The Family: Transitional Notes

These notes were prepared for a discussion about the family at Manchester Socialist Resistance.

Two historical strands of socialist praxis come together when we approach the question of the family. The first is from Marxism, and in particular the application of a historical materialist methodology in the work of Engels to understand how the family emerged. The second is from feminism, and interventions to tackle the oppression of women in class society and the role of the family when something different from capitalism is being built. Those two historical strands are interwoven in our movement, so we need to move backwards and forwards between the two in order to think about how the family has developed, what functions it serves now and what our stance on it should be.

One of the difficulties we confront is that we have all either been brought up in families of some kind (even if they might have been pathologised as ‘broken’ families, pathologised all the more efficiently to tell us what it is like to be ‘normal’, which makes some of us want up to the fantasy of what a real family might be), and another difficulty is that many of us and those we work with politically live in or want to live in families.

We aren’t into setting up communes now, so we face a big gap between where we are now and where we want to be. One way of dealing with that gap would be to formulate specific transitional demands and maybe we can think of some, but in the meantime it is socialist feminism that has tended to provide something closest to transitional demands that address this question of the family. These notes are a first step to thinking about that.


Engels gives us one way of understanding the history and function of the family in his book The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, and that title knots together the three key elements of his studies. He drew on the work of Lewis Morgan, a nineteenth-century anthropologist. The argument is that there were three main stages in human history.

First there is a state of savagery based on simple hunting and food-gathering, and this is cooperative tribal society with no private property and nothing like the family or patriarchal social relations. The Marxist-feminist anthropologist Evelyn Reed (who was actually a member of the FI) argues that this period makes up the most massive stretch of human history, or better to say pre-history. This time of savagery is what Engels refers to as ‘primitive communism’.

It is during the second stage of barbarism, about 8,000 years ago to 3,000 years ago, that the most dramatic transformations happen. There is first an agricultural period when images of women become most powerful, as Goddesses or Earth Mothers or suchlike, but this is the culmination of a time of tribal communes or even matriarchal communes when women had been valued, sometimes looked up to as key players.

But then there is an economic transformation that gives rise to class society. There appears a surplus product that the hunter-gatherers away from the home, that is the men, control, and it is this emerging private property that gives rise to two apparatuses. Or, we could say, two manifestations of an apparatus to protect the private property of men that then separates into two separate apparatuses, the family and the state. The family ensures that what is the man’s private property passes down to the sons and this entails that the women is herself turned into a form of property. The state as a body of armed men ensures that private property stays in the hands of certain families.

The third stage that Morgan and then Engels describe is that of civilisation, where you have these institutions of the family and the state mirroring each other so that this civilisation is also a patriarchy; patriarchy is defined by the feminist Kate Millett as the kind of society in which men dominate women and older men dominate younger men, so you can see the chains of private property transmission being maintained.

You can see in Engels’ account an explanation for the rise of the family which guarantees private property as underwritten by the state which also accounts for women’s oppression. That logically leads us to see socialism as involving the withering away of the family as we know it with the withering away of private property and the state. This returns us to ‘primitive communism’, but as a higher stage of, if you like, ‘civilised’ communism.

That loaded term ‘civilised’ raises two problems with Engels’ account. One problem is that it draws on a kind of nineteenth-century anthropology that is now discredited, despite Evelyn Reed’s attempts to defend it; the assumption that is difficult to buy into is that human pre-history and history as such all goes together through these three stages. The sequence of slavery, feudalism, capitalism as forms of class-society is difficult enough to hold onto, but going back further and deeper into barbarism and then back further and deeper into savagery as if it is the same kind of thing all over the world is really problematic. The other problem is that this dialectical historical-materialist return to ‘primitive communism’ at a higher level also tends to simultaneously demean and romanticise cultures that are supposed to have existed, or perhaps even to still exist, as earlier states of humankind.

Engels was caught and we risk being caught in a colonialist image of those who are less advanced than us and in a gaze on original simple life-styles that then become fetishised under capitalism. This can be seen in the ideological motif of rescuing women in backward societies and it can be seen in the idealising of family relations that seem not yet to have been corrupted by commodities. The worst combination is when the West aims to save these women and keep them exactly as they are in the ‘natural’ state.

First wave feminism

Some of these problems are already there in the socialist movement at the end the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, and they are there in what we now see as ‘first wave feminism’. This first wave feminism ranges from the suffragettes, some of whom were into equal rights for women under capitalism and very much in favour of capitalism itself and colonialism for that matter, to the feminists like the anarchist Emma Goldman or the Bolshevik Alexandra Kollontai in the context of the Russian Revolution.

The Russian revolution actually sees massive involvement of this first wave feminism; the revolution began on International Women’s Day in 1917 when women textile workers went on strike in Petrograd to demand bread and an end to the war with Germany. It is there that we see put into practice the idea that there can be no socialist revolution without women’s liberation, no women’s liberation without socialist revolution.

The family in Russia before the revolution was a cornerstone of Tsarist rule, and the wife was required to show ‘unlimited obedience’ to her husband by law, in some parts of the empire not allowed to read and write, to be veiled. The revolution was also, then, a revolution in family life, with women given equality under the law but much more important than this, first steps were taken to enable the family as such as an institution to wither away.

Collective cooking, washing and childcare provision made it possible for women and men to escape the family as a little prison, and open political debate and cultural ferment made it unnecessary to have the family as the only point of refuge from the outside world. In the first ten years of the revolution marriage was merely registered and then even this requirement was dropped. Divorce could be obtained by either partner without the other’s permission, abortion was legalised and the concept of illegitimacy struck from the law books. Partners in marriage could keep their own names, or either could take the name of the other. Trotsky took the name of his wife when married to Natalia, for example and their children took her name.

The rise of the Stalinist bureaucracy put paid to these reforms, closed down the context in which the most progressive aspects of first wave feminism could flourish. As Trotsky pointed out in The Revolution Betrayed, the family become a site of reaction, of a political counter-revolution. Abortion was made illegal, women were thrown back into the home to bear children, sometimes alongside demands to work, and increasing political repression made the family a private place where people retreated. Emma Goldman’s early suspicion of the Bolshevik regime seemed to have been right all along, and Alexandra Kollontai became part of the Stalinist apparatus, her feminism as well as her socialism silenced. Woman as mother became a symbol and mainstay of the nation and, as in Germany with the rise of fascism, a strong family mirrored a strong nation state.

Second wave feminism

It is against this background that we should understand the role of second wave feminism of the 1960s and 1970s that accompanied the revival of the revolutionary left. The family and patriarchy became key issues to be fought within the left, and feminism has something to say about two of the most popular options.

On the one hand, the first option was to oppose the family. There were attempts to immediately put into practice new forms of sexual relationship and childcare in communes of different types, a direct rejection of the bourgeois family. For revolutionary feminism this was an opportunity to organise completely independently of men, to find a different way of life that also effectively cut off from broader working-class struggle. For radical feminism this was an opportunity to make a tactical break from the world of men, and to organise separately in the hope that this would force a rearrangement of power relations, but again with little energy put into broader socialist activity.

For socialist feminism the communes were an opportunity to engage in consciousness-raising, but were a short-cut to wider transformation, and the problem was precisely that there was no transitional space in which consciousness of the limits of life under the family could be connected with another kind of life in struggle against capitalism and life beyond it.

It is here that socialist feminists noticed the critique by their anarchist sisters, of a ‘tyranny of structurelessness’ that afflicted groups that pretended that there were no rules and then made it difficult to challenge the implicit rules that governed the group and privileged traditionally masculine ways of organising, ways of organising that covertly uncannily operated like a family.

On the other hand, the second option left the family intact. There was a replication in the left of patriarchal forms of power, a replication of exactly the kind of undemocratic practices that Stalinism made its hallmark, and the separation of the student left from the workers movement also led some activists to idealise working-class community, and family. The family as such was a blind-spot in much socialist practice.

There is also a question here about the way the state has incorporated the family into its own wider apparatus. The welfare state brings together the family and the state. The family not only functions as a privatised economic unit for the reproduction of the workforce but is also a site in which the state intervenes to prescribe how children should be reared and how men and women should behave toward each other. Sometimes that state intervention seems progressive, and there are ideological and economic effects by which families do become more dependent on the state and feel themselves to be part of it rather than pitted against it.

So, there has been endorsement of the family by some sections of the left, in different ways by social democrats who want to improve the state and family and by revolutionaries who replicated the worst of the family in their own organisational practices. This simply confirmed what revolutionary feminism always suspected, that men needed to be avoided, and it led to more caution among radical feminists about making political alliances with men. Both are understandable responses.

Socialist feminism, on the other hand, still operated as a necessary critique of the left, a reminder that the Russian revolution itself was ‘prefigurative’; that is, the forms of struggle anticipated what society was to be built after the revolution, and it showed that the personal sphere of the family was a political question.

The left now

The left now is faced with some new versions of old problems, and we can briefly note some of these. More than ever before with neoliberal globalisation, mass migration and the disintegration of any pretence that there is one homogeneous community that we mobilise in working-class struggle against the capitalist state, we are faced with a multiplicity of family forms and, by the same token, different forms of women’s oppression. Let us take two examples.

First, during the Russian revolution, for example, socialist agitation in the country-side would mean releasing women from their veils, but from the time of the Iranian revolution the left is faced with a complicated series of questions about forms of resistance. Just as the veil may be a form of resistance, so may the space of the family be for those subject to racism. And at the same time these other families we are queasy about criticising are still operating as little cells, not necessarily revolutionary cells but prison cells for those we want to respect and protect.

Second, during the Russian revolution, for example, there was a space opened up for experimentation with new forms of relationship outside the tight frame of compulsory heterosexuality that the family enforces. Lesbian and gay activity found a voice as a part of the socialist struggle, but now we are faced with demands for gay marriage and recognition by the state of civil ceremonies. These demands both reinforce the family as an isolated unit and they subvert the bourgeois family form.

There is a contradiction here, and it is too easy to sidestep this question as if it were just a diversion from the real struggle. And the left faces another mutation of feminism into a third wave feminism that is marked by contradictions that are both productive and regressive. On the negative side, there is a break with history, with the history of the left and of what is seen as old out-of-date socialist feminism. The idea that resistance is from those who have ‘precarious’ employment and life-style sometimes avoids socialist debate, is part of an illusion that capitalism as such will just be transformed by alternative life-styles.

On the positive side, there is energy in the queer aspect of these new social movements, energy that is there in the alternative life-styles that are actually already breaking from the grip of the family. There is refusal of identity of any kind, and so a prefiguring of a kind of society that works on the basis of collective ownership of the means of production.

But the question remains: what transitional demands might we make that link this movement with working-class struggle so that we reach over that gap that divides those without the family from those who are still stuck within it, that divides those who have already escaped the family from those who still cling to it as the only secure place in a world changing according to the imperative of capitalist production? How could feminism enable us to configure transitional demands around the question of the family?

The discussion raised the question of emotional bonds that we have for families and the ideological force of the family as well as ‘historical materialist’ or ‘patriarchal’ aspects, and it was noted that today, even while the family seems to be mutating it is not disappearing, it is become stronger, used as a point to mobilise people for reactionary causes. And it is difficult to question, even to the point that there is a kind of ‘family realism’ like ‘capitalist realism’ which limits the horizons of our critique. Well, as many contradictions emerged in the discussion as in the opening talk.