Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Sexuality and social constructionism: a reply to Colin Wilson

Sexuality and social constructionism: A reply to Colin Wilson

Issue: 140
Posted: 2 December 13

John Molyneux

The mere mention of “nature”—in this case principally biology—in relation to human history and the development of women’s oppression—in my International Socialism article1 has produced a frenzy of accusations from certain quarters: John Molyneux’s argument is gender essentialist, transphobic, homophobic, not to speak of intellectually dishonest, ignorant, disgusting and so on. I will try not to respond in kind but would politely suggest that nothing I actually wrote bears such interpretation or has such implications. In my reply I will focus on Colin Wilson’s response2 while sometimes referring to other comments that have been made.
In my article I wrote: “Put simply, women are able to bear children and men are not”, and this has generated much heat. This, it has been said, “falls into the trap of crude transphobia” because “with one crude stroke of the pen he has erased the existence of trans people from the world”. The first thing to say here is that this sentence was part of an argument about the origins of women’s oppression. I was contesting the view, advanced by Nancy Lindisfarne and Jonathan Neale (L&N) that the roots of women’s oppression were not linked to the social role of the family as it developed with the emergence of class society (Engels’s view):3
This matters here because L&N go on to say: “Continua lie behind the ways we characterise all aspects of our bodies, including reproduction, sexuality and desire.” Now, however true this may be for sexuality and desire, it is not true for reproduction. Put simply, women are able to bear children and men are not. And for most of human history the majority of women have needed to bear several children for the clan, tribe, people and species to survive. Moreover, when it comes to suckling babies, a biological necessity for most of history, there is also not a continuum. Women (again, most women) can do it and men cannot. And this, of course, is where “the family” comes in.4
Now let’s look at what Colin makes of this:
...social and technological changes are undermining common sense assumptions about sex and reproduction. In some jurisdictions two men can be recognised as parents of a child born to a surrogate mother. In the UK a lesbian couple can be recognised as parents of a child born following donor insemination. Transgender men have given birth in Germany, Israel, the UK and the United States.
These developments mean it’s untrue to say that “women are able to bear children and men are not”. John shows no understanding here of the politicisation of trans oppression, and the importance of avoiding statements about men and women which ignore trans people’s existence.5
Clearly the statements about men being recognised as parents of children born to surrogate mothers and lesbian couples recognised as parents have no relevance here—parenthood in this social sense was not being discussed. All that remains is the bald statement that “transgender men have given birth”. This refers to an extremely few recent cases of transgender men who were born with female reproductive organs and retained them after gender affirmation and went on to have children. These cases have no bearing whatsoever on what was being debated, namely whether the biological facts of reproduction, and therefore the different social forms through which reproduction is organised (ie the family), had any bearing on the origins of women’s oppression (thousands of years ago). Nor was any moral, social or other kind of evaluative judgement being made so the notion that some kind of crude transphobia was involved seems a bit much.
A second passage that has caused “offence” among people looking to be offended was as follows:
All Wilson’s examples of the rich variety of human sexual practices and attitudes, important as they are for other purposes, are irrelevant to this argument. It is as if someone were to claim that the immense variety of food eaten by human beings in different parts of the world showed that eating was a social construction and not a natural necessity. Indeed the variety of human sexual practices is more constrained by biology than is our diet. For example, attitudes to—and the practice of—oral and anal sex may and do vary enormously from society to society. But for the most obvious and compelling reasons all societies without exception have practised heterosexual vaginal intercourse on a large scale. No society has attempted to prohibit this except for specific groups (priests, the unmarried, children, etc). As we have said, nothing is forever and it is conceivable that in some “brave new world” this may change, but we are discussing the past and present, not the future, here.6
What Colin makes of this is quite remarkable:
John writes that no society has forbidden heterosexual vaginal sex and I certainly don’t know of one. But heterosexual vaginal sex is in many cultures surrounded by social restrictions. To refer again to the Middle Ages, sexual acts were forbidden before a couple married, which typically took place when the man reached his late 20s and the woman her mid-20s—so both went through a long fertile period without reproducing. Once they were married, sex was forbidden on more than half of the days in the year—Sundays, saints’ days and so forth. Cultural controls on vaginal intercourse play an important social role, which is often far more complicated that simply encouraging conception…
John’s attitude to non-reproductive sexualities is equally offensive. His conflation of sex and reproduction means that he makes reproductive acts (heterosexual vaginal intercourse) into a normative standard, while non-procreative acts, such as those performed by same-sex couples, are implicitly categorised as peripheral. This is certainly what LGBT activists call heteronormative, if not actually homophobic.7
In other words, Colin begins by acknowledging that I am right on the substantive point, then gives lots of examples of the rich variety of human sexual practices, codes of behaviour, etc which I had already acknowledged and which in no way contradict my point, and then says my attitude to non-reproductive sexualities is “offensive”. But I had not taken any attitude to non-reproductive acts except to say that they are not necessary to reproduction—which if I may say so is kind of obvious. I had most certainly not “conflated sex and reproduction”.
I am—of course—positively in favour of non-reproductive sex between consenting adults for reasons that are both personal and political just as I am in favour of contraception, IVF, a woman’s right to choose (were all those abortion rights demos we went on transphobic because they failed to demand trans men’s right to choose?), LGBT rights, oral sex, anal sex, masturbation and all other forms of consensual sexual pleasure. I have held this view for about 45 years but I must confess that I never felt obliged to spell it out so fully before. All I was saying in the article was that human sexual practices and societal norms and laws have been—necessarily—influenced by biology. This is a simple statement of fact and does not justify any kind of oppression, discrimination or prejudice whatsoever.
On the question of “the social construction of sexuality” Colin’s “construction” of his argument is, to say the least, strange. He says, twice, that “John points out…the social construction of sexuality is associated with the ideas of Michel Foucault”, but actually it was Colin in his original article who pointed this out. I criticised the “social construction” formulation not on the grounds of its association with the anti-Marxist Foucault, who does indeed have some useful insights, but because I think it is misleading. It is misleading precisely because it suggests, as I argued, that sexuality can be seen as “purely social or cultural, with no connection to the biological human body”. Colin “refutes” this by quoting Jeffrey Weeks to the effect that:
Sexuality builds on biological potentials… But we must also recognise that sexuality, like everything else, attains meaning only in culture. We just cannot understand the subtleties and complexities of the sexual world if we try to reduce everything to the imperatives of Nature…8
Then he says this formulation echoes mine that sexuality is “biologically based but then profoundly socially conditioned” so this shows that I am engaged in “combat with a straw man” of my own creation. But I was not arguing with Weeks’s formulation, which I agree with, but with Foucault’s and Colin’s formulation, which I don’t. And if it is a misinterpretation and a straw man to think that “social construction” suggests that sexuality can be seen as “purely social or cultural, with no connection to the biological human body”, why has my saying that it does have certain biological foundations caused such a furore?
Another objection made by Colin (and others) to my comments is that they are “factional”. In the sense that they were made in the context of current debates in the SWP this is true but then it is also true of his original response to Sheila McGregor and his response to me (and Sheila’s article and Nancy and Jonathan’s, etc). That is unavoidable in the present situation. But if the implication is that outside of the current context I would not have disagreed with Colin or Nancy and Jonathan on the disputed questions, it is false. As it happens a related dispute occurred in relation to my statement that “sex is a basic human need” in the pamphlet Is Human Nature a Barrier to Socialism?9 and the matter, along with the claim that sexuality was all a social construction, came up in my meeting on the subject at Marxism in the early 1990s.10 It is also the case that I debated in person and for several hours with Nancy about her theory of women’s oppression many, perhaps 15, years ago. So the disagreements are not invented.
Also of interest is the fact, as I noted in my article, that Nancy and Jonathan are at odds with Colin on the main substantive point in his whole argument in that they maintain:
Scholars now know a great deal about the past. What information we now have suggests that for at least 100,000 years people managed their access to food, water, shelter, love, sex and nurture in more or less egalitarian ways.11
Whereas, Colin believes, “there is no evidence for such claims”. Colin, however, has registered no disagreement with Nancy and Jonathan nor they with him. Could this possibly be “factional”?
Colin closes his article with what he seems to think is a smart debating point.
John begins by stating that “I lack the knowledge…needed to offer a comprehensive response” to the articles he criticises. That being so, it’s hard to understand why he has written on this topic, and why the editor of International Socialism has published his writing.
This line of argument is neither original nor logical. Lacking the knowledge to deal comprehensively with every aspect of a book or two articles does not preclude taking issue with certain parts of them, which is what I have done. For example, I lack the knowledge to offer a comprehensive response to E P Thompson’s famous The Making of the English Working Class but I disagree with the theory of class outlined in its preface—is it intellectually dishonest or reprehensible for me to say so? Some people disagree with Cliff’s interpretation of Lenin with regard to “bending the stick”. Do they have to be able to deal with all four volumes of Cliff’s Lenin in order to be allowed to comment on the matter? As it happens I wish I had the anthropological knowledge to respond to the claim that Engels “is wrong on more than a hundred topics”, and that “the abolitionist Frederick Douglass…the labour organiser Mother Jones [etc]...were all careful not to make such mistakes”.12 Unfortunately I have never read the latter’s anthropological writings.
One final point. I was quite surprised by Colin’s comment suggesting that my article should not have been published. He is not alone in saying this. A number of people seem to be demanding all sorts of things should be debated but then get very indignant when anyone actually debates with them.


1: Molyneux, 2013
2: Wilson, 2013.
3: Lindisfarne and Neale, 2013.
4: Molyneux, 2013, p202.
5: Wilson, 2013.
6: Molyneux, 2013, pp204-205.
7: Wilson, 2013, my emphasis.
8: Weeks, 2011, p18.
9: Molyneux, 1993.
10: Interestingly, Sheila McGregor participated in the debate on my side.
11: Lindisfarne and Neale, 2013, p145.
12: Lindisfarne and Neale, 2013, pp144-145.


Lindisfarne, Nancy, and Jonathan Neale, 2013, “What Gender Does”, International Socialism 139 (summer), www.isj.org.uk/?id=900
Molyneux, John, 1993, Is Human Nature a Barrier to Socialism? (Socialist Worker).
Molyneux, John, 2013, “History Without Nature? A Response to Nancy Lindisfarne, Jonathan Neale and Colin Wilson”, International Socialism 140 (autumn), www.isj.org.uk/?id=920
Weeks, Jeffrey, 2011, “The Social Construction of Sexuality”, in Steven Seidman, Nancy Fischer and Chet Meeks (eds), Introducing the New Sexuality Studies (Routledge).
Wilson, Colin, 2013, “A Response to John Molyneux on Sexuality”, International Socialism 140 (autumn), online only, www.isj.org.uk/?id=934

Friday, November 22, 2013

The National Question - Some Basic Principles

The National Question – some basic principles

 This article was written for Irish Marxist Review 8 which took 'The national question today' as its theme see www.irishmarxistreview.net.

Marxists are internationalists not nationalists.

Nationalism is a key element in bourgeois ideology. It is one of the ideological means, arguably in today’s world the main ideological means, by which the capitalist class of all nations secures the compliance and even support of the working class and of the oppressed of all nations.

Like most such ideological phenomena nationalism is not a fixed ‘thing’ or doctrine but rather a cluster of attitudes and propositions which are sometimes articulated, sometimes simply taken for granted, and frequently assumed to be ‘obvious’ and ‘common sense’. These are some of the principal nationalist assumptions which combine in different proportions and with different emphases at different times in different formulations of nationalism.

1. A particular nation – ‘our’ nation, whether it is Ireland, America, Britain, Germany or wherever – is somehow ‘best’, superior to other nations, as in ‘America is the greatest country on earth’ or ‘Britannia rules the waves!’ or ‘Deutschland uber alles!’.

2. One’s national identity is one’s most important or core identity, taking precedence over other identities such as class, gender, ethnicity, locality, occupation etc.

3. Nations, or the people of a given nation, are held to have certain definite national characteristics which are somehow ‘in their blood’ or their genes and which explain or shape national history rather than being a product of it. For example, the British are ‘moderate’ and given to compromise or Americans are ‘freedom loving’  It should be noted that these characteristics are often  positive as applied to one’s own country and negative when applied to other countries, especially ‘enemy’ countries.

4. There is a common ‘national’ interest which unites all members of a given nation, and to which all ‘sectional’ interests (class, gender, ethnicity, locality etc.) should be subordinate: ‘It is in the national interest for workers to exercise wage restraint’ or ‘We all have to make sacrifices in the national interest’.

5. In economic, political or even sporting conflicts with other nations it is a citizen’s duty to support their ‘own’ country. This applies most forcibly in time of war when to behave otherwise is be deemed a ‘traitor’.

6. It is the prime job of the government and the state to represent the national interest and that involves putting the interests of the government’s citizens first, before the interests of ‘foreigners’ as in ‘Why are we giving so much in foreign aid when we have problems at home? We should look after our own first’ or ‘Irish/British/ French jobs for Irish/British/ French workers’.

Of these six assumptions listed here it is the last three that are most important politically and most pervasive (though all are widespread) and it should be noted that many people and, crucially, many politicians who would reject any claim of ‘superiority’ as crude and arrogant would nonetheless basically accept points 4-6. In particular the notion of a ‘national interest’ is accepted by virtually all ‘mainstream’ politicians and frames almost all current political debate.

One of the main reasons why nationalism is so ubiquitous and so powerful is that it reflects a central material fact about the modern world, namely that economic, social and political life actually is organised on the basis of nation states more or less everywhere across the globe. What the ideology of nationalism conceals is that this ‘fact’ is of recent origin: nationalism has a general tendency to project the history of ‘the nation’ back to time immemorial, so naturalising it and legitimating it. Thus we hear of Ireland in the 10th century or Italy in 12th century as if we speaking of the same kind of entity as Ireland or Italy today when in there was no such thing as an Irish or Italian nation state or national consciousness at this time only Ireland or Italy as a geographical expression, like Scandinavia or South America today). In general, nation states in the modern sense only emerged with and as part of the development of capitalism and the rise of the bourgeoisie from about the 16th century onwards[1] and nationalism was from the outset a specifically bourgeois ideology.

In opposition to this bourgeois ideology Marxist internationalism rejects each of the six assumptions outlined above.

1. No nation (or ‘race’ or ‘people’ or ‘culture’) is inherently or innately superior to all or any others. Of course it is true that at particular moments in history particular states, or parts of the world are able to establish their economic, political and military dominance [2] but this is historically determined, has nothing to do with innate capacity and is invariably a temporary phenomenon. Thus Rome had a period of dominance (over part of the world) from about 100 BCE to 400 CE , China was in the lead about 1000CE, Britain in the 19th century and the USA in the 2Oth with China making a bid for leadership in the 21st.

2. Individual’s have multiple ‘identities’ or identifications – nation, gender, ethnicity, locality, family, religion, occupation, class and so on. Which identification predominates in people’s consciousness depends on circumstances and is the outcome of social and political struggle. Bourgeois nationalists fight for nation to predominate, socialists fight for class.

3. ‘National characteristics’ do exist but they are a product of history and are absolutely marginal compared to what people of different nationalities have in common. Moreover they are of next to no explanatory use in understanding history. Explanations of Irish resistance (say in 1916 or 1920) or Irish passivity (say in 2011) in terms of the ‘Irish character’ have no value any more than does the notion that the French are ‘always out on the streets’ (if only) or that Latin Americans go in for revolutions. A distinction must be made between any concept of inherent ‘national character’ and national traditions (including social memory) which are historically formed and do a play a certain role in shaping ongoing political struggles.[3]

4. Marxist internationalism rejects the idea of a common national interest. Any nation consists of different classes and the interests of any capitalist class, be it Irish, German or Russian, are fundamentally opposed to the interests of ‘their’ working class whom they systematically exploit.  The concept of the ‘national interest’ serves to mask this exploitation and conflict of interests. When workers are asked to make sacrifices ‘in the national interest’ they are really being asked to make sacrifices to increase the bosses’ profits. In a capitalist society the ‘national interest’ always means the interest of the capitalist class.

5. If, according to nationalism, the citizen’s duty is to support their ‘own’ country i.e. their ruling class, the obligation of the socialist and internationalist is to support the working class and the oppressed of their own country and internationally. This applies especially to war and our attitude in and to wars depends on the progressive or reactionary character of the war from the standpoint of the working class.

6. In opposition to the nationalist argument that ‘we’ or ‘our’ government should look after ‘our own’ first – via immigration controls, ‘Irish jobs for Irish workers’ or any kind of discrimination against foreigners – the internationalist position is that ‘our own’ are the working people and oppressed of all countries. Hence Marx and Engels’ slogan from the Communist Manifesto – Workers of the World Unite! – has always been the basic slogan of our whole movement.

If the material foundation of nationalism is the aforementioned fact that in the capitalist era ‘economic, social and political life actually is organised on the basis of nation states’ the foundation of internationalism is the deeper truth that despite its organisation into competing nations capitalism is ultimately an international system. Even at its beginning in the sixteenth century the development of capitalism in Europe depended on a process of ‘primitive capital accumulation’ that was thoroughly global. As Marx described it in Capital:

The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief momenta of primitive accumulation. On their heels treads the commercial war of the European nations, with the globe for a theatre. It begins with the revolt of the Netherlands from Spain, assumes giant dimensions in England’s Anti-Jacobin War, and is still going on in the opium wars against China, &c.[4]

With the Industrial Revolution of the late 18th century and the onset of the imperialist era in the late 19th century this internationalisation of capitalist production was greatly intensified. Again it was predicted and analysed with uncanny accuracy by Marx way back in 1848.

The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere.
The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country. To the great chagrin of Reactionists, it has drawn from under the feet of industry the national ground on which it stood. All old-established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed. They are dislodged by new industries, whose introduction becomes a life and death question for all civilised nations, by industries that no longer work up indigenous raw material, but raw material drawn from the remotest zones; industries whose products are consumed, not only at home, but in every quarter of the globe. In place of the old wants, satisfied by the production of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and climes. In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal inter-dependence of nations…

It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilisation into their midst, i.e., to become bourgeois themselves. In one word, it creates a world after its own image.[5]

The intense globalisation of the last three decades has fulfilled Marx’s prediction virtually to the letter. Moreover the consequence of this international integration is the internationalisation of the phenomenon of crisis and recession to which capitalism is subject as was seen both in the great slump of the 1930s and the recession that began in 2008.

This in turn lends an international character to the struggle against capitalism. Clearly this is an uneven process in which national peculiarities and rhythms remain – for example the level of resistance has obviously been higher in Greece than it has in Ireland over the last few years. Nevertheless the class struggle goes through waves of advance and retreat that are fundamentally international.

Thus there was the ‘age of revolution’ comprising the American Revolution of 1774, the French Revolution of 1789, the Haitian and other slave revolts of 1791 and the ’98 in Ireland. Then there was 1848 with its revolutions in France, Germany, Austria, Hungary, parts of Italy, Poland, the campaign of the Chartists in Britain and the foundation of the Fenians in America, followed by a long period of capitalist expansion and political reaction. In the years leading up to the First World War came a period of workers’ industrial revolt known as ‘the Great Unrest’ in Britain which included the rise of syndicalism in France, the Wobblies in America and the Lockout in Dublin. This was interrupted by the outbreak of the War but then the struggle resumed at a higher level with the Easter Rising of 1916, the Russian Revolution of 1917, The German Revolution of 1918-23, the Hungarian and Finnish Revolutions, the Italian ‘biennio rosso’ of 1919-20, the Irish War of Independence and much else.

The failure of this great revolutionary surge was then followed by a long period of international defeat culminating in the victories of fascism and Stalinism. The 1950s and 60s saw a long capitalist boom but as the boom started to falter the struggle revived especially in 1968 and after, with the May Events in France, the black and anti-Vietnam War movement in the US, the international student movement, the British industrial battles of 1972-74, the Irish Civil Rights struggle and the start of ‘the troubles’, the Chilean Popular Unity and so on.  The 1980s and 90s – the age of Reagan, Thatcher and neo-liberalism – were generally rightwing but the current crisis has witnessed, since the end of 2010, a wave of revolt from Tunisia and Egypt to Spain and the Occupy Movement.

From the global nature of capitalism Marx and Engels at once realised that socialism could not be achieved in one country.  In The Principles of Communism (1847), which was the first draft of the Communist Manifesto, Engels posed the question directly:

Will it be possible for this revolution to take place in one country alone?

And answered

No. By creating the world market, big industry has already brought all the peoples of the Earth, and especially the civilized peoples, into such close relation with one another that none is independent of what happens to the others.[6]
Lenin reiterated the point on many occasions. For example in January 1918:

The final victory of socialism in a single country is of course impossible. Our contingent of workers and peasants which is upholding soviet power is one of the contingents of a great world army.[7]

And in November 1920 on the 3rd anniversary of the Revolution:

We knew at that time that our victory would be a lasting one only when our cause had triumphed the world over, and so when we began working for our cause we counted exclusively on the world revolution…. We have always known and shall never forget that ours is an international cause, and until the revolution takes place in all lands, including the richest and most highly civilized ones, our victory will be only a half-victory, perhaps still less.[8]

Then the defense of internationalism and the goal of world revolution became the fundamental issue in  Trotsky’s struggle against Stalinism with its doctrine of ‘socialism in one country’ and in today’s globalised world the idea of being able to construct socialism in a single country is less plausible than ever.

For all these reasons the development of international solidarity, international socialist organization and the struggle against racism, nationalism and every prejudice which divides the working class is central to socialism.

National Oppression and National Liberation

Opposition to nationalism does not however mean that socialists are indifferent to issues of national oppression. On the contrary just as socialists have to be determined opponents of women’s oppression, LGBT oppression, and religious oppression, so they must vigorously oppose all forms of national oppression. This gives rise to an apparent paradox.  Historically the most important form of national oppression has been the denial of the right of nations or people to national independence or statehood. This has especially been the case in the numerous empires that have arisen with the development of capitalism. Spain, Portugal, Holland, Belgium, France, Russia, Germany, Austria, Japan, Italy, USA, Turkey etc and, above all, Britain amassed numerous colonies to whom they denied independence – India, Ireland, Kenya, Algeria, Vietnam, Nigeria, the West Indies, Angola, the Congo, Serbia, Georgia, to name but a few. If socialists, in their opposition to national oppression, support the liberation struggles of such nations or would-be nations are they not thereby supporting nationalism or at the very least compromising with it?

This was the argument made by the great Polish – German revolutionary socialist Rosa Lexemburg at the beginning of the 20th Century, especially in relation to Poland. At this time Poland was a colony of Russia but Luxemburg, who was profoundly internationalist, argued against supporting Polish independence because she was convinced that the Polish nationalists were reactionary and anti-working class and that instead Polish workers should unite with their Russian brothers and sisters in the struggle against the Tsar. (This was at the time of the 1905 Revolution in Russia.)  In contrast Lenin argued that it was essential for socialists to support the right of the oppressed nations within the Russian empire – Poland, Georgia, Latvia, Kazakstan and many others – to self-determination including the right to secede if they wanted it. 

Luxemburg thought this was a concession to nationalism and sowed illusions in the possibility of small nations to develop ‘independently’ within global capitalism. Lenin denied he was making any concession to nationalism and argued that support for the right to self-determination of oppressed nations was simply the application of democratic principle to the national question. Moreover he insisted it was precisely an internationalist duty because the international unification of the working class and of all peoples, which was the goal of socialism, could only be a voluntary unification. It could not be imposed by capitalism or imperialism. Lenin maintained that if socialists failed to oppose conquest, colonialism or the denial of the right to self- determination, they would become complicit in national oppression and cease to be internationalists.
Rosa Luxemburg was a great revolutionary socialist and committed internationalist but there is little doubt that history has proved Lenin right on this question. Everywhere it has existed imperialism has generated resistance in the form of national liberation movements which have played a hugely important and generally progressive role over the last 100 years. It is clear that socialists had to support the struggle of India, Ghana, Kenya, Zimbabwe and Ireland for national independence from the British Empire, of Algeria against French imperialism, of Vietnam against American imperialism, of Angola and Mozambique in relation to Portuguese imperialism and so on.

Lenin argued that revolts in the colonies and struggles for national liberation would objectively weaken the ruling class in the imperialist countries and thus assist the development of the revolution in those countries. This has been vindicated on a number of occasions: for example the resistance by the Vietnamese in the 1960s had a huge impact in developing resistance within the United States in terms of the black movement, the anti-war movement, and the student revolt – indeed it was a big factor in the revolts of the sixties internationally, including May ’68 in Paris – and then in 1974 it was the national liberation movements in Angola, Guinea-Bissau and Mozambique which weakened the Portuguese fascist regime to the point where it was overthrown by the Portuguese Revolution.

But if anti-imperialism and support for national liberation has become widespread on the socialist left (as opposed to mainstream social democracy and Labourism which has generally been pro-imperialist) [9] this has often brought with it a tendency for Marxists or socialists to merge with nationalism, or become nationalists themselves. This has particularly been the case in what used to be called the Third World but also applies to many western leftists who sympathise with Third World nationalism. Historically the main responsibility for this lay with Stalinism. After 1924 Stalin, in pursuit of socialism in one country, used the Communist International to turn the Communist parties into tools of Russian foreign policy. Instead of leading revolutions their job became to influence powerful allies into becoming ‘friends’ of the Soviet Union and help protect it against foreign intervention. In many cases these allies were nationalists of one kind or another and the nationalism started to rub off on the CPs themselves. Alongside this Stalinism adopted a ‘stages theory’ of revolution in all the underdeveloped countries according to which these countries were only ready for a ‘national democratic’ revolution in alliance with the ‘patriotic bourgeoisie’; only when this was completed was the struggle for socialism to begin.[10] This reinforced the transformation of ‘communists’ or socialists into radical nationalists (as with Ho Chi Minh and the National Liberation Front in Vietnam or Fidel Castro in Cuba or left republicanism in Ireland).

To summarize: Marxists support the right of nations to self-determination and the national liberation struggles of oppressed nations but they do so as internationalists in order to assist the international unification of the working class and not as an end in itself.

Rogue Regimes and Terrorists

Put as an abstract question the right to national self-determination is one most of the left and many democrats would readily support. Moreover, to give some concrete examples, few people, if any, on the left would deny the right to independence of India or Vietnam or Cuba or Ireland or the right to majority rule in South Africa. One reason for this is that the leaderships of these national movements (Gandhi, Ho Chi Minh, Castro, Pearse and Connolly, Mandela) were widely seen as progressive and heroic figures; another is that the ideological tool used to discredit these movements, that they were ‘communist’, lost much of its power. Things can stand very differently where the national regime or movement concerned seems much less attractive or progressive, eg the regime of Gaddafy in Libya or the Taliban in Afghanistan.

The imperialists and their hired propagandists know this only two well. If they want to conquer, occupy, colonise or attack a country, for their own predatory reasons, they take care to demonise its ‘regime’ or leadership first. For a long time outright racism was the main ideological weapon used for these purposes- the natives, you see, were ‘childlike’ or ‘savages’ unfit to rule themselves – then, as noted above, it was ‘the threat of communism’. In recent years these motifs have given way to the concepts of ‘rogue regimes’ and ‘terrorism’, both frequently (though not always) underpinned by Islamophobia. Regime X, so the argument runs is, so atrocious that imperialist intervention/conquest is ‘humanitarian’ and liberatory, for the good of the people on the receiving end of it. This argument is given plausibility by the fact that many of the regimes in question are indeed atrocious (Saddam Hussein, Gaddafy, Assad in Syria, North Korea and so on).

Over the last couple of decades ‘terrorism’ has become an all purpose label designed to justify whatever the US government especially, but many other governments as well, might choose to do. A given country may clearly pose no threat whatsoever to the US, UK or France but they are ‘terrorists’ or ‘sponsor’ or ‘harbour’ terrorism, especially Muslim terrorism, and therefore it is legitimate to bomb or invade it. Thus neither Afghanistan, nor Iran, nor Iraq nor any Arab country has ever invaded or made war on America or any European country in the last several hundred years and are manifestly incapable of doing so. Ah! But they are ‘terrorists’ so ‘we have to fight them over there, so that we don’t have to fight them at home’ as GIs are trained to say.

Socialists must reject both these justifications for imperialism. If a country has a horrific regime, often because that regime is armed and sustained by imperialism, this is for the people of that country to deal with, with the solidarity of working people from other countries. [Of course the capitalist press and politicians always downplay or rule out this possibility of change from below]. It in no way negates that country’s right to self-determination. Neither does the bogus issue of terrorism. ‘Terrorism’ as a political strategy can be critiqued from the left or the right. The left critique focuses on its inability to achieve its goals, and on its attempt to substitute the actions of a small ‘heroic’ group for the struggle of the masses.[11] The right wing critique is based on the notion that all political violence except that of the ruling class and its state is criminal, immoral and , they always say, cowardly, whereas the violence of the capitalist state and its armed forces, which is on a vastly greater scale – think Hiroshima, Vietnam, Iraq etc – is not only legitimate and ‘brave’ but not even recognized as violence being invariably described a ‘fighting for our country’ or ‘peace keeping’ or ‘ restoring order.’ Moreover the idea that the existence of terrorism excuses or justifies imperialist intervention inverts reality in that 95% or more of terrorism, including the infamous 9/11, is in fact a response to imperialism and oppression – a misguided response, but a response nonetheless.

Some complexities

Marxist support, on the basis of internationalism, for the right to self-determination and for national liberation movements against imperialism has shown itself to be a generally valid position since it first began to be established by Marx in relation to Ireland and Poland in the 19th century, through to its development by Lenin, Trotsky and other Marxists. This does not mean, however, that it is a simple absolute rule or that there are no tricky, complex or intermediate cases. Intermediate and complex cases always arise in life. 

In the first place it is sometimes debatable whether or not a certain group of people constitute a nation and therefore whether or not a call for national self-determination is appropriate or useful. There are clear cases – France is a nation, Pimlico is not[12] – but what about US Blacks, Jews internationally, Cornwall, Northern Irish Loyalists and so on.? In 1913 Stalin in Marxism and the National Question advanced a ‘definition’ of a nation in terms of a combination of certain characteristics.

A nation is a historically constituted, stable community of people, formed on the basis of a common language, territory, economic life, and psychological make-up manifested in a common culture.[13]

This definition, due to its author, was to prove influential in the international communist movement but it is a wrong and mechanical approach. The problem is that nations like all other social and political phenomena are not fixed entities but develop historically and that therefore a ‘people,’ at precisely the moment their right to nationhood and self-determination is in question, are likely to possess some but not all of these characteristics. It is better to make the decisive criterion whether or not the people in question, in their majority, see themselves as a nation or aspire to nationhood (while understanding that this identification will be economically and socially conditioned). In debating the question of self-determination for US Blacks in 1939, Trotsky argued:

As a party we can remain absolutely neutral on this. We cannot say it will be reactionary. It is not reactionary. We cannot tell them to set up a state because that will weaken imperialism and so will be good for us, the white workers. That would be against internationalism itself…We can say, ‘It is for you to decide. If you wish to take a part of the country, it is all right, but we do not wish to make the decision for you…

Comrade Johnson used three verbs: ‘support’, ‘advocate’ and ‘inject’ the idea of self-determination. I do not propose for the party to advocate, I do not propose to inject, but only to proclaim our obligation to support the struggle for self-determination if the Negroes themselves want it. It is not a question of our Negro comrades. It is a question of 13 or 14 million Negroes. [14]

Another complexity arises in dealing with nations that do not fit neatly into the division between oppressor nations and oppressed nations. Lenin always insisted that it was necessary to distinguish between the nationalism of oppressor nations which is thoroughly reactionary and that of oppressed nations which has a democratic and progressive element in it. Much historical experience has confirmed this judgement. British, French and German nationalisms point rightwards to UKIP and the BNP, to Le Pen and the Front National, to Hitler and to Neo-Nazism. Irish, Indian and South African nationalism point leftwards to Pearse and Connolly, to Gandhi and the Communist Parties, to Nelson Mandela and Steve Biko. US Black nationalism leads to Malcolm X and to the Black Panthers.

But what of a nation like Scotland? Scotland is not and has not been an oppressed nation like Ireland (or India, Kenya, Algeria, Palestine etc). A comparison of the historical development of Scotland and Ireland makes this very clear. While Scottish industrialization marched forward in tandem with English industrialization Irish industry industry was held back. While Scottish living standards roughly kept pace with English, Ireland was dramatically impoverished. While the Scottish bourgeoisie became a partner of the English in British imperialism, the Irish bourgeoisie was marginalized and excluded. So what implications does this have for the socialist attitude to Scottish nationalism and Scottish independence? Does it mean that support for national self determination ceases to apply?

No, because socialists have no interest in defending the unity of the British imperialist state and because if the majority of Scots want independence the denial of this right by the British state would be a violation of democracy and could, indeed, transform Scotland into an oppressed nation. It is true that Scotland has been a partner in British imperialism and thus an oppressor but Scottish nationalism and the demand for independence is directed against British nationalism and is a move towards a certain separation from British imperialism.[15] At the same time it is necessary to emphasize that  Scottish independence would not in itself solve any of the serious problems facing the Scottish working class and that unity and solidarity between Scottish and other UK workers, which already exists to an extent through the trade unions etc., should be maintained.

The case of Scotland is only one example but it clearly has implications for other nations such as Catalonia and Wales.

A further complexity arises when a nationalist movement, or what presents itself as a nationalist movement, in fact becomes a tool of imperialism (sometimes a rival imperialism). It has generally been accepted in the Marxist tradition that in such cases support should no longer be given to that national movement. Thus, in the First World War, Serbian nationalism (which had developed in opposition to the Ottoman Empire and to Austria-Hungary) became a tool of Russian imperialism and revolutionary socialists who took an internationalist position against the war (including the internationalists in Serbia) ceased to support it. When the Congo under Patrice Lumumba won its independence from Belgium in 1960 there was immediately a breakaway by the region of Katanga, but this was clearly being manipulated by imperialism, especially Belgian imperialism in order to undermine the Congo and retain control of the rich mineral resources in the area.

Matters are not always simple and sometimes lead to controversy on the left. For example in relation to the Korean War (1950-53), Tony Cliff, founder of the International Socialist tradition, argued that this was not a war of national liberation against US imperialism but a proxy war between the Soviet Union and the US, both of which had imperialist aims in the conflict: a view which was denounced by Stalinists and ‘orthodox’ Trotskyists alike[16] but does seem to be born out by the historical facts. However, when it came to the Vietnam War, the IS view, along with the rest of the left, was that, despite Soviet backing, this was a genuine national liberation struggle meriting full support. In relation to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in 1979 there was a debate within the British SWP as to whether the Afghan mujahideen were a genuine movement of national resistance or simply an instrument of US imperialism (which clearly supported them at the time). Subsequent history suggests the former position was correct.[17]

One thing these examples make clear is that it is not simply the provision of military support by an imperialist power that is decisive – the Soviet Union gave military support (for its own cynical and imperialist reasons) to various national movements, while opposing others – but whether the imperialist power has actually taken control of the national movement concerned. [18]  Clearly determining if this is the case in any specific instance requires not just abstract principles but also a concrete analysis of the concrete situation.

But this is true of the national question as a whole and in making these concrete analyses- we present four in this issue of IMR - it must always be remembered that while there exists in Marxism and in socialism a presumption in favour of the right of nations to self determination this remains a means to the end of international working class unity and, in the final analysis is subordinate to the interests of the international working class revolution.

John Molyneux

[1] For an excellent and wide ranging analysis of the development of nations and nationalism (along with much else besides) see Chris Harman, ‘The return of the national question’, International Socialism 56.
[2] As Marx pointed out these forms of dominance generally tend to go together and are also often accompanied by cultural hegemony.
[3] For example the role of the Great French Revolution in the social memory of the French people and the whole European left throughout the 19th century, or the role of the Lockout and the Easter Rising in the the consciousness of the Irish working class today. We should also remember Marx’s comment that ‘The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living’.
[6] http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1847/11/prin-com.htm
[7] Lenin, Collected Works, Moscow 1962, Vol 26. pp.470-1.
[8] As above, Vol.31 pp397-98. And Trotsky, of course, fought a life and death struggle over this question when Stalin in 1924 proposed, for the first time in the history of the Marxist movement, that socialism could be built in a single country.
[9] This has been the case ever since ever since most European social democrats supported the imperialist First World War in August 1914 .
[10]  This stages theory was lifted from the Russian Mensheviks, who argued that Russia was only ready for a democratic revolution, and counterposed to Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution according to which revolutionary socialists should put forward anti-imperialist and democratic demands but fight for working class leadership of the democratic revolution and its transformation into a socialist revolution.
[11] For a classic statement of this left critique see Leon Trotsky, Why Marxists Oppose  Individual Terrorism, http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1911/11/tia09.htm.

[12] Pimlico is a district in London which was the subject of an Ealing comedy film called Passport to Pimlico (1949) in which the district declared independence (!).

[14] Leon Trotsky,  Self- determination for the American Negroes,                                             http://www.marxists.org/history/etol/newspape/isj/1970/no043/trotsky2.htm
[15] This should not be exaggerated because an independent capitalist Scotland might very well sign up to European  imperialism via the EU.
[16] Though interestingly Cliff’s view was shared by Natalia Sedova Trotsky in her Letter of Resignation from the Fourth International, http://www.marxists.org/history/etol/newspape/socialistvoice/natalia38.html.

[17] See Jonathan Neale, ‘The Afghan Tragedy’, International Socialism 12,(1981). http://www.marxists.org/history/etol/newspape/isj2/1981/isj2-012/neale.htm

[18] Making just this point Trotsky in In Defence of Marxism gives a striking example. ‘If Hitler tomorrow were forced to send arms to the insurrectionary Indians, must the revolutionary German workers oppose this concrete action by strikes or sabotage? On the contrary they must make sure that the insurrectionists receive the arms as soon as possible…. But this example is purely hypothetical. We used it in order to show that even a fascist government of finance-capital can under certain conditions be forced to support a national revolutionary movement (in order to attempt to strangle it the next day) http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/idom/dm/09-pbopp.htm

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

History without Nature?

History without nature? A response to Nancy Lindisfarne, Jonathan Neale and Colin Wilson

This article appeared in International Socialism Journal 140 (October 2013)

Unfortunately I lack the knowledge, particularly in anthropology, needed to offer a comprehensive response to either Nancy Lindisfarne and Jonathan Neale [‘What gender does’, ISJ 139] or Colin Wilson [‘Sexuality in pre-class society’, ISJ 139] . However it does seem to me that each of their articles suffers from a serious and fundamental weakness and that, on inspection this turns out to be basically the same weakness: a tendency completely separate human history from its ‘natural bases’(Marx, see below).

Lindisfarne and Neale write, ‘The starting point is that the natural world is of a piece and continuous. As human beings we divide this world up into socially relevant continua.’ [p.135]. As a statement about humans and ‘the natural world’ this is sometimes true but as a generalisation it is false. Africa, for example, is a great continuous landmass which has been divided up by humans, especially imperialist humans, into ‘socially relevant’ nation states. But Africa and America are not naturally of a piece; they are divided from one another, not by humans, but by a vast ocean. Of course, for certain purposes, say the study of the earth’s geological history, Africa and America could be considered part of the same continuum but not for others, say the study of human history or travelling from one to another.

Fortunately we have dialectics, and specifically the dialectics of nature, to help us deal with these problems. There is continuity and there is change, and there are moments when quantitative change becomes qualitative change and there are contradictions, opposing forces and ‘leaps’ in nature not just more or less arbitrarily imposed by human ideology. ‘Gradualness and leaps …gradualness explains nothing without leaps’ writes Lenin in his notes on Hegel’s Logic. [1]

This matters here because Lindisfarne and Neale go on to say, ‘Continua lie behind the ways we characterise all aspects of our bodies, including reproduction, sexuality and desire’. (p.136). Now however true this may be for sexuality and desire it is not true for reproduction. Put simply women are able to bear children and men are not. And for most of human history the majority of women have needed to bear several children for the clan, tribe, people and species to survive. Moreover, when it comes to suckling babies, a biological necessity for most of history, there is also not a continuum. Women (again most women) can do it and men cannot.[2] And this, of course, is where ‘the family’ comes in.

Saying ‘the family’ here does not involve imagining, as L & N imply, that the form of the family remains constant over time or across different societies. Neither Engels, nor any other serious Marxist, has ever argued this. It is simply shorthand for referring to the different social arrangements established in order to deal with the bearing and rearing of children (although it often performs other functions as well).

At its core, Engels’ argument, with all its flaws, and the argument of all the Marxists who have followed Engels ( including German, Harman, McGregor etc.) is that at a certain stage of human development, characterised by the emergence of agriculture, the production of a surplus, the appearance of private property and the division of society into classes, these social arrangements for child bearing and child rearing became oppressive in a way that was not previously the case and have henceforth remained so.

To me this remains convincing, more convincing than L&N’s picture of sexism and ‘gender’ as purely or primarily an ideological mechanism for justifying class inequality, enforced by physically stronger men. It is true that sexism and gender have functioned as an ideological justification but one of the reasons why it has operated that way so widely and effectively is that it ‘connects’ with the material lived reality of the family in its various forms.

Here also is where L&N’s parallel between sexism and racism breaks down. At certain points in history, racism has intersected contingently with biology in the sense that the victims of European colonial expansion tended to have different skin pigmentation bur racism is perfectly possible without any connection to biology as the cases of British racism against the Irish and Zionist racism against Palestinians demonstrate. Moreover race is not a scientifically valid or useful biological category in the way that gender is. The notion of distinct races really is a social/historical construction. The concept of distinct races, genders, or sexes is not.

Which brings me to Colin Wilson’s deployment of Foucault’s argument that ‘sexuality is socially constructed’. I want to challenge this formulation because there is a much better way of putting the matter; namely that human sexuality it biologically based but then profoundly socially conditioned. The problem with Foucault’s and Wilson’s formulation is that it severs human behaviour from its natural or biological foundations in a way that is fundamentally anti-materialist. Marx was quite explicit on this point.

The premises from which we begin are not arbitrary ones, not dogmas, but real premises from which abstraction can only be made in the imagination. They are the real individuals, their activity and the material conditions under which they live, both those which they find already existing and those produced by their activity. These premises can thus be verified in a purely empirical way.
The first premise of all human history is, of course, the existence of living human individuals. Thus the first fact to be established is the physical organisation of these individuals and their consequent relation to the rest of nature. Of course, we cannot here go either into the actual physical nature of man, or into the natural conditions in which man finds himself – geological, hydrographical, climatic and so on. The writing of history must always set out from these natural bases and their modification in the course of history through the action of men.[3]
This error leads Wilson into a number of very poor arguments in an attempt to justify it.

He tell us that the ‘sexuality is a social construction’ position is the academic consensus [‘most recent research’ page 161]. I’m sorry but there is scarcely a proposition of revolutionary Marxism that hasn’t fallen foul of the academic consensus in the last forty years especially in its post-structuralist, post-modernist phase of which Foucault is probably the most important figure. He counterpoises ‘sex as fundamentally social’ to ‘sex as natural’ in a crude and false polarisation when sexuality is precisely nature/biology shaped by history/society. Again Marx is explicit:

The production of life, both of one’s own in labour and of fresh life in procreation, now appears as a double relationship: on the one hand as a natural, on the other as a social relationship. [4]

He argues that he is following in the tradition of Engels’ project in The Origins of the Family, where he demonstrates that ‘the state has not existed from all eternity’ and that the family also ‘far from being the direct expression of human biology has changed form in different societies’.  Clearly neither the state nor anything else is eternal but one thing is certain, human sexuality is far older than the state and must reach back to and develop out of pre-human, i.e. animal/natural sexuality. Of course neither Engels nor McGregor nor any other Marxist thinks either sex or the family is a ‘direct expression’ of human biology, any more than politics is a direct expression of economics. But that doesn’t mean that politics has no relation to economics or that the family or sex has no connection with biology.

All Wilson’s examples of the rich variety of human sexual practices and attitudes, important as they are for other purposes, are irrelevant to this argument. It is as if someone were to claim that the immense variety of food eaten by human beings in different parts of the world showed that eating was a social construction and not a natural necessity. Indeed the variety of human social practices are more constrained by biology that is our diet. Consider for example: attitudes to and the practice of oral and anal sex may and do vary enormously from society to society but for the most obvious and compelling reasons. All societies without exception have practiced on a large scale heterosexual vaginal intercourse and no society has attempted to prohibit this except for specific groups (priests, the unmarried, children etc). As we have said nothing is forever and it is conceivable that in some ‘brave new world’ this may change, but we are discussing the past and present, not the future, here.

Wilson’s confusion on this point also leads him to confusion on a couple of very basic points in Marx. He says that Marx maintains that ‘through labour….human beings interact with nature and so change themselves’. He quotes Marx in Capital directly;

Labour is, first of all, a process between man and nature, a process by which man, through his own actions, mediates, regulates and controls the metabolism between himself and nature… He sets in motion the natural forces which belong to his own body, his arms, legs, head and hands, in order to appropriate the materials of nature in a form adapted to his own needs. Through this movement he acts upon external nature and changes it, and in this way he simultaneously changes his own nature. [p.164]

Here it is noticeable how Marx stresses the ongoing interaction or ‘metabolism’ between humans and nature. And Wilson continues in the same vein, noting how labour ‘transforms the human being as part of nature’. Then in the next sentence there is a slippage. He writes ‘the nature of human beings is that we do not have a fixed nature, but create ourselves’ (page 165).

Yes, but only up to a point. We do not construct ourselves from scratch but repeatedly modify ourselves on the basis of what we biologically and culturally inherit. Human nature is indeed not fixed but there are real continuities in it including as Lindisfarne and Neale point out, the need for ‘clean air, water, food and warmth because we are animals…nurture because we are mammals…love and friendship because we are social animals’.

There are good revolutionary reasons for insisting that human beings, including their sexuality, are not totally socially constructed or socially malleable. I am sure it is unintentional but on this question Wilson has made a concession to bourgeois ideology in one of its numerous fashionable academic forms.

My last point is this. I do not have the empirical evidence to pronounce on the benevolence or otherwise of sexual practices in pre-class societies. Maybe Wilson is right that the evidence doesn’t exist and maybe he is not. Lindisfarne and Neale are fairly confident on this point.

Scholars now know a great deal about the past. What information we now have suggests that for at least 100,000 years people managed their access to food, water, shelter, love, sex and nurture in more or less egalitarian ways. (p.145)

However if it is the case that in non-class, non-alienated primitive societies there was a general tendency to sexual cruelty, bullying, rape etc. this would raise serious difficulties for our whole argument about oppression. First we would need to have some explanation for this behaviour.[5] Second it would suggest that sexual oppression might continue to exist not only ‘after the revolution’ but in the future classless society, which would open the door to patriarchy theory and various forms of identity politics and separatism. If on the other hand Lindisfarne and Neale and McGregor are basically right on this then it is certainly a position socialists would have every reason to defend.

[1] Lenin (1963) p.123. V.I.Lenin, Collected Works,Vol.38, Moscow 1963.
[2] Continuing in the same vein L & N write, ‘In fact the entire gamut of social behaviours can also be seen this way. Take for example the continuum between life and death. Then consider the debates about living wills, brain death, assisted dying, euthanasia and organ donation.’ (p.136). As if in reply Mandel wrote, ‘According to scientific dialectics, the ‘absolute’ difference between life and death is negated by  by the existence of transitory situations. Everything is relative and hence also the difference between life and death, reply the sophists. No answers the dialectician: there is also something absolute and not just something negative in the difference between life and death’.. Mandel (1982) p. 167. Ernest Mandel, Introduction to Marxism, London, 1982.
[3] Marx and Engels, The German Ideology http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/german-ideology/ch01a.htm#a2
[4] As above.
[5] Foucault and other Nietscheans might well be inclined to explain in terms of an innate ‘will to power’.