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.