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. 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

Saturday, May 9, 2020


[quote]sexuality becomes an open political battleground. ... Phenomena such as ... domestic abuse, sexual assault, and LGBT issues, highlight definite antagonisms. Inevitably, many would be revolutionaries get caught up in these disputes... The dominant ideologies ... tend to frame social antagonisms in terms of conflicting rights.

... institutions express the separation of human from human.

... human rights actually reinforce artificial antagonisms between human and human

... hierarchy and unequal relations between the sexes.

... discrimination we experience today, based on sex, sexuality or gender

... the instances of contemporary sexual antagonisms[/quote]

Let me get this straight. Are you saying, that "antagonisms" between humans are "artificial", not in the sense that they don't exist, or that they would exist only though prejudiced ideological attitudes, but rather, "artificial" in the sense, that these very real "antagonisms" are harmful and need to be overcome? If these antagonisms exists, then it seems inevitable that, as a reflection of this base in the superstructure, legal rights do conflict (like you give the example of property and workers' rights).

Relations of production, such as the division of labour and private property, create social antagonisms. Humans "become conscious of this conflict and fight it out" through the "legal, political, religious, artistic or philosophic – in short, ideological forms" of a given society. As Marxists, we know that the current social relations are not eternal, and so neither are these antagonisms, as they would have no material basis under different relations of production.

So today, where legal rights do conflict, this is not because of some "eternal" or "natural" laws, but because it's an expression of antagonisms upheld by the capitalist relations of production.

Unfortunately a lot of pseudo-radicals, on a personal level, get "caught up" in disputes about class struggle. However, what they don't know is, that class antagonisms are artificial (not "eternal"), in socialism there will be no exploitation, and so "we do not believe" in conflicts of superstructure - this is how we (real radicals, not in the trap of capital) relate to class struggle "in all its messy dimensions".

^That was a bit of cheap sarcasm on my part, forgive me. I do fid this article read like an AI-created string of passages/quotes (Reich?). Write substantially of some of the well-known controversial matters of sexuality, but don't engage in vague denunciations of feminists and Stalinists about gender.

You are being facetious, because I assume you would agree that the working class is uniquely placed within the current mode of production to be the revolutionary subject, that, to quote Marx again, we "ought, therefore, not to be exclusively absorbed in these unavoidable guerilla fights incessantly springing up from the never ceasing encroachments of capital or changes of the market." That reducing class struggle to just a dispute over rights, as the unions and the reformist left do, means in fact playing into the bosses game.

In any case, the article aims to "restate the basics" and should be read in the context of documents we have already published on this theme, and those that we will publish in the future.

I'd recommend Aron Zalkind's The Twelve Sexual Commandments of the Revolutionary Proletariat (1925). Zalkind also wrote in particular about problems among the young Bolshevik cadre.

I'm not sure how twelve arbitrary rules imposing marriage, sexual abstinence and heterosexual monogamy for the sake of productivism, drafted during the NEP period, are of much relevance here.

By "arbitrary" you foreclose discussion of the topic (like saying: "taste in art/etc. is arbitrary"). For Zalkind this was a topic of discussion, as also the Engels-quote indicates, a topic for "public opinion", and as Marxists the task would be to contribute. By the way, the dismissive talk about "productivism" can easily be turned against Kollontai as regards rehabilitating prostituted women. But as to Zalkind, he wanted to see;

That, in the midst of the motley and heated discussion that is now being conducted by our red youth, among the most diverse, partly ridiculous sexual ideals - in the style of at least Kollontayev’s Zhenya, or in the ascetic spirit according to Tolstoy — a more distinct trickle of class regulation of sex drive, a trickle of scientific, organized, revolutionary, expedient, matter-of-fact approach to the sexual issue begins to see its way.

One can read the entire article for oneself, just put Zalkind's text in google-translate:

I do not think it is possible to say Marx or modern day Marxists reject rights. Marx critiqued the rights of man and bourgeois right, but civil and political rights such as freedom of the press are a difference to matter. I claim no expertise on the matter, but have read various pieces which caution against a simplistic position.

Try again...I do not think it is possible to say Marx or modern day Marxists reject rights. Marx critiqued the rights of man and bourgeois right, but civil and political rights such as freedom of the press are a different matter. I claim no expertise on the matter, but have read various pieces which caution against a simplistic position. Right to work, right to legal abortion, right to grow a marijuana plant...

That is a reasonable impression stevein7, and I think Dyjbas has left some room to wiggle (or hedge his bets) on the question of rights. It may be that every right, even the right to abortion or freedom of the press, relies for its enforcement on a legal system, police or state, and doesn't challenge capitalism. Such a statement of the apparent "basics", does not yet mean, however, a refusal to defend or struggle for rights: just as recognition of the "basic" fact, that the stuggle for higher wages is not by itself a revolutionary struggle, does not, for all that, necessarily mean a refusal to struggle for higher wages. Is it an insistence then on honesty? Namely, not to rebrand/justify your participation in an ordinary wage struggle as some kind of revolutionary process, but to simply make no pretension about its revolutionary character?

I would guess the majority of those for legalisation of eg marijuana do not seriously pretend that this will smash capitalism, but to the extent that they're in this self-delusion, then deflating their revolutionary pretension could, I suppose, require a statement of the "basics". And this "basic" lesson would also be dished out to those who oppose spread of drugs, which legalisation could entail (eg because wider access would just ruin the lives of mostly poor people). However, my complaint is, that such a statement of the alleged mere "basics" in this conflict or antagonism between two sides, simply dodges the subject of discussion.

Perhaps when we arrive at full communism, talk of rights, legality, prohibition, compulsion and the like can be discarded, but meanwhile, and including the post insurrectional period, under the proletarian state, such unfortunate realities are necessary and therefore progressive.

L'article prétend aborder la sexualité de façon matérialiste. Voyons voir ce qu'il en est.

Premièrement, on nous met en garde de ne pas s'empêtrer dans les différents droits de genre. Mais ce qu'on nous propose c'est de laisser tomber les droits en général et de se battre pour la révolution communiste. Bien. Le capitalisme est une société de droit, en particulier pour la bourgeoisie. Donc, avec l'appui de Rosa Luxembourg, abandonnons la revendication des droits, quels qu'ils soient. En plus, citant Marx, nous devrions mettre une croix sur les droits de l'homme, puisqu'ils sont les droits de la bourgeoisie exclusivement. On nous suggère donc d'abandonner les droits de tout le monde, indifféremment des revendications de la classe ouvrière, pour plus de libertés ou tout simplement pour garder les acquis.

Deuxièmement, le sujet de l'article est mal posé : Marxisme et sexualité. En le posant de cette façon on escamote toute la question de la reproduction humaine et de son contrôle, d'où part toute la question de la sexualité. Qui plus est, de l'avertissement de ne pas tomber dans les droits contradictoires du genre, on y sombre intégralement sans pouvoir en sortir ne faisant qu'appeler à la révolution pour régler les problèmes. Enfin on dit qu'il ne faut pas rester neutre face à cette contradiction des droits de genre mais on ne nous dit pas quoi faire d'autre en attendant la révolution. On refuse donc de décortiquer les revendications de la classe ouvrière pour plus de liberté pour appuyer celle qui la fera avancer dans la lutte de classe. Confusion donc, et refus de prendre position afin d'éclairer cette lutte de classe dans le présent.

Troisièmement, on tente d'aborder la sexualité de manière historique, matérialiste et dialectique. On nous met en garde de ne pas tomber dans le déterminisme biologique, et donc d'oublier la question des genres. On affirme que la sexualité a été en constante évolution dans l'histoire humaine. On devrait plutôt parler du contrôle de la sexualité et ce qui est beaucoup plus précis, du contrôle de la reproduction humaine. C'est exactement ce que dit Kollontai dans la citation rapporté par l'auteur de l'article.

On rapporte que chez les chasseurs-cueilleurs, il n'y avait pas de relations inégales, mais une division sexuelle du travail en réciprocité. Ce que la science anthropologique, archéologique et ethnologique du 20è siècle conteste. La première division sexuelle du travail commence au Paléolithique supérieur avec la chasse au gros gibier, excluant les femmes de cette activité, des outils et des armes en plus des postes religieux et diplomatiques. Protéger la reproduction humaine, c'était aussi, protéger les femmes et donc de les exclure des activités dangereuses et par là des décisions politiques. Ce processus d'exclusion des femmes se durcira avec le début du stockage des denrées, de l'élevage et finalement de l'agriculture, pour finalement aboutir à la monogamie pour la transmission des héritages de père en fils. Donc l'obligation sociale et politique d'une seule forme de sexualité : l’hétéronormativité exclusivement.

On nous dit ensuite que le capitalisme a sapé le patriarcat (le pouvoir du père). Si cela est vrai (la rémunération des ouvrières les rendant relativement indépendante de leur mari), il manque l'aspect dialectique, de la lutte de classe, des femmes en particulier, pour obtenir leur indépendance juridique quelques deux cents ans plus tard. On a trop souvent tendance à oublier cet aspect de lutte de classe des femmes chez les révolutionnaires par peur de sombrer dans les affres du féminisme. Ce refus de reconnaître la lutte des femmes et de leurs revendications est à la base du schisme entre les organisations révolutionnaires et les organisations féministes qui ont préféré faire bande à part à partir des années 1970.

Faute de comprendre et de faire l'analyse de la division sexuelle du travail et du contrôle de la reproduction de la force de travail, la liaison entre production et reproduction ne se fait pas. La jonction entre classe ouvrière industrielle et classe ouvrière de soins est compromise.

Abandonnant ainsi les femmes à leur sort, leurs revendications sont reprises par le courant féministe de toutes tendances. Là aussi les révolutionnaires auraient mieux à faire que de mépriser la lutte des femmes et de cracher pour ainsi dire sur les théories féministes.

Quelles sont les revendications des femmes?

Démocratiques : égalité homme femme dans tous les domaines, droit à l’éducation, droit de vote, droit d’être élue, parité dans la représentation, parité du droit de parole, droit de faire des affaires, accès à tout travail et à toutes les sphères sociales, présence dans l’histoire, égalité salariale, égalité juridique, droit au divorce, abolition de la division sexuelle du travail, partage des tâches ménagères.

Liées à la reproduction : droit à contraception, liberté sexuelle, reconnaissance face à la justice, liberté vestimentaire, droit à l’avortement, contrôle de leur corps, congé de maternité payé, comité non-mixte, service de garde, cantine publique, justice transformatrice, reconnaissance de leur rôle dans la reproduction.

Sans la reprise et la défense de ces revendications, il n'y aura pas de révolution. Toujours dans l'article, on nous dit que ce n'est pas de nos affaires de faire un plan pour la société future. Au contraire, on en fait déjà, avec la possibilité de liberté de nos corps, de l'association libre des travailleurs et travailleuses dans la production et la reproduction (sociale), de l'abolition de l'argent et des salaires, de la fin de l'État, etc. De plus, est-ce qu'on a pas quelque leçon à tirer de la façon que les femmes se sont organisées pour atteindre leurs objectifs? Les comités autonomes, non-mixtes, devraient nous rendre jaloux!

En même temps, la gauche communiste a réellement besoin d'une discussion ouverte sur des sujets comme la division sexuelle du travail et le contrôle de la reproduction de la force de travail. Il n'y a pas que l'économique qui a notre intérêt :

« D'après la conception matérialiste de l'histoire, le facteur déterminant dans l'histoire est, en dernière instance, la production et la reproduction de la vie réelle_. Ni Marx, ni moi n'avons jamais affirmé davantage. Si, ensuite, quelqu'un torture cette proposition_ pour lui faire dire que le facteur économique est le seul déterminant, il la transforme en une phrase vide, abstraite, absurde. » [C’est nous qui soulignons].

La citation est de Engels.

Actucieux you muddy the waters. Nowhere does the article say we should just ignore working class demands or the struggles of women. On the contrary, it says "we have to link the instances of contemporary sexual antagonisms to the wider picture of the capitalist crisis". Regarding your list of "demands" and "rights", the role of the Communist Left is not to uncritically endorse reforms which can be easily recuperated by capitalism (and would make us no different to the left of capital), but point beyond the immediate: intervening in all the struggles of the class to link them to the historical programme of communism.