Marx and Engels on women’s and sexual oppression and their legacy

What we can now conjecture about the way in which sexual relations will be ordered after the impending overthrow of capitalist production is mainly of a negative character, limited for the most part to what will disappear. But what will there be new? That will be answered when a new generation has grown up…they will care precious little what anybody today thinks they ought to do; they will make their own practice and their corresponding public opinion about the practice of each individual – and that will be the end of it.[1]

Friedrich Engels published his The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, from which these lines come, in 1884. He argued that women’s oppression arose with the development of classes in society. This was widely and systematically denounced as rubbish in the social sciences academy. The idea that humans had ever lived in what Engels and some anthropologists such as Lewis Henry Morgan – whose work had provided the material for Engels’ book – called “primitive communism” was preposterous. This denial continued into the late twentieth century.

So debates and controversy have always surrounded Engels’ path-breaking book. Most feminists of the 1960s and 1970s recognised Engels’ work as a key text, whether inclined to agree with or oppose him. The main debates were summed up in a conference held to commemorate the centenary of the book’s publication. The papers are published as Engels Revisited: new feminist essays.[2] Yet for all the debates about the book, there is very little understanding of the actual content and importance of not just Engels’, but also Marx’s contribution to establishing the basics of a fight for women’s liberation.

Shulamith Firestone accepts what she considers to be Marx and Engels’ analytical method (hence the title of her book The Dialectic of Sex), and the concept of an early egalitarian society. Nevertheless her book is typical of the dismissive attitude to Marx and Engels that permeates feminist writings. She says of both Marx and Engels: “About the condition of women as an oppressed class they know next to nothing, recognising it only where it overlaps with economics”. Marx is dismissed as “worse” than Engels: “There is a growing recognition of Marx’s bias against women (a cultural bias shared by Freud as well as all men of culture)”. And she dismisses their analysis of women’s oppression as “dangerous” and in any event “only incidental insights”.[3]

The lie that Stalinism represented the tradition begun by Marx and Engels has been the source of virtually universal misunderstanding of what Marxism actually stands for. And some of the spokespersons for supposed Marxism have undermined any understanding of genuine Marxism. In 1969 when the world was aflame with revolutionary sentiment and Stonewall put gay liberation on the agenda, Eric Hobsbawm argued that there are no grounds for the “widespread belief that there is some sort of connection between social revolutionary movements” and what he called “permissiveness in public sexual or other personal behaviour” and that “sexual ‘liberation’ has only indirect relations to any other kind of liberation”.[4] These statements are astoundingly ignorant for an eminent historian, especially one with pretensions to being a Marxist.

Marx and Engels’ arguments stand in stark contrast to this rubbish and to Stalinism. Their basic argument was that the struggles of the working class and ultimately a workers’ revolution could win the liberation of all the oppressed. Their vision was not a police state, but a society of human freedom. As we will see below, the Russian Revolution proved this basic premise.[5] However the fact that Stalin carried through a counter-revolution – in the process overthrowing all the original gains for women and for sexual liberation – created profound confusion on the left. This opened a door for right-wing historians to associate the workers’ revolution with the reactionary outcomes of Stalin’s bureaucracy. The existence of the dictatorial states that called themselves “Communist” seemed to “prove” that socialism does not liberate women. This conclusion was legitimised by the fact that overwhelmingly the Western left supported the Stalinist states, albeit at times critically.

There is an alternative tradition of revolutionary Marxism which has kept alive the spirit of Marx and Engels’ ideas. I say spirit because their ideas about women and sexuality have to be considered in the context of their broader philosophy and analysis as well as the historical context of their time. Capitalism, as Marx and Engels pointed out in The Communist Manifesto, is a constantly changing system in which “everything that is solid melts into air”. Marxists have had to regularly analyse new conditions of capitalist society, building on the core arguments of Marx and Engels which remain as relevant today as in the nineteenth century and the only analysis which shows how the oppressed can be liberated.

The accepted ideas on the left have changed and developed over the century and a half since Marx and Engels developed their philosophy and politics. The material basis for these changes is the developments in capitalism. The changes brought about by women’s participation in the paid workforce in unprecedented numbers, as well as more accessible and reliable contraception have shown the validity of the basic propositions of Marx and Engels: that the structure of the family and women’s position are determined by the way production is organised. As capitalism has developed, it has undermined the nuclear family to a large extent so that in the advanced industrial countries barely one in three families fits the old stereotype of a man as the breadwinner, a dependent wife at home, and their children. Women are having children much later and many expect to have a career in the paid workforce. The radical changes to women’s lives were the material conditions which gave rise to the ideas of women’s liberation.

Sherry Wolf, the American campaigner for LGBTI rights, has shown that capitalism – by disrupting the family and everyday life by sending large numbers of workers to fight in wars, by organising mass migration so that people are dislocated from the traditions and stability of old family structures – has regularly created the circumstances in which people can experience a wider range of sexual encounters, often pursuing desires that were previously stifled.[6] In the turmoil of the movement against the Vietnam War and the student and women’s movements in the 1960s and 1970s, arguments for sexual liberation were increasingly raised, nurtured by all these circumstances and finding fertile ground prepared by them. So today same-sex couples, while denied basic rights in many countries, have won some degree of legitimacy in many others, and women expect to lead lives radically different from even fifty years ago, let alone when Marx and Engels were writing in the nineteenth century.

In this changed social and political environment, many feminists and even former Marxists concluded that Marxism was no longer relevant to the struggle for women’s and sexual liberation. In this article I want to put the record straight and show that Marx and Engels laid the basis for the revolutionary struggle that is necessary to win that liberation.

First, to understand Marx and Engels’ contribution to the fight for women’s liberation we need to look at their political activism and their writings as a whole, which is much more than simply Engels’ book. Their political activism concerning women’s rights is almost universally ignored. One exception is August Nimtz in his book Marx and Engels: Their Contribution to the Democratic Breakthrough. Another is an article by the American Trotskyist Hal Draper in 1970. [7] When we look at the totality of their writings and political activity it’s clear that for their time, Marx and Engels were the most advanced thinkers on the issue of women’s rights; and in fact, much of what they campaigned for is taken for granted today on the left and in feminist circles.

Context: nineteenth century morality

Writers such as Michel Foucault, Jeffrey Weeks and David Greenberg have illuminated the context of sexuality in nineteenth century Europe.[8] From the early eighteenth century, with the rise of the bourgeoisie in Europe, issues of sexuality were increasingly medicalised. The image of the hysterical woman dominated that medical thinking. There was an increasing obsession with children’s sexuality: it was recognised at one level as natural, but at the same time regarded as dangerous. So we see the rise of the image of the asexual child as the ideal, and hysteria about masturbation.

Women were assumed to be asexual, any desires they may have being subordinate to men’s needs. So women were sex objects and child bearers; simply to be sexually active was to be deviant. The feminists were bourgeois reformers who accepted these stereotypes by and large, and were part of the campaign to establish bourgeois notions of respectability and order among the working class. One second wave feminist says:

[M]ost Victorian feminists…accepted prevailing notions of female modesty and were willing to attack bastions of male supremacy without actively challenging the notions of sexual morality…which assumed that men needed to lead more active sexual lives than women and tolerated the infidelities of the husband, but not of the wife.[9]

They dissociated themselves from women who defied the respectable stereotypes; for example, Mary Wollstonecraft, the famous author of The Vindication of the Rights of Women, was dropped from a volume on learned women in 1803 and years later Millicent Fawcett commented on the “irregularities” in Mary Wollstonecraft’s personal life.[10] Similarly most feminists refused to associate with Eleanor Marx, who was admired and loved by masses of workers for her role in organising unions of the unskilled, when she lived with Edward Aveling outside marriage. The few who argued for “free love” or “sexual emancipation” were invariably part of a bourgeois or middle-class milieu which didn’t support full political and social equality for working-class women. Hal Draper says that in the First International Marx and Engels had to deal with the American section led by Victoria Woodhill: “[it] combined a pro-middle class and anti-working class ‘socialism’ with ‘free love’ cultism, spiritualism…and almost every other fad of the time.”[11] Marx referred to this as “false emancipation of women”.

Furthermore, one of the main feminist organisations in Britain, the Women’s Protective and Provident League, was more concerned to defend the profits of employers than to radically change the conditions under which women worked.[12] So it’s pointless asking, as one feminist does in the book Engels Revisited, why Engels didn’t ever refer to the feminists.[13] Marx and Engels were champions of workers’ rights, and intent on working out how bourgeois society could be overthrown, not how to clinch the establishment of bourgeois hegemony and social control of the working class by supporting feminist “reformers”.

Marx and Engels on women’s oppression

In On the Jewish Question, published in 1843 when Marx was 25, he wrote: “the relation between man and woman, etc, becomes an object of trade! The woman is bought and sold”. In the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts written in 1844: “the general position of women in modern society is inhuman.” And in The Holy Family, written later in 1844, Marx loosely (and somewhat inaccurately) paraphrased Fourier, a theme he frequently returns to for the rest of his life: The degree of emancipation of woman is the natural measure of general emancipation.[14]

In his The Condition of the Working Class in England, written in 1844 to early 1845, Engels repeatedly returns to the dangerous and debilitating conditions of women workers. He discusses the effects on women and men of having women working while men are left at home unemployed. This reversal of the expected gender roles was distressing and alienating, “a state of affairs shameful and degrading to the human attributes of the sexes”. When you read on you realise he was being ironic, not sexist: if this seems unnatural then, he says, it must look so because there is

…some radical error in the original relationship between men and women. If the rule of the wife over her husband…is unnatural, then the former rule of the husband over the wife must also have been unnatural.[15]

He shows, and Marx takes up the point in a substantial passage in Capital, that lower wages for women and children mean that the capitalists can get four workers producing surplus value for less than if they hired four workers at the original male wages. Then in The Communist Manifesto, published in 1848, their first programmatic document written for a political organisation, they argued that the ruling class oppresses women:

[T]he bourgeois sees in his wife a mere instrument of production… He has not even a suspicion that the real point aimed at [by Communists] is to do away with the status of women as mere instruments of production.[16]

So, from the earliest years of their activism, Marx and Engels were writing about the issue of women’s oppression, thinking about what it meant for the working class and for the struggle for a better society. The crucial difference between them and the middle-class feminists of the time is that they oriented to the working class, not to “improve” it, or control it, while defending the profits and demands of employers, but to encourage workers to fight the system. This history of Marx and Engels’ writings is ignored by virtually everyone, with the exception of Lise Vogel in her Marxism and the Oppression of Women. Towards a Unitary Theory.[17] Even supporters tend to rely solely on Engels’ The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State to prove that they took the question seriously. But in these early works, and then Capital, the question of women’s position is a recurring theme in Marx and Engels’ writings.

Now by today’s standards of what we expect of socialists, Marx does not always meet them. For instance, he refused to give permission for his daughter, Eleanor, to marry Lissagaray (the well-known participant in and chronicler of the Paris Commune). As his justification he said Lissagaray would ruin her life as he, Marx, had ruined his wife Jenny’s, through his political activity. But in spite of this, for his time he was one of the most advanced on the question of women’s oppression. He was never oblivious to the problems women faced and men’s treatment of them. An anecdote illustrates something of his attitude. He fell out with his friend Kugelman over Kugelman’s treatment of his wife. Marx wrote to Engels to explain:

[T]his arch-pedant, this pettifogging, bourgeois philistine has got the idea that his wife is unable to understand him, to comprehend his Faustian nature with its aspirations to a higher world outlook, and he torments the woman, who is his superior in every respect, in the most repulsive manner. So it led to a quarrel among us.[18]

Nevertheless Marx’s consistent support for women’s rights is little known or written about. August Nimtz says there is an

enormous mountain of misrepresentations that claim to be explications of [Marx and Engels’] views on women… Almost invariably, the exegesis involves the selection of statements from their well-known writings upon which an entire edifice is erected. Never is there any effort to look at their practice, let along contextualise what they wrote and did.[19]

In their practice Marx and Engels were ahead of everyone except a few supporters they had around them. Soon after he helped set up the First International, Marx suggested that Engels’ partner, the working-class Lizzie Burns, should join immediately and his correspondence shows him urging women to join independently of their husbands. According to Nimtz, who has done the most thorough investigation of their political activity, Marx was “the most conscious of all the GC [General Council] members in putting the issue of women on the agenda.” He had to battle the Proudhonist anarchists, the French section of which was resolutely hostile to women working in industry, in line with Proudhon’s infamous proclamation that “woman is either housewife or courtesan.” And he had to take on the trade union officials from Britain plus the Lassalleans from the German workers’ movement.[20] Marx proposed agenda items regularly for the Congresses of the International regarding the conditions of women and children. One of them had the preamble:

We consider the tendency of modern industry to make children and juvenile persons of both sexes co-operate in the great work of social production, as a progressive, sound and legitimate tendency, although under capital it is distorted into an abomination.[21]

One of Marx’s closest collaborators in the International pushed hard for the election of Harriet Law to the General Council in 1867 in Marx’s absence. Marx subsequently argued for her to be one of three delegates elected by the GC to a Brussels conference, but was defeated by one vote. And he made it clear in a letter to Kugelman how proud he was of the fact the General Council had a woman on it. In that letter he went on:

[V]ery great progress was demonstrated at the last congress of the American ‘LABOR UNION’…by the fact that it treated women workers with full parity; by contrast, the English, and to an even greater extent the gallant French, are displaying a marked narrowness of spirit in this respect. Everyone who knows anything of history also knows that great social revolutions are impossible without the feminine ferment. Social progress may be measured precisely by the social position of the fair sex.

Then the contradiction of his nineteenth century attitudes leads him to conclude jokingly, in brackets, “even the plain ones”.[22] In spite of such stupid, sexist comments in private correspondence, Marx was always the one pushing for discussions about “the woman question” at the International’s meetings even when he couldn’t attend. At the Congress of 1867, Marx tabled a proposal for a thorough discussion on “the practical means of action for the working classes, female and male, in the struggle tending to their complete emancipation from the domination of capital.” From then on, in spite of the name International Working Men’s Association, every statement Marx either wrote or edited referred to working women and working men. In 1869 Marx again pursued the question of women workers, and argued for Philomene Rozan, the female president of the silk workers’ union, to be given special credentials to allow her to participate in the Congress and in his report commented enthusiastically that the bookbinders’ union in Leipzig had agreed for the first time to admit women as members. After the Paris Commune, when Marx noted the important role women played, he proposed in September 1871 that the International set up women’s branches of the International. This was not to rule out branches “of both sexes”, but if they needed women-only branches to organise the growing numbers of women workers, then so be it.[23]

Jane Humphries, a feminist writer, says of Engels:

It seldom happens, but it is very pleasing when it does, that famous men have tried to live their ideologies. Friedrich Engels was a kind and generous man who tried to develop liberated and liberating relationships with women.[24]

Engels wrote The Principles of Communism in 1847. One of the little catechisms asks “What will be the influence of communist society on the family?”

It will transform the relations between the sexes into a purely private matter which concerns only the persons involved and into which society has no occasion to intervene. It can do this since it does away with private property and educates children on a communal basis, and in this way removes the two bases of traditional marriage – the dependence rooted in private property, of the woman on the man, and of the children on the parents.[25]

Engels always had an intellectual and political relationship with Eleanor Marx and kept up correspondence, often arguing about political issues, with the other Marx daughters, Laura and Jenny. And he was not hidebound by the social norms of his time. He supported women’s right to live independently, rejecting the dominant ideas of marriage and the family. In 1893, towards the end of his life, he said this when he heard that someone’s wife had left him:

It is always gratifying to hear that a woman whom one knows has had the courage to go independent… But what a prodigal waste of energy is bourgeois marriage.[26]

So you can see that Marx and Engels thought about women’s oppression and took women’s political involvement seriously. They not only attempted to come to grips with the issues theoretically, but actively pursued the question of women’s conditions in their political activity whenever the opportunity arose. At the Second International Congress of 1889 (known as the Marxist Congress because it was widely acknowledged that supporters of Marx and Engels dominated it) the Congress passed the following:

Congress declares it is the duty of male workers to admit female workers as equal in their ranks on the basis of the principle of “equal work, equal pay” for workers of both sexes without discrimination of nationality.[27]

As Nimtz says, this represented a link back from the Second International of the new mass socialist parties to the tradition established by Marx and Engels, who fought hard to establish this principle in the workers’ movement.

The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State was written by Engels, but it summed up a lifetime of research, relying heavily on notes assembled by Marx. This single book is still a point of departure for feminists. Much of the evidence Engels relied on has been superseded by research and discoveries in the century and a half since he and Marx were collecting the data on which Engels’ book relied. But on the two key questions at the heart of the book – that early human societies were classless and egalitarian, and that women’s oppression accompanied the rise of classes – archaeological and anthropological evidence has substantiated Engels’ arguments. The British Marxist Chris Harman has systematically drawn out what remains valid in Engels’ theoretical conclusions.[28]

The more fundamental concept was the existence of “primitive communism” in the earliest human societies. Opponents of Marxism understand that this is a key question. If humans lived in egalitarian, collective societies as described by Engels and others such as Lewis Henry Morgan, then it could be possible in the future. Eleanor Leacock, a Marxist anthropologist, wrote about the hostility to her because she argued that Morgan and Engels were correct.[29] When I was doing research for an undergraduate degree, I read the debates with Leacock in anthropology journals. All of her opponents instinctively recognised that if they were to defeat her argument that women had not always lived in the subordinate position taken for granted today, they would have to defeat the more basic argument that humanity began its social life in non-hierarchical, egalitarian societies.

With shifts in the debates, at first influenced by the radicalism of the 1960s and 1970s, it is now widely accepted that classless societies have existed. Chris Harman notes that Richard Lee, an eminent archaeologist, has written quite uncontroversially of a time when humans lived in small bands: “before the rise of the state and the entrenchment of social inequality”. In these societies there was “common ownership of land and resources, generalised reciprocity in the distribution of food, and relatively egalitarian political relationships.”[30] Even while the argument was weighted heavily against the idea of pre-class societies, the research of prominent anthropologists such as Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict proved the existence of societies without social and economic inequalities of any kind, and in which women were not oppressed.[31] And more recent evidence from the neolithic sites of Anatolia is celebrated for its revelations of societies without class distinctions – as in this publicity from Turkish Airlines advertising tours to an archaeological exhibition:

At Çatalhöyük there was no hierarchy, for there are no spaces here where administrative decisions could have been taken, or areas where such decisions could have been announced to the people, or indeed any streets to bring them to such places…there are no signs of a ruling class that ate more or better than the others.[32]

The second controversial point Engels argued was that the “world historical defeat of the female sex” occurred with the rise of class society and the state. Right-wing theorists and many feminists still assume that women have always been oppressed. But again, archaeological and anthropological evidence of existing gatherer-hunting societies at the time of imperialist invasions shows conclusively that women have not always been oppressed. A study of the history of the Montagnais of Canada since the earliest European invaders by Eleanor Leacock, studies by feminists such as Karen Sachs, Christine Gailey and Ernestine Friedl and my own research into gender relations in Indigenous societies in Australia before the colonial invasion all reveal societies in which women did not suffer systematic discrimination or oppression. Colin Turnbull wrote of his experience of living with the Mbuti Pygmies of the Congo:

In each aspect of Pygmy life there might be one or two men or women who were more prominent than others, but usually for good practical reasons… The maintenance of law was a co-operative affair.[33]

Evidence from Neolithic Anatolia shows that women lived lives free of oppression and discrimination in this period. The Turkish Airlines statement continues:

[men’s and women’s] teeth are worn down in the same way, and the time men and women spent in the house and the tasks they performed were almost exactly the same: they made tools, ground wheat, kneaded bread, and prepared to lead a family… These findings heralded the existence of equality between the sexes. Among the skulls that were passed down ceremonially from generation to generation, or, more precisely, from house to house, there are those of both men and women, indicating that both sexes could be “head” of their family or line.

Ian Hodder, an archaeologist who has worked at the site since 1994, provided some of the evidence on which this statement was based.[34] Some of the strongest scientific evidence about the relative status of women and men is their diet, so Hodder’s team “searched hard” for differences. They found “little evidence of radically different lifestyles”. And the fact that all skeletons had carbon residue on their ribs from spending time in smoke-filled houses shows that women were not tied to the home any more than men. In fact, he concluded:

Overall, there is little evidence that gender was very significant in the allocation of roles… There must have been differences of lifestyle in relation to childbirth, but these differences do not seem to be related to major social distinctions.

He comments that a strong focus on the loss of children by death suggests to the modern Western mind

a particular role for mothering. But in fact there are few, if any, clear depictions of women caring for, holding, or nursing children… In spite of the widespread use of the term “Mother Goddess” [based on the discovery of a particular clay statue]…there is very little evidence that mothering was central to symbolic life.

And he concludes: “There is little evidence that gender was of central importance in assigning social roles.” Or that any differences in dress or lives “meant that one gender was privileged above the other in terms of the transmission of rules and resources or in terms of social status and lifestyle.”

However there is evidence that in these settled communities, which had more incentive for women to bear more children than in nomadic gatherer-hunters, representations of women in figurines and statues begin by the later years to emphasise women’s buttocks and large breasts as if emphasising their sexuality. In the uppermost levels, i.e. later years when there was some differentiation beginning between different groups based on a division of labour:

Gender roles may have become more demarcated as part of wider changes in society… Men and women may increasingly have become associated with specialist tasks and spheres.

In other words, with the beginning of processes that led to the development of class divisions the position of women began to change as well, confirming Engels’ argument that women’s oppression developed as societies became divided into classes.

Engels’ critics

The essays in Engels Revisited sum up a lot of the main arguments about Engels’ book. They also illustrate the problems in understanding and interpretation which are the consequence of the dominance of Stalinism for 60 years. Many feminists only really know of the Stalinist or other mechanical materialist ideas that pass for Marxism, which means that even potentially sympathetic feminists often end up with opinions of Engels based on an incorrect reading of his arguments.

One of the most damaging confusions is propagated by both enemies and friends: that there have been socialist societies in which women were patently not liberated. Of course if this were true, it would show that talk of a workers’ socialist revolution to liberate women is at best nonsense, at worst downright treacherous. But Stalinists, ex-Communist Party members in many instances, refused to accept that the Stalinist states were in no sense socialist. Instead they concluded that you had to add on feminism to Marxism. This then led to the use of structuralist and post-structuralist theories to develop the theory of patriarchy which says there are two fundamental structures in society: capitalism and patriarchy.[35] This leads to a perverse acceptance of the gender stereotypes by those committed to undermining them: paid work and trade unions are “male” while “female” or “feminine” roles are mothering, nurturing, and housekeeping. So Mary Evans, in her essay “Engels: materialism and morality” can say:

I use [the term patriarchy] to describe those values held by Engels which seem to me to be more concerned with the interests of men – as they are constructed in bourgeois patriarchy – than those of women. In particular I would identify the priority which he gives to paid, non-household work.[36]

She argues that the materialist method of Marxists has led them to accept the values of patriarchy, “in particular, the intrinsic value of paid work”. There is a fundamental misunderstanding here: it is not that Marx and Engels or genuine Marxists accept the intrinsic value of what capitalism promotes, but that they and we recognise that if women are to have any independence and control over their lives they need access to the paid workforce. But even more importantly, as Marx and Engels were so keen to argue in the International: it is by women being organised as workers that they can exercise power – which they patently do not have as housewives – alongside male proletarians and play an equal role in fighting for workers’ rights and socialism.

This debate shows clearly why the issue of women’s oppression cannot be separated out from a general analysis of our society, what we mean by socialism and how it can be won. Those who accepted that the Stalinist states, monstrous as they were, were socialist or workers’ states ended up propagating a theory which entrenches the divisions between women and men that capitalism promotes. If working-class men are part of the patriarchy, how then can the working class unite to overthrow capitalism? It also leads to the idea that working-class women must have to fight alongside the women who exploit them.[37]

Evans’ approach shares another flaw with many of the hostile critiques: that of moralism and idealism. Engels is criticised for arguing that the family and therefore the nature of the relationships between women and men and women’s role in society are fundamentally determined by how production is organised. Jane Humphries, in Engels Revisited, is sympathetic to Engels as the earlier quote indicates. But she rejects his argument because

Human reproduction slides out of the material base, its organisation becomes dependent on the organisation of production. Hence feminist issues become secondary and the contradiction between men and women subservient to that between capital and labour.[38]

Actually, the family today is both part of the base and the superstructure, so she’s wrong about what the argument is anyway.[39] More substantially, all historical evidence shows that the form of the family has changed from each historical epoch to the next, organised along the lines that fit with the mode of production. This is dramatically clear in the transition from feudalism to capitalism with the destruction of the peasant family and the struggle of the bourgeoisie to entrench the new nuclear family among workers.[40]

Moira Maconachie also objects to Engels’ argument that the social relations of production determine the form of the family: “the sphere of production is accorded analytical priority”. Like many feminists, she thinks this criticism is self-explanatory. The relations between women and men should be given primary analytical importance. They write as if it’s a moral question, not one of analysis and historical enquiry. If only we theorised that women’s oppression wasn’t rooted in the class system, that would make it a fact and “privilege” women’s struggles over the class struggle. But is this a basis for struggles that have the potential to bring about fundamental change? These writers don’t even consider this question.

Engels famously concluded (wrongly) that the working-class family was dying out, a development he and Marx welcomed. So the recurring complaint that Engels did not clearly spell out the role of the working-class family under capitalism is pointless. He saw no need. However, Marx and Engels’ dialectical materialist methodology and their understanding that women’s oppression is grounded in class society, their argument that the family and its structures was an institution to serve that class society, all laid the basis for an analysis of why the family did not die out and the role it plays in modern capitalism.[41]

One final point. Because Engels didn’t develop a full-blown theory of sexuality, he’s often accused of not being interested in anything but crude economics. Marx and Engels argued that economic independence for women was a crucial step in women gaining political rights and equality. They understood that while it was progressive for women to be in paid work, it meant problems in the family regarding childcare and housework which women were expected to do. But Engels argued that with more economic independence, more liberal divorce laws and property rights, women would be able to marry for love, not money. And also, significantly, he thought this would lead to “a gradual rise to more unrestrained sexual intercourse” and a “laxer public opinion regarding virginal honour and female shame”.[42]

We’d have to say he was right; while the old stereotypes of virtuous woman and whore still exist, even in the lifetime of those of us born at the time of World War II, there has been some advance in attitudes to women’s right to an independent life and to express their sexuality. But Marx and Engels did not, as many feminists assert, think that this in and of itself would lead to women’s liberation – that could only come about with a complete overthrow of the social relations of capitalism. Engels argued:

This demands the quality possessed by the individual family of being the economic unit of society be abolished…with the passage of the means of production into common property the individual family ceases to be the economic unit of society. Private housekeeping is transformed into a social industry. The care and education of children becomes a public matter.[43]

Marx and Engels on sexuality

What we can now conjecture about the way in which sexual relations will be ordered after the impending overthrow of capitalist production is mainly of a negative character, limited for the most part to what will disappear. But what will there be new? That will be answered when a new generation has grown up…they will care precious little what anybody today thinks they ought to do; they will make their own practice and their corresponding public opinion about the practice of each individual – and that will be the end of it.

This conclusion about sexual relationships by Engels in The Origin of the Family is insightful and inspiring. This enlightened and liberatory statement is the conclusion of Marx and Engels’ historical, theoretical and philosophical studies. It speaks directly to a modern audience, and easily includes all sexual practices known to humanity. Marx and Engels understood that everything we think we know about humanity is contingent on the circumstances of our own society. And when the working class overthrows capitalism it will lay the basis for a society with completely different practices and ideas in every area of life, including sexuality. Engels’ prediction encapsulates what any revolutionary can agree with today: in a free society people “will establish their own practice – and that will be the end of it.” This is truly remarkable for a writer of the nineteenth century. And yet there is a perception among some Queer activists and others today of Marx and Engels as homophobes with nothing to contribute to the struggle for sexual liberation.

The main attacks on Marx and Engels are summarised in an article by the anti-Marxist writer, Hubert Kennedy, misleadingly titled “Johann Baptist von Schweitzer, the Queer Marx Loved to Hate” in order to imply that Marx hated Schweitzer, not for his politics, but because he was homosexual.[44] Kennedy uses statements by Engels in The Origin of the Family and in a letter to Marx attacking a pamphlet by the sexologist Karl Heinrich Ulrichs to claim that Engels was a homophobe. He argues that Marx moved to have the anarchist Bakunin expelled from the First International because of homophobic hostility to Bakunin’s relationship with Nechaev, and takes some quotes from obscure letters of Marx and Engels to claim they used a homophobic term to denigrate a political rival.

Sherry Wolf has discussed the issues in her Sexuality and Socialism.[45] Unfortunately, in a section titled “the queer Marx loved to hate”, she confuses the issue somewhat by inaccurately quoting a letter Marx wrote to Engels about Johann Baptist von Schweitzer. In another passage she uses a contested translation which portrays Engels in an unnecessarily bad light. The translation has been altered in the second printing, however it is worth discussing Wolf’s original translation as it is used to paint Engels in the most negative light possible. Her unsatisfactory treatment of this issue makes it necessary to look at the disputes in some detail in order to put the issue into perspective and to put to rest distortions of Marx and Engels’ positions.

Firstly, Marx and Engels devoted their entire adult lives to developing the theory of historical materialism and participating in the struggles of the working class. Their Collected Works in English run to fifty volumes, each somewhere between about 550 and nearly 800 pages. It is said that the project to publish everything they wrote in German will require 120 such volumes. It says something that in order to attempt to paint Marx and Engels as homophobes, and their ideas as irrelevant to the struggle for sexual liberation, writers such as Kennedy can only point to a few passages in Engels’ The Origin of the Family – which are disputed as we will see – and one comment by Engels in a private letter and another one or two by them both in a couple of other private letters. No-one who has trawled their writings for evidence has proved that they wrote anything for publication to denigrate any individual for their homosexuality, or that they used such information to discredit anyone.

Secondly, Kennedy makes no attempt to engage with Marx and Engels’ theory of liberation. Neither does he offer an alternative theory of how sexual liberation can be won. Kennedy seems to think that by showing that Marx and Engels had private opinions we reject today, this will discredit Marxism. His arguments, which we will look at below, should be rejected for what they are: anti-Marxist point-scoring, and not challenging points at that.

There is a third point before we look at the arguments in detail. Let’s assume that Marx and Engels possibly did make homophobic comments, would this discredit their theories as a whole? Marxism is a philosophy of human liberation; it depends on understanding society in order to change it. It does not rely on taking everything Marx and Engels ever said or wrote as biblical texts which have to be supported to the letter. Marx and Engels, like all those revolutionaries who have kept Marxism alive, made mistakes – not just about sexuality. As well, activists, writers and theorists are products of their own time. Even the most progressive ideas of one era meet challenges in the next. As Jeffrey Weeks, who thinks Engels did say homophobic things, concludes, “it would have been extraordinary in the early 1880s when the exploration of homosexuality was still in its infancy, had Engels thought otherwise.”[46]

The key question is: do the core propositions – that capitalism, fundamentally divided by class, cannot offer humanity a decent existence, and that only a workers’ revolution can establish socialism and liberate all the oppressed – stand the test of time? And are any of the mistakes or outdated ideas they articulated so fundamental that they undermine those propositions? Marxists today, living in a time when ideas of sexuality are radically different from those of the nineteenth century, can reject individual, private comments made by Marx and Engels (or indeed public statements) while at the same time using their basic ideas to understand our society and how to achieve sexual liberation. So let’s look at the period and other dominant ideas during Marx and Engels’ lifetime.

In 1869 Karl Maria Benkert, who wrote under the pseudonym Kertbeny, coined the term “homosexual” to describe those with “abnormal tastes” as he put it. Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, Richard von Krafft-Ebing and Benkert/Kertbeny were some of the main theorists of homosexuality. Ulrichs viewed homosexuals as a “third sex”. Homosexual men, he argued, had a female brain in a male body. He even recognised lesbians and theorised that they had male brains in female bodies. Krafft-Ebing was responsible for the theory that homosexuality could be explained by family degeneracy – although he abandoned it later in the face of his evidence. This didn’t prevent others from developing ideas that explained homosexuality and other “vices” and “failings” such as mental ill health or even criminal behaviour, by genetic degeneracy in families.[47] And so the medical literature on homosexuality was invariably couched in terms of gender deviance in the second half of the nineteenth century and dominated by notions of “feminine” men and “masculine” women.

There was a booming industry of psychology and sexology, driven by the boundless faith placed in science which was typical of the time. “Perversions”, and in particular male same-sex relationships, were increasingly the subject of endless medical and social analysis. Homosexuality was increasingly medicalised as a “problem” which needed explanation. Historians have traced a transition from notions of sin to sickness and mental illness. This in turn led to discussions about whether it could be “cured”. Should it be accepted as inevitable, even if undesirable, or shunned? Gradually there developed the concept of the “homosexual” as a characterisation of a certain kind of man. Women were almost universally ignored in these debates because of the assumptions of their asexual nature and their natural role as mothers.

Hubert Kennedy comments that “the classics of Marxism are remarkably silent on the subject [of homosexuality]”.[48] We might be thankful that they were, given these prevailing ideas. Actually, what matters is Marx and Engels’ profound breakthrough in a materialist understanding of human society; and this does provide a basis for understanding sexuality just as much as any other aspect of human experience. Engels’ passage about sexual liberation in a socialist society shows that they actually had a vision massively more radical and enlightened than anything produced by the chatter about sexuality per se. In any case it is easy to see why they did not write about homosexuality. There were no large milieus of gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, transgendered and intersex people like those that exist in most modern cities today, so issues of their liberation were not pressing issues in the working class movement.

After these introductory comments, let’s look at the arguments that surround a few quotations from Marx and Engels.

On 22 June 1869 Engels wrote a derogatory letter to Marx about a pamphlet by Ulrichs.[49] What we make of this letter today relies heavily on translations of the German original into English. This makes it very difficult for anyone not conversant in German and the idioms and use of particular terms in the nineteenth century – the meanings of which have changed over time – to make a definitive assessment. A lot rests on whether Engels was denouncing homosexuality between consenting adults or “pederasty”, meaning “boy-love”. The German word for pederasty can be translated in a number of ways. But Kennedy says “In the [booklet Incubus which Engels commented on] Ulrichs used the term ‘pederast’ to mean someone attracted to a boy under the age of puberty.” However, Kennedy says, in popular speech it was more likely to mean homosexual anal intercourse. There is some evidence that Engels was referring to “pederasty” in the way Ulrichs used it – what we would call paedophilia today. He says “we, personally, are too old to have to fear [the triumph of the pederasts]… But the younger generation!” On the other hand he also refers to “our childish penchant for females”. If you know anything about Engels you can imagine him having a lovely time with plays on words and not worrying about ambiguous meaning.

However Kennedy has no problem concluding what he wants to believe: “It is unlikely, however, that Marx and Engels distinguished boy-lovers from adult ‘pederasts’.” And he has “no doubt” that Marx and Engels meant homosexual rather than boy-lover by the term “pederast”.[50] We do not know any of these things. We certainly do not know anything about Marx’s ideas from Engels’ letter. Ulrichs himself disapproved of pederasty, i.e. adult men having sex with children, and discussions at the time did make the distinction between consensual sex between adult men and “man-boy” love. Any honest reading of the texts and comments offered by Kennedy himself would have to lead to the conclusion that we simply do not know what Engels meant.

Unfortunately Wolf, by an inaccurate reference, adds fuel to the opponents of Marx whom she was answering. She says that Marx replied to this letter from Engels of June 1869 – which refers to both Ulrichs’ pamphlet and Schweitzer, a political rival who had been charged with “pederasty” in 1862. Wolf says Marx replied, “You must arrange for a few jokes about him [Schweitzer] to reach Siebel, to hawk around the various papers.[51] Marx did say this about Schweitzer, but four years earlier and the context is a political battle. Marx and Engels were hostile to Schweitzer because he was associated with Lassalle, who was collaborating with Bismarck, the authoritarian representative of the right. Marx’s warning to Schweitzer that he should break with Lassalle was answered by a defence of Lassalle’s collaboration with this class enemy. Engels comments that Schweitzer’s letter is “rotten to the core. The fellow has the job of compromising us and the longer we have dealings with him the deeper we’ll sink into the mire.” This is the letter Marx replied to in March 1865; and this is clear in Kennedy’s account of Marx and Engels’ relationships to Schweitzer.[52] So Wolf’s error is baffling.[53] There is nothing to indicate that Schweitzer’s sexuality was referred to at all in Marx’s 1865 letter. And in the letters included in Marx and Engels’ collected works, Marx ignored Engels’ comments on Ulrichs’ pamphlet in 1869. So we have no evidence that Marx said anything homophobic about either Ulrichs or Schweitzer.

Inconsistencies in Wolf’s argument create confusion and an unnecessarily defensive tone. Her denunciation of Marx and Engels for homophobic comments in their letters (of which Marx’s is wrongly quoted) is somewhat contradicted three pages later when she actually assumes that Engels was referring to Schweitzer as a pederast, adding “that is, a man who seduces boys”, of which she says “it should stand as a basic socialist principle that sex between two people must be consensual. It is incompatible for genuine consent devoid of the inequality of power to be given by a child to a man of thirty” for which she was roundly condemned by David Thorstad, a founding member of the North American Man-Boy Love Association.[54] She goes on to correctly point out: “the most glaring aspect of the characterisation of Marx’s enmity toward von Schweitzer is the confusion of Marx’s political hostility with personal contempt.” Then, after what amounts to a defence of both Marx and Engels, she (surprisingly) again refers to the letters (one of which she has taken completely out of context) as a “reactionary epistolary exchange between Marx and Engels”.[55]

The issue of translation in a different text has been debated since Wolf wrote her book. She quotes Engels as referring in The Origin of the Family tothe abominable practice of sodomy”. In a letter in the International Socialist Review two of the editors of Socialist Voice argue that this is a mistranslation of the original German. The passage would be more accurately rendered as “repugnant boy-love”. They argue that “Engels was criticising the Greeks not for homosexuality, but for pederasty – the sexual abuse of children.”[56] This is the translation used by Hubert Kennedy in the article Wolf references. In fact Kennedy’s full translation of the disputed passage shows that Engels was commenting on the Greeks’ “degradation of the women” which he saw as linked to their “abominable practice of boy-love”.[57]

Kennedy says of this passage: “with regard to the Greeks [Engels argued] ‘The men, who have been ashamed to show any love for their wives, amused themselves with all sorts of love affairs with hetaerai; but this degradation of the women was avenged on the men and degraded them also till they fell into the abominable practice of boy-love [Widerwärtigkeit der Knabenliebe] and degraded alike their gods and themselves with the myth of Ganymede’.” German speakers I know agree than Knabenliebe here means “boy-love” meaning someone younger than puberty and the word for a teenage boy is Junge, meaning youth, so there can be no confusion – Engels was referring to very young boys. An authoritative dictionary[58] gives only one meaning: “pederasty”. So the translation which uses “sodomy” is completely misleading.

However even if we can agree on “pederasty” as the accurate translation in Engels’ statements rather than homosexuality or sodomy, this does not end the disputes. What is meant by “boy-love” or “pederasty”? The Socialist Voice editors call it child abuse. And we’ve seen that Wolf has a similar position, which puts Engels’ comments into some perspective i.e., there are many activists who campaign for sexual rights today who regard “boy-love” as child abuse. If we take the stance of Wolf and the editors of Socialist Voice, i.e. that “boy-love” is paedophilia, or “child abuse” – an interpretation that is consistent with what were prevailing views in Engels’ time and highly likely to have been his position – the case against Engels (not just by Kennedy but also by Wolf) is in tatters.[59]

Kennedy depends on a very detailed discussion of translations and likely interpretations of what Engels may have meant or thought. When in doubt he simply resorts to assumptions. From this examination of the sources and the arguments, the most we can say is there is no evidence that Marx ever made homophobic comments about Schweitzer or Ulrichs, and that the evidence against Engels is slight at best, relying on hotly disputed translations and interpretations.

Kennedy has another attempt at slandering Marx and Engels, by disputing the usually accepted translation of letters between the two in 1868 regarding a Karl Boruttau. Kennedy “believes”, with no further proof than his prejudicial reading of the German, that Marx and Engels, if translated correctly, were referring to him as “queer”, “not that they believed Boruttau to be homosexual, but that ‘queer’ expresses the pejorative way they wished to refer to him”.[60] This is truly drawing a long, perverse bow and lacks credibility as evidence of Marx and Engels’ homophobia.

Surprisingly Sherry Wolf doesn’t deal with a substantial part of Kennedy’s article regarding Marx’s supposed homophobic dislike of the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin. For this Kennedy does not rely on such confusing and debatable evidence and therefore clearly shows his real agenda. It is simply an anti-Marxist diatribe with little respect for truth and historical accuracy. Kennedy argues that Marx was hostile to Bakunin because of Bakunin’s homosexual relationship with Sergey Nechaev. His accusation that Marx used homophobia against Bakunin to drive him out of the First International is unsubstantiated by one single fact. Kennedy ignores the real and substantial reasons for Marx’s hostility. Bakunin was organising a secret cabal inside the First International with the purpose of destroying it. It’s true that Marx attacked Bakunin over his relationship with Nechaev, but this had nothing whatsoever to do with their sexuality. Kennedy cannot produce a single statement from Marx that makes any reference to their sexuality.

In fact, in his anti-Marxist zeal, Kennedy ignores the despicable role of Nechaev which threw into question Bakunin’s integrity. Nechaev was notorious for murdering his political rivals. Kennedy himself admits Nechaev was involved in fraud and intimidation, which was the last straw for Marx and which led him to move to expel Bakunin for his association with this vile anti-working class criminal. Nechaev was widely despised on the European left. Flying in the face of even his own evidence, Kennedy says:

Thus it was Bakunin’s infatuation with Nechaev – and no doubt the homophobic perception of it – which led to the action of the congress to expel Bakunin.[61]

When historians have to resort to words such as “no doubt” – as Kennedy does here and in the previous quotations – you know they have no facts to back up their assertions. If they did they would give them. Neither he nor anyone else has produced one statement from Marx attacking Bakunin or Nechaev for their sexual relationship. Kennedy’s article is pure anti-Marxist slander and makes no contribution to understanding the Marxist tradition and its contribution or otherwise to the fight for human liberation, which is the only basis for winning sexual liberation.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of these debates – which are very difficult for anyone other than historians of the nineteenth century fluent in German and the idioms of the time to confidently take a position on – we can say a few things. Whatever they were, Engels’ private opinions about a person’s sexuality did not determine Marx and Engels’ public attitude to them. Marx and Engels worked with Schweitzer when it was possible in spite of fundamental disagreements with his Lassallean politics, a point even Kennedy reveals in his history of Schweitzer’s life. They never publicly attacked him for his sexuality. They admitted at times that he was one of the most gifted leaders in the workers’ movement and Marx noted to Engels that he was one of the few who took the trouble to read and understand Marx’s Capital when it was published.[62] And I repeat: there is no evidence that Marx ever wrote anything homophobic or attacked anyone – either privately or publicly – for their sexuality. It is significant that Magnus Hirschfeld, the gay activist and founder of the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee, considered Marx and Engels as people he identified with.[63]

But I think there is more that needs to be said. Sherry Wolf implies in her book that this is the sole issue on which Marx and/or Engels held the prejudices of their time. But this is debatable. Wolf says:

These two men eschewed the racial, gender and ethnic stereotypes of their day to champion Black and women’s liberation, and they spent their lives exposing and organising against oppression and exploitation.[64]

However a look at Marx and Engels’ writings reveals something not particularly surprising: they could fight for the rights of the oppressed while accepting stereotypes of their day. It is surely idealist to imagine activists’ ideas can be completely free of the prejudices of the society in which they live, and it is clear that progressive struggles have regularly challenged established ideas, influencing even the most advanced. We have seen the contradiction between Marx’s advanced activity for women’s liberation and his awareness of women’s oppression, while exercising his authority over his daughter in a way that would be unthinkable a hundred years later, even for those who have little sympathy for women’s liberation. And he was capable of making stupid sexist jokes. We might wish that Marx did not display these contradictions in his attitudes, but they do not detract from the theory he established which explains how women’s liberation can be won. Engels assumes that monogamous heterosexual relationships will be the norm under socialism in some passages of The Origin of the Family, yet he could also understand that in times of “great agitation”, traditional bonds of sexual relationships are shaken off.[65] Again, he provided a framework for understanding how revolution would open up possibilities for sexual liberation.

Tristram Hunt, a recent biographer of Engels, comments on Engels’ support for Kossuth’s Magyar army known for its “visceral anti-Slav sensibilities”. In Hunt’s words:

exchanging a materialist analysis of class for an unscientific mix of race and national heritage, Engels branded the Slavs as part of that sub-group of humanity he labelled “historyless” or “non-historic” peoples prone to interfere with revolutionary progress and so needing to be excised.[66]

Now Hunt is no Marxist; he is determined to paint Engels in a bad light where possible, not from a revolutionary, but bourgeois point of view. However, his quotes from Engels are not dishonest in the way Kennedy’s attack on Marx and Engels is and they cannot be swept aside. The Marxist Roman Rosdolsky has subjected Engels’ theory of “non-historic” peoples to a rigorous critique, demonstrating that Marxists are quite capable of opposing wrong positions held by the founders of Marxism, not in order to debunk its key propositions, but in order to better understand the relevance of those propositions and their application in the fight for human liberation.[67] Does this mean that the theory and politics Marx and Engels developed have no relevance to questions of national liberation and racism? It does not. Engels invoked stereotyped images of the Irish working class in his book The Condition of the Working Class in England when he was a young man and not yet a Marxist. Yet a few years later he and Marx were some of the most determined supporters of Irish independence. Engels’ comments merely tell us that he did not escape every prejudice of his time. Marx and Engels did not clearly perceive the consequences of their anti-capitalist stance for every phrase and sentiment they expressed.

Despite some initial weaknesses in Engels’ analysis of the national question, he and Marx laid the basis for Lenin to develop a sophisticated approach to the national question and the struggle against imperialism. Similarly, Marx and Engels’ argument that a workers’ revolution would liberate all the oppressed stands regardless of any outdated ideas about sexuality either of them may or may not have held.

It is the case that on questions of gender and sexuality, Marx and Engels were two of the most progressive figures of their time. While the sexologists and other social theorists discussed the problems of “perversions” and developed theories which portrayed women as asexual sex objects; when feminists largely accepted the gender stereotypes regarding sexuality, Engels wrote passages which can still inspire today. The overwhelming weight of Marx and Engels’ contribution is to help us understand how we can win women’s and sexual liberation because they understood how to fundamentally transform society. Their materialist understanding that women’s oppression was the result of class society enabled them to foresee progressive changes that would follow if women were to win some degree of equality with men in this society. And they firmly believed that if capitalism could be overthrown by the working class, then women would be liberated along with all of the oppressed. Unlike Marx and Engels, no theorists of sexuality or activists for homosexual rights in Marx and Engels’ time left a tradition of any significance which can contribute to a struggle for sexual liberation in the twenty-first century. Just because someone talks about sexuality, theorises about it or campaigns about it does not mean they can make a lasting contribution for our struggles. Take Edward Carpenter, who was writing in Engels’ time. Carpenter was associated with a socialist/leftish milieu in Britain in the 1880s. Engels summed up what they were like:

Socialism of all shades; Socialism conscious and unconscious, Socialism prosaic and poetic, Socialism of the working class and of the middle class, for, verily, that abomination of abominations, Socialism, has not only become respectable, but has actually donned evening dress and lounges lazily on drawing-room caseuses.[68]

In the late twentieth century, it became popular for feminists and socialists influenced by the ideas of this milieu to argue that sexual politics highlighted the need for us to change our lifestyles in the here and now as a way to change society. Sheila Rowbotham, briefly a member of the British International Socialists in the 1970s, wrote in 1977: “historical understanding of sexual relations is essential for any discussion of socialism as a ‘new way of life’.” This starting point led Rowbotham to increasingly support utopian politics which revolved around notions of pre-figurative forms of living rather than a struggle by the working class to overthrow capitalism. She promotes Carpenter’s participation in a rural commune and advocates

[his] pre-occupation with how to live equally without fear of authority, how to love one another in a loveless world, how to create beauty democratically in the midst of ugliness and competition.[69]

This, she argued, was more palatable and useful than the materialist approach of Marx and Engels. But the very goals she puts up are so evidently utopian: “live equally” in a class-divided society? “Without fear of authority” in a society regularly riven by war and repression? If these things were attainable in this society, why would we need socialism? All right-minded people could just begin living a new lifestyle. Rowbotham and others with these views cannot answer how this could be achieved. As Tony Cliff has pointed out, people who argue for changing ourselves rather than fighting to overthrow capitalism “seek to detach the bourgeois ideal of individual freedom from the unfree reality of bourgeois society”.[70]

So to sum up: when we look at the theories of sexuality developed by Marx and Engels’ contemporaries – such as Benkert/Kertbeny, Krafft Ebing and Ulrichs – they do not offer any guide to the way forward today for activists trying to find a way to liberation. In fact their theories are offensive to a modern reader – lesbians are women with male brains! – and they were not unambiguously progressive even in their own time. As Jeffrey Weeks argues:

much early sexologist work…represented [an] impulse towards a new interventionism in sexual matters… The paradox was that the early sexologists, who by and large were also conscious sex reformers, were simultaneously powerful agents in the organisation, and potential control, of the sexual behaviours they sought to describe, for…the new psychology was a potent force in the reconceptualisation of crime and sexual delinquency.[71]

Marx and Engels’ ideas of how human liberation can be won by workers’ revolution could not and cannot be co-opted by the bourgeoisie, that’s why they remain of central relevance to this day.

Marx and Engels’ Legacy

Tess Lee Ack has summed up the developments in the most important workers’ party in Europe at the turn of the twentieth century, that of the Social Democratic Party in Germany (SPD) so I do not intend repeating her arguments.[72] It is sufficient to say that she shows it was always those on the left of the party, those with politics closest to the traditions laid down by Marx and Engels, who took the most progressive stand on women’s oppression.

On the question of homosexuality, the leadership of this party, which saw its history and traditions as based on the work of Marx and Engels, took a clear stand against persecution of homosexuals. In 1871 the Reichstag (the German parliament) introduced Paragraph 175 to the penal code outlawing homosexual acts between men. This was a reversal of the attitude taken in most German states with the introduction of the Napoleonic Code which made no distinction between heterosexual and homosexual acts. Benkert/Kertbeny wrote an open letter to the Minister of Justice putting the case against it. But it would be the late 1890s before an active campaign took off to have the clause revoked. In 1897 Magnus Hirschfeld, an SPD member, formed the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee. Marx had died in 1883, Engels in 1895, well before the two decades in which a petition against Clause 175 was to be the central plank of Hirschfeld’s committee’s activism.[73]

On 13 January, 1898 August Bebel, the most prominent working-class leader of the SPD, became the first person to speak in the Reichstag for homosexual rights. For that matter he was the first member of a parliament anywhere in the world to speak out on this issue. And he was not an isolated individual in the Party. Karl Kautsky and Eduard Bernstein, two of the most well-known leaders, spoke out and signed the petition along with many other prominent figures. Three years earlier, Eduard Bernstein, who was gay, had written an article defending Oscar Wilde, on trial in England for the “crime” of sodomy. His article featured in Die Neue Zeit, the SPD’s most eminent journal. In it Bernstein’s position was very advanced for his time. He argued that “moral attitudes are historical phenomenon” and that the bourgeois attack on homosexuality as “unnatural” was reactionary. The acts are similar in all ages, but what society makes of them differs according to social attitudes. He concluded that all behaviours known to humans are “natural”. And Vorwärts, the SPD’s newspaper, popularised gay rights to a mass working-class readership.[74] Bernstein warned against accepting theories being propagated by Krafft-Ebing and most psychiatrists at the time which designated some behaviours as a sickness. He argued that they were influenced by moralising attitudes as much as by science. And commented:

It is a certainty that [male homosexuality] is by no means always a sign of a depraved disposition, decrepitude, bestial pleasure-seeking and the like. Anyone who comes out with such psychiatric epithets takes the standpoint of the most reactionary penal laws.[75]

The Bolsheviks

The most serious test for the Marxist approach to liberation was posed by the Russian revolution of 1917. The fate of the revolution and the rise of Stalinism from the ashes of the world’s first workers’ state have left a mire of confusion and doubt about Marxism and workers’ revolution. In discussions about what gains were made with regard to women’s and sexual liberation, there is a strong tendency to look at the ideas of the Bolsheviks to prove one way or another whether liberation was possible. However Marxists reject this idealism. Socialism is not a utopia which can be wished or willed into existence. The conditions for liberation have to be created by workers transforming the economic and social foundations of society which give rise to oppression. Once they are destroyed and a new way of organising society – collectively and democratically, for human needs rather than for profit – has been established, then the ideas of the revolutionaries themselves are of secondary importance. The logic of the end of exploitation is towards human freedom in all aspects of human experience.

The tragic defeat of the Russian revolution was the result, not of the ideas in the heads of the Bolsheviks, but of the destruction of the economy and the failure of the revolutions in the West. Isolated and brutalised, just as Marx predicted would be the case if there was not the material basis for socialism, all the muck of the old society returned.[76] As Tony Cliff put it:

The mighty sweep of idealism, the courage and soaring hopes of the Bolsheviks, crashed against the terrible backwardness of Russia [which] was aggravated by the seven years of war and civil war.[77]

Nevertheless, by looking at the ideas of the Bolsheviks and what they tried to do, we can clearly see that the foundations laid down by Marx and Engels gave rise to an understanding of what needed to be done and a commitment to sexual liberation. There is a dialectical relationship between the subjective ideas of the revolutionaries and the material and social circumstances that confront them. Correct ideas can help them make the most of opportunities, but they are no guarantee if the material circumstances cannot be transformed. Dan Healey, in his book Homosexual Desire in Revolutionary Russia, shows that the Bolsheviks’ attitude to sexuality at the time of the revolution and in the years before Stalin’s counter-revolution took hold was that sexuality should be secularised, that all the religious moralising about it should be stripped away. They believed that science should be the major factor that determined the approach to sexuality.[78]

Today, there is widespread scepticism about science and the medicalisation of sexuality. But at the time, all the most progressive thinkers on these issues had supreme confidence that a scientific analysis was the way to a true understanding. The Bolsheviks could not leap ahead of their historical period any more than Marx and Engels could, and as Healey comments:

The modernisation of sex in the industrialised West is inextricably linked to medicine and its development of a discourse of sexuality to describe, diagnose, treat, and discipline sex.[79]

What the Bolsheviks did do was attempt to overthrow the structures which give rise to oppression, and in the process they had to grapple with questions of gender and sexuality and how personal life could fundamentally change. Much has been made of differences between Alexandra Kollontai and Lenin on the questions of women and sexuality. Dan Healey divides Bolsheviks between rationalisers, where Lenin resides, and libertarians such as Kollontai, a view that fits easily with most accounts of the Bolsheviks on these issues.

Feminists such as Sheila Rowbotham claim Kollontai as a feminist. But she identified all of her political life as a revolutionary Marxist and expended a lot of energy trying to defeat the bourgeois feminists’ efforts to influence working-class women. She was notorious for staging disruptions and walk-outs by women workers at feminist conferences.[80] Feminists paint her as a lonely figure battling the male revolutionaries of Russia. Actually, Lenin and Kollontai agreed on the fundamentals, a fact that is obscured by the emphasis on the disagreements. Kollontai and Lenin, like all Marxists, agreed that the new society which they hoped to build after 1917 needed a completely different infrastructure if women were to be liberated: childcare centres, new housing which allowed more communal living, community kitchens, the socialisation of housework, laundry and cooking. No matter what ideals people held, without the material means to create this infrastructure, new ideas about the position of women would remain just that – unrealisable ideals.

Kollontai and Lenin differed on how quickly this could happen, and how much emphasis they should put on personal life and discussions of sexual relations before the basic structures of society had been changed. Kollontai, for all her commitment to this discussion and improving the position of women immediately, took a position as agitator and propagandist on the front during the civil war, where she travelled huge distances encouraging the soldiers to hold the line to defend their revolution. So in practice, she agreed with Lenin that defence of the revolution and consolidation of workers’ rule were the preconditions for the goals she set for women’s rights.

The new workers’ state established by the revolution of October 1917, and led by the Bolsheviks, quickly moved to declare a new approach to the issues of women’s rights and sexuality. The December proclamation of the new state’s program struck out the laws which criminalised homosexual acts; it abolished the concept of illegitimacy, made marriage and divorce a secular matter which required simply consent. As Lauritsen and Thorstad comment, these acts were

an integral part of the social revolution. The sweeping reforms in sex-related matters were the immediate by-product of the Russian Revolution.[81]

There are those like Simon Karlinsky[82] who argue that the removal of homosexual acts from the criminal code was not a conscious act, but reflected the Bolsheviks’ ignorance or disinterest in these questions. However it is clear that the Bolsheviks consciously removed legal sanctions against any private, consensual acts between adults. As Laura Engelstein shows, between the initial decrees of the new Soviet government and 1922 when a new criminal code was introduced, the law was open to interpretation and un-codified. Nevertheless

individual decrees did single out particular criminal acts for punishment… Thus the omission of sodomy (along with other prerevolutionary offenses) from positive law in these confused early years did not imply official neutrality.

And she points out that with the introduction of a formal code in 1922:

This omission must have been deliberate and cannot be elided with the neglect of sexual crimes in the preceding five years.[83]

Healey shows that the documents from the time “demonstrate a principled intent to decriminalise the act [of sodomy] between consenting adults.”[84] His summary of the arguments is significant as he indicates the way that political agendas impact on what are seemingly debates just about historical facts – always a consideration, but in the case of the revolution more likely to be the driving dynamic. He says a view such as that put by Simon Karlinsky

satisfies a desire to discredit Russian social democracy (as lawless, arbitrary, and anachronistically, homophobic), but it evades a compelling truth: Bolsheviks conspicuously removed sodomy from the books. Karlinksy’s account passes over or presents incompletely the medical, legal, and social contexts within which Bolsheviks deliberately chose to legalise sodomy between consenting adults.[85]

Healey argues that the Bolsheviks tolerated a wide range of views on homosexuality, leaving it to the medical profession to define what the nature of this orientation was. So it was a very fluid situation in the 1920s. The criminal code and sexuality were not the top priority for the Bolsheviks. From the first months of 1918 the leadership were preoccupied with how to win the civil war and consolidate the revolution. After the war, even though they had driven the counter-revolutionary Whites back, they faced a devastated economy, a working class a fraction of its size of 1917 (the result of the toll of the war and economic devastation), an exhausted population, an increasingly discontented peasantry who had had terrible demands made on them to feed the cities. While they tried to rebuild the economy and begin the process of industrialisation, they put considerable leadership resources into the Third International (Comintern). They understood that their fate depended on a successful revolution in the West which would bring aid to the enfeebled workers’ state. And Lenin was out of active political life by late 1922 as the result of an attempted assassination by the Socialist Revolutionaries. Healey observes:

A discursive vacuum opened up and permitted various agents to express a plurality of approaches to sex and gender dissent.

There was no single or official position on homosexuality [between 1922 and 1933] but instead a diversity of views among a range of experts and administrators.[86]

Healey’s assessment of the Bolsheviks’ intentions is supported by the Bolsheviks’ actions internationally. If the changes in the law were the result of their oversight or ignorance, then why did they associate themselves with Hirschfeld’s Scientific-Humanitarian Committee which openly talked of homosexual oppression and campaigned for homosexual rights? Semashko, the Soviet Health Commissar, visited Hirschfeld’s institute in 1921 and Hirschfeld was welcomed as a visitor to the USSR in the 1920s. Soviet delegations attended congresses of the World League for Sexual Reforms from 1921. And Kollontai and Dr Grigorii Batkis, the “hothead Bolshevik” who was Director of the Moscow Institute of Social Hygiene, were members of the League’s International Committee. All of this involvement indicated official and open support for the embryonic movement for homosexual rights.

In 1923 Batkis published a pamphlet, The Sexual Revolution in Russia, expressing some pride in the advances they had made. In it he refers to heterosexual relations as the “so-called ‘natural’ intercourse”, implying that he disagreed that it was the only natural sexual activity. For someone in his position to publish such a document indicates general agreement among the leading Bolsheviks on the attitude to sexual rights.[87] In the same year Semashko said in Berlin that there had been no ill effects of legalisation of homosexuality and there was no suggestion “in any quarter” to criminalise homosexual acts. Throughout the 1920s representations of homosexuality in art and literature were freely circulated. And Grigorii Chicherin, a known homosexual, was promoted to the important position of Commissar of Foreign Affairs which he held from 1918 to 1930 when he became a victim of the counter-revolution under Stalin.

In other respects the Bolsheviks’ attempts to draw up a legal code to deal with crimes that impinged on personal liberty reveal a preparedness to confront long-cherished and entrenched beliefs. For instance, the legislators attempted to abolish age of consent laws in favour of the concept of “sexual maturity”. This led to confused situations; who was to define when sexual maturity was reached by any individual? But it recognised the absurdity of setting the same age for all young people to determine when they should be regarded as capable of deciding their own sexual activity.[88] More significantly, they drew up a legal code adopted in 1922 which used gender-neutral language – something that is unthinkable in the most advanced and liberal capitalist countries to this day – enabling them to eliminate the use of the word “sodomy” with its moralistic and religious connotations.[89]

Healey documents the counter-revolution under Stalin’s new bureaucracy, with the reversal of all the gains of the revolution on these issues by 1933. However, he and other historians who otherwise provide useful historical knowledge cannot explain this reversal satisfactorily. In spite of the arguments above, he thinks that because the Bolsheviks did not explicitly espouse ideas of sexual liberation before the revolution, this was simply a reversion to their real agenda. However this is to ignore both the actual ideas of leading Bolsheviks and the dynamic of revolution and counter-revolution. So let’s turn to the ideas of leading Bolsheviks on the issues of women’s and sexual liberation.

The Bolsheviks on women’s and sexual liberation

It had been Lenin who suggested that Krupskaya, his wife and comrade, write a pamphlet on the issue of women’s oppression in the 1890s. With his assistance she wrote the first Russian Marxist pamphlet on women, titled The Woman Worker, while in exile in Shuskenskoe. Her little book was influenced by Bebel and Clara Zetkin of the German SPD; and she drew on Lenin’s economic investigations into the development of capitalism in Russia. In 1899, while Krupskaya was working on the pamphlet, Lenin moved to change the proposed program of the Russian Social Democratic Party to add: “establishment of full equality of rights of men and women”, which was adopted along with demands for maternity leave, the right to education and protection from harmful working conditions at their founding Congress in 1903. [90] Hardly a picture of the male leader, Lenin, dragged into recognising women’s rights by feminists – or revolutionary women – in the Bolshevik ranks.

In 1907 Lenin took an intense interest in the Stuttgart second International Conference of Women. Richard Stites, the historian of women’s liberation in Russia, says that Lenin was shocked that the Austrian socialists argued to accept a limited franchise for women. Lenin “revealed an uncompromising adherence to political equality for women.”[91] In 1910 Lenin supported the idea of doing work among women émigrés. Then in 1913 he was instrumental in organising an editorial board for a working-class women’s journal, Rabotnitsa. All of the women involved were close collaborators of Lenin, indicating that he was part of a circle of leading Bolsheviks who took the issue of women’s rights seriously.[92] There were disagreements among the Bolsheviks about work among women; but they were political disagreements, and the positions members adopted were not determined by gender as most feminists would have us believe. While Lenin was initiating and helping to organise publications and activity around the issue of women’s oppression, Vera Zasulich, a leading Bolshevik, always opposed these endeavours as a “surplus enterprise” which could only divide the strength of the party.

Of course, there were debates and arguments with Bolshevik members. Some of Kollontai’s earliest speeches are to meetings of the Russian Social Democratic Party about women’s right to work and the need to organise women into the unions. This is no different from any other question; there are always disagreements in revolutionary organisations, especially until an orthodoxy is established. Questions of the role of the intelligentsia, imperialism, war, the development of capitalism in Russia were all subjects of debate in the first decade of the twentieth century. The question is, what did the leading members argue and what orthodoxy was established?

There was a good deal of suspicion of Kollontai by Bolsheviks because of her adherence to the Menshevik faction until 1914. So when Ludmilla Stahl suggested a women’s journal in 1911 with Kollontai, Krupskaya and Inessa Armand as editors, Kollontai was rejected. The Mensheviks were soft on the liberal intelligentsia from which many of the bourgeois feminists came so Kollontai was not a credible candidate to edit a Bolshevik journal which would be intransigently hostile to the bourgeois liberals including the feminists. Kollontai was not rejected because she was more radical or outspoken on the issue of women than Lenin or other Bolsheviks, but because she was presumed to be to their right.

After the revolution, in spite of the demands on him in the context of imperialist invasion, economic blockade by the West and the civil war, Lenin grappled with the issues raised by the struggle to advance the position of women. He addressed the first All-Russian Congress of Working Women in November 1918. In his speech he said that there could be no socialist revolution without the involvement of the mass of women,[93] a theme which dominated his writings. Another theme in his writings until his death is summed up by “the important thing is not the law”. To a conference of non-Party women in Moscow in September 1919 he said that the workers’ state faced a double task: it had to abolish all the old bourgeois laws that entrench women’s inequality. This was “relatively simple and easy”. However, the second task, to free women from privatised domestic work, “this is a job that will take us many, many years.”[94]

On the question of sexuality, there are only hints of Lenin’s positions. A debate with Inessa Armand in 1915[95] is often used to show what a prude Lenin was. But many of the comments about this exchange are by people who have not been involved in the day-to-day work of building an organisation. They do not understand the content of the debate, which is not about their analysis or political positions on sexuality as it is interpreted. It is a debate about what should be in a popular pamphlet. Broader issues are hinted at and possibly reflected in their comments but they are nowhere as clear as critics of the Bolsheviks and Lenin in particular make out. Lenin objected to Armand talking about “free love” because for the working class it was only realisable when economic and social structures had changed. It was only possible for workers when there were no restrictions on how people could lead their lives. When childbirth was not a stigma or an economic burden, for instance, then workers would be able to begin to talk of the possibility of “free love”. Love had to be freed from the shackles of religion and bourgeois morality. It had to be removed from the laws and not subject to court and police interference in personal life. Until then the demand for “free love” was a purely bourgeois demand which did not relate to anything that workers, to whom the pamphlet was addressed, could aspire to.

There is a strong tendency in accounts of the Russian Revolution to attribute every gain, and importantly for this discussion, every failure of the revolution, to the ideas held by Lenin. So Lenin’s reputation as disinterested in or even hostile to sexual liberation supposedly laid the basis for the counter-revolution. There are several fundamental misunderstandings here. Lenin’s ideas were not the determining factor, but the material conditions of isolation which led to the defeat of the revolution. There is also confusion between what Lenin may or may not have thought about the prospect for liberation in a free society and how he thought revolutionaries should lead their lives under capitalism. Healey points out that Clara Zetkin inferred that Lenin’s attitude was if you “suffered from a personal abnormality in sexual life” you should do so in silence, while working for the revolution. But, says Healey, “this was hardly different than Lenin’s prescription for heterosexuals. He firmly opposed the idea that the pleasures of sex could be a purely private matter.”[96]

Lenin is often said to be a prude, against free love or casual sex. This is anything but clear. The truth is, Lenin was a materialist. He was focused on what needed to be done next at any time in order to take the struggle one step closer to workers’ revolution. He disliked agonising about sexual matters as he thought it was pointless, given the narrow options available to workers. The question of sexuality was a superstructural one and the only prospect of any kind of liberation was a revolution to fundamentally change the economic and social basis of society. However, in his debate with Armand, he does agree “that fleeting intimacy and passion may be dirty and may be clean.”[97] This somewhat undermines any clear-cut case against Lenin on this question.

A lot that has been written about Lenin’s supposed hostility to sexual liberation draws on a memoir by Clara Zetkin which purports to document a conversation she had with Lenin. However, as Dan Healey comments, to say the least

these precepts of Lenin’s come to us heavily mediated, published five years after they were said to have been uttered, and later so often reproduced because they suited the sexual politics of Stalinism.[98]

I couldn’t agree more. We might add that the other school whose agenda they suit is that of the anti-Marxists hell-bent on “proving” that Marxism has nothing to offer the oppressed. Any honest assessment of Lenin’s position on questions of women’s and sexual liberation cannot take Zetkin’s account with any seriousness. Her own experience, the passage of time, the defeat of the German revolution under the leadership of Zetkin’s Communist Party (KPD) and the growing Stalinisation of the Comintern and all its affiliates such as the KPD make her memoir at best unreliable. In any other context than one where a lot of writers have a clear agenda of discrediting Lenin and the revolution, such a document would be scorned by historians as a credible source. Attempts by genuine revolutionaries to extract the few phrases that might seem to bolster a more positive view of Lenin are completely counterproductive. The memoir should be rejected in its entirety as a historical document of any use in determining Lenin’s ideas.[99]

Interestingly, Trotsky, the second most important Bolshevik leader of the Russian revolution, is generally ignored in considerations of these issues. His earliest biographer, Isaac Deutscher, commented on his progressive attitude to women in his life as early as his first stint in jail in 1898-1899. Relatives were permitted to visit twice a week:

The women usually took home the men’s linen; but Bronstein [Trotsky] refused to benefit from such comforts, washed and repaired his own linen, and mocked at revolutionaries so ensnared in bourgeois habits and prejudices as to burden their womenfolk with such work.[100]

During the revolution, just like Lenin, Trotsky took an active interest in the question of how women’s oppression could be overcome while fighting a civil war, writing documents and attending Congresses of the Comintern, fighting to defend the revolutionary ideals of the revolution in the crushing conditions described above. And his writings illuminate the difficulties the Bolsheviks were encountering in making their dreams come true. In July 1923 he highlighted the struggle to change attitudes. “Domestic life is more conservative than economic, and one of the reasons is that is still less conscious than the latter.” He goes through several scenarios to show that the family is breaking down, so there is a dynamic at work which will lead to new ways of living, but they are very painful for individuals as it unfolds. He looks at families where either the man or the woman are Party members, they grow apart as the revolutionary has a different view of how to live their life, or if both partners are highly active as Party members, they grow apart simply because they are rarely at home together. He concludes:

The worst phenomena of the disintegrating family signify merely an expression, painful in form, of the awakening of the class and the individual within the class… Life sits in judgement…and does it by the cruel and painful condemnation of the family… History fells the old wood – and the chips fly in the wind.[101]

He pointed out that a new, higher form of family life would only emerge with a higher level of culture. In the meantime some of the concerns about wild youths and disarray were misplaced. Excesses were to be expected. Unlike philistines who then and in later accounts of the time saw the disarray as evidence of the corrupting influence of freedom and revolution, Trotsky accepted it as part of the necessary turmoil in the transition to socialism. In December 1925, addressing a conference on the situation of mothers and children, he commented that at last childcare centres were being accepted in the countryside. As late as 1919 there had been great mistrust of such state run crèches even in sizable towns.[102] Trotsky passionately argued against backward ideas about women; for instance there were those who wanted to deny women state assistance:

Comrades, this is so monstrous that it makes you wonder: are we really in a society transforming itself in a socialist manner?… Here the attitude is not only not communist, but reactionary and philistine in the worst sense of the word…and needs to be smashed with a battering ram.[103]

Around the same time he published an article which illustrates both his understanding of and passionate commitment to what was needed to begin freeing women from the shackles of their age-old oppression, and the desperate need for help from a wealthy workers’ state in the West if it were to happen:

Housing construction, …child-care facilities, kindergartens, communal dining rooms and laundries must be put in the centre of attention, and that attention must be vigilant and well organised…so that by the advantages they provide they can deal a deathblow to the old closed-in, isolated family unit, completely supported on the bent shoulders of the housewife and mother.[104]

I chose to look at the views of Lenin and Trotsky first to undercut the prevailing assumption that Kollontai is the only Bolshevik whose ideas on these issues are worth consideration. When we turn to her writings we find themes after the revolution similar to Trotsky and Lenin: the difficulty of changing attitudes, and of making alternative living arrangements possible in a country struggling to simply feed everyone. New infrastructure needed resources in far too short supply. This is one aspect of the revolution which shows the truth of the Bolsheviks’ argument that the revolution would be defeated if it was not helped by a revolution in the West. The social revolution needed to consolidate. It was a bread and butter issue, not just one of good ideas and intentions. In their writings of the time the revolutionaries, both women and men, illuminate the earlier quote from Tony Cliff: the ideals of the revolutionaries were crashing up against the reality they lived in.

Most of what is written about Kollontai is completely misleading. Look at how she begins one of her most serious contributions, The Social Basis of the Woman Question:

The followers of historical materialism reject the existence of a special woman question separate from the general social question of our day. Specific economic factors were behind the subordination of women; natural qualities have been a secondary factor in this process.

Only the complete disappearance of these factors, only the evolution of those forces which at some point in the past gave rise to the subjection of women, is able in a fundamental way to influence and change their social position.

In other words, women can become truly free and equal only in a world organised along new social and productive lines.[105]

This hardly demonstrates a gulf between herself and Lenin and Trotsky. She did try to grapple with the questions about sexuality that Lenin was impatient with. She tried to develop a theory of proletarian sexual morality. But the truth is her ideas remained vague and unformed, reflecting the problems Lenin drew out in his debate with Armand. How can the working class develop its own morality of any kind other than the politics of class solidarity, while they live in bourgeois society? In the transition to socialism they cease to be a proletariat as classes disappear along with exploitation and therefore oppression.

In Sexual Relations and Class Struggle Kollontai proposes that working-class ideologues must “search for the basic criteria for a morality that can reflect the specific interests of the working class.” It is far from surprising that she never defines that criteria. All she can come up with is:

We must remember that only a code of sexual morality that is in harmony with the problems of the working class can serve as an important weapon in strengthening the working class fighting position.[106]

Really, if we are looking for confirmation of Lenin’s doubts about the use of these discussions to take the struggle forward we find it in this vague, unhelpful proposal. Especially when we consider the problems they were to encounter after the revolution. In any case, Kollontai’s ideal was monogamy based on “great love” and equality for women. She concedes that “successive monogamy” could be part of the spectrum of true love. However her emphasis throughout is on women as potential mothers, and she writes nothing about homosexuality.

So in reality, for all her interest in the issues of sexuality, Kollontai is no more radical than Lenin and Trotsky. They all agreed that sexual liberation was impossible until the social and economic structures of society had been completely revolutionised. They encountered the reality that the struggle for liberation cannot be separated from that struggle.


Many opponents of Marxism dismiss it as a theory of crude economics. Sexual liberation theorists pose as offering a radical alternative which rejects such a supposedly limiting view. But just talking about vistas of liberation, theorising about sexuality without a strategy to fundamentally change the economic underpinning of society, is a dead end. And we should remind ourselves that every generation of sexuality theorists have been displaced by more “advanced”, “modern” ideas. On the other hand, the materialist method of Marx and Engels, their recognition of the revolutionary role of the working class with their power to overthrow capitalism, is a theory which is as relevant today as when Marx wrote Capital.

One of the tasks of modern-day revolutionaries is to clear the debris of eighty years of Stalinism, to re-establish the genuine revolutionary kernel of Marxism as the basis on which to build an organisation capable of winning activists concerned with the fight for women’s and sexual liberation and ever broader layers of the working class to the fight to overthrow the capitalist system. The constant commitment to the struggle of all the oppressed of capitalist society by genuine Marxists is not accidental. It is the logic of revolutionary Marxism to argue as Lenin did, that the revolutionary party of Marxists must be the “tribune of the people”, taking up the fight of every oppressed strata in society.[107] This flows from the identification with the suffering of the masses and the struggles for solidarity among the working class in order to defeat the capitalist class. Marx and Engels laid the basis for this tradition. It is a tradition we can be proud to stand in.


[1] Friedrich Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, International Publishers, New York, 1972, p.145.

[2] Janet Sayers, Mary Evans and Nanneke Redclift (eds.), Engels Revisited: new feminist essays, Tavistok Publications, London, 1987.

[3] Shulamith Firestone, The Dialectic of Sex, at I would argue that her understanding of their method is flawed, but for now that isn’t the point, just that she is typical of the dismissive or hostile attitude to Marx and Engels by most feminists.

[4] Eric J. Hobsbawm, Revolutionaries: contemporary essays, Quartet, London, 1982, pp.216-219.

[5] Richard Stites, The Women’s Liberation Movement in Russia. Feminism, Nihilism, and Bolshevism, 1860-1930, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 1978, 317-391; Dan Healey, Homosexual Desire in Revolutionary Russia. The Regulation of Sexual and Gender Dissent, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2001, pp.100-203.

[6] Sherry Wolf, Sexuality and Socialism. History, Politics, and Theory of LGBT Liberation, Haymarket Books, Chicago, Illinois, 2009, pp.42-72.

[7] August H. Nimtz, Jr., Marx and Engels: Their Contribution to the Democratic Breakthrough, State University of New York Press, Albany, 2000; Hal Draper, “Marx and Engels on Women’s Liberation”, International Socialism (1st series), No 44, July/August 1970, pp.20-29 available at the Marxists Internet Archive,

[8] Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Volume 1, Penguin, London, 1976; David Greenberg, The Construction of Homosexuality, University of Chicago, Chicago, 1988; Jeffrey Weeks, Sex, Politics & Society. The regulation of sexuality since 1800, second edition, Longman, London, 1981; Wolf, Sexuality and Socialism is a good summary.

[9] Miriam Brody, Introduction to Mary Wollstonecraft, Vindication of the Rights of Women, Penguin, London, 1986, p.65.

[10] Brody, Introduction to Wollstonecraft, Vindication, p.64.

[11] Draper, Marx and Engels on Women’s Liberation.

[12] Tony Cliff, Class Struggle and Women’s Liberation 1640 to Today, Bookmarks, London, 1984, pp.111-112; Maggie Humm, Feminisms. A Reader, Harvester Wheatsheaf, Sydney, 1992, p.5.

[13] Moira Maconachie, “Engels, Sexual Divisions, and the Family” in Sayers et al, Engels Revisited, p.99.

[14] All from the Marxists Internet Archive,

[15] Friedrich Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1977, p.163.

[16] Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto, in Marx and Engels Selected Works, Lawrence and Wishart, London, 1988, p.50.

[17] Lise Vogel, Marxism and the Oppression of Women. Toward a Unitary Theory, Rutgers University Press, New Jersey, 1983.

[18] Quoted in Nimtz, Marx and Engels, p.340.

[19] Nimtz, Marx and Engels, p.340. He says “the most representative collection of this can be found in Karen V. Hansen and Ilene Philipson (eds.), Women, Class, and the Feminist Imagination: A Socialist-Feminist Reader”, Temple University Press, Philadelphia, 1990.

[20] Nimtz, Marx and Engels, p.340.

[21] Nimtz, Marx and Engels, p.200.

[22] Nimtz, Marx and Engels, p.201.

[23] Nimtz, Marx and Engels, pp.199-202.

[24] Jane Humphries, “The Origin of the Family: born out of scarcity not wealth” in Sayers et al, Engels Revisited, p.32.

[25] Friedrich Engels, Principles of Communism at the Marxists Internet Archive,

[26] Letter, Engels to Bebel, October 12, 1893, quoted in Draper, Marx and Engels.

[27] Nimtz, Marx and Engels, p.279.

[28] Chris Harman, “Engels and the origins of human society” in International Socialism Journal (hereafter ISJ) No 65, December 1994, special edition on Engels, Bookmarks, London available at

[29] Harman, “Engels and the origins of human society” p.105.

[30] Harman, “Engels and the origins of human society”, p.106.

[31] Harman, “Engels and the origins of human society”, p.105. Harman lists other authors and their works.

[32] This is the publicity blurb by Turkish Airlines in 2006 advertising tours to an exhibition in Istanbul about the excavated site at Çatalhöyük in South East Turkey.

[33] All referred to in Harman, “Engels and the origins of human society”, pp.105-109, except Sandra Bloodworth, “Gender relations in Aboriginal Society; what can we glean from early explorers’ accounts?”, Marxist Interventions,

[34] Ian Hodder, The Leopard’s Tale. Revealing the Mysteries of Turkey’s Ancient ‘Town’, Thames & Hudson Ltd., London, 2006, pp.210-218 for the arguments and quotes that follow.

[35] Lydia Sargent (ed.), Women & Revolution. A Discussion of the Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism, Black Rose Books, Montreal, 1981.

[36] Mary Evans, “Engels: Materialism and Morality” in Sayers et al, Engels Revisited, p.87.

[37] Sandra Bloodworth, The Poverty of Patriarchy Theory, Socialist Alternative, for a more detailed refutation of patriarchy theory.

[38] Humphries, “The Origin of the Family”, p.11.

[39] Chris Harman, “Base and Superstructure” in ISJ 32, Summer 1986, republished in Chris Harman, Marxism and History, Bookmarks, London, 1998.

[40] Lindsey German, Sex, Class and Socialism, Bookmarks, London, 1989, pp.15-42; Bloodworth, The Poverty of Patriarchy Theory for how the family was established in Australia.

[41] German, Sex, Class and Socialism, chapters 2 and 3, pp.43-79; Sandra Bloodworth, “Women, Class and Oppression”, Rick Kuhn (ed.), Class and Struggle in Australia, Pearson Longman, Sydney, 2005 at; Bloodworth, The Poverty of Patriarchy Theory.

[42] Engels, The Origin of the Family, p.139.

[43] Engels, The Origin of the Family, 99.138-139.

[44] Hubert Kennedy, “Johann Baptist von Schweitzer: The Queer Marx Loved to Hate” in Gert Hekma, Harry Oosterhuis, James Steakley (eds.), Gay Men and the Sexual History of the Political Left, Harrington Park Press, New York, 1995.

[45] Wolf, Sexuality and Socialism, pp.75-83.

[46] Weeks, Sex, Politics and Society, p.169.

[47] Emile Zola was a famous advocate of this in some of his novels.

[48] Hubert Kennedy, “Johann Baptist von Schweitzer”, p.69.

[49] Marx and Engels Collected Works (hereafter MECW) Vol. 43, International Publishers, New York, 1988, p.295.

[50] Kennedy, “Johann Baptist von Schweitzer”, pp.85-86.

[51] Wolf, Sexuality and Socialism, p.78.

[52] Kennedy, “Johann Baptist Schweitzer”, pp.80-81; for Marx and Engels’ letters, MECW, Vol. 42, p.120.

[53] To confuse things even further, Wikipedia wrongly attributes Marx’s letter to an exchange between him and Engels at the time of Schweitzer’s trial for pederasty:, accessed 3 July 2010.

[54] David Thorstad at, accessed 28 June 2010.

[55] Wolf, Sexuality and Socialism, pp.81-82.

[56] Ian Angus and John Riddell, in International Socialist Review, issue 70, March-April 2010, p.72.

[57] Kennedy, “Johann Baptist von Schweitzer” p.70.

[58] Langenscheidt’s Encyclopaedic Dictionary, German-English (2 volumes), Langenscheidt, Berlin, 1974. Thanks to Janey Stone, Tom O’Lincoln and Tess Lee Ack for comments on translation.

[59] This is not the place for a full discussion of the issues of age of consent laws or children’s sexuality. But it is worth pointing out the logic of those who promote “man-boy” love. Thorstad attacks the thousands who have charged the Catholic Church with child abuse from its priests as men trying to bill the church for what was consensual sex at the time, see Sherry Wolf at; I have written about the issue of children, sex and age of consent laws elsewhere, see, accessed 11 July 2010.

[60] Kennedy, “Johann Baptist von Schweitzer”, pp.81-82. Kennedy relies on German publications so it is difficult for anyone who does not read German to check his sources.

[61] Kennedy, “Johann Baptist von Schweitzer”, p.89. Emphasis added.

[62] Kennedy, “Johann Baptist von Schweitzer”, pp.80-81.

[63] John Lauritsen and David Thorstad, The Early Homosexual Rights Movement (1864-1935), Times Change Press, New York, 1974, p.27.

[64] Wolf, Sexuality and Socialism, p.78.

[65] Friedrich Engels, Marx and Engels on Religion quoted in Weeks, Sex, Politics and Society, p.167.

[66] Tristram Hunt, The Frock-Coated Communist. The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels, Allen Lane, London, 2009, p.169.

[67] Roman Rosdolsky, Engels and the “Nonhistoric” Peoples: The National Question in the Revolution of 1848, Critique Books, 1986.

[68] Engels, Preface to the English edition of The Condition of the Working Class in England, 1892, quoted in the 1892 Preface to the German Edition at the Marxists Internet Archive,

[69] Sheila Rowbotham in Sheila Rowbotham and Jeffrey Weeks, Socialism and the New Life: The Personal Politics of Edward Carpenter and Havelock Ellis, Pluto Press, London, 1977, p.10.

[70] Cliff, Class Struggle and Women’s Liberation, p.193.

[71] Weeks, Sex, Politics & Society p.145.

[72] Tess Lee Ack, Marxism and Women’s Liberation, Socialist Alternative, Melbourne, 2005.

[73] Lauritsen and Thorstad, The Early Homosexual Rights Movement, pp.9-11.

[74] Wolf, Sexuality and Socialism, p.84.

[75] Lauritsen and Thorstad, The Early Homosexual Rights Movement, p.59.

[76] Sandra Bloodworth, How Workers Won Power: the 1917 Russian Revolution, Socialist Alternative, Melbourne, 2008, pp.69-86; Anthony Arnove, Peter Binns, Tony Cliff, Chris Harman and Ahmed Shawki, Russia: From Workers’ State to State Capitalism, Haymarket Books, Chicago, 2003.

[77] Cliff, Class Struggle and Women’s Liberation, p.145. For a summary of the Bolsheviks’ attempts to liberate women and their defeat see pp.138-152.

[78] Healey, Homosexual Desire in Revolutionary Russia, pp.115-172.

[79] Healey, Homosexual Desire In Revolutionary Russia, p.9.

[80] Cliff, Class Struggle and Women’s Liberation, pp.88-109.

[81] Lauritsen and Thorstad, The Early Homosexual Rights Movement, p.63.

[82] Simon Karlinsky, “Russia’s Gay Literature and Culture: the impact of the October revolution” in Martin Duberman, Martha Vicinus and George Chauncey Jr.(eds.), Hidden from History: Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian past, New American Library, New York, 1989.

[83] Laura Engelstein, “Soviet Policy Toward Male Homosexuality: its Origins and Historical Roots” in Hekma et al (eds.), Gay Men and the Sexual history of the Political Left, p.163.

[84] Healey, Homosexual Desire in Revolutionary Russia, p.116.

[85] Healey, Homosexual Desire in Revolutionary Russia, p.4.

[86] Healey, Homosexual Desire in Revolutionary Russia, p.127.

[87] Healey, Homosexual Desire in Revolutionary Russia, p.133,

[88] Healey, Homosexual Desire in Revolutionary Russia, pp.116-122.

[89] Healey, Homosexual Desire in Revolutionary Russia, pp.121-124.

[90] Stites, The Women’s Liberation Movement in Russia, pp.240-242.

[91] Stites, The Women’s Liberation Movement in Russia, p.237.

[92] Stites, The Women’s Liberation Movement in Russia, p.254.

[93] Lenin, On the Emancipation of Women, Progress Publishers, Moscow, p.61.

[94] Lenin, On the Emancipation of Women, pp.69-74.

[95] Letters from Lenin to Inessa Armand, January 1915, in Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 35, Moscow Publishers, 1976, pp.180-185.

[96] Healey, Homosexual Desire in Revolutionary Russia, p.11.

[97] Lenin, On the Emancipation of Women, p.42.

[98] Healey, Homosexual Desire in Revolutionary Russia, p.114.

[99] Clara Zetkin, “My Recollections of Lenin”, Lenin, On the Emancipation of Women, pp.97-123.

[100] Isaac Deutscher, The Prophet Armed, Oxford University Press, London, 1979, p.41.

[101] Leon Trotsky, “From the old family to the new”, in Women and the Family, Pathfinder Press, New York, 1970, p.25.

[102] Leon Trotsky, “The Protection of Motherhood and the Struggle for Culture”, Women and the Family, p.41.

[103] Trotsky, “Protection of Motherhood and the Struggle for Culture”, p.38.

[104] Leon Trotsky, “To Build Socialism Means to Emancipate Women and Protect Mothers”, Trotsky, Women and the Family, pp.47-48.

[105] Alexandra Kollontai, “The social basis of the woman question” in Alexandra Kollontai on Women’s Liberation, Bookmarks, London, 1998, p.9.

[106] Alexandra Kollontai, “Sexual Relations and the Class Struggle”, written 1921, in Alexandra Kollontai on Women’s Liberation, pp.34-35.

[107] Lenin, What is to be Done?, Marxists Internet Archive,