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Right of the oppressed to organise their own defence

This article is over 20 years, 2 months old
Colin Barker continues his series on 'Where We Stand', the Socialist Workers Party's statement of principles
Issue 1893

At the heart of capitalism is an ongoing class struggle between capital and labour. That is the ABC of Marxism. But the alphabet has more than three letters. Class domination in capitalism is interwoven with many other sorts of human oppression. These provide a basis for divisions among the exploited. Disadvantaged groups have been held down on the grounds of being ‘different’, and they in turn have fought back.

Religious differences have all been played on to create disunity. Racist oppression, similarly, has disfigured the whole history of capitalist ‘civilisation’. So has the oppression of women, of gays and lesbians. Likewise with language differences, and with the oppression of migrant peoples.

Faced with oppression, the socialist starting point is always solidarity with the oppressed. In Lenin’s famous term, socialists have always to be ‘tribunes of the people’, confronting all forms of injustice. Nor is this something separate from the class struggle. For the workers’ movement to rise to claim leadership of the whole of society, it has to learn to stand always with the oppressed peasant, the persecuted Jew or Muslim, against sexism and homophobia, against racism.

No working class that tolerates inequality in any form can make itself free. The oppressed have the right to resist their own oppression. In 2001, in Bradford, Burnley and Oldham, rampaging Nazi thugs provoked local Asian people into active defence of their communities.

The police weighed in, to confront not the fascists but those who were most resolute in organising and fighting back. Labelled as ‘rioters’, numbers of young Asians were given long prison sentences. Rightly, socialists defended the ‘rioters’.

The police do not side with the struggles of oppressed groups. As the Stephen Lawrence case revealed, even when investigating an overtly racist murder, ‘institutionalised racism’ prevailed over simple justice. Organised resistance is the means by which oppressed groups can challenge their situation. Collective activity enables them to transform themselves.

In the 1950s surveys of American women reported that they hated themselves, and preferred the company of men. One brilliant achievement of the women’s movement was a new pride in being a woman. That in turn helped transform and re-energise the working class movement. The women’s movement took inspiration from the civil rights movement, which produced one of the great revolutionary slogans of the 1960s: ‘Black is beautiful.’

The bus boycotts and sit-ins, the marches and the ‘long hot summers’ of urban insurrection gave real meaning to that idea. White racism suffered immense defeats. In 1969 the fightback by New York gays at the Stonewall bar against police persecution launched the gay liberation movement. Today millions of men and women are freer to assert their sexuality, a necessary condition of any freedom.

All these struggles have strengthened the workers’ movement today. The Palestinians have become the most prominent symbols of struggle against oppression. Without the intifada, they would have remained an unknown, silently oppressed people.

Their suffering would have been no less, but they would have been without hope or pride, and without allies across the world. The intifada illustrates a further point. Sometimes the Palestinians are criticised for ‘violence’, but Israeli state violence against them is immensely greater. Nor is that violence restricted to the open killings that are an everyday occurrence across the West Bank and Gaza. There is violence too in enforced poverty and the destruction of economic life.

High levels of child mortality are just as murderous as helicopter gunships. Often those who begin resistance against oppression do so in conditions of isolation. It is precisely their refusal to accept continuing degradation that generates the possibility of solidarity. The meek do not inherit the earth.

Is socialists’ role only to cheer on every struggle against oppression? Some ways of dealing with oppression are self defeating. One early response to racist oppression was called ‘Uncle Tom’. It involved trying to prove-to the racist power structure-that blacks were worthy of its benevolence, seeking liberation on the oppressors’ terms. A sense of weakness lay behind such ideas.

At what might seem the opposite extreme, terrorism is a self defeating tactic. Rather than rely on mass activity, it relies on the dedication of a heroic few. It too commonly arises from a sense of hopelessness. At worst, in targeting ordinary working class people it can strengthen the very forces of reaction it opposes.

Sometimes the interweaving of struggles produces complicated tactical problems. In Bristol in the 1960s racists organised a strike against Sikhs’ right to wear turbans on the buses.

The Sikh workers joined the picket line, but with placards about wages and working conditions. The racist strike collapsed in embarrassment. Class solidarity won out. Socialists do not always agree with the methods of struggle adopted by the oppressed.

There is no difference in principle here with the debates we have in unions about how best to fight the bosses. In both cases we start with solidarity, and participate in debates about strategy and tactics.

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