Early U.S. sex radicals

Free Comrades:

Anarchism and Homosexuality in the United States, 1895-1917

TERENCE KISSACK’S Free Comrades does a disservice to the political history of sex radicals during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Written through a sectarian anarchist lens, this book presents a dodgy history of both anarchists and socialists of that era and ignores the historical collaboration between these two political currents, while inexplicably denying the sexually liberatory legacy of the 1917 Russian Revolution. Free Comrades is written as a polemic against socialism and lionizes anarchists like Emma Goldman, tears into supposedly erotophobic socialists, and surprisingly claims for anarchism some early sex radicals who identified themselves as socialists.

The most important fact that is fudged in Free Comrades is that the emergence of an identifiable minority of homosexuals at the end of the nineteenth century was met with near-universal opprobrium, often by many gays themselves and some anarchists, who came to view homosexuality differently over time.

Oscar Wilde, who was married with two children before his 1895 conviction for sodomy, accepted the popular clinical thinking about his “condition.” His writings of the period reflect the debate about whether homosexuality was a form of sickness or insanity, complaining of his “erotomania” while in prison. For years Wilde remained the world’s most famous gay man. 

Kissack claims that Wilde was really an anarchist, despite Wilde’s essay, “The soul of man under socialism,” in which he expresses political sympathies with both socialism and individualism, a central characteristic of anarchism. No doubt, Wilde was familiar with the German Social Democratic Party taking up his defense in their newspapers and calling for a repeal of sodomy laws in the Reichstag, making the socialists the first political party to defend homosexuals on the floor of any modern nation’s parliament.

Kissack’s paeans to early anarchists’ sex radicalism glosses over the significance of some anarchists’ revulsion to homosexuality. Leading anarchists such as Peter Kropotkin, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, and Johann Most were openly homophobic and, in some cases, misogynistic as well. Even Alexander Berkman’s early prison writings express horror of gay sex: “The panegyrics of boy-love are deeply offensive to my instincts. The very thought of the unnatural practices revolts and disgusts me.” His experience during his years of incarceration led Berkman to shift his views substantially, in fact proving that anarchists were hardly immune either to reactionary ideas or to being shaped positively by their circumstances.

European sexologists such as Havelock Ellis and openly gay radical Edward Carpenter are praised for their contributions to challenging homophobia, while socialists come in for constant—and unsubstantiated—drubbings for their supposed homophobia. Yet Carpenter was a member of the Socialist League in Britain and Ellis was a Fabian socialist who was an early advocate for birth control, legal abortion, and women’s sexual liberation. Ellis married a lesbian who was as free as he was in their relationship to engage in open affairs with women.
The book’s central character is Emma Goldman, who did in fact travel the United States, speaking alongside Eleanor Marx at one point, Karl Marx’s socialist daughter. Goldman spoke to huge crowds about birth control and homosexuality. For some closeted gays and lesbians, Goldman’s speeches were life-transforming events as it was the first time they’d ever heard of their sexuality spoken about in public and positively.

Goldman is written about as the uncompromising sex radical of her day. But in a letter to Havelock Ellis in 1924, Goldman attacked the “narrowness” of some of the lesbians she encountered whom she called a “’crazy lot’ whose fixation on the conditions of their own oppression to the exclusion of all other matters grated on her.” Kissack, who is quick to condemn every critical utterance by socialists—often snagged out of historical context—readily provides justification for what may have been Goldman’s perfectly reasonable critique in the context of wider forces engaging in revolutionary upheavals in her day.

Despite erotic correspondence between Goldman and Almeda Sperry, a woman with whom she’d reputedly had a sexual affair, Goldman expressed the common notion that lesbians were man haters, and since she was not antagonistic toward men she didn’t categorize herself that way. In one letter, Goldman wrote of her dismay about a woman friend running off with another woman, “Really, the Lesbians are a crazy lot. Their antagonism to the male is almost a disease with them. I simply can’t bear such narrowness.” What’s striking is that this negative perception of lesbians was echoed by a woman who campaigned on behalf of gays and lesbians and who denounced all legal punishment against homosexuality. In other words, the facts present a far more nuanced picture of early sex radicals, who absorbed some of the prejudices of their day even as they challenged dominant myths and discrimination.

Kissack’s sectarianism is most glaring when it comes to his treatment of the Russian Revolution. In 1917, all laws against homosexuality were struck down by the new revolutionary government along with the rest of the tsarist criminal code; consensual sex was deemed a private matter; and not only were gays and lesbians free to live as they chose without state intervention, but the Soviet courts approved of marriage between homosexuals, and, extraordinarily, there are even recorded instances of sex change operations in Russia in the 1920s. Yet Kissack conflates Stalin’s consolidation of power in the 1930s with the policies of the early Bolsheviks who championed sexual freedoms.

The supposed anti-sex politics of the Bolsheviks is simply inaccurate. In a stark rebuke to his detractors, the Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin comments, “Communism is not supposed to bring asceticism but joy in life and vitality by means of a gratified love life.”

The degeneration of the revolution from its original goals—including sexual liberation—was not due to some original sin of Lenin or Bolshevik ideology, but rather to the impossible conditions that revolutionaries faced. Years of isolation from any other successful socialist revolution in an advanced industrial country and the backwardness of Soviet industry combined to deteriorate all gains of the revolution by the 1930s. All of the original leading Bolsheviks were either dead, executed, in exile, or in prison, with the sole exception of Joseph Stalin, who gave political expression and leadership to what was effectively a counterrevolution in the USSR.

There are some useful historical nuggets scholars can glean from Free Comrades, but the fast and loose treatment of the historical record and political analysis is troubling.


Issue #76

March 2011

Revolt in the Middle East: Another world is possible

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