Newsletter #64: Sexuality and Class Conflict w/ Max Fox and Chris Nealon

By Michal Schatz

Reflecting on his time in the British Communist Party’s Historians’ Group (CPHG), Eric Hobsbawm once wrote that he and comrades like EP Thompson, John Saville, and Christopher Hill saw themselves “not as a sect of true believers … but ideally as leaders of a broad progressive movement such as we had experienced in the 1930s.” Reading their work and correspondence from that period, it’s hard not to feel the energy that Hobsbawm was describing. Beginning with their work in the CPHG, Hobsbawm and his contemporaries sought to explain historical processes through a Marxist analysis, often championing the agency and revolutionary character of working people. They developed new methods of historical inquiry, recognized today under the umbrella of “social history,” that offered novel analyses for familiar events like the French Revolution and cultivated new avenues of inquiry for historical processes like class formation.

As an undergrad in the nascent days of Obama’s politically vacant second term, I found the British Marxists’ determination to write history as a form of political activity totally electrifying. Dan’s conversation with Max Fox and Chris Nealon about Christopher Chitty’s posthumous book Sexual Hegemony: Statecraft, Sodomy, and Capital in the Rise of the World System brought me back to that thrilling feeling of encountering a work produced by focused political commitment and unbounded intellectual creativity.

Chitty’s work shares the British Marxists’ quality of political urgency that separated their scholarship from so many of their contemporaries’. In Chitty’s story, the making of the modern homosexual is bound up with the development of capitalism and class struggle. Considered in this way, homosexuality is transformed from a static, transhistorical concept into a historically contingent category, brought into being through processes of capital accumulation, financialization, and social conflict.

Listen to The Dig’s interview with Max Fox and Chris Nealon here.

Chitty’s materialist analysis of the history and politics of sexuality is needed at a time of mounting attacks on gay and trans rights today. While the US has made tremendous strides toward sexual freedom and acceptance over the past century, we have entered a terrifying moment of violent, state-sanctioned, legally encoded backlash against the LGBTQ+ community. I recently read that my home state Florida’s right-wing government plans to extend its “Don’t Say Gay” law — legislation that already prohibits teachers from speaking to students about gender, sex, and sexuality, and codifies gender essentialism.

This is not limited to the US. Living on what is sometimes referred to as TERF Island, the United Kingdom (TERF stands for “trans-exclusionary radical feminist”), I regularly encounter casual anti-trans sentiment and aggressive displays of gender norms in settings as banal as the local bakery. While the respective countries’ campaigns against gay and trans people seem similar at first glance, their motivations, strategies, and goals are quite different. Chitty’s book argues we must consider the socioeconomic preconditions for the US’s and UK’s distinct politics of sexual repression and the broader processes of which they are a part.

I don’t know whether Chitty shared the CPHG members’ sense that, through his historical research, he was helping lead a broad political movement. But his ambitious reframing of the histories of sexuality and capitalism will inspire thinkers and organizers of the future.

Further Reading If you haven’t done so already, you should definitely read Sexual Hegemony. To learn more about Christopher Chitty’s life and work, Asad Haider’s moving tribute in Historical Materialism is a good place to start. This conversation with Max Fox and Madeline Lane-McKinley, who helped edit Chitty’s work alongside Max, is also worth a read.