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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 materialist standpoint.

Marxists are often accused of having a worldview that ignores oppression, focusing solely on the economic battle between the owning classes and the laboring classes.

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 produced.

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 oppressed.

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 and have-nots.

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 female sex.”

In the more than 120 years since he wrote this, Marxism has been a powerful tool in the hands of Black, [email protected], 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 account:

“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 economic classes.

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 oppressed sexuality.

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 “home.”

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 “Transgender Warriors.”

Next: Defending the Cuban Revolution!

E-mail: lfeinberg @workers.org