Below Blind Field presents an excerpt from the Red Fightback collective’s pamphlet Marxism and Transgender Liberation: Confronting Transphobia in the British Left. By way of an introduction they write:
Amongst many things, [the book] articulates the conditions in which we experience such severe abandonment and isolation. So many of us feel this way – particularly as transgender, non-binary, intersex and otherwise gender non-conforming people. We are scapegoated and gaslit, terrorised and depicted as terrorists, beaten and abused, murdered and forgotten. We turn to the left for support, in a nation where lesbians and gays supported the miners and the miners led a pride parade in response, and find nothing. The liberal left offers at best hollow words, enacting the same hatred and violence as those they barely claim to oppose. Many on the far left offer crude ‘materialism’ as their grounds for perpetuating these oppressive structures, and claim to break with capitalism despite not challenging its transphobia, racism, ableism, misogyny or homophobia. This pamphlet thoroughly exposes the analytical incoherency and moral deficiency within so much of this supposed left; their position, which is plainly morally corrupt, is proved to also be analytically impossible.
Marxism, Identity and Human Nature
Materialism, in the philosophical sense, means grounded in the laws of nature; that reality is independent of human consciousness, and indeed that the latter forms part of and cannot escape from natural laws (there is no ‘free’ spirit or soul etc.). This position by no means implies biological determinism or essentialism, a form of mechanical materialism, as opposed to Marxist dialectical materialism. Mechanical materialism is the trap that transphobic ‘Marxists’ have fallen into. Transphobes often adopt materialist rhetoric, for example the transphobic US Women’s Liberation Front (WoLF) states that ‘Sex is grounded in materiality, whereas “gender identity” is simply an ideology that has no grounding in science’. The CPGB(ML) likewise presents itself as a paragon of materialism against the supposed ‘idealism’ of trans people. We have already seen how the notion of a sex binary has more to do with patriarchal ideology than the intricate reality of human genetic makeup. But materialism is not limited to the biological realm, nor are the biological and social cut off from each other. Real human physiological life, including subjective identity formation within brain structures, never exists in a pre-social, i.e. purely biological, form. As Marxist biologists Steven Rose, Richard Lewontin and Leon Kamin explain: ‘The relation between organism and environment is not simply one of interaction of internal and external factors, but a dialectical development of organism and milieu in response to each other . . . All human phenomena are simultaneously social and biological’.
Biology and Dialectical Materialism
As Engels recognised, thus far in human history it has been ‘inherent in the descent of man from the animal world that he can never entirely rid himself of the beast’. Engels however also outlined what was for his time a truly revolutionary challenge to biological essentialism, emphasising the role of social processes (labour) in human evolution:
the sense of touch . . . has been developed only side by side with the development of the human hand itself, through the medium of labour. The reaction on labour and speech of the development of the brain and its attendant senses, of the increasing clarity of consciousness, power of abstraction and of conclusion, gave both labour and speech an ever-renewed impulse to further development . . . the more this progresses the more will men not only feel but also know their oneness with nature, and the more impossible will become the senseless and unnatural idea of a contrast between mind and matter, man and nature, soul and body
Elsewhere, Engels remarked that ‘man himself is a product of nature, which has developed in and along with its environment; hence it is self-evident that the products of the human brain, being in the last analysis also products of nature, do not contradict the rest of nature’s interconnections but are in correspondence with them.’ There is not, and never has been, such a thing in practice as a ‘purely biological’ (pre-social) human, yet nor does human consciousness exist outside of physiological laws and structures. The celebrated evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, while not explicitly a Marxist, drew on Engels’ dialectical materialism to explain the deficiency of both biological essentialism and postmodern culturalist perspectives that totally dismiss the relevance of biology:
A proper understanding of biology and culture both affirms the great importance of biology in human behaviour and also explains why biology makes us free. The old equation of biology with restriction, with the inherent (as opposed to malleable) side of the false dichotomy between nature and nurture rests upon errors of thinking as old as Western culture itself. The critics of biological determinism do not uphold the equally fallacious (and equally cruel and restrictive) view that human culture cancels biology. Biological determinism has limited the lives of millions by misidentifying their socioeconomic disadvantages as inborn deficiencies, but cultural determinism can be just as cruel in attributing severe congenital disease, autism for example, to psychobabble about too much parental love, or too little.
In specific relation to sex, purposeful stretching or surpassing of organic bodily limits is not restricted to surgical alteration. Human have always used tools as an extension of our given biology, and our capacity to do so continually increases in line with societal development. Today, ‘a breastfeeding device, a simple tool consisting of a milk bottle connected to a tube that can be attached to a nipple, allows one to breastfeed regardless of whether the person is lactating. In this case, the person is actively constructing a capacity to feed a baby independent of the physiological properties of the body that would, under common classification strategies, justify categorizing that person as a male or female . . . A dildo can also be incorporated in a way that extends one’s sex. Extending sex is not about either constructing female/male individuals, or female/male properties, but about transforming one’s relation to the world by enhancing one’s capacities for particular actions.’ Here we can paraphrase Marx on the transformative nature of humans: ‘Labour is, first of all, a process between (wo)man and nature . . . Through this movement (s)he acts upon external nature and changes it, and in this way (s)he simultaneously changes her own nature.‘