What do Marxists say about Oppression?

Neil Faulkner looks at how Marxism understands oppression, as well as how it differs from, but interacts with exploitation. And how both are fundamental to capitalism.

26 July 2020


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Exploitation can be defined as the extraction of surplus wealth from the working population by a ruling class. It involves both an economic process—the appropriation and accumulation of surplus—and a social relationship—between a powerful minority and a subordinate majority in which the former expropriates the fruits of the latter’s labour. Class arises from such processes and relationships.

What about oppression? The words ‘exploitation’ and ‘oppression’ are sometimes used casually, even interchangeably, without defined meaning. They should not be: imprecise terminology reflects theoretical confusion and leads to political muddles. We need to understand the world if we are to organise to change it.

Oppression is systematic discrimination against a distinct social group on the basis of gender, race, religion, nationality, tribe, sexual orientation, disability, age, or any other real or imagined common characteristic. In an institutional form, it involves unequal access to social opportunities—jobs, careers, homes, education, healthcare, welfare benefits, and so on—when the enforcers are usually employers, officials, and police. But it also takes the form of prejudice, abuse, and violence at the hands of police, employers, state officials, fascist groups, and ordinary people influenced by reactionary ideas—ideas spread by the media, religious bigots, and right-wing politicians.

Exploitation and oppression are conceptually quite distinct. All workers in capitalist society are exploited, irrespective of whether or not they belong to an oppressed group. Some capitalists, on the other hand, may belong to an oppressed group, even though they are exploiters. The intersection of exploitation and oppression can therefore be sociologically complex. But this broad generalisation holds: the more oppressed a social group, the more likely it is to experience extreme forms of exploitation. And common identity as an oppressed group can make it easier to bind people together and build collective organisation. The dual experience of oppression and exploitation can then be explosive.

But why does oppression arise at all? Many modern societies adhere to an official ideology that proclaims equal rights. Many have laws making discrimination illegal. Yet oppression persists. Why is this?

Just as the rate of exploitation varies—largely according to the degree to which workers organise and fight back – so too does the intensity of oppression. Past victories over sexism and racism may be enshrined in anti-discrimination laws and reflected in changing social attitudes and practices. The gains are real, but they remain in danger of being rolled back, and they are rarely absolute. That is because oppression is hard-wired into the matrix of capitalist society as surely as exploitation is hard-wired into the workings of the capitalist economy. Here is why.

Capitalism is a process of accumulation that siphons the wealth created by society as a whole to a minority at the top. It is based upon the expropriation of the many by the few. Its operations are chaotic, unplanned, indifferent to social need, devoid of social purpose. It creates a dystopian world of grotesque greed based on alienated labour and mass impoverishment.

This would be unsustainable if the common people understood their condition and united to overthrow the rich. The great radical poet Percy Bysshe Shelley captured it beautifully in The Mask of Anarchy (1819), written after the Peterloo Massacre, in which mounted yeomanry attacked a pro-democracy demonstration in Manchester, killing 15 people.

Rise, like lions after slumber

In unvanquishable number!

Shake your chains to earth like dew

Which in sleep had fallen on you;

Ye are many – they are few!

What is the essential lesson here? It is that the stability of any class society—that is, any society based upon the exploitation of the many by the few—requires that the masses be divided against themselves, lest they unite against their rulers. Sexism, racism, and other forms of oppression have an essential social function: to obscure the primary fracture-line in society—that between rich and poor—by interposing various secondary differences and gradations, so as to prevent the formation of a united popular movement from below against the system as a whole.

These differences and gradations are real enough, but their effect is to lock down the overarching system of exploitation. Take the example of Northern Ireland during the Troubles. The Catholic minority was the victim of institutionalised discrimination. The Protestant majority—the rich, the middle class, and the workers—were united in their support of this set-up. Discrimination meant that, if you were Protestant, you were more likely to have a job, a council house, and decent local services. But the effect of the sectarian division of the working class was to cripple its ability to fight for general social improvement, so that Northern Irish workers—Catholic and Protestant—were the poorest in the United Kingdom. Eamonn McCann, a leading activist in the Civil Rights Movement, put it succinctly:

The fact that, from the Protestant worker’s point of view, the privilege is pretty small, matters not at all. When tuppence-halfpenny is looking down on tuppence, the halfpenny difference can assume an importance out of all proportion to its actual size.

This is not to imply that social division is the result of a deliberate conspiracy on the part of the ruling class. History is a messy process of muddling through. What actually happens is that existing fractures—historically determined differences between the social groups living within the territory of any particular state—are reconfigured according to circumstances by a range of social institutions and ideological mechanisms embedded in the status quo. Old form thereby acquires new content.

This becomes clear as soon as we consider the diverse character of intra-communal strife in the modern world—and the speed and ease with which the targets of vilification and hatred can change. What is constant is the system’s need to disorient and disorganise the masses: what varies is the specific form this takes at any moment.

The racism of the Turkish state, for example, has taken three main forms over the last century—anti-Armenian, anti-Greek, and anti-Kurdish—with the focus changing with circumstances. The main division in the modern Middle East is not racial, but religious. Sunni-Islamic fascists target Shias, Sufis, Christians, and other religious minorities. In India, too, religion has traditionally provided the main fracture-line, with political elites fostering Hindu‒Muslim ‘communal’ pogroms. British racism was mainly anti-Irish in the nineteenth century, mainly anti-semitic in the early twentieth century, mainly anti-black and anti-Asian in the late twentieth century, and is now mainly anti-migrant (especially anti-East European) and anti-Muslim.


Often enough, the targets are multiple. Fascism—in both its Western and Islamic forms—tends to target a range of ethnic and religious minorities, and, at the same time, to direct misogynistic attacks on women and homophobic attacks on LGBT people.

There are three main responses to oppression. First, people may simply be cowed into submission and resign themselves to discrimination and prejudice. Second, people may seek acceptance and advancement within the existing set-up on an individual basis, realising that they will face obstacles on the way, but nonetheless seeking conventional ‘middle class’ success in the sense allowed and defined by the system. Or third, people may fight back. This typically involves a proud assertion of identity, the creation of an affirmative subculture, and the building of collective organisations of resistance.

Struggles against oppression can degenerate into ‘identity politics’ and/or ‘separatism’. Both are dead-ends. They represent an inversion of the dominant ideology of division—black against white, women against men, LGBT against straight, Muslim against Christian, Kurd against Turk. They tend to reflect the interests of a middle-class minority among the oppressed who seek individual advancement within capitalist society, not collective action to achieve social transformation. There is nothing very radical about demanding an equal chance to become rich.

Throughout history, the oppressed have won their greatest victories by rejecting the divisive categories of the system, asserting the common humanity of all, inviting the solidarity of other groups, and engaging in mass united struggle from below.

This article has been adapted from Neil Faulkner’s Radical History of the World (Pluto Press).


Neil Faulkner is the author of A Radical History of the World and a co-author of Creeping Fascism: what it is and how to fight it.

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