Tony Cliff

The working class and the oppressed

(September 1987)

From Socialist Worker Review, No. 101, September 1987.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The process of exploitation, Marx argues, forces workers to act collectively to change the world. Oppression very often has the opposite effect. In an article based on a speech given at Marxism 87 Tony Cliff explains the key role of the working class and its relationship to movements of the oppressed.

WHY DID Karl Marx put the emphasis on the working class? It was not because the working class was large in numbers. When Marx wrote the Communist Manifesto, the only two countries where the industrial revolution was complete were England and Belgium.

Internationally the working class was tiny. Today there are more workers in South Korea than there were in the entire world in Marx’s time. Even today the working class does not make up the majority of humanity. The majority of the world’s population are peasants.

He chose the working class because the working class is the subject of history, because it is in a collective situation. It is not a collection of people but a collective of people. There is all the difference in the world between these two.

In Russia, for example, the people who really suffered most before 1917 were not the workers. The 40,000 workers in the Putilov armaments factory in Petrograd were on top wages, yet they formed the citadel of Bolshevism. The workers were more cultured than the peasants. Nearly 80 percent of them could read and write.

The main point then was not suffering or deprivation, but the fact that the working class was a collective.

It was for this reason that Marx spoke about the working class as a collective class, as a universal class. It is the class that in emancipating itself emancipates humanity, because where the chains of capitalism are forged, there they have to be broken.

When you look to the oppressed there is a problem: there are far more oppressed people in the world than there are workers. There are thousands of millions of oppressed women. There are a massive number of oppressed blacks and Asians, there are millions of oppressed gays, there are millions of oppressed Jews. The numbers are absolutely massive.

Are they a collective? No. The oppressed do not join forces automatically. The idea of a rainbow alliance of the oppressed wouldn’t stand the test of five minutes of struggle.

It is not true that if you are gay you automatically support blacks, that if you are black you automatically support gays, or if you are gay you automatically support Jews.

If anyone is in any doubt, let us look at the reality. For instance it is simply not true that Jews in Nazi Germany were attacked only by heterosexuals. Among the worst anti-semites were the Nazi gays.

Why? Because to be a homosexual you were inferior in Nazi terms. But if you had a leather jacket, leather boots and a swastika, compared to a Jew or compared to a woman you didn’t feel inferior at all, you felt superior.

Again if you are in doubt about the relationship between women and blacks, stand in a bus queue. If the bus turns up 40 minutes late, and the conductor is black, you will hear dreadful racist comments coming from those women.

Because as individuals those women suffer terribly, they live in high rise flats, perhaps they don’t have enough money, perhaps the baby is keeping them up all night, perhaps even after taking valium they still couldn’t sleep, so they take it out on the black conductor.

People seem to think that’s impossible. They say, “She’s oppressed, he’s oppressed, so they will join forces.” It’s simply not true. There is nothing automatic about joining forces.

It is not even true that those who suffer the same kind of oppression join forces. If it was true, Marx would not have written “Workers of the world unite”. He would have written “Oppressed of the world unite”.

He never used the word oppressed for the working class because he knew that firstly different groups of the oppressed don’t come together, and inside the oppressed group they don’t join together.

WOMEN have been oppressed for thousands of years. But if you think there is a common bond between women you must be dreaming. The history of slavery shows that women were slave owners and torturers of women slaves.

History repeatedly shows that women were divided because they belonged to different classes. Look at the Paris Commune. The Communards were marvellous fighters. The Paris correspondent of the Times, writing about the Commune, said that if Paris had been full of only women they would have won. That’s an exaggeration, but the women Communards fought brilliantly. They were magnificent.

The rich women celebrated the arrival of the victorious Versailles troops by shoving the tips of their umbrellas into the eyes of the women Communards.

The oppressed don’t simply combine together, because the oppressed themselves are divided into classes. Capitalist women are not equal to capitalist men, it is true. In Britain only 40 percent of the shares in British companies are owned by women, yet women make up more than 40 percent of the population.

But the distance between the man who owns shares and the woman who owns shares is nowhere near as big as the distance between the woman who owns shares and the millions of women who have nothing.

The key element in struggle is the question of power. Consciousness doesn’t rise because people sit back and think, how can we change our consciousness? People change because they feel confident, they feel fighting fit. That’s how consciousness changes.

There was massive oppression of Jews in Russia before 1917. In 1881 there was a pogrom against Jews spread over hundreds of towns and villages. Jews were not allowed to live in Petrograd or Moscow.

In 1917 all that changed. The chairman of the Petrograd Soviet, Trotsky, was a Jew. The chairman of the Moscow Soviet, Kamenev, was a Jew. The chairman of the Soviet Republic, Sverdlov, was a Jew.

When Trotsky became head of the Red Army he was replaced as chairman of the Petrograd Soviet by another Jew, Zinoviev.

The millions of people who elected them were the sons and daughters of people who had taken part in the pogroms. They didn’t change their views by reading the Communist Manifesto, but because in the course of struggle they developed such pride in themselves that they no longer had to look for scapegoats in others. In such circumstances it made absolute sense to elect Trotsky.

Power is the key. A feeling of confidence is the key. Lord Acton said that “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. The saying should go, “Power corrupts and lack of power corrupts absolutely.”

There is nothing worse than submission. There is nothing better than a struggle, nothing better than a fight. A fight brings confidence. The terrible thing is that the oppressed, to the extent that they are a collection of individuals, have no feeling of power. Because of that they don’t grow intellectually and emotionally.

The greatest achievement of the Russian Revolution was not the mass strikes, not even the Soviets. The greatest and most marvellous thing was the spiritual growth of Russian workers. Powerlessness does not give the opportunity for such growth.

Two examples demonstrate this. Sergei Zubatov was the head of the Okhrana (the Tsar’s secret police) in Moscow, who decided to organise trade unions to support the Tsar.

Zubatov was a very clever man. He chose Jewish workers to organise into these unions.

He argued that Jewish workers were different from Russians. The Russian workers were anti-semitic – Jewish workers would have to organise on their own.

Jewish workers responded because they didn’t trust Russian workers. But they weren’t strong enough to stand alone. Because they could not fight alone against both Russian workers and the Tsarist regime, they ended up collaborating with the regime.

The leader of the collaborationists on the Russian side was a man called Plehve who was Minister of the Interior at that time. He also held that position in 1881 when he organised the pogroms against Jews.

The fact that the Jews suffered terribly in the pogrom did not by itself make all of them anti-Tsarist. On the contrary, due to their lack of power some collaborated with the Tsar.

The other example is the Black Panthers in the USA in the 1960s.

The Panthers were fantastically courageous fighters. But they had one simple problem. Black people make up something like 10 percent of the population of the US. You cannot smash American capitalism with 10 percent of the population.

The Black Panthers fought. Many died, murdered by the state. Those who remained alive were co-opted into the system, due to their lack of power.

The effects of this can be seen today. There are black Mayors in over 200 cities.

Even if you watch programmes like Starsky and Hutch, the chief of police is played by a black man. The whites gave some concessions to a layer of blacks. But for the vast majority of blacks it meant nothing.

One of the saddest pictures today is Eldridge Cleaver, the man who was the Panthers’ theoretician who used to call himself a Marxist. He appeared on television in London and in response to a question explained that he stopped being a Marxist because when his wife presented him with a child he knew that God existed.

In response to the question, why did you stop being a Leninist, he said, “One day I looked at the clouds and I saw the image of Lenin, and then the cloud dispersed and I knew Leninism is ephemeral.”

The real explanation was, of course, lack of power. You adapt to the status quo. This is what has happened to every movement that has no power.

SO FOR socialists the key problem is very simple: to the extent that the oppressed have power, they have power only when they are united with the key power of the working class. When Marx said that the history of society is the history of class struggle, he meant that there is a strategic position, and that everything is determined by this strategic position.

The greatest confidence among women in Britain appeared in the period of the upturn. From 1968 to 1974 was marvellous. In 68 Ford women workers went on strike. They stopped the whole of the Dagenham works.

In 1969 we saw the first strike of teachers, the majority of whom were women. We saw the first strike of nurses, a big national strike.

Women made fantastic advances at the time. At the same time men advanced. This was the period of the dock strike of 1972, the miners’ strikes of 72 and 74.

Women and men marched together as a big army. When the army started to go down everybody went down. What’s more, the women went down quicker than the men. They had less power, therefore they couldn’t stand alone.

The battle can’t be fought by one section alone. We have to understand we are part of one another. Socialists have to reject the notion that because people are different they have to be separate.

To be a Marxist means to start with the simple statement of fact that to be a starving person in Ethiopia is different from being an old age pensioner in Britain. And to be an old age pensioner in Britain is different from being unemployed in Britain.

If you are a reformist you believe there is one solution for the Ethiopian people, another solution for old age pensioners and a separate solution for the unemployed.

But capitalism is the cause of unemployment, capitalism is the cause of hypothermia, capitalism is the cause of starvation in Ethiopia.

Because all of us are in the same boat (although we have different parts and conditions in the boat), we have no separate solution.

There are a hundred roads to Rome, but there is only one Rome. There are hundreds of reasons why people should be socialists, but there is only one socialism. Because of that the idea of separatism is catastrophic.

THE foundation of separatism is quite simple. It is that there is a conflict of interests between us. On the face of it this looks absolutely correct. My father said to me in the 1930s, “The Germans and Jews have a conflict of interests. That’s why I’m a Zionist.”

On the face of it he was right. The Germans killed the Jews. The Jews didn’t kill the Germans. There was a conflict of interests.

Most Germans believed there was a conflict of interests because the prevailing ideas in society are the ideas of the ruling class.

The majority of Jews certainly believed there was a conflict of interests because if you are being killed by Germans then they are your enemy. It’s absolutely obvious. Zionism is a natural phenomenon.

The separate Jewish socialist organisation in Russia, the Bund, used to say, we don’t hate the Russians, but the Russians don’t understand us. Lenin’s reply was that if the Russian worker cannot join with you then there is no hope for socialism.

In 1903 when the Bund put forward the idea of autonomy for Jewish workers, Lenin – aware of likely charges of anti-semitism – got ten leading Jewish revolutionaries to issue a declaration against autonomy.

Really the Bund were Zionists on a ship but with no country to arrive in. They accepted the assumptions of the Zionists, that Jews and gentiles have a conflict of interests. It looks correct on the face of it.

When a woman gets up at two in the morning to feed the baby, isn’t it clear that the man benefits? It looks so bloody obvious. Just like the German and the Jew.

But when you look closer at these assumptions you can see how flawed they are.

Protestant workers in Northern Ireland think that beating the Catholics is good for them. Otherwise they wouldn’t do it. So the Protestant worker is more likely to have a job and be better off than the Catholic. But the same worker earns less than a worker in Birmingham or Glasgow.

A white worker who kicks a black worker in the southern states of the US thinks he benefits because he earns more than the blacks. But white workers earn far more in the North (in fact blacks in the North earn more than southern whites).

The lower the white workers’ wages proportionally the lower the black workers’ wages will be. White and black workers each do better if the other is doing better, both in absolute and proportional terms. The same is true for men and women workers.

The problem is, that’s not how things appear. On the face of it, it looks like a conflict between workers and workers.

MARX rightly always hated the notion of common sense, because common sense in reality is the prevailing ideas in our society. Some workers say, “The capitalist is making lots of profit, and that’s better than if he is making a small profit.” Of course everybody knows it’s true your job is safer. That’s common sense. Therefore the worker should join forces with the employer to make lots of profit. That’s logical.

In George Bernard Shaw’s St Joan one of the characters says it is obvious that the sun moves round the earth, just use your eyes. Who has ever seen the earth move around the sun? It’s common sense that the sun moves round the earth. Which just goes to show the stupidity of common sense. On the same basis men benefit from women’s oppression. It appears to be obvious.

If you only look at the inter-relationship between individuals you are lost. That is the liberal concept of society. Because they accept capitalist ideas, liberals look at society as one individual, another individual – as a collection of individuals.

Marxists say exactly the opposite. An individual is born into a class. An individual is born into society.

The liberal analysis is a disaster because jealousy comes between individuals who are close to one another. How do you think the ruling class sells the idea of incomes policy? They say such and such a group of workers earn £300 per week, you earn £80. Wouldn’t it be fairer if you get more at their expense? The revolutionary says, the capitalist takes 60 percent of your cake, and then they share the left overs between us and encourage us to quarrel.

Therefore the relationship between men and women in the working class movement is the following.

Both of them suffer from capitalism, both of them have terrible conditions. The woman has worse conditions than the man. Capitalism grinds down women even harder than it does men. It is not a natural process that the woman has to look after the children. It has to do with capitalism. Children could be brought up differently, if we had nurseries, restaurants, a laundry system that was provided by the community.

We don’t have that today – not because of human nature, but because of the cost to the capitalist. He wants to make profit on the cheap. What better way than to demand that the woman’s place is in the kitchen, and the man’s in the factory?

It makes the individual man look like the jailer, but it’s not the man who is the jailer, it’s capitalism.

If I’m travelling on a filthy dirty train, as a white man under capitalism I will have a seat next to the window. The woman or the black or whoever will have a seat away from the window in even worse conditions than me.

But the real problem is the train. We all have to endure the same train. We have no control over a driver who is taking us all into the abyss.

Why does the capitalist class keep reminding us of these differences? Because it wants to turn our attention away from the key problem: class relations.

All the time we’re told to look at personal relations, at arguments between one section and another. That is why socialists should detest concepts such as the enemy of the unskilled is the skilled, the enemy of the man is the woman, or the other way round.

It is not surprising that the movements of the oppressed are in such decline. The women’s movement, and the black movement in the United States rose like a rocket in the late sixties and fell like a stick.

You can only explain this by understanding that such movements are connected to the level of the class struggle.

The years of the late sixties and early seventies in Britain saw important industrial victories. They also saw the Abortion Act of 1967, free contraception in 1973, free contraceptives for under sixteens in 1974.

Then came the beginning of the downturn. In 1975 we had James White, in 1977 William Benyon, 1979 John Corrie – all attempting to attack abortion rights.

The wages council was abolished, which was mainly an attack on women, because they make up the vast majority of the low paid. We saw massive attacks on the NHS, again mainly an attack on women.

Then we saw the Gillick and Powell attacks on contraception. In 1975 there were 40,000 on a NAC demonstration, men and women. In 1979 80,000 demonstrated. Then came 1985 (the anti-Gillick demonstration). Only 3,000 turned up.

In the first period the struggle was around collective demands such as abortion or equal pay. The last eight or nine years the struggle has not been around collective demands but around differentiated demands.

There has been much more looking into individual relations, consciousness raising, personal relations: are people nasty, are they sexist – as if this was the problem.

The movements which have turned to individual solutions have disintegrated as a result.

Enmity of different women’s groups reached terrifying levels: political lesbians versus heterosexuals etc. One American feminist summed up the situation thus: “Sisterhood is powerful. It kills sisters.” What Marx wrote about the competitiveness and individualism of the capitalists applies to the remnants of the feminist movement. He described the capitalists as a “band of hostile brothers”. They are united against the workers, but hate each other. The feminists today are a band of hostile sisters.

The point is that when we talk about collective action the key is the class. The class cannot afford to say that the enemy is within.

PEOPLE often ask why the SWP is so obsessed with the question “Do working class men benefit from women’s oppression?” I believe if men benefit from women’s oppression there can never be unity between men and women. If whites benefit from black oppression there can never be black and white unity, unless you believe in Kinnock’s idea that what we need is charity. The haves should look after the have nots because of morality and emotion.

When Marx said, “Workers of the world unite”, he meant it is in the interest of British workers for the Indian workers to win. It is in the interests of Indian workers that British workers should win.

Once we accept the “men benefit”, or “whites benefit” argument, we crack the unity of the class completely.

The capitalist class both unites workers and divides them. Indeed that is how it survives. Any concession to this disunity is a catastrophe.

The person I detest more than anybody else is the agnostic. I understand atheists (I’m an atheist). I also understand someone who’s religious. The one who claims to be an agnostic is a bloody hypocrite. There should be no fudging on the question of benefits. I prefer people to be wrong than for people to say perhaps yes, perhaps no.

It is very important that revolutionaries identify with the oppressed. But how do we do so? Lenin expressed it brilliantly in a little pamphlet called To the Rural Poor.

He starts it by saying, perhaps you have been in a town, perhaps if you have not then your father has been in a town, your uncle has been in a town, your brother has been in a town (Lenin was very patient, so he goes through all the population), your friend has been in a town. And in the town what did you find? The workers were on strike.

In other words he emphasises collective action. When there were pogroms in Russia, what was the emphasis of the Bolsheviks? We need the big factories as collective power to smash the pogroms.

WE NEED collective power. The conclusions come from that. The revolutionary party is about generalisation of the class because we believe in the unity of the class, because we believe the class is uneven, because the class is split.

Therefore, in the revolutionary party, if you’re gay of course you defend gays. If you are not gay, you also defend gays.

When the National Front issued a leaflet in 1977 saying the leader of the SWP, Tony Cliff, is a Jew, we didn’t issue a counter leaflet which said yes, but the majority of the central committee are gentile. We said we are all Jews. If blacks are attacked we are all blacks, if women are attacked we are all women, if gays are attacked we are all gays.

With our form of organisation, we will never make concessions to separatism, I’ll tell you what that means.

The Bolshevik party had a women’s paper. I hope some day we’ll have a women’s paper. The editorial board of that women’s paper was: Armand, a woman; Krupskaya, a woman; and Bukharin, a man. At the women’s conference in Berne in 1916, Lenin was the key Bolshevik leader.

Trotsky was the leader of the Bolsheviks in the workers soviet. The soviet was made up of delegates from the factories. Trotsky had never been an engineer in his life, yet he was a delegate. Why? Because we represent one class.

Compare this with the horrible soviet in Berlin in 1918. Rosa Luxemburg was not allowed into the soviet because she was not a worker. Karl Liebknecht was not allowed into the soviet. These people sacrificed years in prison. They fought for years, then people turn round and say “you are not a worker, you cannot come in”.

We believe in the unity of the class and it doesn’t make any difference at all who it is.

There is no question about it, one day we will have a Punjabi paper in Britain, an Urdu paper, a Bengali paper, we’ll have a women’s paper.

Once you get a massive movement it’s an absolute necessity to have different language papers to fit the specific situations.

That doesn’t mean there is separation, that comes through division of labour. There is one policy, one leadership, one organisation. The whole thing is democratic centralist.

The whole idea of democratic centralism is you overcome the separatism, you overcome the tendency to separate from the unity. And the tendency exists all the time.

The only way the oppressed can be liberated is under the leadership of the working class. Neither Marx nor Lenin spoke about the unity of the oppressed. They said workers of the world unite, you are the leadership of all the oppressed.

Last updated on 12.8.2013