AMSAB (Ghent), IISH (Amsterdam), IHC-UMR 5605 (Dijon), EHESS (Paris)

Socialism and Sexuality

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Labour organizations and sexuality
Workshop held by the Institut d'Histoire Contemporaine, Université de Bourgogne, Dijon, 5-6 October 2001. Third session in a series of workshops on Socialism and Sexuality organized by Archives and Museum of the Socialist Workers' Movement AMSAB (Ghent), International Institute of Social History IISH (Amsterdam), Institute of Contemporary History IHC-UMR 5605 (Dijon), and the Laboratory of Historical Demography of the School of High Studies in Social Sciences EHESS (Paris).

The workshop papers were published in Jesse Battan, Thomas Bouchet and Tania Régin, eds., Meetings & Alcôves - The Left and Sexuality in Europe and the United States since 1850 (Dijon, France: Editions Universitaires de Dijon, 2004).

Le socialisme dans tous ses états: parties and organizations, 1850-1930

Jesse F. Battan, Department of American Studies, California State University, Fullerton, USA
'"Socialism Will Cure All But a Bad Marriage": Free Love and the American Labor Movement, 1850-1910' (summary)

Lesley A. Hall, Wellcome Library, London
'"No sex please, we are socialists" the British Labour Party closes its eyes and thinks of England' (summary)

Petra de Vries, University of Amsterdam
'Dutch libertarian socialist movement and prostitution at the end of the 19th century' (summary)

Writing on sexuality: desires and norms

Peter Drucker, International Institute for Research and Education, Amsterdam
'More freedom' or 'more harmony'? Henriette Roland Holst, Jacques Engels and the influence of class and gender on socialists' sexual attitudes (workshop paper, PDF file, 13 pp., 143 Kb)

Tania Régin, University of Burgundy
'Roger Vaillant, a communist writer and a libertine' (summary)

Morgan Poggioli, University of Burgundy
'Some frank words about an indecent subject. l'École Émancipée (1910-1914)' (summary)

Georges Ubbiali, University of Burgundy
'Sexpol. From political sexuality to alternatives?' (summary)


Organisations ouvrières et sexualité
Journée d'étude du 5 octobre 2001, Institut d'Histoire Contemporaine, Université de Bourgogne, Dijon. Troisième du séminaire international "Socialisme et Sexualité" AMSAB (Ghent), IISH (Amsterdam), IHC-UMR 5605 (Dijon), EHESS (Paris).

Les socialistes dans tous leurs états

Jesse F. Battan, Department of American Studies, California State University, Fullerton, USA
'"Le socialisme guérira tout, sauf un mariage raté". Amour libre et mouvement ouvrier américain, 1850-1910' (résumé)

Lesley A. Hall, Wellcome Library, Londres
'"Pas de sexe, s'il vous plaît: nous sommes socialistes". Le Parti travailliste détourne son regard et pense à l'Angleterre (résumé)

Petra de Vries, Université d'Amsterdam
'Dutch libertarian socialist movement and prostitution at the end of the 19th century' (résumé)

Écritures de la sexualité: les désirs et les normes

Peter Drucker, IIRE - Amsterdam
'L'influence de la classe et du genre sur les attitudes sexuelles dans le mouvement ouvrier: quelques décalages entre Henriette Roland Holst et Jacques Engels (Hollande, 1925-1926)' (rapport, PDF file, 13 pp., 143 Kb)   (summary)

Tania Régin, Université de Bourgogne
'Roger Vailland, écrivain communiste et libertin' (résumé)

Morgan Poggioli, Université de Bourgogne
'Quelques libres propos sur un sujet scabreux. l'École Émancipée (1910-1914)' (résumé)

Georges Ubbiali, Université de Bourgogne
'Sexpol, un organe reichien. De la sexualité politique aux alternatives?' (résumé)



click for full imageJesse F. Battan, '"Socialism Will Cure All But a Bad Marriage": Free Love and the American Labor Movement, 1850-1910'.

Beginning with Gerrard Winstanley's seventeenth-century critique of the English Ranters for their profound interest in "meat, drink, pleasure and women" and continuing on until the present there has been a split in the modern revolutionary tradition between an ascetic, patriarchal brand of political radicalism and a more indulgent form of cultural radicalism that rejects inequality and injustice in private life as well as in the marketplace. While for a few brief moments political and cultural radicals have joined together in common cause, the relationship between these two reform traditions can at best be characterized as strained if not openly antagonistic.

A good example of the conflict between these two radical visions can be seen in the struggles within the American labor movement over the role of women in the socialist future. This issue, known as the "woman question," was tied not only to discussions on women's relationship to the market economy but also to the erotic and emotional life that men and women would experience in the coming "cooperative commonwealth." Political radicals--Populists, social-purity crusaders, anarcho-syndicalists, trade unionists, and "scientific" or Marxist socialists--insisted that the problems they associated with the woman question (infidelity, prostitution, "race suicide," the double standard, promiscuity, the decline in the marriage rate, and the rise in the divorce rate) would only be resolved after the destruction of capitalism. They thus concerned themselves with "bread and butter" issues and encouraged all reformers to do likewise. Moreover, from honest conviction as well as from political expediency, they celebrated monogamy and the nuclear family and did everything in their power to distance themselves from the charge that socialism led to "free love."

Another brand of labor activists--free thinkers, feminists, philosophical anarchists, and socialists--were not so quick to deny the connection between economic and sexual revolution. While they agreed that women's oppression was an outgrowth of the rise of private property and an exploitive economic system, they argued that the political radicals' program to end women's economic dependency on middle-class men would not at the same time eliminate their dependency on their working-class husbands. Combining a cultural component to their critique of capitalism, they argued instead that economic changes alone would not inaugurate the utopian future they envisioned. Turning Marx on his head, these cultural radicals maintained that public life was shaped by the institutions that regulate private life and insisted that economic revolution would only occur once the emotional and sexual lives of men and women had been fundamentally transformed. "Marital slavery," they insisted, took precedence over "wage slavery" as the core issue confronting working men and women. As Moses Harman, the editor of the Free Love newspaper Lucifer, the Light-Bearer argued in 1897, all forms of social conflict and economic exploitation, from the gold standard to the unearned salaries and interest stolen by the "ruling classes" from the labor of "the masses," were merely a continuation of the "logical sequence" established by an "older and deeper laid conspiracy against freedom and justice known as the marriage institution." Redefining the issues associated with the woman question and adding the "sex question" to the mix, they rejected patriarchal monogamy and the nuclear family and called for sexual autonomy for women, birth control, and eugenic reform.

This paper examines the ways in which the leaders as well as the rank and file followers of a variety of progressive labor movements battled over the role played by "private issues"--gender roles and the sexual politics of domestic life--in their efforts to transform economic conditions. It also explores what these struggles between political and cultural radicals reveal about class, gender, and sex formations in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century America.


Lesley A. Hall, '"No sex please, we are socialists": the British Labour Party closes its eyes and thinks of England'

Although the parties of the Left in Britain are usually associated with a sexually progressive agenda, this is often only the case because the Conservatives position themselves as the party of "traditional family values ". The British Labour Party has historically manifested a traditional "no sex please, we're British" approach, which can be seen to be apparent even in the famous reforms of 1967. They fit into a longstanding political pattern of delegating responsibility for morally controversial measures to Private Members' Bills, from the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1923 which finally established gender-egalitarian grounds for divorce to David Steel's Abortion Act, or the use of administrative measures to avoid publicity - as with the introduction of various measures to control VD in 1917 by the War government, so with the granting of permission for municipal clinics to give birth control advice in 1930. Sex was not among the benefits introduced by the Welfare State - family planning and marriage guidance were left in the hands of voluntary bodies, mere lip-service was given to sex education, little thought given to the question of venereal diseases within the National Health Service, and the only change bearing on access to divorce was the introduction of Legal Aid.

Why was this so, given that numbers of individuals and organisations on the Left were in favour of some degree of liberalisation of the laws, the introduction of a coherent birth control service, and so forth? Many of these issues were considered to be "women's questions" and not an appropriate matter for political action. The continuing influence of both Nonconformist Protestantism and a strongly masculine Trades Union movement, as well as concern over a significant Catholic lobby within the party, were also factors which militated against Labour Party action.

The factors which enabled the sudden burst of reforming legislation in the 1960s will be considered, and there will be some discussion of the actions of the Blair government in this sphere.


Petra de Vries, 'The daughters of the proletariat. Sexuality and libertarian socialism in the Netherlands 1880-1900.

The history of sexuality seems to inhabit a different world than the history of socialism, the former being associated with private experiences of the body, the latter with "serious" economic and political issues in the public domain. While historians of sexuality increasingly point to the body as a site where power is contested, historians of socialism tend to ignore its role in socialist ideologies. Yet socialism and sex are more closely connected than is usually assumed. Socialism, especially early utopian and libertarian socialism, did address the sexual in their critique of bourgeois society and likewise in their vision of a new society. If one examines the discourse of libertarian socialists and their famous leader Ferdinand Domela Nieuwenhuis in the Netherlands from bout 1880 onward some fascinating observations can be made.

First of all, central in socialist and other discourses on sex was the so-called "prostitution question", the much disputed efforts of local and national authorities to regulate prostitution by the state (in order to control venereal disease). Prostitution was, as the German leader August Bebel said, "a blatant scandal of our civilisation". It was, according to the famous Neo-Malthusian George Drysdale, one of the "great social evils of out time". So why was prostitution so important? What did the exchange of sex for money symbolise for those who criticised the injustices of the market economy? How did this interest in prostitution relate to practical politics and the political subject of socialism?

A second observation that can be made about early socialism is that its efforts to politicise prostitution led its advocates to find allies among those who were otherwise their political antagonists, namely evangelical protestants who were close to the emerging sexual restrictive Christian politics that characterised political culture around 1900. So how can we understand this peculiar coalition of political extremes, how could it be of all things the sexual that bridged the gap?

This paper tries to answer the above-mentioned questions trough an analysis of the discourse on gender and prostitution in Recht voor Allen (Rights for All) the paper of the Social Democratic Union in the period 1880-1890, as well as through many other sources. An effort is made to understand the socialist view on sex and prostitution against the background of abolitionism, the international movement that sought to abolish the regulation of prostitution by the state.


Peter Drucker, 'More freedom' or 'more harmony'?: Henriette Roland Holst, Jacques Engels and the influence of class and gender on socialists' sexual attitudes   (workshop paper, PDF file, 13 pp., 143 Kb)

Sheila Rowbotham once wrote, 'A radical critical history ... requires a continuing movement between conscious criticism and evidence, a living relationship between questions coming from a radical political movement and the discovery of aspects of the past which would have been ignored within the dominant framework.' Her words apply with particular force to the history of labour organizations and sexuality. Historians can find it easier to find criticisms and questions to raise about the past than to sustain the 'continuing movement' required to understand the past in its own terms. The temptation is great simply to compare positions on sexuality taken in labour organizations in the past with positions held by historians in the present. The result can be an idealization of sex-radical forbears or a condemnation of those whose ideas fell short of twenty-first-century enlightenment. In either case this makes for a curiously old-fashioned sort of history, which benefits little from the advances made by social historians outside 'the dominant framework', particularly social historians of sexuality, since the 1970s.

A more fruitful approach is to analyze positions on sexuality taken in labour organizations in the past in the light of knowledge that has been accumulating about the social and sexual patterns of their specific periods: evolving sexual subcultures and gender roles; legal, economic and technological changes; debates in their periods inside and outside the labour movement; and the gender, generational and class diversity of the movement - particularly among its leaders and writers, whose origins were not necessarily in the working class they were championing. Unfortunately the most common sources for the social history of sexuality - police and medical records, diaries, letters - do not usually refer directly to the actors and writers in labour and left history. A reasonable picture of the specific social and sexual background of labour and left organizations could only be the result of years or even decades of research. In the meantime, however, we can try to keep abreast of developments in working-class social history and the social history of sexuality more broadly, and try to draw on this background knowledge as we analyze particular pronouncements on sexual issues from within the labour movement.

As a case in point, this paper tries to apply this approach to two figures in the Dutch workers' movement of the mid-1920s who played significant roles in discussions of sexuality. Henriette Roland Holst (1869-1952), a prominent figure on the Dutch left for half a century, was an intellectual and ideological force to contend with on whatever issue she turned her attention to. Her 1925 book Communism and Morality included a chapter on 'Sexual morality and the proletariat'. Her associate Jacques Engels (1896-1982) published a book the following year, The Communist and His Sexual Morality, which can be seen as a development of, or perhaps in part a response to, Roland Holst's chapter.

What makes the contrast between the two works so instructive is that the two authors were such close associates, and yet nonetheless in discussing several issues arrived at emphases so different that they were tantamount to significant (albeit not explicit) divergences. Both argued for 'more freedom and more harmony' in sexual relations, as Roland Holst put it in her introduction to Engels' book. But when freedom and harmony came into tension - as they often have in socialist discussions of sexuality - Engels tended in some respects to choose freedom (particularly for men) while Roland Holst tended to choose harmony. The two of them constitute a virtual laboratory test case of how different social and personal backgrounds, of two people operating in the same political current in the same society at the same time, could produce divergent standpoints on sexual-political issues.

In terms of their political affiliations in the mid-1920s, Roland Holst and Engels can hardly be told apart. Both were members of the Communist Party of Holland when they met in 1923; both left it in 1924 and joined the dissident communist BKSP; both returned to the CPH in 1925 under Comintern pressure; and both would leave the CPH again, this time for good, in 1927. But their social and personal histories and situations were very different. Roland Holst was a woman from the Dutch economic and cultural elite, able not only to live but to contribute substantially to the left from her inherited wealth. In her long life she was married to one man, the artist Richard Roland Holst, from her own class and milieu. Richard played the role of a roving bourgeois husband in their marriage while Henriette remained resolutely faithful, as well as childless and apparently sexually starved. Engels, if not exactly from a working-class background, had in any event social origins and a home life somewhat closer to the CPH's norm. Brought up in poverty by his mother after his father's early death, he had moved rapidly through a series of low-paid clerical jobs before becoming (quite briefly) a party fulltimer. His first marriage had come under pressure when party leaders discovered that his father-in-law worked for the police, and the marriage would not last. Money and health problems would plague his family over the years. The different standpoints that Roland Holst and Engels arrived at on a number of sexual-political issues may well bear some relation to their different backgrounds.

Three issues in particular can serve to illustrate their different standpoints: domestic labour and the sexual division of labour; monogamy, fidelity and promiscuity; and homosexuality. Roland Holst and Engels were both active on the working-class left at a time when the consignment of domestic labour to women was almost universally seen as inevitable under capitalism, and as possible to abolish only through socialization of household work under socialism. In this context, however, Engels distinguished himself in The Communist and His Sexual Morality by the vehemence with which he denounced contemporary feminists who were neglecting their children, homes and men. Roland Holst's emphasis in her book was much more on how oppressive domestic labour was to women and how urgent it was to relieve them of this burden.

Second, both of them accepted the view predominant among Marxists in their time that, while institutionalized monogamy would disappear in communist society, long-term emotional and sexual partnerships between men and women would flourish all the more. But the two of them occupied virtually opposite extremes of this common ground. Roland Holst stressed how important fidelity, sexual abstinence and sublimation would be in the communist future. Engels stressed how oppressive and unnatural monogamy is and how much more sexual freedom and room for a wide range of relationships there would be under communism.

Engels' view of homosexuality, finally, was very much in keeping with the 'scientific' understanding of a contemporary figure like Magnus Hirschfeld. Seeing homosexuals as congenital representatives of an intermediate sex, he ended up making a backhanded and unusual case for same-sex marriage. Roland Holst did not deal with homosexuality in her 1925 book, but her biographer talks about a great number of supportive personal friendships she had with gays and lesbians, who do not seem to have particularly fit the mould that Engels would have put them in.

Without reducing these two radicals' opinions to products of their gender, class and generation, we can appreciate the ways in which their specific social circumstances and historical trajectories helped lead them to their varying views. Not only was Roland Holst as a woman more sensitive to the burden that domestic labour put on women; as a wealthy women for whom servants or followers took some part of this burden off her shoulders, she was perhaps better able than Engels to imagine how women might escape from it. On the issue of fidelity, it is interesting to compare Roland Holst's views with those of her friend Rosa Luxemburg, who managed to sustain a middle-class lifestyle for years at a stretch even while devoting herself to the socialist movement - Luxemburg demanded fidelity of her partner Leo Jogiches in a way Roland Holst never did with her husband - or with those of a radical like Alexandra Kollontai, thrown despite her own middle-class origins much more into an unstable life of exile, clandestinity and civil war, who lived a very different kind of personal life from Roland Holst and adopted views on fidelity somewhat closer to Engels'.

Roland Holst's and Engels' apparently different notions on homosexuality, finally, may be illuminated by George Chauncey's study of pre-1940 homosexualities in New York. Chauncey concludes that gender and sexual roles were more polarized for longer historical periods in working- and lower-class milieux than in middle-class milieux. All these proposed correlations would need to be tested through extensive social historical investigation. But they seem at least to be promising starting points.


Tania Régin, 'Roger Vailland, novelist, communist and libertin'

This paper will deal with relations between sexuality and labour organizations through the case of Roger Vailland, a novelist who was a member of the French communist party (PCF) from 1951 to 1956.

Roger Vailland was born the 16th of October 1907 in a catholic and bourgeois family. In the 1920's, he was influenced by surrealism and he wrote poems. After studying, he became a reporter to make a living. At the end of the Second World War, he published Drôle de jeu, a first novel about young people from the Resistance for which Vailland received the Prix interallié. In the same period, he became a communist but played no part in politics. After Krouchtchev's report and the repression in Hungary, he withdrew from the PCF.

Is it worth studying Vailland's writings to bring relations between sexuality and labour organisations to light? To what extent can this novelist be considered representative of an organisation, even though he has no responsability in the PCF? Should we not prefer political programs, reports, pamphlets or other propaganda materials to deal with it?

We'll try to justify our approach by defining the preparatory work of Vailland, the content of his novels and the reactions in the press. To sum up, Roger Vailland creates in his novels labour militants (men and women), part of an historical and political context, and he defined them by their sexual and married life. Three figures are given off: the female worker, the "bourgeoise" and the free woman. Through these characters, Vailland compares social dominations with sexual dominations; he denounces this system and works out an ideal-type in which individual emancipation expresses itself in freedom of desires and refusal of possession.

If these portraits inform us of Vailland's conception of the ideal couple and sexuality, the reaction of the communist press constitutes a means to outline the borders of the communist morals in the 1950's.


Morgan Poggioli, 'Some frank words about indecent topics. l'École Émancipée (1910-1914)'

L'École Emancipée is one of the National Federation of French Public Teachers and Colonies Trade Unions (in French: FNSI) weekly papers. This paper is a pedagogical review mixing union, legal and social information, pedagogy and training. Beyond the simple trade union bulletin, l'École Emancipée could appear as the best data support to get into the question of sexuality at school and into its possible understanding by union teachers during the French period called "la Belle Époque". From these two main topics, as gender coeducation and sexual education, we will try to perceive how l'École Emancipée deals with the sexuality question towards children. Moreover, we will see the point of raising such sensitive subject in a deeply chaste and puritan Christian society and focus on the pattern settled. Between the weight of traditions and pedagogical interest, we will study arguments in favor of gender coeducation and sexual education from union teachers, who have a sharp scope not to threat the young secular education. Studying this topic, which may not be easy to get to grips with, we will see which concept and project of a secular school the teachers from FNSI support.


Georges Ubbiali, 'Sexpol. From political sexuality to alternatives?'

Between 1975 and 1980, a small group of activists who were followers of the May 68 movement, published a newspaper called Sexpol (Sexologie Politique). According to them, the prospect of a revolution could not boil down to the sole May 68 political field and its actors. Alongside (or against) those types of extreme-left groups, Sexpol wished to promote a cultural revolution. His reference thinker was Wilhem Reich, whose work is being republished after being ignored for a long time. However the marked political stance in the realm of sexuality switched towards less obvions political objects. Thus, the sexual-political outlook of the militant newspaper was progressively abandonned and it transformed itself in a publication which tried to promote a concrete alternative, alien to all sorts of social transformations.

Information about the Dijon session: IHC - CNRS UMR 5605 - Rosine Fry ou Lilian Vincendeau - bur. R56 - UFR de sciences humaines, 2 bd. Gabriel - 21000 - Dijon. Tél./fax : 00 33 3 80 39 57 17 ou tél. : 00 33 3 80 39 57 58 Email: ou Organisation: Thomas Bouchet, Email: Tania Régin, Email:

The workshop papers were published in Jesse Battan, Thomas Bouchet and Tania Régin, eds., Meetings & Alcôves - The Left and Sexuality in Europe and the United States since 1850 (Dijon, France: Editions Universitaires de Dijon, 2004).


Socialism and Sexuality

AMSAB (Ghent), IISH (Amsterdam), IHC-UMR 5605 (Dijon)

Maintained by the International Institute of Social History.

25 February 2005