Why capitalism needs oppression

By Allen Myers

Capitalism is a system based on exploitation. For Marxists, this has a precise scientific meaning. Capitalists take for themselves the monetary values created by or belonging to other people — usually workers, but also small farmers and, to varying degrees, small shop owners and nominally independent tradespeople. This value is what their capital consists of.

But exploitation does not exhaust the harmful effects that capitalism has on the rest of the world. Capitalist society also invents many forms of oppression, as well as perpetuating many inherited from earlier forms of social organisation. Oppression is the systematic imposition of inferior conditions of life on particular groups of people. Members of an oppressed group may be discriminated against economically, socially and/or politically.

Sometimes oppression has an economic impact; in some way, it increases the capitalists’ ability to exploit. An obvious example is discrimination against women or against a national or racial minority. The victims of such discrimination often receive lower wages than other workers, so this oppression adds directly to capitalists’ profits.

Capitalists gain a slightly more indirect economic benefit from militarism and war. Two world wars in the 20th century occurred primarily because the capitalists of the major imperialist countries were competing for colonies and semi-colonies, to monopolise the profits from them. Today capitalists are risking making the planet uninhabitable for much of the human race because behaving differently might reduce their profits.

Political motives

Capitalism also maintains oppressions in which profits are at most a very secondary consideration. The economic benefits that capitalists seek from war and militarism are less significant than their political role. The military forces maintained by imperialist countries like Australia are an ever present threat to the peoples of the underdeveloped countries: “Step too far out of line, don’t do as you’re told, and you’ll have a fight on your hands (in which we hold all the weapons)”. These forces are also the ultimate guarantee of capitalists’ power in their own country: that is, they are intended for use against their own working people if they get too far “out of line”.

Capitalists have to maintain a variety of oppressions because they are a very small minority in any society. If the exploited majority were to act together to put an end to exploitation, they could very easily overcome the capitalists. For this reason, the capitalists have a very strong vested interest in preventing the exploited majority from getting used to the idea of working together — on almost anything.

Oppression has a political function for capitalism if it sets one section of the exploited against another section. Male union members who think that a woman’s “real” place is at home won’t build a strong union. Parents who are concerned about their children going to school with immigrant children won’t be raising demands on the government to provide better education for everyone. People who think that a neighbouring country’s religion is dangerous to them won’t resist their own government’s militarism.


Socialism is about human liberation: from exploitation, and from all forms of oppression. There is a parody view — sometimes held by some socialists — that socialists therefore believe that victims of oppression should put off the struggle for their own liberation until “after the revolution”, at which point the new socialist government will put everything right. Such an attitude misses the essential point: we will never escape capitalism without uniting in action the great majority of the working people, who are now mostly disunited and often at loggerheads with each other because of discrimination and oppression.

So fighting for socialism necessarily means fighting to help the oppressed overcome their oppression now, not in some distant future. This is the meaning of “solidarity”: “We are with you because your future is also our future”. Anything else allows the capitalists to continue keeping us divided and unable to consistently confront our real enemy: them.