Marxism and the Call of the Future
Conversations on Ethics, History, and Politics

Chapter 21: Sexuality and Homosexuality

MARTIN: I want to get into the question of homosexuality, and some of the analyses that the party has had around the question and some of the more recent turns that have been made on this question. We’ve talked a lot about the question of ethics and its role. One thing that’s interesting about that is the way that sometimes in the past it seemed as if something called “proletarian morality” turned out to focus a good deal on sexual morality, so to speak, and, of course, relationship questions in general, and very much oriented toward the woman question, which is very important. But I know for myself, and just from some of the experiences I’ve had and others I know have had, I’ve felt like I got to a place to where I just didn’t feel a lot of trust on this sort of question, and in fact actually a good deal of distrust, and I know that this gets “personal,” so to speak, but I think not just in a bourgeois individualistic way, because these are issues that are intimate issues, and they’re bound up with our direct experience with materiality, in our embodiment. And I think it also gets into the question of conversations that will tend to be non-reciprocal and where authoritarianism and top-downism are real problems. And I want to open that up. I wanted to come at the question, or I’d love to hear what you’ve got to say on this question, in and of itself as regards homosexuality. But also I want to look at the methodology that seemed to be behind the previous line and the way that the new line on this question came about, and whether … because I wonder whether in some sense on the surface the line is changed, but I’m worried that a kind of reductivistic methodology is still at work behind the line even though I think it’s very good that the line has changed.

In the past it seems to me that there’s been this idea that an organization (such as the party) could have a doctrine or a line on homosexuality without really having any kind of developed analysis of sexuality or embodiment or desire generally except at the most general level of saying that these are historically-conditioned phenomena, they relate to classes, to class struggle, class interest, etcetera. [Even though the party stated that it opposed discrimination against homosexuals, for a long time and until recently the party regarded homosexuality per se as a negative phenomenon.] On the specific question of homosexuality it seems to me that the new material that’s been put out is good, and of course I affirm the change in the line. But I think it doesn’t do two things that I wanted to see in this material. And one, just to pose it sharply, is that it didn’t really explain, to me anyway, it made a few comments on this, but in some ways they were to me very cursory and just didn’t do enough of something I thought needed to be done, which is to explain why it took twenty-five years to get anywhere on this question, and even more, why it didn’t offer an apology that I think is needed, for what I see as really messing up on this question for twenty-five years in such a way that a lot of people were alienated.

And again, not to be personal about it, but I myself had some estranged relationships, including ones that were very important to me, not only because of this, I mean, gee, if only I could lay all of my relationship problems on this sort of thing, and I clearly can’t, and I struggle with the woman question myself and I mean materially in my life and how I try to live my life. But even so because of working with this policy, there has been this estrangement (or at least the estrangement has been related to that). In the kind of milieu where I tend to work, with intellectuals and artists, I’ve felt a need for a kind of constantly defensive posture on this. It seems to me that the damage the previous line did was really quite large and that it goes way beyond just the question of homosexuality per se, or for that matter beyond the question of particular people who are gay.

And then second, what I think is perhaps even a greater problem is that I think the line has changed but I’m not sure the outlook that was underlying the line changed. I worry that changing the line on the surface but without digging deeper can just be one way of keeping the basic, what I see as the basic reductivism that led to the line in the first place intact, and to me this is a good case where historically people have a right, even a responsibility, to fear philosophical reductivism, because it leads to authoritarianism within structures, organizations, states, what have you, whatever kinds of structures. Because it hits people in a very intimate way.

And I think certain strands of the history of the international communist movement bear this out, with very bad consequences, and I’ve seen in the past times whenever the term such as authoritarianism is raised there is a tendency to just say, “Engels said that a revolution is the most authoritarian thing there is,” and I just don’t buy that as a very good response on this kind of question. I suppose that a more simple gloss on this is that people are rightly suspicious of any attempt to mess with their sex lives, so to speak, for all kinds of good reasons. Of course, people should aim at relationships of mutual respect and, of course, nonrespectful behaviors toward other persons, and especially women in the context of the kind of patriarchal society we have, is not just a “private matter,” and I don’t mean to imply that it is. But beyond this it seems to me there’s a basic fraughtness to intimate relations that can’t be gotten around by some uniform set of rules, or [you can’t] just think that you can really describe what goes on in real relationships, which is why even in bourgeois society, attempts to get the law involved in some aspects of this look really screwy.

I frankly feel, by the way, that there was something about the previous line on this that was shaped by the historical experience of the sixties, where a kind of indulgence turned into a seventies form of puritanism and workerism.1 This doesn’t mean there weren’t aspects of the previous line that were largely correct or at least were concerned with the right things, as regards both patriarchy and some sort of hallowed public/private distinction. But it was also indicative of the sort of reductivism that attempts to capture hugely complex particulars under a too straightforward and simple set of categories. So that’s a lot to respond to, I realize.

AVAKIAN: Well, there are lot of important points there, and I’ll try to speak to them as best I can. Besides what’s in our Draft Programme on the question of homosexuality, we did put out a position paper to amplify and elaborate on that position in the Draft Programme, and this position paper has also been put online. But here I can’t go fully into that position in anything like the way the position paper does. It sets forward what our previous position was, how we’ve come to a different position, what the essence of the position is now, and it tries to sum up why we made the errors that we did, and at the same time indicate that we think that this is an ongoing process of learning more about it. So that’s kind of the backdrop, because I can’t—it’s a forty-some-page position paper, and in the time that we have, I can’t hope to try to even summarize all that. But I will try to speak to what I think are the important points that you raised, as best as I can.

On the first point, of having a doctrine without having any developed analysis of sexuality, or embodiment, or desire generally, and also why—there’s also the question of why it took so long. Our position did go through several changes over a number of years. On your suggestion that this is a matter of sixties indulgence turned into seventies workerism/puritanism, that’s something we should think about and look into further—there may be some aspects of truth to that, in terms of what our position was at the time the party was founded, which was in the mid-seventies, in 1975. First of all, I just want to say that our position has always been—and if you look through the pages of the Revolutionary Worker over the years you’ll see this brought out very sharply—it’s always been to oppose discrimination, pogroms, brutality, government repression, bedroom policing, etcetera. We’ve always been actively opposed to that and have done a lot of exposure against it. Within some corners of the movement, there’s been a certain amount of, a fair amount of, distortion about that, and I think it is important to make that clear.

At the same time, we did have a position that went through changes. In 1975 we more or less put this phenomenon [homosexuality] in the category of being part of the decay of imperialism—although some time after that we summed up that this was way too crude, a vulgarization, an incorrect analysis of a very complex phenomenon, and we started doing more looking into it. And there was a two-line struggle in the party shortly after—only a couple of years after—it was founded, which came to a head over the question of what stand to take on what had happened in China, what was in fact a reactionary coup in 1976, after the death of Mao. And that concentrated a lot of issues, including a lot of this workerism that you’re talking about. Not that the party as a whole was free of that, but it was particularly concentrated in the people who took a stand of supporting the revisionist coup in China. So when we had a struggle that led to a complete rupture with that, we also began, as part of the whole trajectory and momentum of that struggle, to reexamine some other things in light of that. And this question of our analysis of and stand on homosexuality in its various expressions was one of those things we began to take a look at. But it was still the case that, even after that internal struggle, the Programme we adopted at the beginning of the eighties still treated this phenomenon as a part of the decay of imperialism. Nevertheless, shortly after that, and as a result of continuing struggle against workerist and related tendencies, we began approaching the question of homosexuality differently than we had previously—seeing it not as a matter of the decay or decadence that comes with imperialism, the urban decadence of imperialist parasitism or whatever, but more looking at it in light of how it relates to the oppression and the emancipation of woman (or how it relates to sexual relations generally, but within that, how it relates especially to what is pivotal to sexual relations in this society, which is the woman question). So that was a key change we began to make, looking at it more in that light.

For example, in the article we wrote in Revolution magazine (I think by the time we actually published it, it was 1988) we did attempt to make some analysis of the “love question” more generally and to situate the question of homosexuality within that. But it was partial, and at the same time, even though we were trying to examine it with some new eyes, we were also carrying along some incorrect methodology—our outlook and methodology was marred by some incorrect assumptions and some incorrect approaches.

This came out, as one aspect, in relation to the question of the role of biology in this. We had a tendency, from what we knew, to not accept the idea that this was biologically determined. Now, we didn’t do nearly the research at that time that we’ve done since, and there’s much more to be done, even into that aspect of it—looking at the biological studies. Plus, there has been, independently of us, a lot more study of that whole phenomenon—the biology of sex, the biology of particular sexual expressions—there’s been a real leap in how much of that has been done from, say, the late eighties up to the present time (more or less the last decade plus a few years). So we looked into it some back then, but not nearly as thoroughly as we’ve done since—and we still have much more work to do in that sphere, we recognize. But a serious methodological problem came out this way. We were approaching this by saying, “Well, it doesn’t look to us like this is biologically determined” and—here’s where the reductionism came in, or at least one manifestation of it—we said, “Well, therefore, it’s a matter of conscious choice. That’s the way it presents itself to people.” We knew of a number of women who had made a conscious choice to be lesbians, rather than being heterosexual, and we kind of generalized off of that, to conclude: that’s the way it presents itself not only to lesbians, lesbians in general, but to gay men, to homosexuals, in general—this is a choice they make. And, along with that, we made a further methodological error, which was to say, “Well, since this is a conscious choice, this is essentially an ideological question.” And, following that logic, we concluded: for men who make a conscious choice not to enter into intimate relations with women, this means that they’re consciously rejecting women, and therefore it’s a kind of concentrated statement of misogyny. And, not surprisingly, just as there are among heterosexual men and in heterosexual relations, many concentrated expressions of misogyny, this can be found also among male homosexuals. But, again, we were making these unwarranted leaps and these reductionist conclusions, applying some reductionist, mechanical methodology, first of all to say it’s a conscious choice, because it’s probably not biological in most cases. And, second of all, it’s a conscious rejection of women, on the part of male homosexuals, and therefore it’s a concentrated expression of misogyny.

With regard to lesbians, we have always said that this is a different phenomenon, but we saw it as an incomplete and essentially reformist attempt to deal with the oppression of woman by simply avoiding men in any kind of intimate way and having intimate relations only with women—and therefore it doesn’t really measure up to the oppression of women, it’s not a solution to the oppression of women—although, as we’ve since recognized, and stated, most women who are in lesbian relationships don’t make any such claims, that this is an answer to the oppression of women.

We have gone back to this, we have continued to wrestle with the question overall. But then we came to a point, toward the end of the 1990s, of saying we should come out with a new Programme—for various reasons, not primarily because of the homosexuality question but because of the overall development of the world and recognizing that, while there are many good things in our party programme from 1981, basically there are many things that have changed. Some things no longer apply; the world situation is different, plus we have learned a lot, so we really needed to come up with a new Programme, which we’ve now done in draft form, to take into account those changes, both what’s happened objectively and what we’ve learned, what the communist movement has been through and what lessons can be drawn out of that, as well as what the world has gone through and what lessons can be drawn from that. So, when we did that, that became a concentrated occasion to reexamine a lot of questions. And there had been a lot of questioning and struggle within the ranks of the party on all levels, as well as criticism from outside the party, about the question of homosexuality—the party’s position on this—so this was one of the main questions we focused on, at that point, looking at it in a much broader way than we’d been able to do before and looking again at all the various criticisms from outside as well as what was coming from within the ranks of the party itself.

At that point we did go back and try to do a much more broad and deep study of, among other things, the question of the biology of sex and the various studies that purported to show that different kinds of sexuality, including different kinds of homosexual attraction and so on, were biologically based. We also went back to study the history of sexuality, and homosexuality in particular, more broadly. It’s not like we had ignored the history of the question, we’d looked at certain historical experiences before, but we tried to do a much broader and more sweeping study of the history of it and what other people were saying about it, what other scholarship and study had been done on it. As a result of this—as well as some other methodological grappling we were doing in general, and further summation of shortcomings in the history of our movement internationally (with Stalin, the whole Lysenko thing, for example) and trying to understand more fully what led to those very serious errors of instrumentalism and reductionism and so on—all that kind of came together and we saw that, with regard to the question of homosexuality, we’ve been vulgarizing on many different levels.

What we have now come to understand more fully, to this point, is that while our study has still led us to believe that, speaking of this as a general phenomenon, it does not seem to be something that’s primarily biologically determined, it is a complex question and there is more to learn about it, including about the biology of sexuality in general—sexual attraction and many different aspects of it. We are not convinced by what studies we’ve read (and we did do some fairly deep and systematic study of what’s been done so far) that homosexuality is primarily biologically determined. We saw a lot of problems methodologically and otherwise with studies that attempted to show that this had a biological basis—either in genetics or in hormones, or something else, at various stages of development, even of the fetus, or of a person after they’re born. So we are still inclined to think that this is more of a socially determined phenomenon.2

But, on the other hand, here again we saw the need to break with certain kinds of mechanical and reductionist thinking. For example, okay, it’s a social phenomenon, or likely to be primarily determined by social factors—we think that’s what the preponderance of the evidence points to, although we’re still looking into the question more deeply—and the woman question is very influential in society in all kinds of different ways, including ways in which individuals themselves are not necessarily fully conscious of; but what we now recognize is that it would be wrong to say—to make the leap from that to saying—therefore, if men are attracted to other men sexually and not to women, that derives one to one from the fact that the oppression of women is a pivotal and central and fundamental social relation in this society and pivotal to intimate relations generally in this society. We recognize that it’s much more complex than that, and there are many different levels of it and many mediations of it. All men are influenced by patriarchy and the attendant ideology, but for some men who are very influenced by this, and even by outright crude forms of misogyny, it results in heterosexual attraction, while others are not attracted heterosexually but to the same sex (men). So there’s obviously more than just the oppression of women when we talk about social factors. There are both individual experiences of people and there are also other social factors, besides the oppression of women, which go into all this. And while we still believe the oppression of women is pivotal, it’s very complex and needs to be understood more fully than we understand it. There’s a lot to be learned—more about the interaction of social and biological factors but also about the interaction of different kinds of social factors. Even if the oppression of women is ultimately pivotal, it’s not reducible to that.

So this is what has now informed our position. That’s a very thumbnail sketch. As I said, we put out a position paper that’s forty-some pages long. I’m trying to condense that—it’s difficult to do that—I’m doing the best I can, but the position paper is important to keep going back to.

Now, as to the question of why it took so long. I tried to speak to that a bit. It’s true, it would have been better if we had recognized these errors and corrected them more quickly. Part of the reason we didn’t is—this may sound tautological, but we didn’t recognize our errors because we were using some flawed methodology. And we did make some changes previously: we moved away fairly quickly, at least in some significant measure, from some of those workerist influences, particularly after we had the rupture with the people who were fighting for a revisionist, economist line within the party, and who exerted some influence—not that they were entirely responsible for that. But while we made those changes, and moved to a position that I think was important and was different than the way a lot of people approach this—we put the question of the position and role of women in society, and their oppression in this patriarchal society, at the center of how you evaluate these things—we still had these reductionist and other methodological errors that I was talking about. So we didn’t see some crucial things. We listened to criticism, but the criticism didn’t penetrate. Partly, the criticism itself contained errors, but nonetheless we might have been able to assimilate what was correct in that criticism more readily and better if we ourselves weren’t still proceeding from certain incorrect methodological approaches. You could say it would have been better if we had been able to shed those reductionist and mechanical, mechanical materialist, approaches earlier. And that’s true. It’s not that we don’t listen to criticism. We do, but we didn’t think the criticism was essentially correct because we were still proceeding from methods that didn’t enable us to recognize what was correct, even in criticism that may not have been entirely correct itself, and to correctly assimilate that and arrive at a better synthesis.

As I said, certain things came together, including certain ways in which we were trying to critically sum up more of the history of the international communist movement—which, as you know, we’ve been trying to do over a whole period of time. But it kind of goes in stages, and with all the various responsibilities we were trying to assume—of actually being a vanguard party and trying to bring forward a revolutionary movement and ultimately the revolutionary overthrow of this system in this monster of an imperialist state—given all that, we were able to pay sometimes more, but also sometimes less, attention not only to this particular question, which is an important question, but also to other key things, including important history of the ICM [International Communist Movement] and major questions that are posed by the international movement, and challenges we face now, like all these major demographic and social-economic changes in a lot of countries in the world, the whole massive movement of a lot of the peasantry into the shantytowns, and so on. All these are big challenges not just for us, of course, but for the whole international movement, and particularly for the Revolutionary Internationalist Movement. But we were able to pay more, or less, attention to these different things at various times, as we tried to explain in our position paper. We did say, in that position paper, that it’s probably true that it took us too long to come to this recognition of our errors and begin to make a serious rupture and leap away from and beyond them, and we have more work to do, as we recognize. But it was that whole combination of factors: some things in terms of the requirements on us, in trying to lead an all-around revolutionary movement, and some things having to do with our methodological shortcomings, which persisted for a while.

As for taking our responsibility around this seriously. We do take our responsibility as a vanguard and our responsibility to the masses and to the whole movement, including internationally, very seriously. I look at it this way: if anyone who has an influence on other people makes errors, then that’s going to have a bad effect—it’s going to cause problems in all kinds of ways. I think anyone who’s trying to do right in the world, to put it in general terms—trying to analyze the world as it is and trying to change it in a way that leads to liberation for people—has a responsibility to understand the world as well as they can and to develop lines and policies and programs for changing it accordingly. That is what we did try to do. For one thing, you could say we took up a position that was extremely unpopular and stuck with it for a while, not because it was bringing us any short-term advantage, or that people liked us better for it. Not only did you have difficult experiences, but many people became alienated from our party over this question, although there may be other reasons why they did not agree with us, and there are various people who just don’t like our party because of its revolutionary position overall, who jumped on this as a way to attack us.

MARTIN: You couldn’t be accused of opportunism on this, that’s absolutely for sure.

AVAKIAN: Yeah. But the main thing I’m trying to say is that it would have been better if we had been able to recognize our errors more readily. And had we recognized them, we would have changed our position earlier. We were doing what we thought we should be doing, and what I believe you should do—even if you’re not a vanguard party, if you’re a person who’s trying to be responsible and to seek out the truth and to change the world in a positive way—you try to understand things the best you can and you act on that. You can’t agree with things you don’t agree with. If people raise criticism and you’re not able, at the given time, to agree with that criticism, whether it’s objectively correct or not, you obviously should not agree—it would be opportunist to say you agree with something just because it’s causing lots of problems for you that you’re sticking to a certain position. But it is your responsibility, if and when you do recognize that you’re making an error, of whatever magnitude, to frankly acknowledge that error, to seek the means to correct that error, and to let people know that you recognize this error, what you understand about why you made that error and what you’re setting out to do to correct it. So that you’re accountable to the masses, but also so that other people can learn from the error you’ve made and the way that you’re seeking to correct it. That’s what I think we have set out to do and are doing.

I guess what I’m saying is that I don’t think it’s appropriate to talk in terms of an apology. This is not a personal thing. We weren’t setting out to do it for personal reasons, or with individuals in mind. It wasn’t something we did out of personal motivations. We have a responsibility to make a self-criticism, and that we have done. We also have a responsibility to continue to deepen our understanding of this, and if we come to more understanding of our errors, or why we made them, then we have a responsibility to make that public. Not because we want to beat ourselves up, or something, but that’s your responsibility if you want to change the world and especially if you’re assuming the responsibility of being a vanguard—which is what it is, it’s a responsibility, it’s not some sort of capital you’re proclaiming. It’s your willingness and determination to take responsibility for the whole revolutionary process. In other words, I think it’s a matter of self-criticism, not of apology. It’s not that we don’t think it did damage, and it’s not that we don’t regret the damage that it did. But I think a self-criticism in the way we’ve done it, and not an apology, is more what’s appropriate.

Let me give an analogy. There are parties and organizations, some with much greater influence than ours, who took a completely wrong stand on what happened in China and supported the revisionist coup. That’s a phenomenon in many countries. In my opinion, as important as our errors on the homosexuality question are, what these people did around China caused infinitely greater damage, in terms of the struggle for liberating people. We’ve struggled with many of these different forces, but we haven’t said, you should make an apology; we’ve said, you made an error, it’s important that you correct the error and take the correct position, and then educate people as to what the correct position is and why you made that error. That’s what I believe the correct approach is. You have a responsibility to recognize your error—and, if and when you recognize it, to correct it and let people know—both so that you’re accountable to the masses, as I said, but also so that people can learn.

That’s the way we struggle with other people who have made errors of a very serious nature. If you support the bourgeoisie and the imperialists when it comes to a head over who’s going to hold power in a country as significant as China, that’s a major thing. Again, that’s not in any way to say that our errors around the homosexuality question weren’t serious, that they didn’t have serious consequences, that we don’t recognize those consequences, or that we’re not upset about it and don’t regret it. We do. And we do take seriously our responsibility to correct this in the most thorough way that we can, and to learn from it, so that not only do others learn from the errors we’ve made, but also that we don’t make other errors, either around this question or on a whole range of other questions, by making the same methodological mistakes. I mean, we are going to make mistakes, but we should try to learn from and minimize our mistakes, and that’s what we are trying to do.

Which, I guess, leads me to put a question back to you. I understand your point—I want to talk more about this too, this whole authoritarianism thing you raised. I think the Engels quote is appropriate to use when talking about why you need a dictatorship of the proletariat over the bourgeoisie. But I agree with you, I would never use that statement about how a revolution is the most authoritarian thing there is in relation to—as a way of answering—the danger of a party acting in an authoritarian way toward the masses. I agree with you that that’s a completely inappropriate use of that quote. I don’t know exactly what experience you’re talking about, but that is not correct, and I can see why hearing that would be infuriating. I just wanted to say that on that point. We can come back to it, because I do think the question you’re raising about how this is a particularly sensitive issue—I don’t remember if you used exactly that term, but I think that’s what you’re getting at, because it does involve very intimate things, and one of the things we did say in our position paper is (to quote it):

We, as Maoist revolutionaries, want to liberate all of human expression and social relations from the weight of thousands of years of traditional (oppressive) morality and institutions. So when it comes to matters of sexuality, we do not approach things in the manner of a “bedroom police.” We recognize the great variety and complexity of human sexual expression—including historically—and that the practice of human sexuality is not a static or unchanging thing.

This is part of the fuller and deeper understanding we’ve come to, not only on homosexuality in particular, but sexuality and intimate relations more generally. And we don’t want to be, and we’re not going to be, acting in the manner of bedroom police.

There is a legitimate fear. That goes back to the thing about authoritarianism. There is a bad history of this in some aspects of the international communist movement and there are errors that our party made that, if they were persisted in … as Lenin said, if you make an error that’s one thing. If you make an error and then not only persist in it, but seek profound justifications for it, it can become truly monstrous. So there is that danger. That does intertwine with the fact that this is a very sensitive issue. I was going to ask you a question, but since I’m on this let me first try to speak a little more to this, and then I’ll get to the question.

I think any society has to decide—at least any society that has laws, and mechanisms for enforcing those laws, has to decide—what it is that properly falls within the sphere of law. How will this be approached under the dictatorship of the proletariat? Let’s take a very obvious case: rape should be a matter of law. It should be a matter of crime and punishment. You can’t allow that to go on, and it’s not merely a matter of persuasion. But that’s a fairly obvious case. Then there are other things you decide should not be a matter of law, and the enforcement of law, but should be a matter of, let’s say, mass campaigns, which (as I have tried to point out, for example, in “Great Objectives and Grand Strategy”) involve an aspect of coercion. Even if it isn’t a matter of the police, and the state, and the courts and everything enforcing the law, still mass campaigns are developed against certain practices, and that has an element of coercion. And rightly so. But then, as I’ve emphasized in some things I’ve written, you have to make judicious use of even that kind of coercion, and you have to sort out the appropriate time, place, and way for even developing mass movements around things, because it does involve an element of coercion—what people are doing is made the object of mass struggle and criticism. That involves an aspect of coercion. So even that has to be done judiciously. And this is not fixed and firm, but I would say there’s a general third category, of things which are neither a matter of law and the state, nor a matter of mass campaigns, but more a question maybe of mass education in which you raise the question broadly in society without a particular target. For example, women in oppressive relationships: some aspects of it you want to make mass campaigns out of, but others (and here I’m not thinking of things like physical abuse—that’s another question—but of more “subtle” forms of oppressive personal relations) it’s more a matter that, as society develops overall, as mass education is done around it, they decide they’ve had enough of this, and they want to stand up against it and refuse to put up with it any more, and then it’s a question of supporting them in doing that. And even there you have to be judicious, but it’s more a matter of that kind of a contradiction, if you want to put it that way.

So I see those as three broad categories: things that should be a matter of law and the repressive apparatus of the state; things that should be matters of mass campaigns, targeting certain particular practices if not particular people; and other things that should not be handled in either of those two ways but more general education should be done around it and then you support people when they stand up and say they don’t want this or that particular thing anymore. It’s always difficult to sort this out, and when you get to intimate relations, once again I agree, you have to be very careful about this. As we said in that quote I was reading from the position paper, we recognize that there’s a lot of complexity to this question, and that’s something we’re learning more deeply through all the work we’ve been doing around this and listening to and trying to correctly absorb and assimilate the criticisms, or what we can recognize as the correct aspects of the criticism, deepening our understanding, because it is complex, and we do have to guard against not just authoritarianism in general but a crude handling of this, which can get way out of hand and can actually lead to real tyranny over people in ways that are very intimate—are right where they live, so to speak.

MARTIN: That’s a good expression.

AVAKIAN: So I agree with the spirit of what you’re saying there, and we’re trying to continue to evolve a more nuanced understanding of this and understand the different levels of it. We’re working up to the question I wanted to raise. One other thing I did want to say, just to give an idea of the complexity of this. Let’s take the question of pornography. In the Draft Programme it says that pornography will also be outlawed. But then there’s the question, what is pornography? You can’t have a crude approach to that. It’s not just pornography as an abstract category, but things that degrade women and contribute to the degradation of women. That burden has to be lifted to even begin to carry forward the struggle for the emancipation of women in an all-around way. What constitutes that is not something that can be decided by crude methods, to say the least.

Take the sphere of art: is everything in which some degradation of women is portrayed a bad thing? Not necessarily. It depends on whether it’s exposing that, making that an object of criticism, or is it furthering it? Obviously, everything in which there is nudity is not pornography, is not oppressive to women. Even nudity of women may not necessarily be that. You have to be very careful, I agree with that. This is something we need to continue to understand more fully and deeply. You have to be very careful, and sometimes take your time. While you can’t allow a lot of harm to be done, you also can’t create a lot of harm by being crude. So we are trying to rupture more fully with any reductionist approaches, not only to the question of homosexuality but to intimate relations more generally.

My question is: what do you see as the remaining aspects of this reductionism, or ways in which the position has been changed, but only superficially, and it hasn’t really changed in a more fundamental or essential sense?

MARTIN: First of all, I want to say that I did read the position paper. I thought it did address many of these questions in a good way. Someday it would be interesting to know more in detail (and I’m not saying it’s a priority) the history of struggle out of which all of that came. Because you were describing not only the way that this emerged as a leap, but also some stages toward that, that occurred earlier that I have to admit, I not only was not aware of, but I don’t know that they were particularly available publicly, or to me anyway. In some of the periods that you were describing, where some of these things were struggled over, I heard things that sounded, if anything, sort of the opposite of that. I’m guessing; of course I wasn’t “internally” a part of this process, but I’m sure there were many who struggled with themselves over this line and how they could sit with it. Others went the other way, and maybe went a bit overboard. For example, a big part of the way the new line came about is to show that there’s no essential connection between the oppression of women and whatever it is that has some people go toward homosexuality. Although that maybe does get a little bit at something I would see as having a kind of reductivistic side: when we ask why people are homosexual. I don’t know—why are they heterosexual? I know some theorists in the past have called that a kind of “hetero-normativity.” In some sense one question is just as good as the other; in fact there’s no really getting into either one apart from the other.

But I know in the early eighties, someone said to me, “No wife-beater’s going to get into this party, and no homosexual’s going to get into this party.” And then on closer prodding, they were willing to admit that, for one thing, it’s not that likely that anyone who’s homosexual is going to be a wife-beater, but they are not one and the same or anything like that. You had to wonder how did someone get in a position where that kind of seemed to trip off the tongue, one right into the other. This was a woman who said this to me, and I thought that was significant, of course. And I was maybe less inclined to be as angry about that, as if a man had said it, I suppose. But it just seemed to show something to me. And now I see the struggle to get beyond that sort of thing.

Another thing that was said to me sometimes was that, in a way, homosexuality, especially male homosexuality, was comparable to drug addiction. In fact, I had a long conversation with somebody where that was really set out as though that was a systematically understood point of view. And this person at the time was also saying, when we [the party] did have this earlier workerist orientation, we’re breaking with that, and yet it seemed to be not only reductivistic but to be coming from a kind of puritanical mindset. Another aspect to this, another way to go into this, when you say you have to be judicious about dealing with these sorts of things, because we are talking about intimate relations … I think the term “sensitive” here is fine. I understand the problem, or I think I understand, I want to understand the problem that’s being negotiated here in the sense that, how do we respect freedom in this area but without creating another hallowed private-public distinction and especially without putting ourselves in a position where we can’t really raise the real brutalities of patriarchy and the ways patriarchal social relations shape people in ways that are very limited, mean, violent, etcetera. All of these things absolutely are important in themselves and we can’t change society positively without confronting them.

But one of the problems with “you have to be judicious” is the question of who is the “you” who has to be judicious? This is why I raised the point about nonreciprocal kinds of conversations. If somebody wants, and I guess I’ll he a little personal about it, if someone wants to get into where I live, I guess I want to know where they live. I want to have some sense of, I don’t mean just in a one-to-one kind of “I’ve got to know your whole history before I’m going to discuss my history with you.” But on the other hand, if people are put in positions where … I know I certainly was personally and I saw other people in this. It can acquire, and I’m not Catholic and I don’t have any kind of Catholic background either, but it has a bit of a “confessing to the priest your shameful past”-sort of aspect. And I know for myself, it just made me feel that not only was there an authoritarian aspect of it, but also that I’m just not going to have those kinds of conversations in the future. We can talk about general principles, but I’m just no longer going to have any of those conversations because they are intrusive in ways that I just don’t feel are helpful to anything. And so I guess it’s more like, when are we getting on that sort of thing, or have we moved things forward on that sort of question? Or is it still a kind of outlook that betokens, I think, what would still look like a kind of authoritarian vibe about all of this? That doesn’t entirely go into the reductionism question. To be honest, I think a lot of what you said before answered me on a lot of that. I’m happy if in a certain sense the approach is … and, look, I think there’s a danger of reductivism that has to be risked on some questions, so I don’t think what I sometimes call reductivism is that simple a question of, “Yeah, you just don’t be reductivistic.” We want to find out how things work, and if they’re oppressive we want to find out how to unwork them, so to speak. And that means trying to zoom in on the way things work. And so, on some level, it’s a good response to simply say, “And we’re going to try to not be reductionistic about it, even while we have to try to get into the nuts and bolts of these questions.” So I feel like a lot of what you were saying addressed a good deal of that for me.

AVAKIAN: I don’t know the particular arguments that were made, that you were referring to, but I would say two things. Those kinds of arguments, those kinds of comparisons, were not what we were putting forward as an organization, as a party. That’s on the one hand. Especially after the Revolution magazine article, which was published in 1988, it was more that we made an analogy to religion. I ran down what some of the basis of our position was analytically, and what the methodological errors were in that, in as condensed a way as I could, but the analogies we were making were more to something like religion: a phenomenon that should disappear, or that people would voluntarily give up, when we transformed oppressive relations, and waged ideological struggle, in socialist society, although we said homosexuality in various forms might reemerge in communist society. But at this point we don’t see that that’s either an objective—that homosexuality will disappear under socialism—or something likely to happen. Frankly, as we’ve said, while there has been some experience, positive and negative, around this, and around intimate sexual relations in general, in socialist society, that experience has unfortunately been way too limited. Unfortunately in the sense that we need a lot more experience in socialist society in general.

There’s a lot we don’t know. We say in the position paper: what are intimate relations going to look like in the future—who knows? One thing we do know is we’re going to struggle to uproot oppressive relations among people and in particular those that shackle women and diminish and demean women and degrade them. And, through the course of doing that, we’ll see a lot of different ways that people have of dealing with intimacy—as we remove the weight of that oppression and the thinking that goes along with it, a lot of different things will likely flourish. It’s very likely some of them will be same sex and some of them will be heterosexual, and for some people it will be bisexual. There are many different phenomena and we’re not trying to prefigure or predetermine what they will be. We do say that the point is—whether different individuals are engaged in one kind or another of sexual relations, same sex or heterosexual, the key thing is to transform these relations so that we uproot the oppression of women and we uproot oppressive relations in general and the thinking and ideology that goes along with and reinforces them. And then, as we do that, we’ll see what flourishes. This is our program and orientation on that now. We did analyze, even in the 1988 Revolution article as well as in this position paper, the social reasons heterosexuality has been the predominant form of sexuality, or seems to have been, through most of the history of class society—having to do with the patriarchy and other factors. So there are reasons why that’s predominated, but it’s not a question of “one is more natural than that other,” or something like that—in some sense other than social conditioning.

MARTIN: Well, it’s unclear though whether you can use those terms over the broad sweep of history and cultures. I remember the first time I took a graduate course in ancient philosophy and a fellow student who hadn’t really read much Plato before, it was funny to the rest of us when he asked the professor, “Professor, I really get the sense that Plato was gay.” There’s, of course, a real sense in which Plato or Socrates or whoever, well, they weren’t gay, because “gay” is a culture-specific term of a modern society, probably of European society, it’s more complicated than that, still. But in some sense you will make a reduction, I think if you see those as sweeping terms in the sense that on one level you could say that they just apply to dispositions of bodies and what kinds of bodies are next to each other and doing what sorts of things. But obviously sexuality is a vastly more complex issue than that. And very specific to cultures.

AVAKIAN: I agree, and that’s one of the things we did point out in this position paper. Just to round out the picture, I wanted to refer to this one statement toward the beginning of the position paper, where it says: “People engage in sex in many different ways and for many different reasons. One of the main reasons is, of course, that sex (at least when it is freely engaged in) feels good.” So I don’t think we’re coming from a puritanical approach to this—or to the degree that our position may have had aspects of that, we’re certainly trying to break with that. I think our orientation goes along with the thing about not being bedroom police. Our approach is not to try to keep people from having fun! The other side of the picture, though, is that what people regard as fun does closely interpenetrate with all these other social relations and can’t be free of them. So we have to sort that out correctly.

For example, there’s this group (I guess they’re still around) the MIM, Maoist International Movement. They made the highly reductionist argument that all sexual relations between men and women are actually and objectively rape, because after all men and women aren’t equal so therefore a woman can never …

MARTIN: The Andrea Dworkin position …

AVAKIAN: To me that’s just the crudest kind of reductionism and confounding of different levels. There’s the societal level of social relations in general, but it’s like relations between white people and Black people: could you never have a friendship between somebody Black and somebody white, for example? Because there’s inequality in this society, you could never have a genuine friendship based on mutual respect? That would be ridiculous. And the same for any relations—you can’t translate from the general societal level of social relations to each particular individual relation, either friendship or a love relationship, an intimate sexual relationship, whatever. Those are different levels. That’s one of the things we’ve been coming to understand more fully. I think it’s important that we continue to grapple with that. And I agree with you, some of these things you do need to get into, because the whole sanctity of the home, for example, a lot of horrors—molestation, sexual molestation, and just physical abuse against children—are committed in the home. It was only in the last decade, I believe, that in all states in the United States marital rape was actually declared to be rape and outlawed. I did some research into that when I wrote Preaching From a Pulpit of Bones, and at least up through the eighties, and maybe beyond that, there were some states where it was still not recognized as rape, was not a crime. So you can’t have the sanctity of the home.

That’s the other side of “we don’t want to be a bedroom police.” And that’s true, we’re not going to go kicking down doors to see who might be molesting their children or who might be abusing their wife. That’s not the way you’re going to resolve that contradiction. When individual cases emerge, or when there’s a basis to believe something may be going on, then there are different ways to look into that, which don’t amount to acting like bedroom police or anything like it. And which don’t amount to and isn’t motivated by saying, like Paul in the Bible, carnal urges and lust are bad: you should resist them if you can, but if you must do it, then have a marriage in which the man is supreme so you won’t give vent to those urges in bad ways. We don’t want to have anything to do with that kind of outlook, just as we don’t want to have anything to do with perpetuating, and even in some ways furthering, relations between people that are oppressive, particularly of women, but also in a more overall sense. We do have more work to do on this, partly because we’ve got to continue to understand more fully—and rupture more fully with—certain errors; but also because, as I think you were pointing to, it’s a very complex question. And it’s not one to be easily handled. With regard to individuals, it’s not a matter of going around and having people step into the confessional booth or whatever.

MARTIN: Let me just say one more thing about that and I’m done. Although I think what you said about self-criticism and apology was something I would agree with, and regretting what’s been done here—and what can one do but to try to go on and have a better line? But there’s an element in a certain sense, if I can put it this way my gay friends would not forgive me if they knew we were having these conversations and I did not raise this issue. And that in a sense goes to a whole set of questions. But that’s why we’ve had the conversation, and I think we’ve done some good things in talking about it. So my last little bit on this goes again to that nonreciprocity point, that people don’t want the cameras in their bedroom. But in a certain sense, they don’t want the camera in their head either, if you know what I mean. There are ways in which, so to speak, the camera gets in the head. Even if it’s not in the bedroom; as if there’s somebody watching, even if it’s coming out of your own eyes, so to speak. And that was in a certain sense the atmosphere to some of the way this got talked about before. And I recognize this problem, that people have sex, one of the reasons people have sex—probably the best reason—is because it feels good. And I think it can feel good on a deep level. I like thinking about the fact that the Greek word “eros” doesn’t just mean the sexual things, it really refers to a kind of embrace. To embrace other people I think is a fine thing, sexually and otherwise. You don’t jump from that to the desire that’s beyond politics, or where there’s no politics of desire, to in other words, “If it feels good, do it.” There’s more to it than that. To somehow get in between those things, again it’s very difficult. To have the kind of discussion around this that doesn’t ultimately still just amount to people feeling repressed; I think that’s an important thing, especially given the past, and actually not even mainly the history of this organization on the question, but the large history of the whole ICM that hasn’t been on the whole very good on this.

AVAKIAN: Well, there is one thing I wanted to say along with the point that this was not how we put this forward—some of those arguments and comparisons you mentioned. There were problems with our arguments, but those were not what we were putting forward, as a party. On the other hand, what does happen when you have a line that is erroneous, and people are seeking to defend it, is that they are going to find themselves making arguments that don’t stand up, because they’re having difficulty trying to justify a position that’s not correct. So, even though those lines and the argumentation that you were summarizing were not what we were putting out as a party, I don’t doubt that in individual discussions those arguments may have been brought forward, as well as some others that were specious or just wrong in significant aspects, because people were in a position of trying to defend a position which objectively was not correct. When that happens, you find yourself grasping for arguments that don’t really stand up. And some of them may be more than just wrong—they may actually be insulting and offensive or whatever.

MARTIN: And I want to criticize myself for that as well. And on this issue. I know there were times when I dug in, so to speak. And maybe more than was even needed, given the requirements of the line. I don’t want to make this a unilateral, j’accuse kind of thing; I criticize myself on this as well.

AVAKIAN: Our party is, as I said, taking the responsibility to be a vanguard, so we have to take responsibility for our mistakes in a scientific and in an open way, and not resist criticism. If a criticism is made, even in a bad spirit, we still try to listen to it. If we don’t agree with it, we have to keep thinking about it, but as long as we don’t agree with it we can’t embrace it, so to speak. So we just have to keep on learning, and we are trying to not only learn but to do better. And we’re trying to apply the lessons not only to this question but more broadly. One fortunate thing, or important thing, not just fortunate, is that our party has never—I talked earlier about the CP expelling people for reading Trotsky—we’ve never tried to have, and don’t want to have, an “opaque” party, where we discourage our members from reading what other people have to say about anything, including by way of criticism of our party. We do have a democratic centralist party, where everybody doesn’t just go off and voice their own personal opinions outside the party. There are channels within the party for there to be criticism and struggle. But we also try to be very open to people—as well as having criticism and lively ideological struggle within the party, we try to listen and learn from people outside the party who in various ways raise their criticisms. And if we didn’t listen as well as we should have in this case, it’s not because we don’t want to hear criticism, it’s because we weren’t able to recognize—for the reasons I tried to speak to, including the fact that we weren’t able to consistently pay a lot of attention to this question on the level that would be required to really dig into it, to come to some different understanding—but for all those reasons, we just weren’t able to recognize the correctness of the criticism as soon as we should have. It’s true, we should have been able to recognize it sooner. But we didn’t, and we should learn from that, too. On the other hand, or more generally—not on the other hand but more generally on this question—there are two points I want to speak to.

One is your point about reciprocity. Yes, there should be discussions among friends, comrades, whatever, about these questions in a way that is not accusatory or authoritarian on one side or the other. But, beyond that, we’re a party that’s seeking to lead the whole revolutionary process—and, as I said earlier, this means we will play, to be honest about it, a disproportionate role in terms of influence and even in terms of decision making in the early stages of socialism. Even while we’re trying to move beyond that, it will still be a fact for a while. Therefore, we have a special responsibility to handle these contradictions well. And part of that, again, is learning to be judicious but also to learn when it is we should take more time and when and where we actually have to come to a conclusion. That’s another important lesson that we’re trying to learn with regard to a broad range of questions. How do you draw the distinction between those things over which you have to come to a firm conclusion—both because it’s possible to do so but also because there’s a need to do so—and those times and circumstances when you don’t have to, and you shouldn’t even try to, come to any kind of firm conclusions. Maybe you can form some tentative opinions and put those out for people to respond to, but mainly you should be learning more—you’re at the phase where you should he learning more. That’s another important lesson that we’re trying to absorb more deeply as well. So, yes, I agree with the reciprocity point; but then, so to speak, that doesn’t remove the special responsibility that our party has to apply the correct methods and correct approach to this and not a crude and heavy-handed one.

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FOOTNOTES:

1. By “workerism” I mean a narrow and superficial sense of “working class culture.”—BM [back]

2. In the time since this conversation took place, in 2002, the RCP has continued to study this question and has come to the conclusion that it is not correct to say—that there is not a scientific basis to conclude—that homosexuality is more likely a socially-determined, rather than a biologically-based, phenomenon; in fact, as the RCP now recognizes, not enough is known to draw conclusions beyond the fact that both biological and social factors are involved in all human sexual attraction, that more needs to be learned about this whole subject, and that methodologically it is very important not to draw conclusions, or even to formulate “inclinations” of this kind, for which there is not a real. scientific basis. [back]