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Do Marxists reduce everything to class?

By Alan Maass | August 2, 2002 | Page 7

"IT GOES without saying that society cannot itself be free unless each individual is free," wrote Frederick Engels. He was expressing the commitment at the core of the Marxist tradition to a future socialist society that would end not only economic inequalities, but all forms of oppression and discrimination.

But most people on the left today doubt that commitment. It has become commonly accepted that Karl Marx and the Marxists who followed him were economic "reductionists"--that is, they reduce social questions to a matter of economics and ignore or downplay issues that aren't immediately related to the class struggle.

As ZNet's Michael Albert summarized in an Internet debate with Socialist Worker, "Marxism…tends to exaggerate the centrality of economics and gives insufficient attention to gender, race, [politics] and the environment."

The reality is that no genuine Marxist would recognize themselves in this statement. Marxist organizations have a long and proud tradition of fighting around just these issues. And of course, this newspaper would be a lot shorter if we were really as inattentive to issues of sexism, racism and so on as we're accused of being.

Marxism does see the class struggle over the organization of the economy as central. Capitalism has created the possibility of a world where everyone's needs can be met. But this doesn't happen because of the way the system is organized--to protect and extend the wealth and power of the ruling minority above all else.

The united working-class majority has the power to overthrow the system and create a new society. But to say all this doesn't mean that other issues under capitalism--above all, questions of oppression, which divides the working class by holding down parts of it--are unimportant to Marxists. These issues can shape the character of all struggles in society, including the class struggle.

Marxists care very much about struggles of the oppressed--not least because of the moral desire to see justice done. But these fights are important for another reason.

First, struggles around one issue can spark a fight on others. Thus, the 1960s civil rights movement set the stage for the anti-Vietnam War movement, the women's liberation movement, the gay and lesbian liberation movement and the 1970s rank-and-file rebellion in the unions. Second, oppression divides the working class, pitting different groups of workers against one another.

As Marx wrote about slavery in the U.S., "Labor in a white skin cannot emancipate itself where it is branded in a black skin." The logic of this demands that anyone committed to working-class self-emancipation be the first to champion struggles of the oppressed--because working-class unity can't be achieved except on the basis of equality.

As the Russian revolutionary Lenin famously put it: "Working-class consciousness cannot be genuine political consciousness unless the workers are trained to respond to all cases of tyranny, oppression, violence and abuse, no matter what class is affected."

The Marxist case is that all workers have an interest in fighting not only for their economic emancipation, but for an end to all oppressions that effect any part of their class. But saying this doesn't mean that workers automatically recognize this interest. The potential for unity is just that--a potential.

Whether the potential is realized depends on the course of the struggle--and the active intervention of socialists to make the case for a way forward in the day to day and for a different kind of society, where all forms of oppression are forever destroyed.

This article is adapted from contributions to the Internet debate between Michael Albert of ZNet and Alan Maass of SW. Read the full debate at

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