UPDATE: This piece was published on Socialist Worker.
Marx is often accused by those on both the right and the left of “ignoring” forms of oppression that exist outside of economic relations, such as racism, sexism or homophobia, or relegating those struggles as “secondary” to the class struggle.
However, I think this is an inaccurate representation of Marx’s own politics. In his own day he made it very clear that the struggle against oppression is not only crucial to building a successful struggle against capitalist exploitation, but that the one is necessarily bound up within the other.
For Marx, the struggle against oppression wasn’t “secondary,” or even separate from the class struggle, but is itself a form of the class struggle. This isn’t a call however, to reduce every struggle against racist or sexist oppression to economic struggles over pay gaps, or access to employment, i.e. to narrow every form of oppression to simple matters of economics. Instead, the idea here is to broaden and expand the concept of what class struggle means.
The compartmentalized analysis of the left critics often separates the various struggles against oppression and exploitation away from each other, into their most static and elementary forms, producing in practice what they actually accuse Marxists of doing. Marx’s method (elaborated in the letter excerpt below), however, unites the various struggles into a common force for combating all forms of oppression and exploitation.
This excerpt from the letter below, written by Marx to his comrade Sigfrid Meyer, offers those active in the struggle today a great deal to consider. Marx drew a provocative comparison between the English oppression of Irish workers to whites and “the Negroes in the former slave states of the U.S.A.” But aside from that, pay attention also to Marx’s point about the English worker’s sense of superiority. The English worker regarded “himself as a member of the ruling nation,” Marx said, and that only strengthened the domination of the ruling class. I think this offers activists today a lot to think about, with regard to the white supremacist mentality that is common throughout our racist society.
Marx’s drew on this point when he talked about how the hatred of the English toward the Irish was maintained “and intensified by the press, the pulpit, the comic papers, in short, by all the means at the disposal of the ruling classes.” This continues to be relevant today in the struggle against oppression, as activist combat negative depictions of people of color, immigrants, women, homosexuals, etc., in the media.
The task for socialists, Marx said here, wasn’t to ask the Irish to forgo their struggle for independence in place of the class struggle, or to ignore the oppression of Ireland by England, but exactly the opposite. “It is the task of the International everywhere,” Marx said, “to put the conflict between England and Ireland in the foreground” of the struggle, and “to side openly with Ireland.” One could quickly draw any number contemporary comparisons to various struggles today against imperialism and national oppression, or even broader comparisons to other struggles against oppression.
And for those comrades in England, it was their “special task” to show the English workers why they needed to side with the Irish cause for independence. The strategy wasn’t to guilt the English workers. “This is not a question of abstract justice or humanitarian sentiment,” Marx explained, but instead the approach was to make them realize that “for them the national emancipation of Ireland…is the first condition of their own social emancipation.”
This is a particularly powerful quote from Marx’s letter. I think this actually is saying quite a bit about what solidarity meant to Marx. Here, he’s stating that solidarity comes not from an idealistic conception of justice, selflessness, or humanitarianism. It’s not about just “being a better person” than others. He’s saying that solidarity comes from the recognition that you have a real stake in the outcome of this struggle, too — so you’d better get out there and fight in it. It’s very reminiscent of the motto of United Students Against Sweatshops, which was borrowed from a quote by the Australian indigenous activist Lilla Watson: “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
In this letter Marx began by explaining how English colonialism in Ireland not only served the purposes of providing cheap natural resources, and the main sources of [the English aristocracy’s] material wealth, but,
“…[M]ost important of all! Every industrial and commercial centre in England now possesses a working class divided into two hostile camps, English proletarians and Irish proletarians. The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers his standard of life. In relation to the Irish worker he regards himself as a member of the ruling nation and consequently he becomes a tool of the English aristocrats and capitalists against Ireland, thus strengthening their domination over himself. He cherishes religious, social, and national prejudices against the Irish worker. His attitude towards him is much the same as that of the “poor whites” to the Negroes in the former slave states of the U.S.A. The Irishman pays him back with interest in his own money. He sees in the English worker both the accomplice and the stupid tool of the English rulers in Ireland.
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 classes. This antagonism is the secret of the impotence of the English working class, despite its organisation. It is the secret by which the capitalist class maintains its power. And the latter is quite aware of this.
But the evil does not stop here. It continues across the ocean. The antagonism between Englishmen and Irishmen is the hidden basis of the conflict between the United States and England. It makes any honest and serious co-operation between the working classes of the two countries impossible. It enables the governments of both countries, whenever they think fit, to break the edge off the social conflict by their mutual bullying, and, in case of need, by war between the two countries.
England, the metropolis of capital, the power which has up to now ruled the world market, is at present the most important country for the workers’ revolution, and moreover the only country in which the material conditions for this revolution have reached a certain degree of maturity. It is consequently the most important object of the International Working Men’s Association to hasten the social revolution in England. The sole means of hastening it is to make Ireland independent. Hence it is the task of the International everywhere to put the conflict between England and Ireland in the foreground, and everywhere to side openly with Ireland. It is the special task of the Central Council in London to make the English workers realise that for them the national emancipation of Ireland is not a question of abstract justice or humanitarian sentiment but the first condition of their own social emancipation.”