What is privilege theory and why is it wrong?

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Those with differing views who are committed to a world without oppression, unite to defend those under attack because of their race, nationality, gender, sexual orientation and so on. People take a common, unified stand because they are revolted at the bullying in society and they understand that standing together is the only way we are strong enough to resist the forces behind prejudice.

Socialists should engage positively with those fighting oppression but we must not hide our theoretical differences. We analyse privilege theory and intersectionality from a Marxist point of view to show how and why we differ.

Privilege theory, by concentrating primarily upon individual relationships rather than the oppressive system of capitalism, directs people away from the kind of social solidarity necessary to beat oppression.

Where does privilege theory come from?

The fragmentation of the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s and the political pessimism of the 1980s – the years that neo-liberalism was introduced as the dominant economic ideology – led to the development of identity politics.

This provides the basis for privilege theory. It saw a shift from struggles that challenged the power of the state, to either seeking accommodation with it or retreating into a lifestyle-focused or identity-based politics that ignored the state and questions of structural inequality.

The theoretical backbone of identity politics was the rise of so-called post-Marxist and post-modernist theories in academia. This break with Marxism held that the period of trying to understand society as a whole was over. The stress was now on the multiple and fragmented character of reality. Post-modernism reflected the politics of a generation demoralised by the defeat of the mass movements of the 1960s and 1970s.

Power and privilege

“Post” Marxists reject classical Marxism’s concerns with class and class struggle as the central driving force of history and the working class as the agent of socialist change. They explicitly argue for the rejection of Marxist notions of class. For them it is wrong and futile to attempt to understand how the variety of oppressions fit together into a wider picture of how society works.

Another central “post” Marxist argument is that “power is everywhere” – rather than being unitary, power is a multiplicity of relations infiltrating the whole of the social body. Consequently no cause can be assigned, as it is by Marxism, to the economic base. Power is productive: it does not operate by repressing individuals but by constituting them. Power evokes resistance, albeit as fragmentary and decentralised as the power-relations it contests.

Power is not something that some people have and others don’t. It is not concentrated in the hands of the capitalist class or the state as the classical Marxist tradition would have it but is something that is distributed throughout society and exists therefore in all social and interpersonal relationships. The argument is that power does not reside in the ruling class or the state. The focus is on the individual they claim.

It is correct to argue that structural inequalities exist. But the real question is why? If structural inequalities and systems of oppression are not seen as rooted in the economic system of capitalism, or in class society more generally in the case of women’s oppression, then these inequalities can seem to exist as autonomous spheres of dominance.

Who benefits from oppression?

Oppression does not come from a power play between individuals locked into competition with each other. Oppression arises in class society, benefiting the ruling class, with the particular forms of oppression shaped by the economic basis of society. To take one example, racism was first developed by white plantation owners as a justification for the enslavement of black Africans.

But when analysing forms of oppression that predate capitalism – specifically women’s oppression – it can be more difficult to see who benefits. Women’s oppression emerged with the ability to produce surplus food, the resulting division of society into classes, and the rise of family forms that aided the handing down of wealth through the generations.

Who benefits from women’s oppression today?

In most cases a small group of wealthy men came to control society’s resources and this in turn encouraged the emergence of patriarchy in households. So the family was a consequence of the development of class, rather than an age-old hierarchy in which women have always been oppressed. Under capitalism the function and the form that the family has taken have been radically altered so that its primary role is now as a place where the next generation of labour is created and nurtured.

To understand who benefits from women’s oppression today it is vital to grasp the impact that the capitalist family has on the perceived roles of both women and men. First, the system ensures that the cost of reproducing the next generation of labour is privatised, shifting its cost in time and money almost entirely onto the family.

Second, women’s labour outside the home is cheapened because of the assumption that their primary role is as a carer to a family.

Third, responsibility for the financial maintenance of the family unit is still widely assumed to fall on the male, thereby allowing capitalism to wash its hands of any responsibility and creating for the man a fear of failing his family if he is unable to find work to support them.

Racism and the oppression of women work in the interests of capitalism. Interaction on the basis of economic necessity ultimately always asserts itself.

Marxism and oppression

Opponents of Marxism often claim that Marxism reduces everything to class and therefore cannot help understand or counter oppression. If true then you would expect Marxists to have ignored struggles for liberation, treating them as a diversion from class struggle.

But Marxism does not ignore oppression. A cursory reading of Marx and Engels shows that they both viewed chauvinism and prejudice as a cancer in the working-class movement – one that required the utmost attention from socialist organisations of the day.

A class analysis is crucial to understanding the roots of oppression, that is how and under what circumstances it began, and why it continues today.

Class analysis helps us understand in whose interest oppression functions, and how it is linked to the capitalist system as a whole. Developing such an approach allows Marxists to avoid the main pitfalls that befall other attempts to explain oppression which tend to see it as either the result of poor education and lack of appropriate training, or as something innate and biologically written into our brains.

Second, class analysis is vital because, by locating the problem within the system rather than within individuals, and identifying a force that can overthrow the system, it holds out the only real possibility of fundamental and permanent change.

Marxists argue that capitalism can be overthrown, and with it will go the whole baggage of backward ideas that the system depends on. The working class is the only group in society that has both the power and a material interest in overturning society and creating the world anew.


Because privilege theory’s primary focus is on the inequality between individuals it cannot arm us for a fight that is ultimately against the system as a whole. But the damage is not just in the way it limits the horizons of struggle; it also hampers the battles against prejudice and discrimination taking place here and now.

The fights against oppression stand at a crossroads. The battles of previous generations have opened the door to a layer of the oppressed to advance into positions in the middle and ruling class. For this stratum, the struggle for equality is reduced to one for equal access to the opportunities of their class – that is to be allowed enough seats at the top table.

We have a black president in the most powerful country in the world and a female chancellor in the most powerful country in Europe.

A few at the top set an agenda for the struggle that suits their own needs, whilst down below oppression and inequality persist, and life gets harder for most as austerity bites. For some of today’s activists, privilege theory is primarily a way to assert opposition to oppression. That can be a good starting point and expresses concerns that we share.

It is however not a framework that can move the struggles forward. The left has a big responsibility both to work with others to make all the many struggles against oppression as vibrant and broad as possible, but also to fight for a politics and a strategy that can win.

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