Monday 25 March 2013

Socialism and the Family

Eli Zaretsky's short book Capitalism, The Family, and Personal Life, is well worth a read. In plain english it explains the development of the family as an outcome of the class struggles that marked the passage of feudalism to the early, middle, and late stages of capitalism. In so doing it bursts with insights that have either been taken up in highly abstract ways by professorial Marxists, or have been dismissed/ignored by the far left. That's a shame, because Zaretsky simply and concisely explains how gender, the family and the struggle for personal autonomy are definitely not "distractions" from the class struggle. Here's an interesting and thought-provoking passage on the workers' movement and the family.
With the rise of industrial capitalism wages replaced productive property as the economic basis of the family. 'Private property' was redefined among the proletariat to refer to objects of consumption: food, clothing, domestic articles, and later, for some, a home. The traditional division of labour within the family was threatened as women and children joined men in the factories. Meanwhile, capital was accumulated by restricting domestic consumption and diverting any surplus into industry. The bourgeois ethic of repression and abstinence was extended to the proletariat through the force of material circumstances. The family's internal life was dominated by the struggle of its members for their basic material needs.

This understanding underlay the politics of nineteenth century socialists and reformers. Many feared that by turning women and children into wage-earners, industrial capitalism was destroying the family. The goal of 'saving' the family underly such nineteenth-century reforms as protective legislation and child labour laws. Over time a series of private and public institutions arose - schools, saving banks, insurance companies, welfare agencies - whose functions was to mediate between capitalist production and the fragmented realm of private life. The great trade union struggles through which the nineteenth-century working class both resisted and accommodated itself to industrial capitalism were also intended to establish a new basis for the proletarian family. Women were commonly excluded from trade unions and male trade unionists demanded a wage that could support the entire family.

When the socialist movement took up the question of the family in the nineteenth century it expected that a revolution in commodity production would simultaneously transform the family; early socialists did not experience the family as a 'separate' political problem. The major critique of the family came from within romantic and utopian socialist currents and from feminists. The great effect that Marx and Engels had on nineteenth-century socialism was to demonstrate the centrality of the sphere of commodity production (the sphere in which surplus value was produced and realised) to all areas of life. This gave the romantic and utopian critique a theoretical basis that it lacked, and encouraged a focus on collective political action rather than on individual transformation. But it also led away from the emphasis on subjective or personal life that distinguishes the petty bourgeois tradition. Reflecting the struggle for survival that characterised the nineteenth-century proletarian family, Marx and Engels saw no need for a separate programme for 'personal' life, including the oppression of women by men within the family. Instead they believed that if individuals were freed from economic exploitation they would arrange their private lives according to earlier ideals of domestic and personal fulfilment, unrealisable under conditions of industrial capitalism. (1976, pp.62-3)


jimboo said...

Of course the lack of a living family wage has created a situation where it is to the economic benefit of young working class women to raise a small family of one or two children without a partner. This gives them full access to the economic resources available to the matriarchal household without interference from a dominant male. I believe it was Halsey that pointed out that the nation must look to the middle classes for their children as the benefits of having a large working class family are outweighed by the negatives. Back to Marx again, the means of production are clearly having a direct effect in the shape of the modern Western working class family.

max farrar said...

I found this useful reference to Zaretsky's important book while re-reading something I wrote in 1978 which tried to apply his analysis to our personal lives as revolutionaries (in a groupuscule called Big Flame) at that time. It's posted here if anyone is interested