Friday, September 6, 2013
Lenin on the question of oppression, working class unity, and the process of engaging with the justified distrust that oppressed people feel towards those of the oppressor social group
I've been thinking a lot about the question of what it actually takes to build a truly united, multiracial, multigender, multi-all-forms-of-oppression, movement that is truly based in genuine solidarity and the collective striving toward mutual emancipation from exploitation and oppression.
It is of course an understatement to say that this is a very difficult task. This is precisely because capitalist society is so effective at dividing the working class and creating definite strata within the working class along the lines of various forms of social oppression. Black workers are invariably subjected to racist attitudes by white workers, and likewise between men and women, and so on. The distrust that exists within the minds of oppressed groups towards those of the oppressor social group -- regardless of class -- are quite real, and frankly understandable, in a strictly logical sense, because of the foregoing.
Thus, the task of establishing unity between oppressed groups as part of a larger united working class struggle for the abolition of capitalism presents very difficult challenges.
In particular, the question of building a revolutionary organization along these lines can be immensely confounding. Indeed, history is littered with social movements, revolutions, and even mass revolutionary parties which have foundered precisely on this contradiction; the contradiction between the needs of unity of the entire working class, and the immense enmity and suspicion which exists between them at present because of capitalist social relations.
Oftentimes, trust will breakdown between comrades within a group or social movement over this issue, with oppressed people feeling slighted, marginalized, or not taken sufficiently seriously.
First of all, I want to say that I actually don't think this is ultimately a matter of individuals being racist or sexist [though that certainly can and does happen on the left and even within revolutionary organizations].
I also don't think that racism or sexism or really, by definition, any form of oppression, in general -- as social constructions -- are the product of any one individual's attitudes. Rather, it is a product of the ensemble of social relations which obtain under capitalism.
Yet, the fact is that this oppression does exist, is real, and permeates virtually all of our relations within the system. Inequality exists between various strata of the working class due to this oppression -- in terms of their opportunity, livelihoods, well-beings -- which then in turn impacts oppressed people's sense of confidence and self-worth, etc., especially in relation to those strata of the working class which rest above them (not even to mention in relation to the upper classes of the dominant social group).
As I sometimes do, I decided to see what comrade V.I. Lenin may have to say on the matter. Now, I don't think that Lenin (or anyone for that matter), was an infallible genius or other such nonsense who always has the "correct" thing to say on every matter.
Nonetheless, I do think on this particular question he offers some important insights.
In particular, I was reading Lenin on the question of the relations between ethnically dominant Russian comrades and proletarians, on the one hand, and those of the oppressed nationalities within the former Tasrist Russian Empire, on the other. And I think he makes some important arguments in terms of the process of what it takes to overcome the distrust that oppressed people feel towards those of the dominant "oppressor" social group or nation as a result of historical and continued injustices to which they've been subjected.
He starts by talking about the difference between the nationalism of the oppressor nation and the nationalism of the oppressed nation. By this he means, for instance, the difference between the national pride expressed by Iraqi people fighting against the invasion and occupation of their nation by the U.S., and the patriotism of those in the U.S. waving the American flag as bombs were being dropped on Iraq.
He writes, "In respect of the second kind of nationalism we, nationals of a big nation, have nearly always been guilty, in historic practice, of an infinite number of cases of violence; furthermore, we commit violence and insult an infinite number of times without noticing it.... That is why internationalism on the part of oppressors or "great" nations, as they are called (though they are great only in their violence, only great as bullies), must consist not only in the observance of the formal equality of nations but even in an inequality of the oppressor nation, the great nation, that must make up for the inequality which obtains in actual practice." [All italics here and below are mine].
He continues: "What is important for the proletarian? For the proletarian it is not only important, it is absolutely essential that he should be assured that the non-Russians place the greatest possible trust in the proletarian class struggle. What is needed to ensure this? Not merely formal equality. In one way or another, by one's attitude or by concessions, it is necessary to compensate the non-Russian for the lack of trust, for the suspicion and the insults to which the government of the "dominant" nation subjected them in the past."
Now, if we take the discussion around national oppression and apply it to the question of racial oppression, or potentially even other or all forms of social oppression, we can gain insight from his argument that "nothing holds up the development and strengthening of proletarian class solidarity so much as national injustice; "offended" nationals are not sensitive to anything so much as to the feeling of equality and the violation of this equality, if only through negligence or jest- to the violation of that equality by their proletarian comrades. That is why in this case it is better to over-do rather than undergo the concessions and leniency towards the national minorities. That is why, in this case, the fundamental interest of proletarian class struggle, requires that we never adopt a formal attitude to the national question, but always take into account the specific attitude of the proletarian of the oppressed (or small) nation towards the oppressor (or great) nation."
Finally, he concludes, "It would be unpardonable opportunism if, on the eve of debut of the East, just as it is awakening, we undermined our prestige with its peoples, even if only by the slightest crudity or injustice towards our own non-Russian nationalities. The need to rally against the imperialists of the West, who are defending the capitalist world, is one thing. There can be no doubt about that and it would be superfluous for me to speak about my unconditional approval of it. It is another thing when we ourselves lapse, even if only in trifles, into imperialist attitudes towards oppressed nationalities, thus undermining all our principled sincerity, all our principled defence of the struggle against imperialism."
[Interestingly, and I think appropriately, the book I have in which I was originally reading this piece, "Lenin's Final Fight 1922-23," concludes this chapter with an addendum written by Lenin in which he criticizes Stalin for simply being too rude and insufficiently considerate and polite in his dealings with comrades. Now this is not to say AT ALL that comrades or fellow activists who act in a rude or impolite manner are the future Stalins of the world. This would be obviously preposterous. But I just think it's noteworthy nonetheless that this question of "comradely relations", so to speak, is something that Lenin was aware of].
Anyway, these are just some things I've been thinking about. I am aware that Lenin is writing about a specific set of conditions at a specific moment. I do not think the USA of the early 21st century is the exact same as the Russia of the early 20th century.
Nonetheless, I think we would do well to study past revolutions, especially ones that achieved even momentary or partial victories, and tease out what is of enduring usefulness.
I think we are also at a critical juncture right now to specifically address the question of building a united, working class movement that is allied and even embodies the struggle against all forms of oppression. Black people in the U.S. today face horrific levels of poverty, violence, inequality, racial prejudice, and -- what's more -- are radicalizing and beginning to fight back in an increasingly deliberate way around these things [i.e., Stop and Frisk, police violence, Dream Defenders, Trayvon Martin, mass incarceration, etc.]
Likewise, a new generation of young women are radicalizing and beginning to fight back against the scourge of rape, sexual violence, inequality, and discrimination [i.e., SlutWalk, Steubenville, reproductive justice, etc.]
The same could be said of other oppressed groups, such as the LGBT movement, transgender and queer activists and individuals, and even the some of the most oppressed workers at the point of "production" [i.e., the fast food workers and WalMart workers organizing initiatives and limited strike actions].
The question of uniting these struggles is paramount. For without that, there can be no discussion of overthrowing the entire social order and truly eradicating the roots of these various forms of oppression. Ultimately, that means talking about the socio-economic system itself, capitalism. Naturally, that then brings us to the question of socialism -- genuine socialism -- a genuine social existence in which the "free development of each is the precondition for the free development of all," and society is organized around the principle, "from each according to their ability, to each according to their need."
I do not claim that this single piece by Lenin is THE answer to this obstacle. Nor do I think that I particularly have any more important insight into the solution of this question than any others.
But it is a discussion we have to have. A better world is possible, but we can only get there together.