Solidarity Forever: National Liberation, Identity Politics, and Worker’s Power

Often, proponents of social justice and the liberation of oppressed people claim that Marxism is not relevant in their struggles. According to these critics, Marxism focuses too heavily on the working class and the economic sphere, to the exclusion of identity-based oppressions like race, sexuality, gender, or ability. Marxism, assert the critics, is class reductionist. This claim has led many well-intentioned activists to abandon Marxism in favor of atomized movements that struggle around one specific site of identity-based oppression. The introduction of intersectionality theory has alleviated this problem somewhat, but those of us who seriously seek to end oppression still have a ways to go. I will argue in this essay that Marxism is not incapable of addressing ‘non-economic’ identity-based oppressions. On the contrary, Marxism’s assertion that the working class is the true revolutionary agent makes it the ideal political strategy for countering all forms of oppression.

The charge of class reductionism is not a new one. Friedrich Engels, Marx’s close collaborator, had to deal with it himself. In a letter to J. Bloch in 1890, Engels shows that Marxism is not economically reductionist or deterministic. He writes,

“According to the materialist conception of history, the ultimately determining element in history is the production and reproduction of real life. Other than this neither Marx nor I have ever asserted. Hence if somebody twists this into saying that the economic element is the only determining one, he transforms that proposition into a meaningless, abstract, senseless phrase. The economic situation is the basis, but the various elements of the superstructure — political forms of the class struggle and its results, to wit: constitutions established by the victorious class after a successful battle, etc., juridical forms, and even the reflexes of all these actual struggles in the brains of the participants, political, juristic, philosophical theories, religious views and their further development into systems of dogmas — also exercise their influence upon the course of the historical struggles and in many cases preponderate in determining their form. There is an interaction of all these elements in which, amid all the endless host of accidents (that is, of things and events whose inner interconnection is so remote or so impossible of proof that we can regard it as non-existent, as negligible), the economic movement finally asserts itself as necessary. Otherwise the application of the theory to any period of history would be easier than the solution of a simple equation of the first degree.” [1].

Marxism merely holds that the economic base of society is the first factor in determining what cultural, political, and social institutions that society will have. It does not pretend that these other institutions are irrelevant or ‘less real’ than economics.

It is important to note that neither Marx nor Engels were infallible. Their rejection of the free love movement and their very low opinion of workers in India serve as examples of their own bigotry, which must be recognized and combated. The basic point that their philosophy allows for an analysis of oppression remains true even in light of their personal failings. It is also worth noting that the Marxist method has been used to critique the racism of Marx and Engels, most notably by Robert Biel in his book Eurocentrism and the Communist Movement (see especially the section “Was Engels a Racist?”).

In fact, an analysis of these other (‘non-economic’) institutions is key in understanding the nature of the working class as a whole. Proponents of identity politics often see the working class as exclusively white and male, but this is far from the case. Some forty percent of entry-level service jobs are occupied by Black and Latino workers, according to a report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics [2]. The unpaid labor of homemakers, who are mostly women, is a key part of  the continuation of capitalism, and something that Marxists have devoted considerable time to analyze. Engels makes a similar argument in his book The Origin of Family, Private Property, and the State. Socialists have always held that the working class is typically made up of the most oppressed people. Issues of identity-based oppression are not separate from issues of worker’s power. On the contrary, they are integral to it. Racism is obviously more damaging for a minimum-wage black worker than it is for a CEO. Only the latter can afford a yacht to take their mind off of being jeered at by racists. The former, on the other hand, is subject to discriminatory housing policies and hiring practices from which they cannot possibly escape. Many workers of color are forced to deal with racism in the workplace, but they cannot alleviate this by finding another job.

This is not to diminish the effects of racism on members of the capitalist class. Racism must be combated wherever it arises. My point here is that race and class interact with one another. Class is not separate from race, gender, or the like. In racist, sexist, or otherwise oppressive societies, these things will play a role in determining class and will also exacerbate its effects. As J. Moufawad-Paul argues in his book Continuity and Rupture: Philosophy in the Maoist Terrain, “class is always clothed in the garments of oppression.” [3].

This is why socialists have a long history of fighting oppression. After the direct intervention of Lenin (who wrote extensively on anti colonialism and the right of nations to self-determination, and whom we will return to later), the US Communist Party initiated a campaign to free the Scottsboro Boys, nine young black men who were falsely convicted of gang rape in an Alabama court and sentenced to death in 1931. Many black organizations shunned the case due to its sensitive subject matter. The NAACP did not provide a lawyer to the young men until after they had already been convicted. The CP, however, undertook an international campaign that gained wide support among African-Americans because of its principled defense of the Scottsboro Boys. Ahmed Shawki writes, “A May 16, 1931 protest that began with a March of several hundred Communists…ended with a mass rally involving more than three thousand black Harlemites. At the rally, the throng heard from one of the Scottsboro mothers and from Communist speakers….The Scottsboro Campaign carried on for years with events like this one, which succeeded in stopping the Scottsboro executions and ultimately freeing the men.” [4]. The CP’s black membership had grown from 200 in 1930 to 7,000 in 1938. This was at a time when segregation was still legal in the South (and legal in all but name in the North), and there were virtually no other integrated organizations in the United States.

In 1928, the CP had fewer than 50 black members in the entire country. By 1930, just two years later, the membership had quadrupled to 200. Eight years later, in 1938, it had seven thousand black members. Nationally, the black membership rose to nine percent (9%) of the total party membership, This was at a time when black people were only eleven percent (11%) of the total population. In Chicago, in 1921, black people made up twenty-five percent (25%) of the city’s 2000 members. In this city, almost all the Communists were black. This includes the rank-and-file  and the leadership. To reiterate, this was before the integration of the US Military. The Communist Party was, at this point, the most integrated organization in the country. For more on this, I recommend Hammer and Hoe by Robin DG Kelley and and Communists in Harlem During the Depression by Mark Naison.

The Communist Party had many problems, but the campaign to free the Scottsboro Boys shows that Marxism is not only capable of addressing identity-based oppressions, but that it can be successful in doing so.

The history of socialists fighting racial oppression goes back even further than this. Marx himself had an impressive history of doing so. Not only did he advocate for abolition, he was also the head of an organization that prevented the English from entering the Civil War on the side of the South [5]. Many German socialist organizations literally took up arms against the South in the Civil War [6]. Historically, Socialists have never shied away from fighting identity-based oppressions. Socialists of today should not and have not abandoned this.

Now that we have established that Marxism is not antithetical to the fight against identity-based oppressions, I would like to argue that Marxism represents the only coherent political strategy for ending oppression. This is not in spite of its focus on the working class. Far from it. It is only the working class that possesses both the interest and the ability to eradicate oppression. To prove this, I will focus primarily on the question of racism. This is not because I view other forms of oppression as less important than racism. It is simply that there seems to be a good deal more scholarly work on the origins of American racism than other oppressions.

It is certainly true that Marxists understand racism as a product of capitalism. This outlook does not translate, as the critics claim, to the position that class is more important than race. If this were the case, why would the most prolific black liberation movement in United States history adopt Marxism as an ideology and strategy? The Black Panther Party, the Black Liberation Army, and other Marxists understood that locating the source of racial oppression is the first step in mapping out a political strategy to eradicate it [7]. In separating identity from class, liberals accept several fundamentally reactionary views about the nature of oppression. They implicitly assert that racism is a natural part of the human condition. They hold that racism has existed from time immemorial, or even that it is hardwired into us. This would, of course, mean that it is impossible to do away with racism. In refusing to examine the ways in which racism is bound up with capitalism, liberals bar themselves from taking any significant anti-racist action. Racism and other forms of oppression, on this view, cannot be eliminated, only mitigated or blunted. The oppressed can never be fully liberated within a liberal framework.

Before we can get into how racism perpetuates capitalism, and vice versa, we must have a basic understanding of what capitalism actually is. Capitalism does not mean markets, it is not based on an equal exchange between bosses and workers. Capitalism is a system based on exploitation. It is a system in which a small minority expropriates and controls the wealth produced by a laboring majority. These workers must sell their labor on the market in order to survive. The profit of capitalists is directly proportional to the amount of surplus value from the workers. The foundational relationship of capitalism is that between the owners and the workers, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. This relationship is essentially the same, whether the boss owns a factory or a restaurant, whether the worker produces car parts or flips burgers. At the end of the day, capitalists get more out of the exchange than workers do. That is why we have constant struggle over wages and why capitalists have become so adept at crushing organized labor.

This is also the reason that high levels of unemployment are to the advantage of the capitalists. It forces workers into competition with one another, allowing the capitalists to further exploit labor. It is worth noting that unemployment is particularly high for African-Americans, at 8.8% compared to 4.3% for whites [8]. Thus, capitalism forces workers to compete with one another over artificially scarce resources, not just jobs but housing and education as well. These last two examples are also disproportionately laid at the feet of workers of color. According to data published in Black Demographics, “The percentage of Black homeowners decreased between 2005 and 2012 from 46% to 42.5%. Much of these losses can be attributed to the housing crisis where so many Americans lost their houses to foreclosure. This also means more than half of all African Americans rent.” [9]. Education does not look much better. To quote US News,

More than 2 million black students attend schools where 90 percent of the student body is made up of minority students. Dozens of school districts have current desegregation orders. Minority students represent 57 percent of the population in “dropout factories” — schools where the senior class has 60 percent or fewer students who entered as freshmen — but only 30 percent of the population in all schools.

On average, schools serving more minority populations have less-experienced, lower-paid teachers who are less likely to be certified. A report from the Center for American Progress found that a 10 percentage point increase in students of color at a school is associated with a decrease in per-pupil spending of $75. Disparities in course offerings mean students of color have fewer opportunities to challenge themselves with more difficult courses — the type of courses needed to prepare for a four-year college degree or for a high-paying career in STEM. [10].

Capitalism, as a system that is based on competition, systematically leaves African-Americans behind. The precise reasons for this will hopefully become clear as we go on. It is this competition that lays the basis for divisions among workers. Capitalists as a class have a material interest in promoting bigoted ideas, which prevent the workers from seeing that their real enemy is not the other worker, who is also forced to sell their labor in order to survive, but the boss who exploits them both. A united working class, conscious of its collective power as the producers of wealth in society and held together by the conviction that an injury to one is an injury to all, that is the last thing that the bosses want to see. They will fight, and have fought, tooth and nail to prevent this from happening. This includes the use of not only physical force but also strict ideological indoctrination. This is what Marx meant when he said that “the ruling ideas are in every epoch the ideas of the ruling class” [11].

Given the particular history of the US as a settler-colonial state, the ruling class has learned that racism is the most important of these ideas. That history tells us that racism arose in the context of the African slave trade, without which capitalism could not have emerged. Marx wrote, “Direct slavery is just as much the pivot of bourgeois industry as…machinery. Without slavery you have no cotton. Without cotton you have no modern industry. It is slavery that has given the colonies their value” [12]. It is impossible for me to go through the entire four hundred year history of slavery here, but I will try to outline in very broad detail what I think is important for our purposes here.

It is estimated that as many as 12 million Africans were brought by force to South America, the Caribbean, and North America [13]. Somewhere in the vicinity of fifteen percent (15%) of these people died during the middle passage [14]. This amounts to a death toll of approximately 1.8 million from transport alone. These unwilling passengers were chained like stacks of firewood for fear of mutiny, unable to so much as change position for months at a time [15]. The conditions that awaited them in the colonies were not much better. The Atlantic Slave Trade is, to this day, the largest forced population transfer in history [16].

Looking back on slavery today, it is hard to imagine how such barbarity could have ever taken place. Because we live in a world so seeped in racist ideology, it is very tempting to say that what led to slavery in the first place was racism. But, as Trinidadian historian of slavery Eric Williams writes, “slavery was not borne of racism, rather racism is the consequence of slavery” [17]. The concept of race has not always existed. It had to be invented to justify how it was that in a land which proclaimed to be a bastion of freedom and equality, human beings were subjected to treatment far worse than animals. It is important to say here that race as a category has absolutely no bearing on biology. Alan R. Templeton, professor of biology in Arts and Sciences at Washington University, has analyzed DNA from global human populations that reveal the patterns of human evolution over the past one million years. He shows that while there is plenty of genetic variation in humans, most of the variation is individual variation. While between-population variation exists, it is either too small, which is a quantitative variation, or it is not the right qualitative type of variation. It does not mark historical sub lineages of humanity [18]. Race is just as made up, as Dr. Barbara-Jeanne Fields says, as Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny [19].

Of course, Santa and the Easter Bunny are stories that children eventually grow out of. This is not so for ideologies. These are not simply handed down from generation to generation. They are perpetuated by material conditions in society. Racism emerged from, and continues to be reproduced by, political structures that were erected to satisfy a particular set of economic interests. Fields writes,

Probably a majority of American historians think of slavery in the United States as primarily a system of race relations, as though the chief business of slavery were the production of white supremacy, rather than the production of cotton, sugar, rice, and tobacco. One historian has gone so far as to call slavery the ‘ultimate segregator.’ He does not ask why Europeans seeking the ultimate method of segregating Africans would go to the trouble and expense of transporting them across the ocean for that purpose when they could have achieved the same ends so much more simply by leaving the Africans in Africa….No one dreams of analyzing serfdom in Russia as a problem of race relations, even though the Russian nobility invented fictions of their innate…superiority over the serfs as preposterous as any devised by American racists”   [20].

Fields is going after a circular argument that is present everywhere from racial justice movements to academia, which essentially says that racism is both the cause and product of slavery. In actuality, slavery was an economic institution that racism was created to serve. Racism serves a similar role in capitalism today.

The black abolitionist Frederick Douglass made a similar point centuries ago. He wrote:

The hostility between the poor whites and blacks of the South is easily explained. It has its roots and sap in the relation of slavery, and it was enacted on both sides by the cunning of the slavemasters. Those masters secured their ascendency over both the poor whites and the blacks by putting enmity between them. They divided both to conquer each” [21].

Douglass recognized the obvious fact that poor whites in the South enjoyed many benefits relative to the black slaves. This quotation comes from a letter in which Douglass was arguing that black people should have the right to vote: a right that even the poorest white person already enjoyed. Douglass believed, though, that poor white people would be better off without white supremacy. That is, the white workers would be better off without the system of practices thanks to which they enjoyed these privileges relative to their black counterparts. It was precisely that system of white supremacy that prevented both poor whites and poor black people from standing shoulder to shoulder against their common enemy who was plundering them both. Douglass recognized, then, that racism had a particular benefit for the owning classes of society.

We ought to consider Douglass’s remarks about racism in the context of Marx and Engels’ The German Ideology, in which they argued, as I showed above, “the ruling ideas are, in every epoch, the ideas of the ruling class” [22]. The system of racist ideas in terms of which the “hostility” between poor people of different races played out belonged to the class of slave-owners. It belonged to them not just in the sense that they themselves believed it, but also in the sense that the circulation of those racist ideas served an important function in sustaining the power that the owning classes exercised over the workers. They were “ruling ideas” in the sense that they were the ideas that enabled the rulers to rule.

We should also compare Douglass’ thoughts on this division to what Marx said about the division between English and Irish workers. He writes,

All English industrial centers now possess a working class split into two camps: English proletarians and Irish proletarians. The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker because he sees in him a competitor who lowers his standard of life. Compared with the Irish worker, he feels himself a member of the ruling nation, and for this very reason, he makes himself into a tool of the aristocrats and capitalists against Ireland, and thus strengthens their domination over himself.

. . .

The Irish worker sees in [the English worker] both an accomplice and the stupid tool of English rule in Ireland. This antagonism is artificially sustained…by…all the means at the disposal of the ruling class. This antagonism is the secret of the impotence of the English working class, despite its organization….” [23].

We see that Marx did not ignore the oppression faced by workers and non-workers alike. He simply sought to explain their underlying causes. He recognized that understanding the material origins of oppression was key to ending it.

Marx applied exactly the same analysis to the United States. Expressing his support for the North in the Civil War, he wrote,

In the United States of America, every independent movement of the workers was paralyzed as long as slavery disfigured a part of the republic. Labor cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black skin it is still branded” [24].

Even today, labor in the black skin is still branded. It is branded in a way that is useful to, and precisely because it is useful to, a tiny class of people who control the vast wealth of society, and therefore control all the things we need to live a decent life. It is useful to this minority class for exactly the reason that Douglass and Marx identified: because it pits labor in the white skin against labor in the black skin.

The point here is not say that racism is ‘not real,’ or that is less important than economics. Obviously Douglass was very aware of the material effects of anti-black racism, being a black man himself. The point is also not to say that racism is merely an ideological issue, and that all we need to do to break racism is wage ideological struggle. On the contrary, racism has a strong material basis. In order to make one group feel superior to another group, you must give the first group more benefits than the second. In the time of slavery, this bribery took the form of land. Today, it manifests as housing, education, employment, and unionization [25].

Marx himself understood that the granting of land and other privileges to poor whites was integral to the bourgeoisie in the fight against socialism. He wrote, “it is possible to square the interests of ‘poor whites’ with those of the slaveholders…to tame them with the prospect of one day becoming slaveholders themselves.” This was a view recognized by the bourgeoisie themselves. When the Paris Commune was formed in June 1868, Ernest Renan criticized the French capitalists for neglecting “colonization,” which was a safeguard against “war between rich and poor.” In a sense, racism demolishes class differences, materially binding some workers to the cause of the capitalists. It is the responsibility of revolutionaries to destroy these privileges. We must struggle against racism and the privileges that come with it if we are ever to win socialism. Marxists would not be arguing that workers must be united if we did not think there was anything dividing them in the first place.

Racism, to put it another way, is not just a byproduct of capitalism. Marxists who claim that it is mean to say that capitalism and racism go hand in hand. The one necessitates the other. This is a correct reading, but it does not follow from this that racism is a “necessary byproduct” of capitalism. To call something a byproduct is to say that it has no function, that it does no work in the process of which it is a byproduct. If am I sawing a piece of wood with which to build a house, I will inevitably make some sawdust. In this scenario, however, the product of my labor is the house, not the sawdust. To call sawdust a byproduct is to say that is an incidental occurrence whose production serves no purpose in house-building.

Racism is not the sawdust of American capitalism. It is the saw. It is a tool in the hands of the ruling class. Like a tool, it has a definite, material function. Its function is to divide the working class. It is vital that we stop this tool from being used against us. Understood this way, the politics of solidarity is based not on some naive idea that we can all just get along, that there are no real racial divisions in the United States. It based on a sober analysis of the situation and a shrewd calculation about what it would take to change it.

Slavery, which as we now know preceded racism, was invaluable to the planter class. Their very existence as a class depended on it. Slavers and slave traders profited immensely from the slave trade. This is a lesson in the limitless barbarity that spawned capitalism. It can also help explain why modern capitalists know no bounds when it comes to securing their ability to make profits.

An important point is that racism has not always existed. It is an ideology that emerged out of a particular set of circumstances for a particular set of reasons. To see racism in this way is to assert that it can be done away with. If the circumstances that give rise to and perpetuate racism (competition among workers, exploitation, and economic inequality) are combated, so too will racism begin to fade.

What we have to do is examine the material conditions from which it did emerge, as well as those that enable its continuation. Only Marxism is capable of examining these institutions, precisely because of its critique of capitalism. Liberalism, focused on a narrow identity politics that separates identity from economics, can only mitigate racism. Because it does not explain how racism arose, it cannot concoct a political strategy to vanquish it. To pretend that racism is built into us is not only wrong, it actually disarms the activists who are trying to fight it. Only the materialist approach of Marxism can effectively liberate the oppressed.

The above analysis shows that to claim Marxism as class reductionist is to misconstrue the Marxist understanding of ideology. The victory of working class revolution hinges entirely on the ability of the working class as a whole to rid itself of all backwards ideas that prevent it from uniting against its common enemy, the capitalist class. Because of the aforementioned material base of racism in the United States, this necessitates a conscious struggle against white supremacy as well as capitalism. The two are intertwined, but distinct from one another. Marxism is not reductionist, but materialist.

The problem of racism, as we have seen, is more than “skin deep”. As I have argued, there is a long history starting from the slave trade that accounts for the divisions. Over the course of this history, the divisions became real not only in terms of their material basis in privileges or relationship to the means of production, but also in terms of territory, language, levels of bourgeois exploitation. In short, African-Americans have the political, cultural, historical, and economic building blocks of a nation. It is not merely that racism is ideologically strong, but that in the US context, the racialized division is strong enough to have actually passed-in accordance with dialectical materialism-over from quantity into quality. It has become something else entirely: national oppression, wherein more or less the entire African-American nation, including much of the black bourgeoisie, is oppressed and exploited by the imperialist white bourgeoisie [26]. There is division among the working class on the basis of race, but there is also unity between classes on this basis. It is in this unity that we find one source of revolutionary potential.

One of the most important aspects of Marxism-Leninism is the concept of the national question. That is, how to make a revolution in a state comprised of multiple nations. This question-and the national liberation theory that results from it-are key in understanding racism and capitalism.
In order to understand why, we must define what exactly a nation is. A nation, writes Stalin in Marxism and the National Question, is a historically-constituted people. They share a common language, a common territory, and a common economic life. These components come together to form a common culture. It is necessary for a particular group to have all these characteristics in order to be considered a nation.

There are two important characteristics to note about Stalin’s definition. First, while territory and geography is a defining feature of a nation, it is not its sole determining characteristic, meaning that within the existential boundaries of a country–itself a recent social development–many nations may exist. Second, while a common economic life is also a defining characteristic, nations are not formed on the basis of class unity. In other words, there is no proletarian nation or bourgeois nation, but rather these two classes are both part and parcel of their respective nations.
When Lenin was writing, little attention was paid to the existence of nations in revolutionary circles. The majority of Russian Marxists held that distinctions between nationalities served only to divide the working class. In their view, Russia was already a unified whole, so discussions of national oppression were trivial. The unity of the working class, said most revolutionaries, is the only thing that matters when making revolution.
Lenin took a firm stance against this view. He understood Russia not as a unified body which was divided only along class lines, but as a “prison house of nations.” He understood that there was no such thing as a Russian. Rather, there were a variety of nations. These included Muslims, Jews, Georgians, Turks, Azerbaijanis, and others. Under the Tsar, these groups faced an incredible restriction of rights. Many had their languages banned, their religions outlawed, and were forbidden from holding public office. Jews in particular were subjected to brutal massacres known as pogroms. These oppressed nations all faced underdevelopment and feudal conditions.
Thus, Lenin understood that the revolution could not be made merely on the basis of formalistic working class unity. To really win over and unify the people, special attention had to be paid to the violence faced by the workers of oppressed nations. He was clear that the Party had to oppose Great Russian racism and “national chauvinism” at every turn. The Party was to lead the fight for equal education, cultural rights, and religious expression. Only when oppressed nations rallied behind the Party and its movement could true working class unity be attained. This is consistent with the ideas of Karl Marx, who we now know wrote that “Labor in the white skin will never be free so long as labor in the black skin is still branded.”
Lenin’s ideas about the national question can be summed up by the term “self-determination”. This meant that the workers of oppressed nations had the final say in what happened to them. They had full autonomy, including the right to break away and form their own countries should they choose to do so. This did not mean that socialists would advocate for a separate state in every case. Sometimes, succession would be inadvisable. The concrete results of the struggle for national liberation depended, as all struggles do, on the material conditions of society. Still, the core principle of solidarity with and support for oppressed nations remained a constant.
Lenin stressed that national liberation was a struggle that worked in service to and in tandem with the struggle for the liberation of the working class. He rejected imperialist bourgeois conceptions of nationalism, which preached unity between the bourgeoisie of oppressed nations and the workers of oppressed nations. Lenin said that the national liberation struggle’s primary purpose was to unite the working class of the entire world, so that they could eventually overthrow global capitalism.
Lenin also held that the national question was important because of its relevance to the tactics of revolutionaries. By this, he meant that oppressed nations had the greatest interest in revolution, so it was important to win them over to the Party. Working class members of the dominant nation (Settlers) were often handed things like higher wages or better working conditions, while the working class of oppressed nations was left to suffer. This meant that settler workers’ interest in revolution was greatly diminished. As a result, revolutionaries had to go deeper into “the real masses” of oppressed nations.
It is important to recognize that the Marxist-Leninist position on the national question is indeed tactical. Nationalism is a tool that Communists can use to liberate the oppressed masses of society. In determining our support for nationalist movements, we should always evaluate whether or not they serve this goal.
It might at first appear that devoting time to discussing the national question is a pointless exercise. Why are we talking about something so distant in the past? What use could we possibly have for it now? Asking these questions is an important and necessary task, so I will do my best to answer them. I have already explained the continuing relevance of anti-imperialist, bourgeois nationalism, but Lenin’s thought on the matter remains important for other reasons.
As we have seen, Lenin said that Russia was a “prison house of nations.” It was composed of multiple oppressed nationalities, and as such was not divided solely along class lines. I hold that this is also the case for the United States of America. It, too, is a prison house of nations. My aim is to substantiate this claim through historical analysis.
Originally, what would become the United States was made up of several different Native American groups, such as the Sioux, the Cree, and so on. Then, white European colonists landed on the continent. These colonists were primarily English, meaning that they shared a common language, culture, and identity. However, they did not share a common history or territory at the time.
Soon, the colonists began pushing westward. There were two main features to this westward expansion. The first was the genocide of the Native Americans, and the second was slavery. These two main principles allowed the United States to build its economy and eventually become politically dominant.
Throughout this process, Native American nations were continually marginalized. Some were simply destroyed, while others were forced into reservations. They were ripped from their land, slaughtered, and subjected to incredibly harsh conditions. White Christian missionaries stole the children of the natives and forced them to learn English. This meant that Native culture was also destroyed.
A common myth, especially among conservatives, is that since this process took place hundreds of years ago, it has no bearing on our current situation. This is false. There are still reservations, and there are still natives living on them. Natives are a historically constituted people. Today, there are Native American nations within the United States. These nations are still oppressed, still subjected to poverty and isolation.

A 2008 report from American Indian Census Facts showed that the percentage of Natives living below the poverty line is 28.2 percent. Compare this to 14.5 percent of the general population, according to the Census Bureau. A 2010 study determined that the life expectancy for Natives living on reservations trails that of the general population by almost five years. This is primarily due to underfunded health services. A Gallup independent study said that some reservations are “comparable to the third world,” in terms of living conditions. It is plainly obvious that Natives ought to be considered an oppressed nation. I should note that there is not merely one Native nation, but many. Since there are multiple Native tribes, there are multiple Native nations. Their struggles are all very different, but the above issues are ones that every Native nation faces.
As I said above, the second feature of colonial westward expansion was mass slavery. Millions of Africans from the west coast of their home continent were abducted by slavers and brought into the new United States. These Africans stolen into servitude were constituted in a very particular area: the South. In some areas, the concentration of slaves was so great that they outnumbered white slave owners by as much as ninety percent (90%). The effect of this was that, while the slaves came from different African countries, they all began to share a common culture. This culture was created by the economic conditions of slavery, as well as by their struggle against these conditions. Part of this struggle was the creation of a language that was distinct from that of the slave owners. Think of codes that were used to advocate for freedom, as well as the pidgin English slaves came to speak.

This concentration still persists in some form today. There is a belt, stretching roughly from Atlanta to the Mississippi Delta, in which black Africans still form the majority of the population. One of the areas encompassed by this belt is Missouri. This belt is known as the Kush in Pan-Africanist theory. This area includes Ferguson. Roughly seventy out of one hundred of the residents in Ferguson are black. However, less than one out of a hundred members of the police force in the city is black. You will find similar statistics in the rest of this belt. Almost none of the people with actual power in these communities are black, despite the majority of the population itself being black. African Americans in the United States do not even have surface-level control of their own communities, much less control in a substantive sense.
A report from the National Bureau of Economic Research authored by Kevin Lang shows that black workers receive extra scrutiny from employers, leading to worse performance reviews, lower wages, and even job loss. The Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that, on average, the black unemployment rate is 2.2 times greater than that of whites. Finally, a report from the Economic Policy Institute showed that the wage gap between white workers and black workers is the worst it has been in nearly four decades. Not only do African Americans share a common Economic life, it is a life fraught with difficulties and oppression.
I would be remiss not to mention the epidemic levels of police violence faced by African Americans. A report from the Center for Equitable Policing determined that the use of force in police interactions is more than three times greater for African Americans than it is for whites. A study by the University of California found “evidence of significant bias in the killing of unarmed black Americans relative to unarmed white Americans.” Finally, a 2015 analysis by Campaign Zero found no correlation between police killings and violent crime rates.
The above facts prove that African Americans, like Natives, are an oppressed nation within the United States. While African and Native Americans are by no means the only oppressed nations in the United States, I feel that these examples are sufficient to prove my point. The situation of the United States parallels the situation of Revolutionary Russia regarding the national question. There is not simply a working class and an owning class. There are several oppressed nations who are waging their own liberation struggles. To make a successful revolution in the United States, we must support these struggles unconditionally and work to develop socialist consciousness within them. Above all, we must assert that oppressed nations have a right to self-determination.

Racism, in this context, is not incidental to the main business of capitalism-the exploitation of labor in pursuit of profit-it is the main business. This has a very important lesson for us: fighting racism is fighting capitalism. Every blow against white supremacy is a blow against the most potent weapon the American ruling class has ever had. Therefore, it is a blow against this class itself.

Marxism must, therefore, fight racism and all other kinds of oppression on their own terms. This is what Lenin meant when he said that the working class must become “the tribune of the oppressed” [27]. He wrote, “working class consciousness cannot be genuine political consciousness unless the workers are trained to respond to all cases of tyranny, oppression, violence, and abuse, no matter what class is affected” [28]. Marxists are not against the independent struggles of oppressed identities. They merely seek to unite these struggles into a socialist movement that can create a better world for all of us.

This unity cannot come at the expense of the oppressed. Working class unity does not mean that black workers should put aside their differences and organize with racists. Rather, it means that both black and non-black workers should smash white supremacy in order to create a material basis for unity. This must be done on two levels. The first is by attacking the material basis of white supremacy, the privileges that white workers have over black workers. Without this material basis, the ideology of white supremacy becomes must harder to justify. However, the ideology will not disappear immediately after the material basis for it is smashed. It will linger, much in the same way that capitalist ideology remains under socialism-as a kind of “cultural stain.” Oppressed workers must attack oppression on both levels to ensure the victory of the revolution. In short, “working class unity” as a practical aim is not about forcing unity where none exists, it is about creating a material basis for unity. We can only do this by struggling against all forms of oppression. Only when the working class struggles against bigotry as a force in its own right can it hope to be united.

Anti-racism and national liberation, then, are not “distractions from class struggle.” As Marx put it, those who “cannot understand how one nation can grow rich at the expense of another” are unable to understand “how…one class can enrich itself at the expense of another.” Because national oppression is an economic arrangement predicated on exploitation, it is part and parcel of class struggle. The proletariat finds an ally in its struggle against the bourgeoisie in all members of oppressed nations. The class struggle around national oppression has the potential to form progressive cross-class unity.

Oppressed nations face a “particularly revolting division of labor,” one of the hallmarks of class. In the United States, African-Americans are often intentionally given worse jobs than whites, and working conditions in the Third World are universally more degrading and exploitative than those in the first world. Movements against national oppression (a more accurate name for “anti-racist struggle) seek to challenge this division of labor. These movements, despite being lead by the bourgeoisie, challenge the existing class order. In this sense, they are allies of the proletariat.

The working class of each country, as The Communist Manifesto argues, has to overthrow the bourgeoisie in its nation. In some nations, though, the main oppressor is an imperialist ruling class, which has to be kicked out as a precondition for real workers’ power.

Forcing imperialism and national oppression out of a country typically requires mass struggle, which raises among workers expectations of further advances that will always be frustrated as long as the capitalists–even native ones–are in power. But in an independent nation, workers and oppressed groups have the “air, the light, and the elbow room,” as Engels put it, to wage a struggle to take power into their own hands.

Today, demands for “democracy” and control of a nation’s own resources are inextricably tied up with class demands. The fight for the former is bound to spill into a fight for the latter to at least some extent.

Any defeat suffered by U.S. imperialism today is a blow to the power of its rulers, and by extension a victory for the working class of this country. Therefore, socialists should take sides in wars for national liberation, even if we would like the leadership of the struggle of the oppressed to be different politically or along class lines.

Historically, national liberation has been a linchpin in the struggle for communism. Communists in China, Vietnam, and Cuba gained support by leading national liberation movements. National Liberation is an interest the masses come to on their own. Therefore, it is one that communists can use to link with the masses and draw them into the struggle against capitalism, imperialism, and oppression. National Liberation work, while being important in its own right, also reflects a deep understanding of the mass line. At its core, national Liberation is communist and anti-imperialist. National Liberation must be a cornerstone of all socialist work. The proletariat and the Communist Party that represents it must struggle for leadership within national liberation struggles, even if it means allying with native or nationalist bourgeoisie.

This can be seen in the nature of the Russian Revolution, itself partly a national liberation struggle. The counter-revolution of the White Army was defeated because the Bolsheviks urged for “a national struggle of liberation against foreign invasion,” that was intent on turning Russia into a colony of the West. By appealing to the nationalist bourgeoisie, the Bolsheviks were able to repel the invaders and strengthen socialism in the country. The Party was successful in “soldering communist doctrine to the collective…Russian people.” National liberation is in the interests of the proletariat, in the interests of socialism.

In short, Marxists have always understood that racism is more than just an ideological tool to divide workers. It is a material force that must be confronted and smashed on its own terms. Marxism, with its conception of national liberation, provides the only sound theoretical foundation for understanding and ending oppression once and for all.

Although Marxists argue that we should ally with national bourgeoisie in the struggle against national oppression, this does not translate to ignoring the proletariat in these struggles. It is precisely the power of the working class-the power to withhold their labor at the point of production-that allows these movements to become united. The working class is the only social force that can become the tribune of the oppressed, it is the only social force that can end oppression once and for all. The remainder of this essay will be spent examining why this is the case.

Firstly, we have already determined that the working class is always made up of oppressed identities. They will obviously have an interest in ending oppression. Their status as workers gives them the ability to do this. By striking to demand a restitution of affirmative action, or an end to police brutality, workers are hitting the capitalists where it hurts most: their wallets. Whether or not strike demands are purely economic, workers still hold power over the entire system. They can use this power to strike blows at oppressive systems beyond exploitation. The very fact that solidarity strikes (the practice of striking for political rather than economic gains) are illegal in the US is enough evidence of this point [25]. Capitalists care only about their bottom line. The power of workers to affect that bottom line grants them immense influence over society, if only they can be made aware of it.

The ability of the working class to resist oppression extends to more than just its members who themselves belong to oppressed identities. Because of the concentrated and social character of capitalist production, workers of all identities are forced to struggle against their bosses together. In the course of this struggle, it becomes more and more difficult to accept the bigoted ideas workers have been fed their entire lives. It is precisely their position at the point of production, and their need to struggle collectively, that enables the working class to combat oppression. The very structure of work under capitalism, in which workers must compete for jobs, results in workers being pitted against one another. Yet, in order to win gains against the bosses, workers must organize together and struggle collectively. Workers, then, are taught in the crucible of struggle to resist oppression, to unify.

As an example of this, we should look at the 1972 GM strikes in Flint and Cleveland. At first, black people were given work only when employers were trying to break a strike. This is further evidence that unemployment and competition among workers are integral parts of the capitalist system. Employers forced white workers and black workers to compete for the same job. This was during the Great Depression, when unemployment was already high and there was no union at the GM factory. In the 1950s, the company figured out that it could make more profit by letting black workers into the plant. They were initially given the worst jobs available, forced to slave for hours over sweltering foundries. A key reason for this was that it physically separated white and black workers, preventing them from developing a sense of unity. Even the capitalists are aware that the concentrated character of production gives workers a tremendous degree of power.

Yet the problems began even before black workers were admitted.  Most whites went on strike to protest the addition of black workers to the plant.  They had come to see black workers as having fundamentally different interests to them, because of the competition over jobs they had been forced into [29]. During the strikes, a contingent of black workers picketed outside the plant. The only black worker known to participate inside was Roscoe Vanzant. Nearly all of the workers he associated with were openly, vehemently racist. By the end of the six week strike, however, these same workers voted that Vanzant would be the one to lead the strikers on their victory march. This symbolic gesture is a testament to the bridges that working class struggle can build. It was through the struggle that many workers cast aside their prejudices. They understood that it was only in unifying that they could win. This led to an incredible transformation. Workers carried themselves with more confidence, they spoke up to people who had once been considered their superiors. Through struggle, they unlearned bigoted ideas. The worker became, as one socialist organizer put it, “an entirely different human being” [30].

This ability to unlearn is a key piece of Marxism. It is one of the reasons why we place such importance on the working class. As workers struggle side-by-side for the same thing, against the same enemy, it becomes more and more difficult to accept the bigoted lessons taught to them so persistently. Marx explains that, for the victory of socialism, “the alteration of men on a mass scale is necessary, an alteration which can only take place in a practical movement” [31].

In short, the working class is unique because it is the one class that actually has the material interest and ability to challenge all forms of oppression. Fighting racism, for a worker, is not a moral question. It is a question of what is best for them in the long term. It is in the working class’ position at the point of production that makes it the universal class: the one class capable of putting an end to oppression and restructuring society in the interests of the immense majority. All those who seek to create this kind of society should embrace Marxism.

It should be noted that socialist organizers played an important role in bringing out this tendency in workers during the Flint strikes. The story of Vanzant was not a chance situation. At the same time that he was being voted in as leader of the victory march, black picketers on the outside faced harassment from white strikers. How do we push one result and not the other? As I said above, we need to wage an all-out war against white supremacy, breaking the privilege of white workers and elevating black workers to their level wherever possible. Ideas and organization on the ground are critical in this regard. Socialists were active during the strike. Kermit Dahlinger, a socialist organizer, made sure that white workers received “a decent anti-racist education” [32]. This ‘education’ often involved violence against the racist strikers. Socialist organizers have historically understood the need to take drastic measures to create unity among the working class, as I mentioned above.

This experience shows that the development of an advanced section of the working class, a vanguard, is necessary. The workers with advanced consciousness can help bring out the innate desire of all workers to end oppression. Because of the pervasiveness of bourgeois ideology, this tendency is often suppressed. It is critical that revolutionaries do their part to bring it out into the open again. It is our job to ensure that the workers make use of their ability to end oppression.

The working class is the only group that has this ability, and Marxism is the only ideology that recognizes the centrality of this group. Marxism also understands oppression in a materialist way, meaning that Marxism is the only ideology which believes that oppression can and should be eradicated. It is for these reasons that all those who are interested in the well-being of oppressed people should embrace Marxism and organize for a socialist revolution.

  1. Historical Materialism (Marx, Engels, Lenin), p. 294 – 296; Progress Publishers, 1972
  2. “Employed persons by detailed occupation, sex, race, and Hispanic or Latino ethnicity.” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
  3. J Moufawad-Paul, Continuity and Rupture: Philosophy in the Maoist Terrain John Hunt Publishing, 2016.
  4.  Ahmed Shawki, Black Liberation and Socialism p. 119 2006.
  5. Andrew Zimmern, The Civil War Was a Victory for Marx and Working Class Radicals New York Times. July 2013.
  6. Donny Schraffenberger, Karl Marx and the American Civil War. International Socialist Review No. 8
  7. Maoist International Movement, The Black Panther. p.  14, April 27, 1969
  8. “Current Population Survey (CPS).” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
  9. “HOUSING.” BlackDemographics.com.
  10. Lindsey Cook, “US Housing: Still Separate and Unequal” US News Jan. 28, 2015
  11. Karl Marx. “B. The Illusion of the Epoch.” The German Ideology. Karl Marx 1845.
  12. Karl Marx. “The Poverty of Philosophy – Chapter 2.1. Marxists Internet Archive
  13. “Facts about the Slave Trade and Slavery.” Facts about the Slave Trade and Slavery | The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History
  14. Ibid.
  15. Ibid
  16. Ibid
  17. Eric Williams, “Slavery and Racism” Stratford.org
  18. Alan R. Templeton, Washington University, October 1998.
  19.  Barbara-Jeanne Fields, Slavery, Racism, and Ideology in the United States. New Left Review, May-June 1990
  20. Ibid
  21. The German Ideology, Marx-Engels Collected Works, Volume 5.
  22. here
  23. Marx and Engels, Collected Works, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1971. p. 136-9.
  24. J. Sakai, Settlers: The Mythology of the White Proletariat, PM Press 2014.
  25. Lenin, V.I. “Lenin’s What Is To Be Done?: Trade-Unionist Politics And Social-Democratic Politics.”
  26. Ibid
  27. Dan Georgakas and Marvin Surkin, Detroit:  I do Mind Dying, Haymarket Books 1999
  28. Ibid
  29. Ibid
  30. Karl Marx. “B. The Illusion of the Epoch.” The German Ideology. Karl Marx 1845. Op. Cit.
  31. Dan Georgakas and Marvin Surkin, Detroit:  I do Mind Dying, Haymarket Books 1999. Op. Cit.
  32. Ibid.

 

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