"a class with radical chains ... which can only redeem itself by a total redemption of humanity"
"The emancipation of the working class is also the emancipation of all human beings without distinction of race or sex."
... or sexuality, as Marx might have said if the nineteenth century had been more aware of the issue.
By Janine Booth, from the Workers' Liberty pamphlet Radical Chains: Sexuality and Class Politics, published in 1999.
Why the working class? Not because we have some romanticised view of workers, or a fetish about reducing everything to class politics for the sake of it. History and experience shows that the working class can liberate not just itself: it can also create the opportunity to end all forms of oppression, including homophobia.
Much of this is about what happens when working people struggle. Take as an example the 1984/85 miners' strike. Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM) organised support for the strikers, holding collections around gay venues and taking pink minibuses to picket lines. Miners responded to this solidarity by championing lesbian and gay rights within the Labour Party and TUC, and by taking their banners to Pride.
Both sides of this alliance learned from the solidarity they built. They found they had a common experience of police harassment and press hostility, and that unity made both groups stronger.
"We've got to fight together because there's no way we're going to beat them if we're divided.
"The miners from Dulais Valley who've met us have said just that. They've said that they are now outcasts of the state - we've seen what the police and media are like."
(Mark Ashton and Mike Jackson, LGSM, October 1984)
When the working class fights, it has to overcome prejudice in order to win. It's a simple fact that your strike is weaker if gay people don't feel welcome on the picket line. There is a powerful, natural drive towards unity, that has to involve overcoming prejudices that working-class people might hold.
David Donovan of the Dulais mining community explained it like this:
"You have worn our badge, 'Coal Not Dole', and you know what harassment means, as we do. Now we will pin your badge on us, we will support you. It won't change overnight, but now 140,000 miners know that there are other causes and other problems. We know about blacks and gays and nuclear disarmament. And we will never be the same."
Solidarity between workers can also transcend the barriers of prejudice on a smaller scale. In 1996, gay Ford's worker Tom Atherton was the victim of a homophobic assault by a foreman at work. Tom was disciplined, but the foreman kept his job. Tom's union backed him, and his workmates threatened to walk out, ensuring a fairer outcome. They probably don't go to Pride every year, but these car workers were not prepared to stand by and allow a gay colleague to be attacked and victimised by their bosses.
However, it would be idealistic and naive to claim that this process happens automatically. That the moment a worker takes up battle against the bosses, all the prejudices s/he has ever held - the 'muck of ages' - will vanish as if by magic. Sadly, there are also historical examples of where this has not happened: in 1968, London dockers, well-unionised and militant on workplace issues, marched in support of Enoch Powell's racist tirades against immigration.
So we need people to argue vociferously within the workers' movement against homophobia and bigotry, to demand action for equality and to confront the poison of prejudice. That is one of the roles of a socialist organisation like the Alliance for Workers' Liberty. We work to make the workers' movement habitable for lesbian, gay and bisexual workers and support self-organisation as one way of achieving this.
Class struggle is not just about waging war in the workplace. Class struggle takes place on political and ideological, as well as economic, fronts. It includes demanding equality legislation, and challenging our rulers' assertions about the normality of the heterosexual nuclear family and the abnormality of everything else.
The only time in history that the working class has taken power was in Russia in 1917. The Bolsheviks scrapped all the old laws against homosexuality, as part of wiping the slate clean of the old class system and all its legal apparatus. When the Soviet Union introduced a new Criminal Code in 1922, homosexuality remained legal. The Bolsheviks supported the pro-gay World League for Sexual Reform for most of the 1920s.
It was Stalin's counter-revolution that recriminalised homosexuality and turned the clock back on progress in defeating oppression.
The question is: which class will change society? The working class has the power to make, and the interest in making, a new world. The ruling class, on the other hand, has no interest in change, and prejudice helps it to maintain its power and privilege.
The ruling class itself seems well aware of the link between sexual liberation and working-class struggle. On numerous occasions, right-wingers have launched simultaneous attacks on homosexuality and socialism. In the 1983 Bermondsey by-election, Labour candidate Peter Tatchell was witch-hunted for being gay and left-wing (and foreign). From America's McCarthy trials to Stalin's labour camps, gays and socialists (and Jews) have been persecuted together as 'enemies of the state'.
The prospect for the full liberation of human sexuality lies with the struggle by the working class for the abolition of class society, for socialism. Trace the history of struggle against homophobia and of workers' struggle, and you will find that when one is strong, so is the other; when the working class is on the defensive, so often are lesbians, gay men and bisexuals.
In struggle, we can glimpse the potential of organising the world in a better, more humane way. In struggle, prejudice, moralism, resentment and division can be overcome. In struggle, lesbian, gay and bisexual people can find out who are our allies, who our enemies.