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"Making Marx Gay"—a short essay

Today, I decided to write a brief essay on making Marx gay vis-à-vis the notion of "camping canon" from my thesis volume. It concerns the entire book, and I'll be including it inside new editions of Volumes Zero and One on my website today (and the other volumes when they release); but given its vital nature to my overall arguments, I also wanted to post it on my blog for historical purposes:

Making Marx Gay

"Why camp canon?" you ask? Because we have to! Canon is heteronormative, thus foundational to our persecution as built into capital out of antiquity's Drama and Comedy into more recent inventions of the staged gimmick; i.e., of the back-and-forth wrestling match versus the Greek play's chorus and musical numbers, but also the opera and castle as an operatic site of forbidden, extreme desire, guilty pleasure and possessive love. Capitalism needs enemies to fight who are different from the status quo and we fit the bill. In short, we fags "make it gay" for our own survival.

—Persephone van der Waard, Sex Positivity, Volume Zero (2023)

This short, five-page essay aims to address several key points: a) about Marx's homophobia, and b) inability to say as much about queer rights that we, while camping canon, must address by camping Marx, hence making him (or rather, his ghost) gay. I wrote it after thinking on Marx's underlying bigotries and other shortcomings in Volume One (which I mention in that volume's preface). While I had focused on his lack of a conscious Gothic critique and active anti-Semitism (source: "Karl Marx in the Ludwig Rosenberger Library of Judaica," 2006), I also wanted to address his homophobia, insofar as to camp something is to make it gay using Gothic poetics. We must do this to Marx's ghost, lest Communism remain stuck in place, unable to develop away from Capitalist Realism.

(source: The Gay Liberator, no. 42, 1974)

Fascists tend to say, "make something great again," arguing as they do for a return to greatness that is inextricably tied to a conservative imaginary past. Conversely, Marx and his ilk tended to look to the future to escape the ghosts of the past, except their banishment under Capitalist Realism has led them—as Derrida pointed out—to haunt language through spectres of the man himself: his nebulous, shapeshifting reputation. It is this version of Marx that we must contend with, because it is the one that we can transform out of the actual man himself as a complicated fixture of history.

To that, this brief reminder stresses something that my thesis discusses repeatedly and should likewise be kept in mind throughout the entire book: Marx wasn't gay in the functional sense[1]; he was to some degree homophobic, and bigoted in ways his epistolary correspondence with Engels reveals. And while I think it's entirely worth noting that homosexuality and its formative history merit valid criticism insofar as men with power have often sexually abused children (which Foucault dubiously called "everyday occurrence in the life of village sexuality [and] inconsequential bucolic pleasures," notably lamenting their ending of, following the rise of the bourgeoisie[2]), we must also remember that until the late 1800s gender-non-conformity was entirely synonymous with criminal activity (for men, because women and slaves weren't legally considered people at this point); i.e., "sodomy" as a breaking with the ancient canonical codes that stress PIV sex, thus sexual reproduction. To this, those who abused children and those who did not were clumped together in the same messy sphere, say nothing of important but tardy modern distinctions such as "trans," "intersex," and non-binary," etc.

Moreover, this malnourished trend (and its inherited confusions) stemmed from socio-material conditions that are not set, but rather can change and transform as time goes on. Just as the word "homosexual" didn't spring into formal, written existence until 1870—and words like "transsexual" and "transgender" emerged later still—the oral, Gothic traditions that informed them are as old as Humanity itself (certainly far older than Enlightenment thinkers and their disastrous Cartesian models) and have only continued to evolve over time (which Volume Two shall demonstrate). So our praxis (which Volume Three shall cover) must take heed of the updated jargon, but also the imaginary past as something to revive in the present by making Marx gay in ways the man himself could not.

(source: Pluto Press)

The idea isn't exactly new—Mario Mieli's Towards a Gay Communism established the basic idea in 1977 and the Revolutionary Communist Party's admittedly incomplete 2001 "On the Position on Homosexuality in the New Draft Programme" discussed the idea towards homosexuals and women[3], first and foremost, while not having the most comprehensive understanding of trans people[4]. My approach takes things much further through a holistic Gothic methodology meant towards ending Capitalist Realism (which hadn't crystalized in 1977, let alone the 1800s). Sex Positivity camps canon by "making it gay" using monsters to consciously humanize, thus liberate, workers with; i.e., cooler, sexier and more fun, etc, and in ways that—unlike Foucault or Marx—actively and effectively diminish the state's capacity to inflict harm in service to the profit motive through Gothic poetics.

In other words, the state commodifies oppression through monsters, which we must challenge by making our own. Our "making it gay" includes Marx and his ghostly reputation as something to debate with (and improve on) in spectral forms that hold these once-living men accountable now for their bigotries back then (from my author's foreword in the thesis volume):

Marx wasn't gay enough for my tastes, thus could never camp canon to the amount required. In camping him, I'm obviously doing this through the Gothic mode, specifically its making of monsters—their lairs, battles, identities and struggles—through a reclaimed Wisdom of the Ancients that represents ourselves during shared dialectical-material struggles that take what Marx touched on before going further than he ever could

However private they may have kept them, it doubtless affected their ability to speak out loud concerning the rights of gender-non-conforming persons and their divergent sexualities. So we, by camping their ghosts, must not be silent like theirs were/are; we must use any means at our disposal to "cry out," including novels and movies, but also videogames and their franchised material (a neoliberal phenomenon)—e.g., Metroidvania (which Volume Zero will expand upon).

Just because Marx and later, Foucault, were "of their times" and indeed regressing to some degree towards an imaginary (thus possible) world—one where the past-as-problematic informed their incomplete visions of the future—this doesn't mean we must do the same; i.e., blindfolded and crossing our fingers. Indeed, we can openly acknowledge a queerness of the historical past in imaginary forms that speak to a better future than what Marx dared imagine. For he and Engels, queerness was "sodomy" and the third sex (a problematic term) was "Uranians," but that view was informed by the present availability of information at the time. Even so, Engels—despite calling sodomy "abominable" in "Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State" (1883) and lacking the ability to distinguish harmful forms from non-harmful forms—tries in the same essay to imagine a world beyond his own that speaks to our goals:

What we can now conjecture about the way in which sexual relations will be ordered after the impending overthrow of capitalist production is mainly of a negative character, limited for the most part to what will disappear. But what will there be new? That will be answered when a new generation has grown up: a generation of men who never in their lives have known what it is to buy a woman's surrender with money or any other social instrument of power; a generation of women who have never known what it is to give themselves to a man from any other considerations than real love or to refuse to give themselves to their lover from fear of the economic consequences. When these people are in the world, they will care precious little what anybody today thinks they ought to do; they will make their own practice and their corresponding public opinion of their practice of each individual—and that will be the end of it (source).

In response, Sherry Wolf writes in "The Myth of Marxist Homophobia,"

While here Engels is explicit about how heterosexual relations would undoubtedly be transformed by a socialist revolution, his broader point is that by removing the material obstacles to sexual freedom the ideological barriers can fall. This raises far-reaching possibilities for a genuine sexual revolution on all fronts (source).

(artist: Mugiwara Art)

Again, I am inclined to agree, but want to critique Engels a bit more than Wolf does. The people he's discussing aren't those born into a world where Capitalism simply "doesn't exist" when the person is born. To posit that is to kick the can down the road and shrug one's shoulders. Instead, the current generation must try to imagine a better future while developing Communism in the bargain. To that, hearts, minds and bodies can change while people are alive, and the trick, I would argue, is through Gothic poetics; I was in the closet once and have needed to work hard while alive to become a better, more authentic person. It's certainly far too late to rescue Marx and Engels the historical figures from the embarrassing grave they admittedly dug for themselves, but we can transform their spectres as living entities inside society and ourselves. Take what is useful and leave the rest. Marx will understand. And if he doesn't, to Hell with him!

[1] I.e., not openly, anyways. Heteronormativity certainly has closeted men endlessly overcompensating for their perceived "lack" of straightness, to which we can only speculate about Marx being closeted or not. What matters is what he said or didn't say regarding the liberation of GNC people from state control. His problem, as we shall see, lay less in how he focused primarily on class and material conditions instead of class and culture combined through socio-material conditions, but that the language hadn't "caught up." As Sherry Wolf points out in "The Myth of Marxist Homophobia" (2009): "It is insufficient, however, to argue that Marx and Engels were merely prisoners of the era in which they lived, though they were undoubtedly influenced by the dominant Victorian morals of the early Industrial Revolution" (source). Indeed, they fought progressively for the Cause regarding those scandals and crises-of-the-day that society published most openly and clearly. Among these, homosexuality had yet to emerge, and indeed would not until Oscar Wilde's infamous trial (1895) twelve years after Marx had already kicked the bucket (1883).

Wolf raises concerns about American slavery and anti-Irish racism, to which Marx and Engels fought for the oppressed; what injustices they saw and had the language for, they fought for the side of workers on social issues:

All this refuses definitively the argument that Marxism is interested only in questions of class. Marx and Engels' body of writings and life's pursuit have influenced generations of revolutionaries who have fought for a better world, including a sexually liberated one. Yet there is no reason to defend every utterance and act as if they were infallible gods instead of living men, warts and all (ibid.).

I'm inclined to agree with Wolf, but won't apologize for the societal ignorance that informed Marx and Engel's private homophobia. Clearly there is room for improvement, which neither man lived to see, and this is best expressed through Gothic poetics; i.e., the open, popular language of monsters and aliens as fetishized by the state, but also workers for or against the state and the bourgeoisie.

[2] From A History of Sexuality, Volume One (1980).

[3] The New Draft Programme raises a series of rhetorical questions for which no immediate answers are supplied:

Should our goal be to put an end to the subordination of all women, and to liberate all humanity, or to be satisfied with some women laying claim to a few prerogatives historically reserved for privileged males and with groups that have been discriminated against and 'marginalized' achieving some 'self-expression' within a self-limited subculture or community? Should we be seeking to find individual solutions and pursuing illusions like 'inner peace,' or to collectively raise hell and, with the leadership of the proletariat, unite all who can be united, to tear down the old society and build a new one with the goal of uprooting and abolishing all oppression? (source).

In short, their stance is less hard than it should be.

[4] "More recently a movement has emerged to take up the rights of transgendered people (people who live or 'pass' as the opposite gender as well as people who actually become transsexuals via medical and surgical intervention). This is a development our party needs to understand better" (ibid.). Clearly.


Persephone van der Waard is an anarcho-Communist, sex worker, genderqueer activist and Gothic ludologist. She sometimes writes reviews, Gothic analyses, and interviews for fun; or does independent research for her PhD on Metroidvania and speedrunning every now and again. She's also an erotic artist and a writer. If you're interested in her work or curious about illustrated or written commissions, please refer to her website for more information.