Convention Discussion: Privilege – Towards a Marxist analysis

 
BY: Dee Miles| May 29, 2014

Submitted by Dee Myles, Chicago, IL

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.


The views and opinions expressed in the Convention Discussion are those of the author alone. The Communist Party is publishing these views as a service to encourage discussion and debate. Those views do not necessarily reflect the views of the Communist Party, its leading bodies or staff members. The CPUSA Constitution, Program, and all its existing policies remain in effect during the Convention discussion period and during the Convention.

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CONVENTION DISCUSSION 
30th National Convention, Communist Party USA
Chicago | June 13-15, 2014

Comments (6)

Chauncey K. R. | June 11, 2014 at 7:17 PM

I think this is a very interesting piece, and a good starting point to begin looking at the question of the changing way in which people are discussing race and racism in the present. There’s new analysis and theories being introduced. Some by scholars who have been around for some time, and others by up and coming younger generations who have their own perspectives. The talk on white privilege is one I’ve seen discussed in a lot of younger circles, and more so being able to call out when it is seen so that people who are not white, are still able to discuss and express themselves in a safe space. I think there of course is a time and place for digging deeper into what white privilege actually is, (which I agree for white working people is a tactic by the ruling class to make them think they have more in common with the bosses than with other workers who happen to be of other races) and I do agree that the main focus should be about pointing out the similarities workers of all walks of life have in common, in order to push solidarity and the idea of having a common goal in the fight to end capitalist exploitation.

With that said, I do think at times it can turn into a slippery slope for some, when we have the tactic of pushing similarities so much so, that the differences are often told to be ignored or played down. Often to the detriment of the person of color who has had to witness/experience such differences. I think one of the main goals should be, in talking to and recruiting people of backgrounds other than white, is making it so they don’t feel like they can’t talk about their experiences, and their frustration with oppression, and at times witnessing white privilege, without being told by people in the movement that they shouldn’t focus on that, or the oversimplified motto that ‘all workers are oppressed in some way’ with no real in depth analysis to back it up. I think it runs the risk of sounding dismissive.

I think overall, that it’s a good idea to want to win people over to a deeper analysis. I also think it can be said that people in the movement should work hard to understand why certain analysis are now coming up, and being used as often as they are, and what they grow out from. And also I think it would be great to have maybe an update piece or pamphlet on race and racism that tackles these new ideas being introduced as well.

Margaret Baldridge | June 07, 2014 at 9:59 PM

One concept that is perhaps not “spreading like wildfire,” but that nonetheless seems to be getting traction is a renewed interest in reparations as identified in the much-touted article by Ta-Nehisi Coates in this month’s Atlantic magazine. After documenting the corporate and governmental theft of African-American labor, land, housing and all forms of social and economic rights, from 250 years of slavery through today, Coates offers an accessible place to restart the discussion on reparations: Congressman John Conyers’ HR 40 bill in the US House of Representatives.
Conyers has introduced this bill every year since 1989 but not been able to get it to the floor of Congress. The bill would establish a commission to study slavery and its impact and recommend “appropriate remedies to redress the harm inflicted on living African Americans.”
Perhaps the Party supported this bill in the past. But wouldn’t popularizing and militating for this bill now be a viable way to “contribute to the organization and mobilization of working class forces,” as Dee Myles puts it, “to wage a struggle to win (these forces) to a deeper analysis, a more Marxist analysis” of the illusion of a working class stake in white privilege?

Beth Edelman | June 03, 2014 at 10:14 PM

Powerful analysis. I hope you will consider bookend this piece with additional thinking and contribute it to Political Affairs.

jimlane | June 03, 2014 at 12:23 PM

Well said. Good analysis is a necessary step to success, and this is good analysis. –jim lane in Texas

Richard Grassl | June 03, 2014 at 11:16 AM

This sharp critique on privilege exposes how the ruling class is able to convince working people to vote against their own self interest through shallow, short term appeals that one is better than their neighbor or co-worker.
The ultimate expression of this contradiction suggests that it is alright to discriminate, even when it violates the Constitution, as pointed out by Michelle Alexander in the book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.
Another example was the reactionary, anti-communist hysteria waged in the Cuban American community in Miami before, during and after the trial of the Cuban 5. Presently, their case is being litigated by a jury of millions. The issue appears to be credibility of the US justice system itself. An injury to one is an injury to all.

Esther Moroze | June 01, 2014 at 11:02 AM

This is a great analysis of an issue that is out there. It would be great if someone could compile the statistics that Dee mentions comparing white WORKERS with other workers. It might be quite instructing.

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