Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 13, 2015

Blood Ties

Filed under: anthropology,feminism — louisproyect @ 3:39 pm

Recently I received a query from someone who follows my blog:

What does Marxism say about blood ties? My understanding is that Marx and Engels thought the family was a product of capitalism and that it would wither away when capitalism destroyed itself of its own internal contradictions. I’ve always had a problem with that. Of course, the specific form that the family takes in capitalism is unique to this economic system, but to me, the primacy of blood ties supersedes all else, and if capitalism should fall, there will always be the reality of blood kin. Go anywhere in the world and you’ll see this: kinship is all.

Does Marxism disagree?

Since others might have the same sorts of questions, I am posting a public reply.

Your question actually brings me back to discussions that were commonplace in the Trotskyist and feminist movements in the early to mid 1970s. Both movements viewed the nuclear family as a product of the capitalist system and one in which the man had the same relationship to the woman that a boss had to the worker. Engels’s “The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State” was one of the most popular Marxist classics among our ranks and in the woman’s movement.

Taking to an extreme, as it often was at the time, there was a belief that under communism children would be raised outside of the traditional family by “professionals”. We often liked to spin out fantasies about how it would work. Sperm and ovaries would be collected and fertilized in antiseptic nurseries in order to create the new generation. While nobody ever spoke in terms of eugenics, there is no doubt that this might have passed muster. Keep in mind that Leon Trotsky spoke highly of the practice in “If America should go Communist” as did the Swedish Social Democrats, including Gunnar Myrdal. With the Swedes, it went a bit further. They saw it as a way to weed out “undesirables”.

I first ran across these ideas long before I became a Trotskyist when I read Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” in 1959 or so. The Wikipedia article states:

Human embryos are raised artificially in ‘hatcheries and conditioning centres’. The breeding and development of children destines them to fit into one of five castes named Alpha (the highest) through Epsilon (as in the Greek alphabet) which fulfill different economic roles. While Alpha and Beta fetuses are allowed to develop relatively naturally, Gamma, Delta and Epsilon fetuses are subjected to chemical interference to stunt their intelligence and physical growth. Members of lower castes (but not Alphas and Betas) are created using ‘Bokanovsky’s Process’ which allows up to 96 clones to be produced from one fertilized ovum.

For Huxley, this was anathema. His hero was John, a man who was raised on the Savage Reservation in New Mexico, a place that does not follow the norms of the Brave New World. When John leaves the reservation to confront the modern world, he has the same kind of reaction that Woody Allen had to the characters in “Sleeper”: what is wrong with these people?

I am not sure if you have read feminist literature of the 1970s but you will get more or less the same kind of approach. When I was in Boston in 1971, a group called Cell 16 put out a journal titled “No More Fun and Games”. One of the primary theorists was Roxanne Dunbar who I am contact with today mostly around indigenous issues (she is part Cherokee.) You can see the tables of contents listed here: http://www.greenlion.com/NMFG/nmfg.html

One of Dunbar’s most widely quoted articles was “Female Liberation as the Basis for Social Revolution” that can be read online here: https://www.waste.org/~roadrunner/RDO/_single_RDO_Female_Liberation_as_Basis_for_Social_Revolution.pdf. This is a citation that reflects the influence of Engels although Roxanne hated organized Marxism and the SWP in particular:

Where will this leave white men and “their” families? The patriarchal family is economically and historically tied to private property and, under Western capitalism, with the development of the national state. The masculine ideology most strongly asserts home and country as primary values, with wealth and power an individual’s greatest goal. The same upper class of men who created private property and founded nation-states also created the family. It is an expensive institution, and only the upper classes have been able to maintain it properly. However, American “democracy” has spread the ideology to the working class. The greatest pride of a working man is that he can support “his” wife and children and maintain a home (even though this is impossibility for many and means misery for most). The very definition of a bum or derelict is that he does not maintain a wife, children, and home.

Not a decade past when this article was written, radical feminism had largely disappeared and the SWP had made a “turn toward industry” that was strongly committed to “family values” even if there was no open acknowledgement as such. Couples began to get married and bring children into the world as a tactic to gain acceptance by fellow workers, even if I suspect an important part of this change was a yearning for a normal life.

Around the same time a number of Trotskyists either dropped out or having dropped out stopped supporting the SWP (including me). One person in particular began a serious scholarly study of marriage and the family based on both her reading of traditional Marxist literature and material in the sociology and anthropology discipline. I can’t recommend her work highly enough. Stephanie Coontz is the author of many books, including one that relates to your question as the title implies: “Marriage, A History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage”. You can read an excerpt on her website (http://www.stephaniecoontz.com/) that I think will be helpful in coming to terms with your question. She is far better equipped to give an intelligent answer than me. I would only add that although she is talking about the relationship between men and women, it could equally apply to same-sexers.

Several small-scale societies in South America have sexual and marital norms that are especially startling for Europeans and North Americans. In these groups, people believe that any man who has sex with a woman during her pregnancy contributes part of his biological substance to the child. The husband is recognized as the primary father, but the woman’s lover or lovers also have paternal responsibilities, including the obligation to share food with the woman and her child in the future. During the 1990s researchers taking life histories of elderly Bari women in Venezuela found that most had taken lovers during at least one of their pregnancies. Their husbands were usually aware and did not object. When a woman gave birth, she would name all the men she had slept with since learning she was pregnant, and a woman attending the birth would tell each of these men: “You have a child.”31

In Europe and the United States today such an arrangement would be a surefire recipe for jealousy, bitter breakups, and very mixed-up kids. But among the Bari people this practice was in the best interests of the child. The secondary fathers were expected to provide the child with fish and game, with the result that a child with a secondary father was twice as likely to live to the age of fifteen as a brother or sister without such a father.32

Few other societies have incorporated extramarital relationships so successfully into marriage and child rearing. But all these examples of differing marital and sexual norms make it difficult to claim there is some universal model for the success or happiness of a marriage.

About two centuries ago Western Europe and North America developed a whole set of new values about the way to organize marriage and sexuality, and many of these values are now spreading across the globe. In this Western model, people expect marriage to satisfy more of their psychological and social needs than ever before. Marriage is supposed to be free of the coercion, violence, and gender inequalities that were tolerated in the past. Individuals want marriage to meet most of their needs for intimacy and affection and all their needs for sex.

Never before in history had societies thought that such a set of high expectations about marriage was either realistic or desirable. Although many Europeans and Americans found tremendous joy in building their relationships around these values, the adoption of these unprecedented goals for marriage had unanticipated and revolutionary consequences that have since come to threaten the stability of the entire institution.



  1. So when are you going to review the Netflix show “Bloodlines”? Damn thing gave me the willies, I was actually glad when it was over, I really don’t know if I want to watch the 2nd season. Having said that, some amazing acting and annoyingly effective story telling. Be interested in your take.

    Comment by Jon Flanders — June 13, 2015 @ 4:23 pm

  2. In short, while a nuclear family is likely to wither away, it won’t go easy, relationships among and between women and men will change, and these changes will take shape far beyond the end of capitalism and the establishment of advanced post-capitalist socieities. The liberational aspects of human relationships will not likely start until we have succeeded in ending capitalism’s grip on our societies and, especially women’s oppression will be a far longer struggle than every other.

    Comment by mtomas3 — June 13, 2015 @ 4:44 pm

  3. If we consider each society as equivalent in number, so that China has a 1 and a tiny tribe has a 1, the nuclear family as exists in the US is a distinct minority. The extended family is much more of the norm ( that is, multigenerational and/or with cousins) But there are many forms that may take: I was forced to memorize the major variations in grad school. I won’t put you to sleep by reiterating them here. I would not go with the sperm and egg hatchery idea.

    Comment by Peter Myers — June 13, 2015 @ 5:48 pm

  4. I think it is correct to link the ‘family’ to capitalism, or more specifically each mode of production develops its own forms of social structures. Of course history and cultural factors dictate the appearance but do not override the principle.

    One thing I would accuse the left (not Marx) of is ignoring evolutionary features of humanity, the left too often divorce humans from the animal kingdom in my opinion. You see this with discussions of feminism, ‘primitive societies’ etc.

    If you were asking me what the highest value commodity is in society i would say women, this is not just a comment on capitalism but also on the fundamental nature of how evolution works. These difficult questions are simply ignored by the left or if they are addressed leftists effectively try to abolish evolution and say it doesn’t apply to humans.

    Comment by Simon Provertier — June 13, 2015 @ 6:49 pm

  5. The above article states: “there was a belief that under communism children would be raised outside of the traditional family by “professionals”. We often liked to spin out fantasies about how it would work. Sperm and ovaries would be collected and fertilized in antiseptic nurseries in order to create the new generation.”

    I was not around in the US in the 1960s and 1970s, but anything the “American left” of the time did or said will not surprise me. No matter how stupid it was. I am not an expert in Marxism, but I think I am correct to state that Marx was opposed to giving detailed descriptions as to how the future socialist society would look like. It seems to me that Marx believed that it was up to the workers to decide the details of how they would go about setting up a new society.

    Seems like the American left of the 1960’s barely knew the most rudimentary elements of Marxist thought.

    Comment by Bluto — June 13, 2015 @ 7:24 pm

  6. Uhhh … not sure if I am the only one here stating the obvious, but at the risk of stating the obvious, family structures had existed in many societies around the world long before capitalism arrived on the scene.

    For an even more obvious example, monarchies that ruled different societies around the earth for hundreds of years before the advent of capitalism, were, well, how can I put this, royal *families*.

    Are we talking about how capitalism historically affected the institution of marriage, or is it being claimed that capitalism actually gave birth to this social institution (the family)? What am I missing here?

    Also, Marx’s reference in the Manifesto to the disappearance of *bourgeois* family structure, is, I think, talking about the abolition of unequal relations *within* the family structure as it exists in capitalist (or other class-based) societies. He is not talking about the disappearance of family as such, but the disappearance of the unequal relations *within* the family, and therefore the evolution of family as such. At least, that’s how I read it.

    In Chapter 2 of the Manifesto, Marx goes on to castigate the bourgeoisie in this regard:

    Quote: “Do you charge us with wanting to stop the exploitation of children by their parents? To this crime we plead guilty.”

    Two paragraphs later:

    Quote: “The bourgeois clap-trap about the family and education, about the hallowed co-relation of parents and child, becomes all the more disgusting, the more, by the action of Modern Industry, all the family ties among the proletarians are torn asunder, and their children transformed into simple articles of commerce and instruments of labour.

    “But you Communists would introduce community of women, screams the bourgeoisie in chorus.

    “The bourgeois sees his wife a mere instrument of production. He hears that the instruments of production are to be exploited in common, and, naturally, can come to no other conclusion that the lot of being common to all will likewise fall to the women.

    “He has not even a suspicion that the real point aimed at is to do away with the status of women as mere instruments of production.”

    [Source: https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1848/communist-manifesto/ch02.htm%5D

    Comment by Reza F. — June 13, 2015 @ 9:51 pm

  7. In early tribal societies, family and society were coterminous. One would have some sort of kin relationship with all. For example, among the Northwest Coast First Nations, one would belong to a lineage, a group of lineages would form a clan, a group of clans forms a moiety. This segmentary structure is not unique to these folks. Haida, Kwakiutl, Tlingit.

    Comment by Peter Myers — June 14, 2015 @ 12:33 am

  8. “. . .Couples began to get married and bring children into the world as a tactic to gain acceptance by fellow workers, even if I suspect an important part of this change was a yearning for a normal life. . . ” This was true of the Maoist groups’ “turn to industry” but not the SWP’s. Some SWPers got married and had children but most didn’t. For the most part the SWP’s internal life is freakish and countercultural, as revealed in this bizarre document:

    Click to access SWP-IB-86-2.pdf

    Comment by John B. — June 14, 2015 @ 1:31 pm

  9. The obsessing about breast feeding is bad enough (in the document above) but then it goes into the correct Bolshevik approach to baby showers! Red balloons only? I think this demands a comprehensive manual covering confetti, napkin folding, songs with proper political content.

    Comment by Peter Myers — June 14, 2015 @ 3:32 pm

  10. Of course the actual reality is that all humans everywhere don’t have the same idea of “blood kin” as people born under and shaped by capitalism, so the whole underpinning of this discussion in flawed. For example in many matralinial ancient forms of social organization (which still exist in a few remote places) men are basically sperm donors and nothing more. They make women pregnant and then are kept outside of tightly organized villages run by women that house their children who come from different dads. No one knows who their father is. There’s evidence that this was the normal form of familial organization for most of human history. In many places children are basically sold to other families, which is the basis of the bride price / dowry. This still goes on in China even as we hear of it “surpassing the US”. In some parts of rural Africa adult male relatives even have sex with young boys and girls as a ritual passage into adulthood.

    Material conditions shape human thought and practice, not the other way around. If capitalism is ever abolished the form of the family will change. If it doesn’t women and children will still be oppressed so another revolution will be needed. Actual communism is too radical for most peaceful middle class liberals that’s why they’ve spent the last 200 years trying to limit, revise and reform it.

    Comment by Tommy — June 14, 2015 @ 9:57 pm

  11. Actually, Tommy, in matrilineal societies there were close ties not to your own kids, who were not in your lineage or clan, but to your sisters son. Mothers brother/sister’s son ties were quite important, including passing along skills and occupations. In the Northwest Coast, uncles taught nephews how to carve totem poles. Also, fathers weren’t anonymous, they were just outside of the matrilineage and not involved in the rearing of children other their sisters.

    Comment by Peter Myers — June 15, 2015 @ 1:57 am

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