being.” (Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts)
Thus, in order to understand the relationships in which individuals find themselves, it is essential to understand the structures and dynamics of the society in which they find themselves. It is not individuals who create their own relationships; it is society that establishes the system in which people relate to one another:
“My standpoint, from which the development of the economic formation of society is viewed as a process of natural history, can less than any other make the individual responsible for relations whose creature he remains, socially speaking, however much he may subjectively raise himself above them.” (Marx, First Preface to Capital)
Individuals do not experience their relationships as social processes however. The problems in an individual worker’s life appear to be due to this rotten manager, that unsympathetic husband or wife, this stingy bank manager, that dictatorial teacher, etc. It is only on the basis of analysis that these seemingly individual experiences can be shown to be part of the general features of the society as a whole. Marxist analysis consists precisely in showing the real, underlying essence of these relationships – their roots in the system we call capitalism. In the third volume of Capital, Marx wrote that “all science would be superfluous if the outward appearance and the essence of things directly coincided.” We need scientific analysis, in other words, precisely because the relationships in society appear to be purely individual, when in fact they are conditioned by social processes.
This point is important to keep in mind when we look at the experience of oppression. Oppressed people, like everyone, do not automatically see the social origins of their oppression in the structure of capitalist society. To blacks, oppression seems to be the result of racist shites, or even white people in general. To women, oppression seems to come from sexist men, or even men in general. To gays, oppression appears to be a result of bigoted straights, or even “straight society”. without belittling the poisonous relationships that often prevail between blacks and whites, women and men, gays and straights, it is important to see that the oppression of these groups has deeper social roots. In reality oppression is a social relationship in which capital benefits through the subjection of a certain group in society.
The same goes for the oppression of blacks and immigrants. Capitalism needs, at all times, a reserve army of labour – a section of the working class that is shoved into job ghettoes and pulled in and out of the workforce according to whether the economy is expanding or contracting. Immigrant labour (mainly black and Asian over the past decade) serves that purpose especially well. Thus, the ideology is perpetuated that these workers aren’t “full Canadians” entitled to permanent employment. Rather, they are less than equal (“immigrants”, “non-citizens”) who will be given work when it’s available, but who don’t deserve jobs when “real” Canadians are out of work. By denying immigrants equal rights and perpetuating racist ideas about them, capital is provided with a fluid reserve army of labour which also creates a downward pull on the wages of all workers (since they are usually unorganized and low paid).
In the case of women, their oppression is rooted in capital’s need to control the rearing of the new generation of workers and to have that work done as cheaply as possible. This is best achieved through the family. Thus capital is dependent upon the privatized reproduction of the labour force through the family unit. As a result, capitalism strives to perpetuate the family system and women’s social role within it. (There are other benefits to capital that derive from the oppression of women through the family – especially putting women workers into low-paying job ghettoes – but these are side benefits, not the root cause of women’s oppression.) Gay oppression, of course, is also tied into the need of capital for the family system. The gay identity is seen – especially in the case of lesbians – as a threat to the maintenance of women’s identity as mothers and wives in the family. The gay male identity is also seen as a threat to the “masculine ideal” under capitalism, but the system is more capable of tolerating a gay male preserve, or ghetto since it is control over women’s bodies and sexuality that is really central to the system.
All these forms of oppression are backed up by extensive forms of discrimination against oppressed groups. This may be anything from discrimination in hiring or access to higher education to the right to buy a house or get admitted to another country. The point, really, is this: oppression is based on a material interest of capital and is backed up by a systematic process of legal, political and economic discrimination that keeps oppressed groups in a subordinate role. In other words, the oppression of particular social groups is structured into the political economy of capitalism.
Unless there was a material basis to oppression in the needs of the capitalist system, then oppression would not be essential to the system. And if that was the case, then the elimination of any and all forms of social oppression would not necessarily require the overthrow of capitalism; it would be conceivable that oppression could be reformed away. It is because these forms of oppression are materially necessary to the system that their elimination requires a revolutionary transformation of society.

  1. Oppression and Ideology

Capitalism could not continue to exist unless the majority of working class people believed in the system; unless they thought that in some sense the present system was the best possible and that all talk of a new and free society was “unrealistic”. In order to keep its hold, capitalism is not only based on a system of economic and political domination; it also requires a system of ideological domination, a system through which workers can be made to believe bourgeois ideas. This system of ideological domination consists of the work of government agencies, the school system, the media, churches, etc in installing capitalist ideas and values in people.

The oppression of specific social groups could also not continue unless the ruling class could present a set of ideas – an ideology – designed to justify the oppression of these groups. In order to maintain the oppression of blacks and immigrants, the system pushes ideas like the inferiority of blacks to whites, white superiority – in short, racism. In order to perpetuate the oppression of nations, the same sort of ideas are required – the belief that certain nations and races are superior to others – the ideas of national chauvinism. And in order to keep women in their oppressed position in the home, it is necessary to advance the ideas of male superiority, the biological inferiority of women, the myth of “women’s place” as in the home, etc. In short, it is necessary to perpetuate sexism. In the case of lesbians and gay men, the same thing applies – homosexuality must be tainted as sick and abnormal while heterosexuality is held up as normal and healthy.
Ideologies, in other words, are essential to backing up the oppression of groups in capitalist society. These ideologies are not simple reflections of material interests. The whole point about bourgeois ideology is that capitalism can make most workers believe it, or most of it, even though it contradicts their own interests as members of working class. In a class society dominated by the warped values of the ruling class, the various ideologies of oppression enter into the relations between working class people themselves – they twist, distort and poison the relationships between ordinary working people. In fact, these ideologies actually develop a certain independence, a life of their own and will often continue in the minds of people long after their material necessity for capitalism has vanished. The best example of t his is anti-Semitism. North American capitalism no longer depends upon keeping Jews confined to working class job ghettoes and in the state of a reserve army of labour. Nonetheless, racism against Jews (anti-Semitism) continues as a powerful force in society and among working people.
This example, in particular, shows the importance of distinguishing between the social relationship of oppression and ideologies of oppression. A group is not oppressed simply because an ideology that it dislikes is perpetuated in society. Although anti-Semitism is a vicious and barbaric ideology that must be completely opposed by revolutionaries, it is not the case that Jews are an oppressed group in North American society today despite the racist abuse they often suffer. Jews are not systematically discriminated against in hiring, access to higher education, etc. Thus, they are not an oppressed social group.
The same thing goes for the theorists of “Male Oppression”. What these writers usually argue is that men are oppressed because the role of efficient, hard-working breadwinner is imposed upon them by the ideology of the system. Be that as it may, this does not constitute a social process of oppression, however alienating these ideas may seem to individual men.
Oppression, in other words, is not a relationship between individuals based on a discriminatory ideology. Such ideologies may back up a social process of oppression, but they are not that process itself. It is not whites who oppress blacks, men who oppress women, English Canadians who oppress Quebecois or straights who oppress gays. True, these groups may behave in racist, sexist and chauvinist ways (which must be completely opposed by revolutionary socialists), but oppression does not consist of the one-to-one relationships between individuals.
Individuals are born into a world in which exploitation and oppression exist. They may choose to accept these relationships, or to fight them. But they have no choice over whether or not these relationships will invade and shape their lives. (Although it is true that they can reduce the direct influence of the ideologies of oppression, racism, sexism, etc., in their lives.) Joan Smith has expressed this point quite clearly in the case of women’s oppression:
“Men as a group do not oppress women as a group, but individual men and individual women live out their lives together in a family system, constantly reaffirmed by capitalism and it’s that family system of reproduction which places women in their oppressed position. Some men go right along with the system – some men don’t. The question is not actually about the attitudes and beliefs of individual men, although they too have to be changed, but about the family form of reproduction of society and what women are going to do about it.” (“Women and the Family. International Socialism nr 104)
If oppression was a relationship between individuals, then various forms of separatists solutions would make sense. Zionism, for instance, would be a logical response to anti-Semitism – reduce the contacts between Jews and non-Jews and it would follow that Jews would be less oppressed. The same goes for black cultural nationalism (perhaps the “Black Muslims” are the best example) – develop a separate black culture with no white influence and it follows logically, blacks will be less oppressed. The same goes for separatism for women – reduce to the lowest possible level contacts with men and women will be less oppressed.
But we know that these responses are no solution to oppression and for a very simple reason: oppression is a social relationship structured into the very fabric of society. However much oppressed peoples may remove themselves from personal relationships with those who carry ideology of oppression (racist whites, sexist men, etc) they are still oppressed by capitalist society in a systematic way. So long as the material basis of oppression – capitalism – is not eliminated, oppression will continue. That is why we argue that socialist revolution is the only solution to the problems of oppressed groups.

  1. Some Conclusions

This is not meant to be a finished theory of oppression. There are many aspects of the particular oppression of different groups that need to be further analyzed by Marxists. In particular, while it is not men who oppress women, it is the case that there is a system of male domination within the family that we do not fully understand. Questions such as these need much more attention in socialist theory.

A few important conclusions follow, I think, from the points developed here. Firstly, by understanding oppression as a social relation based in the capitalist mode of production or reproduction, we strengthen the argument for socialism as the only possible solution to oppression. We make it clear that no section of the working class has a material interest in the oppression of any other.
At the same time, this framework makes clear how important the ideological struggle inside the working class really is. It emphasizes the ideological domination that the ruling class exercises over the working class and makes it clear how central it is to carry the ideological fight against sexism, anti-gay bigotry, national chauvinism and racism inside the working class. What’s more, it enables us to understand that ideologies have an independence from their material bases – thus, even after a socialist revolution it will be essential to carry on the fight for a new form of consciousness and new relationships between people. Trotsky wrote that: “Inertia and blind habit, unfortunately, constitute a great force. And nowhere does blind, dumb habit hold sway with such force as in the dark and secluded inner life of the family.” (Women and the Family)
Finally, this framework reaffirms the necessity for independent organization of oppressed groups within the working class movement. Since these groups suffer social forms of oppression and since most working people are at least partly under the spell of the ideologies of oppression, it is essential that oppressed groups organize independently to address their common problems in an atmosphere free from the poisonous ideologies of racism, national chauvinism, anti-gay bigotry and sexism.
We have a long way to go in developing the theory of our tendency on all of these points. But, the starting point for correct analysis has to be a consistent Marxist theory of oppression. Such a theory is essential to developing our political practice. For, as Lenin put it, “Without revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary practice.”

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