Marxism, The Bolshevik Revolution and LGBT Liberation


(In the wake of the Supreme Court’s verdict decriminalising homosexuality in India, Liberation looks back at the revolutionary legacy of the Bolshevik Revolution which not only decriminalised homosexuality in 1917 but also asserted the equal rights and dignity of LGBT persons. We reproduce excerpts from Sexuality and Socialism: History, Politics, and Theory of LGBT Liberation, by Sherry Wolf, Haymarket Books, 2009.)

THE roots of the oppression of LGBTQIA persons are much the same as the roots of women’s oppression. Sherry Wolf articulates the Marxist understanding of such oppression, “LGBT oppression, like women’s oppression, is tied to the centrality of the nuclear family as one of capitalism’s means to both inculcate gender norms and outsource care for the current and future generations of workers at little cost to the state…In addition, the oppression of LGBT people under capitalism, like racism and sexism, serves to divide working-class people from one another, especially in their battles for economic and social justice….women’s oppression derives from the structure of the family, in which the reproduction and maintenance (child care, housework, cooking, etc.) of the current and future generations of workers are foisted upon individual families rather than being the responsibility of society. Capitalism depends on privatised reproduction to raise the next generation of workers at little expense to itself. Likewise, the oppression of LGBT people stems from the implicit challenge that sexual minorities pose to the nuclear family and its gender norms.”

Lenin, in his seminal work What Is To Be Done, made it clear that the communist party and class struggle must challenge every kind of social oppression, rather than defining class struggle narrowly as trade union struggles alone:

“Working-class consciousness cannot be genuine political consciousness unless the workers are trained to respond to all cases of tyranny, oppression, violence, and abuse, no matter what class is affected — unless they are trained, moreover, to respond from a [communist] point of view and no other.... The [communist’s] ideal should not be the trade union secretary, the [communist’s] ideal should not be the trade union secretary, but the tribune of the people, who is able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it appears, no matter what stratum or class of the people it affects; who is able to generalise all these manifestations and produce a single picture of police violence and capitalist exploitation; who is able to take advantage of every event, however small, in order to set forth before all his socialist convictions and his democratic demands, in order to clarify for all and everyone the world-historic significance of the struggle for the emancipation of the proletariat.”

Every manifestation of tyranny and oppression. Every event, however small.  Just think of the range of events this could cover: a girl being shamed for her sleeveless dress; a boy being shamed for his ‘feminine’ looks and behaviour; women, LGBT persons, Dalits and Muslims facing discrimination when they apply for jobs, try to rent homes, or face daily taunts and harassment in public places or at work; domestic violence; ‘honour’ crimes; gendered abuse; communal rumours and mob lynching - communists must act as ‘the tribune of the people’ in every single such situation, from “a communist point of view and no other,” to help every victim of oppression recognise the “big picture” in which the struggle for immediate democratic demands and the struggle for a socialist future free from exploitation and oppression are tied to one another.   

It was their role as the ‘tribune of the people’ that let Lenin’s comrades carry so many diverse sections of oppressed peoples - including women, oppressed nationalities and people of minority faiths, workers, soldiers and peasants, and sexual minorities - together with them in the historic mass upsurge of the Bolshevik Revolution.

Sherry Wolf writes, “In 1917, all laws against homosexuality were struck down by the new revolutionary government along with the rest of the tsarist criminal code. Consensual sex was deemed a private matter and not only were gays free to live as they chose without state intervention, but the Soviet courts also approved of marriage between homosexuals and, extraordinarily, there are even recorded instances of sex change operations in the 1920s. In other words, the revolution accomplished this grandiose social-sexual leap three years before American women achieved the right to vote and nearly ninety years before the Supreme Court of the United States finally struck down all sodomy laws.”

Wolf quotes at length from the 1923 pamphlet The Sexual Revolution in Russia, written by Dr. Grigorii Batkis, director of the Moscow Institute of Social Hygiene:

“The present sexual legislation in the Soviet Union is the work of the October Revolution. This revolution is important not only as a political phenomenon, which secures the political rule of the working class. But also for the revolutions which emanating from it reach out into all areas of life...

…The revolution let nothing remain of the old despotic and infinitely unscientific laws; it did not tread the path of reformist bourgeois legislation which, with juristic subtlety, still hangs onto the concept of property in the sexual sphere, and ultimately demands that the double standard hold sway over sexual life. These laws always come about by disregarding science.

The Soviet legislation proceeded along a new and previously untrodden path, in order to satisfy the new goals and tasks of the social revolution...

Now by taking into account all these aspects of the transition period, Soviet legislation bases itself on the following principle:

It declares the absolute noninterference of the state and society into sexual matters, so long as nobody is injured, and no one’s interests are encroached upon. [Emphasis in original.]

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. Only when there’s use of force or duress, as in general when there’s an injury or encroachment upon the rights of another person, is there a question of criminal prosecution.”  

Wolf observes, “Dr. Batkis’s pamphlet was not merely a toothless statement of intent: genuine changes in sexual attitudes and behaviour—beyond the elimination of the penal code—did take place as a result of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. One indication was in the choice of individuals to represent the revolution internationally—the openly gay commissar of public affairs was Grigorii Chicherin, who served at this post from 1918 till illness forced his retirement in 1930. This was not some back room bean-counter but a man who worked alongside Red Army leader Leon Trotsky in negotiating peace with Germany at Brest-Litovsk and was entrusted to be a prominent face of the revolution abroad. Chicherin was an aristocratic-born diplomat who was lifelong friends with the most prominent Russian gay poet, Mikhail Alekseevich Kuzmin, the flamboyantly campy author of the first known gay-positive novel in any language, Wings.”

Wolf’s book details some fascinating chapters of history, such as this one:

“A delegation of Soviet physicians and researchers traveled to Berlin in 1923 for a visit with sex reformer Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld at his Institute for Sex Research. There they requested a screening of a documentary about same-sex love, which the Russians were surprised to discover had been banned. Hirschfeld’s journal records the impressions of health commissar Samashko: “[He] stated how pleased he was that in the new Russia, the former penalty against homosexuals has been completely abolished.”

“Cross-dressing women who served in the Red Army, often passing as men, were given positions of authority. The director of the Institute of Neuro-psychiatric Prophylaxis in Moscow in the 1920s, Lev Rozenstein, invited “Lesbians, militiawomen and Red Armyists” to provide him with their life stories, and he claimed that “women [in Soviet Russia] may legally take men’s names and live as men.” Rozenstein thought it was his job as a psychologist to help his patients accept their same-sex desire, a position way ahead of its day—in contrast, the American Psychiatric Association maintained homosexuality on its books as a mental disorder until 1973.”

Why, we may ask, was this revolutionary progressive position reversed and homosexuality again criminalised in the Soviet Union under Stalin? Why did popular Soviet writers like Maxim Gorky propagate homophobia?  

Wolf offers an explanation: “The degeneration of the revolution from its original goals—including sexual liberation—was not due to some original sin of Leninist or Bolshevik ideology, but rather to the impossible conditions that revolutionaries faced. Years of isolation from any other successful socialist revolution in an advanced industrial state and the backwardness of Soviet industry combined to deteriorate all gains of the revolution by the 1930s.”

Wolf writes, “Along with the reaffirmation of the sanctity of the nuclear family and conventional gender norms came the reintroduction of anti-sodomy legislation in 1934. Stalin looked to his cultural spokesman Maxim Gorky to provide written justification for the reversal in the daily Pravda. Justifying the recriminalization of homosexuality as “a form of bourgeois degeneracy,” Gorky argued, “Destroy the homosexuals—Fascism will disappear.”

Wolf attempts a materialist explanation of this reassertion of patriarchal and homophobic policies and rollback of the progressive policies introduced in the dawn of the revolution. As we read her explanation, it is worth remembering that to explain a phenomenon in materialist terms is not to excuse or condone it. The Soviet Union could have made other choices, even in the difficult circumstances in which it found itself. Wolf writes:

“Because the USSR was in competition with the West militarily and industrially, it needed more labour power, which required higher birth rates and, therefore, a return to the nuclear family. Women were given medals for having more children and along with this came the inevitable reversal of sexual freedoms that challenged the procreative sexual function that implies enforced heterosexuality. All workers’ lives were diminished and constrained and gays were sent back into the closet….

“In the new political climate of the 1930s under Stalin, Soviet social policies promoted “compulsory motherhood, compulsory families, [and] compulsory heterosexuality.” Women were needed in the factories and on the land to help Russia industrialize and compete more effectively with the West, and Soviet legislation simultaneously drove women into the work-force in unprecedented numbers, while banning abortion and curbing access to birth control.”

These chapters from history remind us that LGBT liberation, like women’s liberation, were an integral part of the Bolshevik socialist revolution. For communists today, likewise, the struggle for LGBT liberation must be an integral part of class struggles for revolutionary transformation. 

From the Section 377 Judgement

Homosexuality is something that is based on sense of identity. It is the reflection of a sense of emotion and expression of eagerness to establish intimacy. It is just as much ingrained, inherent and innate as heterosexuality. Sexual orientation, as a concept, fundamentally implies a pattern of sexual attraction. It is as natural a phenomenon as other natural biological phenomena. …

…In the said context, the observations made by Leonard Sax to the following effect are relevant and are reproduced below:-

“Biologically, the difference between a gay man and a straight man is something like the difference between a left-handed person and a right-handed person. Being left- handed isn't just a phase. A left-handed person won't someday magically turn into a right-handed person.... Some children are destined at birth to be left- handed, and some boys are destined at birth to grow up to be gay.”

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