The Politics of Everybody

Issue section: 

There is a surge of interest in the politics of gender and sexuality among a new generation of activists. Sympathetic characters that challenge gender stereotypes are emerging in popular culture. The passing of equal marriage legislation signifies a more progressive approach towards homo- and bi-sexuality, yet many LGBT+ teenagers continue to fear being outed at school. Pride parades here and in the US pull huge crowds, but are dominated by commercial outfits.

These contradictions are leading people to look for an explanation of where LGBT+ oppression comes from, how it can be challenged and how it relates to other oppressions such as racism and sexism. The Politics of Everybody is a contribution to this discussion.

Lewis describes the goal of the book as “the development of an internationalist and materialist feminist, queer and trans-inclusive politics grounded in the fundamental insight of Marxist political economy; that capitalism operates through the expropriation of surplus value from labour.”

The fact that Lewis wants to bring Marxism into the debate is positive. Her analysis of some of the weaknesses of identity politics in general and the development of the Queer Nation in particular is a strength of the book.

She criticises the notion that there is anything inherently radical about being “queer”, dismissing as wishful thinking the idea that “queer sexuality itself could be a material force capable of challenging capitalism”.

She provides an interesting account of the development of LGBT+ politics in the US, including useful insights into the weaknesses of intersectionality and the limits of “safe spaces”.

However, her understanding of Marxism is much weaker. She accepts without examination the dismissal of Friedrich Engels’ work on women’s oppression that has become fashionable among Marxist feminists.

So while it is accepted that Engels was right to locate the origin of the oppression of bourgeois women in the development of a surplus in society that needs to be passed on to future generations, she claims that Marxism has failed to explain why working class women, and by extension LGBT+ people are, oppressed. Feminism and queer theory are grasped at to fill in “gaps” in Marxism.

At first sight this seems rather odd, as she goes to some length to challenge the economic reductionist distortion of Marxism. Some clues emerge in her ambiguity as to whether countries such as Cuba and China are socialist.

Although wanting to put class at the “fulcrum” of her project, a failure to discuss how ideas can change means that she ultimately reinforces an economistic Marxism — class struggle can change society but changing ideas requires something more.

Lewis’s discussion fits with the response of a section of the Marxist left in the US, echoed in the UK, to the rise of a new feminist and LGBT+ activism in a period of low class struggle. That is to pander to privilege theory — of which there is no critique in the book — and move away from an international revolutionary Marxist tradition that has a much more nuanced analysis of the connection between class and oppression than that presented in this book.