Toward a “Transsexualized Marxism”

Against the Current No. 227, November/December 2023

M. Colleen McDaniel

Transgender Marxism
Edited by Jules Joanne Gleeson and Elle O’Rourke.
Foreword by Jordy Rosenberg
London: Pluto Press, $22.95 paperback.

THE COLLECTION OF 14 essays that comprise Transgender Marxism offers a theory for Marxists to begin our ascent into a fuller understanding of gender inequity and its dance with class antagonism. The book brings together theoretical arguments from trans people placing transness within the context of a Marxist framework.

According to editors Gleeson and O’Rourke, not only does a theory of Transgender Marxism already exist, it is “already a flourishing field, if one that has found itself confined to the most esoteric and fleeting outlets” in marginal publications and private accounts. (1)

Transgender Marxism, as a school of thought, is not “‘Trans people doing Marxism’ or Marxist analysis of trans people’s lives.” (Rosa Lee, 62)

Although as Gleeson and O’Rourke point out, trans people’s “struggle for emancipation has become understood as one progression within a broader process of class war” (3), this school of thought proposes “a transformed Marxism, a Marxism which has been in some way transsexualised. A Marxism which has undergone or is embarking on a process of transition.” (Lee, 62)

Transgender Marxism offers for political and gender theorists an alternative Marxist theory that sees the interplay of gender and class. As put by the editors, “We cannot set capitalism on one side, as a fixed and dependable feature, with gender on the other as a ‘cultural’ set of norms and identifications. The two admix at every turn…Our gendered experiences are dominated by capital, yes, but capitalism’s relation to gender is one of mutual dependence.” (14).

They go on to argue that “the oppression of trans people remains unmistakably capitalist” (16); hence Transgender Marxism offers a path forged for emancipation from the pains of capitalism and patriarchal gender: communism. The editors participate in the “practice of thinking with Marx in spirit rather than in letter. [They] think with him in order to think against and beyond his limits” (Gleeson & O’Rourke, 7).

Not a collection for beginner Marxists, Transgender Marxism is dense. Quite often names and theories are mentioned without much explanation of their significance, requiring the reader to be “in on the joke” of why a theorist was mentioned. Some essays are more accessible than others; however, for the reader to gain the fullest comprehension of the context of the arguments, the book requires a previous (and even somewhat broad) knowledge of Marxist theory.

I found myself frustrated multiple times and tended to skim past the unexplained name-dropping by some essayists, although I was still able to retain a comprehension of the main arguments. This is to say that this book does not appear to be written for just anyone to be able to pick up and gain a full understanding of its theory.

Difficult Encounters

As a genderqueer person myself and a gender scholar (not a political or economic theorist) who trained mostly under radical feminists, I found Transgender Marxism’s thesis highly refreshing. More than once, I have hesitated to identify as a Marxist because of its limitations around gender theory. And more specifically, as a queer person, in the few Marxist spaces I’ve been in, I’ve felt a lack of depth of theory on gender.

I have encountered (as the editors call them) “‘class first’ leftists” who see gender as a product of capitalism rather than something that simultaneously is sustained by, and sustains, capitalism. The editors note, “The problem with so-called class-reductionist perspectives is that to reduce to class often enough means a failure to explain how class divisions arise historically, or are sustained.” (17)

Marxist feminists for decades (at least) have known this critique in relation to social reproduction; what’s been missing is how exactly trans individuals fit into this reproduction of capitalism — and more importantly, how they fit into its destruction. This “transitioning” of Marxism is highly needed, and for me well timed as I see myself in a years-long transition into Marxism.

I did find myself applauding the book for offering such a whole picture of gender: not reducing it to nature-versus-nurture, or real versus made up, but offering an understanding of gender as at once individual and communal, oppressive and liberating.

I am a social cognitive psychologist, wherein lies my biggest hesitancy (with any Marxist theory of psychology): I see very little value in Freud or psychoanalysis.

Transgender Marxism does not sit in psychoanalysis long, but some essayists do draw upon a psychoanalytic framework. While I tend to find any psychoanalytic argument to hold little credence, the book does include powerful social cognitive perspectives of gender development.

Aside from the few aforementioned moments of hesitancy, this book serves a purpose beyond this call for a transitioning of Marxism, but also as an unveiling of the need for transitioning gender theories into Marxism.

I’ll also admit that some essays probably left me with more questions than answers. I won’t say the book was devoid of answers; in fact quite a few essays offer the solution to the plight of the oppression of transgender people and of the proletariat as a whole: communism. Indeed, Transgender Marxism (the school of thought, not just the book) makes a very evident argument: Liberation from gender inequity and the oppression of trans people is dependent on the end of capitalism.

Social Reproduction Theory

To appeal first to the Marxists, especially the “class-first” Marxists who may be questioning picking up Transgender Marxism, I will offer a theory that names this “mutual dependency” of gender and capitalism. As asserted by Gleeson and O’Rourke, we know “that capitalism does [trans people] harm…what must be explained is how it survives through [trans people],” (17)

Social reproduction theory is where the interdependence of gender and capital come to fruition. Zoe Belinsky describes social reproduction theory as “the labourer in capitalism sells her labour power as a market commodity in exchange for a wage, but that wage doesn’t directly reproduce the labourer’s existence. Fundamentally unwaged labour outside of the sphere of production is required for the labourer to be able to return the work the next day,” she adds, “and for past labourers (retirees) and future labourers (children) to continue existing and receive the care they need.” (188)

Queer people play a vital role in the reproduction of labor, as we are predominantly in care spaces: sex work, service industry, and care work.

This argument is not simple to make, however, as trans people do not fit neatly into the nuclear family; rather, “transpeople’s exclusion from the heterosexual family unit is central to [their] economic disempowerment and [their] difficulties with social reproduction.” (Belinsky, 188)

Yet there is an emotional labor demanded of queer people, especially queer femme and feminine people. Essayist Nat Raha makes an argument for queer and trans social reproduction by sharing a list from lesbian and bisexual women living in Margaret Thatcher’s UK.

Raha explains, “Rather than homogenising the experience of queer women, the group aimed to make visible the variety of demands for labour made by society upon them for survival, amid a lack of recognition that such work was even taking place at all.”

Even though trans people may be excluded from (and often forcibly and violently pushed out of) the patriarchal nuclear family, queer and trans people still labor and provide emotional labor for laborers. Raha offers the critique that “Marxist feminism has yet to bring into view the caring, domestic, and emotional labour, which is the precondition of [their] survival.” (87, 88)

An intense emotional labor is required of queer people to keep each other alive. Raha goes on to call out that “this work occurs in the absence of institutions for social support and alongside the harm [of] misogynist ideas about care labour, where endless free emotional labour is simply the role [their] communities have for femme and feminine people.” (90)

Trans people’s social reproduction lies both in this struggle for existence and in the very work they do. Belinsky offers a portrait of queer communities that have cared for each other, and in doing so offers a vital expansion to social reproduction theory which considers “such labour both as work of resistance that enable [their] being…and as unpaid labour…work that is valuable and necessary.” (105) Indeed, “for the time being, we struggle for our lives even as this very struggle is being turned to the ruling classes’ riches.” (Belinsky, 107)

Michelle O’Brien’s essay on Trans Work goes even deeper into the interplay of trans identity and work. Specifically, she argues that “trans work struggle, and what they offer to the broader gender freedom of the working class, break open the relationship between identity and class struggle.” (59)

O’Brien reminds readers that this is not just another identity politics, rather, “Communists and Marxists have long recognized that the kinds of work we do shapes not only the kind of misery we face, but also how we are able to organise.” (50)

Her argument solidifies in pointing out that “all work imposes some varying forms of expectations for gender expression and gendered behavior.” (57) She demonstrates the dependency of labor on gendering with examples such as “masculine toughness in the face of the dangers in many industrial manufacturing jobs” and “the gracious feminizing and racialized subservience expected by service staff,” as well as “highly gendered dress codes of white-collar employment,” and “the maternal activities of teaching, nursing and childcare.” (57-58)

In this way O’Brien makes evident the forced gendering of work not only true for trans people but for people of all genders. Best summarized by her statement, “Like many people’s experience of the family, employment is an institution of gender violence and everyday coercion.” (58)

Development of Gender/Sex

Transgender Marxism redefines gender and sex by arguing that sex, like gender, is also socially created, reminding us that gender is derived as a marker of sex. Essayist Rosa Lee applies Judith Butler’s perspective that “the sexed body itself is social rather than natural.”

Lee quotes Judith Butler’s argument that “gender is not just to culture as sex is to nature. Gender is also the discursive/cultural means by which ‘sexed nature’ or ‘a natural sex’ is produced and established as ‘prediscursive.’” (65)

Furthering this notion that sex is also social, Virginia Guitzel states “in order to imprison the human being in alienated labour, it is necessary to mutilate it by reducing its sexuality to the genitals.”

She states that “genitalization is destined to remove from the body its function of reproducing pleasure to convert it into an instrument of alienated production, but only sexualising what is indispensable for reproduction” — this reproduction of course serving the reproduction of capitalism. (123)

British neurobiologist Gina Rippon is known for her argument that “a gendered world will produce a gendered brain,” calling out a long history of neuroscience that has attempted to prove that ‘males’ and ‘females’ are neurologically different.

Applied here, the genius of this short phrase is that it reveals a much bigger truth: science is biased by the world and its patriarchal, capitalistic paradigms.

In order to understand gender/sex, science starts with the wrong question: why are people trans, rather than focusing on why does anyone have gender? Scientists are (albeit not alone) to blame for the validation of “sex” as being entirely defined by biology, while gender is the entirety of how we act, see ourselves, dress, and otherwise exist in the world.

However, according to Transgender Marxism sex, like gender, is an unmeasurable trait reduced to visible genitalia, that serves to uphold class division. To Transgender Marxism, gender and sex are the very product of a society that depends on a laboring force (proletariats) holding up the few (bourgeoisie). That is, gender and sex serve one god, capitalism.

In her essay “How Do Gender Transitions Happen?” Gleeson quotes Julia Serano’s comments on the “‘etiological’ fixation of writing on trans issues: the fascination around why it is certain people become transgender.”

Serano maintains, “The unceasing search to uncover the cause of transexuality is designed to keep transsexual gender identities in a perpetually questionable state, thereby ensuring that cissexual gender identities continue to be unquestionable.” (70)

In Transgender Marxism, rather than asking the question “why does transness exist?” essayists seek to define the way in which gender and sex develop within the context of transition. Throughout, the essayists argue the development of transness by challenging alternative theories of gender development.

For example, Noah Zazanis points out that “many liberal trans-affirmative arguments have relied on essentialisms (biological or otherwise) to justify the necessity of transition, and the validity of trans identity.”

Zazanis offers a shift from this essentialism by claiming that “transgender identification is not inherent, or even necessarily constant. Instead, trans identities are formed responsive to their social context,” that is, transition happens “through the exercise of individual and collective agency.” (33)

He challenges radical feminist Catherine A MacKinnon’s view of gender development via gender socialization: “the process through which women come to identify themselves as sexual beings, as beings which exist for men.” He asks instead, “if womanhood is defined by forcible sexual submission, what positive content could trans women see that draws them towards a female identification?” (34)

Zazanis points out the missing piece in gender socialization theory in that it provides no explanation for “why any person, trans or cis, may choose to reject the prescriptive roles into which they are socialised through transition, feminist resistance, or gender nonconformity of any sort.” (36)

Rather, he argues for a development of gender that happens through social cognitive processes wherein “people have the ability to choose their social influences.” For example, Zazanis describes the process of enactive experience wherein “individuals engage in gendered behavior, observe how others respond, and adjust their behavior accordingly.” (39)

This gender development applies to both cis and trans people in that hegemonic masculinity and femininity are also modeled and then policed by others for people to learn how to act their assigned gender.

As detailed in the personal narrative from Farah Thompson, “over the years I’ve learned that I am just an echo of someone else’s expectations, and that my humanity is contingent on responding to that.” (159)

Trans people learn the gender they are assigned while also existing against that gender, learning who they are and having the autonomy and capacity to choose another path: transition.

What is Transition?

Gleeson too attempts to answer the development of gender by distinguishing between two understandings of how transitions develop: “one that centres transitions as the consequences of trans people overcoming an array of hurdles on a personal level,” and a second that “centres the work of trans communities in the realisation of [their] genders.” Gleeson describes these communities as “loose collectives [who] provide a context or ‘space’ for the articulation of new language, lifestyle developments, and culture.” (71)

It’s in being in community and caring for one’s community that a person develops into transness. This interplay between the individual concern for transitioning how one is perceived by society and the influence of trans communities on gender development is a common theme across the book’s essays.

I read the decentralizing of individual development of transness as a biological- or internal-only process as a denial of individualism, and a call towards communism by highlighting the interdependence of our very beings on interconnectedness with others.

While many gender scholars and theorists (including both those who are anti-trans and those who are trans allied) call for the abolition of gender, it is often at the expense of dismissing the complexities of transition. It is also here that transphobic arguments emerge.

For example, TERFs [“trans-excluding radical feminists” — ed.] claim that trans women perpetuate stereotypes about gender: wearing heels and dresses and makeup, talking a certain way, walking a certain way. However, Anja Heisler Weiser Flower challenges this in her essay — which I felt had the most depth on defining gender/sex and transition.

Weiser Flower argues that although many Marxists write off the abstraction of sex/gender as merely identity politics, admitting that “such politics of course inevitably does involve identity,” she details that “the identity is not the main thing; rather, identity is a representation of the abstraction” (247).

In this way, “naming represents the abstraction; the abstraction itself is not a name” (that is, naming gender/sex represents the abstraction of gender/sex). Trans people, as asserted by Weiser Flower, “are crushed under an abstraction” (‘abstraction in this sense meaning “sex/gender’) “which [they] have developed against;” and so, trans people transition because “naming [their] condition facilitates [their] living under the abstraction…which allows [them] to concretise [their] personhood more fully.” (252)

According to this argument, this is not “a final overcoming of her domination via abstraction. Such an overcoming can’t happen individually. She is making a vital move towards a more liveable life, yes — but she’s forcing her way into renegotiating her alienation, not abolishing it.”

To demand that trans people abolish gender without calling for cis people to do the same via the abolition of capitalism is unfair. As Weiser Flower puts it, “Cis or trans, we create ourselves and our conditions, while our conditions create us.” (253)

As is the comparison in Weiser Flower’s essay, we can think of gender transition as we do unions. Certainly, let us call for the abolition of work, but until we can do so in full, we form unions to make our working conditions and our lives livable.

O’Brien’s essay takes this further, declaring that “gender expression is central to human fulfilment, to our creativity and our dignity, to express beauty, and to experience pleasure. Trans people — whatever the limits or costs — show a remarkable and rare commitment to courageously following nonconforming yet fulfilling self-expression.” (60)

For trans people, there is a catch-22 of sorts to be “both seeking and resisting the power of other people to validate [their] realness.” (Nathaniel Dickson, 206)

Dickson notes that “there is always a very tangible and sometimes life-threatening pressure to fit in, to be acknowledged as ‘real’ people, even if it means giving over definitional authority to those that oppress and exploit [them].” If not for an immediate discounting or abolition of gender for liberation, it is easy to fall into a “liberal inclusion politics” (208); however, it would also be reductive to claim that all trans people seek this inclusion.

At an individual level, transition involves “amassing a medley of decisive features, which inform the public at large of how you expect to be read, both overtly and on an intuitive level” (Gleeson, 72), yet it is also more than that.

Nathaniel Dickson adds that “Transition is estrangement,” by which Dickson means adding “difficulty to the seeming naturalness of things, and in doing so to prolong and make strange our perception of the everyday so that we might see it anew.” (206)

Transition is an act (or many acts) done to be able to survive under the current conditions. It is not until we rid ourselves of capitalism that our full potential to exist free of gender will be realized. Until then, we cannot reduce transition nor gender by demanding its immediate destruction without a concurrent destruction of capitalism.

Strategizing for Liberation

As stated earlier, Transgender Marxism’s purpose is to call for liberation through the end of capitalism. In her review of Brazil’s politics, Virginia Guitzel argues “given that the capitalist system prevents us realising our liberation, this cannot be achieved in a linear path towards social emancipation through education and a gradual struggle against ignorance and prejudice.” Rather, Guitzel argues “we must revolutionize trade unions and student organisations, to transform them into instruments of struggle.” (129, 130)

In her essay on strategizing against work, Kate Doyle Griffiths calls for a “new Marxist strategy for class organisation. One that not only affirms ‘trans rights’ as a moral or even tactical position — but transgender liberation.” (137)

Griffiths calls for a “mashup — of (Kim) Moody’s rank-and file strategy” that is, to prioritize striking in certain areas of labor (i.e. logistics) as “chokepoints” to significantly disrupt profit making in order for intervention. Griffiths argues that the inclusion of trans and queer laborers would mean to identify social reproduction as a chokepoint.

As was demonstrated by recent waves of teacher strikes, “workers who are paid to do the daily remaking of the working-class-in-itself play a central role in expanding and politicising workplace struggles. These moments allow for raising universal class-wide demands, precisely because workers in feminised reproductive sectors like education are in daily contact with the deepening crisis of care that impacts the entire class.”

Whatever the strategy may be, Griffiths argues, “far from being an obstacle to be overcome in the class war, trans and queer workers are and can be organised as its leading edge.” (151)

Put most explicitly, says Virginia Guitzel, “Liberation for trans people requires a tireless struggle against all structures of domination…as a contribution to the building of a new society. One defined by relations between freely associated workers — that is, communism.” (130)

In my transition from radical feminist to Marxist, I felt a strange dichotomy: Radical feminism had everything explained through gender, but no true solution for defeating patriarchy; Marxism had all the answers, but was severely lacking in its understanding of gender. Little did I know, there has been a school of thought existing in the margins to resolve the latter.

I have been left fully convinced that a Marxism that has undergone transition, Transgender Marxism as suggested in this book, is an absolute necessity for liberation from capitalism, from the confines of sex/gender, and for a world in which humans can live to their fullest potential: communism.

I highly recommend Transgender Marxism for Marxists, feminists, and Marxist feminists alike. Any person slightly aware of the restrictions of gender needs this book.

November-December 2023, ATC 227

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