History without nature? A response to Nancy Lindisfarne, Jonathan Neale and Colin Wilson

Issue: 140

John Molyneux

Unfortunately I lack the knowledge, particularly in anthropology, needed to offer a comprehensive response to either Nancy Lindisfarne and Jonathan Neale’s “What Gender Does”1 or Colin Wilson’s “Sexuality in Pre-class Society”2 in the previous issue of this journal. However, it does seem to me that each of their articles suffers from a serious and fundamental weakness and that, on inspection, this turns out to be basically the same weakness—a tendency to completely separate human history from what Karl Marx referred to as its “natural bases”.

Lindisfarne and Neale (hereafter L&N) write: “The starting point is that the natural world is of a piece and continuous. As human beings we divide this world up into socially relevant continua”.3 As a statement about humans and “the natural world” this is sometimes true but as a generalisation it is false. Africa, for example, is a great continuous landmass that has been divided up by humans, especially imperialist humans, into “socially relevant” nation-states. But Africa and America are not naturally of a piece—they are divided from one another, not by humans but by a vast ocean. Of course, for certain purposes, say the study of the earth’s geological history, Africa and America could be considered part of the same continuum, but not for others, say the study of human history or travelling from one to another.

Fortunately we have dialectics, and specifically the dialectics of nature, to help us deal with these problems. There is continuity and there is change, there are moments when quantitative change becomes qualitative change, and there are contradictions, opposing forces and “leaps” in nature, not just those more or less arbitrarily imposed by human ideology. “Gradualness and leaps…gradualness explains nothing without leaps,” writes Lenin in his notes on Hegel’s Logic.4 This matters here because L&N go on to say: “Continua lie behind the ways we characterise all aspects of our bodies, including reproduction, sexuality and desire”.5 Now, however true this may be for sexuality and desire, it is not true for reproduction. Put simply, women are able to bear children and men are not. And for most of human history the majority of women have needed to bear several children for the clan, tribe, people and species to survive. Moreover, when it comes to suckling babies, a biological necessity for most of history, there is also not a continuum. Women (again, most women) can do it and men cannot. And this, of course, is where “the family” comes in.

Saying “the family” here does not involve imagining, as L&N imply, that the form of the family remains constant over time or across different societies. Neither Frederick Engels, nor any other serious Marxist, has ever argued this. It is simply shorthand for referring to the different social arrangements established in order to deal with the bearing and rearing of children (although it often performs other functions as well). At its core, Engels’s argument, with all its flaws, and the argument of all the Marxists who have followed Engels (including Lindsey German, Chris Harman, Sheila McGregor, etc) is that, at a certain stage of human development, these social arrangements for childbearing and child-rearing became oppressive in a way that was not previously the case and henceforth they have remained so. This period was characterised by the emergence of agriculture, the production of a surplus, the appearance of private property and the division of society into classes.

To me this remains convincing, more convincing than L&N’s picture of sexism and “gender” as purely or primarily an ideological mechanism for justifying class inequality, enforced by physically stronger men. It is true that sexism and gender have functioned as an ideological justification. But one of the reasons why it has operated that way so widely and effectively is that it connects with the material lived reality of the family in its various forms.

Here also is where L&N’s parallel between sexism and racism breaks down. At certain points in history racism has intersected contingently with biology in the sense that the victims of European colonial expansion tended to have different skin pigmentation. But racism is perfectly possible without any connection to biology as the cases of British racism against the Irish and Zionist racism against Palestinians demonstrate. Race is not a scientifically valid or useful biological category in the way that gender is. The notion of distinct races really is a social/historical construction. The concept of distinct genders or sexes is not.

Which brings me to Colin Wilson’s deployment of Michel Foucault’s argument that “sexuality is socially constructed”.6 I want to challenge this formulation because there is a much better way of putting the matter—namely that human sexuality it biologically based but then profoundly socially conditioned. The problem with Foucault’s and Wilson’s formulation is that it severs human behaviour from its natural or biological foundations in a way that is fundamentally anti-materialist. Marx was quite explicit on this point:

The premises from which we begin are not arbitrary ones, not dogmas, but real premises from which abstraction can only be made in the imagination. They are the real individuals, their activity and the material conditions under which they live, both those which they find already existing and those produced by their activity. These premises can thus be verified in a purely empirical way.The first premise of all human history is, of course, the existence of living human individuals. Thus the first fact to be established is the physical organisation of these individuals and their consequent relation to the rest of nature. Of course, we cannot here go either into the actual physical nature of man, or into the natural conditions in which man finds himself—geological, hydrographical, climatic and so on. The writing of history must always set out from these natural bases and their modification in the course of history through the action of men.7

His error leads Wilson into a number of very poor arguments in an attempt to justify it. He tells us that the position that “sexuality is a social construction” has recently become the academic consensus.8 I’m sorry but there is scarcely a proposition of revolutionary Marxism that hasn’t fallen foul of the academic consensus in the past 40 years, especially in its post-structuralist, post-modernist phase of which Foucault is probably the most important figure. He counterposes “sex as fundamentally social” to “sex as natural” in a crude and false polarisation when sexuality is precisely nature/biology shaped by history/society. Again Marx is explicit:

The production of life, both of one’s own in labour and of fresh life in procreation, now appears as a double relationship: on the one hand as a natural, on the other as a social relationship.9

Wilson argues that he is following in the tradition of Engels’s project in The Origin of the Family, where he demonstrates that the state “has not existed from all eternity” and that the family also, “far from being the direct expression of human biology, has changed form in different societies”.10 Clearly neither the state nor anything else is eternal but one thing is certain: human sexuality is far older than the state and must reach back to and develop out of pre-human, ie animal/natural sexuality. Of course neither Engels nor McGregor nor any other Marxist thinks either sex or the family is a direct expression of human biology, any more than politics is a direct expression of economics. But that doesn’t mean that politics is unrelated to economics or that the family or sex has no connection with biology.

All Wilson’s examples of the rich variety of human sexual practices and attitudes, important as they are for other purposes, are irrelevant to this argument. It is as if someone were to claim that the immense variety of food eaten by human beings in different parts of the world showed that eating was a social construction and not a natural necessity. Indeed the variety of human sexual practices is more constrained by biology than is our diet. For example, attitudes to—and the practice of—oral and anal sex may and do vary enormously from society to society. But for the most obvious and compelling reasons all societies without exception have practiced heterosexual vaginal intercourse on a large scale. No society has attempted to prohibit this except for specific groups (priests, the unmarried, children, etc). As we have said, nothing is forever and it is conceivable that in some “brave new world” this may change, but we are discussing the past and present, not the future, here.

Wilson’s confusion on this point also leads him to confusion on a couple of very basic points in Marx. He says that Marx maintains that through labour “human beings interact with nature and so change themselves”.11 He quotes Marx in Capital directly:

Labour is, first of all, a process between man and nature, a process by which man, through his own actions, mediates, regulates and controls the metabolism between himself and nature… He sets in motion the natural forces which belong to his own body, his arms, legs, head and hands, in order to appropriate the materials of nature in a form adapted to his own needs. Through this movement he acts upon external nature and changes it, and in this way he simultaneously changes his own nature.12

Here it is noticeable how Marx stresses the ongoing interaction or “metabolism” between humans and nature. And Wilson continues in the same vein, noting how labour “transforms the human being as part of nature”. Then in the next sentence there is a slippage. He writes that “the nature of human beings is that we do not have a fixed nature, but create ourselves”.13 Yes, but only up to a point. We do not construct ourselves from scratch but repeatedly modify ourselves on the basis of what we—biologically and culturally—inherit. Human nature is indeed not fixed but there are real continuities in it—Including, as Lindisfarne and Neale point out, the need for “clean air, water, food and warmth because we are animals…nurture because we are mammals…love and friendship because we are social animals”.14

There are good revolutionary reasons for insisting that human beings, including their sexuality, are not totally socially constructed or socially malleable. I am sure it is unintentional, but on this question Wilson has made a concession to bourgeois ideology in one of its numerous fashionable academic forms.

My last point is this. I do not have the empirical evidence to pronounce on the benevolence or otherwise of sexual practices in pre-class societies. Maybe Wilson is right that the evidence doesn’t exist and maybe he is not. Lindisfarne and Neale are fairly confident on this point:

Scholars now know a great deal about the past. What information we now have suggests that for at least 100,000 years people managed their access to food, water, shelter, love, sex and nurture in more or less egalitarian ways.15

However, if it is the case that in non-class, non-alienated primitive societies there was a general tendency to sexual cruelty, bullying, rape, etc, this would raise serious difficulties for our whole argument about oppression. First, we would need to have some explanation for this behaviour.16 Second, it would suggest that sexual oppression might continue to exist not only “after the revolution” but in the future classless society, which would open the door to patriarchy theory and various forms of identity politics and separatism. If, on the other hand, Lindisfarne and Neale and McGregor are basically right on this, then it is certainly a position socialists would have every reason to defend


1: Lindisfarne and Neale, 2013.

2: Wilson, 2013.

3: Lindisfarne and Neale, 2013, p135.

4: Lenin, 1963, p123.

5: Lindisfarne and Neale, 2013, p136. Continuing in the same vein, L&N write: “In fact, the entire gamut of social behaviours can also be seen in this way. Take, for example, the continuum between life and death. Then consider the debates about living wills, brain death, assisted dying, euthanasia and organ donation.” As if in reply, Ernest Mandel wrote: “According to scientific dialectics, the ‘absolute’ difference between life and death is negated by the existence of transitory situations. Everything is relative and hence also the difference between life and death, reply the sophists. No, answers the dialectician: there is also something absolute and not just something negative in the difference between life and death”-Mandel, 1982, p167.

6: Wilson, 2013, p164.

7: Marx and Engels, 1846. p7.

8: Wilson, 2013, p161.

9: Marx and Engels, 1846, p48.

10: Wilson, 2013, p164.

11: Wilson, 2013, p164.

12: Marx, 1976, p283, emphasis added by Wilson.

13: Wilson, 2013, p165.

14: Lindisfarne and Neale, 2013, pp143-144.

15: Lindisfarne and Neale, 2013, p145.

16: Foucault and other Nietzscheans might well be inclined to explain it in terms of an innate “will to power”.


Lenin, Vladimir, 1963, Collected works, volume 38 (Moscow).

Lindisfarne, Nancy, and Jonathan Neale, 2013, “What Gender Does”, International Socialism 139 (summer 2013), www.isj.org.uk/?id=900

Mandel, Ernest, 1982, Introduction to Marxism, London.

Marx, Karl, and Frederick Engels, 1998 [1846], The German Ideology (Prometheus books),

Marx, Karl, 1976 [1867] Capital, Volume I (Penguin), www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/

Wilson, Colin, 2013, “Sexuality in Pre-class Society: A Response to Sheila McGregor”, International Socialism 139 (summer), www.isj.org.uk/?id=907