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June 09, 2023

Marx and the Fight against Oppression

Many activists believe that the fight against oppression is a relatively new phenomenon. Moreover, they believe that Marxist organizations never gave much importance to that. In the end, for a Marxist what would matter most would be the social classes, and all the rest would be secondary, except in recent years when it became inevitable to address oppression issues such as gender, race, sexual orientation, among others, by the breadth of the movements around these issues.

By: Gustavo Machado

However, this way of understanding the historical development of Marxism and the struggle against oppression is false from beginning to end. Once again, that understanding was the product of the Stalinist counterrevolution. This has its reason for being.

 Stalinism and oppression in the USSR     

Russia included dozens of nationalities oppressed by Moscow centuries ago. Ukrainians, Georgians, Chechens, Poles, among others, formed oppressed nationalities politically, economically and socially by the Russians. With the Stalinist victory, the abandonment of the international revolution, and the theory of socialism in one country, the Soviet Union became interested in the same regime of oppression that existed before the revolution. Under Stalin’s control, the Soviet government abandoned the struggles against oppression and attributed to Marx a theory that never existed in his thought. In that theory, everything would be deduced from social classes. The social classes would explain everything. But not only that: everything that did not refer to the notion of social class would be reactionary and would fragment the struggle for socialism and its liberation. With this theory, the oppression of the various nationalities within the USSR could be justified and the fight against these oppressions be considered reactionary.

Hence the fact that much of the movement against oppression has developed, since then, separately from Marxism and, often, against it. That generated an opposite problem, most of the theories about oppression were taken in subjective terms, that is, as if they were mere cultural and identity preconceptions. By not relating each oppression to the form of society within which it develops, capitalism managed to domesticate such struggles from within. Worse still, in doing so, it prevented them from being taken to the full extend. 

To combat All Oppression that divides Workers

In Marx’s conception, the question of oppression was never taken in the Stalinist way. In fact, the unity of the working class for the struggle against capital is the central node of Marx’s theory. Only the organized working class can destroy capitalism. This is because the same working class is responsible for developing the whole system. Uniting the working class is the objective, the result sought by any revolutionary organization. Thus, the central question is how to unite the working class. Therefore, it is obviously impossible to unite a social class without fighting all kinds of oppression that fragments it and throws the class strata against each other.

For that reason, Marx was, already in the mid-nineteenth century, at the forefront in the struggle against oppression. In The Capital, he devotes dozens of pages to work oppression of women within the factory. In the North American civil war, Marx intervened directly in favor of the North, a sector that opposed slavery that irremediably divided white and black workers inside the United States. Probably, in terms of oppression, one of Marx’s distinct elaborations was his defense of Ireland’s independence in relation to England, within the International Workers’ Association (IWA).

The Struggle for the Independence of Ireland

In the 19th century, Ireland was a country colonized by England. The country served as grazing land to supply meat and wool at low prices for English industry. Industry was destroyed. Without resources and hungry, the Irish population emigrated en masse to the United States and to England itself. In these countries, they suffered every imaginable type of oppression. They were considered a lazy race, prone to crime, among many other things.

Marx not only assumed the defense of the independence of Ireland against the English domination, he also sought to demonstrate how such oppression was completely intertwined with the domination of one class over the other. This topic was the central aspect of Marx’s intervention in the IWA. He dedicated himself with such passion that the rest of his family became involved in that struggle. Marx’s eldest daughter, Jenny Marx, also devoted a series of articles to the Irish question.

Let us see, then, how Marx addressed the issue.

In the first place, it would be easier to mobilize Irish workers, since in Ireland it is not just an “economic issue but, at the same time, a nationality issue”. The national oppression of one country over another joins the economic exploitation of one class over the other. Therefore, in Ireland, English owners are “oppressors of nationality, hated to death.” As can be seen, the agitation for the independence of a nation can, in that case, be combined with economic exploitation, enhancing one another.

Despite Stalinist distortion, the issue of oppression was recurrent in Soviet propaganda. A poster read: “Workers of all countries and oppressed colonies, raise the Lenin flag.” (1932). 

Preconception: divide to reign

In addition, Marx explains that, by throwing Irish workers into migration, including to England, Ireland continuously provided a large number of workers for the “English labor market, thus reducing wages and deteriorating the material and moral situation of the English working class.” Thus, the oppression of Ireland harmed not only Irish workers but also English workers, lowering the general average wage. National oppression, and in that case also racial oppression, became a tool that allowed the whole of the ruling class to better exploit both English and Irish workers.

The third and, according to Marx, the most important of all the factors is the following: “the industrial and commercial centers of England now have a working class that is divided into two enemy camps: English proletarians and Irish proletarians.” In the end, the “English worker hates the Irishman as a competitor who lowers wages and the standard of living”. Not without reason, he has “national and religious antipathies against him. He views him almost with the same eyes as the poor whites of the Southern States of North America considered black slaves.”

That is not all. The English workers feel as members of the dominant nation against the Irish. For that reason, “they become an instrument of their capitalists against Ireland”. Therefore, by dividing the working class into English workers, on the one hand, and Irish workers, on the other, the revolutionary fire of both strata of the class is not linked. On the contrary, in all the great industrial centers of England we have a deep antagonism between the Irish and English workers. This division, on the other hand, leads to other types of preconceptions, such as religious, since Ireland is a Catholic country and England is Protestant.

As noted, national and religious preconceptions have a social and objective basis. The real inequality between English and Irish workers within England feeds all kinds of preconceptions: religious, cultural, and so on. For that reason, the “bourgeoisie artificially feeds and preserves this antagonism among workers even within England. They know that in that division of the proletariat resides the real secret that sustains their power.”

As we can see, the defense of the independence of Ireland is not considered by Marx a nationalist claim separated from social classes. Nor is there the idea that, starting from social classes, all oppression can be explained. In Marx’s definition, only with Irish liberation would it be possible to break the barriers that impeded the unity of the working class within England itself.

To unite the Working Class to defeat Capitalism 

The unity of the class to fight capitalism is the main objective of Marx. However, they are empty words if we do not take into account all the national, racial, gender or sexual orientation factors that act as barriers that prevent that unity from occurring. Thus, it is not a matter of choosing which factor is primary or secondary. Individually, many oppressions are certainly more repulsive than economic exploitation, but it is not a moral issue. For Marx, the task is to link each particular aspect to the need to organize the class to confront capitalism. If a Marxist organization fails to do so, its slogans will not find any echo.

Not without reason, following the teachings of Marx, the struggle against national oppression played a central role in the Russian Revolution of 1917. Linking such oppression with the need to unite the working class to defeat capitalism, millions of members of oppressed nationalities adhered to the Bolsheviks and the program of the working class against the nationalist program of their national bourgeoisies.

As can be seen, in the bicentenary of Marx’s birth, one of the central tasks posed for a revolutionary organization is to rescue his thought, buried for more than half a century of Stalinist control over the workers’ movement. With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the defeat of Stalinism, we are facing a unique opportunity. Let us try to take advantage of it.

Article published in, January 17, 2019.

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