Metropolitan police pride flag Metropolitan police pride flag, 2019. Photo: Gerry Popplestone / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Kevin Ovenden argues for the importance of socialist and Marxist ideas in the development of effective movements for sexual liberation

All in the last few weeks:

The parliament of Uganda imposes the death penalty for ‘aggravated homosexuality’, building upon laws from the British colonial era.

One of the world’s largest arms manufacturers, Lockheed Martin, sends employees on a Pride demonstration with its logo on a rainbow banner.

The Metropolitan Police face demands to be broken up on the grounds of ineradicable racism, misogyny, and homophobia. But it will have officers out in rainbow face paint for the London Pride parade. 

A woman in Britain in deep crisis is jailed for over two years for having an abortion – under a law passed in 1861. 

A state prosecutor in northern Italy follows the lead of the far-right Italian government and demands the cancellation of the birth certificates of 33 children of lesbian couples so that the name of the non-biological mother may be removed.

We might imagine that politics are far from our most intimate sense of self and our sexuality. But they are not. It is disconcerting to discover that truth, even if you go on to draw upon a radical history of sexual liberation struggles. The public intrusion upon the personal runs deeper than the ‘culture-war’ issues so beloved of conservatives and liberals alike.

It’s worse because we are not dealing with vestiges of a long-past conservative epoch. We are facing the breakdown of what has proven to be just a temporary period in which globalising capitalism could be (mistakenly) identified as bringing about greater freedoms. Freedom if not in the class terms of the conditions of the mass of humanity, then at least on matters of a personal sense of identity and expression. You might be uprooted from your village or deindustrialised region. But at least you could have the anonymity of the modern city to end up in with its apparent freedom from old, restrictive traditions.

Global trade deals and conferences often meant signing up to the right rainbow-liveried clauses no matter what the reality for sexual minorities, and women, was in the country being represented. Whole wars – with arms manufactured by the likes of Lockheed Martin – were fought under the banner of women’s liberation or of superior liberal attitudes to sexuality. The Israeli state splashed itself pink nearly 20 years ago, offering itself to visitors as a haven of sexual freedom surrounded by ‘reactionary Muslims and Arabs’. Its tourist department still does. That is despite it being an arm of the extreme right government that is not only intensifying war against the Palestinians but also attacking a beleaguered Jewish liberal minority in Israel, including on matters of sexual freedom.

It was a mistake 30 years ago to ascribe to capitalist expansion a mechanism of wider individual freedom. That’s been true since the beginning of capitalism. On gay, lesbian, women’s, LGBT and sexual liberation overall the issue has been winning advances against the actual capitalist system. That, and avoiding incorporation of those struggles when states and ruling classes have felt forced to concede partially to them.

There seemed a basis for liberal-capitalist illusions that economic advance would bring social progress. US economics commentator Paul Krugman summed it up with a tweet this month bemoaning the passing of globalisation:

“The world trading system, while its mechanics involved a lot of horse-trading among special interests, was built on the belief that trade was good for peace. Closely associated was the idea that economic integration was a force for political reform. But now we see economies highly integrated with other economies, from Hungary to China, experiencing authoritarian backsliding; we see a globalised Russia engaged in an attempted war of conquest.”

Put to one side the partial selection of what is considered authoritarian and the glossing over of the war on terror. Krugman alights on an important truth. There is now a major war in Europe and increasing US militarism against China, not merely armed conflicts on the periphery of the global system. Militarism is rising. NATO states are all increasing arms spending. Every state of substance is strengthening its repressive apparatuses and with them the ideology of national security and nationalism. In the name of security state intervention into the economic field is increasing, not for the benefit of working people. That requires the projection of military and economic power beyond the territory of the state.

There is not a simple or direct relationship between these developments and the social realities of sex and sexuality. But the great revolutionary Marxist Rosa Luxemburg wrote over a century ago about how the militarism that led to the First World War was reflected in every aspect of German society, through to the rights of women and attitudes to sexuality.

That’s because with all this go conservative ideologies and practices. The right-wing nationalist and socially ultra-conservative government of Poland has gone from being a frequent target of criticism by liberal EU officials to enjoying a free pass on account of its pivotal role now in the proxy war in Ukraine. 

Britain’s Home Secretary and other Tories have referenced the far-right, once fringe Great Replacement Theory. According to this bilge there is a plot – run by Jews such as George Soros – to replace the ‘white Christian’ population of Europe with Muslim immigrants. Included in this conspiracy are feminists who fight for a woman’s right to choose. They are supposedly deliberately depressing the birth rate. Alongside them are those who fall outside of the norm of the heterosexual nuclear family and rigidly imposed sex-role, gender stereotypes geared to procreative sex only.

Those ideas swirl around the corridors of Giorgia Meloni’s hard-right government in Italy. They run through the fascistic AfD in Germany, running second in some polls. Once fringe reactionary ideas are migrating to the mainstream. The liberal centre is proving itself not only incapable of challenging them effectively, it is happy to cohabit. And its own hypocrisies and stupidities are providing one opening after another for reaction.

This is especially so over the position of women in society and questions of sexuality and gender. In answer to all this we need to recover and develop an anti-capitalist liberatory perspective that at its best characterised the eruption of the modern movements for women’s and gay liberation half a century ago.

Militant revolt and unity in struggle

There had been resistance to police raids on gay bars before the Stonewall riots that began in New York on 28 June 1969. But this time it was more sustained and fused with a wider sense of revolt. The days of rioting gave birth to the Gay Liberation Front and an ongoing period of militant protest building out of the courageous efforts of those who had pushed for decriminalisation of homosexuality over the previous two decades.

We are talking about a period stretching well into the 1970s of revolutionary hope and some real gains. Chris Harman’s history of the period The Fire Last Time captures its revolutionary excitement, but also containment and ebbing. From the point of view of today’s debates about sexual liberation, sex and gender, there are some key points to pick out from a time of insurgent advance. It was against every government and corporation in the western world, with none of them adopting the right flag at the right time of year for commercial reasons.

There were different strands in the movement, from conventional reforming to revolutionary. But the backdrop was exactly the issues of war, militarism, capitalist exploitation, racism, and women’s oppression cited above. The connection between these was largely taken for granted. There was a concern to situate the understanding of gay oppression as an outgrowth of women’s oppression and how it is fundamental to class society. That ran through ‘The Gay Liberation Manifesto’. The socialist wing of the movement emphasised the potential power of the working class to overturn class society as being central to a strategy for liberation from all oppression.

There was enormous debate. Far from everyone was a Marxist. But in contrast to today, Marxism and the rediscovery of the emancipatory ideas of Marxism after decades of distortion characterised much movement thinking. So even those who made an explicit argument against Marxism (or what they had been told was Marxism) were influenced by it.

There was from Marxists and materialist, revolutionary feminists alike deep concern to understand the connections between exploitative class society and women’s oppression and how, for example, the potential for capitalism to free women from millennia of oppression ended up reimposing women’s subordination in the family unit pumping out surplus for capital.

Women’s oppression is much more than that. But the connection at the very base of our society to the machinery of capitalist exploitation is vital to grasp if we are to achieve sexual liberation for all. We should not prettify matters. There were serious divisions. There were crazy ideas alongside serious attempts to analyse and act. Above all there was the strategic problem of how to overthrow the oppressive structure that in one way or another millions of people identified as the problem. Ultra-militancy and voluntarist proclamation failed.

But despite defeats and setbacks there were important gains in our understanding of politics, sexuality and struggle. The slogan ‘the personal is political’ might later be given the meaning that the focus of politics is how you live your life. At the time, however, it energised women and gay people in particular through the realisation that supposed individual issues of personal life – from menopause to homosexual attraction – are in fact political matters as much as unemployment is.

That gain in understanding continues today, though it has suffered distortions in a period of retreat from a politics of liberation and the rise of the commodification that is rampant under corporate capitalism.

Sexuality and society

A great gain in the 1970s was the understanding that the position of women in society is central to wider issues of sexuality, gender and sexual liberation. In this, it marked on advance on the work of reforming ‘sexologists’ at the beginning of the 20th century who had advocated for decriminalising homosexuality but not interrogating ruthlessly why women were held subordinate.

It is impossible to imagine the intense politicisation of sex, gender and sexuality in a society where women were not oppressed. This is a vast and contested area. One consequence on the left of the 1970s radicalisation was a renewed interest in largely forgotten Marxist contributions to the question.

Frederick Engels’ book The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State was a revolutionary attempt to explore this history which shocked official Victorian society when it was published in 1884. It built upon ideas of early socialist and feminist figures arguing for women’s equality and ‘free love’, that is separating sex and sexuality from the compulsion of marriage, family and reproduction. It was rushed out to intervene in a discussion in the socialist movement to insist that women’s liberation and wider freedom of sexuality required more than legal reforms and equality. They required a social revolution.

Drawing on anthropological studies of the time, Engels argued that women had not always been oppressed, that there was nothing natural or immutable about women’s ‘inferiority’ or the hierarchy of gender built upon women’s oppression and the patriarchal family. He developed an argument that the oppression of women arose with the development of societies capable of producing a sustained surplus, the emergence of a ruling class, and the creation of states to hold down what became the exploited majority.

It is a complex argument pivoting on how women’s reproductive capacity which had always been there in the tens of thousands of years in which women were not oppressed could become a site of oppression when private property and its inheritance arose. There continue to be major debates about the whole emergence of class society and women’s oppression some 6-7,000 years ago.

Writers of various backgrounds, however, have come together on the central issue. It is that the oppression of women – and thus wider restrictions on sexuality and gender hierarchies – arose with exploitative class society and remain bound up with it. It grounds questions of sexuality and gender in the material development of society, avoiding theories that circulate today that it is the idea of femininity or the ‘performance of womanhood’ that gives rise oppression. That women’s oppression is detached from biological reality. That the ‘infinite destabilisation’ of the idea of woman will in some way end sexual oppression.

Some of the positive reception for those ideas is based on a misunderstanding of the classical socialist argument, which is the very opposite of saying that because women have the biological capacity to gestate that they are in some way bound to that role, reducible to it and fit naturally the stereotypes attached to motherhood.

That is not the case. As the slogan of the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s put it ‘biology is not destiny’. Simone de Beauvoir in her book The Second Sex in 1949 coined the phrase ‘one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman’. Those words are frequently misunderstood. She was not arguing for the irrelevance of biological sex or its subordination to gender, which is a social construct. Her book in fact explores how the sexed reality of women’s bodies is acted upon in class societies to produce the sex-role stereotypes that are part of women’s oppression.

At a certain point in human history the biological difference between the sexes, which had not up to then necessitated the oppression of women, did so as part of the development of class exploitation. That does not mean the oppression is ‘natural’. But it is not free-floating either. If we don’t have this approach, it is impossible to see why we have the oppression of women and not, say, men.

The materialist feminist philosopher Jane Clare Jones puts it succinctly: the role of biology ‘in women’s oppression is historically contingent, but it is not random… recognising that is not “biological determinism”.’

That human beings must eat, drink and find shelter is an ‘everlasting nature-imposed condition’ of life, as Karl Marx put it in ‘Capital’. How we do that; how we come together socially to produce and reproduce is not strictly determined by our physical nature. But it is not unmoored from the ‘natural bases’ of our species either. The environmental crises have led to renewed interest in Marxist understanding of exactly this material relationship mediated by human activity. It is not only about us and the environment, though. It is also about us and us – our human relations. Thus, we have a history of various different class societies leading up to the global capitalism of today. With that is a history of sex and sexualities.

Historical debates, current politics

We owe to the movements of the 1970s advances in the study of sexuality. But we have also seen with the retreat from those movements some distortions in much of the understanding among activists today.

The fact that we can find in all sorts of societies attitudes to sexuality that are different from what is regarded as the norm today has always been very useful in challenging conservative ideology of the naturalness – or god-givenness – of the male/female hierarchy. The US Christian right is increasingly promoting this ideology internationally. It has poured tens of millions of dollars into missions in Africa, for example, to promote anti-gay laws and evangelism.

It makes all the more absurd the argument of the reactionary government of Uganda for persecuting gays on account of homosexuality allegedly being an alien western import from decadent societies. The outlawing of homosexuality in Uganda goes back to the British colonial period in 1902. There is a history of different attitudes to sexuality – different ‘gender systems’ – in the historic societies that make up today’s Uganda. It is widely thought that the 19th century King Mwanga II of Buganda was bisexual.

We know that certain highly codified same-sex activity between older and younger men was accepted in classical Athens. Given the official view that ‘Western Civilisation’ originates from Greece, opponents of homophobia have pointed to Athenian same-sex relations in the classical world as an argument for acceptance since the 19th century. There are many other examples.

But we should be careful of ascribing to them an idealised picture of liberated societies. Evidence of Mwanga’s bisexuality, for example, is that he ordered the execution of male Christian converts who refused his sexual advances and that he had 17 wives.

Some of what we know about sexuality in classical Athens arises from denunciations of older men who had allowed adolescents to penetrate them, reversing the strict social hierarchy of power that was meant to carry through to the sex act. 

Above all, the limited extension of permissible male sexuality was in a society of extreme women’s oppression. Purdah meant women were cut off from public life. The patriarchal family structure meant everyone was subordinate to the male head of household. Some of the erotic celebrations of male-male love were because sex with a woman meant stooping to lust with an inferior fit only for procreation. In the overwhelming number of gender-systems in class societies that we know of allowance for limited variation is for men. Women’s sexuality is largely seen by its absence.

The existence of various castes, customs or categories at odds with the norms can be perfectly compatible with the existence of strong enforcement of those oppressive norms. That is true, for example, of the history of the Hijra communities in India. The term has covered a range of different people, from homosexual men, to those undergoing voluntary castration for reasons of religious ritual to effeminate men.

Serena Nandy in her book Neither Man nor Women, the Hijras of India defines the Hijras as ‘a religious community of men who dress and act like women and whose culture centres on the worship of Bahuchara Mata, one of the many versions of the Mother Goddess worshiped throughout India.’

The category may have changed over the centuries along with the society, but the oppression of women remains – strongly. The creation of a discrete caste to allow for particular expressions of sexuality and gender does not mean overturning the hierarchy of gender overall. It can be a way of not disturbing an underlying conservative ideology and society with strict sex-roles.

A taboo on homosexuality – and the internalisation of homophobia – can be maintained if one of the men involved is redefined as something other than a man. The Pakistani parliament could pass a law in 2018 that provided some recognition of transgender people, but homosexuality remains illegal. Prosecutions are not common: blackmail by the police is.

A problem with how some of the wealth of historical findings are deployed today is that they are often bundled together in a way that rips them out of history and imposes an anachronistic, timeless projection of modern notions onto the past.

So, the very different phenomena of the Indian Hijra, Samoan Faʻafafine, ‘Two Spirit’ people of some American first nations and Northern Albanian Burrnesha, to name a few, get all taken together as expressions of what today is called transgender or ‘under the transgender umbrella’.

The frustrating irony of this approach is that from a place of rejection of gender stereotypes and what are said to be only western imperialist constructions around sexuality it often ends up ignoring the concrete realities of different societies and proclaiming a transhistorical essence instead.

The Burrnesha, or ‘sworn virgins’, of Northern Albania were women who took a vow of chastity and could be considered socially as men. Reasons that we know of for doing so varied. But you cannot consider this phenomenon separate from the fact that society in that part of the Balkans was extremely patriarchal, with women seen as property and banned from smoking, drinking, or even wearing a watch.

The projection back of contested contemporary ideas about sexuality and gender does not help us learn from the past and develop liberatory politics today. The attempts to redefine Joan of Arc as a transman, for example, rest on no new evidence but do connote a decidedly unprogressive view. That is that a woman warrior with short hair must have been something other than a woman.

There are things we can learn from the historical development of human society but they are about potential, change and the struggle against artificial restrictions, not about transhistorical identities projected back from today.

Capitalism and its delusions

And it is in capitalism that we find the most extreme gap between human potential and the material constraints of class society – and thus so many discontents. It is a system born through revolutionary upheavals in the 17th and 18th centuries yet it managed to create modern racism and, despite stirrings against obscurantism about sex and sexuality, to reimpose in the 19th century the oppression of women and launch a crusade against free sexuality.

It is no accident that the law under which a woman was jailed this month for having an abortion beyond the legal time limit dates from 1861. A little later come laws against the male ‘homosexual’, now not a sinner as in medieval times but a pathologised outcast.

This great contradiction of capitalism offering the potential for greater freedom on the one hand but crushing it on the other was there at the beginning. It remains with us today. Further, today the system is prepared to commercialise those elements of advance that we do make.

Every one of the corporations and state institutions pinkwashing themselves at London Pride would have been for smashing the miners who led the defiant Lesbian and Gay Pride demonstration in 1985.

Now this is not to say that the expression and sense of self has to be in headlong confrontation with the state and ruling class. The whole socialist point is for these to be freed from that antagonism. But it is an indication of the wider abandonment of a liberatory and collective perspective among those well-heeled groups purporting to speak for LGBT+ people on these issues.

One example is tying the argument against homophobia to the declaration that people are ‘born that way’. The truth is a) we do not know, b) it does not matter when it comes to political rights – there is nothing wrong with being gay full stop – and c) we are fighting for a human liberation in which we may well transcend these categories.

A broad sense of revolutionary optimism in the 1970s that people may explore and change their sexuality is now not just disagreed with (perfectly fine!), but denounced as a mark of bigotry in ‘orthodox LGBT thought’. On no evidence base. The vista of human potential is thus sometimes reduced to… you were born that way.

Getting lost, and returning to a liberatory path

This is even more pronounced when it comes to the increase in the number of people, mainly young people, identifying as transgender. Our starting point is that people should be free to dress, express themselves and see themselves as they wish without opprobrium. This should be common to every socialist and anyone who takes seriously individual freedom that doesn’t impinge on others. Transwomen and transmen have the right to live as they want without fear or discrimination and we should continue campaigning against every attack on them.  

Despite the corporate rainbow flags there is in fact the imposition of gender expectations to an increasing degree. It is good that people reject them. Full stop.

The tragedy, however, is that that common ground on the left over that has been broken up by the pushing of an ideology by Stonewall and others that is mistaken, that tends to the very reaction that it says it rejects, that makes an enemy out of those on the left who don’t agree and has widened the door to a radical conservative right that was on the rampage anyway.

It has perversely ended up not challenging the increasing prevalence of sex-role stereotypes that we must expect to be playing a major role in the social phenomenon of young people, girls especially, declaring they are something other than a girl. There are educational and parenting materials that suggest a boy liking dresses and stereotypically girls things may in fact be a ‘transgirl’, and vice versa. Now, who identifies as trans and why are open questions. It is unlikely, however, that it is the same phenomenon in a teenage girl facing puberty and a worsening sexism and pressed to perform hypersexualized or pornified fictions of womanhood as it is in a man identifying as a transwoman later in life.

We are in a very bad place if behaviour that falls outside of sex-role stereotypes and contradicting what we used to call gender conditioning is in fact taken as evidence of those stereotypes because the person doing it is now declared to be of the sex deemed appropriate for the gendered behaviour.

Individuals have every right to identify as they wish. But we should not go backwards socially to identifying men and women with regressive constructs arising from an oppressive structure, which socialists believe it possible to tear down.

One form of activism in the 1970s by some gay men was called radical drag. Men put on women’s clothing in order to invite in the street the inevitable abuse and thus make a point of challenging the sexist and homophobic dominant ideas. The radical drag activists were making the point that wearing ‘female’ clothes or conforming to female stereotypes should not be equated with being a woman.

And courageous as those actions may have been, we are not going to tear out the roots of sexual oppression and overturn class society one act of defiance of gender at a time.

That most people in Britain are prepared in social circumstances to accept someone wanting to be regarded as a man or a woman is a reflection of gains made over the decades against conservative orthodoxy. There is widespread acceptance of the idea that transwomen and men should be seen as such and not face discrimination for being so.

There is, however, much less support for transwomen being able to compete in women’s sporting categories. While there is much debate about particular sports, the athletics results speak for themselves and it is hard to believe that anyone does not recognise that there is an advantage for male bodied people over female bodies people in sports (other than equestrianism and so on).

There are similar questions over single sex spaces for women, and over the admission of transwomen to women’s prisons. Many of these questions could be dealt with by serious and non-discriminatory debate, and by the serious resourcing of facilities for both women and transwomen, both of whom face violence and abuse. This is of course not on offer from a society which is cutting public resourced.

When parts of the left repeat mantras instead of addressing these complex and serious questions, there is the danger of opening the door to the radical right which has struggled with the fact that the left represents majority good sense over issues of gay equality and respect for gender non-conforming people but now finds it can win support over this particular question.

Worse comes with denying that sex, biological sex, matters in a sexist society and means that women require women only spaces in some circumstances and have a right to organise as women. That may be in therapeutic spaces, refugees, for reasons of privacy or dignity, vulnerability (prisons), or just out of organisation of political agency.

The drive against that in the false name of trans rights has quite naturally antagonised many women, who provide these services. So has the claim that goes beyond just recognition of trans people to saying that the rest of us must identify as  accepting of the gender stereotypes that accord with our sex.

Women’s and gay liberationism have been rooted precisely in rejecting that and it a reactionary step to say that we must accept it.

There is much, much more to say. But I want to end with a few pointers towards a better way forward for the left at this moment

Unity in struggle, debate and democracy

The tribulations of liberal institutions like the Democratic Party in the US over individualist platitudes about sex and gender compared with an abject failure to do anything materially about them in office were always going to hit them. The gathering destruction of abortion rights in a country where a majority is for the right to choose is a terrible example.

The liberal crises should not affect the labour movement and the left, at least in the same way. That they have done is in some ways down to the labour movement outsourcing its thinking on these issues to the same multimillion pound outfits such as Stonewall that have been enmeshed with corporations and state bodies. There has always been debate about these issues, which are sometimes complex. It was a major mistake for the ‘there is no debate mantra’ to take hold in parts of the labour movement.

It meant that six or more years ago when potential conflicts of transgender and women’s rights emerged there was a widespread refusal to discuss them. Longstanding socialists and feminists of the left who urged discussion and finding unifying solutions were denounced.

We have a situation now where there are pickets of a documentary addressing issues of sex and gender produced by two Marxist academics, and some UCU union branches are for banning it. Some socialists are for picketing a middle-of-the-road feminist in the way that they would oppose someone of the racist right. Feminists and socialist men have been described as fascists or ‘fascist adjacent’.

This has been disastrous. Above all because it has given further space for the reactionary right to operate in as they seek to come across as just talking common sense. Now the far and fascist right are mobilising on these questions.

Opposing that means unity in action. But that will not happen if there is a refusal to recognise that there is a deep discussion here that goes to the heart of the politics of sexual liberation, to Marxism and radical strategies for change and to concrete struggles today.

More than 10,000 women fleeing domestic violence were refused a safe house last year. We don’t know how many transwomen could not find a refuge. That’s one reason why we need to count both sex and gender. But the issue is the appalling lack of refuge provision, expanding it, and on that basis being able to offer women safety and specialist provision to transwomen and anyone else.

The fight is with the government and the capitalist class for resources. Arching over the collapse of the Tavistock clinic is the crisis of funding for child and adolescent mental health services and the crisis of in young people’s mental health.

It is in these common struggles that unity may be built and the very real differences overcome collectively. That is an aspect of the anti-capitalist perspective that is central to emancipating all of us. Activities that set themselves against that approach are a dead end or worse. The socialist left should say so, argue and offer a better perspective – including theoretically on the historic question of women’s and sexual liberation – and therefore human freedom.

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Kevin Ovenden

Kevin Ovenden is a progressive journalist who has followed politics and social movements for 25 years. He is a leading activist in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, led five successful aid convoys to break the siege on Gaza, and was aboard the Mavi Marmara aid ship when Israeli commandoes boarded it killing 10 people in May 2010. He is author of Syriza: Inside the Labyrinth.