Fighting for Queer Liberation: Statement by Cincinnati Socialist Workers Organization

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Socialist Action editor’s note: The statement below entitled “Fighting For Queer Liberation” was adopted by the Cincinnati Socialist Workers Organization, an independent organization of Cincinnati revolutionary socialists. The statement reflects the views of Socialist Action, whose National Committee concurred with the statement in October 2021. To contact CSWO, email cincysocialistworkers@gmail.com or go to https://cincysocialistworkers.wordpress.com

By Cincinnati Socialist Workers Organization

Over the past few decades the fight for the rights of queer folks have taken a few different forms. At the current moment legal protections have been extended in many areas from states allowing gender marker changes to the federal government recognizing same sex marriages. At the same time the very basic right to use bathrooms is under attack in many states. We stand for the extension of formal rights and call for the passage of legislation such as the Equality Act, but we recognize that is not what protects our queer siblings. As socialists we recognize that queer liberation can only be achieved through working class revolution and that any socialism that fails to fight for queer liberation is unworthy of the name. Our power comes from our position as workers and tenants, it stems from the very same systems that the capitalist class uses to extract surplus value from us and it must be used to destroy those systems. Under capitalism, queer workers experience a kind of super-exploitation due to the homophobia and transphobia that is inseparability tied to existing property relations.

Even where we have formal protections around employment, housing and medical access, we aren’t able to experience equal rights because our boss can decide to fire us on a whim, because our landlord can evict us for no reason, because healthcare is too expensive to preserve our health. Thus our very ability to exercise the rights that are “won” by liberal lawmakers and judges is only usable if we have access to these necessities unconditionally and with the support of working class organizations to protect us.

 As socialists organizing to fight for the destruction of capitalism and the liberation of all oppressed and exploited people, we encounter two seemingly opposed but in reality unified ways of thinking about the relationship between class and identity: ‘socialist’ Economism and liberal identity politics. Both of these seemingly contradictory ideas begin with the same fundamental mistake, the notion that class and identity are somehow divorced from each other and exist separately without any relationship between them. In reality, Marxism shows us that class and identity are deeply intertwined with each other and cannot be understood separately.

Economism, sometimes now called class reductionist politics, was theoretically formulated as a reformist tendency in the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party created as they were struggling to get the backing of the working class of Russia before the socialist revolution. Lenin saw the mistakes of this tendency and fought it bitterly, viewing it as the main danger to the revolution within the RSDLP and organizing against it in the leadup to the 1903 party conference. It is a vulgar trade unionist understanding of socialist politics and strategy, predicated on a picture of the working class as composed primarily of cis straight white men incapable of understanding issues that do not directly and immediately relate to their standards of living. It is an argument every socialist must have heard a thousand times over: “We can’t talk about racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, or any of that stuff because it will divide the movement. All we want is universal demands that benefit everyone.” While proponents of this correctly view class relations as fundamental to capitalist society, they fail to appreciate the divisions within the working class, the multifaceted structures of oppression that class society produces, or the simple fact that most workers aren’t straight cis white men. A strategy inspired by Economism, therefore, cannot organize the majority of the working class, and particularly fails when it comes to organizing the most marginalized and oppressed workers. This failure necessarily leads Economist organizations to embrace social reform rather than social revolution, and sets them on course for capitulation to the bourgeois in supposed defense of the most privileged layers of the working class.

In practice, Economism tends to view the working class as an aesthetic rather than a social relation. Class is determined by one’s relationship to the means of production, control over capital, and the necessity of selling one’s labor-power as a commodity. That’s it. It isn’t about what you eat, how you dress, or any other such qualities. In addition to simply being wrong, attempts to make being working class into an aesthetic are often deeply gendered and reflect right-wing neoliberal talking points. The ‘idealized’ working class- abstracted from any real workers- is to this way of thinking profoundly white, cis, straight, and male. (This is of course incorrect, white cis straight men are a minority of the working class, but that hardly matters to the idealists.) Activities stereotypically associated with these privileged identities are then assumed to have a working class character. Splurge on buying wings, beer, and sportsball tickets? You’ve had a perfectly working class (masculinized) evening. Spend the same amount of money on good wine, cheese, and a book of poetry? Why you’re a (feminine) petit bourgeois class traitor! These gendered and racialized exceptions of what working class life looks like also lend themselves to an abstract mode of aesthetic thinking that plays directly into right-wing rhetoric. “If you’re so poor/working class why do you have nice things?” Even beyond the fact that class and income level or savings aren’t the same, this talking point amounts to an attack on the living standards of the working class. Even the very poorest, the most oppressed and exploited, layers of the working class want to live with a little dignity, to have a few nice things beyond the immediate necessities of survival. “Yes, it is bread we fight for, but we fight for roses too!”

The liberal proponents of identity politics, for their part, claim to care about marginalized identities, but the instant we move from the abstract notion that race and gender are socially conditioned to ask about the actual society that conditions them and how we might reconstruct that society to end the various forms of oppression it produces they have nothing to say. In the face of the socialist demand for an end to all oppression and exploitation, liberalism reverts to tokenism, preformative wokeness, and identity essentialism and, therefore, to misogyny, racism, transphobia, and all the rest. At best this politics critiques media and pushes for adequate representation, but representation does not pass bills or fight for rights. It is our power that does that, not looking respectable or becoming “accepted”. Our exploitation is intentional and sustained by force, nothing short of opposing oppositional force will win us concessions (and eventually the world). Because of that, Marxists do not focus on the working class because we’re particularly concerned about class oppression and exploitation relative to other types of oppression in capitalist society, rather we orient ourselves to the workers because it is the working class that possesses the power to overthrow present society and build a new world from the ashes of the old.

Further, identity and class are deeply intertwined to the point where it’s impossible to try to understand one without the other. Can we meaningfully discuss trans oppression without talking about healthcare, housing, and employment? Of course not, but then we are talking about class. Likewise, we cannot discuss the working class without discussing the actual workers who compose it and the majority of those workers aren’t white men. In fighting for the interest of the working class as a whole, socialists demand the liberation of all sections of the class marginalized and oppressed in capitalist society. Socialism, therefore, has women’s liberation, trans liberation, Black liberation, and so forth woven into its very core and any socialist who deviates from these demands breaks from the socialist movement itself.

Our rights as working class queer people are intrinsically linked to our position in the working class. We require not merely abstract or legal protections, rather we require working class institutions like labor and tenant unions that we can act through to protect our access to necessities. Unions fighting for gender affirming surgery to be included in the insurance plan or tenant unions fighting an clearly homophobic eviction are examples of how we need to engage in this fight. Queer workers are systematically discriminated against in the search for stable housing and experience disproportionate rates of homelessness. Socialists demand a complete ban on any type of discrimination in housing and in our struggle against evictions commit to particularly combating homophobic and transphobic landlords that force queer tenants into the streets.These protections can best be achieved through the building of a network of tenants’ unions that give queer workers some measure of control over the buildings and neighborhoods we live in. Likewise, we seek to combat expressions of homophobia and transphobia in the workplace through the building of a militant union movement to address discrimination in hiring and firing practices and allow queer workers to stand up to abusive employers. A powerful base in tenant associations and labor unions would also allow us to fight for essential reforms like a universal healthcare system that makes trans affirming care free at point of contact and accessible to all.‌ 

No to Caitlyn Jenner and to bourgeois queer people that are willing to sell out everything we’ve fought for because they have the money to fly above the barriers that we have to struggle over. We have nothing to win by selling each other out simply to get ahead. We cannot justify that behavior with representation politics. Queer liberation cannot be seperated from anti-capitalist struggle. It cannot be seperated from anti-racist struggle. Pride began as a working class protest against police brutality. Stonewall was a riot, an explosion of queer working class fury that sought to expel police from our communities. In the United States, trans people experience police violence at approximately seven times the rate of cis people and nearly half of Black trans people have been incarcerated. This is an expression of how deeply the struggles against each and every aspect of capitalist oppression are linked to each other. The bosses and landlords want the working class to be divided along lines of gender, sexuality, and race- and police exist to violently enforce this separation while protecting capitalist property relations. Transphobia and white supremacy are built into capitalism at its heart. Any socialism that doesn’t fight against every manifestation of violence and oppression will fail, and it is impossible to vanquish any form of oppression without the socialist transformation of society. Those who think capitalism can be fixed fail to realize it is not broken; it is running the way it is meant to, to keep the ruling class in power and oppress the working class. In order to get any kind of equality we must overthrow capitalism and replace it with socialism.

The establishment of socialism will not, of course, end homophobia and transphobia overnight, nor are socialists somehow immune to being influenced by the bigotry present in capitalist society, but socialism will undermine the material basis for such forms of oppression and can only be achieved by the united struggle of all exploited and oppressed groups. An end to the oppression of queer individuals can only be brought about by the overthrow of the capitalist system and the establishment of a socialist society. And for that it is necessary to fight for the rights of every oppressed and exploited group in society.

We stand for a universal healthcare system that would extend coverage to transition-related care, birth control, and abortion. We recognize that queer individuals suffer from disproportionately high rates of homeless due to institutionalized homophobia and transphobia, and meet this discrimination with the demand to end homelessness for all. In a country where there are many times more empty homes than homeless people it seems absurd cruelty for the situation to ever exist- yet such situations are part a parcel of the capitalist economy, which puts profits before people.

There will be those who believe that queer liberation is possible within the confines of capitalism and, following from that premise will seek to undermine the our solidarity. Noting the presence of police offers at pride parades, and forgetting the Stonewall was a riot, they will claim that queer individuals do not need to join the Black Lives Matter movement in struggling against racism police brutality. Seeing that some corporations produce rainbow-themed rubbish once a year, they will overlook workplace discrimination and claim that LGBTQ+ rights have nothing in common with labor activism. These efforts will fail. They will fail because queer workers are diverse and have a presence in every community. Because queer people are working class, Black, and immigrants. They will fail because accommodation to the prevailing social order is something only those in position to present themselves in the context of traditional gender roles can even aspire to. They will fail because capitalism will not reform itself away and any reform achieved today will be under attack tomorrow. And they will fail because our solidarity is not something that can be bought and sold, but a fundamental commitment to the common struggle for liberation. We will not be bought. We will not be erased. We will overcome!

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