National Sections of the L5I:

Marxism and the lesbian and gay question

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The development of capitalism in Britain and Western Europe was accompanied, as we have seen, by an emerging morality that categorised homosexuals as deviants. Homosexuality was no longer merely an instance of individual depravity. It was a way of life for a whole number of people, especially men, and had to be treated as a threat to society. The development of the systematic social and political oppression of homosexuals did lead to the development of organised resistance. In a number of European countries movements and campaigns for homosexual rights emerged.

The very term homosexuality was coined by a Hungarian, Doctor Benkert, in the 1860s. Benkert – himself a homosexual – wrote an open letter to the German government in 1869 protesting against the proposed introduction of Paragraph 175 into the imperial legal code. This Paragraph rendered all homosexual acts committed by males punishable offences, carrying heavy prison sentences. Moreover, the introduction of the Paragraph was especially worrying for male homosexuals since it was common knowledge that the German police had built up extensive files on the sexual habits of numerous individuals. Benkert’s letter was significant in bringing opposition to Paragraph 175 into the open. In that sense it laid down a marker for future movements against the Paragraph when it became law throughout Germany in 1871.

In Britain homosexual acts between males had been punishable by death until 1861. But the change in law in that year, to make such activities merely liable to prison sentences, was designed to increase not decrease persecution. Trials for sexual offences were more likely to result in convictions if the death penalty was not the outcome. The law on gross indecency between males, introduced in 1885, consolidated anti-homosexual legislation in Britain. Despite the lack of legal provision for the prosecution of lesbians in most capitalist countries, oppression manifested itself in a variety of other ways.

The political basis of the early homosexual rights campaigns in Britain, and more particularly in Germany, was bourgeois democratic. That is to say, the campaigns were aimed at changing specific anti-homosexual aspects of existing law. In 1810 Napoleon introduced his legal code throughout much of Europe. This code regarded matters of sexuality where consent was given as entirely private. The code was not a reflection of Napoleon’s own reputed homosexual inclinations, as bourgeois historians have argued. Rather it was a real gain of the French Revolution of 1789 which had inscribed on its banner the democratic rights of man, including privacy in all matters concerning sexual preference and behaviour.

However, the ideal of bourgeois democratic equality – between men and women, between races and between homosexuals and heterosexuals – popular for the purposes of summoning the plebeian masses to struggle against feudalism, soon came into conflict with the realities and necessities of a world dominated by capitalist exploitation and the remorseless quest for ever greater profits. As industry in Europe developed the effective exploitation of wage labour by the capitalists it eventually became necessary to impose the bourgeois nuclear family structure on the entire proletariat. In turn this family structure militated against bourgeois democratic rights for women and homosexuals (male and female). In many European countries and in North America this development led to the stigmatisation and criminalisation of all aspects of sexuality that deviated from capitalism’s heterosexual family norm. Homosexuality, which as we have seen was already classed amongst the chief crimes against nature, was inevitably a major target. Thus Paragraph 175 stipulated:

“Unnatural coupling undertaken between persons of the male sex and between people and animals is punishable by imprisonment. Civil rights can also be withdrawn.”

Paragraph 175 and the Oscar Wilde trial in Britain, which stressed the unnaturalness of his crime, set the terms of reference for the early reform campaigns. Humanists, liberals and socialists of various hues conducted agitation against capitalism’s institutionalised oppression of homosexuals. They reasserted a fundamental tenet of bourgeois democracy; namely that the state has no business interfering with personal matters so long as they do not harm anyone. Defence of the Uranians (a term coined by the homosexual rights campaigner, Karl Heinrich Ulrichs and adopted by lesbians and gay men at the time as their common title) centred on combating the legal discrimination they faced.

In Germany a long running campaign had as its central focus the demand for the repeal of Paragraph 175. This defence of democracy was completely correct, and, for its time, highly progressive. However, the link between the oppression of homosexuals and the development of the family under capitalism was not understood by the early movement of Uranians or by the pioneers of Marxism. Indeed Engels, who laid the foundations of the Marxist analysis of the family, did not see the connection between the structure of the family under capitalism, together with the ideology associated with that structure, and the oppression of homosexuality. Worse, his idealised view of heterosexual love (a view influenced by nineteenth century romanticism) led him to condemn homosexuality as an outrage against the dignity of man:

“. . . but this degradation of the women [Engels is referring to prostitution in ancient Greece] was avenged on the men and degraded them also till they fell into the abominable practice of sodomy and degraded alike their gods with the myth of Ganymede.”

Engels developed this attitude in isolation from any existing homosexual rights movements and for once allowed a mixture of romanticism and Victorian morality to cloud his normally rigorously materialist judgement.

Despite Engels’ individual viewpoint, and regardless of the individual viewpoints of the leaders of the socialist movement, it was that movement that took up the defence of homosexuals and the fight for their democratic rights as citizens. The leader of the Universal German Workingmen’s Association, Ferdinand Lassalle, defended J B von Schweitzer, who was hounded out of the legal profession because he was known to be a homosexual. Lassalle welcomed von Schweitzer as a leader of the Association. His grounds for doing so showed that early socialists understood the democratic principle at stake even if they did not understand the question of sexual politics. Lassalle declared:

“In the long run, sexual activity is a matter of taste and ought to be left up to each person, so long as he doesn’t encroach upon someone else’s interests. Though I wouldn’t give my daughter in marriage to such a man.”

Not that Schweitzer had expressed any desire to marry Lassalle’s daughter!

From the 1860s on the working class and socialist movement in Germany did not allow its primitive views on the nature of homosexuality to obstruct its firm commitment to the democratic defence of homosexuals. Marxist and non-Marxist socialists became, from very early on, the most consistent fighters for homosexual rights, proving once again that only the working class remained faithful to the democratic ideals that the bourgeois revolution had espoused but that the hypocritical, penny-pinching bourgeoisie had long since consigned to the dustbin of history. Towards the end of the nineteenth century the strongest party of the Second International, the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), won the acclaim of Uranians everywhere by daring to challenge Paragraph 175 on the floor of the imperial Reichstag. Bebel, the great socialist leader, took the floor in 1898 to ridicule the idea that homosexuals were a tiny handful of perverts. He asserted against this view, and to the horror of the bourgeois deputies all around him on the benches of the Reichstag, that there were homosexuals everywhere:

“The number of these persons is so great and reaches so deeply into all social circles, from the lowest to the highest, that if the police dutifully did what they were supposed to, the Prussian state would immediately be obliged to build two new penitentiaries just to handle the number of violations against Paragraph 175 within the confines of Berlin alone.”

Bebel’s defence of homosexuals was grounded in the SPD’s fundamental commitment to the democratic aspects of the socialist minimum programme – the state should keep its snout out of people’s personal affairs. But while the party’s position on democratic rights was unambiguous, its attitude to homosexuality was more confused. The basic position, which was way in advance of Engels’ attitude, was developed by Eduard Bernstein (later a leading revisionist within the party!) in a series of articles in Die Neue Zeit in 1895. The occasion for these articles was the Wilde trial in Britain. Bernstein effectively and savagely attacked the bourgeoisie for its mean and hypocritical treatment of Oscar Wilde. They had praised his literary work up to the point that he was found guilty of gross indecency. Then they banished Wilde from the ranks of polite society. Bernstein noted:

“Everything changed for him, and the directors of the theatres that had acquired his pieces – of what is injured morality not capable? – removed not his pieces, but his name, from the posters.”

This example of bourgeois hypocrisy prompted Bernstein to attempt to develop an understanding of homosexuality “deriving from scientific experience”.

The strength of Bernstein’s analysis was its debunking of the idea that homosexuality was unnatural, as charged by capitalist morality. Using the method of historical materialism he explained the way in which moral and sexual views were the product of definite historical and social circumstances. Bourgeois sexual morality was far from being the eternal and natural law that capitalism’s hired moral hacks claimed. In fact it was a recent development and at that time was far from being universal. Precisely because attitudes to matters of sexuality are historically conditioned the yardstick of what was “natural” was invalid. Bernstein argued that the prevailing morality constituted the “normal” and that therefore deviations from it were abnormal rather than unnatural. Nature and norm were different things and most norms were, in any case, unnatural. As Bernstein explained:

“For what is not unnatural? Our entire cultural existence, our mode of life from morning to night is a constant offence against nature, against the original preconditions of our existence. If it was only a question of what was natural, then the worst sexual excess would be no more objectionable than, say, writing a letter – for conducting social intercourse through the medium of the written word is far further removed from nature than any way as yet known of satisfying the sexual urge.”

By rejecting the idea that same-sex love was in any way unnatural, and by showing that such a type of love had existed in many different societies at many different times, Bernstein made a revolutionary contribution to the development of a Marxist theory of sexual politics.
The weak side of Bernstein’s analysis was its grasp of the causes of homosexuality. He tended to accept capitalism’s categories insofar as he believed that homosexuals did constitute a distinct category of people by virtue of the fact that they suffered from an illness. In other words their sexuality was not and could not be the product of free choice. As an illness homosexuality had to be understood, tolerated and sympathised with. He wrote that cases of homosexuality “must not be judged morally but pathologically”. This view became widespread amongst the socialist movement and persisted for many years in its ranks. Herzen, also writing in Die Neue Zeit, refined this view and ascribed the causes of the “illness” to a confusion of genes at the earliest, bisexual phase of the embryo. This produced the person who had a woman’s mind trapped in a man’s body. This concept was embraced by wide sections of the homosexual community and extended to explain lesbianism – the man’s mind trapped in a woman’s body. The key, therefore, to understanding the illness of homosexuality was science. Sexuality, it was believed, was determined scientifically. Herzen argued:

“In my estimation it [why people are homosexual or not] is to be found in embryology in conjunction with phylogeneticism and anthropology.”

This scientific determinism was, by and large, accepted by the Uranian movement. The major homosexual rights movement, the Scientific Humanitarian Committee (an international organisation, but based and at its strongest in Germany) and its leading theorists conducted a great deal of research to scientifically prove the “third sex” theory. The committee’s journal was actually called the Yearbook for Intermediate Sexual Types. All of this reflected the major boom in “scientificism” in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

This approach was much more indebted to “Social Darwinism”, associated with writers such as Herbert Spencer, than Marxism. Consequently, its materialism was corrupted by an overly evolutionist and biologist stance. The result was the development of quack theories of homosexuality. Physical, biological, genetic and biochemical factors often took precedence over social and psychological considerations. The influence of this “scientificism” was widespread in the Uranian and socialist movements (though one gay organisation, the Community of the Special, rejected scientific determinism only to replace it with mysticism). Pioneer sexologists and homosexual rights campaigners like Magnus Hirschfeld and Kraft Ebbing, fully endorsed this approach.

While many valid insights were gained as a result of the work of the early sexologists, the Marxist movement made a major, if entirely understandable, mistake by accepting the “third sex” theory as an explanation of homosexuality. This theory fails to understand that gender roles, as opposed to gender itself, are for the most part socially, not scientifically, moulded and that a rigid division between homosexuals and heterosexuals entails the cramping of human sexual potential that is a necessary feature of capitalism’s version of family life. None of this is to deny that biological distinctions between the genders exist and do determine certain differences. But there is no scientific proof, to date at least, that gender dictates a heterosexual norm for all people or that it dictates all manifestations of behaviour that have become associated with a particular gender through the centuries.

Despite this theoretical weakness the impact of Marxism’s essentially principled, democratic stand on the homosexual question brought support for the SPD from many Uranians and propagated inside the working class a high level of tolerance, if not support, for homosexuals. In Berlin Magnus Hirschfeld circulated a questionnaire on sexuality which included questions on homosexuality amongst 3,000 students and 5,721 metal workers. Not one worker objected to answering the questionnaire. A gaggle of students, on the other hand, brought Hirschfeld to court and had him successfully prosecuted for circulating an “insulting” questionnaire. Throughout the trial the workers’ movement defended Hirschfeld and the SPD’s paper, Vorwärts, carried regular articles on the case.

The Uranian movement did not fail to recognise who its allies were. The bourgeois parties in the Reichstag had only words of hate for homosexuals. The SPD, at the very least, spoke of humanitarian tolerance. In 1912, the Scientific Humanitarian Committee intervened in the elections accordingly. It published an advert which declared:

“Third Sex: consider this! In the Reichstag on 31 May 1905 members of the Centre, the Conservatives and the Economic Alliance spoke against you . . . but for you the orators of the left agitate and vote accordingly.”

The support for the left actually went further than just voting. In the German revolution of 1918 gay men and lesbians (who had been involved in the German women’s movement before the war and who had campaigned to get that movement to take up their cause) organised and fought to destroy the rule of the Kaiser and of the aristocratic Junker class. The homosexual presence, under the banner of the Scientific Humanitarian Committee, was visible in rallies, demonstrations and street fighting. At a mass meeting at the height of the revolution Hirschfeld called on an audience of almost 4,000 to struggle not merely for a democratic republic but also for a “social republic”.

The Committee’s petition on Paragraph 175 was actually presented to parliament in 1922, but by then the democratic counter-revolution, led by the right wing leaders of the SPD, meant that the reactionary law was never repealed. However, a greater degree of tolerance was won and Hirschfeld was able to found the Institute for Sexual Science, housing it in the palace of a German prince removed from both his oversized house and his lofty social station in the course of the revolution. The Institute, like Hirschfeld himself, became a target of attack for the growing Nazi movement and was eventually smashed up and closed by Hitler’s stormtroopers.

Outside of Germany, too, socialists were in the front ranks of those responding to the Uranians’ call for a campaign for democratic rights for homosexuals. In Britain the utopian socialist, Edward Carpenter, campaigned for homosexual rights and linked them with the need for socialism. After the Wilde trial and the witch-hunt atmosphere it engendered, Carpenter had great difficulty getting his work published. Only the press of the working class movement would publish his writings on sexuality. The Manchester Labour Press published his book Towards Democracy, which dealt with homosexuality as well as a range of other topics. The socialist Belfort Bax (a man who believed that males were the oppressed sex!) was prepared to take a stand on the rights of homosexuals to behave in private as they wished. He argued that morality had nothing to do with:

“. . . a sexual act, committed by the mutual consent of two adult individuals, which is productive of no offspring, and which on the whole concerns the welfare of nobody but the parties themselves.”

Of course while adhering to this position many socialists, like Blatchford, the editor of The Clarion, still found “the whole subject nasty”. But that put them on the side of those who were ignorant of sexual politics rather than on the side of moral reaction.
In the USA the anarchist movement and anarchist figures like Emma Goldmann (who had met lesbians while she was in prison) took up the cudgels in defence of homosexuals, particularly in the many states that had reactionary laws on the question.

The work of Bebel, Bernstein and the SPD (in particular in the Reichstag debates on Paragraph 175 in 1898 and 1905) enlightened the socialist movement internationally to the democratic questions at stake in the defence of homosexuals. Additionally it brought many Uranians to recognise the need to identify their struggle for rights with socialism and internationalism (the Community of the Special adapted Marx’s old slogan to read “Uranians of the World Unite”). The parties of the working class had been the only ones to respond positively to the pressure for reform carried out by the pioneer homosexual rights movement.

The most tangible gain achieved in the struggle for homosexual rights in this period was a result of the victory of the working class under the banner of revolutionary Marxism (Bolshevism) in Russia in October 1917. In December 1917 the Bolshevik government abolished all the Czarist laws that forbade or restricted homosexual activity. This was an enormous gain and proof positive that revolutionary socialism is the key to destroying capitalism’s reactionary moral laws, as well as its other repressive laws. The world’s first workers’ state provided the only form of government prepared to enforce on behalf of homosexuals the old democratic principle that the state should not interfere in private matters. Doctor Grigorii Batkis, the director of the Moscow Institute of Social Hygiene, codified Bolshevism’s approach in a 1923 pamphlet, The Sexual Revolution in Russia. It stated:

“Concerning homosexuality, sodomy, and various other forms of sexual gratification, which are set down in European legislation as offences against public morality – Soviet legislation treats these exactly the same as so-called ‘natural’ intercourse. All forms of sexual intercourse are private matters.”

The open expression of homosexuality was tolerated to a far greater degree in post-revolutionary Russia than in the capitalist countries.

However, the revolution did not get much beyond the SPD’s already established theoretical understanding of homosexuality. The view that it was a form of bodily/genetic disorder rather than a crime, and should therefore be tolerated not punished, remained prevalent amongst Russia’s leading sexologists. The Bolshevik revolution had created the preconditions – working class power – for the achievement of lesbian and gay liberation. The possibility for further theoretical and practical advances existed. But this possibility was not realised. The enormous democratic gain of 1917 was not built upon for one simple reason – a political counter-revolution was carried through by the bureaucratic caste that had emerged in the war-torn, desperately poor and backward Soviet Union. Numerous gains made by the working class and the oppressed through the revolution were stolen from them by the bureaucracy, headed by Stalin, which had usurped political power.

Under the leadership of Stalin in the late 1920s the Soviet Union became a degenerated workers’ state. That is, the potential for the transition to socialism, on the basis of its post-capitalist property relations, was blocked. An ever present danger of economic collapse, thanks to the blinkered and self-serving policies of the bureaucracy, meant that the country was in a fairly constant state of crisis. Part of this process was a reactionary shift of position by the workers’ state on the question of homosexual rights.

After leading the field in the defence of homosexual rights at various international medical congresses throughout the 1920s, towards the end of the decade Soviet doctors, including Batkis, were instructed to drop all mention of homosexuality. Their bureaucratic masters drew a veil over the subject and kept it in the closet until the problem of AIDS in the 1980s obliged Gorbachev to admit the existence of homosexuality in the Soviet Union. The democratic gain of 1917 was obliterated in 1934 when, after the personal intervention of Stalin, laws making homosexuality punishable by imprisonment were re-introduced.

Underlying this renewed attack was not, as many modern lesbian and gay activists have asserted, a historic incompatibility between socialism on the one hand and lesbian and gay liberation on the other. To credit Stalin in the 1930s as a socialist, in the revolutionary sense of that word, shows a profound lack of understanding about the nature of socialism. The attack actually represented a retreat from socialism as a result of the bureaucratic counter-revolution. The revolutionary perspective of removing the oppressive aspects of family life through the socialisation of domestic tasks, child rearing and so on, was abandoned by the Stalinist apparatus. This was no tactical and temporary retreat dictated by the appalling poverty of the young workers’ republic and its inability to be able to afford the socialising of domestic labour.

On the contrary it was a conscious strategy, directed at resurrecting as a noble ideal the bourgeois model of family life, which every Soviet man and woman should follow. The woman was expected to carry out domestic tasks as well as working in a Soviet factory. This revival of the bourgeois family by Stalinism was designed to help the bureaucratic caste develop Soviet industry and agriculture in a manner that served its own narrow interests and bolstered its own privileges. Just as capitalism, in its defence of the family, is obliged to oppose all threats to the heterosexual nuclear norm, so Stalinism was obliged to do the same. To justify this the bureaucracy propagated the theory that homosexuality was a bourgeois deviation, typical of degenerate capitalism in general and fascism in particular. The pro-Stalinist author Maxim Gorkii summed up the official Soviet attitude in the 1930s and showed the distance that separated the degenerated workers’ state and the Bolshevik government of 1917 when he wrote:

“In the fascist countries homosexuality, which ruins the youth, flourishes without punishment; in every country where the proletariat has audaciously achieved social power homosexuality has been declared a social crime and is heavily punished.”

Needless to say Gorkii’s supposed paradise for homosexuals, Nazi Germany, showed its real colours by pinning pink triangles on homosexuals, rounding them up and sending them to face starvation and death in the concentration camps.

It is no exaggeration to say that the combined counter-revolutionary victories of Stalinism and fascism eradicated the gains that had been made by the homosexual rights and socialist movement in the preceding forty years. The homosexual rights movement, as an organised force, was destroyed. Worse, within the socialist movement itself the climate of reaction led to very reactionary views on the lesbian and gay question taking root.

In May 1928 the German Communist Party (KPD), the most advanced party in the Comintern on matters of sexual politics, was able to answer a questionnaire on homosexual rights to the effect that it had “taken a stand for the repeal of Paragraph 175 at every available opportunity”. Less than five years later it had reversed its position. Immediately prior to Hitler’s rise to power the KPD consciously adopted a policy of gay-baiting the Nazis on the basis of the bourgeois deviation theory of homosexuality. The existence of some well known gay men within the ranks of the Nazis prompted the Stalinist KPD to equate Nazis with homosexuality and describe homosexuality itself as a filthy and corrupt perversion. Tragically this viewpoint, which should have been consigned to the dustbin, had a long-standing impact on nearly all wings of the socialist movement.

In this climate of reaction the tiny forces representing the continuity of revolutionary communism – the Trotskyists – were unable to develop a Marxist theory of sexual politics. Their achievements in keeping alive the principles and practice of Marxism were monumental. But, given the terrible pressures they were under and the objective tasks posed by the moves towards world war, it is not surprising that sexual politics did not constitute an immediate priority for the Fourth International. Unfortunately, however, the Trotskyists did fail to make a clear statement on the democratic principle of privacy in matters of sexuality that was posed by the homosexual question. The whole question appears to have been dropped from consideration altogether.

After the war and Trotsky’s death the Fourth International degenerated into a centrist organisation. Unable to comprehend the survival and expansion of Stalinism, all wings of the movement ended up capitulating to it in one way or another. By 1951 the political programme of Trotskyism had been liquidated by the Fourth International’s leaders; Pablo, Mandel, Healy and Cannon. Not surprisingly this degeneration hampered the further development of a revolutionary perspective on homosexuality. The SWP(US) for example was, in the late 1950s, prepared to engage in an elaborate and diversionary debate on the use of cosmetics by women, but unable to bring itself to say anything on the question of homosexual rights.

Some of the degenerate fragments of the Fourth International were even guilty of emulating the KPD’s gay-baiting. During the Socialist Labour League’s fight with Gaitskell in the British Labour Party in the early 1960s, the League’s journal, Labour Review, attacked the Labour leader for appointing the right winger, George Brinham, as a youth officer in charge of the Young Socialists. The right wing appointed him, fumed Labour Review in its Winter 1962/63 edition, despite “his addiction to homosexuality”. The “Trotskyists” were outraged that “such a man” had been allowed near young people. The right wing, as agents of the bourgeoisie, hinted the Healyites, were guilty, like Oscar Wilde before them, of corrupting the youth.

This backward and reactionary view of homosexuality persisted in the Healyite group until 1985 when Healy himself was expelled for sexual “abuses” of women comrades. After his expulsion numerous horror stories of Healy’s persecution of lesbians and gay men inside his organisation came to light. Some other groups followed Healy’s example. A Greek organisation that had once been part of Healy’s International Committee, published a document in 1980 on homosexuality and referred to it as a “foul smelling subject”.

Nor was it only the International Committee that had a bad record on the lesbian and gay question. The USFI of Ernest Mandel, despite making various adaptations to feminism in the 1970s and not condemning homosexuality in a Healyite fashion, has refrained from ever publishing a major document on the lesbian and gay question that the British section had submitted to a world congress. Its silence has never been explained. The USFI’s supporters in the USA, the SWP, showed their fear of the lesbian and gay question in 1970 when they authorised the banning of known gays from membership of their Young Socialists’ Alliance “for security reasons”. And in 1973 a call for an intervention into the US gay movement was defeated at the SWP’s conference on the grounds that it would give the party an “exotic image”.

By and large, however, the revival of a lesbian and gay movement in the 1970s did lead to a modest improvement in the positions of the major left groups throughout the world, on matters of sexual politics. Reactionary excesses of the Healyite type were the exceptions rather than the rule. But the period 1933-34 up until the end of the 1960s can justifiably be described as the dark ages as far as Marxism and the question of homosexuality is concerned. The homosexual rights movement was smashed, Marxists were at best indifferent, at worst reactionary, and lesbians and gay men were driven underground or into the closet and individual isolation.

Capitalism’s long boom after the Second World War brought prosperity, relative class peace and stability in the imperialist heartlands. One result of this was that welfare services expanded and lessened the strain on the family in terms of looking after children or elderly and sick relatives. More women were drawn into the labour force. This economic development was accompanied by a relative liberalisation in the field of morality.

The limits of the liberalisation were very definite. A sexuality that contradicted the essential structures and norms of the heterosexual family could be tolerated but never accepted. Persecution was lessened but not entirely removed. However, the different social climate of the late 1950s and 1960s led, eventually, to the redevelopment of various homosexual rights movements in the imperialist countries. Socialists were obliged to take a position on homosexuality, since in some countries the capitalist state itself was discussing proposals for reform of the law. In Britain in 1957 the Wolfenden Commission of Enquiry into homosexuality and prostitution published a report recommending that the legal persecution of male homosexuals, providing they were over twenty one and conducted their sexual activities consensually and in private, should cease. The report’s proposals did not become law until 1967.

Typical of the left’s response to Wolfenden was an article by C Dallas in Socialist Review, the journal of the group that later became the British SWP. She wrote that the tolerance recommended by Wolfenden would be the best help for “the poor, the misfits, the abnormal”. Prison would only weaken and emotionally damage the hapless and effete gays:
“Besides its complete futility as a cure, prison life is so degrading for a man who might be highly strung and very sensitive, that it might cause permanent mental damage.”

The old idea of the woman’s mind trapped in a man’s body is strongly hinted at by Dallas. She concluded that only socialism could cure the world of homosexuality, thereby accepting completely the idea that it was an illness, a disorder of some sort:

“If nature then [after socialism] produced an abnormality, which it might do in a small number of cases, medical treatment would take good care of it.”

On the one hand Dallas’ attitude, like Healy’s and that of Ted Grant and his Militant Tendency for a long time, revealed that the Marxist position on the lesbian and gay question had been buried beneath mountains of ignorance and obscurantism. On the other hand the belief of Dallas and the others that homosexuality was an illness of some sort that required toleration and medical help, did reflect an inherited weakness of the Marxist position on homosexuality from the days of the SPD. It took the development of a lesbian and gay movement itself to challenge the “sickness” theory in the ranks of the left and, in the 1970s, to stimulate a reconsideration of the homosexual question.

By the latter part of the 1970s centrist Trotskyism had swung from its previous flawed or reactionary theories on homosexuality to a capitulation to the prevalent ideas amongst the lesbian and gay movements. Many of the left groups in Western Europe and North America tried to recruit lesbians and gay men by adapting to the autonomous movements which sprang up, instead of trying to combat their usually petit bourgeois and utopian ideas. To have combated these ideas the left would have needed a distinct Marxist theory of sexual politics and their relationship to the class struggle. It failed to develop such a theory and, like the autonomous movements themselves, was incapable of charting a road to lesbian and gay liberation. The result of this failure was the fragmentation of the various lesbian and gay movements. The major forces claiming to be Trotskyist have re-established the tradition of defending lesbian and gay rights but they have been unable to connect this defence with an overall programme for working class power and lesbian and gay liberation.

In this context, and in the context of growing moral reaction in Western Europe and North America, the task for revolutionary Trotskyists in relation to the lesbian and gay question is to provide a communist perspective for liberation. Marxism furnishes us with the means for doing this. The Marxist tradition is richer than many lesbian and gay activists care to admit. It is incomplete in some respects and flawed in others. However, historical materialism is the only basis upon which a theoretical understanding of sexual politics and the oppression of homosexuality can be constructed. Only revolutionary Marxism provides an action programme which combines the struggle for democratic rights and the struggle for real sexual liberation with the class struggle for socialism.