The most dire consequences of oppression are hard to compute. Mass death through ethnic and religious violence, climate devastation due to the lasting effects of colonialism, the widespread weaponization of sexual violence as a tool of war.
And if this weren’t enough, there’s the day-to-day violence wrought by capitalist oppression which is impossible to ignore. Harassment in the workplace and violence in the home. Racist police murders. Vigilante violence against queer people.
Many young people today increasingly understand that oppression is systemic. Yes, our classmates, coworkers, and family members can buy into the undeniable social sickness of racism, sexism, queerphobia, and xenophobia, but fundamentally these divisions are upheld by something much more profound than individual backwardness.
This can be a heavy conclusion to come to; the enemy all of a sudden becomes much bigger. But it can also represent a unifying rallying call to all exploited and oppressed people: Fight the system.
For Marxists, fighting the system is our speciality. But an essential starting point is identifying precisely what system we’re fighting. One glance at the manosphere or white-supremacist gangs or the transphobic “gender-critical” cult and you quickly see how these prejudices develop their own inner logic and culture, becoming a driving force for themselves. But fundamentally, Marxists see capitalism as the system that sits at the core of exploitation in society. Capitalism is defined by the private ownership of all the materials and tools needed to keep society running. Decisions are made to expand the profits of the few rather than meet the needs of the many. Capitalism has required white supremacy, it has demanded rigid gender roles, and it has expanded its rule through colonialism.
Oppression does not exist independently from economic relations in society, it is not randomly occurring, and it’s certainly not “human nature.” Oppression aids capitalism’s core function of extracting value from the working class, and therefore the fight to end oppression has to be tied by a thousand threads to the fight against the capitalist system overall.
Can We End Oppression Without Ending Capitalism?
The past ten years have shown how rapidly people’s attitudes can change. From the Women’s Marches to the Green Tide uprising in Latin America, we got a glimpse into what a global feminist movement can achieve in terms of shaping people’s attitudes and winning genuine reforms. Many more women in the U.S. feel confident to come out of the shadows and name their abusers because of the bravery that marked the MeToo online revolt.
Black Lives Matter demonstrated, in a matter of days, how profoundly an idea can take hold. In the first two weeks of June 2020, American voters’ support for BLM increased almost as much as it had in the two years prior. At one point, the burning of the Minneapolis police precinct, where George Floyd’s killer worked, was more popular than either presidential candidate – Trump or Biden.
These movements, and the ones to come, represent the baseline desire millions of people have for genuine equality and a world free of division. When victories are won, no matter how limited, they can have a transformative effect on people’s sense that change is possible. But all victories are vulnerable under capitalism, and Marxists have an obligation to explain this hard truth.
Our victories are vulnerable not because the world is doomed, or because people are inherently rotten, but because it is a structural necessity for the survival of the capitalist system that various forms of oppression are maintained.
Women’s oppression is a central way the nuclear family structure is upheld. The nuclear family emerged in the earliest class societies as a way for the ruling class of the time to hold onto wealth. Familial lineage became a bank of sorts, concentrating wealth in the home rather than the community. The social role of women as caretakers remains enormously beneficial for the ruling class. Worldwide, women perform unpaid care work that, valued at a minimum wage, would amount to at least $10.8 trillion annually – three times the size of the world’s tech industry.
Anti-Black racism, which emerged as justification for the brutal colonization of Africa and the trans-Atlantic slave trade, allows the ruling class to especially exploit certain sections of the working class. Black and brown communities in the US are systematically denied the resources to survive, from underfunded schools to overly polluted air, from voter suppression to mass incarceration. Maintaining an especially oppressed section of the working class is a goldmine for capitalists who can deny Black communities meaningful public investment and concentrate Black workers in low-wage, high-risk industries.
Oppression also serves an important ideological function for the capitalist class. They are well aware that there are more of us than there are of them. The working class outnumbers the ruling class by literally billions. If we were to unite against a common enemy, they would be done for. The capitalists have to find ways to keep us divided among ourselves, fighting for scraps. Racism, sexism, nationalism, transphobia, and homophobia have all served this purpose incredibly well.
Winning the truly transformative change that millions of young people are hungry for will require a revolutionary struggle against the system.
“You Can’t Have Capitalism Without Racism”
Of particular importance to Marxists in the US is the fight against anti-Black racism which has been one of the sharpest and most valued ideological tools of American capitalists for centuries.
Every single brick that’s been laid in the foundation of this country has been accompanied by appalling brutality toward non-white people, but especially Black people and Native Americans. From genocidal violence and unimaginable theft of indigenous land, to 250 years of chattel slavery and almost 100 years of Jim Crow laws, racism has been enforced in the US through a regime of terror from the state.
Truly ending racism short of ending capitalism is an impossibility, though leaps forward can indeed be made. The heroic struggle of the Black masses during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s brought about a tremendous revolution in social attitudes toward racism. Marches of hundreds of thousands drew together people from all racial and ethnic backgrounds to demand an end to legal discrimination. Landmark court cases were won that formally desegregated schools and public spaces.
The US today looks fundamentally different than it did during the days of chattel slavery, and this is the product of the enduring fight for equality of the Black masses. But it remains an indisputable truth that our entire society reeks of racist division.
There is rampant voter suppression, with widespread attempts to limit the rights of people of color broadly to vote. Housing and education remain fundamentally segregated with 80% of major US cities actually being more segregated today than they were 30 years ago.
The school system in the US is separate and unequal. The average nonwhite school district receives $2,226 less per student than a white school district. Add to this the brutality of the school-to-prison pipeline and you begin to see quite quickly just how profoundly the odds are stacked against Black children in the US.
Black women face endemic health problems created by our for-profit healthcare system. Even adjusted for income, Black women face increased mortality, decreased reproductive health, and increased medical debt when compared to white women. The mass incarceration system has been called the “New Jim Crow” with Black Americans incarcerated in state prisons at nearly five times the rate of white Americans.
The structural foundation of racism in the US creates the conditions for these ideas to permeate our culture, and people’s attitudes.
We see anti-Black racism in the beauty industry, in entertainment, in our political system. And because of how profoundly it fills every element of life in the United States, we see it show up in the attitudes of working-class people for whom these ideas serve absolutely no value.
A working-class white person has more in common with a working-class Black person, despite all their differences, than either of them has in common with a billionaire. In 2021, a white worker made, on average, $1.41 more per hour than a Black worker. That same year, Elon Musk made – on average – just shy of $28 million per hour. Racism, like all other forms of division, keeps us fighting over scraps.
Revolutionaries have an obligation to fight every trace of division in our society, being the first to jump into action to defend oppressed and marginalized groups from violence and harassment, whether it be by other working people, the state, the bosses, or – as is increasingly a concern in some parts of the world – far-right militia and fascist groups.
And as we’re fighting arm in arm, we need to contest every vile manifestation of racism, sexism, queerphobia, and xenophobia. We have to remain crystal clear that working people have everything to gain by overcoming division. This system actively perpetuates oppression, bigotry, and division, and our ultimate goal has to be the building of a revolutionary struggle to overthrow it for good.
Socialists In The Fight Against Oppression
The lethality of racist police violence, the horrific cruelty of right-wing attacks on trans people, and the rollback of longheld rights like abortion mean that mass movements against oppression are desperately needed. This is not a pie-in-the-sky wish, we’ve seen mass feminist and anti-racist struggles break out around the world in the past ten years. A truly broad, mass movement will include anyone who is outraged by the injustice of oppression, including even sections of society whose economic interests and politics are at odds with one another.
While the movement can temporarily overcome these contradictions in the height of the struggle, it always comes to a head. There will always be a confrontation between the more radical sections of the movement who want sweeping change, and the liberal misleadership who are comfortable with change only to the degree that it does not disrupt the system.
Young Black activists in Ferguson brought this contradiction out into the open in the wake of Mike Brown’s murder in 2014. The community had been hit with a monumental injustice, Mike Brown’s body had been left to bake in the Missouri sun for hours after his death at the hands of the police. Days after his death, officers drove over a makeshift memorial his mom had laid out. Anger erupted onto the streets, kicking off what we now know as the Black Lives Matter movement.
Members of the Black misleadership class began arriving in Ferguson in droves, expecting a warm welcome from the young people desperate for change. To their surprise, Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson were booed off stage at one of the nightly protests for insisting that the community get out and vote for Democrats. Rika Tyler, a young Black activist in Ferguson said at the time: “When Jesse Jackson and them came down we didn’t want their support. Because, I mean, they can’t relate to us. You can get back on your airplane… but we’re still down here fighting this war.”
More recently, we have seen these contradictions come to the fore in the protests following the leaked Dobbs decision which would overturn Roe v. Wade. Young women and queer people expressed their deep distrust of the liberal feminists who insisted that all we could do to protect abortion rights was vote for the Democrats.
So what is this contradiction really about?
Fundamentally, these are class antagonisms showing their head within the movement. The interests of even the most “progressive” section of the ruling class is to moderate the movement as much as possible, channeling it into safe and predictable arenas. The interests of the masses of working and oppressed people are to bring the movement toward a direct confrontation with capitalism.
Our goal as Marxists is to do everything we can to ensure the workers, the poor, and the oppressed win that war.
We do that by putting forward first and foremost a set of fighting, militant demands that can bring the widest section of working people together toward a common aim. In the immediate aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, this meant calling for the arrest and conviction of all officers involved; an elected community-led restructuring of the Minneapolis Police Department with power to hire, fire, and subpoena officers; a major tax on the rich and corporations to fund social programs, schools, and social housing; for the labor movement to throw itself into the movement and take up its key demands; and more.
We do everything we can to popularize this program within the movement, pointing toward how these demands could be won. In 2020, we turned one of these demands into a fighting struggle by organizing young and working-class people in Seattle into a campaign to Tax Amazon to fund affordable housing. We won that campaign by refusing to back down to intimidation from the establishment, and by rooting ourselves in the tactics of the class struggle: mass action, work stoppages, and civil disobedience.
Revolutionary socialists should throw themselves into every struggle where people are taking aim at the brutality of the system. But we don’t do it with an aim to broker peace between the movements’ different wings, quite the opposite.
As Eleanor Marx, daughter of Karl Marx, said of the women’s movement in 1892:
“Where the bourgeois women demand rights that are of help to us too, we will fight together with them. We too will not reject any benefit, gained by the bourgeois women in their own interests, which they provide us willingly or unwillingly. We accept these benefits as weapons, weapons that enable us to fight better on the side of our working-class brothers. We are not women arrayed in struggle against men but workers who are in struggle against the exploiters.”
If we are to win, the struggles of the working class in our workplaces will have to be intimately tied up with the fight against every trace of division within our class. Just as we aim to bring mass movements to the doorstep of the class struggle, we fight for the workers’ movement to take up as a rallying cry every demand against racism, sexism, queerphobia, and xenophobia. It’s only on this basis that the system can be truly brought to its knees.