The following article first appeared in Proletarian Revolution No. 34 (Summer 1989).

Women and the Capitalist Family: The Ties that Bind

A new women’s movement is being created by the attacks arising out of the renewed crisis of capitalism. The mass response to threats against abortion rights shows that women are mobilizing to fight back. But the April 9 demonstration in Washington also showed that NOW and other establishment leaders are dedicated to legalistic maneuvering and support for capitalist politicians. (An LRP leaflet on this question is available to interested readers.) As bourgeois reformists, they have a vested interest in perpetuating the lie that the capitalist system can still offer substantial progress for women.

In contrast to the 1960s, the collapse of prosperity and the deepening economic crisis mean that there is little room for reforms. But the problem with reformism lies deeper: the very nature of capitalism, not just isolated aspects of it, underlies women’s oppression in the modern world. A revolutionary Marxist analysis of the roots of oppression is a necessary starting point for those dedicated to women’s liberation.

We will argue here that the proletarian family is a necessity for the capitalist system and is the fundamental source of women’s oppression today. In developing this analysis, we start with the work that is generally considered to present the classic Marxist view on the oppression of women, Frederick Engels’ The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. Writing a century ago, Engels traced the enslavement of women to the rise of private property and class society and demonstrated that the eradication of these institutions was necessary for liberation.

For all its insights, Engels’ work was flawed by its reliance on faulty anthropological data and an anti-homosexual bias. More significantly for this article, The Origin failed to utilize key elements of Engels and Marx’s analysis of capitalism in relation to the family. The book’s strength is its overview of class society in general. But its discussion of the proletarian family under capitalism is limited, as we shall see.

Engels on the Proletarian Family

Engels emphasized that the rise of industrial capitalism meant progress for women because it brought them into the social workforce. Along with the socialization of household tasks, this is a precondition for liberation. Under capitalism, however, women remained oppressed because they bore the burden of family labor even when drawn into social production.

Not until the coming of modern large-scale industry was the road to social production opened to her again—and then only to the proletarian wife. But it was opened in such a manner that, if she carries out her duties in the private service of her family, she remains excluded from public production and unable to earn; if she wants to take part in public production and earn independently, she cannot carry out family duties. (Engels, The Origin of the Family, chapter 2)

Engels repeated what he and Marx had stated in the Communist Manifesto: capitalism was destroying the proletarian family through its growing exploitation of women in the workplace. The impact of early industrial capitalism contributed to this belief. As well, Engels (like Marx) expected capitalism’s early demise; he gave insufficient weight to offsetting tendencies which partially delayed the process of proletarianization and served to buttress the family. Engels discusses the proletarian family largely in terms of its internal relations.

To illustrate, he distinguished the proletarian from the bourgeois family in terms of male-female relations:

Sex-love in the relationship with a woman becomes and can only become the real rule among the oppressed classes, which mean today among the proletariat—whether this relation is officially sanctioned or not. But here all the foundations of typical monogamy are cleared away. Here there is no property, for the preservation and inheritance of which monogamy and male supremacy were established; hence there is no incentive to make this male supremacy effective. What is more, there are no means of making it so. Bourgeois law, which protects the supremacy, exists only for the possessing class and their dealings with the proletarians. The law costs money and, on account of the worker’s poverty, it has no validity for his relation to his wife. Here quite other personal and social conditions decide. And now that large-scale industry has taken the wife out of the home onto the labor market and into the factory, and made her often the breadwinner of the family no basis for any kind of male supremacy is left in the proletarian household, except, perhaps, for something of the brutality toward women that has spread since the introduction of monogamy.

It is true that the proletarian family is not based on property. But to imply that the family could only be relevant as a vehicle for the transmission of inherited property overlooks the specific economic role of the working-class family under capitalism and many of the elements of women’s oppression thus engendered.

Reproducing the Workforce

In Marxist analysis, capitalism is based on the exploitation of workers through wage labor. The working-class family is the system’s economic unit, an integral part of the reproduction of capitalist relations. As a necessary component of the wage form of exploitation, capitalism imposes a sexual division of labor. Women are obliged to fulfill the wife/mother role in order to ensure the system a steady supply of labor power.

There are two aspects to the reproduction of the proletariat and its labor power. In the “traditional” capitalist family, for the daily revival of the male laborer—his eating, sleeping, minding his health and just unwinding in order to replenish his ability to work effectively for the boss the next day—his wife cooks food, cleans house and clothing and provides nurture in less measurable ways. The second aspect, the replacement of one generation of the workforce by the next, includes the woman’s biological role in giving birth and her social role in rearing children.

As with any commodity, the value of labor power is based on the value of the means of subsistence necessary for the worker’s maintenance and reproduction. This cost must be covered by the workers’ wage. Thus the wage is not an individual payment; it also has to maintain all family members who do not work. But while the wage reflects the value of labor power, this value is not just the bare minimum needed for physical survival. As Marx states:

The number and extent of his so-called necessary requirements, as also the manner in which they are satisfied, are themselves products of history, and depend therefore, to a great extent on the level of civilization attained by a country; in particular, they depend on the conditions in which, and consequently on the habits and expectations with which, the class of free workers has been formed. In contrast, therefore, with the case of other commodities, the determination of the value of labor power contains a historical and moral element. (Capital, Volume I, Chapter 6)

The “historical and moral element” is a product of both the class struggle and the bourgeoisie’s requirements for workers of a particular cultural level, skill and capacity. This element can play the principal role in determining the value of labor power.

The Family Wage

One way in which it does is that the wage can vary with the number of family members who are expected to work for wages in a given period. Today the “family wage” has come to mean the particular setup of a nuclear family with male wage earner, cared for by a housewife who also cares for the children and home. But it was not always so.

At the start of industrialization, men were being thrown out of their craft jobs as mechanization made it easier and cheaper to employ women and children. When the factory system began to employ three children and a woman in place of a man: “now four times as many workers’ lives are used up in order to gain a livelihood for one workers’ family.” (Marx, Wage Labor and Capital) The value of labor power decreased, since now it took four wage-earners to earn what had been the norm for one. In this scenario the unemployed male worker became dependent on his wife and children. It meant a type of family wage, but it did not last. The brutality of early industrialization threatened to destroy the working class altogether by killing off women and children at a high rate.

This superexploitation of the family was opposed by women as well as men. But the domination of the struggle by labor-aristocratic leaders convinced many male unionists that their jobs were directly threatened by female employment; they failed to see that capitalism’s process of bringing women into new lower paid jobs was an attack on the entire class. Women’s employment was seen as the problem, and the establishment of the traditional family wage was posed as the solution. The struggles also won important working-class gains such as child labor regulations and other protective labor laws to benefit women.

Thus the achievement of a family wage was a temporary gain for sections of the class. But it also suited capitalism’s needs. Capitalism maintains itself by reinforcing divisions and backwardness within the proletariat. Workers are often forced to accept what the boss wants because “I have to feed my family.” Women’s family role—above all the inherent conservatism of laboring in isolation rather than collectively—also weakens the ability of the proletariat as a whole to fight the class struggle.

The fact that the family is propertyless is all the more reason it is needed. The male worker is taught to identify with at least one element of bourgeois consciousness, sexism. He doesn’t own productive property, but he can imagine that he controls the family funds and is master of the house, even though in reality he is still only a wage slave.

The family as economic unit not only fills the capitalists’ fundamental need for the reproduction of labor power, but the family-based division of labor also enables capitalism to keep down the social wage: public services like child care, education and health care. To the degree that workers accept the myth of the family as a private refuge from their jobs and dealings with their bosses, no matter how bad things really get in reality, they are restrained from making demands on the state for social needs. Whatever needs are not met at home become the failure of the individual family, especially the wife, rather than the bosses.

The direct wage is also reduced. Capitalism fundamentally depends on a reserve army of labor as an important underpinning of the system. Women are used chiefly as part of what Marx defined as the “floating” section of this reserve. Women still must give priority to home and child-care duties and are therefore willing to accept part-time jobs and lower wages. (In the U.S., a quarter of all working women held part-time jobs in 1986 compared with 9 percent of men.) The bosses use the classic divide-and-conquer strategy to lower men’s wages as well; men are forced to “compete” by accepting lower wages or else risk replacement by women workers willing to work for less. Of course, all women are not wives and mothers. But the family rationale—that woman’s income is supplementary and optional—is used to keep wages down for all.

Domestic Exploitation?

The relation between women’s domestic labor and the system of wage exploitation led to the once-fashionable leftist notion that household labor is exploited like factory labor. But the proletarian wife, in her household role, does not produce value and surplus value—and therefore is not exploited by capital. Nor is she exploited by her husband (although she may be oppressed by him). She is responsible for reproducing the labor-power commodity, but not under conditions directly governed by the law of value. (For example, even if there is an excess of the labor power commodity on the market, she must still work to reproduce her family’s labor power so that they survive.)

What the working-class housewife does is produce use values in the home. But removal from a direct role in value production in a society where value is the end-all and be-all ensures the subordination of women.

Engels called the position of the proletarian housewife “open or concealed domestic slavery.” Like a slave, the domestic laborer is tied to a particular household and family; she cannot move freely about between “employers"; and like chattel slaves in the capitalist era, she is subordinated to the relations between labor power and capital. But unlike a slave, no particular capitalist ruler directly provides for her welfare or even appears as her master. Rather she depends on the wage-labor/capital interchange to receive her share of the family wage, an indirect payment from the capitalist class for the maintenance and production of labor power.

Capitalism’s exploitation of the wage laborer is all the more insidious because it is concealed under the pretension of the “equal exchange” of wages for labor power. Likewise with the oppression of women: the “equal exchange of love” as the foundation of a freely chosen marriage conceals the underlying economic compulsion. Of course, the proletarian woman often faces the double burden of wage and domestic labor. Capitalism takes full advantage of the ideology that woman’s “primary” role is in the home to keep down her wages and rights as a worker.

Women’s Economic Dependence

In discussing the progressiveness of women’s entry into production, Engels did not address the inequality of wages and conditions, even though job equality is a necessary condition for putting women on an equal footing with men. In modern capitalism the disparity is great. While in the U.S., 60 percent of wives work, much of their work is part-time, interrupted by or geared to family commitments. In 1983, 80 percent of all female employees worked in only 20 of the U.S. Census’s 420 occupational categories, the great bulk of them unskilled and minimally paid. As low-paying and part-time work is the main growth area of the modern economy, women continue to earn only 64 percent of male incomes. Therefore men’s higher wage forces economic dependency even on women who work.

Women’s lower wages, combined with the fact that wages are based on average, not individual, needs for maintenance and reproduction, means that single-parent families headed by women are disproportionately condemned to poverty. The single woman worker with several kids at home gets the same wage as her married sister—a wage based on the supposedly minimal needs of the latter. And their wage is far less than that of their single or divorced brother without children.

Today in the U.S. one in three marriages ends in divorce, and after divorce the woman’s living standard falls on average by 74 percent while the man’s goes up by 49 percent. Thus divorce is the single greatest predictor of poverty for women and children. The persistence of horrors like domestic violence against women and the fact that battered women stay with their husbands is not explained by Engels’ notion that male chauvinism is a leftover from pre-capitalist society; it results from the material conditions of capitalism.

Suprahistory and Superstagism

In showing how civilization, as opposed to prehistoric society, came to oppress women, Engels wrote:

The same cause which had ensured to the woman her previous supremacy in the house—that her activity was confined to domestic labor—this same cause now ensured the man’s supremacy in the house. The domestic labor of the woman no longer counted beside the acquisition of the necessities of life by the man; the latter was everything, the former an unimportant extra.

Engels regarded the division of social life into public and private spheres as key to the devaluation of women. But the sharp distinction that Engels describes became decisively true only under capitalism, when production was moved out of the home—an indication of the greater alienation under capitalism compared to previous class societies. Engels’ reading of capitalist conditions back into precapitalist history is an example of the error of suprahistoricism. The danger of suprahistoricism in general is that it overlooks the particular ways in which capitalism oppresses women.

Criticisms of Engels’ Origin of the Family run the gamut from superficial to serious. One of the most interesting and provocative writers is the “Marxist feminist” academic Martha Gimenez, who criticizes Engels’ entire work as distorted by his suprahistorical approach. She states:

It would be impossible to understand the uniqueness of capitalism as a mode of production with its own conditions of emergence and its historical laws of motion and transformation if its “origins’ were traced to the earliest historical appearance of propertyless persons working for wages and owners of wealth bent on making profits as merchants or bankers. That would entail the denial of the possibility of qualitative historical change, the transformation of historically specific social classes—capitalists and workers—into ahistorical categories of analysis (e.g. rich and poor or propertied and propertyless) and the universalization of capitalism which, from this ahistorical perspective, becomes either a manifestation of an unchanging human nature or a victory of human reason against the fetters of tradition.

The same argument is valid when the issue under consideration is sexual inequality. A historical materialist approach would not inquire into the origins of the family or the origins of the oppression of women in a chronological sense, in prehistory or in the origins of ’civilization’ or class society, but would, instead, investigate the historically specific structures, processes, and contradictions, characterizing the articulation between the two aspects of production within a given mode of production. (Martha Gimenez, “Marxist and Non-Marxist Elements in Engels’ Views on the Oppression of Women,” in Engels Revisited, ed. Sayers, Evans & Redclift, 1987).

Gimenez is right in saying that Engels, in drawing a broad overview of the family and the oppression of women, fails to examine how these phenomena varied among different class societies. Unfortunately her alternative is a static, pragmatic approach.

It is true that capitalism, like any other mode of production, must be analyzed in and of itself; a chronological order of development can be a terrible guide to understanding how a system works. This was Marx’s view, but he also noted that certain “categories” continued through different historical stages while qualitatively changing. The development of these categories sheds light on capitalist political economy in his day.

Commodities, for example, existed in ancient society, despite the absence of capitalist production; they played a qualitatively different role then, but their emergence signified the separation of the product from the producer. Likewise Marx analyzed the fundamental category of “labor” through various class societies up to the present. (See “The Method of Political Economy” in Marx’s Introduction to the Critique of Political Economy, 1857.) The past helps illuminate the present because there is a continuity in history, despite quantitative and qualitative transformations.

It is impossible to understand the direction of the class struggle under capitalism without recognizing that class society as a whole stems from material scarcity, which necessitates the stratification and oppression of social groups. There is a developmental relationship between the qualitatively different historical producing classes. Slavery, feudalism and capitalism are successive stages in which layers of producers are increasingly alienated from the means of production. To say this is not to be suprahistorical in the sense of looking over history; it is rather to look at the motion of phenomena through history.

As Gimenez correctly notes, women’s oppression is not just a historical legacy; it is specifically molded to serve capitalism. But women have undeniably been oppressed for thousands of years. What is to say that the specific capitalist mode will not be replaced by another system with its own specific internal drive to oppress women? Unlike Gimenez, Marx and Engels knew that capitalism was not simply a distinct mode of production but the culmination of all alienated and class-ridden society. Authentic socialism can be the negation not just of capitalism but of all class society—because the elimination of scarcity could at last be achieved. The reason the future socialist society is worth fighting for is that it can eliminate the material basis for any type of oppression.

Gimenez’ view would not allow us to see the broad dialectical motion of history and the succession of quantitative steps that lead to and interpenetrate with qualitative advances. Her interpretation makes history a catalog of discrete stages. Negation thus becomes erasure, not development.

The Family as Economic Unit

Gimenez specifically derides Engels’ “reliance on descriptive, non-Marxist categories.” She disputes his “notion of the family as the “economic’ unit of society, as the molecule of which society is composed” as superficial, “a typical nineteenth-century sociological truism alien to the Marxist problematic."

Nevertheless, the study of the empirically observable level of social reality is not outside the purview of historical materialism; if Engels is to be criticized on this point, it is because he did not link this ’visible’ element of “society’ with its underlying determinants. It is the case that, at the level of social and market relations, the family is an economic unit to the extent that it is an ideologically mystified mechanism that regulates people’s access to the means of production, to the means of subsistence, and to the goods and services produced in its context by its members. As long as the family continues to operate as an economic unit, ’society’ does not assume responsibility for its members except under limited circumstances; distribution and consumption are organized in ways that presuppose family membership and specific relations between the family and the ’economy’ which severely restrict women’s lives and opportunities.

Although Engels did not consistently carry out the Marxist analysis of the proletarian family as the economic unit of society, Gimenez’ critique offers no alternative on this score. She accepts the family as economic unit only “at the level of social and market relations,” not at any fundamental level. This is not simply because of Engels’ lack of historical specificity. Gimenez misunderstands the role of the family because she overlooks the underlying historical drive of production, the attempt by human beings to overcome scarcity in qualitatively changing ways. Production in conditions of scarcity means that exploitation is the determinant within each given social system. So the key to the family under capitalism is its specific relation to exploitation.

Gimenez doesn’t see exploitation as central and therefore doesn’t examine the economic role of the family at that level. At a secondary level she does recognize its economic role: it regulates “access” to the means of production, but its basic structural function is to serve as a cover for society’s failure to assume responsibility for distribution and consumption. Central to her conception is that the family is an economic unit only to the extent that it is an “ideologically mystified mechanism” designed for this function of concealment. However, the ideological mystification of the family is indeed the surface. If Gimenez’ understanding allowed her to probe the family to its actual fundamental level, she would see that ideological mystification stems from the real mystification, the fetishism of commodities inherent in capitalist exploitation.

The Epochal Change

The need for historical specificity is not confined to the distinction between modes of production. One of the most disorienting analytical problems is the failure to differentiate between the progressive and decadent epochs of capitalism. Engels believed that the proletarianization of women would rapidly undermine the proletarian family, as we have noted. The reason for this mistake was Marx and Engels’ revolutionary optimism. They expected that the progressive epoch of capitalism would be followed more or less directly by socialist revolution; the reactionary epoch would be short-lived. It was no accident that Engels failed to draw out the full contradiction between capitalism’s progressive tendency to socialize the workforce and its need to erect barriers for defense against an increasingly threatening working class. A deeper analysis of capitalism’s development into its epoch of decay was only elaborated years afterward by Lenin.

It is important to correct illusions in capitalism’s capacity for progress. In reality capitalism has shown itself able to take reactionary forms and ideas from the past and remold them to suit its own needs. All the more so in the case of women’s oppression, which suits an array of material (and ideological) needs of the system. Engels’ overoptimistic estimate unwittingly overlaps with the reformist views of bourgeois feminists who say that sexism is outdated, illogical and morally repugnant and that capitalism should get rid of it.

The epochal transformation of capitalism is crucial to a corrective understanding of Engels’ The Origin. But if Engels overestimated the pace of the disintegration of the family, he could never have conceived of its abolition under capitalism. The wonder is that there are those who actually live in this reactionary epoch who nevertheless think it possible.

Capitalism Without the Family?

The British SWP theorist Chris Harman, for one, raises the question of capitalism doing away with the family. He says, “there can be no end to women’s oppression without an end to privatized reproduction. But that, in turn, is not possible without a complete revolutionizing of social relations. This is only possible in two circumstances.” One is socialism, naturally; the other:

If capitalism were able to enter into a new period of virtually uninterrupted expansion of the productive forces, the system could then replace privatized reproduction with socialized, mechanized housework and even the building of Brave New World type baby farms, etc. (International Socialism No. 23, 1984)

Harman does admit that “the full socialization of child care would require a level of investment which the capitalist system is loath to make, even in periods of expansion,” much less in deepening crisis. Nevertheless, assuming an accountant’s rationalism, he calculates that since the average mother has two children and an average nursery has one adult for six children, it would be more economical for the system to exploit women than to maintain them in domestic isolation.

From the point of view of aging capitalism, a woman stuck in the home caring for only two children and her husband is a waste of potential surplus value. The fact that she labors all day is no consolation for the system, her labor is labor that could be done more efficiently, relieving her for wage slavery.

Thus Harman argues that the socialization of child care is both rational and theoretically possible under capitalism (if not practically for now). What he overlooks is that such a major step toward socializing the workforce by releasing women from family demands is impossible because of the real needs of capitalist economics in this epoch. The system is devoted to preserving itself by offsetting its inherent socializing drives, not by carrying them out.

Harman’s argument that an (unlikely) expansion of capitalism would free women from domestic labor ignores another feature of the epoch of decay: capitalism can expand for some population layers in the imperialist countries only at the expense of other sectors, through a deepened exploitation of the “third world” and, undoubtedly, through major defeats of the working classes at home as well. This happened in the World War 2 period to set the stage for the postwar boom. But even then most women (especially on the world scale) never had paying jobs but performed unpaid labor in the home. They continued to live in neocolonial countries; their basic goal was to avoid starvation and reach subsistence.

Underneath, Harman denies the nature of capitalism’s epoch of decay: it tends to socialize production relations but is also forced to put countertendencies into operation. In reality it would be irrational for capitalism to break down a division within the working class that has served it so well and that it has done so much to exacerbate. Harman’s notion opens the door to a reformist road for women’s liberation.

Generational vs. Daily Replacement

Another attempt to challenge the role of the family as the source of women’s oppression under capitalism is that of the Marxist theorist Lise Vogel. Families, she writes,

are not … the only places where workers renew themselves on a daily basis. For example, many workers in South Africa live in barracks near their work, and are permitted to visit their families in outlying areas once a year. Furthermore, children do not necessarily constitute a family’s only contribution to the replenishment of society’s labor power. Other family members may at times enter the work force, at harvest, for instance, or during economic crises. Finally, families are not the only source of such replenishment; other possibilities … include migration and enslavement of foreign populations. These observations demonstrate that the identification of the family as the sole site of maintenance of labor power overstates its role at the level of immediate production. (Lise Vogel, Marxism and the Oppression of Women, 1983, p. 141)

Vogel’s argument, however, does not disprove the centrality of the family in daily as well as generational reproduction; it only shows that traditional family roles can sometimes be replaced or altered. In fact South Africa is the exception that proves the rule. While not totally absent in the South African situation Vogel describes, the proletarian family has a tenuous existence. The wage of the male worker is not enough to support his wife and children; they have to eke out the barest survival off the land. But when he is discharged, temporarily or permanently, he is cast back into the family unit. Thus even here the family has not disappeared.

Exploitation under apartheid depends on policing workers who live in slave-like conditions; it is the basis for South Africa’s super-profits but is not a stable form of capitalism. Vogel’s contention is equivalent to saying that capitalism doesn’t require unemployment because Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia did without it. But these too were exceptions, and in the case of the USSR (even more rapidly in other Stalinist states), we can see today that unemployment is resurgent. It is a necessity, even if not always present at a given historical moment. Vogel is engaging in a “pure form” argument, always an injustice to the richness of Marxist analysis.

The other exceptions Vogel lists are likewise precisely that—exceptions; they do not make the family’s central role in the maintenance of labor power any less.

As an alternative to the division of labor carried out through the family, Vogel holds that it is specifically generational, not daily, replacement of labor power for which women are indispensable and which determines their oppression. “It is the provision by men of means of subsistence to women during the childbearing period, and not the sex division of labor in itself, that forms the material basis for women’s subordination in class society.” Even where, as in South Africa, the state has taken over the women’s role in the daily regeneration of the laborer, no capitalist state removes from women the burden of bearing and raising the next generation.

Obviously women are biologically essential for the generational replacement of the labor force, and that in itself would imply some special need for control by the capitalist class. But it is also crucial that women and the family, rather than the capitalists, bear the burden of the daily regeneration of labor power.

Harman and Vogel, from different directions, miss the Marxist analysis of the family’s central role as the economic unit of society in the epoch of decay. Engels at least had an excuse: he lived in the last century.

Crisis Intensifies Attacks

As capitalism heads toward mounting unemployment and broader social crisis, the prospect for women is much grimmer than described so far. By now the family wage can no longer be said to exist, not even for the middle class: compare the 60 percent of wives in the U.S. labor force in 1985 with the 25 percent in 1950. As well, while capitalism may conveniently claim to be sending women back to the home, layers of working-class women in this category really suffer from disguised unemployment: the lack of a real family wage means that they still need work and therefore are part of the reserve army of labor.

The number of involuntary part-time workers increased by 60 percent between 1979 and 1985. As union-scale industrial jobs held mainly by men diminished, women entered the labor force to fill part-time and low-wage service jobs. (While women are 45 percent of the labor force, they are 64 percent of minimum-wage earners.) For this reason women account for 63 percent of the increase in the U.S. workforce in the past decade. Nevertheless, the increasing proportion of female labor will inevitably be used by capitalism as a convenient excuse for the disappearance of the decent jobs that many male workers enjoyed in the past.

The social wage must also be reduced much more drastically because capitalism’s need for austerity is growing. We have seen wholesale cuts in health care, housing, education and all public services. If the system can keep mothers believing in their responsibility for the health and welfare of husbands and children (while it is the father’s job to bring home the bacon), it will create an important counter to the persistent notion that it is society’s duty to supply such services.

Today the female-headed single-parent household is the most rapidly growing family form, not only in the U.S. but worldwide. The number of single mothers in the U.S. doubled from 1960 to 1985, when one out of every four mothers in the work force headed her own family. The breakup of the nuclear family under capitalism has meant smaller family units and more responsibility on the woman’s shoulders.

Mother, Father and State

It is also a problem for capitalism that the “ideal” nuclear family so rarely exists, having been torn asunder by capitalist relations. The capitalist state has tried to fill in, buttressing the family where it can and also substituting for some of its previous patriarchal roles. (For example, the state has created institutions to combat juvenile delinquency and spends enormous amounts trying to prevent teen pregnancy.) In advanced countries the trend is for the state to reconstitute the family, create foster families, etc., rather than institutionalize the poor as it did in its early years. And whatever the inadequacies of the real family, capitalism’s contradictions force it to upgrade the “family” as an ideological tool nevertheless. (On this see "Porn, Feminism and the Meese Report,” Proletarian Revolution No. 27.)

Engels underestimated the role the state would come to play in working-class relations and a more continual process of transformation of the working class family. As The Communist Manifesto states:

The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois ones. … All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned.

Likewise capitalism not only remolded the family of previous class society but is constantly recasting it to suit its needs. No matter what changes the capitalist family undergoes, capitalism’s dependence on it and on women’s subordination remains.

The significance of the family for social control is not limited to the devastating gender divisions it sustains. It breaks down the working class into supposedly independent cells. Marx understood that capitalist alienation means not only the separation of the producer from his/her product but the conversion of human labor into the commodity labor power—making people into appendages of machines. Capitalism’s family structure intensifies alienation. In a sense, the family “petty-bourgeoisifies” the entire working class: each worker is seen as the competitor of all others, and the preservation of one’s own children, home, etc. is one’s highest goal. The family is the group that, whatever its problems, one identifies with from birth. Family ties are the ties that bind.

A return to the family, materially and ideologically, accompanied the reversal of women’s gains that was an important part of the Stalinist counterrevolution in the Soviet Union. The atomizing and conservatizing function of the family has generally been adopted by the statified capitalist countries (including supposedly revolutionary Cuba and China)—as well as by fascist Germany—in order to contain the class struggle.

The development of the productive forces in capitalism’s progressive era afforded humanity for the first time the opportunity to overcome scarcity—and thereby to transcend its division into warring classes. Yet today, contrary to Engels’ optimism, the human race is divided against itself to a degree never before seen. Leon Trotsky observed in speech in 1925:

The development of the productive forces is not needed for its own sake. In the last analysis the development of the productive forces is needed because it provides the basis for a new human personality, conscious, without a lord over him on earth … a human personality which absorbs into itself all the best of what was created by thought and creativity of past ages, which in solidarity with all others goes forward, creates new cultural values, constructs new personal and family attitudes, higher and nobler than those which were born on the basis of class slavery. The development of the productive forces is dear to us, as the material presupposition of a higher human personality, not shut up in itself, but cooperative, associative.

From this point of view it may be said that probably for many decades to come it will be possible to evaluate a human society by the attitude it has toward woman … and this is true not only for evaluating society, but also the individual person.

To win these goals, it is necessary to build a revolutionary party to fight against bourgeois and middle-class feminism—and all the more against reformism disguised as Marxism. The best elements will use the tools of Marxism to develop the program for women’s liberation that is so urgently needed.

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