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The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 17-JAN 18

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DEC 17-JAN 18 Issue
Field Notes

The Future of the Past

On November 7th, 2017, the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution was celebrated. Wrongly. The revolution has no anniversary because it did not happen in a single day. The storming of the Winter Palace was a military maneuver, hardly bigger than the May Day demonstrations in Berlin. In reality, the Russian Revolution consisted of a multitude of revolutionary waves that ran together and against each other, piling up and overflowing into each other, often breaking or ebbing too soon.

The revolution lived in the mass desertion of the First World War (“peace!”), in the unlawful expropriation of feudal land (“bread!”), and in the formation of workers' councils (“All Power to the Soviets!”). It showed itself in the villages, where farmers refused to pay the church tax, in the brothels, where sex workers went on strike, and in bourgeois dwellings, where domestic workers left their chambers and moved into bright living rooms.

Asked when the Russian Revolution began, many historians tend to say February 23, 1917, or March 8, which according to today's calendar, is International Women’s Day. The demand for the overthrow of the Czar grew out of a demonstration for sexual equality and more bread. What followed was the most emancipatory sexual and gender politics the modern world had seen so far: universal suffrage for all genders was enforced already by the Provisional Government. The early Soviet government also legalized abortion, abolished discrimination against illegitimate children, and turned marriage and divorce into bureaucratic trivialities: a slip of paper was enough.

If today in Putin’s Russia the ban on “propagating homosexuality” is justified by claiming that “homosexual activity” is “non-Russian,” that can only be done by denying history: Russia was one of the first places on earth where Christian “sodomy laws” were annulled. But the queer feminism of the revolution went far beyond that.

Reporting a marriage “against nature”

In 1922, the story of a marriage between a member of the Cheka, the political police of the Bolsheviks, and a postal worker came to public attention. Worried citizens had reported the marriage to the local authorities because it concerned a relation between a cis woman and a trans man or drag king. Thus, to the informers, it was a marriage “against nature.” In 2017 Germany, often seen as very progressive concerning gender and sexual regulations, announced the so-called "transsexual law" (TSG) would be used. This law is a disgusting concoction whose name already represents an anachronism, and that requires people who want to enter their chosen name in the German passport to expose themselves to pathologization by psychologists and the assessment of a judge. With regard to marriage or parenthood, the purpose of the TSG is above all to enforce the cis-gender norm and to make life hell for all those who are not satisfied with it.

How refreshing, however, was the logic that the Soviet court followed almost a century ago. It declared that particular marriage to be lawful, simply because it was concluded by mutual agreement. That's it. The Russian Revolution was obviously ahead not only of its time. But also ours.

Perhaps the Soviet court was so relaxed when handling marriage law because it did not care for the protection of bourgeois marriage anyway. The institution of marriage only remained alive thanks to a tactical calculation: the Bolsheviks wanted to limit the power of the Orthodox Church. Anyhow, in 1917 marriage for all would not have seemed like a particularly progressive slogan. The aim of radicals was not the expansion, but the abolition of this patriarchal institution and all its privileges, in other words—marriage for nobody. This was no accident. Marxist theoreticians such as Friedrich Engels, August Bebel, Clara Zetkin, and Alexandra Kollontai understood the division of the world into the sphere of reproduction and the sphere of production, into family and work, as the material basis of gender difference and patriarchy.

They discovered that the family had already lost influence due to capitalist industrialization, and so they called for completing this process. They wanted to liberate people from the misery of the nuclear family, from all the atrophy, abuse, and suffering it generates. If children were freed from cramped apartments and if care for the elderly and the sick was no longer privatized, if no one had to cook, wash, and clean at home, and if tenderness was no longer limited to romantic relationships, then the family would finally be superfluous. All the work done in its sphere would now be organized in public. In reality, that meant the state. Female-coded work in the family household would be replaced nationwide by male-coded wage work.

Here we see the masculinist limitation of the traditional socialist model of emancipation. Gender equality meant equality with men. This politics of impoverishment is partly responsible for the cruel failure of the first great socialist experiment. At the same time, it indicates where it left long-lasting effects. When, in the 1930s, the “sexual counter-revolution” of Stalinism stopped the dawn of revolution, it made a notable exception. Homosexuality was criminalized again, abortion banned, and the nuclear family promoted as the nucleus of the state. However, the female employment rate continued to rise, and is still higher in Russia today than in the USA.

How feminism is denounced today

Today, given the right-wing backlash, feminism is often denounced as identity politics. This is a gross misunderstanding. Struggles for sexual emancipation are fought on the material basis of society; they are struggles about the division of the world—into rationality and emotionality, anonymity and intimacy, the public sphere and the private. And only here can they be won. This is demonstrated by the anti-feminist backlash in times of crisis. It is not by chance that the new fascism rises again to defend the family. The family promises security and belonging against the indifference, competition and precarity of capitalism.

However, the disempowered family can rarely fulfill the hopes placed in it. For its constant failure, scapegoats are sought—and found in feminists, queers, migrants, refugees. Enlightening educational work will not change much, not anymore than elections will. What creates fear over and over again is the way in which we shape our basic social relations: not the much-discussed racist fear of an imaginary danger or even the little-discussed real fear of the racist danger. What the capitalist economy inevitably creates is a general fear: the fear of not being enough, of being superfluous, of being replaced. “The abolition of fear,” Theodor W. Adorno succinctly put, “is the task of the revolution.” 

Translated by Jacob Blumenfeld

Originally published: Oct 25. 2017!5453878/


Bini Adamczak

Bini Adamczak (Berlin) works as a social theorist and artist who writes on political theory, queer politics, and the past future of revolutions. She is the author of Communism for Kids (MIT) and Yesterday's Tomorrow. On the Loneliness of Communist Specters and the Reconstruction of the Future (MIT, forthcoming)


The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 17-JAN 18

All Issues