Heterosexism and Sexism in Engels

by Jennifer Pen

The relationship between the Women's Liberation Movement and the Lesbian and Gay Liberation Movement of the past 30 years has been historically crucial, as they sparked mutually new developments in each other. At the same time, the reliance of much of the organized Left on Engels' The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State as the primary Marxist text on gender issues proved to be theoretically inadequate not only to the immediacy and totality of the Women's Liberation Movement, but in Engels's heterosexism as well. The determinism of much post-Marx Marxism, combined with the prudery and heterosexism of most Leftist organizations, provoked many gay and lesbian activists to eschew Marxism entirely (see review of With Friends Like These, in N&L, March 1997).

Raya Dunayevskaya was one of the few Marxist theoreticians to grapple with Marx's Ethnological Notebooks when they were published in transcription in 1972. She discovered a gulf between Marx's reading of anthropological authors such as Henry Lewis Morgan, and Engels's use of these same authors in Origin. Her reading of Marx's notebooks revealed how a full Hegelian-Marxist dialectic would produce multiple revolutionary subjectivities and pathways to revolution across human history. She contrasted this with Engels's reduction of the anthropological evidence to a unilinear determinism.

Dunayevskaya proceeded to expand her contrast of Marx and Engels, especially concerning the Women's Liberation Movement of our time. Dunayevskaya saw that Engels's rigidity about historical movement was a philosophic error which muted Marx's dialectics and led to biologism: the belief that our biology determines our fate. Engels's theories about gender in Origin of the Family were too inflexible, hence not open to the subjectivity of the actual Women's Liberation Movement when women loudly declared that biology is NOT destiny.

Does Engels's narrowing of the dialectic cast a shadow over the development of a Marxist theory of les-bi-gay liberation? Exploring this question illuminates the common ground as well as the distinctions between the Women's Liberation Movement and revolutionary subjectivity in movements based on sexuality.


Engels attaches himself to theories of ancient matriarchies and the idea of "mother right". He attempts to prove that the respect accorded women in ancient societies flowed from the material base of their reproductive powers. This already reduces women's subjectivity and universality, since it implies that women are seen only through their child-bearing capacities.

Dunayevskaya was deeply critical of Engels's conclusion that "the overthrow of mother-right was the world-historic defeat of the female sex." Dunayevskaya pointed out that this was not Marx's phrase, because it made a mockery of women's force and Reason since this reputed defeat. But this so-called defeat also portends danger for non-reproductive sexualities: if "woman" is conflated with "mother,' lesbians as sexual beings, lesbianism as a form of human relating, are silenced.

Biological determinism is vulgar materialism, not historical dialectics. False naturalizing is a by-product of biologism. Categories of "natural" and "unnatural" are consistently formulated and used against les-bi-gay people, and against all women who defy the pretensions of bourgeois morality. So, it is hardly surprising that when Engels does refer to homosexuality, he categorizes it as a "perversion," "degradation," and an "unnatural vice."


When Engels develops his formal, category one he valued quite highly -- of "modern individual sex love," he tries to envision a non-sexist future, men and women as equal partners, their love unconnected to economic or social exploitation. He advocates a voluntary serial monogamy as the ideal of human sexual relating. But once again, Engels has left the dialectic behind in his utopic projection.

"Modern individual sex love" as introduced by Engels fits the definition of heterosexism: he asserts that the only legitimate sexuality is heterosexuality. When he tries to prove how "modern" this "individual sex love" is, he does so by laughing at ancient bisexuality: "Sex love in our sense of the term was so immaterial to that classical love poet of antiquity, old Anacreon, that even the sex of the beloved was a matter of complete indifference to him." Given that Anacreon is writing to a beloved one, Engels's problem with him is not about the individual nature of the sexual love. What is incompatible with his formal category is the idea that the ancients could choose either a man or a woman as their singular beloved.

Likewise, while Engels's critique of the sexism of ancient Greek men is important and necessary, he reveals his heterosexism by claiming that "this degradation of the women was avenged on the men and degraded them also till they fell into the abominable practice of sodomy." Leaving aside his venting of homophobic spleen, what Engels claims here is that sexism produces homosexuality. This conclusion is historically unsupportable; it reeks of moralism instead of dialectics.

The complexity of human social relations cannot be contained in rigid categories or strictly functional conceptions of gender. Engels's philosophic error in reducing the dialectic is one he shares with many post-Marx Marxists; it becomes easier to label defeats and obstacles than to hear the subjects of revolution.

How can we embody philosophic opposition to sexism and heterosexism? We need a philosophic basis that won't limit us, that won't restrict in advance the totality of the uprooting of this exploitative society. Rather than updating any old system of human relating, perhaps we can imagine something entirely new by re-creating the dialectic, and holding to our history-in-the-making.



This article was originally printed in News & Letters. For subscription information, contact News and Letters Committees, 59 E. Van Buren St. - Room 707, Chicago, IL 60605, USA, TEL 312 663 0839, FAX 312 663 9069, email: nandl@igc.apc.org , Website: http://www.newsandletters.org



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