Chris Harman


It wasn’t always thus ...

(May 1981)

From Socialist Review, 1981 : 5, 16 May–14 June 1981, p. 34.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The German Family
Edited by R.J. Evans and W.R. Lee
Croom Helm £13.95

The common view of the family is of something eternal, unchanging, as natural as ‘human nature’ itself. Such a view is, of course, propagated by many defenders of existing society: the Catholic church, the Tory party and Labour politicians can all be relied on to voice deep concern about the future of the family. But, paradoxically, it is also implied in many fashionable feminist arguments: ‘patriarchy’ (literally, the rule of the father) is said to persist from one society to another, from feudalism through capitalism into socialism.

The ‘house’

This book contains a useful corrective to such slipshod, unscientific ways of seeing things. The various essays in it describe some of the ways in which the family and the roles of men, women and children were transformed as German society moved from feudalism to industrial capitalism.

As Karin Hausen tells, neither the concept of the family nor the sexual stereotypes we associate with it existed before the latter end of the 18th century. Until then people spoke of the ‘house’ or the ‘household’, engaged in both production and consumption, in which a ‘patriarch’ (usually a man but on occasions a widow) laid down the law to the wife, the younger men, the children and the servants. Within this structure both men and women had defined productive roles, very different to the sexual stereotypes of the bourgeois family.

For example, it made no sense at all in the present household for women to be valued as ‘weak, submissive, protective’: rather, they were expected to be capable of hard physical labour, although of a different kind to that of the men.

In the same way children were viewed in a very different way to what we take for granted now. So, as Robert Lee notes, in early nineteenth century Bavaria once a couple of children had been reared to keep the household going, the rest were regarded as a burden:

“The amount of attention given by parents to young children and particularly to infants remained minimal. In Mittelfels, for example, it was rumoured that a farmer would rather lose a young child than a calf.”

Hostile world

But the risk of a new mode of production in the cities smashed the old ‘household’. It was increasingly displaced by new forms of livelihood – based, for the middle classes, upon salaried employment in the world of business or the state. The new ideal which corresponded to this was that of the autonomous individual, cut off from all the old ties. At the close of the eighteenth century – the era of the French revolution – this briefly challenged all proceeding notions of hierarchy and authority.

But there could be no real autonomy for the individual in bourgeois society. Instead there was the competitive rat-race for the men, while the women were left to socialise the next generation in the home. Life became divided into ‘the hostile world and the friendly family’. Women were redefined as creatures who kept the family together – the protective, submissive, caring, intuitive, not-fully-rational wives and mothers.

Women’s nature

Novels, plays, church sermons and ‘scientific’ texts all endorsed this ideal as ‘female nature’. By the end of the last century the stereotype was so widespread, that it was even adopted by the ‘bourgeois women’s movement’: as Karin Hausen notes, it based itself on a notion that it was ‘the cultural task of women’ to bring humanity, through their femininity, into ‘the inhuman world of men’ – a notion that still persists today in some sections of the women’s liberation movement (how often have we heard so much nonsense about how the women’s movement can teach ‘new forms of organisation’?).

The new notions of the family and ‘women’s nature’ began to percolate all of society (as Karl Marx noted, ‘the ruling ideas are the ideas of the ruling class’). But they never fitted other classes in the same way as they fitted the middle classes. In the countryside the old household persisted as a source of foodstuffs for the capitalist market well into the twentieth century, so that men still valued wives for their productive power rather than for their ‘feminine’ qualities: as one bemused observer noted a century ago, the ‘characteristic’ differences of the sexes were not to be found here, for ‘the voices, the facial features and the behaviour of both sexes are very similar’.

Family wage

Among industrial workers things were a little more complex. As the old peasant family was broken up, the ideologues of the ruling class attempted to persuade workers to accept the values of the bourgeois family: they saw it as a means of ensuring that a new generation of workers was physically nurtured and they feared that a weakening of the family would open women and children to some of the pernicious socialist ideas growing in favour among the men. Yet, as Richard Evans observes,

“the very employers whose spokesmen so eloquently delineated the consequences of female employment on family life, were at the same time engaged in the wholesale employment of women and children, often at starvation rates ...”

The working class family certainly could not survive on the man’s wage alone. In a perceptive essay, Heilwig Schomerus shows that the idea that men were actually paid a ‘family wage’ sufficient to keep their wife and kids was a myth. Engineering workers’ wages reached a peak when they were 25–27, a couple of years before they usually married, and began to fall dramatically when they were 40–45 – long before their children were old enough to work. The result was usually appalling poverty, which could only be relieved if the wife was able to get paid employment. But this was impossible most of the time because of the impact of repeated pregnancies and continual child care in an era when safe and reliable contraception was virtually unknown. And even when married women did get work, as Robyn Dacey tells in a study of textile workers in Hamburg and Berlin, employers exploited their double burden to force them to accept unstable and appallingly paid jobs, often done from their own homes.


In a final, disappointing essay, Richard Evans discusses the attitude of the German socialist movement to the family. He suggests that although initially people like August Bebel and Clara Zetkin accepted Marx’s view that capitalism was destroying the family, they later were forced by the realities of German society – and the acceptance of those realities by Social Democrat workers and their wives – to shift their ground. The women who joined the socialist organisations were usually the wives of male members, not women workers, and what began to be preached was not an abolished family but a reformed family.

The implication is that Marx was wrong to argue that the entry of women into production provided the basis for women’s liberation and the destruction of the bourgeois family.

But there are two faults in Evans’ argument. First, he talks about the attitudes of workers, both male and female, without reference to the industrial struggles they were involved in – and there were in fact very few such struggles in Germany prior to 1914. And secondly, he deals with a period when the number of women in continuous lifetime employment was still relatively small.

The price and the academic style of this book will put it beyond the reach of most Socialist Review readers. But some of its material deserves to be popularised as a welcome antidote to prejudices found often enough on the left as well as encouraged by the right.

Last updated on 21 September 2019