It was often assumed that Marx and Engels were only concerned about exploitation, and theories of oppression were often reduced to this.
But in fact the lessons of the Marxist tradition in fighting oppression are extremely useful for anti-capitalist activists today.
Marx and Engels distinguished three different forms of human relationships that are unequal alienation, exploitation, and oppression.
All of these processes interact, but they are not the same.
And they don’t operate in the same way.
Alienation refers to the general distance of humanity from the real potential of the humankind.
All who live in class society, the period Marx referred to as the pre-history of humanity, suffer from alienation.
Marx challenged the notion that human suffering was natural, the inevitable will of God, or something outside the realm of human action.
Alienation is not counterposed to other forms of human suffering, but is expressed within them.
As long as humanity has not achieved its full potential in a post-class society motivated by the satisfaction of human need, a genuinely socialist society, alienation will continue.
Exploitation, as distinct from alienation, is a strictly material relationship.
It is measurable by the extraction of surplus.
Surplus product is generated from human labour as it transforms nature into objects for human use.
Capitalist exploitation depends on the division of the productive system into two great classes a capitalist class that owns and controls the means of production, the means to produce all the goods of the society; and a working class that owns nothing but its ability to labour.
Marx saw the working class as the most collective labouring class in human history, as the “gravedigger of capitalism.”
The mass assertion of the collective humanity of the working class had the potential, through revolution from below, to take control of the products of human labour and build a world based on the satisfaction of human need.
Marx’s understanding of socialism was that it was the self-emancipation of the working class.
But the objective potential of the working class, and its subjective unity as a class, were seen by Marx and Engels as two different things.
Capitalism can produce a working class “in itself”; but only through conscious struggle is the working class produced “for itself.”
Oppression serves to divide and weaken the working class, offsetting the tendency for class unity, for the development of a class for itself.
Oppression includes both ideological and material elements, and it crosses class lines.
It is also very historically specific.
Oppression intensifies the ability of certain sections of the ruling class to rule effectively, and therefore sometimes is used against other sections of the ruling class with whom it is in competition.
But more importantly, oppression serves to weaken and divide the working class.
Marx and Engels studied how specific forms of oppression weakened and divided the working class and worked in the interests of the ruling class.
Over and over again, they stressed that oppression held back the ability of the working class, both the oppressed and oppressor sections, to resist capitalist rule.
Oppression is part of how the ruling class rules, a part of the “superstructure” of society.
Though exploitation draws workers together, workers were also placed in a relationship of competition to one another – pitted against each other to hold back a sense of unity against their common exploiter.
Forms of oppression that predated capitalism-such as women’s oppression and anti-Semitism-were important tools in the strategies of early capitalist ruling classes.
New forms of oppression were also developed as capitalism expanded, including modern racism with the slave trade, immigration controls as national borders were erected, and gay and lesbian oppression to prop up the private nuclear family.
By presenting a false, ideological mechanism of identifying with the ruling class, through oppression one section of the exploited is wooed into believing that they are privileged over another.
That sense of privilege can be and often is propped up by a limited material advantages.
But these material advantages are only relative to the intensified oppression of other groups of workers.
And the advantages themselves are always partial and temporary.
They are not drawn from the exploitation of a surplus, but from a division cultivated by the exploiter to encourage competition among workers within the same class.
From a Marxist perspective, ideas like racism, sexism, anti-gay bigotry, national chauvinism, religious chauvinism, etc., are all features, of how the capitalist class articulates its ideological hegemony, its dominance, over the society as a whole.