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Sex and Socialism

Powers of Desire: The Politics of Sexuality

Powers of Desire: The Politics of Sexuality (Monthly Review Press), edited by Ann Snitow, Christine Stansell and Sharon Thompson.

Ann Snitow died on August 10, 2019. In her memory, we are reprinting here an excerpt from the introduction to Powers of Desire: The Politics of Sexuality (Monthly Review Press, 1983), coedited by Snitow, Christine Stansell, and Sharon Thompson. Powers of Desire, like all of Snitow’s work, stands as a courageous book, not only by the standards of the early 1980s, but also by those of the present day.

While later generations of Marxian scientific socialists saw sex as secondary, derivative of the real relationships of production, many of the earliest socialist theorists and movements took sexual matters very seriously. The French Charles Fourier (1772–1837), for instance, one of the earliest utopian socialists, saw passionate attractions as germinal to the egalitarian, extra-familial bonds he envisioned. It was Fourier, for instance, who first perceived the connection, popular with subsequent sex radicals, between sexual monogamy and the acquisitive mentality fostered by private property.

On a practical level, sexual politics also entered into early socialist and working-class agitation. In England during the 1830s and 1840s, the Owenites, a mass movement of laboring people, preached a New Moral World that would overturn all oppressive relations, including those between the sexes. The Owenites also advocated extra-legal sexual unions. English artisan radicals disseminated birth control information as early as the 1820s; indeed, Jeffrey Weeks has argued that it was not the middle class but the radical artisans, those men and women most receptive to anti-capitalist propaganda, who first began to practice systematic contraception.1

Consideration of sexual politics waned, however, as questions of labor and property took precedence in the British and U.S. movements. Although there is evidence that Fourier’s writings influenced the early work of Karl Marx in the 1840s, in later work Marx paid little attention to sexual matters, generally dismissing them as part of a utopian socialism he rejected. Except for a handful of iconoclasts like the U.S. socialist and sex radical Victoria Woodhull (1838–1927), the discourse on sex that did occur in the left of the First and Second Internationals (1864–1914) usually hinged on vague predictions of an improved sexual morality under socialism—marital fidelity, the decline of the double standard, the abolition of prostitution.2 Frederick Engels’s The Condition of the Working Class in England, written in the 1840s, set the tone for these later discussions with its denunciations of the effects of capitalism on working-class morals. Bourgeois men, Engels complained, set their own women on a pedestal of chastity and preyed on working-class girls; they self-righteously condemned the immorality of their workers while perpetuating the poverty from which that immorality stemmed.3

Within the general Victorian discussion of sex, women, and the family, Marx and Engels advanced enlightened insights combined with conservative assumptions. Neither ever questioned the desirability of female chastity, marital fidelity, heterosexual romance, or the nuclear family—all cardinal bourgeois values. Yet both also inherited from the utopian socialists a belief in the beneficial power of mutual erotic attraction—”modern individual sex love”—an idea that constituted a break with the Victorian view of true love as an affinity between two disembodied souls.4 Although they assumed that monogamy was inherent in sex love, Engels in later life edged toward a more searching position. His Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State (1884) presented monogamy as a historical construction, an evolution from an earlier system of sexual promiscuity but one which represented a world-historic setback for women, associated with the emergence of the double standard, private property, and class relations. Unlike earlier socialists, however, Engels did not extend his insights into a vision of a sexual order incompatible with the mores of his age. He criticized legally sanctioned monogamy as part and parcel of a system of private property, but he idealized the nuclear family and monogamy itself. The socialist future would bring an end to legal marriage, but monogamy, freed of the distortions of capitalism, would flourish on a higher plane. “Monogamy, instead of collapsing,” he predicted, “at last becomes a reality” for men as well as women, a formulation which, whatever its enlightened intentions, still ironically paralleled the conservative goals of the contemporaneous bourgeois social purity movement.5

The mainstream Marxist movement in Europe and the United States took its cues in sexual matters from the least challenging views of its two leading theorists. The narrowness of sexual theory in Marxian thought, its implicit acceptance of Victorian norms, and its defensiveness in response to charges that socialists were free lovers all coalesced into a sexual conservatism in the British and U.S. movements that differed little from that of the respectable classes. A British socialist editor in 1893 spoke for many of his comrades when he rejected a request from a sex radical that he include more discussion of sex in his newspaper: “I am a radical but…the whole subject is nasty to me.”6

Thus, the advent of Marxian socialism represented something of a step backward in the development of a radical sexual politics. Still, a strain of sex radicalism persisted within the broader nineteenth-century movement: if official socialists were not sex radicals, the sex radicals were generally unofficial socialists. Like the Marxists, sex radicals assumed that changes in sexual behavior would accompany the creation of a better world. In the United States, John Humphrey Noyes, founder of the Oneida community (1848–81), was the most notorious of a number of mid–and late nineteenth-century utopians who organized their communities around reformed erotic behavior redirected outside the family. The Oneidans prohibited monogamy and taught male continence, a contraceptive technique whereby men experienced orgasm without ejaculating. Noyes personally supervised the Oneida system: he initiated female virgins and ensured, through community surveillance, that no two partners became unduly attached. The arrangements were authoritarian, strictly heterosexual, and hardly feminist. Yet Noyes did advance the thought and practice of sex radicalism. Oneida affirmed the value of sexual experience and of a variety of partners for both men and women; by associating birth control with pleasure and multiple contacts, Noyes showed how sexual freedom could follow the separation of sex and conception.7

In the 1870s, the free lovers—a loosely knit network of free-thinking agnostics, communitarians, and advocates of birth control and divorce reform—began to develop the associations between sexual liberation, social freedom, and rationalism in a more democratic milieu. To its enemies, free love became a euphemism for promiscuity, but the earliest free lovers were actually quite wary of varied sexual relations; they preached instead the value of free monogamous unions, of affection bestowed and cultivated outside the strictures of the church.8 In the next two decades, however, free lovers began to entertain thoughts of the creative value of multiple sexual relations. In the 1880s and 1890s, the advocacy of free love edged closer to socialist and labor radicalism, as German and Jewish immigrants imported Russian and Continental variants into the immigrant and Jewish labor movements. At this juncture, nineteenth-century free love reached its apotheosis in the figure of Russian-born anarchist Emma Goldman (1869–1940). The United States’ most notorious sex radical to that date, Goldman linked the nineteenth-century traditions to the experience of a new generation of self-consciously modern young men and women in the prewar years. “Free love?” she rhetorically inquired in one of her more provocative formulations. “As if love is anything but free!”9

In the same period in Great Britain, the “new moralists” took free love one step further by questioning the exclusivity of heterosexuality itself. The socialist Edward Carpenter (1844–1928) posited the existence of an “intermediate sex”—homosexuals—who could mediate between the seemingly antithetical temperaments of men and women. More generally, he stressed the pleasures of sex, its ability to bind people together into broader communities of fellowship. In the context of a trans-Atlantic movement politically focused almost exclusively on trade unions and elections, Carpenter’s ideas harkened back to the older utopian notions of socialism. Carpenter’s Love’s Coming of Age, published in the United States in 1911, crystallized the concerns of radicals with socialism, sex, feminism, and personal life. As Mari Jo Buhle writes, Carpenter pointed the way to an altogether new socialist vision of sex: “Socialists had always believed the Cooperative Commonwealth who enshrine love, but, fearful of erotic intensity, they envisioned the promised state as platonic and spiritual, as the realization of old aspirations rather than the efflorescence of new practices.”10 Carpenter shifted the focus from an abstract failure to the transforming powers of sex in the present.

Goldman and Carpenter took sex radicalism out of its enclaves and brought it closer to mainstream sexual politics. Their ideas became popular at a time when changing sexual patterns and new sexual knowledge (the work of Sigmund Freud and Havelock Ellis) made a young generation of U.S. leftists more receptive to previously heretical beliefs about the role of the erotic in human freedom. Throughout the middle class, a growing acceptance of contraception (within marriage) allowed men and particularly women to disassociate sexual pleasure from conception. At the same time, young single people began to move outside the strictures of their families and communities to experiment with sex outside of marriage. Although this may at first have been primarily a middle-class phenomenon—working-class women could not easily obtain contraception—young working-class women surely enjoyed their own erotic life, one that stopped short of intercourse. As the female labor force expanded, young single women flooded into the cities; changing demographic patterns meant that many of them lived on their own—alone or with other young women—rather than in family households, and thus, as Kathy Peiss shows in “‘Charity Girls’ and City Pleasures: Historical Notes on Working-Class Sexuality, 1880–1920,” gained a certain freedom to come and go as they pleased.11 They experienced, if only for the short time before they married, unprecedented possibilities for sexual independence, played out in an emerging urban youth culture as well as, for some, a developing sexual underground of gay men and lesbians. The young socialists, feminists, and artists who constituted the bohemian circles of Greenwich Village in the first decades of the twentieth century, described by Ellen Kay Trimberger in “Feminism, Men, and Modern Love: Greenwich Village, 1900–1925,” tried to elaborate the most hopeful elements of this sexual revolution.12 For the new radicals (people like Crystal Eastman and her brother Max, Louise Bryant, John Reed, Mary Heaton Vorse, Floyd Dell), women were, theoretically, men’s sexual equals—and, at times, their superiors—and women played a central role in their sexual avant-garde. “When the world began to change,” remembered one radical, “the restlessness of woman was the main cause.”13

Nevertheless, as Trimberger shows, the sexual equality of radical women in Greenwich Village was more imagined than real. Like other women of their time, marriage still represented their only real chance for security; in a highly discriminatory and sex-segregated labor market, whatever economic independence they possessed was precarious. Promiscuity and extra-marital sex posed many more risks for them than for their male lovers, who believed in women’s sexual freedom in theory but in practice were often alarmed or alienated by it. In describing the complex situation of these new women, Linda Gordon has noted that “as with all women, their survival and success largely depended on pleasing men.”14 Still, they opened the way for a new understanding of women as sexual subjects in their own right, no longer simply recipients of male advances but beings with their own erotic needs, capable of making their own initiatives.

In the birth control movement of 1914–17, many of the young women radicals saw the chance to translate the sexual libertarianism of their generation into a class struggle. Birth control was illegal; although the affluent could acquire it from private doctors, the poor had virtually no access to any contraception except traditional modes like abortifacients and douches. The mass-based birth control movement initially consolidated around campaigns for sex education and contraceptive information which Emma Goldman and the young Margaret Sanger conducted within the socialist and labor movements. Birth control quickly came to command a wide following, including the new intellectuals of the Socialist Party (among them many Greenwich Villagers), women’s locals within the party, and leaders of socialist workers, particularly from the Industrial Workers of the World. The movement’s intellectuals and propagandists were largely committed to a neo-Malthusian belief in family planning, the alleviation of the misery of unplanned pregnancies, as a means of working-class uplift. But another, more fully sexual, vision also ran through their work: the view that free sexual expression, especially that of women, was a basic human right, a legitimate goal of the class struggle.15

Old divisions on the sex question within the left soon reappeared. The movement represented a practical politics of sex radicalism, and it antagonized many older and more orthodox socialists. Critics within the Socialist Party argued that the campaign was “a waste of time and energy,” which distracted workers from the class struggle (defined narrowly as an economic and political one); under capitalism, such efforts were premature anyway, since the coming of the socialist state would automatically inaugurate an era of sexual enlightenment. Underlying such tactical admonitions, however, were more extreme patriarchal attitudes which official socialism had never fully challenged: as one male critic protested, sex education would only cause “FEAR and DISTRUST in the minds of hundreds of progressive wives and mothers,” and so should be abandoned.16

In the short run, the prewar sex radicals made few gains. The birth control movement disintegrated under the pressure of internal conflicts and external political repression. It would only reemerge in the 1920s, under Sanger’s direction, as a crusade of a professional medical elite. The insurgent, confrontational elements of sex radicalism waned, giving way to a new sexual order which, if liberalized in some respects, was also far more compatible with capitalism and the nuclear family than the radicals could have envisioned. The postwar flapper, younger sister of the revolutionary woman of the earlier milieu, was sexually active but seemingly apolitical; a new style of family life, the “New Deal” described by Barbara Epstein in “Family, Sexual Morality, and Popular Movements in Turn-of-the-Century America,” theoretically incorporated her needs for emotional and sexual expression while a new mode of consumer capitalism declared its fashions, cosmetics, and household goods to be adequate expressions of her erotic identity.17 Sexual feminism, which earlier had posed some challenges to men’s power to determine women’s sexuality, declined in the 1920s. The new female sexual freedom became instead an imperative to say “yes” to male advances. In the similarly eroticized milieu of Weimar Germany in the same decade, analyzed by Atina Grossman in “The New Woman and the Rationalization of Sexuality in Weimar Germany,” liberal intentions and practices also converged with a renewed conservative and patriarchal agenda.18 In Germany, Nazi family and population policies repressed what freedoms the “New Woman” of the 1920s had managed to retain. In the United States, the consequences were less dramatic but nonetheless stultifying, as U.S. society in the next two decades moved toward what was, arguably, its nadir of sexual conservatism in the 1950s.

The official U.S. left from 1930 to 1960 largely ignored or repudiated any association with sexual rebellion, even as the founding of the Mattachine Society (1950) and the Daughters of Bilitis (1955) indicated the first stirrings of the lesbian and gay movements. Whatever sexual mores operated within the Communist Party (fragments of evidence indicate that party members, especially the women, had a loose reputation), the organization formally focused almost exclusively on issues of public rather than private life: the threat of fascism, economic collapse, McCarthyism.19 Moreover, the party’s allegiance to the Soviet Union, with its sexually repressive policies, fostered a suspicion of any sexual questioning as a symptom of bourgeois degeneracy. Instead, the Communist Party often viewed sexual conservatism as a cultural bridge to the masses. Sex in capitalist society was just one more commodity, its proliferation a symptom of an ever-expanding consumerism.

The generation of radicals that came of age in the 1960s tried to divest itself of the Old Left’s sexual restraint. The New Left—especially its men—plunged into a second “sexual revolution,” facilitated by cheap, accessible birth control. Student radicals identified sex as potentially revolutionary, a way to break out of the deadening psychological structures of U.S. middle-class life. Multiple and varied sexual relationships came to be associated with cultural liberation.

The contradictions and difficulties of this sexual politics became apparent quite early in the decade within the civil rights movement. When white students flocked South to work in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee voter registration campaigns of Freedom Summer 1964, young whites and blacks began to view interracial affairs—especially those between white women and black men—as a powerful challenge to racist taboos. The resulting mixture of race, sex, and gender issues proved explosive. On the one hand, many activists found sexual affirmation as well as emotional support in these politicized relationships. As historian Sara Evans has written, “Where such needs came together with genuine mutual regard, there was a sense in which the ‘beloved community’ of black and white together took on a concrete reality in the intimacy of the bedroom.”20 On the other hand, many white women experienced themselves in these interactions as pawns in a fundamentally male game of assertiveness and rebellion. Their own guilt, moreover, made them extremely reluctant to say “no” to a black man lest their refusal expressed some hidden reserve of racism. Black women, for their part, soon became hostile to what seemed to be their relegation to the role of non-sexual Amazons while the white women monopolized the feminine quotient of the movement. “If white women had a problem,” one black woman remembers, “it was not just a male/woman problem…it was also a black woman/white woman problem.”21 The tangled legacy of these years would endure, profoundly affecting the political development of all parties concerned, especially in regard to feminism.

The sexual conflicts of the civil rights movement were in many senses paradigmatic of the subsequent sexual history of the New Left. As in the 1920s, sexual revolution became a license for male promiscuity and female accessibility. It was at least partly the bitterness of radical women at sexual exploitation—exploitation which, practiced in the name of such high ideals, was all the more galling—that led to the acrimonious fragmentation of the New Left in 1969. The sexual revolution, radical women complained in retrospect, had been another male trick: the cool sex of the counterculture was a new version of men’s old need to prove their property—now communal rather than private—in women. Marge Piercy’s searing critique of the movement, “The Grand Coolie Damn,” captured the substance of women’s anger: “A man can bring a woman into an organization by sleeping with her and remove her by ceasing to do so. A man can purge a woman for no other reason than that he has tired of her, knocked her up, or is after someone else.”22 Ironically, by virtue of the very elevation of sexuality as a revolutionary force, it had become an even more powerful weapon of male dominance inside progressive movements.

Within the left of the past ten years, perhaps the most common response to the experiences of the 1960s has been a revival of the more conservative strains of Marxist sexual politics. Organizations like the West Coast Friends of Families have attempted to capitalize on this retrenchment: while staying clear of what are now generally accepted elements of the sexual revolution like birth control and premarital sex, such socialists hold up the monogamous couple and the nuclear family as social forms worth preserving. They hearken back to an earlier left politics in which gender differences were rarely acknowledged as central problems; they speak of “the family” without direct reference to the particular powerlessness of women and children within it. The non-feminist left has been notably tepid on questions of reproductive rights. A notorious incident in 1979, when the leading socialist newspaper In These Times called for a dialogue with the anti-abortion movement, showed feminists how untouched much of the left continues to be by the politics of female sexual autonomy.23 Feminists and gay activists still encounter a blindness among socialists to the importance of sex radicalism, a sort of Puritanism empathic with the supposed sexual cautiousness of the U.S. working class and with the sexually conservative mores of socialist states like Cuba.

In contrast to the 1910s, however, the subversive potential of the sexual visions of the 1960s has remained alive, developed and sustained by mass popular movements. Lesbian and gay activists have challenged heterosexual norms and raised provocative and profound questions about the place of sex in everyday life. Feminists continue to reveal how much culturally accepted sexual patterns impoverish women’s erotic and social lives. And the lesbian, gay, and feminist movements, in demonstrating the importance of sex as a major social construction, have called to account a Marxism that has viewed sexual politics as secondary, even a luxury for the self-indulgent. For those socialists willing to listen, both sex radicals and feminists offer a convincing case as to why the left cannot afford to regard sexual politics as simply a diversion.


  1. Jeffrey Weeks, Sex, Politics, and Society: The Regulation of Sexuality Since 1800 (London/New York: Longmans, 1981), 46, 168. On the Owenites, see also Barbara Taylor, Eve and the New Jerusalem: Socialism and Feminism in the Nineteenth Century (New York: Pantheon, 1983).
  2. Weeks, Sex, Politics, and Society, 168–71. See Woodhull’s wonderful speech, “The Elixir of Life,” reprinted in Feminism: The Essential Historical Writings, ed. Miriam Schneir (New York: Random House, 1972), 152–54, in which she declares that “the problem of sexual love is the most important one that ever engaged the human mind” and denounces the debilitating effects of non-orgasmic sex on women.
  3. Frederick Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1973), 186–87.
  4. Weeks, Sex, Politics, and Society, 168–69.
  5. Frederick Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State (New York: International Publishers, 1970), 67.
  6. Robert Blatchford to Edward Carpenter, quoted in Weeks, Sex, Politics, and Society, 171.
  7. Linda Gordon, Woman’s Body, Woman’s Right: Birth Control in America (New York: Viking, 1977), 84–89.
  8. Gordon, Woman’s Body, Woman’s Right, 95–96, 107–9, 122–25. Gordon stresses the conservative subtext of free love pronouncements; for the more radical elements, see Ellen Carol Dubois, “Free Love and Feminism in the Nineteenth Century,” paper delivered in the Series in the History of Sexuality, State University of New York at Buffalo, March 1983.
  9. Emma Goldman, Anarchism and Other Essays (1917; repr., New York: Dover, 1969), 236. For the radical immigrants, see Mari Jo Buhle, Women and American Socialism, 1870–1920 (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1982), 261–62. For Goldman’s thoughts on free love, see the chapter on sexual liberationism in Alice Wexler, Emma Goldman: An Intimate Life (New York: Pantheon, 1984).
  10. Buhle, Women and American Socialism, 61. See also Weeks, Sex, Politics, and Society, 171–75.
  11. Kathy Peiss, “‘Charity Girls’ and City Pleasures: Historical Notes on Working-Class Sexuality, 1880–1920,” in Powers of Desire: The Politics of Sexuality, ed. Ann Snitow, Christine Stansell, and Sharon Thompson (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1983).
  12. Ellen Kay Trimberger, “Feminism, Men, and Modern Love: Greenwich Village, 1900–1925,” in Powers of Desire.
  13. Hutchins Hapgood, quoted in Gordon, Woman’s Body, Woman’s Right, 198. For the bohemians of Greenwich Village, see Gordon, Woman’s Body, Woman’s Right, 186–245, and Buhle, Women and American Socialism, 257–68. For a closer look at one important woman in the milieu, see Blanche Wiesen Cook, ed., Crystal Eastman: On Women and Revolution (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978).
  14. Gordon, Woman’s Body, Woman’s Right, 194.
  15. Gordon, Woman’s Body, Woman’s Right, 206–45; Buhle, Women and American Socialism, 268–80.
  16. Quoted in Buhle, Women and American Socialism, 273. On the opposition, see Buhle, Women and American Socialism, 273–75, and Gordon, Woman’s Body, Woman’s Right, 236–45.
  17. Barbara Epstein, “Family, Sexual Morality, and Popular Movements in Turn-of-the-Century America,” in Powers of Desire.
  18. Atina Grossman, “The New Woman and the Rationalization of Sexuality in Weimar Germany,” in Powers of Desire.
  19. On the ties of the early gay movement to the left, see John D’Emilio, “Dreams Deferred: The Early American Homophile Movement,” Body Politic 48–50 (1978–79). We thank Evelyn Cohen for her comments about sexual mores within the Communist Party.
  20. Sara Evans, Personal Politics: The Roots of Women’s Liberation in the Civil Rights Movement and the New Left (New York: Random House, 1979), 79. For a general discussion of interracial sexual relations, see 77–82.
  21. Jean Wiley, quoted in Evans, Personal Politics, 81.
  22. Marge Piercy, “The Grand Coolie Damn,” reprinted in Sisterhood Is Powerful, ed. Robin Morgan (New York: Vintage, 1970), 421–38.
  23. In These Times, February 28–March 6, 1979; see also responses in the issues for April 18–25 and May 2–8, 1979.
2020, Commentary, Volume 71, Issue 09 (February 2020)
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