By Noel Halifax
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Richard Linsert and the first sexual liberation movement

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The histories of socialism and sexual liberation are entwined, most clearly in revolutionary Germany a century ago, writes Noel Halifax.
Issue 420

The factory system tore apart the working class family. As workers were driven off the land and sucked into the new factories and cities of the industrial age, their ways of living fell apart. Many commentators from both the left and the right noticed this with varying degrees of horror and dismay, from Friedrich Engels in Manchester to the reactionary writer Robert Carlyle in London. The cities and factories were as vampires feeding off the countryside, sucking in those dispossessed by the gentry as they seized common land, and from Ireland where the country was bled dry by British landowners.

By the mid-19th century the establishment’s concerns had moved from worries about the workers’ moral and religious beliefs or non-beliefs, to worries about their ability to work effectively or to produce the next generation of workers.

It is against this background that a series of laws and campaigns emerged from the capitalist state and the churches to remake the working class family. They needed healthier and more reliable workers who could operate more complex machines, as well as a family set up that could produce and raise children to take up work in the future. Health and safety regulations were brought in to limit the exploitation of children in the factories and mines and to enable women to care and raise children. The ruling class realised that it was for the greater good and profit of the system overall that individual factory owners had to accept limitations on the free market.

At the same time the churches, both the Church of England and in the new cities and towns of England and Wales the Methodists and other non-conformist churches, waged moral campaigns against sin and immoral living. For the workers themselves the right to have a family and private life — rather than living in dormitories with all generations having to work — was a reform worth fighting for. The resultant heterosexual nuclear family was both a haven and a repressive institution that structured sexual and social mores.

Britain, as the dominant power of the time, was the leader in this development, though it was one found throughout 19th century capitalism. The aim was to create a “respectable” working class family with strict moral codes and rules of behaviour, founded on a willing obedience to one’s “betters”. From this comes the caricature of the cap-doffing worker found in countless novels, who knew his place as master of his own family but loyal and obedient to his masters. But another result of this was the creation of the homosexual as a social type, as against an activity or sin that any could commit, though some more prone to it than others.

This process was contested from the very beginning. Radical Romantics and the socialist movement argued against the family model, arguing for free love and sexual liberation. At the same time and in the same places that Methodists were operating in the mill towns of northern England, socialists such as Edward Carpenter were out campaigning and arguing for socialism and free love, for “the dear love of comrades”, citing homosexuality as an example of such free love and a sign of the future.

Carpenter’s pamphlets and books were widely read within the blossoming socialist and co-operative movements of the late 19th century. Some of his writings saw print runs of over 50,000 and were passed around in the social clubs and societies of the time. The history of sexual liberation and homosexual rights is interwoven with, part of, the history of the socialist movement. This was not a close relationship between two separate movements, but debates within the socialist movement.

Homophobia became dominant in capitalism by the end of the 19th century. It was particularly strong in Britain, where the ruling class sought to demonstrate its superiority to others by being more homophobic than the French or the Germans. It was in the British Empire that homophobic laws were most thoroughly enforced on the colonised, often against the traditions of the people conquered, and where missionaries were most encouraged to preach and enforce Victorian moral values. Homophobia and racism were central to the imperial mission, giving the British their sense of moral and racial superiority.


The liberal and tolerant Islamic east was seen as morally lax and sneered at by the British. It was seen as a sign of their backwardness that they were tolerant and liberal on such matters as sex. It was to the countries of the south and the Middle East that wealthy British homosexuals often fled to in this period as a haven from oppression.

If Britain was at the centre of imposing and preaching a strict moral code onto the masses, it was in Germany that the socialist movement was at its strongest that the organised opposition to the new morality was at its strongest. It was here that the first homosexual rights and sexual politics movement is found.

It is difficult today to fully appreciate the strength and depth that the German Social Democratic Party (the SPD) had in the German working class or the influence they had on all the other socialist parties of Europe. They were not just the heart of the Second International of socialist parties, but the head and brain as well, recognised as leaders and to whom all socialist parties looked to for guidance and theoretical leadership. The writings of prominent SPD figures Kautsky, Luxemburg, Zetkin, Bebel and others were read and studied avidly throughout the world socialist movement.

In Germany the SPD not only had a membership in the millions but it functioned as a state within a state — members lived within an SPD world. As well as its political function, the SPD cared for the physical welfare of its members; it organised civil and cultural life, with youth clubs, art and theatre societies, singing and music societies. It organised the whole life of the membership.

Though there had been earlier groups and arguments for homosexual rights in the 1860s and ’70s, the homosexual rights movements in Germany only really got going with the campaigns and organisations set up by Magnus Hirschfeld, in particular the Scientific Humanitarian Committee (SHC). It was founded in 1897 to campaign for the repeal of the sodomy law outlawing homosexuality — paragraph 175 of the penal code.

It had become an international issue during and after the trial of Oscar Wilde and the wave of repression that swept through Britain afterwards. It became such an international scandal that the socialist movement was forced to take a position on Wilde and on homosexual rights. In 1895 Eduard Bernstein, one of the leaders of the SPD and of the right within the party, wrote two articles on the subject in the party’s leading paper, Die Neue Zeit. The articles supported Wilde’s right to do as he wished with his body, sneered at the backwardness of the British in regard to the issue and argued there was nothing unnatural about a love found across different societies and times and that the law ought not to be involved in moral issues.

In 1898 August Bebel raised the issue in the German parliament, arguing for the legalisation of homosexuality on similar grounds — that moral issues should not be the subject of criminal law. This was the first time that any political party had raised the issue in any country. The contrast to the moral panic sweeping Britain at the time could not be greater.

None of this means that the SPD was an unreserved supporter of gay liberation. As with many issues, the SPD held more than one view on subjects and its practise could be in contrast to its theory. As well as arguing for decriminalisation of homosexuality, Bebel, in his widely read book, Woman and Socialism (1879), warned against this “crime against nature”. The SPD had two tendencies within it: those who aimed to overthrow capitalism and all that went with, it including homophobia, with a revolution; and those who looked to gradual reform, where the SPD would grow, merge with the working class and gradually take over society. So as well as attracting rebels and revolutionaries, the SPD related to and based itself on the “respectable working class”, often with religious and socially conservative views.


Magnus Hirschfeld was on the moderate, reformist wing of the SPD. He was central to the homosexual rights movement right through to the 1930s, but he was no revolutionary. He joined the SPD because it was the only political party that would support repeal of paragraph 175. His theory of homosexuality was that it was a third sex and as such could not be changed and had a right to express its nature.

He did not think homosexuals could organise themselves or be a political movement. He believed in reform from above; his campaigns were aimed at convincing the establishment of the logic of reform. He argued against organising from below and against a mass “coming out” by homosexuals suggested by others, as he believed that, “internal and external inhibitions of the homosexual psyche would prevent a significant number of people from allowing themselves to be publicly identified as homosexuals”. The way forward was scientific research and cool logical argument with judges, academics and politicians.

But this world of logical argument and gradual, if contested, progress towards socialism was smashed by the outbreak of the First World War. Before the war the SPD had been committed to a policy of opposing war, voting against war credits if war broke out, and arguing against German workers shooting other workers. When the war came the SPD members of parliament, apart from a tiny minority around Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, voted for war credits. This sent shock waves throughout the Second International of socialist parties, which was ripped asunder, splitting the socialist movement. The majority of socialist parties supported their own countries; only a few opposed the war. The leading member of the anti-war faction was the Russian Bolsheviks. The SPD eventually split, with a small left centred around Luxemburg.

The war created the conditions for the Russian Revolution of 1917, and when the Bolsheviks came to power they legalised homosexuality almost immediately. The Bolsheviks put into practice the policies developed by the left of the SPD. There had never been much of a homosexual rights movement in Russia, but support for sexual liberation flowed from the radical transformation that took place in society when the masses turned the world upside down. It became the agreed policy of the Communist Parties that looked to Russia and the newly formed Third International, which rose from the ashes of the Second.

Given Hirschfeld’s moderate socialist views, it is ironic that by accident he found himself addressing the masses on the steps of the German parliament in Berlin during the 1919 German Revolution. It was the German Revolution, incomplete as it was, which transformed the homosexual rights movement. The 1919 revolution transformed the attitudes and expectations of the mass of people.

It is a sign of a true revolution that all areas of life and age-old assumptions can be changed overnight. Across Germany many returned from the war wanting a new life. Friendship cafes and societies sprung up where homosexuals could meet openly. Friendship cafes appeared in Berlin, Dusseldorf, Frankfurt-am-Main, Stuttgart, Hamburg, Dresden, Kassel and other cities.


From a group of learned pre-war campaigners a mass movement from below had blossomed. By 1920 the Friendship cafes forged a national organisation, the German Friendship League, with its magazine Freundschaft (Friendship) having an initial print run of 20,000. As Max Danielson wrote in the first issue:

“The world war swept disaster over the old world… A new age dawned! The hour of liberation is now or never, for us… We, the ostracised, persecuted and misjudged, are set aglow by a new age of equal respect and equality.”

The right reacted with repression. In 1921 the police closed the Friendship cafe in Munich, but they were opposed by the local Munich Friendship League, led by the 21 year old Richard Linsert, a war veteran and campaigner. They fought the closure in the courts and publicly argued for equal rights. Richard Linsert was later to move to Berlin, where he joined the German Communist Party (KPD), throwing himself into revolutionary politics.

The revolution and the compromise that emerged from its incomplete nature — the Weimar Republic — provided the space and funds for Hirschfeld to set up his Institute for Sexual Science in Berlin. At the same time, a commercial gay scene grew as never before. Clubs, theatres, bars and publications for gays and lesbians spread as censorship was relaxed and new freedoms appeared. Gay businessman Friedrich Radszuweit dominated the new market for gay publications. He split the Friendship League in 1923 and renamed it the League for Human Rights. He produced a series of magazines aimed at gay men and lesbians claiming circulations of over 50,000 and a movement of hundreds of thousands. From the mid-1920s the gay movement had three competing centres: the commercial scene dominated by Radszuweit; the moderate socialists of the SPD around Hirschfeld; and the revolutionaries of the KPD with such activists as Linsert.

Linsert and the left radical Kurt Hiller worked with Hirschfeld in the SHC campaigning for repeal of article 175. Both the SPD and the KPD were in favour of the legalisation of homosexuality, but increasingly differed on what legalisation should mean. The SPD compromised its policy on supporting homosexual rights in order to appease religious parties of the centre and right.

The differences came to a head inside the SHC in 1928 on the proposed conditions for repeal of article 175. The SPD supported legalisation of homosexuality but only for “respectable” gays that lived in a non-outrageous manner. The issue which precipitated a break between the SPD and the KPD was the attitude towards rent boys. When Linsert moved to Berlin he had conducted a detailed survey of working class rent boys in Berlin on behalf of the Institute for Sexual Science. He had show they weren’t “criminal types”, as the right argued, but had mostly been forced into prostitution by the severe economic crisis in Germany.

Linsert rose within the SHC and within the KPD, becoming one of the Berlin leaders of the KPD and writing many pamphlets for it on free love and gay liberation. Linsert was on the Reichstag committee put together to review paragraph 175. The committee reported in 1929, but its recommendations were lost in the crisis of 1930 and the rise of the Nazis.

The proposed new law would have legalised gay sex except in three circumstances: it outlawed gay sex if one party was under 21 years old; if one used position or influence on the other; or if one paid for sex. This issue was to split the SHC and the gay movement in general and the SPD and KPD in particular. The KPD, led by Linsert, opposed the new law, saying it “amounts to one step forward and two steps backward” — the step forward was legalising male-male sex; the two steps back were a higher age of consent for gays and the criminalising of male prostitution. This was during the period in which the KPD held an ultra-left, sectarian position towards the SPD in general, calling them “social fascists”, almost as bad as the rising Nazis.

Linsert won over the SHC to this objection to the proposed new law, arguing for free love and sexual liberation, provoking Hirschfeld’s resignation from the SHC. The SHC split. It had long been in the control of Hirschfeld, but the majority was now won over to the more radical KPD position led by Linsert. In a huff Hirschfeld pulled the plug on the SHC, freezing its funds and crippling it financially.

Linsert was to die in 1933. With the dominance of Stalinism emanating from Russia, the KPD’s policy for sexual liberation was reversed. In effect the KPD abandoned the revolutionary position of the previous 20 years and adopted the SPD sexual politics of promoting respectable working class morals. In Russia homosexuality was criminalised in 1934, all progressive and sexual liberation policies overturned — a full counter revolution led by Stalin.

With the rise and dominance of Stalinism and fascism, the tradition of sexual liberation within the socialist movement was lost and forgotten, only to be to rediscovered and renewed in the 1960s.

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