[Marxism] Class and race and gender

LouPaulsen LouPaulsen at comcast.net
Wed Jun 23 05:01:15 MDT 2004

----- Original Message -----
From: "Philip Ferguson" <plf13 at student.canterbury.ac.nz>

[To Carroll]
> Are you disputing that the Queen of England has more power than a black
> male in Brixton or that Lynddie England had power over her male
> prisoners?
> One of the things that has happened since the 1970s is that middle and
> upper class women (and middle and upper class people of colour) have
> actually made *very substantial* gains.  In NZ, most of the top jobs,
> including the CEOs of the major business federations, are currently held
> by women.
> Making out that *all women* are still oppressed just doesn't make sense
> anymore and actually alienates working class women.
> The reality is that there are now substantial class divisions among
> women, and the job of Marxists is not to paper over these divisions but
> to champion the liberation of the *majority* of women who remain
> oppressed.
> In NZ, the gains of middle and upper class women have led to the
> disappearance of organised feminism.
> Carroll, your ideas on this are like a throwback to the 1970s, when what
> you say *was largely true*.  But you fail to take much account of what
> has happened since then.

To Phil:

First: You have made essentially the same argument before.  Perhaps it has
some merit -in New Zealand-.  Perhaps, in New Zealand, the oppression of
women, *as women*, has pretty much been eliminated, women and men share
housework equally, the responsibilities for child care are dealt with
socially on an equal basis, gender-stereotyping of occupations no longer
exists, and you have equal participation of women - not only in CEO life -
but also in working-class political life.  This would surprise me - actually
it would surprise me more than if NZ were found to actually be populated by
elves, dwarves, and hobbits, just like in the movies - but I can't rule it
out a priori without looking at the evidence.  Perhaps NZ is isolated enough
from the cut-throat cultural and economic processes of this so unequal, so
divided world that it has managed to resolve some of the world's grave
problems before anyplace else.

However, my reading strongly suggests to me that the oppression of women,
*as women*, still exists just about everywhere else in the world.  I can
tell you that it hasn't disappeared from Chicago, and that Carroll's ancient
1970's-ish ideas are not completely useless here.

Second: this argument about whether the Queen has more power than a Black
man in Brixton strikes me as really bizarre and un-Marxist.  Surely the
claim that "women are an oppressed group" does not get refuted if you find
one women, or several women, or *a chunk* of women (as someone phrased it)
who have more power than one or some or most men.  If that sort of thing
refuted the oppression of women today, it would refute the oppression of
women throughout history; surely there have been queens, and, more
generally, women of the ruling class, in past epochs who had more power than
male serfs, slaves, and so on.  (Phil: since roughly 50% of all children of
all classes have generally always been female, it follows that the 'class
divisions among women' have always been pretty much the same as the 'class
divisions among men' - as far as that goes.) (Female infanticide among the
poor would actually have moved the percentages the other way.)

If one got in the habit of using this logic, one could go on and use the
same logic to refute any other concept of oppression.  Suppose a US soldier
from the working class tortures an Iraqi bourgeois - that doesn't prove that
the bourgeoisie is no longer the ruling class on a global scale!  And it
doesn't mean that we have to revise Marxism to make it more "accurate" and
point out that "generally the bourgeoisie oppresses the workers, but
sometimes there is a 'chunk' of workers that oppresses the bourgeoisie."
Suppose that the Citgo company, which is owned by the Venezuelan state-owned
oil company, builds a gas station in Chicago and hires workers at the
prevailing wage to pump gas, manage the station, etc. - this doesn't mean
that Venezuela ceases to be an oppressed country, or that "Venezuelan
imperialism exploits workers in the US".

Talking about oppressed nations, groups, exploited classes, etc., surely
means that we are not just collecting data from individuals and doing
demographic analysis.  What does it mean to talk about a "class-for-itself"?
Surely it doesn't mean that you think that every wage-worker is going to
achieve working class consciousness and fight for the bourgeoisie.  When we
talk about classes, nations, oppressed and oppressor groups, etc., it makes
sense because/when there are actual social structures (including ideological
and cultural ones) that give these concepts a social reality (that is, at a
different level from the individual one).

I have long thought that when we talk about class conflict, national or
gender oppression, etc., we are doing much the same thing as what a
meteorologist does when she draws a weather map displaying "hot air masses"
and "cold air masses" and "low pressure systems".  These maps are greatly
simplified pictures of reality, and there is a hell of a lot of chaotic fine
structure to any such "mass" or "system", but this doesn't invalidate the
science of meteorology.

Third: That is why this argument about whether (a) "all women are oppressed"
or, on the contrary, (b) "most women are oppressed, but some women, i.e.,
women of the exploiting classes, are not" just doesn't make a lot of sense
to me.  People who argue for (a) are not arguing that even the Queen of
England is in danger of sexual assault in her palace (of course Lynndie
England, like all working-class women in the U.S. military, *IS* subject to
sexual assault, as we know, and thus is in no sense a poster woman for the
idea that there are some women who are not oppressed as women).  They are
arguing that there is a society-wide network of structures which oppress
women and legitimate that oppression.

And yet some socialists think, for some reason, that it is very important to
make this kind of distinction.  They claim that, for example, "some Blacks
are not subject to national oppression."  They contend that Colin Powell and
Michael Jordan are not oppressed and so on, and I think they even peg the
dividing line between oppressed Blacks and non-oppressed Blacks at some
particular income level.  (Yes, I have a particular group in mind.)

I don't see how they are so sure - is Colin Powell never going to drive his
car through Belleville, Illinois (a notorious location for police
harrassment of Black drivers), for example?  But, even more, I don't see the
*importance* of arguing that "not all women are oppressed" or that "not all
Blacks are oppressed" and so on.  And when a socialist comes along who
thinks that this IS an important point to make, I ask myself, "What is the
difference between his theory and mine which causes him to think that it is
important to show that Colin Powell and the Queen of England are not
oppressed?"  Does he think that the anti-capitalist struggle is going to be
materially weakened if we allow that some capitalist women and capitalist
Blacks might themselves be subject to invidious treatment?  Or (I think this
is usually it) does he mainly think that feminism and nationalism are
thought to be enemy ideologies against which it is necessary to score
points?  This sort of thinking leads to bad revolutionary practice in my

Lou Paulsen
member, WWP, Chicago

More information about the Marxism mailing list