an essay on human liberation

by J.A. Bernstein


Perhaps the best sign to emerge from the flood of protesters thronging the capital during the 2017 Women's March was one saying: “One abortion could have saved us all a trip.” The protest itself drew controversy when the organizers apparently disallowed pro-life feminists from backing it. Others, including David Brooks, the New York Times columnist, rebuked the March for not avoiding “the language and tropes of identity politics,” a claim certainly underscored by the evident tension between black and white organizers at the start. However one views the March, or the organizing principles behind it, it is fair to say that no other cause or movement in the last thirty years brought four million people to the streets—indeed in countries around the globe. Thus the question arises: what are the marchers demanding, and whom do they oppose?

Obviously everyone attending—or even scoffing at the marchers—has answers to this question. But I want to advance the hypothesis, echoing Marx, that what unites every one of these protesters, and in fact unites them with the people they oppose (in most cases, conservatives), is a genuine distrust of capitalism and all the inequities it's invariably engendered.

When I raised this idea with a friend, a lawyer and fellow marcher, he laughed. “I didn't see a single sign denouncing capitalism,” he said. While he's right, and while probably ninety-five percent of the people marching—as well as those opposing them—would, if asked, express their support for capitalism, every single one of the causes they were marching for—or, as the conservatives would see it, against—boils down to capitalism and is explainable in terms of class.

Even abortion, long a lightning rod of controversy in the U.S., and on which the populace is evenly divided, even across party-lines¹,  is, at a bottom, a dispute regarding class, as Antoinette Konikow, an early Russian communist and American immigrant, argued as far back as 1923. “Women can never obtain real independence unless her functions of procreation are under her own control,” she wrote in a pamphlet called Voluntary Motherhood. ² Today, most feminists, citing Roe v. Wade’s (1973) upholding of the right to privacy, see the regulation of abortion as the state's intrusion on their bodies, essentially an encroachment on labor rights (labor in both the economic and obstetric sense). Conservatives, by contrast, see themselves as defending unborn babies and upholding the sanctity of life, which is also, at bottom, a claim against intrusion and a defense of human rights. Who’s right in this debate is less important than what unites both sides—and indeed all socio-political debates: the collective belief that individuals are being trampled or hurt. Until both sides recognize this commonality—the fundamental fact of their unity—and until both sides of the political spectrum recognize their common cause—their revolt against Capital—both sides will continue to lurch in an endless void of discontent, during which time the conditions around them will worsen. Indeed, this is exactly Capital's goal in so far as a divided opponent—the entire working class—is split on baseless grounds. It is also a fact that no genuine social change will come about, and no improvement in circumstances arise—except for those of the ruling class—until all working people recognize their common plight and the fact of their opposition to Capital.


Brooks was right when he remarked that the March represented a return to identity politics, and a fruitless regression at that. Of course, what he didn't say, and couldn't be expected to understand, is precisely why the March devolved into this: namely the ruling class, of which he is invariably part, or at least in thrall to ideologically, requires protesters to cling to these cultural identities: black, woman, Latino, gay, disabled, Muslim, etc. No doubt each one of these groups represents targeted types. One should not and cannot trivialize the facts of their daily oppression, nor minimize the horrors they face. But what one also cannot overlook is the degree to which the vast majority of members of these groups have been deluded into thinking their oppression as a group is singular, or that it stems from their cultural identity rather than their social class. The ruling class wants them to believe this—in fact requires them to—since it effectively divides the opposition and prevents them from attaining any kind of common linkage.

Traditionally Marxists have described racism, misogyny, ethnocentrism, and other forms of social oppression as epiphenomenal, meaning they result from struggles of class but aren't entirely reducible to class struggles. Marxists themselves faced enormous backlash during the upheavals of the 1960's, when their views were accused of being “reductionist.” Indeed, the Black Power Movement, and its latter-day movement, Black Lives Matter, have both accused Leftists of this, a claim that perhaps reached its apotheosis in the 2016 Presidential Primaries, when African-Americans overwhelmingly rejected the self-described “democratic socialist” candidate, Bernie Sanders, in favor of the more centrist one, Hillary Clinton. ³ Clinton herself campaigned vigorously around a mode of identity politics, and even Sanders, compelled to adapt, tried to adopt her traits. When he was asked at a debate in October, for example, whether “black lives matter” or “all lives matter,” he responded, fittingly, “black.” In the end, both segments failed—“democratic socialists” and “centrists”—as arguably the ruling class sought.

More recently, within the Academy, the question of whether racism and other forms of oppression are ultimately reducible to class has been revived after a period of relative dormancy. The rise of intersectionality studies has tried to do precisely this, employing terms like “matrix of domination,” as Patricia Hill Collins calls it, or “vectors of oppression and privilege” to show how social differences combine to create social inequality. But by falling to recognize the primacy of class, and the fact of epiphenomena, the movement undoubtedly plays into the hands of the ruling class, which probably explains its ascendance at universities.

Even within the realm of pure philosophy, where scholars grapple with the question, some of the most radical Leftists continue to invent creative ways of effectively dodging the question. Robert Paul Wolff, arguably the doyen of Marxist philosophers, and a self-described anarchist, summarizes his approach on his blog:

There are two structures of domination and inequality in virtually all societies, the first social and the second economic, neither of which can be reduced to nor explained as a function of the other, although they everywhere and always interact in endlessly complex ways…Neither of these structures, I say, is explainable merely as a subordinate form of the other, though many of the social theorists whose work I most respect have thought that it was.

Note the word “interact,” which, if not minimizing class, treats it as one of multiple causes of oppression. Admittedly this is only a blog post and shouldn’t be seen as indicative of Wolff’s broader work, though he has repeated it elsewhere. The problem is Marx himself never uses the word interact, nor does he imply it. In his Preface to the Critique of Political Economy, he famously explains:

In the social production of their life, men enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will; these relations of production correspond to a definite stage of development of their material forces of production. The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society — the real foundation, on which rises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life determines the social, political and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.

Thus, while humans might become conscious of their racial, gender, ethnic, religious, or varying identities, it is one fact alone, a person’s “relation” to the “mode of production of material life,” i.e., class, that “determines” this consciousness. Class is causal. Any thinking that tries to dispute that, or lessen it, or rearrange it, risks, as Terry Eagleton points out, trivializing the role of class and overlooking its potential for revolution. As Eagleton explains in The Illusions of Postmodernism (1996), class, for Marx, is not entirely a “bad thing”; indeed it contains the site of revolution, or the foundation on which social change can be built. While many feminists, critical race theorists, and even Marxists, as Wolff’s posting shows, have tried to deflect this claim, doing so not only bowdlerizes Marx, but it overlooks the revolutionary potential of his work: the fact that class alone, or the relation to the mode of production, is the sole springboard on which a revolution can be built.


All of this is to say that when four million humans marched, they did so with various causes in mind, and there will be no hope, indeed there can be no hope, until they start to realize what it is they collectively oppose, and, in fact, what causes all of their dismay: capitalism.

So what's the alternative to it, you might ask. That I don't know. And neither, arguably, did Marx. Certainly he, like many thinkers after him, trumpeted the idea of collective planning, or the notion that the means of production should be controlled by producers themselves, rather than an ownership class. Whether communism, socialism, or even just a regulated economy serves that end is very hard to say. In fact, my ambivalence on this question—and Marx’s as well—may very well parallel post-Marxists’ inability to unite around class, or uphold its primacy in determining social ills. Indeed, it's entirely possible that both ambiguities serve the ruling class by stifling effective opposition. It's also possible, as Marx probably thought, that humans are so inscribed in class conflict, and indeed curtailed in their liberation, that they cannot yet arrive at a plan, or an effective means of escape.

Certainly Marx saw the process of liberation as gradual—and inevitable at that. Perhaps social planning will come about the same way.


¹ Interestingly, a 2016 Pew Survey indicated that over a third (36%) of surveyed Republicans thought abortion should be legal in all or some cases, and about a quarter (25%) of surveyed Democrats thought abortion should be illegal in all or most cases. on-abortion- 2/

² Cited in marxist-tradition

³ See, for example, Colin Daileda’s piece at Mashable, “Black Lives Matter and Bernie Sanders aren't natural allies.”



Created: January 27, 2017

Age: 38

State: Minnesota


J. A. Bernstein's story collection, STICK-LIGHT, is forthcoming from Eyewear Editions (U.K.), where it was shortlisted for the Beverly Prize. His novel, RACHEL'S TOMB, won the Hackney Award and Knut House Novel Contest. His writings have appeared in Boston Review, Kenyon Review Online, and Tampa Review, as well as academic journals, including The Conradian. He is an assistant professor of English at the University of Minnesota Duluth and the fiction editor of Tikkun. His website is