Queer Eye for a Commie Person: Toward a Queer Left Liberation

Book review of De-centering Queer Theory: Communist Sexuality in the Flow During and After the Cold War by Bogdan Popa

​Bogdan Popa, De-centering Queer Theory: Communist Sexuality in the Flow During and After the Cold War (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2021).

Has queer theory run out of steam? Amid global rising fascism, planetary refugee crises, and crumbling US empire, queer theory is struggling to find a point of intervention in global issues because its first emergence was in 1990s North American anglophone academia. Prominent queer theorists David Eng and Jasbir Puar recently edited a collection foregrounding the future of queer theory: the reconnection between queer theory, materialism, and Marxisms. 1 Their point is well-taken, but the call for reconsidering Marxisms is not a new venture. Queer Marxist critiques of post-structuralism and post-modernism have always haunted queer theory, operating under the shadow of the queer theory proper that deconstructs everything. 2 This systematic neglect of the body of work on queer Marxisms within queer theory signifies a much larger problem, one that Bogdan Popa is able to clearly pinpoint in their new book De-centering Queer Theory.

The Argument

By “decentering,” Popa suggests that queer theory is just one of many approaches to sexuality. It emerged out of US academia and bears the legacies of Cold War anti-communism. Therefore, if we look elsewhere, beyond the Western canon, we might find different understandings of gender and sexuality.

This book is of high relevance to scholars and activists interested in post-socialist transitions and anti-gender, anti-queer ideology in Eastern Europe, as well as students of film. As a Romanian scholar, Popa engages with anthropologists of post-socialism such as Katherine Verdery and Christina Klein as well as an archive of Romanian socialist films. The second part of this book especially draws on film theory, aesthetic theory, and cultural criticism. This book challenges queer theory from the standpoint of post-socialist Eastern Europe and proposes an alternative to a post-structural concept of gender, body, and sexuality. As someone who is queer and spends most of their time living in another formally socialist country, this book grabbed my attention immediately.

Cold War Gender and After

In the first four chapters of De-centering Queer Theory Popa contests that anti-communist sentiments are built into social constructivist understandings of gender and its descendant, queer theory. This anti-communist sentiment sees socialist people as sexually patriarchal and inherently repressed; such an understanding is the product of Cold War knowledge formation in the US academic and discursive landscape.

To expand on this point, Popa juxtaposes a Marxist understanding of gender with a Cold War understanding of gender from the 1950s until the 1980s. Popa argues that Cold War theories of gender derive, in part, from the work of John Money. For Money, gender is a marker of individual independence through which intersex people get to choose their destinies (78). Money argues that one’s sociocultural condition impedes one’s understanding of sex (76). Popa critiques this social constructivist understanding because it reduces liberation to one’s ability to achieve a gender and sexual orientation against social-cultural barriers (76). We see in our daily life how the “coming out” narrative exemplifies such reduction. That is, queer liberation becomes one’s ability to announce one’s sexuality and gender identity against social norms, not as a collective struggle against interlocking structures of power.

These critiques of John Money are not new. Trans scholar Susan Stryker has voiced similar concerns that gender is a Cold War era social scientific technology to correct, shape, and control bodies. 3 Feminist scholar Jasmine Repo has also proposed that gender is a biopolitical tool for neoliberal governance, instead of a category through which we mobilize our liberation. 4 We can also see how social constructivist understandings of gender and identities influence LGBTQ+ movements: we have “true selves” waiting to be discovered against social norms, and, therefore, the discovery is transgressive. While this might be the experience of many queer people, including myself, such narratives do not question if the “true self” is already the product of neoliberal power. That is, the various identities we embody and achieve against social norms are no more “true.” Identities are one of many frameworks that teach us how to think about the self and society, a framework already embedded in the histories of Cold War social science knowledge production.

Popa’s argument in the first part of the book, however, is innovative in two ways. First, they situate John Money’s Cold War gender within the emergence of the social constructivist tradition in US academia. This tradition arose from the post-World War II US rivalry with the Soviet Union. The purpose of social constructivism is to offer something that challenges and competes with a Marxist understanding of the body and sexuality. Socially constructed identities replace Marxist social processes such as class struggle, and individuals achieving their identities substitute for the collective and vanguard role of the proletariat.

In Eastern Europe, however, a different theory of the body was at play during this Cold War rivalry. In this theory, what Popa calls “productivism,” political bodies in socialism were neither individual territories of freedom nor subjectivities confronting the pressures of a particular ideology. Rather, productivist bodies are de-gendered, producing the social and its futures, unlike social constructivism that puts emphasis on the social as constructing a given body and personality (47). One might see some similarities between productive bodies and performative theory. Performativity focuses on how, through our everyday acts, we can subvert the socially-imposed norm. But for Popa, this subversion is not an individual move toward the “true self.” Rather, it should be a collective, de-subjected, and productivist process. Popa’s conception is potentially useful for social movement building because it invites us to organize toward a future where the framework to understand our bodily differences is not identity. Bodies do not achieve individual freedom from the existing society, but accomplish liberation by actively building a new society. However, Popa stops short of telling us how. I can only speculate that, given how profoundly identity politics have structured our sense of difference, Popa is not able to propose a concrete alternative.

Their innovative approach shines through in chapter four when Popa specifically engages with queer theory. While queer theory tries to destabilize social constructivism and offer a new political language of change, it fails to break away from the anti-communist sentiments in social constructivism. Popa carefully re-reads Mario Mieli, Gayle Rubin, Joan Scott, and Hortense Spillers, showing how white North American feminist concerns cannot be detached from the legacies of the Cold War, anti-communism, and ambivalent relations with Marxism.

Counter-Fetish and Trans Future in Eastern Europe

The second part of the book (chapters five to nine) provides alternatives to understand gender, the body, and sexuality. Three words are crucial in this section: abolition, counter-fetish, and de-contextualization. Popa’s abolition goes beyond the abolition of gender to that of racial capitalism. In the chapter “Abolition,” Popa proposes that both queer scholar of colour José Muñoz and socialist realist films share a similar concern with how to reappropriate commercial objects to do something else. What differentiates Popa from Muñoz is their innovative staging of a conversation between two worlds: socialist Romania in the 1960s and the capitalist US in the present. Abolition, for Popa, is a dialectic process that involves future-making in the present: it is more than simply resisting capitalism.

Counter-fetish refers to objects that become alternatives to commodity fetishism. In chapter six, Popa introduces socialist counter-fetishes through Muñoz and Fred Moten. For Muñoz, a commodity is full of potential to disrupt capitalist commercialism. For Moten, commodities have little value. He finds counter-fetishes in Black musical and philosophical traditions, genres outside of commodities that can therefore interrupt capitalism. A Black queer utopia emerges from jazz, for instance, unsettling time and value. Like both Moten and Muñoz, Popa foregrounds a socialist counter-fetish through art: socialist film. They analyze The Cruise, a Romanian socialist film, to demonstrate a hierarchy within the working class. Darker-skinned people in Romania are doing the hard work to produce objects of use-value, but also provide us with a queer possibility in the songs the darker-skinned workers sing and perform (174).

De-contextualization comes from art critic Boris Groys. The concept denotes taking a material object out of its context, giving it a transformative mission. Popa takes socialist realist films and Eastern European Marxism to serve our contemporary desire for liberation. In the chapter entitled “Trans,” Popa proposes a queer post-socialism that bridges the Cold War divide between Eastern European Marxism and queer of colour critique. The bridge is possible because both trans people and communists are considered monster aliens threatening the white, ordinary Americans/Canadians living their lives (205). Such connections can only take place when we decontextualize Eastern European Marxist understanding of “productive bodies” into queer and trans critiques and politics.

Popa ends the book with a note on trans futures in Eastern Europe. At a time when anti-gender, right-wing populism converges with anti-communism, Popa’s salient intervention urges both trans and queer activists and scholars in North America to consider the different trajectories and histories of gender and sexuality in post-socialist countries, such as Romania. De-centring queer theory, for Popa, is to re-consider a different itinerary of “queer.” In Popa’s reading of Romanian socialist realist films, Marxism and a theory of the body have not been separated. 5 Rather, the body becomes something else in the cinematic rendering of revolutionary struggles.

The Implications

This book makes an intervention in cultural criticism and theories of gender and sexualities. Popa invites us to always reflect on the geopolitical conditions of theories and actions. If we take the Marxist productivist body seriously, we need to understand that the conceptual language we use today is inadequate. We do not have socially constructed identities that we can achieve, but we can construct new possibilities collectively. If we think the individual body is the site of struggle, then we might follow a post-structural line of inquiry to consider agencies on all levels. If we follow a productivist lens, then we come to understand that words such as agency, for example, are already conditioned by capitalist modes of production. Bodies do not have agency in the social constructivist sense: bodies constitute a collective entity and a political device to produce anti-capitalist societies (48). Learning from Popa, we might ask ourselves if we are ready to work and produce a communist future. If so, are we ready to start rethinking a new conception of the body not as the site of agency? That is, queer bodies contribute to liberation not through achieving differences against norms, but through building new norms whereby differences no longer matter.

While Popa does not set out to provide praxis based on their reading of a Marxist conception of the body, as readers, we might speculate on a different framework of collectivity. A collective is not the total sum of individuals within it; rather, individual bodies dissolve into making a transformative future. Popa’s reading of the Marxist body emphasizes forging unity, and the possibility of losing oneself in revolutionary struggles.

This book offers rich background to understand populism in Eastern Europe. We cannot forge a queer left position in post-socialist countries without considering the end of the Cold War and a denial of socialist histories. On one hand, right-wing populism views European gender and sexuality equality policies as communist doctrines; on the other, liberal LGBTQ+ advocacy paints socialism as anti-queer and sexually repressive. Popa is writing during this time in their home country of Romania, and the region of Eastern Europe more broadly. Such a divide makes it impossible to discuss queer socialism or trans communism in ways that do not become an intensive debate about how terrible socialism was, derailing the real goal of liberation.

Lastly, this book asks us to de-Cold-Warize our imaginations, as a complimentary aspect of decolonization and abolition. We first need to separate Marxism as analytic, socialism as political theory, and state socialism as governmental entities. We need to understand that our political movements and theories are partially the product of Cold War social science. Therefore, to de-Cold-War is to see socialist histories 1) as part of the human history of emancipation, not as an anomaly to forget; and 2) in the terms of those who struggled to build collective communism, not from the standpoint of a distanced observer who simply judges and critiques other people’s attempted transformations. *


  1. David L. Eng and Jasbir K. Puar, “Introduction: Left of Queer,” Social Text 38, no.4 (2020): 6. ↩︎
  2. For example, see Rosemary Hennessy, “Queer Theory, Left Politics,” Rethinking Marxism 7, no.3 (1994): 85–111; Mas’ud Zavarzadeh, T. Ebert and Donald Morton, Marxism, Queer Theory, Gender (Red Factory, 2001); Alan Sears, “Queer Anti-Capitalism: What’s Left of Lesbian and Gay Liberation,” Science & Society 69, no.1 (2005): 92–112. ↩︎
  3. Susan Stryker, “We Who Are Sexy: Christine Jorgensen’s Transsexual Whiteness in the Postcolonial Philippines,” Social Semiotics 19, no.1 (2009): 79–91. ↩︎
  4. Jasmine Repo, The Biopolitics of Gender (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015). ↩︎
  5. See, for example, Petrus Liu, Queer Marxism in Two Chinas (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2015). ↩︎