In search of a Leninist position on the trans military ban
By Mattie Stardust
In a series of tweets Jul. 26, US President Donald Trump announced a total ban on transgender military service, due to the ostensibly “tremendous medical costs” of providing transgender soldiers medical care. The proposed ban, which as of this writing has not yet been followed up with an executive order, would overturn a rule set out in 2016 by former Obama administration Defense Secretary Ash Carter allowing trans people to serve openly in the military.
The responses from the left-of-center media have been all too predictable: liberal voices within the chorus of outrage have called for trans people to have equal access to the “honor” of “service” to the imperialist death machine. Whereas radical voices have taken the opportunity to denounce the military, with many going so far as to celebrate (albeit with some amount of irony) Trump’s ban, wondering on whom else “we” might be able to bestow the honor of being declared unfit for service.
For militant working class transgender people, the necessity of a Leninist orientation — one that neither caves to white supremacist social chauvinism, nor counterposes the struggle for democratic reforms to the struggle for proletarian dictatorship — should be self evident. Neither of the two dominant response trends manages to sufficiently counter both US imperialism and anti-trans oppression. Neither offers a critique of society wherein both of these evils flow from the same source. And neither offers a vision for a way forward that unites the struggle for trans equality with the struggle against imperialism under a concrete program.
To be clear, the worst error to make would be to fall into line behind US imperialist militarism, throwing oppressed and colonized people across the world under the bus in favor of US national chauvinism. However, the seductiveness of the ultra-left position must not be underestimated. For this reason, this essay will limit its scope to the left deviation.
Leninism and the struggle for democracy
“If we can keep trans people and their supporters fighting for the ’right’ to kill America’s enemies abroad, we won’t have to worry as much about them undermining American institutions at home.”
— “From Inclusion to Resistance: Neither Ban Nor Assimilation,” CrimethInc. Ex-Workers Collective, 2017
”We reject the arguments of those who reduce this issue to a matter of equality versus inequality, because fighting for equality within a corrupt and oppressive system perpetuates injustice.”
Consider these statements carried to their logical conclusion. If fighting for equality within a corrupt and oppressive system perpetuates injustice, what must be done to stop imperialist injustice? Encouraging inequality? Moreover, what is the relationship of working class transgender people to the toppling of the military industrial complex and the overthrow of US imperialism? Accelerationists’ fodder, or active agents? Further, what is the relationship between reforms under imperialism and revolution against imperialism? Are the two necessarily mutually opposed?
For the Leninist approach, we turn to none other than V.I. Lenin himself, writing in 1916 about the relationship of the struggle for national self-determination to the underlying struggle for class liberation.
“The socialist revolution is not one single act, not one single battle on a single front; but a whole epoch of intensified class conflicts, a long series of battles on all fronts, i.e., battles around all the problems of economics and politics, which can culminate only in the expropriation of the bourgeoisie. It would be a fundamental mistake to suppose that the struggle for democracy can divert the proletariat from the socialist revolution, or obscure, or overshadow it, etc. On the contrary, just as socialism cannot be victorious unless it introduces complete democracy, so the proletariat will be unable to prepare for victory over the bourgeoisie unless it wages a many-sided, consistent and revolutionary struggle for democracy.”
— V.I. Lenin, ”The Socialist Revolution and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination”, 1916
A thoroughgoing Leninist approach to the question must not mistake the struggle for democratic rights within the imperialist system for an endorsement of the imperialist system itself. Rather, we should appraise the value of a struggle for democratic rights, in this case, for trans people to be employed by the armed forces the same as cis people, in terms of its pedagogical value, not in terms of the literal fulfillment of its demands. The experience of struggling against the right wing of capital, including the Commander in Chief of the armed forces, could constitute important ideological development, provided a party of the working class stepped forward to guide the struggle into a revolutionary channel and not into the arms of the left wing of capital.
To expel all transgender people from the military, of which there are as many as 10,000 in active duty and reserve, a 2016 RAND Institute study speculates, would also mean firing them and revoking their pensions and other benefits. With what legitimacy could the US imperialists claim to care about the rights of, say, LGBTQ people in Bolivarian Venezuela, when they’ve just kicked so many of their “own” LGBTQ citizens to the curb? Thus an opportunity is created to build solidarity between LGBTQ workers in the oppressor nation and people in the oppressed nations, on the grounds of the mutual recognition of their enemy in US imperialism. Is this not our primary task?
When revolutionaries turn their backs on this struggle (or worse, align themselves with Trump on the issue) they retreat from a field of battle that has just been opened up, leaving it uncontested to the liberals to corral the opposition to Trump back into acceptable channels.
“It cannot be too strongly maintained […] that the Social-Democrat’s ideal should not be the trade union secretary, but the tribune of the people, who is able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it appears, no matter what stratum or class of the people it affects; who is able to generalise all these manifestations and produce a single picture of police violence and capitalist exploitation; who is able to take advantage of every event, however small, in order to set forth before all his socialist convictions and his democratic demands, in order to clarify for all and everyone the world-historic significance of the struggle for the emancipation of the proletariat.”
— V.I. Lenin, What is to Be Done?, 1901
Leninism and the science of internationalism
Of course, the left deviation on the question of the proposed Trump trans military ban cannot be understood exclusively as a misunderstanding of the dialectical relationship between democratic reform and socialist revolution. Rather, lurking just beneath this surface can be found an ideological current all the more virulent: the idealization of internationalist practice and consciousness.
“i can’t believe i have to say this but: im fucking glad trans ppl can’t enlist. idk one trans person who wants ANYTHING to do with US imperialism.”
— anonymous facebook user
”This is a good thing tbh. Obviously Trump’s action is motivated by transphobic hatred, but U.S Imperialism is absolutely incompatible with trans liberation, and I celebrate less oppressed people dying in racist capitalist wars.”
— anonymous facebook user
“Pls ban all the queers, gnc/trans folks frm the military. Appreciate it. That way the rest of us can knock some sense into their heads.”
— anonymous twitter user
First, we cannot help but note the recurrence of the reactionary fantasy of the anti-imperialist, anti-war Donald Trump who, by a stroke of a pen, might achieve more for the cause than did the last decade of organized protest. Second, although these comments are clearly meant to convey some cryptic sense of irony, they nonetheless find themselves aligned with a wing (the right wing, no less) of the imperialist bourgeoisie. And this in the name of anti-imperialism!
Again, we return to Lenin.
“He is not an internationalist who vows and swears by internationalism. Only he is an internationalist who in a really internationalist way combats his own bourgeoisie, his own social-chauvinists, his own Kautskyites.”
The left deviation here fails to adequately separate itself from the bourgeoisie, to chart an independent proletarian course. Moreover, the struggle against imperialism is reduced to a mere balance sheet: to deprive the military of some soldiers is progressive, regardless of how this takes place (i.e. as the result of a concerted mass struggle against imperialism, or the stroke of a pen by the imperialist bourgeoisie itself). If enough people are deprived from enlisting in the imperialist military (“Pls ban all the queers, gnc/trans folks”), then the balance sheet can be settled in favor of anti-imperialism. (Never mind the fact a more-or-less steady decline in the number of US active duty personnel from the end of the Vietnam war through the Obama administration has not resulted in a “less imperialist” US.) Imperialism could theoretically be defeated by attrition, all without the knowledge or participation of the global working class. No doubt an attractive proposition for the “progressive” petit bourgeoisie.
By Congressional Research Service — [http://fpc.state.gov/documents/organization/9665.pdf]
Internationalism, according to the left deviation, is not a concrete program scientifically devised to effect a concrete outcome, but rather a series of individual lifestyle choices. Similarly, internationalist consciousness is not an historical phenomenon subject to (and changeable according to!) natural laws, but rather the result of an inherent, quality possessed by some and lacking in others.
Naturally, in this way the left deviation finds itself in good company among anarchists, whose program generally also consists of propagating individual lifestylism and “mass convincing” people to “drop out” of the oppressive institution (society, authoritarianism, the military), ostensibly as a means of starving it of “legitimacy.” Thus the ultimate internationalist action the ultra-left can take is to say “fuck the military and all soldiers, trans and cis,” and to mean it.
Down here in the material world, however, we remain burdened with the reality of US imperialism: the main purveyor of violence and exploitation worldwide, and the repressive apparatus with which it is sustained. Ultimately, for Leninists in the oppressor nations, internationalism is that which facilitates the real-world victory of the global proletariat in war.
The objective forces of moribund capitalism in this period compel the ruling class to further and further lower the living conditions of the entire global working class, thereby laying the groundwork for a global united front against finance capital. As thousands of new activists flock to leftist and socialist formations in the wake of the Trump election, Leninists must arm themselves with the knowledge that consciousness arises out of material conditions, and therefore is dynamic, changeable. Yesterday’s reactionary, once exposed to the vicissitudes of decaying finance capitalism, could very well be tomorrow’s revolutionary. All the more likely in the presence of a left that concerns itself with educating its class, rather than simply quarantining off and condemning the moral “lost causes.”
The ban on trans people being employed by the US military has, in reality, been a near-permanent fixture of the US armed forces. The Obama administration’s reversal of the longstanding ban in 2016, which the Trump administration is poised to overturn, has only been in effect for just over a year at the time of this writing. Nonetheless, tens of thousands of transgender people have enlisted in the military, the vast majority of them before 2016. The Trump trans military ban, then, has little to do with keeping transgender people out of the military. Rather, the ban seeks merely to push trans people back into the closet and to vanquish any possibility of their medical needs being attended on the military’s dime.
In this respect, the “struggle for the right to kill people abroad” is a false presentation of the issue. Many trans people will continue to serve in the military as they always have. The issue is on what grounds trans people will serve in the military. As equals with cis people, or pushed underground? Neither choice on its own will result in a meaningfully less lethal US military. Which choice might hasten the process by which workers and oppressed unite to topple imperialism?
Leninism and internationalism in practice
Founded in the late 1960s by soldiers enlisted in the US Army during the Vietnam war, the American Servicemen’s Union agitated for the following demands:
- The right to refuse to obey illegal orders
- Election of officers by vote of the rank and file
- An end to saluting and sir-ing officers
- An end to racism; no troops sent into oppressed communities
- An end to sexism and the degradation of women
- No troops to be used against anti-war demonstrators
- No troops to be used against workers on strike
- Rank-and-file control of court-marshal boards
- The right of free political association
- Decent wages, housing, day care and medical care for military employees and their families
- The right of collective bargaining
- Full employment for veterans; affirmative action for national-minority veterans; full benefits for veterans; abolition of all “less-than-honorable” discharges
By the early 1970s, the ASU claimed tens of thousands of card-carrying members, with chapters on US military bases and ships, including in occupied Vietnam. The Committee for GI Rights was formed within the ASU for the expressed purpose of defending anti-war US soldiers from political repression.
A 1968 article in Esquire Magazine notes, “A remarkable aspect of [ASU founder Pvt. Andy] Stapp’s siege of Fort Sill is that the self-proclaimed Communist has never been lynched by his fellow G.I.s. G.I.s are taught to kill Communists. But they like Stapp. When he won his second court-martial, they cheered. You just don’t win courts-martial.”
An underground GI newspaper encouraged draftees: “Don’t desert. Go to Vietnam, and kill your commanding officer.”
“A new slang term arose to celebrate the execution of officers: fragging. The word came from the fragmentation grenade, which was the weapon of choice because the evidence was destroyed in the act. […] No one knows how many officers were fragged, but after Tet it became epidemic. At least 800 to 1,000 fragging attempts using explosive devices were made. The army reported 126 fraggings in 1969, 271 in 1970 and 333 in 1971, when they stopped keeping count. But in that year, just in the American Division (of My Lai fame), one fragging per week took place. Some military estimates are that fraggings occurred at five times the official rate, while officers of the Judge Advocate General Corps believed that only 10 percent of fraggings were reported. These figures do not include officers who were shot in the back by their men and listed as wounded or killed in action.”
—Joel Geier, “Vietnam: The Soldier’s Revolt,” 2000
We should not by any means expect to graft previous methods of struggle onto our current period. However the Vietnam example is instructive here for more general purposes: in the thick of imperialist war, where US white supremacist social chauvinism’s grip on the masses seems unbreakable, it is possible to organize a militant, internationalist anti-imperialism. Whether this takes the form of the mass killings-in-self-defense of commanding officers by draftees, or, say, the leaking of millions of classified US military documents, the potential is undeniable, and undeniably dangerous for the ruling class.
Should we drop everything and flock to the military to organize soldiers? Of course not. We should focus the bulk of our efforts at consolidating the advanced elements of our class and developing the intermediate. But the ideological struggle against liberalism in its every manifestation is a permanent task of revolutionaries, and is among the means by which we steel ourselves for more acute battles to come.
Should we “glorify” US military service in the name of ingratiating ourselves to racists who may have jumped at the opportunity to murder colonized people? Certainly not. But neither do we “glorify” intravenous drug use when we demand safe injection facilities. We recognize a social reality and devise our program based on the objective needs of the masses where they are.
Transgender people and our allies: reject both wings of the racist, anti-LGBTQ ruling class! Reject imperialism at home and abroad! Reject lifestylism and purity politics! Reject all attempts by the imperialist bourgeoisie to revoke our bourgeois rights! The working class is the only truly revolutionary class, and the only class capable of reorganizing society in accordance with the needs of the global masses. If we dare to struggle for our class, we can win.