Logo of the Hebbel am Ufer

Vitamin B.
Why the relationship status of materialism and queer feminism is ‘complicated.’

by Bini Adamczak

Not only did the spirit of capitalism never exist or was ever anything other than a multitude of Marxist specters, it also never consisted of only one main contradiction. At the very least since the Russian revolution, the fight against capitalism went hand in hand with demands for the emancipation of sexual politics. Bini Adamczak writes about butches and kings in the Red Army. She lends her voice to those who did not want to reduce all social contradictions to the main contradiction between capital and work.

Everything will get better, the future will be bright! That is the motto that everyone believed in, at least all bourgeois citizens of the nineteenth century. But even their counterparts, the representatives of the communist proletariat, shared, at least until the middle of the twentieth century, this belief in a better and brighter future. Yet while the bourgeois thought that everything would gradually evolve in a progressive without the investment of drastic changes (evolution), the proletariat was convinced that crucial changes were the precondition for such subsequent improvements (revolution). The fact that society grew richer every year did after all not mean that the number of poor people decreased in proportion. It was for this reason that many of those who were excluded from the idea of bourgeois progress turned to socialist parties. The German socialist party – the SPD at the time – had for instance made it very clear in their Erfurt program from 1891 that they did not only fight the exploitation and oppression of wageworkers, but also defied any form of exploitation and oppression, regardless of whether it was directed against a social class, a party, a sex, or a ‘race.’ After the capitalist nation-states’ so-called progress had led to World War One in 1914, the Russian revolution instilled new hope, particularly in women and people who did not identify themselves within the hetero-normative paradigm. And at first, these hopes were anything but disappointed. With the revolution, the right to legal abortion, both sexes’ right to divorce, the decriminalization of adultery, and the annulment of the sodomy law (which had previously prohibited homosexuality) were implemented and enforced. In Moscow, once could find international communes led by gay communists. Drag kings could become legitimate members of the Red Army. Participants of the revolutionary debates decided upon the destruction of the family, demanded the legalization of incest, and advertised the practice polygamy. In this post-revolutionary spirit, manifests written by artists and scholars went so far as to demand the rejuvenation of the elderly with the help of blood transfusions. They sought to wake the dead from their sleep, populate planet Mars, and use modern reproduction technologies to completely abolish the sexes.

Fighting together…

From the beginning on, the fight against capitalism and for economic self-determination was closely entangled with other struggles, such as the struggle for the self-determination of one’s sexuality and gender. While some communist branches subsumed all social contradictions under the more general heading of the main - economic - contradiction, many did not agree with this subordination. Karl Kautsky for instance, who became the leading voice of international social democracy after Marx and Engels, went so far as to define the revolution of all production conditions as not more than a method. He argued that if someone proved that the emancipation of humanity could best be realized on the basis of the private property of production goods, he would be ready to throw the socialist doctrine overboard – yet not in order to abandon but rather to reach its initial goal of emancipation. The possibility for such proof was, of course, nowhere in sight. It appeared, on the opposite, as if the hetero-sexist matrix had in fact been developed and solidified on the basis of the private property of production goods. The category of the homosexual itself was, for instance, a bourgeois construction that served the purpose of destroying friendships that threatened to destabilize a person’s complete loyalty to the state’s institutions. In a similar way, the idea of two biologically distinct genders was also only enforced in and through modern medical discourses. Previous to this discursive construction of two mutually exclusive categories, a person’s gender was assumed to be less fixed and more flexible. Femininity and masculinity were understood as different states within the same continuum. Prior to modern capitalism, in the feudalist period for instance, a person’s sex and sexuality were neither firmly rooted in the body nor in the soul. Just like class, they instead categorized a person and delineated his or her societal status. While these categories appeared to regulate and constrain a person within rather fixed and static borders, these borders could quite easily be transgressed.

… against the capital-sexist hetero-matrix

These dynamics are brought to light in one of the most fascinating Master’s theses (Diplomarbeit) that I have ever had the fortune to read. In her yet to be published study, Uta Schirmer observes three lawsuits. Her examples trace the stories of three men who were, between the sixteenth and the eighteenth century, brought to trial and accused of actually being women. Some of them changed back and forth between both genders merely by dressing differently. Dressing as a man enabled them, for instance, to become soldiers and earn a decent salary. When they lost interest in waging war, they deserted from the army and, while incarcerated, transformed themselves back into women, possibly because the military court could at the time only convict men. Others got married and answered questions regarding their large breasts by stating that they were not an uncommon occurrence among men. And when their inability to pee while squatting raised similar doubts, they went so far as to hit their wives in order to reinforce – rather successfully - their manly strength. Because pre-bourgeois court trials lacked the criteria to clearly determine a person’s physical gender and forensic doctors were still unheard of, judges did neither ask for the motifs that had led to the gender change nor did they raise the question of the accused person’s ‘true’ identification. The issue of an individual identity emerged only later, together with the concept of capitalism. Only a society that compares apples to pears or likens sex workers to bicycles because both cost the same, only a system that does not hesitate to use standardized grading systems to evaluate vastly different learning practices and applies the same punishment of imprisonment to severely distinct breaches of the law will find it feasible to understand vastly diverse sexual and gender-related practices as expressions of the individual’s innermost being.

The question of queer progress

It is this idea of identity, one that is intricately linked with capitalism, that queer movements seek to question and subvert. With a nod to Michel Foucault’s definition of criticism as the art of not being governed, I suggest to frame trans-criticism as the queer desire to not be identified in such a way. One of the main characteristics of all communist movements, the mobilization of other excluded or oppressed social groups, is certainly also one of the defining and constitutive traits of the queer movement. This movement, which is itself a product of exclusive practices within the women’s as well as gay and lesbian movements, is acutely aware of the fact that every new claim that is made in the name of a particular movement runs the risk of producing new exclusionary practices, which will at some point return in the form of a boomerang of new demands and challenges. This is why the decidedly open form of ‘queer’ welcomes the amendments that the future holds. Yet at the same time, this perspective resonates with the old idea of evolutionary progress. It is in fact reflected in theories like those developed, rather famously, by Judith Butler: the fight for social integration and recognition creates identities, which produce new exclusionary practices. These then in turn lead to the creation of new identities, which again fight for their integration and recognition, and so on and so forth. On the one hand, one could argue that society is gradually opened up in and through this democratic game. On the other hand, the rules that govern this game remain unchanged. What certainly gets lost in this process is the idea of a qualitative revolution that does not only eradicate old identity categories but tackles the concept of identity itself.

Yet even within the capitalist system, trusting in steady democratic progress proves deceptive. We tend to imagine the future as a continuation of the trajectory of the past. Just as capitalist growth, we assume politics to also develop steadily in order to produce a freer and more open society. This perspective enables us to look back at the 1950s and dismiss its social limitations and constraints. At the same time, capitalism’s inner contradictions lead to ever-new economic crises that potentially lead so severe changes in the political landscape and thus also have an immediate effect on queer-feminist politics. In her autobiographically inspired novel Stone Butch Blues, Leslie Feinberg grants readers a powerful insight into the connectedness of queer politics. She states that whenever the number of available jobs decreases, violence against butches and trans men increases. Hetero-normative men unite in this atmosphere of intensified competitiveness in order to shove them off the job market. In phases of acute economic crisis, one of many reactionary political strategies consists in decreasing the unemployment rate by simply excluding immigrants and women from the job market. This ‘strategy’ alone shows all too clearly why solidarity and connectedness are an absolute necessity. While it is certainly possible to lead the individual fights for emancipation separately, they can only be won when brought and fought together.

Published October 2015

Bini Adamczak lives and works in Berlin Kreuzberg. She is the author of two books (Kommunismus für Kinder, 2004; Gestern Morgen, 2007) as well as a performer (Little red, Amsterdam 2006, Timerepublic, Brüssel 2007) and an artist (Perverser Universalismus, Wien 2006, Mirrors & Masks, Oslo 2012) who prefers working by herself to being creative in and through her relations to others.

A different version of this text was initially published under the title “Fortsprung: Queer Communism – Communist Queer” in ‘Hugs and Kisses’ (Oct. 2009).