The trouble with ethnicity

Neil Davidson

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    The concept of exploitation is central to the Marxist understanding of history and contemporary society. But not all social conflicts can be immediately reduced to the struggle between exploiters and exploited, and to explain these conflicts we require other concepts. The most important is that of oppression. This refers to systematic discrimination by one social group against another on the grounds of characteristics either inherited (skin colour, gender) or socially acquired (religious belief, sexual orientation). The experience of oppression cuts across class lines, although that experience is more or less severe depending on where its victims are placed within the class structure. Some forms, like the oppression of women, have persisted throughout the existence of class society, while others, like racism, are specific to capitalism alone. Sometimes the reasons, or pretexts, for the oppression of a group may change over time. During the feudal era, for example, Jewish people were persecuted for their religious beliefs, but as capitalism developed persecution increasingly took place on the grounds of their supposed race. Whatever the reason or pretext, however, ruling classes throughout history have instigated or endorsed the oppression of different groups in order to maintain or create divisions amongst those over whom they rule. Recently, groups have increasingly been subjected to oppression on the grounds of their ethnicity. The most extreme form of such oppression has become known as 'ethnic cleansing'.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)3-30
    Number of pages28
    JournalInternational Socialism
    Issue number2
    Publication statusPublished - 1999


    • ethnicity
    • socialism
    • international socialism
    • marxism


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