Racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia – if we take a broad view of the history and diversity of human societies, it’s obvious these forms of oppression are not inherent to all times and places. They arise and flourish under certain conditions, but not others.
We know that women’s oppression, for example, first emerged along with the rise of the earliest class societies when the development of agriculture allowed our ancestors to use their labor to begin reliably producing a surplus of food beyond immediate subsistence. The concept of private property was developed to determine who got to control this surplus, and controlling women’s reproduction became necessary to regulate the inheritance of private property.
Systemic racism emerged later, as the shift from feudalism to capitalism created a competition for cheap labor and resources among European states that led to the imperialist conquest of the entire globe.
A Materialist Outlook
Marxists are sometimes accused of not caring enough about racism and sexism and reducing everything to class or economic issues in a way that ignores the importance of fighting all forms of oppression.
There is no doubt that not all socialists have treated the struggle against oppression with the seriousness it deserves, but as Marxists we see the struggle against racism and sexism as central to the liberation of the working class as a whole. We believe liberating humanity from racism and sexism requires understanding the economic roots of oppression and creating a strategy for uniting the differently-oppressed layers of the working class in struggle to end class society and with it, the material basis for oppression. We also believe that the main way consciousness changes is through common struggle.
The collapse of the Soviet Union led to a whole generation internationally where Marxist ideas had far less influence than before. The materialist understanding of society and oppression was undermined and replaced in most academic and left circles by post-modernism, an idealist rather than materialist worldview which holds that humans are incapable of discovering any objective truth about our world, but are limited to purely subjective impressions.
This outlook is inherently individualistic because it asserts that the subjective experience of each individual is an equally valid conception of reality, and that no one can understand anything they haven’t personally experienced. This leads to the progressive sub-dividing of people into smaller and smaller groups based on common experiences or identities rather than seeking a common basis for all the oppressed who struggle.
But Marxists argue it is objectively true that it is in the material interest of every member of the working class – regardless of race, gender, or other identity – to unite in struggle and seize the wealth and means of production away from the capitalists and create the society of universal prosperity we know is technologically possible.
How the Bosses Use Racism and Sexism
Sexism and racism are consciously used by the capitalist class to divide workers and hyper-exploit women and people of color. While better paid jobs have been historically dominated by white men, racism and sexism can also effectively drive down the wages of the majority of white male workers. For example, racial division in the South has been a key tool used to keep out unions in general, making overall wage levels there much lower than the rest of the country.
In unionized workplaces, where workers fight for their interests in a united way, the gender and racial wage gaps are a fraction of what they are in the rest of the workforce. And countries with lower gender and racial wage gaps have higher wages for all workers.
A divided working class is unable to struggle effectively against those who own and control the wealth and resources of our society. The labor movement and all progressive forces must fight back against each and every act of injustice and bigotry and support the struggles of all oppressed groups.
The fact that we recognize that the capitalist class is the force behind all forms of oppression doesn’t mean we let working class people off the hook when they act as tools of that oppression.
We also have to win members of our class to the understanding that treating oppressed identity groups as unwanted competition for scarce jobs, food, housing, healthcare, education, etc. is a losing strategy. If any of us want a better world we need to see each other not just as equals, but as necessary allies in the fight against our common exploiters: the billionaire class.