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What Share of Socialists Want to Abolish Families?

“John Rawls, surely the most relevant philosopher of justice in the 20th Century, was aware of this problem and notoriously asked if the family should be abolished, with no clear answers.”

Most Democrats try hard to avoid the word “Socialism.” But, the fact that a serious contender for the 2020 presidential race, such as Bernie Sanders, feels no qualms whatsoever with using that word, is indicative that, as Marx wrote of Europe in 1848, perhaps now “the spectre of communism” is coming to haunt the United States. Some might be quick to assert that Socialism and Communism are different things, but this is just playing with words. Socialism is just a lighter form of Communism, and, ultimately, both have two basic goals: to limit (or abolish) private property, and to reduce (or eliminate) class distinctions. If anything, Socialism is just the milk served before the meat, or as Lenin himself clearly stated it, “the goal of Socialism is Communism.” 

Socialism has always been a Big Bad Wolf in the American ethos. And, very much as in Aesop’s fable about the boy who cried “Wolf!,” anti-Communists have long engaged in fear-mongering tactics. One common trope in these tactics is to put forward the idea that Communists are out to destroy your family. It, therefore, comes as no surprise that ultra-conservative Paul Kengor would write something like this: “[My work] details the far left’s quest to redefine, and in some cases outright abolish, the traditional family and marriage from the 1800s to today. It notes that gay marriage is serving as a Trojan horse for the far left to secure the takedown of marriage it has long wanted.” It is hard to take people like Kengor seriously, but, even cooler heads, such as the eminent Jordan Peterson, every once in a while brag about “Cultural Marxism” and its alleged intention to abolish the family.

So, should we worry? Will people like Bernie Sanders take your kids away and dissolve your marriage? Does universal healthcare pave the way for abhorrent sexual promiscuity and the neglect of children? Needless to say, the whole idea of “Cultural Marxism” does sound like a conspiracy theory. But, at least in the case of arguments about the impending abolition of the family, there might be some truth behind it.

As early as 1848, Marx and Engels had to address this fear-mongering in The Communist Manifesto: “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.” Marx and Engels were eager to assure their readers that Communism will leave the family alone. The bourgeois’ fear that the family will be abolished is only a projection of their own obsession with property. They think of women and children as property, and, therefore, they erroneously think that Communists will collectivize them as well. Marx and Engels’ point is that, once we think of women and children as free agents (and not as mere merchandise), these irrational fears go away.

But, the bourgeois fear did not come out of the blue. Marx and Engels were not the first Communists in History. Long before them, there had already been many attempts to collectivize property. And, in some of those attempts, women and children were also collectivized, i.e., the family was to be abolished.

Consider Plato. Describing the guardian class of his utopian society in The Republic, he envisioned that, “these women shall all be common to all the men, and that none shall cohabit with any privately; and that the children shall be common, and that no parent shall know its own offspring nor any child its parent.” His rationale for such a seemingly bizarre proposal was quite simple: “[A] city, then, is best ordered in which the greatest number use the expression ‘mine’ and ‘not mine’ of the same things in the same way.” In marriage, the use of “mine” is quite frequent. The marriage vow in Game of Thrones encapsulates it quite well: “I am yours and you are mine, from this day till the end of my days.” If, as Plato hoped, everyone is to use “mine” and “not mine” in the same way—and for the same things—then ultimately, this also applies to spouses and children.

For more than twenty centuries, nobody took Plato’s idea seriously. Aristotle famously criticized the idea on the grounds that, whatever belongs to everyone, actually belongs to no one—and is, ultimately, neglected. But, the 19th Century changed that. Utopian thinking came back with a vengeance, and, once again, the prospect of wife-sharing and communal raising of children reappeared. Charles Fourier advocated “free love” in his proposed phalansteries: there would be no monogamous pair bonding but, rather, everyone would be free (and perhaps even encouraged) to copulate with any other sexual partner. All the adults of the phalansteries would be parents to all the children, and, consequently, children would grow up without the concept of private property.

Unlike Plato, Fourier was more listened to, and some community organizers did put his theories into effect. Perhaps the most notorious of all was the Oneida community, founded in New York in 1848 (the same year the Communist Manifesto was published). Under the leadership of John Humphrey Noyes, this community made a strange appeal to Christianity and urged the complete abolition of private property. As Noyes would have it, “the grand distinction between the Christian and the unbeliever, between heaven and the word, is, that in one reigns the We-spirit, and in the other the I-spirit.” And, thus, in order to truly have this We-spirit, “complex marriage” was necessary. This was an arrangement in which sexual partners would not form pair bonds—but would actually be free to copulate with many other people, and children would be raised communally. In other words, promiscuity facilitated collectivism.

So, it is not hard to see why devoted spouses and parents would shiver upon hearing Communists in 1848 talk about the seizure of property. But, then again, there was a great deal of hypocrisy going on, and Marx and Engels were smart enough to point it out in the Communist Manifesto: “nothing is more ridiculous than the virtuous indignation of our bourgeois at the community of women which, they pretend, is to be openly and officially established by the Communists. The Communists have no need to introduce community of women; it has existed almost from time immemorial. Our bourgeois, not content with having wives and daughters of their proletarians at their disposal, not to speak of common prostitutes, take the greatest pleasure in seducing each other’s wives. Bourgeois marriage is, in reality, a system of wives in common.” Mind you, Marx himself had an illegitimate child with the family maid, but he did have a point in arguing that the inequalities of Capitalism allow the bourgeois to sexually exploit lower-class women at their will.

But, if Marx and Engels wanted to calm their readers’ nerves regarding the abolition of the family and the community of women, they did a clumsy job in another famous passage of the Communist Manifesto: “Bourgeois marriage is, in reality, a system of wives in common and thus, at the most, what the Communists might possibly be reproached with is that they desire to introduce, in substitution for a hypocritically concealed, an openly legalised community of women.” So, inadvertently, Marx and Engels finally take off the sheep’s clothing and reveal themselves as the big bad wolves. They point out the sexual hypocrisy of bourgeois marriage, but, by doing so, they admit that Communists do want the community of women and that, ultimately, abolition of the family is a Communist goal.

Perhaps because of his own secret sexual escapade with the maid, after the Communist ManifestoMarx was not overly concerned with sexual or family issues in his writings. But, being a voracious reader, he did keep a keen interest in what anthropologists had to say about sexual behavior in primitive societies. So, after his death, Engels picked up Marx’s notes on Lewis Henry Morgan’s work and, in 1884, published The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. Along with many other anthropologists of his time, Morgan believed that monogamy to be a recent invention in the human species. Originally, human beings were polyamorous and knew no restrictions in sexual encounters. They formed what in Victorian times was called a “promiscuous horde.” Naturally, men would not be able to identify their offspring, and, thus, children would be raised communally. But then, agriculture changed all that. Men would now have surplus property and would want to pass their property along to their children as inheritance. They thus restricted sexual relationships, and monogamy was born.

This theory was very appealing to Engels because it confirmed one of Marx’s pet theories: material conditions determine institutions. So, according to this view, monogamy was born because there were material changes in the production of food. As opposed to the Utopian Communists that Marx and Engels so vehemently criticized, Engels was not particularly nostalgic about a Golden Age before the advent of capitalism. Engels was no Rousseauian eager to run naked in the forest. But, he did consider monogamy an unnatural and oppressive institution and preserved the hope of going back to the type of family organization that prevailed before the introduction of private property. He did not advocate a “promiscuous horde,” but he did hope for a society of “unconstrained sexual intercourse and with it a more tolerant public opinion in regard to a maiden’s honour and a woman’s shame”—in other words: “free love.” Likewise, “… with the transfer of the means of production into common ownership, the single family ceases to be the economic unit of society. Private housekeeping is transformed into a social industry. The care and education of the children becomes a public affair.” So, in addition to “free love,” Engels advocated for the communal raising of children.

However, Lenin himself was not impressed with this promiscuous “Soviet Woodstock” (as one clever blogger calls it), and, by the 1920’s, thousands of fatherless and neglected infants were becoming a problem.

Marx and Engels did not live long enough to see their ideas put into practice. But, the moment finally came in 1917, when Lenin and the Bolsheviks took power in Russia. They collectivized major chunks of property and followed many of the guidelines of the Communist Manifesto; but when it came to the abolition of the family, they had second thoughts. In the first years of the revolution, there was great excitement about sexual liberation, to the point that, as in the words attributed to Soviet leader Alexandra Kollontai, sex would be as natural as drinking a glass of water, which implied that in the same manner that you would not deny a glass of water to a thirsty person, you should not refuse intercourse to someone who requests it.

However, Lenin himself was not impressed with this promiscuous “Soviet Woodstock” (as one clever blogger calls it), and, by the 1920’s, thousands of fatherless and neglected infants were becoming a problem. By the time of Stalin, many aspects of Czarist morality would return (only this time under a thin red veil), and the conventional bourgeois family was once again reinstated, all but in name. Ever since, very much as Marx, Communists like to believe they have bigger fish to fry, so, at least for now, no one waving the Hammer and Sickle flag thinks much about the abolition of the family.

But, the seeds of the idea remain there. There are always hippies who think that Lennon’s Imagine would also include, ‘Imagine there’s no family.’ Indeed, some join sex communes and become fathers and mothers to all the children of the commune. Most hippies eventually become yuppies, so ultimately, they all revert back to being Mr. and Ms. Jones, with their three beautiful children, all clean and tidy. But, the idea of the commune has been taken more seriously in other contexts. Although they have consistently been losing numbers over the last few decades, Israeli kibbutzim are something to reckon with. Being under the influence of conventional Jewish morality, they never went as far as to propose “free love” or a “community of wives” à la Plato, but the kibbutzim did put into practice the communal raising of children, to the point that parents would no longer bond exclusively with them. Rather, parents would be required to bond with all children of the commune on an equal basis.

Although no politician (at least in the United States, anyway) will ever dare open a conversation about it, proposals to abolish the family will probably not disappear completely because—if you think about it—it isn’t necessarily an absurd idea. 

First, let’s admit that Morgan and Engels were dead wrong about what humanity’s sexual behavior was like prior to the advent of agriculture. Morgan reached his conclusion about non-monogamy on the basis of kinship terms; he was intrigued by the fact that in some tribes (such as the Iroquois), all males of the same generation are called “father,” and all females are called “mother.” He concluded that this reflected an earlier age in which a group of men freely mated with a group of women, and, thus, men were not able to distinguish their offspring; so they were all fathers to the children of the community.

While reasonable, Morgan’s conclusion was too hasty. We know now that the human species has been mostly monogamous, at least socially. This is because jealousy is enshrined in human nature, for good evolutionary reasons. If you are not jealous about your wife flirting with another guy, you run the risk of being cuckolded and providing resources for offspring that do not carry your genes. Eventually, you, being non-jealous, die without passing your genes. Clearly, jealousy paid off evolutionarily, and it is an adaptation deeply hardwired into our brains. Nevertheless, women will, as a whole, be less jealous than men because they have parental certainty (they can always identify their offspring), whereas men do not. That is why it is not difficult to find polygynous societies (in which one man is allowed to have many wives), but it is extremely hard to find polyandrous societies (in which one woman is allowed to have many husbands).

But, the fact that the monogamous family seems the most natural form of organization for our species does not imply that it must continue. This would be to commit the naturalistic fallacy. Lots of bad things are natural, but they can still be changed. So, Communists may have been wrong about what sex and the raising of children was like in the early days of humanity, but they are not necessarily wrong about what the human family should be like.

In fact, Communists who propose the abolition of the family are quite logical and consistent with their ideas. If your goal is to eliminate private property and bring forth a “classless society” (as Marx himself envisioned), then you do have to hope for the abolition of the family. Communism and the family are inevitably at odds. The family atomizes the individual, thus disconnecting him from society at large. The family is the ultimate bastion of the private sphere, and, as long as there is a private sphere, collectivization will be resisted. This was Plato’s main concern, and one can begin to understand why that in his collectivist paradise, the family has no place. 

Furthermore, as long as families exist, there will be class distinctions. The family is at the root of all sorts of unfairness and exclusion in society. To have a family is to direct more attention to some people than to others; i.e., to exclude other people from your own affections. There are good and bad parents, good and bad spouses. The family unfairly gives head starts to some people—and holds back others. So, even if, ultimately, all property is collectivized and distributed according to some new standard of justice, some people will unfairly receive more love than others, on the basis of what family they belong to, and this will ultimately reflect on how they finish the race. John Rawls, surely the most relevant philosopher of justice in the 20th Century, was aware of this problem and notoriously asked if the family should be abolished, with no clear answers.

So, Communists who wish to abolish the family don’t just “hate God” (as not-so-bright conservatives would phrase it); they actually have sensible motivations and, in fact, are more consistent and analytical than those Communists who somehow want to do away with unfairness yet want to preserve the one institution that is the source of much of the unfairness in the world. 

So, free college tuition (or whatever other “socialist” idea people like Bernie Sanders may have) will not necessarily end in some bureaucrat taking your children away and urging you to have sex with strangers, all in name of collective interest. But, it is a matter of degree, and there are collectivists who have indeed proposed such things (from Plato to the hippies). They are only taking their premises to their logical extremes.

Hopefully, these more consistent Communists will remain marginal. It is hard to argue against the idea that the family is the source of all sorts of unfairnesses. But, this sort of unfairness is what Thomas Sowell calls “cosmic injustices,” and there is little we can do to fix that kind of injustice. In fact, whenever politicians try to correct these cosmic injustices, things end up becoming far worse. At most, we can question whether God exists (for, how can a cosmic administrator allow for such cosmic injustices?), but we can do little else. The abolition of the family would be an insane project because, even if it is the basis of great unfairness, the family is still a greater good. Family life offers the intimate attachment (a fundamental human need, as psychologists have long demonstrated) that the commune or the State will never provide. Ultimately, all attempts at abolishing the family have failed—and will predictably continue to do so. Human beings always revert back to jealousy in sexual relations, along with individual attachment to their offspring. So, while not all natural things are good, the family is so powerfully enshrined in our nature that we cannot dispose of it, and, fortunately, the Socialist political candidates of today seem to be aware of this.

Dr. Gabriel Andrade teaches ethics and behavioral science at Ajman University, United Arab Emirates. He has previously contributed to Areo Magazine and DePauw University’s The Prindle Post.

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