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(en) Canada, A&S*, Upping the Anti #1 - Sex, Race and Class by Selma James

From Worker <a-infos-en@ainfos.ca>
Date Fri, 22 Apr 2005 07:51:39 +0200 (CEST)

A - I N F O S N E W S S E R V I C E
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Selma James is an organizer with the Crossroads Women’s
Centre in London, England. Her activism reaches back to the 1950s
when she participated in the Johnson-Forest Tendency, (along with
CLR James, Raya Dunayevskaya, Marty Glaberman and Grace Lee
Boggs. She is well known for critiquing the short-comings of
orthodox Marxist political economy which fails to account for the
ways in which women’s unpaid, yet socially necessary, labour is
appropriated by capital. This critical insight has animated her ongoing
work in the Wages for Housework Campaign and the Global
Women’s Strike. Selma James continues to be a central figure in
the debates around the role of housework in the reproduction of
labour power and the basis of capitalist profit. For more information
about some of the work that Selma is involved with please check out
http://www.crossroadswomen.net/WFH.html and

There has been enough confusion generated when sex, race and
class have confronted each other as separate and even conflicting
entities. That they are separate entities is self-evident. That they have
proven themselves to be not separate, even inseparable, is harder to
discern. Yet if sex and race are pulled away from class, virtually all
that remains is the truncated, provincial, sectarian politics of the
white male metropolitan Left. I hope to show in barest outline, first,
that the working class movement is something other than what that
Left has ever envisioned it to be, and second, that locked within the
contradiction between the discrete entities of sex or race and the
totality of class is the greatest deterrent to working class power and at
the same time the creative energy to achieve that power.

In our pamphlet which Avis Brown so generously referred to,1 we
tackled “the relation of women to capital and the kind of struggle
we can effectively wage to destroy it,” and drew throughout on
the experience of the struggle against capital by Black people.
Beginning with the female (caste) experience, we redefined class to
include women. That redefinition was based on the unwaged labour
of the housewife. We put it this way:

Since Marx, it has been clear that capital rules and develops through
the wage, that is, that the foundation of capitalist society was the
wage labourer and his or her direct exploitation. What has been
neither clear nor assumed by the organizations of the working class
movement is that precisely through the wage has the exploitation of
the non-wage labourer been organized. This exploitation has been
even more effective because the lack of a wage hid it... Where women
are concerned their labour appears to be a personal service outside of

But if the relation of caste to class where women are concerned
presents itself in a hidden, mystified form, this mystification is not
unique to women. Before we confront race, let us take an apparent

The least powerful in the society are our children, also unwaged in a
wage labour society. They were once (and in tribal society for
example still are) accepted as an integral part of the productive
activity of the community. The work they did was part of the total
social labour and was acknowledged as such. Where capital is
extending or has extended its rule, children are taken away from
others in the community and forced to go to schools, against which
the number of rebels is growing daily. Is their powerlessness a class
question? Is their struggle against school the class struggle? We
believe it is. Schools are institutions organized by capital to achieve its
purpose through and against the child.

Capital... sent them to school not only because they are in the way of
others’ more “productive” labour or only to indoctrinate
them. The rule of capital through the wage compels every able bodied
person to function, under the law of division of labour, and to
function in ways that are if not immediately, then ultimately
profitable to the expansion and extension of the rule of capital. That,
fundamentally, is the meaning of school. Where children are
concerned, their labour appears to be learning for their own benefit.3

So here are two sections of the working class whose activities, one in
the home, the other in the school, appear to be outside of the
capitalist wage labour relation because the workers themselves are
wageless. In reality, their activities are facets of capitalist production
and its division of labour.

The first, housewives, are involved in the production and (what is the
same thing) reproduction of workers, what Marx calls labour power.
They service those who are daily destroyed by working for wages and
who need to be daily renewed; and they care for and discipline those
who are being prepared to work when they grow up.

The other, children, are those who from birth are the objects of this
care and discipline, who are trained in homes, in schools and in front
of the T.V. to be future workers. But this has two aspects.

In the first place, for labour power to be reproduced in the form of
children, these children must be coerced into accepting discipline and
especially the discipline of working, of being exploited in order to be
able to eat. In addition, however, they must be disciplined and trained
to perform a certain kind of work. The labour that capital wants done
is divided and each category parceled out internationally as the life
work, the destiny, the identity of specific sets of workers. The phrase
often used to describe this is the international division of labour. We
will say more of this later, but for now let the West Indian mother of a
seven-year-old sum up her son’s education with precision:
“They’re choosing the street sweepers now.”

Those of us in the feminist movement who have torn the final veil
away from this international capitalist division of labour to expose
women’s and children’s class position, which was hidden by
the particularity of their caste position, learnt a good deal of this from
the Black movement. It is not that it is written down anywhere
(though we discovered later it was, in what would seem to some a
strange place.) A mass movement teaches less by words than by the
power it exercises which, clearing away the debris of appearances,
tells it like it is.

Just as the women’s movement being “for” women and
the rebellion of children being “for” children, appears at first
not to be about class, the Black movement in the US (and elsewhere)
also began by adopting what appeared to be only a caste position in
opposition to the racism of white male-dominated groups.
Intellectuals in Harlem and Malcolm X, that great revolutionary, who
were nationalists, both appeared to place colour above class when the
white Left were still chanting variations of “Black and white unite
and fight,” or “Negroes and Labour must join together.”
The Black working class was able through this nationalism to
redefine class: overwhelmingly, Black and Labour were synonymous
(with no other group was Labour as synonymous, except perhaps
with women). The demands of Blacks and the forms of struggle
created by Blacks were the most comprehensive working class

It is not, then, that the Black movement “wandered off into the
class struggle,” as Avis says. It was the class struggle and this
took a while to sink into our consciousness. Why?

One reason is because some of us wore the blinkers of the white male
Left, whether we knew it or not. According to them, if the
struggle’s not in the factory, it’s not the class struggle. The
real bind was that this Left assured us they spoke in the name of
Marxism. They threatened that if we broke from them,
organizationally or politically, we were breaking with Marx and
scientific socialism. What gave us the boldness to break, fearless of
the consequences, was the power of the Black movement. We found
that redefining class went hand-in-hand with rediscovering a Marx
that Left would never understand.

There were deeper reasons too why caste and class seemed
contradictory. It appears often that the interests of Blacks are
contradicted by the interests of whites, and it is similar with men and
women. To grasp the class interest when there seems not one but
two, three, four, each contradicting the other, is one of the most
difficult revolutionary tasks, in theory and practice, that confronts us.

Another source of confusion is that not all women, children or Black
men are working class. This is only to say that within the movements
are layers whose struggle tends to be aimed at moving up in the
capitalist hierarchy rather than at destroying it. And so within each
movement there is a struggle about which class interest the
movement will serve. But this is the history also of white male
workers’ movements. There is no class “purity,” not even
in shop floor organizations. The struggle by workers against
organizations they formed there and in the society generally, trade
unions, Labour parties, etc., is the class struggle.4

Let’s put the relation of caste to class another way. The word
“culture” is often used to show that class concepts are
narrow, philistine, inhuman. Exactly the opposite is the case. A
national culture which has evolved over decades or centuries may
appear to deny that society’s relation to international capitalism.
It is a subject too wide to go into deeply here but one basic point can
be quickly clarified.

The life-style, unique to themselves, which a people develop once
they are enmeshed by capitalism, in response to and in rebellion
against it, cannot be understood at all except as the totality of their
capitalist lives. To delimit culture is to reduce it to a decoration of
daily life.5 Culture is plays and poetry about the exploited; ceasing to
wear mini-skirts and taking to trousers instead; the clash between the
soul of Black Baptism and the guilt and sin of white Protestantism.
Culture is also the shrill of the alarm clock that rings at 6a.m. when a
Black woman in London wakes her children to get them ready for the
baby minder. Culture is how cold she feels at the bus stop and then
how hot in the crowded bus. Culture is how you feel on Monday
morning at eight when you clock in, wishing it was Friday, wishing
your life away. Culture is the speed of the line or the weight and smell
of dirty hospital sheets, and you meanwhile thinking of what to make
for tea that night. Culture is making the tea while your man watches
the news on the T.V.

And culture is an “irrational woman” walking out of the
kitchen into the sitting room and without a word turning off the T.V.
“for no reason at all.”

From where does this culture spring which is so different from a
man’s, if you are a woman, and different too from a white
woman’s if you are a Black woman? Is it auxiliary to the class
struggle (as the white Left would have it) or is it more fundamental to
the class struggle (as Black nationalists and radical feminists would
have it) because it is special to your sex, your race, your age, your
nationality and the moment in time when you are these things?

Our identity, our social roles, the way we are seen, appears to be
disconnected from our capitalist functions. To be liberated from them
(or through them) appears to be independent from our liberation from
capitalist wage slavery. In my view, identity-caste is the very
substance of class.

Here is the “strange place” where we found the key to the
relation of class to caste written down most succinctly. Here is where
the international division of labour is posed as power relationships
within the working class. It is Volume I of Marx’s Capital.

Manufacture... develops a hierarchy of labour powers, to which there
corresponds a scale of wages. If, on the one hand, the individual
labourers are appropriated and annexed for life by a limited function;
on the other hand, the various operations of the hierarchy are
parceled out among the labourers according to both their natural and
their acquired capabilities.6

In two sentences is laid out the deep material connection between
racism, sexism, national chauvinism and the chauvinism of the
generations who are working for wages against children and old age
pensioners who are wageless, who are dependents. A hierarchy of
labour powers and scale of wages to correspond.

Racism and sexism train us to develop and acquire certain
capabilities at the expense of all others. Then these acquired
capabilities are taken to be our nature and fix our functions for life,
and fix also the quality of our mutual relations. So planting cane or
tea is not a job for white people and changing nappies is not a job for
men and beating children is not violence. Race, sex, age, nation,
each is an indispensable element of the international division of
labour. Our feminism bases itself on a hitherto invisible stratum of
the hierarchy of labour powers-the housewife-to which there
corresponds no wage at all.

To proceed on the basis of a hierarchical structure among waged and
unwaged slavery is not, as Avis accuses the working class of doing,
“concentrating... exclusively on the economic determinants of the
class struggle.” The work you do and the wages you receive are
not merely “economic” but social determinants, determinants
of social power. It is not the working class but organizations which
claim to be of and for that class which reduce the continual struggle
for social power by that class into “economic determinants,”
such as greater capitalist control for a pittance more a week. Wage
rises that unions negotiate often turn out to be standstills or even
cuts, either through inflation or through more intense exploitation
(often in the form of productivity deals) which more than pay the
capitalist back for the rise. And so people assume that this was the
intention of workers in demanding, for example, more wages, more
money, more “universal social power,” in the words of Marx.

The social power relations of the sexes, races, nations and
generations are precisely, then, particularized forms of class relations.
These power relations within the working class weaken us in the
power struggle between the classes. They are the particularized forms
of indirect rule, one section of the class colonizing another, and
through this, capital imposing its own will on us all. One of the
reasons why these so-called working class organizations have been so
able to mediate the struggle is that we have, internationally, allowed
them to isolate “the working class,” which they identify as
white, male and over 21, from the rest of us. The unskilled white
male worker, an exploited human being who is increasingly
disconnected from capital’s perspective for him to work, to vote,
to participate in its society, he also, racist and sexist though he is,
recognizes himself as the victim of these organizations. But
housewives, Blacks, young people, workers from the Third World,
excluded from the definition of class, have been told that their
confrontation with the white male power structure in the metropolis
is an “exotic historical accident.” Divided by the capitalist
organization of society into factory, office, school, plantation, home
and street, we are divided too by the very institutions which claim to
represent our struggle collectively as a class.

In the metropolis, the Black movement was the first section of the
class massively to take its autonomy from these organizations, and to
break away from the containment of the struggle only to the factory.
When Black workers burn the centre of a city, however, white Left
eyes, especially if they are trade union eyes, see race, not class.

The women’s movement was the next major movement of the
class in the metropolis to find for itself a power base outside the
factory as well as in it. Like the Black movement before it, to be
organizationally autonomous of capital and its institutions, women
and their movement had also to be autonomous of that part of the
“hierarchy of labour powers” which capital used specifically
against them. For Blacks it was whites. For women it was men. For
Black women it is both.

Strange to think that even today, when confronted with the autonomy
of the Black movement or the autonomy of the women’s
movement, there are those who talk about this “dividing the
working class.” Strange indeed when our experience has told us
that in order for the working class to unite in spite of the divisions
which are inherent in its very structure- factory versus plantation
versus home versus schools- those at the lowest levels of the
hierarchy must themselves find the key to their weakness, must
themselves find the strategy which will attack that point and shatter
it, must themselves find their own modes of struggle.

The Black movement has not in our view “integrated into
capitalism’s plural society” (though many of its
“leaders” have), it has not “been subsumed to white
working class strategy.” (Here I think Avis is confusing white
working class struggle with trade union/Labour party strategy. They
are mortal enemies, yet they are often taken as identical). The Black
movement has in the United States, on the contrary, challenged and
continues to challenge the most powerful capitalist state in the world.
The most powerful at home and abroad. When it burnt down the
centres of that metropolis and challenged all constituted authority, it
made a way for the rest of the working class everywhere to move in
its own specific interests. We women moved. This is neither an
accident nor the first time events have moved in this sequence.

It is not an accident because when constituted power was confronted,
a new possibility opened for all women. For example, the daughters
of men to whom was delegated some of this power saw through the
noble mask of education, medicine and the law for which their
mothers had sacrificed their lives. Oh yes, marriage to a man with a
good salary would be rewarded by a fine house to be imprisoned in,
and even a Black servant; they would have privilege for as long as
they were attached to that salary which was not their own. But power
would remain in the hands of the white male power structure. They
had to renounce the privilege even to strike out for power. Many did.
On the tide of working class power which the Black movement had
expressed in the streets, and all women expressed in the day-to-day
rebellion in the home, the women’s movement came into being.

It is not the first time either that a women’s movement received
its impetus from the exercise of power by Black people. The Black
slave who formed the Abolitionist Movement and organized the
Underground Railroad for the escape to the North also gave white
women, and again the more privileged of them, a chance, an
occasion to transcend the limitations in which the female personality
was imprisoned. Women, trained always to do for others, left their
homes not to free themselves- that would have been outrageous- but
to free “the slave.” They were encouraged by Black women,
ex-slaves like Sojourner Truth, who suffered because, being women,
they had been the breeders of labour power on the plantation. But
once those white women had taken their first decisive step out of the
feminine mould, they confronted more sharply their own situation.
They had to defend their right, as women, to speak in public against
slavery. They were refused, for example, seating at the Abolitionist
conference of 1840 in London because they were women. By 1848 at
Seneca Falls, New York, they called their own conference, for
women’s rights. There was a male speaker. He was a leading
Abolitionist. He had been a slave. His name was Frederick Douglass.

And when young white women headed South on the Freedom Ride
buses in the early 60s of this century and discovered that their male
(white and Black) comrades had a special place for them in the
hierarchy of struggle, as capital had in the hierarchy of labour power,
history repeated itself- almost. This time it was not for the vote but
for a very different goal that they formed a movement. It was a
movement for liberation.

The parallels that are drawn between the Black and women’s
movements can always turn into an 11-plus: who is more exploited?
Our purpose here is not parallels. We are seeking to describe that
complex interweaving of forces which is the working class; we are
seeking to break down the power relations among us on which is
based the hierarchical rule of international capital. For no man can
represent us as women any more than whites can speak about and
themselves end the Black experience. Nor do we seek to convince
men of our feminism. Ultimately they will be “convinced” by
our power. We offer them what we offer the most privileged women:
power over their enemies. The price is an end to their privilege over

The strategy of feminist class struggle is, as we have said, based on
the wageless woman in the home. Whether she also works for wages
outside the home, her labour of producing and reproducing the
working class weighs her down, weakens her capacity to struggle,
she doesn’t even have time. Her position in the wage structure is
low especially but not only if she is Black. And even if she is relatively
well placed in the hierarchy of labour powers (rare enough!), she
remains defined as a sexual object of men. Why? Because as long as
most women are housewives part of whose function in reproducing
labour power is to be the sexual object of men, no woman can escape
that identity. We demand wages for the work we do in the home. And
that demand for a wage from the state is, first, a demand to be
autonomous of men on whom we are now dependent. Secondly, we
demand money without working out of the home, and open for the
first time the possibility of refusing forced labour in the factories and
in the home itself.

It is here in this strategy that the lines between the revolutionary
Black and the revolutionary feminist movements begin to blur. This
perspective is founded on the least powerful, the wageless.
Reinforcing capital’s international division of labour is a standing
army of unemployed who can be shunted from industry to industry,
from country to country. The Third World is the most massive
repository of this industrial reserve army. (The second most massive
is the kitchen in the metropolis.) Port of Spain, Calcutta, Algiers, the
Mexican towns south of the US border are the labour power for
shitwork in Paris, London, Frankfurt and the farms of California and
Florida. What is their role in the revolution? How can the wageless
struggle without the lever of the wage and the factory? We do not
give the answers, we can’t. But we pose the questions in a way
which assumes that the unemployed have not to go to work in order
to subvert capitalist society.

Housewives working without a pay packet in the home may also have
a job outside of their homes. The subordination of the wage of the
man in the home and the subordinating nature of that labour weaken
the woman wherever else she is working, and regardless of race.
Here is the basis for Black and white women to act together,
“supported” or “unsupported,” not because the
antagonism of race is overcome, but because we both need the
autonomy that the wage and the struggle for the wage can bring.
Black women will know in what organizations (with Black men, with
white women, with neither) to make that struggle. No one else can

We don’t agree with Avis that “the Black American struggle
failed to fulfill its potential as a revolutionary vanguard...,” if by
“vanguard” is meant the basic propellant of class struggle in a
particular historical situation. It has used the “specificity of its
experience” as a nation and as a class both at once to redefine
class and the class struggle itself. Perhaps the theoreticians have not,
but then they must never be confused with the movement. Only as a
vanguard could that struggle have begun to clarify the central
problem of our age, the organizational unity of the working class
internationally as we now perceive and define it.

It is widely presumed that the Vanguard Party on the Leninist model
embodies that organizational unity. Since the Leninist model
assumes a vanguard expressing the total class interest, it bears no
relation to the reality we have been describing, where no one section
of the class can express the experience and interest of, and pursue
the struggle for, any other section. The formal organizational
expression of a general class strategy does not yet anywhere exist.

Let me refer finally to a letter written against one of the organizations
of the Italian extra-parliamentary Left who, when we had a feminist
symposium in Rome last year and excluded men, called us fascists
and attacked us physically.

The traditional attack on the immigrant worker, especially but not
exclusively if he or she is Black (or Southern Italian), is that her
presence threatens the gains of the native working class. Exactly the
same is said about women in relation to men. The anti-racist (i.e.
anti-nationalist and anti-sexist) point of view, the point of view of
struggle, is to discover the organizational weakness which permits
the most powerful sections of the class to be divided from the less
powerful, thereby allowing capital to play on this division, defeating
us. The question is, in fact, one of the basic questions which the
class faces today. Where Lenin divided the class between the
advanced and the backward, a subjective division, we see the division
along the lines of capitalist organization, the more powerful and the
less powerful. It is the experience of the less powerful that when
workers in a stronger position (that is, men with a wage in relation to
women without one, or whites with a higher wage than Blacks) gain
a “victory,” it may not be a victory for the weaker and even
may represent a defeat for both. For in the disparity of power within
the class is precisely the strength of capital.

How the working class will ultimately unite organizationally, we
don’t know. We do know that up to now many of us have been
told to forget our own needs in some wider interest which was never
wide enough to include us. And so we have learnt by bitter
experience that nothing unified and revolutionary will be formed until
each section of the exploited will have made its own autonomous
power felt.

Power to the sisters and therefore to the class.

All rights reserved. Copyright 1973. No part of this article may be
reprinted or reproduced or utilized in any form or by any electronic,
mechanical, or other means, now known or hereafter invented,
including photocopying and recording, or in any information storage
or retrieval system, without permission in writing from the author.


1 “The Colony of the Colonized: notes on Race, Class and
Sex,” Avis Brown, Race Today, June 1973. The writer refers to
The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community by
Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Selma James (Falling Wall Press, Bristol
1972), as “brilliant.” The third edition was published as a
book in 1975. Unless otherwise stated, all quotations are from Power
of Women, 1975. (We were later to learn that Avis Brown was a
pseudonym for A. Sivanandan, a man who is now head of the
Institute of Race Relations, London.) Sex, Race and Class, the reply
to “Avis Brown,” was first published in Race Today, January

2 p.28

3 p.28

4 For an analysis of the antagonistic relationship between workers
and trade unions see S. James, Women, The Unions and Work, or
What is Not to be Done, first published in 1972, republished with a
new Postscript, Falling Wall Press, Bristol, 1976.

5 For the best demystification of culture I know which shows, for
example, how West Indian cricket has carried in its heart racial and
class conflicts, see C.L.R. James, Beyond a Boundary, Hutchinson,
London 1963. 4. From a letter by Lotta Feminista and the
International Feminist Collective, reprinted in L’Offensiva,
Musolini, Turin, 1972 (pp. 18-19). I wrote the paragraph quoted here.

6 Karl Marx. Capital, Volume I. Moscow, 1958: p. 349
* A&S - Autonomy & Solidarity is an anticapitalist antiauthoritarian
revolutionary network in Canada.]

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