In 1883, on his deathbed, Karl Marx revealed a terrible secret to his daughter, Eleanor. It was a truth he had kept hidden for decades: in 1851, while his own wife was pregnant, Marx fathered an illegitimate son with the family maid, Helen DeMuth. To protect Marx’s public image, Friedrich Engels pretended to be the father, and the baby was taken from Helen and raised by a working-class family in London. Marx never sent any money to support him.
It would be easy enough to retort that Marx is hardly the first great thinker to have feet of clay. But in truth, his repudiation of paternal obligation wasn’t much of a departure from the utopian political vision he and Engels outlined. For since The Communist Manifesto was published, three years before the birth of Freddy DeMuth, perhaps its most controversial doctrine has been family abolition. In proposing this, the architects of socialism unleashed a vision that has since inspired many feminists and utopians — but that fails even more completely as a delivery-mechanism for heaven on earth than the flawed and fractious families we have.
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The architects of communism took aim particularly at the bourgeois family. In Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State, Engels argued that the bourgeois family was a recent invention, rationalised as eternal, that served as a means of perpetuating inequality. The Communist Manifesto denounced this con-trick as a fake universal that, for the proletariat, didn’t even deliver joy or intimacy. Instead, it served as a machine for manufacturing new factory operatives: a cynical enterprise in which proletarian children were “transformed into simple articles of commerce and instruments of labour”.
More recent critics of the family take this even further. It’s not just the bourgeois family that has to go. It’s every family — even those of the poor, vulnerable, oppressed and helpless, for whom the alternative to relying on blood kin is destitution. This is the argument made by anti-family theorist Sophie Lewis in Abolish the Family: that the revolution must come for everyone. The family, she says, “is to be abolished even when it is aspired to, mythologised, valued, and embodied by people who are neither white nor heterosexual, neither bourgeois nor colonisers”. For it’s only in “collectively letting go of this technology of privatisation, the family, that our species will truly prosper”.
She echoes Marx and Engels in viewing such affective bonds not as a space of respite from the market, but as inextricable from it and a crucial site of its reproduction. For Lewis, though, the harm done by particularistic love within families goes further than perpetuating economic injustice. Families are not just delivery-mechanisms for violence and cruelty. They are sexism, racism, chauvinism writ small: “a microcosm of the nation-state”. As such, they are a tool of white cis-heteronormative oppression, employed to entrench wickedness of every kind.
This draws on a long tradition of Marxist feminism, for which family isn’t just a vehicle for reproducing capitalism but also a key means of oppressing women. Alexandra Kollontai, the earliest and most influential Marxist feminist, decried the particularistic affection granted to family members as “property love”. In Kollontai’s view, this love imposed profound negative consequences on women: the inconvenient calls such love of dependents can make on our time and resources is an impediment to women’s equal participation in public life. To solve this, she suggested, under communism children would be cared for by “society” in general, while “material and moral support” would be forthcoming for mothers.
For Kollontai, this could be attained by expanding the affective stinginess of “property love”. This “narrow and exclusive affection” should bathe not just our particular children but “all the children of the great, proletarian family”, a proposal Lewis views as “magnificent”. Subsequent feminists in the same tradition, such as the radical Shulamith Firestone, envisioned modern technologies helping to bring this about, resulting in “the diffusion of the childbearing and childrearing role to the society as a whole, men as well as women”.
In reviving these arguments, Lewis cements her position as perhaps the most eloquent contemporary exponent of a doctrine that views itself as socialist, but is more accurately understood as the utopian face of neoliberalism: one that sets itself against every given, arbitrary, particularistic and so-called “natural” feature of individual and social human life, in the name of radical liberation.
This includes attachment bonds, especially those between a mother and baby, where these are an obstacle to self-actualisation. And, in Abolish the Family, this includes all special social or political value accorded to family life. This revolutionary war on relationships must proceed even if, as Lewis accepts, it’s resisted by those for whom there is no protection from the world’s cruelty save the bonds of family. And it can, and should, come at the cost of our selfhood itself: “If the world is to be remade utterly, then a person must be willing to be remade also.”
I’ve written plenty about the transformative nature of motherhood, the value of interdependence and care, and the political importance of grounding what we do in the truths of our bodies and human nature. Lewis, meanwhile, has previously argued that feminism requires us to de-nature motherhood, to view all human reproduction as a kind of surrogacy, and abolish oppressive constructs of “nature” and love. Everything I’ve already said about those arguments also applies to their extension in Abolish The Family.
The title, though, merits comment. It’s subtitled A Manifesto for Care and Liberation. But the reality is that wanting both care and liberation is a bit like wanting somewhere to be both a nature reserve and a golf course. It’s no coincidence that the modern world sincerely believes we can have both; we can, somehow, have all the good things at once, with no contradictions. For “care” has two common meanings: an emotional one, in which we care about someone and a practical one in which we may need to care for them. This is the practical, often intimate, and sometimes gross work of nurturing, nursing and healing — work that usually falls to mothers where babies are concerned, and in general has historically been more the domain of women than men.
A central pillar of much feminist critique is the extent to which this ancient pattern is exploited today by a rapacious market society that takes the socially essential work of carers for granted even as it treats them as second-class. From Kollontai through Firestone to Lewis, the dream is of a world in which this aspect of “care” — the drudgery — is taken over by machines, or perhaps something abstract called “society”. This, the hope is, would free the emotional aspect of “care” to float free instead of being shackled to dull duty.
Firestone dreamed of a “home” where “all relationships would be based on love alone”. Lewis takes this further: instead of the arbitrary, unjust, asymmetrical distribution of love-resources (and also the material kind) within families, she suggests, we should devise “consensus-based modes of transgenerational cohabitation”.
This does, I suppose, sound utopian. But the flip side of socialising the work of care, so that the emotional one may be liberated, is that opt-in affection is also opt-out affection. What does “consensus-based” even mean where the care of a baby is concerned? It’s not “consensus” that gets a breastfeeding mother out of bed to her crying child at 3am after a few hours’ broken sleep. It’s an animal compulsion to care for our particular baby, which has a biological component and which we share with many other species.
Good thing, too. Humans are imperfect and often unreliable. The pre-rational devotion that underwrites practical care of a baby is sometimes all that stands between a normally loving mother and the dark thoughts that can bubble up when we’re woken from deep sleep, by a screaming baby, for the twentieth time in a single night. Yes, it’s true: families can be a bit shit. But if we truly treated the care of babies as amenable to “liberation” (which is also to say, voluntaristic), a great many more infants would die.
Why even try? One of my rules of thumb for understanding both family politics, and the large-scale sort, is that what people say motivates them may be sincere, while also not being the whole picture. Utopians are, well, utopian — and often not wholly conscious of their own blind spots, to say nothing of the lurking goblins of self-interest. I have no doubt that many of those who have historically argued for family abolition, in the name of the greater human good, were sincere in their aspirations. When you map that onto how those individuals behaved, though, a more nuanced picture comes into view.
Alexandra Kollontai, for example, clearly had little appetite for dull domesticity: she left her first husband and abandoned their son to pursue public life as a socialist campaigner. And Marx certainly walked the walk on family abolition when it came to leaving the care of Freddy DeMuth to “society” — for all that this decision hardly looks like something anyone would wish to aspire to. Some might retort that Freddy was the fortunate one to have his family thus “abolished”; neither of Marx’s acknowledged daughters grew up to be happy adults, and both committed suicide.
Perhaps all we may learn from this is that (as the philosopher R.H. Tawney put it) freedom for the pike is death for the minnow. That is, not everyone is equally well-equipped to make the most of liberation. And freeing care from care doesn’t just liberate the overburdened. As the story of Freddy DeMuth illustrates, it also frees the irresponsible, the lascivious, the selfish or the morally cowardly from their obligations to even radically dependent others.
Worse still, it “frees” those who need care from any hope that social pressure will be brought to bear on those who might otherwise be under pressure to provide it. All that’s left in the gap is what Firestone dreamed of: relationships “based on love alone”. But love in the absence of duty, social pressure, or raw animal attachment is a weak foundation — especially in those situations where providing care is a gruelling long-term slog. Firestone herself battled schizophrenia for decades as she aged, during which period her “sisterhood” fell away one by one, leaving her to die alone and impoverished. Her body wasn’t found for several days.
It is, of course, demonstrably true that the existence of families is no sure-fire guarantee that this will never happen. No one should ever rejoice in such suffering and alienation or suggest that Firestone in any way “deserved” it. But it’s far from clear that decoupling care from care does anything to make it less likely; quite the opposite, in fact. For the truth is that “care” in the practical sense will always be at odds with “liberation”. And as long as you pretend otherwise, and insist that it must coexist with absolute freedom, you’ll be cheerleading for a world where “caring for” someone needn’t involve ever having to care for them.
The suicide note left by Laura Marx, Karl’s second daughter, in 1911 is a chilling foretaste of what the prospects are, in a world where care is uncoupled from care, for those who find themselves to be a “burden”. She writes:
“Healthy in body and mind, I end my life before pitiless old age which has taken from me my pleasures and joys one after another; and which has been stripping me of my physical and mental powers, can paralyse my energy and break my will, making me a burden to myself and to others.”
Today, the practical effect of such liberation can be seen in the growing push for legal euthanasia, as a final remedy for anyone who perceives their position as Laura Marx did. In Canada, site of the world’s most permissive euthanasia regime, a growing body of evidence suggests that medically-assisted voluntary self-deletion is increasingly the option of choice for those so poor, friendless or defeated by obdurate bureaucracies of state “care” that continuing with their atomised (sorry, liberated) life no longer feels tenable.
To escape this trap, we need to think of relationships in terms of both obligation and love, rather than treating the two as mutually exclusive. Lewis’s inability (or refusal) to do this is clear in her reference to families as a place where “care is privatised”: a casual conflation of how families function with how businesses do, as though there’s no meaningful distinction between the permanent, unconditional relatedness of kinship and the transactional, deal-based kind that characterises the business world. In the book, she denounces Emily Oster’s explicit call to treat family life as a business, but seems herself unable to imagine anyone ever seeing it otherwise.
Those self-styled “radicals” who seek to liberate love from obligation should not delude themselves that what they proposed is in any way meaningfully distinct from what the cold logic of the market already offers. The only difference is the insistence that if we wish hard enough, if only we can abolish human frailty, we might yet devise a system in which freedom for the strong will never result in the weak falling through the cracks. That the loneliness, selfishness, abandonment and cruelty which inevitably accompanies freedom for the pike could be transformed into cuddly abundance for all, including the most helpless or difficult-to-care-for minnow.
But this insistence is just that: a pipe dream that serves to advance the selfish interests of the market. For no other order is as perfectly designed to prioritising individual desires, or as averse to imposing coercive moral frameworks, as the heartless, lonely, atomised world of technocapital we already have. Liberating care from care delivers utopia only in theory. In practice, it’s mostly freedom for the biggest fish with the sharpest teeth. And at the end of life, as at the start, we’re all minnows.
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