Caste oppression, women's oppression, the oppression of religious and national minorities and of tribals—these burning social problems can never be solved amid the enforced scarcity and inequality of a backward capitalist country dominated by imperialism such as India. To sweep away the material basis for each of these forms of special oppression will necessarily take a proletarian socialist revolution and its extension into the imperialist countries. The fight to liberate those denied social equality under capitalism is therefore not an obstacle to or distraction from revolutionary struggle, as the Stalinized left in India has traditionally claimed, but one of its main motor forces.
Any party seeking to build itself into a proletarian vanguard capable of leading such a struggle must make agitation and labor-based action for the rights of specially oppressed groups an integral part of its work. Not only will this help overcome divisions among the workers and win them allies from other sections of society, it is of central importance for developing their consciousness as a class. As Lenin explained, to make the working class aware of its democratic tasks on behalf of all the oppressed is to prepare it to take power.
As early as 1899 Lenin took the lead in the fight within the Russian Social Democratic Party against the Economist tendency. The Economists wanted the party to organize exclusively around minimal demands to improve the immediate conditions of workers, explicitly leaving the political struggle against the absolutist rule of the tsar to the liberal section of the bourgeoisie. Upon receiving the Economists' Credo which first set forth this program, Lenin drafted a revolutionary Marxist reply from exile which was taken up by the orthodox party faction within Russia and published abroad by Plekhanov. Lenin's "Anti-Credo" affirmed that
[t]he proletariat must strive to form independent political workers’ parties, the main aim of which must be the capture of political power by the proletariat for the purpose of organizing socialist society. The proletariat must not regard the other classes and parties as "one reactionary mass"; on the contrary, it must take part in all political and social life, support the progressive classes and parties against the reactionary classes and parties, support every revolutionary movement against the existing system, champion the interests of every oppressed nationality or race, of every persecuted religion, of the disfranchised sex, etc. The arguments the Credo authors advance on this subject merely reveal a desire to obscure the class character of the struggle of the proletariat, weaken this struggle by a meaningless "recognition of society," and reduce revolutionary Marxism to a trivial reformist trend. ("A Protest by Russian Social-Democrats," 1899—emphasis added)In his classic pamphlet written in preparation for the 1903 party conference, What Is To Be Done?, Lenin argues for the necessity of mobilizing the working class against tsarism and all forms of oppression. First of all, democratic rights are not just for the bourgeoisie—Lenin points out that the defeat of tsarism is a life-or-death question for workers as well. But it is not the ultimate goal of the socialist movement. That goal must be to lead the working class to power, and organizing them politically is fundamental to that task. So that's the main reason workers must intervene directly and independently in struggles against political and social oppression—it's the only way they can become conscious of themselves as a class in revolutionary opposition to the ruling class and its state.
Lenin argues, moreover, that the working class must organize not only on its own behalf, but also take a leading role in defense of the democratic rights of other layers of society, including peasants, persecuted religious sects, victims of police brutality, and even bourgeois students and intellectuals who face censorship or harassment. He writes that "the Social Democrat's ideal should not be the trade union secretary, but the tribune of the people, who is able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it appears, no matter what stratum or class of the people it affects; who is able to generalize all these manifestations and produce a single picture of police violence and capitalist exploitation; who is able to take advantage of every event, however small, in order to set forth before all his socialist convictions and his democratic demands, in order to clarify for all and everyone the world-historic significance of the struggle for the emancipation of the proletariat." Lenin is here following in the revolutionary tradition of the Social Democrats who defended Oscar Wilde against prosecution for sodomy and even an officer of the French army, Alfred Dreyfus, against an anti-Semitic frame-up by his superiors.
But Lenin's party, working in a society more deeply backward and oppressive than any in Western Europe, took a particular interest in questions of special oppression. James P. Cannon, a pioneering American Trotskyist leader and close political collaborator of Trotsky's, noted in his article "The Russian Revolution and the American Negro Movement" that "[e]ven before the First World War and the Russian Revolution, Lenin and the Bolsheviks were distinguished from all other tendencies in the international socialist and labor movement by their concern with the problems of oppressed nations and national minorities, and affirmative support of their struggles for freedom, independence and the right of self-determination." They were also known as fighters against anti-Jewish oppression, and they actively organized among women around demands for their full social equality. According to Cannon, "[t]he Bolsheviks gave this support to all 'people without equal rights' sincerely and earnestly, but there was nothing 'philanthropic' about it. They also recognized the great revolutionary potential in the situation of oppressed peoples and nations, and saw them as important allies of the international working class in the revolutionary struggle against capitalism." As the revolutionary vanguard, the working class must rally behind itself all sections of the population who have an interest in overturning the existing social system.
As Cannon goes on to explain, the early Comintern fought hard to get the American Communist Party to assimilate this program and apply it to the struggle for black rights. The racist oppression of black people is the main obstacle to class struggle in this country, but the pre-Leninist socialist movement refused to take up their cause. One of the best of the socialist leaders of that time, Eugene Debs, declared, "We have nothing special to offer the Negro, and we cannot make separate appeals to all the races. The Socialist party is the party of the whole working class, regardless of color—the whole working class of the whole world." As Cannon writes, "That was considered a very advanced position at the time, but it made no provision for active support of the Negro’s special claim for a little equality here and now, or in the foreseeable future, on the road to socialism."
The break from this position came at the initiative of the Comintern. Cannon was a principal leader of the early Communist Party before being won to Trotsky's Left Opposition, so he speaks from experience when he recounts how "[t]he American communists in the early days, under the influence and pressure of the Russians in the Comintern, were slowly and painfully learning to change their attitude; to assimilate the new theory of the Negro question as a special question of doubly exploited second-class citizens, requiring a program of special demands as part of the overall program—and to start doing something about it." They did so through militant agitation seeking to mobilize the social power of labor on behalf of black rights and through labor-based campaigns for the defense of black victims of the racist legal system, making cases like that of the Scottsboro Boys national and international causes. A direct result of this work was the organization of racially integrated industrial unions in the 1930s—a qualitative leap forward for the American labor movement—and its influence was felt, long after the Stalinist degeneration of the Communist Party had deprived the struggle of revolutionary leadership, in the civil rights battles of the 50s and 60s that ended legalized racial segregation. Despite this important but partial gain, the entrenched social and material oppression of black people remains a central question for the American revolution to solve.
The Leninist program of mobilizing labor to take up questions of special oppression has nothing in common with sectoralism, the anti-Marxist perspective that each oppressed social group should organize separately to liberate itself, with dalits liberating dalits, women liberating women, and so on. This strategy takes as its starting point an acceptance of the existing divisions in the working class as inevitable and ends by perpetuating them. Against this, Marxists seek to organize advanced workers from every section into one centralized vanguard party that fights against all aspects of social oppression and, by so doing, prepares the united forces of the proletariat to take state power, which is the precondition for the liberation of all groups oppressed under capitalism.