Roots of sexual oppression
1976 WWP pamphlet found answers in Marxism
Lavender & red, part 85
Published Jan 10, 2007 11:15 PM
The profound and meaningful contribution of Workers World Party’s 1976
publication “The Gay Question: A Marxist Appraisal” was that it
examined the roots of modern lesbian and gay oppression from a historical
Marxists are often accused of having a worldview that ignores oppression,
focusing solely on the economic battle between the owning classes and the
However, “The Gay Question” drew on more than a century of
revolutionary Marxist scientific approach to understand how oppression arose
and what it will take to eradicate it in all its forms. In doing so, the
analysis widened and deepened the application and contributions of Marxism as a
science of human economic development and the social relations it has
McCubbin did not have to break fresh soil, he tilled it. Just as Charles
Darwin’s analysis of evolution created a new scientific understanding of
species development, Engels and his life-long collaborator Karl Marx laid the
groundwork for a scientific basis to understand social development.
Engels’ groundbreaking 1884 work “The Origin of the Family, Private
Property and the State” used anthropological evidence from North America,
Africa, Asia and Australia to conclude that women have not always been
Engels deduced that social interaction was not governed by repression,
domination or exploitation of one group of people by another during the long
history of cooperative societies that preceded economic divisions between haves
The necessity of early humans to band together for group survival also created
very different “family” relations than today. Kinship and group
living arrangements were based on female descent, not male. The overall role of
females in social organization resulted in respect for their contributions.
As labor efficiency, tools and technique developed, however, human societies
accumulated a surplus—more than was required for immediate consumption.
The struggle that led to private ownership of this surplus, which had been
produced by collective human labor, transformed social life.
“The overthrow of mother-right”—matrilineal cooperative
society—Engels summed up, “was the world historic defeat of the
In the more than 120 years since he wrote this, Marxism has been a powerful
tool in the hands of Black, Latin@, Native, Asian and white activists for
women’s liberation in this country—communists, socialist feminists,
materialist feminists and other revolutionaries.
And it has been a powerful ideological and theoretical weapon worldwide.
African-Caribbean Marxist revolutionary activist, theoretician and
internationalist Walter Rodney stressed in 1975 that those who try to relegate
Marxism to an outdated European ideology do not take the following into
“That it is already the ideology of 800 million Chinese people; that it
is already the ideology which guided the Vietnamese people to successful
struggle and to the defeat of imperialism. That it is already the ideology
which allows North Korea to transform itself from a backward, quasi-feudal,
quasi-colonial terrain into an independent industrial power. That it is already
the ideology which has been adopted on the Latin American continent and that
serves as the basis for development in the Republic of Cuba. That it is already
the ideology which was used by Cabral, which was used by Samora Machel, which
is in use on the African continent itself to underline and underscore struggle
and the construction of a new society.” (“Yes to Marxism”
pamphlet, February 1986, People’s Progressive Party of Guyana)
Roots of sexual oppression
McCubbin presented evidence of acceptance of homosexuality in pre-class
societies on far-flung continents. The development of private ownership of the
new storehouse of surplus “not only brought forth economic inequalities
that set the stage for class society but also had the effect of replacing the
matriarchal order with one dominated by men.”
“The new property relations were,” he emphasized,
“insupportable and unworkable without consequent changes in kinship
relations, sexual relations, and religious attitudes and practices.”
McCubbin traced the historic rise of state repression of sexuality and
anti-homosexual patriarchal religious bigotry to the cleavage of society into
He laid a historical materialist foundation for understanding how chattel
slavery came into being, why the feudal Church unleashed the bloody Inquisition
and how these phases in human economic development increasingly repressed and
Contributions to trans theory and activism
Of course the 1976 pamphlet—and even its reprint 17 years later as
“The Roots of Lesbian and Gay Oppression: A Marxist View”—is
now dated in some of its language and peripheral concepts—true of all
scientific discoveries which help pave the road forward.
McCubbin’s analysis was ahead of its time in including focus on the
honored status in cooperative societies of gender-variance and in its defense
of the rights of modern transsexual women and men to live in the sex that is
The analysis was weakened, however, by two realities. First, the modern
transgender and transsexual movement in the U.S. had not yet developed. And
sex-reassignment programs only accepted transsexual individuals whose sexuality
would be heterosexual in post-transition. This skewed an understanding of the
fact that sexual diversity is as much a fact among transsexual men and women as
everywhere else in society.
Workers World Party continued to struggle to actively defend transsexual and
transgender people against oppression, through banners at demonstrations,
articles, leaflets and pamphlets that culminated in the 1992 publication of
“Trans Liberation: A Movement Whose Time has Come.”
The entire text of that pamphlet has been reprinted in two anthologies:
“Materialist Feminism: A Reader in Class, Difference and Women’s
Lives,” edited by Rosemary Hennessy and Chrys Ingraham (Routledge, 1997)
and “The Transgender Studies Reader,” edited by Susan Stryker and
Stephen Whittle (Routledge, 2006).
The later anthology described the 1992 pamphlet as “small but
influential,” adding that, “It is an important foundational text of
contemporary transgender theory and activism.”
The pamphlet, and the larger book it inspired—”Transgender
Warriors: Making History from Joan of Arc to Dennis Rodman” (Beacon
1996)—made their own contribution to Marxism. The historical materialist
analysis offered compelling and consistent evidence that although there was an
overall division of labor between females and males in pre-class societies, sex
reassignment, intersexuality and gender diversity played an important social
role on every continent.
Like evolutionary science, when Marxist understanding of human economic
development and the social organization that arises from it is updated, this
only strengthens its analysis, despite “creationist” attacks of
every ideological stripe.
Workers World Party has continued to stress that battles against oppression are
not “secondary” to the class struggle, they are a form of class
struggle, particularly when they target the capitalist class.
Feinberg is author of “Transgender Liberation” and
Next: Defending the Cuban Revolution!
E-mail: lfeinberg @workers.org
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