by John Edmundson
The International Socialist Organisation (ISO) have recently reposted a February article, by Romany Tasker-Poland, explaining ISO’s position in the “trans rights” debate. It is available on their website and on their Facebook Page. The article sets out to explain why “socialists support trans rights”. It reads more like a typical trans rights activist piece than the writing of a socialist, although it does paraphrase Marx’s observation that “the dominant ideas of any era are those of its ruling class”. That is about as close as the article gets to Marxism. Given the traction that trans ideology has gained in spheres as diverse as women’s rugby through to the National Council of Women, not to mention key agencies of the NZ capitalist state, that should perhaps give ISO pause for thought about where the ruling ideology is at today.
It appears not to have done, however.
Marx’s most fundamental guiding principle throughout his life’s work was that the material determines the ideological, that the base sets the preconditions for the superstructure. So he first analysed the material base of capitalist production by starting with the commodity. He then went from there to understand how
the commodity is reified through our distorted understanding based on superficial perception. So what is trumps what I think it is or what I feel. What I feel is important but what I am materially must be the starting point for analysis.
In this case, the issue is whether or not the feeling of being a woman makes that person a woman. For trans activists, immersed in the post-structuralism of Foucault, the answer is yes. Marxists, on the other hand, don’t see it that way.
An organism’s biology is not a social construct; it is scientifically testable and verifiable. Women are adult human females – that is what the word means because its definition accords with our scientific understanding.
Gender, however, is a social construct. It describes a set of attitudes and behaviours, collected and constructed through a process of social, historical and economic pressures, and assigned to male or female according to the needs of the dominant economic system prevailing at any given time. Postmodern inversion of these two, where biological sex (what my body actually is) becomes a social construct and gender (what I think or feel) becomes “reality”, is not Marxist.
It is, well, postmodernism. And it is not transphobic to prioritise scientific fact over postmodernist invention. Women are oppressed in class society because of their sex, their biology, not by what they think they are.
Trans people’s rights must absolutely be defended but their experience is not identical to those of people who are comfortable with the compatibility of their physical and sexual identities. Lesbian women are not “transphobic” if they don’t want a bit of “lady dick” as some misogynistic male-bodied “lesbians” and their allies assert. Activists holding signs reading, “Your vagina does not make you a woman” are simply wrong. It actually does, and any Marxist should be able to understand that. Oh, and “lesbian” trans women with penises who only want to have sex with “actual” lesbians do actually fully understand this.
Marxists want to support the oppressed and the discriminated against. That’s how most of us found our way to Marxism. But we should never simply uncritically accept what anyone who is oppressed or discriminated against says without testing their claims and their understanding of these. As Marxists, we wouldn’t be satisfied with uncritically endorsing a radical workers’ group with “trade union consciousness”. We would see that as a starting point and seek to help those workers to see the underlying and inherent exploitation in capitalism that exists below the surface.
Likewise, just because trans people suffer discrimination, we should not simply adopt the most radical-sounding trans position without testing the validity of that position.
Current trans orthodoxy (not supported by all trans people by any stretch of the imagination) looks to move male-bodied people into women’s spaces. Trans activists claim that any opposition to that asserted right is “transphobic”, representing not merely a fear of trans people but, more sinisterly, a desire to eradicate trans people as a group, render them invisible or drive them back into the closet. It does not. The gender critical position is that trans people need their rights protected but not by eliminating the reality of sex, and not by the denial of women’s existence as a group – let alone the removal of their hard-won rights.
The ISO article claims that the “current hand-wringing about ‘trans ideology’ represents, at its roots, a backlash from the right. It echoes 1980s homophobic scaremongering.” This is simply untrue. In 1986, the Homosexual Law Reform Act, which was passed by a narrow margin of 49 votes to 44 decriminalised an
entire sector of the population and was a huge civil rights victory in this country. Allowing penises into women’s changing rooms is not in the same league. Indeed, it represents a pushing back of women’ rights to be able to participate more fully in society by having their own public spaces.
The article also relies heavily on assertions stated as fact. For example it claims that “scaremongering about ‘gender ideology’ rests on the implicit assumption that there is something wrong with being trans.” This is merely a claim. Importantly it is a claim that has been vigorously and repeatedly refuted by Speak Up For Women. ISO simply ignores what Speak Up says. The claim has also been refuted by other left gender-critical groups and individuals, including gender-critical trans women like Miranda Yardley, who will no longer even identify as trans or transexual because of the widespread misogynistic behaviour of trans activists. Nor gender-critical, because being “a critic to me implies the system can be fixed, I do not think this is the case.”
ISO state that “there is still huge pressure to naturalise gender roles and punish those who deviate from them.” It is a shame that they did not use this as their starting point. Challenging gender roles is a vitally important struggle. Encouraging them by flying a pink and blue flag while diagnosing children who play with the “wrong” toys is not. Encouraging children to play with whatever toys they choose without deciding what “gender” they must therefore be would be genuinely progressive.
The article is long on claims about what “reactionary” or “hateful” transphobes, a category which,for ISO includes SU4W, think or argue. They conflate all challenges to trans dogma. Remarkably, they imply that gender-critical women are amongst “those with a stake in the current system” of “the state, the nuclear family, the workplace”. But that can cut both ways. The Islamic Republic of Iran, for instance, executes homosexuals but includes gender reassignment surgery in its healthcare. Does this make ISO a supporter of the execution of gay and lesbian people? Of course not. This guilt by association is a non-argument.
SU4W are accused of a advocating a “feminism [that] reproduces mainstream justifications for women’s oppression” and believes in “[b]iological essentialism”.
If this is the case, so did Engels and others in the long Marxist tradition that came after him, by noticing that it is around the form of women’s bodies and their biological function in the role of reproducing the species that women’s oppression is rooted. Gender is a product of this oppression, because it assigns behaviours and social roles that reinforce and naturalise the oppression of women.
Questioning transgender activists’ ideas and arguments does not constitute phobia. However, there is a significant current running through the trans activist scene that does evoke real fear amongst those they oppose and which seems to attract little if any challenge from their allies, including ISO.
Genuinely frightening is that a whole layer of trans activists frequently employ misogynistic messages that no other conservative political current, short of the far right, would dream of. I’m sure you’ve all seen them. Rape threats against “Terfs” and against lesbians who won’t date (ie have sex with) a person with a penis. Death threats for “Terfs” are de rigeur; memes showing a gibbet with “of course we should give TERFs a platform!” is one of the milder.
Trans activists have violently assaulted women attempting to attend meetings to discuss how to find a way forward – violence that would be condemned by any self-respecting left group in any other situation goes unmentioned, let alone criticised. Indeed, since when is violent misogyny a characteristic of a genuinely progressive and emancipatory movement? And why are so many on the left so prepared to turn a blind eye to the violent misogyny that is as relentless as it is brazen? (After all, we are not dealing with “a few bad apples”.)
My instinct as a Marxist is to distance myself as far as possible from such a violently misogynistic movement and, instead, try to dispassionately and scientifically investigate the issue. So I’ve read a range of trans activist writings and found that a huge leap of faith is required to find the “phobia” they allege.
Unfortunately, the ISO article (and the ISO itself presumably) has not taken this approach but, rather, chooses to misrepresent and distort the “gender-critical” position in perfect lockstep with the transactivist ideology. ISO have also closed discussion of their article on their FaceBook site.
Back in the 1930s the great Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci wrote, “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” Not even he, however, could have guessed just how morbid the symptoms would become.
Further reading on Redline: Gender-critical material on Redline
And on the dominant ruling class ideology in NZ today, namely “respect for diversity”: https://rdln.wordpress.com/2015/11/20/respect-for-diversity-modern-nz-capitalisms-necessaryby-ideology/