Once upon a time, same-sex marriage was legalized, transgender people were allowed to serve in the army, an openly gay man was minister of foreign affairs, discrimination was removed from the law, and it was a simple administrative matter to have one’s gender changed on official documents. Where was this wondrous place? When was it that such laws—which went further than those of any modern country in terms of basic democratic and human rights—were enacted? Most importantly, why aren’t such laws in place everywhere today? Not surprisingly for Marxists, the country in question was the Soviet Union, and the laws in question were passed during the ascendant phase of the revolution, from 1917 until 1926, under Lenin and Trotsky’s leadership. Also not surprisingly, these laws were subsequently repealed by the Stalinist counterrevolution, which crushed all the social and political gains of Bolshevism underfoot.
The career of Georgy Chicherin, Commissar of Foreign Affairs from 1918 to 1930, is representative of this process. When he returned to Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution, Chicherin was appointed Trotsky’s deputy in the negotiations leading up to the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, and followed Trotsky as Commissar of Foreign Affairs in May of 1918. In that capacity, Chicherin, an openly gay man, acted as the representative of the Soviet state on a world stage. Among other accomplishments, he signed the Treaty of Rapallo on behalf of the Soviet state and—irony of ironies—negotiated the status of the Catholic Church in Russia with Eugenio Pacelli, the man who would go on to become Pope Pius XII. However, despite his workaholic habits and diplomatic skill, Chicherin entered into conflict with Stalin, was effectively pushed aside from his position in 1928, finally removed in 1930, and references to him were expunged after his death in 1936. A political exile under tsarism, raised up and given a chance to develop his talents by Bolshevism, he was tossed aside by the counterrevolution of Stalinism. In this he is perhaps representative of everyone oppressed along the lines of gender and sexuality in the former Tsarist Empire and the Soviet Union.
Under tsarism, homosexuality was illegal. Never mind marriage equality, individuals not conforming to the predominant "norms" of gender and sexuality could find themselves hauled off to prison merely for existing and confiding in the wrong person. The situation was changed overnight when the Bolsheviks took power. Although the old tsarist laws were not completely disposed of until 1922, when homosexuality was left out of the new criminal code and same-sex marriage legalized, there is not the slightest shred of evidence to suggest that the old laws were enforced from November 7, 1917 onward. In effect, the entirety of the old tsarist law had been thrown into the fire immediately after the winning of power by the working class.
In 1926, the revolution allowed individuals to have their gender identification changed on passports and other official documents at will, without the need for undergoing surgery, psychological counseling, or submitting to any other such requirement. State-sponsored research began to take place on intersex issues. The future seemed bright for all previously marginalized sex, (a)gender, and sexual identities. Although the Bolsheviks didn’t necessarily begin with any great focus or insight on LGBTQ+ issues [a modern term used here because the terminology used to describe such individuals at that time is antiquated, offensive, exclusive, or all of the above], it is clear that they had a basic position of opposition to prejudice and discrimination.
The Bolshevik Grigorii Batkis, Director of the Institute for Social Hygiene, described the position in the following way: "The present sexual legislation in the Soviet Union is the work of the October revolution. This revolution is important not only as a political phenomenon which secures the political role of the working class, but also for the revolutions which evolving from it reach out into all areas of life... [Soviet legislation] declares the absolute non-involvement of state and society in sexual relations, provided they harm no one and infringe upon no one's interests... Homosexuality, sodomy and various other forms of sexual gratification set forth in European legislation as offences against public morality are treated by Soviet legislation exactly as is so called 'natural' intercourse." The Soviet Union would undoubtedly have seen a flourishing of human possibility, far beyond anything so far dreamt, had the disaster of isolation and Stalinism not intervened.
Cut off from the world and isolated in conditions of extreme technical and productive backwardness, in a country ravaged by imperialist war, civil war, and famine, the Soviet power struggled to survive. A counterrevolutionary bureaucracy developed within the Soviet state and the party itself, like a malevolent cancer. As war and famine necessitated harsh measures in order to survive, it grew and was consolidated around the person of Stalin. Thus, from 1924, the year Lenin died, until 1928, when Trotsky was exiled and the Left Opposition effectively dismantled, a process took place in the Soviet Union resulting in the dictatorship of the bureaucracy, led by Stalin, and the strangulation of Soviet democracy, although in the framework of a nationalized planned economy. The Stalinist bureaucracy eventually liquidated all the social and political gains of the revolution, leaving only the planned economy as the great economic conquest of the revolution, until that, too, was to vanish with the collapse of Stalinism under its own bureaucratic weight, and the disintegration of the USSR in the 1990s.
The political counterrevolution started resurrecting past bourgeois “moral values,” while attempting to dress it up in “Marxist-Leninist” terminology. In 1933, homosexuality was banned and subject to a penalty of up to 5 years hard labor. Stalinist propaganda linked homosexual behaviors to fascism. In 1936, Justice Commissar Nikolai Krylenko summarized the official position by declaring that the anti-gay Article 121 of the criminal code was aimed at the old ruling classes—thus linking homosexuality in an appallingly un-Marxist manner with the former tsarist aristocracy and Russian bourgeoisie. As the bureaucratization of the Comintern took place in step with the bureaucratization of the USSR, the Russian Stalinists were able to broadcast their homophobia and transphobia into official Communist Parties all across the world. There was a reactionary regression on these questions in all these parties although not without some resistance on the part of ordinary party members as exemplified by British Communist Harry Whyte’s famous letter to Stalin.
This is how the Bolsheviks approached what we now describe as LGBTQ+ issues—from the perspective of doing away with all oppression and creating a world where humanity would finally be allowed to develop free of the constraints of class society. Just how advanced things were under Soviet rule nearly 100 years ago is evidenced by the fact that the United States did not fully legalize “sodomy” until the year 2003!
In the US today, marriage equality may have been won, but the struggle continues on issues from workplace protections to the basic democratic right of transgender people to use restrooms and other public facilities without being harassed, misgendered, or subject to violence. Marxists side with the oppressed in these struggles, as in all others, and are the most uncompromising fighters against homophobia and transphobia.
Above all, the Russian Revolution shows how proletarian revolution can in practice do many times more for the oppressed layers than single-issue reformism ever will. Nonetheless, it is a common slander that Marxists are concerned “only” with economic conditions, focusing exclusively on class, with no regard for race, gender, and sexuality. Nothing could be further from the truth. What Marxists explain is that such issues do not exist in isolation, that various forms of oppression do not simply intersect in individual terms, but express causal relationships on a social level, and that class exploitation and oppression is the foundation. Sweep away class society and all the old prejudices and oppressions begin to crumble.
This does not mean that it is not necessary to struggle against various forms of oppression, discrimination and prejudice, but that the struggle against them necessarily follows from the struggle against class exploitation. It does not mean that sexism, racism, homophobia, or transphobia will automatically vanish overnight because socialism has been achieved. These forms of prejudice and discrimination will gradually disappear over time as socialism removes the material base and class divisions upon which they are based. The main point we have to emphasize is that it will not be possible to achieve socialism if we do not fight in unity, as a class, against our common oppressors. The Bolsheviks understood this and, both before and after the taking of power, hurled themselves into the fray on the side of the exploited and oppressed. We must learn from their great example.