Engels and homosexuality

The November–December issue of the ISR includes a review of Sherry Wolf’s new book, Sexuality and Socialism: History, Politics and Theory of LGBT Liberation.

We look forward to reading this important book, but we would like to draw attention to a significant translation problem. The review says, in regard to Marx and Engels, “Their sole public reference is a line about “the abominable practice of sodomy” in Engels’ The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State.

Friedrich Engels never wrote those words. Engels wrote The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State in 1884, in German, drawing on notes prepared by Marx before his death. It was translated into Russian in 1892, but an English translation didn’t appear until 1902, after Engels’ death.

However, the most widely circulated English version was published in 1942 in a translation by Alick West and Dona Torr, prominent members of the British Communist Party. That’s the version that contains the words quoted in the review. In a section discussing the ancient Greeks: “They fell into the abominable practice of sodomy and degraded alike their gods and themselves with the myth of Ganymede.” Surprisingly, the West-Torr edition appears not to have been translated from Engels’ original German text, but, according to the copyright page, “from the fourth Russian edition, Moscow, 1934.”

What Engels wrote, in German, was “sie versanken in die Widerwärtigkeit der Knabenliebe und ihre Götter entwürdigten wie sich selbst durch den Mythus von Ganymed.” West and Torr rendered “die Widerwärtigkeit der Knabenliebe” as “the abominable practice of sodomy.”

Volume 26 of the Marx-Engels Collected Works (MECW), published in 1990, translates the phrase as “the perversion of boy-love.” A better translation would be “repugnant boy-love,” but the MECW text is far truer to the original German than the West-Torr version. So Engels was criticizing the Greeks not for homosexuality, but for pederasty—the sexual abuse of children.

That interpretation is strengthened by Engels’ reference to “the myth of Ganymede” —in which the god Zeus falls in love with and kidnaps a beautiful young boy. Again, the issue is child abuse.

Marxists consider that adults who have sexual relations with young people are violating the rights of children. Given the disparities of power, no child can give meaningful consent to sexual relations with an adult. That was the ancient Greek interpretation of the Ganymede myth, and it was Engels’ view as well.

We don’t have access to the 1934 Russian version of Origin of the Family, so we can’t check whether the “sodomy” mistranslation first occurred there, or if it originated with West and Torr. Either way, it was consistent with Stalinist policy: homosexual acts, which had been removed from the criminal code shortly after the 1917 revolution, were recriminalized by Stalin in 1933.

The founders of Marxism did not provide any analysis of the situation of gays. Marxists have learned much from the insights of the gay and lesbian liberation movement in recent decades. But the claim that Engels denounced sodomy in one of his most important works is a Stalinist invention.

Sherry Wolf responds

Thank you Ian and John for raising this little known fact. Another studious reader familiar with the original German, Keith Rosenthal, called this to my attention after reading Sexuality and Socialism. The book is heading into its second printing with the correct translation noted.

Liberals Spearheaded the Red Scare

In an otherwise excellent article by Brian Jones on the fiftieth anniversary of the civil rights movement (“When the walls of segregation toppled”), he wrote, “Tragically, many liberal leaders embraced the anticommunist crusade [of the 1940s and 1950s].” While this is true, I would make the point more forcefully. In many ways the liberals spearheaded the Red Scare.

After all, the Smith Act (“The Alien Registration Act of 1940”) which was the legal instrument used by the federal government to repress the Communist Party was signed into law by the great liberal Franklin Delano Roosevelt in June 1940. It was FDR’s great “civil libertarian” attorney general, Francis Biddle, who first used the Smith Act and prosecuted the Trotskyists of the Socialist Workers Party in 1941. It was President Harry Truman who first introduced “loyalty oaths” to be taken by federal government employees after WWII. It was Truman’s Justice Department that carried the wave of Smith Act prosecutions in the late 1940s.

A. Phillip Randolph, the leading Black trade unionist in the country, and Walter White of the NAACP, played crucial roles in the purge of radicals in Black organizations in the years following WWII. According to historian Manning Marable, “By serving as the ‘left-wing’ of McCarthyism…[they] retarded the black movement for a decade or more.”

Joe Allen, Chicago

Hunger causes population growth

Chris Williams’ article in the November–December 2009 issue of the ISR is correct in stating that hunger causes overpopulation rather than overpopulation causing hunger. Lack of adequate nutrition can cause many children to not survive to reach adulthood. Parents have extra children to insure that they have at least as many offspring as they desire. They can end up with more children than they wanted.

As infant mortality declines, population growth also declines. See David M. Heer and Dean O. Smith’s article in Demography, vol. 5, no. 1, 104–21 (1968). In revolutionary Cuba, efforts to promote social justice reduced birth rates, even though the country remained poor.

Milton Takei, Eugene, OR



Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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