The relationship between oppression and class has always been an important question for Marxists and has been the subject of numerous debates between socialists and among the left more broadly. These debates have primarily focused on racism and sexism. I will continue that focus here, but it is worth bearing in mind that this discussion has implications for many other forms of oppression. In particular it is a discussion that has a bearing on the political approach we take towards struggles against oppression as well as the way such struggles are related to the working class movement.
For many decades identity politics has been the most widely accepted approach to oppression and this has contributed enormously to the idea that oppression and class can be severed from one another. In popular discourse oppression is often understood as racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia and so on. Discussions of the oppression of the working class are uncommon, despite the fact that it is the largest oppressed group. And for many proponents of identity politics the working class are not only omitted as victims of oppression but are seen as a primary agent in the oppression of women and minorities – thereby obscuring the existence of whole layers of the class who suffer special oppression.
Several useful critiques of identity politics and oppression-first theories exist. Sharon Smith’s 1994 article “Mistaken Identity” is a brilliant and scathing critique of identity politics that explores its conservative conclusions and its origins as an expression of retreat from struggle. The aim of this article is not to rehash the ground already covered by others; instead it focuses on various erroneous approaches to oppression put forward by theorists within the Marxist tradition. Exploring these positions has become particularly important given the changing landscape around these questions.
In recent years, the validity of the identity politics framework has been somewhat challenged. Around the world the global financial crisis brought class inequality into stark relief and this has led to a renewed interest in class politics. Even many who have formerly embraced identity politics question the wisdom of some of its tenets. In this context, theoretical explanations of oppression that place class as central are being more widely accepted.
But making class central does not automatically make a theory correct. Unfortunately some theorists advocating for a class-based approach not only fail to dispel the assumption that oppression and class are in opposition to one another but, in fact, confer legitimacy on it. These theorists effectively confirm the slur put forward by many liberals in relation to oppression, that Marxism is “class reductionist”.
Reductionism involves over-simplifying complex phenomena, either by discounting contradictory elements of a totality or by collapsing them into other elements without accounting for their specific characteristics. Class-reductionist perspectives on oppression vary in the ways they do this. The two distinct perspectives that this article focuses on are anti-essentialism and abstract reductionism. Anti-essentialism sees identity as a false construct and an obstruction to the class struggle; while the approach I refer to as abstract reductionism sees oppression as external to the structures and impulses of capitalism. Those within these respective currents disagree on certain points, but both ultimately discount the importance of oppression to capitalism and the importance for Marxists of struggles against oppression.
Their arguments are worth examining in some detail because they can be disorienting for the left. They appear to offer a way out of the dead end that is identity politics and a way back to Marxism, but unfortunately they do neither. The task of this article is to contribute something to an understanding of oppression in opposition to class reductionism and to argue alternatively for a theory of class and oppression that sees them as economically and politically integrated into a unitary totality of capitalism. Such an integrated approach has important implications for the project of revolutionary social transformation.
Identity is not a straightforward concept. The way it is constructed, embodied, performed and politically understood is complex and contested. Marxists have generally recognised that there is nothing trans-historic or permanent about particular categories of identity. This stands counter to an essentialist reading that takes race, gender, nationality and sexuality as given and natural. Identity politics lends itself to such an essentialist reading of identity. It focuses on the readily observable differences between different identity groups and, rather than interrogating the basis of these differences, calls for those who are part of a marginal or oppressed identity group to bind together in pursuit of their shared interests. Even those who put forward more structural analyses and solutions within an identity politics framework, such as patriarchy and whiteness theory, tend to base their analysis on essentialist assumptions. Given the prevailing influence of identity politics, it is unsurprising that dispelling this essentialist notion of identity is a concern for contemporary class-first thinkers. For the anti-essentialists, a group of Marxist academics mainly in the US, it is the key focus.
They make some valid criticisms of identity politics. They point out that it has led to a widespread sensibility that cultural diversity is more important than economic equality. This bias has benefited many institutions – from universities to boardrooms – in that it allows them to pursue diversity quotas and other such things while carrying out egregious discrimination against workers. They also point out that the oppression of workers is often an afterthought, and that the extent to which it is referenced the solution presented is to stamp out intolerance or “classism” towards workers rather than to confront the material injustices they face under capitalism.
It is certainly important to expose these right wing elements of identity politics, though one immediate critique of their approach is that they fail to differentiate between the left and right wing variants of identity politics. This is not helpful for real world organising. However, a much deeper problem with their approach is that they use their sweeping criticisms of identity politics as a foundation for an entire approach to the question of oppression. Their analysis suggests, and their political conclusions confirm, that any expression of identity (except for class identity) embodies all of the pitfalls and assumptions of identity politics. This conflation is based on a misunderstanding of categories like race and gender as mechanically forged by the capitalist class.
Oppression itself is then subsumed to this notion of identity. In fact, for a group that expends a lot of intellectual and political energy weighing into debates about oppression, it is notable how little they discuss it. Formally, they understand it to be a prerequisite for the construction of identity. But they focus disproportionately on the ideological ascription of categories that justify oppression and, as such, downplay its material existence. The collapsing of oppression into identity has the most distorting ramifications when the anti-essentialists examine neoliberalism. They cannot account for the contradiction between the professed support for stamping out gender and racial inequality by some sections of the neoliberal ruling class on the one hand, and their ongoing commitment to propagating it on the other.
Adolph Reed, the most theoretical and considered of the anti-essentialists, contends that identity is first and foremost an ascribed category of civic status.
Ascriptive hierarchies sort populations into categories of classification that are in principle set off from one another by clear, uncrossable boundaries. Gender is one such ascriptive category; within its compass a person can be only either male or female, and each classification carries with it a normatively – and until recently, legally – prescribed range of possible locations within the social division of labor and civic entitlement.
According to Reed, the purpose of these arbitrary designations is firstly to justify the real inequalities between different groups of workers in the production process and wider society, and secondly, is a means to sow ideological division within the working class and to obscure workers’ shared interests.
Though Reed believes the first of these factors has become less salient, he is rightly insistent that the establishment of these ascriptive hierarchies is neither incidental nor external to capitalism. To treat them as such “misunderstands both phenomena [oppression and class] by treating them as fundamentally distinguishable”. Instead, he argues that we need to understand race, gender and other categories as shaped by and entwined with the historical development and ongoing needs of capitalism. Under capitalism, he argues, there is a need for certain groups of workers to be set apart in order to play particular economic roles, and this requires the sectional oppression of those groups. For this oppression to be justified and sanctioned, different groups of workers need to be ideologically assigned characteristics that deem them exceptional. In this way, the construction of racism and sexism demands the creation of race and gender, rather than the other way around.
These observations, while somewhat valid, are too one-sided and do not encapsulate the full complexities of oppression and ascribed stereotypes. The characteristics of race and gender are somewhat malleable, depending on the changing targets and nature of oppression. This is most clearly the case when it comes to racism. Racism did not exist prior to capitalism but rather was created with the rise of slavery, the establishment of modern states, colonialism, imperialism, and so on. The stereotypes used to designate race are not fixed, and indeed, they often endure well after they have served their purpose. Take Islamophobia as an example. While there is a long history of anti-Arab racism and prejudice towards Islam in the West, the notion of Muslims as a race has only been solidarised in the context of the “war on terror”. It is also the case that the traits attributed to Muslims or Arabs have changed dramatically. Where they were once subjected to the paternalistic tropes of mysticism and orientalism, they are now seen as dangerous and suspicious. And, as Phil Griffiths discusses, many of the stereotypes ascribed to Muslims today are recycled from racist campaigns of the past, for example against Irish Catholics in Australia. Though an Irish Catholic identity still exists to some extent in Australia, they no longer suffer systematic racist discrimination.
Gender is constructed according to the same fundamental logic that informs race, though it is concretely different in a couple of ways. For one thing, women’s oppression predates capitalism. Nevertheless the fact that capitalism found uses for the pre-existing inequalities between men and women meant that gender stereotypes needed to be manufactured that were custom fitted to capitalism. The other difference is that the features of the constructed gender have much less flexibility. This is because women’s oppression has been consistently applied to broadly the same group of people, based apparently on their biological characteristics. However, it is a construction that at base is just as arbitrary and malleable as race and as such, has undergone some significant changes, reflective of the changing role of women within society. We only have to look at how foreign the 1950s stereotypes of housewives seem to young women today.
But, while it is important to look at the way capitalism ascribes categories and hierarchies of civic status, this alone paints a distorted and one-sided view. It limits our understanding of identity to something that is constructed exclusively to suit the needs of the ruling class. This leads to the conclusion that the extent to which people recognise or embrace identity correlates directly with their backwardness and willingness to swallow bourgeois falsehoods. And it downplays the material reality of oppression that comes with identity categorisation.
People do not identify with their gender or race on purely ideological grounds, but also because such identification reflects the experiences and conditions that shape their lives. Even if people choose not to identify with a particular gender or race, if society visually and socially categorises them in that way, they will encounter very similar forms of oppression to those in the same category who do self-identify with it. Not identifying as Black will not prevent someone who is Black from being a target for police violence. By the same token, Muslim women who do not wear a veil or Aboriginal people who are fair-skinned will encounter less racism regardless of how they identify. The point is that to accept that the ascription of identity is real is not to accept that it is essential. And it is more than the imposition of visual indicators of identity that makes it real. The neighbourhoods people are born into, the schools they go to, the role they are forced to play in the family, the jobs they get are all aspects of identity designation that are, for the most part, inescapable.
The material reality of oppression, and therefore identity, not only allows us to look beyond its ideological existence but also to appreciate the ways in which it can be constructed from both below and above, by both the oppressor and the oppressed. The development of a national consciousness among populations of oppressed people is an example of the contradictory nature of this process. As Benedict Anderson has pointed out, this often developed more rapidly in colonised nations than in the countries at the heart of the colonial empires. As well as this being informed by the particular ways in which the colonisers organised their rule, nationalism was a formative way in which oppressed groups came to articulate and understand their oppression.
There are also some identities that are formed under capitalism with little direct intervention or ascription at the hands of the ruling class. The construction of the homosexual and later gay identity is a clear example of this. On the one hand, capitalism created the social space for people to engage much more widely in non-procreative sex. On the other, the importance of the nuclear family, and women’s oppression within it, kept alive the need to punish previously identified “deviant” sexual practices and lifestyles. Far from wanting to create the ascriptive category of the homosexual, the capitalist class wanted to repress its articulation. It was only after people began socially identifying with one another on the basis of their shared sexual activities and repression that the medical and legal establishments responded by codifying this identity. Furthermore, once it was established, it was again the repression and silencing of homosexual expression, in combination with the ongoing expansion of social and physical spaces that unknowingly accommodated for freer sexual expression, that led to the emergence of its non-medicalised form: the gay identity. As sexuality historian John D’Emilio puts it, “the danger involved in being gay rose even as the possibilities of being gay were enhanced. Gay Liberation was a response to this contradiction”.
The same contradiction exists in the construction of race, gender, sexuality and religious communities. Every one of these categories is objectively imposed through structures and then subjectively taken up in different ways. The precise ways in which this construction takes place are important and relevant, but because the anti-essentialists believe that identity is constructed mechanically and uniformly from above, they cannot appreciate the particulars of certain identities. Not only does this mean that they cannot even draw a meaningful distinction between the creation of an identity that is forged out of bigotry (white nationalist or men’s rights groups) and those forged through a shared experience of oppression, but also, they fundamentally retreat from a Marxist understanding of social and political relations. It is not only racial and gender groupings that are constructed both objectively and subjectively. This is also true of religion, ideology and, most importantly, class. Not only are identities constructed in a contradictory way but also, embodied in each is a dynamic set of contradictions. They are necessarily pervaded by numerous cross-currents, political tendencies and sectional interests that render them inherently unstable. Louise O’Shea explains this well in relation to women:
Marxists recognise that women can at the same time comprise a meaningful social category and be hopelessly divided to the point where the category itself is legitimately called into question. Not only are there directly counterposed material interests between exploiting and exploited women, there are also the surmountable but no less real differences between women on the basis of race, ability, sexual orientation and age to name just a few… Women, along with other oppressed groups, are both united and divided in an ongoing dynamic contradiction.
Class identity is different in a crucial sense from categories like women which are cross-class because its members have a shared interest that is objectively universal and emancipatory. Nevertheless the working class is most of the time politically divided in all sorts of ways. The anti-essentialists’ analysis sets up class as the one true expression of interests in opposition to the false notions of gender and race. In this way they construct the working class as a static, ideal type.
Throughout the history of capitalism there have been changes to the ways that identity is expressed and oppression is organised. The post-war period saw profound changes for many oppressed groups, particularly in Western countries. Under pressure from the various social movements, social attitudes towards oppressed groups shifted and governments were forced to concede many demands for legal equality. The anti-essentialists take a different view. Reed acknowledges that “disadvantage is [still] distributed asymmetrically along racial and gender lines”. But he believes that one of the main reasons that this asymmetry is so familiar, in discourse and in reality, is because of the mainstream promotion of anti-racism and anti-sexism. He claims that just as race and gender cannot exist without racism and sexism, they also cannot exist without anti-racism and anti-sexism. Where once ascriptive essentialism existed to justify oppression, under neoliberalism it exists to justify racial and gender equality. According to this view, the ruling class can champion such equality because it has been “fully legitimized” within “the terms of given patterns of capitalist class relations”. It then follows that it is “wrong headed and an utter waste of time” to focus on political demands for racial and gender equality.
The anti-essentialists go even further, arguing that not only are discussions of racism and sexism no longer progressive in their own terms, but that they now represent an impediment to political discussions and movements against class inequality:
[A]ntiracism is not a different sort of egalitarian alternative to a class politics but is a class politics itself: the politics of a strain of the professional-managerial class whose worldview and material interests are rooted within a political economy of race and ascriptive identity-group relations. Moreover, although it often comes with a garnish of disparaging but empty references to neoliberalism as a generic sign of bad things, antiracist politics is in fact the left wing of neoliberalism.
Once again, the focus on the top-down ascription of identity distorts their whole outlook. The anti-essentialists draw sweeping conclusions that conflate several different phenomena. All the while they virtually ignore the ongoing existence of oppression.
Instead, we must start not with the twists and turns of rhetoric and ideology but with the actual material reality of oppression. While it’s true that oppression has, in some instances, been alleviated or pushed back through struggle, it is not the case that racism, sexism or other forms of discrimination are fading stars. Oppression rests not only – or even primarily – on explicit legal discrimination but on entrenched and systematic economic and political inequalities. Inequality on these bases persists not only because it has proved difficult to dislodge, but because it is constantly maintained and renewed. The gender pay gap is still substantial in every country despite equal pay laws. Blacks and oppressed racial minorities still disproportionately live in poverty and are still the target of state violence despite the abolition of segregation laws. Refugees face qualitatively worse oppression today than they did a decade ago. And far from benefiting from any anti-discrimination reforms, they have seen their discrimination further sanctioned.
Far from being hostile to the ruling class, Reed’s position actually gives them too much credit. He takes at face value their attempts to co-opt the ideas of racial and gender equality. The reality is very different. Kristin Bumiller has documented how the state has used opposition to sexual violence to intensify its powers of surveillance, control and punishment. This selective and cynical adoption of feminist discourse, publicly paraded on events such as white ribbon day, has perversely resulted in the strengthening of many repressive state institutions that have intensified the oppression of the working class in general, and of working class women in particular. Similarly, Obama’s presidency was mobilised as proof of the virtues of US capitalism, but as Michelle Alexander has noted, the situation for Blacks in America can be better described as the new Jim Crow.
In general, the ruling class as a whole has found ways to double down on racism, sexism and a series of other forms of oppression. So while elites happily embrace the rhetoric of diversity and equality when it comes to promoting the hollow and cosmetic changes at the top of society, they have if anything moved away from pointing out racial and gender difference when it comes from the subjects they oppress. Under neoliberalism reactionary politicians have used colour and gender “blindness” as a conscious tactic to justify their policies. For example, more Aboriginal children are being stolen from their families than at any time during the official stolen generations, yet there is no official policy that says children will be better off in white households. Instead this is hidden behind technocratic language and euphemisms about parenting and neglect. The phenomenon of this “blindness” cuts against one of the key arguments made by the anti-essentialists. It shows that rather than the ruling class always wanting to promote the identification of non-class forms of inequality, at times they want to downplay it.
Overall the net effect of neoliberalism has been to accelerate the oppression of the working class and women and racial minorities. Far from social emancipation coming at the expense of workers’ rights, we’ve been pushed back on all fronts. The co-option of members of oppressed groups into the ranks of the middle and upper classes in no way diminishes this fact. Those who have risen in this way have themselves experienced a lessening of oppression, but their numbers are finite and, like every other neoliberal venture, their gains do not trickle down.
Instead of responding to this contradictory reality, the anti-essentialists insist that phenomena typically conceived of as racism and sexism must be reconceptualised as purely class questions. For example, Cedric Johnson argues in relation to the Black Lives Matter movement that “contemporary patterns of incarceration and police violence cannot be explained through institutional racism”. Instead, he suggests, we need to look at police violence as an attack on the working class as a whole because at least 50 per cent of its victims are white.
To deny the reality of the racist nature of policing is effectively to side with ruling class attempts to depict a post-racial society. While Johnson and the other anti-essentialists are clearly part of the left, their political approach does nothing to cut against racist proclamations like “all lives matter”. Nor does it assist in constructing a larger and more confident working class movement. Such a movement will not be built in opposition to specifically oppressed groups, but rather by relating precisely to that oppression.
A general political objective that animates the anti-essentialists is to break people from their social identities in order that they identify with their class. This is not particular to their argument about the neoliberal context. Apart from anything else, this perspective is utopian; identity construction is a product of processes over which Marxists have no control. We have to deal with the world as it is. More significantly, it denies the progressive potential of struggles over oppression to the overall political battle against the ruling class. Confident and assertive expressions of identities can lead to a clearer grasp of the collective and systemic nature of oppression and can bring a group into struggle with the system.
The ideas of the anti-essentialists fit with an economistic and reformist vision of social change that sells the workers’ movement short. While opposing bigotry and discrimination, they do not see it as a priority to win the working class to these positions. In fact, they think it’s counterproductive for the workers’ movement to spend time on confronting issues of oppression. This patronises and denigrates the potential of the working class to develop a universal consciousness, and implies that workers themselves are not affected by these oppressions. We are a long way here from Lenin’s insistence on the need to relate to all political struggles against tyranny and to be the tribune of the people. Instead, despite trying to avoid a theoretical dichotomy between oppression and class, the anti-essentialist approach reproduces an age-old, fundamentally reformist, political dichotomy between economics and politics.
While the anti-essentialists separate oppression from class politically, others argue that they are fundamentally disconnected structurally. This argument is centred on the assertion that race and gender are not relevant to the formation and organisation of economic categories and processes under capitalism. Therefore, as the Marxist geographer David Harvey puts it, racism and sexism are not part of the “inner logic of capital” because “an examination of [racism and sexism] tells me nothing particular about how the economic engine of capital works”. The Marxist writer, the late Ellen Meiksins Wood, had a similar position. She argued that racial and gender inequality are not “constitutive” of capitalism and that “sexual and racial equality are not in principle incompatible with capitalism”.
Arriving at this position relies on two reductionist interpretations of abstract labour. The first of these is a one-sided view of labour in the production process. The second is a mechanical generalisation that sees abstract labour and other economic categories as determinant of capitalist society in every respect. In this way, Harvey and Wood view capitalism as an “ideal type” rather than a contradictory and dynamic totality encompassing the consequence of abstract labour, i.e. the dominance of the market, and the reality of concrete labour.
Wood explains labour under capitalism as “ultimately depend[ent] on the reduction of all workers – men and women, Black and white – to interchangeable units of labour abstracted from any particular personal or social identity”. This is a one-sided view of labour. And, despite Wood claiming it as a faithful interpretation of Marx, it is a reading Marx’s theory of abstract labour does not provide. While it is the case that workers’ labour becomes exchangeable – on the basis of an abstract quality: the socially necessary labour time required to produce labour-power – they do not become interchangeable. Intrinsic to the abstraction of labour are both the equivalence and variance of labour.
The proliferation of capitalist production, fuelled by competition between bosses, leads to the standardisation of many aspects of production and exchange. Workers are deskilled as craft trades become progressively outmoded and technological development makes certain skills obsolete. Meanwhile bosses are compelled to attain similar or higher levels of output from workers, which means that work is sped up and made more efficient. Yet simultaneously, these exact same processes lead to vast variance in the productivity, value and conditions of labour. The very growth of the scale of production leads to a division of labour that results in “the isolation of various stages of production and their independence of each other”. This subdivision is essential to the accumulation of capital. As Harry Braverman explains: “In a society based on the purchase and sale of labour power, dividing the craft cheapens its individual parts”. Thus, in virtually every workplace there are numerous roles and rungs of hierarchy, correlating with separate qualification requirements, skill levels and, of course, wages. And in addition there is necessary unevenness resulting from the competition between firms, industries, sectors and nation states. Some industries will adopt machines that others do not have, some countries will only have certain categories of industry, the skill level and treatment of workers will vary based on resources, wealth, stage of development as well as different outcomes in the class struggle.
Harvey and Wood do not disagree that capitalism requires the subdivision of the workforce but they do not explore the phenomena that inform and arise from this subdivision. This is because they restrict their analysis of labour to its abstract qualities. In opposition to this, Marxists should understand both the abstract and concrete properties of labour and the relationship between the two. In other words, in relation to the variance of labour, it is not enough to know that it does occur. We also need to know how it occurs. An investigation of this reveals that gender and racial differentiation within the sphere of production is not aberrant or even incidental to its principles. Rather it is crucial to the variance of labour. Furthermore, because workers are simultaneously commodity inputs and human subjects, this gendered and racialised subdivision can only take place because of specific and concrete systems of material and ideological oppression.
Women the world over have represented a category of workers who can be paid lower wages than their male counterparts. This is especially the case today, when more women than ever are part of the workforce. The particular exploitation and oppression of women workers is partly a result of the direct sexism that they face from bosses. But their oppression is grounded in the nuclear family, an institution which itself relies on women’s oppression, and in turn imposes material and ideological pressures on how women engage in the workforce. For example, childcare costs and the inequalities of parental leave schemes push women into taking more part time work. In addition, the ideological effects of the family and broader sexism influence which fields women choose, or are selected, to work within. At the same time as forcing women into certain types of labour, sexism plays a role in shaping the nature and conditions of certain jobs and industries. Hence the concentration of women in low-wage industries and a skew towards women occupying the lower paid roles within certain industries. Conversely, industries in which women are concentrated, often but not always because of sexist assumptions about their role, are invariably lower paid than male-dominated areas. In Australia, in the late nineteenth century, boot-making was transformed by employers from a skilled, well paid job to a low paid one by deskilling and the introduction of women. A striking example of this is the unusual situation in Russia, where a majority of doctors are women and, as a result, their wages, conditions and social status are substantially less than those afforded to doctors in most other parts of the world.
Racism works in a similar way in relation to labour. Racially oppressed workers are commonly concentrated in low-wage and often precarious industries and, as such, experience a specific form of exploitation and oppression at the point of production. Elizabeth Esch and David Roediger discuss this as an organised system of “race management”. It involves the direct intervention of bosses in terms of hiring practices and also the use of racism to create fear among workers. It is also the result of often specially designed racist laws that deny immigrants and refugees citizenship or the right to work under certain conditions. More generally, racist systems that entrench poverty work to exclude racially oppressed groups from certain positions and to simultaneously create pockets of the economy where they are concentrated in low-wage roles.
Racism and sexism are also both used to cultivate competition between different racial, cultural or gender groups of workers within the same industries or even workplaces. This has an overall positive effect on the capacity of capitalists to streamline and maximise their accumulation of capital, and has an inversely negative effect on the wages, conditions and opportunities for struggle experienced by workers.
The failure of Harvey and Wood to recognise the centrality of racism and sexism in the sphere of production is symptomatic of a broader problem with their approach. They misunderstand that abstraction is a methodological tool to illuminate the totality of any phenomenon. Understanding the abstract principles at work in any form establishes the essence of that form. This importantly stands in opposition to attempts to understand form by looking at its specific appearances. But the point of understanding essence is not to then discard appearances. Rather it is to look at the ways that the essence determines appearances and the ways in which appearances react back upon the essence.
Marx concluded that you can only understand the appearance of things when you identify the essence. He also recognised that appearances are not just illusions stemming from essence but that they are just as real as essence. For example, the market is not an illusion, it is a social institution which grows out of the social relationships surrounding generalised market production. Rees notes that “market appearances are no less ‘real’ than the internal structure of capitalist exploitation. Marx’s project is to show how the one produced the other and in what ways they depend on each other”.
Instead of this approach, Wood and Harvey present the abstract as the reality and as the totality. In other words, they see abstract categories and relationships as the end point. The result of this is to construct capitalism as an “ideal type” rather than a contradictory, dynamic totality. According to this ideal, every individual, class and institution is defined by and acts according to the logic of the production and exchange of commodities on the market.
There is no abstract economic category that explains how racism and sexism relate to the production and exchange of commodities, so Harvey and Wood are forced to conclude that they are extraneous, not only to production but to capitalist society as a whole. Confronting this theory, however, is the actual reality of racism and sexism under capitalism. Harvey gets around this by adding a category of transcendent contradictions to his analysis
Capitalism is rife with innumerable contradictions, many of which, though, have nothing in particular to do directly with capital accumulation. These contradictions transcend the specificities of capitalist social formations. For example, gender relations such as patriarchy underpin contradictions to be found in ancient Greece and Rome, in ancient China, in Inner Mongolia or in Ruanda. The same applies to racial distinctions.
Wood agrees that race and gender divisions are a relic from pre-capitalist class societies. She argues that racism and sexism are “extra-economic hierarchies of civic status”. By this she means ways of stratifying the human population that are not economic in nature. For Wood, extra-economic hierarchies were necessary under feudalism, because there was not a distinction between the economic and political spheres of society. As such, appropriation and expropriation were coordinated directly via extra economic coercion: violence, ideology and hierarchies of civic status. But, she argues, under capitalism this is not the case because “direct ‘extra-economic’ pressure or overt coercion are, in principle, unnecessary to compel the expropriated labourer to give up surplus labour”. Therefore, extra economic coercion is not constitutive of capitalism and, in fact, cuts against its core logic.
In order to respond to the arguments made by Harvey and Wood, it is worth looking at the history of the development of racism and sexism under capitalism.
As I have already mentioned, far from representing its pre-history or its transcendence, racism was produced by and for capitalism. This does not mean that there was a predetermined imperative embedded in the emergent economic logic of capitalism that required racism per se. But the general economic imperatives of capitalist production, mediated by specific historical circumstances, created the need for racism. As Eric Williams explains, the enslavement of African people was a response to free labour shortages in the New World, the specific mass and low-skilled character of plantation production and the declining utility of Indian and white slaves:
Negro slavery therefore was only a solution, in certain historical circumstances, to the Caribbean labor problem. Sugar meant labor – at times that labor has been slave, at other times nominally free; at times black, at other times white or brown or yellow… Without it the great development of the Caribbean sugar plantations, between 1650 and 1850, would have been impossible.
Colonialism was the other major reason for the early implementation of racism. But the exact form that racism took varied according to the needs and development of primitive accumulation and production in different colonial states. For example, in Australia racist violence and ideology were necessary to acquire the large tracts of land necessary to establish grazier capitalism. Racism was also used to ensure the Aboriginal population was a source of cheap labour – though, unlike some other colonial projects, this was not a fundamental imperative for the establishment of capitalist production.
Unlike racism, women’s oppression predates capitalism by many millennia. This meant that some of the exact forms it took were incompatible with the development of capitalism. Most notable in this regard is the form taken by one key institution of women’s oppression: the family. Under feudalism, production and reproduction were united in a single unit among the peasantry; whereas, under capitalism they are separated in the working class family. The ruling classes don’t produce value so the distinction is not so relevant. The severing of the working class family from production led Marx and Engels to predict that the working class family would be eroded under capitalism. But far from dying out, or lingering on uselessly, the working class family became an important institution for capitalism. The capitalist nuclear family was first established among the ruling classes. It was then consciously remoulded and imposed on the working class in order to ensure the stable reproduction of its most important commodity: labour power. This was a necessary initiative in response to the devastating effects of early industrial life on the mortality of the working class. Sandra Bloodworth explains the way in which the process unfolded:
The working class of the early industrial revolution was drawn from the peasantry, driven off the land by enclosures of the common lands and other measures. But as this source began to dry up, the bosses began to realise they needed to find a way to ensure the reproduction of a working class at least healthy and alert enough not to fall asleep at the machines. And more and more they needed an educated, skilled workforce… It was accepted without question that women should be responsible for childcare and most domestic duties. The second half of the nineteenth century saw a massive ideological campaign by the middle and upper classes to reverse the trend away from the working class family and to force women more decisively into the roles of wife and mother. This was backed up by attempts to ameliorate at least the worst aspects of working class life, especially those which endangered women and their ability to produce healthy children.
The family was also promoted under capitalism as an institution that could play a stabilising role, both materially and ideologically, against early working class unrest. As Caroline Chisholm famously articulated, women within the family were expected to play the role of “God’s police” in this process of establishing the Australian colonies.
Capitalism did not create women’s oppression. But the existence of women’s oppression was vital to its early organisation and solidarisation. Not only was women’s oppression a seemingly natural precondition of the family, but it was also used, like racism, to enact particularly harsh conditions of exploitation against a section of the workforce. Contrary to popular myth, women are not a recent arrival to capitalist production.
As we have seen, the use of racism and sexism in the development of capitalism was historically contingent and opportunistic. But this does not make them aberrant or non-constitutive. The entire history of capitalism has been shaped and constituted by specific moments, struggles and forces that sometimes work with and sometimes work against the abstract laws of its social relations. And although some discrete methods of oppression have been challenged and altered, this is not straightforwardly the result of the assertion of the core abstract logic of capitalism but rather, an expression of contradictions in the totality. For the most part however, systems of oppression have been maintained under capitalism. Racism and sexism are particularly clear examples of that. Their exact manifestations have been in some instances altered and reformulated. But they persist as powerful and prevalent forces. This can only be explained by looking at the ongoing role they play in propping up capitalist social relations while at the same time understanding that they are not reducible to the abstract properties of those relations. In this respect it is important to add a political dimension to our discussion of the integration of racism and sexism into capitalism.
The contradictory and dynamic totality of oppression under capitalism cannot be understood without looking to the crucial and defining role played by the state. Harvey does not put forward a theoretical view of the state because by his own admission he “seek[s] to isolate capital circulation and accumulation from everything else that is going on – [to] treat it as a ‘closed system’ in order to identify its major internal contradictions”. Wood, on the other hand, does attempt to explain everything else that is going on, but her explanation is ultimately just as reductive as Harvey’s out of hand dismissal. Her approach, shared by many in the Political Marxism tradition, is to see politics and the state simply as a continuation and embodiment of the production process:
The “sphere” of production is dominant not in the sense that it stands apart from or precedes…political forms, but rather in the sense that these forms are precisely forms of production, the attributes of a particular productive system.
Wood arrives at this position with reference, once again, to her understanding of the unique separation between economics and politics under the capitalist mode of production. According to Wood this has made extra-economic, or political, institutions fundamentally redundant to production. Therefore to the extent that politics does exist, it must be reclassified as forms of production. To account for the political institutions and processes that cannot be easily crammed into the category of production, she creates a miscellaneous file. This two-tier allocation “separates political functions immediately concerned with the extraction and appropriation of surplus labour from those with a more general, communal purpose”.
This explanation of the state, politics and of capitalism in general, is profoundly inadequate. Instead we must see the state as arising from the social relations and as part of them but not as a mere adjunct or servant to them. Rather it reflects, reinforces, and at times even goes against, the economic imperatives that drive the social relations. The state’s primary role is to manage social relations as a whole; a task which, by definition, cannot be carried out in the sphere of privatised production. Crucially, it manages the contradictions that result from the social relations as a whole: the rivalries between capitals and between nations, the separation of production from reproduction, the conflict between social and human (or abstract and specific) relations and the mediations and contours of the class struggle. The fact that the state performs these functions makes it qualitatively distinct, though inseparable, from its economic base. And the process of performing these functions simultaneously means that the state depends upon a vast array of institutions, all with their own rhythms and dynamics, that at times conflict with one another and with the needs and logic of the economic base. Marx colourfully outlined this complicated totality in his draft thesis of The Civil War in France:
The centralized State machinery which, with its ubiquitous and complicated military, bureaucratic, clerical and judiciary organs, entoils the living civil society like a boa constrictor… It was forced to develop, what absolute monarchy had commenced, the centralization and organization of State power, and to expand the circumference and the attributes of the State power, the number of its tools, its independence, and its supernaturalist sway of real society, which in fact took the place of the medieval supernaturalist heaven, with its saints. Every minor solitary interest engendered by the relations of social groups was separated from society itself, fixed and made independent of it and opposed to it in the form of State interest, administered by State priests with exactly determined hierarchical functions.
Therefore, the state’s role in relation to oppression is pervasive and multifaceted. Firstly it plays a general and critical role in forcing workers to submit to their subordinate position at the point of production. The abstraction of their labour and attendant compulsion to sell it on the market cannot, on its own, achieve this. The state needs to use violence, laws and bureaucracies to prevent workers from collectivising resources, from withdrawing their labour, from accessing private property, from crossing into different economic zones, and so on. The state also plays a vital role in compounding the alienation of labour by distorting and denying the humanity of workers in all areas of life. To this end it works to exclude workers from politics and culture, deny them freedom of movement, bodily and sexual autonomy. And it is state institutions that then manufacture and disseminate the ideologies that justify these practices.
From this outline of the role played by the state in the oppression of the working class, we need to then turn to looking at its part in the administration and creation of specific forms of oppression like racism and sexism. The state provides the laws, violence and ideologies that underpin the variance in production. Sometimes this is very explicit, for instance the creation of visas tied to particular work conditions. At other times it is more covert, especially in the era of neoliberal double-speak that I have discussed.
It is also important to see that because the state has general, rather than sectional, control over society, it has a general interest in forging lines of division within the working class. These divisions assist in maintaining the economic power of the capitalist class, but they are also vital in stabilising the political power of state managers. Thus institutions of the state will often embark on campaigns, predominantly racist ones, that have no direct benefit to production. Sometimes they can even be directly detrimental to the production process, for example the anti-EU campaigns by some sections of the state in various European countries.
The general rather than sectional role that the state plays in oppression means that it has to straddle different sides of the contradictory aspects of oppression, sometimes advancing one side against the other. Take for example the dialectical contradiction of the nuclear family and the gender pay gap. This means that in some situations the state seeks to incentivise childbirth through mechanisms such as John Howard’s baby bonus or Stalin’s Order of Maternal Glory. At other times it discourages or punishes reproduction, such as through forced sterilisation or China’s former one child policy.
The other way that the state implements oppression is through the pursuance of its imperialist interests. Imperialism is tied to but cannot be reduced to production. Wars are waged in order to better the geopolitical advantage of various states, and every war, by definition, generates and accelerates racism. Another key outgrowth of imperialism is the increasingly racialised and militarised nature of borders. As Marx describes in Capital, borders are best seen as socio-political relations. The political side of this is ever more true today. Borders play a critical role in fostering racism and they are an important site of political struggle. The other crucial aspect of imperialism in relation to racism is the domestic vilification and criminalisation of certain racialised groups of the population. Muslims most clearly bear the brunt of this today. They not only face a barrage of ideological racism but also, this racism has been codified in law in numerous countries across the West. Given Muslims only make up 2.6 percent of the Australian population and are therefore a negligible proportion of the workforce, this is a clear example of the non production-centric role that oppression can play.
Harvey and Wood’s view of capitalism as an ideal type not only absolves capitalism of responsibility for a long history of violence and abuse, but also suggests that oppression can be abolished under capitalism. If oppression runs counter to the principles of capitalism then surely the system itself can be a vehicle for liberation? Harvey and Wood never suggest such a dramatic conclusion but the logic of their argument allows for it.
Their argument also lends itself to the same conclusions drawn by the anti-essentialists in that it suggests that the struggles against class oppression and other forms of oppression are necessarily demarcated. If oppression is seen as inconsequential to the shape of social relations then struggles over these relations have no reason to integrate with movements against racism and sexism.
In this way, the arguments of both the anti-essentialists and Harvey and Wood reinforce the reductionist conclusions drawn from identity politics. Theories influenced by identity politics insist that oppression can only be explained with reference to structures external to capitalism and they understand class in static, economistic terms. Rather than providing a solution to these ideas, the class-reductionist theories I have discussed become their photographic negative.
The objective for Marxists is not to separate or rank oppression and class, but to understand the way the two are bound together, not in a static relationship of subordination and domination, but as part of a unitary and contradictory whole. The Marxist method of abstraction is fundamental to understanding this unitary whole. But the Marxist method also crucially involves an integration of both abstractions and specifics. As George Lukács put it in opposition to the approach of only considering the abstract:
[W]hat is decisive is whether this process of isolation is a means towards understanding the whole and whether it is integrated within the context it presupposes and requires, or whether the abstract knowledge of an isolated fragment retains its “autonomy” and becomes an end in itself. In the last analysis Marxism does not acknowledge the existence of independent sciences of law, economics or history, etc.: there is nothing but a single, unified – dialectical and historical – science of evolution of society as a totality.
This totality, however, cannot be seen as undifferentiated. There are parts that are foundational, pervasive and core in a way that other parts are not. The production process is fundamental because it is the mechanism through which the central drive of the capitalist system – the accumulation of capital – is fulfilled and because it is the base of the social relations that pervade society as a whole. From this we can understand for example that though it was necessary for capitalism to come onto this earth “dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt”, the exact source of the blood and dirt was not predetermined. Once entrenched however, specific forms of oppression, structures and ideologies form part of the unitary whole. Not only are they then shaped by the impulses and interests of the system of which they are a part, but also, they themselves can shape the contours of that system. Most importantly, they shape the nature and particulars of class struggle.
The class struggle is not automatic or linear. Nor is it purely economic in nature. It is limited to finite social outcomes by the existing social relations but within those limits it is affected by myriad factors:
The fact is…that definite individuals who are productively active in a definite way enter into these definite social and political relations. Empirical observation must in each separate instance bring out empirically, and without any mystification and speculation, the connection of the social and political structure with production. The social structure and the state are continually evolving out of the life-process of definite individuals, however, of these individuals, not as they appear in their own or other people’s imagination, but as they actually are, i.e., as they act, produce materially, and hence as they work under definite material limits, presuppositions and conditions independent of their will.
In this way, social and political struggles against oppression should be seen as inextricably tied to the class struggle. But at the same time, different elements of struggle do not operate in perfect concert, nor are they linear or predictable. Sometimes movements against oppression arise directly (from shifts and struggles in and around) the workplace, such as the movement for equal pay in Australia which took off and won gains years before the women’s liberation movement had officially begun. Sometimes they are more focused around strictly political demands, such as the recent successful campaign for marriage equality. In general, movements against oppression are a constant feature of capitalist society. The key question for the left is how do we respond?
In a series of interventions into the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in the US in the 1930s and 40s, Trotsky set out an approach for socialists to take to struggles of the oppressed that remains in outline correct today. The crux of Trotsky’s argument was that the struggle for Black liberation was central to the class struggle in the US. He argued this position in opposition to the view of some in the SWP that it would be better for Blacks to not identify as Black and therefore separate but instead to see themselves as assimilated (working class) civilians of US society. This position was based on the mechanical assumption that this kind of transition would break Black workers from their cross-class community and would allow the working class movement to be more united and powerful. Trotsky pointed instead to the ongoing reality of racism towards Blacks which laid the basis for a long-lasting movement and consciousness in favour of Black rights.
Trotsky also argued that the SWP’s position was partly arrived at by capitulating to the racist consciousness of white workers. He insisted that racism among white workers was an indication of class backwardness and that it would not be settled with fanciful schemas about Black workers becoming better integrated. Instead it needed to be openly confronted precisely by demanding that white workers embrace the anti-racist demands and struggles by Blacks.
Writing from a distance, it was inevitable that Trotsky would make some mistakes translating his general argument into specific demands and tactics. But on the essentials his approach has been proven correct. Blacks have continued to fight for their rights as Blacks even where there are obvious class distinctions within the Black community. Furthermore, there is no inverse relationship between levels of Black and working class consciousness, quite the opposite. The times in which Black people have had the strongest identification with their race and fought the hardest against racism have correlated with high points in the class struggle. Both in these high points and more generally Blacks have been a substantial section of the vanguard of the most conscious and militant workers. There is no doubt that their recognition of and struggle against their own oppression has radicalised generations of Black workers and their white comrades.
These arguments remain crucial for socialists today. Racism, sexism and other forms of oppression are rampant throughout our society. They continue as key tools for the ruling class and remain entrenched in economic and political structures. The systematic sexual abuse of workers by their bosses exposed by the #MeToo phenomenon is just the latest example of the ongoing and pervasive reality of sexism. Perhaps even more illuminating is the fact that, in light of these allegations, there is no meaningful way to redress these abuses within capitalist institutions. The same is true of racist policing, the torture of refugees and the ongoing denial of rights to Indigenous people the world over. And, in a system still reeling from the effects of the global financial crisis, ideological and material division is ever more promoted by a ruling class scrambling to legitimise its power. Racism in particular is a nexus both for the ruling establishment and the growing far right. This is not to say however that the discrimination, marginalisation and demonisation of the oppressed cannot be challenged and at times pushed back.
Therefore, it is essential that the left understands oppression, relates to those affected by it and actively strengthens movements against it. These movements are necessary not only to challenge specific forms of oppression, but also to rebuild a united and powerful working class movement. To this end it is imperative to confront, rather than accept, racist and sexist attitudes within the working class. But also, we need to understand that this is not just a moral task. Rather it is an imperative that stems from a theoretical and political approach that recognises the integration of oppression and class within the totality of capitalism. A working class perspective that prioritises mass action and builds in the direction of politically engaged forms of class struggle is crucial in order for these movements to win. Socialists have always played a role in orienting movements against oppression in this way.
There is another reason this integrated approach is important. It informs but is also necessary to build a movement capable of overthrowing the entire capitalist system. For the working class to fulfil its potential of liberating itself and humanity from the horrors of capitalist society, it must become the “universal” class, capable of “represent[ing] its interest as the common interest of all the members of society”. Both the struggle for and the establishment of socialism can only be based on the most radical form of democracy and equality. This means articulating the demands of all the oppressed, in order to lead them in a united struggle against the common enemy. Such an articulation can only stem from a development of consciousness within the working class of the ways in which the structures of specific forms of oppression are linked to the structures of their own oppression and exploitation. With this understanding, it’s clear that the interests of the oppressed are indivisible from those of the working class as a whole.
Alexander, Michelle 2010, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, The New Press.
Anderson, Benedict 1983, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, Verso.
Bloodworth, Sandra 1990, “The Poverty of Patriarchy Theory”, Socialist Review, 2, Winter.
Braverman, Harry 1998, Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century, Monthly Review Press.
Bumiller, Kristin 2008, In an Abusive State: How Neoliberalism Appropriated the Feminist Movement against Sexual Violence, Duke University Press.
Davis, Diane E. (ed.), Political Power and Social Theory, 15, Emerald Group Publishing Limited.
Fieldes, Diane 2013, “The impact of women’s changing role in the workplace”, Marxist Left Review, 6, Winter.
Fields, Barbara J. and Karen E. 2012, Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life, Verso.
Harvey, David 2014, Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism, Oxford University Press.
Johnson, Cedric 2017, “The Panthers can’t save us now”, Catalyst, 1, Spring.
Kuhn, Rick (ed.) 2005, Class and Struggle in Australia, Pearson Education Australia.
Lukács, Georg 1983 , History and Class Consciousness, Merlin Press.
Marx, Karl 1871, first draft of The Civil War in France, https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1871/civil-war-france/drafts/ch01.htm#D1s1.
Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels 1976 , The German Ideology, Progress Publishers.
Marx, Karl 1993, Capital, 1, Penguin.
Michaels, Walter Benn 2006, The Trouble with Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality, Metropolitan Books.
O’Shea, Louise 2014, “Marxism and women’s liberation”, Marxist Left Review, 7, Summer.
Reed Jr., Adolph 2005, “The Real Divide”, https://www.thefreelibrary.com/The+real+divide.-a0139521171.
Reed Jr., Adolph 2013, “Marx, Race and Neoliberalism”, New Labor Forum, 22, The Murphy Institute.
Reed Jr., Adolph 2016, “How Racial Disparity Does Not Help Make Sense of Patterns of Police Violence”, Nonsite.org, http://nonsite.org/editorial/how-racial-disparity-does-not-help-make-sense-of-patterns-of-police-violence.
Rees, John 1998, The Algebra of Revolution. The dialectic and the classical Marxist tradition, Routledge.
Roediger, David R. and Elizabeth D. Esch 2012, The Production of Difference: Race and the Management of Labor in U.S. History, Oxford University Press.
Smith, Sharon 1994, “Mistaken Identity – or can Identity Politics liberate the Oppressed?”, International Socialism, 62, Spring.
Snitow, Ann, Christine Stansell and Sharon Thompson (eds) 1983, Powers of Desire: The Politics of Sexuality, Monthly Review Press.
Taylor, Keeanga-Yamahtta 2016, From #Blacklivesmatter to Black Liberation, Haymarket Books.
Trotsky, Leon 1940, “On Black Nationalism – Documents on the Negro Struggle”, https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/works/1940/negro1.htm.
Wheelwright, E.L. and K. Buckley (eds) 1975, Essays in the Political Economy of Australian Capitalism, 1, Australia and New Zealand Book Company.
Williams, Eric 1944, Slavery and Capitalism, The University of North Carolina Press.
Wood, Ellen Meiksins 1995, Democracy Against Capitalism: Renewing Historical Materialism, Cambridge University Press.
 Smith 1994.
 Rees 1998, pp8 and 99.
 Michaels 2006, pp30-51.
 Adolph Reed Jr., “Unravelling the Relations of Race and Class in American Politics”, in Davis (ed.) 2002, p6.
 Reed raises this point in his debate with Ellen Meiksins Wood and others about the relationship between race and class, arguing against Wood’s interpretation of them as fundamentally distinct. To follow Reed’s and Wood’s contributions to this debate see Reed Jr., “Unravelling the Relations of Race and Class”, in Davis (ed.) 2002 and Wood, “Class, Race and Capitalism”, in Davis (ed.) 2002.
 Fields 2012 makes this point well, particularly in chapters 1 and 4.
 Phil Griffiths, “Racism: whitewashing the class divide”, in Kuhn (ed.) 2005, p8.
 Anderson 1983 talks about this in particular around the development of Creole nationalism, pp.37-67.
 John D’Emilio, “Capitalism and Gay Identity”, in Snitow et al (eds) 1983, p103.
 ibid., p108.
 O’Shea 2014, p18.
 Reed Jr. 2013, p53.
 Reed Jr. 2005.
 Reed Jr. 2016.
 Bumiller 2008, pp63-96.
 Alexander 2010, pp178-221.
 Taylor 2016, p72.
 Jon Lamb, “The New Stolen Generation”, Red Flag, 12 June 2013.
 Johnson 2017, p11.
 ibid, p13.
 Harvey 2014, p9.
 Wood 1995, p259.
 Wood, “Class, Race and Capitalism”, in Davis (ed.) 2002, p3.
 Marx 1993, p448.
 ibid., p463.
 Braverman 1998, pp55-56.
 Bloodworth 1990.
 Roediger and Esch 2012.
 The treatment of 7-Eleven workers is an especially galling example of this.
 Rees 1998, p24.
 Harvey 2014, p9.
 Wood 1995, p44.
 Williams 1944, p29.
 Ken Buckley, “Primary Accumulation: The Genesis of Australian Capitalism”, in Wheelwright and Buckley (eds) 1975, pp12-31.
 Fieldes 2013.
 Bloodworth 1990, pp3-4.
 In Australia there has never been less than 30 per cent of women in the workforce. Fieldes 2013.
 Harvey 2014, p9.
 Wood 1995, p41.
 Wood 1995, p36.
 Marx 1871.
 Lukács 1983 , p28.
 Marx and Engels 1976, p41.
 Trotsky 1940 contains a useful compilation of the contributions from Trotsky and others on this debate.
 Marx and Engels 1976, p59.