Transphobia is not a Humanism

In this long read we publish an open letter to News & Letters by Twilight O’Hara and Rowan Fortune.


The American Marxist Humanist Paper News & Letters emerged from the Committee of the same name, founded by the Marxist-Humanist Raya Dunayevskaya. It remains beholden to her philosophy, which amongst other insights always strove to see the oppressed in the context of class and class in the context of the oppressed, and both in terms of agency. This commitment has produced an inconsistency in News & Letters today, as they are torn between loyalty to Dunayevskaya’s historical ties to radical feminism, and a championing of trans people as a group of the oppressed. As nonbinary Marxist-Humanists, this is an inconsistency in which we are invested, and we wish to see News & Letters adopt a more coherent approach.

In the Marxist-Humanist tradition, few names carry more weight and command greater respect than that of Dunayevskaya, and rightly so. In her split from the Trotskyist tradition, Dunayevskaya went further than perhaps any other Marxist thinker to re-establish Marxist philosophy as one that placed its emphasis on the understanding of the creative role played by the subjectivity of exploited and oppressed peoples, to re-establish Marxism as an instrument for working-class self-emancipation rather than an abstract method of ahistorical ‘science’.

In step with Lenin’s famous injunction for Marxists to respond ‘to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it appears’, Dunayevskaya understood the importance of social struggles to the class struggle. That there exists no question of race outside of class, a truism in most Marxist circles, was not for her an imperative to subsume questions of race under questions of class, but an indication of the need to make the matter of race an integral and internal part of our understanding of class as an actually existing historical phenomenon. In philosophising in this way, she saw more clearly than her contemporaries the pressing need to be contemporary.

The greatest virtue of being contemporary can, however, become its greatest weakness given enough time. In being of one’s own time, it can be difficult to speak to another time. As Marxists, we should strive to make ourselves irrelevant: the Marxist project culminates in the creation of a society in which Marxist analysis is no longer possible. We ought to be rather dismayed if we were to find a crystal ball, look into the future, and find ourselves being looked to as guides 50 years on!

Nevertheless, we do not have so perfect a control over our futures as to ensure that our fates will not be exactly this, and neither did Dunayevskaya. In choosing to be of her times, to commit herself fully to furthering the moment in which she found herself rather than preparing for a future in which we have yet to succeed, she too bound herself to the limitations of her times. It is the legacy of these limitations that we unfortunately must now attempt to untangle.

The women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and 70s was a very different women’s liberation movement than today’s, a fact on which we and News & Letters, the recipient of this open letter, are in agreement. It would seem, however, that we take this change to mean different things. Where we see this as being reflective of a movement, having made progress, allowing itself to ask further questions and, ground having been gained, opening up new borders out of which we may venture forth, News & Letters sees it as a betrayal of the past, a failure to adhere to the true essence of the feminist movement.

This tendency of feminist thought and action, radical feminism, has always been divisive, and perhaps never more so than now. That is because the implications of radical feminist gender philosophy on matters regarding transgender people; implications that modern radical feminists are none too shy about following through explicitly. This is not intended as a moralistic critique. We have no issue with Dunayevskaya’s positions in their original context and do not intend to stain her reputation. Quite the contrary, Dunayevskaya’s feminism remains remarkably insightful, and the issues we take with it now are not issues that would have been likely for Dunayevskaya to have spotted in her own time.

When she wrote, trans people were not yet an organised political force articulating a coherent subjectivity built around a common experience. Even Marx and Engels knew about trans people, gender non-conformity was not something that emerged in the last decades. What is crucial is that it was not then an experience structured into an identity on the political landscape. Radical feminism might in part be responsible for delaying the emergence of trans people as an understood identity, but it is hard to attribute this to malice. When your understanding of gender precludes transness, it is easy to dismiss trans people as they appear to you as an anomaly rather than a distinct group. It is not so much that it denied the legitimacy of the trans experience initially, so much as an understanding of that experience was simply unavailable within their intellectual toolkit.

Today, those who experience multiple personalities are often dismissed as unwell or invalid, but it is possible that, in a few years, they will constitute a new identity also striving for recognition and acceptance. To an extent, they already are, insofar as a plural community exists. It is also possible that this is the result of the mental health crisis overlapping with online identity creation. The truth is that without the expression of a new identity, we cannot know whether a social phenomenon could constitute one. This is only a hypothetical example, new identities in their very newness are black swans, they cannot be fully anticipated.

If this strikes the reader as too absurd a comparison, consider that feminists of the era in question likely regarded trans people as an equal absurdity, and only those blessed with a crystal ball could know in advance the course history would take. To hold people in the past to such a standard assumes not only an impossible foresight, but also assumes that existing standards are the final ones by which all past people should be measured. That viewpoint risks precisely replicating the very naivety that produces bigotries in the first instance.

At this earlier point in history, TERFism was not its own thing, but rather one part of the broader lesbian separatist movement. Hatred of trans people was not an end-in-and-of-itself, but a part of the project to police the borders of lesbian identity. Dunayevskaya was not involved in lesbian separatism, and so likely did not see any major need to intervene in this matter. Trans people were under attack at this point, but not so much for organising ourselves. Crucially, the nature of that attack put it outside of Dunayevskaya’s area of exposure.

Trans inclusive radical feminism existed in this period alongside trans exclusive radical feminism because this movement was not wedded to a coherent project of exclusion or inclusion. However, that one of these would become dominant shows that they are not equally viable philosophical positions within the scope of radical feminism. Trans inclusive radical feminism rests on the same gender essentialism, and is therefore guilty of theoretical incoherence. It is well meaning incoherence, but incoherence nonetheless. How could such a position allow for the fluid breakdown of gender borders and binaries implied by, for example, nonbinary identities? It could essentialise a greater number of gender categories, but would therefore need to accept two incompatible positions: that the sex-gender dyad is susceptible to social and historical change, and that it is also innate and ahistorical.

The Empire Strikes Back: A Posttransexual Manifesto, a response to the founding document of TERFism, The Transsexual Empire, was released the same year that Dunayevskaya died. The Empire Strikes Back is the perfect title for an essay responding to Janice Raymond’s transphobic book, and it in turn was a founding text of the transgender movement and an expression of its first intimations as a political identity. From that moment on, the challenge to any ‘new humanism’ was made by trans people. We are contemporary. 

The root of the issue is simply this: the problems that the women’s liberation movement of the 60s and 70s attempted to interrogate and resolve are not the same ones that modern liberation movements find themselves dealing with today, or rather these issues are now being examined in light of new revelations and new experiences that were unavailable to the majority of feminist thinkers of Dunayevskaya’s day. The January-February issue of News & Letters perfectly illustrates the legacy of this troubled conundrum today. It features a glowing review of Feminism for Women: The Real Route to Liberation by infamous transphobe and radical feminist nostalgic author Julie Bindel.

This review is emblematic of the problems of much of contemporary Marxist Humanism, which wishes to show solidarity to trans and nonbinary people as members of the oppressed, in-line with the spirit of Dunayevskaya, while retaining links to a radical feminist tradition deeply hostile to trans liberation because of its ahistorical attitude to sex, in-line with the actual positions held by Dunayevskaya. To recognise that there is a difference between the spirit of a philosophy, and its literal replication across time as a dead artefact, is hardly an un-marxian observation. However, it also precedes even Hegel’s understanding of history as a process, for we can find it in Paul’s famous letter to the Ephesians: ‘…the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.’ The solution to this contradiction between spirit and letter, it appears, is simply to pretend that it does not exist, that Marxist Humanism is not hereby substituting life with death.

The review in question does not mention Bindel’s famously hostile views to bisexual women or trans people generally. The latter views are exemplified from when Bindel wrote in a piece for the Guardian, ‘Gender benders, beware’, ‘I don’t have a problem with men disposing of their genitals, but it does not make them women, in the same way that shoving a bit of vacuum hose down your 501s does not make you a man.’ Lest we be accused of condemning Bindel on grounds not pertinent to the topic, Bindel has stated that these beliefs are a direct result, the logical continuation, of her views on feminism. How does News & Letters address these types of opinion? No mention is given to trans people in the review, but a critical remark towards those who would take issue with such statements is made: ‘Feminist speakers with controversial views are de-platformed while their right-wing opponents are allowed to speak.’

It is our view that there is nothing wrong with de-platforming and not listening to transphobes, just as there is no issue with de-platforming and not listening to ‘race realists’. Should we give racist, pseudoscientific sociologists such as Charles Murray a fair shake? We think not, and News & Letters have historically agreed with us, as shown in their endorsement of counter-fascist protesting. Either the Marxist newspaper does not think transphobia is a form of bigotry, suggesting they should cede claims to transgender solidarity, or they are hypocrites for not condemning transphobes with the same treatment as we do racists. Like trans inclusive radical feminists, they have the best motives in adopting the contradictions that they do, but they also have the same problem of incoherence.

A return to the feminism of the 70s is, by definition, a step backwards rather than forwards. At risk of reiterating historicism 101, we cannot turn back the clock. Ideas are specific to their own historical epoch and social context; they emerge and arise from the struggles of people fighting to articulate their desire for freedom. If you find the modern forms of how people grasp for freedom suspect, and long for a return to the glory days of feminism gone by, it is altogether impossible to justify this suspicion on humanist grounds.

We may call into question the ways this striving for freedom understands and expresses itself theoretically, but presenting a different theory of gender that incorporates trans experiences meaningfully is a far cry from the transphobia with which radical feminism, and Bindel in particular, so openly flirt. If one can find no room in their theory of gender for those who do not conform to static conceptions of it, then such a person cannot meaningfully call their feminism historicist or humanist.

The most fashionable retort to humanism is that it prescribes as normative a single ideal of what a human being ought to be. In an era of postmodern difference, this is a perspective few can abide. While we may reject this argument as grounds on which to abandon humanism, we acknowledge that it is an accusation with more than a little truth. It is certainly a critique that can be made of much Renaissance humanism (that of John Donne or Thomas More, albeit maybe not of Michel de Montaigne or his proto-anarchist friend Étienne de La Boétie). We believe that the fact this deficiency can and should be overcome does not mean it has been. Nobody can fully escape Marx’s dictum that ‘the tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living’.

It may be worth stating, although most members of News & Letters likely know this dictum well, that among the first to make this classical argument against humanism were themselves humanists. Before Althusser and co. would make anti-humanism the philosophy de jure for a generation of radical intellectuals, Sartre damned humanism in language that would make Foucault blush, writing that ‘with [Europeans] there is nothing more consistent than a racist humanism since the European has only been able to become a man through creating slaves and monsters.’ In the same way, the TERF becomes a woman through creating the trans person as a monster, a frankenstein that validates her humanity as a woman.

Sartre was able to critique humanism in this way from the standpoint of humanism precisely because the humanism he advocated was, in the phrasing of Frantz Fanon, a ‘new humanism’. Rather than seeking to create a single, idealised form of human being, the humanism advocated by these ‘new humanists’ was one which was celebratory of difference and plurality while being careful to place that plurality within a common conception of humanity united by the social process of self-creation. What unites humanity is not a universal normative standard to which we all ought to aspire and by which we all may be judged, but the ability for humanity to develop itself in accordance with standards that we choose for ourselves. We are both bound by and responsible for our ‘human nature’, as paradoxical as that seems.

News & Letters have fallen prey to reification. In overcoming the reification of gender in patriarchal societies, radical feminists have themselves reified new notions of gender that now must be overcome. Marx also had to overcome the humanism of Feuerbach to establish the ‘new humanism’ of Marxism; this does nothing to diminish the accomplishments of Feuerbach, and neither does the need to now adjust our theories on gender in light of trans experiences diminish the accomplishment of radical feminists in their own era.

We overcome the past not by theorising alone, but through the very living movements that comprised both the radical feminists of the 70s and the trans movement today, as well as the various still unknown expressions of agency and struggle that will emerge in the future. The forms that these struggles can take will certainly appear strange and alien to our current perspectives, and we are not at fault for the context that informs this reaction. But we can aspire to encompass the new as it arises through the spirit of our philosophy. This is precisely what the greatest humanists of the past, from Fanon to Sartre, themselves managed.

Both Marx and Montaigne chose for their mottos, ‘Nihil humani a me alienum puto’ (Nothing human is alien to me.) It is taken from Heauton Timorumenos (The Self-Tormentor) by the Roman African playwright Terence. It perfectly captures what can make humanism forever contemporary, an openness to all expressions of humanity. We write this open letter because we respect the tradition and motives of News & Letters, in the hope that Dunayevskaya’s spirit can be rediscovered today.

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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.

Twilight O’Hara is a psychology student and revolutionary socialist in the United States. She is at work on a book reconstructing Marxism based on philosophical idealism.

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