This article by Candace Cohn outlines the origins and problems of privilege theory. Cohn was an activist and revolutionary socialist in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s and one of the first women accepted into the carpenters’ union. She became a labour and civil rights lawyer in the 1980s. The article was first published in Socialist Worker in 2015.
The privilege model of oppression, often encountered in today’s liberal and radical circles, has evolved since the 1960s. Many of today’s well-intentioned advocates are unaware of the theory’s class roots – roots that continue to profoundly impact privilege politics today.
At the height of the American civil rights movement, when theories of oppression might be expected to have some resonance, privilege politics were virtually unknown. The privilege model was unable to find a foothold among the hundreds of thousands of anti-racists involved in the country’s massive and often integrated struggles for freedom. Only later, during the tragic crisis and disintegration of the New Left at the end of the 1960s, were privilege politics able to gain a hearing – among white, middle-class students, most of whom had had no involvement in the civil rights movement. White-skin privilege theory would come to play a major role in the destruction of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) by extreme sectarians.
The roots of privilege theory extend deep into the factional political atmosphere of early American Maoism. The specific use of white-skin privilege concepts, which date back to US slavery, to analyse oppression began in one tiny section of the Stalinist left, the obscure Provisional Organizing Committee to Reconstitute the Marxist Leninist Party, a 1958 split from the Communist Party. The Provisional Organizing Committee’s split was based on two fundamental policies: defence against all criticism of Stalin’s anti-working-class oppression, and establishment of a separate Black republic in the South as the answer to American racism. These two views formed the political context in which white-skin privilege theory developed.
Two long-time members of the Provisional Organizing Committee, Noel Ignatin and Ted Allen, would become known for their 1967 pamphlet White Blindspot, presenting the arguments for white-skin privilege theory:
“The US ruling class has made a deal with the mis-leaders of American labor, and through them with the masses of white workers. The terms...are these: you white workers help us conquer the world and enslave the non-white majority of the earth’s laboring force, and we will repay you with...the...privileges befitting your white skin [citing various examples of greater access to jobs, health care, education, etc.]. [Note: all emphasis within all quotations in this article appear in the original sources.]”
An “opportunistic ‘contract’ resulted”, according to Ignatin, “between the exploiters and a part of the exploited, at the expense of the rest of the exploited”. White workers were co-conspirators with their bosses in depriving Blacks and people of the Third World of their rights. The “only way possible” for “white workers to fight against white supremacy” was “by repudiating their white-skin privileges”. White workers might “have a ‘world to win’. But – they have more to lose than their chains; they have also to ‘lose’ their white-skin privileges, the perquisites that separate them from the rest of the working class, that act as the material base for the split in the ranks of labor”.
The term “privileges” was used to describe measures, such as relatively decent schools and medical care, to which whites received greater access. The problem with this conception is that these measures, rather than representing undeserved “privileges”, were in fact reforms won by the working class through bitter struggle. These class gains represented the return of a small part of the great wealth held by capitalists that workers had produced. Privilege theory – on the basis of unequal access to these gains under racist American capitalism – converted hard-won class victories, reforms and rights into “undeserved” workers’ “privileges”.
The privilege model, moreover, was producing radicals who tried to convince American workers that they were getting more than their fair share, and that they should give up their already inadequate lifestyles, possessions and class gains. It was manna from heaven for the ruling class.
The Revolutionary Youth Movement and Students for a Democratic Society
In the late 1960s, a number of sectarian political groups were vying for control of Students for a Democratic Society, the largest radical organisation of the 1960s, which had grown to mass proportions during the anti-war movement, and which identified itself as socialist. The 100,000-strong, multi-tendency organisation of the New Left had played a decisive role in the national student revolt and mass radicalisation of the 1960s. White Blindspot specifically addressed one of the sects vying for control of SDS, Progressive Labor (PL), a Stalinist-Maoist group that subordinated questions of national oppression and liberation to its narrow views of the class struggle.
The largest groups in SDS vying for control against PL were both from the Stalinist-Maoist Revolutionary Youth Movement (RYM). RYMI (the Weathermen) and RYMII (Bob Avakian’s Revolutionary Union and other Maoists) counterposed questions of Black and Third World oppression to the American class struggle. In 1969, RYMI and RYMII banded together and, in a document co-authored by Ignatin, adopted white-skin privilege, using it to wage a highly divisive faction fight against PL. In the process, they destroyed SDS, and replaced the mass, radical, national New Left student organisation with a series of Maoist sects, each proclaiming itself to be the true revolutionary vanguard. Revolutionary party organisation was discredited within the broad left for generations.
As an ideological weapon, privilege theory reflected RYM’s middle-class student composition, its isolation from the class struggle, and its Stalinist-Maoist worldview – including alienation from, and elitist distrust of, the working class. RYM rejected the need for American workers to organise around their own needs and their own oppression. It viewed the primary struggle in the world, to which all other struggles must be subordinated, as that between the revolutionary Third World and US imperialism. RYM saw American workers as little more than potential cheerleaders for Third World liberation struggles, cheerleaders who must renounce their imperialist privileges – that is, their wages, benefits and possessions:
“It is the oppressed peoples who have created the wealth of this empire and it is to them that it belongs; the goal of the revolutionary struggle must be the control and use of this wealth in the interests of the oppressed peoples of the world ... your television set, car and wardrobe already belong, to a large degree, to the people of the rest of the world. (Joint RYM document, quoted here.)”
In the midst of the great multiracial working-class revolt of the 1960s and 1970s, the Stalinist-Maoist ideas on privilege patently offered a poor guide to labour action. The theory’s strategic focus was on points of division among workers, the pitting of workers against one another in competition for “privileges”, and the programmatic prescription for worker renunciation and self-dispossession – all of which made it impossible for any of the Maoist sects, despite their relatively large numbers, to develop working-class roots in the rank-and-file labour upsurge. In addition, the opposition of privilege proponents to American workers fighting for their own class interests contributed to maintaining the country’s status quo, with its racism.
Other contradictions pervaded RYM’s privilege analysis. RYM argued that the same workers who should not, in its vision, fight against their own oppression should, and would, fight against the oppression of others – a utopian view of the class struggle based on moralism. Privilege theory deemed everyone privileged unless they were at the very bottom. If anyone was more oppressed than you – no matter how oppressed you were – you were privileged. If you were not the most oppressed, it was assumed you had a community of interest with the oppressors to oppress people more oppressed than you – and therefore you could not be trusted to engage in joint struggles against oppression. The logic of white-skin privilege theory led to some whites demanding that Blacks give up their privileges. Since Black workers in US auto, steel, trucking and similar industries made union scale, with wages comparable to those of whites, some privilege proponents concluded that Blacks in the US were privileged by imperialism, and must relinquish their “privileges” too. Faced with the enormous Black uprising of the time, most of the theory’s supporters declined to go that far.
Behind these contradictions and strategic cul-de-sacs lay fundamental gaps in privilege theory’s foundations. Its core conceptions – of workers’ class interest, worker culpability, institutional racism, the union bureaucracy, the nature of capitalism, the nature of exploitation, the nature of imperialism, the class struggle – were, as we shall see, totally flawed.
In the RYM theory of imperialism, exploitation did not occur in capitalist America. As RYM put it, “it is the oppressed peoples [‘of the rest of the world’] who have created the wealth of this empire”. Wealth was created offshore, in the Third World – not by the American working class. This fatal blind spot pervaded the RYM theory of oppression and privilege. Unable to recognise the exploitation of all American workers, including whites and men, white-skin privilege theory remained blind to exploitation as the central dynamic of both capitalism and the class struggle against it.
Blind to exploitation, privilege analysis rested on a quartet of misconceptions: that white workers and Black workers possess directly opposed and competing material interests; that white workers share common material interests with their white bosses; that racism serves the material interests of white workers; that white workers are co-creators with the capitalist class of institutional racism, and are co-responsible for it.
These conceptions are not only false. They echo the divisive propaganda of the capitalist class. Even if sections of the working and middle class buy into them, these ideas remain bourgeois ideology that serve the ruling class. The left must be able to recognise them as such.
The divide-and-conquer soul of racism serves the material interests of one class only: the capitalists. In the words of the great abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass, “They divided both in order to conquer each”. Racism’s utility to capitalism is that it enables the obscenely unjust and unequal economic system to exist. As Malcolm X put it, “You can’t have capitalism without racism”. By serving as a block against all workers uniting together to enforce their rightful, collective claim to all the wealth they create, including that vast portion stolen and accumulated by the ruling class, racism sabotages the one force – a united working class – that can destroy capitalism and racism with it.
Marxists have fought historically for the principle, and reality, that “unity” and “solidarity” in struggle mean – specifically – a working-class movement that champions the just demands of Black workers against racism. Unity, for Marxists, means unequivocal class solidarity with the struggles of all the oppressed. Among the many examples of this kind of unity is the 1970s’ rank-and-file United Action Caucus in the United Auto Workers, in which white skilled trades workers and Black assembly line workers united to fight for an anti-racist platform that demanded the opening of the skilled trades to Blacks. Building that kind of solidarity required an approach opposite to privilege theory’s focus on competing privileges, interests and differences. It required focusing instead on unified goals, fighting for better conditions for both Black and white workers, and on fighting against all racism together.
In arguing, by contrast, that racism serves white workers’ material interests, privilege theory fails to grasp that in class warfare, capital’s most powerful weapon (racism) against workers’ most powerful weapon (unity) cannot possibly serve workers’ material interests.
Class responsibility for racism
Not only was privilege theory wrong in arguing that racism served white workers’ material interests, it was equally off-base in claiming that white workers, including racist ones, had co-created systemic racism under capitalism. Although no support was offered for this verdict, it seemed to rest on three grounds.
First, privilege theory assumed, without data or discussion, that white workers were responsible for the sellouts of their union officials. Blaming rank-and-file workers for the corrupt, anti-democratic, pro-business, racist betrayals of the labour bureaucracy is similar to blaming the American people for the racist imperialist wars and foreign policies of the US ruling class.
Second, the privilege model apparently held white workers responsible because they were white on the basis of guilt-by-identity. Only white – and not Black, Latino, or any other – workers were held responsible for the actions of the union bureaucracy and of American imperialism.
Third, white workers were blamed for systemic racism because their “privileges” came, purportedly, at the expense of Blacks: white workers got more because Blacks got less, and vice versa. This assumption bought into the liberal capitalist idea that the size of the share of the economic pie available to workers is fixed and highly limited, and that different sub-groups of workers must fight against each other to expand their shares. Privilege theory focused on workers battling each other for the same shares, rather than on their fighting together for a just division of the share appropriated by the bosses – that fight, in the form of shop floor and union struggles for class demands, was explicitly opposed.
Furthermore, the privilege theory of causation – Black workers get less because white workers get more, and its corollary – flies in the face of American reality. Historically, wages, benefits and working conditions have always been significantly lower for working-class whites in the non-unionised South than for Black (and white) workers in unionised areas of the North. The higher union standard of living results not from racial privilege, but from the unity and solidarity of both Black and white workers in class struggle.
Institutional racism; strategy
The privilege model locates much of the cause of oppression in competition between workers and individuals. It holds, for example, that Black applicants, regardless of qualifications, don’t get hired because white ones do. Marxism rejects the idea that Black workers are refused at the door because fellow white workers exercise “the privilege” of earning a living. Marxism instead maintains that the capitalists organise production and the labour market. They bosses pick and divide workers, both as a function of their own racism, and as a strategy to divide Black, white, Latino, Asian and other workers against each other. When a white applicant gets a job over Black applicants, it’s not because s/he exercised a privilege, but because discrimination is built into capitalist employment practices. (Note that the practice known as “job trusts”, in which white workers controlled admission to some skilled trades jobs, restricting them to family members and friends, discriminating against Blacks and other whites, was a relatively small exception to the general rule that the capitalists control hiring and firing.)
In holding white workers co-responsible for systemic racism, the privilege model attributed a power to white workers they manifestly do not have: control over the institutions of American capitalism – schools, jobs, housing, factories, banks, police, courts, prisons, legislatures, media, elections, universities, armed services, hospitals, sports, political parties – all of which function in a racist manner. These institutions are owned and controlled by the capitalist class. They engineer, manage and enforce the social, economic and political racism that serves the social relations of American capitalism. It is these institutions that make racism such a powerful and inescapable part of American daily life.
The successful operation of racism under capitalism, like capitalism itself, requires that sections of the working class be convinced of racist ideas. One function, therefore, of bourgeois institutions is to cultivate racism among workers. A crucial part of the struggle against racism is fighting the false consciousness by which many workers accept, against their own material class interests, racism and other aspects of ruling class ideology. The battle to win such workers over on a class struggle basis is directly undermined by the privilege argument that they share common material interests with their bosses.
Because the purpose of Marxism is change in the real world, and because action and strategy flow from the understanding theory brings, our theory about the cause of racism and oppression under capitalism needs to be correct. Attribution of root causation to either individual or institutional sources, to workers or the ruling class, will determine strategy.
Privilege theory’s focus on assumptions of worker and personal complicity leads to a strategy of combating racism and oppression through individual evolution: self-renunciation, engaging in consciousness-raising discussions, developing deeper understandings of our different experiences, and attempting to change the operation of “privilege” in interpersonal dynamics. The contrasting Marxist view – that American racism, oppression and exploitation are an entrenched, institutionalised totality, which cannot be destroyed unless confronted at the root systemic level by social forces in struggle – leads to building social movements and class struggles in the real world.
Ignatin, Allen, and RYM first proposed their strategy of worker self-renunciation at the height of the golden age post-war boom. Even then, it was absurd for radicals to expect to build a workers’ movement for a better world by telling workers they must give up their “privileges” – their jobs, homes, pay scales and, as RYM put it, “television sets, cars and wardrobes”. Today, in the age of recurrent domestic and international economic crises, a “left” prescription for workers’ self-dispossession of “privileges” – echoing neoliberal calls for working-class sacrifice and austerity – is even more difficult to understand. Since the 1970s, white male workers with no more than a high school education have seen their wages drop by a third. Yet elitist, well-off, liberal academics who propagate privilege politics in the universities continue to argue that it is all whites and all men, including all white workers and all male workers, who are “privileged” – who, compared to others, have it too good.
A similar sentiment spread among a section of the radical student movement of the early 1960s, which began rejecting the working class as an agent for social change on grounds that it had “sold out,” because its inadequate standard of living was deemed “too high”. This conservative view prepared the ground in the student New Left for the anti-working-class privilege politics that would destroy it a decade later.
For decades since, the views that workers are “bought off” and/or “privileged” have contributed to the passivity of the middle-class liberal left in the face of the neoliberal attack on workers’ living standards and unions.
The privilege circuit
Contemporary privilege concepts have changed since the days of White Blindspot and RYM. In the decades following the 1970s demise of the left, privilege theory underwent several iterations – beginning with its entry into academia in the 1980s and 1990s, and then into the new millennium’s cyberspace, social media, political formations and press. But however modified today’s version of privilege theory may be, and however unaware of its history its current advocates may be, contemporary privilege politics remain profoundly influenced by their Stalinist-Maoist theoretical origins. Early practices have their impact too: American and international Maoists engaged, for example, in a forerunner to privilege-checking in what were called “criticism-self-criticism” sessions. (At the time, these sessions were a feature of Chinese internal repressive mechanisms to control the population.)
Modern privilege theory reflects the lack of class politics that has come to characterise the country and the left, despite increased popular awareness of the role of the ultra-wealthy. Neoliberalism, since crushing the left, working-class and social movements of the 1960s and 1970s, has largely succeeded in writing classes (the working class in particular), class politics and class struggle out of popular consciousness and public dialogue. In accepting and perpetuating this vacuum of class politics, the contemporary privilege model implicitly accepts the class assumptions of American capitalist society.
Some may argue that the focus on non-material “privileges” by much of today’s discussion represents a disconnect from the early demand for self-renunciation of material “privileges”. But the model operates much the same way in both material and non-material contexts, and reaches similar conclusions. Early privilege theory converted material reforms won through class struggle into undeserved “privileges”. In similar fashion, today’s model also converts non-material rights, and the non-experience of a particular kind of oppression, into unearned, undeserved “privileges”. Contemporary analysis of non-material so-called “privileges” continues to hold, just as original white-skin privilege theory did, that those who are not oppressed in a particular way can be assumed to be participants in that oppression. The false presumption of guilt-by-identity today masks ignorance of, if not indifference to, the responsibility of ruling class institutions for racism and oppression.
The destructive and divisive atmosphere often found in today’s privilege-checking culture reflects both the toxic sectarian factionalism of the theory’s originators, and the light years we have travelled from the civil rights and Black Power movements. Then, white radicals in this country routinely participated in and helped organise demonstrations and activities in support of anti-racist causes and campaigns – the victorious “Free Huey [Newton]” campaign (involving the Black Panther’s shoot-out with the police), an international cause célèbre, being one example. Then, Black and white militants joined forces in the interests of necessity and revolutionary unity. In today’s left, by contrast, white activists may “excuse” themselves, or be discouraged, from joining and organising anti-racist protests, on the “privilege” basis that they cannot possibly understand the Black experience of oppression and should not act like they do.
Whereas in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the raised fist – Black and white – expressed political, anti-racist, class solidarity for a generation, today’s popular symbols of anti-racist resistance (hands raised in the “Don’t Shoot” stance, hoodies, and “I am Trayvon Martin” signs) are sometimes argued by privilege advocates to be inappropriate for whites. In what would have been anathema to anti-racist movements of the past, some privilege advocates call upon whites to identify as whites – as part of a community with racists – instead of identifying themselves as anti-racist fighters.
In the 1960s and 1970s, to be sure, there were “radicals” who tried, at times successfully, to split the left on the basis of their particular oppression. With the fragmentation of the mass movement, separatist elements, in both the Black and women’s movements, developed. There were also nationalist groups within the Black movement that refused to have anything to do with whites. These were a stark contrast to the Black Panther Party, which considered many of the Black nationalist currents to be bourgeois cultural nationalists. The Panthers, by contrast, identified themselves as revolutionary nationalists, came out for gay liberation, stood for Black Power and socialism, and were identified by their slogan, “Power to the people” – a slogan with as much relevance today as then. Their alliances and joint struggles with whites included their rank-and-file autoworkers caucus in Fremont, California, the Black Panther Party Caucus, which included Hispanic, Asian, Black and white workers. Unfortunately, the political complexity of various nationalist and separatist currents of the time, and their relationship to contemporary debates about oppression, is too extensive to fall within the scope of this article.
Privilege theory’s original focus on white-skin privilege has since expanded, developing views on oppression and privilege in a variety of contexts, including gender and sexual orientation, among others. The variations, however, still reflect common historical, theoretical and political roots. These shared roots include a lack of unequivocal solidarity with those whose oppression is deemed less than, or different from, one’s own.
Many of today’s supporters of the privilege framework are motivated by the best intentions, believing that privilege theory, by creating greater sensitivity, will produce better fighters against oppression. But the theory’s track record throws a dark shadow over well-intentioned hopes for change. While privilege politics have led to interpersonal struggle, and even at times the birth of radical groups, they have proved incapable of providing or building the solidarity necessary for significant victories and social change.
The politics of privilege have come full circle. The privilege ideology circuit began among Stalinists, who brought privilege politics into the middle-class student movement, with common prejudices against workers, as part of the orgy of self-destruction of the New Left in the late 1960s. Ex-student radicals then carried privilege theory into the universities. There, it was perceived to be part of the legacy of the left, and was accepted by liberals as a way to oppose racism that required no action in the real world. Privilege theory became the dominant discourse of many departments and university administrations, evolving and moving to the right (dropping, for example, both anti-imperialism and talk of revolution), as it accommodated the rightward shift and drift in American political and intellectual life. Today, newly radicalised students, completing the circuit, have brought privilege politics back from the conservative, neoliberal universities into the radical movement again.
Class, independent self-organisation and revolution
The privilege model is often defended on the basis that we all must strive to understand the nature and experience of all oppression. That argument is more than undeniably and unconditionally true – it is crucial. The question, however, cannot end there. The central premises of early privilege theory were profoundly anti-working class. It should come as no surprise that the current model continues to reflect, in updated form, divisive and anti-working-class biases of its progenitors. The left must examine, analyse and acknowledge these class biases and their impact.
Independent activity and organisation from below by oppressed groups is critical, and the Civil Rights, Black Power, Women’s Liberation, and other movements of the 1960s were able to win significant gains. But they could not end racism, sexism or oppression. Much work remains. New movements, of which recent developments like Black Lives Matter, Young, Gifted and Black, and various local independent Black youth groups are hopeful signs, will rise and grow and also win significant gains. But, as in the 1960s, these new movements will remain unable to end oppression until they are able to dismantle the capitalist social system, whose institutions all function in a racist manner. The struggle to fundamentally transform class society – with all the injustices, inequalities and obscenities it is built upon – cannot succeed without a united, mass movement that is both revolutionary and working class, dedicated to replacing capitalism with socialism from below, capable of wresting economic and state power from the ruling class.
We have a long way to go in building such a workers’ movement. But a left that does not eschew all anti-working-class politics cannot get there. In recent years, popular and working-class resistance to austerity and to the long neoliberal assault has again appeared on the domestic and international stage. Resistance to oppression and to neoliberalism is creating the potential for building multiracial struggles that champion the fight against all oppression, and that form the basis for building a united working-class movement.
A left that wishes to be relevant to these openings must – while aggressively fighting all forms of oppression – also actively combat all forms of anti-working-class politics, under whatever guise they arise. If American radicals choose to accept or tolerate – rather than actively combat – the prevalent anti-working-class baggage of privilege politics, today’s left will face a series of tragic, self-inflicted, defeats. The American left must recognise that the coming revolution to end all exploitation and oppression will be a working-class revolution, or there will be no revolution.