Can socialism end oppression?

Solidarity restarts our series on common questions about socialism

WE LIVE in a profoundly unequal world. While in Australia women have equal pay by law, they still earn, on average, 17.9 per cent less than men. Equal marriage may seem inevitable, yet 61 per cent of LGBT people experience verbal homophobic harassment and 18 per cent experience physical abuse in their lifetime. In Australia, Indigenous children are 24 times more likely to be incarcerated than non-Indigenous children.

There is a common and false caricature that says socialists can deal with economic problems like wages or capitalist crisis, but they can’t explain or fight oppression like sexism, racism or homophobia. Far from it—socialists have always been involved in struggles against oppression.

Firstly, socialists are for the self-emancipation of the working class. To overthrow capitalism the working class needs to be united. The working class is Muslim, LGBT, Aboriginal and female. So we need to take on every division and prejudice that diminishes our ability to fight together.

Writing in 1902, Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin argued that the role of a revolutionary socialist is to be: “the tribune of the people, who is able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it appears, no matter what stratum or class of the people it affects.”

What Lenin is saying here is that socialists must take oppression seriously and lead struggles to fight it—and that it’s only the working class that can end the system that produces oppression.

Capitalist oppression and division

Oppression is not natural. To paraphrase Marx, the ruling ideas in society are the ideas of the ruling class. Oppression is structured into class society and it serves the interests of the ruling class. The police, the media, the education system, religion, and so on, all maintain systematic discrimination and the ideology that supports it.

Sexism, for example, is rooted in the nuclear family. Working class women provide free childcare and free domestic labour in the home to produce the next generation of workers for the ruling class. British PM David Cameron recently called the family “the greatest welfare system of them all.”

Sexism also divides the working class. Workers’ accepting stereotypical ideas about women makes it easier for the ruling class to exploit both women and men.

Racism, too, divides workers and justifies inequality. The ruling class peddles racist myths about Indigenous people, Muslims and refugees. For people suffering cuts to social services and growing unemployment, racism is a way that government and bosses can deflect the blame. Instead of fighting for more services and jobs for everyone, some workers can mistakenly accept racist ideas that encourage them to see other workers as the enemy.

Class and struggle

Yet while capitalism divides us, it also brings us together. Today it is common, especially in universities, to hear that class is one of a series of intersecting oppressions, along with gender, race, sexuality and many others.

However, class oppression is not the same as other oppressions. As Marx writes in the Communist Manifesto, capitalism creates its own gravediggers. The working class produces all the wealth in society. We run the call centres and the transport systems, the schools and the factories. The capitalist system itself gives the working class a potential source of power.

Capitalism also brings together workers of all genders, sexualities and races, meaning that workers’ collective action creates a drive toward unity and to challenging oppressive ideas. The 1968 Ford Dagenham strike, the subject of the film Made in Dagenham, shows how women workers taking collective action forced their husbands to see them as class allies and equals, and helped break down sexist ideas. The strike was the beginning of the Women’s Liberation movement in the UK.

Oppressed groups are also divided by class. For example, Julia Gillard experienced a torrent of sexist abuse as Prime Minister. But, as a ruling class figure, she was quite willing to cut the payments of thousands of single mothers. And mining mogul Gina Rinehart isn’t interested in equal pay for women—her wealth depends on exploiting women and men.

Revolution and socialism

To uproot the oppression so deeply embedded in capitalism requires a total revolutionary transformation of society. This means the majority of ordinary people taking power into their own hands, and the active involvement of the mass of oppressed people in decisions that affect their lives. Workers’ control over production, rather than bosses’ control, means decisions can be made about how the whole of our society works.

The experience of unity and empowerment through struggle shifts people’s conceptions of what is possible and realistic, and this is magnified 1000-fold in a revolutionary situation. It is truly “a festival of the oppressed”.

In Russia, nearly 100 years ago, the revolution established socialised childcare, kitchens and laundries, giving women full freedom to participate in running society. A whole ministry dedicated to women’s education toured the country. They even recognised same-sex marriage—something Australia has yet to do. National and religious minorities were granted self-determination.

What would workers’ power be capable of today? This, and more. A revolutionary movement would grant freedom of sexual and gender expression, and of religion. It would revolutionise our education system. It would disband the police force that harasses and murders Aboriginal people, it would end wars and refugee detention.

It would build a society in which every individual could flourish and meet their full potential. We have nothing to lose but our chains.

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