Working people need to confront racism, sexism and anti-immigrant prejudice if we are to be successful in uniting our class sufficiently to take on the huge power of the one percent – the super-rich owners of most productive wealth in society.
Workers face many challenges uniting against their common enemy – the boss class and its paid servants.
We are usually brought up to see our role in life as being nothing more than cogs in someone else’s machine. Creativity is discouraged. Aspiring for “something better” is seen as only leading to disappointment and failure. Rebellion is crushed.
Our role in life is to become a wage slave working for “the man”.
Organising collectively is the worst crime and can result in being banished from polite society as a “communist unionist”, or “haters and wreckers”.
Since humanity emerged from the stage of primitive communism 10,000 years ago all human societies have been run by those who control the wealth. The dominant ideas of those societies are the ideas that promote the interests of the ruling class. We are told that those who make up the ruling class are superior in some way. Identities we have in common to the ruling class are promoted. Those of us who provide labour and create the wealth for the rulers be that as peasants, slaves or workers are taught to think as members of a kingdom, a nation or a race rather than as members of a class.
Before class society existed there were no special forms of oppression that could be imposed. Women were equal. “Race” did not even exist as a category. However, with the development of agriculture, there was a surplus in production that was able to be monopolised by a separate class of owners. This was the first revolution in production and witnessed the subordination of women as a “second sex”. Institutionalised discrimination followed.
This was referred to as the “world-historic defeat of the female sex” by socialist pioneer Frederick Engles writing over 100 years ago.
Today the bosses use the differences that have been bequeathed to them like the oppression of women to their advantage. The second class status of women was simply institutionalised under modern capitalism into paying women less.
Racism, however, was created as a tool by capitalism at its birth to justify the degradation and super-exploitation of non-whites. Racism emerged with the development of world trade (including trade in slaves) in the sixteenth century. It became a central tool of the capitalist rulers as part of the growth of colonialism to justify the barbaric methods needed to sustain the system of rule and exploitation.
The legacy of that racism remains an important part of maintaining sections of the population of different countries in a second-class status in order to super-exploit them. It is also a key element of modern imperialism’s colonial and neo-colonial relationship between the “first” (white) and “third” (Black, yellow and brown) worlds.
Colour differences, however, are not essential. The British empire maintained a discriminatory and oppressive relationship with the Irish people for centuries and justified it through a completely different narrative.
The colonisation and oppression of the Irish in Ireland was supplemented by forcing them into a second class status within the workforce in England itself. Lower wages, super-exploitation and super profits followed.
The ruling class is very conscious about using any differences to promote disunity whenever they are threatened by working class unity and struggle.
An instructive example is from the colonisation of North America. Initially, there was no system of slavery. Indentured labour was used instead. Approximately 250,000 English, Irish, and other impoverished white people, as well as some blacks purchased from the slave traders, were forced into “service”. They all worked together as indentured servants usually for three to seven years before gaining freedom. The ruling class created all sorts of reasons to treat these people as “filth and scum” deserving few rights. Shared misery and class exploitation prevented the rise of racism between the servants. However, all that was to change following the 1676 Bacon Rebellion in Virginia.
This was an uprising against the aristocratic landowners in which the indentured servants, runaways, landless free labourers and small farmers united. It was brutally crushed.
A conscious policy was then followed that institutionalised slavery for life for blacks while improving the conditions for the white servants. Living quarters were segregated. Whites were given better housing, work and clothing. Whipping of whites was prohibited. Anti-black racism was promoted so the whites would consider themselves superior to the slaves.
Black slavery was established as the norm for the rapidly expanding cotton industry through the southern states of the US. Anti-black racism became the ideological weapon to maintain that system. It has survived well beyond the formal abolition of slavery because it continues to serve the interests of the ruling class to super-exploit black labour directly and to prevent any unity developing between working people who are black and those who are white.
The abolition of slavery did open up that possibility occurring again. This is depicted in part in a recent film called “Free State of Jones” which is a true story of black slaves together with poor white farmers and workers joining together in the struggle against the white slave-owning confederacy in the closing days of the civil war.
The period of “Radical Reconstruction” following the civil war saw blacks and whites working together to carry out the promise of “40 acres and a mule” to every free man. State governments were formed of freed slaves and poor whites that began to carry out the most progressive social programmes seen in the US up to that time (or since). Crushing those governments and the emerging black-white plebian unity was accomplished by the North withdrawing the protective army and the local ruling class of former slave owners organising a massive terrorist assault through a racist militia called the Klu Klux Klan.
Blacks were effectively denied the right to vote and excluded from access to normal protections or welfare. A semi-apartheid “Jim crow” system was established. Black workers who were excluded from most unions. The new racist and right-wing state governments instituted anti-union laws that remain in place today.
The civil rights movement overthrew formal segregation in the 1950s and 60s but right through to today it remains a fact that all working people across the southern Unite States – black and white – are much poorer on average than their Northern counterparts.
The success of the ruling class in destroying working class unity across the southern united states made it much harder for workers who were white to protect their interests as workers as well.
The weakening of unions and other working class institutions in the northern states in recent decades associated with the collapse of many traditional union strong industries like auto and steel has seen the spread of anti-union laws and practices from the south as a consequence.
The failure of the union movement nationally to challenge Jim Crow and anti-black racism effectively in the southern states is now taking its revenge. The poorers wages and conditions of work are moving north. At first, this was because the union leaderships were trapped in the dead-end strategy of supporting the Democratic Party – which while seen as responsible for the New Deal policies associated with active job creation in the 1930s, dominated the South as the former slave-owning party of racist “Dixiecrats”. Ultimately the racist right-wing Dixiecrats were replaced by racist right-wing Republicans but the situation of working people remains dire.
The same is true in what is called “Northern Ireland.” As part of the British colonisation of Ireland in the 16th and 17th Century a large protestant minority transported to and installed in the north of the country. The businessmen and landowners of this group were given effective governance rights over the whole country. The peasants and workers who were Protestant were encouraged to see the Catholics as their enemy.
Eventual Irish independence which was achieved at least in part in 1921 excluded six of the 32 counties situated in the north of the island. At that time the northern statelet of about 1.2 million had a Protestant majority and more importantly most of the major industries.
The end result of decades of Protestant supremacy, including excluding Catholics from better-paying jobs, was for the working class who were protestant to be poorer on average than any other citizen of the “United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland” (except, of course, the Northern Ireland Catholics).
Genuine class consciousness is needed to fight uncompromisingly for your own rights. You have to understand that your rights as a worker are in opposition to not just your own boss but the whole class of parasites that he belongs to. That means knowing that the class interests of your fellow worker – black, brown, yellow, Catholic, Protestant or Muslim, native born or migrant – are much the same as your own. Allowing the bosses to use prejudice, national chauvinism, or racism to marginalise and subjugate a portion of the working class so that they are able to pay them less money and impose inferior conditions on them, will only strengthen those same bosses against you when you try to improve your situation.
Russian socialist leader Vladimir Lenin, who led the Russian revolution in 1917, said a genuine socialist leader is not a narrow trade unionist but “the tribune of the people…able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it appears, no matter what stratum or class of the people it affects”–and they must be “able to generalize all these manifestations and produce a single picture of police violence and capitalist exploitation…in order to clarify for all and everyone the world-historic significance of the struggle for the emancipation of the proletariat.”
These words remain relevant today and a challenge to all of us wanting an end to capitalist exploitation and oppression.