Marxism and the Family

Russell Haggar

Site Owner

Marxism and “the” Family 

Very Useful Resource: Student Support Materials for AQA AS Sociology: Unit 1: Families and Households by Martin Holborn and Liz Steel [Collins Publications]

For podcast on Marxism [and other Sociological Perspectives] from Steve Bassett [Park Sociology] NEW Link September 2017 – Click Here

For podcast on Functionalism, Marxism and the Family from Esher Sociology NEW Link September 2017 – Click Here

For Introducing Families and Households NEW document added October 1st 2012 – Click Here

For a very useful item on Marxism and the Family [Thanks to  R. Driscoll on Twitter @Rdriscollsoc  for finding this]  NEW link added March 2014 – Click Here

For a podcast on Marxism, the Family and Social Reproduction Theory [from 2014 Socialist Workers Party Conference] NEW link added September 2014 – Click Here (NO LINK)

For assignment  on comparison of Functionalist and Marxist analyses of the socialisation process within “the” family – Click Here

For Assignment: Marxism, Capitalism and the Family – Click Here

For assignment on comparison of Functionalist, Marxist and Feminist Perspectives on Families and Households – Click Here 

See also Feminism and the Family which contains information on the comparison of the Marxist Feminist analysis of the family with other kinds of Feminist analysis of the family 

See also Marxism and Education  for information on how, according to Marxists, formal education systems may reinforce some of the effects of the family 

Document Contents

  1. Introduction

  2.   A very brief outline of the Marxist analysis of capitalist societies.

  3.    Economic Base and Superstructure.

  4.    Engels’ theory of the family.

  5.    Althusser and Repressive State Apparatuses and Ideological State Apparatuses.

  6.    Further Development of the Marxist theory of the Family.

  7.    Criticism of the Marxist Theory

  • General criticisms

  • Functionalism and The New Right

  • Feminism

  • Social Action Theory

  • Postmodernism

   8. Conclusions.

    9.A brief comparison: Marxism and Education.

10.For Assignment: Marxism, Capitalism and the Family – Click Here 

  • Introduction

In this document  I shall provide an introductory outline of the Marxist overall analysis of capitalist societies and of the role of the family within capitalist societies. It will be shown that the Marxist analysis of the family is a particular example of  the more general Marxist analysis of relationships between the economic base [or infrastructure] of capitalist societies  and the superstructure of these societies. Marxists argue that the institutions of the superstructure  help to perpetuate the continuation of the capitalist system and the dominance of the capitalist class within the capitalist system partly by spreading a so-called ruling class ideology which encourages support for capitalism among the Proletariat or working class.

The document also contains criticism of the Marxist theory of the family from other sociological perspectives and  some brief comments on the Marxist analysis of formal education systems showing how in Marxist theory they supplement the work of the family in the perpetuation of the capitalist system. I hope that these brief references to formal education systems will help you to consolidate your understanding of the Marxist theory of the family. 

The document ends with an assignment on Marxism and the family.

  • A very brief outline of the Marxist analysis of capitalist societies

In very simplified terms the main elements of the Marxist analysis of capitalist societies may be listed as follows:

  • capitalist societies, by definition are based upon the private ownership of the means of production;
  • the production process itself involves two major social classes: the Bourgeoisie who own the means of production [the land, factories and machinery] and the property-less Proletariat;
  • the relationship between these two social classes is based upon exploitation and conflict for the profits of the Bourgeoisie arise from paying wages to the   Proletariat which amount to less than the value of the goods and services which the proletariat actually produce.
  • capitalism is an exploitative , unjust system which generates social inequality and poverty for millions of members of the Proletariat;
  • meanwhile the capacity of members of the Bourgeoisie to exploit the Proletariat means that they enjoy far better living standards than the members of the Proletariat;
  • since exploitation of the Proletariat by the Bourgeoisie is an inevitable feature of capitalism it is inevitable also that there will be class conflict between the Bourgeoisie and the Proletariat;
  • nevertheless it will often be possible for the Bourgeoisie to contain this conflict  in such a way that they are able to maintain their economic advantages within capitalist society;
    • they may do so partly as  a result of the relationships between the economic base and the superstructure of capitalist society, whereby the institutions of the superstructure help to transmit a so-called ruling class ideology which results in the false class consciousness of the proletariat  preventing them from realising where their true class interests lie.
  • As used in Marxist theory, an ideology is a coherent act of ideas, which are not necessarily accurate, but which serve to advance or defend the social position of a particular group, in this case the ruling class. According to modern Marxists, elements of the ruling class ideology in operation in contemporary capitalist countries such as the UK might include the following:

(i) that capital economies are inevitably more flexible and efficient and less bureaucratic than socialist ones, so that they can deliver better living standards.

(ii) that the efficiency of the capitalist economy is based on the necessity of an unequal distribution of income and wealth to provide incentives. People would not do difficult dangerous work unless they are better paid than average.

(iii) that, nevertheless, although there is economic inequality, capitalist societies are ore equal than they were in the 19th Century and there is a high degree of equality of opportunity. That is, capitalist societies are increasingly meritocratic.

iv) that sustained economic growth in capital societies has made it possible to finance an extensive Welfare State to help support the poor and needy.

v) that both Conservative and Social Democratic political parties can be relied upon to represent the interests of the poor.

v1} that because capitalist societies operate so well  we should accept the authority of hose who control the system and it is therefore beneficial if we are encouraged by our families to accept authority early in life.

v11) that capitalist societies are far freer and more democratic than former socialist societies such as the former U.S.S.R. and E. European states which were basically awful societies.

You may be able to think of other aspects of this ruling class ideology. If you are editing this document you could include them in the space below.

According to Marxists none of these ideas are true : they are myths designed to defend the capitalist system and the Bourgeoisie against criticism: the ideas, therefore are part of a ruling class ideology. Ultimately, however, the members of the Proletariat  will develop a common class consciousness that the capitalist system and the capitalist class [the Bourgeoisie] are the sources of their  exploitation. They will organise themselves politically, rise up in revolution and  destroy the capitalist system and the class system on which it is based, ushering in a classless socialist and subsequently communist utopia. However it is possible also that the transition to socialism and subsequently to communism might be achieved by parliamentary means.

According to non-Marxists ,however the above ideas which Marxists describe as a fraudulent ruling class ideology are nothing of the sort: they amount in fact to a fairly accurate description of capitalist and communist societies respectively Indeed it is Marxism itself which is an inaccurate ideology which Marxists use to criticise the capitalist system unfairly because they wish to persuade the Proletariat to overthrow Capitalism and introduce Communism.

[You may remember in our Introduction to Sociology that we discussed the importance of at least trying to be objective. Objectively speaking who have the better arguments, the Marxists or the non-Marxists? This is a controversy without end in Sociology.]

  • Relationships between the Economic Base and the Superstructure in Marxist Theory

By the Economic Base Marx means the capitalist system of production and the capitalist class structure to which it is related whereas by the Superstructure Marx means the other institutions of society, most notably the Family, the Education System, the Mass media, the Religious System, the Political system and the Legal System.

Marx argues essentially that the Economic Base of society heavily influences the organisation of the institutions of the Superstructure so that they operate to sustain the capitalist system and hence to sustain the advantages of the Bourgeoisie which is clearly the dominant  economic class within the capitalist  system:

This Marxist theory of the relationship between Economic Base (or Infrastructure) and Superstructure may be outlined diagrammatically as follows:

Superstructure of Society

The economic base of society determines or heavily influences the nature of the superstructure although for some theorists the superstructure has considerable autonomy vis a vis the economic base and in some cases may help to determine it. There is great theoretical controversy here!

Economic Base

Different variants of the theory are possible: we might argue that the economic base determines the superstructure or that the economic base heavily influences the superstructure or that influences flow from the superstructure to the economic base as well from the economic base to the superstructure.

Both Marx and Engels aimed to distance themselves from the criticism of excessive economic determinism. For example , Engels wrote ,…”according to the materialist conception of history, the determining element is ultimately the production and reproduction of real life…..the economic situation is the basis but the various elements of the superstructure…. also exercise their influence upon the course of historical struggles and in many cases preponderate in determining their form” Essentially then Engels was saying that the organisation of the economic base did not fully determine the organisation of the institutions of the superstructure .

[You may like to discuss the issue of economic determinism within Marxism with your teachers.]

  • Friedrich Engels and the Marxist Theory of the Family.

Friedrich Engels’ study, “The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State[1884] clearly derives from Marx’s basis theory in which the Economic Base heavily influences the nature of the Superstructure.  Engels ,who may be seen as the   originator of Marxist theories of the family, claimed that it was economic developments and specifically the development of private property which necessitated the development of the monogamous family which would help to ensure that men’s private property would be inherited by their own biological descendants.

Engels believed also that the development of the State could be explained partly by the need for laws to regulate the inheritance of private property. He noted, however, that the monogamous family could be expected to result in the exploitation of women in several respects. The historical accuracy of Engels’ theory has been called into question and it has been suggested, for example,    that it could not account for the development of the family among poorer people who actually had little or no private property to pass on.

  • Louis Althusser and Eli Zaretsky

The Marxist Louis Althusser distinguished between repressive state apparatuses such as the Police, the Courts  and the Armed Forces and Ideological state apparatuses such as the  Family ,the  schools, the Church and the mass media. Ideological state apparatuses including the family operate via the socialisation process to maintain the existence of the capitalist system and the dominance of the capitalist class within that system .{If the power of ideological state apparatuses is insufficient to maintain the dominance of the capitalist class, this class may ultimately maintain its power by the use of the repressive state apparatuses.}

Other Marxists such as Zaretsky have suggested several mechanisms by which the family may help to sustain the capitalist system and the capitalist class.

  1. Whereas according to Functionalists, the socialisation process as it operates within the family (and elsewhere)  is seen as encouraging conformity with desirable norms and values which contribute to overall social stability, according to Marxists the socialisation process in the family and elsewhere results in the transmission of a ruling class ideology whereby individuals are deceived into accepting the capitalist system and the dominance of the capitalist class more or less without question. Especially children are encouraged to accept parental authority more or less without question in the family which prepares them to accept authority more or less without question in the work place in later life.
  2. The growth of the home centred privatised family encourages concentration on family concerns, relatively orthodox interests and relatively moderate mainstream political views at the expense of wider  loyalty to ones workmates  and more active and radical engagement with political issues which thereby reduces the likelihood of meaningful political action to challenge the capitalist system.
  3. Insofar as the family operates as a unit of consumption it can be targeted by advertisers to encourage the increasing purchase of goods and services upon which the continuing profitability of capitalist industries depends.
  • Marxist Feminism
  1. It has been argued by some Feminists in criticism of Marxism that it concentrates excessively on   exploitation of the working class and not enough on the exploitation of women.
  2. However Marxist Feminists do give more attention to the exploitation of women within the family. For example, the family produces labour at low cost to the capitalist system in that wives are not paid directly for bearing the children or for their upkeep.
  3. Also wives also provide a range of services for their husbands at far less than their market value. If wives were paid fair wages for all of these services, employed husbands would also have to be paid much more which would reduce the profitability of capitalism.
  4. Wives may also absorb the frustrations of their husbands which otherwise might be turned against the capitalist system. Marxists argue that it is the frustrations of working in the capitalist system which are the main, even if indirect cause of domestic violence.
  5. Since many women see themselves as mainly housewives if they are actually in paid employment and become unemployed they are often more prepared to return to their housewife role without criticism. According to Marxists they are a part of a Reserve Army of Labour which can be hired when demand for goods and services is high  and work is plentiful but dismissed relatively easily when economies fall into economic recession. The capitalist system is strengthened by this flexibility to hire and dismiss workers as economic circumstances change.
  •   Criticisms of The Marxist Theory of The Family.

It seems therefore that Marxist theories certainly provide us with a critical analysis of the role of the family in capitalist societies and that they may be used to criticise Functionalist views of the family but Marxist theories are also open to important criticisms.

  • General Criticisms

A general criticism of Marxism is that it overstates the capacity of the economic base to influence the nature of the institutions of the superstructure such as the family. However it has also been claimed that the degree of economic determinism in Marxist theories has been overstated and that such institutions may well have some “relative autonomy.

Also there is considerable working class support for the Family and it is difficult to explain this if the family is a source of working class oppression. Family life can be a source of great joy and families have sometimes helped their members very considerably to cope with the injustices of the capitalist system. Here it is useful to remember, for example the work of Michael Anderson which explained how extended family ties helped the poor to manage when the Welfare State was very poorly developed.

Furthermore  in some politically conscious families there is active opposition to the capitalist system although such opposition may occur only in a minority of families. Marxists might say that as a result of false class consciousness workers simply do not recognise that the family is indirectly   a source of their exploitation but this would be a very patronising view of the working class.

  • Functionalism and The New Right

    Other sociological perspectives may be used to generate  criticisms of Marxist theories of the family but it should be noted that in Marxism and  Functionalism the focus of attention is on the nuclear family while New Right theorists argue explicity that the growth of family diversity is an indication that the nuclear family is in crisis . . Functionalist and New Right theorists are far more sympathetic to the existence of capitalism, arguing that it is relatively democratic and meritocratic and that it is the economic system that is most likely to deliver rising living standards for its members. Therefore if the family contributes to the stability of capitalism this must be seen as a good thing. Furthermore Functionalist  theorists argue that the family contributes to the stability of capitalism not by misleading people via a ruling class ideology but by the transmission of norms and values which are beneficial for society and for its individual members whose “adult personalities are stabilised” in the harmonious atmosphere of the nuclear family. However whereas Functionalists have argued that families fulfil  these functions effectively New Right theorists argue that the nuclear family can potentially fulfil these functions effectively but that the growth of family diversity [involving cohabitation rather than marriage, the growth of single parent families and single sex partnerships] is adversely affecting social stability in various ways
  • Feminism

Liberal Feminists see no need for radical change to the capitalist system and therefore see no great problem if the Family supports the capitalist system and while they agree that many women are likely to be  disadvantaged within the family and within capitalist society their situation can be gradually be improved via changing attitudes and moderate government reform. They believe that the nuclear family is often a beneficial institution both for family members and for society as a whole but they recognise too that other family forms are viable. . Radical Feminists argue that the problem is not capitalism but Patriarchy and that Marxists underplay the importance of violence against women within the family and the extent to which the family socialisation process promotes and defends patriarchy rather than capitalism.A range of radical measures will be necessary to destroy patriarchy and some radical feminists argue that women  should turn their backs on the nuclear family which is seen a a major site  of patriarchal exploitation.

  • Social Action Theory and Postmodernism

We must note finally that Marxist, Functionalist and Feminist perspectives are all basically Structural perspectives in which family members are assumed to be very heavily conditioned by the socialisation process operating in the family and in society generally.

Social Action sociologists would deny that individuals are so heavily conditioned by their family lives and that the possibility at least exists that individuals can find happiness and fulfilment as well as dissatisfaction in their family lives depending upon how they as individuals choose to approach life in their families.

Postmodern sociologists are critical of all “modern” sociological perspectives including Marxism which they describe as “metanarratives” or “grand stories” whose scientific validity has been grossly overstated by their supporters. Postmodernists argue also that ,in conditions of postmodernity, traditional processes of socialisation have become much weaker, thus allowing individuals far greater freedom in the construction of their own identities. Postmodernists , therefore are likely to deny that individuals are easily indoctrinated  by a ruling class ideology as suggested by Marx [or  indeed via Functionalist norms and values or patriarchal ideas. Instead they have much greater abilities to protect their own autonomy  within alternative family forms.

  • Conclusion

In conclusion it is clear that the Marxists offer an analysis of the family that is  critical of capitalist society and of the role of the family in helping ,along with other institutions, to  perpetuate the capitalist system.  Marxism in general and the Marxist analysis of the family may itself be criticised using other sociological perspectives as in the preceding section of this essay but many sociologists would continue to argue that the Marxist theory still contributes helpfully to the overall understanding of the family.

  • Appendix: A Brief Digression on Marxist Views of Education

It may be that you will recognise more fully the significance of the Marxist Theory of the Family once you see that ,according to Marx, the Education System also serves to maintain the capitalist system and the dominance of the capitalist class within that system.  [These issues will be discussed in detail in the Sociology of Education module.]

In their study in Schooling in Capitalist America[1976] the Marxists Bowles and Gintis  produced a so-called correspondence theory in which  the organisation of the education system corresponds in several ways to the organisation of the capitalist industrial system and helps to prepare students for entry into that system. Acceptance of school authority and rules encourages uncritical acceptance in adult life of authority, laws and pro-capitalist norms and values in later life; and the schools’ emphasis on hard work, ambition, individual competitiveness, punctuality, and the necessity to perform uninteresting tasks and even the undesirability of critical thinking helps to create exactly the type of worker demanded b the capitalist system.

Furthermore Bowles and Gintis argued that the often heard claims that pupils are evaluated and graded meritocratically and therefore fairly via the use of tests  and examinations is simply a gigantic myth designed to mislead pupils into a belief that when individuals are allocated to poorly paid and well paid jobs respectively this too is fair and meritocratic so that any criticism of either the school system or differences in employment incomes is unjustified. Also, ironically, the fact that a minority of working class pupils are educationally successful and upwardly socially mobile creates a false impression of fairness  yet for Marxists,  the capitalist system is grossly unfair and the education system helps to prevent people from realising this and trying to change it. Once again the formal education system helps to ensure that the capitalist class structure is reproduced.

Bowles and Gintis have provided a powerful Marxist critique of formal education systems but their work also attracted important criticisms. Thus it was claimed that many individual teachers aim to treat their pupils fairly and equally and to provide opportunities for them to develop their capacities to the full; that teachers are not necessarily strong supporters of the capitalist system so that the Hidden Curriculum could in principle be designed to support critical thinking; and that even if the Hidden Curriculum was organised to create unthinking submissiveness there was absolutely no guarantee that pupils would internalise submissive attitudes as indicated in studies by Paul Willis and others that the absolute opposite was more likely.

What do you think of this?

  • For Assignment: Marxism, Capitalism and the Family – Click Here