#M2013: Course on Marxism and oppression

Amy Gilligan writes:

Oppression is a material reality and questions around it are some of the most pressing we face. The oppression course at Marxism on Saturday was held in recognition of the growing interest in these  questions, with an emphasis on how Marxism is capable of explaining oppression.

[credit: video from swpTvUk on YouTube]

Judith Orr discussed how class shapes and intensifies oppression, and used examples of the ways that trade unionists had led campaigns against oppression, for example around the defense of abortion rights. She highlighted the importance of standing in solidarity with those who are oppressed. We are all stronger if we fight against it, and it is a fight that we want to win. 

Judith raised the question of whether men benefit from the oppression of women, repeating arguments from debates that took place in the International Socialism journal in the 1980s. More recent debates around privilege theory and intersectionality were raised, taken up in the discussion and expanded on in Esme C’s meeting on privilege theory.

[credit: video from swpTvUk on YouTube]

It’s welcome that for the first time that we’ve had a meeting at Marxism on this topic, although it is something that had been around in the movement for many years. Esme talked about how it can mean different things to different people, and at the start of her talk stated that we have to keep in mind that “privilege theory is not the enemy – oppression is the enemy”. Privilege theory makes sense you just look at the surface appearance of oppression, she said, but we need to go beyond this if we are to adequately come up with a strategy to fight oppression.

Unsurprisingly, the importance of the working class was once again emphasised: class is not just another form of oppression, but is where our power in society lies, and that every member of the working class stands to benefit from getting rid of exploitation and oppression.

There was an important contribution from Tithi Bhattacharya from the International Socialist Organisation in the US. She said she agreed with Esme that privilege theory does not take us “all the way” to liberation. But, as revolutionaries, we also have to assess how we are approaching people who are coming into our movements armed with privilege theory.

Tithi argued that we had to do more than win the argument with oppressed identities: we have to win their trust by being the most intransigent fighters at home and at work. She reminded us that some of the major fights in working class history began in the sphere of reproduction, but that we can only win the fight against capitalism in the sphere of production.

The topic of intersectionality came up in both Esme and Judith’s meetings. Speakers from the floor discussed how intersectionality worked, where they’d come across it in the movement, and how it helped unite struggles against oppression. They argued that it was a step forward, despite the tendency to see class as another form of oppression. Esme agreed that there could be some positives to intersectionality, but felt it could be still be a recipe for fragmentation.

[credit: video from swpTvUk on YouTube]

Jan N’s meeting was titled “How do we organise to end oppression?” But the content of her meeting didn’t really address this, except in the most general way. She admitted that she had misread the title of the meeting and thought that it was meant to specifically be about women’s oppression, although she invited floor contributions to talk about organising against other forms.

Like Judith and Esme, Jan talked about the power of the organised working class in fighting oppression, and the need for the revolutionary party to be the tribune of the oppressed. Jan highlighted the need to overthrow class society, for socialists to have independent arguments. She said argued that we should have a polemic, not a discourse, with those who have different ideas about fighting oppression.

Contributors from the floor raised returned to the meeting title and raised points about organising against oppression. These included thinking about where the tipping points are in giving people confidence to fight, and the importance of going back to thinking about the relationship between the political and economic in what makes people fight. One speaker gave a practical example about how she’d opened up a conversation around questions of oppression in her workplace.

The arguments that were made in all three meetings around the power of the working class in fighting oppression are crucial ones. I’m not sure, however, that there were many people in the room who weren’t already convinced of this.

Similarly, while in the wider movement the idea of men benefiting from women’s oppression is widely accepted, no contributors in the meeting tried to argue this position. This perhaps reflected that this year at Marxism we weren’t talking to many people beyond the SWP. 

The course opened up some debates that need to continue in the coming months, in particular around privilege theory and intersectionality. We need to analyse these questions on a theoretical level. But we also need to think about how we engage with other activists in the movement. It is important that we can to have a conversation with them – rather than cutting ourselves off from being able to win them to our ideas.

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