Five Minute Polemic no. 2: The Nonbinary Question

NOTE: this polemic was first penned because of grievously mistaken lines on this question published by the Maoists of Struggle Sessions in the US. It was sent to them with the hope they would respond in friendly criticism for the good of the ICM. Given that it is a short work, and that they have been active on the internet since I contacted them and asked for their comment, I suspect if they were going to respond they would have by now- so I am going ahead with posting it here.

But this is not a criticism of Struggle Sessions or other US Maoists, of their bad attitudes on this question or their poor responses to criticism. The Red Flag in Switzerland has done that better than I could. This is a brief and general attempt at a scientific treatment of the question. I have written on this before, and at greater length, but I believe the understanding presented here is while perhaps less specific more accurate and fully in line with the scientific understanding of the Left Line on this question in the ICM.

The nonbinary question is a sub-question of the trans question, and the one which has most recently become a widely discussed issue. With its confusing nature and its lack of many past sources comes a temptation for some comrades to simply ignore it, or hand-wave it away. The American comrades of the Struggle Sessions editorial board wrote recently “the ideology that underlies non-binary identification is rooted in idealism and reactionary postmodernism.{1}” This is wrong, dangerously wrong. If one does not immediately understand the nature of a group of people, one cannot simply declare that they are a figment, an imagining, a nothing that can be ignored until it stops existing. The fact is, nonbinary people exist, in small numbers but larger numbers than many are comfortable acknowledging- a recent collation of survey data found the US is home to 1.2 million of them{2}. They exist throughout society, in every class and every nation, and are deserving of a complete, serious, and understanding analysis of their existence- not a declaration of their nonexistence. Certainly there is a kernel of truth in Struggle Sessions’s remarks: there is all too much postmodernism in much of contemporary gender philosophy. But this does not mean we should abandon it as a topic, it means we should mount a struggle to drive out the postmodern theses and replace them with scientific materialist ones! Consider, there is a great deal of chauvinist thinking in much of racial political philosophy right now. Does this mean we abandon the topic of racial oppression, pretend it does not exist? No! To do so would be vulgar, childish, un-Marxist! What we do instead is promote a serious understanding of racial oppression as rooted in capitalism! So it is with the Nonbinary Question.

Now, the reader may ask, “Sure these people exist, and say they are nonbinary, but there is a difference between claiming to be something and being it. Can you prove these people are what they think and say they are?” This is an absolutely reasonable question. It is also, when it comes to gender, a very difficult one to answer. Let us first of all dispense with physical essentialism: physical sex is not useful in determining sociological gender, or at least not decisive. Consider: the HeLa cells, a lineage of arguably living human cells used in medical experimentation, are physically female (at least in a genetic sense), being derived from the cancerous tissue of a female person{3}. So a HeLa cell is an arguably living, arguably human, arguably female entity. But one would be hard pressed to argue that it is a woman! Gender, then, is something more than the physical. If it is not defined by the aspect of physical sex, then what is left is that it must be defined by its psychosocial aspect, and so it can be counted as a psychosocial phenomenon and solely a psychosocial phenomenon (unlike something like race- hence why transgender people are real while “transracial” people are not). It does not exist explicitly as a physical quality or substance, rather it is created based on those things by the psychosocial institution of the cultural superstructure. E.g.: a biologically female person is physically biologically female, but her state of woman-ness is a secondary feature that is, based upon this material characteristic, forced upon her and taught to her by bourgeois society. This is a simple materialist understanding of gender.

We may conclude, then, that gender is a feature of society and more specifically of its economically based cultural superstructure, which this superstructure teaches to and to an extent forces upon the individual{4}. But of course, given the universality of contradiction and given the prevalence of antagonistic societal contradictions in class societies of every form (and, to a lesser extent, in lower-stage socialism), it is inevitable that a contradiction arises in this relationship, a contradiction between the superstructural order and its dictates and (most essentially) the base economic system it arises from and reinforces and at least some of the people it and its dictates are applied to, and their natural self-determined desires and predispositions for behavior and place within society. This set of natural predispositions as to who one desires to be in oneself and in society can be understood as the materially-based image of oneself that exists in the brain, what the Swiss communists in their first letter to Struggle Sessions on this question have termed the “homunculus” (a term borrowed I believe from neurology’s cortical homunculi), and the contradiction is between the homunculus and the social standard for how one is expected to be- it is worth noting that this contradiction involves not just medical dysphoria but also issues of, for instance, how one wants to be referred to by one’s peers. Thusly does nonbinary identity arise: as the inevitably developed form of psychosocial identification of those between whom and the superstructure this contradiction develops. It is not, then, an explicitly physical or permanent thing, but it is more than a flight of fancy or a figment of the postmodern imagination; it is the inevitable result of a contradiction and dialectical struggle between the superstructure and its material base and the minds and natural predispositions of certain individuals.

First of all vital to understanding it, as to anything, what is the material contradiction at the center of this question? What dialectic defines nonbinary existence? That much is clear to anyone who has ever actually met a nonbinary person, and clear from the above analysis: the contradiction at hand is the gender binary↔individual contradiction, more precisely the contradiction between the socially enforced binary as a superstructural institution (the very same institution we see in the oppression of women, the institution that demands women act only as reproductive machinery for producing men while men act as productive machinery for producing commodities), its demands made for individuals to meet, and the actual desires and intrinsic character of those individuals. This is the contradiction that is afoot when the gender binary says to a person “You shall be woman! You shall marry and wash up and bear children!” or says to another child “You shall be man! You shall labour and fight and drink and be strong!” and the person says, quite simply, “No.” (important to understand here- we are talking here about genders as social roles, not necessarily about the physical sexes to which those social roles are attached).

Once again we find a kernel of truth, in describing this, in the mistaken views of our comrades at Struggle Sessions and other otherwise good comrades who have tried to deny the significance of this question: this is an individual problem. Each nonbinary individual who is formed by this contradiction, out of the dialectic between themselves and the superstructurally enforced binary, is rebelling against it in their own interests, not any collective interests. But it is vital to understand that being an individual question does not make it a nonexistent one, or an unimportant one. Because, again, millions of such people exist. They exist, and their existence cannot be ignored- it cries out to be understood, so that their interests can be protected and their oppression ended. And, this is vital too: while the immediate nature of nonbinary existence is a matter of individual concerns, there is a clear common interest between those individual concerns of any given nonbinary person (especially a proletarian one, of course) and the proletariat as a class. After all, we must ask, wherefore does this gender binary↔individual contradiction arise? From the superstructure of bourgeois society! Therefore, it is in the interests of the nonbinary person, to allow their own peaceful existence as simply a person instead of being treated as an abomination because of their nature as a product of dialectical struggle against bourgeois cultural norms, to destroy this superstructure and the societal order that has produced it via revolution. If the great masses of nonbinary people can be convinced of this, we can drive out from their popular culture postmodern theses and replace them with Marxist ones. So let us not deny their existence, let us go forth with a proper analysis of it and declare the Maoist movement their firmest allies!

Now, when socialism has its day, when cultural revolution tears down the brutal superstructure of bourgeois society and humanity marches forward toward universal communism, and the contradictions of bourgeois society no longer exist, what then will happen to nonbinary people, defined in their identity as they are by a particular one of these contradictions? Well, it is difficult to say: perhaps nonbinary identity as a psychosocial form will persist, but its essence will change; perhaps it will quietly cease to exist as gender roles become less oppressive; perhaps the whole institution of gender as a set of psychosocial roles will wither away along with the state and the last remnants of class society. All of these, and many more, outcomes are possible, and it would be folly to pretend to know the answer. Marxist dialectical science is a great tool for predicting the trajectories of social and natural processes, but not a crystal ball- we can only know things about full-stage communist society in broad strokes. But this is not the pressing issue, not now anyway. The pressing issue is the attitude to be taken toward the nonbinary people who exist now, under bourgeois society, and the answer to that question is clear. We must support them, at least those who exist among the proletariat and other progressive classes, and encourage them to turn their private rebellion against capitalist oppression into part of the mass movement for its destruction.

The desire to write off nonbinary comrades’ struggles, and to do so in one word, the dreaded “postmodernism!,” is a manifestation of a familiar trend that is damaging to the unity and the relevance of the ICM: the desire to come up with a quick excuse for why an issue that is not yet understood does not need to be seriously studied and investigated. The most obvious example of this is the desire to dismiss the question of homosexuals’ oppression by declaring homosexuality “petit-bourgeois decadence”, despite the fact that it provably existed long before capitalism, which is observable in revisionists like the American Avakianites or Turkish DHKP-C. But it is a habit that occurs in good communists too, and must be criticized there as well. Notably, there is some evidence that even the great comrade Stalin was similarly homophobic (he, at least supposedly, referred to homosexual communist Harry Whyte as a “degenerate”). And, more relevantly today, it occurs unfortunately often in the US Maoist movement with regard to the trans question generally and the nonbinary question specifically. Two examples include the above mentioned mistaken line of Struggle Sessions and the bizarre insistence of the editorial board of the defunct newspaper Incendiary on denouncing the usage of of the word “cisgender” for its supposedly “postmodern” origins. Of course, postmodernism is a real philosophical trend, and a dangerous counterrevolutionary one. But criticism of it is not helped, in fact is harmed, by reducing the word “postmodern” to nothing but a buzzword to fling at issues we do not understand. Declaring the question of trans or nonbinary existence nothing more than “petit-bourgeois” or “postmodern” is flagrantly absurd, and obviously unscientific. It cannot account for the many nonbinary individuals who are proletarians, not petit-bourgeoisie, and indeed for the fair number who are communists! Let alone for those nonbinary social groupings that existed before there was even such a thing as postmodernism or the petit-bourgeoisie, like the hijras of India- certainly a very different group from contemporary nonbinary people in advanced capitalist societies, because they at least historically have existed cohesively within the cultural superstructure of casteist feudalism rather than in defiance of that of capitalism, but relevant nonetheless as proof that gender roles or expressions beyond the familiar two existed long before the bogeyman of “postmodernism” that supposedly spawned them{5}. This attitude is additionally, at least on this question and at least in the US context, a form of tailism: the vast majority of the broadly progressive masses in this country, those who are easiest to bring over to the side of Maoism, have already accepted the thesis of supporting the right of nonbinary social roles to those who desire them. So too have the majority of the actual students of Maoism in the US movement I, personally, have spoken to. It is only these leading institutions of the movement, its publications, who- while being in most respects some of the most principled and important communists in the country- are dragging their feet on this question. This is textbook tailism- trailing behind the masses and refusing to accept facts they already know- and must be criticized and corrected.

The last point to deal with I have left until now, because it is quite simple to deal with: “Isn’t it dividing the ICM to talk about issues like this?” No! The idea that Marxist analysis should be done only on direct class issues is dogmatic waffle. Class issues may be principal, but the scientific philosophy of Marxism can and should be applied everywhere. Consider: Marxism and The National Question, by Stalin, is a classic and a vital part of the canon of Marxist literature. But it is not purely about class, either! So no, we are not distracting from class struggle or being divisive by striving to put forth a seriously correct line on this question instead of hand-waving it away. What is needlessly divisive of the ICM is tailism, is hasty decisions to deny the struggles of whole populations of people, and is the impulse to bring simple ends to complex problems without investigation. This is what we must discourage, in ourselves and in our comrades.

★☭

SOURCES/FOOTNOTES

  1. “Letter to the Editor: Class Struggle or Sexual Liberation?,” Struggle Sessions
  2. “Nonbinary LGBTQ Adults in the United States,” Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law
  3. “HeLa Cell,” Encyclopedia Britannica
  4. One can find a relatively detailed exploration of the way assigned roles for people in relation to reproduction and the family have been created and influenced through the history of class society in Engels’s On the Origins of Family, Private Property, and the State, and these roles make up much of the psychosocial stuff of gender: woman is defined in consanguine and reproductive relation to man and vice versa.
  5. The hijras, who are traditionally regarded in India as manifesting a third gender that is neither that of men nor that of women (therefore nonbinary), are attested as existing even in very ancient texts- notably, the infamous Kama Sutra makes reference to a “tritiya prakriti,” a “third nature,” in addition to men and women.

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Marxist-Leninist-Maoist political-economic philosophy, from a perspective mainly regarding the movement for revolution in the US.

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queer_bolshevik

queer_bolshevik

Marxist-Leninist-Maoist political-economic philosophy, from a perspective mainly regarding the movement for revolution in the US.

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