Engels, homophobia and the left


posted to www.marxmail.org on Aug. 17, 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While most of the left, including these Maoists, eventually superseded this kind of backwardness, a few individuals and sects continue to bash gays.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 meatheaded on all sorts of questions, including gay liberation.


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 congenial person...."


(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 fęted 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 Victorian-era Germany.


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 Symposium:


"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 their attachments."


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 people, etc.);

"(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.