Envisioning Beyond the Fragments: Marxism and the Politics of Sexuality in the Long Shadow of 1968

Alfie Hancox – MA (Research) in History (University of Warwick)

An examination of the role of Marxism and postmodernism in debates about gender and sexuality, arguing for the ‘pressing need’ of a return to Marxism in the West.

In the collective political imagination of the left in Britain the signifier ‘1968’ is still the mythical origin of a new phase of counter-hegemonic struggle. Indeed it probably was, which is all the more reason why we need to cut through the romantic, nostalgic, self-mythology of the ‘new left’[1]

Isaac Julien and Kobena Mercer

In class society what is man-made is always disguised as the natural, the biological, the Holy. What we think of as race or gender or nationality is class in drag.[2]

Butch Lee and Red Rover

Fifty years ago, the capitalist world-system was rocked by revolutionary activity on a global scale. 1968 had a markedly dual character: in the global South armed liberation struggles, notably the Vietnamese Tet Offensive, served a massive blow to US imperialism. Within the West, America was shaken domestically by an intensifying Civil Rights Movement, in turn inspiring the nascent Women’s Liberation Movement which ruptured the traditional public/private dichotomy. Such currents rapidly spread to Europe and while 1968 in Britain was milder than elsewhere, not witnessing anything like the student-worker revolt that paralyzed France in May, here the “spirit of ‘68” nonetheless continued well into the 1970s, as intense industrial unrest was coupled with a burgeoning of “new social movements” (NSMs) mobilised around issues including race, gender and sexuality.

Marxism was for many within the NSMs the natural framework within which to envision emancipation. Marxism holds that the sphere of ideology and consciousness is shaped by socio-historical processes, not least struggles against oppression and exploitation. More than this, it was Marx’s conviction that demystifying social structures is part of the process of liberation. This blog post looks at the contentious and under-studied history of sexual politics on the Marxist left in the shadow of ’68, while simultaneously exploring interventions in the theoretical terrain that this engendered.

The Contradictions of ‘68

From the start, the drive for homosexual rights was intimately tied to the socialist movement. The early reform and decriminalisation movement from the late nineteenth century was spearheaded by the German Social Democratic Party, while notable early homosexual reformists in Britain like Havelock Ellis identified with socialism. However, this pre-history was lost for a variety of reasons: the breakup of the Second International at the outbreak of the imperialist First World War; the left’s interwar preoccupation with fascism, and the reification of the family in the emergent socialist countries. By the 1930s, some socialists even identified homosexuality with Nazism, as was the case with Stalin.[3]

Despite this, British Gay Liberation in the 1970s was heavily inflected with Marxism, particularly via the feminist critique linking sexual oppression to gender oppression. Yet, as gay liberationist and socialist David Fernbach has suggested, the Manifesto of the Gay Liberation Front (1970-73) was caught between a class-reductionist “orthodox Marxism” and bio-essentialist radical feminism, epitomised by Firestone’s ‘Dialectic of Sex’.[4] Furthermore, Fernbach notes the problematic dualism of socialist feminism which posits patriarchy as a separate system alongside capitalism, ‘[leaving] the Marxist concept of the social formation otherwise unaffected.’[5]

It must further be stressed that Gay Liberation was never a unified movement. Many lesbians soon saw a need for autonomy. For black and Asian women, the anti-family orientation of the gay and feminist movements was alienating because, as emphasised by Hazel Carby, oppressive discourses of black sexuality originate not from within the black family but imperialist ideologies.[6] Kobena Mercer and Isaac Julien have explained how their manifold isolation from the white left, the gay and feminist movements, and their own black communities led them to join the Gay Black Group, formed in 1981.[7] However, this explosion of minority group self-assertiveness was not a barrier to creative activism and theorising; quite the contrary. Instead, what was of hindrance were fundamental contradictions on the Marxist left.

While the economistic tendency of orthodox Marxism is commonly highlighted in the scholarship on NSMs, there is little interest in the causes of this. Typically, economism is simplistically identified with “Stalinism”; obscuring the fact that it was not an invention of Stalin’s but was both the predominant trend within the Comintern and endogenous to the Western labour movements. As recognised by Lenin, left economism developed when the profits of imperialism enabled capitalism to placate a privileged stratum of workers (the “labour aristocracy”). After the Second World War, the labour aristocracy became generalised to encompass the majority of the British white working-class. This group’s desire to maintain its relatively privileged position vis-à-vis non-white workers engendered a vulnerability to both imperialist ruling class discourses and the opportunistic nationalism of the organised left. After ’68, the British “revolutionary” left collaborated with union bureaucracies committed to reformist gains privileging white male workers. This economistic outlook also led to abstract declarations that secondary contradictions like racism and (hetero)sexism would be resolved “after the revolution”.

Equally problematic was the far-left trend of tailing Labour, from its inception an imperialist, left-nationalist party. The tunnel vision of the entryist organisation Militant led to dismissal of the NSMs as “bourgeois deviations”. Militant even suggested homosexuality would disappear under socialism throughout the 1970s.[8] Such problems were also found in the International Socialist group, later the Socialist Workers’ Party. In opposition to the rank and file, in 1973 the leadership instructed members to withdraw from work in the gay movement and a local branch Gay Group was dissolved. By the late 1970s, the SWP was interested in ‘Gay Work’ but this was limited to workplace issues, ignoring the complexities of (hetero)sexism.[9]

On the other hand, and contrary to received notions, important cross-fertilisations did occur especially on the Communist left. The Communist Party (CPGB) was the first major British leftist organisation to champion gay rights. Gay and lesbian members of the Young Communist League, notably Mark Ashton, were instrumental in the founding of Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners, a connection rendered invisible in cultural representations of the group such as the film Pride.[10] Still, a lack of theoretical interest in homosexual oppression was notable. More importantly, the almost unanimous desire of the “revolutionary” left to work within the Social Democratic paradigm contributed to the 1974 Labour victory, which drained the more radical energies of ’68 and paved the way for the authoritarian New Right. This was reinforced by the “municipal socialism” of the Greater London Council, effectively co-opting the NSMs and blunting their more radical edge in a strategy that has since been integral to both Labour and Tory governments under the rubric “multiculturalism”.

The reaction to the global revolutionary energies of ’68 necessitated a restructuring of the capitalist world-economy. Austere structural adjustment programmes were forced upon the economies of the global South by the West through a combination of militarism and financial intimidation. Within the West the anomaly of welfare capitalism, enabled only by the exporting of contradictions to the global South, which still continues, except that contradictions have become too intense to contain, came to a permanent end. Economic restructuring had its ideological logic in neoliberalism, encapsulated by Thatcher’s declaration ‘there’s no such thing as society’. The brutal repression of working-class struggle under Thatcher was accompanied by a heightened policing of sexuality. As argued by Jeffrey Weeks, the AIDS crisis was met with fascistic ‘rituals of decontamination’ for instance anti-gay raids by glove-wearing policemen.[11] Corresponding with the disillusionment of the wider left, the early revolutionary spirit of the gay movement dissipated in the 1980s.

At the same time, the collapse of socialism under the weight of globalisation was accompanied by an intellectual trend proclaiming the death of “totalising projects” including Marxism. Postmodernism claims the latter is an inherently colonialist paradigm, obscuring the fact that Marxism was and remains a tool of liberation in the global South, radically challenging the Eurocentric assumptions of Marx and demonstrating that Marxism is both continuity and rupture (the only meaningful transcendence) with the Enlightenment. Postmodernists’ attempts to “decolonise” academia often fall short, not least due to an unwillingness to admit their own embeddedness within the Western philosophical tradition.

Postmodernist theories of social agency have been characterised by a fetishization of diffuse micro-struggles (assemblages/biopower/rhizomes etc.) that masquerades as new and radical. The disdain for totality has also led to an intersectional approach typified by Anne McClintock’s celebrated Imperial Leather, which refers to gender, race and class as simply overlapping ‘articulated categories’.[12] The fetish of decentralisation/spontaneity is not novel; it was a defining feature of ’68 within the broad anarchist and libertarian milieu. These strategies failed because capitalism-imperialism exists as a dominating, exploiting totality that organises and centralises the micro-capillaries of power: precisely what postmodernism mystifies. Anything short of an all-sided counter-hegemony cannot but fall into the trap identified in the 1970s by feminist Jo Freeman as the tyranny of structurelessness.[13] This latter trend, codified via the anti-globalisation and various identity movements, shares the same root cause as economism: a Western exceptionalism, predicated upon relative affluence, which puts its faith in reformism and permanently defers the question of systemic change.

Totalising Visions of Sexuality: Lost Alternatives or Promise of a New Return?

As argued by Fernbach, orthodox Marxist theories of gender and sexual oppression, which all too often begin and end with the insights in Engels’ Origin of Family, have certainly fallen short. They may explain ‘why houseworkers are economically dependent’, but not ‘why houseworkers are women.’[14] However, the missing piece of the puzzle in this regard was provided by the Wages for Housework movement and, particularly, by trends in the black women’s movement on the eve of the postmodern turn. A pioneer of the WFH movement, Selma James, provided an early intervention transcending the dualism of socialist feminism. James’ article ‘Sex, Race and Class’, first published in the British black radical journal Race Today in 1974, explained that race and sex cannot be separated from class; they are determined, in the last instance, by the international capitalist division of labour. James also recognised that it is via the privileged male wage that the naturalised unwaged labour of women came to be organised.[15] Patriarchy is then intrinsic to capitalism; gender (hence sexuality) is class – granted in drag.

Within the WFH tradition, Silvia Federici expands upon Marx’s original analysis by showing that reproduction was central to primitive accumulation (original accumulation of capital). Against Foucault’s gender-blind biopower, Federici explores how the destruction of the commons from 1450-1650 also entailed the enclosure of women. With the privatization of land, only production for the market was seen as value-creating and women’s reproductive labour in the household was mystified as natural. This, along with the related rise of the gendered wage, later cemented with the advent of industrial capitalism, was enabled by the repression of women via state-sanctioned mass rapes, the witch-hunts and the institutionalisation of prostitution (note the globalised parallel today…).[16] Federici also shows how that other primitive accumulation, the genocide in the Americas, gave rise to a merging of the new ideologies of gender and race; which would eventually achieve scientific synthesis with eugenics. On this firmly materialist base Federici, unlike McClintock, can simultaneously undertake a concrete analysis of the contemporary primitive accumulation incurred by globalisation, which has entailed the wholesale destruction of small-scale farming in the global South, leading hundreds of millions of female migrants to pour into factories and sweatshops.

Due to the ideology and material system of heteronormativity generated by capitalism, women are today paid less, work longer hours, and are overrepresented in vulnerable employment. Over sixty percent of women’s working hours are completely uncompensated.[17] Complementing Federici, the black feminist critique has shown how capitalism-imperialism is the determining organiser of gender and sexuality, through the vector of race. As Heidi Safia Mirza argues, black (used by Mirza in the broadest sense) women have ‘shared social and material conditions in a highly-structured, gendered and racialized labour market…Race, in the context of the globalization of capital, places gender at the centre of the new working class [my emphasis]’.[18] The postmodern approach is called into question as Mirza reminds us that for these women, power ‘is not diffuse, localized and particular. Power is as centralized and secure as it always has been, excluding, defining and self-legitimating’.[19] This is striking in contrast to Imperial Leather which concludes by declaring the birth of a new order of ‘multipolar competition’; obscuring the continued imperialist flows of wealth from South to North, by such insidious processes as global labour arbitrage and global value chains, highlighted by the WFH approach.[20] This globalisation process is synchronously shaping ruling ideologies within the West, including of sexuality.

The prospect of a new return to Marxism is pressing today, with an unprecedentedly global rise of fascism overdetermined by the reaction of many men to the loss of direct control over “their women”; and with a resurgent “socialist” left once again falling into the nationalist-economistic pitfalls of the ’68 era.[21] In light of this, it seems incumbent upon the left to take up the task begun by Wilhelm Reich in the 1930s of theorising male heterosexuality, though on a more thoroughly materialist basis. In the West specifically, we see a problem that has been latent since ’68: the failure of gender anti-essentialism to become hegemonic, shown especially by the present mainstreaming of transphobia, generating a clash between traditional expectations and the reality of restructured post-boom capitalism. Consequently, many men are severely inhibited by an inability to practice emotional vulnerability or platonic intimacy; a tragedy for social beings. This may explain why around three-quarters of suicides in the UK are male, and might also account for the sanctuary so many young men today take in the collective nihilism of the far-right.[22] Critically, fascism is inherent to capitalism-imperialism and feeds upon the racism (including, now, Islamophobia) and gender essentialism reproduced by the imperialist international division of labour.

The contradictions stoppered by the neoliberal reaction will not be indefinitely contained. Fukuyama himself has recently conceded that history is not, in fact, dead! For those struggling for liberation in the global South today, Marxism remains indispensable and there is a far greater understanding of the dialectical unity of race, gender and caste etc. within class, than during the ’68 era. It remains to be seen whether this new return will occur in the West but, if it does, we in Britain have a long-standing heterodox materialist tradition to draw upon, albeit a tradition which is today rendered invisible by both academia and the mainstream left.


[1] Isaac Julien and Kobena Mercer, ‘Race, Sexual Politics and Black Masculinity: A Dossier’ in Rowena Chapman (ed.), Male Order: Unwrapping Masculinity (Lawrence and Wishart, 1988), p. 102.

[2] Butch Lee and Red Rover, Night-Vision: Illuminating War and Class on the Neo-Colonial Terrain (Vagabond Press, 1993), p. 7.

[3] David Fernbach, The Spiral Path: A Gay Contribution to Human Survival (Gay Men’s Press, 1981), p. 64. This is a fascinatingly utopian text, at times bordering on science fiction. Unfortunately, Fernbach’s own lack of an adequately materialist theory of gender led him to take an anti-transgender position.

[4] Ibid., p. 9.

[5] Ibid., p. 44.

[6] Hazel Carby, ‘White Woman Listen! Black Feminism and the Boundaries of Sisterhood’ in Heidi Safia Mirza (ed.), Black British Feminism: A Reader (Routledge, 1997), p. 46.

[7] This later became the Black Lesbian and Gay Group. Julien and Mercer, ‘Race, Sexual Politics and Black Masculinity’, p. 98.

[8] Graham Willett, ‘Something New Under the Sun: The Revolutionary Left and Gay

Politics’ in Evan Smith (ed.), Against the Grain: The British Far Left from 1956 (2014), pp. 177-178.

[9] Ibid., pp. 182-184.

[10] Daryl Leeworthy and Evan Smith, ‘Before Pride: The Struggle for the Recognition of Gay Rights in the British Communist Movement, 1973–85’, Twentieth Century British History, Vol. 27, No. 4 (2016), p. 621.

[11] Jeffrey Weeks, Coming Out: Homosexual Politics in Britain from the Nineteenth Century to the Present (Quartet Books, 1990), p. 246.

[12] Anne McClintock, Imperial Leather: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest (Routledge, 1995), p. 5.

[13] Jo Freeman, ‘The Tyranny of Structurelessness’ (1st ed. 1972). https://www.jofreeman.com/joreen/tyranny.htm

[14] Fernbach, The Spiral Path, p. 42.

[15] Selma James, ‘Sex, Race and Class’, Race Today Publishing (1975), pp. 9-10.

[16] Silvia Federici, Caliban And The Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation (Autonomedia, 2014), p. 75.

[17] Calculated from UN statistics on paid and unpaid work in ‘The World’s Women 2015:

Trends and Statistics’. https://unstats.un.org/unsd/gender/downloads/worldswomen2015_report.pdf

[18] Heidi Safia Mirza, ‘Introduction: Mapping a Genealogy of Black British Feminism’ in Black British Feminism, p. 8.

[19] Ibid., p. 20.

[20] McClintock, Imperial Leather, p. 395.

[21] I have discussed the embeddedness of Corbynism within the left-nationalist paradigm in a separate article.

[22] https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/deaths/bulletins/suicidesintheunitedkingdom/2016registrations

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