One of the greatest myths about the revolutionary Karl Marx is that he had nothing to say about why some people are oppressed.
For Marx oppression was not rooted in the biology of human beings, but in the world around them. And because human beings and their ideas are shaped by how society is organised, it’s possible to fight for a society without oppression.
His insights into the way racism discriminates, demonises and divides remain relevant.
During Marx’s lifetime, one of most acute forms of oppression was anti-Irish racism.
Marx not only supported Irish national liberation, and crucially understood the divisive role that racism played in workplaces. He wrote that workers were “divided into two hostile camps, English proletarians, and Irish proletarians”.
Marx identified that bosses deliberately stoke up points of division. And he argued that racist ideas made English workers think they shared a common interest with their English bosses, instead of with Irish workers.
“This antagonism is artificially kept alive and intensified by the press, the pulpit, the comic papers, in short by all the means at the disposal of the ruling class,” he wrote.
It’s true that Marx did not write comprehensively on the most deep-seated oppression in class society—that of women. Marx’s life-long
collaborator Frederick Engels developed a more thorough analysis of women’s oppression.
But in the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels identify the importance of the family unit to capitalism.
Women play a critical role for capitalism by reproducing the next generation of workers.
“The bourgeoisie has torn away from the family its sentimental veil and has reduced the family relation to a mere money relation,” they wrote.
Today, women are more likely to work, but their duties as caregivers remains much the same.
Some of Marx’s predictions have not come to fruition. For instance, he argued that the working class family unit would become irrelevant due to advances in capitalist production.
Yet Marx’s work built a framework for understanding and fighting oppression today. And many of his theories about oppression were developed in greater detail by other revolutionaries, such as Vladimir Lenin.
He built on Marx’s understanding of national oppression to argue that socialists should support national liberation struggles.
Marx saw oppression as driven from the top of society. Oppression is rooted in capitalism and class society—and is used to divide working class people.
And he saw workers as the only group within society with the power and interest to struggle for a socialist society without oppression.
So it is necessary to challenge oppression, not as an adjunct to the fight against class society, but absolutely at the heart of that fight.
Capitalism is a dynamic system—and forms of oppression have shifted since Marx’s time.
For instance, he didn’t write about the struggle for LGBT+ liberation or the fight against Islamophobia.
But Marx’s insights are a powerful tool as we struggle against them—and all forms of oppression today.