A common criticism against Marxism from many liberal intersectionalists (e.g. liberals who embrace the theory of intersectionality) is that it is either class-reductionist or prone to class-reductionism. There are different versions of the class-reductionism criticism, but the general criticism is that Marxism tends to “reduce” different forms of oppression into class and economic oppression. This reduction, the argument continues, functions as a poor translation that leaves out unique characteristics of each form of non-class oppression. In essence, Marxism is blind to the sui generis status of each form of oppression apart from class oppression. Its analysis or approach is a reductive one size fits all approach. One primary example of the alleged failure of Marxism is to explain racial oppression in such a way that is sensitive to it being sui generis oppression relative to class oppression.
Many critics of Marxism (such as liberal intersectionalists from the idealist school of Critical Race Theory) argue that Marxism’s standard explanation of racism or white supremacy fails because it can’t fully or satisfactorily account for how white workers are active participants of racial oppression. The assumption behind this criticism is the perception that Marxism seems to insist that class antagonism between the proletariat and capitalists is not only a fundamental conflict, but it is the only genuinely real conflict (this is a false assumption, but I’ll explain later why). But if this is the case why are workers of one race oppressing workers and petty-bourgeoisie of another race? How can Marxism account for the racial antagonism in which workers of one race actively oppress workers (and other social classes) of another race? One of the standard Marxist accounts is that racial oppression from white workers stems from their false consciousness that conceals or obscures real class antagonism between them and the white bourgeoisie. False consciousness of exploited workers is essentially when workers consciously or unconsciously accept an ideology whose origin is ultimately from the ruling class and whose function is to redirect the frustration of one’s plight, much of which stems from conditions of class exploitation, towards a false culprit as a scapegoat. But many find this account unconvincing because it either downplays the moral responsibility of white workers by falsely portraying them as unwitting accomplices of racial oppression or excuses them for their racial oppression.
There is an element of truth to the objection that Marxism is “class reductionist,” but at the same time it distorts what Marxism is. In particular, the element of truth is that Marxists believe that class struggle is the fundamental and primary contradiction. When people hear this, they think Marxists believe that the struggle between the proletariat and bourgeoisie is the most important contradiction and everything else needs to be understood through the lens of this contradiction. But this couldn’t be further from the truth. In Domenico Losurdo’s book Class Struggle, the author points out texts where Marx and Engels discuss different struggles such as national oppression (e.g. the British Empire oppressing Irish people), women’s oppression, racial oppression, class exploitation by the bourgeoisie against the proletariat in the western metropole, and so on. Marx and Engels wrote in the Communist Manifesto that “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle,” yet Marx and Engels discussed national oppression, women’s oppression, racial oppression (e.g. racialized slaves), and so on. Are Marx and Engels being inconsistent? Losurdo proposes that Marx and Engels have an expansive conception of class struggle which subsumes various social struggles such as national oppression, women’s oppression, racial oppression, and so on as species of class struggle. What they all have in common is that there is a dialectical dynamic between exploited versus exploiter. Women were compulsory domestic laborers who used their domestic labor to produce surplus value for their patriarch. Colonized and oppressed nations produce and export commodities with surplus value for the oppressor nation. Racialized slaves produced surplus value for the white plantation owners (even when slavery was abolished, racial oppression continues in the form of super-exploitation). The proletariat produced surplus value to be turned into profit by the capitalists. What all struggles have in common is the class dynamic between exploiter vs. exploited. This class analysis doesn’t artificially transform all struggles into one undifferentiated, uniformed, and homogenous struggle, but at the same time it recognizes that each is its own species that belongs to class struggle.
But why try to attempt to subsume all oppression under class struggle? What is the motivation behind this ambitious approach? And what does this Marxist approach to class struggle have to say about white supremacy? It seems unusual and artificial to try to classify all of these forms of oppression under class struggle. In order to answer these questions, it’s important to understand the historical materialist understanding of society and how it motivates an expansive class analysis. According to historical materialism, all societies require a way of organizing instruments of production and distribution of goods and services with use-value (something has use-value when it satisfies perceived desires, needs, or appetite relatively common in society) in order for society to continue to exist and develop. Without any way of organizing instruments of production and distribution of goods and services with use-value, society will cease to exist. There could be no culture, no religion, no holidays, no festivals, no art, and so on. Why? Because at the end of the day everyone needs to eat, clothe themselves, and sleep under a roof and people can only do these things when they have a functioning economy. Everything that we value as a society is not possible without an organization of the instruments of production and distribution of goods and services with use-value.
So far, I’m discussing “organization of production and distribution of goods and services with use value,” but what does this have to do with class and class analysis? In particular, what does class have anything to do with it? Where “class” enters into the picture is how society’s productive forces, which are instruments for production and distribution of goods and services with use value, are organized in terms of a social structure of ownership and division of labor, both of which determine whether or not it is a class-structured society. If productive forces are owned by an entire society of people such that the economic and material value of what everyone produces is accumulated and enjoyed by everyone in some way, then such a society more or less lacks a class structure. A proto-communist society (what Marx and Engels called “primitive communism”) such as some (if not all) of the hunting and gathering tribes is an example in which essential tools of labor are shared by a tribe and the proceeds of their labor is reallocated to everyone so an entire tribe can survive. However, if a huge concentration of productive forces are privately owned by a minority group of people (private owners), forcing the rest of the population to exchange their labor with private owners for something of subsistence-value, as long as the majority laborers utilize their labor to produce things with surplus value for private owners to accumulate in the form of private wealth, such a society has a class structure. In other words, if there is a group of people who must work to survive for a group of private owners and a portion of the fruits of their labor is accumulated in the form of private wealth by private owners, it is a class-structured society. All class-structured societies have exploiters and exploited groups. Such groups are social classes. Their class is relational. There can’t be exploited groups without exploiter groups and vice versa. The specific form class structures takes are significantly determined by how well developed or advanced productive forces are in society. A capitalist society is one that has a specific form of class structure different from the class structure of a feudal society. But both have exploited and exploiter groups in which the former utilize its labor to produce some kind of surplus value for the latter.
Whether or not a mode of production has a class structure, there needs to be a mode of production in the first place in order for society to exist. In this sense, a mode of production constitutes a material base of society. A material base is a concrete foundation upon which everything else of society rests upon. Again, the reason why Marxists believe a mode of production constitutes the material base is that without it society can’t exist. Without any way of organizing productive forces for production and distribution of goods and services with use-value, people can’t feed themselves, clothe themselves, shelter themselves, and so on. Every society needs a group of people (usually a majority group) to engage in some form of labor to produce and distribute goods and services so that everyone can survive. Without agriculture, construction, textile industries, a complex supply chain, stores that distribute products through sale, and so on (all of which organizes productive forces to produce and/or distribute things with use-value), there is no food, shelter, clothes, and other necessities people need to survive. Furthermore, when society develops, there is an increasing need for a division of labor in which one group of laborers directly extract resources from nature, another group use their labor to transform raw materials into tangible social goods and services for society to consume, a further group that distributes such goods and services, and so on in order for society to not only survive but develop. This is why a mode of production is understood by Marxists as a material base or a material foundation upon which society rests upon to exist.
If a mode of production is the foundation of society and it happens to be a class-structured mode of production, then the class structure of society that organizes productive forces through ownership relations (property relations), division of labor, and so on constitute the foundation of society as well. If this is the case, then any attempt to understand society, any attempt to understand oppression in society, while leaving class-structure out of the analysis is not only foolish, but it creates a huge hole in one’s analysis. This is why Marxists insist that any attempt to understand race, gender, nationality, religion, and any ascriptive identity requires at least some level of class analysis. But what is the role of language, culture, religion, ethnicity, gender, family, the state, and so on in society? Aren’t those important too?
Many have accused Marxists of economic determinism or the view that the mode of production determines everything else in society such that they are more or less epiphenomenal. However, this is far from true. Friedrich Engels wrote in one of his letters that Historical Materialism allows that everything else in society that depends on the mode of production has some causal efficacy and agency in shaping or influencing the development of a class-structured mode of production. Engels writes:
“According to the materialist conception of history, the ultimately determining element in history is the production and reproduction of real life. Other than this neither Marx nor I have ever asserted. Hence if somebody twists this into saying that the economic element is the only determining one, he transforms that proposition into a meaningless, abstract, senseless phrase. The economic situation is the basis, but the various elements of the superstructure — political forms of the class struggle and its results, to wit: constitutions established by the victorious class after a successful battle, etc., juridical forms, and even the reflexes of all these actual struggles in the brains of the participants, political, juristic, philosophical theories, religious views and their further development into systems of dogmas — also exercise their influence upon the course of the historical struggles and in many cases preponderate in determining their form. There is an interaction of all these elements in which, amid all the endless host of accidents (that is, of things and events whose inner interconnection is so remote or so impossible of proof that we can regard it as non-existent, as negligible), the economic movement finally asserts itself as necessary. Otherwise the application of the theory to any period of history would be easier than the solution of a simple equation of the first degree.
Almost everything that rests upon the mode of production constitutes what Engels calls the superstructure. A superstructure consists of institutions, arts, ideologies, traditions, laws, the state, and so on. Engels emphasizes that a superstructure isn’t epiphenomenal or passive with respect to the material base, but rather it retains its own causal potency and power to influence or shape an economic mode of production. While the mode of production gives rise to the superstructure, the superstructure in turn influences, shapes, reinforces, maintains, and sometimes harms the mode of production that gave rise to it in the first place. For instance, laws passed by the legislative branch of the state can influence what commodities are prohibited from trade, regulate businesses to be healthy and safe for consumers, and guide courts on resolving disputes between capitalists on issues such as copyright rights. Another example is Christmas. Christmas is a holiday tradition in which most western and some non-western capitalist countries celebrate and this holiday is part of the superstructure. Western capitalist societies inherit Christmas from their economic predecessor (i.e., feudalism) where the church and clerical class were part of a feudal landowning class and taught not only Christianity, but carried out the practice of celebrating Christmas. When feudalism more or less experienced decline, capitalism inherited Christmas and now Christmas functions as a holiday when people buy commodities as gifts for their family, friends, romantic partners, and so on. Christmas is part of the superstructure, but it plays a role in increasing profits for capitalists, since it’s a holiday when they’re selling more commodities than other days to consumers.
Overall, the superstructure isn’t an epiphenomenal after-effect of an economic mode of production. On the contrary, the superstructure retains its own causal power or efficacy as if it is its own agent, but it can’t exist without an underlying mode of production. Again, if everyone stops working for an extended period of time until commodities, including ones for subsistence, run out, civic institutions, arts, ideologies, states, and so on lose power because they can only exist when people survive. They acquire their power from an economic mode of production functioning at all. At the same time, in any society with an underlying mode of production that is class-structured, superstructures can’t be understood without any class analysis. Class struggle not only takes place at the level of a mode of production, but it also continues to happen in the level of a superstructure. This conforms to the dialectical view that all things carry within themselves an internal contradiction. Society contains within itself an internal contradiction, the primary contradiction being class. The superstructure too carries an internal contradiction which is a class contradiction between an exploiting class on one hand and an exploited class on the other hand. Under a class structured society such as capitalism, the ruling class, in particular the capitalist exploiters, maintain cultural, ideological, and institutional hegemony over the superstructure. One of the reasons why the capitalist class is called the ruling class by Marxists is that they have cultural, institutional, ideological, and de facto political hegemony at the level of the superstructure. The ruling class under capitalism has an overall hegemony in society precisely because they have a monopoly over the private ownership of productive forces that give them sufficient power to dominate and structure society at the level of the superstructure.
Since the ruling class has sufficient power to dominate and dictate how the superstructure operates, they can introduce many possible building blocks of the superstructure that enable them to maintain their class hegemony. One of the possible building blocks of the superstructure is White Supremacy. But White Supremacy isn’t just a single building block, but a tapestry of building blocks of the superstructure. It contains many buildings blocks such as institutional, ideological, aesthetic, cultural, legal, sociopsychological, and political ones. White Supremacy is constitutive of the bourgeois cultural hegemony under capitalism. But where does it come from? What are its functions? What is White Supremacy exactly? White Supremacy is essentially any ideological, political, aesthetic, legal, civic, sociopsychological, and institutional instrument of the ruling class for class collaboration among social classes of European descendants who would be classified as “white.” White supremacy presupposes an essentialist racial classification, an ideological and social bourgeois construct, so that social classes of one race, in particular the white race, collaborate together where the ruling class is positioned at the epicenter of class collaboration.
However, one of the insights of Marxism is that while social classes can and do collaborate together, such collaboration can’t constitute a natural and permanent alliance because there is no equilibrium or balance between exploited and exploiting classes. There is always an underlying class antagonism at the subterranean level of class collaboration. It is like an underground volcano that is about to erupt at any moment. So how can the ruling class ensure that class antagonism that exists between exploited and exploiting classes is controlled and suppressed? White supremacy qua class collaboration is not only collaboration on various social classes based on their perceived shared race, but it is also class collaboration against a perceived common threat. One seemingly unrelated theory (and it’ll be clear why it’s actually relevant) discussed by Tommy J. Curry is the social dominance theory in which in-group males and females perceive out-group males as a cultural and biological threat. The out-group males are targeted by ingroup males and females. The effect is that the social cohesion of the in-group retains its integrity because of a perceived common threat. Curry applies Social Dominance Theory to explain how black men, out-group males, are targeted by white people, in-group males and females, because black men as an out-group is perceived as a common threat to white people.
Curry’s discussion on the application of social dominance to explain racial oppression contains insights that Marxist theorists can use to understand the mechanism of white supremacy as a form of class collaboration. In particular, among the various social classes (exploited and exploiter classes) of European-descended peoples, the ruling class of the group uses the racial classification system to classify various social classes of European-descended people under the same race “white” as an in-group as a groundwork for class collaboration. By creating an in-group as a groundwork for class collaboration, the European-descended ruling class also creates an out-group of different groups, classified under races other than white. This bourgeois creation of a racialized dynamic in-group and out-group gives the ruling class of European descended people, classified as “white,” superstructural class power to trigger class collaboration of social classes of “white” people against a racialized out-group (especially racialized out-group males). White supremacy is dialectical insofar as it necessarily involves a contradiction between an in-group and out-group, based on a bourgeois racial classification system. The racial contradiction between an in-group and out-group is a bourgeois artifact that creates an artificial social cohesion within a “white” in-group, which in turn suppresses a dormant class antagonism between exploited and exploiting classes of the “white” in-group, while at the same time dehumanizes a racialized out-group as a “subhuman” threat. It is precisely by dehumanizing a racialized out-group, especially racialized out-group males as Curry points out, that triggers class collaboration among exploited and exploiting classes of the “white” in-group in order to create an artificial social cohesion that suppresses an underlying and dormant class antagonism between them. Ultimately, white supremacy renders class antagonism dormant in order to prevent class solidarity among all working class communities.
How does the perpetuation of racial antagonism occur? Again, recall that I said that white supremacy is superstructural. White supremacy involves civic institutions, ideologies, aesthetics, the state, laws, and so on to maintain class collaboration among social classes of the white in-group against dehumanized and racialized out-groups. The superstructure of white supremacy gives the white ruling class power to maintain its ruling class hegemony. Concretely, this means criminal “justice” system, implicit racialist ideologies propagated by bourgeois propaganda, discriminatory practices in housing industry, and so on are all superstructural phenomena that function to dehumanize a racialized outgroup to trigger class collaboration among various social classes of the white in-group in order to render class antagonism and class solidarity among all working class communities dormant. In the final analysis, it is the capitalist white ruling class who benefits most from white supremacy.
White supremacy as a superstructure helps maintain the capitalist mode of production. It originally functions to maintain the slavery mode of production that mingles or mesh with the developing capitalist mode of production in United States as well as facilitate settler-colonial expansion (this is something Gerald Horne discusses) against indigenous peoples. It originally contributed to the development of capitalism in a heterogeneous early settler slave-owning capitalist society, but now it primarily maintains class hegemony of the ruling class over a capitalist system. In essence, white supremacy has a singular class character: it is bourgeois through and through.
What Marxists believe is that it is only the revolutionary proletariat who overthrows the bourgeoisie and establishes political supremacy of the proletariat (e.g. also known as “dictatorship of the proletariat”) that can deliver the final death blow against white supremacy. A revolutionary proletariat that establishes its own state power for the toiling and laboring masses smashes the bourgeois state machinery as well as other bourgeois institutions to undermine the underlying superstructural basis for white supremacy. Overall, white supremacy loses institutional and systemic power because the revolutionary proletariat smashes the state and institutional machinery. It is only through a socialist revolution, participated by working class communities of all races, on par with the Rainbow Coalition led by Fred Hampton, that can take down white supremacy.
Paul So is a graduate student who studies philosophy in a PhD program at University of California Santa Barbara. While Paul’s research interests mostly lie within the tradition of Analytic Philosophy (e.g. Philosophy of Mind and Meta-Ethics), he recently developed a strong passion in Marxism as his newfound research interest. He is particularly interested in dialectical materialism, historical materialism, and imperialism.