These are the kinds of questions that Petrus Liu asks us to ponder in The Specter of Materialism: Queer Theory and Marxism in the Age of the Beijing Consensus (2023), a meditation on the imbrications of Marxism and queer theory through the lens of contemporary China (the so-called “Beijing Consensus” referenced in the book’s subtitle). The book thus adds to a long-standing debate in and around queer theory about the relationship of queerness to Marxism. It is a debate that has been stoked in recent years with the ascent of progressives such as Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, who have excoriated the contemporary Left for swapping out class in favor of identity politics. And although it takes on different valences, this question often boils down to whether or not Marxism—as theory and as political movement—can make space for sexual minorities.
For a long time, the answer appeared to be no. To the extent that Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels thought about homosexuality, they were dismissive of it. Engels, for instance, once described sodomy as “repulsive.” Socialist countries have often lived up to those words. Although the Soviet Union repealed its sodomy law in 1922 as part of a penal overhaul, Stalin personally recriminalized homosexuality in 1934 as part of a broader wave of repression. In socialist Cuba, Fidel Castro sent queer people to labor camps and his government quarantined those infected with HIV in the 1980s to what one World Health Organization official termed “pretty prisons.” In Western Europe and the United States, leftist activists in the 1960s and ’70s tended to ignore their queer comrades, insisting that questions of identity were merely subsets of the broader class struggle. The plights of people of color, women, and queer people would be washed away in the red tide of class revolution, these (male) activists often insisted.
Liu’s book, however, suggests that, without considering each other, both Marxism and queer theory are doomed to incompleteness. In so doing, it joins a growing chorus of works that, as socialism has made something of a comeback in recent years, have attempted to theorize ways of blending queer theory and Marxism. Seeking a political idiom that might accommodate both class and identity, The Specter of Materialism insists—in a utopian register common to mainstream queer theory—upon the transformative political potential of such a “queer Marxism.”
Historical materialism—the philosophical and intellectual bedrock of Marxism—offers a seductively simple claim for the way things are, namely that historical developments of all sorts are products of concrete economic realities. Other elements of the human experience such as politics, social relations, and culture, the historical materialist suggests, are merely the visible effects of underlying economic forces.
At first blush, queer theory seems to stand in nearly diametrical opposition to such a view of history. The field grew out of poststructuralist philosophy and the so-called linguistic turn of the 1980s and ’90s that also marked the nadir of academic Marxism. Informed above all by the work of Michel Foucault, queer theorists argue that language and norms—not economic relations—are where power is to be found. Discourse about sexuality engenders norms, which in turn engender identities, all of which serve the disciplinary purpose of shaping the individual and social collectives in particular ways. Queer theorists thus take ideas, identities, and language as the true stuff of history, viewing politics, economics, and social relations as secondary.
If materialist approaches to the past have tended to ignore gender, sexuality, and race, then queer theory is often guilty of skirting the subject of class. Together they form a “polarity,” Liu notes, “between the old class politics and the new identity politics.” And where queer theory does examine class, he contends, it tends to do so with a guilty conscience, substituting “a moralizing language against privilege or discrimination” in place of systematic materialist analysis.
But Liu contends that queer theory has always had a materialist side through its focus on the body. By interrogating the different ways that social, political, and economic systems interpret, dominate, and discipline the body, queer theory actually shares a great deal with historical materialism’s emphasis on how bodies exist under different economic regimes. In a close reading of seminal queer theorist Judith Butler’s work, Liu contends that both paradigms view “human life [as] incessantly transformed by norms and forces outside the subject’s horizons of cognition.” In other words, both queer theory and Marxist analysis center structural forms of domination while also imagining ways to challenge them. They thus share an interest in helping the oppressed.
From here, Liu contends that the Marxist concept of subsumption can help wed materialist and queer approaches. In his theory of economic development, Marx contended that premodern social and economic forms were subsumed under capitalism’s extractive logic, instead of being replaced wholesale by a single economic model. “For contemporary queer theory,” Liu argues, “the power of Marx’s reading lies in the insight that the capitalist mode of production does not create its own conditions of reproduction ex nihilo”; rather, it “subsumes, and reconfigures” existing social relations. Looking at China, then, we see sexual norms that differ quite profoundly from those in the United States and Western Europe, for capitalism has not replaced preexisting social and economic relations wholesale but rather subsumed and thus reconfigured them.
Here, Liu takes a ferocious swipe at contemporary queer theorists. Because these scholars have not adequately accounted for the peculiar way that capitalism subsumes existing relations, they tend to assume that gender and sexuality function largely the same in all corners of the (post)industrial world. More simply put, queer theory is embarrassingly provincial in its obsession with the United States, blithely arguing that what is true of our country must be true of every other. To the extent that queer theorists pay attention to other parts of the world, Liu points out, it is to mine them for exoticized examples of a premodern sexuality that, through its alterity, proves the telos of modern American queer subjectivity. “Thus conflated with the prehistory of Euro-American notions of homosexuality,” Liu insists, “non-Western subjects of desire have served as the constitutive outside of US-based queer theory.” By setting up US or Western experiences of queerness as the norm, these scholars not only exclude the rest of the world but also wind up “naturalizing precisely what [queer theory] was supposed to explain: the reproduction of power over time and in geographically discrete spaces.”
Instead, Liu asks us to see sexuality and gender in China (and other parts of the world) as their own singular phenomena, at once informed by the global reach of capital and unique to their own cultures and societies. In a reading of the 1992 film Swordsman II—a Hong Kong martial arts film featuring an antihero who turns into a woman via self-castration—Liu resurrects the category of the Cold War, asking us to see ongoing conflict between China and the United States in Asia as a precondition for the evolution of different sexual and gender norms across the continent. Instead of perceiving these norms as “imitations and derivations of post-Stonewall US sexual politics without the mediation of the region’s own geopolitics,” we must take seriously the material and political specificity of these norms and identities, which distinguish them from those circulating within the United States.
In turn, Liu argues, studying these regional specificities may yield new epistemologies unavailable to “monolingual queer theory.” In a close reading of the revolutionary author Lu Xun (1881–1936), Liu unearths a form of gendered class critique. Explicating Lu Xun’s reading of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (1879), Liu highlights how epistemologies can traverse continents by showing how the Chinese author theorized a form of women’s emancipation that extends beyond “a dematerialized battle against prejudice and discrimination” into something that understands gender as “an axis of domination” in a society organized around the needs of capital. In so doing, Liu’s work underscores that Chinese history and culture make for important source material for queer theory in the 21st century, from which new paradigms of materialist scholarship may emerge. It suggests a new queer paradigm, urging Americans and Western Europeans to take seriously queerness in other parts of the world, not as tourists or as saviors but as interlocutors and partners.
As a critique of contemporary queer theory—in particular its provincialism—The Specter of Materialism is a resounding success. It points to the US-centrism of the field, its inability (or unwillingness) to deal with class, and its (inadvertent) collaboration with the politics and epistemologies of neoliberalism. These are long-standing flaws in the field, and Liu compellingly reveals how a materialist paradigm can better illuminate them as symptoms of the same ailment, namely queer theory’s lack of materialist grounding.
When it comes to the practical and even political implications of this method, The Specter of Materialism is just as ambitious. Liu suggests that his aim is nothing less than a new political imaginary, “an invitation for new ways of imagining queer futures and transformative politics.” While he never spells out what, precisely, such a politics might look like or how it might be achieved, we can imagine that it would eschew the neoliberal ethics of representation for a materialist politics conscious of class-based persecution and solidarity alike.
But here, the book’s reach exceeds its grasp. For all its critique of mainstream queer theory, The Specter of Materialism remains bounded by the field’s disciplinary fixations. Liu engages in close readings of theorists, authors, and films, but makes only superficial, glancing references to the stuff of history—that is, to the concrete economic, political, and social relations that inform lived experience.
In his 2020 book Sexual Hegemony: Statecraft, Sodomy, and Capital in the Rise of the World System, one of the most brilliant recent works of queer Marxism, Christopher Chitty takes queer theorists to task for their obsession with discourse. The writings of a handful of well-educated elites, Chitty contends, had little to do with the exploitation and persecution of ordinary people. By focusing on these texts, “the artifacts of a now-dead bourgeois culture,” queer theory became an (unwitting) handmaiden of the very liberal disciplinary regimes it sought to dismantle. For if, according to the paradigms of queer theory, “sex talk is how we are dominated, why continue to engage it at all?” Chitty asks. “What makes all those apparently sophisticated studies of the social construction of sexuality any different from the tomes whose titles wink and leer from the shelves beside them?”
It is a potent argument that points to a paradox at the heart of queer theory. If identity is constructed through discourse and is fundamentally disciplinary, then isn’t the kind of literary analysis so popular among queer theorists simply another layer of disciplinary discourse reifying the very identities it claims to deconstruct? It is also an argument that Liu should be sympathetic to, having dissected how queer theory’s particular obsessions have led it into a parochial, neoliberal cul-de-sac. Yet The Specter of Materialism remains limited to this very sphere of analysis, taking discourse instead of material history as its basis.
Liu’s treatment of history is thus unsatisfying, as it is symptomatic of queer theory’s allergy to empiricism. He argues, for instance, that, in postsocialist China, the introduction of neoliberal capitalism has shifted gender and sexual norms in ways that do not merely reproduce Western phenomena. He gestures in particular to dagongmei, female sweatshop workers, and to so-called “money boys,” male sex workers who move from rural parts of China to its metropolises in search of work. These two forms of gendered and sexualized labor, Liu contends, are “[p]roduced by the mutual entanglements of economic and sexual transformations” and “exemplify capital’s dispossessive power.” They offer a concrete example of one of his key arguments: by subsuming existing social relations, capitalism generates new forms of sexualized and gendered identities unique to time and place.
But Liu does not tell the reader anything more about these phenomena—not how common they are, not when or how they first appeared or gained attention, and certainly not what antecedents they might have had in socialist or presocialist China. Nor does he offer any kind of comparison with similar forms of sexualized and gendered labor in other parts of the world. How these forms of sexualized alterity differ, for instance, from those produced by urban capitalism in Europe is not evident. This kind of empirical analysis that would put meat on the bones of his theory remains lacking throughout the text. Instead, material phenomena appear phantom-like, unburdened by the demands of empirical evidence.
Liu’s exploration of the socialist track record on queer minorities is similarly sparse. While focused primarily on the culture of postsocialist China, he occasionally alludes to the Maoist era in rosy terms—as a “vanguard state of ‘world revolution’” or “the most successful economic alternative to capitalist modernity.” He even argues, shockingly, that queerness “has much in common with the global explosion of antisystemic struggles in the 1960s socialist world,” including the bloody Cultural Revolution that claimed up to two million lives. To the extent that Liu deals with Maoist China, he displays a distressing tendency to ignore its violent history. Yet at the same time, he does not address how queer life might have flourished in early socialist China.
Instead, The Specter of Materialism leaves the field to those who argue that homophobia and transphobia in China are a hangover from the socialist past—precisely what Liu hopes to rebut in his book. Dealing with lived queer experiences under socialism and its transition to a peculiar form of authoritarian neoliberalism would enable us to understand where queerness and Marxism overlap in the real world, where solidarities might be built along lines of class as well as identity. While Liu’s work offers a welcome critique of queer theory’s provincial focus on the United States and a reminder of the importance of class analysis to understanding sexuality and gender, it ultimately does little to offer Chinese experiences as a material counterweight to the solipsism of contemporary queer theory.
Samuel Clowes Huneke is assistant professor of history at George Mason University, focusing on modern Germany and the history of sexuality. He is the author of States of Liberation: Gay Men Between Dictatorship and Democracy in Cold War Germany (2022). His essays have appeared in The Point, Boston Review, and elsewhere.