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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 Two: Socialism, Communism, and the Abolition of the Family

Revolution #55, July 30, 2006

People look at marriage, the family and sexual relations in society and tend to see them as something separate and detached from the economic relations in society. But as discussed in the first part of this article (“An Historical Materialist Perspective”), the character of marriage and the family reflect and in turn reinforce the basic economic and social relations in society.

This understanding of the material basis for the family can be a very liberating truth because it means that these relations between the sexes are not decreed by biology or “just the way people are.” It means that George Bush is wrong when he says that marriage is an “enduring” institution defined as the “union of a man and a woman.” It puts to lie the claim by reactionary Christian theocrats that gay people should not be given the right to marry because the institution of marriage—as it now exists—has been embedded in society for thousands of years. And it means that sexual relationships, marriage and the family can change— that all these things can be transformed in a truly liberating way with the revolutionary transformation of society.

The family and marriage ARE changing institutions that reflect, in an overall way, the basic economic relations in society and changes in these relations. This means real things under capitalism where economic relations are capitalist relations—where there is socialized production but private appropriation. Where the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the daily necessities of life and everything else is socially produced. The production of these things requires the work of hundreds of thousands and millions of people, sometimes in different parts of the globe… BUT the fruits of all this labor are privately taken and owned by a class of capitalists who own and control the factories, capital and other means necessary for production.

In capitalist society, there is the dominance of patriarchy, in which males control the family, as well as all other major institutions in society. And while reforms under capitalism have been fought for and achieved, this has not fundamentally changed the fact that women are systematically exploited, oppressed and subordinated. But the basis for real emancipation, for utterly abolishing this oppression, exists. The theoretical understanding of this was developed by Marx and Engels and then shown by the experience of socialist society.

To get a more concrete picture of what this means, let’s look at the history of China—specifically at the kind of changes that took place in the family and marriage—before the communists came to power in 1949; then during socialism, between 1949 and 1976; and then, after the death of Mao in 1976, when a reactionary coup resulted in capitalism being restored.

From Feudalism and Capitalism to a Socialist China

Before the victory of the communist revolution, China was a poor, semi-feudal country dominated and oppressed by the U.S., Britain, Japan and other foreign powers. The overwhelming majority of the people were poor peasants living in the countryside, suffering under the tyranny of landlords who worked them to death and ripped them off. A woman was considered inferior to men in every way, consigned to the role of serving her husband and giving him many sons. There were arranged marriages, child brides, and polygamy.

Simone de Beauvoir, in her 1957 book The Long March: An Account of Modern China, described the situation of women before the revolution:

“Her working potential being viewed as superfluous, she was considered simply as someone extra to feed. As a servant or female she represented a commodity with a certain market value, but it was far lower than the worth conferred upon a boy for his productive capacities; it was quite natural that a famished father with plentiful children regard one daughter more as a useless burden; his power of life or death over her was acknowledged, he would simply be exercising a right: millions of girl babies were drowned or given as fodder to swine; this kind of child murder became so much a part of custom that the new Marriage Act had to specify explicitly that it constitutes a crime…”

The Marriage Act referred to here, one of the very first laws enacted after the communists came to power, gave women the right to divorce. This resulted in big changes in the family and in the relationships between men and women. The 1950 law immediately targeted the most horrible feudal practices and traditions that enslaved women. It prohibited child marriages, concubinage (the keeping of multiple women as basically sexual slaves and servants), and interference with the remarriage of widows. And it emphasized free choice in marriage, monogamy, equal rights for women, respect for the old, and care of the young. In the old society, women had no say whatsoever in whom they married—marriages were arranged by parents. And women had no right to divorce, which meant that hundreds of millions of women were forced to stay in loveless and abusive marriages.

Before the revolution, the reactionary Kuomintang government had done things like pass a law that forbid the hiring of little girls as servants or their sale as slaves. But in 1937 there were still two million girl slaves, not to mention the “normal” practice of child brides in which little girls became virtual slaves in their husband’s household. So how was something like the passage of a the new Marriage Law in socialist China going to be any different?

The difference is that the proletariat class now ruled society and controlled the means of production, and had established a socialist society with the goal of a communist world, free of all classes, free of all exploitation and oppression.

Addressing the real needs of the people like women’s inequality, and enacting and enforcing laws to carry this out, was now actually possible because under the dictatorship of the proletariat, the communist party could lead the masses of people to build a new socialist society, with socialist, not capitalist, economic relations.

For example, the peasants, no longer oppressed by cruel landlords, began to work the land together in more cooperative forms. Industries and factories formerly owned by big Chinese capitalists and foreign imperialists had been seized and were now run by the state. Production, under socialism, was no longer based on a system of private ownership. The driving force behind production was no longer profit in command. And a key goal of the new socialist society in China was to constantly narrow the differences and inequalities between the great divides of mental and manual labor, town and countryside, agriculture and industry, men and women, and the dominant and minority nationalities.

The very nature of the basic economic relations in society had changed. And this made it not only possible but necessary to bring about corresponding transformations in the realm of politics, education, culture, ideas, traditions, etc.—such as the new Marriage Law which aimed to free women from the oppressive social relations which prevented them from playing a full and equal role in the economic, political, and social life of society.

Women’s Associations were formed in cities and villages which popularized and implemented the Marriage Act. This meant not only making sure that women knew their rights, but that husbands, fathers, mother-in-laws, and others didn’t stand in the way of women actually exercising the right to divorce. Government authorities, the courts, trade unions, and youth organizations got behind the Marriage Act. And literature, theater, and schools actively promoted and worked on behalf of free marriage and the emancipation of women. The masses of people were mobilized in a huge way to promote and implement the Marriage Act, and the state backed them up.

Breaking Out of the Confines of the Home

The Communist Party stressed the importance of women “getting out of the home” and participating in the economic and political life of the community. But there was a lot of resistance to this—from men as well as other family members, like mothers-in-law who expected their son’s wife to do all the housework and produce and take care of children. So there was a lot of struggle to change the social relations and division of labor in the home. Men were struggled with to help take care of the children so that women could work as well as play more of a role in social and political affairs. And there was struggle in general against feudal, backward thinking which treated women as private property and servants and inferior to men.

But problems like childcare couldn’t be solved as long as this remained a question for individual families, of sharing this task between husband and wife. The real solution was to socialize things like childcare—to have society as a whole take up and solve such things and solve them in a collective way.

This process of socializing the labor women did in the home was an important part of building a whole new society in which people worked and lived in a cooperative and communal way. This went hand in hand with, and was made possible by, continual changes in the economic relations of society. And in turn this reacted back on and helped to reinforce and make further revolutionary transformations in economic relations.

Let’s look even closer at how this back and forth relationship—between changes in the economy and changes in the superstructure (of politics, ideas, culture, etc.)—took place in revolutionary China.

Revolutionizing the Economy

In the old society, women were subjected to the unequal and oppressive division of labor in the family in which, even if they had to toil in the fields or work in a factory in the city, they still had all or most of the responsibility for childcare and household duties.

A goal of the new socialist society was for women to break out of the confines of the home and participate equally, alongside men, in every sphere of life. But how could this happen if the economic relations in society still compelled women to stay in the home? How could women even take the first steps of working outside of the home if there was no one to take care of the children and cook the family meals?

In fact this could not happen unless revolutionary transformation took place in all three aspects of the economic relations in society. Transformations had to take place in terms of ownership—in which class owns and controls the means of production. They had to take place in the division of labor in society—in the position and role of different groups of people in production, as well as in the larger functioning of society overall. And they had to take place in terms of distribution—in the distribution of social wealth among different groups in society.

The masses of people in socialist China, in their hundreds of millions, were mobilized to consciously wage struggle to bring about such changes. And revolutionary transformations in each of these three aspects of the relations of production provided the material basis for transformations in the family and the status of women. Let’s break this down:

In terms of ownership: In socialist China there were two forms of socialist public ownership. There was state ownership of the major means of production in industry. And in the countryside, there was collective ownership in which large groups of peasants worked and owned agricultural tools and machinery and small-scale industry in common.

This kind of socialist, not private, ownership meant that production could be both planned and geared toward meeting social need. This is something fundamentally impossible under capitalism where profit is in command and production is subject to the anarchy of different competing capitalists all doing their own thing. In the countryside, higher forms of collectivized labor, including communes which brought together perhaps 10,000 or 15,000 peasants, also made it necessary and possible to collectivize other aspects of life—such as child care, cooking, and the care of sick and old people.

In terms of the division of labor: There were efforts to continually narrow inequalities, differences in pay, and job opportunities; and women were allowed and encouraged to take up jobs that had been dominated by men in the old society. It was a great advance for women to break out of the confines of the home and participate in building the new socialist economy. As long as women were economically dependent on their husbands, even if they were given certain rights by law, they would not be able to break through the actual restrictions that kept them chained to familial ties of oppression. Working outside the home, as well as participating in the social and political life of society, helped to widen women’s interests, knowledge, and abilities. And places where people worked were no longer treated as simply sites of production, but were also places where social needs were being met—childcare, free dining rooms, and health care were set up in factories or near the fields where peasants worked. And places where people worked also became a place for political as well as social activity.

In terms of distribution: Socialist ownership and control of production made it possible to allocate resources to things like free or low-cost childcare centers and communal dining halls. And it also became possible to have a planned economy that took such necessities and priorities into account. Also, as things like childcare and dining halls were provided either free or at a low cost, this helped to transform the family away from being the main economic unit in society that is responsible for taking care of these things.

Making these kinds of economic transformations took sharp ideological struggle among the masses. Backward thinking and practices, including those that reinforce the oppression of women, like the belief that women are inferior or that their main role should be in the home, came not only from the old society but were also regenerated by the inequalities that still existed in socialist society. And it was crucial to lead and mobilize ever-growing sections of the masses in their millions to become conscious of their role in knowing and changing the world, in order to continue building socialism with the goal of a communist world.

During the Cultural Revolution, millions of people were involved in a fierce class struggle over whether China would keep building socialism or go back to capitalism. And the struggle against women’s oppression was a big part of this “revolution within the revolution.” Top leaders in the communist party who wanted to restore capitalism argued against breaking down the traditional family structure and popularized feudal Confucian ideas, like the view that everyone should accept their “place” in a hierarchical society. In opposition to this, the revolutionary forces, led by Mao, waged tremendous struggle in the superstructure—in the realm of politics, education, thinking and culture. Whole new levels of revolutionary culture were developed which served to combat old thinking and ideas which stood in the way of liberating women. For example, “women hold up half the sky” became a popular slogan, and revolutionary plays, operas, and art were developed that extolled the full participation of women in society. (See my article: “Yang Ban Xi: Model Revolutionary Works in Revolutionary China,” Revolution #51)

So transforming the economic relations in socialist society required the struggle to bring forward new ideas, new culture, etc. in opposition to backward and traditional thinking. AND such economic transformations also provided a material basis for such new thinking and practices.

To take one example: Some men wanted to hold on to their patriarchal role in the family. They were against their wives working outside of the home and argued that the whole family would fall apart and their children wouldn’t be well taken care of. But then when their wives did work outside the home, when things like collective childcare were set up, and when there was a lot of political struggle over these things, the men started to see things in a new way.

So here, too, we can see the dialectical relationship between constantly revolutionizing the economic base of society and how this makes it possible to make revolutionary changes in the social relations in society. We can see how this requires changes in the culture of society and in the thinking of the people. And how, in turn, these changes in the superstructure reinforce the socialist economic base and help to bring about even further changes in the relations of production.

The Return of Capitalism and the Return of Women’s Oppression

We see how in socialist China, the family, marriage and status of women went through tremendous changes, reflecting and reacting back on revolutionary changes in the economic relations.

So what happened in 1976, when Mao died and a reactionary coup took place? What has happened because socialism was overthrown and capitalism returned? Do the new capitalist economic relations of exploitation and oppression which now exist in China have a corresponding and horrific effect on the masses of women?

Yes. The restoration of capitalist relations of production in ownership, in the division of labor and in distribution, all based on private property and profit in command—have meant the return of all the economic, political and social relations of exploitation and oppression, including with regard to marriage, the family, and the status of women. Just a few examples:

China has seen a re-emergence of the practice of abducting and selling women as brides; and prostitution, which was effectively wiped out in socialist China, has made a big comeback. UNICEF estimated in 1999 that China had between 200,000 and 500,000 child prostitutes.

China now has the highest female suicide rate in the world and is the only country in the world where more women commit suicide than men.

Oppressive images of women are prevalent throughout the media and culture, along with the commodification of sex and women’s bodies.

According to Time Asia, 287,000 women committed suicide in the year 2000 and suicide ranked as the No. 1 cause of death for women aged 18 to 34. One-third of young rural women who die do so by their own hand, and a common method is drinking of pesticides.

Corporations such as Nike, New Balance, Disney, and Apple have sweatshops in China. Labor rights organizations have exposed the deplorable conditions in these factories where women endure forced overtime and forced pregnancy tests (and forced or coerced abortions), and are prohibited from organizing or protesting. In 2005, a 30-year-old woman, He Chunmei, died of exhaustion after a 24-hour work shift at her factory, where her fellow workers reported they had been forced to work 15-hour shifts all that week.

The Emancipation of Humanity and the Abolition of the Family

Socialist society is the transition to communism. It is the way that, under the dictatorship of the proletariat, the masses of people can consciously and continuously revolutionize all of society. It is the way that a communist world can be achieved where for the first time in history, human beings are truly emancipated.

This communist world will be a world where, as Marx put it, the “four-alls” have been achieved: the abolition of all class distinctions, the abolition of all the relations of productions on which those class distinctions rest, the abolition of all the social relations that correspond to these production relations, and the revolutionizing of all the ideas that correspond to these social relations.

We can dream about what this far horizon will look like—what it will be like in a society where relationships between people are free of all notions of private property, dog-eat-dog competition, and look-out-for-number one thinking.

Society will undergo extraordinary transformations and tremendous upheaval to get to a communist world. There will be new levels of social cooperation, society will have moved beyond the mere struggle to survive, and people will be able to live as freely associating human beings, sharing the common abundance of their labor, and taking responsibility and caring for each other in ways that are only possible in a world that has gotten rid of all oppressive economic, social, and political relations—and all the oppressive ideas that go along with such relations.

At this point, we can only stretch our imagination and speculate about what such a world would actually look like. It is impossible now to say how humanity in a communist world will continue to deal with different contradictions in all the different realms of society. But we can say that human relationships, including sexual relations, and the production and rearing of new generations of children, will be completely and radically different.

And we can also say that the family, as a relatively small economic and social unit which fulfills the functions of raising and socializing children, will no longer exist. It will no longer correspond to economic and social relations in society overall. And it will have become not only unnecessary—but a hindrance to the further development of society. Institutions that allow for and enable far richer human relationships and the mutual flourishing of individuals in the context of the whole society will have emerged through the course of long struggle and transformation.

As we have seen, the institutions of marriage and family arose in human society, and have developed and changed, in a way completely bound up with the development of the economic relations in society. And for tens of thousands of years of class society, the family and marriage have been institutions of patriarchy, enforcing the oppression of women.

But humanity has now reached the point where there is a material basis for moving beyond all this, to the emancipation of all humanity, where people can for the first time trully live in a liberated world.


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