Summary: Central to Marx’s philosophy of liberation is the struggle against ALL forms of oppression and exploitation, including racism, and sexism. Unfortunately, this call has been obscured by post-Marx Marxists and other leftists, leading many feminists and intellectuals of color to embrace non-Marxist theories. This has robbed us of the unity crucial to any real revolution. — Editors
No one has provided us with a greater theoretical lens and practical approach for challenging capitalist relations than Karl Marx – that brilliant philosopher whose vision for a new humanism has inspired numerous people’s uprisings and revolutions around the world but who has also been villainized like no other by those who seek to secure the capitalist way of life. Indeed these robber barons who make up the capitalist class have found what would seem an unlikely ally in segments of White working class America, whose nostalgia for a time in which the Other could be ignored and discounted makes them believe we can “make America great again.” However, Marx foresaw long ago in his studies of the U.S. Civil War and of the Fenians of Ireland that racism was a powerful tool against working class unity and that poor Whites would instead tend to side with their racialized group than with a non-dominant group, even though this meant they were aiding in their own oppression. Marx explains in a letter dated April of 1870:
“Every industrial and commercial center in England now possesses a working class divided into two camps, English proletarians and Irish proletarians. The English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers his standard of life … 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.”
“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 organization. It is the secret by which the capitalist class maintains its power. And the latter is quite aware of this.”
Here, Marx highlights the three important functions of racism beyond slavery – 1) to create an ideological ferment against people of color that serves to justify inequality, 2) to minimize the value of a segment of the working class and drive down the wages of all workers, and 3) to divide the working class and thereby stunt the working class consciousness and unity necessary to bring down capitalism. While it is true that, considering his vast body of work, Marx did not write a lot about racism and when he did so it was almost always in connection to its economic function and the class struggle, he was staunchly against American slavery, writing that “Labor cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the Black it is branded” (Marx, 1977/1867). This is because Marx’s historical materialism posits that consciousness stems from material conditions. That is, although racism is ideological, racist attitudes and beliefs are rooted in the conditions of inequality that exist and these racist ideologies justify and further entrench these conditions of economic and social inequality. While the class struggle alone cannot liberate people of color, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor (2011) reminds: “Marxism should not be conceived of as an unchanging dogma. It is a guide to social revolution and political action, and has been built upon by successive generations of Marxists.”
Unfortunately, Marx’s clear anti-racist message has been obscured among many intellectuals, especially those of color, who have been understandably turned off by the Eurocentric views he expressed in his earliest works regarding non-Western peoples, including in the Communist Manifesto of 1848 and in many of his articles published in The New York Daily Tribune, for which he worked as the European correspondent from 1853-1862 (Anderson, 2010). However, and this is crucial, Marx’s Eurocentric views must be understood as having developed within a particular historical context in which little was known about the non-Western world within the West, especially among those who had little contact with non-Western peoples. Indeed even today within a globally multicultural world, the subconscious and even overt belief that the White raced peoples are superior, more intelligent, and more moral is at the heart of the nationalism and scape-goating of immigrants that so deeply plagues our country.
Kevin Anderson (2010) in Marx at the Margins has gifted the world with a remarkably detailed and insightful account of Marx’s development in regards non-western peoples – from his early Eurocentric views to his eventual shift wherein he not only recognized and valued the communal villages he had once called despotic but also came to believe prophetically that Russia had the potential to develop communism before the capitalist world.
Anderson documents that Marx recognized his lack of understanding and sought to remedy this situation. In a letter to Engels, written in 1852, Marx admitted his lack of knowledge about the Orient. Thereafter Marx set out to learn about the peoples who the English Imperialists ravaged with Imperial “barbarism,” including peoples from India, China, and Ireland. These studies led him to discover the Asiatic mode of production from which he deduced the possibility of multiple paths to communism and which also led him to recognize that Capital was a critique of capitalism and its development in Western Europe rather than a universal model for “civilization” (Marx, 1993). By examining his writings over time, Anderson (2010) paints a portrait of a man whose studies and the realities of current politics at the time led him to a more dialectical reasoning and more able to recognize non-Western peoples as revolutionary subjects capable of developing their own path toward communism, without needing to follow the Western model.
Marx’s philosophy of revolution has played an important role in liberation struggles across the world, For example, Marx and early Marxists and later the pre-World War II Communist Party in the U.S. were instrumental to the abolition of slavery, to the suffrage movements, and later to Black Liberation movements, including the Black Panther Party, and to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Unfortunately, this relationship between Marxism and anti-racist struggle is little known. Certainly Marx’s work or other critiques of capitalism are not part of the curriculum of US K-12 schooling and increasingly he is dismissed as passé in colleges and universities.
The Cold War years and the Soviet Union’s turn to Stalinism (which Raya Dunayevskaya has called a form of state-capitalism) were detrimental to the struggle against capital, as the United States and its allies developed full blown campaigns to villainize communism and Marx, and to align capitalism with democracy and freedom, even though these are antithetical to the defining characteristic of inequality and unfreedoms in capitalism (Dean, 2012). After the fall of the Soviet Union it became commonly accepted that capitalism was the only system that “works” and Marx and Marxism became relegated to the past, believed to be incapable of speaking to present conditions. This narrative has become part of the American unconscious – unquestioned even in the face of significant evidence to the contrary – for its hard to imagine that a system that “works” could be one that creates such inequalities, poverty, endless wars, hatred, cruelty, and human suffering.
Yet as Gramsci (1971) noted, the ruling class determines common sense and thus the Cold War during the 70s led to the steady redressing of the gains of the 60s, as seen in de-facto segregation. A prison industrial complex systematically criminalized and incarcerated economically impoverished communities of color and effectively set up urban or racialized schools as subsidiaries to the juvenile justice system. We also saw attacks on immigrant populations, bilingual education, ethnic studies programs, affirmative action, and huge cut backs to social services for the poor (Darder, 2012). This also presumably justified the U.S. self-proclamation as the world’s benevolent savior of “democracy,” all the while squashing any popular movements across the world that even hinted at socialist ideals.
Not long after, in the 80s, the postmodern era brought forth the cultural turn and an identity politics that has taken our attention from explaining oppression as a historical materialist phenomena to an ideational one in which people are oppressed as a result of prejudice and discrimination related to cultural differences. In this postmodern approach, a multiplicity of singular individual identities obliterates any potential for group consciousness. Class struggle is made impossible (Monzó & McLaren, 2015). This new era of identity politics has led to the critique that Marx and Marxism “reduced everything to class” and make racism, sexism and other antagonisms a secondary consideration – something that will either automatically resolve itself under socialism or that will be dealt with after class relations are abolished. Of course this is a total misunderstanding of Marx’s humanism and dialectical method, which stands against all forms of oppression and calls for a humanity founded on equality, freedom, and the recognition of our interdependence as a species beings. From a Marxist perspective, class is not more important than other antagonisms but it does serve as the explanatory heuristic. While the oppression of women certainly came before capitalism, sexism takes on particular specificity within capitalist relations that serve to aid and maintain capitalist production (Monzó & McLaren, 2015).
Although many Marxists of late have attempted to rectify this misinterpretation of Marx, stating unequivocally the centrality of racism and sexism in class struggle (Anderson, 2010; Cole, 1991; Dunayevskaya, 1985; Hudis, 2013; McLaren, 2015; Monzó, 2017), many women and people of color are looking to develop their own theories, arguing that it is high time that our ontological and epistemological ways are developed toward our own struggles. As a woman of color I concur that it is time for us to move outside the shadows of Western imperialism, recover our stolen knowledges, and develop theories that reflect our social conditions. However, I would argue that it would be not only unwise but also detrimental to reject a philosophy of liberation that can change the world for the better and that within Marxism there is still much that we can contribute to creating a path to communism and beyond. For Marx, communism was not an endpoint of development but only a point along a never-ending process of becoming (Dunayevskaya, 1985).
I would of course add that one of the most important tasks we must engage as members of Marxist organizations is to invite more women, people of color, LGBTQ and all other non-dominant groups to engage deeply with Marx and his philosophy of liberation.
- Anderson, K. (2010). Marx at the margins: On nationalism, ethnicity and non-Western societies. Chicago, Il: University of Chicago Press.
- Cole, M. (2009). Critical Race Theory: A Marxist Response. New York: Palgrave McMillan.
- Darder, A. (2012). Neoliberalism in the academic borderlands. Educational Studies: A journal of the American Educational Studies Association, 48(5), 412-426.
- Dean, J. (2012). The communist horizon. Brooklyn, NY: Verso.
- Dunayevskaya, R. (1985). Women’s liberation and the dialectics of revolution: Reaching for the future. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press International, Inc.
- Gramsci, A. (1971). Selections from the prison notebooks. International Publishers Co.
- Hudis, P. (2015). Frantz Fanon: Philosopher of the barricades. London: Pluto Press.
- Marx, K. (1977/1867). Capital, vol. I. New York: Vintage Books.
- Marx, K. (1870). Letter to Sigfrid Meyer and August Vogt, Letters of Karl Marx 1870. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1870/letters/70_04_09.htm
- Marx, K. (1993). Grundrisse. Penguin Books in association with New Left Review.
- McLaren, P. Pedagogy of Insurrection. New York: Peter Lang.
- Monzó, L.D. (2017). Women of color as revolutionary force. In A. Rodriguez & K.R. Magill, (Eds.), Imagining Education: Beyond the logic of global neoliberal capitalism. Information Age Publishing, Inc.
- Monzó, L.D. & McLaren, P. (2015) The future is Marx: Bringing back class and changing the world – A moral imperative. In M.Y. Eryaman & B. Bruce (Eds.), International Handbook of Progressive Education (pp. 643-670). New York: Peter Lang.
- Taylor, K.-Y. (2011, Jan.). Race, class and Marxism. SocialistWorker.org, January 4. http://socialistworker.org/2011/01/04/race-class-and-marxism
Lilia D. Monzó teaches at Chapman University, where she uses Marxist-Humanist and decolonial approaches to confront capitalism and imperialism, racism, and the hyper-exploitation of women of color, while envisioning a socialist alternative. She has published numerous book chapters, academic journal articles, and in the alternative journal, Truthout.