“An Introduction to the Socialism and Sexuality Seminar”
Created in 1997 by Francis Ronsin (University of Burgundy, Dijon) and other scholars associated with the Institute of Contemporary History (Dijon), the International Institute of Social History (Amsterdam), and the Laboratory of Historical Demography of the School of Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences (EHESS, Paris), the Socialism and Sexuality seminar has presented a series of workshops designed to bring together scholars interested in exploring the sexual ideologies and programs of radical social movements.
In the original call for the creation of the seminar, Professor Ronsin voiced the concern that the role of sexuality in socialist images of the ideal future had not been adequately studied. What was required was concerted analysis and, in his words, the “clash” and “conflict” of ideas, which best occur in a seminar format.1 From this call, the annual “Socialism and Sexuality” workshops were born, which have firmly established an international context for the discussion and examination of the sexual programs of the Left in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
The first workshop took place in Ghent in conjunction with the AMSAB's (Archives and Museum of the Socialist Worker’s Movement) exhibition titled “Desire Touched Us: Sex, Sexuality and Socialism” and its conference on “Gender and Class” in April of 1999. The conference papers have been published as Conference Proceedings of the International Colloquium on ‘Gender and Class in the twentieth Century’, Denise de Weerdt ed. (Ghent: AMSAB/MIAT, 2000).
The International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam hosted the second workshop on the topic, “Free Love and the Labour Movement,” in October of 2000. This seminar explored the sexual ideologies and behaviors of anarchist feminists, individualist socialists, anarcho-syndicalists, and utopian socialists in Belgium, Holland, Great Britain, France, and Germany, and carefully delineated the ways in which these groups challenged the sexual reforms advocated by more traditional political groups, such as the Belgian Workers Party and the Dutch Social Democrats.2 These papers were published as Free Love and the Labour Movement: Research Papers (Amsterdam: IISG, 2001) and can be accessed at http://www.iisg.nl/~womhist/freelove.php3
The third workshop, “Labour Organizations and Sexuality,” was organized by Thomas Bouchet and Tania Régin of the Institute of Contemporary History, and was held at the University of Burgundy (Dijon) in October of 2001. This workshop explored the sexual politics of labour organizations (trade unions, workers movements, and political parties) in the West in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. By looking at specific case studies, this seminar explored the role of sexuality in the projects of various progressive movements, and examined the conflicts over sexual issues that occurred between (and within) left-wing movements and organizations in the United States, Great Britain, Holland, and France.4 These papers will be published in Thomas Bouchet and Tania Régin, eds., Socialisme et Sexualite: Europe et l’Etats-Unis, XIX-XX Siecles (Dijon, France: Editions Universitaires de Dijon, 2003).
The fourth seminar, on the topic "Sexuality and Millennialism," was hosted by the Center for Millennial Studies at Boston University (April 2003). This workshop explored movements in Europe and the United states that supported the idea that the liberation of the body and its desires would lead to spiritual redemption and the regeneration of society. The papers presented at this workshop examined the sexual politics of these movements—i.e., their ideas on the connection between sexual liberation, spiritual transformation, and the creation of the perfect society—and compared the ways in which they changed over time and varied from place to place.5
This, the fifth workshop in the series of Socialism and Sexuality seminars, organized by Gert Hekma (Gay and Lesbian Studies) and Saskia Poldervaart (Gender Studies) of the University of Amsterdam on the topic, “The Past and Present of Radical Sexual Politics,” promises to be a grand culmination of these previous efforts. The number of participants, the quality of the presentations, and the range of national cultures, sexual theories, and political movements explored are indeed impressive, and will, I am sure, demonstrate the relevance of sexual radicalism to the political lives of women and men at the beginning of the new millennium.
Taken together, these workshops have performed a valuable function. They have brought together scholars who have demonstrated the importance of the often neglected relationship between private and public life. They have provided a context in which the connections between emotional experience and political action, between sexual desire and social revolution, can be rigorously analyzed and intensely discussed. Up until now, as Jeffrey Weeks has argued, “the actual history of socialism suggests that there is no necessary connection at all between the socialist project and radical sexual politics; and even where the connection has been declared the link has been more symbolic and asserted than concrete and argued.”6 The Socialism and Sexuality workshops have done more than merely declare the link between socialism and radical sexual politics. They have successfully replaced mere assertions with concrete examples, convincingly demonstrated the political significance of private life, and, most important, they have vividly illustrated the subtle, complicated, yet significant connections that exist between the liberation of desire and the reconstruction of society.
We hope that the efforts begun just a few short years ago will continue into the future. In order to insure this, please join Francis Ronsin and Gert Hekma on Saturday afternoon, October 4th (time and place to be announced), and help plan next year’s session of the Socialism and Sexuality seminar.
Department of American Studies
California State University
Fullerton, CA 92834-6868
1 Francis Ronsin, “Socialism and Sexuality,” Histsex List, http://homepages.primex.co.uk/~lesleyah/hsxarch2.htm
2 The participants in this workshop included Denise De Weerdt (AMSAB), ‘Free Love=Free Marriage? Free Love and the Belgian Socialists, 1880-1940’; Dennis Bos (University of Amsterdam), ‘The Making of a New Sexual Morality in the Early Socialist Labour Movement in Amsterdam’; Lesley Hall (Wellcome Institute, London), ‘”Arrows of Desire”: British Sexual Utopians of the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Century, and the Politics of Health’; Dieter Nelles (Bergi University), ‘Anarchosyndicalism and the Sexual Reform Movement in the Weimar Republic’; Gaetano Manfredonia (Institute of Political Studies, Paris)and Francis Ronsin (University of Dijon), ‘E. Armand and “La Camaraderie Amoureuse”: Revolutionary Sexualism and the Struggle Against Jealousy’; and Saskia Poldervaart (University of Amsterdam), ‘The Recurring Movements of “Free Love"’.
3 Through the efforts of Jenneke Quast, the IISH maintains the web site for the Socialism and Sexuality seminar.
4 The participants included Jesse F. Battan (California State University, Fullerton), '"Socialism Will Cure All But a Bad Marriage": Free Love and the American Labor Movement, 1850-1910'; Lesley A. Hall (Wellcome Library, London), '"No sex please, we are socialists": the British Labour Party closes its eyes and thinks of England'; Petra de Vries (University of Amsterdam), 'Dutch libertarian socialist movement and prostitution at the end of the nineteenth century'; Peter Drucker (International Institute for Research and Education, Amsterdam), 'The influence of class and gender on sexual attitudes in the workers' movement: some contrasts between Henriette Roland Holst and Jacques Engels, Holland, 1925-1926'; Tania Régin (University of Burgundy), 'Roger Vaillant, a communist writer and a libertine'; Morgan Poggioli (University of Burgundy), 'Some frank words about an indecent subject. l'École Émancipée (1910-1914)'; and Georges Ubbiali (University of Burgundy), 'Sexpol. From political sexuality to alternatives?'
5 Papers were presented by Richard Landes (Boston University), ’Equality, Intimacy, and Sexual Liberation: A Climactic Theory of Millennial Enthusiasm’; Robert Fogarty (Antioch College), ‘Sexuality at the Oneida Community: A Binocular View’; Cathy Gutierrez (Sweet Briar College), ‘Sex in the City of God: Free Love and the American Millennium’; Dan Stephen (University of Colorado, Boulder), ’The Love of Comrades: the Abbotsholme School, Uranianism, and the Construction of an Ethical Socialism’, Jesse Battan (California State University, Fullerton), ‘The Good Time Coming: Parallel Revolutions in the Body and the Body Politic in Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth-Century America’; Brigitte Koenig (Seton Hall University), ’Sexual Revolution: The Politics of Sexuality in the American Anarchist Imagination’; and Mari Trine (College of Saint Scholastica), '”Perpetual Orgasm” as a “State of Grace”: Young American Radicals' Construction of Utopian Society through the Spiritual Transformations of Liberated Sex in the Sixties’.