Marxism and Sexuality

Contradictions at the heart of the capitalist mode of production affect human relations at the level of the superstructure. The ideological, cultural, linguistic, and organisational forms prevalent in contemporary society are not independent of the social and economic structure of our society, and are bequeathed to us from previous modes of production. Sexuality, like other spheres of human activity, is not exempt from this.

Submitted by Internationali… on May 10, 2020

Particularly at times of crisis, when capitalist contradictions intensify, sexuality becomes an open political battleground. We need not look far to see this today. Phenomena such as fourth-wave feminism, women’s strikes, TERFs, incels, and the disputes around identity, sex work, surrogacy, domestic abuse, sexual assault, and LGBT issues, highlight definite antagonisms. Inevitably, many would be revolutionaries get caught up in these disputes, particularly where it concerns them on a personal level. The question then of how Marxists should relate to sexuality in all its messy dimensions is not just abstract navel-gazing. If we do not provide satisfying answers, workers will look elsewhere, likely to fall under the influence of the right or the left of capital (both of which aim to divide the working class). And so, we restate the basics.

Conflicting Rights

"The duty of the class party of the proletariat to protest and resist national oppression arises not from any special ‘right of nations,’ just as, for example, its striving for the social and political equality of sexes does not at all result from any special ‘rights of women’ which the movement of bourgeois emancipationists refers to. This duty arises solely from the general opposition to the class regime and to every form of social inequality and social domination, in a word, from the basic position of socialism." (Rosa Luxemburg, The National Question, 1909)

The dominant ideologies, be they of the right or the left, tend to frame social antagonisms in terms of conflicting rights. Whatever it may be, women’s rights vs. transgender rights, secular rights vs. religious rights, or indeed property rights vs. workers’ rights, the principle remains the same: the rights of one are said to infringe on the rights of the other, and within this moral and legal framework “we” need to find a sensible equilibrium. Different strands of bourgeois thinking – liberalism, conservatism, nationalism, reformism, or any of their scions – will have different conceptions of what sensible entails (in extreme cases, it has meant the attempted eradication of this or that section of society). That said, certainly human rights, or the ‘rights of man’ as they were originally known, were a most revolutionary notion in the 17th to 19th centuries as opposed to the dying feudal order. But they corresponded to the rise of a specific class, the bourgeoisie, in their attempt to take over the reins of the state and industry. It is no surprise then that:

"The right of man to liberty is based not on the association of man with man, but on the separation of man from man. It is the right of this separation, the right of the restricted individual, withdrawn into himself. The practical application of man’s right to liberty is man’s right to private property." (Karl Marx, On The Jewish Question, 1844)

As Marxists, our framework is different. We do not believe in conflicting rights, we do not seek a sensible equilibrium. For Marxists, communism means a society where the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all. Rights, as understood within capitalist society, are an obstacle to realising this vision. The world of rights is the world of states, armies, the police and legal systems all of which are necessary to enforce rights in the first place. All of these institutions express the separation of human from human. Rights by definition imply class society, and class society is what we understand to be the source of modern day oppression and misery.

Materialist Conception of Sexuality

Having established that human rights actually reinforce artificial antagonisms between human and human, we need to explain what the historical, or dialectical, materialist framework has to say about sexuality. For one, a materialist understanding of sexuality does not equate to biological determinism (as for example displayed by many Stalinists when dealing with the question of gender). Rather, we see sexuality as ever evolving human activity throughout history.

According to recent estimates the genus homo emerged up to 3 million years ago, while our species, the homo sapiens, emerged some 300,000 years ago. It is disputed when the first primitive sexual division of labour appeared, but some archaeological research traces it to the Upper Palaeolithic (40,000 years ago). By itself this did not yet mean unequal relations between the sexes, as hunter-gatherer societies tended towards cooperation and reciprocity. This changed around the Neolithic (12,000 years ago) when there was a shift from food gathering to food production, in other words, the development of agriculture. At the same time as settlements develop, labour productivity is increased and surplus is appropriated, private property gives birth to the first class societies. Egalitarianism is gradually replaced by hierarchy and unequal relations between the sexes.

"In the course of the thousand-year history of human society, love has developed from the simple biological instinct – the urge to reproduce which is inherent in all creatures from the highest to the lowest – into a most complex emotion that is constantly acquiring new intellectual and emotional aspects. […] At all stages of historical development society had established norms defining when and under what conditions love is “legal” (i.e. corresponds to the interests of the given social collective) […] At the tribal stage love was seen as a kinship attachment (love between sisters and brothers, love for parents). The ancient culture of pre-Christian period placed love-friendship above all else. The feudal world idealised platonic courtly love between members of the opposite sex outside marriage. The bourgeoisie took monogamous marital love as its ideal." (Alexandra Kollontai, Make Way for Winged Eros, 1923)

The division of labour and property relations have evolved significantly over the millennia, through the Asiatic, ancient, feudal, and capitalist modes of production. These modes of production enforced their own sexual laws and morality, often in brutal ways (be it by the state and religious bodies or by society itself). Naturally, this has left bruises across all aspects of contemporary sexuality, both conscious and subconscious. The discrimination we experience today, based on sex, sexuality or gender, is only the tip of the iceberg. While capitalism has undermined patriarchy, by which we understand the organisation of society into family units under paternal power for the purpose of holding onto property, it has not put an end to it. Only a society which abolishes private property, and the division of labour as we know it, can complete that task. This is not to say that Marxists remain neutral towards sexual oppression today: as advocates of the future society we have to behave accordingly, not just pay lip-service to it. Politically we have to link the instances of contemporary sexual antagonisms to the wider picture of the capitalist crisis.

"The revolutionary movement [...] will complete the process of decline in the patriarchal family which the economic decomposition of capitalism introduced. […] If the forces of political reaction understand the importance of sexual oppression as a factor in reaction and take steps to secure this oppression, a revolutionary party must then recognize the significance of sexual rebellion and support this rebellion against church and capital." (Wilhelm Reich, The Imposition of Sexual Morality, 1932)

Eros Rearmed

The left and the right of capital have their own ideas of how to administer class society, and hence sexuality. But by tinkering with it this or that way, they only seek to preserve the existing social relations where the root of the problem actually lies. It is said that feminism and its ideological offspring can best address the plight of women and the LGBT community. But most feminists have no interest whatsoever in undermining capitalism, even socialist feminists tend to mean something else by feminism than we do: not the abolition of wage labour, money and states, but redistribution of wealth and a welfare state.

"Today the only way forward for the whole of humanity is for the exploited class, the proletariat, to throw off the shackles of the capitalist state in an international revolution which will free production from the dead hand of capitalist profit needs and create a free association of producers dedicated to production for social needs. This transfer of the means of production into common ownership will also mean that the monogamous family will cease to be the economic unit of society. […] The last resort of the feminist is to argue that communism won't automatically rid society of patriarchal attitudes, to which we would agree, but the point is that without a communist revolution there will be no basis for any real change in attitudes." (CWO, Women and Communism, 1986)

It is not our business to create blueprints for the new society, but what we can say is that the abolition of classes will fundamentally transform the way we think about sexuality and the way we treat our fellow human beings. No longer bound by the framework of conflicting rights and identities, by the competitive drive for profit, the future society will replace the government of persons by the administration of things. Love-comradeship and inner solidarity will govern sexual relations, rather than commodity exchange, prejudice or violence.

"What we can now conjecture about the way in which sexual relations will be ordered after the impending overthrow of capitalist production is mainly of a negative character, limited for the most part to what will disappear. But what will there be new? That will be answered when a new generation has grown up [...] When these people are in the world, they will care precious little what anybody today thinks they ought to do; they will make their own practice and their corresponding public opinion about the practice of each individual – and that will be the end of it." (Friedrich Engels, The Origin of the Family, 1884)

The task of would be revolutionaries is not "to drive Eros from social life but to rearm him according to the new social formation, and to educate sexual relationships in the spirit of the great new psychological force of comradely solidarity." (Kollontai) However much we would like it to, thousands of years of history will not be overturned overnight. After the revolutionary process, a transitional period will begin by which the working class will remodel society along egalitarian and cooperative lines, and patriarchal attitudes, no longer having a material basis, will be swept away along with the muck of ages as communism becomes reality.

May 2020