Philosophy, Marxism and gender ideology
Rex Dunn makes a contribution to our ongoing debate. He argues that genderism stems from working class defeats and poststructuralist subjectivism
In the age of LGBT+, how should Marxists approach the question of gender? From the standpoint of science, in her article, ‘Decoupled from reality’, Amanda MacLean argues that “biological factors” are the “determining motivation” (Weekly Worker April 18). But, according to Finlay Scott Gilmour, she is guilty of “biological determinism”, because the “intricacy of human psychology” must “come above that of our biology” (‘Against biological determinism’, Weekly Worker May 2).
Is this compatible with dialectical materialism or is it subjective idealism? Apart from science, another way to look at this question is within the wider context of philosophy, as well as Marxist theory - which is what I shall try to do in this article.
Gilmour goes even further: “... 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.” This means that nature can be superseded by unnatural means - be they medical procedures, which make the transgender phenomenon possible, or even the production of androids, and so on. But is this not the product of technological utopianism, which leads to the assumption that man is homo deus? This erroneous idea becomes even more clear when we consider the theory that a post-capitalist society can be achieved without a revolution, because it will be based on the internet and artificial intelligence; thus the dream of creating a ‘post-gender’ or ‘new type of human being’ can be fulfilled. (see section on poststructuralism below).
MacLean vs Gilmour
But to return to MacLean. If I understand her correctly, her position may be summarised as follows:
As a scientist and a materialist, she starts out with the observation that sex/gender has a biological basis. This applies to many species, not just humans. After all, humans are part of the animal kingdom, part of nature. But because we are human, we also have a highly evolved brain/mind that is the source of human sexuality: ie, it is social/historical. Enter the role of the psyche - a creative approach to sexual pleasure (in addition to the need to procreate). Today this ranges from the heterosexual majority to gays, bisexuals, transgenders and non-binaries. Yet, apart from the last of these, because we are either male or female, sexual pleasure is based on a binary template, which then becomes the basis for a whole variety of sexual behaviours.
Apropos the rise of the LGBT+ movement, this has to be seen as a response to the fact that relations between the sexes continues to be dominated by patriarchy, which is oppressive. It emerged as a form of exploitation and power exercised by men over women, which then became an integral part of class society. This continues to be the case, even within the present, ‘enlightened’ period of late capitalism: ie, the ‘free market’. The latter, of course, can only offer the illusion of individual freedom. Nevertheless the rise of the LGBT+ movement has to be seen as an attempt to escape from sexual oppression - cursed by its binary template - albeit within capitalism. But this is impossible. If there is any doubt about this, consider the ongoing attacks on trans and non-binary people, etc. Thus in order to defend sexual freedom in all its forms, it is necessary to overthrow capitalism itself.
For Gilmour, however, thanks to medical technology, sexual freedom can be achieved within capitalism. Therefore he sees MacLean’s biological approach to sex/gender as a “hangover of empirio-criticism”. He starts out by referring to Lenin’s book, Materialism and empirio-criticism: critical comments on a reactionary philosophy (1908), wherein Lenin attacks the ideas of Ernst Mach and Alexander Bogdanov. Although Gilmour does not follow this through, he suggests that MacLean adheres to the same one-sided metaphysical materialism (empirio-criticism), which states that “the world consists only of my sensations”, instead of adding that material existence consists of our “psyche that forms as a reaction to it”. But, by arguing the latter, Gilmour bends the stick too far the other way, so it is he who ends up being a one-sided metaphysical materialist - not MacLean.
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 physical 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 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.
So far, so good. Then Gilmour suddenly jumps to:
This, of course, within the field of natural science is a perfectly reasonable explanation, but we might take a step back from the ‘natural’ and step towards the ‘unnatural: that is, the existence of societal constructs in relation to our psyche.
Just like that, he abandons dialectical materialism! What is the purpose of wanting to be unnatural? (It is not the same thing as artificial.) Today it is possible to become unnatural, but is it logical? Perhaps reason has become unreason? Is this a good thing?
If I understand Gilmour correctly, he means that when someone makes the transition from one gender to another (in particular, ‘full’ transition with the help of medical intervention), although this is unnatural, it is OK, because the person is still a human being. Not only is this true: he/she also has the right to do this as well. But gender is an entity, whose essence can only be explained in terms of those characteristics which make it the kind of thing it is. It cannot be explained merely on the basis of outward appearances. Even though it might look the part, the newly acquired gender entity cannot perform the same functions as the natural one which the person has chosen to emulate. By contrast, if a person loses a limb, this can be replaced by an artificial one, which not only looks similar: it can also perform the same functions (perhaps not as well) as the original.
Despite appealing to Lenin’s Materialism and empirio-criticism (MEC) in support of his position, Gilmour’s ends up in the camp of metaphysical materialism: ie, the flip side of Mach and co. He errs on the side of subjective idealism, not dialectical materialism. Whereas the empirio-critics argue that sensations are the only source of knowledge, he asserts a theory of ‘the self positing itself’, which reflects the influence of poststructuralism.
Apropos Lenin’s MEC, this needs to be considered in relation to his Philosophical notebooks (PN - written between 1914 and 1916), since Marxism has long been susceptible to creeping revisionism. In the first instance, this was a reaction to the negative effects of the Stalinist counterrevolution. As the betrayals and defeats piled up, revisionist ideas began to become more pervasive, as the 20th century wore on. The left needed to find another path to revolution or explain why it would not happen at all!
For example, it was claimed that the MEC was the product of ‘vulgar’, ‘eastern’ Marxism, as opposed to ‘western’ Marxism. What follows is based on a recent article by Alberto Toscano - ‘With Lenin, against Hegel? “Materialism and empirio-criticism” and the mutations of western Marxism’.1 In it Toscano refers to three works: Theodor Adorno’s Negative dialectics; Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s Adventures of the dialectic; and Henri Lefebvre’s Pour connaître la pensée de Lénine. Merleau-Ponty was an exponent of 20th century phenomenology, which focuses on a superficial description of the appearance of things. Adorno played a leading role in the rise of critical theory or cultural Marxism, whereas Lefebvre tried to defend classical Marxism: ie, he was a lifelong critic of Stalinism and structuralism.
Toscano states that, according to Adorno and Merleau-Ponty, Lenin wanted to “reaffirm that dialectical materialism is a materialism ... taking up again the old allegory of ideas-images ... He forgot that an effect does not resemble its cause and that knowledge, being an effect of things, is located … outside its object.”
For Hegel, on the other hand, “the problem of knowledge is surmounted, because there no longer can be a question of timeless relations between being and thought, but only of relations between man and history…” But Lenin puts the knowing subject outside the fabric of history. (This is, of course, a travesty of his position, because no attempt is made to distinguish between Lenin and ‘Soviet Marxism’: ie, Stalinist dialectical materialism or ‘diamat’.)
Then again, Colletti (another western Marxist/anti-Leninist), attacks the PN, because they represent a “backsliding” from the MEC: ie, the “abandonment of scientific materialism”.
But for Lefebvre, if Lenin’s earlier work ignores the contribution of Hegel to Marx’s ideas, the PN restore this important legacy. Toscano states that Lefebvre:
identifies the key nexus of Lenin’s intervention in a gap left in the work of Marx and Engels, ie, the “hiatus” between their theory of ideological reflection (in The German ideology, Capital’s account of fetishism) ... and Marx’s the theory of knowledge, the theory of the reflection of the real ... immediate sensation and spontaneous consciousness are just the beginning, which would lead to true reflection, through a series of mediations to immediate phenomena and appearances ... There is a dialectical unity of the absolute and the relative .., human cognition is a complex, doubled, zigzagging act ... that includes the “possibility of an imaginative flight beyond life, where we might even ... be able to distinguish a fertile dream from an empty revelry”. [cf the classical Greek thinkers.]
Thus, argues Lefebvre, we arrive at “Lenin’s central idea”: the “objectivity of the dialectic”. The PN “cut through the Gordian knot of science and ideology around the issue of materialism”. For Lefebvre, they overcome the limits of the MEC by embracing a properly dialectical concept of reality.
Toscano points out that Marxists do not reject empirical enquiry: in his PN Lenin writes: “Nature is reflected in the human brain. By checking and applying correctness to these reflections, man arrives at objective truth.”2 Kant, on the other hand,
holds fast to [the] Ego in self-consciousness, from which everything empirical must be omitted, since the aim is to know the essence, or Thing-in-itself. Now nothing remains but the phenomenon … ‘I think’, which accompanies every idea; and nobody has the slightest notion of this ‘I think’. This means that Hume and Kant ‘doubt the objectivity of cognition.3
“Idealism cannot be logically refuted, it can only be fought against”, writes Toscano. He quotes Lefebvre again, who states that, likewise, “one cannot demonstrate, one cannot prove materialism”. Therefore dialectical and historical materialism can only be proved indirectly - ie, on the basis of the objectivity of concepts, as well as empirical evidence. As Lenin himself says in his PN, “Logic coincides with the theory of knowledge [dialectical materialism] … Not psychology, not phenomenology of mind, but logic.”4 So “Part of this logic, which produces a theory of knowledge”, is based on the observation of “the objective process: nature (mechanical and chemical)”, as well as “the purposiveness of man”.5
But the truth can only be proved through practice. How should this be undertaken? The bourgeois political economist “takes up the data of experience one-sidedly”. Therefore, “Concrete experience [is] thus subordinated to the presupposed determinations [which serves the interests of the bourgeoisie]”.6 Whereas, for the Marxist, there must be “a coincidence of subjective and objective; [this is] the test of objective ideas, the criterion of objective truth”.7
We now come to the argument that Lenin’s logical concept of reality, based on dialectical materialism - as opposed to subjective idealism - is also compatible with essentialism (a tendency within philosophy): in particular, the category of ‘essence’, which is its starting point.
In his book Essentialism in the thought of Karl Marx, Scott Meikle argues that Marx was an essentialist from start to finish: not just in his early ‘abstract’ manuscripts, but also in Capital Vol 3, wherein the basis of human history is explained as the “specific form in which unpaid surplus labour is pumped out of the direct producers, [revealing] the innermost secret, the hidden basis of the entire social structure”.8
Essentialism dates back to Greek antiquity. In this regard, Marx is closer to Aristotle than he is to materialists like Democritus and Epicurus; because they
thought of reality as atomistic small bits that combine and repel in a void. Therefore [they found it difficult to account] for the persisting natures of things, species and genera on that basis. [However, Aristotle] realised that no account of such things could be possible without admitting a category of form (or essence), because what a thing is, and what things of its kind are, cannot possibly be explained in terms of their constituent matter (atoms), since that changes, while the entity retains its nature and identity over time.9
Lenin appears to agree with Marx as well. In the PN there is a section on ‘Hegel’s lectures on the history of philosophy’, which criticises him for overlooking Aristotle’s critique of Plato.10 Meikle adds:
Atomism and essentialism have been at war throughout the history of philosophy: Essentialism was dominant during the Middle Ages; but during the enlightenment, atomism was espoused by Descartes, Hobbes and Hume. Essentialism only reappears again with Hegel and 19th century idealism. This includes Marx, who then transforms it into dialectical and historical materialism.
The difference is between those who see reality in terms of organic wholes, which have real natures and necessities for their development (the essentialists or organicists), as opposed to those who think there are no knowable essences (the atomists or anti-essentialists). But things were further complicated in the 20th century, because “the diamat of ‘official’ Marxism had as its basic distinction that between idealism and materialism; [unfortunately] a reductive materialist account was then given to materialism …”11: ie, determinism, which has proved to be so detrimental to Marxism.
From an essentialist standpoint, a man or woman has to be seen as an entity, which can only be explained scientifically and realistically in terms of ‘what it is, and what things of its kind are’. Gender cannot be explained in terms of its constituent matter (atomism). But this is the only way in which we can explain full gender transition from one sex to another, or to genderlessness. Therefore manufactured appearances become more important than the original organic whole (chromosomes, skeletal structure, gonads, voice, as well as superficial physical characteristics, such as facial hair). The only way this can be rationalised is by means of subjective idealism. As a result, the criterion of gender is now determined solely by self-identification - be that a transition to the opposite gender or genderlessness, albeit in defiance of objective reality. (Here I am talking about a lifestyle choice, for whatever reason, not a tiny minority of people who are physically intersex.)
As I have already stated, the western left tried to revise Marxism, whereas the poststructuralists abandoned Marxism altogether. The latter were driven by a return to subjective idealism, which continues to dominate philosophy to this day, even though poststructuralism itself has disintegrated, since it never was a cohesive movement.
It had been bubbling away beneath the surface of philosophical ideas, but, following the defeat of 1968, its re-emergence was an understandable reaction to the objectivist tendencies within Stalinist ‘diamat’ and Althusserian Marxism. The former espoused a reductivist view of history: capitalism as a mode of production that came into being by negating feudalism; only to be negated, in turn, by socialism and communism, given its internal contradictions. But the événements of 1968 were dismissed as adventurism, because anarchist students and Trotskyite workers substituted themselves for the revolution before it was ready!
Althusser was guilty of the same methodology. But, in his case, he breaks with Marx’s base/superstructure model, arguing that ideological and theoretical practices are as much material forces as economic and political practices. Thus the proletariat will never be able to overcome the existing ideological forms and develop communist consciousness. Both positions were a rationalisation for the Stalinist bureaucracy, which put its own privileged interests above everything else.
In his book, Logics of disintegration, Peter Dews suggests that ideas based on subjective idealism are the only common denominator of poststructuralism, given that the trajectory of the movement itself is a reflection of the “logics of disintegration” within late capitalist society! That said, we can speak of the ‘big four’ (Lacan, Derrida, Foucault and Lyotard).
It makes sense to begin with Lyotard, because he started out as a semi-Trotskyist and played an active part in the événements. But, after this experience, he came to the conclusion that the proletariat is not the ‘grave-digger of capitalism’ after all. Therefore in Discourse figure (1970) he turns away from the economic-political sphere to the libidinal sphere, whereby “the attitude of the here-and-now” is able to provoke “a mutation of desire in relation to the system”. He rejects “any determinate goal of struggle”, along with the Hegelian-Marxist notion of mediation; rather desire is a “positive energy, which disrupts the discourse in order to embody the [images] of fantasy”. Dews adds that “his drift, starting from Marx and Freud, becomes a headlong race towards the characteristic 1970s terminus of Nietzsche”.12
Lacan may be considered as the ‘father’ of poststructuralism, since he was working on some of its ideas in the 1950s. Having studied Freud along with linguistics, he began to argue that the human potential to become a ‘knowing subject’ must be rejected (cf Marxism). So there can never be a “coherent theory of consciousness and subjectivity”, because the ego and the subject of the unconscious cannot be distinguished, since the latter is constantly striving for “adequate representation”.13
As for Derrida, his interest in German idealism plays a key role - in particular, Fichte’s Science of knowledge. This posits the idea that the unity of ‘apperception’ (perception which reflects upon itself) is paramount, which leads to the unfolding of activity of an absolute self: “the object is the reflection of the subject, rather than something other than the subject”; it is an attempt to “develop a theory of the self positing itself”.14 Enter Derrida’s account of language - writing, which undermines the aim of “grasping the unitary meaning of the text”. According to his concept of difference, all the metaphysical oppositions (signifier/signified, sense/intellect, writing/speech, space/time, passivity/activity, etc) are negated: “the standpoint of finite consciousness can be transcended by a ‘track of the text’. But this track can only be the mark of speculation. Therefore Derrida offers us a philosophy of difference as an absolute.” Hence we have the “regress of reflection”, which “renders the phenomenon of consciousness as inexplicable, so … there could never be an emergence of meaning”.15 Further, “Once subjectivity has been made dependent on language, then consciousness can no longer function as the self-identical support of the unity of signifier and signified: meaning itself becomes a transient ‘effect’ of the signifier …”16 Thus we end up with relativism - “the perpetual deferral of meaning” - as well as the abolition of the subject-object distinction.
Dews concludes: “It is scarcely surprising, therefore, that during the 1970s, in the wake of the upheavals of the late 1960s, new conceptions of the unconscious began to emerge in France, which lay stress on the heterogeneity of desire and language, and which will emphasise the capacity of desire to dislocate and disrupt the symbolic and social order.”17
Apropos the above, it is reasonable to assume that, given his argument, which sees a seamless transition from the natural to unnatural, Gilmour’s ideas are a reflection of what happened to philosophy and theory during the final quarter of the 20th century: ie, poststructuralist theory had succeeded in its challenge to overthrow the influence of Stalinist diamat and Althusserian Marxism (which based itself on structuralist theory). But no attempt was made to distinguish between this and classical Marxism. The critical theory of the Frankfurt School was also thrown in for good measure. As Dews says, all had to be finessed as part of the “repressive functioning of classical conceptions of truth and reason”.18 Therefore subjective idealism replaced Marxism in its objectivist form (leaving classical Marxism struggling to survive).
Finally, poststructuralist thought also provided a foundation for new ideas about gender, linked to the idea that the natural and the unnatural are perfectly compatible. This is the antithesis of Lenin’s position, wherein he makes a clear distinction between subject and object, humanity and nature: for him, objective truth exists outside of human sense perception. Ideas can lead to the truth, based on rational thought. But ideas, of course, have to be proved in practice, as a result of empirical research and experiment.
Lenin was unable to put his own ideas and strategies for the revolution to a proper test, because, thanks to the betrayal of social democracy, especially in Germany, the revolution started at the right time, but in the wrong place: ie, Russia. As a result, it was immediately attacked by an imperialist-led counterrevolution from without; it was unable to move forward, because the German revolution had been smashed in its infancy. Thus the seeds of the Stalinist counterrevolution from within were sown. The rest is history!
Given his demand that “we must take a step back from the natural” and step towards the “unnatural”, Gilmour’s ideas are also consistent with those of the post-capitalists. Both share the belief that technology is the key to the future, as this extract from an article by Owen Hatherley shows:
In 2013, two American academics, Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, issued a “manifesto for accelerated politics”, affirming “mastery, tech-nology and liberator possibilities of capitalism if pushed beyond its limits”. This includes “post-gender dreams of radical feminism” and even more: the possibility of a “new kind of human being … an interventionist approach to the human”, an embrace of “individual bodily experimentation”, set against “restricted images of the human, … a new human with a new body”, in conjunction with the creation of a new society, whose agency is the “internet generation”.19
Not only does this belong to the realm of science fiction: it also implies that man - in the generic sense, of course - has become homo deus. (cf Marx’s view in Capital Vol 3 that the telos of man is to become homo aestheticus; but only communist society can establish the material basis for the abolition of the contradictions between “work and pleasure”, along with “the play of bodily and mental powers”.20)
But the question of the need to break with private property relations - currently concentrated in the hands of powerful corporate entities - is ignored. As Walter Benjamin observed in 1936, “Fascism attempts to organise the … proletarian masses without affecting the property structure which the masses strive to eliminate.”21
Consider reality: apart from a growing environmental crisis (climate change, widespread pollution of the planet, mass extinction), when we consider the effects of rising inequality on tens of millions of human beings, the claims of the post-capitalists, along with those of Gilmour, appear to be even more fanciful.
This is a hindrance, because today capitalism is winning the ideological war. This is the only reason why it is still in existence. To this end, right across the western world, identitarian politics is at the forefront of neo liberalism’s social agenda. Although the LGBT+ movement developed independently of the bourgeois state - ie, within academia - this was soon appropriated by the latter, as a means to instil the illusion that, under capitalism, there is more individual freedom, based on the values of pluralism and inclusiveness.
But this contains a fundamental contradiction: on the one hand, all religions and cultures are considered equal; on the other, the ideologues of neoliberalism now promote LGBT+ ideas. Recently they became part of religious and sex education in English primary schools. Inevitably, this has led to a backlash from groups who identify themselves on the grounds of religion - in particular, the Muslim community. Cue another backlash, this time within the white working class, identifying themselves with Christian culture - which needs to be defended from the Muslim ‘invaders’. At the same time, they forget that their lives are being made more miserable by neoliberal capitalism, in the form of permanent austerity, etc. Once the state abandons secularism, the separation of church and state (etc), we get social disintegration and conflict. This is happening now.
At the same time, we have unprecedented levels of inequality, which continues to increase. As the Marxist economist, Michael Roberts, says, “eight billionaires have as much wealth as 3.6 billion people - the poorest half of the world”. Now the middle class is being squeezed.22 The latest UN report on austerity in Britain says that people on low incomes are likely to live lives that are “solitary, nasty, brutish and short”.23
But, instead of a return to Marxism, we see the rise of rightwing populism everywhere, even within traditional working class areas. As a result, we have nostalgia for past glories, which leads to chauvinism and the demand to ‘make our country great again’, etc. Meanwhile harassment of LGBT+ people is growing. At the same time, Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson - aka the intellectual spokesman for rightwing populism - identifies radical feminism and gender ideology with Marxism, despite the fact that it has its origins within poststructuralist theory.
The media tell us that more and more young people are choosing the LGBT+ alternative. Logically if this were to become the norm for the whole of society, the present situation would be reversed: procreation and everything that goes with it - desire, sex, love, family and having children - would be relegated to just a small minority of the population. If that happened, assuming the world is not destroyed by nuclear war, it would be necessary to move towards a Brave new world kind of society: ie, we would have to resort to cloning in order to reproduce the human species. We would also need androids to replace human labour. As for artificial intelligence, it is already on the brink of replacing human creativity: eg, books can be written by advanced computers. Meanwhile capitalism is bringing the planet closer to an ecological catastrophe. This does not augur well for humanity, let alone many other species, upon which we depend for our existence.
Where is humanity going? On the one hand, as Marx once said, under private property relations, we have a one-sided development of the productive forces, which have become increasingly destructive for the majority. On the other, we have the legacy of poststructuralism: eg, the fantastical claims of the post-capitalists - wherein gender ideology plays a central role (cf Gilmour’s call for a “step towards the ‘unnatural’”). But, as Lenin says in his PN, this is subjective idealism - “facets of knowledge … divorced from matter, from nature, apotheosised … a road to clerical obscurantism”.24 It takes us even further away from the social revolution, which is the prerequisite for building a future communist society.
VI Lenin CW Vol 38, ‘Philosophical notebooks’, Moscow 1972, p201.
S Meikle Essentialism in the thought of Karl Marx London 1985, p8.
VI Lenin op cit p287.
S Meikle op cit p4.
P Dews Logics of disintegration London 1990, pp129-31.
Ibid pp23-24, 30, 40.
Ibid introduction, pxvii.
O Hatherley, ‘One click at a time’ London Review of Books June 30 2016.
K Marx Capital Vol 3, Moscow 1986, p820.
W Benjamin, The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction New York 1969, epilogue, p241.
M Roberts, ‘Inequality soars worldwide’ Weekly Worker May 16 2019.
BBC News, May 22 2019.
VI Lenin op cit p363.