Sexuality and Socialism by Sherry Wolf is described as the ‘History, Politics and Theory of LGBT Liberation.’ A book like this that covers the issues of sexuality and homophobia under capitalism is a long overdue contribution to socialist politics, but especially timely given the struggles all over the world for same-sex marriage rights.
The book covers such a broad scope of different issues within the issues of LGBT oppression and liberation that I cannot possibly cover all of it in one review. It begins with the theoretical and historical origins of sexual oppression under capitalism and makes the argument that the repression of sexuality and things like homophobia are the product of the material conditions and the economic needs of capitalism. This is in stark contrast to explanations that homophobia is in our human nature or just from the religion and the bad ideas in our heads.
It goes on to cover the gay liberation movement of the 60s and 70s and the theory surrounding much of LGBT politics. It then goes on to cover contemporary struggles and debates today.
Sherry Wolf links in all of the arguments within the context of class society and the nature of capitalism. Homophobia and other forms of sexual repression are not divorced from other forms of oppression and the needs of exploiting workers to make a profit.
This is used to argue against the prevalence of ‘identity politics,’ the idea that all LGBT people have a common experience of oppression and a common interest in fighting it. In fact, LGBT workers need to organise separately from LGBT business owners who are tied to the existence of capitalism.
She argues that straight workers have more in common with LGBT workers because they both have a common interest in defending their conditions as workers and fighting their exploiters. Despite homophobia within the working class, Wolf argues that straight workers don’t benefit or gain an advantage by partaking in homophobia as it weakens the working class, divides and distracts workers from the class struggle.
Another aspect of the book that needs to be touched on is the fact that she covers issues of transgender and intersex. This is something that hasn’t really been touched on before in other Marxist literature about sexuality and it’s covered in quite an extensive way.
One point though that wasn’t touched that is sometimes controversial even within the socialist movement is that I think transgender can sometimes be seen as a product of capitalism and the gender norms that come in it. This isn’t to take away from the fact that trans people have the right to have sex changes or identify as another gender but the fact the capitalist society assigns ways of behaving to particular genders, such as women being feminine and men being masculine means that if you don’t fit into these norms then you can feel like you don’t fit into your body.
I would argue that under a socialist society that this feeling would be less prevalent because you wouldn’t need to conform to the gender norms and there wouldn’t be such a connection between gender biology and your behaviour.
Sexuality and Socialism covers a lot and does it clearly. It mixes theoretical and historical explanations with concrete and often emotive contemporary examples that make these issues feel real and connect with the reader. This book is also something that can be re-read in parts as a kind of reference book on Marxists’ attitudes to various issues of LGBT oppression and liberation.
I heartily recommend this book to anyone who is interested in the topics of sexuality, homophobia and LGBT politics.