Against biological determinism
Finlay Scott Gilmour responds to Amanda MacLean’s critique of genderism
Recently the Weekly Worker published an article on the subject of gender and sex: whether one takes precedence over the other and which determines the true ‘nature’ of transgender and non-binary peoples (‘Decoupled from reality’, April 18). This defence of traditional understandings of what constitutes the validity of one’s gender identity is a hangover of empirio-criticism and vulgar materialist understandings of the subject. Further, it only aids the reinforcement of reactionary notions of gender identity among Marxists, who ought to be fighting for a nuanced and highly developed understanding of gender nonconformity and be at the vanguard of the fight for sexual freedom.
To begin, we have to ask ourselves an important question: are biological factors the determining motivation for our psychology, or does the intricacy of human psychology come above that of our biology? All throughout modern history scientists and professionals of fields that deal with the human brain and human biology in general have argued for a different understanding of the concept of psychology. But as Marxists we must surely understand that human psychology is inherently related to class society and with that the traditional structure of the family along lines of heterosexuality and gender conformity, which exists as both the product and producer of this structure.
To say that radical opposition to traditional conceptions and structures of sex, sexuality, gender and personal relationships is anti-materialist misunderstands the nature of human relations and their development from the beginning of class society. My statement that this form of biological determinism is a hangover of empirio-criticism may seem at first glance profoundly foolish. But we must go back to the context of the debate among Russian Marxists around the relevance of bourgeois developments on Marxism and if they supersede materialism. Lenin took issue with the empirio-critics, Ernst Mach and Richard Avenarius (supporters of the concept within science) and Alexander Bogdanov (the main supporter of the idea of empirio-criticism within Marxism). Let us take a look at what Lenin states on the understanding of the human psyche in Marxism and empirio-criticism:
If bodies are “complexes of sensations”, as Mach says, or “combinations of sensations”, as Berkeley said, it inevitably follows that the whole world is but my idea. Starting from such a premise, it is impossible to arrive at the existence of other people besides oneself: it is the purest solipsism.1
And Lenin explains this understanding:
Not a single idea, not a glimmer of thought, except that “we sense only our sensations”. From which there is only one possible inference: namely, that the “world consists only of my sensations”. The word ‘our’ employed by Mach instead of ‘my’ is employed illegitimately. By this word alone Mach betrays that “half-heartedness” of which he accuses others. For if the “assumption” of the existence of the external world is “idle”, if the assumption that the needle exists independently of me and that an interaction takes place between my body and the point of the needle is really “idle and superfluous”, then primarily the “assumption” of the existence of other people is idle and superfluous.
Let us look more closely at these two rather large quotes, so we can understand Lenin’s critique of empirio-criticism and how it applies to us in this argument. First of all, we must understand the argument of the empirio-critics on metaphysics and, most importantly, the conception of the ‘self’ and how we see the relation of matter to sensation viz psychical reaction. To begin, Lenin attacks the notion of the empirio-critics that our existence is composed primarily of our sensations; that, being an individual, I feel, therefore I am. What Lenin points out here is that we cannot understand biological matter separately from the psyche that forms as a reaction to it. What we can discern from this is an important understanding of materialism and the analysis of the self: material existence is primary; undeniably, our psychical reactions develop as part of the existence of matter.
This, of course, within the field of natural science is a perfectly reasonable explanation, but we must take a step back from the ‘natural’ and step towards the ‘unnatural’: that is, the existence of societal constructs in relation to our psyche. The natural exists as is - invariable, unchanging - in contrast to that of the construct, which exists as a complete variable, and only insofar as we allow it to exist.
This is where we begin with our analysis of gender. Some draw a distinction between sex and gender, as if it were some great wall that divides a river, yet this only adds to the misunderstanding of the subject (I will deal with the subject of ‘biological’ sex later).
What do we use as our basis for the understanding of gender? Some say it is the presence of dysphoria, yet the existence of non-dysphoric trans people contradicts this. Others say it is one who is in a state of ‘passing’: viz they are recognised by others as their identified gender and thus exist as such on the basis of others’ perceptions. This as well is flawed, as it opens the door to many questions. Is someone who was born and identifies as a man, but has a feminine voice and build, then not a man, since the perception of others must define their identity? This is the first glaring issue with the traditional understanding of gender or, as it is better understood, ‘Boys will be boys and girls will be girls’ - as MacLean gleefully points out. How far does one’s existence depend upon the perceptions of others? And how far should this be taken? If we enforce strict rules on bathrooms, for example, along the lines of ‘biological sex’, do we stop every person who wishes to enter and force them to reveal themselves? After all, physical perception is defined by others: surely we must seek empirical evidence before we allow anyone to use a toilet?
The issue with perceiving as an invariable the workings of human psychology is that it ignores the developments of class society and its relation to our psychology. It is undeniable that the realisation of communism will see a radical transformation in our psyche. There is no ingrained biological determination for how we perceive things on the conscious level: we understand that the conscious - that is, independent thought - is inherently influenced by societal constructs and our own development. When we are raised to see heterosexuality as ‘normal’, then the psyche reacts with anger if non-heteronormative attraction is present. The subconscious expunges the pent-up emotion in a form of catharsis through the conscious hatred of that which defines ourselves.
How then does this relate to our understanding of psychology and gender in capitalist class society? Most importantly it provides us with the understanding that the psyche is a variable: we are not defined by biology; we are defined by our societal influences. Gender exists as a societal construct that uses a faux materialist argument of ‘natural science’ to dissuade others from attempting to analyse the nature of gender and class.
We are raised to see heterosexual nuclear families as the building block of society, but what is the basis for the nuclear family in the modern age of capitalist production? One may say it is exactly that: production; we subconsciously desire to have families because society tells us it means we will be cared for when we are old or ill. The point is that the development of class society is intricate and complex; the exact development of these constructs may be beyond our understanding, but their relation is clear to see.
MacLean insists on defending the modern gender binary without the slightest idea of what then ensues. When our ancestors lived in the time of primitive communism, did they uphold a strict definition of gender? Across the world various cultures are not unfamiliar with the presence of a third gender - the gender binary we know of today was largely a colonial construct upheld against what were perceived to be ‘barbaric’ cultures that lacked the ‘sure-fire science’ of the European colonists. We find this construct ingrained in capitalist class society and evidently still present today.
Here is what Amanda MacLean says in regard to the way we perceive the nature of transgender existence: “But tolerance and understanding of the trans experience will fail if they are based on bad and disingenuous interpretations of science.” MacLean also signals some ambiguous “return to class analysis” without realising the poverty and lack of any real understanding of materialism in their argument:
The fact that much of the left unquestioningly accepts and regurgitates an ideology in which the subjective feelings of the individual trump objectively observable conditions is a sign that we have abandoned the physical, material reality on which our politics is based, and replaced it with a subjective individualism that is alien to any class-based analysis.
It seems MacLean has no shame in their blatant positivism: must we always turn to statistics to win ourselves a trump card? In reality MacLean’s article simply reads as faux utilitarianism: it concedes the existence and validity of trans and non-binary people, whilst refusing to address the actual issue at hand: that is, the existence of gender itself. The mathematisation of ethics, the adherence of numerical values to abstract concepts, the ultimate attempt at the rationalisation of human ethics - these are all part of a historical trend towards positivism. And, in a theoretical expression that mirrors value relations, positivism and the rationality of bourgeois society are an ideological cover - a mask of methodology that does not reflect any true search for knowledge or absolute truth. It restricts everything to its form - one that consecrates the emergence of positivism, of bureaucratisation, of standardisation of the bourgeois society of its time. This vulgarity is present throughout MacLean’s article and serves only to devalue it in the eyes on any well-read Marxist.
The reek of positivism not uncommon among anti-materialist Rad Fems. MacLean does to trans people and the struggle for liberation what bourgeois theorists do to the working class: they recognise rights and deny struggle; they concede scraps in disgust with a tight hand, whilst starkly opposing any true battle for trans existence.
MacLean’s claim to a ‘scientific’ superiority over perceived ‘genderists’ - a term constructed by those opposed to any form of comprehensive study on transgender existence - is exactly what exposes the vulgarity of the article. Returning to the presence of empirio-criticism on the left, we see it present all through the article, as statistics and raw empirical evidence are thrown about to reinforce the bare bones and MacLean’s hilariously bad argument; what little scraps of originality exist are laughable at best and highlight the poverty of empirio-critical analysis. MacLean cannot form a comprehensive analysis of the subject, so they rely on empirical evidence like the bourgeois statistician, who relies on all the numbers of the imaginative bourgeois economists. That is the polar opposite of the dialectical method.
Now we have laid down a thorough Marxist criticism of the theory itself, we must turn to the superficial area of the article: that is, the direct presence of biological-determinist rhetoric and transphobic language. Let us begin with this quote:
In other words, a fully intact male is literally a woman if he believes himself to be a woman. This is on the basis of a self-reported ‘gender identity’ that is alleged to be the only reliable indicator of ‘gender’ and is claimed to exist independently of biological sex.
Not even a quarter way into the article do we find MacLean making clear their thought on pre-sex reassignment surgery/hormone replacement therapy trans women: they are men who ‘can’t hack it’. Is this the height of what MacLean can offer? Promising their devotion to defending trans people, whilst invalidating them in the exact same sentence?
Again, MacLean uses a complete falsity to reinforce their argument:
The left’s response has not been to stand for the rights of lesbians and other women and girls, but, along with every mainstream political party, to suppress debate and to brand anyone who raises concerns or even asks questions with accusations of transphobia, bigotry and, bizarrely, fascism.
The mainstream of bourgeois politics are pro-trans? What level of dissonance does one require to think this? The bourgeois political sphere uses liberal renditions of identity politics to try to maintain their relevance, but the idea that the voter base or even the leadership of the Republican Party or Conservatives hold some unshaken devotion to trans existence is laughable. The exploitation, abuse and murder of trans people is ignored by bourgeois politicians. To say that bourgeois politicians ‘support’ trans people is as laughable as saying bourgeois politicians ‘support’ the working class by giving them concessions. No-one denies the exploitation and continued oppression of women - to do so is to betray the very basis of what Marxism is - but to say that trans people are invalid, that they are not oppressed by the gender binary and by patriarchy is a joke.
This running tradition of ‘anti-genderism’ on the British left has to stop; otherwise we will continue to be no better than charlatans lying to the working class about the nature of capitalism or the realisation of communism. Marxism is the ideology of the exploited, the starving, the weak and those trod underfoot. The struggle of all peoples against the corrosive nature of capitalism is the struggle we share and only solidarity and the full support of emancipation will bring about the realisation of that struggle.
This biological-determinist understanding of the psyche is dangerous and anti-materialist. It takes us along the same path as any biologically determinist understanding of psychology.