The liberation of trans people would improve the lives of everyone in our society.Shon Faye, The Transgender Issue
Marx’s quip that tragedy repeats as farce has itself been over-repeated by socialists in the last decade, but it is not difficult to see why. Whether facing the creeping fascism of Trump et al, the return of a (mostly online) Stalinism, or the even less successful attempt to revive the strategy of parliamentary socialism favoured in the Second International, the left has encountered many farcical echoes in recent years. The return of separatism in the form of movements like T4T (trans for trans), however, should not be so characterised. There is little difference (or even that much distance) between separatism today and that enacted before; it is a series of tragedies. At its root are the problems of social prejudice, reactionary moralism more generally and solidarity with trans struggles. Continuing from the first in this article series, which examine transgender politics and socialism, we wish to discuss the relevance of separatism.
‘Separatism’, while hardly new even then, exploded in popularity as a strategy adopted by marginalized peoples during the 1970s. Its failure, and the failure to move beyond it, still haunts emancipatory politics. It emerged through a dynamic on the left, specifically that it too often failed to take up Lenin’s injunction that socialists be tribunes of the oppressed. Unevenly abandoned, many in the oppressed did what they could, often retreating into smaller and smaller identity categories to survive. The problem was not these identities, but the attempt to defend them in isolation.
Having retreated into Stalinist dogmatism or social democratic capitulation, class reductionism emerged as a historical error shared by much of the postwar left. (Albeit with deeper roots.) It is a form of analysis that not only ‘justifies’ betraying the oppressed, at best relegating them to a low priority, but does so because it jettisons class as living and agentive. Class becomes merely static and economic, a flat and moralistic conception of workers presiding over any possible alliance of living labour in all its diversity. Class reductionism falls back into cultural tropes. At its worst, that not only means treating workers without a political relationship as a class, but treating non-workers who only fit an aesthetic category as if they are workers. Someone whose grandparents were coal miners can be deemed workers even if they are rich landlords or small business owners, while politically active precarious labourers are classed as metropolitan elites because they have humanities degrees or artificial hair colours. Class reductionism did irreparable harm to the oppressed, but some of them also imitated it closely.
Radical feminism, for example, was one form of reductionism about identity, which would emerge alongside many others. One current of transphobia, which motivates present day trans separatism, is a result of the legacy of this particular form of reductive separatism. Having encountered socialist groupings and emancipatory movements that were forthrightly misogynist, many feminists abandoned unified struggles to instead privilege women’s oppression. To do so, however, they stressed a limited understanding of the category ‘women’, which meant both gatekeeping who is even counted as one and placing women’s oppression above the concerns of the broader oppressed. Finding it impossible to operate in a unified struggle because socialists theoretically and practically refused to tackle the prejudices it absorbed from class society, such feminists adopted a viewpoint that partially or wholly rejected unity as a goal.
This is just one strand of separatism. Other strands of feminist separatism included those around Black and Gay organising that were often more centred on the need to retreat to spaces only to recover. These groups are much less present and polemical, and closely mirror those trans spaces that provide support for people going through different types of transition – for example, in the 80s in LGBT housing coops some people would self-describe or be described (often wrongly) as separatist even when also involved in broader politics. While many did reject unity and then withdrew as a consequence, others withdrew to draw breath and then rationalised afterward and others withdrew to heal and return strengthened. Separatism is another abstraction, in reality the processes, people and social relationships it describes cannot always be simplified to fit.
Identity, like class, is living and breathing, embodied in people. An identity politics has two components; the identity, the qualities of an individual as socially meaningful, and the formation of individuals with those qualities into a political arrangement with one another. The strategy of separatism must treat identity and oppression as ahistorical and unchangeable if it is to cohere outside of broader struggles. Like class reductionism, this approach often then places shallow aesthetic signifiers over the experiences and agency of the subjects it alleges to address. It does so because it seeks, in a stable, morally policeable conception of the in-group, a measure of safety from a society that otherwise rejects and persecutes members of the group. It is worthwhile stressing that in these instances, the most meaningful chance to avoid this approach, the unity of the exploited and oppressed, is usually precluded through no fault of the oppressed themselves.
Nonetheless, pessimism quickly results from such a perspective because it renders oppression, alongside the identities being oppressed, as ‘natural’ and timeless. How can transphobia be finally overcome if it is the inevitable consequence of cis perspectives? Or misogyny if it is natural to ‘biological’ men? Understandably, the oppressed who have taken on such ideas seek to hide themselves from what is then framed as an inevitably hostile world, but this conclusion is an error, however circumstantially understandable. It not only further entrenches a self-fulfilling cynicism, but often excludes some of the most vulnerable people; those whose identities are only just emerging against social oppression and those who are complexly, multiply oppressed.
Identities include many at the fuzzy edges since they are contingent, historical formations. Lesbian, gay and queer movements have struggled to include bisexual and asexual experiences and the trans community occasionally struggles to encompass nonbinary people and trans men, as is the case with T4T. These edges are not a problem for solidarity movements, but once the strategy is to retreat from society, the edges must be smoothed out. The Combahee River Collective, a radical Black lesbian socialist organization, pioneered ideas about overlapping (intersectional) oppressions; they were responding to the failure of solidarity politics in the 1970s, which otherwise forced them to choose between focussing on class, racism, misogyny or homophobia. They stressed, rightly, the totality; it is true intersectionality can itself be reified, but an appreciation of overlapping oppressions is a frequent casualty of separatism and reductionism more broadly.
Trans separatism is only the latest instantiation of the strategy, but like previous instantiations it has come about because of the failure of the existing labour movement to show solidarity with trans people in their pressing struggle. The acronym T4T means either a trans person who only dates other trans people (a personal choice) or the more concerning belief that trans people have a moral obligation to other trans people over cis people. (And often that trans women have such an obligation specifically to other trans women, over nonbinary people and trans men.) Such a special moral obligation necessarily undermines solidarity even if it also enacts it under unfavourable circumstances and within limited parameters.
As with other separatists, this approach is adopted because of a failure within broader groupings to tackle prejudice. That is sometimes motivated by latter-day class reductionism, including in Marxist groupings, and sometimes by the legacy of historic separatists, i.e. radical feminism. Irrespective of its roots, this approach to trans liberation not only precludes solidarity with the out-group (cis people as such), although it does do so but also implies that trans solidarity, in isolation, should be a priority over the solidarity of marginalized peoples as a whole. Where does Black liberation, as a political movement rather than as an individual ideal, fit in a trans separatist project? It does not, it cannot. And that is, or should be, troubling.
Moralism and separatism are bound together. Moralism is a poorly understood concept, and it is worthwhile offering a definition. One such was given in a review written by a co-author of this piece, for Jonas Ceika’s book How to Philosophize with a Hammer and Sickle. According to Ceika, moralisms can be identified by five key features:
1) that it is universal, equally applicable to all, 2) that its obligations are unconditional, 3) that it is ahistorical, valid for all times and places, 4) that we have moral responsibility to follow it, and should feel guilt or remorse if we don’t, and 5) that in accordance to it, our actions can be judged as “good” or “evil” in absolute terms.
These are features shared by both a class reductionist and separatist attitude. Class for the reductionist, and markedly contrary to Marx’s framing, is invoked in terms of a virtuous fight against an evil enemy. The material basis for the working class as the revolutionary class is obfuscated behind a moral conflict between good workers and evil capitalists. Separatists are forced by circumstance to adopt the same worldview; oppression is no longer a feature of the social reproduction of a class society, but the inevitable consequence of the evil of an oppressor class. Likewise, within such a frame belonging to the group becomes a moral test, encouraging a no true scotsman mentality about ethical faults within the group, and a tendency to generalise ethical faults outside of the group. Solidarity on the basis of a shared struggle offers a way beyond such a limiting moralism
When people imagine themselves as the most radical section of a society, the subtle implication is that being the most radical confers on them moral superiority. Marxists ought to understand that Marx and Engels did not look to the working-class because of its moral superiority, although that does not preclude the possibility of working-class moral superiority. They made the ethics of the working class as revolutionaries bringing about a new society their conclusion, rather than their point of departure. Moral superiority as a foundation ignores the Marxist critique of morality as an inadequate interpretative lens. Indeed, it ignores the insights of even Renaissance proto-sociologists like Niccolò Machiavelli, who knew that normative categories themselves offer no insights on the workings of the world, even if normative categories can be derived from those inner workings and are necessary for any project to reshape the world.
The book Settlers by J. Sakai, a now popular text in many online radical circles, illustrates the danger of such a sectional project. Sakai argued that white peoples’ place as colonists in American society precludes them from radical subjectivity, while ignoring the obvious logical conclusion of this line of thinking: if white peoples’ status in America precludes us from radical subjectivity, then the whole of America loses its radical subjectivity due to the nation’s universal and obvious reliance on neocolonialism and resource extraction. With scant exception, all Americans, including nonwhite workers, are ‘privileged’ by leaps and bounds when compared to those living in the nations whose labour and resources prop up the United States. Privilege is an important factor in both world and domestic politics, it helps to explain the limitations of radical movements and must be addressed. The problem with Settlers is not the concept of privilege used to critique movements of the exploited, but that in making privilege the deciding factor, it precludes the nation from having access to a meaningful revolutionary subjectivity whatsoever.
Third-worldists who would accept this implication are wrong, but they have the benefit of internal consistency. For Settlers and its acolytes, who undeniably represent a more vocal strain of American radical thought, the implication is ignored. They seek to prove only the privilege of white people because they begin from moralistic assumptions. It is no accident that both the perspective offered by Settlers and trans separatism are predominantly found online. It is an underappreciated part of the problem of the internet that it encourages, in its connectivity, the formation of such exclusivity as a way in which people relate to one another. The great error of the 1970s has returned in a web 2.0 form. Moreover, the dehumanization caused by separatism and atomised, alienating spheres such as the internet does not just inspire us to be more hostile, but undermines the pleasures of not being hostile to one another.
The American Pragmatist philosopher William James and his religious inspired psychology can be useful in charting an alternative course. He describes the psychological character of the authentically religious person as that of ‘saintliness’. For James, saintliness involves moving to ‘yes’ as an affirmation ‘and away from “no,” where the claims of the non-ego are concerned’. Most people in a capitalist, alienated society (here James takes a more ahistorical view) are locked in negative attitudes of doubt, fear and hate, which James characterises as a ‘no’ mentality. Religious experiences help us to adopt positive attitudes, which James calls a ‘yes and yes’ mentality or the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche would have called life-affirming attitudes. Movements of the exploited and oppressed, and especially a Marxist organization, need to engender life-affirming attitudes, embodied and enacted in camaraderie.
To phrase it differently, and to quote the Australian Marxist Andy Blunden in his Hegel for Social Movements, ‘It is solidarity which is the Urpraxis of the socialist project’. We need solidarity to go deeper than the simple tolerance of dealing with interpersonal problems as they arise. Capitalism atomizes us enough, socialist organization among radicals ought to be a place where we can, at least to an extent, offer respite. We should be the people who are aware of that atomization and do not want to encourage it further. Marginalized and exploited people do have the moral right to be distrustful of members of the dominant parties, but it is not practical nor psychologically rewarding to orient ourselves that way, at least among those are on the same page politically. And if we are not willing to at least open ourselves to other marginalized peoples of parallel identities, we deny ourselves such a praxis and undermine our politics.
The joys of solidarity are boundless. The experience of connecting is almost spiritual. Moreover, the alternative, a separatist or reductive politics that seeks only the safety of the familiar, can no longer seek to change the world. Marxists who do not create space for the oppressed within their movements, eventually also abandon the hope of revolutionary subjectivity. The unity of the exploited and the oppressed must encompass the rich, diverse lives of the living people who comprise these abstractions. It must engage with their concerns as relevant to the course of revolution, which takes place in the world of oppressions rather than some alternative world of abstractions.
N.B The author’s are grateful for the amendments to the text which were made by Terry Conway.
‘Transgender Solidarity III: Camaraderie’ will be published soon.
Illustration © Pluto Press
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