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Socialism and LGBT+ Liberation

Posted 30 Jul 2020

In 2018-19, a debate broke out within the Committee for a Workers International (CWI), a socialist international. My contribution came at the very close of that debate so was too late to be circulated widely at the time and (understandably!) got lost in the organisational upset. They were very apologetic - so here’s that contribution, belatedly!

Ben Sarah Golightly, Cardiff East, Socialist Party (England & Wales)

July 2019

I read with interest a Comrade’s contribution, “The oppression of women, class society and capitalism” in the Individual Members’ Contributions E -Bulletin (18.06.2019, pp. 22-25), in particular paras 29-33 where the discussion leads on to LGBT rights. I must note that the Comrade disputes my interpretation of their contribution - please read it first.

The Comrade describes how capitalist society revolutionises itself. It overcomes previous economic relations of production (ways of organising work in society) that, at one point revolutionary and productive, later hold it back. A “progressive” capitalist wing (“progressive” only by the pessimistic yardstick of bourgeois historians) fights against the sinking conservative wing. With this comes new social norms that better serve a new period.

So far, textbook Marx. But Marxism is no abstract theory. Although not the main focus of her contribution, the Comrade also correctly identifies the role of the working class. The working class is the decisive force in modern society that has the power to consciously make its mark on history. Even though we are all influenced by capitalist ideas, the working class has throughout history demonstrated its power to go further: to fight for democratic, workers’, women’s, and LGBT+ rights independent of - and in contradiction to - the schedule of the capitalist class. Further still, the working class is the only force with the power to overthrow capitalism altogether.

The Comrade takes a look at the LGBT+ movement through the lens of progressive and reactionary wings of capitalist class. It is probably true that in some areas capitalism has temporarily overcome much of its historic need to overtly oppress gender and sexuality in the strictly legal sense, even if this is incomplete (e.g. reform of the UK Gender Recognition Act) and has even reversed, with restricted access to employment tribunals in the UK, with attacks on abortion rights in the USA, etc. This reflects how these gains are always temporary unless we defend them. Many of the legal gains, such as domestic violence laws, were won thanks not to progressive capitalists but rather the workers’ movement. Capitalism might tolerate legal equality in certain periods but it will always retain a sexist, homophobic, etc. ideology that it will still express in less direct ways than laws we can point to.

Materially, capitalism will always be based on - and continually develops - the oppression of women and LGBT+ people because it is a system based on exploitation at the point of production, including the social and biological reproduction of labour and the double oppression of women this requires. The Comrade describes how capitalists have had to change the balance of this at different points in history, either due to pressure or their changing needs.

But – and here I disagree with the Comrade – there is absolutely no progressive wing of capitalism, no matter how far sighted, that is fundamentally compelled to support LGBT+ rights. Simply, to the capitalists, we don’t represent a new or better way of organising production.

LGBT+ workers have always existed under capitalism, forced to remain closeted or otherwise. An individual company might attract slightly more talent with an LGBT-friendly HR policy but its gain is only at the expense of another company that loses this talent. To capitalism as a system this balance sheet reads zero. No economically superior mode of production has emerged. No additional work is being done. No additional value is being captured as profit. It solves no problems for capitalism and overcomes no limits.

Diverse gender and sexual expressions have always existed throughout history. Our modern conception of LGBT+ identities come from class and capitalist societies forcefully imposing a binary gender and a particular form of family structure on us, first as a way to organise their private property and then as a way to organise production. LGBT+ people exist and continually construct our identities outside of and in relation to this, no matter how hard capitalists try to box us in to their false and artificial categories.

Individual capitalists might be LGBT, but the only group that has a fundamental interest in LGBT+ rights is the working class alone.

Yes, the “pink pound” is big business – but it’s a market just like any other. Society would still function the same way without rainbow-branded Home Insurance. Capitalists market to homophobes and sexists just as easily as the LGBT community – or for companies like Unilever (Lynx, Dove): all these markets at once.

In reality, capitalism is an intractable enemy to the real material interests of LGBT+ people just as it is an enemy to workers.

Virgin Media will happily celebrate pride month. But when trans people fight for even basic healthcare, whose side are Virgin on? They’re on the side that wants to dice up the NHS for profit. Amazon might raise a rainbow flag this year but it is hard to fight workplace homophobia when Amazon viciously clamps down on the slightest hint of workplace organising. First Bus might offer occasional discounted tickets to pride, but when LGBT+ people want to escape queerphobic rural homes for safer cities, whose side are First on? To First Cymru these routes are unprofitable and villages are being cut off completely. Transport for London can paint the whole underground in rainbow colours but it doesn’t change the fact that job cuts will make public transport less safe for everyone, not least in helping to prevent homophobic hate crime.

LGBT+ activists, service users, disabled people, anti-racists, women and workers all share an interest in defending and extending these jobs and services. The current strikes and campaigns by transport union RMT for example, including its joint actions with Disabled People Against Cuts, including RMT’s demands over safety to prevent sexual assaults on trains, etc. are great examples of this approach.

If companies currently see us as a safe market, this is a symptom of the temporary tameness of the mainstream LGBT+ movement lacking a clear orientation to the organised working class. This is why the trade union movement must champion LGBT+ issues.

However, this unity is sadly not automatic and needs fighting for. For example, recent proposed changes to the UK Gender Recognition Act resulted in a shameful and toxic level of debate by a vocal minority in the trade union movement - including from supposed “socialists” who should know better (almost exclusively outside our ranks I am glad to say). Meanwhile the open transphobia on display in the right-wing press has reached fever pitch. As the Comrade correctly points out, the capitalist class would like nothing better than for us to argue that there is a limited pool of rights or resources that different sections of the working class have to fight each other over. This is also no problem to the self-appointed careerists that form the “acceptable” wing of LGBT or “LGB” organisations.

The servants of capitalism will always seek to divide us over this. “Oh, we’ll save your hospital. But we’ll have to close someone else’s instead”. This has been the consistent cynical approach of Welsh Labour councils and the Welsh Labour Government.

Welsh Assembly Education Minister Leighton Andrews was forced to resign over no less - or rather, for campaigning to save a school that it was his own policy to close. Similarly is no exaggeration to say that the - nominally pro-Corbyn - new Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford has stained his own reputation and that of Labour on their record of NHS closures in the eyes of the West Wales working class.

We need LGBT+ healthcare and services but not - as left-posing capitalists, their politicians, and transphobes would argue - at the expense of anyone else. We should always put an independent class approach. Often this means demanding a “needs budget” - a budget that takes as its starting point people’s needs - and fighting for it, as the first step on the road to a democratically planned economy including nationalisation of the corporations whose only plan is what generates profit, to create a socialist society that can provide for all our needs and remove the material basis for gender and sexual oppression altogether.

This is not just the correct strategy, proven literally in the language of bricks and concrete by our comrades in the example of the Militant Labour Council. It also is basic solidarity instinctively understood and reflected in the traditions of the trade union movement and its historic links with the LGBT+ movement such as during the miners’ strike and immortalised in the film Pride (2014).

Unfortunately it has been our experience that this argument has always been an uphill battle against other trends of the left, such as Left Labour, Greens, SWP, etc. who have consistently argued against these strategies time after time in anti-cuts campaigns for various reasons of opportunism, sectarianism, or outright ineptitude and political cowardice.

It is the role of genuine socialists to fight for the maximum unity of the working class: not by ignoring issues like LGBT+ and trans rights, or pitting one section against another, but by uniting on these issues and linking them to the struggle for the socialist transformation of society. Comrade SSE has skilfully and elegantly made this point many times in Socialism Today (e.g. issues 218 and 225). Our organisation has taken and has continued to develop this correct approach since the latter days of Militant through to the Socialist Party and the CWI at the current juncture. This history continues to inspire and politically arm new ranks of comrades joining our party today.

Thank you to the Comrade for sparking this useful discussion. Thank you also to comrades who have helped me improve this document through discussion.