Nia Frome

The Problem of Recognition in Transitional States, or Sympathy for the Monster (2024)

63 minutes | English | Feminism and Gender The Crew

Why are there so many trans tankies? What is the beef between trans studies and queer theory? This essay proposes to answer both questions at once by identifying homologies between trans (and other) criticisms of queer theory and Marxist-Leninist criticisms of Western Marxism. That queer theory broadly shares Western Marxist proclivities towards pessimism and theoreticism is exemplified in its treatment of categories such as normativity, the universal, the bodily, the virtual, and science. Trans people’s experience impels us to seek further afield for a theory adequate to our situation, rejecting the chauvinist anticommunism that other leftists take for granted, and discovering underappreciated benefits to “sympathizing with the monster.” From this deparochialized perspective, it makes as little sense for a Marxist-Leninist to be transphobic as it does for a trans person to be anticommunist.
 — N. F.

“The dominant politics in this [American] trans left activity can be roughly split into liberalised, eclectic anarchism and various Stalinisms longing for states and father figures. Both streams take a crudely religious attitude.”
 — Anja Heisler Weiser Flower

The problem of recognition in transitional states is the difficulty of assigning to a definite set an object that possesses some of the features of two mutually exclusive ones, and the harms attendant on failing to do so. Socialism is not capitalism; hence capitalist traits are evidence of non-socialism, and vice versa. On this excluded middle hinges the standard argument against the socialist credentials of any given country: “Look, they’ve still got commodities. They’ve still got accumulation. They’ve still got bureaucracy, repression, and elites. They’re still impersonally dominated by the market.” Western Marxism [1] has found many reasons to be pessimistic about the emancipatory bona fides of Eastern Marxism [2], or what is sometimes called Really Existing Socialism. Lacking the experience of a successful revolution to draw on, it has focused its attention instead on the rather dismal question of why, in the words of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, “men fight for their servitude as stubbornly as though it were their salvation” (38).

Trans and queer theory share a deep suspicion towards any assumption of an excluded middle. What, then, distinguishes them? My claim will be that queer theory, as opposed to trans studies, remains more imbued with Western Marxist pessimism and theoreticism, whereas trans studies, as opposed to queer theory, arises from trans experiences with direct parallels to those of Really Existing Socialism, and thus tends to express a greater optimism and realism. [3] The terms in which trans theorists and others criticize queer theory are anticipated at nearly every turn by homologous arguments to be made against Western Marxism in favor of Eastern Marxism. This helps explain the prevalence, within the US left, of trans tankies [4] [5] “longing for states and father figures” and suggests ways in which trans studies can come fully into its own — that is, how it stands to benefit from sympathizing with the monster. [6]

When a trans person transitions, are they stubbornly fighting for their servitude? This is one “gender critical” take on trans women, certainly — that male fetishists get off at being subordinated, otherwise why self-identify into an oppressed class? But anyone who’s not transphobic tends to view trans people’s coming out of the closet as a brave act of self-affirmation, an obstinacy in favor of authenticity and salvation. This fundamental optimism may help explain trans people’s relatively greater willingness to break with Western Marxist orthodoxy in their evaluation of Really Existing Socialism. As Anja Heisler Weiser Flower writes (disapprovingly) in her essay “Cosmos Against Nature in the Class Struggle of Proletarian Trans Women”, “The dominant politics in this [American] trans left activity can be roughly split into liberalised, eclectic anarchism and various Stalinisms longing for states and father figures. Both streams take a crudely religious attitude” (231). [7] She contrasts these unsatisfactory options with “Tendencies with more fully communist abstract theoretical cores” (231), by which we are to understand that neither pole of the dominant politics can be considered fully communist in its theory. Besides the hint of ambivalence in the word “abstract”, which implies that the dominant streams may have some kind of trivial advantage with regard to concreteness, we should note that these more communist tendencies “do attract some transgender recruits, but the isolation they’re forced into in the absence of newly rising class power condemns their unfailing principles to hollow out into shells” (231). They are not responsible for their own marginality; it’s the exogenous absence of class power that’s to blame. In fact, the negative evaluation of the current level of struggle is necessary if it’s going to be used to explain the marginality of the correct tendencies — if things are looking up for class power on the whole but the rising tide isn’t lifting your boat, maybe it’s time to look below decks.

Further on in her essay, Flower helpfully defines “abstract”: “The abstract is when an individual term or element is pulled out of place. An abstract view appears when one aspect or part of things is isolated from the whole” (242). An abstract view of “Stalinism”, then, would be one that removed it from its context, whether that of the European colonial order which preceded and motivated it, that of the obstacles faced by the early Soviet Union, that of its invocation to denigrate socialist and national liberation movements over the last century, or that of present-day arguments among leftists over what traditions are most fruitful and which allies deserve our support. If you asked the Stalinists themselves, you’d find that they hardly ever self-identify as such — they prefer “Marxists-Leninists” (further qualifications may apply), and can be identified by their support for Really Existing Socialist states and blanket (“vulgarly anti-American”) opposition to the designs of US imperialism. It’s not correct to put too much distance between Marxists-Leninists and Stalin because, besides going to the mat for the man himself, they generally approve of Stalin’s codification of Marxism-Leninism in The Foundations of Leninism. In this text, Stalin defines Leninism succinctly as “Marxism of the era of imperialism and the proletarian revolution. To be more exact, Leninism is the theory and tactics of the proletarian revolution in general, the theory and tactics of the dictatorship of the proletariat in particular” (73). He writes that Leninism “recognises the existence of revolutionary capacities in the national liberation movement of the oppressed countries, and the possibility of using these for overthrowing the common enemy, for overthrowing imperialism” (146). There are three key points of Stalin’s definition worth highlighting: Marxism-Leninism is the theory of an historical epoch in which there are dictatorships of the proletariat (in need of both theory and tactics), national liberation movements of the oppressed countries do contribute to the revolutionary struggle, and imperialism is the common enemy.

It is nearly impossible to find a workers’ party or national liberation movement that has 1) successfully held state power for any length of time and 2) not been called Stalinist. One response would be to say “That’s Stalin’s fault for being a megalomaniac and telling everyone what to do”, except that these accusations have continued long after his death. The problem, apparently, is party culture, which is never sufficiently broadminded when holding power is on the line. Those who make revolutions are perpetually at a disadvantage with regard to those whose unimpeachable commitment to formal democracy and freedom of criticism effectively tie their hands.

Of course, Marxists-Leninists are not the only Marxists who uphold Lenin. Trotskyists too claim fidelity to Lenin (e.g. sometimes calling themselves “Bolshevik-Leninists”) and consider Stalin’s bastardization of Leninism a travesty. Trotskyists of various stripes have found cause, at different times, to dissent from all three points of Stalin’s definition: the question of whether there are any dictatorships of the proletariat in existence, whether national liberation movements are in fact progressive, and whether the imperialism-anti-imperialism contradiction is primary (Korolev, Mavrakis).

The form of Flower’s dig at the trans left mirrors that of the old Trotskyist slogan “Neither Washington nor Moscow”: here it’s neither “liberalised, eclectic anarchism” nor “various Stalinisms longing for states and father figures” but instead a secret third thing, not yet dominant but superior to both inasmuch as it is neither psychopathological nor superstitious. On Flower’s view, those Marxists who still cling to outmoded Cold War campism have fallen prey to a false dichotomy, one that must be refused if we are to maintain a healthy and rational independence of thought. This independence is incommensurate with dogmatic (Stalinist) assertions of the kind “the USSR was socialist” or “the PRC is socialist”, just as it is incommensurate with dogmatic (anarchist) assertions like “no state could ever be socialist”.

What is the trans-theoretical equivalent of this argument to moderation? “We should not be so dogmatic as to say that trans people ‘are’ their ‘true’ gender, nor that they could never be.” Limbo, then. This is certainly one way of denying the law of the excluded middle: setting up shop in it, absolutizing it. The word my therapist uses to talk about gender transition is tránsito, a word whose naive translation from Spanish into English is “transit”. This implies the lovely metaphor of a journey from point A (in my case, man) to point B (in my case, woman). Compare this metaphor to the more abstract “transition”, which has no obvious physical interpretation. It’s understood that a tránsito is going to take some time, that one may be held up along the way (perhaps by some kind of natural disaster, or highwaymen), and that for most of the journey one cannot rightly be said to be in either A or B. That said: journeys end.

Gender performance, by contrast, does not. In Second Skins: The Body Narratives of Transsexuality, Jay Prosser charges Judith Butler (and queer theory in general) with “not explor[ing] the bodiliness of gendered crossings”, through which bodiliness “the transsexual reveals queer theory’s own limits: what lies beyond or beneath its favored terrain of gender performativity” (Prosser 6). This return to the body and its materiality could just as well describe the move from a Western Marxist preoccupation with ideology to the Eastern Marxist preoccupation with the complexities of building socialism after a successful revolution. [8] Where queer theory would deny all essentialisms, Prosser’s transsexuals narrate their transitions using essentialist categories: “To the extent that transsexual narratives cannot be read without our accounting for the subjective experience of being transgendered, reading them necessitates our taking at every step what Sedgwick and Frank term — it’s a phrase that’s been much circulated recently — ‘the risk of essentialism’.” (17) Here essentialism stands as the opposite and preferred target of deconstruction. Prosser, quoting Sedgwick and Frank, asks us to bracket the hungry demands of deconstruction in the name of better taking transsexuals at their word. In the annals of Marxism, many essences have been contested and deconstructed — the proletariat’s inherent revolutionariness, capitalism’s inherent tendency to crisis, etc. — but the single most divisive one has been the class character of Really Existing Socialism. Taking Marxist-Leninist leaders at their word generally unsettles received ideas about their essential cynicism and capitalisticness (Lih). Running the risk of essentialism in this context means admitting, provisionally, the possibility that Communist Parties in power really are communist, and consequently that Western Marxists are not at the forefront of world revolution.

Another critic of Butler, Sari Roman-Lagerspetz, does not describe Butler’s shortcomings in terms of (in)attention to bodiliness, but instead returns to Hegel, describing Butler’s theory as an example of the “Unhappy Consciousness” because it contains within itself an Althusserian split between a knowing scientist (who is pessimistic about the possibility of mutual recognition) and a hopelessly ideological subject capable only of misrecognition. Thus it remains mysterious, and structurally so, how a subject could come to share Butler’s view, or how it could be generalized. According to Roman-Lagerspetz, “Hegel argues that these forms of consciousness (for example, the Unhappy Consciousness) cannot consistently become the basis of general self-understanding. In order to be meaningful for their proponents, they have to presuppose epistemic asymmetries which cannot be justified within these forms of thinking” (337, italics in original). The failure to account for one’s own subject position that works simultaneously to insulate it from criticism and as an absolute negative judgment on all other claims to self-knowledge (e.g. “We’re building socialism”) is one of the most irritating features of Western Marxism and its chauvinist disdain for foreign revolutions. Once the obligation to self-generalize, i.e. to win power by gripping the masses, has fallen by the wayside, all that’s left are the cold comforts of scientific superiority, which disavows its own local particularities (e.g. an anticommunist consensus shaped by Cold War machinations) and responsibility (e.g. to recognize the Other’s perspective as valid rather than merely symptomatic, or complicity in legitimizing imperialist interventions).

This flaw is not unique to Butler, and critics of queer theory have found occasion to remark on its presence in the work of other queer theorists. Hannah Baer sees Paul Preciado in Can the Monster Speak? as “someone who repeatedly positions himself as alienated from his audience, suggesting that they can’t or won’t fully witness him”. This assumed pose of perpetual marginality is in total disproportion to Preciado’s real influence, which is significant. [9] But raging against it allows Preciado to put off other work: “Preciado demonstrates that we have much to be upset about but is less clear as to what we should do next.” It is hard to think of a more fitting description of Western Marxism as viewed from the East. By worrying endlessly about what makes men fight for their servitude as if it were their salvation, Western Marxism rigs the deck against ever becoming hegemonic. Maxi Wallenhorst calls attention to the same romanticizing of marginality in Preciado: “it almost seems antiquated how transgression — anchored in the intensity of experience more than aiming at what’s structural about it — is where Preciado locates so much political optimism.” The celebration of transgression, so characteristic of queer theory (Wiegman and Wilson), is incompatible with the struggle for legal sovereignty waged by movements of national liberation and people’s democratic dictatorships. Wallenhorst’s critique extends to Preciado’s (Nietzschean) aestheticism: “With his focus, Preciado is also simply missing out on thinking through forms of queer and trans world-making that in his eyes might not pass as emancipatory because they employ an aesthetics [10] that’s less established as transgressive.” Trans studies, infused with an ambivalence between gender-deviance and the desire to pass, cannot take up queer theory’s exaltation of transgression uncritically. Eastern Marxism simply does not valorize transgression as such, since its goal is hegemony, to function as a legitimate ruling party representative of the general interest, and the collective transgression of one norm in particular: imperialism.

Similar considerations have led Bogdan Popa to call for De-centering Queer Theory, arguing “that queer theorists have incorporated many assumptions that are part of historical anti-communism in the USA” (Popa 219). “In contrast to a[n Eastern] Marxist ideology that sought to create a new communist person,” he writes, “[John Money’s] analytic of gender reinserted the priority of individual consciousness and its freedom to transform social norms” (70), i.e. through individual acts of transgression. Popa outlines an alternative “account that sees productivist bodies as part of an emancipatory and dialectical project to abolish capitalist sex roles” (63), a framework he takes to be rooted in Eastern Marxism. Popa’s view of the pernicious influence of anticommunism among western theorists of gender is echoed by Leslie Feinberg, who writes in Lavender & Red that “Much of the scrutiny of this particular aspect of history [specifically “The question of same-sex love and the role of women in what became the Soviet Union”] has been by researchers and academics who are hostile to the Russian Revolution and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics it forged. Anticommunism not only taints their work, in too many cases the discrediting of socialist revolution is the actual foundation of their analysis.” The Red Nation’s Communism is the Horizon, Queer Indigenous Feminism is the Way shares this assessment: “Bourgeois academic culture in general is rife with anticommunism, particularly in the feminist and queer theories that dictate academically-produced politics in the Global North. These traditions of queer feminism often mistake critique for politics and divorce ideas from praxis, reinforcing the very abstraction of materiality that Marx so detested” (8).

Petrus Liu, in his book The Specter of Materialism: Queer Theory and Marxism in the Age of the Beijing Consensus, presents himself as an opponent of anticommunism and a critic of queer theory. His real commitments, however, are more ambivalent than that. Liu certainly criticizes queer theory for neglecting the East, writing, for example, that “none of the foundational texts of US-based queer theory made any mention of the revolutions of 1989 or emergent forms of political radicalism from the East” (4). What seems at first glance like a recrimination from the perspective of the excluded Communist Other turns out to be a call to attend more closely to the Color Revolutions that toppled socialist governments and the leaders of failed attempts at the same, e.g. the pro-colonialist Liu Xiaobo. [11] Such disappointments abound. Petrus Liu is most admirable when calling for “Marxist analysis [to] help establish an alternative conception of US queer theory as a minority participant in a global conversation sustained by the labor of scholars and activists working in other languages” (34). It turns out, though, that all Liu aims to contribute to this “global conversation” is a chain of equivalences between “the Beijing Consensus”, formal subsumption, “production of the means of destruction” (37), and “the creation of new inequalities between geographically bound populations and the concentration of wealth and power into monopoly power across class and gender lines” (41–42). The East is just the West, again. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

It is impossible not to share Liu’s stated desire that queer theory might “develop a materialist perspective after many years of being associated with the so-called linguistic turn in the humanities” (14). But as Samuel Clowes Huneke writes in his review of the book, “For all its critique of mainstream queer theory, The Specter of Materialism remains bounded by the field’s disciplinary fixations. Liu engages in close readings of theorists, authors, and films, but makes only superficial, glancing references to the stuff of history — that is, to the concrete economic, political, and social relations that inform lived experience.” Liu connects queer theory to Marxism through the category of dispossession, as if the only thing wrong with capitalism were primitive accumulation, and as if gender and sexuality could be usefully understood solely in terms of what’s been taken from us.

Trans studies has set itself apart from queer theory, to the limited extent that it has, by building on trans experiences, one of which is that gender is not all bad. Another is transphobia. Among the tenets of transphobia are the ideas that

  1. trans people are lying and/or deluded about who we are,
  2. trans people are sexual predators,
  3. trans people are bullies (when we do politics), and
  4. trans people will never “really be” men/women.

Trans people today are almost inevitably confronted with such claims at some point in our lives, often before even transitioning. Point four is the one that most resembles what Grace Lavery calls “egg theory”: “the type of reasoning that trans people use, prior to transition, to prove transition’s impossibility or fruitlessness” (383). Lavery makes the case that there is a trans-antagonism inherent to queer theory’s valorization of universality and virtuality. Not everyone is trans, and transness is not merely virtual (although it often begins that way). The point is well-taken. But particularity is not synonymous with individuality, and problems of signaling and collective action still arise in a world where not everyone is trans: to what extent do one’s own subjective prospects depend on how one perceives other trans people’s success or failure at transition? Trans theorists have been loath to cede any ground to the theory of social contagion by answering “greatly”, and yet trans people have instinctively expressed a solidarity that in this case outstrips theory. That is, there is a general recognition that to deny the reality of any one trans person’s gender-claim is to weaken them all. It is not a matter of indifference to me whether another trans person is misgendered.

Much of the Western left has handled the question of socialist transition by saying that Eastern Marxism is lying/deluded about what it is and ruling Communist parties are predatory bullies, but socialism might someday be possible. Michael Parenti, in his book Blackshirts and Reds, calls this “left anticommunism”. He writes: “Left anticommunists find any association with communist organizations to be morally unacceptable because of the ‘crimes of communism’” (48) and “Like conservatives, left anticommunists tolerated nothing less than a blanket condemnation of the Soviet Union as a Stalinist monstrosity and a Leninist moral aberration” (46). Thanks to the internet, trans people cannot go very long without being reminded of problematic, even horrific things done by other trans people. Some of these reports are true, while others are fabrications. They have inured trans people on the ground against demonization, the preferred tactic of professional anticommunists. This has had the obvious consequence of trans people coming to sympathize with monsters.

As Susan Stryker writes in “My Words to Victor Frankenstein Above the Village of Chamounix: Performing Transgender Rage”, a foundational text in trans studies, “The very success of Mary Shelley’s scientist in his self-appointed task thus paradoxically proves its futility: rather than demonstrate Frankenstein’s power over materiality, the newly enlivened body of the creature attests to its maker’s failure to attain the mastery he sought. Frankenstein cannot control the mind and feelings of the monster he makes. It exceeds and refutes his purposes” (248). Here the good doctor works as a perfect stand-in for Marx, or Marxism before 1917, while his remorse is the tradition of Western Marxism, which has fixated on the question of what went wrong[12] Marxism-Leninism is, of course, the monster. [13] Faced with threats and obstacles that had never appeared on paper, Really Existing Socialist states were forced to make terrible trade-offs and adopt a monstrously long view of the struggle for communism. [14] The party of remorse can afford to have clean hands; those who would survive under imperialist encirclement cannot. Optimism and realism, I said earlier. Survival is possible, but you are going to have to change.

“Transsexual monstrosity, however, along with its affect, transgender rage, can never claim quite so secure a means of resistance because of the inability of language to represent the transgendered subject’s movement over time between stably gendered positions in a linguistic structure” (247), Stryker writes. The “stably gendered positions” that Really Existing Socialism cannot fit into are capitalism and communism, where the latter is understood as a stateless society finally free of money, wage labor and commodity exchange. Traversing the excluded middle is a harrowing journey that threatens misrecognition at every turn. The story Western Marxism has preferred to tell about the experience of Communist parties in power is one of betrayal (Boer and Ping). Preserving the theoretical possibility of a transition has taken priority over the defense of its concrete exemplars, which are so easy to find un-exemplary. At work here is the logic of respectability politics. The history of the trans movement provides a different perspective on the demands of respectability: after Stonewall, the assimilationist side of the gay rights movement betrayed its one-time trans allies in its pursuit of respectability (Gill-Peterson), with the object lesson for trans people that cozying up to the establishment is the real betrayal. “The prospect of a monster with a life and will of its own is a principal source of horror for Frankenstein” (Stryker 247). [15] This horror is patent in the seeming compulsion of Western Marxists to buy credibility for themselves by bad-mouthing Really Existing Socialism (Parenti), a thing as removed from pristine virtuality as is “flesh torn apart and sewn together again in a shape other than that in which it was born” (245).

The monstrous product of science has a different relationship to science than the guilt-stricken scientist, who has learned his lesson about the pitfalls of Prometheanism and has sworn never to repeat his past mistakes (namely, creating life in defiance of God’s monopoly on creation). Trans people who are on HRT or have had gender-affirming surgeries tend to be more sanguine about the possibility of recuperating science than people who are not so dependent on medical and pharmaceutical technology. Our affinity for science, even as an aesthetic, helps distance trans people from the techno-pessimism evident in much of Western Marxism, e.g. Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment. Adorno and Horkheimer are not wrong to observe that there is a monstrosity to progress narratives in general — to adjudge an ending superior to a beginning implies the justifiability or nonessentialness of whatever crimes were committed along the way. [16] Another less monstrous option is to attribute those crimes to other, counter-progressive, forces, but this is inconsistent with a transition narrative in which the individual telling it matures, insofar as it is a sign of maturity to accept responsibility for one’s mistakes. Trans people coming off what may be decades of untreated dysphoria often struggle with self-loathing and, like any recovering addict or depressed person, have to reconcile ourselves to past mistakes in a way that neither cancels them out (which would be irresponsible) nor absolutizes them (which would be paralyzing, another dodge). A nuanced, non-moralizing view of individual errors is easily extended to encompass collective errors, especially when those are found to be anticommunist inventions or exaggerations (as is generally the case). [17]

The basic question is whether the deconstructive method will be applied purposively or incontinently, as determinate or abstract negation. The former, deconstructing the gender assigned to one at birth, or deconstructing anticommunist common sense, answers to a specific telos. The latter, deconstructing all categories of gender and sexuality, or deconstructing all “grand narratives”, is not subordinated to any political project and thus tends to become a sovereign principle and a source of hostility to all particularity in favor of the smoothness of the virtual. [18] Socialism’s validity as a category is dependent on communism being a genuine possibility that is not immediately realizable. If communism is already in effect everywhere in a virtual sense — that is, if everyone is already queer — then Really Existing Socialist states are left with nothing to accomplish, and nothing in particular is justified for them to do — i.e. trans people are merely reaffirming the gender binary.

Alternatively, if socialism is a valid category, then we have an obligation to understand it on its own terms. Doing so troubles the self-serving betrayal narratives that have mediated the reception of Marxism in the West. Of course, betrayal narratives are not exclusive to any one tendency — to have one’s unrealistic expectations dashed generally precipitates the search for a scapegoat. That said, Eastern Marxism is much more concerned with tempering those expectations with realism, and thus preventing future “betrayals”, than Western Marxism, for which each new departure from the utopian ideal is merely a license to double down on it and “return to Marx”.

I will highlight three especially villainous figures for Western Marxism, the Great Betrayers, and ask what makes them trans, rather than queer. The first Great Betrayer is Friedrich Engels, who is charged with grossly oversimplifying Marx’s subtle and nuanced thought in the name of popularization, positivism, and Hegelianism (Piedra, Sheehan). As the author of The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, he is also sometimes credited with founding Marxist feminism (Carver 479). His principal theoretical sin is to have affirmed the dialectic of nature, implying a natural teleology to which queer theory cannot subscribe, worried as it is about who might be left out. Trans people’s horse in this race should be obvious: an undialectical take on biological sex is the argumentative basis (though probably not the affective one) for most transphobia. [19] We need nature to be dialectical, imbricated with its putative other, the artificial, and not simply self-identical. Humanity’s self-making is our whole jam.

The second Great Betrayer is Joseph Stalin, who represents Socialism in One Country, the Great Purge, a social-conservative turn against the rights of women and sexual minorities, the cult of personality, and victory over Nazi Germany in the Great Patriotic War. His opposite number is Trotsky, who stands for Permanent Revolution, proletarian class independence, sectarianism and martyrdom. Trotsky’s superiority, once so self-evident to a certain generation of Western leftists, is no longer secure. That Trotsky valued offense over defense, Western Europe over Eastern, and the pure proletariat over prospective class allies have come to be seen as dogmatic and chauvinist (Korolev). Of the modern-day “class reductionists”, most come from a Trotskyist or quasi-Trotskyist background; [20] hardly any are Marxists-Leninists, since these tend to be woke on the national question at least. Trans people, known for having a fair amount of skin in the game, have often responded positively to a version of Marxism that valorizes “committing to the bit”, i.e. sticking it out and making it work however you can, as opposed to others that valorize armchair quarterbacking and a vision of global revolution that cannot survive but by passing the buck and hoping to get bailed out. [21] In the words of Fred Hampton: “It’s not a question of violence or non-violence, it’s a question of resistance or non-existence.” Transphobia makes trans people feel embattled; feeling embattled makes us sensitive to the need for allies and for grit; those alliances and that grit can’t be sustained without a deontology: killing Nazis has to count for something. That Stalin turns out, on closer inspection, to be a much better Marxist than his reputation suggests is only proof that capitalists are better at identifying threats to capitalism than the Western left is. [22]

The third Great Betrayer is Deng Xiaoping. As in the two previous cases, Deng kept something precious alive — “But at what cost??” In his case, at the cost of risking the appearance of detransition. Looks, however, can be deceiving. I will argue that trans studies has a stake in understanding Reform and Opening-up on its own terms, as a strategic feint in service of long-term socialist transition. McKenzie Wark has done some tentative work in this direction in her book Capital Is Dead: Is This Something Worse?, although it’s obvious that she can’t quite make up her mind about Deng. [23] Take this paragraph, for example:

It is a commonplace to think of the Soviet Union as dead and buried and of the People’s Republic of China as somehow becoming just like the West in everything except politics. There are other perspectives. One is that far from being a thing of the past, “Communism” is alive and well and still in charge of a fair chunk of the planet. What the hundred million strong Chinese Communist Party rules over is something a bit less like the “neoliberal West” and a bit more like what the Soviet Union might have been had it stayed the course and stuck with the New Economic Policy, which lasted from 1921 to 1928. Incidentally, Deng Xiaoping was in Moscow briefly during that period. One wonders if he was thinking quietly to himself about something like the New Economic Policy version of “socialism” for fifty years before he got to build it and watch it run off. (103)

In broad strokes, this paragraph agrees with arguments made by Marxists-Leninists like Domenico Losurdo and Ajit Singh, among others, about the similarities between Reform and Opening-up and the NEP, and it is certainly enough to make your average Western Marxist sweat. Elsewhere, Wark has positive things to say about “vulgar Marxism” and critical things to say about Western Marxism (e.g. “Finding the vulgar distasteful is perhaps the defining gesture of so-called Western Marxism” [144]). But notice the scare quotes around “Communism”, the “Chinese Communist Party” (CCP) rather than “Communist Party of China” (CPC), the “something a bit less” and “a bit more”, or the fact that Wark doesn’t come right out and say she holds this perspective, it is merely a perspective. These tics signal exactly what Wark is trying to signal: uncertainty, non-attachment. Add to this the fact that the “Something Worse” of the book’s title turns out to be something called the Vector — which may be fueling China’s rise? — and that Wark ends up calling for an “acommunism” and it’s clear that the break with anticommunism Wark heralds is far from complete. The queer celebration of alterity has not yet been totally supplanted by the trans celebration of alteration.

A queer reading might revel at the way China’s system seems to combine capitalist and socialist features before universalizing this insight and declaring such categories themselves unstable or outmoded. By contrast, a trans reading must tarry with China’s particularity: after surviving the Cold War through a strange diplomatic maneuver, learning the hard lessons of the Soviet Union, [24] and compromising on all but the essentials of socialist governance, China now stands poised to overtake the capitalist and imperialist West, having secured the well-being of its people (through world-historic anti-poverty campaigns), [25] a commanding lead in the transition to a green future (Hawkins and Cheung, Nace, Margolis, Foster et al.), [26] an unprecedented ability to direct the economy towards political objectives (Koss, McGregor), and the ongoing panicked outrage of both ruling parties in the US (Greve and Gambino). This is the result of long-term strategic thinking, a commitment not only to the spirit of Marxism-Leninism but also to the local quirks and ironies of its implementation, as denoted by the term “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics.”

Trans Marxists know we have particular characteristics. We know that this does not obscure our view of the universal, but sharpens it. We know that dogmatism, insisting on something after it’s been shown not to work, is an impediment to flourishing. And we know that socialism has powerful enemies who have made their hostility to transition abundantly clear, such that not taking them (or their bad faith) into account is a moral abdication. As Valerie Solanas once said (getting at the heart of communist morality): “I consider it immoral that I missed. I should have done target practice” (Third). Just as a trans person makes accommodations to the deeply non-ideal social reality that surrounds them, Really Existing Socialist states have had to make accommodations to a deeply non-ideal situation both at home and abroad. These “zig-zags” are sometimes cited as proof that there is no underlying principle but only rank opportunism at work. But this inference is too hasty — survival has always demanded adaptability, sensitivity to one’s environment. It cannot mean pure theoreticism or book-worship. The point of contact between the demands of theory and the demands of practice is strategy. “Strategy” is shorthand for everything that lies at the root of Marxism-Leninism’s theoretical monstrosity, whether this is called totalitarianism, instrumental rationality, teleology, kitsch, or “pragmatism and dogmatism” (Althusser 171). [27] Those who reject Marxism-Leninism take issue with its self-certainty and its philistinism, and the way these can be linked to violence. But another way to say this is simply that Marxists-Leninists have not shied away from wielding state power and have had the gall to really believe they can subordinate the (necessarily imperfect) exercise of that power to the ultimate goal of world communism, i.e. that holding power is not mutually exclusive with being communist. Trans theory that ceases to repress its sympathy for the monster must therefore become unabashedly strategic in its outlook.

Strategy implies economy and an awareness of both left and right errors (prodigality and miserliness). Trans people don’t have the luxury of acting or theorizing like we’re out of the woods; between here and there lies a long march over treacherous terrain. In these circumstances, it would be as foolish to overestimate our resources as it would be to underestimate them. Trans people already have some critical distance regarding the old saw about the master’s tools never dismantling the master’s house, insofar as embracing the signifiers of a gender opposite the one we were assigned at birth implies taking up tools of questionable provenance. If what it takes to dismantle a house is a bulldozer, I don’t much care who the thing “belongs” to. By the same logic, it is supremely wasteful to disdain tools that have been proven to work. This can be understood in two ways: on the one hand, the revolutionary tradition holds valuable resources that we cannot overlook (including, for example, the ineluctability of the party-form and the necessity of its democracy and centralism); [28] on the other, even our non-revolutionary past holds kernels of rationality that we would be remiss to ignore. Thinking like a monster means seeing like a state, the lumbering quotidian literalness of which is anathema to queer theory. To the trans eye, however, there is not so great a distance between realness (realidad) and royalty (realeza). Safety and freedom for trans people can be won only through the constitution of a more just society, and there is no reason to forswear any of the means traditionally employed for the founding of political orders if we are not ashamed about wanting to do so. That is, as long as we’ve defeated the inner voice that tells us it’s wrong to want such things (since it’s probably just our own servitude we’re pining for anyway, right?).

Another salutary effect of sympathizing with the monster is that it helps weaken the association, posited by some reactionaries, between imperialism and LGBTQIA+ rights. If we think (like good Leninists) in terms of continents and epochs, it will soon enough be a very bad look to have carried water for US imperialism. The trans movement, as part of the broader alliance to which it belongs, has a responsibility to follow its best instincts and head off, to whatever extent it can, the linking of “gender ideology” with the cultural, economic, and military bullying that has characterized the West’s relation to the Rest. This means being at the forefront of challenging State Department narratives about official enemies of the US (which trans tankies are already doing). It also means shedding the faux-universalist investments of Western Marxism and understanding internationalism in terms of a mediated rather than immediate unity. Trans people everywhere have a stake in the existence of proletarian power anywhere [29] and must not let ourselves be pied pipered into fighting for our class enemies through ham-fisted and trumped-up identity appeals. What unites anti-imperialism and trans liberation conceptually is their rejection of chauvinism, that is, overidentification with the geographical or biological accidents of one’s birth. Practically, our struggles are united by the hard work of keeping in touch, of recognizing each other for what we are and acting accordingly. The protocols we develop for waging this struggle, which include (in trans politics anyway) the principle of self-ID, are meant to help us act collectively in conditions where building trust is costly.

Taking Eastern Marxism at its word, following the Great Betrayers out of the Garden, also, perhaps counterintuitively, brings us closer to Marx (reports of whose innocence have been greatly exaggerated). A scientific approach to the problem of transition from one mode of production to another does not consist in merely condemning the (universal) former and praising the (virtual) latter, but in grasping the material basis for the stubborn persistence of social relations we all know need to go. The difficulty of replacing one way of doing things with another is easy to underestimate — toy models abound. Marxists who hold state power are the only ones likely to incur consequences for their model’s lossiness and departure from reality. Marx was an inveterate critic of moralism and utopianism on the left, a legacy that has been inconsistently upheld by his followers. [30] Many of these seem to forget that the commodity form, for example, won’t be abolished overnight; it is a symptom of the current configuration of the productive forces, which must itself be changed, an undertaking rife with troublesome path dependence (Xue 93–121). It is easy enough to demand, say, the abolition of the family or of patriarchy — the much harder job is to figure out how and why these structures have been so successful in reproducing themselves, and to identify which present social tendencies can be aggravated that will undermine the conditions for their reproduction. For trans studies to become properly materialist, this analytical program must be conjoined to the political one of winning consensus and hegemony for gender liberation, since “theory also becomes a material force [only] once it has gripped the masses” (Marx).

I leave to others the question of whether this circuitous return to Marx evinces a “longing for a father figure”. How about longing for states? Yes, guilty, I think the proletariat should have state power — is that controversial? As to the “crudely religious attitude”, let him who is without sin cast the first stone. [31] We all have moral ideas about who’s good and bad, what’s helpful and harmful, and which evils most urgently need opposing. The idea that there is any part of the Marxist tradition that is uniquely lacking in this trait, whether it be for good — i.e. the self-flattery of those who consider themselves the only true non-moralists — or for ill — i.e. the nihilism that is often projected onto the bad object Marxism-Leninism — is delusional at best, racist at worst. A better argument, something more than name-calling, would try to account for the outsize appeal of “Stalinism” among trans people, and perhaps connect this trend to its expression in the dispute between queer and trans theory. This I have tried to do. He that is able to receive it, let him receive it.


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[1] I will follow Bogdan Popa’s (spare, but adequate) definition: “By western Marxism I refer primarily to a project of critical theory that broke with Marxism-Leninism and intended to create a Marxism that was different from Soviet theory” (20). A source more sympathetic to Western Marxism, the Verso website, elaborates: “Western Marxism is broadly understood as a set of concerns developed by theorists in Europe who were looking for new paths for Marxist research after the October Revolution. Often critical of what they perceived as the dogmatic Marxism issuing from the Soviet Union, these thinkers (the Frankfurt School, Althusser, Gramsci, Korsch, Lukacs, and others) were united by an intense interest in understanding how ideology and culture (the so-called ‘superstructure’ as opposed to the ‘base’) function within capitalism, as well as a renewed focus on the philosophical roots not only of Marxist thought but of modernity in general.” I don’t want my usage to be eclectic, so I won’t be challenging anyone’s standing in the canon, although obviously the intersection of the Venn diagram is well-populated: Althusser, Gramsci, and Lukács considered themselves Marxists-Leninists and faced accusations of “Stalinism”. 

[2] Bogdan Popa writes “By eastern European Marxism, I am referring to a project of building a revolutionary communist society that was put into practice in the Soviet Union and the eastern socialist bloc” (19). I have omitted the “European” to indicate that the Marxist-Leninist tradition I’m concerned with extends through eastern Europe to Asia, eventually picking up the appellation “Mao Zedong Thought”. Unlike Popa, I capitalize both Eastern and Western to clarify that the designations are not strictly geographical: Cuba, which is in the western hemisphere, is an example of Eastern Marxism. 

[3] A translation of the two prongs of dialectical materialism. If the optimism sometimes seems forced, so much the better for my argument. 

[4] It’s 2024; I will not be defining “tankie”. 

[5] Nia did, however, define “tankie” in 2020. [web] — R. D. 

[6] What’s more, it confirms the idea of trans studies as “Queer Theory’s Evil Twin” or “Against Queer Theory” and deparochializes this drama by situating it in the broader context of global anticommunism and its gradual overcoming. 

[7] I am not the first to take issue with this line in particular. Sylvia M.’s review of Transgender Marxism sees it as symptomatic of the collection’s Trotskyist biases, which are partly explained by its “geographic scope”. 

[8] On Michael Parenti’s telling of it, in 1971, Murray Bookchin “derisively referred to my concern for ‘the poor little children who got fed under communism’ (his words)” (45). A fine example of disdain for the bodily. 

[9] In 2022, he was number 31 on ArtReview’s Power 100 list of the most influential people in contemporary art. 

[10] Although Marxists-Leninists in the West are not infrequently accused of being in it solely for the aesthetics, they also consistently valorize such un-aesthetic considerations as poverty reduction, literacy campaigns, caloric intake, increases in life expectancy, and economic development. 

[11] When asked what it would take for China to realize a “true historical transformation”, he replied “300 years of colonialism” (Fallows). 

[12] Just two weeks after the October Revolution, Karl Kautsky articulated what would become the consensus view among Western Marxists concerning the non-novelty and non-socialism of Really Existing Socialism: “In a number of industrial States the material and moral prerequisites for Socialism appear already to exist in sufficient measure. The question of the political dominion of the proletariat is merely a question of power alone, above all of the determination of the proletariat to engage in resolute class struggle. But Russia, [sic] is not one of these leading industrial States. What is being enacted there now is, in fact, the last of bourgeois, and not the first of Socialist revolutions. This shows itself ever more distinctly. Its present Revolution could only assume a Socialist character if it coincided with Socialist Revolutions in Western Europe.” Loosely translated: “You’re nothing without us.” 

[13] If you consider yourself pro-monster but anti-Really Existing Socialism, then I submit that the latter is the only one you truly consider monstrous. 

[14] According to the ultra-leftist “communizing tendency”, the “transitional state” is merely a stalling tactic, as any true communist would know that the communism button can and ought to be pushed right away (Barker). Trans readers will be familiar with the “If there were a button…” trope and its distance from reality. 

[15] This horror, as something that emerges after the fact of creation, must belong to what I’ve called the doctor’s remorse, i.e. Western Marxism. Although it is often implied otherwise, Marx himself never passed judgment on Really Existing Socialism, unless we count the Paris Commune. 

[16] In Paul Preciado’s Dysphoria Mundi, references to “progress” are exclusively negative. Contrast this with, for example, the Marxist-Leninist Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, in which progress is either real and good or fake and bad. What conclusion can be drawn from the fact of transition if not that real progress is possible? 

[17] I wouldn’t know where to begin citing sources for the claim “People lie a lot about Really Existing Socialism.” 

[18] See Christian Thorne’s “Against Joy”, it’s a gem. 

[19] This is also why those wayward Communist parties that have issued transphobic statements (e.g. CPGB, CPGB-ML, CPB—what’s going on in Britain?) have been roundly criticized by other Marxists-Leninists for being undialectical. As Red Fightback puts it, “Materialism … by no means implies biological determinism or essentialism, a form of mechanical materialism, as opposed to Marxist dialectical materialism. Mechanical materialism is the trap that transphobic ‘Marxists’ have fallen into.” 

[20] E.g. Ellen Meiksins Wood, Mark Fisher, Angela Nagle, Freddie DeBoer, Vivek Chibber, Adolph Reed, etc. 

[21] Trotskyists will insist that Permanent Revolution is not about waiting for a German revolution to save the Russian proletariat once it pisses off the peasantry, but in Trotsky’s writings on the subject this is understood to be a necessary corollary. Take Results and Prospects, chapter nine: “Left to its own resources, the working class of Russia will inevitably be crushed by the counter-revolution the moment the peasantry turns its back on it. It will have no alternative but to link the fate of its political rule, and, hence, the fate of the whole Russian revolution, with the fate of the socialist revolution in Europe.” 

[22] There are Marxists-Leninists who go this far and no further: Maoists and Hoxhaists, the “anti-revisionists”. Maoists view Deng and Khrushchev as the two Great Betrayers. Maoism is the ideology of large guerrilla movements waging Protracted People’s War in India and the Philippines, but the only country where this strategy has won the Maoists state power is Nepal, which quickly ceased to be a model case for the ideology due to its rapprochement with China. Western Maoists’ evaluation of modern China broadly agrees with the Western Marxist view. Hoxhaists are like Maoists, only less successful. 

[23] The chapter dedicated to modern China gets off to a bad start, with a quote attributed to Deng: “We no longer know what socialism is, or how to get there, and yet it remains the goal” (101). The quote as it appears in English prior to Wark’s creative translation is “Our basic goal — to build socialism — is correct, but we are still trying to figure out what socialism is and how to build it” (Deng). In the original translator’s version, “still trying” implies a steady climb towards an uncertain destination, whereas in Wark’s, “no longer” implies a fall from certainty into doubt. These are two different ways we might narrate a transition. Which one sounds more committed? 

[24] One lesson the Chinese have learned is what happens to a socialist state that one-sidedly abrogates its own past, as Khrushchev’s well-publicized “secret speech” did in 1956 (Vassallo). 

[25] Making sure people have stuff is often taken by Western Marxists to be outside the remit of Marxism, which is supposed to care primarily or exclusively about relations of production. Trans people, like Marxists-Leninists, know that stuff matters a great deal, and thus are less likely to share the New Left’s bile for consumerism (on which topic see Ellen Willis and Ishay Landa). 

[26] One major obstacle to overcoming the “metabolic rift” is failing to recognize the rift within ecological Marxism itself between a vision in which we are all equidistant from nature and one in which some modern societies are closer than others (see Foster et al.). 

[27] Notice the tension between these two terms: the former, more empiricist, responding to the demands of practice; the latter, more rationalist, responding to the demands of theory. The complaint, then, is that during the cult of personality, Eastern Marxism responded to theory when it should have been responding to practice, and vice versa. Whomst among us…? 

[28] Lenin had nothing but disdain for those who “ignore with the grand contempt of a self-educated genius everything that earlier revolutionary thought and revolutionary movement has given us” (733). 

[29] The abolition of anything, whether it’s capitalism or gender, has to start somewhere

[30] Whether it was consistently upheld by Marx himself—or even could be upheld consistently, given its formal resemblance to skepticism, which is famously self-refuting—is debatable. 

[31] The critique of moralism goes way back.