By Isabel Ringrose
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Fighting oppression— class struggle and liberation

In the last column in a series on oppression, Isabel Ringrose looks at times when collective struggle has confronted oppression 
Issue 2861
revolt oppression class struggle

A protester at Tahrir on Friday 8 July 2011 (picture: Hossam el-Hamalawy on Flickr)oppression

There is a powerful strategy for fighting oppression—and that’s fighting together as a class.  Workers should not focus solely on economic issues in the hope it leads to liberation. Fighting the system means seeing oppression as a central issue and consciously combating it.

It’s why Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin said socialists should be “the tribune of the people” who fight “every manifestation of tyranny and oppression”.

Working class unity, especially during revolutionary upheaval, leads to the biggest gains for liberation. 

This doesn’t mean change happens overnight, but it gives a taste of what’s possible when ordinary people come together.

The 1871 Paris Commune saw, briefly, the first workers’ government. It came after a defeat for France’s national government’s attempt to disarm poor people who were in revolt.

Women were central to this victory. One eyewitness wrote, “The women led from the front. Those present did not wait for their husbands.” 

But an improved role, for women wasn’t automatic. Women were denied the right to vote in Comnune elections.

The German Revolution of 1918 showed the possibility of a transformation of the  lives of LGBT+ people.

Magnus Hirschfeld established the Institute for Sexual Science, which declared itself a place of “research, teaching, healing, and refuge”. It offered advice on sexual problems, held talks, and produced publications.

LGBT+ clubs were also established in every German city, and the first mass organisations of LGBT+ people came into existence. For instance, the League for Human Rights had at its peak 48,000 members.

By 1933, over 1,000 counselling centres across Germany existed, including 34 clinics in Berlin, offering contraception and advice on combating child abuse and domestic violence.

Women were also crucial in the 1936 Spanish Civil War against Francisco Franco’s fascist forces. The Spanish Constitution of 1931, brought in by the new Republican government, introduced universal suffrage and the right to divorce.

In Catalonia in 1936 as the fascist forces launched a coup,  workers took control of their workplaces, and city-wide collectives coordinated production. 

Women won the legalisation of abortion and the availability of birth control and played an increasingly equal role to men on neighbourhood committees.

Working class resistance—and strikes in particular—were central to the defeat of the racist apartheid system in South Africa. Beginning in 1973, when there were no legal trade unions, workers fought against harsh conditions in the factories, mines and transport hubs but also began to raise political demands.

The regime was able to torture and murder activists. But it could not destroy workers’ organisation or their economic power. 

In the end, the state was forced to accept the end of apartheid as an alternative to being swept away by revolution.

In the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, oppressed groups were again central to the struggle. Before the revolution, sexual harassment against women was endemic.  This changed during the revolution.

Egyptian revolutionary socialist Gigi Ibrahim reported in Socialist Worker at the time, “From the beginning of the revolution, and throughout the 18 days I spent in Tahrir Square, I did not face sexual harassment once.”

Christians, Muslims, Jews and atheists, people wearing niqabs, hijabs or no religious coverings, stood in unity. But as counter-revolution was triumphant thugs targeted women, and bigots attacked religious minorities. 

When struggle goes downwards, or fascist and counter-revolutionary forces are on the rise, gains made by oppressed people are the first to be snatched away.

It’s possible to win a world without oppression—it’s up to socialists to be part of the battles to make that happen.

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