Monday, November 23, 2009

On the supposed homophobia of Frederick Engels | Stalinist translation fabricates criticism of sodomy in 'Origin of the Family'

This is part of an ongoing research project I've been conducting on the various accusations of Marx and Engels' supposed virulent homophobia. The other two entries I've done on this topic can be viewed here and here.

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There is much myth-making and exaggeration regarding the supposed virulent homophobic tendencies of Karl Marx's long-time collaborator, Frederick Engels.

One of the oft-cited examples of this is the passage from his Origins of the Family, Private Property & the State, that has him supposedly criticizing the "abominable practice of sodomy":
This Athenian family became in time the accepted model for domestic relations, not only among the Ionians, but to an increasing extent among all the Greeks of the mainland and colonies also. But, in spite of locks and guards, Greek women found plenty of opportunity for deceiving their husbands. The men, who would have been ashamed to show any love for their wives, amused themselves by all sorts of love affairs with hetairai [prostitutes]; but this degradation of the women was avenged on the men and degraded them also, till they fell into the abominable practice of sodomy and degraded alike their gods and themselves with the myth of Ganymede (see at http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1884/origin-family/ch02d.htm).
This passage, as it does indeed appear here in the first English translation of "Origins," published by the Communist Party's (Stalinist) International Publishers in 1942, is the one that people usually use when they want to bash Engels (& Marx).

However, Engels never actually wrote this in the original German! The translation that this version of the passage comes from--the International Publishers 1942 edition--is inaccurate. They actually totally change the text and the meaning -- presumably to further their own, Stalinist-party line of opposition to sodomy and all homosexuality within Russia.

In the original, German text, which Engels wrote and published in several editions between 1884 and 1891, this quote reads quite differently. Here's the English translation done by Foreign Language Press in 1978, which is way more true to the original German:
This Athenian family became in time the accepted model for domestic relations, not only among the Ionians, but to an increasing extent among all the Greeks of the mainland and colonies also. But, in spite of locks and guards, Greek women found plenty of opportunity for deceiving their husbands. The men, who would have been ashamed to show any love for their wives, amused themselves by all sorts of love affairs with hetaerae ; but the degradation of the women avenged itself on the men and degraded them also, till they fell into the abominable practice of pederasty and degraded alike their gods and themselves with the myth of Ganymede (see at http://www.marx2mao.com/M&E/OFPS84.html#s2).
Here's the last sentence in the original German: "Diese, die sich geschämt hätten, irgendwelche Liebe für ihre Frauen zu verraten, amüsierten sich in allerlei Liebeshändeln mit Hetären; aber die Entwürdigung der Frauen rächte sich an den Männern und entwürdigte auch sie, bis sie versanken in die Widerwärtigkeit der Knabenliebe und ihre Götter entwürdigten wie sich selbst durch den Mythus von Ganymed" (see at http://www.mlwerke.de/me/me21/me21_036.htm).

The key word here is "Knabenliebe." In german, this literally means "boy-love," deriving from the root words 'Knabe' (young boy), and 'Liebe' (love).

The german word for 'sodomy' -- 'sodomie' or more appropriately, 'analverkehr' -- is nowhere in the original text at all. International Publishers clearly just grafted the word onto the text for who-knows-what reason.

Therefore, the translation of the term as 'pederasty' is much more appropriate, fitting, and logical ('pederasty,' of course, meaning pedophilia, the sexual yearning of an adult towards a prepubescent child).

Incidentally, the fact that Engels mentions the Myth of Ganymede in the next breath, further contextualizes what his implications were. The Ancient Greek myth has it that Ganymede was a young boy (exact age not clear) who Zeus lusted after and kidnapped to have for his own. This myth is an allegory for what was the common Greek practice of older men engaging in sexual affairs with adolescent boys. 

These particular homosexual affairs, though notable for their widespread acceptance in Greek society, were many things, but usually not what we could call a 'healthy,' 'liberated,' sexual experience.  Oftentimes, it consisted of an older male of superior social standing relishing in the dominance over an inferior boy of lower social standing.  It was socially frowned upon for the boy to express pleasure and 'mature emotion,' and this affair, accordingly, was rarely an act of love between two adult males of comparable social status.            

As far as anything written is concerned, I don't think we actually know what Engels thought of anal-sex as a general act . . . and anyway, it just seems somewhat illogical that Engels, who was in the midst of writing a whole book on the possibility of totally different sexual relations in a world bereft of classes, would make such a statement. 

This seems further illogical given that the German Social-Democrat Party (SPD) at this time, and some of Engels closest comrades, such as August Bebel, Karl Kautsky, Eduard Bernstein, et al, were clearly by the late-'80s and early-'90s, coming to see allies in the German homosexual community and movement. Bebel (one of Engels' dearest friends next to Marx) would actually earn his place in the history of the gay rights struggle in 1898 by becoming the first political figure to ever give a speech in defense of homosexual rights on the floor of a Parliament.

Engels was intimately concerned about and involved in the development of the SPD, which in the years preceding his death (1895) came to be involved in several campaigns to overturn restrictive sodomy laws and bans on homosexuality in Germany. One must ask the question: if Engels were so opposed to homosexuality, why does he not raise this issue in a single piece of correspondence with Bebel, Bernstein, et al (between whom hundreds of letters were exchanged over the years)?

None of this is to diminish the fact that Engels may have said or wrote some things during his life that were, at best, ignorant and possibly callous, and at worst, reflective of backward Victorian morals.

However, I do think it's important to be genuine and accurately-informed when studying the matter.  In this vein, I think it is clear that the oft-cited passage of the English translation of Origins including the condemnation of 'sodomy,' really should be dispensed with as evidence of a dogged, anti-gay predilection in Engels.

1 comment:

  1. so what do you think: Were Socrates and Plato paederasts or were they homosexuals?

    ReplyDelete