Indifference, if not outright hostility, have marked the relations between the disciplinary formations around the study of sexuality (including feminist, gay and lesbian, and queer theory) and engagements with Marx’s writings and Marxist thought in general. The seeming lack of fit between critiques of sexual normalization in queer theory, and materialist analyses of capitalist exploitation and domination, can be approached through juxtaposed terms such as need vs. desire (Morton 1995), recognition vs. redistribution (Fraser 1995), sexuality vs. class, domination vs. exploitation, identity vs. class (Butler 1998) etc. I do not mean to imply there is no intrinsic relation between the terms. However, within the disciplinary domains of Marxist materialist approaches and queer critiques of sexuality (and gender), these terms have formed points of organization around which sometimes strident articulations of fundamental opposition are constructed. Take for example the introduction to the anthology The Material Queer which claims that queer theory opens “a new space for the subject of desire, a space in which sexuality becomes primary” (Morton 1996, 1, emphasis in original). He further argues that postmodern theorizations of queerness assert “the primariness of sexuality/libidanility, the autonomy of desire, and the freedom of the sexual subject from all constraints” (ibid., 2).

Morton claims to speak from a specific form of Marxist materialism which analyses sexuality from the vantage point of the “mode of production”, in opposition to the postmodern queer focus on “mode of signification” (ibid., 3). This stark opposition frames queer theory too simply. Firstly, one would be hard put to find any queer theorist who would assert “the freedom of the sexual subject from all constraints”. In fact, as the sociologist Steven Seidman argues, queer theory and politics aims at a sustained critique of all forms of “normalization” of sexuality precisely by attending to the discursive and material resources through which institutions constrain sexual subjects (2001, 326). The overlap of interests between Marxist and queer analyses of sexuality can be articulated precisely by asking how both approaches understand, analyze and critique the constitution of the sexual subject. Two examples which help address this question illustrate the possibility of such an overlap. The historian John D’Emilio’s (1983)  now canonical, if controversial, essay “Capitalism and Gay Identity” provided a compelling historical and materialist analysis of how shifts produced by the introduction of capitalism provided the conditions of possibility for the emergence of a gay male sexual identity. Rather than arguing for a causal link between capitalism and homosexuality, his analysis articulated the relation between economic transformation and the naturalization of sexual identity. The essay was not an example of economic reductionism (sexuality is an effect of capitalism) but of a conjunctural understanding of how forms of sexual selfhood (identity) emerged through changes in the economy. It demonstrated precisely the sort of materialist understanding of how sexuality as an object of discourse is converted into an identity, and later a form of identity politics. In other words, the relevance of Marxist analyses of capitalism for the formation of sexual identity (rather than sexuality) was established with important implications for queer theory.

The overlap can also be seen in Danae Clark’s (1991) essay “Commodity Lesbianism”. Clark’s analysis of the appearance of an ambivalently pitched “lesbian” in popular culture, including advertising, does not prioritize the “mode of production” over the “mode of signification”. Instead, it tracks the relationship between the dominance of consumer culture in contemporary capitalism and the strategic deployment of depoliticized identity politics by the advertising industry through a textual analysis of the discourses and images of “lesbians”. Modes of signification and production are analyzed together at a specific historical moment to produce an analysis of a queer subject, the “lesbian”, who can be consumed by niche audiences (such as lesbian subcultures) while also appearing suitably normalized and therefore palatable for heterosexual women.

The influence of Foucault’s History of Sexuality: Volume 1 for queer theory, as well as the importance of Derridean deconstruction and Lacanian psychoanalysis in the formation of queer theory, however, clearly points to the possible problems for thinking Marxist and queer theory together, since these influences do not sit easily with an understanding of “materialism” within Marxist thought. The now widespread intellectual purchase of the concept of “matter”, from Judith Butler’s Bodies that Matter (1993) to the recent New Materialisms, have been understood as offering a quite different understanding of what a materialist analysis could be. However, particularly in the work of Judith Butler, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and others, the crucial importance given to analyses of the normalization of the sexed and gendered body, and of (homo)sexual desire can be related to the more historical-materialist analyses of sexuality. If, as Butler argues, the sexually-desiring gendered body is not natural, but is materialized continually through the discursive and institutional operations of a hetero-normative social matrix, then an analysis of the historically-specific constellation of economic, political and cultural forces which constitute sexuality would seem quite closely related to queer analyses of processes of normalization.

In Kevin Floyd’s (2009) book-length The Reification of Desire: Toward a Queer Marxism, precisely such a rapprochement between queer theory and Marxism is substantially attempted. The conjunction of the terms “reification” and “desire” in the title already point to the inadequacy of Morton’s formulation of a stark opposition between materialism and idealism, need and desire, use-value and exchange-value (1996, 5). Floyd clearly states “in explicitly approaching the insights of queer critical practice from a Marxian perspective, my central objective is to indicate some of the ways in which this very move requires a fundamental rethinking of that perspective itself” (2009, 4). Rather than overcoming one perspective by another, Floyd rethinks the central categories of “totality” and “reification” within Marxist thought, and that of György Lukàcs in particular, to understand how in different historical moments from the late 19th century in the United States, homosexual desire gets reified through discourses of masculinity, labour, consumption, and pleasure. By reworking, critiquing and deploying Lukàcs’ concept of reification, and substantially engaging with the work of Judith Butler and Michel Foucault, Floyd analyzes the shifting normalization of masculinity and homosexual desire in the context of post-Fordist modes of economic deregulation and the rise of consumer culture. At the same time, he expands on and fleshes out the discursive normalization of sexuality (his focus here is primarily Judith Butler’s work) by asking how at specific historical moments, economic transformations in U.S. capitalism, and political and social discourses on masculinity produce discourses of sexual normalcy and deviance. The psychoanalytical, deconstructive, and discursive approaches to sexual normalization within queer theory are integrated with materialist critiques of sexual politics by deploying reworked understandings of  desire and reification. The transformation of central concepts in the fields of queer theory and Marxism is convincingly deployed to expose the poverty of both simplistic queer critiques of Marxism and of Marxist critiques of queer theory. Given these writings, one could argue that the stark opposition between the Discursive and Textual Queer Subject of Desire on the one hand, and the “Material Queer” on the other, misrepresents a potentially fruitful if fractious dialogue between Marxism and queer theory.


Subaltern Studies

The historiographical intervention of the Indian Subaltern Studies Group took as their targets elite and nationalist accounts of the transition from colonialism to nationhood. However, they also included in their interventions a corresponding critique of Marxist analyses of the transition to nationalism. As Gyan Prakash argues “When Marxists turned the spotlight on colonial exploitation, their criticism was framed by a historicist scheme that universalized Europe’s historical experience” (Prakash 1994, 1375). Subaltern Studies thus also found a place within the field of Postcolonial Studies’ critique of Europe-centred analyses of history, politics and identity. The critique of Marxism targeted the Marxist reliance on “mode-of-production narratives” couched in terms of a “nation-state’s ideology of modernity and progress” which resulted in an inability to take seriously “the oppressed’s ‘lived experience’ of religion and social customs” (ibid., 1477).

At the same time, as the term “subaltern” indicates, the Group’s relation to Marx and Marxist thought was also one of a critical engagement with Marx’s historical and theoretical understandings of the political transformations in societies undergoing colonial exploitation. The place of Antonio Gramsci is crucial here, in particular his writings on Italian history during the complex political processes which constituted the Risorgimento (Gramsci 1992). Thus read more generously and with nuance, Subaltern Studies could be seen as having a relation of critical intimacy with Marxist thought rather than an outright rejection of all of its analyses. This is clear in the Marxist and Leninist language employed by Ranajit Guha, the Group’s founder, who argues that “the working class was still not sufficiently mature in the objective conditions of its social being and in its consciousness as a class-for-itself” (Guha 1988, 42), and the “historic failure of the nation to come to its own (sic)” (ibid, emphasis in original) is evidenced in the failure of a democratic revolution “under the hegemony of workers and peasants (ibid., 43). Similarly, Partha Chatterjee’s influential “More on Modes of Power and the Peasantry” offers a historical and comparative analysis of the complex power relations set into motion among different classes (and class fractions) in which a Foucauldian analysis is combined with a reading of the Grundrisse to underscore the “differential impact on pre-capitalist structures” including “destruction, modifying them for surplus extraction, bolstering pre-existing social structures” (Chatterjee 1988, 388).

Two aspects of the relation between Marx and the Subaltern Studies group can be identified here. First, the explanations of historical transformation from colonialism to the nation-state; and second, the peculiar form of identity of the subaltern classes who are defined in opposition to the colonial and national elites. The first issue involved the necessity of transforming the “mode-of-production narrative” to include the complexity of transformations in pre-capitalist structures such as caste, religion and community which resulted in a sustained engagement with forms of “pre-modern” mobilization including magic, religion, rumour, and caste. Here however, the presumed split between Marxism’s inadequacy with dealing with such issues, and the groups own interventions, must be nuanced by the fact that within the pages of the volumes of Subaltern Studies Marxist historians were invited to articulate their own understandings of the relation between caste, class and community for example. Asok Sen’s reading of Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire in Volume V of Subaltern Studies, for example, underscores that Marx’s historical writings on the peasantry comprise a far more sophisticated understanding of the complex links between emergent power-blocs and strategic political alliances between the peasantry, the (petit-) bourgeoisie and owners of capital in the transition from feudal to capitalist economies (Sen 1987, 207; see also Chaudhury). A wholescale rejection of “Marxist” thought implied in some formulations, such as by Prakash, seem thus unwarranted. Guha himself in his landmark essay “Dominance without Hegemony and its Historiography” deploys Marx’s nuanced reading of the global expansion of  capitalism in the Grundrisse to situate his own historiographical critique of elite histories of Indian nationalism (Guha 1992).

The second issue of subaltern identity, and its recovery through historiographical research, came in for sharp critique from many quarters including a feminist and deconstructive analysis by Gayatri Spivak, and from a more broadly materialist and Marxist perspective by Dipankar Gupta and Rosalind O’Hanlon (Spivak 1988; Gupta 1985; O’Hanlon 1988). Guha’s understanding of subaltern resistance as “the politics of the people” occupying “an autonomous domain [which] neither originated from elite politics nor [whose] existence depend[ed] on the latter” (Guha 1988, 40) was problematic, because it seemed to foreclose a relational analysis of how subaltern politics operated through external constraints and opportunities, as well as strategic linkages with other forms of social power. In fact, Chatterjee’s essay had foregrounded precisely this complex relational understanding of power which made claims of an autonomous subaltern identity problematic. Dipankar Gupta’s critique of Guha underscored the dangers of ethnicized formulations of autonomous peasant identity which relied on the “independent organizing principle of the insurgent’s mind” (emphasis added) as the motor of historical change (Gupta 1985, 9). Developing Gupta’s critique, O’Hanlon argues that such an idealist claim to autonomous subaltern identity “shuts off the whole field of external structural interaction and constraint” within which the politics of the people operated (O’Hanlon 1988, 202). It is precisely here that a materialist and Marxist critique of identity becomes relevant since such a critique exposes the humanist and liberal conception of human agency often implied in formulations of subaltern identity. In O’Hanlon’s words: “we are left with the unfortunate, and I think unintended, impression, that the historiographical issue at stake is that of man’s freedom as against the determining power of his external world. But this very juxtaposition, of the free man as against the man determined, is itself an idealist conception, in which the mode of existence of the unitary subject-agent is never called into question” (ibid.).

The problematic question of subaltern identity, and the complex processes of political transformation involved in the transition from colonialism to nationalism, thus emerge less as points of fundamental divergence between Subaltern Studies and Marx. Rather, a productive form of critical intimacy best describes how the limitations and opportunities of both strands of thought could contribute (and interrupt) each other.