Reflections on Marxism and Oppression
By Laura Fitzgerald
“We must lead the struggle of the politically oppressed and unfree female sex into the broad course of proletarian liberation, just as we do that of oppressed peoples and nationalities. The demand for women to enjoy complete political equality before the law and in daily life will become a point of departure and a pillar of strength for the proletarian struggle to win political power… This demand [for women’s equality] signifies much more than sweeping away received prejudices, customs, and practices; much more than sweeping away male privilege. It becomes a struggle against bourgeois class rule and the bourgeois class state, and merges with the onward drive of the proletariat to win state power.”1 (our emphasis)
This is a quote from trailblazing socialist feminist Clara Zetkin, a giant of the Marxist movement who played a vital role in Germany and internationally in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The 1921 language might be archaic but the prescient kernel contained in it is as current and urgent as can be. Let’s parse it in more contemporary terms.
Zetkin argues for socialists to strive to lead the feminist struggle that she attributes strategic importance to. Placing feminist demands seamlessly inside the working-class movement, Zetkin sees them flowing into “a struggle against bourgeois class rule” – a socialist struggle against class society, capitalism, and the capitalist ruling class. Moreover, this process adds value and impetus to the working-class revolutionary process itself. Taking this approach will prove to be a “pillar of strength” for the working-class movement. Zetkin does not mince her words.
Marxism is often falsely purported as not reckoning with different forms of oppression; that it is innately ‘class reductionist’ – privileging class exploitation over other forms of oppression such as racism, sexism and LGBTQIAphobia, whose ravages it at least diminishes, if not ignores. This is a misconception as we will go on to show, irrespective of all the litany of mistakes of many left traditions on the question. In fact, this very organisation has written an analysis about deficiencies in our own tradition vis a vis fighting gender oppression, with a view to rectifying the same.2 While the most egregious and consistently poor approaches to oppression are located in left reformism, conservative trade union bureaucracies, and the Stalinist tradition – it’s not as if there aren’t still self-professed Trotskyist groups ranting and raving about ‘identity politics’ in a fashion that sounds like a right-wing talking point that continue to give Marxism a bad name.3 In this vulgar, spurious version of Marxism, ‘identity politics’ is the key tool of division used by the ruling class, rather than sexism, racism, transphobia etc.
Marxism is a philosophy that optimistically and humanistically advocates for a united, global, working-class struggle against capitalism – a self-emancipatory vision and perspective for the exploited and oppressed themselves to rise up against capitalist class rule. It advocates for the urgency and necessity of building a determined struggle that can not only take society’s wealth, resources and industry out of private hands, but also goes up against the capitalist state that protects the status quo. Via this democratic movement of the masses from below, an alternative to the state has to be actively built. Such a revolutionary perspective for a rupture with capitalism – centring the unique power of a united working-class movement imbued with socialist politics – are at Marxism’s core.
This revolutionary process, and this united working-class socialist movement, are thoroughly and inextricably intertwined with the anti-oppression struggle. The revolutionary process unfolding without the latter is unthinkable – an impossibility. The radicalisation, the social ferment, the adding of value and impetus to the working-class movement – à la Zetkin above – that flow from struggles against oppression are part and parcel of the revolutionary process. Oppression is a tool of capitalist rule. Therefore it has to be challenged as part of any movement that is genuinely fighting capitalism. Moreover, the working-class movement cannot be fought in the workplace alone if it’s to successfully challenge and defeat the capitalist class and system – and in order for it to be able challenge for power as a whole it must be able to take up all facets of social life.
A Marxist approach to fighting oppression is never about being any less feminist or less anti-racist in a deference to class oppression and exploitation. It’s about strengthening anti-oppression struggles in every way and simultaneously rooting them in a perspective that can win true, full, and lasting freedom. This piece will attempt, 1) to summarise some hallmarks of a Marxist approach to fighting oppression; 2) to illuminate in brief the problems with a liberal anti-oppression strategy; and 3) to rebut the idea that Marxism is class reductionist, relegating anti-oppression demands and struggles.
- Hallmarks of a Marxist approach to combating oppression
We will try to boil down a Marxist approach to fighting oppression to the following morsels: a) an analysis of where oppression is rooted; b) recognition of the interconnectedness of oppression and exploitation; c) self-emancipation; and d) always conscious, always combative.
A. Possessing an analysis of where oppression is rooted and a laser focus on advancing the struggle against the same
In short, oppression in all its guises is rooted in and reproduced by capitalism: an innately patriarchal, gender-binary promoting, racist, ecologically-destructive and oppressive system. Gender- and sexuality-based oppression have their roots in the beginnings of the first class-divided societies. Racism has a much shorter life-span in history, with it being innately tied up with the development of capitalism and imperialism itself. While capitalism initially developed in Europe, endless expansion in search of new markets, resources and supplies of labour was in the nature of the system. This meant the colonisation of Africa and Asia, the ethnic cleansing of the indigenous peoples of the Americas and the horrors of the Atlantic slave trade. Such horrors were perpetrated in the interests of profit but also necessitated a categorisation and stratification of people based on the new criteria of race (a concept which of course has no biological basis).
Racism today remains a powerful ideological tool to divide and rule working class people and to justify the ongoing super-exploitation of the global south. Migrants and people of colour in Europe and North America are subjected to systemic state repression and are concentrated in the most exploitative sectors of the economy, all to the benefit of the system. These, and other forms of oppression have been deepened and reproduced by capitalism in an intricate web of ways.
A Marxist approach to fighting oppression at all times must retain a laser focus on oppression’s roots in capitalism, a system based on the systemic exploitation of workers and the poor – the vast majority of society – and the environment, in the pursuit of profits for a tiny elite. In this way, it means possessing a crystal clear view on the type of socialist struggle and change needed to end oppression; it means consciously imbuing this understanding into every act; it means understanding who are our enemies – the capitalist class and its system, including the states that uphold its rule, and who are our potential allies – the exploited and oppressed of the world who have a common interest in uprooting the system that breeds oppression. In building our anti-oppression struggles, we may ‘march separately, but strike together’ – seeking to build the widest possible movement against any and all forms of injustice and oppression, but with a clear remit to cohere and win leadership for an approach and programme rooted in anti-capitalism, socialism, and working-class unity in struggle to achieve the same.
B. Recognising the interconnectedness of oppression and exploitation
As Marx’s penetrating analysis of capitalism laid bare, worker exploitation is the central building block of capitalism. Profits are the unpaid labour of the working class. The capitalist compensates the worker just enough for their labour power to reproduce their labour power. The worker’s labour power, however, produces more value than it costs – a surplus value that the capitalist commandeers. In this way, the source of capitalist profits is the ability to compensate workers less than the full value of their labour, i.e. to exploit them. This exploitation is an innate contradiction of capitalism, underpinning the injustice and inequality at the core of the system. But it also means that workers are naturally infused with potential power. An organised movement of workers has special power to strike at the heart of the system that sustains class rule.
Behind and integrated into this central contradiction of capitalism is the gendered and patriarchal inequality of capitalism. The system requires the gender binary and backward gender roles, including because of the unpaid and underpaid reproductive labour that reproduces the labour force for capitalism, carried out mainly by working-class women. This work takes place often within the confines of capitalism’s patriarchal family structure, and also within the paid labour force – notably in health and education, female dominated sectors. Oxfam has estimated the value of the unpaid work of women and girls worldwide as $10.8 trillion per annum, over twice the size of the global tech industry.
Without the reproduction of the labour force there is no profit to be made. In this way, gender oppression and the imposition of a backward gender binary is not just floating about untethered in and around the system, it is inextricably tied into it – in this instance because of the workings of the interconnected spheres of production and reproduction.
Similarly, the extraction from and exploitation of nature that is constant under capitalism – with its rapacious need for expansion of profits no matter the cost – is a current and active reproducer of a sort of neo-colonialism on a global level. The refugee crisis resulting from climate change is another active and present driver of capitalism’s racist inequalities. Climate refugees could reach 1.2 billion by 2050 under current trends.
Oppression – a systemic subjugation – of course intersects and intertwines with exploitation. Nurses and care workers are underpaid and undervalued in a gendered fashion – in this instance because of the overall low value attached to what’s seen as “feminine” caring work under patriarchal capitalism. They are also exploited as workers, intensely so under pandemic conditions. Similarly, migrant workers regularly face more intensified exploitation as workers.
These examples are just a glimpse into the myriad intertwining of oppression and exploitation. Furthermore, the radicalising effect of oppression on those who face it, along with the class division that the majority of those with oppressed identities also face, creates an intensified radicalisation that can propel these sectors of the working class and poor to the forefront of struggle and politicisation. They can be among the first to draw more far-reaching, radical and revolutionary conclusions.
“The truth, not fully recognised even by those anxious to do good to woman, is that she, like the labour-classes, is in an oppressed condition; that her position, like theirs, is one of merciless degradation. Women are the creatures of an organised tyranny of men, as the workers are the creatures of an organised tyranny of idlers. Even where this much is grasped, we must never be weary of insisting on the non-understanding that for women, as for the labouring classes, no solution of the difficulties and problems that present themselves is really possible in the present condition of society. All that is done, heralded with no matter what flourish of trumpets, is palliative, not remedial. Both the oppressed classes, women and the immediate producers, must understand that their emancipation will come from themselves.” 4– Eleanor Marx and Edward Aveling (our emphasis)
Eleanor Marx, daughter of Karl and trailblazing revolutionary socialist who, in fighting for her father’s politics with every fibre of her being, sought to weave feminist demands and struggles into the early workers’ and socialist movement. A beloved and legendary working-class leader in her own right – an organiser of dockworkers, gas workers, engineers and miners – who addressed the first ever May Day demonstration in London in 1890, Eleanor Marx’s radicalisation and political thinking were formed as a child and adolescent following, writing about and campaigning against the colonial oppression of the Irish people by the British ruling class. Writing here as early as 1886 alongside her life partner Edward Aveling (more on him later), she not only recognises the patriarchal nature of the capitalist mode of production, she also explicitly advocates for self-emancipation for women themselves – and the same applies for any of those peoples facing a particular type of systemic subjugation.
Those who themselves suffer any particular form of oppression have a central role in fighting against the same. They understand what it means to be subjected to it more than anyone. Furthermore, getting active in any collective struggle is a radicalising and politicising experience: often transforming awareness about the systematic nature of oppression; dispelling illusions in the system; and illustrating in a living way the necessity for determined struggle and solidarity in order to enact any change. This can propel those people into a leading role in the working-class movement as a whole – à la the women and queer people on the frontline against the Iranian dictatorship in the ‘Woman, Life, Freedom’ social revolt sparked in September 2022.
Oppressed people getting active to fight their own oppression in struggle is innately a positive for the whole working class, including those that do not experience that form of oppression directly. Misogyny, racism, LGBTQphobia etc. are odious in themselves, have deleterious, sometimes deadly consequences for those affected by them. As well as being knitted into and reproduced in a myriad of ways by the capitalist system itself, they are also essential tools of the capitalist ruling class that needs division amongst the exploited and oppressed in order to maintain its rule.
As well as winning increased rights, collective anti-oppression movements fight divisions, prejudices, and backward ideas amongst the working class that damage solidarity. The Black Lives Matter explosion of multi-racial mass protests onto the streets around the world after the murder of George Floyd in the US on 25 May 2020, that had iterations across the island of Ireland, give an insight into this. It was the first time that widespread anti-racist protests here were led by Black people, especially Black young people. The depth of racism and its brutal toll were highlighted by those raising their voices. The reality of being ‘Black and Irish’, and the illustration of the deep hurt and alienation felt by those who are asked every day, ‘Where are you from? No, where are you really from?’, because of widespread racist prejudice, was brought into public discussion in a way that could never have happened without it being led primarily by those experiencing the oppression. It had a profound impact, and absolutely raised the consciousness of many working-class and young people from white backgrounds to strive to be more anti-racist. In the US, the June 2020 BLM revolt demonstrably delivered a leap forward in public attitudes – achieving a 17% nationwide increase in support for the movement in the two weeks of protests since George Floyd’s killing was publicised.5
In Poland during the pro-choice feminist Black Protests of 2016 – polls showed increased support for abortion in the context of this defiant struggle, in an upwards trend of support in the years since despite new devastating attacks from the right wing.6 An oppressed group rising up as agents in struggle, demanding their rights, often fighting tooth and nail against the same capitalist governments attacking working-class living standards and rights broadly, of course has a profound impact on all the exploited and oppressed, including those who don’t experience that oppression directly.
An oppressed group getting active in struggle can sometimes win increased rights even if it doesn’t spark a whole lot of wider solidarity. Usually, the active striking forward in struggle of one oppressed group will evoke solidarity from other layers – evidenced in so many ways in the 2010s feminist and LGBTQ rights waves, from the movements in Ireland that won marriage equality and abortion in popular votes; to the abortion green wave in Argentina that provoked active support from the working class of all genders; to the movement against femicide that saw workers in a predominantly male car manufacturing workforce walking out against femicide in the Spanish state in 2021.7 Such solidarity deepens and strengthens the struggle.
Moreover, to take oppression up at the roots this solidarity is not only useful it is essential. “Both…women and the immediate producers, must understand that their emancipation will come from themselves”, says Eleanor Marx. The working class, united, politically conscious and organised as socialist, has special power to uproot the private ownership of wealth at the heart of capitalism – channelling this power and entwining it with every single revolt at the multiple fault lines of the system is the only way a serious, let alone successful, challenge to the system that perpetuates oppression can be mounted.
D. Always conscious, always combative
There’s no space for determinism or fatalism within a serious fighting Marxist approach. Its whole essence hinges around the exploited and oppressed taking their destiny into their own hands in a conscious struggle. This conscious struggle involves those organised as Marxists to always be seeking ways for any oppressed or exploited section to strike forward in struggle; to aid this struggle where possible to win victories; to deepen the active solidarity of other exploited and oppressed sections towards this struggle, enhancing its reach and simultaneously raising class consciousness; and to always seek to fill the burst of fresh air that any collective struggle creates for those active within it, with an increase in those who are conscious and organised as part of the revolutionary socialist movement.
The “always conscious, always combative” approach, not only pertains to the question of striking forward in struggle wherever possible; it also pertains to a conscious struggle within the broad working-class movement, and even within our own political organisations of the socialist left, to raise consciousness and challenge every vestige of prejudice, which is poisonous to solidarity. In fact, this is something we need to pay extra attention to at this historical juncture – when the feminist and LGBTQIA wave that soared from the 2010s into the 2020s is facing such a right-wing backlash. The attacks on the gains of MeToo; the vicious anti-trans offensive – all need to be met with a robust rebuttal, including within the trade union movement, and all left movements.
This battle within the working-class movement was something Lenin spoke about in conversation with Clara Zetkin in 1920:
“Unfortunately, we may still say of many of our comrades, ‘Scratch the Communist and a Philistine appears.’ To be sure, you have to scratch the sensitive spots, such as their mentality regarding women…We must root out the old slave-owner’s point of view, both in the Party and among the masses. That is one of our political tasks, a task just as urgently necessary as the formation of a staff composed of comrades, men and women, with thorough theoretical and practical training for Party work among working women.”8
As far back as 1902, in the seminal What Is To Be Done?, Lenin made it clear what class consciousness, as distinct from ‘trade union consciousness’, really means. In raising class consciousness, Lenin advocates for socialist worker activists to be ‘tribunes of the people’ who speak up against all injustice meted out by the system – no matter what class is affected – in an effort to truly agitate against the system and build working-class agency, consciousness and power.9
The socialist project is no narrow one. So it follows that any narrow view of what constitutes working-class consciousness and struggle – for example a view that limits the same to either solely or primarily questions of wages and conditions on a workplace level, or any version of an economistic approach – cannot ever cut it. A social revolution is the ultimate act of human creativity, forged in struggle in an intense, kinetic moment in time, full of promise and potential and hope. Given this, how could a Marxist organisation worth its salt eschew questions of oppression, including by failing to seek to disabuse sections of the working class of the prejudices and oppressive practices that they have absorbed via the prevailing capitalist culture they’ve been conditioned by, if that organisation was truly basing itself on the type of revolutionary rupture with the system that’s objectively needed from the point of view of humanity and the planet?
Any mealy-mouthed approach on oppression would be blatantly incongruent with the type of change needed, with the type of change that is at Marxism’s core, and in fact would betray a lack of perspective for the same. Similarly, piecemeal offerings or zig-zagging in one’s commitment to the anti-oppression fight will not suffice. This is no abstract question. Observe the ‘Woman, Life, Freedom’ revolt in Iran: a revolutionary movement sparked by an act of patriarchal state violence in September 2022, infused in every way with the demand for women and queer people’s freedom, and gripping the whole working class and political and social life. It is a living, breathing, current example of the importance of questions of oppression in winning leadership for a programme for socialist change.
The “always conscious, always combative” approach was evident in the practice of women Marxists in the movement historically who embodied this struggle in every way, including establishing international structures and conferences to organise and push a working-class feminism as a vital component of the wider working-class movement. The First International Conference of Socialist Women took place as early as 1907, alongside a conference of the Socialist International, founding an international movement of socialist women. Out of its 1910 conference came the proposal to establish International Women’s Day, now 8 March. This activity on behalf of Marxist women was often met with passivity, indifference and sometimes hostility by many of their conservative male comrades. A resolution passed at the 1907 Women’s Conference explicitly took this up, stating that:
“By and large, where the interests and rights of women were concerned, the [Second] International’s decisions were carried out only to the degree that organised socialist women were able to force the proletarian organisations in each country to do so.”10
Here we see how the self-liberatory element of a Marxist approach to fighting oppression is entwined with the “always conscious, always combative” aspect. It’s worth noting that many of the Marxist women who took on this struggle were also key advocates for maintaining a revolutionary, anti-imperialist stance, as the increasingly reformist trajectory of so many of the leading lights of the Second International saw them descend into brutal betrayal, including failure to oppose the imperialism of the First World War.
- Problems with a liberal approach to fighting oppression
A liberal feminism or anti-racism is defined by an approach that works within the parameters of the capitalist system. Any approach to fighting oppression that is ultimately liberal is incapable of ending that oppression, and in the process often tends to accommodate and compromise with the oppressive status quo in a way that may subvert the demands and needs of oppressed groupings in struggle. It fails to see the significance of capitalism’s class divide – either from the point of view of the multifaceted impediments facing those from oppressed identities who are working class, or from the point of view of recognising the power of united working-class struggle in striking back against the capitalist class and system. A liberal commitment to personal freedom is often defined by an individualistic outlook, devoid of or countering a view of rooting oppression in capitalism and class society. A liberal approach also tends to eschew collective ‘struggle from below’, which is the way oppression is most effectively challenged.
Clara Zetkin, whose words comprised our opening salvo, excoriated the “bourgeois women’s rights” feminists – the elite class women who did not break in any significant way with the men of their class, and the system of class rule. She was particularly sharp when their demands or approach clashed with the interests of working-class and poor women, and the working class and poor of all genders. In an example of where she clashed with the bourgeois feminists, and incidentally also with the increasingly conservative and reformist SPD leadership, Zetkin refused to co-sign a petition that meekly sought an increase in democratic rights to assemble for women, in a fashion that ignored the demands of the whole labour and socialist movement for wider change in this regard. She likened their tame appeal, dripping with pusillanimity, to the mindset of bourgeois feminists similarly conditioned by their elite bubble who had issued an odious petition a year earlier advocating for the criminalisation of sex workers.11
It’s patently obvious that there’s a class divide within feminist, anti-racist and other anti-oppression concerns. The most overtly class antagonistic approaches include a nakedly capitalist feminism, or capitalist anti-racism, anti-LGBTQphobia, etc. that hails (usually limited) increased diversity in the boardroom of giant corporations which perpetuate oppression, exploitation and ecological catastrophe in their operations; or representation in capitalist governments that attack working-class livelihoods, or use ‘feminist’ arguments to justify imperialism.
We can increasingly add a bourgeois transphobic ‘feminism’ to this list. The ‘Terf-ism’ of JK Rowling et al. – herself personally a super-rich, probably billionaire – is increasingly about reinforcing the backward gender binary, something very much needed by the capitalist system, as it aligns with further and further far-right forces that seek to crush the feminist and LGBTQ wave, and have migrants and people of colour in their crosshairs. All of these approaches are akin to attempts by shills for the status quo to co-opt the language of, or aspects of, issues raised by anti-oppression campaigns and movements. In this way, they are a class conscious attempt by ruling class interests to neuter or quell anti-oppression movements.
However, within the active anti-oppression movements themselves, albeit with many contradictions, liberal approaches to fighting oppression inevitably abound, including amongst many activists and organisations who may also have positive attributes, who may even make anti-capitalist pronouncements from time to time. Here are some of these qualities in brief:
- A view that those who don’t experience the oppression themselves not only benefit from the oppression but have a vested interest in maintaining it. While it’s manifestly true that only those who experience a particular form of oppression can understand what it feels like, any implicit or explicit notion that takes the relative advantages that one section of the working class might possess vis a vis another section, and theorises that there is a vested interest on behalf of the latter to perpetuate that oppression is insidious. Of course there are benefits or advantages, some material, others relating to social status, self-perception that accrue to men, to white people, to cis people from oppression. However, they do not alter the overarching interest for working-class people from these groups to challenge oppression because it ties them into a system which also exploits them. Moreover, any notion that there is a vested interest within parts of the working class in maintaining the status quo is laced with illusions in capitalism – a system in decay hurtling further and further into ecological catastrophe, incapable of providing for the needs of the vast majority of humanity. The truth is it’s urgently in the interests of the working class in the widest possible sense to unite to dismantle this system.
Furthermore, any vestige of this liberal identity politics approach is damaging to the objective needs of any prospective anti-oppression movement that requires the building of the widest possible solidarity to sustain and empower it. Sometimes a reflection of this approach can be the idea that only those directly affected by any given oppression should talk about it. Of course those experiencing the ravages of the same should be the central voices in any movement vis a vis their issues, but in fact we urgently need to deepen the solidarity, widen the fightback – asking those within the working-class movement who are cis to speak up loudly in support of their trans siblings, or for cis-men to speak out against toxic masculinity. Yes, we absolutely need this and it should be encouraged in our struggles. One effect of this liberal identity politics approach in practice can be that working-class men do not actually have to concern themselves with women’s oppression and so forth – hiving off struggles against oppression, rather than making them central concerns for the whole working-class movement
- Connected to the above is a pessimism about the potential for class solidarity that tends to manifest itself in a limited scope for the change that is sought. Sometimes that limited change will home in on a laudable quest to change backward and oppressive attitudes, but this quest is doomed to failure if it’s not infused with a dynamic attempt to build active struggles and movements that are consciously and primarily aimed at the system, and if it’s not dovetailed with a wholesale programme and perspective to attack the private ownership of wealth – the structural roots of oppression and exploitation. Other times, this approach can silo off different struggles of oppressed identities from each other, often then folding back into a very liberal and representation-based politics.
- An identity-based rather than a Marxist view of class. Some see being working class as an identity, one amongst many others under capitalism. Even those who identify as working class may do so proudly, embracing a particular culture and tradition, but may fail to see the working class as Marxists do – the creators of the wealth that is held by the capitalist class. Consequently the potential liberatory power of a united working class in struggle in all its diversity, allied with all the poor and oppressed of the world, is eschewed.
- Sometimes within the movements, groups and activists pivot upon an ultra left / liberal axis, retaining elements of a liberal identity politics approach but coexisting in a contradictory way alongside more radical ideas. By this we mean perhaps declarations that capitalism and oppressive state institutions like prisons should be abolished – welcome ideas! – but without these tethered to a clear strategy, programme and perspective rooted in class politics, more often than not, loop back into a liberal approach. Many of those who identify as prison abolitionists can typify this approach: on the one hand the abolition demand is presented in a blunt fashion that would seem to imply simply doing away with these institutions overnight and therefore unnecessarily alienating a lot of ordinary people who may be concerned about what that would mean. However, whenever the detail is discussed, what is actually being proposed is reformist and liberal – namely gradually handing over some police functions to social workers for example, an approach steeped in illusions that the capitalist system and its state could dispense with its own repressive apparatuses willingly.
One of the features of the ongoing feminist wave that began in the 2010s is how, emanating from the most combative, youthful and working-class elements of the movement, impulses seeking to overcome liberal identity politics approaches have been evident. Included in this is the recognition that the whole system is perpetuating gender violence, e.g. “the rapist is you” anthem that began in Chile and took aim squarely at the state institutions12 – and an attempt to assail limiting, counter-productive approaches, such as “women-only” strikes or demonstrations.
Sometimes that has been articulated as the demand for the movement to be ‘intersectional’. In Mexico, the young people in the Ni Una Menos movement who emphasise their intersectionality are doing so to mount a defiant and vital push back against the anti-trans feminists who are still a strong feature in the movement. The demand for intersectionality coming from the base of anti-oppression movements is also often indicative of a rejection of a liberal identity politics that crassly parts off different oppressed and exploited peoples from each other, and at best fails to reckon with class division.
From Sojourner Truth exclaiming “Ain’t I A Woman?” in 1851; to Claudia Jones writing about the “super-exploitation” of black, poor, working-class women in 1949; to the Combahee River Collective in 1977 writing about the need for an approach that considered class, gender, sexuality and race; Black women radicals and feminists before the term ‘intersectionality’ was coined have been important contributors seeking to ensure that the intersection of race and gender are reckoned with within the feminist, anti-racist, and working-class movements.
The singular concept of intersectionality, namely that different oppressions intersect and change the nature of how oppression is experienced, is undeniable. The intensified and multifaceted oppression that Black women face, working-class and poor most of all, is a clear example of this. There are a myriad of heart wrenching examples of this, but we can use one as indicative: that of unequal maternal death rates facing women of colour and their babies. In the US, where poorer outcomes for Black women / pregnant people and their babies has been well documented for years, a new study has further illustrated the divide. In a huge study of California births, massive disparities were indicated in outcomes between rich and poor patients. However, maternal and infant mortality rates were as high among the highest-income Black women as among low-income white women – giving an insight into the depth of anti-Black racism.13
More than even double or treble oppression that is cumulative or additive, the concept that different oppressions clash and collide and create something qualitatively different in the process, clearly resonates hugely with those experiencing this harsh reality because it absolutely rings true.
Having said this, intersectionality itself is limited. The single concept, not rooted necessarily in any particular broader analytical framework or philosophy, is highly malleable – problematically so. In reality, it can be subscribed to, and then melded with all sorts of liberal identity politics approaches. It can be placed in a postmodern philosophical framework and academic theorising that clashes fundamentally with a class viewpoint. The fact that it is so malleable actually then leaves it open to co-opting by the most bourgeois of forces. Kamala Harris, famed for her ‘law and order’ politics when she was a prosecutor in San Francisco – responsible for the repression of working-class communities of colour – was feted by The New York Times as being innately intersectional by virtue of her identity alone, giving a glimpse of the insidious lows to which this can go.14
Marta E. Gimènez has written that, “unattached to a specific theoretical foundation [intersectionality] is open to co-optation, transformation and multiple interpretations, thus becoming a ‘common ground for all feminisms’ despite important differences among feminists”. In positing a Marxist feminist critique of intersectionality, she sharply observes that:
“Although intersectionality may deny the fundamental importance of class, the phenomena that concerns it, gender, racial, ethnic and other forms of oppression and inequality, have capitalist causes and call for a Marxist theoretical analysis; excluding the relationship between class, socio-economic inequality and gender, race and other sources of discrimination and oppression exonerates capitalism from responsibility…”15
In short, intersectionality has nothing to say about the roots of oppression itself, nor about how to end it. The singular concept of oppressions intersecting must be rooted in a broader Marxist analysis and perspective and programme, in order to realise the radical, solidarity-infused and liberatory impulses of those working-class and youthful elements of movements who are declaring their intersectionality as a means to express their desire to truly end all forms of oppression.
- From Marx and Engels to today – does Marxism innately relegate oppression?
“The workers of the North have finally understood very well that labour in the white skin cannot emancipate itself where in the black skin it is branded.”16 – Marx, on the US Civil War
Marx’s sympathetic description of a sex worker character in a popular contemporary novel, Les Mystères de Paris, is telling: “[Fleur de Marie has] vitality, energy, cheerfulness, elasticity of character – qualities which alone explain her human development in her inhuman situation… She does not appear as a defenceless lamb who surrenders without any resistance to overwhelming brutality; she is a girl who can vindicate her rights and put up a fight.” His admiration for Fleur de Marie – her moral fibre, and her fighting spirit – is paired with his excoriation of the poverty, the sexism, and the misogynistic religious moralism that she is oppressed by.17
Engels we know wrote a seminal text dealing with the origins of gender oppression. Its legacy is such that even new books being produced in 2023,18 on the topic of the roots of patriarchy, still have his work as a major reference point. Engels situated the origins of women’s oppression alongside the beginning of class-divided societies with developments in agriculture circa 10,000 BCE. Engels claimed that the “primitive communism” of early hunter-gatherer societies shows that the model of the patriarchal family, including monogamous marriage (with the emphasis being with the woman’s monogamy and a controlling of her body and sexuality), was not the natural way of things but was a socially-imposed means to pass on private property through a male line.
For 99% of history, humanity lived in a huge variety of kinships, in societies with little or no distinction between private and public spheres. These earlier forms of society were no utopia and often people faced a daily struggle for survival. However, what most of them had in common was that they were egalitarian and based on the redistribution of goods – from each according to ability, to each according to needs. Systematic exploitation either of fellow humans or of the environment was unheard of.
Archaeological, historical and anthropological research since Engels well documents that only with the development of settlements, particularly with early agrarian societies, did institutions such as the state and the heterosexual nuclear family emerge. This upholds Engels’s revolutionary thesis: namely that women’s oppression didn’t always exist – in fact 99% of human history was not patriarchal. Therefore gender-based oppression is not immutable and absolutely can be ended. The “historical defeat of the female sex” that Engels wrote about may be disputed in the sense that it was a more complex and drawn out process than that phrase and some of Engels arguments may indicate, but the central thesis remains sound and vital.19
While of course there are gaps and issues, any notion that Marx and Engels themselves did not take oppression seriously can be definitively rebutted via their own writings. Moreover, what’s key is that a historical materialist analysis and approach of course must include an analysis that fully and dynamically integrates oppression in every way. In fact, doing so is a certain test for revolutionaries. The truth is that the reformist left and those from a Stalinist left tradition are the most likely to fail this test. A crude economism is often a hallmark of these trends.
Russia’s October Revolution of 1917, led by the Bolsheviks – a revolutionary process kicked off by working-class and poor women taking to the streets in February that year – had women and queer people’s liberation as an active component: decriminalisation of homosexuality, abortion, and being a sex worker; universal suffrage; easy divorce; a project to roll out universal public childcare, collective laundries and kitchens; feminist labour laws; and the groundbreaking work of the Zhenotdel – the initiative led by women Bolshevik revolutionaries to continue to politicise, empower and advance working-class and poor women’s conditions and activism within the revolution.
It’s no accident that Stalin re-criminalised homosexuality and abortion and abolished the Zhenotdel. Just as liberation from gender- and sexuality-based oppression was part and parcel of the working-class revolution, so was the crushing of the same vital for the Stalinist counter-revolution.
Conclusion: Nothing human is alien to the working-class cause
The 2010s saw a new feminist and LGBTQ wave emerging globally, mobilising millions in struggle and winning important victories, including abortion access in Ireland, Argentina, South Korea, and more, and uplifting demands for trans rights, an end to gender-based violence and femicide. This development went alongside other vital struggles against oppression and environmental degradation – that of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, including the George Floyd uprising that led to some of the biggest mobilisations in history across the US,20 and the Fridays for Future international movement that saw millions of school students striking for climate action in September 2019.21
From political developments in South Korea that saw young men protest ‘reverse discrimination’ as a new head of state took office on an anti-feminist ticket;22 to the Andrew Tate brand of viral misogyny; to blows to #MeToo such as the Depp verdict; and the nadir, the US Supreme Court ruling that overturned half a century of nationwide legal abortion; the early 2020s have been marred by a vicious anti-feminist, anti-trans backlash seeking to crush anti-oppression struggles and the hope that they bring. This has all been intertwined with a deranged ratcheting up of transphobia, as well as xenophobia and racism with establishment politicians increasingly stealing the clothes of the far right in their ridiculous, reactionary and increasingly repressive, book-banning “war on woke”.
The capitalist system is in the midst of a multifaceted crisis, the depth and complexity of which it’s never faced before. And the anti-feminist, anti-trans backlash is coming straight out of this system in decay, with a ruling class needing more than ever division amongst the exploited and oppressed.
Karl Marx’s favourite maxim was “Nihil humani a me alienum puto” – “Nothing human is alien to me.”23 Every single injustice and cruelty meted out by the capitalist system is a concern of the working-class movement that is imbued with the objective potential power to eliminate the roots of the same. Capitalism as a system contains a multitude of contradictions, including a multitude of iterations of oppression and ecological destruction that weave in and through the class base of the system. We mentioned the great Eleanor Marx earlier and her contribution to Marxism and socialist feminism. Her partner, Edward Aveling, with whom she co-authored the text we quoted, treated her with a patriarchal disdain that bore the hallmarks of intimate partner abuse and was a contributing factor in her premature death at the age of just 42. How tragic an example of why the working-class struggle cannot afford to ignore the ravages of oppression.
Just when the anti-feminist backlash so bleakly emerged, events exploded in Iran that symbolised a new and higher plane had been reached in the feminist wave beginning in the 2010s. The ‘Woman, Life, Freedom!’ movement has seen a revolutionary feminism emerge in Iran. Imbuing this revolutionary feminism with a working-class, anti-capitalist and socialist programme, is how the backlash must be fought. The youthful, hope-bringing, life-affirming, creative mass movements and explosions of struggle against the ravages of oppression, bringing millions of exploited and oppressed onto the streets across continents in the 2010s and 2020s have been inspirational.
The best traditions of Marxism indicate that the only way a revolutionary challenge to the system can be mounted, and can succeed, is through a working-class revolutionary movement; and furthermore, that the latter is impossible without the demands and struggles of the oppressed tying in and through that movement inextricably. They give special impetus, urgency and potency to it.
1. Zetkin, Clara, “The tasks of the Second International Communist Women’s Conference”, from The Communist Women’s Movement, 1920-1922, Proceedings, Resolutions and Reports (Ed. Taber, Mike, Dyakonova, Daria), 2023, p. XXII
4. “The Woman Question”, Marx, Eleanor & Aveling, Edward, 1886, www.marxists.org/archive/eleanor-marx/works/womanq.htm
10. Quoted in The Communist Women’s Movement, 1920-1922, Proceedings, Resolutions and Reports (Ed. Taber, Mike, Dyakonova, Daria), 2023
15. Gimenez, Martha E., Marx, Women and Capitalist Social Reproduction (2018)
16. Marx quoted in Marx at the Margins, Anderson, Kevin B. (2016) p.114
17. Marx quoted in Marx on Gender and the Family, Brown, Heather A. (2012), p.36
18. See The Patriarchs: How Men Came to Rule, Saini, Angela (2023)