Engels, homophobia and the left
lnp3 at panix.com
Sat Aug 17 10:35:11 MDT 2002
In keeping with the overall honesty of "Revolution in the Air", Max
Elbaum admits that the New Communist Movement held fairly retrograde
ideas on same-sexers:
"The first wave of party builders also foundered in addressing the
oppression of gay men and lesbians. Doctrinally, most of the movement
simply ignored this issue, though the Guardian did decide by 1971 that
it was appropriate to include opposition to discrimination against gays
under the broad rubric of defending democratic rights. But whatever was
formally said or not said, for the most part the movement's attitude
toward homosexuality and the gay movement was decidedly negative.
Fundamentally, most Marxist-Leninists shared the homophobia prevalent in
society as a whole, and on the issue of gay rights they surrendered to
prejudice instead of analyzing and opposing it."
While most of the left, including these Maoists, eventually superseded
this kind of backwardness, a few individuals and sects continue to bash
gays. Among them is a micro-sect in Germany called Neue Einheit that was
a continuing nuisance in the dark ages of Marxism on the Internet. When
their gay-baiting reared its ugly head on an email list initiated by
Mark Jones called Leninist-International, lines were drawn over whether
homophobia was compatible with Marxism. Those who felt that homophobia
was okay eventually launched an email list called Marxism-Leninism that
is singularly meat-heated on all sorts of questions, including gay
Neue Einheit's specialty is dredging through the writings of well-known
leaders and thinkers in the Marxist movement in order to find some
particularly nasty crack against gays.
(http://www.neue-einheit.com/english/homoeng.htm) It is not surprising
that you could find something like this in Engels's private
correspondence since he was a product of the Victorian era despite his
advanced thinking on the need for socialism.
(It should be pointed out that Marx and Engels often said crude things
in their private correspondence that reflected sexist or racial
prejudices. In a talk at NYC's Brecht Forum a couple of years ago, Tariq
Ali explained that since telephones were not available in those days,
people could only rely on letters for personal communications. Whether
Marx or Engels could anticipate that their future enemies would mine
their private correspondence for gaffes is open to question. This
includes a number of black nationalists who tried to prove that Marx's
use of the term 'nigger' rules out historical materialism as a tool for
black liberation. It also includes people like Neue Einheit who use
exactly the same kinds of lapse to shore up their own reactionary
prejudices in *the name of Marxism*.)
Engels wrote an item that Neue Einheit used to hurl at their opponents
on the left at the drop of a hat:
"That is really a very odd 'Urning' you just sent me. Those are just
unveilings being extremely against nature. The pederasts begin counting
themselves and find that they are forming a power within the state. Only
an organisation was missing, but according to this it seems to be
already existing in the secret. And as they are counting so important
men within all the old parties and even in the new ones, from Rösing to
Schweitzer, their victory is inevitable. 'Guerre aux cons, paix aux
trous de cul' it will go now. It is only a luck that we personally are
too old to have to fear, this party gaining victory, to have to pay
bodily tribute to the victors. But the young generation! By the way,
only possible in Germany that a guy like that appears, translates the
dirt into a theory and invites: introite, and so on. Unfortunately he
was not yet as courageous as to confess openly being 'That', and still
has to operate coram publico 'from the front' even though not ,from the
front into as he once says by mistake. But first wait until the new
North-German penal law has acknowledged the droits de cul then it will
turn out quite differently. As for poor people from the front like us,
with our childish favour for women, things will be going badly enough.
If one could make use of that Schweitzer, it was to elicit from this
strange man of honour the personal details of the high and the highest
ranging pederasts, what surely would not be difficult for him as a
(Marx Engels Werke vol.32 -German edition - p. 324/5. Engels to Marx,
June 22, 1869)
As is always the case in Marxism, it is important to establish the
historical context. The above passage from a private letter (note the
nearly stream of consciousness character) is nearly as much about
factional battles on the German left as it is about gays. Specifically,
it deals with the Lassalleans whom Marx would eventually polemicize
against in "Critique of the Gotha Program". Needless to say, there is
not a single complaint in that critique about what people do in the bedroom.
Much more interesting for our purposes in establishing ties to gay
issues is the question of who Engels is referring to in the opening
sentences: "That is really a very odd 'Urning' you just sent me. Those
are just unveilings being extremely against nature." Clearly, we know
what it means to be "against nature". So what in the world is a Urning?
It turns out that this is a term (Uranian in English) invented by Karl
Heinz Ulrichs, who is widely regarded as an early pioneer of gay
liberation. The feckless Neue Einheit tries to fill in some background:
"In connection with this person also a certain Karl Heinz Ulrichs
appeared, who is regarded as the first propagandist of homosexualism and
today is being fêted by the so-called homosexuals' movement. This
Ulrichs sent his book also to Marx and Engels, apparently hoping to find
support (already then they tried to use the labor movement for their own
ends). Marx apparently refused to essentially take note of this book at
all, and gave it to Engels, who in general was more familiar with these
cultural questions, and the latter expressed himself unequivocally."
One might assume from the charge of being a "propagandist of
homosexualism" that Ulrichs was organizing parades to demand that
straights convert to gayness. In fact, there is a deliberate effort to
say as little as possible about Ulrichs, who serves in this treatment as
some kind of bogeyman. Engels does not help matters by describing
Ulrichs's book as turning "dirt into a theory." What could possibly be
found in between the covers of Ulrichs's book? Arguments that
heterosexuality is a sign of capitalist decadence? God only knows.
One of the benefits of working at Columbia University is that I have
access to all sorts of scholarly material, including the pamphlet
written by Karl Heinrich Ulrichs that was sent to Engels. It is part of
a two-volume work titled "The Riddle of 'Man-Manly' Love", published by
Prometheus Books in 1994 and translated by Michael A. Lombardi-Nash.
The introduction by Vern L. Bullough supplies crucial information to
help us put Ulrichs in context. Ulrichs, who lived from 1825 to 1895,
was descended from a long line of Lutheran pastors. He passed an
examination to become a civil servant in Hanover but resigned in 1854,
probably over some homosexual "offense".
As he became more conscious of his own homosexuality, he began studying
the subject in depth. At first turning to bogus theories such as
Mesmer's animal magnetism to explain same-sex attraction, Ulrichs
eventually developed his own novel theories, which he began publishing
under the pseudonym Numa Numantius. Then he decided it was important to
"come out of the closet" and began publishing under his own name.
There are two recurring themes in Ulrichs's work. One is the need to
provide some kind of scientific explanation for alternative sexual
preferences, a need that obviously persists till this day as scientists
look to the brain, etc., for possible explanations. Ulrichs posited a
rather novel approach that he described as "Uranian"--more about
momentarily. Two is the need to demonstrate that since homosexuality is
about as old as human society and as universal, the need to repress it
is foolish and self-defeating. One might as well try to stamp out
lefthandedness. Ulrichs's work is permeated with court cases,
victimizations, suicides, etc. that reflect the battle-zone of
Johann Baptist von Schweitzer, the target of Engels's unfortunate slur,
was one of the victims that Ulrichs defended. Bullough says that he had
been arrested on a morals charge after two women overhead him talking
about sex with a youth and surmises that his connection with the
leftwing might have led to his arrest. Despite this, he became a leading
Social Democrat and a playwright. Making an amalgam between his sexual
preferences and his Lassallean politics is of course totally
unprincipled. One might as well make a connection between Nazism and
homosexuality, since some of them (including Hitler, according to one
recent study) were gay.
For gays, the big issue in 1860s Germany was whether the Napoleonic code
would be overturned in new legislation. In an attempt to modernize and
secularize the state, laws written under its influence--including in
Ulrichs's Hanover--had eliminated the "crime" of sodomy and instead had
defined sex crimes in terms of age and consent. When Engels writes, "But
first wait until the new North-German penal law has acknowledged the
droits de cul [rights of the ass] then it will turn out quite
differently." In other words, Engels appears indifferent to a pending
reactionary attack on enlightened legislation. This is not what one
would expect from a socialist leader and it is singularly perverse for
Marxists to embrace this position.
In his search for what makes gay people gay, Ulrichs posited the
existence of "Urnings" or those who came under the influence of Urania.
This was a term he derived from the speech of Pausanias in Plato's
"And am I not right in asserting that there are two goddesses? The elder
one, having no mother, who is called the heavenly Aphrodite-she is the
daughter of Uranus; the younger, who is the daughter of Zeus and
Dione-her we call common; and the Love who is her fellow-worker is
rightly named common, as the other love is called heavenly...But the
offspring of the heavenly Aphrodite is derived from a mother in whose
birth the female has no part,-she is from the male only; this is that
love which is of youths, and the goddess being older, there is nothing
of wantonness in her. Those who are inspired by this love turn to the
male, and delight in him who is the more valiant and intelligent nature;
any one may recognise the pure enthusiasts in the very character of
Although not a trained scientist, Ulrichs struggled for a possible
explanation. He observed that homosexuality might be a result of a
failure of the reproductive organs to be fully differentiated. Pointing
out that normal males had rudimentary breasts and normal females a
rudimentary penis (clitoris), he surmised that Urnings had failed to
develop along expected lines. This, of course, is no reason to throw
them in jail.
Ulrichs campaigned for an end to the repressive legislation that had
been imposed on Hanover by the reactionary Junkers in the aftermath of a
Prussian invasion and annexation in 1866. After speaking out, he was
sent to prison. Upon his release, he kept on fighting for gay rights.
Speaking before the German General Assembly in 1867, his speech was
drowned out by catcalls and he left the podium without being allowed to
present his plan for reforms. Outfits like Neue Einheit are clearly in
sympathy with the Junkers reactionaries who shouted Ulrichs down.
In his 1870 "Araxes: a Call to Free the Nature of the Urning from Penal
Law", which was addressed to the Imperial Diets of Northern Germany and
Austria", Ulrichs makes a passionate case for tolerance:
"The Urning, too, is a person. He, too, therefore, has inalienable
rights. His sexual orientation is a right established by nature.
Legislators have no right to veto nature; no right to persecute nature
in the course of its work; no right to torture living creatures who are
subject to those drives nature gave them.
"The Urning is also a citizen. He, too, has civil rights; and according
to these rights, the state has certain duties to fulfill as well. The
state does not have the right to act on whimsy or for the sheer love of
persecution. The state is not authorized, as in the past, to treat
Urnings as outside the pale of the law.
"To be sure, legislators do have the right to make laws to contain
certain expressions of the Uranian drive, just as lawmakers are
empowered to legislate the behavior of all citizens. Accordingly, they
may prohibit Urnings from:
"(a) seduction of male minors;
"(b) violation of civil rights (by force, threat, abuse of unconscious
"(c) public indecency.
"The prohibition of the expression of the sex drive, i.e., between
consenting adults in private, lies outside the legal sphere. All grounds
for legal prosecution are lacking in this case. Legislators are hindered
from doing this by human rights and the principle of the constitutional
state. The legislator is hindered by the laws of justice, which forbid
applying a double standard. As long as the Urning respects guidelines
(a), (b), and (c) above, the legislator may not prohibit him from
following the rightful law of nature to which he is subject.
"Within these guidelines Uranian love is in any instance no real crime.
All indications of such are lacking. It is not even shameful, decadent
or wicked, simply because it is the fulfillment of a law of nature. It
is reckoned as one of the many imagined crimes that have defaced
Europe's law books to the shame of civilized people. To criminalize it
appears, therefore, to be an injustice officially perpetrated.
"Just because Urnings are unfortunate enough to be a small minority, no
damage can be done to their inalienable rights and to their civil
rights. The law of liberty in the constitutional state also has to
consider its minorities.
"And no matter what the legislators have done in the past, the law of
liberty knows of no limitation.
"Legislators should give up hope at the beginning of uprooting the
Uranian sexual drive at any time. Even the fiery pyres upon which they
burned Urnings in earlier centuries could not accomplish this. Even to
gag and tie them up was useless. The battle against nature is a hopeless
one. Even the most powerful government, with all the means of coercion
it can bring to bear, is too weak against nature. On the other hand, the
government is capable of controlling the battle. The reasoning and
consciousness of the Urning's own sense of morality offer the government
wholehearted cooperation toward this goal."
Indeed, this goal remains unfilled to this day and it is up to
socialists and gay liberation fighters to fulfill it.
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