Within both radical and moderate left circles there is a serious debate about whether or not a politics which deems class struggle as more central than other forms of struggle against oppression is preferable to a politics which sees all forms of oppression as on par. We will call the first model class politics and the second model pluralist politics.
The main line of argument for pluralist politics is typically that class politics undervalues the importance of other forms of oppression. Now this is certainly true about some kinds of class politics, we might even grant, for the sake of argument, that it has historically been true of most kinds of class politics.
Note though two alternate interpretations of the primary claim of class politics that class struggle is more central than other forms of struggle. On the first interpretation, class politics is saying that class struggles have a greater ethical weight, presumably because the wrongs committed against the working class because they are workers are somehow greater than those wrongs committed against women, queers, the disabled and people of colour because they are women, queers, disabled and people of colour. This is the normative interpretation of what is meant by “more central”.
But there is another interpretation of the claim that class is more central than the plurality of oppressions. On this interpretation, which I favour, class is more central in a practical sense, more central because it is a better lever for changing the world than the alternatives. I hold this view for a number of reasons, theoretical and empirical.
1) Emprically, class and material deprivation has historically been at the forefront of revolutions. Food basket prices are the best empirical indicator of tendency to rebel.
2) From a theoretical perspective, the working class is in an interesting group insomuch as it both has enormous power (in some sense it already controls the means of production) and enormous disadvantage. Further, it’s in a pretty good position to organise itself, because of the way in which work brings workers into proximity with each other. The working class is given both a grudge and a gun by the bourgeoisie.
Now it’s important to clarify what this thesis means, or perhaps more appositely what this thesis does not mean.
1) It does not entail the view that sexism, racism, ableism, or queerphobia of various sorts is likely to end come the revolution against capitalism. Now you might then wonder, why would anyone who’s primarily interested in some form of oppression other than class oppression bother to get involved in a movement which regards as its primary target capitalism, and which does not even hold out the promise that, come the fall of capitalism, all other issues will be sorted out. The answer is that winning victories against capitalism tends to weaken greatly other forms of oppression even if it does not completely destroy them.
2) Following on from the above point, a class politics focus does not mean that all forms of oppression are reducible to or wholly caused by class oppression, though admittedly some class political theorists some have claimed this to be the case. Rather, a class politics orientation is in my opinion best interpreted as suggesting that class plays an enormous role in aggravating other forms of oppression. If, for example, material inequality did not exist, one of the primary and most painful ways sexism and racism express themselves could also not exist. Also, if for example women did not suffer enormous material resource barriers caused by wage and property ownership inequality, it would become much easier to struggle for feminism.
3) It does not mean that a revolutionary movement should not participate in and help build for events and struggles concerned with a variety of forms of oppression. Rather the point is to acknowledge that class plays a special strategic role.
4) This point is probably made by point 3, but is worth reiterating. In no sense does class politics mean that fighting other forms of oppression should “wait till after the revolution.” Nor will the process of dismantling capitalism only be of use to the various sections of the oppressed once it is complete. Incremental progress on this front weakens the extent to which material inequity can contribute to the reproduction of oppression.
To clarify what all this means it might be useful to think of different models of the interrelations of oppression through a visual metaphor. On the pluralist model, there are many nodes of oppression; each interrelated in a complex web. On the hardline classical Marxist theory, there is one central node of oppression, from which all others go out from. On the kind of view I’m interested in, and the view that I think most sensible advocates of class politics hold, there’s a field of different nodes, all with complex interrelations, but with class politics at the centre. If you were to somehow remove that node, all the others would become much more fragile, similarly, if you were to wobble it, and try and pull it out, all the others would wobble to. Note that nothing in this metaphor makes value judgements about what kinds of oppression are worse.