The following excerpts are from a 1989 keynote speech by Clara Fraser to a conference called “Parallels and Intersections: Racism and Other Forms of Oppression.” What is the relationship between the oppression of different groups of people — and what are the implications for social change? These are the issues Fraser and the conference were addressing, and it’s one that has stalked movements for equality and liberation from their beginnings.
In the 1960s, Fraser and the organizations she co-founded, the Freedom Socialist Party and Radical Women, answered these questions with multi-issue revolutionary socialist feminism. The excerpts below capture the essence of these politics and their relevance to debates about intersectionality and identity politics today. The full speech can be read at marxists.org or in Fraser’s fierce and funny collection of essays and speeches called Revolution, She Wrote, available at RedLetterPress.org.
Chains forged by history
All the many brands of oppression — racism, sexism, heterosexism, ageism, classism — are historical; they have not been always with us. It was not ever thus. And it’s not going to be this way, come the revolution!
Human nature, by itself, is fine. If you’ve raised children, you know babies don’t come into the world nasty and exploitative — they’re nice people! They want support and help and solidarity. And they give love and gratitude. They’re cheerful; they like life. It’s what happens to them as they grow up that turns them into the kind of people you hate to meet. So the problem doesn’t start with human nature but with historical categories.
Oppressions grew. They developed — not out of somebody’s evil mind, but out of material reality. Given certain economic conditions, levels of technology, and the particular development of the forces of production, assorted varieties of subjugation had to happen. When production of “commodities” — goods for sale — became widespread, private ownership arose and with it came new family structures and relations among people. Classes emerged. And to entrench these new classes, new forms of rule developed. The state was born; laws came on the scene. The culture changed.
We live in an epoch in which there coexists class oppression, racism and sexism, heterosexism, ageism, ableism, anti-Semitism, et cetera, et cetera. There’s a name for this kind of society and it’s called capitalism. In its most developed expansionist form, it’s known as imperialism.
Divided we fall
By capitalism, I mean the system that exists on the basis of your unpaid labor. You as a worker produce commodities to be exchanged on the market. You produce not only enough to pay your own wage, but also an added value, a surplus value, over and above the cost of your maintenance.
Capitalism is the all-embracing social context, the all-embracing social content, the all-embracing social cause and beneficiary of every form of oppression and exploitation today. This common context creates the parallels and the similarities between all of us despite our superficial differences of color and sex and age and sexuality. Capitalism is the core that engenders the intersections of all of our struggles, and all of our lives, and all of our problems.
But we do more than intersect.
Intersection as a concept makes me nervous. Because at intersections we meet and then we go away. I don’t like that. I prefer the Hegelian term of interpenetration. When we make contact, we become part of each other. We draw from each other. We reflect each other; we affect each other, without losing our identities. Our oppressions interpenetrate, interact, intersect and meet.
Indeed, each of us is composed of a myriad of intersections, making it impossible to separate ourselves out into special categories. How do I say about myself, “Okay, I’m Jewish: here’s my Jewish part. And there’s my Woman part over there. ” Where’s my human part? God only knows.
The ruling class wants to preserve its privileges, its interests, its power, its wealth, its dominion. And so it engages in a very interesting psychological technology called divide and conquer. It’s a weapon designed to make us all hate and resent and compete with each other. And so many of us buy it.
We can’t let ourselves do that! We have to make change! We have to make broad, revolutionary, social, economic and cultural change.
We are the people. We are the majority. We are the dynamic mass. If we go out and organize, we will change this world, and we must.
Class — the key link
What is class? Class is simply a sociological standard that describes where a person stands vis-à-vis wealth. Are you a worker employed by somebody else, or are you the owner who reaps surplus value from the labor of your workers?
Workers aren’t just blue collar; there are very few of those as automation and cybernation take over and everything becomes computerized. We do different kinds of work these days. We work with our minds more and we sit on our behinds more. But we’re still workers.
We are the class. We are the mass. We are the overwhelming majority. And taken together, the workers of color, the lesbians, the gays, the women, the young, the aged, and the handicapped are the majority of that majority class. That’s what too many of us lose sight of. We really have some power if only we would use it. And that’s why we should stop sniping at each other and start organizing.
To me, a working-class program is a program that is anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, internationalist, and frankly and boldly revolutionary. To me there can be no liberation without socialism. And conversely, there can be no socialism without liberation for everybody. This system cannot grant freedom to Blacks, period. To Chicanos, period. To women, period.
The natural solution
Socialism is not production for profit. It is production for use. It is not inequality and misery and persecution and discrimination; it is equality and fairness. It is not poverty and want; it is freedom from want. It is freedom from war.
Socialism is a humanistic culture, a celebration of life, not of absorption into the engines of death. Socialism is also the opposite of cultural nationalism. And what is that? Cultural nationalism is what the Black Panthers used to call “pork chop nationalism.” It is where you make the cultural folkways and pathways and lifestyles of your own group into a substitute for politics, philosophy, and a strategy for change. It doesn’t work. It never works, because it’s too superficial. What it can do is destroy a movement.
My father used to have a friend who would come over to talk every week. My father was very interested in science and philosophy, and he would explain some exciting idea or discovery to Mr. Glover, and Glover would look at my father and say, “But what’s in it for the Jews? ”
That’s the essence of cultural nationalism. The only thing he cared about was what might directly, narrowly, benefit the Jews. Isn’t that a great outcome of centuries of Jewish culture and intellectual leadership? Thanks a lot, Mr. Glover.
A design for change
My organizations, Radical Women and the Freedom Socialist Party, are multi-issue, anti-capitalist, socialist feminists.
Ours is the theory of the multiply-oppressed. If you’re doubly exploited or triply oppressed, if you’re in quadruple jeopardy, you’re going to be that much more motivated. You’ve got that many more reasons to go out and hit the system. And you’ve got a lot of determination and energy and conviction and anger that will sustain you in tough times.
It is the multiply-oppressed who will be the first to rise, who will give the impetus and the direction and the push to revolutionary change.
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