April 24, 2019 | 14 minutes read

Misogyny is not caused by biological “sex”! The historical-materialist theory of gender

Misogyny is not caused by biological “sex”! The historical-materialist theory of gender

It is a commonly held belief – including among socialists – that at the root of sexism and LGBT oppression (heterosexism) is biological “sex” – a “natural” division between men and women. However, feminist and LGBT Marxists have shown that this division was never a given, but was rather tied to the development of class relations: the very notion of two distinct sexes is a recent product of capitalist society.

While biological factors may have played a role in the original advent of the gendered division of labour, the fact is that, just as with the racist subjugation of entire human populations, the subordination of women is not determined by biology but is rather the product of protracted processes of (frequently violent) class conflict. Indeed, racism and gender oppression are often strongly intertwined in class society. The problems with arguments reducing sexism to biological causes become especially pronounced when we examine how, on a global scale, capitalist imperialism has also violently suppressed forms of gender and sexuality expression at odds with the requirements of capital accumulation.

The notion that “sex” and sexuality are social-historical constructs is often falsely equated with postmodernism. Put simply, postmodernism is an anti-Marxist philosophy that became dominant in academia during the 1990s, and which examines language and discourses in isolation from material social life. LGBT Marxists’ emphasis on the historical development of class relations put them at odds with the later, less radical writings of postmodernists like Michel Foucault and Judith Butler.

Marxist theories of LGBT oppression drew on the central socialist feminist argument that both working-class women’s lower wages, and their burden of unwaged reproductive (domestic) labour, are not mere pre-capitalist vestiges but are internal and necessary to the modern capitalist system of exploitation. Heterosexism is rooted in this gender oppression. As the British Gay Left Collective argued in 1975, because capitalism needs the model heterosexual household to make reproductive labour “natural”, invisible and unworthy of compensation,

‘…gay oppression is a result of the demands made on the family by a capitalist society…It is essential, therefore, for us as gay people, to begin to link our oppression to the wider system of exploitation and oppression that capitalism operates. But at the same time, the question of sexuality must be confronted by the self-defined revolutionary left and by the labour movement generally.’[1]

Accusations of “postmodernism” or “identity politics” are often used by left-wing chauvinists in the same way that disingenuous charges of “bourgeois feminism” or “bourgeois decadence” were in the ‘60s-80s: to silence socialist women and LGBT liberationists who refuse to get in line and just “wait for the revolution”.

The idea that women’s oppression originates in their biology is most strongly associated with ‘radical feminism’, which holds that women are a biological ‘caste’ and that this fact, not class, is the primary social contradiction – a position that has led to radical feminists obscuring racism and numerous other forms of oppressions.[2] Yet strangely enough there is some overlap between radical feminism and the position of many socialists on ‘the woman question’. While Marx and Engels remain foundational as they related women’s oppression to class relations, problems arise with dogmatic readings of especially Engels within the short-sighted, self-contained organisations that plague the British left. This is most apparent with the flagrant transphobia of the Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist-Leninist), but it is also prevalent in Trotskyist groups. For instance, the International Marxist Tendency (IMT, successor to the Militant Tendency) have an article on LGBT oppression that asks, ‘what is the point of denying the existence of the male and female sex, with all their anatomic and biological differences?’.[3] This orthodox Engelsian position plays into the false conflation of “sex” with obvious discrete biological differences.

As British gay liberationist David Fernbach argued, if Engelsian orthodoxy ‘explains why houseworkers are economically dependent; it does not explain why houseworkers are women.’[4] Engels’ account of patriarchy relied on the claim, since falsified by more recent anthropological studies, that to ‘procure the necessities of life had always been the business of the man; he produced and owned the means of doing so.’ In other words, for Engels there had always been a fundamental natural division of labour along “sex” lines. This led to an overly mechanistic account of women’s subordination: with the rise of the social surplus that accompanied pastoralism ‘all the surplus which the acquisition of the necessities of life now yielded fell to the man; the woman shared in its enjoyment, but had no part in its ownership…The domestic labour of the woman no longer counted beside the acquisition of the necessities of life by the man; the latter was everything, the former an unimportant extra [see notes for an elaboration on the ‘origin of patriarchy’ issue].’[5] The problems with this mechanistic account are particularly apparent if we critically examine patterns of ‘primitive accumulation’ in transitions to capitalism.

Under feudalism in Europe, while land was usually transmitted via male lineage and there was nothing like any idyllic ‘primitive communism’, women peasants often did have a considerable degree of autonomy from the men of their own class, particularly because of the shared use of the ‘commons’ – forests, lakes and wild pastures etc.[6]

This changed with the land privatisations, the enclosure of the commons and the forced wage-labour which Marx associated with primitive accumulation: that violent process ‘of divorcing the producer from the means of production’ to transform ‘on the one hand, the social means of subsistence and of production into capital, on the other hand, the immediate producers into wage labourers.’[7] As one would expect, this was met with intense peasant resistance, and the feudal and rising bourgeois classes endeavoured to stabilise and discipline the impoverished landless population, notably by making women into a new, more easily exploitable underclass.

Marxist feminist Silvia Federici has pointed out that this primitive accumulation coincided with the ‘Great Witch-Hunt’ of the sixteenth-seventeenth centuries, which predominately targeted women and especially women’s attempts to control their reproductive life: abortion and infanticide were strongly associated with witchcraft, as were “deviant” sexualities. The key point is that the decisive rupture in the unity of productive and reproductive work was a protracted process achieved by violence against women – including state-sanctioned mass rapes – and by the heightened intervention of the state in social life, notably the criminalisation in England and elsewhere of collective socialising among the poor (dances, games, festivals etc.).[8] It was through this process that women’s work was degraded and “naturalised” so that eventually ‘only production-for-market was defined as value-creating activity, whereas the reproduction of the worker began to be considered as valueless from an economic viewpoint’.[9]

Heterosexism and Imperialism

Socialists must also recognise how heterosexism relates to imperialism. During the colonisation of the Americas, ‘prohibition of many indigenous sexual practices was part of a far-reaching process of making colonised societies serve their conquerors’ needs, while the disruption of kinship structures facilitated the establishment of exploitative forced or waged labour.’[10] As in Europe, expressions of gender and sexuality at odds with the requirements of capital accumulation were associated with diabolism or witchcraft and brutally suppressed.

In recent years feminist and LGBT anthropologists have challenged heterosexist assumptions and pointed out that throughout history there have been a variety of human relations that falsify crude arguments about natural binarised “sex” roles – for instance the South Asian hijra and Lakota wíŋkte, and dozens of other instances. Such relations have entailed people being ‘reassigned from masculine to feminine or vice versa; in other cultures, trans people have been defined as a third or even fourth gender; in still others, they have been defined as non-gendered.’[11] While in pre-capitalist class societies these and other forms of gender/sexuality expression were rarely allowed completely free expression, it is undeniable that under capitalism they have been subjected to unprecedentedly systematic suppression. For instance, same-gender eroticism among indigenous peoples of the Americas was a major justification for the Spaniards’ genocidal colonial practices, and in the Caribbean castration was used as a specific punishment for “sodomy”. Dozens of indigenous people were also burned as “sodomites” in the Portuguese colonies.[12]

The policing of gender and sexuality intensified with the rise of “scientific” imperialist discourses from the late-eighteenth century. Scientific knowledge production has often served ruling class interests and parallel with the development of biological arguments about racial inferiority, there developed in Europe for the first time the notion of fundamental “sex” difference – biological differences determining moral and social ones. Previously the Galenic ‘one-sex model’ had prevailed, whereby women were seen to be lacking ‘vital heat’ and so were an ‘inversion’ of men (women’s reproductive organs were interpreted as an inverted penis).[13] Sex is like gender a constructed category and ‘almost everything one wants to say about sex—however sex is understood—already has in it a claim about gender.’[14]

Arguments that the ‘two-sexes model’ is proved correct by scientific “discoveries” about human biology, including the recent spurious concept of “sex chromosomes”, is nonsense; there is no unified experience that can be called biological womanhood. Biological variations among humans, though consequential, are not uniform. For instance far from all women can become pregnant, or menstruate, belying notions of biologically-determined sexism. Human biological variations have always been a spectrum: scientists now acknowledge that as many as 1 person in 100 have a so-called ‘intersex condition’ – chromosomal, gonad, genital or secondary sex characteristics that don’t easily fit into two distinct sexual categories. Indeed, scientists are now finding that almost every human body is ‘a patchwork of genetically distinct cells, some with a sex that might not match that of the rest of their body’.[15] What is significant then, as transgender Marxist-Leninist Alyson Escalante points out, are those ‘material social conditions which…retroactively apply social meaning to biology and anatomy as a justification for the exploitation of women [and gender/sexuality non-conformists].’[16]

During the nineteenth-century highpoint of British imperialism, the scientific arguments about natural sex roles, and relatedly the new hetero-homosexual binary, were exported to the colonies. Early transgender liberationist Leslie Feinberg pointed out how laws ‘criminalising same-sex relations in India, Malaysia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Singapore…and Brunei all have the same name—“Article 377”—because the same colonial power wrote the law: Britain.’[17] It was only last year in India that this article was ruled ‘unconstitutional’.

The basically historical-materialist position that “sex” is, like “race”, a social-historical construct often leads to facile rhetoric along the lines “then why don’t we accept ‘transracialism’?”. The Marxist reply to this is simple: if rejection of socially-assigned “race” was a significant social phenomenon then as Marxists we would investigate. And in fact, much has been written on for instance the phenomenon of many South Asians adopting a politicised ‘Black’ identity in ‘70s-80s Britain. But there are only exceptional cases of white people adopting a different racial identity: the Rachel Dolezal saga is a basically cut-and-dry case of somebody exploiting another culture for personal gain, without any real knowledge or respect for it. This is the position of black trans writer Kai M. Green: ‘I am not offended by Rachel Dolezal. I ask her the same question I ask [Caitlyn] Jenner: What do your politics look like? And what kind of work do you do?’[18] What actually matters is that there have long existed gender non-conforming communities and individuals across societies; that they are primarily working-class, and have been especially oppressed under heterosexist class rule.

A pro-LGBT, anti-imperialist perspective is pressing today, as the final wave of primitive accumulation provoked by ‘globalisation’ has been accompanied by a renewed assault on gender and sexuality diversity.

Capitalism responded to the political-economic crisis of the ‘70s with major restructuring: the production centres of the world-economy shifted from the global North to the South, but on terms completely unfavourable to the latter. Globalisation has entailed the destruction of small-scale farming in much of the South, which has caused mass population displacements and led hundreds of millions of women migrants to enter wage-labour relations. Especially black Marxist feminists in Britain have stressed how black and ‘Third World’ women’s unwaged work ‘greatly subsidises the costs of reproducing male labour’, both within the global South and the imperialist countries.[19] Due to the imposition of capitalist-heterosexism women occupy the lowest-paid, most vulnerable jobs – particularly in the new ‘free-trade zones’ of Asia, Africa and Latin America – while retaining their burden of unwaged reproductive labour. The sustainment of imperialist profits in an era of economic contraction relies not only on women’s super-cheap labour but also the fact that, according to recent UN stats, over 60 percent of women’s working hours are uncompensated.[20] This unwaged work facilitates the longer male (waged) working-hours that exist in neo-colonial countries, to the profit of Western multinational corporations.

Pioneer of ‘queer Marxism’ Peter Drucker has pointed out the correlation between globalisation and the increased heterosexist violence targeting transgender people, who on a global scale remain ‘disproportionately illiterate, under-educated, poor and involved in crime.’[21] The proliferation of the international sex industry has also led to a paradoxical situation whereby neo-colonial governments in the South ‘simultaneously legalise or tolerate businesses that attract foreign gay tourists’ while actively oppressing their LGBT citizens.[22]

Like racism then, gender oppression represents a class relation, even if women as such can’t be defined as a class (there are petty-bourgeois and bourgeois women exploiters). Socialism must consequently incorporate the struggle for LGBT emancipation. On a global level ‘LGBT people also need jobs that can save trans and young people from dependence on the sex trade. AIDS cannot be overcome, in those countries where male-male sex is a major factor in the epidemic, without challenging the [imperialist] structural adjustment programmes that decimate healthcare.’[23]

In Britain there is serious discrimination facing LGBT people in virtually all areas of social life, as a previous Red Fightback article outlined.[24] However, it is increasingly the case that gender nonconformists are especially discriminated against, partly because, as Fernbach explained, some (mainly white) gay people have increasingly been able to participate in ‘institutionalised’ forms of homosexuality e.g. middle-class married life.[25] Transgender people face massive employment discrimination and high instances of hate crimes – one in eight British trans people have been physically attacked at work.[26] Despite this LGBT people have often been at the forefront of struggles for equality. The major London anti-fascist demo against the Democratic Football Lads Alliance in October last year was led by ‘women and non-binary people’.[27]

We also need to recognise the way in which heterosexism intertwines with racism. It isn’t commented on enough how disgusting it is that this brand of privileged white middle-class ‘trans-exclusionary radical feminists’ (TERFs) that constantly pollute our television screens are given free rein to attack not only oppressed working-class trans people, but also outspoken black trans women like Munroe Bergdorf. In recent years in Britain, many LGBT activists from black and minority ethnic backgrounds have begun to organise under the label ‘queer and trans people of colour’ (QTPOC) to combat their marginalisation within wider LGBT communities and left-wing movements.[28]

To understand that sexism and heterosexism are products of class antagonisms is to understand that they can and must be overcome. As Escalante argues, under socialism

‘Productive and reproductive labor must both be equally valued and understood as central to socialist development, but the transitional phase of socialism must ensure that the conditions for both are free of class exploitation. Just as the socialist state seeks to eliminate the contradiction between the proletariat and the capitalists, it must also eliminate the contradiction between women and men. This is not undertaken by the elimination of men as individuals, but by the liquidation of their class function as exploiters who benefit from women’s uncompensated reproductive labor.’[29]

I’ll leave you with a quote from the late Feinberg:

‘Socialism creates the material impetus for cooperation. And socialism can utilize the massive tools of mass education to raise consciousness to eradicate racism, sexism and other vestiges of bigotry and reaction. That is what it will take to set love free from repression and fear, guilt and shame.’[30]

Written by AH


[1] http://gayleft1970s.org/issues/gay.left_issue.01.pdf

[2] The most influential radical feminist text is Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution (Bantam Books, 1970). Typical of her ideological position, Firestone made the absurdly reductionist claim that ‘racism is sexism extended’ (p. 108).

[3] https://www.marxist.com/lgbt-liberation-and-revolution.htm. In typical Trotskyite fashion the article simplistically blames anti-LGBT stances in the socialist movement on “Stalinism”; conveniently glossing over the fact that the IMT’s predecessor, the Militant Tendency, itself had a serious problem with homophobia. See Graham Willett, ‘Something New Under the Sun: The Revolutionary Left and Gay Politics’ in Against the Grain: The British Far Left from 1956 (2014), pp. 177–8. The IMT article also makes a bizarre and unqualified claim that ‘gender identity’ exists in nature – is the author making the idealist assertion that social consciousness precedes social-historical being?

[4] David Fernbach, The Spiral Path: A Gay Contribution to Human Survival (Gay Men’s Press, 1981), p. 42.

[5] https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/download/pdf/origin_family.pdf (p. 87). As emphasised, Engels was and remains foundational to Marxist feminism: the point of contention here is rather nuanced. As Marxist-feminist anthropologist Eleanor Leacock pointed out, it is incorrect to contend – as Engels did – that men were always the natural ‘bread-winner’ due to women’s childrearing role. In fact, in primitive communist societies all mature members of society often participated in the full process of production as defined by Marx. Consequently, ‘…the transformation from egalitarian to hierarchical relations was qualitative and not merely quantitative. Such a view contrasts with the common practice of describing egalitarian society in terms of the same features that characterise class society. In formulations of this type, differentiated access to land and other resources, hereditary authority, and social-economic hierarchies are treated as incipient – as weakly developed tendencies.’ Leacock, ‘Interpreting the Origins of Gender Inequality: Conceptual and Historical Problems’, Dialectical Anthropology, 7:4 (1983), p. 266. Leacock plausibly suggests that (some) women’s childbearing ability may have played a role in original patriarchy, helping facilitate the dyadic relations of dependence that were formed in the new household economy; relations that may have initially been regarded as acceptable by dependents due to perceived social productivity gains from the new division of labour. In this account ‘…the significance of women’s childrearing ability is transformed by new social relations when they become producers, not only of people as individuals, but also of what is becoming “abstract” – i.e., exploitable – labor.’ Ibid, p. 269. The ramifications of the predominant natural man-breadwinner/woman-childrearer narrative have been dangerous. Particularly notable is this unfortunate line in Engels’ Origin of the Family suggesting women entering waged work would erode patriarchy: ‘…now that large-scale industry has taken the wife out of the home onto the labor market and into the factory, and made her often the bread-winner of the family, no basis for any kind of male supremacy is left in the proletarian household – except, perhaps, for something of the brutality towards women that has spread since the introduction of monogamy.’ Engels op. cit., p. 38. There’s an implicit assumption here that proletarian women’s continued unwaged reproductive role is a given natural, non-antagonism. This passage has also been weaponised within numerous revolutionary movements to dismiss women’s particular struggles with the false dogma that women entering productive “public” work will automatically end patriarchy.

[6] Across Western Europe peasant women’s subordination was more directly related to the authority of manorial lords – who controlled work, marriages and sometimes even the sexual behaviour of peasants – than to any household division of labour. Silvia Federici, Caliban And The Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation (Autonomedia, 2009), pp. 24–5.

[7] https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/ch26.htm

[8] Federici, p. 83.

[9] Ibid, pp. 74–5.

[10] Peter Drucker, Warped: Gay Normality and Queer Anti-Capitalism (Haymarket Books, 2015), p. 94.

[11] Ibid, pp. 76–7.

[12] Ibid, p. 95.

[13] Thomas Laqueur, Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud (Harvard University Press, 1999), pp. 4–5.

[14] Ibid, p. 11.

[15] https://www.nature.com/polopoly_fs/1.16943!/menu/main/topColumns/topLeftColumn/pdf/518288a.pdf

[16] https://failingthatinvent.home.blog/2018/12/19/biology-and-the-oppression-of-women/

[17] Leslie Feinberg, ‘Western rulers imposed anti-gay laws throughout world’, Lavender & Red, part 112 https://www.workers.org/books2016/Lavender_and_Red.pdf

[18] https://thefeministwire.com/2015/06/race-and-gender-are-not-the-same-is-not-a-good-response-to-the-transracial-transgender-question-or-we-can-and-must-do-better/#_ftn3

[19] Pratibha Parmar, ‘Gender, Race and Class: Asian Women in Resistance’ in The Empire Strikes Back: Race and Racism in 70’s Britain (Routledge, 1994), p. 244. Parmar was a member of the Bradford Black Collective.

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

[21] Drucker, p. 247.

[22] Ibid, p. 237.

[23] Ibid, p. 380.

[24] https://redfightback.wordpress.com/2018/02/26/a‑dialectical-materialist-approach-to-lgbt-oppression-in-the-u‑k/

[25] Fernbach, p. 71.

[26] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/jun/25/trans-equality-class-struggle-obsessive-arguments-boundaries-identity

[27] https://www.weareplanc.org/blog/report-on-feminists-to-the-front-13th-october-anti-fascist-demo/

[28] For a recent study on QTPOC activism in Britain see Stephanie Davis, Being a Queer and/or Trans Person of Colour in the UK: Psychology, Intersectionality and Subjectivity (PhD thesis, University of Brighton, 2017).

[29] https://failingthatinvent.home.blog/2018/12/19/on-women-as-a-class-materialist-feminism-and-mass-struggle/. One major problem with this otherwise excellent account is the assertion that women as such are a class – similar to the radical feminist position, and possibly taken due to an over reliance on Wittig’s somewhat ahistorical theoretical framework. Although to be fair to Escalante she has recently reconsidered this particular position.

[30] https://www.workers.org/2006/us/lfeinberg-0629/index.html