Oppressors–oppressed distinction or dominant-dominated opposition, is an influential political argument. One of its first uses was by Hegel in his 1802 The German Constitution, in which he said that "The Catholics had been in the position of oppressors, and the Protestants of the oppressed." Its use by Karl Marx made it very influential, and it is often considered a fundamental element of Marxist analysis. The applications of it to some contexts have led some to consider their simplicity suspicious or dubious. Many authors have reprised it and readapted it to other contexts, including Engels, Marx, Vladimir Lenin, Antonio Gramsci, Simone Weil, Paulo Freire and others. It has been used in a variety of contexts, including bourgeoisie versus proletariat, imperialism versus self-determination, the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, and others.
Imperialism and self-determination
"That is why the focal point in the Social-Democratic programme must be that division of nations into oppressor and oppressed which forms the essence of imperialism, and is deceitfully evaded by the social-chauvinists and Kautsky. This division is not significant from the angle of bourgeois pacifism or the philistine Utopia of peaceful competition among independent nations under capitalism, but it is most significant from the angle of the revolutionary struggle against imperialism"—Lenin, V.I, "The Revolutionary Proletariat and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination", Lenin Miscellany VI
The political philosopher Kenneth Minogue provides a criticism of the oppressors-oppressed distinction in his work The Pure Theory of Ideology. In the book's introduction, Minogue resumes the problem of the dialectical concept of oppression:
“Have I really been in a battle?” wondered Stendhal’s hero after many hours blundering around the field of Waterloo, and many people today share a similar perplexity. Like Stendhal’s hero, they eat and drink and sustain the business of life, but the meaning of it all depends upon their conviction of contributing to the liberation of workers, women, the colonized, or other varieties of the oppressed. Like Fabrizio del Dongo, they find a regiment and tag along—the Hussars against Patriarchy, the Dragoon Guards of the Proletariat, and so on. Quite where the real battle lies is hotly disputed, but its significance is agreed to be a final end to oppression.
For these are people who believe that the term “oppression” is not merely a useful component of our rhetoric of grievances, but reveals the systematic character of how we live. As a typical formulation has it, plucked at random from a vast literature, “So long as some groups in society dominate others, the problem of conflict between persons and groups will remain.” Or again: “Only a planet freed from class division and imperial exploitation, in which liberty and equality were common international realities, could be a peaceful environment for the human race.” The lived texture of an ideological life, then, is to be found in the endeavors of millions to improve the world. There can be no doubt that this experience has been central to the last century and more. My concern, however, is not with this lived experience but with what I identify as its central idea. The idea is so abstract that it is less a doctrine than a machine for generating doctrines, and its simplest formulation is that all evils are caused by an oppressive system. One of its more important corollaries is that truth is a weapon. This is the pure theory of ideology, and my aim is to explore its logical and rhetorical character.
[...] My aim has been to present a critical map of the terrain, where “critical” means an attention to incoherence, tension, and contradiction, an attention, that is to say, to what I take to be the real connections of ideas. Here again, there is an ideological defense in depth, symbolized by the daring foray in which the very epithet “critical” has been appropriated as an ideological shibboleth and domesticated to mean any enquiry into social reality which, by probing the things technically called “contradictions,” reveals it as an oppressive structure. The ideologist thus becomes critical ex officio. Those of us striving to join this desirable regiment by our own exertions thus find that we are rejected on the ground that to criticize those already known to be critical is to serve the interests of the status quo. The critic of criticism must be an apologist. Criticism, yoked to a fixed set of conclusions, turns into an orthodoxy. My argument, then, is an exploration of the hypothesis that there is a pure theory of ideology, and while from one point of view it is a critique, from another it is a do-it-yourself ideology kit. It begins with some suggestions about how ideology was generated from eighteenth-century social theory. The long central section is an attempt to characterize ideologies as forms of understanding. The last section develops the view that, although ideology must take on political trappings in order to transform the world, its real character is entirely antithetical to the practice of politics. Ideology is to reality, I suggest, as (in Tolstoy’s opinion) the reports of battles are to the concrete experience of individuals in the field. In ideological moods, we think we see in social and political life those clear lines from the history books depicting the battle order of the antagonists in massed array. They have neat, clear names like bourgeois and proletarian, colonialist and national, city-dweller and producer, in a word, oppressor and oppressed. The actual reality, however, is messy. Things change all the time, and it becomes impossible to keep any clear and distinct identities in focus. Confronting the arguments of ideology, we are forced to transform the Stendhalian question: Is it really a battle that we are in?—Minogue, Kenneth, Alien Powers: The Pure Theory of Ideology
- Translated by H B Nisbet for Cambridge University Press. Original quote:
Die Katholiken hatten die Stellung von Unterdrückern, die Protestanten die der Unterdrückten
- Kauppi (1996) p.61
- Derrida (1994), ch.2 Conjurying--Marxism p.55
- Halabi (2004) pp.59, 74-6
- Gordon (1991) p.145
- Lenin (1927)
- Minogue (1985)
- Derrida (1994) Specters of Marx
- Gordon, Ḥayim and Gordon, Rivca (1991) Israel/Palestine: the quest for dialogue
- Halabi, R., Sonnenschein, N., & Friedman, A. (2004) Liberate the oppressed and their oppressors: Encounters between university students. In R. Halabi (Ed.) Israeli and Palestinian identities in dialogue: The School for Peace approach. Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
- Hegel (1802) The German Constitution, chapter II, section 1 The Armed Forces. Original title Die Verfassung Deutschlands, included Werke volume 1 Early Writings (Frühe Schriften). English translation collected in Political writings
- Lenin, V.I. (1927), "The Revolutionary Proletariat and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination", Lenin Miscellany VI
- Minogue, Kenneth (1985), Alien Powers: The Pure Theory of Ideology
- Kauppi, Niilo (1996) French intellectual nobility