The Bolsheviks and sexual liberation

Issue: 156

Noel Halifax

The previous issue of International Socialism included a positive review of Tariq Ali’s book The Dilemmas of Lenin.1 The review is right that in general the book offers an accurate telling of the Russian Revolution. But in one aspect Ali recycles a Stalinist distortion and rewrite of history that has been the subject of argument and political and historical rediscovery since the 1970s. It repeats the claim that the Bolsheviks adopted a homophobic attitude and that the left failed to embrace LGBT+ liberation until much later in the 20th century. I had hoped that with the collapse of the Communist parties and the withering away of Stalinism this distortion would also die, but it has lived on via some feminist and more right-wing commentators. One such commentator is Russian journalist Masha Gesson, a founder of the Pink Triangle Campaign. She has written that the Bolsheviks never had progressive views on homosexuality and that it was a puritan revolution that was worse than the Tsarist regime:

They had the idea that the social institutions of Tsarist Russia needed to be destroyed, and the family went down and all the laws went out, including the laws criminalising homosexuality. In some Western literature that has been misinterpreted as a legalisation of homosexuality. [But] the society began getting more conservative and sort of solidifying its institutions and retrenching almost immediately. By the early 1930s that retrenchment was in full force. So in 1934 when the Soviet Union re-criminalised homosexuality, that was a perfectly logical step.2

Following the counter-revolution led by Stalin, the history of the Russian Revolution was rewritten. Photographs had Leon Trotsky airbrushed out of them. Stalin was portrayed as the logical and smooth inheritor of Lenin and the arguments between Lenin and Stalin in April 1917 were forgotten. The conviction that Lenin led to Stalin is often echoed in mainstream histories today. But it is also to be found in many reformist and some feminist and LGBT+ accounts. As far as LGBT+ liberation is concerned, there was apparently no counter-revolution, but a continuation, if increase, of the same homophobic attitudes. In short, there was no red in the rainbow till after the Stonewall riot and the birth of gay liberation and the Gay Liberation Front in 1969.

In general political terms Ali does not repeat the Stalinist distortions, but shockingly he does when it comes to sexuality. After pointing out the homophobic comments German SPD leader August Bebel makes in his book on women, Ali argues: “Homosexuality remained a blind spot for virtually all the different factions of the European left till the middle of the 20th century”.3

This is simply not true. A generation of post-1968 socialist writers had spent a lifetime rediscovering and outlining the lost history behind this Stalinist lie. Sheila Rowbotham has written numerous books outlining how in England the socialist movement was interwoven with ideas around free love and sexual liberation with influential socialist writers such as Edward Carpenter and Havelock Ellis. Carpenter lived openly with his gay lover in late 19th century northern England preaching socialism and free love. His writings on “the dear love of comrades” had a wide readership, some of his works had print runs of 50,000.4 This tradition in England was silenced by the wave of homophobia after the Oscar Wilde trial, the rise of socially conservative methodism in the labour movement and the newly formed Labour Party and later with the rise of fascism and Stalinism.

With regard to Bebel’s comments, which are awful, the SPD was a broad church party with many different views within it. Ironically, it was the same Bebel who raised the question of legalising homosexuality in the German parliament, the first time ever that such a reform was suggested. The SPD campaigned for legalisation from the 1890s through to the 1930s. The Oscar Wilde trials and the following homophobic moral panic triggered the SPD—by far the largest and most important socialist party in the Second International to discuss homosexuality. In the party’s theoretical journal Die Neue Zeit Eduard Bernstein wrote on the Wilde trials and applied Friedrich Engels’s theories in his Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State to outline a materialist explanation of homosexuality.

None of this is mentioned by Ali, just the homophobia that was to be found in the SPD. But rather than being a blind spot, it was a topic of argument within the SPD and later fervent arguments between the SPD and the German Communist Party when that was formed. Ali says it was left to Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, who was not a socialist, to be the lone arguer for gay rights in Germany. In fact the dominating figure in Germany at the time was Magnus Hirschfeld who was a moderate socialist and SPD member and who led the homosexual rights movement and tirelessly argued for legal rights till the rise of the Nazis. As I have written in more detail in the Socialist Review, in Germany the SPD and the Communist Party of the 1920s both campaigned for homosexual rights.5 Following the German Revolution of 1919 Germany saw the rise of a mass LGBT+ movement numbering in the hundreds of thousands and a lively political debate among socialists about the issues this raised. Laurie Marhoefer’s book Sex and the Weimar Republic outlines the depth of this in great detail—I repeat, it was no blind spot.6

Ali argues that the Bolsheviks were part of the left’s blind spot on LGBT+ issues. The Stalinist counter-revolution on sexual matters is described as if there was a smooth continuous history from Lenin’s alleged sexual puritanism to Stalin’s introduction of harsh homophobic and sexually reactionary laws in 1934. Ali’s account includes one personal history of the Bolshevik Georgy Chicherin, who, it seems, considered his gayness an illness. He then moves straight to the vile homophobic laws of the Stalinists in the 1930s as if the two are part of one continuum.

For the Bolsheviks there was great difficulty in creating a socialist society in economically and culturally backward Russia, including living in a new way and attempting to replace the family. As the 1968 generation discovered, free love can be just another way for men to oppress women. Ali skips from Lenin’s disquiet about the wild orgies of the young communists in 1920 to the general statement: “A persistent homophobic stand in Russian culture…remains to this day.” But this airbrushes out a whole period of political action to promote sexual and homosexual liberation by the new Russian government. Cathy Porter has shown how after the 1905 revolution there was the birth of a gay scene in Russia but, more than this, the Bolsheviks joined and were the biggest promoter of the World League for Sexual Reform, attending its large congresses in Berlin in 1921, Copenhagen in 1928 and Vienna in 1930. The Bolsheviks’ position on homosexuality as put by their delegate Grigorii Bakkis in 1923 was:

The present sexual legislation in the Soviet Union is the work of the October Revolution. This revolution is important not only as a political phenomenon which secures the political role of the working class. But also for the revolutions which evolving from it reach out into all areas of life… [Soviet legislation] declares absolute non-interference of the state and society into sexual matters, so long as nobody is injured, and no one’s interests are encroached upon—concerning homosexuality, sodomy and various other forms of sexual gratification, which are set down in European legislation as offences against morality—Soviet legislation treats these exactly as so-called “natural” intercourse.7

In short Ali has deleted a whole chapter of history, repeating the old Stalinist distortions. A more accurate assessment is to be found in Dave Sherry’s Russia 1917: Workers’ Revolution and the Festival of the Oppressed.8 Sherry notes that one of the leading psychiatrists of the early Soviet Union, Lev Rozenstein, was influenced by Hirschfeld and the German socialist Wilhelm Reich to counsel and hold sex education courses and programmes that aimed “to assist patients to accept same sex desire” and that “women in Soviet Russia may legally take men’s names and live as men”.9

There are many good aspects to Ali’s book but his ignorance of the wealth of knowledge outlining the interweaving of sexual politics and the socialist movement is shocking. There is a political agenda current in some parts of the feminist and LGBT+ movements to bleach out the red from the rainbow. They argue that socialists have been as bad as everyone else in the past and that the left is just seeking to exploit the issue of LGBT+ liberation. I can’t believe that Ali is part of this but his book does play into this narrative.

Noel Halifax is a member of Hackney SWP and an activist within LGBT+ movements since the mid-1970s.


1 Rose, 2017, reviewing Ali, 2017.

2 Quoted in Quince, 2013.

3 Ali, 2017, p245.

4 Rowbotham, 2009.

5 Halifax, 2017.

6 Marhoefer, 2015.

7 Quoted in Lauritsen and Thorstad, 1974.

8 Sherry, 2017.

9 Healey, 2001.


Ali, Tariq, 2017, The Dilemmas of Lenin: Terrorism, War, Empire, Love, Revolution (Verso).

Halifax, Noel, 2017, “Richard Linsert and the First Sexual Liberation Movement” (January),

Healey, Dan, 2001, Homosexual Desire in Revolutionary Russia: The Regulation Of Sexual And Gender Dissent (University of Chicago Press).

Lauritsen, John and David Thorstad, 1974, The Early Homosexual Rights Movement (1864-1935) (Times Change Press).

Marhoefer, Laurie, 2015, Sex and the Weimar Republic: German Homosexual Emancipation and the Rise of the Nazis (University of Toronto Press).

Quince, Annabelle, 2013, “The History of Homosexuality in Russia: from Soviet Sex Changes to Gay Gulags”, Rear Vision (4 December),

Rose, John, 2017, “Rescuing Lenin”, International Socialism 155 (summer),

Rowbotham, Sheila, 2009, Edward Carpenter: A Life of Liberty and Love (Verso).

Sherry, Dave, 2017, Russia 1917: Workers’ Revolution and the Festival of the Oppressed (Bookmarks).