“Class, Race and Women’s Equality- a Strategic View” first appeared on PoliticalAffairs.net on April 27, 2007. Read it on PoliticalAffairs.net.
Editor’s note: Excerpted from The Nature, Role and Work of the Communist Party. See for the full article.
We look at the world through a class lens. The class struggle is the mainspring of the historical process.
As Marx and Engels observed, “the history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of the class struggle” (Communist Manifesto) Up until then, the historical process was seen as accidental and arbitrary. In constructing a new theoretical model, they persuasively argued that historical change was in large measure the outcome of the collective struggle of millions against their class oppressors rather than the whims of dominant classes and individuals or historical accidents. Their insight provided people in every corner of the globe with a new way to understand as well as influence history.
The class struggle has its origins in actual exploitative practices, which in turn are traceable to an integrated, global system of exploitation. The ceaseless accumulation of capital and the exploitation of wage labor are two sides of a single coin. And this inner drive is reinforced and sustained by the rivalry of competing capitals.
Left to its own devices, capitalism’s logic is to employ its control over the production process and the state apparatus to squeeze every possible ounce of surplus value from the working class. After all, when it comes to exploitation, capitalism is hard-wired, insatiable, and nearly universal, even penetrating the countries of socialism. But its near universality and dominance has not ushered in an era of peace and prosperity for the world’s people; just the opposite.
It is easy to agree with Marx, in an address to the Communist League he said: The main issue, cannot be the alteration of private property but only its annihilation, not the smoothing over of class antagonisms but the abolition of classes, not the improvement of existing society, but the foundation of a new one. (Historical Materialism: Marx, Engels, Lenin). I’m sure you agree with this, but not surprisingly, social democratic and center forces look at it differently.
Exploitative practices on a corporate and state level, they would agree, do exist, and on a growing scale. But they do not necessarily trace these practices to capitalism’s internal laws and tendencies or to the class nature of the state. Instead, most blame myopic corporations that prioritize short-term profit-taking and misguided public policy.
While acknowledging adversarial relations between capital and labor, they claim that disputes can be resolved within the framework of capitalism, albeit on a more level playing field (economic and political) than now exists.
This ideological fault line, distinguishing Communist and other left forces from social democratic and center currents does not preclude unity of action on issues of common concern however. Nor are the views of social democratic and center forces etched in stone.
In fact, a notable feature of today’s struggle is that social democratic and cen ter forces are not cut from the same cloth as their predecessors of the cold war years. They are bitter opponents of the Bush administration, support coalition building, mobilize labor through its own independent apparatus, oppose the Iraq war, display more sensitivity to issues of equality and diversity, and increasingly have serious doubts about capitalism’s ability to provide a decent life for working people.
Moreover, many welcome our participation in movements and struggles.
While much of the Communist movement’s criticism of social democratic forces was on the mark, sweeping characterizations of them as irredeemably reactionary in the aftermath of World War I and the Russian Revolution were not only mistaken, but also harmful.
So much so that Lenin went to great lengths to counter this in his famous essay, “Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder and his speeches to the Communist International in the early 1920’s. But in the end, he was unsuccessful.
In fact, after Lenin’s death, Stalin’s “class against class” policy gave the young Communist movement reason to pursue its sectarian policies with a new vigor, going so far to call social democrats “social fascists.” And this continued until the 7th Congress of the Communist International in 1935, where Georgi Dimitrov argued for breaking with sectarian habits and for unity with social democrats who were changing their views under the fascist threat and the weight of the economic crisis.
On the heels of this, our own party developed broader strategic and tactical concepts of struggle. And only because we did that were we able to contribute decisively to the struggles that brought about a radical realignment of political and class forces in the US.
Moreover, in the course of these struggles, Communists gained the respect of the working class and its allies, thereby creating favorable conditions for the party to grow in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s.
Militancy and initiative mattered for sure, but only to the degree that they expressed themselves in the context of our strategic policy, only to the degree that we contributed to building a broad democratic front, and only to the degree that we assisted in re-electing Roosevelt and New Dealers to Congress.
Thus, the growth we experienced in that period didn’t take place in a vacuum. It required the political elaboration and practical application of a strategic policy that captured the main trends and tasks of that period; and, of course, it was intimately tied up with the growing intensity of the class and people’s struggles. The lessons for our work today are self-evident.
Democracy and Class Struggle
Still another essential feature of a Communist Party is an unyielding commitment to the struggle for democracy and democratic rights.
But isn’t democracy in capitalist society limited and restricted? Isn’t it the most effective means for concealing class relations and rule?
There is no controversy here. No Communist has to be persuaded of the limited character and ideological function of democracy under capitalism. But by the same token, no Communist should forget this incontrovertible fact: the struggle for democracy is of overarching importance to the working class and people’s movement.
It is not simply a means to an end, nor a tactical device to be employed when it advances the class struggle. Rather the struggle for democracy is both a means and an end. It empowers people and people empower democracy.
In fact, it is hard to imagine how the necessary forces can be assembled and unified at each stage of struggle – including the socialist stage – if the working-class and people’s movements are not fully engaged in the democratic struggle.
In democratic struggles – for peace, unionization, health care, racial and gender equality, the environment, affirmative action, education, jobs, living wages, pension rights, etc. – the working class and its allies gain experience, understanding, and cohesion to the point where they can contest for power.
Lenin once wrote, It would be a radical mistake to think that the struggle for democracy was capable of diverting the proletariat from the socialist revolution or of hiding, overshadowing it, etc. On the contrary, in the same way as there can be no victorious socialism that does not practice full democracy, so the proletariat cannot prepare for its victory over the bourgeoisie without an all-around consistent and revolutionary struggle for democracy. (The Socialist Revolution and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination).
In short, there is no road to socialism that bypasses the struggle for democracy. In saying this, are we privileging the democratic struggle over the class struggle? By no means, class and democratic struggles interpenetrate each other in innumerable ways.
Only in textbooks and at high levels of abstraction do we find pure forms of struggle, that is, the democratic struggle here and the class struggle there. In real life, the two interact, draw into struggle the same forces, share a common class foe, and press against capital’s accumulation process.
Over the past quarter century, the struggles against right-wing ascendancy and neoliberal globalization have merged more and more into a single stream of struggle.
While democratic tasks change with each stage of struggle at the national level, today’s overriding democratic tasks on a global level are (and will probably remain so for some time): restraining the aggressive drive of US imperialism and US transnationals, abolishing nuclear weapons, addressing the environmental crisis, and radically reordering unequal relations between developed and developing countries.
A cornerstone – some would say the essence – of a Communist Party is its strategic policy.
Without a sound strategic policy a party effectively relinquishes its role as a leader of the class struggle. It can talk militant and sound revolutionary, but without a scientifically substantiated strategic policy, the transition from the politics of protest to the politics of power is impossible.
In determining a strategic policy, we start from a very sober analysis of the stage of struggle and the overall balance and distribution of power among the contending forces. From such an analysis, the main political tasks come into view as well as which forces are obstructing social progress and which are necessary for its advance.
For the past 25 years, the building of a labor-led people’s coalition against right-wing domination of our nation’s political structures has been our strategic objective. It has given political coherence to our policies and practical work and allowed our party to stand head and shoulders above many organizations on the left.
Take, for example, the recent elections, in which the main political task was to take control of Congress out of Republican hands. No other struggle had the same potential to reconfigure the politics of our country and strike a blow for peace and social progress. We understood this, and thus we were where a communist party should be: fully engaged in that struggle which if won changes the dynamics of every other struggle.
Not everyone, including some on the left and even a few in our party, appreciated this. Much the same could be said about the peace movement that took nowhere near full advantage of this political opportunity. As Election Day approached, too few threw themselves heart and soul into the struggle to change Congress, and too much time was spent bemoaning the Democrats. At best they damned them with faint praise.
Luckily, tens of millions of people were of the opinion that the ballot box, despite its limitations, was the most powerful way to express their unhappiness with the war as well as other policies of the Bush administration and acted accordingly.
Struggle for Racial and Gender Equality
A commitment to the struggle for racial and gender equality is at the core of our outlook and practice. The struggle for equality is an inseparable part of the class struggle and the struggle for socialism. It is at the heart of democratic and social progress.
In recent decades vast political, economic, and social transformations have altered the class, national, and racial demographics of the population and the terrain on which the working class and it allies battle their class enemies. Nevertheless, the fight for full equality retains its overarching strategic importance, although it has to be fitted to today’s conditions – politically, economically, socially, culturally and ideologically.
Anyone who devalues the struggle for racial and gender equality in any of its forms gravely weakens the overall struggle for social progress. At the very least, such devaluation limits the sweep of any victory; at worst, it provides an opening to the most backward sections of our ruling class and their political constituency to gain ascendancy. In fact, isn’t that what we have seen over the past quarter century?
Wasn’t the ascendancy of the extreme right achieved in large measure by racist appeals to white voters?
In nearly every category that measures social well-being, the conditions of racially oppressed people have worsened. In the communities of the African American, Latino, Asian American, Native American, and other nationally and racially oppressed peoples the situation is at crisis levels.
It seems like jails can’t be constructed fast enough to accommodate the swelling prison population of whom the disproportionate number are young, African American and Latino men.
Women’s rights have been under siege too – reproductive rights, equal pay for comparable work, living wages, parental leave, quality public education, health care, and affirmative action are being shredded by the extreme right. Racially oppressed women are in the eye of both storms.
The objective of this many-sided assault is not simply to wipe out gains won in earlier periods, but also to crush the fighting spirit of the African American, Mexican American, and other nationally and racially oppressed peoples and women and their developing strategic alliance with labor.
The ruling class well understands that the convergence of labor, the nationally and racially oppressed, and women constitutes its most formidable foe and presages a future without exploitation and oppression.
After all, the nationally and racially oppressed and women are not simply objects of super-exploitation and oppression, but also are fighters, organizers and unifiers; they bring insights and understandings to every struggle; and they bridge the main sectors of the people’s movement.
In fact, the success of the labor-led people’s movement depends on their full participation in the leadership and membership.
There is no other way to go forward.
The new terrain of struggle not only brings some relief from the right’s vicious assault, but also new opportunities to go on the offensive against racism. But if history is any guide it won’t happen without struggle and initiative.
As for us, the struggle for racial, gender and other forms of equality should be given new urgency too; it must come to the top of our agenda and woven into everything we do.
The struggle for equality has to be more than a point of agitation; it must be concrete and practical. It should focus on action. It should be an integral part of our political and legislative agenda. It should proceed on the grounds that white people can be won to fight racism, based on their own interests.
And, the ideological struggle against white and male supremacy should be stepped up. Over the past thirty years, the extreme right has steadily changed the ways that millions understand racial and gender oppression.
Their ideas on equality – how to define it, who has achieved it, what progress has been made, what prevents it, etc. – have become the dominant ones in the minds of millions. Therefore, we, along with other democratic-minded people, have to engage the right (and some others as well) on the level of ideas.
To make matter worse, we run into concepts on the left and in progressive circles that are ideologically disabling too. “Whiteness” theories and studies, for example, tend to focus nearly exclusively on identity and privilege of white workers while leaving major social and institutional realities – like capitalism, the national question, inter, as opposed to intra, class divisions, and the institutional nature of racial and gender oppression – in the background, sometimes to the point of invisibility.
On a broad aggregate level, white workers have a relative advantage over nationally and racially oppressed workers due to the fact that the latter experience national and racial, as well as class exploitation and oppression. This advantage and differential status is reflected in wages and income, employment opportunities, incidence of poverty, home ownership, educational attainment, health care access, life expectancy, and so forth. And in many of these categories, it has grown wider.
This harsh reality belies the claim that racist discrimination and oppression are disappearing, that we live in the post-civil-rights era. But it does not follow that white workers are either privileged or derive material gain from racist exploitation and oppression, except by understanding the dynamics of class and race in the narrowest way – something that I don’t think we should do.
Actually, exploitation of white workers and superexploitation of racially oppressed workers are two aspects of a single process of capitalist exploitation. They are embedded within and reinforce one another.
While racism weighs heaviest on nationally and racially oppressed workers, it also depresses the living standards of all workers. It hollows out democracy generally. It provides a rationale for imperialist war that is never in the interests of the working class. And it weakens, often fatally, working class struggles and disfigures the class and moral outlook of white workers. Racist exploitation and oppression, in other words, constitute a body blow to the economic security, political and organizational unity, and fighting capacity of the entire working class.
Perhaps the best, though by no means the only, evidence of this fact is found in the history of the South, where virulent racist exploitation and oppression combined with intense exploitation of all workers to retard the economic and political development of that region. Even today, nearly 150 years after the defeat of slavery, the living standards, working conditions, and democratic rights of working people in the South lag behind those of their counterparts in the North.
Hence, white workers in the South have paid a steep price in political, economic, social and ethical terms, obviously nowhere near as steep as their Black brothers and sisters, but significant nonetheless. But it is precisely this fact that is obscured by the proponents of the notion of white skin privilege. Even where it is acknowledged, the acknowledgment is usually incidental rather than at the core of their analysis.
Proponents of this concept end up almost inevitably mired in political paralysis and defeatism. After all, once it is concluded that white workers are privileged and have a material stake in the reproduction of racism, what can left and progressive people do besides moralistically posture? In the universe of white-skin privilege, the prospects for class unity, equality, and social progress become dim indeed.
Institutionalized racism is not a transhistorical phenomenon merrily marching through history with a “life of its own.” Nor is it the special product of the working-class movement, as some suggest. On the contrary, it has specific systemic and class roots. It’s a creature of capitalism.
Saying this doesn’t imply that the working class has no hand at all in reproducing racism. To think so would be naïve. Still when racism manifests itself in the thinking and actions of working people, we should be exceedingly careful not to separate its expressions and practices from its capitalist context nor conceal its systemic and class roots.
That said, the struggle against racism is winnable only on the basis of broad, united, multiracial actions, only on the basis of white workers assuming in their own interests and the interests of class unity a major responsibility for combating racism and fighting for the special demands of the nationally and racially oppressed people. Anything less will not have a ghost’s chance of success. Just as a broad antislavery coalition was necessary to overturn the system of slavery in the 19th century, so too is a broad coalition of the working class, the racially oppressed, and all democratic forces necessary to eradicate the contemporary structures of racism and racist ideology as we enter the 21st century.
At any rate, the ideological struggle against racism and for equality is of great importance, and we have to engage it more aggressively.