Socialist Worker

Why workers can end all oppression

by Sarah Ensor
Issue No. 2271

Previously in this series we looked at how capitalism divides people into two main classes. The rulers own the means of production while the rest of us—workers—have to work for them.

But class is not the only inequality under capitalism. Our world is marked by different kinds oppression, such as racism, sexism and homophobia.

Marxists argue that all forms of political inequality must be fought. But we also argue that class divisions are more fundamental than those of race, gender or sexuality.

This is for two reasons. The first is that class divides the world into those who own and control the wealth, and those who do the work that produces it.

And this relationship—the exploitation of workers by the ruling class—underpins and explains all the other forms of inequality.

All oppressions have histories. They are not fixed aspects of human nature. But they are connected because they are all rooted in class society.

Homophobia as we see it today is relatively recent. The idea that gay men or lesbians formed separate categories of people who could be discriminated against arose in the 19th century.

Racism is also a recent invention. The notion of races, and that black people were inferior to white people, arose in the early years of capitalism to justify slavery.

The oppression of women is much older. It dates back to the dawn of class society, before capitalism developed.

For most of history, humans lived as hunter-gatherers operating in small bands on the basis of equality. Men and women played different roles in these societies, but they were equal.

But once humans developed agriculture, society began to divide into classes. The oppression of women and the reduced status of the work women do dates from this period. Sexism is linked to changes in technology and the emergence of private property.

So, we can only explain racist or sexist oppression by starting from class. But class is not only central to understanding oppression. It is also key to fighting it.

This doesn’t mean that no working class person has racist or sexist ideas. There is no automatic “unity of the oppressed”—it has to be fought for. And the ruling class isn’t immune to oppression, although working class people suffer the worst impact of it.

But exploitation pushes workers to fight back collectively, undermining the divisions that oppression creates. Class struggle can help workers see that they have a common interest.

So, solidarity from women’s groups and gay and lesbian groups played an important role during the miners’ strike of 1984-85. It also helped change miners’ attitudes, undercutting sexist and homophobic ideas.

More fundamentally, since all forms of oppression are rooted in class division, we can only get rid of them when we get rid of class society. And the working class is the social force that has the power to do that.

When workers make revolutions they can sweep away deep-rooted prejudices and win real liberation. The Russian Revolution in 1917 gave women full and equal voting rights. Abortion was legalised. Women, and men, had the right to divorce on request.

Women in capitalist societies had to wait far longer for such radical reforms. The revolutionaries in Russia developed a new penal code that decriminalised sex between men.

Antisemitic ideas had been widespread before the revolution. But workers elected Leon Trotsky, a Jewish socialist, as president of the Petrograd soviet.

Revolutions show that, when workers fight as a class, they have the power to liberate humanity. We can see the same process of liberation unfolding today in the revolutions that have erupted across the Middle East.

Oppression divides and weakens the working class. That is why socialists have to fight all forms of oppression. It is also why the ruling class encourages bigoted and prejudiced attitudes.

But workers have both the interest and the ability to overthrow capitalism and create an equal society free of oppression. As the revolutionary Karl Marx put it, capitalism creates its own gravediggers.

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