A Necessary Debate

By Jon Hillson

Presented at Symposium of the 16th World Congress of Sexology
"Sexual Diversity: A Challenge for Public Policy"
International Conference Center, Havana, Cuba

March 11, 2003

I'm a worker and trade unionist at bankrupt United Airlines. With thousands of my brothers and sisters, I'll be laid off when the inevitable invasion of Iraq, the first of many such aggressions to come, begins shortly. We are casualties of the war at home.

Whatever any of us here does for a living, from wherever we come, let us return to construct an immense international barricade of popular opposition to the empire and its imperialist rivals, who seek to re-divide the world at the expense of working people everywhere. May we learn from our Cuban hosts that such defiance can be victorious, endure, and merits emulation.

Rather than attempting to condense the essay I wrote -- "The Sexual Politics of Reinaldo Arenas: Fact, Fiction, and the Real Record of the Cuban Revolution" -- I want to explore one of its central themes -- that there is no useful or scientific "theory" of, or about homosexuality, nor is there any need whatsoever for one. The essay is available here in English and Spanish.

A useful starting point in this discussion is the standard set by Fredrick Engels in the classic "The Origin of Private Property, the Family, and the State."

"What we can conjecture at present about the regulation of sex relationships after the impending effacement of capitalist production is, in the main, of a negative character, limited mostly to what will vanish. But what will be added? That will be settled after a new generation has grown up: a generation of men who never in all their lives had occasion to purchase a woman's surrender either with money or with any other means of social power, and of women who have never been obliged to surrender to any man out of any consideration other than that of real love, or to refrain from giving themselves to their beloved for fear of the economic consequences. Once such people appear, they will not care a rap about we today think they should do. They will establish their own practice and their own public opinion, conformable therewith, on the practice of each individual -- and that's the end of it."

Compulsory monogamous relationships resulted from, Engels explains in his work, the overthrow of the matriarchy and primitive communism. This process is described in detail by pioneer Marxist anthropologist Evelyn Reed, in "Women's Evolution," published by Pathfinder.

The triumph of patriarchy and private property constructed the nuclear family with the father, Engles noted, as the bourgeoisie, and the mother -- the unpaid domestic laborer and bearer of his offspring -- as proletariat. This economic relationship, an indispensable element of capitalism, is the material basis for sexual repression of the female, and the bourgeois prejudice against homosexuality, which has no procreative function and hence no relationship to production. Rejection of and opposition to homosexuality is a pillar of sexual repression. This is an essential ideological prop of the entire bourgeois economic and social order for maintaining cultural conformity and discipline. This process is explained in Wilhelm's Reich's books, "The Invasion of Compulsory Sex Morality" and "The Sexual Revolution."

Based on the scientific approach of Marx and Engels, Russia's Bolsheviks opened the door to human emancipation with the October revolution. In the arena of women's rights, the new society legislated sweeping changes. These included establishing equality under law, easy divorce and the end of compulsory marriage, literacy and education for women, the growth of day care, communal laundries and industrial cafeterias, and promotion of women as full participants in society. Above all, abortion was legalized. Women, for the first time, began to assume control of their bodies, a political, social, and sexual act.

The destruction of czarism, campaigns against its reactionary ideological legacy, and a flowering of art and culture contributed to an atmosphere of freedom, experimentation, and debate -- especially among revolutionary youth -- fueling rebellion against reactionary morality in all of its forms. A genuine sexual revolution unfolded in the new Russia

This term is particularly deformed in the culture of late capitalist societies. It is now identified with sexual promiscuity, the commercialization of sex, and pornography. The sexual revolution as a living process is only applicable in the context of a deep-going social revolution, the aim of which is building a new society based on human solidarity, and concrete steps taken to liberate women through the necessary instrument of socialist revolution. This requires conscious leadership, without which gains crumble and advances decline.

In December 1917, the Soviet regime struck down czarist anti-homosexual laws. This unprecedented act flowed from the course of launching programs and policies aimed at the emancipation of the oppressed female sex. "The relationship of Soviet law to the sexual sphere is based on the principle that the demands of the vast majority of the people correspond to and are in harmony with the findings of contemporary science," wrote Dr. Grigorii Batkis, director of the Moscow Institute of Social Hygiene in his 1923 book, "The Sexual Revolution in Russia."

"Soviet legislation bases itself on the following principle," Batkis stated, "the absolute non-interference of the state and society into sexual matters, so long as nobody is injured and no one's interests are encroached upon Soviet legislation treats [homosexual practices] exactly the same as so-called 'natural' intercourse. All forms of sexual intercourse are private matters."

This scientific stance reflected the leadership caliber of the revolution that enabled such views to be developed, debated, and promoted. "The [October] revolution let nothing remain of the old despotic and infinitely unscientific laws; it did not tread the path of reformist bourgeois legislation which, with juristic subtlety, still hangs on to the concept of property in the sexual sphere, and ultimately demands that the double standard holds sway over sexual life. These laws always come about by disregarding science. No society in the whole world set these goals, whose problems confronted no previous revolution." Batkis wrote.

Out of print for decades, this work is cited in the book, "Homosexualidad, homosexualismo y ética humanista," by Cuban author Felipe de J. Pérez Cruz, published by Editorial de Ciencias Sociales in 1999. Cruz notes that the Batkis book exists in the archives of the National Center for Sex Education in Havana. This respected Cuban organization, audacious in dealing with critical problems in the universe of sexual matters, can make another important contribution to the debate on these themes by re-publishing such a unique book.

This knowledge is particularly relevant given the lingering impact of the political counter-revolution that had already begun in Lenin's lifetime. In his last conscious months before a paralyzing stroke, he had begun to wage his last struggle against bureaucratic trends in the Communist Party and state apparatus -- and those responsible for them. These currents deepened upon Lenin's death, eventually leaving the party "communist" in name only.

A bureaucratic caste conquered political power in the Soviet Union. It resulted from grim scarcities in a Russia ravaged by world and civil war -- and above all the ebb and defeat of the revolutionary wave in Europe, where Lenin's approach was not emulated. The regime that replaced Bolshevism sought diplomatic and social stability that would safeguard its privileged existence. This material reality drove a counter-revolutionary assault that politically dispossessed the working class and crushed its revolutionary, "old guard" leadership. Its victory would usher in a long, cold night of political reaction. The apparatus inexorably wiped out central gains women and gays won in the early days of the Russian revolution.

In 1934, with the Stalinist faction firmly in charge, its enemies purged, assassinated, or imprisoned, the bureaucracy outlawed homosexuality. In 1935, it declared abortion a crime. The regime offered material incentives for women to reproduce. So-called socialist realism warped the arts and culture, nullifying critical spirit. The apparatus strangled any hint of youthful experimentation.

It should be noted that the outstanding treatment of this period and its origins is contained in the book, "The Revolution Betrayed," by Leon Trotsky, Lenin's closest political collaborator. The chapter, "Family, Youth, and Culture" speaks directly to the issues we are discussing today.

In dealing with homosexuality, Stalinist pseudo-science completely reversed Marxist positions. The regime repressed homosexuality, making it a felony, punishable by five years imprisonment. It then decorated such repugnant measures with "theory" -- the notion that homosexuality was a form of "bourgeois decadence." This merely attached socialist rhetoric to capitalist backwardness, the reactionary legacy of czarist law.

Anti-homosexual policies served the barracks discipline demanded by the bureaucracy. They fortified the campaign against the rights of women and reinforced their increasingly subordinate status. These reactionary positions informed Soviet cultural policy until the inevitable collapse of the regime more than a decade ago. Only in 2001 did China's psychiatric association declare that homosexuality was not an illness -- 28 years after their peers in the United States made a similar declaration, as a result of changes forged by social protests.

This component of "actually existing socialism," particularly in the USSR, was the fundamental ideological framework for the pariah status of gays and lesbians -- should the existence of the latter be admitted! -- in the counterfeit "official Marxism" that dominated much of radical politics of the 20th century, during which such concrete examples of the liberating qualities of Marxism, as practiced in the Soviet Union between 1917-1923, were buried by Stalinist rewriting of history. Let there be light shed on those emancipating years.

The Cuban revolution erupted into history with Moscow and Beijing as the standard-bearers of socialism. Despite such disorienting tutelage, the principles, integrity and independence of the Cuban leadership have enabled it to cut through the jungle of pseudo-science and the heritage pre-revolutionary backwardness to begin to reach the standards of the Lenin period. This has been a process of trial, error, and rectification.

Despite immense challenges, a Third World nation has established new points of reference for female liberation and self-worth. Previous anti-homosexual practices of repression of so-called anti-social elements and discrimination have long been repudiated. Best-selling books like "In Defense of Love" and "Man and Woman in Intimacy," published in the late 1970s and early 1980s, offered advanced and scientific views on human sexuality, reaching levels that standard U.S. sex education fears. Films like "Strawberry and Chocolate," "Gay Cuba," and "Mariposas en el Adamio," testify to advances in the broader culture. The revolutionary government's attention to those with HIV-AIDS should be emulated by the richest countries in the world to help stem a pandemic that least affects Cuba, of all countries.

The mighty movement for Black rights in the United States that exploded in the 1950s challenged core reactionary laws and racist prejudices used by the rulers of the empire to justify American apartheid. These included the criminalization of so-called mixed race marriages in many southern and western states. The working class struggle of the Black nationality and its allies to destroy Jim Crow inspired a new generation of youth to rise up in opposition to a war that the Vietnamese people would win on the battlefield.

The modern movement for women's liberation was rooted in and grew directly out of these struggles. The explicit challenges to reactionary bourgeois morality inherent in such battles gave birth to the fight for gay rights, which rapidly became international. In their combination, all these movements created new, progressive, and more humane values, now shared by tens and hundreds of millions in the United States and around the world. This reinforced changing views in Cuba, as well as affirming the pride of gays and lesbians here.

The most ancient of prejudices cannot withstand the scrutiny of people who fight, and thus discover -- as Malcolm X tirelessly explained -- their self-worth. Once found, this deepens and expands consciousness and the parameters of collective and individual human achievement.

Conscious women and men accomplish this through struggle for their emancipation from being extensions of the machine, dominated by emperors and petty tyrants, alienated from their labor, defined by what they consume and possess. They necessarily rebel against reactionary laws, conventions, and repressive categories that limit their ability to seek and give love and share intimacy -- to expand the reach and liberty of the human heart.

Reinaldo Arenas, lifted from peasant exploitation and nourished as a writer by revolutionary society, traded his self-worth for self-absorption. The injustices he suffered also faced other gay Cubans, who reacted differently. They, and their allies, saw such abuses -- as Nicaragua's Ernesto Cardenal recounts in his book, "In Cuba" -- as alien to the just and humane spirit of the revolution in whose name they were erroneously carried out, and fought them.

The tragedy of Arenas is that the talent discovered and enriched by the revolution became its narcissistic opposite, sold to the highest bidder. Even in death, Arenas still serves that master. The revolution he initially embraced, only to betray, remains alive. Those who make it today are capable of self-critically and confidently responding to the slanders his promoters enable him to launch from the grave.

The current generation of Cuban youth is least affected by stereotypes and prejudices that merge the hangovers of the old capitalist society with the ideological inheritance from "actually existing socialism." These young people face, as Fidel explained last December, the most "difficult and decisive century in history." Armed with lessons of 44 years of resistance, they will both lead their own country, and with others of their generation throughout the world, the oppressed and exploited of the planet. In so doing, they will become the freest women and men in Cuban history.

These are the kind of young fighters Engels had in mind when nearly 150 years ago he wrote the citation that began this presentation. Having abolished the old order, he said, in terms of "sex relationshipsŠOnce such people appear, they will not care a rap about we today think they should do. They will establish their own practice and their own public opinionŠand that's the end of it."

And that is also just the beginning of it, as well.

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Dear CubaNews Friends,

I want to share with you an important presentation by the late Jon Hillson (1949-2004), a pre-eminent Cuba defender and socialist activist.

While every aspect of Cuban society was of interest to Hillson, he undertook in particular to elaborate the Revolution's accomplishments in the areas of female, racial and homosexual equality. Thank goodness he did as there is a dearth of material available in English on these gains.

It was always a pleasure to read Jon's profound and extensive writings and no less so to discuss ideas with him in person. I remember him fondly.

Hope you'll enjoy this provocative contribution from Jon Hillson.

In solidarity,

Marcel Hatch
Vancouver, BC
March 2006

(Do not reproduce without credit to the author.)

First posted to CubaNews, September 14, 2005: