LGBT+ Liberation  •  Theory  •  Women

Marxism and the family

01 April 1999

‘Family life is the foundation of society’ said Gordon Brown in his recent budget speech. To prove Labour is serious about addressing the breakdown in the family, the government is making various changes in social policy aimed at reasserting the ‘normal’ family. At different times this century family life has appeared to be breaking down and capitalism has been on the offensive to preach good family values. This is because the family unit of today exists to serve the needs of capitalism.

Contrary to what the bourgeois press would have us believe, the ‘normal’ family has not always existed. The social organisation of human society has changed throughout history. Friedrich Engels, in The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State, argued that the family, as a social unit, developed as a result of economic and social changes within human society:

‘The determining factor in human history is, in the last resort, the production and reproduction of immediate life … On the one hand the production of the means of subsistence, of food, clothing and shelter and the tools required therefore; on the other the production of human beings themselves, the propagation of the species. The social institutions under which men of a definite epoch and definite country live are conditioned by both kinds of production.’

Engels identified the origins of the patriarchal family (and the state) within the breakup of the primitive commune and the establishment of private property. In the light of more modern research, some aspects of Engels’ analysis have required modifying, but fundamentally the anthropological evidence continues to support his overall conclusions.

What social organisation existed prior to the family? Primitive human society was organised on the basis of kinship groups. Possessions were generally held collectively on a communal basis. Things were produced for the immediate consumption of the group. Such primitive societies are usually known as hunter-gatherer societies.

Both matrilineal and patrilineal groups existed. Some groups recognised the importance of the mother in defining the children, others respected the father’s line. In general, regardless of how the children were defined, a rough kind of equality existed between the sexes.

There was a division of labour within these communes, but importantly all work was regarded as of equal value. Although women tended to work closer to home, for example gathering (this made child rearing easier), this was not seen as oppressive or less valued. Men, in general worked outside the immediate household, for example hunting. Even in communes which were structured along a patrilineal line, work divided along this basis was treated on an equal basis. Domestic work was communal:

‘… the household is run in common and communistically by a number of families, the land is tribal property … There can be no poor and needy—the communistic household and the gens know their responsibility towards the aged, the sick and those disabled in war. All are free and equal, including the women. There is as yet no room for slaves’.

As the forces of production (tools) developed so surplus production came into existence. A struggle developed between the kindship groups and the emerging family unit for the control and ownership of this surplus. Individuals who held high positions within the kinship groups began to assert their control over the surplus and possess it as private property. A very early and primitive form of ‘class struggle’ saw the breakdown of the kinship groups and common property and the emergence of individual families and private property.

It is difficult to fully explain how men came to be the sex which, predominantly, gained control of the surplus. One theory is that they may have had greater skills in war because of their greater role in hunting, defending their own surplus and attacking other groups to acquire theirs. Whatever the decisive reasons, the outcome was that inheritance of the surplus moved towards the male line and the patriarchal family came to dominate. Since men needed to be sure that their children would inherit their surplus, monogamy was imposed upon women.

This did not happen overnight but developed over thousands of years. Engels referred to the breakdown of the primitive commune, the overthrowing of ‘mother right’ and the victory of private property as the world historic defeat of women. The social oppression of women was a result of a process rather than a conscious act against women by men. It meant women were systematically excluded from an equitable claim over the product of their labour.

Engels also identified the individual family unit as the beginning of class antagonism: ‘the first class antagonism which appears in history coincides with the development of the antagonism between man and woman in monogamian marriage and the first class oppression with that of the female sex by the male’.

The change in the form of the family did not just coincide with the development of class antagonism, but both were a consequence of the same economic development: private property. The family unit as we know it today is very different to the family in the time of slave societies or under feudalism. But in each case, it has been shaped by the needs of the dominant mode of production.

In the early days of capitalist society, the family unit was severely weakened as the masses were forced off the land and into the factories. Long hours, dangerous conditions and child labour led to illnesses and early death. The capitalists were literally using up the pool of labour. Social cohesion was on the point of breaking down. In response to this the working class fought to defend itself and its struggle coincided with the realisation by the most far-sighted capitalists that it was in their interests to ensure that the working class could at least reproduce themselves or they would have no workers for their factories.

The end result was the creation of the ideal family. Not only did this provide a means of ensuring the more efficient reproduction of labour power—it also had enormous potential as an ideological weapon backing up the oppression of women. The bourgeoisie imposed their own idea of a family upon the masses: a mother and father and their children—the nuclear family.

The family unit is fundamental to capitalism since it is the arena where labour power (the working class) is reproduced. On a daily basis the family is the site where an individual worker’s capacity to work is reproduced—going home to eat and rest so you are ready for work the next day. It is also the means for reproducing and raising the future generations of workers. The problem is that it performs these functions relatively cost free for capitalism on the basis of the domestic enslavement of women. Women are the unpaid carers, cooks, cleaners and comforters in the family, and capitalism accordingly treats them as the subordinate member of the family team.

For whole periods domestic slavery was counterposed to social labour for women—hence the lingering ideology of ‘a woman’s place is in the home’. But even though women have entered the workforce in a big way nowadays, they are still the primary domestic workers and frequently carry out jobs that are designed to fit in with their allotted role in the family—part-time work, work as carers, secretaries and personal assistants to men etc. The result of this is that working class women are often more oppressed, having to carry out the ‘double shift’—paid work and then unpaid domestic work. What working women have gained though entering social production and the world of collective solidarity, capitalism seeks to take from them by ensuring that they have little or no time for participation in collective life and organisations by increasing the amount of work they have to perform in the family.

Marxists understand the family unit, then, as a key structure though which the social oppression of women is perpetrated. It is necessary to capitalism because there is no other profitable mans of ensuring the production and reproduction of labour power.

And because it plays this role for capitalism it should be no surprise that the ideology to justify the individual family—put yourself and your own first—enables capitalism to divide us. Fundamental divisions are created by the family because it is the material basis of the social oppression not only of women but also of youth and LGBT people.

Youth are oppressed because they are completely dependent on the family and have few rights within capitalism. Economic dependence and the absence of democratic rights can, literally, imprison youth within the family unit, even where that unit is the site of violence, abuse and persecution against them.

LGBT people are oppressed because of the centrality of the family for capitalism. Any groups who undermine the monogamous, heterosexual ‘norm’ of the bourgeois family are regarded as a dire threat to society and stigmatised accordingly. Lesbians and gay men pose a threat to the ideology of the monogamous family unit. They testify to the fact that sex is a pleasurable experience in its own right, separate from the family unit. The price they pay for championing love and pleasure of the capitalist norm is not only being branded abnormal but of being deprived of democratic rights concerning child custody, recognition as couples where pensions and property is concerned, in housing allocation and so on.

Such divisions cannot be simply wished away. The capitalist family unit has to be challenged and replaced at both an ideological and practical level.

Social oppression weakens the fighting strength of the working class. Oppression and the divisions it creates must be fought by revolutionaries and there is a proud tradition within the revolutionary workers’ movement.

Communists, such as Clara Zetkin, have argued for the importance of organising amongst working class women and ensuring that they are brought into the workers’ movement. In the Second and then the Third Internationals socialist women argued for special forms of work among women. This was not done divorced from the party. Special attention was needed to draw women out of the backwardness, passivity and low level of culture capitalism imposed on them though their role in the family.

This was also argued for within the party to counteract the sexism women often experienced. It was necessary to have a working class women’s movement. This was not separate from the class struggle but part of it. It was used to address the needs of working class women. Women’s liberation cannot be addressed separately form the need to overthrow capitalism and we cannot overthrow capitalism without liberating women.

It is from this communist tradition, that we draw our programmatic demands today in our fight to overthrow the bourgeois oppressive family structure and capitalism. Central to this is the call for the working class women’s movement. It would be built among working class women at work, in unions and the working class communities. The movement would address not just the economic conditions working class women experience. For women to participate fully and equally in the labour movement they will have to fight for their voices to be heard, for their participation to be taken seriously and for the class as a whole to take up the demands of women.

These demands would include practical means by which we can undermine the isolation of women through their role in the family. The key means of doing this is the socialisation of domestic labour: free high quality 24-hour child care, so that women are not tied to the home for years of their life, state subsidised laundries and restaurants to reduce the domestic work many women have to do on top of a full time job. Only such measures can remove the oppressive functions of the family unit and open up a new world of possibilities for human development that replace narrow individualism with human solidarity, oppression with liberation.

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