Summary: Based on a presentation to the Los Angeles chapter of the International Marxist-Humanist Organization as part of the class series, “For a Humanist Alternative to Patriarchy and Capitalism” — Editors
Capitalism is a social totality that includes the economic mode of production and the institutions and ideologies that reproduce the relations of production. Class formation has never been a question of just economic relations but has also included relations of race and sex. People are more than their relation to the means of production and any social critique must consider how further determinations like race and sex affect the daily lives of working people. Under the capitalist mode of production, race and sex become fixed categories to legitimize hierarchies of wealth and privilege. Racism and sexism are ideologies that have a material foundation that must be uprooted. Over the past half-century, countless movements and organizations have formed to challenge the material foundations of racial and sexual inequality. These movements have made great strides in gaining rights and legal protections for the disenfranchised. A large number of these movements have had leaders from Black, Latinx, and other BIPOC communities.
Of these recent movements, the first we can look at are the George Floyd Protests that took place in the summer of 2020. Beginning in Minneapolis and spreading to over 2000 cities and 60 countries, these protests are recognized as some of the largest in U.S. history. At least 15 million people participated in these protests in the U.S. alone. Ndindi Kitonga’s article, “Where Do We Go from Here? Black Lives Matter as an Ongoing Movement” (2020) https://imhojournal.org/articles/where-do-we-go-from-here-black-lives-matter-as-an-ongoing-movement/, discusses the George Floyd Protests and reveals that behind the Black Lives Matter movement were millions of Black activists engaged in various radical practices. These practices included “de-/anti-colonial (3rd world) feminisms, queer liberatory feminisms, abolitionist feminisms, and Marxist and other socialist feminisms.” This movement was neither led by a single leader nor leaderless but had various leaders at the local and national levels, many of whom were Black women. The organizations working within this movement, while following a tradition rooted in radical Black politics, distinguished themselves from past civil rights movements. Ndindi quoting Barbara Cohen observes that this is in part “because of feminist teaching, feminist scholarship, especially Black feminist teaching and scholarship”. It is no surprise then that this leadership included not just cis women of color but also many women of color who identify as queer. These activists were also involved in mutual aid networks, which in Ndindi’s view serve a dual purpose of addressing “communities’ survival needs” and undermining “the reification of human relations under capitalism”. In Marx’s analysis of social life under capitalism, capital’s subsumption of every part of our lives degrades the family structure similar to how capitalist production degrades the material basis of production. The mutual aid work being done by these organizers is important for the emergence of new forms of family and caretaking outside the exploitative relations produced by capitalism.
Ndindi also connects the Black Lives Matter movement to the history of Black radical internationalism which has its origins in the 19th-century abolitionist movement. This movement recognized that a revolutionary transformation of society required addressing “all global struggles in relation to white supremacy, imperialism, colonization, and racialized capitalism”. Black radicals condemned not only the actions of the U.S. government but all imperialist governments across the world and allied themselves with different anti-colonial movements in Latin America, Asia, and Africa. The new Black internationalist movement draws on this history but also incorporates the theoretical insights of the recent prison industrial complex scholars and BIPOC feminist collectives. The fact that throughout the world the “imprisonment of women and non-gender-conforming people is growing at a much faster rate than men’s imprisonment” proves there is a necessity for an internationalist movement that engages with the theoretical insights of these feminist scholars and continues to creatively organize against global carceral capital.
Movements like Black Lives Matter reveal that capitalism cannot solve the issue of racism. The progressive wing of the Democratic party has not been able to properly address racial and economic injustice because they fall short of critiquing capitalism. It is the inherent contradictions of capitalism that lead to the devaluation of Black lives and the degradation of their social being into a source of economic value. This falls all the harder on working-class Black women who, as Ndindi notes, perform a large portion of reproductive labor which sustains capitalism. It was not the elites of the Democratic party but the young Black activists who in the summer of 2020 mobilized their communities to push for anti-racist policies and challenge the Conservative lawmakers. Furthermore, it shows that women of color and particularly Black women have been playing a leading role in projects aimed at restructuring society. The international solidarity which has sprung from the Black Lives Matter movement shows that it is about much more than racial justice in the U.S. It is a movement that is international in substance insofar as it is a struggle against racist and sexist institutions that capitalism is built on.
Turning our attention to Latinx communities we can see that women have played a similar role by using anti-capitalist politics to organize against racial and gender inequality. In her book, A Revolutionary Subject: Pedagogy of Women of Color and Indigeneity (2019), Lilia Monzó points attention to the fact that while many recognize the poor working class is made of indigenous and BIPOC communities, they still overlook Chicanx, Boricua, and Latinx women as a revolutionary subject. Stereotypes rooted in a history of colonial and sexual domination downplay the important role Latinx women have played in organizing in their communities, especially at the grassroots level. She emphasizes that the revolutionary subject is not a natural given but is “made in the process of struggle”. The history of Latinx women in America is a history of struggle in the face of dehumanizing conditions. There is an undeniable revolutionary subjectivity that has emerged from these struggles and reveals the commitment to change that exists among Latinx women. In Latin America, Latinx women have been the heart of revolutionary movements using their skills to develop relationships of trust and solidarity. Even when men have been given the leading roles in armed struggles, women have taken up other responsibilities in the home or their communities and this work is equally important but goes unrecognized.
Lilia draws attention to these unrecognized women by presenting the stories of four Latinx women activists from Southern California. These stories reveal “the dynamic and complex interplay of class relations, racism, sexism, cultural differences and cultural pride, and immigration status.” It is due to their experiences and personal connections as Latinx women that they arrived at an understanding of this dynamic. Like Cheyenne Reynoso who shares that her involvement in activism came from her personal experiences and seeing her mother speak out against discrimination. Another woman named Marisol Ramirez remarks that the advantage of being a young woman in local organizing is that it is easier for other women in her community to confide in her. While there are deeply painful experiences behind all these women’s stories there is also hope and courage. Despite the oppressive conditions they faced as a result of being Latinx women and immigrants, there is still a resilience and sense of solidarity that carries them forward. These are stories of survival and liberation.
By presenting the stories of these women Lilia also challenges the narratives which attempt to put the spotlight only on key figures and leave thousands of others in the dark. This tendency makes the key figures of social movements into heroes that the average person can only hope to come close to. In reality, these figures were similar to us in many ways. No movement for change can survive through the will of a select few. It is the hundreds and thousands doing the everyday work of talking to people and making small changes in their community that keeps a movement alive and growing even after the key figures are gone. It is not an accident that these thousands go unmentioned in the popular narratives as Lilia argues “This invisibility often stops us from believing that we too can make a difference.” It helps to not hold oneself to an impossible standard but instead recognize how much the little things we accomplish can make a difference.
Lilia brings forth another salient point that the women of color who are engaging in grassroots organizing bring knowledge and ways of knowing the world that differs from the traditional western approaches. These traditional western approaches have dismissed non-western knowledge as particularistic and center the white Western man as the universal producer of scientific knowledge and truth. This is what Colombian philosopher Santiago Castro-Gomez calls the “point zero”, the point of view that represents itself as being without a point of view (Zero-Point Hubris). Lilia notes that historically, these western approaches “have ruled organizational structures for centuries and, given the conditions of today’s world, have not proven effective”. Marxists must recognize how western male-dominated forms of knowledge affect how we think about the world and organize to change it. Learning from the perspectives of these BIPOC grassroots organizers allows us to deconstruct this hierarchy of superior and inferior knowledge and recognize that nobody has a God’s eye view of the world.
I believe that recognizing these new ways of seeing the world corresponds to what Raya Dunayevskaya called “Women’s Liberation not only as Force, but as Reason.” Dunayevskaya invited us to see women not only as forces of liberation who are fighting to resist oppressive conditions but as thinkers as well. For they bring forth an array of new ideas that can enrich revolutionary thought and help develop a more concrete view of the world. In fighting for freedom, they are creating new ways of thinking and this, to quote Dunayevskaya again, is “a step forward in philosophic cognition” (Marxism and Freedom, p. 89).
Many on the radical left have become too dismissive of movements that are not immediately socialist. But capitalism must be seen as more than an economic struggle and movements which address the issues of racism or sexism can still challenge capital. While we should be aware of the limitations of these movements, we should not separate ourselves from the creative organizing in BIPOC communities and particularly by women of color. The 2020 George Floyd Protests demonstrated that much can be achieved through grassroots organizing. And although the major changes came in the form of social reforms these reforms are still necessary for the survival of BIPOC communities. Things like decreasing funding for police and gaining more rights for the incarcerated clear the way for more revolutionary organizing. The grassroots organizing being done by women in Latinx communities shows the effectiveness of different forms of collective and decentralized organizing. By connecting their efforts to the personal experiences that they share as Latinx women, they’ve managed to challenge the racist and sexist institutions of capitalism. Even though these local micro-level efforts are not going to bring down capitalism themselves they are as Lilia says, “nonetheless contexts for the critically important work of personal and cultural affirmation that challenges internalized oppression and supports the development of critical consciousness and agency”. These movements can also inspire international solidarity as was seen in 2020.
Whether it is nationwide protests or grassroots organizing it is clear that women in Black, Latinx and other BIPOC communities have demonstrated to be strong leaders in the ongoing movement for freedom. There has always been a link between racial, sexual, and class oppression and women of color have always faced multiple intersection forms of oppression. The theoretical insights from BIPOC feminist scholars and activists have shown to be particularly valuable to understanding and combatting these related systems of oppression. These insights are valuable not only for challenging capitalism but to challenge prejudices that arise in our own movement. Marxists must understand feminism not as an addendum to the emancipation of the working class but such a necessity that emancipation is not possible without feminist analyses and practices. When people act to change their social conditions, they are not just fighting to satisfy their material needs but are affirming their humanity. From the struggles of women in Black, Latinx, and BIPOC communities we see this process of humanization taking place. It is in the self-activity of these communities that we can see new creative energies that are aiming for freedom. This struggle for freedom is ultimately a struggle for human development.