Workers Vanguard No. 1072
7 August 2015
Before It Became All About Marriage...
How New Left Gay Liberationists Were Won to Trotskyism
(Young Spartacus pages)
On June 26, young comrades from the International Communist League, gathered in New York City for a “Youth Work-In,” heard a presentation on the history of the Red Flag Union (RFU, formerly Lavender & Red Union).
The class, given by our comrade Steve B., drew on his history as an RFU member. He described how the RFU and Spartacist League (SL) fused their organizations and political futures in the late 1970s. The Lavender & Red Union (L&RU) developed out of the New Leftist gay liberation milieu and had as its aim socialist revolution, understanding the need to build a vanguard party that would fight in the interests of all of the oppressed. Simultaneously, it shared the gay milieu’s sectoralism—the belief that each oppressed sector of society must fight separately for its own liberation. His talk emphasized how, in the midst of the rapid and tumultuous political developments of the New Left, the RFU was able to develop a deeper understanding of revolutionary politics and be won to Trotskyism, eventually fusing with the Spartacist League in August of 1977.
All of this took place in a period of American radical politics very different from the narrow terrain of the gay rights milieu today, which has embraced the bourgeoisie’s “family values” campaign. Over the last two decades, the struggle for gay equality has largely been over legal marriage and the right to serve in the U.S. imperialist military, focusing on “legitimate” acceptance into particularly reactionary institutions. A snapshot of the NYC Gay Pride Parade this year gives a telling picture of the state of gay activism. Coming on the heels of the U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing same-sex marriage nationwide, the 2015 Pride march was sponsored by Wal-Mart among over 50 other corporations. It was kicked off with a gay marriage ceremony officiated by union-busting Democratic governor Cuomo—a far cry from the historic 1969 Stonewall rebellion against commonplace police repression and anti-gay violence. Steve’s talk pointed out that even in the 1970s, a wing of the gay liberation movement was turning toward the Democratic Party. Today, the absorption of the gay liberation movement into mainstream politics is by and large complete.
The SL has always stood for the right of gay, lesbian and transgender people to marry (and divorce!), as we support any gain in civil and democratic rights that the working class and oppressed can wrest from the capitalist state. We fight for a society in which people are not forced into the legal straitjacket of marriage to obtain the benefits, rights and privileges this capitalist society grants only to those who abide by the stricture of “one man on one woman, until death.” At the same time we also recognize that marriage is a conservatizing institution. Further, the right to marry does not shield LGBT people from continued bigotry and violence in this deeply homophobic society.
Gay oppression flows from the repressive institution of the heterosexual, monogamous family unit—the root of the oppression of women that arose along with the establishment of the “rightful” inheritance of private property. Together with organized religion, the family is a key prop for the ideological regimentation of capitalist society, instilling bourgeois morality and sexual “norms” as well as obedience to authority. Any “deviations” that threaten the maintenance of this crucial institution are considered “sinful”—from same-sex relationships to abortion, to intergenerational sex. Only workers revolution can lay the basis for the replacement of the family through socializing childcare and housework, and thus allowing women full participation in all areas of social and political life. Replacing the family will establish the conditions for the final withering away of anti-gay prejudice and reaction.
The fight against gay oppression is inseparable from the struggle for democratic rights for all of the oppressed. The creation of a genuinely free and equal society, sexually and otherwise, requires the destruction of capitalist class rule and the creation of a communist world. We seek to build a revolutionary vanguard party to lead the working class in a fight for socialist revolution, the seizure of state power on behalf of all the exploited and oppressed. We print Steve’s presentation below, edited for publication.
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In August 1977, at a Benedictine monastery in Montecito, California, with sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean, the Spartacist League and Red Flag Union fused, following over a year of intense study, debate and joint work. It was the waning days of the New Left, and the SL’s insistence on winning left-moving elements on a programmatic basis had paid off once more. At the fusion conference, leading Spartacist League comrade George Foster made the simple and powerful statement that this was a confirmation of Lenin’s understanding of the vanguard party as the tribune for all the oppressed.
The RFU’s organizational predecessor, the Lavender and Red Union, had been founded in March 1974 as a “gay liberation-communist” group. The L&RU proclaimed three purposes. First, to support gay liberation struggles from a communist perspective through study groups, film and theater presentations, forums, maintaining a bookstore and conducting work in the gay community. Second, to work to reverse counterrevolutionary trends in the gay community. Third, to refute and struggle against the anti-gay positions taken by many self-described revolutionaries, by providing a Marxist approach to the oppression of gay people. It was faithful to that mission, battling exclusions from Maoist and Third World nationalist events and launching two major campaigns in the gay community in Los Angeles: a boycott of the popular Studio One bar in West Hollywood for its racist and sexist door policy and leading a strike at the gay community and service center in Hollywood.
The L&RU put out 21 issues of its paper, Come Out Fighting, over a two-year period, with a subscriber base of over 200. It maintained correspondence with gay leftists in the U.S. and abroad as well as with a number of left groups. There was a dues structure, an office and bookstore and production of leaflets. There were organized demonstrations and picket lines, class series and theoretical tracts (if largely focused on sexual oppression). There was a very healthy internal study regimen which served us well—and even without a full program and with a very muddled world view, the L&RU practiced its own form of democratic centralism. This was one point in terms of party and program that became important acquired knowledge: that disciplined political functioning proceeds from essential programmatic unity.
In a way, the early L&RU was acting like a party formation without the goods. Yet in its three-year existence, it established something of a reputation. A few years ago, a graduate student from Washington University in St. Louis contacted the Prometheus Research Library about the group. I sat down with him for an afternoon. He was doing a dissertation about gay liberation and the left, and told me that all his research kept leading him back to the L&RU as the far left pole of gay liberation.
The fusion with the Spartacist League was a historically unique event, when you look at what was then called the gay liberation movement. The Mattachine Society, formed in Los Angeles in 1950, was largely founded by members and ex-members of the Communist Party, like Harry Hay. Indeed, it could be said that the founding cadre of the modern gay liberation movement was littered with former leftists. I can’t tell you how many people I had known in gay liberation who had honed their organizational skills in left groups, the antiwar movement, or women’s and civil rights movements. So the L&RU was very distinct: an organized gay group with a trajectory back to a communist organization; seemingly all of the traffic had been in the opposite direction. One of the characteristics that set us apart as revealed in early documents produced by the L&RU was a recognition that the ultimate goal was a socialist revolution and that building a vanguard party to lead the working class to power was a necessity.
New Left Potpourri
As the RFU wrote on the eve of our fusion with the SL: “We did not know we were founded on a political contradiction.... We attempted to reconcile with a hyphen two fundamentally different political perspectives: the sectoralist view of the gay liberation milieu and what we imagined to be the communist approach.” It took some time to cast away the baggage of gay sectoralism. In looking back, I found it useful to check out Bruce M.’s talk from last year about the Communist Working Collective fusion which preceded our fusion by six years (see “From Maoism to Trotskyism: Recollections of a Participant,” WV No. 1038, 24 January 2014). Maoism, which had been hegemonic in the New Left of the late ’60s, was fractured and reeling in the early ’70s due to China’s alliance with U.S. imperialism under Nixon.
I remember the proliferation of Maoist study groups and collectives around the U.S. Two members of the RFU had been around the Potomac Socialist Organization in D.C. I had some contact with them and the Philadelphia Workers Organizing Committee during the summer of 1976 while I was working on a gay rights project organized by the National Lawyers Guild in D.C. Both groups had gay members and were grappling with the reactionary Maoist position, which saw homosexuality as an illness caused by capitalism. I had tried to read Mao that summer, but it inevitably resulted in a very nice nap. The best description I found of this period was in Women and Revolution (“On ‘Gay Liberation’: A Marxist Analysis,” W&R No. 13, Winter 1976-1977) so I will quote from that:
“It is precisely the rejection of Marxist materialism which characterized and ultimately destroyed the New Left. Abandoning this foundation, it floundered and splintered into a pack of mutually hostile, self-delimited ‘primary oppression’ groups. The belief that only the oppressed can understand, and therefore combat, their own oppression led to the creation of exclusionist tendencies—first along racial lines and then along sexual lines, and ultimately, in an absurdly logical extension, to exclusively lesbian organizations, all-male gay groups, Jewish feminists, Jewish lesbian feminists, fat feminists, etc.”
These groups took as their mantra: the personal is political. They reflected the program of New Left lifestylism—a belief that a sum total of individual lifestyle choices could effectively transform society. Gay lifestylism, in particular, was the belief that simply by enough individuals being out of the closet, gay oppression could be combated and even done away with.
In preparing for this talk I saw an issue of the L&RU’s paper with an apologetic article we wrote addressing a protest by the feminist group the Fat Underground. They complained that we had used a cartoon with a rather corpulent cigar-smoking man representing capitalism. As a comrade said to me: you can’t make this stuff up. The idea that every particular group of the oppressed must organize separately against its particular circumstances is what we call sectoralism. If you pair that with a program that there must be organizations to lead each sector in separate struggle, you get polyvanguardism. These programs, by fragmenting potential allies in the struggle against capitalist misery into narrow interest groups, serve to disarm revolutionary struggle rather than quicken it. All the various forms of oppression brought on by capitalism are important to combat. But it is the job of a single revolutionary party, based on the power of the working class, to do so, and to do so in the course of organizing to overturn the entire capitalist system.
Sectoralism and polyvanguardism pervaded the entire left. The Socialist Workers Party (SWP) had separate printed programs for blacks, women, gays and Chicanos. The self-proclaimed socialist-feminists of the Freedom Socialist Party (FSP) were one of the big losers in our fusion with the SL. They were certain that their pandering to gay sectoralism would be irresistible to us and that we would choose it over the unitary proletarian program represented by the SL. At the time, they were angling to secure the United Secretariat franchise in the U.S. as part of Ernest Mandel’s International Majority Tendency (IMT). I believe this required them to break out of Seattle and display some component of organizational stability. Bagging the RFU would have made them a serious contender for the franchise. Their draft statement for an IMT regroupment provided for the right of any oppressed group to form separate caucuses inside their party to promote their rights and resist “any manifestation of racism, sexism or homophobia in the organization.” This caved to anti-communist prejudice, reflecting the New Left’s distrust of revolutionary organizations.
Running Up Against the Russian Question
My own political history had been in gay liberation on the East Coast. Well before I met the L&RU, I gave a speech of chemically pure sectoralism at the closing session of the Gay Academic Union conference here in NYC in November 1974 where I put forward what was then called the patchwork majority: all the oppressed combining together as some sort of mega-pressure group on the powers that be. There was even a button to wear, representing the various constituencies. It was a very big button. The working class was just another oppressed group. Although I never mentioned the Democratic Party in the speech, it was always the elephant (well, donkey) in the room, especially as the gay movement began to shed its more radical aspects.
I had grown weary of my illusions in the Democrats and wondered what answers Marxism had to offer. At the end of the day, the L&RU wasn’t a big leap for me when I met them in the fall of 1976. I was involved in a political fight at the Peoples College of Law (PCL) in Los Angeles. PCL was a microcosm of the left. There were separate caucuses for blacks, Latinos, women, gays, Asian-Americans and workers. There was a very heavy Maoist influence—the Revolutionary Union/Revolutionary Communist Party had students and/or faculty there. At the end of every class, be it Torts, Crimes or Contracts, we had that very silly Maoist exercise of criticism, self-criticism. There was also a lingering Communist Party presence at PCL, as well as a good number of guilty liberal types and nationalists of every ilk.
A group called the Venceremos Brigade had been founded by some members of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in 1969. They would organize hundreds of youth to go to Cuba to help with the sugar cane harvest. Early on there was a crisis about openly gay people being on the trips. We had a gay caucus at PCL with two members who had been on the brigade and surreptitiously had met some Cuban gays at midnight in a cane field (or so the legend goes). This ignited a huge controversy in the Venceremos Brigade and in 1972 they banned openly gay people from the brigades.
In the fall of 1976 there was a proposal before the governing council of PCL to provide space at no cost for a Venceremos Brigade fundraiser at the school. We had a showdown at a governing council meeting that ran into the wee hours of the morning. The gay caucus had asked the L&RU to come and be one of our presenters in the debate. In the debate, we supported the Cuban Revolution, but also made clear the anti-gay attitude of the Castro government and its reflection in the Stalinist and Maoist left in the U.S. And so while we wanted to allow the Brigade to be at our school, we did not want to give them a political endorsement. What was important for me was that in the coming months (and timing is very important in politics), all of us were introduced to the SL’s position on the deformed and degenerated workers states. Unlike most gay leftists who had recoiled from Cuba’s persecution of gays and abandoned or become indifferent to the defense of Cuba, some of us were able to re-evaluate the political nature of the Castro regime. We decided that we could defend Cuba against U.S. imperialism and internal counterrevolution and still condemn the Stalinist perversion of Bolshevism. We adopted the Trotskyist program that you militarily defend a deformed workers state despite its deformations.
One more short story from PCL. We had in-house childcare that was staffed by students including one gay man, Ted, who was probably the most gentle, caring man I had ever met and was by far the kids’ favorite. A Revolutionary Union supporter raised a motion to ban gay men from doing that job. Disgusting. They saw homosexuality as a sickness spawned by bourgeois decadence which would disappear after the revolution. Talk about an embracing of bourgeois prejudices and social institutions. Of course, it was wrapped in the usual fake-revolutionary rhetoric of the proletarian family as a “fighting unit for socialism.” I was ripe for a Trotskyist understanding of Stalinism.
Fighting for Political Clarity
The RFU numbered 16 with histories in various organizations: Progressive Labor’s Worker-Student Alliance in SDS; the DuBois Clubs (the Communist Party’s youth group in the ’60s); the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; CORE (the Congress of Racial Equality); Maoist study groups; the International Socialists; the Peace and Freedom Party; the social-democratic New American Movement (NAM); a hodgepodge of ex-CPers and others. Our comrade Clay probably had the broadest experience—he had been in France the year after the May 1968 general strike. He had also spent time in SDS and a study group of ex-SWPers.
We were actively courted by a number of fake Trotskyists and social-democratic types. I guess what made the L&RU different was our seriousness about building an organization that would make a revolution—while we were determined to illuminate the source of gay oppression and find a party that would champion our fight, we also wanted to be taken seriously and challenged. The various opportunists patronized us; the SL uniquely argued for programmatic clarity from start to finish.
The pace of the political differentiation within our group quickened when we had a factional fight on the Russian Question—that is to say, over the adoption of the historic Trotskyist position in defense of the degenerated and deformed workers states from imperialism, without giving an ounce of political support to their Stalinist misleaders. In many ways the anti-Soviets in the L&RU, who were to later fuse with the Revolutionary Socialist League (RSL), did us a great service. Fighting the right wing in your own organization tends to clarify things. Not surprisingly, the two factions were on opposite sides of discussions over every key issue of program and building a Leninist party. But it was the fight on the Russian Question that ultimately set the stage for our subsequent understanding of the importance of program, the vanguard party and the final shedding of gay lifestylism and sectoralism.
The L&RU had been very fortunate to come across the SL in March 1976, intersecting a program that was steeped in the tradition of the Bolshevik Revolution. In those days, if you were serious about the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism, studying the successful example of the Bolsheviks was a given. By the time I joined the L&RU in January 1977, the primary question I had to deal with was Trotsky’s permanent revolution versus the Stalinist dogma of “socialism in one country.” We put out a pamphlet titled Permanent Revolution: A Vindication of Marxism. The pamphlet is quite revealing in documenting our movement away from Maoism, and just how far we had left to go. What I remember most about that time was the intense study that took place over the next few months. After Trotsky’s The Permanent Revolution (1930), we read In Defense of Marxism (1942) and The Revolution Betrayed (1936) back-to-back with weekly discussions. My worn, heavily marked up copy of In Defense of Marxism testifies to its key role in winning me to a Trotskyist understanding of the Russian Question. Then came James P. Cannon and The Struggle for a Proletarian Party (1943). Next to Mao, Cannon was very refreshing.
The previous November, Jimmy “ethnic purity” Carter, the Democratic Party peanut farmer from Georgia, had been elected president. Reaction was in the air. After its defeat in Vietnam, U.S. imperialism was determined to refurbish its image and so came Carter’s anti-Soviet “human rights” campaign. Washington embraced every right-wing tinpot dictator worldwide, especially in Latin America, with Jorge Rafaél Videla in Argentina as well as Augusto Pinochet in Chile, who came to power in a bloody CIA-engineered coup that toppled the popular-front Salvador Allende government.
That was also the year of Anita Bryant’s “Save Our Children” campaign, which had overturned a gay rights ordinance in Dade County, Florida. We intervened into protest demonstrations that sometimes numbered up to 100,000 and put to the test our programmatic agreement with the Spartacist League. I remember sitting down with a good friend of mine from PCL at a bar in L.A., convincing him to join the SL/RFU contingent at a major gay rights march behind the slogans: “Down with Carter’s Anti-Soviet ‘Human Rights’ Campaign! Full Democratic Rights for Homosexuals!” He and his partner joined the SL in the months after the fusion.
It’s hard to talk about being won on the Russian Question without including some personal information. I had joined the L&RU as one of four people from the gay caucus at PCL. The other three were my best friends, sometime housemates and in a way mentors. They made up what would become the L&RU state capitalist minority, which advanced the position that Russia was ruled by a new capitalist class and was as “bad” as U.S. imperialism.
During what was probably a three-month fight, I was constantly being collared at school and at home and argued with. I was repeatedly tested to defend my position as it evolved, which was a good experience. Having the fight centered upon the history of a faction of the SWP that folded to bourgeois pressures was compelling. That is to say, our fight was over the same issue of whether to defend the Soviet Union that divided the SWP in 1939-40. Similar anti-Communist pressures in the 1970s led the minority to tail bourgeois public opinion.
The L&RU minority would often pile on about the crimes of Stalinism. I would respond: so when did the property forms change? Why call this a new capitalist class and not a parasitic bureaucracy? In what year did the counterrevolution you say occurred actually happen? I was never satisfied with their convoluted answers and evasions. At some point I realized that first came their firm resolve to distance themselves from and not defend the Soviet Union. Only later did they develop a theory to justify it. They basically said that by 1938, after the purge trials, a state capitalist class was in control.
The Final Break from Sectoralism
In what was put out as a special supplement to the last issue of Come Out Fighting (May 1977), we addressed why gay oppression—unlike black oppression or women’s oppression—is not a strategic question for Marxists. We pointed out that: “There is absolutely no question that gay people suffer some of the most brutal forms of physical and psychic abuse. However, intensity of oppression doesn’t automatically translate into strategic importance.” And we explained:
“A strategic question is any contradiction that poses a fundamental block to the unification of the working class and is incontestably a principal obstacle to revolution. Without its correct resolution, the seizure of power, the beginning of socialist revolution, cannot be achieved....
“On this basis, we can say, that the black question is a strategic question, and the gay question is not. Racism is probably the largest single brake on the action and consciousness of the American working class. No revolution can be made in the US without the active participation of the most advanced strata of black workers and without breaking the stranglehold of racism on the white workers....
“Gay people are a sizable minority of the population, perhaps the largest single minority. However, by and large gay people do not occupy a special place in the economic life of US society. They are no more concentrated in the working class than in any other class....
“The mistreatment of gays primarily takes the form of discrimination, legal harassment, medical mistreatment, and psychological abuse. It primarily affects gay workers as individuals, not as a group. Substantial super profits are not made by virtue of any special relationship of gays to production.”
However, in this supplement, we still raised the slogan “Gay Liberation Through Socialist Revolution.” Dropping that slogan was our final break from sectoralism.
In June of 1977, we held the Stonewall Conference at PCL. It was there that the majority declared our agreement on the Russian Question, our fusion perspective with the SL and the name change to the Red Flag Union. Others in attendance included the SWP, FSP, RSL and the Socialist Union. While the political meat of the conference was the Russian and party questions, there was a big brouhaha about the SL having a so-called “closet rule.” This guideline is simply that comrades do not share their sexuality as part of their public political profile—i.e., that we want to be identified solely by the program we stand for. It seems a pretty simple thing, and it also provides protection for comrades who might be potentially targeted for victimization. The manufactured uproar over this was a rotten bloc by all those who lost out in seeking fusion with us, and an act of desperation. Here we are doing a national speaking tour, trumpeting a fusion of a group from the gay liberation milieu. And the key question, supposedly, is whether each comrade would publicly share their particular sexuality. The outrage was simply very sour grapes. It was especially rich coming from a group like the SWP which between 1962 and 1970 had forced homosexual members to resign.
The fusion with the RFU enriched the Spartacist League in many ways. It certainly led to a greater exposition of our understanding of homosexual and women’s oppression and the need to replace the bourgeois nuclear family and the oppressive sexual roles it imposes. Organizationally, with the infusion of cadre in addition to our successful regroupments of the previous few years, we were able to shift some resources toward our local in Detroit, seeking to sink some roots in the black proletariat. RFUers all came in as party members and we were spread around the country. Two of our members were immediately co-opted to the Central Committee.
In closing, I have been musing about the relevance of this talk in terms of current youth. You’ve grown up in a post-Soviet world and there has been a retrogression in consciousness. When I was in Montreal, a comrade mentioned the exclusion of males at some feminist events. Again, sectoralism run amok—and whose interest does that serve? There is a deep alienation in class society that benefits the rulers. They proffer the notion that the best you can do is to carve out a protective niche to pursue your own personal interest in this world—a deeply anti-social standpoint.
Modern sectoralism also reflects pessimism about the viability of social struggle in general. But you will find the serious person who has a gut hatred of capitalism, racism and imperialist war and is searching for answers. I came across many outraged youth at the large demonstrations in protest of the racist cop murders of black men in the U.S., and I certainly found it challenging to disabuse them of their illusions and introduce them to a Marxist framework. But that’s our job. There is even more social tinder out there ready to ignite. Nonetheless, while the anger is righteous, the outrage will dissipate if not linked to the power of labor.
While the Bolshevik Revolution is now 40 more years removed than when I came of age politically, the lessons still resound. Uniquely it is the International Communist League that carries that revolutionary tradition forward. It remains our model: a Leninist party leading the working class to state power on behalf of all the oppressed. I remember when I first learned of the Bolsheviks repealing all laws against homosexuality, and of their dogged pursuit to implement women’s emancipation despite challenging objective conditions. The need for a group like the L&RU sort of evaporated in me. The young Soviet workers state had addressed this question without the participation of any gay pressure group. They simply pursued “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.” That is to say, all forms of sexual gratification are private matters. It was simply the application of the science of Marxism by a revolutionary leadership. So, as we approach the 100th anniversary of the Bolsheviks coming to power, we should continue to bring the lessons of October to today’s youth.