Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Michael Klonsky

The family: obsolete or revolutionary?

First Published: The Guardian, August 22, 1970.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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Introduction: The following contribution to the Guardian’s radical forum is from Michael Klonsky of Los Angeles, a former national officer of SDS.

Since monogamy arose from economic causes, will it disappear when these causes disappear? (Frederick Engels)

In her recent book, “Enter Fighting: Today’s Woman,” Clara Colon (of the Communist party, U.S.) put forth the notion that today’s monogamous family in the capitalist U.S. has been transformed from its original role as an institution for the perpetuation of private property along the line of male descent, into a foco for revolutionary activity by the masses.

She supports her thesis by these observations:

(1) The modern working class family is based primarily upon individual sex-love rather than economic necessity. “Among the common people,” she writes, “love developed as the chief basis for marriage. More than that the sanctity of marriage became a revolutionary force among the propertyless classes.”
(2) The history of the oppressed classes has been historically based upon struggles for the survival of the family.
(3) The family is not inherently male supremacist and there is no substitute for the family in today’s society.

She cites the fact that the family concept contained originally not the slightest concern for personal feeling, emotional or sexual, between the two partners to a marriage.

Love was “smuggled in”

The strictly economic character of marriage prevailed through the Middle Ages as a means of uniting the wealth of dynasties, strengthening the power of the large landowners, without regard for the personal sentiments of the man and woman involved.

But a drastic change began to develop with the introduction of individual sex-love into the relationship between man and wife during the Middle Ages. Although the property relationship remained the main basis of marriage and the family among the propertied classes, the concept of individual love was gradually smuggled in as a secondary factor.

She then goes on to say that for working people, sex-love has become the principle basis for marriage today. Colon cites the fact that great struggles took place against the feudal lords who used their power to carry out the sexual violation of the women of the poor families and that women during the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign carried the banner “DON’T DESTORY OUR FAMILIES!”

She goes on to describe the struggle of the black family to stay together through slavery, reconstruction and into the present period despite attempts of the ruling class to smash the family through economic deprivation and genocidal attacks.

In discussing the family and its historical role, we must avoid subjectivity and rid ourselves of any preconceived notions that aren’t based in fact about the family or marriage. These are two words which have in the past evoked negative responses before any attempt could be made to deal with the economic and social realities upon which these relationships are based.

Engels, in his book, “The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State,” comments on this new arrival of the sex-love relationship. He talks about a new moral standard arising by which to judge sexual intercourse:

The question asked is not only whether such intercourse was legitimate or illicit, but also whether it arise from mutual love or not? It goes without saying that in feudal or bourgeois practice this new standard fares no better than all the other moral standards – it simply is ignored. But it fares no worse either. It is recognized in theory, on paper like all the rest. And more than this cannot be expected for the present.

Colon’s view is quite opposite:

“New concept of family”

We may we well be on the eve of a great leap forward by which a new concept of the family in which both father and mother will equally share not only in the everyday tasks of the home but also the deep pleasure of companionship based upon equality and creative joy of bringing up a new generation of socially-conscious children to the age of self-reliance.

This view, that sex-love can become the dominant factor in marriage within the bourgeois society far the masses is not only utopian, but as usual (with the CP) leads us down the road to reformism. While we shouldn’t deny that love is a factor in relationships or that those welfare mothers on the Poor People’s March loved their mates, we must certainly recognise that the main aspect of their demands was economic. The tearing apart of the Negro family means economic crisis for the wife. These attacks by the welfare department are direct attacks on the livelihood of poor people, especially the minorities and it is quite natural that the poor will respond by defending just as the feudal serf defended his mate against sexual attack from the lords.

It would be wrong to draw from this that the monogamous family is something to be romanticized. When faced with layoffs and automation, workers will demand jobs because jobs are a matter of economic survival. This does not mean that we should romanticize wage-labor. If offered an alternative, the working class would and should certainly leave the form of monogamy that exists under capitalism. Of; course, we must also realize that what is called “monogamy’ today is the farthest thing from it. With the coming social revolution, Engels asks, in “The Origin of the Family,” will monogamy disappear?

One might not unjustly answer; far from disappearing, it will only begin to be completely realized. For with the conversion of the means of production into social property, wage labor, the proletariat, also disappears and therewith, also, the necessity for a certain statistically calculable number of women to surrender themselves for money. Prostitution disappears; monogamy, instead of declining, finally becomes a reality – for the men as well.

“Strike at the root”

The job of communists with regard to the family is to build struggles which strike at the root of family, age and sexual oppression. We must fight to remove the economic and social binds which force marriage upon the working class (especially women) and cause them to, exploit and oppress their children. We must demand legislation which will free women from the drudgery of household work and child-care. We must remove all expense and legal problems from divorce and fight for women’s equality in production which is the only thing that can make the marriage of two workers one that is based on equality.

Of course these things cannot be fully realized under capitalism despite Colon’s visions of “new concepts” of marriage just over the hill. Under this system, which breeds male privilege, where the economic realities make the family a male-oriented one, it is by its very nature a relationship which engenders individualism. It creates the idea that one’s children are possessions and are to be molded in one’s own image. It is a form that gives rise to small group mentality and tends to place the interests of three or four people above the interests of the masses.

In bourgeois society, unpaid labor in the home, which serves to reproduce and care for the proletariat necessitates that women play a secondary role in production, in politics and in marital relationships. While at one time in history, the bourgeois family meant certain advances in the position of women and children, today it offers no chance for liberation from the bonds of age and sexual oppression outside of socialist revolution. The economic basis of the family still remains in the private ownership of the means of production while the wealth of the society is produced socially. Therefore the family must remain until the bourgeois rule is overthrown.

Abolition now?

Calling for the abolition of the family now is not the answer. This would be an attack upon all workers, especially women, for whom the family is a means of economic survival. This is the error of the anarchists and ultra-leftists like Weathermen who place principal emphasis on the form of a relationship rather than the content. As the communes of the petit bourgeois hippies have shown us, male chauvinism doesn’t vanish in a house with 10 people, it simply becomes oppressive to more people at once. Calling for the abolition of the family now is simply bowing to spontaneity and the outrage of the petit bourgeois intellectuals, for whom the family is not an economic necessity.

The opposite error is the one that Colon and the CP make, that is, seeing what presently exists and rendering it “revolutionary” by declaration. This is equivalent to their approach to the trade union struggles of the workers which they glorify to no end like the original economists in Lenin’s “What is to be Done?”

The family today is not revolutionary. It generally holds its members back from being revolutionary. The task of the family regarding the children is to “socialize” them and teach them bourgeois values. Politics becomes the domain of the man and women are kept politically backwards.

When asked by a friend or fellow worker whether he or she should marry, our answer should not be based on romanticism about the revolutionary nature of the family or upon our subjective feelings. It should be based upon a careful examination of the specific conditions of this person’s situation with the question in mind of which choice would further revolutionary development. We should raise to them the principles of equality of the sexes and the sharing of household work. For the masses in general, we can offer no alternatives to the monogamous family aside from struggle for reform and revolution. For communists, the question must be one of which family or living arrangement will facilitate communist work.

Remove the foundations

Our job is to win working people to see the necessity of smashing imperialism and building socialism, not because this will eliminate sex or age oppression but because it will remove the foundations which make the family an oppressive institution. We should point out the extent to which this oppression has been eliminated in socialist countries like the People’s Republic of China, which 25 years ago was perhaps the most backward in the world, where women were chattel slaves to be bought or sold or killed at will.

We must show how in Russia, the backsliding towards capitalism has meant subjugation again for the Russian women because of the accompanying retreat on the women question and the family. A dictatorship of the working class is the prerequisite for any attempt to eliminate family oppression and is in the interests of all oppressed women.

When the economic causes of the monogamous family disappear, will the form of monogamy disappear? Initially it will not. It will still exist in form, but in content it will be radically different. With collective child care and socialized housework, with women free to participate in production, marriage will become free from the basis of male domination. With women free to partake in the army and in production, they will have economic independence and be free to enter into marriage on an equal footing with men. Individual relationships between men and women will still continue.

What can we predict for the future of the family under socialism? To this question, Engels quotes the anthropologist Morgan: “The only answer that can be given is that it must advance as society advances and change as society changes, even as it has done in the past. It is the creation of the social system and will reflect its culture. As the monogamous family has improved greatly since the commencement of civilization and very sensibly in modern times, it is at least supposable that it is capable of still further improvement until equality of the sexes is attained. Should the monogamous family in the distant future fail to answer the requirements of society it is impossible to predict the future of its successor.”