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The Relation Between the Working Class and Nonclass Oppressions
international | the left | opinion / analysis Monday August 20, 2007 14:48 by Wayne Price - NEFAC (personal capacity)
Part 2 of What is Class Struggle Anarchism?
Why do we call ourselves class struggle anarchists instead of feminist- antiracist-Gay liberationist-green-class struggle anarchists? What is the relationship among class and nonclass forms of oppression, such as gender and race? Instead of the base/superstructure metaphor, we should have a model of an overlapping network of oppressions, of which class is at the center. This leads to strategic conclusions.
As I argued in Part 1, the working class is central to the fight against capitalism. But what is its relation to other sections of the population and their systems of oppression? How does class relate to women and patriarchy; to African-Americans and white supremacy; to “Third World” nations and neocolonialism; to immigrants and nativism; and to other oppressions, too numerous to name? How does class relate to apparently nonclass issues such as war or global warming? I am not discussing the morality of oppression, let alone whether one form of oppression is worse than another (such as anti-Semitism vs. discrimination against the Deaf). All oppression is evil and should be opposed. I want to discuss an analysis of the relations among oppressions and the strategic conclusions which can be drawn from this.
The Base/Superstructure ModelMarxists have traditionally used a model of a base and a superstructure. The base is supposed to be the process of production as it is organized in any particular society, particularly the relations among the classes. The superstructure is everything else: the state, culture, gender and racial relations, etc. The advantage of this metaphor is that it points to the enormous influence of class relations upon every aspect of society; this is the strength of historical materialism. But there are difficulties with this model. For example, if the state is essential to the maintenance of capitalism, then why is it in the superstructure and not the base? Strategically, this image can lead to regarding every nonclass issue as only derivative. It may be taken to mean that revolutionaries should only focus on class issues, because nonclass oppressions will automatically be resolved once a classless society is reached. In this view, nonclass issues are irrelevant distractions from the real issue. They are not quite real. Once the workers seize power, it may be felt, nonclass oppressions, just like the state, will “wither away”, without any special effort to deal with them.
Sophisticated Marxists have a subtler, more dialectical, interpretation, but the model lends itself to this mechanistic politics. Consider the statement by the libertarian Class War Federation (U.K.) that the middle class functions “to promote ideas that keep us divided like racism and sexism.... to divert our energy into harmless activity that is called reformism, e.g. Greenpeace, CND [Committee for Nuclear Disarmament], feminism, unions....” (Unfinished Business..., 1992, Stirling, Scotland: AK Press; p. 57) The book has a cartoon in which rich people are dancing on a platform which is being supported by people who are foolishly thinking ( in balloons), “Ecology; No Nukes; No Meat; Feminism; Third World; Save the....” (p. 8) At least in this statement and cartoon, movements for ecological balance, women’s liberation, national liberation, and opposition to nuclear war are not seen as possible allies of “ class war” but only as middle class diversions. Racism and sexism are seen as problems only because they divide the working class, rather than as issues in themselves.
On the other hand, the Marxist historian, Ellen Meiksins Wood, concluded, “The base/superstructure metaphor has always been more trouble than it is worth...It has been made to bear a theoretical weight far beyond its limited capacities....” (Democracy Against Capitalism, 1995, Cambridge, Britain: Cambridge Univ. Press; p. 49-50) (As I stated in Part 1, class struggle anarchism overlaps to a great extent with libertarian Marxism; I regard myself as a Marxist-informed anarchist.)
There is an alternate metaphor which I also reject, that of a strict pluralism. The different oppressions of society are seen as parallel to each other, each by itself, standing on its own. Women’s oppression is seen as real but distinct from racism, which is separate from the oppression of Gays, Lesbians, Bisexuals, and Transexuals, and they are all parallel to something called “classism.” While this view accepts the reality of distinct oppressions, it leads to a reformist view: that it is all right for the women’s struggle, for example, to ignore class and race (and therefore be dominated by white middle class women who accept capitalism), just as the parallel workers’ movement can ignore sexism and racism, since these are distinct oppressions. Instead, I would emphasize that all oppressions are intertwined and overlapping, leaning on and supporting each other. I like the metaphor of a pile of pickup sticks, all leaning on each other, although some may be more central in the pile than others.
White SupremacyMany treat oppressions as distinct populations, as though workers were over here, women over there, and African-Americans in another area. This is misleading. The U.S. population, for example, can be analyzed in terms of class: capitalists, workers, and middle sections. It can also be analyzed in terms of race and nationality/ethnicity: European-Americans, African-Americans, Latinos, Asian-Americans, Native Americans, and others. It can be analyzed in terms of gender: male and female. It can be analyzed in terms of sexual orientation: heterosexual, GLBT people. Etc., etc. But these remain the same humans. These analyses are abstractions: we abstract (take out) certain features in order to understand them better. The analyses of systems of oppression are true, that is, they are useful for understanding how people behave and how they identify themselves. But this is still the same population. The systems overlap and interact. For example, an African-American working woman is not oppressed part of the time as Black, and then part of the time as a woman, and then oppressed/exploited part of the time as a worker (considering that even her non-working hours are dependent on her income earned as a worker). We could analyze her that way, but in fact her life is a totality.
Consider white supremacy. Africans were first kidnapped and brought to North and South America for clearly economic reasons: to be a kind of laborers, namely slaves. They produced commodities (tobacco, cotton, etc.) which were sold on the world market. Today African-Americans are overwhelmingly in the working class, most being in the poorest sections. Their oppression serves two class purposes: it creates a pool of workers who can be super-exploited at low wages, and it weakens the overall working class, due to racial divisions and the white workers’ belief in their superiority. While ethnocentrism is as old as the human species, racism as an ideology was first invented during slavery to justify slavery and the robbery of Native Americans. It was elaborated in the era of imperialism to build support for colonialism.
But this analysis does not mean that white supremacy is only a matter of economics. There are, after all, some rich African-Americans, who may still be arrested for Driving While Black. Whatever its origins, racial oppression is real. In their struggle against it, African-Americans created themselves as a people, with their own culture and consciousness--a people which still fights for its freedom. As a set of opinions, racism is near-universal among whites, ranging from the liberal “blindspots” which even we antiracists have, to the moderate prejudices of most whites, to the virulent race hatred of fascists. Racism affects not only the economy but also the politics and the culture of society. This will not go away just through reasonable arguments; it requires mass struggles--struggles by Black people as Black people, in alliance with white antiracists.
The struggles of African-Americans overlap with all other struggles. In the fifties and sixties, the rebellion of African-Americans played a key role in shaking up all of society, inspiring the antiwar movement, the women’s movement, the Gay movement, as well as working class struggles (M.L. King was shot while in Memphis to support a mostly-Black sanitation workers’ strike). Great progress was made in limiting white supremacy--namely the end of legal (Jim Crow) segregation. But the various mechanisms of racist-capitalist society have kept African-Americans on the bottom of society. It will take a total revolution to change that.
PatriarchyPatriarchy--male supremacy--also interacts with all other aspects of our oppressive, authoritarian, society. Women’s lives are directly affected by their race and by their class. Approximately half of adult women are employed workers. Even nonemployed homemakers depend on the incomes of their husbands, which depends on their class, and is influenced by their race.
More fundamentally, women’s lives are determined by their role in the family, which is shaped by the kind of society it is in. The nuclear family of late capitalism is a center of consumption of commodities. It is where the labor power commodity of workers (male and female, adult and children) is created and re-created. It is where the social psychology of our society is passed on to the next generation. The relations between the family and capitalism is subtle and complex but very real. The image of women is directly related to their role in the family (and before capitalism, in the families of feudal, slave, etc., class societies).
Interestingly, Engels included the role of women as being as much in the “base” of society as was the production of goods. “According to the materialist conception, the determining factor in history is, in the final instance [Note--WP], the production and reproduction of immediate life. This, again, is of a twofold character: ...the production of the means of existence...; on the other side, the production of human beings themselves, the propagation of the species.... The social organization...is determined by both kinds of production: by the stage of development of labor on the one hand and of the family on the other. “ (Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, 1972, NY: International Publishers; p. 71-72) He speculated that the oppression of women predated class society and was its origin.
Without accepting Engels’ base/superstructure model (note his highly qualifying “in the final instance”; do we ever reach the “final instance”?), I agree that “the production and reproduction of immediate life” strongly influences all other social processes. I also agree that the oppression of women goes way back in prehistory and is very deep in the structures of our society. It directly affects, and is affected by, the class structure and all other aspects of our politics and culture. This too will take a total revolution to end.
I could go on to cite many other forms of oppression and to relate them to each other and to the class structure. For example, national oppression is directly related to imperialism, rooted in capitalist class relations. Ecological destruction is related to the drive of capitalism to constantly accumulate capital, treating the natural world as a mine. Homophobia is directly related to the social definitions of gender, rooted in the capitalist family structure and its social psychology. And so on, in complex forms of interaction. The point is that each oppression supports all the others; they all support capitalist exploitation and are supported by it. The fight against each requires a fight against all; the ending of each requires the ending of all. There will be no classless society unless there is also a society with the liberation of women, People of Color, etc.
In his study of trends in anarchism, Benjamin Franks summarizes the view raised here: It “regards capital relations to be dominant in most contexts, but not the sole organizing force....Capitalism interacts with other forms of oppressive practices that may not be wholly reducible to economic activity. Here different subjugated identities are formed.... However, as capitalism is still a significant factor, economic liberation must also be a necessary feature.” (Rebel Alliances, 2006, Edinburgh: AK Press; p. 181)
The Special Role of ClassEach form of oppression must be analyzed in its concreteness. For example, the oppression of women does not work the same way as the oppression/exploitation of the working class. Looking at the class system, there are specific aspects which distinguish it from other forms of systemic oppression.
First, is the goal. The goal of women’s liberation is not the destruction of men but the reorganization of relations between women and men (although the definition of what men and women are is likely to change over time). The goal of Black liberation is not the destruction of white people but the reorganization of relations between European-Americans and African-Americans (although, in the long run, the races may dissolve as separate groups). But the goal of a working class revolution is the total overturning of the capitalist class, its destruction as a class, and replacing it with the stateless rule of the working class (moving toward a classless society).
Second is the power of the rulers. As a collectivity, men dominate women. But that does not mean that men--all men--run society. There are no meetings of men to make decisions on how to run the government. (If there are, I have not been invited.) Most men are in the working class and have little power. Given their choice, they would probably prefer child care programs and an end to job discrimination against women (who include their wives and daughters). Similarly white people, as a collectivity, dominate People of Color. But white people do not have special meetings where they decide on domestic or foreign policies. Again, most European-Americans are in the working class and are really powerless (whatever they imagine).
However, the capitalist class really does run society! This is why it is called the ruling class. (Of course, most businesspeople are white and male.) The capitalists own their businesses and run them (directly or through hired managers). Although only 1 to 5 percent of the population, they control the production of goods and services by which we all live. They determine employment and unemployment for the workers. By their wealth and influence, they control the two political parties. They own and run the mass media, which are the main outlets for news and which shape popular culture. They dominate the government at all levels. Their class rule must be completely overturned if there is to be a better world.
Third is the potential power of the oppressed. As already stated, the struggles of African-Americans in the fifties and sixties shook up all aspects of U.S. life. I should also point to the influence of the Vietnamese, an oppressed nation which resisted U.S. imperialism. Their struggle for national liberation greatly added to this period’s shake up of the U.S. (and the world). The women’s liberation movement also affected all our culture and politics. The Gay movement was more marginal in size, but its impact was quite large in causing reconsideration of sexual stereotypes. (Women’s rights and Gay rights are still major issues in U.S. politics.)
However, the working class is unique among oppressed groups in its possible power. As I said in Part 1, only the workers (as workers) can actually stop this society altogether. And only the working class can start it up again on a new basis. Our class produces the goods; we transport them; we distribute them; we serve the people’s needs. We have an enormous potential power. Anyone who has been in a city during a major strike knows how true this is. One successful general strike in a major city would transform U.S. politics. Almost the whole of capitalist politics exists to prevent the working class from being aware of this power and using it.
Strategic ConclusionsFrom the above analysis, I draw conclusions on a strategic (not a moral-only) level. The first is that we are right to call ourselves class struggle anarchists. We are right to put class struggle specifically at the center of our politics. Strategically, the key enemy is the capitalist ruling class and its allies. We seek to mobilize the enormous, unique, power of the working class majority against them.
Second, we revolutionaries should support each and every struggle against oppression, no matter how big or small, whether obviously connected to class or not (although all such issues overlap with class). Besides having its own sources, each system of oppression supports capitalism, and is supported by capitalism. Which is to say that fighting against each oppression undermines capitalism, as fighting against capitalism undermines each oppression.
This system is very powerful and complex. It will take everything we have to overthrow it. We must point to every evil in this society to open people’s eyes to the need for revolution. We need every issue which might mobilize people to fight on their own behalf . In practice, a revolutionary group needs to prioritize its limited energies, but in principle we must oppose every evil effect of this society, and to be on the side of everyone willing to fight for a better world.
These two strategic conclusions do not contradict each other. It is at the intersection of exploitation and nonclass oppressions that we find the greatest potential for revolutionary passion--among working class immigrants or working class women, for example. In every workers’ struggle, we should look for its effects on women, African-Americans, immigrants, youth, etc. We should use such connections to strengthen the struggle--otherwise they may become sources of splits and weakness. On the other hand, in every nonclass movement, we should be looking for the class conflicts. We should oppose the middle class, pro-capitalist, leadership of the women’s movement, African-American movement, peace movement, etc.--and also of the unions! Instead, we raise a program which is in the interests of working class women, African-American workers, etc., and which exposes the capitalist causes of war. Capitalism is at the center of the authoritarian network of oppressions. They all must be abolished.
The Communist Manifesto states (and class struggle anarchists would agree), “All previous historical movements were movements of minorities, or in the interest of minorities. The proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent, movement of the immense majority, in the interests of the immense majority. The proletariat, the lowest stratum of our present society, cannot raise itself up, without the whole superincumbent strata of official society being sprung into the air.” Alternate translation: “The proletariat...cannot stand erect without bursting asunder the whole superstructure of strata that make up official society.” (in H. Draper, The Adventures of the Communist Manifesto, 1998, Berkeley CA: Center for Socialist Studies; p. 133)
In other words, the rebellion of the working class, especially those on the very bottom, shakes up everything, raising evey issue of every section of capitalist society. However, Marx and Engels knew that, even in Britain at the time, wage-workers were not a majority, let alone in other countries. (Even today, when we have a working class majority in many countries, the core of the proletariat, industrial workers, remains a minority--if a large one.) They saw the working class as winning allies among the oppressed (even if they did not have a full understanding of all oppressions). Twenty years later, Engels wrote, “The class exclusively dependent on wages all its life is still far from being a majority of the German people. It is, therefore, also compelled to seek allies.” (in Draper, 1998; p. 232)
A working class-led revolution is not going to be a seizure of state power by an elite but the conscious self-liberation of the “immense majority”: all the oppressed, at the center of which is the proletariat. And it is only the proletariat--the multi-national, multi-racial, multicultured, (etc.,) working class--which can hold together all these rebellious forces, and channel them into a revolution. The existence of a majoritarian proletarian movement is not to be found but must be created through revolutionary practice.
For approximately two centuries our class has fought. It has achieved victories and suffered terrible defeats. This working class of capitalism has been ground down, bought off, massacred, lied to, had its worst prejudices appealed to, denied all rights, granted limited democratic rights, sent off in wars, had its unions and parties turned against it, been slandered and counted out by middle class theorists. Yet in this brief time, it has fought more than any other exploited class ever did over millenia. It has built mass organizations, had major and minor strikes, forced the capitalists to grant it democratic rights, and made world-shaking revolutionary uprisings. Is there some guarantee that our class, with its allies among all the oppressed, will destroy capitalism and all oppressions? Will we--”inevitably”--overturn capitalism before capitalism destroys the world with nuclear wars and/or environmental disasters? No, there is no guarantee. This is an issue to be decided in struggle! But neither is there some fatal flaw which guarantees that our class will never triumph. History is far from over.
Written for www.Anarkismo.net