As you can tell from my last three blog posts, I’ve become somewhat obsessed with the question of how Marxism can tackle the question of sexuality. Especially – how to advance Transgender Rights. I’ll confess that even though I’m LGBT, I hadn’t really got my head round many of the debates. But the more I’ve been drawn in, the more I’ve wanted to know. So in this post, I want to take a good look at Queer Theory and ask whether it is a friend or foe of Marxism.
Queer Theory to the rescue?
At the end of the 1980s, along came Queer Theory to sweep away identity politics. Born out of gender and sexuality studies at universities – it turns the tables on defined identity categories. Out goes the self-contained silos of gays and lesbians. Out goes “heteronormativity” – the worldview that promotes heterosexuality, but which has led to “homonormativity” – where gays and lesbians seek to conform to straight norms through marriage and procreation.
Binaries are junked. The idea that there are only two sexual orientations and genders is firmly rejected. People don’t just identify as male or female – that is heteronormative. Some are ‘genderfluid’ moving across the gender spectrum while others are genderless – refusing to identify with either of the imposed genders. Indeed, Queer Theory believes that every individual has their own gender expression.
Furthermore, the biological binary of “female” and “male” ignores people who are ‘intersex’ – having a more indeterminate anatomy. Heteronormativity pressures such people to fit in with female or male – when that shouldn’t be the case.
Queer Theory basically drives a juggernaut through LGBT and feminist identity politics. Not only are the identity categories unwittingly heteronormative, but people can swap and change between them and shouldn’t be judged for doing so. Or more to the point – it’s what you as an individual feel.
For young transgender people all of this has provoked a much-needed debate in the education system. If a teenager is transitioning from, say, male to female – they want teachers to start using a different name and pronouns when speaking to them. This isn’t teen angst or rebelliousness. It’s fundamental.
Queer Theory goes one step further though in saying that anybody can both shape and change their gender identity at any time. The hoped-for outcome is that gender stereotypes and conformity will appear increasingly silly and irrelevant. And the authorities will simply give up trying to stay on top of who is what. It will simply drive them mad trying to figure out who is ‘angender’, ‘genderqueer’, ‘gendernonconforming’, ‘transmasculine’ and ‘transgender’.
Much of the vitriol directed by some feminists towards trans people is grounded in hostility towards Queer Theory. For feminism, gender identity is very much centred on biological sex – being a woman. But Queer Theory believes it is putting forward a more complex explanation of gender and sexuality that goes beyond the male/female dichotomy that feminism insists on. It rejects the feminist binary insisting that gender is much more fluid and cannot be restricted to ‘man’ and ‘woman’.
Arguably the first person to suggest that being a woman isn’t something set in stone was the writer Simone de Beauvoir in her seminal 1949 work, The Second Sex. The first sentence in the quote below is often cited but it’s worth reading the entire paragraph because it’s an early iteration of Queer Theory and you can clearly see why Second Wave Feminists were never going to accept this:
“One is not born, but rather becomes, woman. No biological, physical, or economic destiny defines the figure that the human female takes on in society. It is civilisation as a whole that elaborates this intermediary product between the male and the eunuch that is called feminine.”
Since the early 1990s, Judith Butler has been the leading light of Queer Theory. She argues that sexuality and gender are social constructs that shape how sexual orientation and gender identity are displayed in public. I am not a man, according to Butler. I perform manliness. I am not a masculine body – I ‘do’ my body.
Butler therefore regards gender as a verb and not a noun. It describes how somebody behaves but isn’t intrinsic to them. They learn it. Nobody is a gender at the start of their life, they become one. So, for me to say “I am a man” is not strictly speaking the truth. What is more accurate is that over time I have come to “do” man-ness.
Put another way, human beings with penises are born male. But to Butler that doesn’t automatically validate the statement: “I am a man.” Gender is inscribed on to human bodies by external conditioning.
Though – this does pose a question about transgender people because surely, they are struggling to express their inner gender. For them, gender is a bit more than a performance. It’s very definitely something coming from deep inside. Their subconscious sex doesn’t match their physical body.
Performance and Performativity – don’t switch off now!
There is a distinction that Butler makes between performance and performativity. To the uninitiated, this may sound like something akin to the early theological debates in Christianity about the nature of the Trinity. But, for Queer Theory it’s mission critical. Butler doesn’t believe that people are putting on a performance – acting in some way – when they assume a gender identity.
Performative means that what we do “produces a series of effects”. I speak and talk in ways that consolidate the impression that I’m a man. Therefore, I act as if being a man is an internal reality. But in fact, this is a “phenomenon that is being reproduced all the time”. But I wasn’t that gender from the start. It’s almost as if I must constantly renew doing ‘man’ all the time.
American cultural anthropologist Gayle Rubin reinforces this talking about gender being “a socially imposed division of the sexes”. On the one side you have biological sex which is all about chromosomes, hormonal profiles, internal and external sex organs. On the other side is gender which is what our culture decides constitutes masculine and feminine.
Judith Butler took the word “queer”, which had begun as a homophobic insult and was now appropriated by LGBT people, using it to question the identity politics of the 1970s and 1980s. She quipped in one recent online interview that thirty years ago, there was “an L, G, B and maybe a T”.
She wanted to see queerness being something that could be adopted by women, LGBT people and straights. “Q” has been added to the LGBT acronym encompassing, in Butler’s view, anybody who is anti-homophobic. It’s an invitation to join a coalition of like minds.
Butler believes that what it means to be a woman changes “from decade to decade”. And so, there’s nothing to stop the idea of womanhood encompassing male-to-female transgender. Feminists, in her view, should not be in the business of policing or condemning trans and gender non-forming people.
Butler’s argument about gender being a social construct is turned back on her by trans-exclusionary radical feminists. They argue that precisely because gender is socially constructed in a patriarchal society – changing sex is an act of conformity. In other words, everybody should remain in the sex they have at birth and fight for social change.
Butler is dismissive of this take on her gender theory. She rejects biological essentialism when it comes to defining gender. And she argues that feminism should be about the liberation of trans people and not their oppression. “There are trans-affirmative feminists, and many trans people are also committed feminists.” Trans activism is intertwined with “queer” and feminist legacies while “the trans-exclusionary radical feminist position attacks the dignity of trans people”.
DISCOVER: Karl Marx meetings Transgender Rights
Rejecting Queer Theory as anti-Marxist or embracing Queer Marxism?
There have been two reactions to Queer Theory from Marxists – and of course feminists – that I’d like to examine. One is outright hostility. To these Marxists, the philosophical underpinning of Queer Theory is post-modernist and post-structuralist ideology that rejects class-based politics and the centrality of the working class. So why should Marxism have anything to do with that?
Conversely – some Marxists have attempted a mash-up of Marxism and Queer Theory creating Queer Marxism. They claim to be reaching back to Communist thinkers like Rosa Luxemburg or the Bolshevik Alexandra Kollontai with her opposition to anti-gay oppression a century ago. They see the struggle of transgender people as being at the very cutting edge of the struggle against capitalism.
But they also get a withering glance from more traditional Marxists with their “strong aversion to economic reductionism”. The bold assertion that they are updating Marxism by putting a stronger emphasis on gender or at least creating a class-based narrative around it doesn’t convince every comrade.
So, what is the beef that many, more traditional Marxists have with Queer Theory?
Despite its upbeat tone, Queer Theory was born out of political pessimism. Judith Butler and other post-modern thinkers are very aware that their ideas were formed in the aftershock of Marxism’s decline after 1968. Butler has no time for what she calls the “neoconservative Marxist” perspective. She dismisses the analysis of Marxism from Engels onwards and rejects its over-arching, class-based meta-narrative.
She feels that “sexually conservative orthodox” Marxists subordinated the struggles of gays and lesbians to the class struggle. A familiar accusation against Marxists from feminists in the past as well in relation to women. There is no doubt – even from my own experience as a Marxist in the 1980s – that LGBT rights were often neglected on the Marxist left.
I could count on one hand the number of times that gay and lesbian rights were discussed at my university Labour Club (Liverpool, UK) in the early 1980s when the Marxist group I was part of was in control of it. Only one or two fingers would be involved!
So, does that make Queer Theory correct? No is the resounding answer from most Marxists. The big problem is the philosophical basis of Queer Theory. It owes an overwhelming intellectual debt to post-modernism – primarily the work of ex-Marxist French philosophers like Michel Foucault (1926-1984) and Jacques Derrida (1930-2004). They in turn were influenced by Maurice Blanchot (1907-2003), a philosopher who shunned the idea that writers should commit to a cause (normally socialism or Marxism) believing that words in themselves had the real power.
Post-modernists turned their backs on Marxist historical materialism and even questioned the existence of objective reality focussing instead on small, subjective narratives. Language becomes reality and what lies beyond it is possibly unknowable.
“The focal point of Queer Theory is the individual, the subject that has been plunged into crisis. Its identity is uncertain and contradictory, just as the world in which it lives – it is caught in a web of power relations and oppression.”
We are all shaped by society’s power structures and there’s no point trying to define what “woman”, for example, means when it will be compromised, incomplete and exclude some women. Same goes for ‘gay’ and ‘lesbian’. Therefore, the movements built on these identities unwittingly campaign in a way that is shaped by the power structures that have created all the problems we face. As the baddies used to say in the movies – resistance is useless.
As regards lashing out at the powerful and changing things. Well, a Marxist knows where to find power and how to combat it through collective action. A post-modernist shakes their head and says – not that easy, comrade. “Power is everywhere,” as Michel Foucault opined, “not because it embraces everything, but because it comes from everywhere.” It’s all very, very complicated and you Marxists are far too simplistic.
Many Marxists would agree with feminists who baulk at the idea of sex and gender being reduced to cultural constructs. They believe Queer Theory’s rejection of biological sex is ignoring material reality. Butler and other Queer Theorists are therefore accused of a philosophical crime far worse than post-modernism: subjective idealism!
Now – subjective idealism is a blog post on its own. In a nutshell, subjective idealism goes back over 300 years and basically denies the knowability of all things outside of your own mind. Unlike Marxists and other philosophies, it doesn’t bother to look for underlying processes in society because it suspects they may not be there. This has led some in the idealist tradition to believe that language doesn’t so much reflect reality – but is reality. All we need to do is change our language and banish the “binaries” that society has forced on us.
The whole Marxist project of overthrowing capitalism to liberate transgender, gay and lesbian people is therefore completely unnecessary:
“As a consequence, Queer Theory suggests a practice that makes even the mildest reformism look radical. It retreats completely into the field of culture and language.”
Marxists accuse Queer Theory of having become what it professed it could avoid – a tool of the power structures. What’s not to like from the point of view of the capitalist class? A rejection of class struggle. The almost neo-liberal emphasis on the individual and their feelings. And a kind of hopelessness in the face of power. Some unkind people might say that Queer Theory is the final chapter in the decline of mass protest since the 1960s.
Arguably most damaging of all is the perception among those sections of the population who in the past would have supported left-wing politics. And yes, I mean the working class. They gaze on, contemptuous and a bit confused, as university-educated types talk about life’s struggles as a “discourse” where the importance of getting your terminology right is everything. This sounds like ivory tower stuff far removed from the daily lived experiences of ordinary people.
However – not all Marxists see doom and gloom with Queer Theory. They reject the idea that the questions raised by Queer Theory have no relevance to the working class. That is classic Stalinism or even what Lenin called ‘Economism’ – a belief that the working class only cares about bread-and-butter economic issues and not wider political and cultural matters.
“Judith Butler is not a Marxist, but many of her concerns are ours too” – wrote one Marxist. In that article the author asked fellow Marxists to consider that the post-structuralism of people like Butler has been primarily a reaction to the anti-Marxist identity politics of radical feminism. In other words, we should congratulate Queer Theory for giving identity politics the boot and overlook its philosophical roots.
And so what – they continue – if post-structuralists did clash with Marxism in the past? That was the Stalinist variant which was dogmatic, rigid, homophobic, and transphobic. The modern Marxist is not the Kremlin-loving apparatchik of years gone by.
Butler – they say – asks many of the same questions as Marxists. She has a legitimate point, for example, in challenging the campaign for gay marriage and the bourgeois conformist thinking behind it while also accepting why LGBT people want that equality.
Speaking as a gay man who is about to march his long-term partner up the aisle, I’m looking forward to my moment of public assimilation. However, Butler is raising a niggling question that many Marxists would share.
“While lacking a critique anchored in political economy, she often walks a similar tightrope to Marxists, debunking reformism while accepting that often we must struggle for very limited gains.”
Even though Butler stands in a non-Marxist philosophical tradition, it should be borne in mind that even Marx and Engels were influenced by subjective idealist and outright capitalist thinkers. There doesn’t have to be a mash up of Queer Theory and Marxism as such but as one commentator put it, Queer Theory could help to understand part of the modern ‘superstructure’ of culture and politics that Marxists assert sits on top of the capitalist forces of production.
In his book, The Reification of Desire: Toward a Queer Marxism, Kevin Floyd attempts a reconciliation or modus vivendi between Judith Butler and Karl Marx. One reviewer set the scene for what the book attempts to address:
“The problem with Queer Theory, Marxists proclaimed, was that its deconstructive impulse seemed constitutionally unable to take account of the basic forces of material production. The problem with Marxist theory, queer advocates countered, lay in its wilful myopia around issues of sexual identity, something mistakenly treated as epiphenomenal and irrelevant to the project of historical materialism. Such heterosexist presumptions, the argument ran, could only be critiqued from a position exterior to Marxism itself.”
Floyd wants to ‘queer’ a tradition of heterosexist Marxism. He also wants to put the all too ahistorical Queer Theory firmly within historical materialism. And taking on the post-modernists, he wants to put the history of sexuality on a materialist footing. It’s debatable whether he succeeds but a gold star for trying.
It’s difficult to get away from the fact that Queer Theory represented both a break from and rejection of Marxism. In his book After Queer Theory, James Penney makes the amusing point that maybe what Queer Theorists, with their “general allergy to materialist analysis”, are seeking to avoid is the realisation that the appearance of their philosophy “at the present historical moment is a symptom of capitalist social relations in their most recent, supermobile, and globalised phase”.
In other words, Queer Theory – regardless of its good intentions – is very much an ideological by-product of late 20th century capitalism.
One final blog post in this series where we look at lessons to be learned for Marxists from identity politics and Queer Theory and the way forward for Transgender Rights.