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You are here: The Platypus Affiliated Society/Book Review: Sherry Wolf, Sexuality and Socialism: History, Politics, and Theory of LGBT Liberation.

Book Review: Sherry Wolf, Sexuality and Socialism: History, Politics, and Theory of LGBT Liberation.

Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2009.

Greg Gabrellas and Max E. Katz

Platypus Review 31 | January 2011


YOU ARE SEVENTEEN, you enjoy sex with members of your gender, and you have a growing interest in radical politics. What should you believe, what should you do? The socialist position seems practically indistinguishable from mainstream liberalism: support for same-sex marriage, hate crime laws, and a trans-inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA). There seems to be a more radical option, however. Against the (allegedly) reformist, assimilationist, and legalistic orientation of actually existing gay politics, self-described “queers” demand a politics of radical sexual difference; a politics that seeks, somehow, to go beyond equality. What lies “beyond equality” turns out to be the expected juvenilia of anarchoid direct actions: dropping a banner declaring “It’s Okay to be Gay” from the balcony of a megachurch, pouring glue in the locks of a Mormon temple, vandalizing the headquarters of the mainstream Human Rights Campaign (HRC). After the last incident, the perpetrators released a statement claiming that, “Just like society today, the HRC is run by a few wealthy elites who are in bed with corporate sponsors who proliferate militarism, heteronormativity, and capitalist exploitation.” [1] This certainly appears more radical than beltway lobbying by “wealthy elites” on bedroom terms with “corporate sponsors” and the Democratic Party. Staid liberalism or hysterical vandalism: These seem to be the available politics.

Sherry Wolf’s recent volume, Sexuality and Socialism: History, Politics, and Theory of LGBT Liberation, seeks to clarify the situation. Wolf proposes to use a “Marxist worldview to examine… historical, political, and theoretical questions of sexual and gender oppression in order to frame an argument for how we can organize for LGBT liberation” (9). Marxism, she suggests, can offer activists much needed theoretical artillery to fashion a coherent opposition against sexual and gender oppression. To young activists, however, the proposition may seem unlikely. Don’t the reactionary policies of Stalinism—namely criminalization of homosexuality, prohibition of abortion, and restriction of divorce—indicate a Puritanism at the heart of Marxist politics? The good Stakhanovite has no time for the listless, bourgeois decadence of Uranian pleasure.

Wolf effectively vindicates the Marxist tradition’s concern with sexual freedom, demolishing what she calls the “myth of Marxist homophobia.” To prove that Marxism “privileges” class only to ignore the struggle against sexual oppression, opponents have long trotted out a private letter to Karl Marx wherein Friedrich Engels makes an allegedly homophobic slur against the Lassallean Jean Baptisa von Schweitzer. Wolf ably sweeps away the slander, situating the letter within the internecine struggles of the Left. More convincing, though, is an extraordinary excerpt Wolf cites from Engels’s The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and The State:

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 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: a generation of men who never in their lives have known what it is to buy a woman’s surrender with money or any other social instrument of power; a generation of women who have never known what it is to give themselves to a man from any other considerations than real love or to refuse to give themselves to their lover from fear of the economic consequences. 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 of their practice of each individual—and that will be the end of it. (Qtd. 82–83)

Although this, and this alone, gives the lie to the tedious myth of Marxist Puritanism, Wolf also explains how the young Soviet regime eliminated anti-sodomy and age of consent laws, decriminalized prostitution, and sought to combat sexually transmitted diseases. The reader will learn that the Soviet Red Army was rife with lesbians, some of them cross-dressing. Freed from Chillingworthian caricature, Wolf sketches a Lenin deeply concerned with sexual emancipation, writing to his mistress, Inessa Armand, that the revolution would emancipate love from “the constraints of religious prejudice, patriarchal and social strictures, the law, police and courts” (qtd. 93).

Wolf has cleared the residual anti-Marxist earwax away: You are ready to listen and learn what Marxism helps us understand about sexual freedom. Wolf’s answer runs, more or less, like this: For the vast majority of the species throughout the greater part of human history, sustenance came direct from the land. What Marx called the “primitive accumulation of capital”—the start of capitalism—broke the bond. Enclosure by enclosure, the species was cut loose from the land and thrown into the labor market, free to seek out its own living. Of course, this was (and continues to be) the freedom to starve, suffer, and die. But capitalism also opens the possibility of sexual autonomy. Freed from the moral template of traditional life, men and women could begin to conceive, fashion, and pursue their own desires, pleasures, and attachments. But the full promise of sex under capitalism could not be delivered. Capital generates intense instability, and instability provokes reaction. Via shame, criminalization, terror, and legislation, moralizers seek to re-impose solidity. Ultimately, though, the limits to sexual freedom come from the social form of capitalism itself. Try as you like to shape your own eros, the demands of wage labor—what Oscar Wilde, in “The Soul of Man under Socialism,” called the “peremptory, unreasonable, degrading Tyranny of want”—saps away time and energy, thereby stifling the possibilities of pleasure and expression.

To be deeply interested in sexual freedom, Wolf’s argument suggests, means recognizing the necessity of overcoming capitalism. For our hypothetical activist, this is an intriguing point, but a cryptic one. What would it even mean to be a Marxist today? How would one go about attempting to “overcome” capitalism today, and how could this connect up to the specific struggles for sexual liberation? But as Wolf considers recent history and contemporary practice, an unrecognized disconnect emerges between the Marxist theory she outlines and the actual politics she advocates.

As Wolf ought to emphasize, sexual liberation movements, whether feminist or gay, have systematically failed to effectively advocate for the international overthrow of capitalism. Even in the putatively “radical” moment of the 1970s, when gay liberationists thought of themselves as explicitly revolutionary, revolution meant little more than endorsement of the Stalinist-inflected ‘‘anti-imperialism” of the New Left. Instead of reckoning with the politics of gay liberation, Wolf chooses to celebrate the movement’s extremely limited contributions to the broadening of sexual freedom. For Wolf, gay liberation develops as an understandable reaction to the oppression of sexual minorities. This is a common and easy way to think about the so-called “new social movements” that began in the 1960s. The pressure was rising; release had to come. But such a “hydraulic” conception of political mobilization misses the constitutive importance of ideology. Gay liberation was not a knee-jerk response-formation; it was authorized and formed by the then-dominant form of Marxist theory. Inflected by Maoism and influenced by the struggles for Third World liberation, so-called “Marxist-Leninism” came to think of revolutionary politics as, fundamentally, the struggle of the oppressed against oppressor. As a result, a concern with overcoming capitalism internationally became replaced by support for “people’s liberation” movements abroad and at home.

Informed by such theory, many in the gay liberation movement supported Castro’s Cuba and the Black Panther Party, despite their reactionary politics regarding sexuality. Unable or unwilling to recognize the disconnect between the promise of Marxist theory and the depressing actualities of “gay liberation,” Wolf blithely asserts that the movement was “drawing revolutionary conclusions, connecting issues, and presenting liberation as something that was not possible without the overthrow of capitalism” (137).

Wolf’s immediate political suggestions demonstrate the same dishonesty in acute form. The book suggests that winning contemporary debates around sexuality will, somehow, lead towards revolution. Such magical thinking is symptomatic of the wider Marxist left. Unable to recognize their complete political impotency, “revolutionaries” whorishly tail after whatever seems to be moving: a couple of years ago it was the Democratic Party, but now it is the Green Party, immigration reform, and gay rights. This is the political equivalent of a middle-aged man, pot-bellied and combed-over, desperately trying to pick up fresh young flesh. Worse than pathetic, this is betrayal. Wolf has interested our hypothetical young self (and many young selves like it) in revolutionary politics, and pimped out their interest in wholly symbolic politics. The support of Wolf’s International Socialist Organization (ISO) will not, one must admit, make a difference in the fight to attain same-sex marriage. This is not to say that the political defense of marriage equality is, in itself, wrong or misguided. But such false optimism obscures recognition of the real problem: the gaping disconnect between Marxist theory and allegedly “Marxist" politics.

The evasion is made clearest in Wolf’s criticism of identity politics. She points out (correctly) that proponents of “ID politics” misappropriate tropes from postmodern theory in order to valorize their own perpetual defeat, and that more recent efforts to rectify the problem by “destabilizing” all identities have proven obscurantist and disorienting. But Wolf identifies the politics of identity and after as a retreat from something called “the working class.” This seems, at first, obviously true: Didn’t identity politics authorize the switch in focus from class to gender, race, and sexuality?

But the half-truth stonewalls a more troubling story: The obvious shift was only a symptom of a larger decay of the project to overcome capitalism. In place of the political attempt to seize power, transform social relations, and emancipate humanity, activists turned towards the attempt to end distinct and narrowly defined “oppressions.” The retreat was not made by middle-class reformers, but by the Left itself—by organizations including the ISO. Wolf gestures to the classic Trotskyist formula of a revolution betrayed, but refuses to take responsibility herself for its ongoing betrayal.

This retreat may have, at the time, seemed to appear rational, even pragmatic. When the established institutions like political parties and trade unions have sold out the project of freedom, can’t we build up constituencies for revolution by appealing to mass struggles? But even judged on its own limited terms, the attempt failed. Oppressions were not overcome. Inequality flourished through the 1970s and persists to this day. “International revolution” may, in the face of ‘concrete social struggles’ seem distant, useless, abstract. Why read? We need to march.

Let the problem be stated as baldly as possible. Wolf seems to believe that the “mass movement” of the 1960s was sold out and somehow duped by some unholy combination of corporate interests and Jacques Lacan. The story allows her to shift all responsibility away from the Left (her left) and persist in the illusion that the miniature dramas—she mentions the brief occupation of the Republic Doors and Windows factory in 2008—are signs of a coming insurrection.

Wolf’s reasoning relies on a sleight of hand. She shows us what overcoming capitalism might mean for sexual freedom, and shows the historical achievements of revolutionary socialism in this struggle. Then (keep your eyes on her hands) she slips into a description of the inanities of contemporary left politics. An association emerges: Somehow, Marxism means marching for marriage equality.

It is time to stop lying to the young. There are no answers to their questions, no revolutionary politics available. Not yet! Perhaps Wolf fears that such honesty would depoliticize and besides, “We need to be where the struggle is.” But if Marxism is ever to become what it once was and could be, it cannot be sustained on a diet of lies. Your seventeen-year-old self was more intelligent than you might think: You could handle the truth. |P

[1]. The statement taking credit for the action against the HRC was released and widely disseminated on the Internet. It can be found in full at <>.