Marxism, Trans Liberation, and the Social Construction of Gender

Ezra Brain

June 6, 2021

Ezra is a NYC based theatre artist and teacher.

2020 was the worst year for the murders of trans people in U.S. history. States across the U.S. are currently debating whether to massively roll back rights for trans youth. Amid all this, liberal and conservative members of the ruling class sit wringing their hands about the “transgender question.” But the past few years have also seen the rise of an increasingly queer activist youth. These young people — many of whom are trans — took on leadership roles in the Black Lives Matter movement and pushed the movement to take up the demands of Black trans women specifically, with massive demonstrations in Brooklyn and elsewhere in defense of Black trans lives.

For all their progressive instincts and nascent questioning of the capitalist state, however, many young queer activists distrust Marxism. This is largely the result of decades of a capitalist smear campaign against Marxism. From the more extreme examples of the murder and jailing of activists to the ways that bourgeois ideology subsumed certain demands into neoliberalism, such as some advancement in queer rights, the capitalist class has long sought to discredit Marxism as an ideology, associate its adherents with Stalinism, and keep oppressed groups’ struggle for liberation separated from the Marxist movement.

This capitalist smear campaign, combined with historical failures of the communist movement — largely owing to the influence of Stalinism — has led many activists to argue that we need to discard Marx, since he was merely a straight, white, European, cisgender man who couldn’t look outside his own experience. To back up these assertions, doubters of Marx can point both to the historical failures of Marxist groups on gay liberation and the current failures of some groups on the question of trans liberation. But an analysis of the arguments that some so-called Marxist groups use against supporting trans liberation reveals that they are anything but Marxists. Rather, they are reactionaries who have rejected key philosophical tenets of Marxism to side with the racist, patriarchal, and repressive capitalist state against the liberation of identity and desire. These pseudo-Marxists should not be taken seriously, and we must rescue Marx from them and claim Marxism as being the only true strategy of liberation for the oppressed.

The Failures of the Transphobic “Left”

To disprove these perversions of Marxism, we must regrettably engage with some of them. Since the 20th century, the greatest force against gay and trans liberation on the self-proclaimed Left has been Stalinism. Stalin and his allies betrayed many of the social victories of the Russian Revolution, such as the legalization of homosexuality. Stalin and Stalinism became a conservative social force, writing off the demands of whole sectors of the working class as petty bourgeois distractions from true socialism. This led to anti-queer policies in Russia, Cuba, and many other deformed worker states of the 20th century and the expulsion of queer members of the Communist Party in the U.S. and elsewhere.

This social conservatism continues today among many Stalinist sects. For example, the Communist Party of Great Britain — a party riddled with political problems that are too deep to address in this piece — published an article in 2019 titled “The Reactionary Nightmare of ‘Gender Fluidity,’” which argues that trans folks and our allies are denying “the material reality of gender.” It is worth noting that in the article, they claim that sex and gender are synonymous (they are not).1Sex is the biological assignment given to you at birth. One way to think about it is that there could be around four sexes: those with penises, those with vaginas, those with both, those with neither. Gender is a more complex sociopolitical process that is a mix of personal identity, social relationships, and outward appearance. Given how complex the process of determining gender is, there is an almost unlimited number of genders that one could be. This is the main argument of much of the anti-trans “Left.”

The transphobic “Left,” however, isn’t limited to just Stalinism. There are also more eclectic groups that reject trans liberation as a worthwhile struggle. Some argue that it is a distraction from other struggles — implying the class-reductionist strategy of ignoring all oppression and only focusing on exploitation. Others, like the blog Freer Lives — which touts itself as a “socialist critique of gender ideology” — go further and argue that trans identities are fundamentally bourgeois. As Freer Lives argued in an article published in 2020 titled “All Leftists Should Support JK Rowling on Women’s Rights,”

Rowling’s defense of women against the sexism of gender ideology pits her, in practice, against the interests of the capitalist class and its elite servants, who have sought to use this new sexism as a way to maintain women’s oppression in today’s world. On this issue it is left-liberals and the far left who find themselves on the wrong side of the barricades.

Unfortunately, this social conservatism around queerness also crept into some Trotskyist parties in the 20th century. While there were Trotskyists who did join the gay liberation movement, others did not. For example, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) — the largest party in Trotsky’s Fourth International — inexcusably abstained from the fast-growing gay rights movement in the years before and after Stonewall and offered unconditional political support for the bureaucracy led by Castro in Cuba, despite their highly repressive policy toward queer people. The SWP did not accept openly queer people as members for many years. In 1976, members of the CWI (another Trotskyist tendency) stated in a pamphlet

Serious socialists will recognise that “gay liberation” cannot provide the slightest social basis for an independent contribution to the labour movement. The various exotic theories and emotive arguments that are sometimes advanced to prove otherwise are simply symptoms of the utter confusion and lack of perspectives that still prevail in purely student politics.

In these examples, we can see that the “theoretical” opposition to queer identities can quickly transform into a political and material opposition to the lives of queer people and queer liberation movements. This has the result of driving a wedge between queer members of the working class and Marxism as a political tendency because they could not necessarily trust the leaders of the Marxist parties to fight for their interests. Both theoretically and politically, we should be very clear on this point: support for queer and trans workers must be a completely nonnegotiable element of any socialist grouping.

But the problems with this line on queer and trans people go far beyond just the rejection of the struggle for liberation of an oppressed group. This position also represents an important rejection of both dialectics and historical materialism. That is, the elements of the socialist movement who reject transgender liberation are also rejecting the theoretical basis of Marxism in an adaptation to bourgeois morality.

Groups that take up this line are siding with the capitalist state as it attempts to maintain social control. They are allying themselves with the most right-wing elements of society as they continue to deny us the full development of our bodies and desires. These groups are effectively giving the queer liberation movement to neoliberalism, allowing for it to be co-opted, providing no challenge to the state. On a profound level, deeper even than theory, these so-called leftist groups are rejecting the foundational goal of all left politics: human emancipation. They have positioned themselves on the wrong side of history and in the ranks of the reactionaries. They are not our comrades, and they should be taken seriously only to be defeated and banished from the Left.

Gender Is A Social Construct

Gender is not, as these transphobes would like to claim, biologically predetermined. Rather, it is socially constructed. In its modern form, gender functions to maintain the capitalist system. There was a historical process that went into the modern creation of gender and sexuality. For example, as John D’Emilio wrote in Capitalism and Gay Identity,

Gay men and lesbians have not always existed. Instead, they are a product of history, and have come into existence in a specific historical era. Their emergence is associated with the relations of capitalism; it has been the historical development of capitalism — more specifically, its free labor system — that has allowed large numbers of men and women in the late twentieth century to call themselves gay, to see themselves as part of a community of similar men and women, and to organize politically on the basis of that identity.2John D’Emilio, “Capitalism and Gay Identity,” in Powers of Desire: The Politics of Sexuality, ed. Ann Barr Snitow, Christine Stansell, and Sharon Thompson (New York: Aakar Books, 2009), 100–113.

D’Emilio argues that, essentially, the rise of capitalism provided the material conditions for the invention of identity. As production was more and more moved outside the home — to factories and other workplaces — people became increasingly free to make lives outside the family. This led to the rise of identity. Before then, you could be a man who had sex with men, but the political and personal category of gay didn’t exist. A similar process can be seen with gender. While gendered relationships have existed for millennia, the concretization of gender as it is currently understood happened with the rise of capitalism. Many precapitalist cultures had a nonbinary understanding of gender — a thing that was specifically crushed out of native cultures by European colonizers.

Women played, historically, a very specific role in the capitalist production scheme: to do typically unpaid reproductive labor. Out of this capitalist relationship rises the modern understanding of the nuclear family, which reaffirms and intensifies a binary understanding of gender. To protect the very valuable capitalist tool of the nuclear family, gender expressions that challenged this heteronormative family unit were repressed and harshly punished. Indeed, the system of gender has always been one built on domination and violence. As Engels wrote in The Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State,

The overthrow of [mother] was the world historical defeat of the female sex. The man took command in the home also; the woman was degraded and reduced to servitude, she became the slave of his lust and a mere instrument for the production of children. This degraded position of the woman … has gradually been palliated and glossed over, and sometimes clothed in a milder form; in no sense has it been abolished.

The Creation of Gender

Repression of gender non-normativity crept into almost every element of culture to create a hegemonic understanding of gender and sexuality. This process has been called “disciplining gender.”3 John M. Sloop, Disciplining Gender: Rhetorics of Sex Identity in Contemporary U.S. Culture (Amherst: University of Massachusetts, 2004.) From this we can see that gender is anything but biological. Rather, it is a sociological category that shifts depending on the historical moment.

To return to the ramblings of the CPGB, they write in the same article cited above that those of us who fight for trans rights claim that gender is

some kind of medical conspiracy where, at birth, the doctors go away and huddle together and they “assign a gender role” to you. So, pregnant mothers: when you have your 20-week ultrasound scan, you’re not having a scan to see whether your baby is a boy or a girl (say “Red Fightback”). No; that’s all medical conspiracy! And when the baby is born, they inspect the baby to say it’s a boy or a girl — well that’s all medical conspiracy, too! These things (boys and girls, men and women) aren’t real — don’t you see??

Leaving aside the existence of intersex babies — which they carefully choose not to engage with, since it would undermine the entire pseudoscientific basis of their argument — it is a ludicrously utopian position to say that we do not assign identities and traits to babies when they are born. Newborn “boys” are bought a blue blanket and “girls” a pink one. Surely the recent spate of deadly gender-reveal parties shows us the high amount of meaning that is placed on a child’s gender before they are born. This isn’t a medical conspiracy per se — though, if we were to engage with intersex folks, it very much is a medical conspiracy to impose normative bodies onto babies without their consent — but, rather, a sociopolitical context that begins shaping the self even before birth. To put it another way, for an allegedly Marxist group to claim that society doesn’t assign a gender role to children at birth is to close their eyes to basically all of contemporary society, rejecting Marx’s historical-materialist analysis.

In addition, much of what makes up gender is not biological sex but so-called gender markers, for example, dresses are female and suits are male. But that also isn’t a historical constant; there were times in relatively recent history when heels were gendered as male and boys were often put in dresses. As Ciara Cremin explains in her book Man-Made Woman: The Dialectics of Cross-Dressing,

The pleasures of the westernized/European feminine style are as much aesthetic as anything else. We like to dress up. We enjoy silky fabrics, shiny things, and vibrant colours. A quirk of history made blue a masculine signifier. For the male, it made cotton socks good; pantyhose bad. This irrationality has become a second nature.4Ciara Cremin, Man Made Woman: The Dialectics of Cross-Dressing (London: Pluto Press, 2017).

What makes high heels for women and boots for men? Nothing scientific. Rather, gender is made up of social position and a variety of gender markers that are given meaning by, in Cremin’s words, “a quirk of history.”

While gender itself is a social construct, however, the act of gendering is very much a material process. Being gendered a specific way means that there are very real and material things that you are expected to do or not do, and to resist this gendering often means facing social isolation and even violence. This contradiction is a central element of understanding the trans experience. Gender is both a constantly changing range of individualized categories and a very tangible and material process of repression and, often, violence.

This leads us to two conclusions: first, that trans liberation is impossible from an individualized perspective because the process of gendering is part of the system of capitalism. This means that, in contrast to those whom we’ll discuss later in this essay who claim that liberation is a person-by-person process, it has to be a mass anti-capitalist struggle, because gendering is greater than any individual action or person.

Second, it is not trans people who reject “the material reality of gender,” but these “gender critical leftists” who themselves cling to an ahistorical biological definition of gender and who reject both the historical reality of gender and the material reality of gendering. What the CPGB and their ilk want to wave off as a conspiracy theory is, in fact, one of the most easily observable and documented processes of social control under capitalism.

Dialectical Gender

In addition to rejecting the historical reality of gender, these transphobes masquerading as revolutionaries also reject dialectics in the dogged pursuit of finding a way to resolve the contradictions between their stated politics and their reactionary sentiments. The idea that gender is biologically set, never changing or taking new form, is fundamentally undialectical. It implies an unmovable identity that is handed to you at birth, one that can never change, no matter the material realities of your life.

But as Marxists, we reject the idea that our selves are handed down to us from on high.

To subscribe to this anti-trans pseudo-Marxism, we’d have to agree with their line that gender cannot change. But even if we subscribe to their erroneous claim that gender is biological, that still doesn’t mean that it can’t change. For example, eyes and hair are both things that (most) humans are born with, but eye and hair color can naturally shift over time, and people can (and do!) dye their hair or wear colored contacts. Are they rejecting the “material reality of hair color”? Is the person who is born with four limbs and then loses one in an accident betraying the material reality of their body? There are all sorts of biologically predetermined attributes that shift over time because of shifting conditions.

And even if we are to accept the scientifically inaccurate definition of gender as synonymous with biological sex, then what are we to make of intersex people? Aren’t the doctors who are performing operations on intersex infants to bring them into the normative spectrum of sex without their consent denying the material reality of these intersex children? Why aren’t these socialists who are so outraged about the petty bourgeois and postmodern rejection of gender equally outraged about these nonconsensual sex-changing surgeries?

None of this holds any scientific water. So, then, we must not be dealing with a scientific question, but with an “eternal truth.” Gender must be, in this conception, something that rises above either material conditions or a person’s physical attributes. It must be something higher, some sort of moral truth that defines us. But belief in these eternal truths is anti-dialectical and, thus, anti-Marxist. As Engels wrote in his seminal text Anti-Dühring,

We therefore reject every attempt to impose on us any moral dogma whatsoever as an eternal, ultimate and for ever immutable ethical law on the pretext that the moral world, too, has its permanent principles which stand above history and the differences between nations. We maintain on the contrary that all moral theories have been hitherto the product, in the last analysis, of the economic conditions of society obtaining at the time. And as society has hitherto moved in class antagonisms, morality has always been class morality; it has either justified the domination and the interests of the ruling class, or ever since the oppressed class became powerful enough, it has represented its indignation against this domination and the future interests of the oppressed. That in this process there has on the whole been progress in morality, as in all other branches of human knowledge, no one will doubt.

In other words, the belief in moral dogma as “eternal, ultimate, and forever immutable ethical law” is little more than an acquiescence to ruling-class morality, a morality that is used to suppress and control the working class. These so-called warriors against “gender ideology” are giving, intentionally or not, a left cover for the bourgeois morality that keeps us oppressed.

Whither Trans Marxism?

So, then, given that some elements of the Marxist movement have not always supported the struggles for queer and trans liberation, does that mean that the anti-Marxists are right? Should we, as queer and trans people, leave behind Marxism as a theory that is incompatible with our liberation? The answer to this question is a resounding no.

To begin with, a look at the history of the Marxist movement and queer liberation reveals that many Marxist groups did strongly take up the cause of queer liberation when it was presented to them. It was the early communists who defended Oscar Wilde when he was on trial for being queer. It was the Bolsheviks who legalized homosexuality in Russia, decades before many imperialist countries would do so. And many Marxists stand on the front lines of the struggle now. Rather than reflecting a flaw in Marxist theory, these groups are showing the degeneration of much of the left during the 20th and 21st centuries. This point was made by Marcelo Benítez, a former member of the Homosexual Liberation Front in Argentina in the 1970s, in an interview with Left Voice’s sister site in Argentina. Describing his experience being a queer Marxist in the 1970s, he said, “I was in crisis with the left, not with Marxism, but with the left. … It was very difficult to be a homosexual on the left.”

We should be very critical when looking at sectors of the Left’s failures on queer issues, but we shouldn’t blame those failures on Marxism. It wasn’t Marxism but rather the lack of it that led to Stalinist and other groups’ failure to take up the fight for queer liberation.

Marxism provides us both with a path to winning the necessary conditions for our liberation and with the tools to fight the misleadership of the current movement. Rather than allow these betrayers of Marxism to claim the title of Marxists, we must reject them as little better than the trans-exclusionary radical feminists or even sectors of the religious Right. The CPGB, for all of their claims and slogans, are not communists in the way that Marx and Lenin defined them. These perverters of Marxism should hold no theoretical or political weight or leadership.

By returning to the fundamentals of Marxism both as written by Marx and developed by Lenin and Trotsky, we can see that Marxism lays out a clear strategy for winning trans liberation. To quote Virgina Guitzel, a trans woman and a member of Left Voice’s sister organization in Brazil (who is interviewed elsewhere in this issue),

Certainly, [the publication of the book Transgender Marxism] counters the view of a white, European, hetero, and cisgender Marx, who is not concerned with complete emancipation of all spheres of life and cannot contribute anything to a discussion of trans liberation. Or that Marx’s answer to the emancipation of women would be only their entry into the labor market to guarantee their financial independence. In fact, the realization of Marxist ideas in the Russian Revolution was the culmination of attempts to transform all spheres of life, with Russia becoming the first country in the world to legalize abortion, decriminalize homosexuality, and guarantee public cafeteria, laundries, and public day care centers, which even today many capitalist democracies do not offer. But it was also the process of revolution and counter-revolution in revolutionary Russia that provided the scientific basis for the Theory of Permanent Revolution, developed by one of the most important leaders of the 20th century: Leon Trotsky. This, for me, is the representation of Marxism for the 21st century … the conclusion that the class struggle does not end with the seizure of power, but sharpens further.

Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution — that a revolution merely begins the process of liberation rather than ends it — shows us a path to trans liberation that is more clear than either the postmodern idea of individual liberation or the usual hand-waving from class-reductionist groups that a revolution will automatically win liberation and no more work needs to be done. It is through a deep study of Marxism that we can discover how to apply this strategy to the task of trans liberation and also fight for leadership of the trans liberation movement.

The Failures of the Leadership of the Trans Liberation Movement

Given that much of the organized Left has ceded control and consideration of the queer liberation movement, the current leadership of the movement is disproportionately postmodern and liberal. It rejects class politics, instead taking up identitarian and individualistic politics. One sector takes up representational politics that give rise to figures like Caitlyn Jenner and Pete Buttigieg, who weaponize their identity to provide cover for their politics, which harm the queer community.

Another sector is so tied into electoral politics that they miss the role of the state in continuing trans oppression. This sector seems to believe that if we just get enough progressive or queer and trans folks elected to Congress, they will be able to pass laws that will end trans oppression. But trans oppression is part of how the capitalist system maintains itself, for all the reasons addressed elsewhere in this article. Given this, the state can’t end trans oppression because trans oppression isn’t just legal; it’s systematic. That doesn’t mean, of course, that we should fight for the repeal of anti-trans laws and important concessions for the community. We absolutely should. But we can’t confuse those concessions with changing the facts of capitalism. From telling trans activists to put their faith in the Democratic Party to making assimilation the ultimate goal, these liberal leaders of the queer movement consistently have consistently been a deradicalizing force.

Another sector of the trans liberation movement is more radical in its approach but just as reformist in its politics. This sector, typically self-described radicals, reject both Marxism and the value of any totalizing or universal ideology. Instead, they follow a strategy influenced by queer theory, one that ends up individualizing the fight for liberation. In other words, this strategy sees changing minds as the means of changing the world. The idea is that transphobia can be defeated first by recognizing and changing one’s own internalized prejudices and then helping others to do the same. Believers in this strategy also tend to reject politics altogether, arguing that no reforms are ever worth fighting for, on the grounds that wins such as the legalization of gay marriage are just assimilationism — giving in to “the system,” regardless of the material benefits of marriage in the current system. This strategy provides many paths for how to “resist” or fight the system, but no path toward ultimate victory and queer liberation. The result is simply resisting forever without gaining any ground. In this framework, even intermediate “victories” aren’t victories, because nothing we win is considered worth winning if it comes from the state.

The oppression of trans people is not merely ideological; it is also material. To put it another way, trans people face severe oppression not just because of transphobes but also because the capitalist system exploits and degrades them. Therefore, to change the material conditions of trans folks, we need material solutions. Representation isn’t a material solution. Even trans folks with the best possible intentions can’t single-handedly change the system of capitalism from the inside. Indeed, every experiment of “changing the power structure from the inside” has been met with near-total failure. We’ve seen that a Black president didn’t end racism, that a woman vice president hasn’t ended sexism, and that gay CEOs didn’t end homophobia. Why, then, should we be expected to fall for the same lie once again, hook, line, and sinker? “We know that representational politics has failed before,” these PR reps for capital want us to believe, “but this time it will be different. Now having more trans CEOs will actually do something.”

Putting our faith in the system to correct itself through hiring more trans CEOs and electing more trans politicians is a losing wager, one that abandons the trans children who are currently facing historic levels of oppression in many states. It abandons the trans women (most of whom are Black and Brown) who are murdered every day. It abandons the trans sex workers and the nonbinary folks who are forced to fit into a world that wasn’t built for them. The liberals want to tell us to be patient, but we have seen that patience has a body count.

We also, however, can’t just reject politics out of hand. Our oppressors are organized, so we should be too. Our goal shouldn’t be to just carve out a few spaces where we can escape oppression but to end oppression. We should be fighting to win. To win, we need a winning strategy. Postmodernism and queer theory are not a winning theory because they reject the premise that victory is possible. Instead, we need to take up a Marxist approach to the fight for trans and queer liberation.

A Socialist Perspective on Trans Liberation

Actual Marxists recognize that it is only the working class that can liberate trans people and other groups of the specially oppressed. This isn’t because of some moral superiority — as almost every queer person knows, members of the working class can be very reactionary in their beliefs — but because only the working class has the strategic power to bring the capitalist system down. This is because it is the working class and the working class alone that makes everything run. Working people power the entire economy, so they alone have the power to shut it down. This isn’t to say, of course, that ending capitalism will immediately end all instances of trans oppression. But as the theory of the permanent revolution shows us, establishing socialism is a necessary precondition for trans liberation.

It must be underlined and triple underlined, however, what we mean when we say “the working class.” There’s long been this image of the working class as cis het white men in hard hats. Those men are, of course, working class, but so too are waiters and sex workers and teachers and couriers and personal assistants and people working all manner of jobs, people we may not traditionally think of when we think “working class.” And the working class in the U.S. is more diverse than ever before, both racially and in terms of gender and sexuality. The vast majority of trans and queer people are working class. So when we say the working class will liberate the specially oppressed, we don’t mean that these white saviors will swoop in to rescue the poor oppressed masses; rather, we mean that the poor oppressed masses will rise up and, using their position as workers, liberate themselves. One of the best examples of this is when cis workers in Madygraf, a factory in Argentina, went on strike to demand better working conditions for their trans colleague. That strike was a vital part of the ongoing movement at Madygraf, whose workers eventually seized the factory. It is worker-owned to this day.

But we shouldn’t be utopian about this and assume that, one day, the working class will wake up with a trans-inclusive revolutionary program. Rather, we should be very clear about one of the most urgent needs for a socialist perspective on trans liberation: a radical, revolutionary leadership. This leadership takes the form of a vanguard party that must be built from the working class and specially oppressed, and this party must specifically prepare itself for the moment of revolution. In the words of Trotsky, revolutions do not fall from the sky. Because of this, the preparatory tasks that only an organized party can take up will make the difference between victory and defeat. This doesn’t mean, of course, that members of this vanguard party should sit on the sidelines and twiddle their thumbs waiting for the revolution. Rather, they should be in their workplaces and communities, participating in struggle, constantly fighting for an anti-capitalist perspective and demanding that movements take up the demands of the oppressed.

The fight for trans liberation is the fight to end capitalism. Only the fall of capitalism and the rise of a socialist society can liberate trans people and allow us to live our lives to the fullest.

Notes[+]

Ezra is a NYC based theatre artist and teacher.