Ideology and the Gender Question

Having developed a general outline of the economic basis for women’s oppression, we can now examine the formation and transmission of its ideological expression (patriarchy).

The question of ideology is tied to that of the state apparatus insofar as its role is the maintenance of the conditions of reproduction; bracketing, for the time being, our critique of Althusser’s politicism and one-sided emphasis on the relations of production in his analysis of the principal contradiction, we find his formula regarding reproduction and ideology to be compelling: “[T]he sine qua non far the reproduction of labor-power is the reproduction not only of its ‘qualification’ [both in its technical-social sense, the division of labor across skills and posts] but also of its subjection to the dominant ideology or of the ‘practice’ of this ideology…ensured by the exercise of state power in the state apparatuses.”

If, as we argue above, the oppression of women generates superprofits for the bourgeoisie, it follows that the same bourgeoisie retain a vested interest in the maintenance of that oppression, particularly insofar as it is rooted in a particular set of relations integral to social reproduction; a challenge to the institutions which organize the forces of this oppression would therefore pose a threat to those same superprofits as well as the conditions of production themselves. The ideological function of patriarchy serves as the bourgeois answer to that possibility, reinforcing the economic base of women’s oppression (the family) and perpetuating the subjugated position of women more broadly through social chauvinism and political/legal repression.

The family constitutes the primary structure around which the oppression of women is oriented. The various ideological appendages which follow from this, from  “sexuality” to gender or “deficient womenly nature”, are meaningful only insofar as they are translated into social practices which maintain or execute that oppression, and must be conceived of in strictly historical terms, in accordance with that structural function. Examining the particular connection between sexual reproduction and heterosexual sex, we can see how the social phenomenon of “sexuality” (which renders “heterosexual sex” legible in the first place!) serves to reinforce the structure of inheritance of private property through father-right, and thereby of patriarchy, by facilitating the reproduction of the nuclear family form.

Consequently, as the LA Research Group argued, “[t]he history of civilization has been in part the ruling class’s attempts to enforce the connection between sexuality and reproduction in order to preserve private property through the institution of inheritance. Repressive laws against adultery, pre-marital sex, illegitimacy and homosexuality (which often carries the heaviest penalties), are examples of the repressive measures taken by the ruling class to punish those who rebel against its false unity of sexuality and reproduction.”

It is in the material interest of the bourgeoisie to maintain this structure through the repression of homosexuality, which is ideologically nonassimilable to the demands of the heterosexual family form, and they have done so through the denial of democratic rights to homosexuals as well as the propagation of violent chauvinism and “homophobia.”

We are thankful that, for the most part, our trend has successfully expunged itself of the influence of such chauvinism, which was dominant within the communist movement in this country for many years, particularly among many sectors of the so-called ‘New Communist Movement.’ Today, most communists have recognized that the gay and lesbian struggle for democratic rights, against social chauvinism, is a just struggle which must be won over to the proletarian revolutionary movement.

Despite this development, however, parallel chauvinistic attitudes appear to persist within our trend regarding the struggles of transgender people against similar legal and social repression. While we will deal with the specific problem of “gender” in more depth in a later section, we find it worth asserting at this point that, as much as sexuality, gender “exists” only insofar as it serves to organize certain ideological constructions in the service of the reproduction of the family and the conditions of production. To speak of the existence of women (or of men) as a social group is to speak of the existence of a set of social relations (exploitation of women by the bourgeoisie) with an ideological superstructure. Neither element is immutable, and only the latter draws reference to the biological characteristics of bodies, and this only after the fact, in order to justify the economic relations in question.

To say otherwise is to engage in a gross misrepresentation of dialectical materialism: the superstructure does not determine the base.

There is nothing inherent to the possession of a vagina which makes such a body more subject to exploitation because there is no “feminine” nature which precedes the institution of patriarchy as a historical phenomenon; the concept of gender (which is to say, the ideology of gender) develops and was deployed after the institution of father-right in order to justify the particular economic arrangement of the family form. The interpellation and constitution of women as a distinct social group coheres on the basis of both this particular economic arrangement (the family) and its ideological expression, but this is hardly an unchanging set of criteria (and as Lenin taught, “the fundamental proposition of Marxian dialectics is that all boundaries in nature and society are conventional and mobile”). A thoroughly Marxist definition of womanhood must not rely on bourgeois ‘common-sense’ understandings, which are themselves ideological tools for the maintenance of its apparatuses and the conditions of capitalist production, but must proceed from an understanding of the social relations of exploitation and oppression which give rise to womanhood.

We also take for granted the thesis that transgender people – by which we mean people who experience gender dysphoria and seek to change their bodies or social existence in order to relieve that dysphoria – exist in the world. The social fact of their existence draws them into contradiction with the ideological demands of gender/sexuality as a buttress for the family form and capitalist superprofits; the legal repression and social ostracization which they today face is indistinguishable from the violence faced by gays and lesbians discussed above, often in an intensified form and typically expressed directly as a form of male chauvinism (as in, for example, the “trans panic” legal defense strategy).

A key aspect of the ideological maintenance of gender and sexuality is a stable notion of sex and gender. We believe that the LA Research Group successfully demonstrated that the family-form is maintained and perpetuated in part by the repression of sexual practices which resist assimilation into heterosexual ideological formations. These formations themselves structure and impose ostensibly immutable sex categories into which all people must fall. It is in this regard that transgender people find themselves in contradiction with the demands of patriarchal structures of gender and sexuality. That is, the existence of transgender people presents a challenge to ideological claims regarding the immutability of sex, and is therefore presented as a destabilizing threat to the institution of the family.

Just as the social reactionary wing of the bourgeoisie argued that homosexuality and gay marriage were threats to the nuclear family (and to the broader social order which, they would have us believe, rests upon it) these same reactionaries see transgender people as destabilizing even more fundamental ideological categories upon which the family as a social relation is constructed. 

It is important to clarify here that we are not interested in asserting that the very existence of transgender people is an act of rebellion against patriarchal ideology, as some postmodernists argue. Existence alone is certainly not the same as practical struggle, just as the existence of the proletariat alone does not immediately translate to its rebellion against the bourgeoisie. Our position is simply that the existence of transgender people is in contradiction with certain core precepts of patriarchal ideology, and that, consequently, the repression of transgender people as a social group is tied to the ideological demands of the capitalist family-form. The bourgeoisie therefore retains a material interest in the ongoing legal and social repression of transgender people.

The evidence of this repression and ostracization is indisputable, even according to the metrics of bourgeois sociology. A 2012 United States study showed that 18- to 64-year-old “transgender adults were more likely to be living in poverty (31% vs 9%) and unemployed (33% vs 12%) compared to their non-transgender peers” 50 years after the Stonewall uprising, transgender people are still more likely to be wage-workers than their cisgender neighbors – a 2015 study identified that legal discrimination, lack of family recognition, and hostile educational environments (along with lower wages on average) all contribute to the significant lumpenization of transgender people, many of whom turn to extralegal work or are forced into the sex industry.

However, as in the case of women and homosexuals, the possibility for transgender people to secure certain legal protections or rights from the bourgeois dictatorship is never fully closed off: contradictions between liberal ideology and the demands of capital, expressed in the vacillation of the repressive apparatus and the law, mean that, on occasion, it is to the benefit of the ruling class that limited democratic rights are ensured.

Our current period seems to mark a turn on this front: in conjunction with the mass reversal of many gains of the womens’ movement (particularly with regard to abortion access), the reactionary wing of the bourgeoisie has begun an all-out assault on the democratic rights of transgender people to medical care and safety from discrimination. In the United States, we have seen the passage of state level legislation directly targeting transgender peoples access to healthcare, alongside direct repressive actions such as Texas’ decision to pursue child abuse investigations into parents of transgender children. Additionally, there has been a broader development of so called “culture wars” specifically focused on transgender people. These developments point to an obvious intensification of state repression targeted at transgender people. 

As Marxists, it is crucial that we understand the state as a whole in terms of class struggle. We must also understand the repressive actions of the state as offensives within that class struggle. It is crucial that we develop an understanding of this intensified offensive against transgender people in relation to the maintenance of bourgeois dictatorship. 

This increased repression has also prompted erstwhile liberals to call for the mobilization of transgender people and their “allies” for electoral “struggle” to “oppose” the reactionary onslaught. Absent a proletarian feminist political line capable of responding to of this onslaught (and absent mass organizations able to take up that line through militant class struggle), these liberal opportunists will continue to misdirect existing rage and fear into fruitless liberal “organizing.” A proletarian feminist analysis also demands that we emphasize the differential effects of these repressive policies on the various social classes. That is, it is working class trans people who are least able to relocate or access alternative means of healthcare when state repression increases (just as working class women are more directly impacted by restrictions on abortion rights, etc.).

Against these opportunists and their allies in the revisionist left, we must offer the proletarian feminist line of march: democratic rights – from healthcare and employment to protections against chauvinism and an end to the sex trade – can only be secured by carrying the proletarian class struggle through to the end. The family form – the true source of women’s exploitation and oppression, and of the oppression of transgender people – can only be smashed under the dictatorship of the proletariat over the course of a cultural revolution to root out its base. But, as we argue elsewhere, this cannot mean the relegation of struggle against chauvinism to a later date; the mobilization of transgender people for the struggle today demands an urgent assessment of the failures of our trend to successfully root out reactionary chauvinism from our own organizations and the ruthless denunciation of so-called revolutionary organizations which fail to do so.

A correct understanding of the contradiction between the just struggle of transgender people for their democratic rights and the demands of reactionary patriarchal ideology is crucial for the communist movement. If the proletarian feminist line is accepted, then it follows that the chauvinist position which persists within segments of the ICM must be fought on two fronts. First, it must be rejected because it creates disunity and division where there ought to be unity and solidarity. The struggle of transgender people for democratic and social rights must be directly linked to the struggle for proletarian dictatorship. The chauvinist line does all that it can to destroy this link. Second, it must be smashed because it upholds capitalist and patriarchal ideologies which are designed to maintain the capitalist social order. We will expand more on this chauvinist line and these two errors in our next post. 


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