I like the title of this conference,“Parallels and Intersections: Racism and Other Forms of Oppression.” It hints at what I believe: that since we have many forms of oppression, there must be a shared cause and reason for them all—an underlying, cardinal reality, some hidden essence and inner connection between all these various manifestations. What is that common link?
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!
Whenever I say that, somebody always objects: “Oh yeah? You can’t change human nature. ” Wrong! My business as a socialist is changing human nature away from the distortion that capitalism has made of it.
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.
New forms of oppression and exploitation are created depending upon the needs of the economy. There’s constant interaction and change among economic institutions, the state, and the culture.
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. It’s got everything. It is a shopping mall of oppressions and exploitations. It relishes and thrives on oppression.
All these manifold types of oppression sprung up at different times in history. Slavery, for instance, was originally a system of forced labor that had nothing to do with racism. Spartacus, the Roman gladiator and organizer of the great slave revolt, was white. The Jews were slaves in Egypt, but most Egyptians were darker-skinned than most Jews. Racism only came later—when American cotton producers needed to rationalize the enslavement of laborers from Africa. It was the conditions of the large-scale plantation economy of the U.S. South that created racism.
So all these bad “isms” didn’t have a common historical origin. But they sure had a common destiny—capitalism.
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. Surplus labor is your unpaid wage. In polite circles it is called “profit.” And that’s what capitalism is all about.
Capitalism is the all-embracing social context, the allembracing 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. It makes me nervous when I’m driving, and makes me nervous in ordinary social life. 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.
It’s important for us psychologically, in terms of wholeness and Gestalt, not to rip ourselves asunder and try to be one single-issue entity, and tell all the other aspects of our identity to go to hell. We deny our basic humanity that way, because so many of us represent and honor so many different things.
We are all afflicted—commonly afflicted—by a ruthless system, a cruel, vicious, remorseless, callous system. The same enemy holds us in bondage. That enemy has the same reasons for torturing all of us.
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.
And we can do it through unity.
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.
Fusion versus collusion
Some people try to escape the system. They try to ignore it, whitewash it, pretend it doesn’t effect them. They tell me,
“Oh, you go out and organize, Clara. That’s your thing. I’m of a finer ilk, a more delicate soul. I want to devote my life to beauty and kindness and gentleness, and having exciting relations with people. But you keep doing what you’re doing— and work faster!”
I don’t want to make fun of anybody who feels like that. It’s always a temptation to want to avoid trouble. But although you may try to escape the system, the system won’t escape you. You may try to ignore it, but it won’t ignore you.
Sooner or later life and the system are going to put you in a struggle stance. Sooner or later you’re going to find yourselves in a battle. And suddenly you’ll find you need help and solidarity.
When people realize the system has turned against them, they go through a heavy politicization. And a very, very quick consciousness-raising. When it hits you, when it hurts you, you can begin to generalize, to see that everybody is affected.
So we’ve got to have solidarity. We’ve got to stick together if we’re going to create change. But this cohesiveness is the hardest thing in the world to achieve, as you all know if you’ve tried to organize and work in coalitions and united fronts. Unless coalitions and united fronts have a program based on class consciousness, they’re not going to exist very long.
Class—the key link
What is class? Class is simply a sociological standard that describes where a person stands vis-à-vis wealth. Marxists call it your relation to the means of production. What end of the commodity production process are you on? Are you a producer of goods, or are you an appropriator of profits? Are you a worker employed by somebody else, or are you the owner who reaps surplus value from the labor of your workers? Are you the one who does the work or are you managing workers on behalf of the bosses?
Workers are all the people who don’t own their own means of production. By this I don’t mean tools—I don’t mean your guitar if you’re in a band—I mean the whole, big factory, the site, the production operation.
So who are workers today? Who isn’t? Movie stars, artists, musicians, government workers, professionals of all kinds, teachers, professors—almost everybody is a worker today.
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.
Our lovely revolts—Black, Chicano, feminist, Asian American, Native American, lesbian/gay—were these upsurges merely for the purpose of changing the race, sex and sexuality of our oppressors? But isn’t this what has happened?
I fought for affirmative action, and now I am affirmatively exploited. I am affirmatively oppressed by the woman lawyer opposing my discrimination case. I am affirmatively fired by my boss who is a person of color or a lesbian or gay man. We will end up slaughtering each other if we don’t get down to a class program and an orientation toward fundamental social change.
There’s a big class struggle going on out there, you know. And the question is, what side are you on?
To me, a workingclass program is a program that is anticapitalist, anti-imperialist, internationalist, and frankly and boldly revolutionary, make no bones about it. 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. You can’t have liberation for one group and nobody else. You can’t be liberated as an individual if you suffer oppression on some other level of your existence.
The natural solution
I’ve talked about socialism—what is socialism?
Socialism is not production for profit. It is production for use. It is not production for private ownership and the private ownership of resources. It is public ownership, common ownership of the wealth. It is not inequality and misery and persecution and discrimination; it is equality and fairness. It isnot poverty and want; it is freedom from want. It is freedom from war. It is freedom from ugliness and squalor.
It is just the opposite of what exists today and it expresses what people need and dearly want and would love to see.
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. It’s very good at mangling interracialism and pro-workingclass solidarity, but it doesn’t work to build anything.
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.
This type of attitude has produced the Palestinian uprising known as the intifadeh. If you’re going to do the cultural nationalist trip, you end up being Jewish Nazis shooting down Palestinian kids.
A terrible, terrible phenomenon is going on in Israel today. I’m ashamed of the Israelis. I’m on the Palestinian side and on the side of the radical Jews who want a socialist homeland in Israel in common with its other original inhabitants, its only permanent inhabitants, the Palestinians. There isn’t any way to end the conflict in the Middle East except by establishing a bilateral, secular, socialist democracy.
Like the Zionists, too many cultural nationalists in the U.S. are missing the main struggle because their selfcenteredness blinds them to the key principle we must not break: the principle of class. Nobody wants war within their sex or ethnic group, but you have to take sides against injustice even if it’s coming from someone who looks like you. You have to recognize class—who’s the boss, who’s the worker, who’s right and who’s wrong. Class is the line we don’t cross.
A design for unity and change
My organizations, Radical Women and the Freedom Socialist Party, are multi-issue, anti-capitalist, socialist feminists. Most of our members are lesbians or gays, many of them are people of color, almost all are workers, some are students, a few are retired, some are disabled, some are parents. And all of them are leaders and theoreticians and practitioners and activists. All of them.
We fight on all fronts. We see the interconnections of all the different struggles. We see the intersections and we see the interpenetrations and we see the context and we see the common essence, and we have a vision of the future. We don’t have a blueprint, but we do have a theory. And we believe our theory is inspiring enough to guide us to a consistent practice. We have a good time, and we also work hard. We’ve got a nice, global type of political buffet going.
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. And we are the harbinger of that movement of the future.