Revolution #54, July 23, 2006

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

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 into this.

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 property.

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 and discrimination.  

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 ways.

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 the Family

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 and 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 dehumanizing.

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 unit together.

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 society.

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 on women.

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 vision.

Part 2 of this article will discuss: Socialism, communism and the abolition of the family.

Send us your comments.

If you like this article, subscribe, donate to and sustain Revolution newspaper.

What Humanity Needs
From Ike to Mao and Beyond