Why Socialists Care About Non Economic Issues

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.

Bibliography

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.

Despair and Being a Feminist

One of the consequences of trying to explain feminism to strangers on the internet is having to deal with a lot of backlash from people who are stuck on autopilot and repeat their anti-feminist or anti-identity politics script, rather than actually engage with what you’ve written. I have to remind myself that if it was easy then patriarchy would have already been abolished.

These experiences of knee-jerk reactions to feminism leads to despair and anguish as I find it difficult to deal with the hostility that people have towards the most basic commitment to genuine human liberation.

To recover from all of this despair I like to read Emma Goldman because I think we can all learn from her remarkable capacity to give zero fucks.  Emma Goldman had to deal with vast amounts of bullshit when she actively supported queer liberation by giving talks on homosexuality and campaigning for Oscar Wild’s freedom when he was imprisoned for having sex with a man. In her autobiography ‘Living My Life’ Goldman writes:

Censorship came from some of my own comrades because I was treating such ‘unnatural’ themes as homosexuality. Anarchism was already enough misunderstood, and anarchists considered depraved; it was inadvisable to add to the misconceptions by taking up perverted sex-forms, they argued. Believing in freedom of opinion, even if it went against me, I minded the censors in my own ranks as little as I did those in the enemy’s camp. In fact, censorship from comrades had the same effect on me as police persecution; it made me surer of myself, more determined to plead for every victim, be it one of social wrong or of moral prejudice.

The men and women who used to come to see me after my lectures on homosexuality, and who confided to me their anguish and their isolation, were often of finer grain than those who had cast them out. Most of them had reached an adequate understanding of their differentiation only after years of struggle to stifle what they had considered a disease and a shameful affliction. One young woman confessed to me that in the twenty-five years of her life she had never known a day when the nearness of a man, her own father and brothers even, did not make her ill. The more she had tried to respond to sexual approach, the more repugnant men became to her. She had hated herself, she said, because she could not love her father and her brothers as she loved her mother. She suffered excruciating remorse, but her revulsion only increased. At the age of eighteen she had accepted an offer of marriage in the hope that a long engagement might help her grow accustomed to a man and cure her of her ‘disease.’ It turned out a ghastly failure and nearly drove her insane. She could not face marriage and she dared not confide in her fiancé or friends. She had never met anyone, she told me, who suffered from a similar affliction, nor had she ever read books dealing with the subject. My lecture had set her free; I had given her back her self-respect.

This woman was only one of the many who sought me out. Their pitiful stories made the social ostracism of the invert seem more dreadful than I had ever realized before. To me anarchism was not a mere theory for a distant future; it was a living influence to free us from inhibitions, internal no less than external, and from the destructive barriers that separate man from man. (Goldman 1970, 555-6)

What I get from this passage is that it is important to remember that we’re not alone in this struggle. So many amazing people before us have fought so hard for feminism and if they could then we can too. We should focus less on the terrible anti-feminism that pervades the internet and society at large. Instead we should remind ourselves of all the gender queer people who have not killed themselves because of feminism, or of all the men who have re-connected with their emotions due to feminism, or all the women who have learned to better accept their bodies due to feminism, or all the women who have embraced their sexuality or discovered their true intellectual worth due to feminism, or all the women who have been able to flee abusive relationships because of feminist run shelters. It is these stories of people liberating themselves from both internal and external forms of oppression that we should fill our consciousnesses with and use them as a source of nourishment in the struggles to come.

Bibliography 

Goldman, Emma. 1970. Living My Life Volume 2. New York: Dover Publications.