Tony Cliff on the working class and the oppressed
WHY DID Karl Marx put the emphasis on the working class? It was not because the working class was large in numbers. When Marx wrote the Communist Manifesto, the only two countries where the industrial revolution was complete were England and Belgium.
Internationally the working class was tiny. Today there are more workers in South Korea than there were in the entire world in Marx’s time. Even today the working class does not make up the majority of humanity. The majority of the world’s population are peasants.
He chose the working class because the working class is the subject of history, because it is in a collective situation. It is not a collection of people but a collective of people. There is all the difference in the world between these two.
In Russia, for example, the people who really suffered most before 1917 were not the workers. The 40,000 workers in the Putilov armaments factory in Petrograd were on top wages, yet they formed the citadel of Bolshevism. The workers were more cultured than the peasants. Nearly 80 percent of them could read and write.
The main point then was not suffering or deprivation, but the fact that the working class was a collective.
It was for this reason that Marx spoke about the working class as a collective class, as a universal class. It is the class that in emancipating itself emancipates humanity, because where the chains of capitalism are forged, there they have to be broken.
When you look to the oppressed there is a problem: there are far more oppressed people in the world than there are workers. There are thousands of millions of oppressed women. There are a massive number of oppressed blacks and Asians, there are millions of oppressed gays, there are millions of oppressed Jews. The numbers are absolutely massive.
Are they a collective? No. The oppressed do not join forces automatically. The idea of a rainbow alliance of the oppressed wouldn’t stand the test of five minutes of struggle.
It is not true that if you are gay you automatically support blacks, that if you are black you automatically support gays, or if you are gay you automatically support Jews.
If anyone is in any doubt, let us look at the reality. For instance it is simply not true that Jews in Nazi Germany were attacked only by heterosexuals. Among the worst anti-semites were the Nazi gays.
Why? Because to be a homosexual you were inferior in Nazi terms. But if you had a leather jacket, leather boots and a swastika, compared to a Jew or compared to a woman you didn’t feel inferior at all, you felt superior...
Read the rest of the article, the transcript of a talk Tony Cliff gave at Marxism 1987 on 'The working class and the oppressed' here. You can also hear Cliff give another lecture on this topic in his inimitable style in 1994 here