David Widgery on “The Politics of Homosexuality” 1975

“A  modern revolutionary party unable to come to terms with  feminism and the gay movement is storing up trouble  for itself.”

This is reproduced from Gay Left, edition 1, 1975

David Widgery writes:

The following review was written, on request, for the theoretical journal of the International Socialists’ International Socialism in Autumn 1973.. It was rejected by Chris Harman, then editor, because ‘he had not read the pamphlet’ and supposedly was not in a position to tell me if I’d got the line wrong. He presumably never did because the review ‘got lost’, a euphemism I have experienced  several times on socialist papers when the editor wants to reject something but has not the courage to say so. At the time the leadership of I.S. were conducting a political campaign against Don Milligan and the I.S. Gay Group which was by and large successful. For the record, one of the leading lights in that campaign was responsible for the classic line “I.S. does not have a line on what you call sexism and has not found it a phenomenon which exists in the working class.”

I am glad of this chance to eventually publish this article: not because of any grand idea of the review’s worth, but because of what the suppression of its fairly  tentative contents reveals about the political context in which Don Milligan wrote his pamphlet.

“The Politics of Homosexuality”

Don Milligan 20p Pluto Press

Homosexuality has been a taboo subject on the Left for 100 years.

It’s always been somebody else’s problem something to do with bourgeois degenerates or Stalinist spies. Socialists who wanted to go to bed with lovers of their own sex have done so in great secrecy or simply become celibate and submerged their sexual longings in political activity.

Although homosexual writers like Edward for itself. Carpenter, active in the Sheffield labour movement early this century, were very widely read in the movement (Love’s Coming of Age went through twelve editions), their analysis could never advance beyond a desperate pleading for their form of love to be tolerated.

Radical homosexual writers who were drawn towards socialist ideas because of their own experience of the heterosexual hypocrisy of capitalism were seldom welcomed. Oscar Wilde, openly prosecuted in an atmosphere of pre-Boer War patriotic hysteria was unmentioned by the socialist press of the day. Walt Whitman, the American left-wing poet, whose proleterian following in Yorkshire corresponded and sent money to their hero, was never able to openly link his homosexuality to his political feelings, although privately they were inseparable.

Of female homosexuals we know only sneers and silence. The Left has occasionally included homosexuals somewhere in its list of oppressed minorities but the perspective has been reformist and legislative. For example a warm-hearted article in Socialist Review, commenting on the Wolfenden Report which made homosexuality legal between consenting adults, still saw homosexuality as an evil and perverted form of love, a product of capitalist society which would be cleansed after-the-Revolution. In the meantime queers are supposed to keep their heads well down and wait for more tolerant laws to be passed from above. And although the Bolsheviks acted to legalize homosexuality, since 1934 in Russia and in most of the state-capitalist regimes, especially Cuba, homosexuals have been singled out for the most vigorous prosecution.

The emergence, out of the political Pandora’s Box of 1968, of the Gay Liberation Movement has altered the whole terms of the discussion. A movement of homosexuals of an entirely new kind was born in collective struggle (literally in a fist fight with New York cops attempting to make arrests in a New York homosexual bar). They asked not for integration and tolerance but shouted defiance and challenged heterosexual society to examine the seamy side of its own ‘normality’. A sexual minority, apparently contained in their own guilt-ridden ghettoised sub-society, suddenly in the late sixties began to organize politically and look for radical explanations of their own situation. Seldom has Engel’s remark that ‘in the fore of every great revolution the question of free loveis bound to arise’ proved truer. The reaction of socialists has been embarrassed and uncertain. At one extreme the freak left by giving uncritical support to every whim of
Gay Liberation (and they have been many) in fact took  a liberal and also a rather patronizing

At the other extreme those socialists who denied that  were a ‘genuine’ minority, and suspect it’s all a class problem anyhow, ended up utilisingrevolutionary phrases to cloak straightforward prejudice (at the World Youth Festival 1973, for example, socialist homosexuals were beaten up when they attempted to raise  a G.L.F. banner).

Milligan’s pamphlet documents  clearly how homosexuals are oppressed by law prejudice, specific physical attacks made by psychiatrists and queer bashers and, most importantly, the personal self-denial of a life of furtiveness and enforced secrecy. In
reply to those who argue that this oppression has no  relation to the class struggle he quotes the words of the  Bolshevik Central Committee member Alexandra Kollontai who wrote in 1919 ‘the problems of sex concern  the largest section of society—they concern the working  class in its daily life.

It is hard to understand why this vital and urgent subject  is treated with such indifference. The indifference is unforgivable.  Milligan argues that homosexuals are an
affront to capitalism because they challenge the system’s  division of people into small competitive family units of  obedient  producers and cons umers house-trained in obedience and rigid sex-roles. For, like the Women’s  Question, any adequate Marxist analysis of homosexuality  is bound to deal with sexuality, child-rearing and  psychology, topics not raised within the Marxist movement  since the late 1920s. These questions are not being raised again in the working class movement by accident ; it is  inevitable they will be asked once again in new guises as  we transform our revolutionary socialism from the dogma  of the few into the faith of the multitude. Indeed a  modern revolutionary party unable to come to terms with  feminism and the gay movement is storing up trouble  for itself.
Thestruggle for a Marxist theory of homosexuality will continue and will only finally be made by working class  homosexuals themselves. As Connolly says it is those who wear the chains who are most qualified to begin throwing  them off. In the meantime socialist homosexuals are   entitled to expect the active support of their heterosexual      comrades. Socialists who are weak on this question will  undoubtedly  show themselves weak on other perhaps   more important questions of principle. For it is not a  question of moralism but one of class solidarity. For a  male worker who sneers at queers, just like one who talks  of niggers and slags, is finally only sneering at himself and  his class.

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3 thoughts on “David Widgery on “The Politics of Homosexuality” 1975

    • Yes, most very interesting – apart from some repulsive “intergenerational sex” rubbish. I intend to put a few more pieces on line in a bit more accessible way, unless someone from Gay Left tells me not to.

  1. Pingback: Edward Carpenter, British socialist poet | Dear Kitty. Some blog

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