Eight Questions on the slogan 'Abolish the Family', and other modest proposals
BY JULES JOANNE GLEESON
- 1. Are you serious?
People are often startled by proposals to abolish the family. The slogan ‘abolish the family’ tends to provoke surprise, alarm, and disbelief. Reflexively, the argument that society should, or even could, exist without families is offensive to many, and perhaps taken as a personal attack.
I think this potential for misunderstanding should be accepted, and confronted head on.
The meaning of abolishing the family for communists is an end to the coercion currently implicit to all parenting. It is the establishment of new universal conditions assuring each child an upbringing which matches their fundamental needs. It is an end to ‘social reproduction’ as a binding yoke, which reproduces trauma and divides between genders with each generation it raises as workers.
At present, the labour of upbringing is mostly performed by biological parents; in light of the alternatives being the fostering system, and adoption. (Both of which amount to an uncertain, and often unhappy, fate.)
Much of worst harm done to children, and particularly queers, occurs in light of this burdening of heterosexual relationships with parenting obligations, according to ideals at a complete (and ever worsening) mismatch to material realities available to them.
This results in the burden for raising the next generation (what Marxist Feminists call ‘Social Reproduction’) falling along gendered lines, particularly placing a defining burden on women. Ending this cannot be simply a matter of destigmatisation: the family does not serve as an ideal for purely subjective reasons, but also plays a key material role in the existing economy. To overcome the family, it must be actively replaced (or supplanted).
Kinderkommunismus was a revolutionary proposal for this necessary replacement. The abolition it proposes is one of the ad hoc coercion into parenting ending forever.
Its solution is systemic, and institutional: just as the family is divisive and arbitrary: care to a certain standard (nutrition, healthcare, affection) should be universally available to each and every child born. No biological parent should feel obliged to commit to the the extensive role of social reproduction currently expected of them simply through fear for the sake of their child.
Parenting at present is defined by supposed sovereignty, and the ever present spectre of shame. I still see ending this state of affairs as the foremost priority for queer politics, and communist theory.
(In short yes, I am serious.)
- 2. What can we gain from calling for the family's abolition?
I see proposing a strong vision for the future as an indispensable role of communist politics, and a realisation of the revolutionary potential of queers.
Whereas other political currents settle for either denouncing or justifying the actual conditions society foists upon us; the unique duty of communists is proposing a vision of conditions more suitable for achieving human flourishing, and fulfillment. Proposing a society worth overturning the current one for, and striving towards it on the basis of class organisation, and solidarity in the face of oppression and stigmatisation.
Kinderkommunismus was, equally, a contribution to queer politics. Queers are those who have developed without the usual investments or commensurability with gender conventions, and who are accordingly obliged to do some kind of self-fashioning through subversion, appropriation, and shamelessness. Much of the harm done to us comes from our family, and an unsparing view of this is something I owe queer theory, and consider an indisputable basis for solidarity, and shared revolutionary action.
Both queer and communist politics have struggled to wrench free from a purely negative vision, in recent years.
The great Lenin scholar, Lars Lih, calls this break from the early 20th century the loss of belief among revolutionaries that they are truly living in the 'last generation'. Few communists today believe that we will see capitalism ended within our lifetimes. And few queers seem to believe that the same conditions which caused us so much suffering can be comprehensively ended for future generations.
I remain today, as I was when Kinderkommunismus was written, relatively optimistic. The family can be abolished, and for us to reach communism, it must be.
We must do more than lament.
- 3. Has this not been tried before?
I moved to Dresden in late 2013, from my hometown of London, and even before I left had developed a strong interest in the state childrearing which had existed in the former DDR.
The DDR provided childcare for new mothers almost immediately, allowing them to leave their infants in the care of dedicated workers, and return to their own workplaces. This service proved almost uniquely popular.
When the former 'West' and 'East' Germany came to re-integrate, there was a considerable dissonance in cultural attitudes around parenting, produced exactly by the presence of this remarkable service in the DDR, with Western conservatives seeing 'Ostie' (former-DDR) attitudes to parenting as fundamentally neglectful.
Of course, the DDR was not an exemplary polity. Their provision of childcare was part of a project of aimlessly ‘raising the productive forces’, in conditions long since unmoored from internationalist socialist revolution. And across the longer term, little or nothing was done to abolish the family or gender by this service (as the rise of the PEGIDA movement in Saxony decisively shows). I have no time for any politics based on nostalgia for the bygone movements and states of the 20th century. We can, however learn from the popularity and success of this feature even of a state so distant from achieving the true transition to communism.
- 4. Why is abolishing the family communist?
There are other revolutionary perspectives on gender, but none satisfied me at time of writing, or satisfy me now.
Anarchist treatments of gender tend to fail on one of two fronts: the first camp propose gender revolution on only the most abstracted level ('Smash the gender binary!'), attacking only gender as a set of ideals, rather than responding to the material role gender differentiation through the family plays in the burden of upbringing. These approaches risk falling into the most basic political voluntarism: through individuals expressing their disregard for gender ideals, an end might be brought about on a cultural, incremental level.
The second are far too precise: critics of 'heteronormativity' seem to neglect that queer families, and queer relationships more generally, will have to fulfill the same role of social reproduction as heterosexual ones; until capitalism ends as a mode of production. These approaches fail to acknowledge that Capital is an objective frame, which makes demands that must be met irrespective of the means taken. Children raised by queer parents (or communes) under capitalism will still be raised as putative participants in exploitation. There is no intrinsic, essential quality to heterosexuality which makes it suitable for this task. (Although for historical reasons, heterosexuality’s apologists and Capital’s overlap heavily.) There is no reason queer households would not face the same objective burden.
In my view, both these anarchist currents fail to envision an end to the family because neither can provide an adequate account for why it exists at all (lapsing into seeing participation as a moral failing, an 'assimilation', or perhaps a facet of colonialism.)
- 5. How close have communists come before?
An inattentiveness to abolishing the family seems to have disrupted even the high tide of early 20th century revolutionary movements. While the Russian Revolutionaries brought about unprecedented changes in the family (particularly legalising divorce and abortion by 1920), the core role of the family in overseeing social reproduction remained intact. Autonomous organisation on the part of women does not seem to have been integrated into the course of the revolution as a whole, and indeed efforts to effect this were 'frozen out'. (While Stalin was actively involved in this, we cannot reduce the quashing of women's liberation to his chauvinism.) See Cinzia Arruzza's Dangerous Liaisons: The Marriages and Divorces of Marxism and Feminism , and MJ Pattersen’s Red Tablespoons of Charity for historical accounts of this.
The 'bureaucratic' degeneracy of the later Soviet Union was intimately entwined with the prestige and material advantages each generation of parents within the state apparatus conferred, with quality of life in the Soviet Union clearly remaining tethered to who one's parents were.
So then, we can see that a concerted effort to destroy the family has never been staged by a socialist state, and the necessity of not repeating this error.
- 6. Is this not Identity Politics?
I personally find the cyclical arguments which occur around 'identity politics' quite tiresome. Worst of all, the term has never been analytically defined, and as such remains something of a polemical catch-phrase.
Over and over, analysis of identities is cast as somehow contradictory to a 'hardline' Marxism. As if Marx's definitions of systems and modes were ever meant to serve aside from subjective experiences, and life-as-lived.
To me, it seems clear that Marx was a theorist of experience, of subjectivity's development, and of contradiction. These themes appear throughout his writing, from his 'Judenfrage' to late work on Russian rural communes. An 'objective' account empty of subjective interaction mistakes frame for substance. It rewrites Marx’s dialectical, historical account; as an engineer’s blueprint of implacable machinery, or aloof circuitry. Only an inattentive reader could contrast Marx's thought to politics concerned with 'identity'.
Understanding capitalism as a mode of production requires understanding the family, and as such understanding gender differentiation. A view of capitalism without reference to gender differentiation of the workforce is an incomplete view.
- 7. What has changed since this piece was written?
On the more general scale: the sweeping victory of the hard-right from the Philippines to the United States (although thankfully not here in Austria), has made the urgent need to develop communist gender politics all the more clear. After 2016, it has become much harder to believe a rosy, incrementalist view of gender progress.
I would especially like to point towards the troubling growth of the Alt Right as evidence for the urgent importance of reconstituting communist gender politics. The current crisis of western liberalism was directly precipitated by dedicated, embittered men; drawn towards a fantasy of their nations purged of feminists, foreigners, and queers. Decisive victory is needed, and only queer communists can even imagine such a victory.
Personally, at the time of writing I was still struggling to overcome the grasp of Althusser, and spent much of last year reading some of his most astute critics: Gillian Rose and Ellen Meiskins Wood (as well as Raya Dunayevskaya). 'Interpellation' is no longer a prominent feature in my thinking around development. My view of institutions is now firmly historicist/Hegelian. Thankfully, my co-author Kate was already an anti-Althusserian, and so the conceptual damage was limited.
- 8. What can we do to bring about family-free communism?
Gender politics of a revolutionary form are beginning to flourish on the left. Late last year the NYC group Red Bloom held a reading Kindercommunismus together, which I'm told was well attended. I also was pleased to see the Communist Research Cluster's PDF reader on revolutionary feminist history inspired reading groups across the United States and Europe (I've helped run one here in Vienna). As remedial and small scale as this might seem, 'sharing and summarising' queer materialist breakthroughs would seem to be the order of the day.
Marxist Feminism and queer theory are both fields given to continual repetition of disputes, as the key breakthroughs and shared definitions of terms are repeatedly disrupted, disputed, and lost. Gender liberation cannot be solely the preserve of academic historians of thought (such as myself!) Abstracted analysis is both invaluable, and in itself insufficient. We have to present our insights to all workers, and all queers.
I favour clear, and where necessary provocative, slogans which can be easily shared, and help 'set the terms' for gender politics. ‘Abolish the family’ is one example, drawn directly from Marx, and I look forward to more emerging, as our victories begin in earnest.
Original piece: http://ritualmag.com/kinderkommunismus/
Artwork by Elya Elapovok