Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Jeff Goldthorpe

A Deafening Silence: Sexuality and the Leninist Left


First Published: Theoretical Review No. 28, May-June 1982
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
Copyright: This work is in the Public Domain under the Creative Commons Common Deed. You can freely copy, distribute and display this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit the Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line as your source, include the url to this work, and note any of the transcribers, editors & proofreaders above.

Publisher’s Note: Jeff Goldthorpe lives in San Francisco and wants to write more in the future; he is interested in fiction and recently wrote on the music of the Dead Kennedys in this journal. He does not feel that anything is this article is new, but wants to extend these debates to non-dogmatic Leninists.

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The 1970s have been a frustrating and contradictory time for Marxist-Leninists in the US no less than for others. Political quiescence did not halt the breakdown of old social and cultural forms, especially in sexual relations. Political reaction advanced in successive waves, even as the ripple effects of the 60s continued to be felt. The “industrialization” of the new left, accompanied by a retreat into dogmatic Leninism caused a reaction against the cultural rebellion of only yesterday. This was manifested in various ways, but in the area of sexuality it took on particularly revealing characteristics:

A budding Leninist group, trying to place its activists into workplace organizing, strongly encourages some of its lesbian members not to give up their lesbianism, but rather their dykey haircuts, dress and mannerisms, which might alienate them from the average worker. Just a pair of earrings or some other feminine accoutrements would do wonders and are really quite harmless.

Even among the more open-minded “anti-dogmatists,” a silence on sexual issues and a new orthodoxy of monogamous coupling prevailed:

A well-respected activist in his mid-30s in a revolutionary group conceals a relationship he has had with a man 10 to 15 years his junior to avoid the raised eyebrows and subtle disrespect it would evoke.

Yet the 70s were not kind to the clarions of “proletarian morality” either:

One small organization, stable enough to have survived the decade intact, has by the early 80s not a single surviving marriage or continuous relationship from the group’s early years.

Do these and related issues deserve to be included in the political discourse of Marxism? Obviously they aren’t yet in the Leninist left, despite the painful struggles the activists of that movement endure.

But other leftists are not only taking up these issues, but also engaging in fruitful dialogue. Amber Hollibaugh and Cherrie Moraga, criticizing the feminist movement in a recent article in Heresies[1], claim that women are now “required” to have the correct line on sex before they can talk about their feelings and sexual experiences. They contrast this attitude to an earlier period of openness at the movement’s inception. Leninists on the other hand have nothing in their political tradition stressing the linkage of the personal and political, unless one includes the influence of earlier participation in the new left or feminism, or theorists at the periphery of Leninism such as Kollantai, Wilhelm Reich, Marcuse, etc. Generally, the political atmosphere of the Leninist left provides no space for any discussion of this issue. What exists is perhaps some discussion of experiences designed to prevent personal crises that could interfere with an activist’s work, or the privatized discussions that happen among close friends (more rarely among men than women, or straights than gays). Ironically, these discussions often fall out of the realm of political discourse completely. The most dogmatic attack any explicit sexuality, seeing its public manifestation as mere “decadence,” while some just pretend it doesn’t exist. The more “advanced” elements will run articles or lend support to anti-rape or anti-porn struggles or to the gay movement, but only as they pertain to women’s oppression, or with the issue of sex, dealing with it only in as much as it is a democratic right denied to gay people. This approach ignores totally the general upheaval in society over sexuality in general. The billion dollar sex industry, the singles scene, personal ad columns, sex manuals, etc., are presumed to be features of late capitalist decadence and nothing more, or are ignored.

Gay and Feminist Debates

In contrast, the debates within the left wing of the gay and feminist movements have posed a number of crucial issues (whatever one might say of the general shortcomings of these tendencies), while the US Leninist left has contributed next to nothing of any value on the subject.[2] Particularly, I would like to examine here a critique of the feminist movement being put forward by three socialist feminists, Deirdre English, Amber Hollibaugh, and Gayle Rubin, as it applies to the Leninist left.[3] To use another example, despite the fact that Marxists disagree with the politics of “radical feminism,”[4] it cannot be denied that radical feminists were instrumental in launching the modern feminist movement, and that it was their work, against the opposition or ignorance of most of the Leninist left that led to the public airing of issues such as rape, wife beating and female sexuality.

One basic point of the socialist-feminist polemic of English, Hollibaugh and Rubin is that the feminist movement, while rejecting the way sex is used to express the gender hierarchy of men over women, has not understood the dynamics of sexuality itself, and has often ended up establishing a new hierarchy of “good” and “bad” sex, leading to guilt and self-denial for those who do not conform to the new standard:

By analyzing the institution of heterosexuality through feminism, we learned what’s oppressive about it and why people cooperate with it or don’t, but we didn’t learn what’s sexual. We don’t really know for instance why men and women are still attracted to each other, even through all the oppression, which we know to be true.[5]

The most controversial element of their critique is their questioning of whether there is an inherent link between pornography and sexual violence and their criticism of the anti-porn and women-against-violence movements for encouraging anti-sexual attitudes.

Economism and Sexuality

While some particular sources for anti-sexual attitudes in the Leninist left will be examined below, I’d like to stress the importance of economic determinism or economism to theoretically supporting such attitudes. In an earlier issue of this journal Paul Costello observed that “economism reduces the other elements of the social formation to a mere expression of the economy and the social contradictions at all levels to an expression of the contradictions between the forces and relations of production. In the end, class struggle becomes either a secondary characteristic and/or itself an expression of economic forces.”[6] This has often led to a programmatic emphasis on typical trade union demands and a conception of socialism as merely a redistribution of wealth to the workers without any sense of a different labor process or a different quality of social relations in general.

Marxist-Leninist analyses have commonly seen sexuality’s form as determined by the “primary aspect” of the production of material life. Sexuality is thus seen as a relatively unimportant superstructural activity, in the realm of culture, psychology, etc., sexuality is seen as somehow passively reflecting changes in the “economic base.” No serious theoretical work has been done to justify this view. Further, simplistic schema doesn’t hold up when the diversity of sexual styles and practices is examined within a given mode of production. An obvious problem is that sexuality is biologically-based and plays an indispensible role in the reproduction of the species (thus being part of the “base”). Without a shred of evidence, many Marxist-Leninists have appropriated the pre-Kinsey theories of sexual drive being a fixed instinct directed at the opposite sex for the greater glories of (re)production and nothing more; that is, if you are “normal.” Perversions from the norm are unexplained, except that they proliferate in periods of social decadence (Nazi Germany and Greece are cited).

Such Leninists fall back on the idea of sexuality being an expression of a fixed human nature (either biologically or psychologically determined), projecting onto past history all of the present-day categories of defining sexuality. Actually it seems that the very notion of sexuality as a separate realm has only arisen since capitalism[7], along with the increasing gap between the sites of production (the public sphere) and consumption (the private sphere). Jeffrey Weeks has argued that the first anti-sodomy laws in England in 1533 had no concept of homosexuals as such but that homosexuality was regarded “as a potential in all sinful creatures.”[8] The very categories of heterosexual and homosexual are seen as having a definite historical origin.

For while sexuality may originate in biology, the changes it has gone through in thousands of years of human history has little to do with biology and progressively more to do with the myriad of social relations within which it is expressed. Analysis has only recently begun to delineate the place of sexuality within the totality of the production and reproduction of material life, and the connection of sexuality to forms of kinship/family, psychology, “love,” ritual, fantasy, and, of course, the economy as a whole.

Another result of an economic determinist outlook is simplistic narrow-mindedness, where people don’t even look into the available information in the field:

People don’t utilize the best analysis of progressive sex research because they don’t really know about it ... . The idea of sex after the revolution is so removed from anything we do now that it transcends the flesh itself. . . . When we talk about how work will change, we don’t say that it will disappear. We talk about how what people do will be different, but we don’t therefore condemn what everybody does now.[9]

In mass politics, the economic determinist outlook usually avoids sexual and family issues, and prefers to think that people first struggle for higher wages and then they think about better sexual relationships. Is there any longer a Chinese wall between struggles for material survival and “quality of life” issues? Looking at mass politics in the late 70s, when sexual issues of abortion and homosexuality became major issues of contention (especially for the right), I would think not. The most significant example of this is the fight against the Briggs Initiative to ban “gay” teachers from California public schools. With few exceptions, socialist organizations played no significant role in the campaign.[10] Most of the left organizations that did offer some form of support would rarely go beyond the civil liberties/workers’ democratic rights line, to directly confront the homophobia and sexual fears that are at the base of the anti-gay campaigns. The struggle by a sizable gay left tendency within the campaign provides a wealth of experience and questions about sexuality. Amber Hollibaugh, who worked in a project doing outreach in rural California, raises these issues vividly:

Also I would try to talk about the real issue [of whether gay teachers can affect a child’s sexual formation–JG] which is ’do we want any kind of sexual discussion and sexual consciousness among children’?’ That didn’t work in the sense that everybody agreed . . . but at least it focused the issue where the fear is. People are really terrified of having sexuality, especially children’s sexuality, discussed as a primary issue, in the same way that they’re terrified of having women’s sexuality being discussed and known. People are not just terrified of gay people but of sexuality and sexual forces they cannot easily understand. Women’s fear of child molestation can be manipulated, but is also a genuine fear because women know very intimately about sexual coercion. So their fear is based partly on the reality of male violence in this culture and partly on irrational fears about who is going to hurt their kids. If you don’t address it as a complex issue, you can’t even begin to have a good discussion .... Even inside the gay movement there’s a controversy about how somebody becomes gay. . . Each one of us has our own concept of how we become gay, depending on how soon we knew it, whether we’re male or female, what race or class we are, all those things.[11]

“Proletarian Morality?”

A typical approach in the Leninist left is that the mode of production and/or the class struggle generate a particular brand of sexual or intimate relationships which possess “proletarian morality,” a morality which promotes equality and unity within the revolutionary ranks, as well as personal fulfillment, hopefully. There are two versions of this theory, one pragmatic, the other “scientific.” The pragmatic version means whatever type of relationships appear to predominate in the revolutionary class. The “scientific” version contends that backward concepts actually predominate in the class and that the task of determining what is moral can only be left to the “scientists of revolution,” who know what is best for the workers by virtue of their infallible interpretation of Marx and Lenin. What both theories have in common is that they posit monogamous coupling (sometimes excluding, sometimes including gays) as the ideal of proletarian morality, within which chores are shared and both partners gain full emotional/sexual satisfaction. In the most backward stages of the new communist movement, the campaign for proletarian morality was accompanied by criticism sessions for “bourgeois comrades” who engaged in one-night stands, and farcical conversion to heterosexuality only rivaled by the born-again Christian movement.

Even among those who do not take their sexual politics from 1936 Russia, this formula reigns and there is a great ambiguity and confusion when sexuality goes beyond these boundaries. In one group two gay male activists went to a bar Friday night, brought home partners and inadvertently mentioned it to a comrade, who brought it up for criticism during a unit meeting Saturday morning, prompting a moral lecture about “bourgeois decadence.”

Is there such a thing as proletarian morality in sexual relations, or is it merely a matter of “do your own thing as long as you don’t hurt anybody”? It seems to me that some forms of sexuality might prefigure wider relations of freedom and human fulfillment than others, and that some forms of sexuality are definitely damaging to the building of relations of equality. But to rigidly classify them, especially prior to studying sexuality in conjunction with interrelated issues of power, ritual, pleasure, and psychology in concrete conditions seems mistaken. Neither does it solve these questions to just push for acceptance to “benign sexual variation,” to use the words of Gayle Rubin.[12] One major problem with the misuse of “proletarian morality” has been that groups have adopted their moral code uncritically, without regard to time and place. Revolutionary organizations in underdeveloped nations have often adopted a type of puritanism in response to conditions of protracted war, lack of birth control, reactionary sexist traditions of polygamy, and imperialist sexual explanation, not just because they have an affinity for conserving a backward national moral tradition. Any concept of sexual morality can only be judged in a specific time and place.

The various versions of “proletarian morality” often fall back on a pragmatic logic. This morality becomes whatever does not interfere with the political work at hand–whatever does not offend the constituency of one’s mass work area, which in some cases is quite conservative. With gay people, the situation I am most familiar with, pressures are exerted to make cadre closeted or half-closeted to avoid alienating one’s “mass base” or potential recruits. This is a complex and difficult question, in any case, but only one side of the problem is usually looked at, to the detriment of the mental health and political capacity of the “sexual deviants” in question. There are various leadership cadre who for reasons of “ties with the masses,” or maybe political maneuvering, keep their relationships more or less closeted. There is no simple answer to these situations, but the pragmatic and economist framework has to be junked to discuss these contradictions seriously and openly.

The Historical Legacy

The idea of monogamous coupling as the “correct” way to live has a number of sources in the movement’s historical development. First of all there is the weight of communist tradition, which is accentuated every time there is a turn toward dogmatism (quite often). The great masters of Marxism were never much concerned with these subjects, we are told. Further, their views and their own somewhat contradictory personal lives are whitewashed. Lenin’s complaints to Clara Zetkin about German women socialists discussing sexual matters (while the Soviet Union was fighting to survive, and above all hoping for a revolution in Germany) are quoted completely out of context. All the holy icons of rigidified Marxism are wheeled out, position papers from this or that Communist Party to awe and stupify the cadre.

Then there is the reaction to the “sexual revolution” of the 60s, in which quite a few of the cadre participated, whether they admit it or not. In seeing the excesses and stupidities of the era, its positive aspects are ignored (the same can be said of other aspects of the 60s experience). This attitude is also quite influenced by the feminist movement’s rejection of the new sexism of the youth culture, the advantages accrued to men by “sexual freedom” etc. But was the very idea of greater sexual freedom negative? “People’s standards for what should’ve happened are based on an assumption that this was the revolution. It’s saying that socialism will never work, look at the Soviet Union.”[13] This is linked to a valid feeling of revulsion for the popularization of the sexual marketplace in the 70s without some of the positive aspects of the 60s (What do I mean here? See the portrayal of relationships in Marge Piercy’s Vida, many of which are non-monogamous.[14]) This is hard to discuss because the 70s were so contradictory, particularly with the popularization of feminism and the gay sub-culture–along with the sexual marketplace, causing many people to react by seeking the “stability” of monogamy, and the denial that sex is “that important” to what a person (especially a communist) is.

Lastly there is also the cultural impact of what the Bay Area Socialist Organizing Committee has described as “left economism.” “Many Marxist Leninist groups have taken a narrow view of the arenas of communist work and focused their efforts almost exclusively on the struggles of the industrialized working class.”[15] This orientation, which often focuses on male-dominated heavy industries, adds to the pressure to conform to a conservative moral code.


I am not suggesting the rejection of monogamous heterosexual relationships as such. But it is time to remove them from the privileged pedestal of “proletarian morality.” According to the strange and pragmatic standards of the Leninist left, the ideal relationship is that which does not offend the average worker and in which the conflict between partners is hidden within the bounds of the private realm[16], and which does not appear to conflict with the heavy workload of Marxist-Leninist cadre. Perhaps the violation of vows of virtuous M-L couples should be condemned less and analyzed more. I doubt if the ranks of the Leninist left have a much lower divorce rate than the general population. In fact it would be quite surprising if the Leninist left was exempt from the crises in sexual relations which has swept the western industrialized world. And in changing attitudes about what the “proletarian norm” is, the complex and contradictory nature of all sexual relations must be addressed, putting an end to the simplistic knee-jerk condemnation of various sexual minorities (not just gays, but also various practitioners of sado-masochism, transvestism, man-boy love, and various kinds of non-monogamous sexuality) as decadent products of late capitalism, who instead of being busted by the police under capitalism, can look forward to shock treatment or thought re-programming under “socialism.”


[1] “What We’re Rollin’ Around in Bed With” in Heresies, No. 12 “The Sex Issue.”

[2] Exceptions to my knowledge: “In Partial Payment” by Alar Rausch, Urgent Tasks, No. 7 (Sojourner Truth Organization) and “The Gay Question” by Bob McCubbin (Workers World Party).

[3] See Heresies No. 12, also Deirdre English, Amber Hollibaugh Gayle Rubin, “Talking Sex: A Conversation on Sexuality and Feminism,” in Socialist Review, No. 58.

[4] Here we mean politics represented by theorists like Shulamit Firestone and spokeswomen such as Susan Brownmiller or Robin Morgan, who generally hold that sexism is the fundamental contradiction in the revolutionary process.

[5] Hollibaugh/Moraga, Heresies, No. 12.

[6] Paul Costello, “Leninist Politics and the Struggle Against Economism,” Theoretical Review, No. 15.

[7] See Robert Padgug, “Sexual Matters: On Conceptualizing Sexuality in History;” Radical History Review No. 20. For those not familiar with this whole subject, this issue, devoted to “Sexuality in History” is a very good place to start and has man; valuable references.

[8] Quoted in Padgug, Radical History Review, No. 20.

[9] English/ Hollibaugh/ Rubin, Socialist Review, No. 58.

[10] See Michael Ward/ Mark Freeman, “Defending Gay Rights The Campaign Against the Briggs Initiative in California, Radical America, Vol. 13, No. 3.

[11] “Sexuality and the State: The Defeat of the Briggs Initiative and Beyond,” Socialist Review, No. 45.

[12] English/ Hollibaugh/ Rubin, SR, No. 58.

[13] English/Hollibaugh/Rubin, SR, No. 58.

[14] Also interesting are her comments in Cultural Correspondence 12-14: “A lot of what I lived through in the 60s is inspiring to me, that molten and organic sensing of community for instance, the willingness to move past the nuclear family and possessiveness and rigidity.”

[15] See Learning from the History of Our Movement, section on ultra-leftism.

[16] A note on the private realm: it is only logical that many members of the M-L left, wary of condemnation and the cut throat morality of sectarianism, would seek to maintain or extend a private domain hidden from the scrutiny of “comrades,” similar to the practice of making the family a “haven” apart from the dog-eat-dog “outside” of the bourgeois world, a separation which is today breaking down.