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Applying Marxist method in early 1970s

WWP searched for roots of lesbian/gay oppression

Lavender & red, part 82

Published Dec 12, 2006 8:23 AM

In educating the party as a whole on the importance of supporting gay liberation, Workers World Party (WWP) founder Sam Marcy noted in 1972 that, when it came to the origins and development of this oppression, “No special Marxist study or theory has been advanced as far as we know.”

Marcy stressed, “Marxists, of course, should reject any variety of bourgeois psychological theories. Most of these psychological approaches are in reality extensions of the general bourgeois ideology.

“Marxists on the other hand are historical and dialectical materialists who seek the basic causes of all social phenomena from material conditions, of which psychology is a mere reflection. Marxists deal with social phenomena and the struggle of classes.”

He referred to the contributions that the revolutionary Marxist movement had made to the “national question.” He was referring to the Marxist examination and articulation of the origins of racism, white supremacist ideology, oppressor nation jingoism and xenophobia, the oppression of whole nations in the capitalist era, the super-oppression of peoples around the world in the colonial and imperialist epochs, and therefore the right to national self-determination.

Marcy also mentioned Marxist contributions to a materialist understanding of women’s oppression—the “woman question.” Karl Marx’s lifelong collaborator, Frederick Engels, wrote a foundational historical and theoretical contribution in 1884, “The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State.” Revolutionary Marxists since then have continued to develop historical, theoretical and ideological clarity as a contribution to the struggle of women for liberation from the additional burdens imposed on them in patriarchal, class-divided society.

It may jar some readers today to hear their oppression or other struggles referred to as a “question”: the national question, the woman question, the gay question. For more than a century, however, this formulation has been used to emphasize the theoretical importance that revolutionary Marxists place on bringing battles against oppression to the left-wing political agenda. Locating the earliest tendrils of oppression in the development of class-divided societies is a profound contribution to eventually uprooting it.

Therefore, Marxists study when oppression arose and who profits from it in order to deepen solidarity and support for liberation struggles and strengthen the revolutionary movement to overturn capitalism. Such an analysis also lays the basis for understanding how a socialist economic system can create the material basis for ultimately winning economic and social liberation from exploitation and oppression, and the extrication of humanity from millennia of divide-and-rule ideology justifying these conditions.

Marcy noted, “We know of no theory which explains the gay question from the point of view of the historical class struggle.”

He concluded, “If such a theory is developed, we will study it. For the time being, however, we are not advancing any special theory regarding the gay question.”

Sam Marcy was not ending the subject, he was opening it.

‘Months of discussion followed’

Months of party dialogue followed. Bob McCubbin—a WWP leader who a year earlier had founded the lesbian and gay caucus of the party youth organization, Youth Against War & Fascism (YAWF)—recalls that the continuing party discussion focused on four goals.

The first was how to concretely demonstrate support for, and solidarity with, the autonomous gay liberation movement, of which WWP lesbian, gay and trans members were also a part.

“Second,” McCubbin writes, “we wanted to deepen the party’s understanding of the issues being raised by the gay liberation movement and, if possible, provide a Marxist analysis of lesbian and gay oppression.

“Third, we felt a serious responsibility to bring the issues that this movement was raising to the general progressive movement, which often amounted to challenging homophobia within the movement.

“Fourth, we wanted to make the issue of gay liberation a working-class issue. This was a formidable challenge in a period of relative labor quiescence.”

Many heterosexual party leaders took up these tasks together with their lesbian, gay, bi and trans comrades—no one with more vigor than WWP founding leader Dorothy Ballan, affectionately addressed as “Dottie” by her comrades. Ballan left her own communist imprint on the struggle for women’s liberation with the party’s publication in January 1971 of her pamphlet “Feminism & Marxism.”

McCubbin remembers, “I had felt the need for a theoretical analysis of lesbian and gay oppression from the time I read Engels’ ‘Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State.’ I remember very clearly reading [it] at this time, being very excited by this historically based explanation of the oppression of women, and feeling that there must be a parallel, historically based explanation for the oppression of homosexuals.”

After the 1972 conference, McCubbin states, many of his heterosexual comrades offered help. Dorothy Ballan in particular, he notes, assigned herself the task of helping to lay the basis for such an analysis.

“As I mentioned above,” McCubbin writes, “one of the goals the party set for itself was the education of the party membership and of our class on this issue. So, in addition to informal discussions, Dottie produced a series of educational programs based on Engels’ work, but also on our general view of oppressed people and their struggles as part of the overall struggle of our class. These educationals were made available party-wide and were extremely helpful to me in my effort to grapple theoretically with the issue.”

In those educationals, Ballan developed the view that there was a connection between women’s and lesbian/gay oppression.

McCubbin reminds today’s readers, “When I enter LGBT bookstores these days, the wealth of material now available makes me dizzy. In those days, even though I worked in one of the great academic libraries of the U.S. and spent many hours—when I was supposed to be working—instead searching for material relevant to a historical analysis of homosexual oppression, there was heartbreakingly little to be found.

“I spent several years collecting material that might be relevant to a more complete analysis. Many comrades knew I was working on such an analysis and brought relevant material to my attention.”

Together—lesbian and gay, bisexual and heterosexual, transgender and transsexual—members of Workers World Party worked to dig for the ancient economic, social and political roots of modern lesbian and gay oppression.

What resulted made a historic contribution to the struggle for liberation from sexual oppression, strengthened the communist left politically, and demonstrated the power of Marxist tools in the hands of workers who know how to use them.

Next: Impact of “The Gay Question,” published in 1976.

E-mail: lfeinberg@workers.org