We communists are misunderstood people. Everyone seems to misinterpret everything we say. And yes, we do partly relish it, because we’re the emo teenagers of politics and it gives us an excuse to emphasise just how soooo radical we are. But there’s only so many times one can hear “What? You support North Korea?” or “100 million people! Enough said!” without going (even more) berserk. Or the latest one I’ve been getting: “Why do you want to abolish the family?!”Rather like arguing for freely available abortion at any time, it is impossible to argue the communist position on the family without falling down the deep, dark hole of hysterical emotions (“Do you not love your family? Isn’t the family sacred? How would you like it if men in dark suits came to your house and wrenched your children away from you as you clung to them, wailing in despair?”). This is because our position on the family is woefully misunderstood. And not the trendy kind of misunderstood.
Some of this is down to translation. When The Communist Manifesto was written in German, the word “Aufhebung,” was used to refer to the fate of the family, which can mean “transcendence” or “sublation” as well as “abolition” but was for some reason translated as “abolition.” Now the word “abolition” carries some quite sinister connotations. If communists want to “abolish” the family, do we want to send men in dark suits to your house to wrench your children away from you as you cling to them, wailing in despair? Because it sure sounds like it. But we don’t. In fact, it wouldn’t be in keeping with Marxism to attempt such a thing, because an institution such as the family which is part of the social superstructure cannot be abolished without abolishing the conditions, the social relations, the “base” which give rise to it. So we don’t actually think that it would be possible, let alone desirable, to forcibly get rid of the family before developments in social conditions just render it obsolete. However, we do not count the family as seen in class society amongst the features of a communist society. Every time a revolution has occurred which changed our mode of production, (from feudalism to capitalism, for example) there have been changes in how people live, raise children and associate with one another to match the requirements of the new sort of society which has emerged. These changes were particularly stark when class society first began to exist after the emergence of agriculture, because a whole new set of institutions and ways of living are needed to maintain class society. This is where the basic family form as we know it today, as well as monogamy, state sanctioned marriage and patriarchal and heteronormative structures in general, came in. Their basic roles were to regulate property, and over time they came to fulfil many other roles which served and justified class society, patriarchy and heteronormativity. It’s only reasonable to expect that once classes cease to exist, these changes will be just as radical and the family as we know it will no longer have any purpose, and therefore cease to exist.
There will be no love lost when this happens, because as all institutions which serve to perpetuate and justify class society, the family is not all sunshine and rainbows and, along with capitalism, is becoming grossly impractical and out of date. When I talk about the family, I’m not referring to a feeling of community between people or to parents who want to live with their children, but to the very specific, closed family unit of one man, one woman and their offspring which is predominant and legally defined in current society. Right away, there are visible problems with this. What about homosexuals? What about polygamists? Isn’t integration with the community damaged when society is just made up of intimate, closed-off units? Because of all the legal trappings of the family, it is difficult to make it more inclusive to those who do not subscribe to the heterosexual and monogamous norms it emerged to promote, and even if this is legally possible, there are enormous amounts of pressure to associate in a socially acceptable way, dissuading many people from ending relationships which don’t make them happy or forming relationships which do. The age-old purposes of the family are oppressive to everyone. Once again, it arose as a patriarchal institution and still serves patriarchy today by perpetuating artificial gender roles and stereotypes which hamper gender equality (hurting ALL genders) and by forcing women to have to choose between a career and children while making them feel inadequate for not “having it all.” As well as being an institution intimately bound up with and caused by private wealth and private ownership, the language surrounding it in particular indicates that familial relationships themselves are viewed in this society in terms of ownership. Between partners, when a man feels as though he “owns” his wife (again a symptom of patriarchy) the likely result is abuse, which the woman will not feel comfortable with talking about due to the closed-off nature of the family unit and the social codes embedded in it. But the most common instance of this ownership relation is between parents and children. This leads to parents abusing, neglecting or otherwise mistreating their children and thinking that it’s ok because children are merely property. By creating miniature hierarchies in the home, the family conditions children into acceptance of hierarchy, of coercion, of being effectively bought, sold and owned by other people all their lives. And it also serves capitalism directly, by creating yet another group of people to be brainwashed by advertising into wanting more and more and wasting resources, and by strengthening the distinction between work and leisure (by separating out “family,” “friends,” and “colleagues,” and “work,” and “home) even more. So…alienation, abuse, patriarchy, heteronormativity, brainwashing, slavery, stress and social pressure. Not really things we’ll miss much in communism.
As I’ve mentioned previously, it would be both futile and unpleasant to abolish the family by decree. But in *full* communism, it will lose its functions in the maintenance of class society and is likely to be replaced by something which “suits” the communist society better. Obviously I don’t know exactly how people will decide to live in communism, but here is what I can deduce to be the potential fate of human relations. There will be no need for the law to be involved in people’s relations due to the lack of private wealth, so legally defined marriage will no longer exist. Instead, people will freely associate with one another in whatever way they wish. A man and a woman might decide that they want to live with each other and only each other for the rest of their life and have a ceremony to celebrate that, just as the socially acceptable way to live is in current society. But there will be no social or legal pressure to do this. Relationships will be gay, straight, monogamous, polygamous, short-term, long-term…maybe even bestial or incestuous (but there will not be monetary reasons for incest). It will be entirely up to the consenting parties involved. Similarly, no one will force parents to raise children in a certain way, and no authority will exist to do so in *full* communism. But since society will become more community-oriented and work/school and leisure will merge, child-raising is likely to become more of a communal affair, and your “family” itself is likely to become the people who you are close to, who you are often with, who you care about and who care about you and so on as opposed to merely your blood relatives. We might even have test-tube babies or something. Sci-fi aside, the most important thing is that the harmful effects of the family are consigned to history, and that people are free to form the relationships that they want to and ultimately live the lives that they want to with no archaic stigma, no legal difficulties and no structural oppression to hinder them. A far cry from the men in dark suits. We’ll leave those to the USSR.