Towards a Marxist critique of ‘privilege theory’

by · January 15, 2014

Same as it ever was...

Same as it ever was…

I’ve just had a contribution to an ongoing debate on Marxism and “privilege theory” published at the US Socialist Worker website. I’m putting it up here at Left Flank if people want to comment directly. The Socialist Worker page usefully links to the key posts in the debate.

I’VE FOLLOWED with interest the debate on “privilege theory” in response to Bill Mullen’s article at (“Is there a white skin privilege?”). Arguments about privilege have not only become more prominent within various struggles and radicalizing milieus over the last couple of years, but also won influence among many socialists as a way of addressing perceived gaps in Marxist theorizing on oppression.

It’s in this context that I want to take issue with Brian Kwoba’s attack on Bill that was posted on the CounterPunch website, which claimed that Bill was, in fact, defending white skin privilege (and, effectively, racism) with his words.

In my view, Kwoba’s position represents something more than just a particularly uncomradely approach to debate. Rather, it reveals one of the central problems with ideas around privilege — that they also entail a particular theory of knowledge (and consciousness) that sees competing explanations of oppression as both products of, and perpetuating, oppressive hierarchies. The response to this tends to be little more than a process of restating its claims and “calling out” other theories as being part of the problem.

I think it is a deeply flawed approach that Marxists should reject outright.

Yet many socialists have been attracted to privilege arguments because they involve familiar-sounding talk about consciousness as determined by social being. This theory of consciousness — that one’s location in a hierarchy of privilege determines one’s ideas — is used to argue that people from oppressed groups have a better ability to understand oppression and how to fight it than those “higher up the food chain.”

In superficial ways, the structure of the argument seems similar to the Marxist idea of “class consciousness” — consciousness of the totality of capitalist social relations — as only capable of being grasped from “the standpoint of the proletariat,” in Lukács (in)famous words.

But in fact, the consciousness of privilege in this theoretical conception is an anti-totalizing view of society, where relationships to a single hierarchy of oppression must first be analyzed separately from the social totality, before (at best) later being reintegrated into a more complete view. In many cases, it is not even the hierarchy as a whole that is considered, but simply a comparison of privileges held by one individual and another to decide whether or not the more privileged one has the authority to even hold a particular view.

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A SECOND confusion is that for some socialists, “class consciousness” has come to mean its vulgar, reductionist variant: consciousness only of the exploitative (“economic”) relationship between the capitalists and workers, and so Marxism appears deficient in challenging oppression, a gap that privilege theory seems to fill.

This kind of economism was certainly a feature of Second, Third and Fourth International Marxism at various times. But a view that runs closer to Marx’s own method is that class consciousness is consciousness of the total (and simultaneously) economic, political and ideological aspects of the social relations of production, and how exploitations and oppressions operate as a product of that differentiated, contradictory totality.

Marx didn’t start from the totality because he was oblivious to “bottom-up” experiences of exploitation and oppression, but because he recognized how these are produced depends on how whole societies are structured. This is the kind of theorizing that Lise Vogel did in her recently republished book on women’s oppression, and which Sue Ferguson has tried to extend to other forms of oppression in a very interesting and suggestive talk at Historical Materialism in London last November. I know that UK-based socialist Colin Barker has worked on this issue a lot also.

On the other hand, the approach Kwoba argues for actually takes people further away from understanding how their place in a system of exploitation and oppression is formed, how it changes, or how it affects consciousness.

I think it is entirely fair to say that Marxists have not yet produced a foolproof “grand unified theory” of how the capitalist mode of production produces various oppressions alongside and intertwined with the capital relation. Because capitalism is a constantly mutating system, such a task anyway involves new theoretical challenges in response to changes in the material world. But that is different to thinking that what we need to do is simply add aspects of privilege theory to our existing theories to fill in gaps and resolve problems.

That would mean abandoning a Marxist approach at the outset, rather than seeing if we can use Marx’s method to work through these complex mediations. In particular, it would mean ditching one of the most important insights that runs through all of Marx’s work — that at the center of the social relations of any given society (mode of production) is how production itself is organized (not just technically, but socially). He writes in the third volume of Capital:

The specific economic form, in which unpaid surplus-labor is pumped out of direct producers, determines the relationship of rulers and ruled, as it grows directly out of production itself and, in turn, reacts upon it as a determining element. Upon this, however, is founded the entire formation of the economic community which grows up out of the production relations themselves, thereby simultaneously its specific political form. It is always the direct relationship of the owners of the conditions of production to the direct producers — a relation always naturally corresponding to a definite stage in the development of the methods of labour and thereby its social productivity — which reveals the innermost secret, the hidden basis of the entire social structure and with it the political form of the relation of sovereignty and dependence, in short, the corresponding specific form of the state. This does not prevent the same economic basis — the same from the standpoint of its main conditions — due to innumerable different empirical circumstances, natural environment, racial relations, external historical influences, etc. from showing infinite variations and gradations in appearance, which can be ascertained only by analysis of the empirically given circumstances.

Even the more “anti-capitalist” variants of privilege arguments tend to reject this method — of trying to find the concrete mediations between the “core” social relations of production and systematic oppressions. Exploitation and oppression tend to be seen to have an external relationship rather than an inner connection. This also tends to strip any sense of capitalism as a profoundly contradictory and unstable social system out of discussions of various oppressions, which are instead seen as stable and functional systems in which people find themselves trapped (or trapped into perpetuating because of advantages conferred).

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THIS HAS major ramifications for any privilege-centric theory of consciousness, because a pretty crude correspondence is posited between one’s position in the hierarchy and one’s ideas, to the point that it becomes hard to see how ideas can change at all. You can see Peggy McIntosh struggle despairingly with exactly this conundrum in her famous article, which Bill quoted from.

In the absence of a materialist explanation of how people can have ideas at odds with their privileged social location, calling out, consciousness-raising and moral exhortation then become how ideas can be shifted, if at all.

This is quite different to Marx’s approach to ideas. He argued that consciousness is never simply the passive product of social circumstances but is shaped by practical activity; that it is always a practical consciousness as real people make and remake their world. He famously addressed this in the third of his critical theses on Feuerbach, who was a radical left-wing materialist philosopher from Marx’s circle and whose theory of the relationship between material reality and ideas was striking similar to modern privilege arguments. Marx wrote, “The materialist doctrine concerning the changing of circumstances and upbringing forgets that circumstances are changed by men and that it is essential to educate the educator himself. This doctrine must, therefore, divide society into two parts, one of which is superior to society.”

That is, by seeing the correspondence between the material world and ideas as passive, Feuerbach could not account for how he was able to break from the conceptions his social position would predict. Similarly, Brian Kwoba seeks to “educate” Bill Mullen that his Marxist critique of privilege theory is part of a defence of white privilege itself without asking how “privileged” whites who agree with Kwoba’s position could possibly manage to overcome their reactionary ideas (except maybe on a purely moral basis, after getting educated by people of color).

That is why Bill’s list of instances of Black and white unity against racism is so important — because it highlights how practical activity can destabilize structurally shaped racist ideas, whether or not the protagonists are initially conscious that is what they’re doing. It is precisely because capitalism (including the oppressive hierarchies it promulgates and relies on) is not in fact a set of impersonal structures, but of living human beings acting in the world in determinate relationship to each other, that it is inherently contradictory and therefore also produces contradictory consciousness.

This explains why most people accept a mix of racist and anti-racist ideas, sexist and anti-sexist ideas, etc. Because their practical activities both fit within and strain against the limits of the social system, those limits are always unstable and open to challenge. As Marx continues in the third Thesis, “The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity or self-changing can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionary practice.”

Marx calls the working class a “universal class” not because it its most oppressed or exploited but because its location at the heart of capitalist production means it is in a position to transcend the capitalist system through its own self-activity in a way that no other social group can. That implies an understanding of “class consciousness” as consciousness of the contradictions of the system as a whole, including how and why various groups are oppressed, and not just of narrow “economic” class relations.

For him it is not a moral judgement, but a consequence how he sees society working. His approach crucially includes a theory of consciousness that explains ideological contradictions as the product of a contradictory world, and which demonstrates how society (and ideas) can be changed through practical activity.

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I WANT to make a final, more specific, point about the unsuitability of “privilege” as a concept to explain what goes on in hierarchies of oppression. The question always gets raised as one of privilege in relation to others in that hierarchy, not one of privilege in relation to the social system as a whole (because to do the latter would automatically expose the concept’s problems). It is thus highly reductionist because it denies from the outset the possibility of explaining oppression socially, and instead effectively focuses on the unequal distribution of political rights as the root cause of the problem.

Marx criticised such “political” thinking in early works such as “Critical Notes on ‘The King of Prussia’ ” because it lent itself to seeking solutions via the state rather than understanding that the state is little more than the concentrated expression of social ills, and so is incapable of ridding us of them (even if it might be capable of administering them differently).

Indeed, while Peggy McIntosh doesn’t directly call for state regulation of privilege, her long list of white privileges (some of which Bill quotes) reads more like the basis for affirmative action policies than a program of radical transformation in social relations between whites and people of color. What comes across in most privilege arguments I’ve read recently is despair that human beings can themselves transform their social relationships, and so it is not surprising that for all their superficially radical bluster, the arguments tend to be socially timid.

None of what I have written should be interpreted as a lack of interest in fighting for the political rights of oppressed social groups. Indeed, following Lenin’s arguments on this question, I think the struggle for such rights — directed against the state which denies them — is vital because (a) it destabilizes that state and (b) it reveals the limits of winning purely political equal rights when capitalist social relations continue to produce social inequalities that underpin oppression.

As Lenin wrote in 1916:

Marxists know that democracy does not abolish class oppression, but only makes the class struggle clearer, broader, more open and sharper; and this is what we want. The more complete freedom of divorce is, the clearer will it be to the woman that the source of her “domestic slavery” is not the lack of rights, but capitalism. The more democratic the system of government is, the clearer it will be to the workers that the root of the evil is not the lack of rights, but capitalism. The more complete national equality is (and it is not complete without freedom of secession), the clearer will it be to the workers of the oppressed nation that it is not a question of lack of rights, but of capitalism. And so on.

Such a struggle promotes a non-reductionist, totalising class-consciousness that can unite struggles against oppression and exploitation against the whole rotten social system that depends on them.

Discussion7 Comments

  1. Anon says:

    Check your privilege!

  2. Maruto says:

    Tad, could you contact me at maruto.tajo(at) Thanks.

  3. Jason Houston says:

    I am yet to hear a convincing argument that Marxism does not take into account race and gender. I found this part of Brian Kwoba’s piece particularly worrying.

    “Ultimately, Mullen concludes by arguing that “Marxism remains the best tool for analyzing racism, sexism and other forms of oppression…because it understands that capitalism is the main engine of oppression and social division.” Yet some forms of oppression, such as the oppression of women, predate capitalism by thousands of years. Those like Mullen who argue that capitalism is the source of all oppression are denying the specific and autonomous logic of certain forms of oppression, dogmatically repeating a belief that (in this case) conveniently absolves men of our complicity in the oppression of women.”

    Here Brian tries to dismiss struggle against Capitalism by stating that oppression predates Capitalism. He implies that there is a root cause of the problem beyond Capitalism. The good news is he is technically right, but dismisses not only Marx’s own writing on the subject but also the relationship between Capitalism and systems that came before. It is no coincidence that oppression and the ruling class predates Capitalism. Brian simply can’t see the forest for the trees.

    I’ve seen similar pieces to yours dismissed as proof that Marxism denies Racism exists. In fact, I saw this very piece portrayed as such on Twitter. I tried for over an hour to come up with a convincing reply to that and came to the conclusion that if what you wrote didn’t convince them, I had no chance at all.

    • Dr_Tad says:

      I suspect the test for Kwoba and others is whether one employs a multi-system approach to exploitation and oppressions, starting with the presumption that oppressions operate by their own logics and not those of the capitalist mode of production.

      The flipside of the multi-systems approach is to demand a very narrow, class-reductionist reading of Marx’s argument, which then leads to a thoroughly unrealistic view of what capitalist social relations entail.

  4. Ramon says:

    On that note, I think that’s what makes me wary of intersectionalism: it demands a sort of “Unified Field Theory” of oppression where every cause has to be fought for simultaneously.
    It’s apparently not valid for an activist to subscribe to (or even devise) *one* good idea unless they subscribe to *every* good idea.
    (e.g. I’ve heard the early suffrage movement dismissed as a fight for “white women’s privilege” — with no attention to any of its after-ripples.)

    The problems are manifold:
    1) Who really knows if all oppression can be neatly explained by one self-sufficient theory? What if it’s more like a Grand Theft Auto sandbox game where there’s no exact linear order that oppressions have to be tackled in?
    2) I’ve heard the 1977 radfem argument that “If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression.”
    But how many more categories of discrimination are there? Do we know yet? Can any one person be a conduit for all the injustices in a society? (Killing two birds with one stone is an attractive scenario, but is it wise for the Left to become one-stone perfectionists?)

    Ideally, everyone could support every worthy struggle at once, but I doubt political causes need to overlap completely as long as they don’t get in each other’s way.

    • Dr_Tad says:

      These are all compelling points. I agree that simply recognising the intersection of all forms of hierarchy/oppression/injustice at once gets us not very far.

      But I think for Marxists there is a need to find the inner connection between various aspects of capitalist society, including why oppression happens. This cannot take a simple additive approach and nor can it presume that all oppressions emerge from the same kinds of social relations.

      I think there is a good case to be made that the origins of women’s oppression and racial oppression are to be found in different aspects of the capitalist system, for example (both historically and analytically).

  5. Michael Douglas says:

    The notion, that an oppressed group should be left to fight their oppression on their own, is staggeringly bad strategy. Upon contact with reality it degenerates into documenting and consciousness raising. Privilege theory also talks about class only in terms of oppression, ignoring working class power – that thing which topples Tsars and Pharaohs, and strikes Presidents dumb.