Strategies to end oppression

February 5, 2013

I REALLY appreciated the article by Sharon Smith on "Marxism, feminism and women's liberation."

Much heat and not so much light has been produced on whether men benefit from the oppression of women (likewise if whites benefit from the oppression of people of color, etc.). Sharon explains this clearly when she writes that "capital is the primary beneficiary of women's oppression in the family and of all the sexist garbage used to reinforce women's second-class citizenship...[W]orking-class men have an objective class interest in the liberation of women."

But as Sharon explains, in spite of this, men do get certain immediate gains from their position in a sexist society. It is a benefit to men if their female partner does all the housework and/or child care while they enjoy the benefits of that work. This arrangement gives a material basis for men to accept institutional sexism. An analogy can be made with whites getting job and housing advantages over people of color.

Workers in groups that do not suffer special oppression who support the current arrangement of society that oppresses women, people of color, etc., are expressing support for their immediate, sectional or individual interests over their long-term class interests. This is similar to current employees accepting a contract that lowers the wages of new hires in return for a wage increase for themselves. On an individual basis, it is similar to the worker who kisses up to his/her boss and is willing to rat out and climb over other workers to get a better job--or to scabs crossing a picket line.

In the long run, and sometimes even in the medium or short run, workers who accept oppression and further divisions in the working class are shooting themselves in the foot. The more workers are divided and sections of the working class are oppressed, the more difficult it will be to unite to make gains for the whole working class.

There are two wrong approaches to this dilemma of conflicting interests within the working class. The reductionists that Sharon describes ignore the real immediate benefits that some workers get from oppressive institutions. Separatists, on the other hand, ignore the long-term class interests of all workers in fighting against institutionalized oppression.

Both of these wrong approaches lead to failed strategies. The reductionist approach refuses to take on the divisions in the working class in favor of only raising demands that affect all workers equally. The separatist approach gives up on the battle for unity in the working class altogether. Both approaches leave the divisions in the working class intact.

In fact, working-class unity--not just against poverty and exploitation, but also against all forms of oppression--is possible because of workers' long-term class interests. This unity is necessary if workers are really to advance their interests. However, this unity has to be fought for.

Marxists need to argue for the least oppressed supporting the interests of the most oppressed. We should not abstain from this fight by adopting either reductionism or separatism.
Steve Leigh, Seattle

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