Marx and Transgender

March 11, 2015

From the March-April 2015 issue of News & Letters

Leelah Alcorn’s last words, making her suicide an appeal for Transgender people to be “treated like humans” and to “fix society” if her death is to “mean something” were stunning. Her words are reminiscent of what Karl Marx wrote in his 1844 humanist writings about the need for people to be “treated like humans” and live in a “human world.”

What Marx contrasts to a human world is the “upside-down” world of money exchange with its “confounding and confusing of all natural and human qualities.” In our alienated world money can actually be exchanged for “love.” When Marx says “you can exchange love for only love,” he shows that this can be realized only through “self-deriving humanism.”

Marx’s point of contention with Hegel is that this act of emergence cannot be abstract or formal but only as a “corporeal” human being whose activity unites both idealism and materialism as it reflects back innate human objective powers (Marx-Engels Collected Works, Vol. 3, p. 336).


Though Marx didn’t write about Queer and Transgender, innate objective powers which emerge instinctually are constantly expanding, transforming nature and human nature. Marx’s concept of “corporeal” or embodied dialectic speaks to a “human world” where Transgender people are “treated like humans,” because of his designation of what is specifically human species “life activity”: “free, conscious activity” in distinction from its appearing “only as a means to life” (276).

This dialectical perspective of beginning from “life activity” is the most objective and empirical in letting the material world, including the material basis of life in one’s body, speak for itself. Dialectics never subsumes the concrete under some abstraction.

Though Marx enunciated his universal of human species life activity in contrast to alienated labor in which one sells one’s ability to labor as a mere means to life, the most fundamental relation he singles out is the man/woman relation because in it there is a “natural species relationship,” including material reproduction of the species.

Through this direct natural connection between the sexes one can see the degree to which humans have attained their “species-being,” that is, the degree to which they are acting as “free, conscious” agents and the degree to which another human is needed as a human (295-96) or a free, conscious agent.


Alcorn’s message confronts a fundamental abuse and oppression of youth: not allowing one to freely determine one’s relation to one’s own body. The oppressors here happen to be Christian parents, refusing to acknowledge her freedom and exercising their power to stop her from undergoing treatments before reaching puberty.

“Fixing society” can only come from the activity of the individual consciousness becoming a “theoretical existence as a social being.” That is why it is important to take Alcorn’s message seriously and to encourage others struggling with the same questions to work out a theoretical expression of a human world beginning from their own experiences. “Above all,” Marx continued, “we must avoid postulating ‘society’ as an abstraction vis-a-vis the individual. The individual is the social being” (299).

–Ron Kelch

2 thoughts on “Marx and Transgender

  1. This is a ridiculously stretched interpretation of Marx. The author could have just as easily cited the Bible, Mein Kampf, or the United World Wrestling Rules to get to the same conclusions. What a travesty of an intellectual mind-game. Mr. Kelch should be ashamed.

  2. SMB, this isn’t a stretch at all. The essence of a Marxist-Humanism is social self-creation, hence the ability to forge our own relationships to our own bodies and sexuality is straightforward extrapolation of that basic Marxist point. Mr. Kelch should be proud for connecting the tenets of Marxist philosophy to emerging struggles for self-liberation, exactly what Marxist-Humanism should be doing instead of trying to hold on desperately to an image of feminist struggle from the 1970s as so many of us often do.

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