Challenging every form of oppression

The latest in a series of articles elaborating on the ISO's "Where We Stand" statement.

We oppose racism in all its forms. We support the struggle for immigrant rights. We fight for real social, economic and political equality for women and for an end to discrimination against lesbians and gays.

We support the fight for Black liberation and all the struggles of the oppressed. The liberation of the oppressed is essential to socialist revolution and impossible without it.
--From the ISO "Where We Stand"

Series: Where We Stand

Read the series of articles by SocialistWorker.org columnist Paul D'Amato that looks in detail at the "Where We Stand" statement of the International Socialist Organization.

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RACISM AND other forms of oppression persist, quite simply, because without them, capitalism could not survive; though naked exploitation is at the heart of capitalism, without the intervention of material and ideological devices to pit worker against worker, that core relationship of exploitation could not hold for long.

Thus, racism, women's oppression and other forms of discrimination are not holdovers from previous societies, but essential features of the capitalist system.

Though many legal forms of racial discrimination have disappeared in the U.S. since the 1960s, African Americans remain second-class citizens, facing substantially higher unemployment, lower wages, worse housing, higher poverty rates and far higher levels of victimization at the hands of the police and judicial system than whites.

Racial profiling and stereotyping, both casual and official, is ubiquitous. To cite a couple of examples: Blacks make up 13 percent of the population, but represent 50 percent of the nation's prison population; among first-time youth offenders, African Americans are six times more likely than whites to be sentenced to prison by juvenile courts for the same offense; and Black youth unemployment hovers at around 30 percent nationwide.

Columnist: Paul D'Amato

Paul D'Amato Paul D'Amato is managing editor of the International Socialist Review and author of The Meaning of Marxism, a lively and accessible introduction to the ideas of Karl Marx and the tradition he founded. Paul can be contacted at [email protected].

Racist attitudes toward African Americans, while considerably diminished since the pre-civil rights era, continue to infect millions of people, including a significant number of working-class whites.

Other groups, such as Latinos, are systematically discriminated against on the basis of language, immigration status and skin color. Undocumented immigrants live in constant fear of harassment, detention and deportation, not to mention facing the low wages that their precarious status imposes on them.

The form that women's oppression takes is different from racism, but it is as rooted in the fabric of capitalism as is racism.

Capitalism depends on the unpaid labor of women in the home to guarantee the reproduction of the current and next generation of workers. This imposes a double burden on women, who most often also work outside the home, as well as do the bulk of the child care and housework. A whole ideological apparatus exists that enshrines the privatized family as the most acceptable form of childrearing and personal relations.

Capitalism has turned sex into a commodity, a reality whose burden falls chiefly, but not exclusively, on women. Women are denied control of their own sexuality and reproductive decisions--denigrated if they are sexually promiscuous (unlike men, who are congratulated) and denied, to varying degrees, control over whether to carry a pregnancy to term. Women also face sexual harassment and violence in the home as well as outside it.

The result of women's burden, however, is not that a working-class man's burden is eased. On the contrary, this privatized form of the family places a burden on both men and women, who are expected to use their meager paychecks to keep their families together, pay for their children's schooling, health care and so on, while the capitalists reap all the benefits.

Women's wages continue to be below men's, and this is justified on the archaic grounds that men are the main "breadwinners" in society. Here again, there is no benefit to men in this arrangement. Just as the low wages of immigrant workers help the bosses drive down the wages of all workers, so the employers can use the low wages of women to keep wages low for men. In addition, it should be kept in mind that working-class couples are sharing less money than if women received equal pay to men.

Sexual stereotyping also pegs women to certain jobs and men to others on the grounds that certain jobs are "women's work" and others "men's work." These attitudes have shifted but still persist.

Gay oppression--society's mistreatment of gay men, lesbians, bisexual and transgendered people--is linked to the nuclear family just described. These groups are seen as threatening to the traditional family, and are therefore considered to be "abnormal" relationships.

The pigeonholing of women and men into expected sex roles not only stultifies and crushes the lives of women and people who are not heterosexual, but also creates a great deal of confusion and pain for boys and men, who are also expected to play certain roles in order to be considered "normal."

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THESE OPPRESSIONS aid in allowing the bosses to drive down the wages and working conditions of immigrants, women and minorities, which in turn allows them to drive down the wages of all workers. The old saying of the Industrial Workers of the World, "An injury to one is an injury to all," is perhaps the most important slogan for the labor movement in this regard--for unless the working class takes this slogan to heart, it will always be defeated.

The working class consists of men and women, gay and straight, Black, white and brown, speaking many different languages, and coming from many different nationalities. If the working class is to successfully challenge capitalism, it must overcome these divisions. On this basis alone, it is essential to recognize the sources of division and inequality inside the working class if a strategy is to be devised to overcome them; for divisions cannot be overcome by ignoring them any more than it can by stoking them.

The conditions of all workers cannot be raised or improved until the conditions of the most poorly treated and most oppressed sections are raised up.

Immigrant workers must be organized along with native born, as equals with the same rights. Women must have equal pay and access to free child care and reproductive services, and be treated as equals to men. Blacks must have full equality, including access to good education, training and jobs and fair housing, and be free from police brutality and the injustices of the justice system, of which they bear the brunt. Workers who speak languages other than English must be able to speak and learn in their own language without discrimination. Oppressed nations must have the right to self-determination.

Gay, bisexual and transgendered people must be free from violence, harassment and legal constraints, and be extended the same rights as others, including the right to marry; and all people must have the freedom to choose what kind of social and sexual relations they enter into, provided no one is harmed or injured.

These struggles are not extras, but must be an integral part of the workers' movement for total liberation. The working class can never achieve emancipation unless it is able to challenge all forms of oppression, without which the class cannot unite.

Conversely, because capitalism depends on oppression, the liberation of the oppressed cannot be fully achieved unless the working class is able to win socialism.