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Introducing Transgender Marxism

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Jules Joanne Gleeson, Elle O'Rourke / October 16, 2021
An exclusive extract from the introduction to TRANSGENDER MARXISM. 3437 words / 14 min read

Image: Hannah Höch, Untitled (1943) (detail)


We are very happy to be publishing this extract from the introduction of Transgender Marxism, published by Pluto Press.

The old mole and the endocrine system

Transgender Marxism focuses wilfully on that which others might dismiss as vulgar, inappropriate, besides-the-political. It aims to provide a materialist account of the distinctive conditions of lack in which we find ourselves, and to help us wriggle free through unlikely means.

Transgender Marxism focuses wilfully on that which others might dismiss as vulgar, inappropriate, besides-the-political.

Political economist and pornographer Georges Bataille, writing between the wars, distinguished between the work of earlier revolutionaries and Marx’s baser materialism. Whereas previous generations had sought out a transcendent principle as a means of drawing ‘above’ the grisly realities of imperialism, Marx, Bataille argued, chose a humbler metaphor:

The eagle’s hooked beak, which cuts all that enters into competition with it and cannot be cut, suggests its sovereign virility…Politically the eagle is identified with imperialism, that is with the uncon- strained development of individual authoritarian power, triumphant over all obstacles … Revolutionary idealism tends to make of the revolution an eagle above eagles, a supereagle striking down authoritarian imperialism. An idea as radiant as an adolescent eloquently seizing power for the benefit of utopian enlightenment. This detour naturally leads to the failure of the revolution and, with the help of military fascism, the satisfaction of the elevated need for idealism.

Meanwhile, brought back to the subterranean action of economic facts, the ‘old-mole’ revolution hollows out chambers in a decomposed soil repugnant to the delicate nose of the utopians.‘Old mole’, Marx’s resounding expression for the complete satisfaction of the revolutionary outburst of the masses, must be understood in relation to the notion of a geological uprising as expressed in the Communist Manifesto. Marx’s point of departure has nothing to do with the heavens, preferred station of the imperialist eagle as of Christian or revolutionary utopias. He begins with the bowels of the earth, as in the materialist bowels of proletarians.1

Following the mole’s tracks, Transgender Marxism unearths the base needs of trans proles and brings them above ground, into clearer view.

Much work remains to be done expanding the earthy, intestinal visions of Marx and his successors outwards, moving from the bowels towards the glands and receptors that make up our endocrine system. Transition, too, must come to be understood by revolutionaries as a response to its own form of hunger. The longings that drive so many to reforge lives for ourselves that leave us thoroughly proletarianised, or cast out, rendered surplus. Those cravings and cavings-in that clinicians have long attempted to desiccate under the catch-all term ‘dysphoria’. In truth, our moments of euphoric coping are enmeshed with the moments in which we are struck dumb by gut-churning dread. These are the moments that define our everyday lives. The restless energies that produce for us new needs; needs that can be difficult even to describe. Transphobic strands of ‘revolutionary’ thought would rather these yearnings be set aside, left unspoken; to be repressed (at least in the political arena), or perhaps to be exterminated altogether.

Much work remains to be done expanding the earthy, intestinal visions of Marx and his successors outwards, moving from the bowels towards the glands and receptors that make up our endocrine system.

Too often, what passes for revolutionary thought on sex has done little better: endocrinology is reduced to a corporate plot. Just another opportunity for polluting human bodies in pursuit of profits. For us, the flows of hormones which can condemn or revive us are no more natural than capitalism, and no more sinister than filling our bellies with food. Our needs bury themselves measurably through our blood- stream, then define our contentment on levels still not possible to fully isolate, or reliably record.2

We do not recognise readings of Marx which see him as unconcerned with matters of physicality and bodily involvement in exploitation. Contemporary Marxist scholars, including Keston Sutherland and Maya Gonzalez, have drawn attention to Marx’s definition of labour as consisting of “a productive expenditure of human brains, muscles, nerves, hands etc.”.3 And Marx was certainly not oblivious to the ways in which the forces of production determine what counts as an acceptable or a useful body.4 We follow in this tradition closely, understanding that our physical forms are reshaped first and foremost by the demands of capital. From muscle mass to skin, skeletons to hair follicles, our forms take shape in the face of history. But transitions never belong to capitalism. Even as they are always routed through it, they also run against it. The transgender revolutionary is one who can neither deny their cravings, nor curse themselves for their untoward identity. We resent the society that birthed us, just as we refuse to set aside the tools it has offered us. We find ourselves at once immersed and resistant.

We resent the society that birthed us, just as we refuse to set aside the tools it has offered us. We find ourselves at once immersed and resistant.

Key to our agenda is ensuring that trans life itself comes clearly into view: we are opposed to the entrenchment of a transcendent principle of ‘trans’ that comes to obscure the particular struggles of trans people to survive in the face of capitalism (or indeed, other modes of production). The false promise of transcendence is that our experiences can soar in the manner of Bataille’s eagle, offering a view of worldly affairs from such a distance that the grime and stretch marks are out of sight. We reject this approach. Our struggle is one that must be understood as intimate, concrete, and particular; just as it restlessly casts shadows over more universal questions, upsets attempted settlements between classes, and erodes otherwise tidy attempts at systemic thought. Transition is not a dive into unbounded expansiveness, but a mess that a thousand failed attempts at comprehensive sociology have tried to push out of view. A persistent irritant, disturbing the smoothness of grand narratives.

We are forced to hide ourselves, while pinned in clear view. We are human refuse or exotic delicacies, depending on the website. To see us clearly evokes cringes and trembling, yet we are driven onto the streets. True to this nature, trans people occupy an awkward space in social theory and Marxist politics. When not actively vilified, or included as a polite footnote, many assume an interest in trans people thanks to our marginalisation. As we are more likely to experience poverty, destitution, engage in sex work, experience abuse and mistreatment by wider society, and the police and the criminal justice system, we tend to be more radical than the general population, and thus a source of special interest. By dint of our positionality, this argument runs, we are readymade comrades.

In particular, because we occupy a ‘liminal’ and ‘ambiguous’ space in the gender order, we are taken to embody (or at least provoke) a space of subversion and rebellion. One that can, perhaps, shake existing society out of its complacency vis-à-vis sex and gender – a gender vanguardism of sorts. The upshot is that trans people are perhaps a useful source of recruits, or a fashionable cause to follow – and, sotto voce, bearers of a special responsibility.

We might call this the ‘auxiliary’ move: transgender workers are cast as playing a prominent role within a shared struggle due to the extent of their proletarianised condition. The upshot is that trans people and trans struggles are taken as being relevant only in so far as they boost struggles in which socialist groups are already participants, or in which they wish to participate. This runs at odds to drawing from the obvious questions thrown up by the lived experiences of trans workers. From sex work to ‘trans in tech’, the fields most stereotypically associated with trans people are generally also those notoriously resistant to unionisation, to strikes, and other standard fare for workerist organising.

As an account of trans and queer life this ‘auxiliary’ argument is precisely negative. We are of note due to our suffering, and by dint of our stigmatisation and its travails. In short, we serve the cause as exemplary proletarians. Little space is left for the actual substance of trans life, the experiences of surviving in the context of separation that we already share among ourselves, and the resultant insights for a broader and refreshed view of capitalism’s reproduction.

But while ever more popular, this is hardly a new move. Emma Heaney has shown that throughout modern history trans women find themselves and their experiences always represented as an allegory for something else. Rather than being treated on their own terms, trans women serve to ground the universality of cis experience.5 Literary modernism is replete with examples of trans women as metaphorical figures for the destabilisation of inherited gender traditions. We are stand-ins for broader destabilisations brought about by urbanisation, suffrage, and women entering new roles in the workforce, and with that, attendant anxieties over masculine self-assurance and patriarchal entitlement. In other accounts, transgender experiences serve as an example of the dizzying achievements of techno-scientific modernity. In Freud’s hands, we appear as a degraded figure who is, nevertheless, a critical allegory for the unconscious that clarifies his theory of same-sex desire as inversion and castration anxiety. Here, wilful feminisation is a looming threat of egoic injury, clarifying the operation and universality of cis-sex.6

Yet here we find a double bind: in so far as the transgender woman is seen to be speaking of herself, she is taken to be trafficking in mere particularity. She appears as a marginal concern of no wider import, easily corralled. But in so far as she is taken to be speaking on a more general, more universal register, she effaces her very particularity. As she is brought to bear on all topics of social weight, she instrumentalises herself – trans as condition, as a way of being, as a mode of life – and is made to bear the burden of the entire gendered order. Whatever she is, the trans woman is always not herself; she is a representation of gender trouble writ large. Her own account can only be received with suspicion, yet much is demanded from her. Not only must she offer an account for her gender, but for yours as well.

The figure of the trans woman interloper, disrupting otherwise stable and harmonious relations within the community of women, functions to relieve radical feminism of the indignity of acknowledging the incoherence of the radical feminist project as such.7 Conveniently, the trans woman as pest distracts from long-running doubts around radical feminism’s claimed ability to speak for, represent, and defend the sanctity of women-in-general: women’s rights, women’s interests, women’s spaces and women’s knowledge. Here, the grit of trans women is abraded into the pearl of a rear-guard defence of female universalism. What the earlier feminist movement had sought to destabilise now becomes anxiously reasserted. If one is inclined to wonder how successfully the predominantly white, professionally-trained, and well-off ladies who have always dominated feminist ‘leadership’ might serve in that role, those self-appointed representatives find themselves with a readymade riposte: ‘Well, we will at least do a better job than males’. By ‘males’, of course, they mean trans women.

The figure of the trans woman interloper, disrupting otherwise stable relations within the community of women, functions to relieve radical feminism of the indignity of acknowledging the incoherence of the radical feminist project.

Our answer to this is simple enough. Rather than a second-order modality of feminine embodiment, we insist that trans women face down the same imperatives of capitalist exploitation, exacerbated by patriarchal relations, as anyone else.

But something else is elided here. What about trans men? Thus far, the distinctive struggles and joys of transmasculine life have been downplayed to the point of being disappeared in much revolutionary theory. The question of how a proletarian manhood, or something like it, can be forged in the face of separation is a fraught one; like many such questions, it is too often avoided altogether. Most relevant revolutionary thought in the Anglophone context has been articulated under the label ‘transfeminism’, a designation which often seems to relegate trans male activists to a secondary standing.8 This tendency self-perpetuates through a cycle of reaction, as transphobes take particular offence at the notion of trans womanhood, meaning attempted rebuttals of their bigotry tend to centre around a defence of trans women. The consequence is that the particular position and distinctive struggles faced by those transitioning to male are unthinkingly downplayed. We have little time for analysis which weighs up diligently who ranks as most oppressed among the oppressed. Let’s move beyond this dead-end evaluation, and towards the shared emancipation which can only be achieved by comrades. Scholarly attempts to do so have featured freewheeling endocrino-romanticism (Paul Preciado), tenuous comparison (Maggie Nelson), and academic phenomenology (Gayle Salamon). Transgender Marxism offers a different approach.

Marx in transition

So how can we develop a theory which views trans politics as neither figural nor instrumental, but an account of self-knowledge? One generative of its own theoretical conclusions?

The beginnings of an answer appear in Marx and his critique of value. The categories Marx presents in Capital – commodity, capital, money – are performatives. While Marx attempts what he terms a ‘scientific’ approach to grasping capitalism, this is always a partial science. To accept Marx’s view of value unsettles the naturalisation that ideology coats earlier accounts of capitalism (as well as more schools that rose to prominence in the wake of Marxism, particularly marginalism.) Marx’s presentation of these categories is intensely parodic and deconstructive, in intent and effect. He operates with the gaze of a critical anthropologist, bringing in one character after another, before disassembling their roles in reproducing an emergent assemblage called capitalism.9

As a text, the structure of Capital bears more of an ironic resem blance to a play, or to the thrilling arc of Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo than to François Quesnay’s Tableau économique or David Ricardo’s On the Principles of Political Economy and Taxation. Marx’s point is that beneath the reified social spheres of ‘markets’ and ‘commerce’ as objects of knowledge for the ascendent social science of political economy is a historically-bounded, emergent form of social organisation. One deeply invested in regulating the behaviours, bodily comportments, and affective dispositions of its subjects – and one whose underlying logics had heretofore escaped the attention of a genre of political economy that imagines itself to be a science of mechanistic social laws.

What was thought to be an abiding substance, value, is in fact the result of contingent social practices. Rather than being natural or reliable, value is revealed to be processual and relational. And rather than appearing obviously, value’s origins mean it will always remain unstable and subject to continual change and transformation.10

It’s true enough to say that capitalism dominates gender relations. But once the above aspects of Marx’s view of value are grasped, we can see too how the varied experiences of sexuation are churned out by the course of history. This view of value as at once binding and decisive, yet endlessly supple and historically contingent, distinguishes political economy drawing from Marx’s critique as uniquely useful for our purposes.11 It mutes any hope of understanding capital’s logic as one ‘system’ plugged into another. We cannot set capitalism on one side, as a fixed and dependable feature, with gender on the other as a ‘cultural’ set of norms and identifications. The two admix at every turn, developing and shifting more quickly than we can easily keep track. Our gendered experiences are dominated by capital, yes, but capitalism’s relation to gender is one of mutual dependence.

For this reason, gender’s temporal dynamics are not static, but constantly revolutionised by transformations in how we organise society collectively.12 This is constantly denied by any number of research fields, from sexology to evolutionary psychology, committed to ‘peeling away’ gender until we reach a sturdier and more fixed core of ‘sex’. Yet these efforts are continuously outstripped by the efforts of trans culture. Trans people have taken a more practical approach of continuous adjustments, using the understandings of the natural sciences as a point of departure, rather than a final word.

Gender’s temporal dynamics are not static, but constantly revolutionised by transformations in how we organise society collectively.

So having observed this practical process, how do we think through an explicitly transgender Marxist politics and social analysis?

New Socialist subscribers at the £3 and above level can get 35% off Transgender Marxism and all other books from our comrades at Pluto.


  1. Georges Bataille. 1985. “The Old Mole and the Prefix Sur in the Worlds Surhomme and Surrealist”. In Visions of Excess. Minneapolis, MN: University Of Minnesota Press. p. 34. 

  2. Blood plasma levels measure sex hormone levels fairly reliable: in pg/ml or p/mol for estrogens, and ng/ml for testosterone and progesterone. However the impact these levels will have on any physique is dependent on hormone receptor sensitivity, and hormones are further stored in adipose tissue (fat) resulting in variations from person-to-person much harder to monitor among the living. Between these factors and still more complex genetic variations, not to mention divergent means of delivery (from injections, to gels, to creams, to pills taken either swallowed or interguinal, to implant pellets), the measurable levels at which any given trans person might achieve either visible ‘results’, or relief from dysphoric sentiments more generally, is truly unpredictable. 

  3. Quoted in Keston Sutherland. 2008. “Marx in Jargon”. World Picture Journal, 1. 

  4. See Derek Sayer. 1987. The Violence of Abstraction. Oxford: Basil Blackwell. Sayer quotes Marx: “Under the present system, if a crooked spine, twisted limbs, a one-sided development and strengthening of certain muscles, etc., makes you more capable of working (more productive), then your crooked spine, your twisted limbs, your one-sided muscular movement are a productive force. If your intellectual vacuity is more productive than your abundant intellectual activity, then your intellectual vacuity is a productive force, etc. etc. If the monotony of an occupation makes you better suited for that occupation, then monotony is a productive force.” 

  5. Emma Heaney. 2017. The New Woman: Literary Modernism, Queer Theory, and the Trans-Feminine Allegory. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press. Heaney’s traces this case across late nineteenth- and twentieth-century representations of trans-femininity, including in sexology literature, modernist fiction and social theory. 

  6. See Sigmund Freud. 1905. Three Essays on Sexuality. London: Hogarth. Where Freud negates with one motion, in his critique of the reduction of gendered psychic identity to genital configuration, he retrieves with another. Following Heaney, one could say that a spectre is haunting classic Freudian psychoanalysis – the spectre of the trans lesbian. She who embraces her feminine identity, and affirms it by having sex with other women. See Xandra Metcalfe’s essay for a fuller exploration of this. 

  7. This view was developed in dialogue with Marxist theorist Sophie Lewis’ many immanent readings of radfem foundationalism, including her 2017 essay: Sophie Lewis. 2017. “SERF and TERF: Notes on Bad Materialism”. Salvage Journal, and further developed in her forthcoming Bad Feminisms

  8. This does not seem to hold nearly so true in the Spanish and Italian speaking contexts, where trans women make up a clear minority of many trans feminist circles. Here the term typically signals primarily a rejection of foundationalism, just as with ‘queerfeminism’ in German speaking contexts. The situation in Brazil is still more complex, see: Hailey Kaas. 2016. “Birth of Transfeminism in Brazil: Between Alliances and Backlashes”. TSQ, 3(1–2), 146–149. 

  9. Our reading of Marx here is indebted to Nicole Pepperell, N. 2010. Disassembling Capital. PhD Thesis, RMIT University. 

  10. Here we echo certain value-form theory approaches in understanding value not as abiding-social-substance, but as social form. This approach stresses considerations of how value conditions individuals subject to its determining pressures. As with so many features of transgender Marxism, we are not being truly original in twinning value-form theory and questions of transgender experience. We are especially indebted to Invert Journal, and particularly from their first issue the essays: Kay Gabriel. 2019. “Gender as Accumulation Strategy”. Joni Alizah Cohen. 2019. “The Eradication of ‘Talmudic Abstractions’: Antisemitism, Transmisogyny and the National Socialist Project” and the editorial team’s introduction

  11. Kate Doyle Griffiths. 2020. “Labor Valorization and Social Reproduction: What is Valuable about the Labor Theory of Value” CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture, 22.2. 

  12. A comparison of Karl Marx and Judith Butler’s approach to gender’s temporal face can be found in Cinzia Arruza. 2015. “Gender as Social Temporality: Butler (and Marx)”. Historical Materialism, 23.4. See Rosa Lee’s essay in this book for a transgender Marxist view on this question. 


Authors:

Jules Joanne Gleeson (@socialrepro)

Jules Joanne Gleeson is a writer, comedian and historian. She has published essays in outlets including Viewpoint Magazine, Invert Journal and VICE, and performed internationally at a wide range of communist and queer cultural events. She is the editor with Elle O’Rourke of Transgender Marxism.


Elle O'Rourke (@eileanorr)

Elle O’Rourke is a political economist and gender theorist currently researching critical theories of financialisation. She is co-founder and an editor of New Socialist.