What we have suffered was logical, but never necessary. What has been made can be unmade.Jules Joanne Gleeson and Elle O’Rourke, Transgender Marxism
As a socialist blog, Cosmonaut’s output is consistently above the quality of most others in research and strength of arguments. Combative and insightful, they are refreshing when many dwell only on ephemeral news cycles, not distinguishing appearance from essence (to use Marx’s terminology). When a good outlet turns to one of the most poorly discussed subjects preoccupying the contemporary left, the so-called transgender debate, it is worth paying attention. That is what I did with Roxy Hall’s ‘Ten Theses on the Gender Question’. And it formed the basis of this three-part article series, examining transgender politics and socialism.
From such a setup you might now expect me to argue that this piece was a disappointment. And in some respects, it was, but that is not my main take away from Hall’s essay. It is a mixed bag of insights typical of Cosmonaut, and confused, muddled arguments that must be unpacked but are typical of the confusion surrounding this topic. First, let us consider points of agreement.
The Persuasive Theses
In points 3-5 Hall rejects gender as just an identity; that it functions the same as race and class; and that it can be submitted to a simple definition. She argues that gender begins in assignment at birth and socialisation (via discipline), but that this is insufficient for a full understanding since ‘people live as gendered agents, and their condition is internalised through that process.’ Trans and cis people engage and counteract (rebel against) assigned genders. Gender is then differentiated from race and class because while race is also a historical process of the imposition of identity, it is differently constituted as heritable; and unlike class, gender is framed as necessarily persistent and stable over time. The latter point of differentiation is more arguable (the persistence of gender is precisely being challenged by trans identities), and perhaps a more important distinction is the relationship class has to the totality of social relations in the productive sphere. The historical novelty of modern race could also be expanded on.
In subsequently tackling the muddy issue of a definition of gender, Hall illustrates the difficult relationship between abstracts and concretes with the famous example of how hard it is to satisfactorily define a chair purely in abstraction, as ‘in every instance of the chair, we learn a little of chairs as a whole – but the total category always eludes us.’ Gender presents the same problem, but in attempting to define a ‘man’ consistently ‘we are presented [only] with a cluster of properties – a set of physical characteristics onto which are ascribed certain social significance, a certain personality, a certain social role, a certain approach to the larger world.’ This means that the social function of gender must be at the heart of definitions of it. Hall privileges the division of labour.
The strongest part of the essay takes on so-called gender critical feminists (that is, their transphobia). While biological sex is acknowledged as ‘the yardstick used by the heteronormative society to determine our initial assignment’ of gender, ‘what the defenders of biological reductionism fail to understand is that in the relationship between sex and gender (the sex-gender dyad) it is gender that overdetermines sex.’ Hall cites the case of intersex conditions being treated as normatively aberrant, or the policing of aspects of men’s and women’s bodies along a social ideal, as ‘attempts to make the body conform to the ideal of gender – the body is sexed by gender, not the other way around.’ Hall therefore throws out the idea that feminist politics requires a fixed definition of womanhood; rather, such definitions serve to maintain a patriarchal, conservative notion of femininity, as well as to exclude trans people. It is worth quoting a paragraph from this thesis in full:
The aim of the feminist revolution is not to reify and defend womanhood as a concept, or to uphold “females” as a caste – just as it is not the role of the proletarian revolution to maintain and uplight the social category of “worker”. It is the role of the feminist revolution to break the chain of signification between the sexed body and the gender system, between certain genitals and certain kinds of work, between certain relations and certain ways of dressing, or living. That revolution is against biological sex as ideology, not in its defense.
Almost as important are theses 9 and 10, which are closely aligned. The empirical point is made that gendered hierarchies have always been resisted in class societies, and the identities that historically emerge from this resistance are as ‘valid’ as any others. To claim otherwise is to fall back on a conservative defence of patriarchal notions of gender. Consequently, far from being a competition with women’s liberation, Transfeminist Marxism complements and completes it, ‘to overturn every stone of gendered society, every patriarchal social more, and institution, to smash apart and render broken the chains that have bound women for millennia.’ This is a worthwhile project for a revolutionary.
The Unpersuasive Ones
The latter part of thesis 10, however, develops an error contained in the first thesis. Here an unwarranted equivocation is made between ‘gender critical’ feminism and the alleged problems with liberal feminism/trans rights advocacy. The goals of liberal reformism are attacked as insufficient, capable only of ‘academic discourses or self-conscious navel-gazing’ that cannot ‘undo the fact that the emancipation of women and queer people will come only when the proletariat can organize as a class to seize power’. For Hall, trans liberalism only ‘argues that transgender identity is legitimate and should be recognized within the institutions of bourgeois society.’ The argument being that ‘transgender people harm no one by existing, and should be respected on the basis of formal legal, and even social, equality.’
Alone this anti-reformism is an example of a moralistic and flippant ultraism. It is, as some liberals insist, correct that transgender people deserve respect and cause no social harm. Marxists should not oppose and casually dismiss the fight of the exploited and oppressed within bourgeois society simply because it does not always aim at a total liberation of all of the exploited and oppressed. Hall is correct earlier when she observes that there is nothing inherently radical about being trans; it is possible to be outside a conservative gendered system and still not oppose the totality of social relations that make it up. I would add that it is especially wrong to demand the oppressed concede short term goals (in many instances in the order of survival) to pursue only strictly revolutionary ones; it is the job of revolutionaries, often hailing from the self-organised oppressed, to advocate for a revolutionary consciousness out of struggles undergone by parts or the whole of the class.
This is the transition from a class in itself (workers seeking better conditions within capitalist relations) to the class in and for itself (workers seeking to overcome capitalist relations in the abolition of class and therefore abolish themselves as the working class). It is the standard ultra error: to dismiss class in itself as a deviation from the class in and for itself. Expecting workers in the process of forming a revolutionary consciousness to forgo reform is a serious enough error, but expecting that of the oppressed (only one part of the working class, which cannot be a revolutionary agent without the broader unity of the working class) is absurd.
Likewise, thesis two is reductive and precludes the earlier demarcation of gender from class. Hall argues that as materialists we must understand gender through labour as ‘a set of social roles which reflect a division of labor within society.’ The evidence for this claim is that gender roles emerge within the context of the needs of the relations and forces of production, including some examples of officially endorsed third genders such as Eunuchs. Gender, then, must be seen as a type of ‘ideology that reflects not biological sex, but a social division of labor that is distributed around assigned sex.’ There are partial truths here; it is true of the patriarchy as an ideology related to a capitalist totality. However, Hall forgets a point she herself made, that another key part of gender is rebellion against that ideology.
This section also implies some acceptance of the gender binary as the main model in all societies. This problem relates especially to the example of Eunuchs as one of trans people outside the binary, a group with a clear and specific economic and social role, but also a path to body change. In many other societies (for example the Hirajis in India) the reality is more complex economically and in terms of how gender presentation socially operates. In thesis 3 there is already an intimation of this, as Hall argues that ‘identity is a part of gender – every person on earth is aware of the gender that they are meant to be’. But this is less reliably the case for societies in which more than two genders are accepted and valued as well as for those bringing up children they choose not to gender.
Moreover, Hall is engaging in a utopian speculation about how a post-class society (something without a historical analogue) would relate to identity, and what can be said about it in lieu of observing that society. All the evidence of class society cannot prove that a constant of all observed societies, however culturally variable, has no basis outside of class society. We cannot know whether gender has a basis beyond conditions of class and/or relative scarcity, because we have never known such conditions. This is a problem for a broader argument Hall puts forward in theses 7 and 8. That is, that woman is ultimately now easy to define, as ‘the null-space within which resistance to gender germinates.’ And the partial truth that the breaking of gender norms, inherent to trans lives, is beneficial. But only, it is emphasised, to the abolition of gender through the formation of many new modes of living.
Gender abolition has two contradictory meanings. The first is to fall back on a notion of sex that is alleged to be free from gendered ideology. Hall has done a good job demonstrating the falsity of this position. Sex exists, as gender criticals inanely repeat, but it is always grasped through ideology, through gender. The second meaning is to speculate that freed from gendered oppression, everyone would forgo such identities. That point may or may not be true, but it a. makes no practical difference to trans and women’s liberation (a litmus test for Marx when he frames his project as aiming to change the world, rather than to only understand it) and b. is hard to frame as anything other than an attack on the ‘rebellious’ identities’ Hall rightly wishes to defend, even if some historically contingent space is made for them.
While it must be accepted that transgender rights are one of the most contentious subjects of the current ‘progressive’ left, Hall’s explanation as to why is unpersuasive. She suggests it is because ‘questions that surround this debate go beyond the normal discourses on rights in a liberal democracy, and cross over into the realm of ontology and theories of consciousness.’ True, we must accept the ‘debate’ does concern ontology (what does it mean to be a man, woman or nonbinary) and consciousness, but we cannot and should not accept that this is uniquely the case.
The claims of racists are ontological, the struggles of Black people impinge on theories of consciousness. Women’s, LGB, and class struggles impinge on ontology and consciousness. Marx wrote on class consciousness, and debates about sexuality and women’s social positioning always pivoted on the same contention of inherited and learned traits that are the mainstay of arguments between transphobes and trans liberationists. The most cursory look at ‘the normal discourses on rights in a liberal democracy’ shows Hall’s claim here to be untrue. More likely, the reason this subject is contentious is that trans self-organisation has increased in visibility due to the developments of LGBTQ+ struggles and therefore made more demands for space and solidarity – this parallels other backlashes against the self-organisation of the oppressed. Different countries also have more specific reasons; for instance, reform of the Gender Recognition Act in England and Wales was a catalyst for Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist groups to mobilise.
More substantively, Hall’s (and others) gender abolition project (even if popular amongst some trans people) has no pragmatic benefits and in mirroring elements of the gender critical argument risks encouraging reactionary deviations. Seeking to end the gender binary has a greater radical potential, has historical precedent even within class society and would be impossible for anti-trans voices to coopt. Hall may be trans (one point of the essay suggests so) and irrespective she powerfully advocates for trans liberation as a necessary part of the full emancipation of humanity. That is the most crucial thing to grasp, and it is a theme that will be developed in later essays. Those liberatory portions of her ten theses are excellent, but to get the most from them we must abandon any ultra disdain for demands for reforms and the emptiness of gender abolition.
N.B The author is grateful for the amendments to the text which were made by Terry Conway.
‘Transgender Solidarity II: T4T’ and ‘Transgender Solidarity III: Camaraderie’ will be published soon.
Illustration © Pluto Press
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