It has become fashionable for Marxists today to accept whatever radical bourgeois academia crops up for analyzing different forms of 'oppression,' e.g., intersectionality, critical race theory, etc. As I have argued before, however, all of these deviations are antithetical to the essence of Marxism - the class struggle. Some Marxists theorists such as G. A. Cohen and the school of analytic Marxism would lean towards the view that the development of productive forces is the motor of change in societies (also known as “Technological Determinism ''). Although this view would similarly reject these new bourgeois inventions, it is still a deviation from the class struggle. In our age, the central theoretician for the Marxist theory of class struggle is Domenico Losurdo. While many Marxists have the tendency to conceptualize class struggle in its idealized and pure form (e.g., proletariat vs. bourgeoisie), Lusordo’s novel contribution lies in his more concrete understanding of class struggle involving many different contradictions (social conflicts) beside class proper. The contradictions Losurdo observed beside class proper are national oppression and patriarchal oppression.
Losurdo believes that these contradictions are not incidentally related to class struggle, but rather their relationship to class struggle is as a species of class struggle. Losurdo explains that national oppression and patriarchal oppression both involve the contradiction between exploiters and exploited. National oppression tends to involve the oppressor nation exploiting the oppressed nation through colonization; the oppressed nation produces surplus goods expropriated by the oppressor nation. Patriarchal oppression tends to involve the dominant gender (man) exploiting the subordinate gender (women) by expropriating the surplus value of a woman’s domestic labor; such patriarchal oppression begins in the formation and perpetuation of the monogamous family in which the patriarch resembles the bourgeoisie and the mother (and her children) resemble the proletariat. Losurdo also discusses racial oppression, but in some contexts, he treats it as akin to national oppression and in other contexts he treats it as if it’s separate from national oppression.
Lusordo’s genus-species model is that different forms of oppression that seem independent of class struggle are actually species of class struggle. Class struggle is the genus that includes various forms of oppression as species. Why? Because these species of class struggle involve the same kind of contradiction as class struggle: exploiters vs. exploited. Losurdo proceeds to provide textual and historical evidence to support his claim that his theory isn’t entirely novel, but rather his theory can be supported by the writings and actions of Marx and Engels. The suggestion is that Marx and Engels’ theory of class struggle is basically the same as Lusordo’s, but unlike Losurdo they never formulated the theory of class struggle.
I won’t go into the details of Lusordo’s argument where he provides textual evidence to support his claim. Rather, I’ll proceed to outline a theory of class struggle based on Losurdo’s work. I’ll begin with Lusordo’s genus-species model of class struggle. While Lusordo’s model has strong merits, I want to add more to his model that I personally believe would improve it. In particular, while I agree with Losurdo that class contradictions like national oppression and patriarchal oppression are species of class struggle, I wish to add more. Each species of class struggle shouldn’t be understood in isolation from one another, but rather they bear multiple relations to one another. One of the relations is that one species of class struggle can generate another species of class struggle. Furthermore, a species of class struggle creates a system of oppression that maintains it.
Lusordo’s implicit explanation seems to be that national oppression and patriarchal oppression are species of class struggle because they essentially have the same kind of contradiction as that of class struggle: exploiter vs. exploited. An exploiter expropriates goods with surplus value produced by the exploited. This pattern appears in both national oppression and patriarchal oppression. I believe Losurdo is essentially correct here, but I believe more needs to be added. Specifically, species of class struggle bear complex relationships with one another in which they’re interrelated. One relation that will be the focus of my essay is that one species of class struggle can generate another species of class struggle.
Let’s consider patriarchal oppression first. Engels wrote a book Origin of the Family, Private Property, and State gives an account for how the patriarchal monogamous family emerged. To summarize Engels’s argument briefly (and crudely), Engels argues that the patriarchal monogamous family emerged due to the emergence of private property. A monogamous family functions as a social mechanism to pass on private property from one owner to a prospective owner through inheritance. This social mechanism privileged one gender (men) over another (women) by giving one gender property rights. This also subordinates women in the monogamous family to the patriarch because they depend on the patriarch’s property to live. Furthermore, women were used by their own family to marry the patriarch in order to acquire some property. Women are basically sold to patriarchs to engage in domestic labor for the patriarch. In exchange, a woman’s family receives some property from the patriarch and a woman is guaranteed a livelihood under the patriarch’s household.
Marx and Engels consider patriarchal oppression to be the first instance of class struggle. Why? Because the monogamous family dispossesses women of property while establishing private property relations for the male patriarch. The male patriarch owns his property including the tools and instruments of domestic labor that a woman uses. A woman produces some surplus value over and above necessary value expropriated by the male patriarch. The practice of the male patriarch’s property passing on to his male heir rather than a non-male heir reproduces the patriarchal social relation in which a male patriarch owns the property and his female counterpart remains perpetually dispossessed. This not only instantiates an exploiter vs. exploited dynamic in which the exploiter subjugates the exploited in order to expropriate surplus value produced by the exploited, but it is the first kind of exploiter-exploited contradiction. Marx and Engels argue that this first kind of exploited vs. exploiter contradiction is a germ for ancient slavery. This first species of class struggle generated another species of class struggle: slavery. Ancient slavery inherits the exploiter vs. exploited dynamic from the patriarchal exploitation.
Just as ancient slavey inherited the exploiter vs. exploited dynamic from patriarch exploitation, the same can be said for national oppression and racial oppression with regard to class struggle between social classes. The ruling class of the dominant nation wishes to expropriate more surplus value than they’re expropriating from laborers in their home country, so they use their exploited members of their nation to dominate other nations in order to expropriate more surplus value from newly subordinated nations. Such is the case for the relationship between the British Empire and Ireland. The British Empire, spearheaded by the aristocracy and bourgeoisie, used the English working class to subordinate the Irish people in order to expropriate their land and surplus value. Marx and Engels point out that this colonial relationship will continue as long as the English working class remain subordinated and manipulated by the English aristocracy and bourgeoisie. Notice that national oppression didn’t simply emerge independently of class struggle, but the mechanism of its emergence is class struggle. Since the English aristocracy and bourgeoisie already subordinate the English working class through class dominance, they are able to use this class dynamic to their advantage by expanding to Ireland in order to colonize it. The class contradiction in England generated another species of class contradiction, national oppression, which also inherited the exploiter vs. exploited dynamic from it.
Racial oppression is roughly similar. Racial oppression emerged in the context of class struggle. How? For instance, the ruling class needed more labor in order to maintain and grow their newly found colonies in colonial America. But they don’t have enough supply of such labor in Europe. At most they can acquire more European indentured servants, but the supply of indentured servants isn’t in abundance. Their alternative is to find a supply of labor in the existing slave market in West Africa. They bought slaves as well as captured slaves from West Africa to bring an abundant supply of labor to their new colonies through the transatlantic slave trade. This new supply of slaves preserved and strengthened their colonies as well as their class dominance. This is literally an instance of class struggle that involves a contradiction between one social class (bourgeois slave owners) and another social class (slaves). But this particular class contradiction gave rise to racial oppression. Originally, racial oppression in colonial America (and eventually United States before the abolition of slavery) almost completely overlapped with class struggle between the slave owners and slaves. It developed in the context of class struggle between slave owners and slaves and it was used to maintain this class dynamic (e.g. lynching, slave patrols, banning literacy, torture, and so on). But racial oppression acquired some relative (not absolute) independence from class struggle proper. Even after slavery was abolished, racial oppression no longer functions to maintain slavery, but rather to maintain super-exploitation and underdevelopment of black laborers. The overall point is that racial oppression can’t be separated from class struggle because it exists due largely in part to one form of class struggle (e.g. early bourgeoisie who own colonial territory including plantations vs. indentured servants and other laborers) generating another form of class struggle (e.g. slave owners vs. slaves).
So far I spoke about various forms of oppression: national oppression, patriarchal oppression, and racial oppression. I explained how they’re not only different species of class struggle, they either generate a new species of class struggle (e.g. patriarchal oppression generating ancient slavery) or they’re generated by a species of class struggle. But there are other forms of oppression that I haven’t discussed.
For instance, what about oppression of LGBTQ+ people? How does their oppression involve the exploiter-exploited contradiction and how does this contradiction emerge in the context of class struggle? Before I answer these questions, I like to remind my readers that this essay puts forward a rough outline of the theory of class struggle rather than a mature and developed theory. One possible answer (known among Marxist theoreticians) is that the function of the oppression of LGBTQ+ is to maintain the patriarchal monogamous family which in turn has an importance under capitalism. While the patriarchal monogamous family goes all the way back to slavery, it eventually acquired a new role under capitalism. In particular, its role was to provide a supply of a reserve army of labor through reproduction. A woman’s role in the monogamous family was to provide reproductive and domestic labor rather than to sell her labor power in the market while a man’s role was to provide for the family by selling his labor power in the market for a wage that can sustain his family. The monogamous family under capitalism continued to delineate gender roles that had to be maintained to replenish and grow the reserve army of labor through reproduction. One of the way this is maintained is to oppress LGBTQ+ people in order to “keep them in line.” But as the productive forces become advanced and automated such that a supply of labor power isn’t a high demand like it once a generation ago, the traditional monogamous family is slowly becoming obsolete and LGBTQ+ are experiencing an unprecedented degree freedom (though they’re still very much oppressed in a variety of of ways). Again, this is just one possible answer.
What about people with disabilities and elderly people? Again, like the previous oppression, there is no definitive answer to this yet, but one possible answer is that capitalism favors workers whose physical and mental labor power can produce or facilitate the production of commodities with embodied surplus value. The bourgeoisie has a standard of what constitutes a laborer being physically and mentally fit in order to buy mental & physical labor power the bourgeoisie consider to be reliable. This is not a perfect answer, but the purpose of this paper is to demonstrate the explanatory power of the theory of class struggle that I’m putting forward in this essay.
These different forms of oppression emerged in the context of class struggle proper. They inherited the exploiter-exploited relationship from class struggle proper. In this respect, class struggle is fundamental to various forms of oppression that we normally don’t classify as class struggle due to the dominant liberal ideology. What is this dominant liberal ideology? It presents various forms of oppression as more or less independent lanes that incidentally intersect with one another and inadvertently treats class as one among many lanes which intersect with them. Class under this dominant liberal model has no special place. A Marxist should reject the dominant liberal ideology in favor of the theory of class struggle. Why? Because it provides a theoretical and ideological basis for class solidarity among workers. The dominant liberal ideology insinuates a pessimistic message that workers are in a perpetual antagonistic relationship with one another which can’t be resolved. But there is a potential for class solidarity among them because they all are exploited in a variety of ways throughout the complex history of class struggle. Many of the social divisions that exist among them can be ultimately traced back to the long history of class struggle that even precedes industrial capitalism. These social contradictions exist ultimately to maintain the class dominance of the exploiters…in particular the imperialistic bourgeoisie who own cartels as shareholders.
The theory of class struggle I outlined so far is a rough outline. It is far from mature and well developed. I mostly wrote this essay as a starting point before it (hopefully) reaches the peak of its development and maturity. What prompted me to write this essay is that I realize many people who call themselves Marxists still underestimate the importance of class struggle in understanding various forms of oppression because of their implicit embrace of the dominant liberal ideology under the guise of social justice. So I thought it’s important to outline this theory to help my readers understand not only the importance, but also the theoretical and ideological necessity to displace liberalism with Marxism.
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.