The idea that racism, sexism, and other oppressions primarily exist to “divide to working class” is an inadequate framework for understanding the relationship between capitalism and oppression.
There is a common tendency among Marxists to emphasize that racism, sexism, anti-LGBTQ+ bigotry, etc. are tools to “divide the working class”. In this writing, I want to push back a bit against this emphasis that a lot of Marxists put on the “divide-and-conquer” feature of special oppressions.
It is undeniable that special oppressions (by that I mean patriarchy, white supremacy, and ableism) do prevent working class unity, but I think it’s a secondary, political function. Why is our class so easily divided along racial and gender lines? Why could we not just as easily be divided by eye color, or favorite type of music, or height? What are race and gender?
While special oppressions are wielded by the capitalist class in order to pit worker against worker, in the final analysis, they serve a more fundamental purpose. These divisions are only possible because they have a basis in real social relations. And indeed, they manifest in real material differences within our class. It must be the case that oppression is deeply linked to the very core social relations that constitute the capitalist mode of production: the labor process and the accumulation of capital.
I. The political economy of special oppressions
As Marxists, we understand that special oppressions do not simply exist in the superstructure (politics, art, culture, etc.), detached from the productive relations of capitalism, but rather are rooted in the economic life of a given society. In this sense, “oppression” operates on multiple levels.
Under capitalism, the working class sells their labor-power to the capitalists on the market in exchange for wages, which they use to purchase means of subsistence required to survive. The capitalist class purchases labor-power and means of production (tools, raw materials, factories, etc.). The workers then use these tools and raw materials (both owned by the capitalists) to produce commodities for the market. However, the value of the worker’s labor-power is less than the value of the commodities produced by the worker’s labor. Thus, labor is exploited because the capitalist is able to extract this surplus value.
Under capitalism, the State is the primary organ through which the bourgeoisie protects its dominance over the proletariat, so that they may continue to exploit them. The State ensures the continued existence of this exploitative process through two primary means: repression (e.g. police, prisons, state violence, courts) and ideology (e.g. art, school, culture, TV, news[, memes?]). Oppression must be understood in this light. In the final analysis, oppression functions through both repression and ideology to reproduce relations of exploitation. With this framework, we can understand three core oppressive structures of advanced capitalism: patriarchy, white supremacy, and ableism.
Patriarchy, in its capitalist form, exists because capitalism, more than any other mode of production, necessitates a strict division between productive and reproductive labor. (Unpaid) reproductive labor, i.e. domestic and sex work, is required to ensure the continued existence of a market of fresh labor-power for the capitalists to exploit. Cooking, cleaning, and other “women’s work” serves the purpose of making sure working men are able to return to work every day to continue to be exploited. As Marlene Dixon explained:
Institutionalized male supremacy… serves to mystify the actual nature of wages and the actual determinants of the value of labor power by creating the appearance that a woman’s domestic, socially necessary labor is not the production and reproduction of labor power, but a private service to the husband.
Patriarchal oppression functions to maintain this strict division through both repressive and ideological measures. Misogyny provides a useful tool to force women to “stay in the kitchen”. This productive/reproductive divide also requires strict gender roles. People are assigned a sex/gender at birth based on their perceived ability to bear children. Those who transgress these coercive gender roles, especially LGBTQ+ people, are punished for crossing these boundaries. Patriarchy uses repressive measures of domestic violence, r*pe, state violence, “gay bashing”, witch hunts, and other means to condition the labor force to accept their respective roles. In the realm of ideology, concepts of Man, Woman, Masculinity, Femininity, Love, Heterosexuality, “biological sex“, etc. exist as culturally constructed standards by which laborers are measured.
Men receive very real benefits to this system as Dixon has pointed out:
For husbands, supporting a wife at subsistence is a very good deal, for his wages alone would not meet expenses (not to mention personalized service) of at least $250.00 per week to pay for the comfort and well-being of himself and his children. That is precisely why so many men, not realizing the mystified nature of both wages and women’s labor, have remained champions of the family and “woman’s place is in the home” -champions for the sake of the real, tangible, material benefits of having at hand, objectively, nothing less than a type of slave labor.
Under socialism, these distinctions will wither, as they will no longer serve a purpose; gender and sexual expression will bloom into a wide array of possibilities, rather than stuffed into boxes. But capitalism is by necessity patriarchal, because the reproduction of labor-power must take place outside of the productive labor process.
The development of capitalism has given rise to the existence of nations, each with their own unevenly developed economic, political, and cultural lives. According to Joseph Stalin,
A nation is a historically constituted, stable community of people, formed on the basis of a common language, territory, economic life, and psychological make-up manifested in a common culture…
A nation is not merely a historical category but a historical category belonging to a definite epoch, the epoch of rising capitalism. The process of elimination of feudalism and development of capitalism is at the same time a process of the constitution of people into nations.
The development of nations thus is closely tied to the dawn of capitalism; in the United States and Europe, this period was marked by colonial plunder. The primitive accumulation of capital in the United States was built on slavery of Africans and genocide of the indigenous people of this land we call the USA. The land, labor, and resources of indigenous people were stolen by the emerging Euro-Amerikan ruling class for the purpose of accumulating capital.
White supremacy in the United States is essentially a structure of national oppression, as multiple nations can exist within one State, or “country”. Through the development of capitalism in this country, several communities have developed into oppressed nations; these nations are the domestic targets of white supremacy in the United States. The New Afrikan, Chicanx, Hawaiian, Boricua, and First Nations are all internally oppressed nations within the borders of the United States. While Puerto Rico remains a formal colony, all of these nations are occupied by the neo-colonial police forces of the oppressor white race.
In the era of finance capital (i.e. imperialism), national oppression takes on a central role in capitalist accumulation. The logic of monopoly capitalism necessitates the perpetual export of finance capital, and thus imperialist countries have a tendency towards controlling foreign markets by economically, politically, and culturally dominating underdeveloped countries through exploitative trade deals, sanctions, and military force. Imperialism abroad goes hand-in-hand with neo-colonial exploitation of the internal oppressed nations.
Since its inception, the United States has made extensive use of national oppression as a central means to drive down wages and extract super-profits. Racism is the ideological justification of national oppression. In a similar way that Man and Woman are ideological constructs of patriarchy, race and whiteness are ideological constructs of white supremacy. Racism emerged as an ideological justification for the slavery and genocide of primitive accumulation; today, it serves to justify the continued plunder of the oppressed nations. White supremacy gives material benefits and political rights to white workers in order to form a cross-class alliance based on this ideological notion of whiteness.
Mass incarceration, police occupation and brutality, housing/job discrimination, depressed wages, underfunded schooling, lack of political rights, lack of clean water and infrastructure, and countless other horrors characterize the terror that oppressed nations face in the United States today. From slavery to sharecropping to Jim Crow to mass incarceration, white supremacy has found ways to evolve to continue to sap oppressed nations of land, labor, and resources. These inhumane living conditions serve as both repressive and exploitative measures. Police occupation serves to control and oppress communities, especially Black communities; prisons serve as a means to control oppressed populations, deal with mass unemployment, and extract super-profits from prison slave labor.
National oppression is an intrinsic feature to the development of capitalism. The primitive accumulation of capital, slavery, and the expropriation of land and resources provided the material bedrock for white supremacy to emerge as a defining aspect of capitalism in the United States. This system of national oppression continues to terrorize Black and Brown communities in the name of profit and plunder.
Capitalism developed in Europe primarily in the 16th-19th centuries, replacing the existing feudal, or tributary mode of production. Merchants originally produced commodities with their own means of production to sell on the market. However, as technology developed, productive tools became so advanced that it became more efficient for a mass of laborers to work together in the same productive process. Thus, the labor process became socialized, while means of production remained in private ownership.
Capitalist production has a tendency to streamline co-operation between laborers, through means such as assembly lines commonly used in automotive factories (famously done by Ford in the early 20th century). This simplification process allows the capitalists to more efficiently produce goods, thus reaping more profits. As Karl Marx noted in Capital, Vol. I, any worker resistance to this process of simplification is met with repression:
The directing motive, the end and aim of capitalist production, is to extract the greatest possible amount of surplus-value, and consequently to exploit labour-power to the greatest possible extent. As the number of the co-operating labourers increases, so too does their resistance to the domination of capital, and with it, the necessity for capital to overcome this resistance by counterpressure. The control exercised by the capitalist is not only a special function, due to the nature of the social labour-process, and peculiar to that process, but it is, at the same time, a function of the exploitation of a social labour-process, and is consequently rooted in the unavoidable antagonism between the exploiter and the living and labouring raw material he exploits.
Any difficulty that workers have in performing their specific role in the labor process, due to either physical or mental limitations, is a roadblock to increasing the intensity of work and the rate of exploitation. Workers who hinder this process of cutting costs and maximizing profits are deemed inadequate and discarded. This is the economic basis for ableism.
Workers with disabilities are also targeted by the capitalist class both by means of repression and ideology. Hate crimes, eugenics, mass genocide, and police brutality are several means by which the ruling class represses disabled workers. Ideologically, disabilities are in a sense defined by the ways in which they hinder labor. Disabilities are pathologized and othered. Workers with disabilities are blamed for their perceived inadequacy, rather than the capitalist system for discriminating against those who do not so easily fit into their profit-seeking ventures.
Under socialism, people with different abilities will be given accommodations rather than be deemed useless. Only a system with profit no longer in command will bring full equality for people of all abilities.
II. Division tactics
Given the usefulness of special oppressions in the accumulation of capital, it is easier to see where divide-and-conquer tactics come in. Without a material basis, the capitalist class would not be able to divide the working class along the lines of nation or gender. However, they are able to succeed in keeping the working class divided by playing off very real, material inequalities that do exist within our class.
Oppressor identities, in particular whiteness, encourage workers to betray their class and embrace an imaginary identity based in real exploitation and oppression. White supremacy tells white workers that they have more in common with their white bosses than they do with their Black co-workers. Instead of seeing oppressed nationality workers as allies in the struggle against the ruling class, white workers tend to view them as competition. Thus, white workers are duped into believing that their lot is with whiteness, rather than with their class.
Historically, trade unionism in the United States has been characterized by racism and division. A common tactic used by capitalists was to attempt to hire Black workers as “scabs” when white unions went on strike. Thus, white workers blamed the Black workers instead of their bosses. In fact, this technique was a crucial means by which Italians, Poles, and Irish were integrated into whiteness in this country. In reality, Black workers were systematically brought in to work, often by force. As J. Sakai notes in Settlers, the high turnover rate of Black “scabs” indicates that they had no intention of replacing white workers; some were even forced at gunpoint to work as strikebreakers (pg. 75).
Sakai also describes a similar situation on the West Coast in the 1870s (pg. 34-36). When bosses began replacing Chinese labor with European labor, Chinese workers fought back and went on strike. However, the white labor movement used boycotts and scabbing to break the strike! Laws were soon passed to impose special taxes and “license fees” on Chinese labor to discourage bosses from hiring Chinese workers. Then, the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act blocked all Chinese immigration into the U.S. and declared Chinese people ineligible for U.S. citizenship. This act was supported by the Knights of Labor, who saw Chinese workers as a competitive threat who were “stealing their jobs”.
Once Chinese workers had built the economy and infrastructure of the Pacific Northwest, they were deemed useless and were swiftly discarded. In the mid 1880s-1890s, the Chinese economy was annexed by Europeans. The Chinese populations in Tacoma and Seattle were driven out at gunpoint; European miners massacred Chinese miners; Italian immigrants burned Chinese ships and villages to take over the fishing industry. Trade unions such as the National Labor Union and the Knights of Labor supported this white terror because they thought it would create jobs for European workers.
This racist, anti-immigrant scapegoating is as useful to the ruling class today as it was then. The Trump administration has drummed up white supremacist bigotry, and the labor elite have fallen right in line. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka has supported Donald Trump‘s racist, anti-immigrant bigotry, including the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. In Buffalo, New York, a union has tipped off Border Patrol to deport undocumented workers, because they’re “stealing their jobs”. Trumka and the labor elite believe that expropriating native resources and deporting immigrants will create more jobs for white workers and raise wages. This is nothing more than a pipe dream, as immigration does not drive wages down or take away jobs, and the DAPL won’t create new long-term jobs.
The racist propaganda about immigrants, especially Latinx and Muslim, wielded by the Trump administration reeks of the age-old scapegoating tactic used by the ruling class since the dawn of capitalism. Trump has even announced plans to publish a list of immigrant “crimes”, just as Nazi Germany published Jewish “crimes”. This racist ideology is especially enticing to the labor aristocracy and union bureaucrats, who reap relative material benefits from the spoils of imperialism. This stratum of the working class is effectively bribed into siding with their own ruling class against oppressed nationality workers. In imperialist countries, trade union leaders tend to have a labor-aristocratic worldview. They are able to sway their rank-and-file into this reactionary ideology of racism. Spontaneous trade unionist politics cannot evolve into genuine class-consciousness without the intervention of a Marxist-Leninist party.
Similar divisions are drawn along gender lines. Dixon writes:
The hostility generated between husband and wife in the family stems from the mystification which results in making a wife the “lifelong slave of his (her) employer” because there is no fixed, maximum time, but rather an indefinite period, in which the wife is expected to work for the husband. This mystification serves capital well, for it not only ensures cheap labor (since the labor power of women as wives does not have to be compensated at its real value), but it also displaces a woman’s hostility and frustration away from capital and onto her husband. Both husband and wife in the proletariat are thus cheated and tricked by capital for the benefit and the purposes of capital. The system is all the more vicious because it serves to make the husband an unwitting accomplice of capital in the subjugation and exploitation of women.
This endless game of divide-and-conquer that the capitalist class plays is a vicious one indeed. Worker is pitted against worker, forgoing the fruits of class unity for the crumbs of white supremacy. However, this division game is not without an economic basis. Chauvinism within the working class, promoted by ruling class propaganda, is the political/ideological manifestation of real, material differences in the working class that the capitalists are able to wield in order to prevent proletarian unity. Without these material differences, divide-and-conquer tactics would have no basis.
III. Moving forward
What is the impact of this understanding of oppression on our practical political work? First and foremost, it allows us to understand the real economic basis of oppression. We will then be able to understand not only the motives behind reactionary, oppressive measures carried out by the capitalist class; we will also be able to understand the white, male, etc. chauvinism that exists within the working class. With this understanding, we will be able to more effectively struggle against the chauvinism in our class.
Instead of committing the Trotskyite error of unitymongering and downplaying anti-racism as “divisive”, we can deal with these real contradictions among the people by realizing that divisions in the working class already exist, because of the inherent contours of capitalist production. Anti-racism doesn’t divide the working class; white chauvinism does! They/them pronouns don’t divide the working class; transantagonism does! With this in mind, any effort for multinational, multigender working class unity must be based on solidarity with all oppressed groups and upholding the right of nations to self-determination. Really, this is just Leninism 101, but it tends to get lost in the wash.
However, it must be made clear that these divisions can indeed be overcome. It is an ultra-left error to fail to seek unity when possible. Despite the real advantages that white workers do have over nationally oppressed workers, capitalism and white supremacy still do far more harm than good for white workers. For example, wage gaps along racial lines are used to drive down wages of the entire working class, especially for oppressed nationalities. But the shared long-term (and even short-term!) interests of white and nationally oppressed workers do lie in socialism and national liberation, even if chauvinism makes white workers too shortsighted to see that.
So what is our orientation towards special oppressions and chauvinism within the working class?
As Marxist-Leninists, our primary task is two-fold. First, we must unconditionally uphold the right of nations to self-determination and stand in solidarity with all progressive movements of the oppressed. Second, we must seek working class unity through struggling against chauvinism within our ranks. Only through understanding the relationship between capitalism and special oppressions can we achieve liberation. Overemphasis on “divide-and-conquer” obscures our tasks more than it clarifies them.