Why George Bush defines marriage as the union of a man and a woman… or
Why the family hasn’t always been like this… and why the future holds something far better
Part One: An historical materialist perspective
Revolution #54, July 23, 2006
George W. Bush has repeatedly called for
a constitutional amendment that “defines marriage in the
United States as the union of a man and a woman.” He
has argued that marriage “is the most enduring and important
human institution, honored and encouraged in all cultures
and by every religious faith.” And he has warned against
attempts to “redefine marriage.”
Christian fundamentalists say giving gay
people the right to marry will destroy the “sanctity” of marriage.
They argue that the institution of marriage—as it now exists—has
been embedded in human society for thousands of years. And
Bush has echoed this. Endorsing a constitutional amendment
to restrict marriage to two people of the opposite sex, he
said that after “millennia of human experience, a few judges
and local authorities are presuming to change the most fundamental
institution of civilization.”
But is it true that marriage and the family
have been unchanging, enduring institutions that
have been the same throughout history, in different times,
in different societies, and in different cultures?
The short answer to this is no.
The longer answer to this very relevant question
sheds light on how society really changes; why this question
has become so controversial; and why it is so important for
progressive people, including the proletariat, to oppose and
beat back the attacks on gay marriage and the concerted efforts
to tighten the chains of women’s oppression. So, let’s get
To start with: The original meaning of the
word “family” (familia) among the Romans did not at first
even refer to a married pair and their children. Famulus
meant a domestic slave and familia was the total
number of slaves belonging to one man. The Romans invented
the word “family” to describe a new social institution where
the male head of the house ruled over the wife and children
and a number of slaves—with the power of life and death over
all of them. And we can also look at another example: When
the Tenth Commandment in the Bible says, “Thou shalt not covet
thy neighbor’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s
wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox,
nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbor’s”—the wife,
servants (slaves), ox and ass are all considered the man’s
These are only two examples of how the “most
enduring,” age-old family that Bush celebrates was tied up
with slavery from its very beginnings. This also shows how
throughout history, “the family” has reflected the current
economic and social relations. And over hundreds of thousands
of years, sexual relations among human beings, marriage and
the family, and the way children are reproduced and raised,
have taken many different forms.
Some early societies practiced “group marriages”
in which a number of men had a number of women in common.
There has been polygamy, where men have many wives. There
has been polyandry, where women take multiple husbands. In
some cultures marriages between members of the same family
were allowed. In others there were strict taboos against incest.
There have been various kinds of homosexual practices. There
have been different forms of monogamy, in which people have
only one sexual partner at a time. There have been matrilineal
societies where kinship is traced through the mother. And
for thousands of years of class society, there has been the
dominance of patriarchy, in which males control the family,
as well as all the other major institutions in society.
So marriage is clearly NOT a sacred,
unchanging institution in human society.
But on a deeper level, what explains the
changes and all the various ways people have come together
in different ways to reproduce future generations? Is this
accidental? Due mainly to human biology and “sexual drive”?
Or because of some kind of “natural war of the sexes”?
WHY have sexual relations, marriage, and
the family changed throughout history? And what are the underlying
forces that have given rise to and driven these changes and
have made them possible?
To answer this, we need to look first at
what, in a sweeping and overall way, is the most determining
factor in the history of human beings. In The
Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State,
Frederick Engels further developed the Marxist dialectical
and historical materialist analysis of the family and marriage.
He put forward that the most fundamental thing about the life
and society of human beings is the production and reproduction
of life. By this he meant, on the one hand, the production
of the means of producing the material requirements of life—producing
food, clothing, and shelter and the tools necessary for that
production. And on the other hand, he meant the production
of human beings themselves—the creation and raising of children.
At different stages of history, humans have
been confronted with productive forces that have historically
evolved to a certain character and level. We can look at any
point in human history and see the development of technology
and tools, raw materials, scientific knowledge, and people
themselves. We can see how, generally speaking, certain social
production relations have corresponded to these different
levels of the production forces. And we can see a certain
superstructure in society—of politics, education, culture,
ideas, tradition, etc.—that arises on the basis of, and in
order to reinforce, the basic relations of production in society.
And the family plays a very important part
in this superstructure. Just think about the role of the family
in passing on traditions, ideas, morals, social “norms”—even
the very notion and concept of the family itself. This has
certainly been true in societies and times in which families
were more rural and isolated, in which for instance, the family
had the main responsibility for educating children. But even
today, the family is a big way that children get socialized
and inculcated with the dominant ideas and relations in society.
Marriage and Traditions
Even if we look at more recent history, say
over the last few hundred years, we can see how the family
and marriage have changed, in terms of actual laws, as well
as how most people think and act. What may be enforced, justified
and widely accepted as tradition at one time may be legally
banned and socially unacceptable later—reflecting changes
in the economic and social relations in society and the culture
and thinking this gives rise to.
To take just one example: In the 1800s there
were widespread anti-miscegenation laws in the United States.
Such laws made it a felony for persons of different ethnic
groups to get married. And these laws were often based on
interpretations of the Bible. In 1965, a judge in Virginia,
Leon Bazile, sentenced an interracial couple to jail, writing:
“Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay
and red, and he placed them on separate continents. The fact
that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for
the races to mix.” This decision wasn’t overturned until
1967 in the U.S. Supreme Court case of Loving v.
Virginia (dramatized in the 1996 movie with Timothy Hutton,
Mr. & Mrs. Loving).
Such racist laws were rooted in the economic
relations of the system of slavery, Jim Crow, and the racist
culture and ideas that have gone along with the exploitation
and oppression of Black people in the United States. And this
is one example of how throughout the history of the United
States, the Bible Belt and the lynching belt have gone hand-in-hand
in the South.
The end of such laws did not put an end to
the intense discrimination and racism that continues today
in the United States. But such changes which took place during
the Civil Rights Movement came after huge struggle by the
masses. And they were also the result of a necessity the U.S.
faced after World War 2: to pose as the upholders of democracy
in opposition to their imperialist rivals, France and England;
and then later during the Cold War with the Soviet Union,
to not be seen internationally as a blatant defender of racism
We can also look at how marriage traditions
in many parts of the world still reflect (and enforce) semi-feudal
economic and social relations. Under feudalism, land, wealth
and power is in the hands of an elite aristocracy, while the
masses of people work the land as poor peasants. In this setup,
the feudal family serves as an economic and social unit, serving
these property relations. And women are literally exchanged
as property, traded by their fathers through the
institution of marriage or even outright as indentured servants—in
exchange for more wealth for the family or to pay a debt.
Historically, this was true for the aristocracy, where marriage
was a way to bring together wealth and power of different
families and groups. And this has also been true, in a different
way, among the peasant class, with women valued in terms of
their labor and their ability to have children—which also
provide labor and are inheritors of land and wealth.
Third World countries today are subordinate
to the international relations of imperialism—in a lopsided
world where a handful of rich capitalist countries dominate
and exploit the rest of the world. Semi-feudal economic, social
and cultural relations have been incorporated into this global
capitalist system, are used to bolster and enforce the relations
of imperialism and exert themselves in old as well as new
For example look at the feudal marriage traditions
in India and other parts of the world, which dictate that
men and women from different castes cannot marry. That widows
cannot remarry and must spend the rest of their lives living
in wretched conditions of impoverishment and as social outcasts.
That parents arrange the marriages of their children who have
no say whatsoever in who they marry. That girls as young as
10-years-old are married to older men.
These long-practiced traditions reflect the
economic and social relations of feudal society where women
were treated as family property. And now today, even though
these things may be formally outlawed, they are still practiced
and enforced by “family tradition”—along with all the ideas
that justify such practices.
And even as globalization has brought high-tech
sweatshops to many parts of the world, the most murderous
feudal and religious family traditions have been integrated
into the economic and social relations of capitalism. Just
look at the horrific practices in large parts of the world
where women are sold by their fathers into sexual slavery,
where women are not allowed to go out in public without covering
themselves with the burka or a chador, and where “shame killings”
are still enforced—which means brothers are obliged to kill
a sister who has had (or is even just suspected of having)
sexual relations outside of marriage or even if she has been
the victim of rape.
Some people may be surprised to find out
that for most of human history, the concept of “love,” as
most people would define it today, didn’t necessarily have
much if anything to do with who people did or didn’t marry.
And we can see this reflected in novels and movies that take
place in different eras. For example, in stories set in feudal
times of kings and emperors, landlords and peasants, there
is frequently a theme in which two lovers cannot marry because
of the rigid rules of marriage enforced by tradition and the
family. Such themes, like in Romeo and Juliet, reflect
the historical fact that the purpose of dowries and other
feudal rituals and customs were historically linked to the
creation and consolidation of new households and the passing
down of wealth. The often-told tragic story of the young woman
who cannot marry the one she really loves because she is promised
to the son of another powerful family—again, reflects the
historical fact that monarchies and royal families of Europe,
or dynasties in Asia, or empires in other parts of the world,
were the product of wars, rivalries and powerful political
alliances in which marriage played an important role.
Capitalism, Private Property, and
We can now see how in class society, social
relations of the family have reflected and served to enforce
the prevailing property relations.
So what does this mean in terms of the world
we live in today? How are the property relations of capitalism
reflected in marriage and the “modern day family”—and how
do these institutions, in turn play a big role in interacting
back on, and reinforcing, the economic relations of capitalism?
First of all, in the history of class society,
the patriarchal rule of men has taken different forms with
regard to marriage and the family. Thousands of years ago,
in slave societies, all of the people in the family were under
the control of the patriarch. Some—like women and slaves who
were perhaps captured in battle, were outright property, which
could be bought and sold. In feudal society, women were also
subordinate to the patriarchal head of the family and, as
we have seen, were treated as family property.
Now, under capitalism, the patriarchy and
the treatment of women as private property do not
take the same form as they have in earlier slave and feudal
societies. But they take place nonetheless—and they are no
less a reflection of oppressive class relations in society.
Under capitalism, the exploiting class, the
capitalist class owns and controls the means of production—like
the factories, the machines, and investment capital. But the
bourgeoisie don’t own the people they exploit. The masses
of people must sell their own labor power to the capitalist—in
order to survive they must sell their ability to work.
Some people think this makes people “free”
under capitalism—that the working class, unlike the slave
or feudal serf, has real freedom within the capitalist labor
market. But this illusion of freedom only serves
to cover up the reality of the real subjugation of the proletariat
to the bourgeoisie. For the great majority of people, the
“freedom of choice” comes down to this: the choice to work
or starve; the choice of which exploiter to sell your labor
power to; the choice to “work for the man” or try to survive
through some illegal means (which are subject to the dog-eat-dog
relations of capitalism as well).
This is the basic nature of production relations
under capitalism. Such economic relations are reflected in
and reinforced by the institution of marriage and the family.
And here too there is the illusion of freedom—the illusion
that with regard to the “modern family” women are free, that
they have choices and exert control over their own lives.
It is true that under capitalism, women are
not outright owned by their husbands. They are not bought
and sold by their fathers. But the reality of patriarchal
social relations under capitalism is brutally oppressive to
women in thousands of different ways.
The family serves as a basic economic unit
of consumption in society—and this too works against the independence
and liberation of women. How many women are constrained and
contained by the compulsion of economic necessity within the
family? How many women find themselves trapped in unfulfilling
or abusive relationships because to leave would mean immediate
poverty, even homelessness?
Relations between men and women mirror the
economic relations in capitalist society—in which the man
plays the role of the bourgeoisie in the family. There is
the oppressive division of labor, in which women are consigned
to—and valued in terms of—their role as wife, mother and housekeeper.
And then there is the whole commodification of the female
body, in which women are subjected to the “meat market” of
sexual relations and bombarded with degrading ideas and images
that reduce women to a commodity. Women’s bodies as commodities
(and sex as a commodity) is so prevalent in today’s popular
culture—in many different forms. For example there is the
whole “sex in the city” mentality which may have the appearance
of being “too cool to be used” but in reality amounts to saying,
“I’ll control the terms of my own exploitation”—a view not
that different than the wrong-headed notion that if women
were the CEOs of the sex industry it wouldn’t be exploitative
And what does it reflect about the nature
of capitalist society, where millions of women are subjected—daily,
hourly and by the minute—to rape, wife beating, incest,
and sexual harassment?
Under capitalism the family is a basic economic
and social unit that plays a key role in maintaining social
control and cohesion in society. It plays a crucial role in
raising and socializing children, including teaching and enforcing
traditional ideas and values that uphold and reinforce the
prevailing property relations. And the traditional role of
women in the family—and the subordination of women in the
family—is the linchpin of keeping this social and economic
This is a big part of why the idea that a
“woman’s place is in the home” is so sacred to the ruling
class and reactionary movements based on maintaining and enforcing
the system and its prevailing oppressive relations. And these
reactionary forces are pressing ahead with their anti-woman
agenda with real urgency exactly because the traditional role
of the family has been and continues to be undermined by the
very workings of capitalism itself.
Two Sides, Two Futures
The “traditional nuclear family” has significantly
broken down over the last several decades in the United States.
Most women are economically compelled to work and are not
full-time housewives. Many marriages end in divorce. Immigrant
families must often exist across borders. A lot of households
are headed by women. And many children are born “out of wedlock.”
These changes in the role of women and the
family have given rise to very volatile and problematic contradictions
for the ruling class. For example, when women get jobs and
are able to escape the suffocating confines of the home, this
can widen not only their experience in the world, but open
up their views on many different things. Having some degree
of economic independence can affect the way women see their
role and independence in society more generally. All this
comes into conflict with the ruling class need to enforce
traditional values and maintain the cohesion of the family.
And it is in this context that Christian fascists and other
reactionary movements are on a rampage to drive women into
submission and obedience to the authority of men, and more
generally to the authority of patriarchal relations of capitalist
This is what is behind the fanatical attempts
to ban abortion, including the Democratic version of making
it “legal but rare,” and the whole Christian fascist offensive
against birth control as well. This is what is behind the
promotion and assertion of backward “traditional” and religious
morality, used as a battering ram to try and beat women “back
into their place.” This is what is behind the theocratic attempts
to subject women to a brutal and murderous literal reading
of the Bible. And this is what is behind the vicious attacks
against gay marriage—which includes attempts to impose biblical
morality and theocratic lunacy on the definition of marriage
as well as moves by the Democrats like Clinton’s 1996 Defense
of Marriage Act.
And alongside all this, and in spite of pious
statements about concern for the plight of women in Third
World countries, imperialism continues to prop up regimes
in countries like Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan that impose
some of the most horrifically backward and murderous conditions
ALL of this and MORE has and is intensifying
as the imperialists seek to reinforce traditional family relations
and values as part of buttressing the social stability of
the “home front” of their push for unchallenged imperialist
supremacy in the world.
The horrifying future capitalism offers half
of humanity is a powerful statement about the completely outmoded
nature of this system.
What we need is NOT a reasserting and reinforcing
of traditional chains on women. What we need is the shattering
of these chains and the liberation of women, along with
the emancipation of all of humanity. And there is every basis
to fight for and bring about such a radical and world-changing
2 of this article will discuss: Socialism,
communism and the abolition of the family.
This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolution
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