Race, Class, and Socialist Strategy

Socialists can and must combine the struggles against class exploitation and social oppression.


Marxists have long understood that the workplace is the primary strategic site of class struggle, and that class struggle is essential for cohering a radicalized working-class majority with the capacity and will to overthrow capitalism in favor of socialism. At the same time, Marxists recognize our moral responsibility to oppose — and the strategic necessity to fight — all forms of exploitation and oppression.

In the United States today, a revitalized socialist Left is giving these questions of strategy new importance and prompting people across the political spectrum to more clearly articulate a position toward the respective roles of race and class in their politics.

On one part of that spectrum, as Briahna Gray writes in The Intercept, Democratic Senator Kamala Harris targets the Left’s supposed “class reductionism”; on another, socialists debate if and how the fundamental Marxist insight of class centrality can be used to formulate strategies to fight racial and gender oppression. In a recent review of Asad Haider’s book “Mistaken Identity,” Melissa Naschek writes that Haider rightly points to the ways in which “the ideology and rhetoric of ‘identity’ has been used as a weapon against the working class.” But while Marxists must defend class politics from both the radical and mainstream variants of what Gray in her piece calls “race reductionism,” fights for universalist class-wide demands and fights against particular racial oppressions are not mutually exclusive (as Naschek’s piece seems to imply). Indeed, in order for the socialist project to succeed, socialists must link these struggles together.

Both Gray and Naschek refer to the 1966 “Freedom Budget for All Americans,” a project championed by black socialists and Civil Rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr., Bayard Rustin, and A. Philip Randolph. We also find the Freedom Budget to be a good touchstone for considering these questions. We draw three important lessons from it and from recent debates about the role of struggles against oppression in the socialist movement. First, fights against racial oppression and social oppressions generally — for immigrant rights, abortion rights, an end to police brutality, etc. — are not a distraction from the socialist project. They are essential to it. Second, purportedly “race-blind” demands — such as Medicare or All, a federal jobs guarantee, and fully funded public education — are in fact essential elements of any program to combat both the effects and the causes of racism. And finally, these universal class demands provide vehicles for building the mass, multiracial working-class movement needed to end both exploitation and oppression.

Fighting Oppression Head-On

Democratic socialists must grasp the importance of struggles against particular oppressions — including deportations, racist police violence, mass incarceration, and abortion restrictions — as part of, not in conflict with, the process of building a socialist movement.

In order to consolidate the victories over Jim Crow and legal segregation, for example, Civil Rights leaders knew that they needed to build on them by connecting the fight for racial justice with a fight for economic justice based on universal economic demands. But this extension of their fight into so-called “race-blind” demands does not imply that they dropped their struggle for racial justice. Rather, these struggles were intimately linked.

In more recent history, workplace fights have openly and directly linked racial justice demands and universal economic demands. In 2012, the Chicago Teachers’ Union strike highlighted the fight for racial justice as part of its broader working-class push for better schools and better working conditions. In their current push toward a strike, the United Teachers of Los Angeles have put forward a similar message. Earlier this year in Oklahoma, teachers on strike explicitly connected their universal and redistributive demands to the fight against mass incarceration, carrying signs reading “Schools Not Jails.” And, just weeks ago, millions saw the power of workers to directly combat racism thanks to a viral video recorded by Indianapolis welder Antoine Dangerfield. In the video, scores of Latino workers walk out of a UPS warehouse to protest racist treatment by their manager — and succeeded in getting that manager fired.

On an electoral level, the popular campaigns of politicians like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have shown how a focus on broad working-class issues like healthcare, education, and jobs can be effectively combined with more specific demands like abolishing ICE or ending cash bail. Houston DSA member Franklin Bynum, who is running for a judgeship there, has made ending cash bail and fighting racist sentencing a core part of his campaign. In an interview in Jacobin, he explains that racism and poverty “maintain each other in the sense that, for instance, you have neighborhoods segregated by race, certain ones are targeted by police, people there are marked with criminal records, which drives them further into poverty and so on.” Meanwhile, the resources spent on excessive policing could be spent instead to lift people out of poverty and make much of the carceral apparatus obsolete. Finally, DSA member Jovanka Beckles’s campaign for California state assembly demands universal solutions like housing, healthcare, and education while also standing up for immigrants and offering ambitious reforms to the state’s criminal justice system.

Fighting Oppression Through Redistribution

In “Beware the Race Reductionist,” Gray takes aim at the now-familiar argument that while financial reforms or Medicare for All or a federal jobs guarantee might be broadly beneficial, their framing as “race-blind” policies for the whole working class ignores or even harms specifically oppressed groups in society.

This argument is perhaps best encapsulated by a now-famous Hillary Clinton quip from 2016: “If we broke up the big banks tomorrow, would that end racism? Would that end sexism? Would that end discrimination against the LGBT community? Would that make people feel more welcoming to immigrants overnight?” The series of questions was one of many centrist attacks on Bernie Sanders’s campaign. Later that year, Representative Jim Clyburn claimed that tuition-free public college would harm historically black institutions, and by extension black people. As Gray puts it, this “attack on progressivism under the pretext of anti-bigotry” implies that “if a policy doesn’t resolve racism ‘first,’ it’s at worst racist, and at best not worth pursuing.”

But as Gray makes clear, because of the lasting material effects of slavery, segregation, and racial domination in the United States, black people would actually benefit more than their white counterparts from redistributive programs. Black people have more student debt than any other demographic group and are forced to drop out of college for financial reasons at much higher rates — something that a federal tuition-free public college and university program would directly address. The 2008 financial crisis devastated the fortunes of black people by wiping out 40 percent of black wealth. It is therefore misguided, as Gray argues, to cast financial reform as incidental or unrelated to the interests of black people. Finally, Black and Latinx people remain uninsured at far higher rates than whites, even after the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. Citing the demand for universal health care in the Movement for Black Lives platform, Gray writes that healthcare is an “existential” issue for African Americans. In this case, the reason healthcare is “not perceived as a ‘person of color issue’ is a matter of marketing, not substance.”

In fact, as Gray argues by quoting Touré Reed, “the principal beneficiaries of universal policies would be poor and working-class people who would disproportionately be Black and brown… Dismissing such policies on the grounds that they aren’t addressing systemic racism is a sleight of hand.”

Fighting Oppression with a Mass Movement

In their book “A Freedom Budget for All Americans,” Paul Le Blanc and Michael Yates recount how Civil Rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr., Bayard Rustin, and A. Philip Randolph sought to link the struggles for racial and economic equality within a comprehensive program they call “The Strategy.” Though we don’t share the “realignment” goal of transforming the Democratic Party advocated by Rustin and Randolph, the Freedom Budget demonstrates a compelling approach to linking race and class in an organic and strategic manner. To quote Le Blanc and Yates,

“The consciousness and momentum of this crusade against the Jim Crow system could stand as a preliminary stage for confronting the other aspects of institutional racism, which would require a more fundamental social and economic transformation.

“This transformation could only be realized effectively by attacking racism’s underlying economic roots, which in turn could only be done effectively by developing a broader program for economic justice: decent jobs, housing, education, and health care for all, as a matter of right. Though such a program would be initiated by blacks, it would be powerfully relevant to a majority of whites. The resulting interracial coalition for economic justice would have the dual function of eliminating the roots of institutional racism and creating an atmosphere of idealism and common struggle that would help to further push back various forms of individual racism. If there was abundance and a decent life for every person, then the fearful competition for scarce resources, an essential breeding ground and one of the material bases of racism, would be eliminated, and this would strengthen the sense of interracial solidarity generated through the shared struggle for a better life for all people.

“One way to restate ‘The Strategy’ is to note that it projected (1) a mass struggle against segregation and second-class citizenship; and (2) tackling issues of economic justice, channeling the struggle against the Jim Crow system into an even more massive struggle (through a coming together of the anti-racist and labor movements) for jobs for all, an end to poverty, and democratic regulation of the economy, which would involve a transition from capitalism to socialism.”

The Freedom Budget represented a radical reform agenda, demanding, as Randolph wrote, “that in this, the richest and most productive society ever known to man, the scourge of poverty can and must be abolished.” For socialists like Rustin, Randolph, and King, the Budget represented a practical agenda pointing beyond capitalism. That is why the Freedom Budget was not directed exclusively at fighting the racial oppression of black people, but rather sought to build a multiracial working-class movement for comprehensive social transformation. As King writes in his introduction to the Freedom Budget:

“After many years of intense struggle in the courts, in legislative halls, and on the streets, we have achieved a number of important victories. We have come far in our quest for respect and dignity. But we have far to go.

“The long journey ahead requires that we emphasize the needs of all America’s poor, for there is no way to merely find work, or adequate housing, or quality integrated schools for Negroes alone. We shall eliminate slums for Negroes when we destroy ghettos and build new cities for all. We shall eliminate unemployment for Negroes when we demand full and fair employment for all. We shall produce an educated and skilled Negro mass when we achieve a twentieth century educational system for all.”

What can democratic socialists today learn from this strategy?

First, socialists should foreground struggles for positive universal demands, like Medicare for All and better public education, which bring working-class people together around a shared platform that promises to improve their lives. This unity is doubly important since such policies also undermine one of the key siren calls of the racist Right: that immigrants and other marginalized groups threaten the economic security of working-class whites. By naming capitalism as the source of economic insecurity and abolishing poverty for everyone, the Left can undercut the Right’s power to scapegoat and divide workers. In other words, supposedly “race-blind” policies like Medicare for All and a federal jobs guarantee — as Gray rightly argues — actively work to undo both the effects and causes of racism.

Fighting for these kinds of demands also helps advance the process that Marxists call class formation: the construction of a militant, united, and organized working-class movement that is conscious of itself as an agent of social transformation. Without a mass, militant labor movement our struggles won’t have the power to force major redistributive concessions from capitalists — to say nothing of replacing capitalism with socialism, a historic task that remains a precondition for rooting out all forms of oppression. The power that comes from withholding our labor as workers is a form of leverage unmatched by any other kind of protest. Without exercising this power, we can’t win.

The recent education strikes in the “red states” brings into sharp relief the explosive potential of a class-based approach to politics. By focusing on burning demands supported by almost all working people — affordable health care, better pay for educators, and more funding for schools — these strikes were able to mobilize and policitize hundreds of thousands of educators, shut schools for millions of students, win major concessions from reactionary state governments, and radicalize plenty of teachers, parents and students in the process.

West Virginia teacher and rank-and-file leader Emily Comer explained how their historic strike this year shows that workers can unite over shared issues: “For a successful mass movement, people don’t have to agree on partisan politics, on religion, or anything else for that matter. But they do have come together and fight in solidarity around a shared issue. We’ve learned that people will push the other differences aside in the name of solidarity.”

Our Strategy Today

Effectively linking the struggle against class exploitation and social oppression is not a new strategy for socialists. Consider, for example, Karl Kautsky’s 1892 Erfurt Program, the most influential document of Second International-era socialism and an inspiration for the Bolsheviks in Russia.

Kautsky painted an inclusive picture of the working class composed of all those who own no property that would allow them to survive (i.e. factories, businesses, or land). Kautsky’s political strategy both included and went beyond organizing workers at the workplace. He argued that socialist parties must become the representative “of all laboring and exploited classes.” This meant that, in the words of the program, Marxists opposed “not only the exploitation and oppression of wage-workers, but also every form of exploitation and oppression, be it directed against a class, a party, a sex, or a race.”

What’s crucial here is that Kautsky does not suggest that socialists should only support movements that make strictly redistributive demands. We must take the side of the oppressed in every struggle against domination and state repression.

Today, we’re faced with a similar calling, to fight alongside all exploited and oppressed people.

Concretely, that means supporting movements against all forms of oppression and raising demands around these issues in workplace struggles, election campaigns, and social movements.

While they do not necessarily automatically translate into socialist consciousness, the immigrant rights movement, mobilizations against police brutality, and resistance to the right’s anti-abortion assault have politicized millions and offered many mostly young people their first experiences in political activism.

It’s necessary to criticize — and provide a compelling class-based alternative to — the “race reductionism” promoted by liberals, NGOs, academia, and even some radicals. In order to do this effectively, however, we must always make clear in both theory and practice that socialists do not counterpose class struggle to the fight against social oppression. Instead, we understand these struggles as being deeply connected.

No other political tendency will systematically push for working-class unity if Marxists don’t. In the face of the divisions perpetuated by capitalism and reinforced by its myriad apologists among liberals and on the right, it is our particular responsibility to highlight the possibility and necessity of uniting all workers against their common enemy. As Ellen Meiksins Wood writes in “Why Class Struggle is Central,” socialists are uniquely invested in eliminating oppression and domination and uniting the working class, since “socialism will be the first social form since the advent of class society whose reproduction as a social system is endangered rather than enhanced by relations and ideologies of domination and oppression.”

By helping to rebuild a strong working-class movement that’s capable of winning transformative universalist reforms like Medicare for All and effectively combating social oppression head-on, socialists can help to further the process of class formation that is essential to overturning capitalism and winning a society of true equality, freedom, and social justice. In the words of Kautsky: “this social transformation means the liberation, not only of the proletariat, but of the whole human race.”

Jeremy G. is a contributor to The Call.