During his lifetime, the Soviet autocrat Joseph Stalin received many unusual letters: this practice of writing directly to their leader had its roots in Tsarism, and it continued after the Russian Revolution. It was not even uncommon to receive letters from eccentrics abroad. In 1931, for instance, an anonymous Egyptian wrote to Stalin asking if the Soviet Union had any interest in the development of his design for “death rays.” Nonetheless, the letter he received in the spring of 1934 must have stood out as questioning the stance of homosexuality in the Soviet Union. Wasting no time, the author opened with a bombastic question, “can a homosexual be considered someone worthy of membership in the Communist Party?” The writer of the letter, Harry Whyte, was protesting a decree, passed just a month earlier, which proscribed criminal liability for homosexual acts.
Harry Whyte was a working-class gay man from Edinburgh, Scotland. Born in 1907, he left school at the age of sixteen to pursue a career in journalism, a rather unusual choice for young people of his origins at the time. Three years later, he witnessed the General Strike of 1926, which contributed to his political radicalization. By 1931, he joined the Communist Party of Great Britain, and very soon after, he was offered a job at Moscow Daily News, the city’s main English-language newspaper. He moved to the Soviet Union and started a relationship with a Russian man.
Harry Whyte & the Multiple Revolutions
The workers’ revolution of 1917 was also, in part, a sexual revolution. The following decade saw radical changes in all areas of life, including art, housing, philosophy, and human sexuality. All laws oppressing women and sexual minorities were abolished by the communists, including those that criminalized abortion and homosexuality in the Soviet Union. The matter was not particularly central to the Bolsheviks, although one of their most significant leaders, Alexandra Kollontai, was a pioneer of women’s rights and an advocate of free love. Moreover, The Communist Manifesto itself called for the abolition of the family as a product of class society. The Bolsheviks also took certain steps in that direction in the 1920s, enabling extramarital partnerships and abolishing inheritance laws.
Naturally, in the society that arose out of the conservative Russian monarchy, not even the communists were unanimous on these matters: Whyte noted the disapproval of homosexuality by his superior, Mikhail Borodin, although he added that Borodin nevertheless considered it a personal matter, and considered Whyte a good communist.
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Harry Whyte’s letter, aside from being unique, is also an extremely useful historical source. It shows that he was well-educated and well-read, although his education was mostly informal. Here lies one of the main reasons for the appeal of communism to young working-class people like himself in the 1920s: in societies with limited social mobility and great inequality, the labor movement was one of the few avenues for people of extraordinary skill and talent, limited by birth, to emancipate themselves, both socially and intellectually. Even though by 1934 he had only been a communist for a couple of years, Harry Whyte shows an excellent command of theory and an ability to make complex and compelling arguments. His journalistic talent is beyond doubt, and his writing style is enticing.
A Marxist Defends Homosexuality
Given that Harry Whyte was very passionate about the topic, he not only wrote a defense of gay rights from a Marxist point of view but also outlined competing arguments. He essentially summarized differing points of view existing within the Bolshevik Party at the time: one which considered homosexuality to be a sign of “bourgeois degeneracy,” and another which believed that gay liberation is part of the struggle for universal emancipation. Naturally, he belonged to the latter camp and thus considered “the condition of homosexuals who are either of working-class origin or workers themselves to be analogous to the condition of women under the capitalist regime and the colored races who are oppressed by imperialism.” In other words, he noted the similarity between different forms of oppression and the complementarity of their struggles. He also noted the class distinctions among homosexuals themselves, arguing it was far easier for well-off homosexuals to avoid persecution.
Harry Whyte offers a scathing criticism of the attitude towards homosexuality in contemporary capitalism, clearly influenced by his own experience of living in the United Kingdom. He claims that limitations on abortion and homosexuality exist in capitalist societies because of the structural need to provide a “reserve army of labor and cannon fodder.” Additionally, he notes the hypocritical relationship to homosexuality through an anecdote from Britain: the son of Lord and Lady Astor was found guilty of homosexuality and sentenced to four months in prison. The Astors used their wealth and influence to cover up the story, although it was published in a newspaper owned by beer manufacturers, who sought to discredit the Astor family because they supported prohibition. Harry Whyte used this story as an illustration of how pretensions at morality are merely guided by material interests.
A Self-Loathing Homosexual?
Nevertheless, it is also extremely interesting to see that Harry Whyte himself was not entirely free of the prejudices of his day. Throughout his letter, he contrasts homosexuality to what he calls “normal” sexual behavior, implying the actions of him and his fellow gays were somehow abnormal. He even claims to have gone around and asked several psychiatrists if homosexuality can be “cured.” Rather predictably, the progressive Soviet doctors of the time told him there was nothing wrong with him. However, Whyte refers to Marinus van der Lubbe, a Dutch communist who was executed for allegedly setting fire to the Reichstag, as a provocateur and a “pederast” – a term which has been historically used to imply a connection between homosexuality and pedophilia. In general, he seems to have partially accepted the newly-introduced belief that there is indeed something “degenerate” and “bourgeois” about certain gay people but contrasted this to natural homosexuality such as his own.
Whyte also felt the need to distance himself from the beliefs of those homosexuals who are supposedly convinced of their superiority to heterosexuals. Whether he actually believed in this strawman argument or merely wanted to dissociate himself from potential accusations remains an open question. At times, he backtracked and pointed out the many great historical figures who were gay, including Tchaikovsky, Socrates, and Michelangelo. Interestingly, Whyte also claimed that homosexuals have a certain proclivity for arts and that the state can also artistically benefit from decriminalizing homosexuality, as many great creative persons in history were gay. Although an expression of positive prejudice, this was stereotyping nonetheless, and it shows the peculiarity of beliefs that even homosexuals held about their sexuality. Certainly, Whyte’s own indisputable writing talent could have also contributed to this (self-)perception of the close relationship between being gay and creative.
Inside the Mind of a Communist
Whyte’s letter is a fascinating exhibit for understanding not just homosexuality in the Soviet Union but also the subjectivity of a foreign communist living in the USSR. He had fully internalized the Bolshevik ethos: throughout his letter, we understand that his opening question, “can a homosexual be considered someone worthy of membership in the Communist Party,” is not merely rhetorical. He was genuinely concerned by this matter and spent a lot of time ascertaining that one can simultaneously be gay and a good communist.
Whyte frequently refers to speeches by Stalin and individuals from his inner circle, such as Lazar Kaganovich, to strengthen his argument. Moreover, Whyte approves, in a manner that seems very controversial from today’s perspective, the arrests of homosexuals for political reasons, as opposed to moral and social. In other words, he considers certain arrests acceptable because he had been informed by the police that these people were “class enemies,” and were not arrested for being homosexuals. What must have escaped him at the time is that the very definition of homosexuality as “bourgeois degeneracy” must have made homosexuals “class enemies” by default.
Unfortunately for Whyte, he was soon about to find out this reality. By the early 1930s, Stalin had managed to establish himself as the supreme leader of the Soviet Union and began to shape the country to his liking. Internal debates still went on for a time but were increasingly limited to Stalin and his inner circle. As a group composed mostly of crude, socially conservative Bolsheviks who spent more time before 1917 in Siberian exile than abroad, they had no sympathy for homosexuality in the Soviet Union. The ban they introduced in 1934 would remain in place until 1993, when Boris Yeltsin once again legalized homosexuality in Russia.
Stalin did read Whyte’s letter, or at least a summary of it prepared by his assistants. Laconically, Stalin commented, “An idiot and a degenerate.” The letter was sent to his personal archive, and Whyte’s concerns remained unaddressed.
From the Revolutionary Left to British Intelligence… & Back
Or rather, they were not addressed in the way Whyte had hoped. Soon after, the famous Soviet writer Maxim Gorky wrote an article in Pravda, the party newspaper, defending the new law. This article directly communicated with Whyte’s (unpublished) letter, purportedly offering Marxist arguments in favor of the criminalization of homosexuality. Soon after, a disillusioned Harry Whyte left the Soviet Union and was expelled from the Communist Party in 1935. Nevertheless, his political sympathies always remained with the left.
When the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936, he supported the anti-fascist forces by working at the Spanish Medical Aid Committee and then moved to Morocco to work for Reuters. He was under surveillance from the British secret police at least since 1931 and was therefore unable to travel. It appears that he was only allowed to go to Morocco because he had agreed to engage in espionage of Italian and German citizens there, who were suspected of being fascists.
Whyte’s adventurous life continued with service in the British Navy during the Second World War. Originally denied a visa by the Soviet authorities, he managed to make his way into the USSR as a British soldier, working as a coder on the Arctic convoys. After the war, he remained under surveillance by the British secret police. Despite the previous expulsion from the party, he seems to have worked for communist newspapers after 1945, as well as for various publications of the anti-Stalinist left. The MI5 officers who kept track of him noted his descent into alcoholism, as well as his support for Tito’s Yugoslavia after its break with Stalin in 1948.
In 1950, Whyte moved to Turkey, again as a Reuters correspondent. Ironically, as a gay man, he found it far easier to live under various dictatorships than under the British monarchy, perhaps because, as a foreigner and a British citizen, he was relatively uninteresting and harmless to most local authorities. Yet, he never seems to have gotten over the fact that the workers’ state he once believed in would no longer accept homosexuality. He would spend the final decade of his life in Ankara and Istanbul, working for various newspapers. He dated a local Turkish man and stayed with him until his death.
Whyte died suddenly at a reception in Istanbul in 1960, aged only 53. He was buried at the Protestant cemetery in the city and left his entire estate to the man he spent the last years of his life with. Fitting for a revolutionary and an adventurist that he was, Whyte’s entire “estate” amounted to one British pound.