Date: Tuesday 28th July
Time: 13:00 - 16:30 (London time)
Marxism defends the unity of peoples across all gender and sexual lines in the fight against the oppressive capitalist system. But Queer Theory holds that our gender and sexual identities are a fiction produced by discourses and oppressive power in society: a learned performance. What does this idea mean for the liberation struggle? Is Queer Theory compatible with Marxism? This discussion will tackle these issues. Our speaker, Yola Kipcak, is a leading activist of Der Funke, the Austrian section of the IMT.
- Marxism vs. Queer Theory
- The lessons of Stonewall: 50 years on
- Bolshevik decriminalisation of homosexuality – intentional or oversight?
Yola: Hello to all who are watching, I hope everyone will enjoy today’s discussion and I hope everyone can also learn from it and I hope me as well.
As Marxists we take the struggle against all forms of oppression and discrimination very seriously. This is why we also take the theoretical debates on how to fight this oppression very seriously. Queer theory, the particular strand of theory we will be discussing here, emerged many in the United States in the 1990s among academic circles, particularly from feminist and gay studies and in connection with gay activism around the aids crisis at that time.
Originally an insulting term for homosexuals, queer was taken up and given a positive twist by the gay movement. Queer theory took up this term and deals with the question of persons that are outside of the norm, for example homosexuality, transgender or intersexuality, and queer theory argues that what we see as normal and natural is actually created by power structures in society--that it is an oppressive fiction that serves the ruling order. The main premises are therefore that biological sexes, gender identity and sexuality are all cultural fiction. It says that we must reveal this fiction and show its contradictions and parody it and thus change the discourse. This course usually means language in all written and spoken forms, ideology and also performances meaning every day actions of people that follow this ideology.
So how did queer theory arrive at its premises? In the 1960s and 70s, the women’s struggle as well as gay struggle was more influenced and linked to class struggle. This reflected the general upswing of class struggle and revolution in the world. For example, the stonewall riots in 1969 where the gay community in the USA rose up against brutal discrimination clearly had radical implications with many activists holding anti-capitalist views. But social democratic and Stalinist parties did not fight consistently with the women and in the case of the LGBT community, ignored or even actively rejected them. In these parties, sexism and homophobia largely prevailed. So when the class struggle reclined over the following years after very serious defeats, this hardened the view of feminist activists that women’s struggle must be lead separately from class struggle. In practice, it was a shift to institutionalized politics in the state apparatus with women’s ministries and research centers on the one hand, and cultural circles focusing on individual experiences, language, and single-issue campaigns on the other hand. In feminism, the struggle against oppression shifted more and more from class struggle to a struggle between the sexes, i.e. patriarchy. So oppression is explained here as a question of man versus women instead of exploited class versus ruling class.
Marxists on the other hand explain that class society was the historical reason for the emergence of women’s oppression. And it is also the root of oppression for diverging sexualities. For the most part of our existence, humans did not live in class societies. The existence of class societies requires a surplus product, something one class can enrich itself at the expense of another. In early societies, where people not yet had the technical means to produce more than they needed for immediate survival, there was no systematic oppression either. A technological development led to agriculture which was the basis for a surplus product and thus class society. Among many fundamental changes, it also meant communities could raise more children. This in turn led to a more clear-cut division of labour between the sexes, although this in itself was not a class division, nor was it oppressive. But it fell together with the fact that the male dominated areas of work were also those where a surplus was produced. So while women as those ensured survival of the species were held in high esteem before, their economic role over a period of time led to subordination. This shows that women/s oppression is not accidental, the biological role of women as those who give birth does play a role. But it also shows that oppression is not naturally engrained in the sexes. With increased wealth there also came the wish of men to inherit this wealth to their own children. And this led to a control of female sexuality. Only through monogamy could men know who their own children were. It is thus this specific form of family, monogamous family and class society, that lead to oppression of sexuality including diverging sexualities such as homosexuality.
Capitalism inherited the oppression of women and the monogamous family and adapted it to its own needs. Sexism and the institution of the family are very useful to the capitalists, within the family, important reproductive work such as childcare and care of the elderly is done, and sexism and homophobia are also used to diffuse worker solidarity against their common enemy--the capitalists. This means that the capitalists have a great interest in upholding the oppression of women and sexual minorities. We can argue that as long as class society and with it the monogamous family exist it will be impossible to fully overcome social discrimination based on sexual orientation or women’s oppression. But feminist theory, and as we will see also queer theory, rejects the class contradictions as the central explanation for oppression. Instead, feminism looks for the reason of oppression in the relation between the sexes i.e in patriarchy. It follows that something in being male must be oppressive, while something in being female must lead to women’s liberation. This means that the identity of a person became the key to struggle but at the same time most feminists rejected the biological explanation of oppression. Rightfully, because after all because the reactionaries defend sexism with biological arguments that women are naturally inferior. In order to find a reason for oppression within the relationship of the sexes itself, but without having a class analysis, a crude dualism between biological sex and social gender was introduced. This way they can assign different phenomenon mechanically even to nature, society, culture, and psychology. This is what most famously Simone de Beauvoir does in her book “The Second Sex,” for example.
We do not disagree with the feminists in criticizing gender roles and how society puts pressure on people to fulfill them, however feminist theory cannot explain the connection between sex and gender roles, which can only be understood by a complete analysis of class society. Feminist theory with doubling of sex and gender opens up a contradiction in its own analysis between nature and idea. Philosophically, feminist views often switch between a mechanical materialism and idealism. An unsolvable dualism which in last instance always turns out to be idealism. If it is not nature that is oppressive, it must be the culture or male psychology or language and so on. The resulting practice is to fight sexism with ideas, individual improvement and language reforms instead of class struggle. But only is this an impasse for struggle, it’s also riddled with contradictions. So in the midst of all these debates within feminism, queer theory emerged.
Queer theory takes the feminist arguments to the extreme but in a way to a logical idealist conclusion. In 1990, Judith Butler published her book “Gender Trouble,” which is the most famous book ascribed to Queer Theory. She says that not only are social gender roles culturally created by the patriarchal system, but that biological sex is also culturally created. So she solved the feminist dualism of sex and gender as stating that both are only a product of society and discourse. So according to her, the ruling discourse in society is not only oppressive by saying for example ‘women are weak’ but by defining women as women. The philosophical basis for this is the postmodern trend in philosophy which rose to popularity in the 1970s in the university. According to this idealist philosophy the whole of reality is actually constructed through language. For example, poststructuralist feminist Chris Weedon writes:
“Language, far from reflecting an already given social reality, constitutes social reality for us. There is no meaning beyond language.”
This is what she writes, and Queer Theory argues that language is power. Every category is a generalization, and that every generalization and every category or term is seen as a violent act of excluding those who don’t fit into this category. Since science generalizes that patterns of nature, queer theory argues that science is also only a powerful discourse. Reality, including sexes, is thus seen as a cultural fiction. For many, this theory seems appealing because it does contain a grain of truth. It is true that in class society, science is not free from the ideology of the ruling class. There is a long list of examples of how scientists try to prove that women are inferior, that they have smaller brains, or that homosexuals are dangerous and sick and so on. But from this it cannot be concluded, as Queer Theory does, that science can create reality free from the actual facts. We must correctly understand the relationship between matter and idea. As Marxists, we are materialists. Ultimately everything, including our ideas and our consciousness are material processes. Or as Karl Marx wrote in the German ideology:
“The phantoms formed in the human brain are also necessarily supplements of their material life process, which is empirically verifiable and bound to material premises.”
So this means that ideas can be wrong, they can be inaccurate reflections of reality that don’t depict an accurate image. Ideas can also produce fantasies following scientific thesis yet to be tested out. In short, ideas can also be creative. But because ideas are a small part of material reality, they can’t raise themselves above the circumstances that created them. For example just because humans want to believe they can fly doesn’t mean they can defy gravity. However with the help of ideas we can influence, manipulate, and change reality within certain limits. So although we cannot make humans fly by pure will, we can with ideas build an airplane which then makes a human fly. Similarly, if we scientifically understand how sexes function we can invent such things as hormone therapy that can manipulate secondary sex characteristics such as beards, breasts and so on. So only if our ideas correspond correctly with reality, can they change it. In order to grasp reality, generalizations are necessary. And in order to do so, we must extract from the many individual cases, for example all the women in the world, and look at what their essence is — what makes them comparable. However, the mechanical view that dominates the natural sciences and raises the general catch phrase to a principal and demands that all of the complex reality complies with it. If you don’t comply with the general average, something must be wrong with you.
Queer theory takes this one-sided attitude as a foundation for its criticism. In order to criticize the universal categories which are seen as the cause for oppression, they look towards the individual as focus and starting point for everything. They take the contradictory and complex individual to prove that all categories are, in a way, incomplete to describe individuals—which is true. But further, they want to prove that all categories are therefore fictitious and wrong, which is not true. In fact, what queer theory says is that there is no objective truth. Every truth is only a fiction created by discourse according to queer theory. But to say there is no reality and no objective truth that we can know, means that there is no criteria whatsoever to say whether something is true or false. Sexism is in today’s society without a doubt a powerful ideology, or “discourse” as queer theory would call it. But anti-sexism is also a discourse in society, and one that is increasingly popular. Therefore, according to queer theory, both must be equally true. This shows how reactionary the conclusions of such a philosophical stance can be. By saying there is no objective truth, you can only argue with morality or your personal feelings in favour or against something. And this is exactly what queer theory does; it takes the subjective identity and feelings as the basis to create truth. Of course, some “truths” are seen as more true than others, for example to say that biological sexes are real, is seen as bad. But this can only be argued with individual point of view, not with objective criteria. By taking the individual as the starting point for understanding the whole world. Biological sex, society’s gender roles, and an individual’s experiences are all explained from the point of view of this individual instead of from nature and society. They’re all mashed together in one category: the individual gender identity. The differentiation, origin, and objective causes are thus blurred. But a person’s identity, the human brain and consciousness are a very complex thing. Genes and biology play a big role, but also education and individual experiences. All of these things can be explained materially.
But our individual identity is a product of material circumstances and not the other way around. Our individual consciousness that does not create reality and thus can only within very narrow limits can explain it. Just because a person doesn’t for example feel like a man or a woman doesn’t mean they don't have a distinct biological sex. Of course, Marxists recognize that reality is complex and categories do not fit all individual cases—also in the case of sex and gender. There are cases that are not clear cut—there are cases of persons with different chromosomal combinations such as xxx, and xxy for example. There are persons who have either male or female reproductive organs, but they wish or need to live as the opposite gender, and so on. It would be crazy to deny that these forms exist, as parts of the right wing do, and as the gender roles in most societies also demand. It would likewise be crazy to claim that these people are worth less than those that can easily be categorized. And of course we fully defend the democratic rights of all people to lead their lives as the identity they choose. These intermediate forms certainly exists but they do not constitute a third, fourth or fifth biological sex. Their existence does not change the fact that there are men and women, the two sexes which form the basis for sexual reproduction, and that the large majority of the population can be categorized as either male or female. And most importantly, this fact in itself does not lead to the oppression and discrimination against intersex or trans people. The existence of sexes or even gender roles does not explain where oppression of sexual minorities and women comes from.
The argument of Queer Theory goes: language creates categories, and these categories are oppressive, therefore we must fight the categories. How? By showing their incompleteness, parodying them by undermining them and by creating new categories. This explains why there are lists by Queer Theory advocates with more the 60 different “genders”. This includes genders such as a “demiboy” which describes a person who partially, but not fully identifies as a man. Here, sex, gender roles, sexual orientation and preference are all mixed together in a big hotchpotch.
But these names don’t help at all to understand where oppression comes from or even where sexes actually come from. If biological sexes are fictitious, why was exactly this line of division between men and women created and became so prominent. Why not, for example, the size of your ears or the colour of your hair? If sex is only a cultural construct, how can you explain sexual reproduction? To say that sexes are not real also has logical consequences for political demands. If you deny the existence of biological sex, on what basis do you argue for gynaecology, sex-specific contraceptives or hormone therapy? And how can you demand maternal leave for mothers? Of course, Queer Theory advocates are usually in favour of these demands. But their theory does in fact not support this argument. This shows the reactionary implications of a theory that rejects reality. But there are also serious negative consequences that concern more concretely the methods of struggle: in order not to repeat what Queer Theoreticians think is the root of oppression, they say that they do not want to “force” anyone in a category and force to be represented, or “dominated”, by a person with another identity. The argument goes: “since I can only speak for myself - or at best for my specific identity category - any unity in struggle is exclusive and oppressive.”
“Unity is only purchased through violent excision”, writes Judith Butler in her text “Merely Cultural”.
Another queer feminist, Franziska Haug, complains: “the right to speak and fight is being decided depending on the identity of the speaker.” Queer Theory thus ends up doing exactly what they originally criticized: identity politics, where defining and representing the category of your identity becomes the most important thing. It thus plays a directly reactionary role by dividing the common struggle of all oppressed and diverting it into representational politics. At demonstrations and rallies against sexism, this can be seen when the list of speakers is carefully crafted according to different identity criteria, but whether a political perspective and the correct slogans are present is secondary or even irrelevant. This kind of representational politics can also easily be used by the ruling class. By having a quota of queer or female representatives in the parliament, or by appointing queer CEOs they can paint themselves as progressive, while at the same time brutally exploiting workers of all identities.
The problem with representational politics is that it doesn’t seek the basis and roots of oppression in class society, but in identity. Since Queer Theory argues that it is so-called identities that oppress us, identities must also be used to fight oppression. However, being queer in itself is not progressive nor is it reactionary. Identity is not the tool with which we can change the system. Being “queer” cannot dissolve the bourgeois family; nor can non-heterosexual relationships undermine capitalism. On the contrary: sections of the Bourgeoisie in a number of countries are willing to give concessions to LGBT rights such as gay marriage when it helps their image or when they want to get votes.
As of today, about 30 countries or territories have legalized same-sex marriage, mostly in Europe and the Americas. But the economic reality of capitalism means that also “queer” couples have to subordinate to the bourgeois role of family: for example, they will have to find the time to do housework and care for children. To do so, they must then rely on part-time jobs or one partner working less, i.e. being more economically dependent on the other partner. So the freedom of, for example, gay marriage is only the freedom to be as oppressed as the rest of the working class in this regard. At the same time, the Bourgeoisie will also use homophobic and anti-trans ideology to cater to their conservative clientele. They will use it to divide the workers and to strengthen the Bourgeois family when necessary. So even though gay rights increased over the last decades and there is a generally more positive image of queer people in some countries, reactionary ideology is always kept alive as backup.
In 2019, Forbes magazine wrote in an article: “Nine of the biggest, most LGBTQ-supportive corporations in America gave about $1 million or more each to anti-gay politicians in the last election cycle.” These companies include for example UPS and General Electric. This clearly shows that the Capitalists will not fight for LGBT-equality, they simply do whatever is most profitable to them. Corporations will superficially produce rainbow colored merchandise to attract LGBT consumers, or consumers who deem LGBT rights important. But they will always be just as willing to support capitalist politicians that maximize their chances for profit even if they’re anti-LGBT. To believe that true equality can be achieved within capitalism is false. This illusion actually helps the ruling class which can take up some, in their eyes, harmless reforms, without having to do away with true oppression. Of course we support all positive reforms and legal rights. Actually, a struggle for equal rights for everybody is even necessary to unite the working class in the first place. But to limit the struggle to these reforms will not solve our problems fundamentally. At the same time, exactly because there is real inequality in society, ideologies that use scapegoats and blame the inequality on a section of the working class can gain some support with more backward layers of the masses. We must therefore argue at all times against sexist prejudices and discrimination. Only this way can we achieve the necessary unity among the working class to get rid of the roots of oppression. For this, however, Queer Theory does not give us the necessary means because it can’t even explain the roots of oppression.
As I said, queer theory claims that “power structures” and “power discourses” create oppression in society. In Queer Theory, power is a complex and obscure network omnipresent in society. The concept of power that Queer Theory advocates is borrowed from the French philosopher Michel Foucault. Foucault writes in his book “history of sexuality” the following:
“Power is everywhere; not because it embraces everything, but because it comes from everywhere. Power is not an institution, and not a structure; neither is it a certain strength we are endowed with; it is the name that one attributes to a complex strategical situation in a particular society."
What is it supposed to mean — that power is a “complex strategical situation?” This explanation is no explanation at all. It basically says that every single person produces and reproduces power by using words and by acting according to society’s expectations. Not only does this not explain why some people are more powerful than others or why certain forms of oppression exist, it also is very useful to blame every single individual for there being “power” in society. For example they say: We are all at fault for oppressing women by acting as if there are women. This way, the true reason for oppression is obscured, and instead every person is in a way an oppressor. For instance, it’s often said that non-queer workers are supposedly profiting from the oppression of queers. While it is true that men have higher wages than women and do not suffer from the discrimination that queer people suffer in their everyday life, it is wrong to say that this discrimination is in their interest. Because if one sector of the working class is oppressed, this automatically weakens the common struggle for better conditions. If one sector of the working class receives poor wages and bad treatment this opens the door for capitalists to lower working standards for all workers. Instead of fighting against those who are actually in power and who exploit and oppress us, this leads us instead to argue about whose identity is more oppressive.
Queer Theory is therefore an idealist set of ideas that rejects the class analysis as fundamental explanation for oppression, but doesn’t offer an explanation on its own. It is not only useless for our emancipation, but actively harmful by dividing the united movement of the working class and because it can be easily taken up by the ruling class to make them seem progressive while continuing oppression and exploitation it can also be taken up by reformists to give them a radical touch, without leading true struggles. As Marxists we therefore reject Queer Theory - but we do not at all reject the struggle against the oppression of women and people who identify as queer. On the contrary, we see this struggle as absolutely necessary for our cause, in order to unite the working class. We cannot tolerate discriminatory behaviour among our working colleagues and comrades. We must patiently explain why this helps to exploit all of us and why it is in our own interest to fight against all forms of oppression. In an actual united struggle, the working class and youth can experience on their own what unites them this was vividly shown in the recent Black Lives Matter protests. It would have been fatal to explain in these protests that all white people should go home, that because of their identity they will never be able to truly fight racism. This would have had the effect of estranging many people who stood in solidarity and actively participated in the movement. While Queer Theory argues that unity is always oppressive, we on the other hand must focus particularly on what unites us in struggle. Exactly in a common struggle people learn to overcome their prejudices. By standing shoulder to shoulder, discriminatory attitudes will be fought far more efficiently than by “educational projects”, language reforms or campaigns filtered by the capitalists. If we consciously use our strength by uniting in struggle, we can expropriate the capitalists, take their means of power into our own hands.
We have a materialist concept of power: If you own the factories and the media you can exploit workers and print ideologies that help your position - this is power. That’s why power is not a complex network of discourses where everyone is a culprit, but it is the power of a ruling class profiting from the oppression of the exploited class. Our optimism is drawn from the fact that we are the class that creates all the wealth in society, and that we are actually the majority. We can take power by taking control over the means of production such as factories, banks and so on. This will eradicate the material basis of oppression - including the bourgeois family, and can open the way for the true emancipation of all human beings.
Alessio: Thank you Josh and good morning, afternoon everyone. Well, Yola in her leadoff dealt very effectively with the ideas of Queer Theory. Honestly I barely would call this a theory, probably rather a mixture of confused ideas, often contradictory to each other, but on the other hand this is a characteristic of all postmodern theories that in fact instead of arming for action, which should be the purpose of the theory, they disarm for action. So it comes as no surprise that the ruling class does not fear these theories and also finance them in the universities, and instead tries to discredit Marxism by saying that it does not deal with the problem of gender and sexual oppression. But it's the very contrary, Marxists support all the struggles against oppression — but also, Marxism analyzes the material, biological, economic, and social basis of these oppressions in order to effectively abolish them.
An example of this was the Russian revolution in 1917, when workers took power into their hands. That revolution changed the lives of millions not only in political and economic terms, but in regard to the family as well the Soviet government granted the women the same rights as men, legalized divorce and abortion and promoted the intensive development of social services to provide the economic basis for liberation from family duties: nurseries, public canteens, laundries, hospitals. At the same time, homosexuality was decriminalized decades before many advanced capitalist countries. The position of the Bolshevik party was that sexual behavior belongs to the private sphere and as such was not to be sanctioned or regulated unless of course it harmed others. Georgy Chicherin, who was openly gay, was appointed as commissioner for foreign affairs in 1918. So such a situation was unparalleled anywhere else in the world.
So, the traditional family began to be broken up by social changes; men and women were called on to participate in social life and the youth were, in certain measures, freed from traditional family authority. However these radical changes open up by the revolution even in family and sexual relations came up against the problems caused by the isolation and backwardness that the revolution was facing. So not the will, but material resources were too limited to build an alternative. Often public services where of low quality, and so there was also a tendency to return to the old family structure, and in this process the very same time the bureaucratic deformation that led to Stalinism began to take place, breaking with the ideas of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Trotsky, and the October revolution. And so given the lack of material base for developing family and also emotional relationships on a more advanced social level, and given that, the traditional family made a comeback. And the Stalinist regime saw in the comeback of the traditional morals a source of stability for the regime, in particular as an instrument for strengthening the idea of authority, and this process also changed attitudes towards homosexuality, and in 1933 and ‘34 the prohibition of male homosexual relations was restored. In 1935 divorce was severely restricted. In 1936 abortion was once again made illegal
In his book ‘The Revolution Betrayed,’ Trotsky explained that the dogma of family had become at the corner stone of this new Stalinist so-called socialism, and homosexuality, seen as a threat to the family, had become now advance of bourgeois decadence. These homophobic positions later deeply infected the Stalinist parties on an international level, jeopardizing what should have been a naturally developing gay movement, one interlinked with the working class and revolutionary movement itself, and it had a very bad effect especially in the late 60s and 70s. Later on these parties change partially their position but mostly to assume a reformist view of the struggle for civil rights, mirroring in fact the reformism of their political program, and leaving ground also to post modernist theories. And in some cases adopting them all together along the last two or three decades.
We have in front of us years of profound class struggle, and it will be a new point of reference for all the oppressed on the condition that the ideas of genuine Marxism can be reached by these layers. As Yola was saying we need to overthrow capitalism to take over the means of production, and use them in a planned and harmonious way for the collective needs of society. Housework needs to be socialized, and the care and education of children must be guaranteed and of high quality. Working hours should be reduced so that everyone has the time and energy to live one's life. This is possible, and on this material basis we will be able to break with the moral categories perpetrated by the bourgeoisie in terms of the structure of the family and sexual orientation and so on. We'll be able to throw patriarchy and homophobia into the dustbin of history, and everyone will be able to freely express their own sexual and emotional feelings.
Our task is to make it possible, and then deciding how this will be done, that will be the task for the future generations
Sam: Hi comrades, I want to build on Yola’s excellent introduction by outlining the Marxist explanation for the roots of LGBT oppression — an explanation that the bankruptcy of Queer Theory is unable to offer.
As materialists we understand that ideology, which includes moral codes and attitudes towards sexual behaviour are the product of material conditions. This can be seen by the vastly different attitudes towards homosexuality and gender roles in different societies throughout history. The determining factor in history is the production and reproduction of the essentials of life: that means the production of the means of existence and of human beings ourselves.
In the very earliest human tribes there was hardly any regulation of sexual behaviour and even incest was common. It was natural selection and the survival of the fittest that eventually produced a realisation that abstinence from incest produced a stronger tribe. So we see here that the very earliest regulation of sexual behaviour occurs as a product of material conditions. Homosexual behavior and gender variance was actually common throughout pre-class societies.
Even in early class societies, such as those based on slavery, homosexuality was also permissible but it was regulated by a strict sexual code. For example, in Ancient Greece free male citizens were allowed to indulge in homosexual behaviour, but women and slaves were forbidden. This moral code follows from the mode of production. The role of women, even free ones, was simply the production of children - hence their strict sexual subjugation to their husbands. Sex among slaves was only to be permitted insofar as it would produce more slaves. But in a slave society, male citizens having homosexual relations posed no threat to the mode of production.
The rise of feudal society brought with it more stringent sexual codes. Under feudalism, this was to reinforce the continued male domination of woman. There was an entire moral code limiting sexuality to the male-female nuclear family, which had become the base unit of production. Although homosexuality and gender variance was generally forbidden in feudal societies it was rarely singled out as particular crime. Homosexual acts were just one of a host of forbidden sexual practices. This stringent code of sexual morality – which if broke often meant death – was a weapon of social coercion used to terrorise and control the peasant masses.
It wasn’t until 1869 with the growth of capitalism that the term homosexuality appeared in discourse. This as not accidental, but because the systematic oppression of homosexuals arose from the social and economic needs of capitalist society and the bourgeoisie. In 1885 the first specifically anti male homosexuality law was introduced in Britain. Other imperialist countries followed a broadly similar pattern. These laws then spread across the world through imperialism and colonisation. Anti-gay laws in ex colonial countries today generally date from this time.
The appearance of systematic oppression of LGBT under capitalism is not accidental. The reason for it lies in the means of production and reproduction under capitalism. As Yola explained, capitalism utilises the family as a social unit for the reproduction, physical maintenance and early education of labour power. The nuclear family is a monogamous, heterosexual, child producing and rearing unit. So to reinforce the family as an institution capitalism has developed a set of sexual and moral codes which maintain it as the basic unit of production. So any sexual behaviour that could be seen to undermine the family was rigorously outlawed. This is the material basis of LGBT oppression, but like other oppressions it also acts as a useful tool to divide and terrorise the working class.
For example, it is no accident that a vile campaign of hate against trans people is being whipped in the UK at a time of economic crisis. It’s just one way in which the capitalist class attempts to divide the working class and distract it from the real cause of its problems. Just as racism developed as a means to justify the existence of slavery, but has continued to exist long after the abolition of slavery, the ruling class will continue to prop up homophobia and transphobia for as long as capitalism exists.
The route to liberation for us LGBT people isn’t through defying categorisation as the proponents of queer theory suggest, but a militant struggle with our allies in the working class to smash this rotten system. Every progress in terms of rights for the LGBT people has been won in joint struggle with the labour movement. In Britain, of course, it was the labour government that legalized homosexuality and introduced same-sex marriage. But this formal legal equality hasn’t abolished LGBT oppression as a whole. It’s only when the working class takes control of society that will everyone be free to express their sexuality and gender as they wish.
Thank you comrades.
Marie: When we think about queer theory I think it is quite clear that it can affect a lot of radicalized young people. Because it answers all the arguments of the right wing that oppression should be natural: that women belong in the kitchen and men are natural leaders. And we are obviously against these kinds of arguments. There’s nothing natural about oppression. But it mustn’t lead us to throw the baby out with the bath water. We don’t think that queer theory offers any answers to these arguments of the right-wing, and also that it doesn’t offer any way to fight oppression. If you look at Queer Theory, philosophically it is different from Marxism. What Judith Butler says and Queer Theorists say, and it can be a bit difficult to understand, but they actually say that biological sex doesn’t exist. It’s a social construct.
As Marxists we say that there is a material base to oppression, and that biological sexes do exist. And why is it important. Because it can seem easier to stay out of the debate because it’s quite toxic and a lot of emotions are quite obviously involved in this. First of all I want to make clear that we fight for the right of everyone to be as they want to be. But we need to into the philosophical base of this theory, because the philosophical base is what lays the ground for the fight. And I think when we look at Queer Theory it can seem very difficult when you read Judith Butler, and it can seem very clever, but I think you should ask some very basic questions that they are not able to answer. How does discourse, how does oppression of women arise if there is not biological; why did it develop the way it did and not in another way. And if men and women don’t exist, then how come half the population has been oppressed for thousands of years?
If you read Butler she says that she doesn’t think that there has been a time where there was no oppression of women. She ridicules Fredrick Engels and other socialist feminists for their different attempts to “localize moments or structures in culture that established gender hierarchies” is what she says.
So in my opinion she actually end up opening up the floodgates to the arguments of the right-wing, the same arguments that Queer Theory is supposed to go against about oppression being natural, because she says there has always been no time before oppression, and therefore it seems natural. That’s the way it has been. And she has no other explanation, they have no other explanation why it has always been this way. And she speaks against Frederick Engels and also new studies that actually show that there have been societies where women were not oppressed as Yola explained. And that also means that Judith Butler and the queer theoreticians, they have no solutions on how to fight oppression.
The only concrete solution that butler is to be drag in to order to show the limitation of the present discourse and expand normality. They actually say that you cannot remove oppression, you can only try to expand the discourse, but it’s all symbolic. It’s all trying to change within the existing society, and to change the words it doesn’t change the basic structure of oppression. And you might change the way that we speak about thing, but as long as the basic structures of oppression exists you will just get new words who express the old meaning, the old oppressive meaning.
So I would say contrary to the intentions of most of those who call themselves queer theoreticians that it end up playing a counter revolutionary role. It makes all these radicalized youth look at the surface at only the symptoms of this rotten system. The words the discourse, and not the foundations of it. And as Yola explained, that they also say that oppression is inherent in all of us. We are all part of holding oppression. It focuses the attention of all these young people wanting to change society into guilty conscience trying to figure out how they are part of upholding oppression instead of actually mobilizing them into the actual fight against oppression, which is a fight against this rotten system of capitalism, which is the basis of all these kind of oppressions
Yiva: As Yola has explained, the fact that queer theory sees oppression as rooted in discourse or norms can have very reactionary consequences. And that is very clear when you look at how quite a few queer feminists view the question of prostitution. For example there’s one organisation called “Feminists for sex workers,” and in their manifesto they have this to say on the question of prostitution:
”We respect sex workers’ decision to engage in sex work. As feminists, we reject misogynist statements according to which sex workers “sell their bodies” or “sell themselves.”
So, what they think is that most prostitutes have ended up in the sex trade according to their own free will, or so-called own free will. And thus, the struggle is not to end prostitution, they don’t see a problem with prostitution; the struggle is to make people view it as a normal job. Don Kulick, one of the most prominent queer theorists in Sweden takes it a step further. He argues that both sex workers and sex buyers are stigmatized, because they deviate from the sexual norms in society. Their solution is: legalize prostitution, unionize the sex workers and work to improve their working conditions. This completely ignores the reality of sex trafficking, child prostitution and the many different reasons behind why children and women end up in prostitution. For example, of an estimated 20 million commercial prostitutes in India, 16 million women and girls are victims of sex trafficking. In 2016 3.8 million adults and 1 million children were victims of forced sexual exploitation around the world.
In general, it is utter desperation and poverty that forces women and children into prostitution. And they are preyed upon by those who make huge sums of money off the sex industry. The UN estimates that trafficking is the second biggest source of illicit profits in the world after the drugs trade. But these queer theorists, are completely blind to this. Locked up in their ivory towers, they view the world and the despair of exploited human beings, as simply interesting phenomenon to be observed and analyzed for the fun of it.
I recently read about a village, Chitrakoot, in Uttar Pradesh in India, where poor tribal communities have to send their 12-14 year old daughters to work in illegal mines due to poverty. And their bosses only agree to pay their wages if they also sell sex. There are many more examples that I can’t go into. But, even if one was to exclude those who are sold, abducted or forced into prostitution by economic necessity, you still won't have the rosy picture of the grown woman, who out of her own free will enters into sex work, as the queer feminists would like to paint it as. In Sweden as in many other countries girls as young as 13-14 end up in prostitution through internet forums, where they are gradually lured into it, maybe not always out of economic necessity, but other issues are always at hand: mental health issues for example, where selling sex becomes a way of harming yourself.
Prostitution is not a “job like any other”, but in general is more like slavery. The queer feminists talk about unionization, but clearly have no concept of what class struggle actually means. Are they going to organize 12 year olds in India, 14 year olds in Sweden, women in brothels and go on strike? Those women and girls would simply lose their customers or be kicked out. Now, radical feminists and those queer feminists that disagree with this approach consider themselves to be superior. But what do they have to offer as a solution? Many of them hail the so-called Swedish model on prostitution, where the act of selling sex is legal but the act of buying sex or running brothels is illegal.
But as many have pointed out the Swedish law on prostitution has only led to far more dangerous working conditions for prostitutes, as they are forced to carry out their work in more underground conditions. And very little resources are invested to help women and girls leave prostitution. They argue that the punishment for men who buy sex should be tougher than it is today – as most walk away with a small fine. But many countries have tough laws against buying sex but that has not helped in curbing it. All radical feminists have to offer is the same idealism as queer feminists – we have to change people's ideas. They say: we have to make men understand that buying a woman's body is wrong. But you have to understand where these ideas come from. Prostitution is deeply ingrained in the capitalist system, rooted in women's oppression where women are subordinated to men within the family, capitalism finds many different ways to profit of off sexism – through pornography, sex trade, the beauty industry – the ruling class promotes degrading ideas of women's sexuality throughout society. And capitalists, politicians and other representatives of bourgeois institutions are often themselves frequent customers of prostitutes. And most of the time their money and power means they get away with it.
Hypocritically, many of the politicians that call themselves feminist, and claim that they want to end prostitution, are pushing women into prostitution through their policies of cuts and attacks against the living standards of the working class. The answer to this question cannot be found in changing this or that law, or a so-called new discourse. To end prostitution we must end all the causes of it, and that requires an end to capitalism. In a socialist society where jobs, housing, welfare would be available to everyone, no one would be forced to sell their bodies, no one would be able to make money off of selling another human being, sexism would no longer be promoted in society, the material basis for oppression would be abolished. That would lay the basis for the end of prostitution.
Laurie O: Today, transgender people in particular are told that ‘retheorising’ sex and gender is vital to our liberation. But the truth is that transgender people are not just faced with oppressive discourses, but with an oppressive reality. In 2018, a report published by a major LGBT charity in the UK found that 25% of transgender people had experienced homelessness. 25% had also been discriminated against by landlords. One in eight transgender workers in the UK had been physically attacked at work.
Whilst as Marxists we understand that theory can be very powerful, we know that this is only the case as long as it explains the real lived experience of people. Otherwise we can make up whatever narratives we want, but they will have no impact on the real world. However, we should be fair. The correctness of any idea can be tested in practice. We can do this with queer theory: Queer Theory claims that if we can change the discourse, we can change reality. Now, the ‘discourse’ has certainly changed. The argument put forward by the queer theorists that biological sex does not exist has gained increased traction, especially in academic circles. Has this changed things for the better? In the last two years, both in the UK and across the world, the situation for transgender people has got worse. In the UK alone, anti-trans hate crimes have surged, with a reported increase of 81% in 2019.
At the end of May, the Hungarian government outlawed legal gender recognition for transgender people. In the US, it is now legal for a doctor to refuse to treat transgender people, a policy which will undoubtedly result in deaths. This does not come out of nowhere but from a targeted political attack against transgender people as Sam has already explained. When people’s trust in the government is declining, and when the general crisis of capitalism is stirring up anger and frustration, bourgeois governments will do anything in order to redirect that anger into safer channels. It also helps that in an age of austerity, governments across the world need to make cutbacks. They can no longer afford to provide healthcare for transgender people. Instead of being open about the fact that they don’t want to spend the money, isn’t it catchier and cheaper to claim that transgender people are either predators, liars, or deluded victims? And all of this is underlain by an even more vital material truth. As Sam already explained, capitalism requires the bourgeois nuclear family to reproduce the working class. This narrative does not come out of nowhere. It has a basis in reality. To argue that it can be changed by performing our gender differently, or by questioning the reality of biological sex misses the point. At the same time as the situation of transgender people has been worsening, the popularity of ‘queer theory’ has been steadily climbing. More books and academic publications mentioned the term ’Queer Theory’ in 2019 than any year previously. I think this proves that the publication of more books will not solve the problem of oppression. In fact, conflating an incorrect theory with the genuine struggle against oppression does more harm than good.
Recently we have seen conservatives in the UK calling for tougher regulations on transgender people, under the guise of attacking queer theory. In the words of the Conservative MP Danny Kruger in an article published this week:
“Sex is the business of the state. The distinction between maleness and femaleness is a fundamental building block of our society. For somebody to cross the boundary between the two is a big deal, properly requiring the permission of the state.”
And he concludes: “to concede the demands of the extreme trans lobby: that sex is not fixed in biology, is to sell the pass. We would be in wonderland, or 1984, where truth is whatever the people in charge decide it is.”
Now he clearly has no genuine concern for transgender people. But we must admit the clearly incorrect idea that biological sex does not exist has become an easy way to attack the entire movement for transgender rights. We must not allow these ideas to become the only ideas in the movement against the oppression of transgender people. Transgender people are an oppressed minority whose lives are often ravaged by poverty, homelessness, and discrimination at work. They are not simply interesting topics for academics to theories over and advance their own careers. Instead, we must put forward a Marxist explanation that aims to remove the material basis for that oppression. Of course, ending capitalism will not end prejudice overnight. But as the saying goes, if somebody wants to oppress me, that’s their problem. If they have the power to oppress me, that’s mine.
In a world where everybody has the right to a home and healthcare, where the capitalist state and the bosses to not have the right to terrorise transgender workers, many problems will be solved almost immediately- problems that the queer theorists have never proposed a single solution to. In 1917 the Bolshevik party, though class struggle, swept away centuries worth of oppression more easily than any other society has ever achieved. If we truly want to end oppression we should follow in that legacy, and study Marxist theory. In order to change the world we need to understand it as it truly is, not as we wish it would be.
Yola: Thank you to all comrades for their excellent interventions. The many concrete examples and figures that were given are very helpful to understand the oppression of LGBT people in more depth. As Sam showed in his historical overview of sexuality in class society, the oppression of homosexuals and other diverging sexualities and identities took on many different forms in history. Now Queer theory takes these changes over time to argue that there is actually no natural sexuality whatsoever, for example, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, another well known writer for Queer Theory argues that the terms ‘homo’ and ‘hetero’ (sexuality) only emerged in the 19th century, and she concludes that there was no such thing the first time. There was only indefinable sexuality in all kinds of directions according to her. This is completely in line with the idealist argument that ideas and language create reality instead of the other way around.
But as Marxists we want to look at the underlying forces at work in society, this way we can understand the different forms of oppression and regulation of sexuality have a material cause in class society. Alessio gave a very good analysis of the Russian revolution to show this. And how the Bolsheviks in the early days of the Russian revolution implemented reforms for public welfare and cooking and so on. And this started the disillusion of the family. He also showed how the degeneration of the revolution stopped this development. This clearly shows that Marxists do not believe that sexism, women’s oppression and discrimination will disappear automatically after expropriating the capitalists, as it is often claimed by very superficial criticisms of Marxism and as Laurie also pointed out. But this materialistic understanding of family is an important key for understanding which is fundamentally explained in Friedrich Engel’s Origin of the family, private property and the state.”
The analysis of the family and private sphere was also central for radical feminists in the 60s and 70s, although they didn’t draw the correct conclusions from it. And as Marie pointed out, Queer Theory also rejects a historical analysis. In Queer Theory the question of the family which is essential for understanding oppression doesn’t play any role anymore. The individualized view of society is visible here in particular. And this is connected to the question of prostitution,. And it’s a good example for these views like Ylva showed.
I’ve heard so often from Queer and feminist circles and paper and articles that prostitution supposedly defies the rigid sexual morality in our society and that it’s a way to defy the monogamous family and it’s a way of individual freedom and empowerment. Now while this might be true for a very tiny minority, this is not at all what prostitution is as a general phenomena in our society. In the matter of prostitution the individual is raised to the exceptional by Queer Theory and some feminists. In Vienna the question of prostitution is why we don’t have a united demo on women’s day every year. We have separate marches, a feminist and a queer people organized. The queer organizers find the anti-prostitution of the radical feminists offensive. The other reason is that the feminists only allow women and other ‘non-men’ in the LGBT bloc, and don’t allow cis men. Which just shows that they’re both wrong.
So back to prostitution, in reality, violence and rape are not the exception but the rule. A study from 2003 showed 75% of prostitutes have been raped and 82% have experienced physical assault. So this is hardly a normal job, and it shows the cynicism of the position of queer feminists in this regard. Engels pointed out correctly that prostitution or infidelity far from being an act of resistance from the monogamous family they’re actually its necessary counterpart, and that the monogamous family cannot simply be abolished just like the state simply cannot be abolished, it must be replaced by something, which is graphically illustrated by Trotsky’s writing on the family in the Soviet Union (‘The Problems of Every Day Life’).
This is where we demand the socialization of care and housework. A demand that can never be fulfilled in capitalism, even less in a period of crisis. As Laurie explained, the capitalists are currently going in the exact opposite direction. Through cuts in healthcare and overall austerity, the material basis for the family is strengthened. And at the same time the propaganda and attacks on women and trans rights is being stepped up in many countries. But over the last years we also have seen huge movements against such attacks. Some of them specifically dealing with women or LGBT rights, such as the big protest in favour of same-sex marriage in Ireland, the powerful movement against violence against women in Mexico, the struggle against restrictive abortion laws in Poland a few years ago, and the big women’s strike in many countries, particularly in Spain. In these movements ideas and leaders are being tested out, and we can see how in practice identity politics of division are being pushed aside by the masses. For example, one of the feminist leaders wanted the strike to be led by women only, which would have in effect meant that men would act as strike-breakers, men participated in these strikes nevertheless.
The course of history is the best course of practice for ideas, and it shows whether the ideas are correct or not. The years 2019-2020 were the most turbulent years in a long time, with revolutionary uprisings across the globe, and in regards to this I recently read an enlightening article by Judith Butler. in February this year she rote an article for a German newspaper using completely and distorting Hegel by talking about master and slave dialectics, she basically argues that we can’t help that there’s inequality in society. But we should be nice to each other nevertheless. She takes Hegel to argue for a social partnership between capital and labour basically.
She writes: “of course I don’t say we live in revolutionary times, perhaps we do without me noticing.”
So this is quite a good example of queer theory and its philosophical basis in reality. While legitimizing the oppressive present system, it is blind to the real struggles happening in society. I know that there are a number of people who sympathize with Queer Theory and are also anti-capitalist, queer theory is seems to dispense a vocabulary to the discrimination and desperation many people feel. However, as we are shown and as Marie particularly explained in her contribution, queer theory doesn’t explain oppression at all. Oppression cannot be explained out of personal identity. And neither identity nor narrative are ultimately what oppresses us. Actually I get very attentive and a bit careful when I hear the words “identity,” “narrative,” or “discourse,” because in 90% of the cases there is some idealist concept behind this. Queer theory strengthens a very pessimistic outlook towards the world because it feeds off being different, never fitting in, and having nothing in common with others. While at the same time accusing everyone of oppression others and reproducing power, fostering a feeling of permanent guilt, without offering a perspective of unity and struggle in revolution.
As Marxists, we should make no concessions whatsoever to harmful and idealist concepts. We must lead the real struggle against oppression and discrimination, and this means leading a fight against capitalism. Marxism is the only method that can systematically explain the roots of oppression, and Marxists have meticulously studied history of class struggle to gain lessons of it. We know what is needed in order for us to achieve freedom, so I want to urge all comrades who are not yet members of the IMT to join us and to fight together with us. Thank you.