Contemporary socialists generally advocate both the abolition of capitalism and the abolition of other oppressive structures which are not strictly economic, such as sexism, racism, ableism and queerphobia. This raises the question: why should socialists place importance on abolishing non-economic forms of oppression? Isn’t socialism just meant to focus on class struggle?
A common answer to this question is that non-economic and economic struggles are inherently connected because capitalism reproduces itself through racism, sexism and so on. For example, capitalists divide the working class by pitting white workers against black workers and thereby prevent the working class from becoming a united bloc capable of emancipating itself. Or capitalists rely on the gender pay gap to pay women workers less and thereby increase their exploitation of the working class. Given this, if socialists are to abolish capitalism then they must fight the non-economic forms of oppression which capitalism reproduces itself through. This answer is correct to point to the ways in which different systems of oppression are interconnected. It however goes wrong in both viewing socialism as intrinsically valuable and in conceptualising the abolition of other forms of oppression as being mere means to achieve the end of socialism.
Socialist authors do not after all argue that we should achieve a socialist society because of its intrinsic value. Instead they argue that human beings should be free to engage in self-directed activity and thereby develop themselves as individuals. For Mikhail Bakunin, freedom meant “the full development of all the material, intellectual and moral powers which are found in the form of latent capabilities in every individual.” (Bakunin 1973, 196) Rudolf Rocker likewise held that, “freedom is not an abstract philosophical concept, but the vital concrete possibility for every human being to bring to full development all the powers, capacities, and talents with which nature has endowed him, and turn them to social account.” (Rocker 2004, 16)
The free and harmonious development of human beings was taken by socialists to be incompatible with a capitalist society because it is a social system in which, to quote Errico Malatesta, “a few individuals have hoarded the land and all the instruments of production and can impose their will on the workers, in such a fashion that instead of producing to satisfy people’s needs and with these needs in view, production is geared towards making a profit for the employers.” (Malatesta 2005, 32) For Emma Goldman this social system “condemns millions of people to be mere nonentities, living corpses without originality or power of initiative, human machines of flesh and blood who pile up mountains of wealth for others and pay for it with a gray, dull, and wretched existence for themselves.” (Goldman 1996, 50). The wage labourer, as Marx argued, “does not confirm himself in his work, he denies himself, feels miserable instead of happy, deploys no free physical and intellectual energy, but mortifies his body and ruins his mind.” (Marx 2000, 88)
The achievement of true human development therefore requires the abolition of capitalism. Its replacement, socialism, is to be a society in which the communal ownership of the means of production provides each individual with the real possibility to flourish. In Henri Saint-Simon’s words the goal of socialism is “to afford to all members of society the greatest possible opportunity for the development of their faculties.” (Quoted in Lebowitz 2006, 13) Or as Bakunin phrased it, the goal of the socialist revolution is to “ensure that all who are born on this earth become fully human in the fullest sense of the word, that all should have not just the right but the means necessary to develop their faculties, to be free and happy, in equality and through fraternity!” (Bakunin 2016, 100)
This same emphasis on human development can be seen in Marx and Engels. Engels writes in his Draft of a Communist Confession of Faith that the aim of a communist society is “[t]o organise society in such a way that every member of it can develop and use all his capabilities and powers in complete freedom and without thereby infringing the basic conditions of this society.” (Engels 1847) This was re-formulated in the Communist Manifesto as the notion that communism is “an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.” (Marx and Engels 2008, 66) Communism is a society in which, as Marx wrote in the Grundrisse, the “development of all human powers as such [is] the end in itself” since each individual is able to achieve the “absolute working-out of his creative potentialities”. (Marx 1993, 488)
If human development is at the core of why socialists advocate the abolition of capitalism in favour of socialism, then it follows that the actual reason why socialists should advocate and engage in the abolition of non-economic forms of oppression is that doing so enables real human beings to develop themselves more fully. Racism, sexism, queerphobia and ableism not only maintain or interact with capitalism but also stifle human development in just the same way that capitalism does. The socialist objection to racism therefore is not only that it prevents working class unity but also that a pre-condition for the human development of people of colour is them not being subordinated and marginalised on the basis of their skin colour. Or socialists should oppose queerphobia because a pre-condition for the human development of queers is them being free to develop themselves as sexual and gendered beings, rather than being forced by bigotry to suppress and attack a core aspect of their humanity. Marx famously defined the “true realm of freedom” as the “development of human powers as an end in itself” and this realm cannot be said to exist if it does not include the development of gay powers and the satisfaction of gay needs. (Marx 1991, 959) The consequence of this is that unless socialists abolish non-economic forms of oppression then they will never achieve their actual main goals of human emancipation and human development. Non-economic issues are, far from being unrelated to socialist politics, absolutely integral to it.
Bakunin, Michael. 1973. Michael Bakunin: Selected Writings. Edited by Arthur Lehning. London: Jonathan Cape.
Bakunin, Michael. 2016. Bakunin: Selected Texts 1868-1875. Edited by A W Zurbrugg. London: Anarres Editions.
Engels, Friedrich. 1847. Draft of a Communist Confession of Faith.
Goldman, Emma. 1996. Red Emma Speaks: An Emma Goldman Reader, 3rd Edition. New Jersey: Humanities Press.
Lebowitz, Michael. 2006. Build It Now: Socialism for the Twenty-First Century. Monthly Review Press.
Malatesta, Errico. 2005. At The Café: Conversations on Anarchism. London: Freedom Press
Marx, Karl. 1991. Capital Volume 3. London: Penguin Books.
Marx, Karl. 1993. Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy (Rough Draft). London: Penguin Books.
Marx, Karl. 2000. Selected Writings. Edited by David McLellan. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Marx, Karl, and Engels, Friedrich. 2008. The Manifesto of the Communist Party. Pluto Press.
Rocker, Rudolf. 2004. Anarcho-Syndicalism: Theory and Practice. Oakland, CA: AK Press.