The CM: Oppression and Resistance

Thu, 12 Mar 1998 08:26:11 +0200 (SAT)
Peter van Heusden (pvh@leftside.wcape.school.za)

It has become fashionable (over the last 3 decades in particular) to
attempt to merge Marxism with modern theories of liberation - feminist,
Green, and so forth. The results have been mixed, but, in my view,
generally dissapointing. The most common result has been the construction
of a 'collection' of struggles against oppression

against the oppression of women
against racism
against 'class discrimination'
against environmental abuse.

It would appear that the rallying cry that seems to have emerged since at
least the late 1960s is 'Oppressed of the world, unite!'. This, is,
however, a different cry from the CM's 'Working men of all countries,
unite!'. I think it is useful, when studying Marx and Marxism, to answer
why this difference exists.

Is Marx's slogan in its form because it sees only one dimension of
struggle? Is the focus on the working class (leaving aside the obviously
19th-century 'working men') there because Marx ignored the way other
members of society were oppressed, how the lives of other members of
society were structured? I would argue not.

I would argue that the call for the working class of all countries to
unite cannot be altered without a fundamental theoretical base of Marxism
being lost - that base being the understanding of class society as
conditioning every aspect of collective history, and underlying the
framework every individual resides within in our society.

If the Manifesto was written today, it would probably have a much expanded
version of the section on 'Positions of Communists in Relation to the
Various Existing Opposition Parties'. To quote that section:

"In short, the Communists everywhere support every revolutionary movement
against the existing social and political order of things.

In all these movements they bring to the front, as the leading question in
each, the property question, no matter what degree of development at the
time."

this fundamental role for the proletariat is determined not by their
oppression (the Manifesto criticized the Utopian socialists since "only
from the point of view of the most suffering class does the proletariat
exist for them"), but rather by the conditions of existence of capitalist
society, the fact that capitalism "has left remaining no other nexus
between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous 'cash
payment'." And this itself is but the final and most complete expression
"of the system of producing and appropriating products, that is based on
class antagonisms, on the exploitation of the many by the few." Class
society (and thus capitalism) sets in place for Marx not just the
conditions of oppression, but most importantly, the conditions of
existence - and thus of history.

Any attempt to thus merge Marxism with any other system of theory must
take this into consideration - how does any merger relate to Marx's theory
of history (i.e. historical materialism) and thus how does any theoretical
wedding impact on Marxist practice.

One common theoretical wedding is the construction of a second fundamental
relation in history - that of reproduction. The fact that this relation
remained relatively invisible to Marx and Engels (Origin of the Family and
German Ideology being the two main exceptions to this generalisation)
results in theorists calling for its development - for the development of
a historical materialist history of reproduction, and thus the conditions
for opression of women. Women's oppression, we hear, 'is a function of
both their role in the family and their role in wage labour'. In contrast,
I'd like to highlight the work of Lise Vogel, who sees not a dual
dialectic (or a dialectic re-organised with reproduction as its base), but
rather sees the domestic labour of working class women (domestic labour
defined as the 'particular set of activities involving the maintainance
and replacement of the bearers of labour power and of the working class
as a whole') as a component of necessary labour - a component which is
both necessary to the capitalists, and also undesireable to them (in that
domestic labour produces no immediate profit).

Reproduction therefore remains part of the 'system of producing and
appropriating products', and women's lives are thus conditioned by the
place of domestic labour as a non-profit making component of necessary
labour (in particular, women's inequality flows from the necessity of
making domestic labour subordinate to the intersts of 'producing and
appropriating products'). I put forward this formulation on this list not
to raise the question of women under class society, but rather to give an
example of what I see as extending the method of Marx's thought, with a
two-fold aim - first proving that Marx's thought (and the Manifesto)
provides a solid basis for our understanding of society (and history), and
secondly in demonstrating what to me seems to be the difference (and the
importance of this difference) between an understanding of Marx (and the
Manifesto) as an analysis of oppression (and thus one to be extended by
the addition of other forms of oppression to the list), and the
understanding of the Manifesto (and Marx) as being an analysis of human
development (and human possibility), with an understanding of oppression
arising from that analysis.

Peter

--
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