Marxism and LGBT politics: a new wave of discussion

Colin Wilson reviews Peter Drucker’s book Warped: Gay Normality and Queer Anti-Capitalism, recently published in paperback.

Covent Garden, a so-called 'Molly District', in 1747. By Louis Peter Boitard.

Covent Garden, a so-called ‘Molly District’, in 1747. A satirical print by Louis Peter Boitard.

The last few years have seen a thoroughly welcome trend: the publication of a series of academic books which aim to bring together radical LGBT politics – often in the form of queer theory – and Marxism. It’s a development that began, perhaps, in 2009 with Kevin Floyd’s The Reification of Desire: Toward a Queer Marxism, and continued in 2012 when the queer studies journal GLQ produced a special issue on Queer Studies and the Crises of Capitalism with an image of Marx on their front cover. Warped, published in hardback last year as part of the Historical Materialism series, continued the discussion – as have, more recently, The Politics of Everybody: Feminism, Queer Theory and Marxism at the Intersection by Holly Lewis and Sex, Needs and Queer Culture: From Liberation to the Post-Gay by David Alderson. The presence of a specific stream about sexuality at this year’s London Historical Materialism conference will provide a further opportunity for dialogue. This isn’t a complete endorsement of all these books – certainly it can be a problem that this is a trend within academic writing, with the problems of accessibility that this can involve. None the less, it’s an important step forward that such issues are being discussed.

Peter Drucker’s book Warped makes a very significant contribution to the discussion. It covers the period from the late nineteenth century to the present day, and addresses issues in non-European cultures as well as Europe and North America. It reflects an enormous breadth of reading, and anyone interested in leftist writing on LGBT history can learn a great deal from it. It also brings to bear some important new theoretical insights, from a Marxist perspective, into the history of sexuality. It also has, to my mind, a crucial flaw, which I’ll get to later.

Drucker starts from the understanding that sexual identities – like gay, lesbian or straight – are “socially constructed”. Human sexuality involves material, biological bodies. But we can’t directly deduce people’s sexual identities from what they do with their bodies, because those identities vary from society to society. In the seventeenth century it was perfectly acceptable for good male friends of the propertied classes to kiss, embrace and share a bed: no one considered that this behaviour, in itself, was evidence of the appalling but thankfully very rare sin of sodomy. The assertion that sexual identities are socially constructed, that they vary from one society to another, has been confirmed by very large numbers of historical studies since the idea was first developed in the 1980s.

That initial development was carried out by the French historian and public intellectual Michel Foucault. Foucault’s thinking changed over time, but many of his ideas can’t be reconciled with Marxism. Indeed, at the end of his life – as the recent collection Foucault and Neoliberalism makes clear – he supported some explicitly anti-Marxist and neoliberal ideas. So, for Marxists writing about sexuality, we can neither ignore Foucault nor accept his ideas uncritically. We have to engage and debate with him, to distinguish what is useful from what is not, and this is the approach Drucker takes.

In his book The Will to Knowledge (also referred to as The History of Sexuality Volume One), Foucault gives an account of how one current sexual identity developed, that of the homosexual. He argues that the homosexual identity developed in the nineteenth century – he refers to an academic article from 1870 – whereas until then certain people had been defined as sodomites. A sodomite was simply someone who did certain sexual acts, while homosexuality was a kind of sensibility that permeated all of a person’s being. As Foucault puts it in a famous quotation, “The sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species.” The fact that this development took place in the 1870s, long after the development of capitalism, Foucault suggests, makes it clear that there is no particular link between the rise of capitalism and the appearance of modern-day concepts such as homosexuality.

Various LGBT historians, while accepting the claim that sexuality is socially constructed, question Foucault’s assertion that an identity based on same-sex desire first develops in the 1870s. They point to the evidence regarding “molly houses”, venues in eighteenth-century London where men met to socialise and have sex. Some mollies dressed in petticoats, or as milkmaids, weddings were conducted, and mollies enacted giving birth – one was delivered of a Cheshire cheese. It seems clear that a subculture and an identity existed. Matt Houlbrook’s book Queer London also calls into question Foucault’s implicit claim that same-sex acts in the twentieth century are typically associated with a homosexual identity. Houlbrook’s evidence suggests that two identities existed for working-class men who had sex with other men in 1950s London. There were effeminate “queans” and there was butch “trade”. Queans had sex with trade, not with each other. Trade had sex with queans and women, were normatively masculine, and the fact that they had sex with other men didn’t undermine their masculinity.

If such things happened as recently as the 1950s, sexual and gender identities can change quite quickly, and acknowledging this is one of the key strengths of Drucker’s book. He argues that there have been four dominant same-sex identities in the last 150 or so years, each corresponding to a stage of capitalist development. Before the 1870s there existed transgender identities, like the mollies. From the 1870s, alongside imperialism, there developed the notion of the “invert” – men desired other men because they were in some sense women, while women felt same-sex desire because they were in some sense men. After the Second World War came Fordism, and along with it went gay and lesbian identities – relationships where both partners identified as homosexual, not just one “inverted” partner. Finally, the development of neoliberalism has gone alongside two same-sex formations. On the one hand, we have seen the partial integration of some LGBT people into capitalism and imperialism, a development the American academic Jasbir Puar has referred to as “homonationalism”. On the other, since the 1990s there have also developed queer politics and identities (which I’ve written about at some length elsewhere).

I find Drucker’s marshalling of large amounts of evidence very impressive, and I agree that various same-sex formations have existed in the last 150 years. But I’m not persuaded of the links he argues exist between imperialism and the invert; between Fordism and gay/lesbian identities; or between neoliberalism and homonationalism or queer. The claim doesn’t seem to me to fit with the historical record. Certainly some such connections do exist. For example, Magnus Hirschfeld develops one of the most detailed accounts of the invert in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As part of his desire to prove the inherent femininity of men who desire men, and the inherent masculinity of women who desire women, he measured the shoulder-to-hip ratios, the body hair distribution and other physical features of thousands of people. It’s striking that he did this at the same time that other researchers were categorising human beings into a hierarchy of different “races”, distinguished by dubious biological characteristics such as skull shape and cranial capacity, a process described in Stephen Jay Gould’s book The Mismeasure of Man. Hirschfeld’s concepts of sexuality do relate in this way to a set of ideas used to support imperialism. Drucker is also right to highlight that in the last twenty or so years there have developed ways of living out same-sex desire very different from the medicalised invert of the 1890s or the radical and subversive gay man or lesbian of the 1970s.

But in other ways Drucker’s periodisation doesn’t work. It seems to me that the development of the Gay Liberation Movement after the Stonewall riot marks a key change in same-sex identities. Before Stonewall, the politics which dominate the small “homophile” movement argue that lesbians and gay men were to be tolerated and indeed pitied, and a certain self-loathing characterised even the best activists. Peter Wildeblood was one of the first British men to publicly discuss his homosexuality, after being sentenced to 18 months in jail in 1954. Yet, while his book Against the Law called for sex between men to be decriminalised, he also stated that he was no more proud of his homosexuality than he would be of having a cleft palate. In the 1961 film Victim, which also argued for law reform, homosexual characters described their sexuality using phrases such as “nature played a cruel trick on me”. This is all very different from the gay pride marches and rhetoric of the 1970s, with its central statement that “gay is good”. Yet Wildeblood, Victim and gay liberation all happened in the Fordist period between World War Two and the late 1970s.

This question – how do same-sex formations relate to capitalism more generally? – is a crucial one. For example, if a minority of LGBT people have been to some extent integrated into capitalism, how far can that process go? Can we expect to see most LGBT people accepting marriage and the family in future? At the end of this month the RAF’s Red Arrows display team is to fly over the London Pride march – presumably we’ll see vast rainbow-coloured smoke trails behind the planes of the British military, with that military’s track record of murderous imperialism. How do we best assert a radical vision of sexual liberation as part of wider, revolutionary social change when those are the politics that dominate the LGBT movement today?

Warped highlights some key questions about how changes in capitalism are linked to those in sexuality. What effect did imperialism have? How about the post-war settlement? What about neoliberalism? Yet I’m unconvinced by the specific answers it gives, and this is, I think, linked to a more general problem, that of Drucker’s overall method. Echoing Poulantzas’ claim that there can exist no general Marxist theory of the state, he argues that no general theory of sexuality under capitalism is possible either. All that we can do is “to focus on the concrete analysis of concrete social formations.” Of course, such concrete analysis – which Drucker provides here in such impressive detail – is enormously useful. But it leaves unanswered the question of what mechanisms exist through which different capitalist subperiods give rise to different experiences of sexuality.

It seems to me – to provide a very brief sketch of how such mechanisms might work – that the state is a central force linking capitalist development with practices around sexuality. A key concern for the ruling class since around 1800 is the sustainability of the working class – that there are simply enough people; that they are healthy and educated enough to do the work required; and that they accept capitalist rule enough to continue working. No individual capitalist makes a profit out of this process of social reproduction, for which the state has always taken responsibility. Sexuality is part of the process, for one thing because certain kinds of sex lead to the birth of new generations of workers – but also because sexuality is an area where the state wants to demonstrate its control of “public order”. In a wide variety of ways, then, the state intervenes to shape sexuality. In nineteenth century Britain, for example, we see newly-created police forces exercising increased control over sexual behaviour, most notably of sex workers and men who have sex with other men, as part of the state encouraging the working class in directions which they hoped would prove compatible with capitalism. More recently, the development in the last twenty years of an out LGBT ruling class is likewise linked to the state – to the abolition of homophobic and transphobic laws and their replacement with formal legal equality for LGBT people, including legal protections, developments which have disproportionately benefited the most privileged LGBT people.


A Marxist account of sexuality on the scale of Warped and with its level of ambition really must address these questions, which help explain the past and inform political strategies for the present. The failure of Warped to do this means that, despite being informative and very impressive in many respects, the book falls short in a crucial way.

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