Festival of the oppressed

Submitted by Anon on 5 March, 2006 - 11:55

Why does Workers' Liberty always talk about class? Are people not oppressed in other ways too? By sexism, racism, homophobia and other prejudices?

Yes, they are - which is why we see the fight for equality as an inseparable part of our socialism.

Look around the world and back through history, and you will see that the fortunes of the working class and of oppressed groups rise and fall together. From Iran under the Ayatollahs to apartheid South Africa to Stalin's Russia, regimes which crush workers enforce other oppressions too.

We cannot win full equality and liberation under capitalism. But even if we could, it would only be equality in exploitation. That might be good enough for gay businessmen or black Tory MPs, but it is not good enough for the rest of us.

Socialism and liberation go together. You could not separate them if you tried - and plenty of people have tried.

Capitalism breeds prejudice

The French Revolution, which helped clear the way for capitalism to sweep away the remnants of feudalism, proclaimed "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity". But that is not the reality of capitalism. It has sexism and racism built into its structure. In the following articles, we will look at how.

Capitalism is also fertile ground for many other prejudices. As the rich hoard society's wealth, everyone else is left to fight over the scraps. It is a competitive, individualistic, dog-eat-dog system which encourages people to lash out.

Whilst capital causes misery, it does not want to take the blame and face united rebellion from its victims. So long as people blame refugees rather than governments for poverty, then we will fight amongst ourselves instead of against our common enemy. So the servants of the ruling class in the media and politics stir up hatred.

This can become even worse at times of economic crisis, when the capitalists try to make working-class people pay the price for economic madness, and desperate people look for scapegoats. Fascist and other reactionary movements often grow in this sort of situation.

Oppression is a class issue. Not only working-class people experience racism, sexism or homophobia. But a successful gay businessman usually has an easier time than a lesbian or gay teenager who can't afford to leave home. And a woman company executive has more in common with the man she sits next to round the boardroom table than with the woman who cleans it.

We can make some progress under capitalism. Many forms of direct discrimination have been outlawed - usually after long, hard-fought struggles.

But those gains are small steps. For example, the Disability Discrimination Act falls well short of eliminating the disadvantages that society imposes on disabled people. And whatever rights we do win, the ruling class can take away. For instance, feminists and the workers' movement have had to defend abortion rights ever since termination was partially legalised in 1967.

Equality AND Struggle

While the capitalists enjoy the fruits of bigotry and division, the working class has a strong interest in overcoming it. If we are divided, it is easier for the bosses to keep exploiting us.

When workers fight back, the need to overcome prejudice is even more urgent. You are much less likely to win your strike if black people do not feel welcome on your picket line, or if women can not make it because there is no childcare.

There is strong opposition to bigotry amongst working-class people. But sadly, there is also prejudice. Workers can be divided native against immigrant, grade against grade, old against young, as well as by race, sex, culture, disability or sexuality.

The AWL challenges such prejudice. A socialist group worth its salt stands firms against sexism, racism and chauvinism.

Unfortunately, it has become common on the left to keep quiet about issues such as honour killings, forced marriages or religious homophobia, for fear of appearing "racist". The AWL supports the people fighting back against those practices, and believes that oppression is wrong, whatever community or country it takes place in.

What can socialism offer?

Socialism will mean that everyone, whatever their gender, ethnicity, sexuality, background or culture, will share the prosperity and abundance, the freedoms and the rights - without any exceptions whatsoever.

Socialism will bring a radical expansion of democracy. In a collective, democratic society, we would all enjoy far greater control over the conditions in which we live. Democracy must include individual liberty and minority rights, free from majority tyranny.

That's why Engels said that a programme for full equality must be a programme for the abolition of classes. And why Lenin said that a workers' revolution would be a "festival of the oppressed and exploited" - meaning that it would be the launch pad for universal human liberation.

Socialism will not immediately eliminate all oppression, but by cutting the roots of sexism, racism and homophobia, which lie with class society, it will create the conditions for liberation. When human social relations are under the control of the majority, it will be possible to put an end to all forms of exploitation and oppression.

Women and socialism

Socialist Feminism

The AWL believes that there can be no women's liberation without socialism, and no socialism without women's liberation. We are socialist feminists.

Many women have felt alienated by other forms of feminism, which have come across as irrelevant, preoccupied with professional women's career aspirations, anti-men, or judgemental about your personal life.

Our socialist feminism is not like that. It is about taking up the issues that affect women's everyday lives, about stamping out sexism, and about women playing a full role alongside men in changing our world.

Before capitalism, goods were made in and around the home. Capitalism produced goods in factories instead, and in far greater quantities. But another essential part of the production process was left at home. Just as machines had to be cleaned, maintained and re-fuelled, so did workers. And just as worn-out machines needed to be replaced, so did worn-out workers. Housework and child-rearing remained in the home, and became sharply marked off from the rest of labour.

Capitalism did not invent housework, but gave it a distinct sphere, private and isolated. Building on existing prejudices, and taking advantage of women's childbearing, the system allocated domestic work to women. Needing money, many women also sought employment either in domestic service or in the factories.

Many aspects of women's lives have changed since then, but housework and paid work still comprise women's 'double burden'. As more women work for wages, there is no evidence that the hours women spend on housework are falling.

Housework sucks: a daily and weekly round of cleaning, shopping, cooking, washing and balancing the household books - and as soon as it is done, it has to be done again.

The allocation of housework to women is the foundation on which sexism is built. At work, women predominate in jobs modelled on our domestic role - such as nursing and cleaning - which are undervalued and underpaid because housework is undervalued and unpaid.

The integration of domestic work with gender division in waged work ties women's oppression firmly into capitalism. The two do not exist independently of each other, any more than a car and its engine do. Because of this, women's liberation is impossible under capitalism.

Capitalism will not pay for the free nurseries, laundry services, hospitals, canteens, food deliveries and other things that would free women from domestic drudgery and give us real equality. We can win some provision from the state, but we keep having to defend it from cuts, privatisation, closures and charges.

Capital will not liberate women, because it would cost money. Liberation would require directing resources to need rather than to bosses' profits - the opposite of what capitalism is about.

Laws do not deliver equality because they take for granted the capitalist system. A single mother who steals from a supermarket to feed her kids is acriminal and will be locked away. The same supermarket paying poverty wages to teenage girls working at its checkouts is committing no offence.

What can socialism offer?

We would reorganise domestic work on a collective basis. Early socialists had the vision of housework organised socially, with scientifically-advanced gadgets to lighten the load. Bolshevik Russia tried it, but lack of technology and economic development limited its success. Now we have the resources and the technology, we need to defeat the class that prefers to keep us enslaved in the home, and to bring to power the class which has the interest in reorganising household labour.

Why is that the working class? Because the female half of that class would liberate itself from the kitchen; and because there is no other, lower class that the working class can get to come round and do its housework.

Socialised domestic work would also free personal relationships from economic ties. It would end domestic dependency, and so would reduce women's vulnerability to abuse. Women's status would rise, as would respect for children.

The movement we need

How do we mobilise women for socialism? First, revive the women's movement. Second, put women workers at the centre of working-class struggle.

There are many important demands to fight for - equal pay; free, state-of-the-art health care that meets women's needs; safe pregnancy, safe childbirth, safe abortion. The AWL believes that a new women's movement should be based on issues such as these - it should base itself on the needs and involvement of working-class women.

There is a rich history of working-class women's struggle - the Matchgirls, Women Against Pit Closures, and many more. Women change during these struggles. During strikes in the 1990s, women from groups such as Women Of The Waterfront (supporting the Liverpool dockers), the Hillingdon Hospital strikers and the Magnet Women's Support Group became formidable public speakers and inspirational campaigners. Working-class women have a vast store of talent, ignored and suppressed by capitalism, which bursts out when prompted by the demands of class struggle.

One Tory woman Prime Minister, and now a hundred New Labour women MPs, have taught us a bitter lesson. We can not rely on the political servants of the ruling class to deliver policies that benefit ordinary women. We can rely only on our activism and the power of the labour movement.

Anti-racism and socialism

Only the naive or the foolish look to the police to protect black people from racism. Black people need protection from the police.

Anti-black racism was a product of the beginnings of capitalism. Under the pressure of economic interests, writers and thinkers developed the gut reactions of the slave-owners into fleshed-out theories. Black people were called sub-human, allowing the bourgeoisie to have their "liberty" and their slaves too. Pseudoscience said black peoples were inferior - because of head shape, or some other rubbish.

Colonialism and the slave trade wrecked societies and civilisations. Much of the African past was destroyed.

Imperialism in India reduced a fabulous treasure-house, the world's leading industrial nation, to backward poverty. Europe then built a whole racist ideology that the peoples of Africa and Asia were naturally "backward". In Ireland the British state brutalised the people and then blamed them for their own condition. They were described as "unstable, childish, violent, lazy, feckless, feminine and primitive".

In the heyday of the British Empire racism and nationalism penetrated every part of intellectual life as never before.

Immigration laws have been one of the major mechanisms of state racism over the last 40 years. The first modern immigration act was passed against Jews - the 1905 Aliens Act. After the Second World War, capitalism expanded, and British bosses toured Africa, the Caribbean and India looking for workers to bring to Britain.

As the boom slowed, the racist right mobilised. It was led by Winston Churchill, the supposedly great leader of British democracy in World War 2. In 1955 Churchill proposed "Keep Britain White" as a Tory election slogan. The Metropolitan Police described "coloured people" as "work-shy" and content to live on National Assistance (state benefits) and "immoral earnings".

Black workers found "colour bars" in clubs and housing. Racist attacks became more common, and in 1958 organised racists led a riot in Notting Hill, West London. "If you want a nigger neighbour, vote Labour" was a Tory by-election slogan in 1964. Margaret Thatcher said that "this country might be swamped by people from a different culture" before her election victory in 1979.

The state underpins embittered racism through its immigration and asylum laws. Ever since the 1960s, Tory governments, and Labour too, have defined immigrants from Asia, Africa, and the West Indies as "a problem", and constructed ever-stricter laws and regulations to exclude them. The Immigration Act of April 1962 began the current process of formal racism - laws which discriminate against black people. Immigration Acts of 1968 and 1971 completed the process, barring almost all immigrants from Africa, the Caribbean and India except those joining close family.

Since the possibility of "economic" immigration from such countries has been largely closed off, the government has set about closing the doors also to people fleeing persecution, asylum-seekers.

What can socialism offer?

In Britain most black and Asian people are also workers - and across the world the majority of working people are non-white. Either black and Asian people will play a major role in the socialist revolution, or there will be no socialism. Under socialism, emancipation from racism will begin with the absolute and unconditional abolition of every form of economic discrimination and disadvantage, and to full equality in all domains. Racial prejudice will begin to wither with the ending of the social system that produced and nourished it. Socialism would bring a radical expansion of democracy. It will mean democratic control over state bodies such as the police, immigration officers and the courts that institutionalise racism. It will mean freedom of movement and international solidarity between peoples.

Rooting Out Homophobia

For many gay rights campaigners, homophobia is simply a fact, probably arising from heterosexuals' ignorance or inherent prejudice. But it is important to try to understand its roots, so that we can fight it effectively.

Socialists have attempted to do this, and the standard answer runs thus: homophobia is caused by capitalism; in particular, it is based in the structure of the family.

But the roots of homophobia - and the role of capitalism - are more complex than that. Significant elements of anti-gay prejudice originate before capitalism; others are strongly shaped by capitalism. Capitalism has done quite a bit of good for homosexuality and for sexual freedom; but it also stands in the way of full liberation. Capitalism has created the possibility of the liberation of human sexuality: but to realise that potential, we need to surpass capitalism, to create socialism.

Capitalism and homophobia

Capitalism proclaimed its new order with the slogan of the French revolution, promising liberty, equality and fraternity. Ideas of rights, of justice, of human dignity came onto the agenda.

However this did not extend to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) people.

Capitalism broke up feudal, family-based production and brought people together in factory-based, social production. It was in this context that a homosexual identity, community, subculture and movement developed. The word "homosexual" was first used in 1869 in a pamphlet in Germany.

Same-sex sexual behaviour has existed in many different societies through history. But available evidence strongly suggests that the notion of a "homosexual" as a type of person, an individual's identity, is a much more recent development.

As the centre of production moved from the household to the factory, so the public and private spheres became separated. Capitalism benefits from a free supply of domestic labour to keep their workforce going.

So the capitalists are pretty keen on "family values". Politicians compete to be lauded as the most "pro-family". Much of the language of homophobia is expressed in terms of defending family life, and anti-gay attitudes often coincide with traditional views on the family.

The family helps to reproduce not only people, but ideas and values. But the family that is held up as paradise can be hell for the homosexual.

Same-sex sexuality stands accused by homophobes of undermining male and female gender roles (and the assumption that they go together) and thus undermining the sanctity of family life. Homophobes often express their neurosis in terms of defending their masculinity or femininity - wouldn't want anyone to suggest that they are not "real" men or women.

But as it has demanded a more mobile workforce, capitalism has also brought some breakdown of family ties, enabling more sexual freedom.

And the family is not the whole story when it comes to explaining lesbian, gay and bisexual oppression. Not every queerbasher lets loose another kick with a cry of "here's one for family values".

There is another aspect to the language of homophobia, which labels our sexuality as sinful, unnatural, against God's law. Although capitalism has put its own spin on these, they have been around a lot longer: they are pre-capitalist ideas.

Moral and religious codes gained their appeal as a way of explaining a complex and mysterious world. They retain their appeal as what Marx called "the heart in a heartless world" - rules by which you can aspire to do the right thing in a world where so much wrong is done. The moral framework of sin also allows for scapegoating of sinners. Crime and disorder are not the fault of poverty or alienation, but of homosexuals and single parents!

Rather than being a straightforward bourgeois phenomenon, homophobia seems to be sustained by both capitalist and pre-capitalist ideologies, interacting with each other.

Capitalism has brought developments which have facilitated some freeing of sexuality. Workers in a modern big city have a much wider choice of leisure time and leisure facilities than peasants in a pre-capitalist village. A separation of sex and reproduction is made possible by contraception. But under capitalism, not everyone has leisure time, or enough money to get out and meet people. Access to the benefits of capitalism is determined and restricted by society's class structure. To go a step further - leisure facilities for all people; more leisure time through shorter working hours; adequate sex education and sexual health provision - requires prioritisation of people's needs over private profit.

What socialism can offer

Under socialism, the domestic economy would be collectivised. This would free our personal lives from economic ties, enabling us to form personal, rather than financial, relationships. Breaking up the "compulsory family system" would undermine the material basis for male and female "roles" and the supremacy of heterosexuality.

As people gained more control over their own lives, religious superstition would lose its appeal, and religious authorities would lose their power to condemn people as "sinners" and incite hatred against them.

It would be pointless to try to set out a blueprint of human sexuality under socialism: it could flourish in ways we might not yet imagine. And there should no need to resort to simplistic, unconvincing equations between capitalism and homophobia to persuade lesbian, gay and bisexual activists that they should take up the broader fight for socialism.

Our case is for socialism as a "carnival of the oppressed", a new society that throws off the shackles of the class system whilst building on the progress that has been achieved so far.

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