The rapid expansion of capitalism and its need for the family lie at the root of homophobia and the creation of the homosexual label, writes Laura Miles
Marxists argue that the oppression of lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans (LGBT) people is rooted in capitalism.
Because capitalism is now the mode of production and distribution worldwide, it can seem natural.
But anthropological and historical evidence shows that many earlier societies allowed much more varied forms of sexual relationships.
Gender variant behaviour and same-sex relationships were sometimes valued, sometimes tolerated.
But the idea that there was a separate category of people who were “homosexual” or “transsexual” didn’t exist.
To understand the emergence of the category “homosexual”, and the growth of homophobia and transphobia, we need to look at the impact of capitalism’s development.
These issues relate directly to the role of marriage and the nuclear family, and the oppression of women associated with both.
Frederick Engels argued that the family and women’s oppression emerged at the same time as class societies.
His 1884 book The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State showed how inheritance became important once classes had property to pass on.
One way to identify legitimate heirs was to ensure female monogamy.
Much anthropological research since has backed up Engels’ main arguments.
The family also played a role in reproducing the next generation of labourers.
But as industrial capitalism expanded during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, this came under threat.
The new system ripped apart existing social bonds.
Clearances and enclosures drove hundreds of thousands of people from the land. Poverty ruled in stinking and overcrowded cities like London, Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds.
Engels chronicled working class life in England in the middle of the 19th century.
He described how one consequence of this surge was the destruction of the family among the working class.
Capitalism was revolutionising social relations through rapid urbanisation and new intensive work patterns in the mills, mines and factories.
These employed men, women and even young children.
As late as 1840 the majority of factory workers in Britain were women.
This created the possibility of freer and more varied sexual relationships and gender roles among working class people, including more potential for same-sex relationships.
But in doing so it was also undermining the very social unit which could provide, relatively cheaply, the reproduction of new generations of workers.
Capitalists had an eye on the horrendous mortality rates of their workers even as competition drove them to pay less and make conditions worse.
The facts are stark. Most working class people were likely to be in poor health and to die young.
The average age of death for men in Manchester was 17. It was 16 in Bethnal Green, east London, and just 15 in Liverpool according to an 1842 report. Middle class men lived to 52 years on average.
Engels and his collaborator Karl Marx predicted that the family would collapse among the working class in these circumstances.
The Chartists, the world’s first mass working class movement, fought these terrible conditions, and threatened the new bourgeois ruling class.
They allied with utopian socialists who championed notions of freer forms of relationship and sexuality.
The utopians aimed to set up communities looking to different ways of collective living.
The bourgeoisie fretted about the imminent destruction of the working class family for different reasons.
They feared both for the future supply of the labour they needed in their factories and mills, and the potential for rebellion and revolution.
This led bourgeois reformers to look for social, economic and ideological means to ensure the working class nuclear family’s survival in the longer term interests of capitalism.
They made conscious attempts to encourage and enforce stable family life.
They promoted legislation to control child labour, for example, and to create the “family wage”.
This meant that a man should be paid enough to support his wife and children without them having to work.
To most working class people having a space outside work and the chance of a family life seemed an obvious benefit.
But these changes went along with acceptance of the reformers’ notion of the nuclear family.
This meant that one man and one woman would bring up children and be entirely responsible for them. It was a way to control the fractious and rapidly growing working class.
Many working class people embraced the notion of the nuclear family as a private haven away from the hell of work.
This trend was strengthened after the defeat of Chartism in the middle of the 19th century.
As gay historian John D’Emilio wrote in 1992, “The elevation of the family to ideological pre-eminence guarantees that a capitalist society will reproduce not just children, but heterosexism and homophobia.
“In the most profound sense, capitalism is the problem.”
Resistance to homophobic oppression began to coalesce in the late 19th century.
This was in response to an emerging identification of categories of person based on who they had sex with.
Early campaigners like Havelock Ellis in Britain, a friend of Karl Marx’s daughter Eleanor, and Magnus Hirschfeld in Germany played an important role.
So did socialist pioneer Edward Carpenter.
The link with socialists and socialist movements was strong. It continued up to and beyond the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the German revolutions of 1918 and 1923.
The Bolsheviks, within two months of the victory of the Russian Revolution, repealed all laws outlawing homosexuality.
They passed a range of other progressive legislation such as removing the age of consent and legalising abortion and divorce.
This was despite invasions, famine and civil war at the time.
This history became obscured from the late 1920s as Stalin destroyed the Russian revolution and the Nazis annihilated the pro-gay German left.
At least half a million LGBT people were among the millions who perished in the Holocaust.
It is this memory of the essential link between Marxism and gay liberation which we need to recover and reassert now.
The 1885 Criminal Law Amendment Act showed up contradictions among reformers.
It gained support as it raised the age of consent in an attempt to block trafficking and child prostitution.
This went along with an ideological drive towards ideas of fidelity and the strict regulation of sexual behaviour.
But an amendment made all sexual acts between men a crime.
Buggery—which meant any non-procreative sexual act with others—had been illegal since the time of Henry VIII.
The law was only intermittently enforced.
But homosexual and other “deviant” sexual and gender variant behaviour became more heavily proscribed and enforced from the latter half of the 19th century.
The conviction of Oscar Wilde under this law in 1895 was a watershed.
A critical outcome of this social and legislative proscription was the creation of the category of “homosexual person”.
Homosexuality became identified with a type of person rather than a type of activity.
The homosexual would thus become the target for homophobic oppression.
They would be socially stigmatised, criminalised and regarded as sick and degenerate.
Edward Carpenter: A Life of Liberty and Love, by Sheila Rowbotham, £12.99
The Red in the Rainbow, by Hannah Dee, £5
Available at Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop, 1 Bloomsbury St, London, WC1B 3QE