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Trans Liberation and Socialist Revolution — A Debate with the IMT

Trotskyists should aim to be in the front lines of all struggles against oppression. This is a debate with Alan Woods’s International Marxist Tendency (IMT) on how socialists should relate to the movement for queer and trans liberation.

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People marching at New York's Queer Liberation March in June. The banner reads "left and labor for trans rights"

Trans people are at the center of an assault on democratic rights in the United States right now. Right-wing politicians are launching ferocious attacks against trans people’s rights to exist. Virtually the entire Republican party is campaigning with anti-trans policies, with state bans and media attacks that inspire hatred and violence. At the same time, queer activists make up the heart of Generation U, the union generation fighting to organize Starbucks, Amazon, etc. It’s not hard to understand why: people who are used to fighting against oppression are natural leaders in the struggle against exploitation, and many are beginning to see the connections between the two.

As Leon Trotsky put it, “those who fight most energetically and persistently for the new are those who suffer most from the old:” 

Communists need to be at the front lines of these struggles against oppression. After all, communists fight for the radical transformation of all social relations — of course we are irreconcilably opposed to patriarchy and gender oppression. 

In this article, we want to debate with the International Marxist Tendency (IMT),1Sasha Frost was a member of Fightback, the Canadian section of the IMT, for 15 years before leaving the organization in mid-2022 around with about 50 comrades. an organization led by Alan Woods that claims to stand in the tradition of Leon Trotsky and the Fourth International. But in the struggle for trans liberation, the IMT is not living up to this revolutionary legacy.

Reds and Pinks

But before we get to that debate, let’s jump way back in history. Revolutionary Marxists have often been on the front lines of queer liberation. The first politician in the entire world to speak out for the decriminalization of homosexuality was August Bebel, the head of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), back in 1898.

The Russian Revolution of 1917, the first successful workers’ revolution in the world, saw an explosion of sexual and gender experimentation. The young Soviet Union was the first country to legalize homosexuality. The revolution also created spaces for people to live differently than the gender they were assigned at birth — for example, numerous trans men fought for the Red Army during the civil war.2Case studies are mentioned in: Dan Healey, Homosexual Desire in Revolutionary Russia: The Regulation of Sexual and Gender Dissent (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), 66ff., 142ff.

The first gender-affirming surgery in history was carried out at the Institute for Sexual Science in Berlin, led by the gay socialist doctor Magnus Hirschfeld. Inside Hirschfeld’s institute, one apartment was home to leading members of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD), Willi Münzenberg and Heinz Neumann, as well as the Indian Communist M.N. Roy.

These are just a few brief examples to show that Reds and Pinks — that is, socialists and LGBTQ+ people — have long been comrades.

Stalinism represented a violent break with this emancipatory tradition. Stalin criminalized homosexuality in 1934 and imposed draconian punishments on queer people. It was only the Trotskyist movement that carried on Lenin’s tradition of fighting for complete liberation, including of all genders and sexualities.

As we have written elsewhere, after World War II, in the conservative environment of the 1950s, many Trotskyist organizations did not live up to their responsibility to fight for all oppressed people. The Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in the United States, for example, had a policy barring queer people from membership. It was only when the queer liberation movement exploded onto the scene with the Stonewall Riots in 1969 that Trotskyists quickly recognized their mistake. The SWP began accepting gay members in 1971 — or to be more precise, they finally allowed their gay members to live openly. They nonetheless continued to effectively ban trans members, who had to agree to only wear the clothing of their gender assigned at birth while doing party work. But the SWP did offer limited support to the gay liberation movement. Other Trotskyist tendencies, such as those led by Ernest Mandel and Nahuel Moreno, similarly adopted more pro-queer policies in the early 1970s.

Militant Homophobia

One major exception was the Militant Tendency inside the Labour Party in Great Britain. This organization, led by Ted Grant, stuck with homophobic views. As they wrote in a pamphlet from 1976 — seven years (!) after the Stonewall uprising:

Serious socialists will recognise that “gay liberation” cannot provide the slightest social basis for an independent contribution to the labour movement. The various exotic theories and emotive arguments that are sometimes advanced to prove otherwise are simply symptoms of the utter confusion and lack of perspectives that still prevail in purely student politics.

As the gay liberation movement grew and won allies, Militant remained steadfastly silent on the struggle for queer rights. During the Miners’ Strike in 1984-85, gays and lesbians played an important role, with the group Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM) building solidarity in both directions, as shown in the moving film Pride. Members of Militant were active in LGSM — but they got zero support from their organization. One former member recalled in an interview:

“Militant”, the group to which I belonged at the time, considered gay rights a bourgeois concern and imagined that the workers would not be able to handle it. However, when I came out, it was only the party hacks who had strange reactions, while the working-class people were quite easygoing.

As far as we can tell, the leadership of Militant did not put its homophobic views into writing. But they also refused to say anything in favor of gay liberation. In the face of a historic struggle against oppression, silence is also a position.

When Militant and its international organization, the CWI, split in 1992-94, the majority very slowly took up mainstream leftist positions in support of queer rights. The minority, led by Ted Grant, eventually formed the International Marxist Tendency. The IMT continued this iron silence on queer oppression until, as far as we can tell, 1999.

To put this into perspective: for 30 years after Stonewall — an entire generation! — and during two decades of the AIDS crisis, Militant and the IMT had nothing to say about gay liberation. By 1999, most social democratic and Green parties were coming around on gay rights. This “Marxist” tendency was very far from being part of the vanguard.

This is not just a problem of Ted Grant’s personal homophobia — although that was certainly a factor. The bigger problem was a misunderstanding of the Marxist method — one that aimed to build a program around the presumed consciousness of the average worker, rather than around the objective necessities. This led to the belief, quoted by an ex-member above, that Marxists shouldn’t “scare off” workers by talking about gay rights. As Marxists had shown more than a century earlier, however, we need to be at the forefront of struggles against oppression, even when this clashes with mainstream prejudices.

Racists and Transphobes

Today, most of the young people who make up the rank-and-file membership of the IMT, at least in North America, view the need for trans liberation as self-evident. Yet the international leadership considers the re-examination of traditional Western views of sex and gender as an abandonment of materialism. This is reflected in some of the organization’s key texts.

The IMT’s official document on identity politics, which was adopted by the 2018 world congress and is mandatory reading for all new members, looks at the “recent furore” over the transphobia of radical feminists such as Julie Bindel and Germaine Greer. The document sees this as “an expression of the obsession of identity politics with defining which category someone is in.” It goes on to lament the boycotts, no-platforming, protests, and “hooliganism” with which “some trans-rights activists” have responded to transphobia, denying that they “serve the fight against oppression in any sense, shape or form” and describing them as “thoroughly reactionary.”

The IMT leadership seems unable to understand that the animosity towards figures like Bindel and Greer is not about differences about identity and categorization in the abstract — these transphobes have become figureheads for a movement intent on restricting or eliminating the ability of trans people to exist as such. Bindel has long argued against gender-affirming care and legal recourse against transphobic discrimination; Greer was an early advocate for removing trans women from “women’s spaces.” Many on the Left have refused to let such views go unchallenged and, particularly on university campuses, organized to demand that they not be given a platform. It is worth noting the IMT has agreed with, and even enthusiastically participated in, such tactics in other contexts. Notably, they mobilized against a lecture by Frances Willowson at Laurier University, who defends the brutal policies of assimilation practiced against Indigenous people in Canada.

According to the IMT, student protests against racists are supportable, but protests against transphobes are “thoroughly reactionary.”

A similar attitude can be found in the organization’s lengthy polemic against queer theory. Marxists can certainly have substantial criticisms of the ideas of Judith Butler and company.3See, for example, Chapter 8 of Andrea D’Atri, Bread and Roses: Gender and Class Under Capitalism (London: Pluto Press, 2021). However, the IMT draws a spurious connection between “identity politics” and the “split in the movement” between LGBTQ+ activists and “radical feminists,” also known as TERFs. As an example, they mention that there are two separate marches in Vienna for International Women’s Day. They neglect to mention that one of these demonstrations allows only cis women to participate, relegating trans and intersex women, as well as non-binary people, to a special block, and excludes men entirely. Far from reflecting an unnecessary, identity-based division, the presence of these two marches is the result of an important political difference in the approach towards women’s liberation. Of course, a united march would be preferable, but what would be the basis of unity? Would it be unity of cis women excluding trans people? Or unity including all those committed to fighting women’s oppression? As Marxists, we cannot be neutral in this conflict.

All Over the Place

At the international level, the IMT largely tries to remain “neutral” in the struggle against trans oppression. It’s no surprise that various national sections have taken different positions. The Spanish section hewed close to the tone of the previously mentioned international documents: when commenting on proposed reforms to simplify changing sex markers on legal documents, they supported the reforms while at the same time portraying the entire trans rights movement as subscribing to anti-materialist academic queer theory. This is particularly concerning at a time when the far-right party VOX is campaigning against trans people, just like U.S. Republicans. The Canadian section of the IMT has at times been enthusiastic about trans rights, publishing multiple articles in 2018 unreservedly supporting the trans and queer fight against reactionary changes to sex education curricula.

At the other extreme, Marxist Organization “Reds,” the IMT section in the former Yugoslavia, was founded by people who described “transgenderism” as a mental illness and argued against legal recognition of sex changes. In 2020, the section signed an open letter denouncing a Serbian film festival for screening a film that portrayed the social transition of a prepubescent trans girl, demanding that they add a disclaimer that puberty blockers are unsafe and irreversible. The letter described this social transition as “made under the influence of currents that encourage the dangerous, wrong and unproven idea that it is possible to be ‘born in the wrong body,’” misrepresented puberty blockers as “a procedure that permanently disrupts the psychophysical development of the individual,” and described the decision to transition as “often motivated by homophobia or misogyny,” all of which are common transphobic talking points.

To its credit, the IMT leadership did not tolerate such scandalous behavior, convening an emergency congress of “Reds” to try to convince the general membership that their section’s leaders were mistaken. However, the debate on the question revealed mistakes by IMT leaders, too. They described the global struggle over trans rights as follows:

On the one hand we have the extreme trans faction, on the other hand, the extreme radical feminist faction, both of whom are engaged in a venomous conflict, exchanging insults and even worse things. This poison has even begun to affect parts of the Labour movement, where it plays the most reactionary role. Of course, we live in capitalist society and come under pressure from alien classes. It is true that some comrades – a tiny minority particularly in the student milieu – have bent to the pressures of the petit bourgeoisie and have deviated in the direction of identity politics and queer theory. This also is a retrograde trend, which we must combat by all means at our disposal. But in combating a petit bourgeois deviation, it would be fatal to swing too far in the opposite direction. We regret to say that the Yugoslav leadership on this question have done precisely that. Under the guise of combatting petit bourgeois identity politics, you have gone to the other extreme, which opens the door to transphobia.

This is a poor framing of the political conflict. Both sides are described as “extreme,” “retrograde” “deviations.” One side is arguing for basic democratic rights for trans people — the other that they shouldn’t exist. Imagine socialists denouncing “both sides” of a conflict between racists and victims of racism! The idea that trans people’s struggles against oppression has played a “most reactionary role” in the labor movement is pure nonsense. They can ask just about any Starbucks worker on strike for trans liberation. IMT leaders added:

The endless arguments about whether a trans woman is ‘really’ a woman, or whether you can be ‘born in the wrong body’ do not interest us. Such so-called debates only serve to divide and distract attention away from the real issues. The question that must be asked is the following: does an adult person have the right to dispose of their body as they see fit? If the answer is yes, then it is undoubtedly the right of an adult person to take the necessary steps to change their sex or gender, if they so wish. And nobody has the right to prevent them from doing so. Of course, there is no question of children taking such a drastic step, before they are mature and able to make that decision.

They can only justify defending the right to gender-affirming care through the liberal framework of bodily autonomy for informed adults. This completely ignores the medical consensus, based on a large body of evidence, that age-appropriate gender-affirming care provides overwhelmingly positive outcomes for both adults and adolescents. This does nothing to address the question of puberty blockers raised in the open letter, which by definition are only used to treat minors. Additionally, if such a framework is the sole justification for allowing transition, then there is no basis for the demand to have gender-affirming care as part of health care. Many of the right-wing attacks against trans people are focused specifically against gender-affirming care for minors — and IMT leaders would seem to agree with many Republicans, as there can be “no question of children taking such a drastic step.” As trans comrades point out, however, puberty itself is also a drastic and irreversible step. Historically, Marxists have fought for the rights of young people. If they are incapable of making decisions about their own bodies, who can make such decisions for them? Parents? The bourgeois state? The IMT?

Ongoing Silence

In the face of an onslaught of right-wing attacks, with 79 bills adopted in 21 U.S. states in the last year, the IMT has been mostly silent. It was only in June 2023 that the IMT’s international website, Marxist.com, published their first-ever article dedicated to defending trans people. This is, as we have seen above, an unfortunate pattern in the tradition of Ted Grant.

This is a step in the right direction, but the article shows many of the same political weaknesses: the fights about trans rights are not presented as a struggle against oppression, but rather as a “culture war” whipped up by competing wings of the bourgeoisie. The article avoids any comment on the struggles at hand: should trans youth be able to participate in sports, use public bathrooms, have their respected pronouns, and especially, should they be given access to gender-affirming care? What do IMT leaders think? Instead, the organization proposes that the whole question can be side-stepped by focusing on economic demands — very much the method of Jacobin magazine with its class reductionism and class-wide demands.

Particularly bizarre was a report from the IMT’s Italian section which explained that they had been attacked at a feminist demonstration, claiming:

Violence to silence feminists who do not identify with the ideas of ‘queer theory’ have become commonplace in a number of countries. When not resorting to physical intimidation, we see aggressive language, and even the imposition of a taboo on the recognition of the very existence of women.

The attack was real, but had nothing to do with queer theory or “the existence of women.” As the article explains, the IMT was attacked for slogans against the post-fascist Meloni government. These common transphobic talking points are thrown in for no obvious reason. 

And is such “violence to silence feminists” common? This is nothing more than a right-wing fantasy in the heads of J.K. Rowling and her ilk. No one, absolutely no one, is imposing a “taboo on the recognition of the very existence of women.”

Internal Documents

Internal documents show that the IMT’s silence on trans rights is no coincidence. IMT leader Fred Weston, speaking about a “campaign for Marxist philosophy” [PDF download] in 2021, takes up a number of right-wing talking points. He claims that feminism “basically ends up blaming men as men.” He criticizes the “feminist strike” for “dividing the working class between men and women.” On postcolonial theory, Weston argues:

I spoke to a student of music at university after a lecture in which they were discussing Beethoven. The lecturer wasn’t discussing the music or the figure of Beethoven. The questions the students were asked to pose were these: Beethoven was white (although some people try to claim he wasn’t, which I presume would mean that his music was ok), European, straight and male. This is the kind of thing students are asked to consider and it goes on all the time in academia.

While Marxists must certainly criticize postcolonial theory, this style of argument — a bizarre “anecdote” about what a friend of a cousin once heard somebody say about those crazy college kids — could have been taken from Fox News. We doubt the comrade can find a source of anyone, anywhere saying that Beethoven’s music was bad because he was white. Does this “go on all the time in academia”? Furthermore, we can’t really appreciate Beethoven’s art without considering the society he lived in and the role he played in it; this is materialist art criticism 101.

Comrade Weston seems particularly troubled by the thought that gender is complex:

While preparing for this leadoff, I found a website that gives terminology on gender politics and I found 64 different terms for different types of gender. Among these there is the cisgender, which is basically if you identify with your biological sex. “Cis” has become an insult in some circles; if you are “cis” you are out, almost as if being such makes one a reactionary.4Certainly some readers will wonder if we are taking Westin’s quotes out of context. We encourage them to read out the entire six-page document.

We hate to blow the comrade’s mind, but socialists back in Magnus Hirschfeld’s time — 120 years ago, in the time of Lenin and Trotsky — were learning, through rigorous scientific study, that gender is not a simple binary. Biological sex cannot be clearly divided between “male” and “female,” while gender is an expression of social relations that has constantly shifted throughout human history. Former IMT members report that Weston wondered aloud if self-identification meant that he could identify as a helicopter — one of the most common transphobic internet tropes.

Trotskyism and Trans Liberation

The IMT is currently making the same mistake that the CWI made a generation ago: silence on queer struggles, out of fear that this could “scare” straight, cisgender workers.

Fred Weston and other IMT leaders are simply wrong. Struggles against oppression do not “divide” the working class. The exact opposite is the case: oppression divides our class, and struggles to end oppression unite us. Marxists have always fought for white workers to oppose the discrimination of Black workers, for men to oppose the discrimination of women, for straight people to oppose the oppression of queer people, and for cis people to oppose the oppression of trans people. Communists fought for workers in the metropolis to express solidarity with oppressed people in the colonies.

There have always been socialists who argue that such struggles are a “distraction” from the class struggle, which is conceived as primarily economic. But experience shows that feminism, anti-racism, and queer liberation are motors of class struggle. Just think of how women workers in Petrograd in 1917, celebrating a women’s strike on women’s day, started a socialist revolution. Or for a more recent example: workers in a printers in Argentina, following the lead of Trotskyist workers, went on strike to defend the rights of a trans colleague — and ended up occupying their factory.

This is a starting point to think about the connection between trans liberation with class struggle. Lenin argued forcefully that socialists cannot limit themselves to economic questions — they must be “able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it appears, no matter what stratum or class of the people it affects; who is able to generalize all these manifestations and produce a single picture of police violence and capitalist exploitation.” This is our task as Marxists today.

IMT members tend to be young people who are naturally sympathetic to struggles for trans liberation. Many wonder why their organization is, at best, rather hesitant when it comes to trans struggles. We encourage young IMT members to work to change their organization’s positions. This means writing articles for the IMT press and pushing for them to be published. In a Leninist organization, it should be no problem to convince older, more conservative members like Fred Weston who worry about gender-affirming care — or, if necessary, to change them out. The IMT should break with the problematic legacy of Ted Grant on the question of gay rights, and take up their place in the front lines of the struggle for queer liberation.

Notes

Notes
1 Sasha Frost was a member of Fightback, the Canadian section of the IMT, for 15 years before leaving the organization in mid-2022 around with about 50 comrades.
2 Case studies are mentioned in: Dan Healey, Homosexual Desire in Revolutionary Russia: The Regulation of Sexual and Gender Dissent (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), 66ff., 142ff.
3 See, for example, Chapter 8 of Andrea D’Atri, Bread and Roses: Gender and Class Under Capitalism (London: Pluto Press, 2021).
4 Certainly some readers will wonder if we are taking Westin’s quotes out of context. We encourage them to read out the entire six-page document.
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Nathaniel Flakin

Nathaniel is a freelance journalist and historian from Berlin. He is on the editorial board of Left Voice and our German sister site Klasse Gegen Klasse. Nathaniel, also known by the nickname Wladek, has written a biography of Martin Monath, a Trotskyist resistance fighter in France during World War II, which has appeared in German, in English, and in French, and in Spanish. He has also written an anticapitalist guide book called Revolutionary Berlin. He is on the autism spectrum.

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