Transgender Solidarity III: Camaraderie

Rowan Fortune asks what is needed for a genuine socialist solidarity with the trans struggle. This is the final of three articles aiming to create a discussion about the supposed controversies of transgender politics today, and how the left engages with these controversies.


For trans and non-binary people, as for all the oppressed and exploited, such a socialist society is the prize worth fighting for.

Laura Miles, Transgender Resistance

My first encounter with the word ‘comrade’ was on television, where it was peppered into fictional retellings of the left’s history like the strange dress of so much Victoriana or Edwardian period dramas. It felt contradictory, both radical and quaint, exciting and old-fashioned. I would reencounter it on the online left, but the internet had done with the word what it does with most expressions of earnest sincerity, making it a game of layered irony and satirical performance. In its original usage, as with how Quakers refer to one another as friends, the word comrade is more than just a mark of polite respect; it confers a sense of solidarity and mutuality between the speaker and addressee.

When I came out as nonbinary much of the most vocal, interested and kind support I did receive was from comrades. Those I had learned to call comrades in the offline world. This was the term functioning. It now had the added advantage, which is not incidental to its virtues, of being a gender-neutral form of address. The term no longer feels either quaint or old-fashioned. With its roots in the abolition of titles in revolutionary France, and a need to address members of socialist organisations outside of the hierarchical and gendered norms of bourgeois society, it still performs ably.

Camaraderie and solidarity are the bedrock of socialism. This essay is the culmination of a three-part series examining transgender politics and socialism. In examining an ultra-left take on transgender controversies, the aim was to show the value of rigorous critical theory on the subject. In looking at trans separatism and separatism more generally, the hope was to better detail the origins of the problem in social prejudice. But the great difficulty in forming a socialist politics capable of genuine solidarity with trans peoples’ struggle remains only dimly touched on. Unlike the previous two pieces, although I will continue to make a definite argument, my tone here will be more polemical. That is not unrelated to the point I wish to make, which is one about motivations and action.

In looking at transphobia on the left we find a disturbing number of examples. The pamphlet by Red Fightback ‘Marxism and Transgender Liberation’ begins with an anecdote in which a trans person’s genitals is speculated on by a group of socialists during the course of a meeting. Such harrowing cases and worse can be found in different Marxist tendencies and on the social democratic left. Every example of this kind of interaction makes a worse mockery of camaraderie than any internet ironic take. The Labour Party, whose members also consider one another comrades, is institutionally transphobic. It defends transphobic MPs and councillors (such as Rosie Duffield) from even mild criticism (let alone serious investigation) and even placed the leader of Young Labour, Jess Bernard, under investigation for tweeting solidarity with trans people. It is a dire situation when bigotry is met with an inverted mockery of solidarity and when solidarity shown to the oppressed is met by official censor.

However, addressing such endemic transphobia is finally a matter of addressing transphobia wholesale. (A different subject.) Its origins are found unevenly in social prejudices, class society, reductionism, social reproduction, conservative legacies, separatisms, etc. Transphobes will rarely declare themselves such, but this places them in the same category as most people defending a prejudice, be it racism, homophobia, etc. Organisations that allow transphobia to take hold unchallenged are similarly going to deny the reactionary consequences of their actions and inactions, but that does not change the obvious facts.

The broader problem of trans solidarity, however, is not limited to the issue of endemic transphobia. There is another, subtler problem, which is that much of the left does not have a worked-out theory of solidarity that engenders real enthusiasm for working with the oppressed in their struggles. Instead, we are often left with consequentialist justifications for engaging the oppressed: we must do so to avoid bad optics; we must do so to cohere the unity of the working class; we must do so to recruit people who will be important in a revolutionary situation. While there is nothing necessarily untrue about these points, they are all insufficient.

Such arguments can suggest a purely instrumental reason for solidarity, one in which oppressed people must be engaged to achieve another end. However, when applied to a tiny minority such as trans people, such arguments are sometimes not even obviously persuasive. Could a revolution go ahead without trans people in the UK, who comprise roughly 1 per cent of the population? Almost certainly. Now, it might be true that much more than 1 per cent of people would make trans solidarity a sine qua non for their engagement with a working-class socialist politics, but this merely begs the question, why? What is their reason for doing so and how does it differ from the more utilitarian pretext?

Additionally, the idea of solidarity as secondary resurrects the old notion that liberation struggles are subordinate to class. And this is attached to a notion of the working class as cis white able-bodied men – often working in industries that no longer exist in large parts of the global north. Such an instrumentalisation necessarily infuriates and alienates anyone building a liberation struggle because it ignores the fact that they are the majority of the working class and that workers do not only struggle at the point of production, however significant that is to understanding crisis, but always in their communities and on the streets. A working class divided is not a class for itself. Trans people, for example, do not face transphobia in some abstract arena, but in their homes, workplaces, and leisure activities. Even in potentia, trans people must navigate a constant risk of distressing and even dangerous encounters that are not within most cis experiences.

Before I attempt to supply an answer as to a better basis for solidarity with trans people, which is more generally applicable, we should pause to consider what the alternative looks like. The trans movement intuitively grasps that its liberation depends on the liberation of others. I have attended four pride events this year that have demanded the acknowledgement of the humanity of trans people, from thousands marching in Trans Pride and Reclaim Pride, to hundreds attending speeches outside of Downing Street, to ten of us standing outside of the Guardian offices after their appalling censoring of an academic who rightly drew connections between transphobic groups in the US and the fascistic Proud Boys. At every one of these I witnessed trans people who opposed every form of prejudice, who called out international injustices in Brazil, Poland, Hungary as well as those occurring at home.

What I did not see at these events was strong socialist solidarity. Comrades from the A*CR showed up, but the union presence was consistently mediocre. The SWPs placards are often handed out, but the socialist banners, even Labour Party banners I am used to seeing at protests against oppression, were nowhere in sight. Why does the Labour Party right come to believe it can effectively attack the left by targeting trans rights? Left transphobia is a problem, but left apathy is too. However, apathy cannot be met by moralising shame. What is needed to overcome apathy is a reason to care. And that reason must take root in how we undertake our politics.

The previous essay in this series quoted the Australian Marxist Andy Blunden, who wrote in Hegel for Social Movements: ‘It is solidarity which is the Urpraxis of the socialist project.’ For Blunden, that is because: ‘A world in which solidarity is universal is already socialism.’ By praxis is simply meant the unity of theory and practice, theory through struggle. An ur-praxis, then, is that without which there would be no socialist politics. Solidarity is the basis for all socialist action because socialist ends are not arbitrary as a strictly moralistic project might be. As the working class becomes revolutionary, it seeks to abolish the present state of things because being propertyless (in having no ownership of the means of production, being forced to sell its labour) it has no stakes in the status quo. That abolition extends to the abolition of class society, which is also the basis for social oppression.

Solidarity is both the means and ends of socialism.

A socialist ethos must show solidarity with any group of the oppressed no matter how small, no matter how irrelevant they are to the sum totality of the working class as a unified class. They must do so to retain the character of being socialist. To not do so might be conducive to other ends, but it is, to whatever degree, a stepping away from socialism. That is because only such an ethos is consciously revolutionary, rejecting the instrumentalising and dehumanising logic of capital. This is represented in our organisations as camaraderie, as how we regard those we struggle and theorise alongside as the constantly enacted and renewed basis for our more general solidarity.

There is a necessary note of caution here, to avoid a slightly mistaken impression. A Marxist organisation does not believe that the world can be changed simply by prefiguring something new, even in our attitudes to one another. The something new being aimed for, the abolition of capitalism and the free association of free producers, is in any case only dimly and abstractly grasped ahead of its time. There is no historical precedent for it. A blueprint utopianism of the kind Marx and, more concertedly, Engels criticised has been tried unsuccessfully throughout radical history, from Robert Owen’s New Lanark to Étienne Cabet’s Icarian community. That is not Marxism nor what is being advocated here.

Utopian Socialism did not fail for a lack of trying, but because such a utopianism’s moralising assumptions have always underestimated capitalism by treating it as a strictly moral problem. Marx in particular showed that capitalism was a particular form of class society, that its social relations produce its own morality and that this morality is how it will judge itself. To call the capitalist immoral is less radical a critique than it might seem. Rather, Marx looked at the material contradictions on which capitalist (and earlier) social relations are based. But in formulating why the working class as a conscious agent must come into conflict with capitalism, Marx and Engels did not shirk the duty to actively and imaginatively change the world, and to sketch what that required outside of the specificity of precise models. What that required as a consequence of the agency of revolutionary workers. As Engels wrote in Socialism: Utopian and Scientific:

The whole sphere of the conditions of life which environ man, and which have thitherto ruled man, now comes under the dominion and control of man, who for the first time becomes the real, conscious lord of Nature, because he has now become master of his own social organisation. The laws of his own social action, hitherto standing face to face with man as laws of Nature foreign to, and dominating, him, will then be used with full understanding, and so mastered by him. Man’s own social organisation, hitherto confronting him as a necessary imposed by Nature and history, now becomes the result of his own free action. The extraneous objective forces that have hitherto governed history, pass under the control of man himself. Only from that time will man himself, more and more copiously, make his own history—only from that time will the social causes set in movement by him have, in the main and in a constantly growing measure, the result intended by him. It is the ascent of man from the kingdom of necessity to the kingdom of freedom.

Frederik engels, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific

The rejection of Utopian Socialism, then, was never a rejection of the utopian imagination that motivated the projects of Owen, Cabet and others. It is in the spirit of holding on to that imaginative leap that we call one another comrades and in which we practice solidarity as both a means and end. In that light, solidarity with trans people (or anyone facing oppression) is not an onerous task socialists should be guilted or tricked into, or made to see the instrumental necessity of. Solidarity, again to go back to the language of the previous article on the limits of separatism, is a form of joyfulness. Those cis people who make trans solidarity a precondition of joining the more general struggles recognise that joyfulness intuitively, it is not the joy of some moralistic certainty but of a possibility that is at the heart of a Marxist project:

Neither Hegel nor Marx measures man’s ‘alienated state’ either against a transhistorical human nature or against a ‘logically predetermined’ future. Rather, they measure it against a human potentiality revealed by the very phenomenon of alienation – against a human potentiality which though at first it emerges in an alienated state, allows one to envisage a previously unknown possibility of ultimate human self-actualisation.

Nicholas Lobkowicz, quoted in Richard J. Bernstein, Praxis and Action, 69-70

The more human history Engels describes and seeks to bring into the world, is the one Blunden refers to as a society of universal solidarity and Lobkowicz as self-actualisation. It cannot be achieved merely by make-believe, but it equally cannot be achieved by giving ground on solidarity. It is with this kingdom of freedom in mind that socialists should be enthusiastic in calling out transphobia, which has its debased place in sustaining the kingdom of necessity. (The alleged naturalness of gendered relations, of misogyny and homophobia, are intimately related to transphobia and the whole edifice of present-day social reproduction.) Trans camaraderie is the basis for trans solidarity, and it is the answer to this moment of reactionary moral panic against a minority that upsets the social norms of capital. More moralism is not the answer; instead, we need an ethics of solidarity carried through revolutionary praxis.

The author thanks Terry Conway for reading the series and the significant admentments offered that have been accepted and worked into the articles.

Illustration © Pluto Press

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Rowan Fortune authored Writing Nowhere; edited the anthology of utopian short fiction Citizens of Nowhere; and contributed to the collaborative book System Crash. It writes on utopian imagination, revolutionary theory and trans* liberation.

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