Thanks to the peccadilloes of South Carolina governor Mark Sanford, the question of sex and politics has once again been cheaply splashed across US newspapers, television and the internet once again. Although those of us who have nothing nice to say about this particular rightwing “Christian” moralist are enjoying watching the crocodile tears fall on his career of hate and intolerance, there is a part of each of us that finds absurd the notion that someone should end their political career because of their sexual life. After all, humans are sexual beings, even though Mark Sanford and his ilk often act as if they weren’t, even while they tear themselves apart with a guilt created by the hypocrisy of the system they invest in.
The most universal of these strictures, especially among religious fundamentalist and right wing political adherents is against the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LBGT) population. Gay marriage–no way. Gays rearing children–no way. Equal rights for those of a non heterosexual persuasion–special privileges, not equal rights. Anyhow, you get the picture. Homosexuals are somehow not quite human and therefore do not deserve to exercise their human rights. Meanwhile, when it comes to the liberal side of the US political spectrum one hears words in support of equal rights only to be all to often followed by a refusal to support those rights when it comes to actually passing legislation.
With the brashness of the Stonewall rioters and the insight developed through keen observation and years of activism, author Sherry Wolf explores the history and theory of sexual politics in the United States in her recently published Sexuality and Socialism: History, Politics, and Theory of LBGT Liberation. Wolf begins her text with a discussion of the roots of sexual oppression. By discussing the construction of homosexuality, she addresses the complementary construction of heterosexuality and the resulting dichotomization of human sexual experience. Working from an understanding that it is capitalism that creates this dichotomy, Wolf examines the contradiction of early industrial capitalism that allowed for the autonomy of human sexual practices while demanding the stratification of those practices to make it possible for capitalism to work. Stating this theory quite succinctly–“capitalist society has transformed how people express themselves sexually yet simultaneously has aimed to restrict human sexuality as a means of social control”–Wolf begins an examination of how we arrived at the juncture we are currently at. By utilizing this contradiction, Wolf is able to turn a sharply critical eye on the successes and failures of the LBGT movement, while never forgetting that this fundamental contradiction is the genesis for a multitude of other contradictions around race and class that exist withing the LBGT and every other movement for social justice and true liberation.
An avowed socialist, Wolf does not only address the nature of sexual repression under the capitalist nations. She turns a critical eye towards those nations that called themselves socialist and breaks down the history and nature of those governments’ repression of sexuality, especially that of LBGT peoples. Noting that immediately after the Russian Revolution of October 1917 all restrictions on sexual expression were removed from the criminal code, Wolf continues her history by noting that it was the pressures of the counterrevolution and eventual leadership of Stalin that followed the heady years of the Russian Revolution that saw the rollback to traditional sexual practices being encouraged and enforced in the Soviet Union. Wolf attributes the repression of LBGT folks in Cuba and China to their essentially Stalinist nature, while noting that within the US communist movement, gays and lesbians were purged from the Communist Party, USA under similar circumstances. Despite the essentially Victorian attitudes towards sexuality in the CPUSA, the struggle against these attitudes continued inside the party and throughout the leftist movement in the US.
Because of the anti-gay sentiment prevalent in Left formations, many gays and lesbians looked elsewhere for a political understanding of their situation. Concurrently, the phenomenon of identity-based politics was gaining ground among many US activists. The essential apolitical nature of these politics was not apparent at first, yet the seed was sown. Movements supporting LBGT liberation ended up becoming focused on a single issue, and isolated from the greater political milieu. Like other left-originated movements, they found a home in academia and, instead of encouraging alliances across genders and race, they encouraged a politics of separatism and a hierarchy of victimhood. Wolf argues that although identity and queer politics did not (and can not) achieve sexual liberation, this trend in the politics of sexuality has done a lot to generate social acceptance by individuals of LBGT individuals in US society. However, they have not changed the fundamental basis of sexual oppression. Only organizing and mobilizing in the streets against sexual oppression can accomplish that.
One of the debates around homosexuality in the United States concerns whether or not biology determines one’s sexual preference. Wolf addresses this debate, pointing out its potential misuse by homophobes. If it is biologically determined, then can’t it be cured? At the same time, this argument has been used by advocates for equal rights for the LBGT population. Given the open-ended nature of this debate, Wolf presents arguments for and against, ultimately stating that it is virtually impossible to state how much of one’s sexuality is determined by biology and how much is related to other factors. She does insist, however, that it is under capitalism that the distinctions and classifications of sexuality have flourished and have been used by the ruling class to keep those they rule divided. Consequently, it is only by ending the capitalist economy that true sexual liberation can come.
Bringing the text into the heart of today’s struggle around marriage equality, Wolf addresses those critics that consider gay marriage to be a side issue. No matter what one thinks about the institution of marriage and its role in maintaining bourgeois society, she argues that it is essential leftists and progressives support the fight. In the same way that antiracists in the 1950s supported the struggle against laws forbidding interracial marriage no matter what they thought about marriage, we must support the rights of those who aren’t strictly heterosexual to marry.
Although this book looks primarily at the LBGT population, by doing so it explores the nature of all sexualities in US society, how they are influenced by that society and how their influence changes society. In addition, the growing belief that the struggle for LBGT civil rights is one of the most important struggles leftists in the 21st century should be organizing around becomes even more convincing under her tutelage. Sexuality and Socialism is the most intelligent and enlightened discussion on sexuality to come from the Left in a long time. No other work that comes to my mind explains the history of sexuality and sexual repression in the United States as comprehensively and compellingly.
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His first novel, Short Order Frame Up, is published by Mainstay Press. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org