Why Socialists Care About Non Economic Issues

Contemporary socialists generally advocate both the abolition of capitalism and the abolition of other oppressive structures which are not strictly economic, such as sexism, racism, ableism and queerphobia. This raises the question: why should socialists place importance on abolishing non-economic forms of oppression? Isn’t socialism just meant to focus on class struggle?

A common answer to this question is that non-economic and economic struggles are inherently connected because capitalism reproduces itself through racism, sexism and so on. For example, capitalists divide the working class by pitting white workers against black workers and thereby prevent the working class from becoming a united bloc capable of emancipating itself. Or capitalists rely on the gender pay gap to pay women workers less and thereby increase their exploitation of the working class. Given this, if socialists are to abolish capitalism then they must fight the non-economic forms of oppression which capitalism reproduces itself through. This answer is correct to point to the ways in which different systems of oppression are interconnected. It however goes wrong in both viewing socialism as intrinsically valuable and in conceptualising the abolition of other forms of oppression as being mere means to achieve the end of socialism.

Socialist authors do not after all argue that we should achieve a socialist society because of its intrinsic value. Instead they argue that human beings should be free to engage in self-directed activity and thereby develop themselves as individuals. For Mikhail Bakunin, freedom meant “the full development of all the material, intellectual and moral powers which are found in the form of latent capabilities in every individual.” (Bakunin 1973, 196) Rudolf Rocker likewise held that, “freedom is not an abstract philosophical concept, but the vital concrete possibility for every human being to bring to full development all the powers, capacities, and talents with which nature has endowed him, and turn them to social account.” (Rocker 2004, 16)

The free and harmonious development of human beings was taken by socialists to be incompatible with a capitalist society because it is a social system in which, to quote Errico Malatesta, “a few individuals have hoarded the land and all the instruments of production and can impose their will on the workers, in such a fashion that instead of producing to satisfy people’s needs and with these needs in view, production is geared towards making a profit for the employers.” (Malatesta 2005, 32) For Emma Goldman this social system “condemns millions of people to be mere nonentities, living corpses without originality or power of initiative, human machines of flesh and blood who pile up mountains of wealth for others and pay for it with a gray, dull, and wretched existence for themselves.” (Goldman 1996, 50). The wage labourer, as Marx argued, “does not confirm himself in his work, he denies himself, feels miserable instead of happy, deploys no free physical and intellectual energy, but mortifies his body and ruins his mind.” (Marx 2000, 88)

The achievement of true human development therefore requires the abolition of capitalism. Its replacement, socialism, is to be a society in which the communal ownership of the means of production provides each individual with the real possibility to flourish. In Henri Saint-Simon’s words the goal of socialism is “to afford to all members of society the greatest possible opportunity for the development of their faculties.” (Quoted in Lebowitz 2006, 13) Or as Bakunin phrased it, the goal of the socialist revolution is to “ensure that all who are born on this earth become fully human in the fullest sense of the word, that all should have not just the right but the means necessary to develop their faculties, to be free and happy, in equality and through fraternity!” (Bakunin 2016, 100)

This same emphasis on human development can be seen in Marx and Engels. Engels writes in his Draft of a Communist Confession of Faith that the aim of a communist society is “[t]o organise society in such a way that every member of it can develop and use all his capabilities and powers in complete freedom and without thereby infringing the basic conditions of this society.” (Engels 1847) This was re-formulated in the Communist Manifesto as the notion that communism is “an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.” (Marx and Engels 2008, 66) Communism is a society in which, as Marx wrote in the Grundrisse, the “development of all human powers as such [is] the end in itself” since each individual is able to achieve the “absolute working-out of his creative potentialities”. (Marx 1993, 488)

If human development is at the core of why socialists advocate the abolition of capitalism in favour of socialism, then it follows that the actual reason why socialists should advocate and engage in the abolition of non-economic forms of oppression is that doing so enables real human beings to develop themselves more fully. Racism, sexism, queerphobia and ableism not only maintain or interact with capitalism but also stifle human development in just the same way that capitalism does. The socialist objection to racism therefore is not only that it prevents working class unity but also that a pre-condition for the human development of people of colour is them not being subordinated and marginalised on the basis of their skin colour. Or socialists should oppose queerphobia because a pre-condition for the human development of queers is them being free to develop themselves as sexual and gendered beings, rather than being forced by bigotry to suppress and attack a core aspect of their humanity. Marx famously defined the “true realm of freedom” as the “development of human powers as an end in itself” and this realm cannot be said to exist if it does not include the development of gay powers and the satisfaction of gay needs. (Marx 1991, 959) The consequence of this is that unless socialists abolish non-economic forms of oppression then they will never achieve their actual main goals of human emancipation and human development. Non-economic issues are, far from being unrelated to socialist politics, absolutely integral to it.


Bakunin, Mikhail. 1973. Michael Bakunin: Selected Writings. Edited by Arthur Lehning. Jonathan Cape.
Bakunin, Mikhail. 2016. Bakunin: Selected Texts 1868-1875. Edited by A W Zurbrugg. Anarres Editions
Engels, Friedrich. 1847. Draft of a Communist Confession of Faith.
Goldman, Emma. 1996. Red Emma Speaks: An Emma Goldman Reader, 3rd Edition. Humanities Press
Lebowitz, Michael. 2006. Build It Now: Socialism for the Twenty-First Century. Monthly Review Press
Malatesta, Errico. 2005. At The Café: Conversations on Anarchism. Freedom Press
Marx, Karl. 1991. Capital: Volume III. Penguin Books
Marx, Karl. 1993. Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy (Rough Draft). Penguin Books
Marx, Karl. 2000. Selected Writings. Edited by David McLellan. Oxford University Press.
Marx, Karl, and Engels, Friedrich. 2008. The Manifesto of the Communist Party. Pluto Press
Rocker, Rudolf. 2004. Anarcho-Syndicalism: Theory and Practice. AK Press


The Internalisation of Abuse

In an abusive relationship it is common for the victim to be attacked, either verbally or physically, by their abuser. The abuser will justify these attacks to themselves and others with a huge array of different reasons. They will say that they only attacked you because you didn’t do as instructed, or you talked back, or you hurt them or made them angry. The specific reasons given are not particularly important. They are merely after the fact justifications for oppressing another human being.

Ultimately abusers abuse their victims because they feel entitled to do so. An abusive boyfriend will think that they have the right to hit their girlfriend or control who she sees and how she dresses. An abusive parent will think they have the right to micro-manage their child’s life and constantly make decisions for the child, as if they were a doll and not a human. These actions are grounded in a value system that they have created in which what they want or think is more important than anybody else. Their abuse is in a sense an attempt to force another person to live according to what they want. What the victim wants is viewed as irrelevant.

During the course of an abusive relationship the victim will come to evaluate themselves and their behavior by the value system of their abuser, rather than by their own set of standards. This occurs due to the victim trying to avoid abuse by not doing things that sets their abuser off. This is a trap. An abuser will always be able find a reason for why you’re deserving of abuse irrespective of what you’re doing. No matter what you do they will always be able to find a way in which you don’t conform to how they think things should be. After all, nothing is ever perfect and can always be found to be inadequate.

The victim doesn’t realize this and thinks that the abuse tracks their behavior, that they are at fault and so that they deserve the abuse they receive. In some sense this is an attempt to regain control over the situation. You can control your behavior and so fixate on that. This is part of why victims so often blame themselves for their abuse. They internalise the abuser’s notion that the victim shouldn’t have made them angry or should have done as instructed.

It is because of this that one of the hardest parts of healing from abuse is unlearning your abusers value system and no longer evaluating yourself by the standards of your abuser. To be free from oppression is not only to no longer be actively oppressed by another person but is also to no longer limit what one thinks, says, or does to what was permitted by your oppressor. It is a matter of learning to live in freedom by learning to decide for yourself how you shall live.  I have found that doing so is a constant struggle against those aspects of myself that continue to operate as if I am still living in chains. Although the physical chains have mostly gone the mental ones have remained and it is these that I have found hardest to break.



August Reinsdorf – The Unsuccessful Anarchist Terrorist

One of the most unsuccessful terrorists in history is the German anarchist August Reinsdorf. Reinsdorf’s first plot was to dig a tunnel under the Reichstag, plant explosives at the buildings few supports and ignite them while the Reichstag was in session. Reinsdorf made the mistake of explaining his plan in a letter dated September 1st 1880 to his associate Johann Most, a German anarchist who at the time lived in London and edited the anarchist journal Freiheit. Oskar Neumann, a spy living in London, heard of the plan and subsequently informed the Berlin police. Reinsdorf was arrested on the 14th November while carrying a long dagger near the home of the Berlin chief of police, Guido von Madai, who he likely planned to assassinate. (Carlson 1972, 285)

Despite this initial failure Reinsdorf decided to undergo a second attempt at blowing up Germany’s ruling classes. As he explained in an 1882 letter to an American comrade only the bomb could “inject the whole bourgeoisie and their slaves with total terror” and achieve “complete and utter revenge” “for all the dirty tricks and atrocities” they committed. (Quoted in Linse 1982, 210) This time Reinsdorf and his associates in the town of Elberfeld planned to use dynamite to kill Wilhelm I, alongside many other key members of the German ruling classes, at the inauguration of the Niederwald Monument on the 28th September 1883.

Due to a sprained ankle Reinsdorf was unable to go himself and two of his associates, the saddler Franz Rupsch and the compositor Emil Küchler, went in his place. The day before the event they concealed the dynamite in a drainage pipe which lay underneath the only road leading to the monument and attached a fuse that they led to a nearby tree. The next day Küchler saw the Emperor’s party approaching and gave the signal to Rupsch to ignite the fuse. The fuse, however, failed to burn as it was soaking wet after a night of heavy rain fall. Küchler had been instructed by Reinsdorf to buy a waterproof fuse but had decided to purchase the slightly cheaper normal fuse instead.

After their initial failure Rupsch and Küchler decided to make a second attempt. They moved the dynamite to the nearby town of Rüdesheim and placed the explosives against a wall of the Festhalle where an evening concert was being given. Unknown to them the hall was full of local civilians with the Emperor and his party having gone to the city of Wiesbaden. They ignited the dynamite which blew a hole in the wall of the kitchen. The explosion shattered glass and blew food and wine across the kitchen into the caterer Porsberger. The explosion was so loud that the bartender Johann Lauter was unable to hear for several hours. Fortunately, nobody was killed by the explosion. Realising their total failure Rupsch and Küchler returned to Elberfeld.

On the 29th October an explosion severely damaged the Frankfurt Police Headquarters, which was unoccupied at the time. In reaction the police, despite lacking evidence, arrested Reinsdorf in January and his associates over the course of the next few months in connection with this attack. By December Reinsdorf and his group were on trial for the attempted assassination of the Emperor in Nielderwald and the following bombing of the Festhalle in Rüdesheim, the news of the plot having been publicly announced on the 24th April 1884. It turned out that one of Reinsdorf’s associates, the weaver Carl Palm who had donated 40 marks towards Rupsch and Küchler’s travel expenses, was in fact a police spy and had been informing on the group from the very beginning.

During the trial Reinsdorf actively sought to become an anarchist martyr and went to great lengths to antagonize the jury. He claimed that “the quickest death” was best for a “hunted proletarian” like himself and that if he had ten heads he would gladly lay them all on the block for the cause of anarchism. He went so far as to exclaim that “[t]he people will one day have enough dynamite to blow up all of you and every other member of the bourgeois.” In uttering these words Reinsdorf was trying very hard to secure an execution. The reason being that he was terminally ill and would die anyway. His choice was between a slow death in a hospital bed or a quick death on the executioner’s block. As he said in his last letter to his parents, “Sick as I am, and with a prospect of long suffering, it should be looked upon as a blessing when such an existence is put to a quick death.”

On the morning of February 7th 1885 Reinsdorf and Küchler were executed, with Rupsch having had his death sentence commuted to imprisonment for life. Reinsdorf’s last words before he was decapitated were “I die for humanity, down with barbarism, long live anarchism.” The last words of Küchler, in contrast, were “I die an innocent man, my poor wife, my poor children.” As he said children his head was cut off. The execution lasted a mere fifteen minutes. (Carlson 1972, 288-301)

Although many may wish to consider Reinsdorf an anarchist martyr it should be kept in mind that his plots caused a significant amount of harm to the German socialist movement. Bismarck deliberately ensured that Reinsdorf’s assassination plot against the Emperor was revealed just as the anti-socialist laws, which banned socialists from organising, outlawed trade unions, and shut down socialist newspapers, were up for renewal. The laws were consequently extended in May 1884. (Carlson 1972, 293) Nor did Reinsdorf personally adhere to anarchist principles since he was caught raping a ten year old girl in 1881. After running away from the police and going into hiding he was eventually ruled innocent by a judge because the witnesses, the victim and her mother, were deemed to be unreliable. Reinsdorf is therefore one among many men on the left who has gotten away with sexual violence because women are not believed. (Carlson 1972, 286)


Carlson, Andrew. 1972. Anarchism in Germany, Volume 1: The Early Movement. Metuchen, N.J.: The Scarecrow Press, Inc.
Linse, Ulrich. 1982. “‘Propaganda by Deed’ and ‘Direct Action’: Two Concepts of Anarchist Violence” in Mommson, Wolfgang J and Hirschfeld, Gerhard (eds) Social Protest, Violence and Terror in Nineteenth and Twentieth century Europe, 201-229. London: The Macmillan Press.

What It’s Like to be A Misogynist

When I was 16 I was a misogynist. Part of why I was a misogynist was that I had never actually been friends with women in real life. My knowledge of women stemmed not from real world experience but from how they were depicted in the books, films, television, and pornography that are produced in a patriarchal society. As a result I viewed women as sex objects and felt entitled to their bodies. I didn’t think about what they wanted but only what I wanted. I thought you could manipulate women into having sex with you as if they were some game to be played with, and not a valuable human being with feelings and desires of their own.

When I viewed and treated women this way I didn’t think I was sexist. In fact I thought I believed in gender equality and would complain about sexist men. It was only when I started to become genuine friends with women that I realised that they were fundamentally the same as me because we were both humans. They did not match up to the sexist caricatures of women I had absorbed from media my entire life. Instead they were fully formed people with as complicated and unique a mental life as mine whose personality and interests did not fit within patriarchal notions of womanhood. They were so much more than their bodies, yet before their bodies were all I had seen in them. To me they had just been objects of fantasy, desire and lust. Nice things to look at or touch, rather than complex people deserving of autonomy and respect.

The point at which I started to view women as people was the moment when a gradually came to realise that before I had been a sexist who viewed women as sex objects. From this I learned that realising that you view women as sex objects requires you to know what it is like to view women as fully fledged people. If you have no frame of reference and have not viewed women in multiple ways then how you currently view women will just be how women are to you. You know of no other way of thinking about or relating to women. Because of this if you think of women as sex objects then you will be incapable of realising that you view women as sex objects because you cannot compare viewing women as sex objects with viewing women as people. It is only when you start to view women as people that you can realise that before you did not.

Given this we shouldn’t expect sexists to be persuaded by arguments that they view women as sex objects. They are very unlikely to see that they view women as sex objects until they have the experience of viewing women as people. Nor are they likely to even understand what objectification is because they do not know what it is like to not objectify women. This shouldn’t surprise us since a person’s capacity to understand and to know is heavily connected with what life experiences they have had. Just as it is easier to understand what sexism is if you have personally experienced sexism so too is it harder to see sexism if you are a sexist.

What Do Anarchists Think About Animal Liberation?

Anarchism aims for a society free from oppression and domination. These values have in turn led many anarchists to become vegetarians and vegans, or, at the very least, advocate improved animal welfare. The Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin, for example, claimed that “civilized man . . . will extend his principles of solidarity to the whole human race, and even to the animals.” (Kropotkin, 1993, 136) This view was most consistently and fully articulated by the French anarchist and geographer Elisée Reclus, who wrote against the oppression of animals by humans as early as 1896 and 1901.

For Reclus, meat eating rests on a simultaneous process of violence against and degradation of non-human animals. He writes,

Today’s domestication of animals exhibits in many ways moral regression since, far from improving animals, we have deformed and corrupted them. Although through selective breeding we have improved qualities such as strength, dexterity, scent, and speed in racing, as meat-eaters our major preoccupation has been to increase the bulk of meat and fat on four legs to provide walking storehouses of flesh that hobble from the manure pile to the slaughterhouse. Can we really say that the pig is superior to the wild boar or the timid sheep to the courageous mouflon? The great art of breeders is to castrate their animals and create sterile hybrids. They train horses with the bit, whip, and spur, and then complain that the animals show no initiative. Even when they domesticate animals under the best possible conditions, they reduce their resistance to disease and ability to adapt to new environments, turning them into artificial beings incapable of living spontaneously in free nature.

Such degradation of species is itself a great evil, but civilized science goes even further and sets about exterminating them. We have seen how many birds have been wiped out by European hunters in New Zealand, Australia, Madagascar, and the polar archipelagos, and how many walruses and other cetaceans have already disappeared! The whale has fled the waters of the temperate zone, and soon will not even be found among the ice shields of the Arctic Ocean. All the large land animals are similarly threatened. We already know the fate of the aurochs and the bison, and we can foresee that of the rhinoceros, the hippopotamus, and the elephant. (Reclus 2013, 134-5)

This mistreatment of other animals is itself symptomatic of how people destroy the natural environment in order to meet their own ends. Reclus writes,

Isn’t this moreover the way that we act in relation to all of nature? Let loose a pack of engineers in a charming valley, in the midst of meadows and trees, or on the banks of a beautiful river, and you will soon see what they are capable of doing to it. They will do everything in their power to make their own work conspicuous and hide nature under piles of gravel and coal. They will be quite proud to see the sky crisscrossed by streaks of filthy yellowish or black smoke from their locomotives. (Reclus 2013, 158)

The violent and non-caring treatment of non-human animals in turn acts as a foundation for violence against fellow humans. Reclus asks how Europeans who committed atrocities when crushing the Boxer Rebellion in China came to be “wild beasts with human faces who take pleasure in tying Chinese people together by their clothing and pigtails and then throwing them into a river? How is [it] possible for them to finish off the wounded and force prisoners to dig their own graves before shooting them?” (Reclus 2013, 158-9) Reclus replied,

But isn’t there a direct causal relationship between the food eaten by these executioners, who call themselves “civilizers,” and their brutal deeds? They often praise bloody flesh as a source of health, strength, and intelligence. And without disgust they go into butcher shops with slippery reddish pavement and breathe the sickly sweet odor of blood! How much difference is there between the dead carcass of a cow and that of a man? Their severed limbs and entrails mixed in with one another look quite similar. The slaughter of the former facilitates the murder of the latter, especially when an order resounds from a superior, or when one hears from afar the words of his royal master, “Show no mercy!” (Reclus 2013, 159)

For Reclus,

It is in no way a digression to mention the horrors of war in connection with massacres of cattle and carnivorous banquets. People’s diet corresponds closely to their morality. Blood calls for blood. (Reclus 2013, 159)

The murder of non-whites by Europeans rested, according to Reclus, on the same kind of thinking that underlies meat eating culture, such as the notion that it is wrong to kill cats but ok to kill pigs. The morality of white supremacy,

holds that there are two laws for mankind, one law for those with yellow skin and another law that is the prerogative of the whites. Apparently in the future it will be permissible to kill or torture the former, while it will still be wrong to do so to the latter. But isn’t morality equally flexible when applied to animals? By goading dogs on to tear a fox to pieces, the gentlemen learns how to send his marksmen after the fleeing Chinese. The two kinds of hunt are part of one and the same “sport,”. (Reclus 2013, 159)

To overcome forms of sectarianism such as nationalism or racism humans must come to view one another as part of an international human family. As Reclus writes, “[e]ach individual must be able to address any of his peers in complete brotherhood”. (Reclus 2013, 231) Likewise humans should come to consider non-human animals as part of an extended family composed of all living things. We should come to understand that what we are taught to consider “meat on feet” in fact “loves as we do” and “feels as we do”. For the vegetarian,

the real concern is to recognize the bonds of affection and kindness that link man to animals. . . The horse and the cow, the wild rabbit and the cat, the deer and the hare – these are more valuable to us as friends than as meat. We are eager to have them either as respected fellow workers, or simply as companions in the joy of living and loving.” (Reclus 2013, 160) Or as Reclus says elsewhere, vegetarians seek to make other animals “neither our servants nor our machines, but rather our true companions. (Reclus 2013, 136)

Coming to view other animals as friends rather than food is merely an expansion of what humans already do with their favourite animals. Reclus writes,

just as there are many carnivores today who refuse to eat the flesh of man’s noble companion, the horse, or that of those pampered guests in our homes, the dog and the cat – in the same way it is repugnant to us to drink the blood of the steer, an animal whose labour helps supply us with bread. We no longer want to hear the bleating of sheep, the bellowing of cows, or the grunts and piercing cries of pigs as they are led to the slaughterhouse. (Reclus 2013, 161)

The process of coming to treat other animals as friends rests on nourishing, rather than destroying, the natural environment that we share with all other life forms. Reclus writes that we must “develop the part of the earth that falls to us so as to make it as pleasant as possible, not only for ourselves, but also for the animals of our household.” (Reclus 2013, 160) As Reclus wrote elsewhere,

To develop the continents, the seas, and the atmosphere that surrounds us; to “cultivate our garden” on earth; to rearrange and regulate the environment in order to promote each individual plant, animal, and human life; to become fully conscious of our human solidarity, forming one body with the planet itself; and to take a sweeping view of our origins, our present, our immediate goal, and our distant ideal – this is what progress means. (Reclus 2013, 233)


Kropotkin, Peter. 1993. Fugitive Writings. Black Rose Books.
Reclus, Elisée. 2013. Anarchy, Geography, Modernity: Selected Writings of Elisée Reclus. PM Press.




Homosexuality in Medieval Europe

People in medieval Europe did not have the concept of the homosexual or the heterosexual. Instead they distinguished between whether or not one was chaste or sexually active and whether or not one engaged in reproductive sex, the penetration of a vagina by a penis, or non-reproductive sex, such as anal or oral sex, regardless of the gender of those involved. They did not think in terms of sexual orientation, but rather in terms of the different kinds of sex acts that a person could perform or have performed on them. (Karras 2012, 8-9) Unfortunately, we do not know what homosexuals in medieval Europe thought about themselves. Instead we are generally forced to view the homosexual of medieval Europe through the words of authors concerned with the morality of Christian society, such as homophobic priests. (Karras, 172-3)

The authors of medieval Europe did not understand sex as a shared activity engaged in by two or more people of any gender. Sex was not something that people did together. It was something that one person did to another. Specifically, a man penetrating a women’s vagina with their penis. A medieval English text on the sinfulness of lust, for example, explains that the sin belongs to both parties: “the man that doth and the woman that suffreth.”  While a 1395 summary of the interrogation of a male transvestite prostitute in London states that a priest “lay with him as with a woman” but that the prostitute also “lay as a man with many nuns.” (Karras, 3) Within this framework the man did and so was active while the women received and so was passive.

This way of thinking about sex would have grave implications for homosexual sex. A man penetrating another man was a perversion of how sex should be since a man’s role was to be active and penetrate, rather than to be passive and be penetrated. The 12th Century poet Alain of Lille wrote in his poem ‘The Plaint of Nature’ that “The active sex shudders in disgrace as it sees itself degenerate into the passive sex. A man turned woman blackens the fair name of his sex . . . He is subject and predicate; one and the same term is given a double application.” Nature as personified in the poem remarks that “the human race, fallen from its high estate, adopts a highly irregular (grammatical) change when it inverts the rules of Venus by introducing barbarisms in its arrangement of genders.” (Quoted in Karras, 3-4)

This way of thinking can be seen in the fact that the phrase “sin against nature” was often used as a synonym for sodomy. In medieval Europe the term sodomy was used in two senses. It either meant any sex that was not procreative intercourse, such as anal sex between two men, a man ejaculating their semen into any area other than a vagina, a man having anal sex with a women and so on or it referred specifically to anal sex between two men (Karras, 173) Sodomy in the sense of anal sex between two men was outlawed by the Church from the 12th century onward. The Third Lateran Council in 1179 stated that clerics who committed “that incontinence, which is against nature, because of which ‘God’s wrath came upon the sons of disobedience’ and consumed five cities with fire,” should be expelled from the clergy or do penance in a monastery, while lay people should be excommunicated. While secular jurisdictions, such as Castile, Portugal, several Italian towns and French counties, came to prescribe the death penalty for male same-sex relations during the course of the 13th century. Although we do not have surviving court records of this punishment being enforced until the 14th and 15th century. (Karras, 176)

Medieval authors do not frame a man who was anally penetrated by another man as having a sexual preference for men. Instead because they were penetrated and so played the passive role in sex it was thought that they had a preference for being a woman since to be a woman was to be penetrated. (Karras, 167) The idea that there was something feminine about being the passive partner can be seen in the sermons of Bernadino of Siena in the 15th century. Bernadino was so homophobic that he praised Venice for burning sodomites at the stake and found that the mere thought of sodomy filled his soul with “a horrible stench”. In his mind sodomy was an older man penetrating a passive teenage boy who invited sexual attention by wearing effeminate and elaborate clothing. (Karras, 178)

In part due to the sermons of Bernadino the city of Florence established an ‘Office of the Night’ in 1452. This city body had the task of placing boxes around Florence which people could deposit anonymous accusations of sodomy in. These accusations could in turn lead to prosecution and death. From the records of the ‘Office of the Night’ we know that 82.5% of active partners were 19 or older and that passive partners tended to be aged between 12 and 20, with 84% aged between 13 and 18. Only 3% of passive partners were over 20. Men would often begin their sexual encounters with other men as a passive partner before becoming an active partner as they aged and grew into an adult. There were of course exceptions to this rule. The 63 year old sodomite Salvi Panuzzi was condemned to death in 1496 but had his sentence commuted to a fine and life on bread and water. This was done because Panuzzi was a passive partner and the publicity of his execution would bring embarrassment to the city since it was much more improper for an older man to be acting like a woman than a young boy. (Karras, 179-80)

The medieval framing of sex as an active man penetrating a passive woman not only effected homosexual men. In the case of lesbians it was thought that since, in the absence of a dildo, no penetration with a phallic object happened it followed that lesbians were not even having sex, let alone perverting it. (Karras, 4) This viewpoint can be seen in a poem from 1178. It reads,

“These ladies have made up a game:
with two bits of nonsense they make nothing;
they bang coffin against coffin,
without a poker stir up their fire.
They don’t play at “poke in the paunch,”
but join shield to shield without a lance.
They have no concern for a beam in their scales,
nor a handle in their mold.
Out of water they fish for turbot
and they have no need for a rod.
They don’t bother with a pestle in their mortar
nor a fulcrum for their see-saw.” (Quoted Karras, 142)

An extreme case of the extent to which lesbian sex was not considered sex is that medieval medical writers recommended that women who lacked a legitimate sexual partner, such as virgins or widows, should have their genitalia stimulated by a midwife. This was advocated because it was thought that the regular emission of seed was necessary for a healthy life and that women, like men, emitted seeds through orgasm. Such a practice was not considered a sex act by medical writers. It was merely one woman, a medical practitioner, doing their professional duty in order to secure the good health of another woman.

The fact that lesbian sex was not considered sex is part of why it was subject to far less legal persecution than male homosexual sex. Historians have so far only found twelve prosecutions of lesbian sex in the entire medieval period. This is not because only a tiny number of women had sex with other women in medieval Europe. Rather it is because courts and judges were not in a position to understand what offence two women committed together unless they mirrored the penetrator-penetrated dichotomy of heterosexual sex. (Karras, 141) As a result of this, lesbian sex only became sex-like and so subject to prosecution when a dildo was involved. That dildo’s were used we know from such sources as a medical text from 1504. It tells us that wives of Italian merchants used dildos with each other while their husbands were away on business and thereby avoided the risk of pregnancy that a male lover brought. For a women to use a dildo on another women was to violate gender norms by being an active penetrator who acted like a man, rather than as a passive women who was penetrated. In such instances, like with male homosexual sex, it was considered a disturbance of the natural order. (Karras, 144)

An indication of the extent to which lesbian sex with a dildo was subject to greater disdain can be seen in the Penitential of Bede which assigns three years of penance for “a woman fornicating with a woman,” and seven for “nuns with a nun by means of an instrument.” Although the key factor here may be that the sexual transgression was performed by nuns, and so subject to greater punishment, rather than because the nuns used an “instrument”. (Karras, 141) A startling example of the risks that came with dildo use is the 1477 execution of the lesbian Katherina Hetzeldorfer in Speyer. Women testified that she wanted to “have her manly will” with them and “behaved exactly like a man with women.” Hetzeldorfer herself confessed that she used a “piece of wood that she held between her legs” and “that she made an instrument with a red piece of leather, at the front filled with cotton, and a wooden stick stuck into it.” (Karras, 142) For the use of this home-made strap on dildo Hetzeldorfer was killed and traditional gender norms surrounding sex were re-enforced.

How medieval people thought about both homosexual men and lesbians provides a startling example of the extent to which homophobia and patriarchy are inter-twinned. The maintenance of patriarchy rested on a sexual division of labour whereby the man was the penetrator and the woman was the penetrated. Any deviation from this norm was sinful and a crime against God and nature. The medieval objection to homosexuality was not that there was something wrong with finding a member of the same sex attractive. Rather it was that to engage in homosexual sex was for a man to treat another man like a woman, for a man to act like a woman, or for a woman to act like a man. The price of subverting these gender roles through sex was in many parts of medieval Europe death. Just like today patriarchy in medieval Europe reproduced itself not only through violence against women but also through violence against any who challenged, subverted or violated the gender binary.


Karras, Ruth Mazo. 2012. Sexuality in Medieval Europe: Doing Unto Others, 2nd Edition. Routledge

Marx and Engels Were Not Egalitarians

Marx and Engels are often depicted as egalitarians by people on the right. In reality Marx and Engels rejected equality as a social ideal and as a permanent yardstick against which social arrangements should be judged. This can be seen in Marx and Engel’s reaction to the programme of the Socialist Workers’ Party of Germany.

In March 1875 Engels complained in a letter that the programme mistakenly advocated “[t]he elimination of all social and political inequality”, rather than “the abolition of all class distinctions”. For Engels, the goal of total social equality was impossible and represented the ambitions of an under-developed form of socialism. He wrote,

As between one country, one province and even one place and another, living conditions will always evince a certain inequality which may be reduced to a minimum but never wholly eliminated. The living conditions of Alpine dwellers will always be different from those of the plainsmen. The concept of a socialist society as a realm of equality is a one-sided French concept deriving from the old “liberty, equality, fraternity,” a concept which was justified in that, in its own time and place, it signified a phase of development, but which, like all the one-sided ideas of earlier socialist schools, ought now to be superseded, since they produce nothing but mental confusion, and more accurate ways of presenting the matter have been discovered.(Engels 1875)

According to Raymond Geuss in ‘Philosophy and Real Politics’ Marx makes two main points about equality in his 1875 ‘Critique of the Gotha Programme’. (Geuss 2008, 76-80) Firstly, Marx claims that it makes no sense to speak of equality in the abstract. This is because we can only understand what it means for x to be equal or unequal with y if we first specify the dimensions along which they are being compared. For x to be equal to y is for them to be equal in a particular concrete respect. For example, if x and y are people then they can only be judged equal relative to particular criteria such as their height, how many shoes they own, or how much cake they have eaten. Therefore, one can only be in favour of equality along specific dimensions, such as equality of cake consumption, and never equality as an abstract ideal.

Secondly, Marx claims that advocating equality along one dimension, such as everyone in a society earning the same amount of money per hour worked, will lead to inequality along other dimensions. Everyone earning an equal amount per hour of work would, for example, lead to those who work more having more money than those who work less. As a result, those unable to work a large amount (if at all) such as disabled people, old people, or women who are expected to do the majority of housework, will be unequal with those who can work more, such as the able-bodied, young people, or men. Or those doing manual labour, and so unable to work long hours due to fatigue, will be unequal to those who engage in non-manual labour and so can work more hours. If a society decides to instead ensure equality of income by paying all workers the same daily wage then there would still be inequality along other dimensions. For example, workers who don’t have to provide for a family with their wage will have more disposable income than workers with families. Therefore we can never reach full equality but merely move equality and inequality around along different dimensions.

If Marx was not an egalitarian in the strict sense of the term then what was he? The answer in short is a believer in human freedom and human development. For Marx, the “true realm of freedom” consists in the “development of human powers as an end in itself”.  (Marx 1991, 959) As a result, he conceives of a communist society as one in which “the full and free development of every individual forms the ruling principle”. (Marx 1990, 739) In such a society there are “[u]niversally developed individuals, whose social relations, as their own communal . . . relations, are hence also subordinated to their own communal control”. This “communal control” includes “their subordination of their communal, social productivity as their social wealth”. (Marx 1993, 162, 158) Marx therefore justified the forms of equality he did advocate, such as the communal ownership and control of the economy, on the grounds that they led to human freedom and human development, rather than simply because they were egalitarian.


Geuss, Raymond. Philosophy and Real Politics (Princeton University Press, 2008).

Engels, Frederick. Engels to August Bebel in Zwickau (1875) https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1875/letters/75_03_18.htm

Marx, Karl. Capital Volume I (Penguin Books, 1990)

——— Capital Volume III (Penguin Books, 1991)

——— Critique of the Gotha Programme (1875)

——— Grundrisse (Penguin Books, 1993)