Women’s rights, trans ideology and Gramsci’s morbid symptoms

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.

Misogyny and/or violent threats directed at women by male-bodied trans people, as in the three above illustrations, permeate trans activism

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.

. . . and a reality check.

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.

https://www.facebook.com/Socialist.NZ/
https://iso.org.nz/2019/02/25/socialists-support-trans-rights/?fbclid=IwAR0SMEqGOGQ9GBFMBp3KQvS9eLmQTC32ywxw3UGoZn0YDWjGF8bqAdcF48ot
https://mirandayardley.com/en/why-i-disavow-woman-and-am-no-longer-gender-critical/

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/

13 comments

  1. good piece, except this: “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.””
    If Mr Yardly no longer identifies as trans or gender critical, (good because there’s no such thing as trans in reality) why the hell are you calling him trans and gender critical. You’re claiming an identity for him, which is what the genderborg do, calling women ‘cis’ insisting lesbians are men, transing the dead etc

    • I can’t go into this in detail right now, but the point of referring to Miranda Yardley as gender critical was to identify the significance of the quote. If someone who, by all TRA accounts, should be proclaiming “her womanhood” to the heavens and demanding rights to women’s spaces, instead creates distance between themselves and the “trans movement”, it undermines the TRA claim to an unchallengeable position, when it is in fact an unsubstantiable dogma. Point taken though about how I expressed this section.

  2. Very good article John.

    Speaking of morbid symptoms, it’s morbidly fascinating the way so many on the ostensibly Marxist left have either totally abandoned basic Marxism once the incantation “trans women are women” is chanted – or really didn’t know the basics in the first place.

    The postmodernist notion that we all just write our own narratives and these can be pretty much whatever we want – like “I’m a woman because I say I am”.

    I wonder whether the left would be quite so indulgent if a bunch of pakeha started running around saying “I’m Maori – because I say I am. Now, let me run round the marae, behaving as I like.” I suspect the woke left would not be so indulgent of that.

    So, racism is still out; but sexism, in fact misogyny, are perfectly OK.

    Never has the case been clearer that we need a new left. One which knows the difference between material reality and self-constructed (and self-centred/self-obsessed) narratives. One which knows there is no liberation for humanity without women’s liberation. One which knows that rape and death threats directed at feminists are inimical to any kind of liberation movement. One which knows that the open contestation of ideas is vital to a living movement and to working out strategies for liberation, and not merely as just a nice abstract notion.

    A left which has traded in material reality for ideas in the heads of individuals and traded in free speech and open debate for getting speech suppressed by powers on high – ie a left relying on stuff being imposed from above – is of no use in the struggle for human liberation.

    Time to begin again.

    Phil F

    • I don’t know what constitutes a “left” in New Zealand, but the so-called left in the United States, even before the rise of transgender ideology, left Marxism in the dust. An analysis based in material reality does not sit well with people raised with tremendous privilege who want to believe everyone “chooses” their destiny (what a comforting bourgeois philosophy!). A lot of crap from the worst of the 1960s, especially apolitical hippiedom, remains with us and is subscribed to by a shocking number of people. An understanding of the oppression of material reality for many people, especially women, is distasteful when you’re materially very comfortable, and your comfort is founded in others’ oppression.

      P.S. I hope you have no problems with WordPress as it has taken down gender-critical sites by radical feminists and is a supporter of misogyny and pedophilia.

  3. As a male with gender dysphoria I have left socialist politics after 20 years. I can no longer associate with a political force that continually supports an ideology that explains my dysphoria as a biological fact of having a woman’s brain in a male body. This ideology leaves me with no option but pharmaceuticals and the scalpel. Great article.

  4. Feminist have always been accused of hate speech, this is another brand of it..dare to talk about women’s oppression in the seventies, called man hater, the new one is Terf. Hate to say it, but we have heard it all before. How women who say they are feminists can stand by and allow the abuse of women in this way boggles my mind… the christian feminist for life in the eighties got a better deal from other feminists. Disgusted really. The mainstream media allows verbal assaults on feminists day after day who speak up for women and children’s rights, even the state broadcaster. One issue not mentioned in New Zealand is the use of hormones on children..which to me is the worst aspect of the whole issue. The Green Party refuses dialogue with the feminist calling them transphobic but has nothing to say about these treatments on such young vulnerable people.

    • Hi Delia,
      I didn’t go into the medicalisation issue because I was responding to the specific claim that socialists support the trans issue. You are absolutely right about the puberty blockers; they are an experimental treatment originally registered as a late stage prostate cancer drug, now being foisted on children too young to give informed consent. Somewhere up to 90% (depending on the study) of children who express some issues with their body ID grow out of it by the time puberty is over. Who doesn’t feel some discomfort with their body during puberty? Those who are given puberty blockers have a 100% rate of continuing into a trans option. A number of that 90% of untreated kids who “revert” to feeling comfortable with their own bodies decide they are gay. Is there a sniff of homophobia in the willingness to swap body types?

      The ongoing hormone treatment is a lifelong commitment too, short of detransitioning. It is almost inevitable that as these treatments continue, there will be class action suits for medical malpractice and also a significant incidence of cancers resulting from these known carcinogens.

    • There are several large articles here on Redline on the medical abuse of children by parents and doctor who have bought into trans ideology/mythology.

    • Oh don’t I remember all the crap that actual feminists (as opposed to equal rights feminists such as Steinem who got lots of good press) took. And don’t you like a supposed environmental party subscribing to giving toxic chemicals to young people? Where do they think all the metabolized pharmaceuticals end up? In Magic Thinking Land instead of rivers and streams and groundwater?

    • Calling anyone you disagree with a fascist makes you look like a fool. Fascism is a political ideology. Look it up. Only fascists are fascists. People who have a different point of view to you are not all fascists. Marxists and feminists who are gender critical are blindingly obviously NOT fascists. mainstream centre-right political parties are also not fascists. I’m so sick of the left throwing around the words ‘fascist’ as though it’s just a general slur for ring-wingers without any actual meaning. It’s moronic and also extremely disrespectful to the millions of people who died at the hands of actual fascists.

  5. Sorry I’m a little late to the discussion. I was in a bourgeois US jail for making fun of men/defending myself against them including ones who wear blue uniforms….

    I am curious about the claims TRA’s make about how they suffer from discrimination and I would LOVE supporting evidence to a single claim of being discriminated against in any way. Seems to me that the supposed material basis for all their “oppression” should be addressed FIRST before even moving into any of the rest of the discussions with these people. So, the question is: In WHAT way are “trans” people discriminated against?

    My only criticism with this article is discussing Miranda Yardley and using the term trans woman since there’s no such thing and he is a male.

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