Privilege - towards a Marxist analysis

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The following is from the Communist Party USA convention discussion website. Dee Myles is the chair of the CPUSA education commission. Under the slogan, "People and nature before profit," the CPUSA will meet in Chicago June 13-15 for its 30th national convention. It will be live streamed and peoplesworld.org will provide coverage. Join the conversation on Twitter #cpusa95 or on Facebook.

The promotion of the concept of privilege is spreading like wildfire. A class is being taught at Harvard, and everybody is talking about the privilege of being of a preferred group. Preferred by whom, is the issue. 

The main thrust concerns privilege afforded within our society based on being white. If one is white and male one is considered even more privileged. Privilege manifests as being the preferred employee, the preferred representative, and the preferred voice. Greater wealth, not being discriminated against, not being profiled, and not having the law applied as stringently are just some of the benefits or advantages of being privileged. Today, some degree of privilege is ascribed to almost every category. Given the concept of intersectionality, the overlapping of different social dimensions, one can be Black and poor, but still privileged because one is not gay or dark skinned. Today's concept of privilege is a powerful construct, but powerful toward what end is the gnawing question.

The problem with the concept of privilege, as it is bandied about today, is not just that it is devoid of all class content. The problem is that today's concept of privilege, instead of inspiring struggle against social ills, instigates a subtle affinity for the status quo and an insidious resentment toward those who are classified in one way or another as non-privileged.  But, the Marxist concept of privilege is different.  

Marx discussed bourgeois privilege as the power over the cultural, political, social, and economic realms afforded the ruling classes because of their ownership of society's productive means. Lenin discussed the privilege of the ruling class of the oppressor nation and the elevation and domination of their language, culture, and nationality over all others. Critical to the point is Marx and Lenin's call for the working class to recognize that the privilege of the ruling class is not shared by the working class, even if they are of the same race and nationality. Hence, the objective of Marx and Lenin was to explain that working class forces have an interest in struggling against bourgeois racist gendered privilege. Marx's discussion of bourgeois privilege isolates them off from the rest of us. Lenin's discussion of the privilege of the oppressor nation's ruling class segregates them off from the rest of us. Marx and Lenin were attempting to clear the path of struggle, identifying which side with which we should associate if we were not really owners of wealth producing property. In other words, if you are not part of the .01 percent, don't be fooled into thinking and behaving as if you are.

To make a long story short, I would argue the concept of privilege as used today contributes to a lack of clarity and muddies the water.  Anything that muddies the water is perfectly fine with the .01 percent.

To simply dismiss the discussion of privilege based on old arguments is not enough today. I use to make the argument that what passes as privilege for white workers is actually the absence of discrimination. Today, we are compelled to modify that formulation somewhat. It is not that discrimination is absent for white workers, but that discrimination is greater for non-white workers. Today especially, it needs to be exposed how white workers are in fact discriminated against culturally, socially, politically, and economically. Working class culture is debased, the working class style of life is shamed, few if any working class representatives hold political office, and economically, not only are white workers exploited, but in today's economy the quality of life of white workers, as is true for all of us, has significantly declined. The fact there still is a wealth and wage gap between white and black is less so true if one segregates out white workers, from the whole of white people, in comparison to Black people.  The point is, there is more in common between white workers and the oppressed than there is between white workers and the ruling class, and it is in our collective interest to unmask the commonality while still recognizing disparities and elevating the importance of the fight for equity within the overall struggle against inequality, including class inequality. Oppression based on being non-white is real, and the struggle is to expose this form of inequality and win white workers in the first place to the fight for equality because they too are unequal.

Marxist consciousness seeks to disassociate not from the oppressed and exaggerate commonality with the oppressor. Marxist consciousness, because of the contribution of Lenin, seeks to unite workers of the oppressor race and nationality with all of the oppressed based on common interest against the oppressor.  Even more, the point is to cultivate common struggle and not the lethargy of what ultimately is fictitious social status.  Nothing about white workers is appreciated in this culture unless white workers completely prostrate themselves in service to the ruling circles. In service to the ruling circles, they are allowed, even encouraged, to believe and behave as if they are one of them instead of one of us.

The whole point of the ruling class, the .01%, is to win allies to itself and sow confusion and disunity among the masses. The concept of privilege as used today puts us in touch with a preferred status if one is so anointed.

The truth is the greatest privilege we have, as working class people, is to allow through a lack of consciousness the illusion, the appearance, of privilege to instigate our participation in our own oppression.

Privilege, as put forward today, is a powerful illusory camouflage, with material aspects, that turns those so labeled toward an association with the status quo. The concept is powerful because it has elements of truth. In an effort to nurture equality in meetings one can hear during the call to order the uttering of the expression, "leave your privilege at the door."

Collectivity is a different response to the same concern. Collectivity is a fundamental organizational principle geared toward the complete involvement of the racially oppressed, women, youth, and workers in meetings, actions, and on all levels of leadership on the basis of full equality. Collectivity does not just happen; collectivity is consciously cultivated and intentionally struggled for and implemented.  

A frontal attack on today's concept of privilege is not my objective here. Many use and elaborate the concept in the attempt to contribute to an analysis of our society.  But, our goal as Marxists is not just to produce an analysis of our society.  Our goal is to construct an analysis that can contribute to the organization and mobilization of working class forces in the first place, along with all of the oppressed (women and youth included), who can change our society. Rather than a caustic attack on those who use the concept of privilege, we should want to wage a struggle to win them to a deeper analysis, a more Marxist analysis.

Photo: Working Washington Facebook page.

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  • My consciousness has been raised reading this analysis. I think this is a wonderful example of why we need educational classes on Marxism.
    Dee Myles digs deeper to expose the owning class battle of ideas. True the 1% has a huge media behind them but we have many grassroots organizations that are rising to the task!
    Our Party has great thinkers who contribute to winning the battle of ideas and then, gaining higher ground... that being Socialism!

    Posted by Gabe Falsetta , 06/19/2014 5:10pm (1 year ago)

  • Thanks to sister Dee Myles for this article and analysis.
    An old education director of the CPUSA, James Jackson, once instructed us that the first thing the oppressor accords to the oppressed is the right to do wrong.
    Sister Dr. Myles' ninth paragraph sums up this in a way:

    "The truth is the greatest privilege we have, as working class people, is to allow through a lack of consciousness the illusion, the appearance, of privilege to instigate our participation in our own oppression."

    This is profound-for it is indeed an illusion that we can participate in our oppression. If we do-we betray ourselves and therefore, do not participate in our "dialectical selves" our changing, renewing selves, based on our becoming something different, something better, within socialist and communist community. This change, according to Marx, is inexorable change-something independent of our wills, something tied in to the material existence, in the making as we enter into productive relations, through ancient slavery and modern slavery, tied into past productive relations, yet bounding free from them, tracing all the way back to primitive communism between humans-and further in the foundations of the creation of humankind with the role of labor in the transition from ape to humankind, the role of labor in forming, over eons, the human brain through the experience and learning, the brain's development through the human hand.
    These are the explosions we attempt to channel to reasonable productive relations, the recognition of the necessity to fight for the fact of socialism, countering the illusion that we can continue to support the illusion of progress within the confines of self-destructive moribund capitalism-and somehow avoid our own participation in our own oppression.
    So, it is also, with women's oppression- we must fight it, or participate in our own oppression-this is half of humanity.
    How can the communists approach women-even doubly and triply oppressed Native or African or Asian derived women?
    With the collective understanding that we must love the other as we love ourselves-like the Master- Jesus of the lineage of Marx, taught and commanded.
    Collectivity, not privilege.

    Posted by E.E.W. Clay, 06/19/2014 12:15pm (1 year ago)

  • This is a very helpful article. Fundamental change to socialism is needed to begin the process of building societies without oppression.
    Ed Lehman Regina

    Posted by Ed Lehman, 06/15/2014 4:48pm (1 year ago)

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