Children in the Family and in the Commune

Children in the Family and in the Commune

In his work The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, Frederick Engels traces the origins and historical development of the different forms of the family. The evolution of its later forms, especially the monogamian patriarchal forms, is closely connected to the development of private property. Engels summarises the relationship between production, the family, private property and the state in the preface to the first edition of the text… 

According to the materialist conception, the determining factor in history is, in the final instance, the production and reproduction of immediate life. This again, is of a twofold character: on the one side the production of the means of existence, of food, clothing and shelter and the tools necessary for that production; on the other side, the production of human beings themselves, the propagation of the species. The social organisation under which the people of a particular historical epoch and a particular country live is determined by both kinds of production: by the stage of development of labour on the one hand and of the family on the other. The lower the development of labour and the more limited the amount of its products, and consequently, the more limited also the wealth of the society, the more the social order is found to be dominated by kinship groups. However, within this structure of society based on kinship groups the productivity of labour increasingly develops, and with it private property and exchange, differences of wealth, the possibility of utilising the labour power of others, and hence the basis of class antagonisms: new social elements, which in the course of generations strive to adapt the old social order to the new conditions, until at last their incompatibility brings about a complete upheaval. In the collision of the newly developed social classes, the old society founded on kinship groups is broken up. In its place appears a new society, with its control centred in the state, the subordinate units of which are no longer kinship associations, but local associations; a society in which the system of the family is completely dominated by the system of property, and in which there now freely develops those class antagonisms and class struggles that have hitherto formed the content of all written history. (emphasis in the original)

(Engels. F., The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. Preface to the First Edition. Penguin, 1985. pp.35-36)

The family in its earlier forms foreshadows the rise of private property and in its later forms becomes an intrinsic part of the different social systems of private property. Engels traces the origins of the monogamian nuclear family in previous forms of the family, reaching its latest stage of development in bourgeois society. Today, under the impact of the unfolding of the contradictions and crisis of the capital system, we are witnessing the break up of the family, its widespread dissolution as the traditional unit for ‘the propagation of the species’. Millions across the globe are now living alone or in ‘experimental communities’ which lie outside the traditional structure and orbit of the nuclear family. In the United States and Western Europe the so-called ‘extended family’ is more or less extinct. The internal conflicts which are shaking the family unit today reflect and are part of the wider and deeper crisis of the whole capital system across the world. All this, of course, is having repercussions for children, their development, lives and welfare. In Europe and North America, the number of children ‘taken into care’, that is, under the guardianship and supervision of the state power, is increasing every year. This, in itself, indicates that the nuclear family is in many instances an unsuitable place within which to rear children.

The life of the child in the typical nuclear family today (parents and children) and its wider life in society as a whole make up the two sides of the conflict between the child’s private conditions of life and its wider social conditions of life. In bourgeois society, the psychological development of the child is centred in the family, that is, within the social arena where its physical and other needs are putatively met. Not exclusively so, of course, with the profound encroachment of the ‘outside’ into the ‘family lives’ of children. However, the nuclear family is the social medium within which children form their earliest, most significant psychological attachments and dependencies.  The establishment, interplay and development of these attachments and dependencies form and condition the psychological content and conflicts of the inner relationships of the nuclear family.

The socio-economic conditions and parameters which prevail in capitalist society necessitate, maintain and encourage the continuation of the inner relationships of the nuclear family and their inherent contradictions. However, at the same time, these same socio-economic conditions, in the course of their development, create the basis for the disintegration of the nuclear family. This is especially the case today with the unfolding of capital’s structural crisis which must have the most profound impact on the family institution as it intensifies.

The conflicts between the ‘public’ lives of individuals and their ‘private’ lives within the exclusive coterie of the nuclear family can only subsist under conditions of social alienation. This separation between the ‘private’ world of the individual and the individual’s ‘public’ role in society is a function of the rise and evolution of private property and not something inherently human. Marx notes that…

Individuals have always proceeded from themselves but of course from themselves within their given historical conditions and relations, not from the “pure” individual in the sense of the ideologists. But in the course of historical development, and previously through the fact that within the division of labour social relations inevitably take on an independent existence, there appears a cleavage in the life of each individual, insofar as it is personal and insofar as it is determined by some branch of labour and the conditions pertaining to it. 

(Marx. The German Ideology. Marx-Engels Collected Works, Vol 5. Lawrence and Wishart, London, 1976.  p.78) 

This social ‘cleavage’ in the life of people is reflected in the conflicts within their internal psychological worlds. For example, in the form of the relationship between the public persona of the individual on the one hand (embracing occupational/professional relationships, etc) and the inner egoism of the private world of thought and feeling of the same individual on the other hand.

Such antagonisms between the private and public sides of people’s lives are necessitated, cultivated and perpetuated by the social relations of the capital system itself which serve to ‘fragment the personality’ of the individual in his or her personal relationships. This social process of splitting the human personality into a ‘divided self’, under the conditions of alienation in the age of capital, commences very early in childhood. This, for example, can be seen in the problems and conflicts which emerge in disaffected children within the school system.

The development of children within the structures of the nuclear family takes place within a microsystem of self-enclosed, inward looking, socially claustrophobic relationships which today are displaying a tendency towards rapid break down, often very soon after they have been established. This itself is a manifestation of the unstoppable invasion of social crisis directly into the very depths and heart of the nuclear family. The dissolution of the nuclear family is a tendency of social development in the age of capital’s structural crisis.

The rearing of children takes place on an entirely different (indeed opposite) social foundation in the commune. The fundamental precondition for this altered way of nurturing children is the abolition of private property. The very notion of property disappears with the negation of private property. Those human characteristics which are intrinsically associated with the rule of private property, such as greed, acquisitiveness, possessiveness, etc, in both things and personal relationships, gradually disappear. Human relationships become free of their psychological effects. This means that children are no longer seen as ‘the children’ of specific individuals but are reared within the social conditions, and through the gregarious social relationships, of the commune. This tends to resolve and abolish the conflict between the private and public sides of the lives of children. Children become ‘social individuals’ as opposed to infantile versions of the ‘private individual’ of later adult existence in the age of capital and commodity production.

Children become ‘the children’ of the whole commune. They are reared by the whole commune as the relationships which characterise the internal structure of the nuclear family disappear with the evolution of the commune on the basis of its own self-created foundations. Of course, all this is anathema to the ideology of the bourgeois, nuclear family. It would mean that biological parents cease to have the same degree of social significance which they have for ‘their’ children reared within the monogamous nuclear family. Every adult in the commune becomes the social ‘parent’ (guardian) of each and every child. All children see each other as ‘brothers and sisters’  Hence, the very notions of ‘parent’, ‘brother’, ‘sister’, ‘son’ ‘daughter’, etc, which express the narrow social relationships of the nuclear family will vanish. Child-adult relationships become transformed in the commune where biological parentage does not have or confer any special, exclusive social role or privilege upon these adults. The child is reared by the whole commune and grows to maturity without any notions of ‘my family’, ‘my mother’, ‘my father’, etc. The narrow, exclusive mode of rearing children in bourgeois society is superseded. The socially claustrophobic way of bringing children to maturity within the nuclear family ends. Children will be safe to wander under adult supervision, to inquire and be educated by many, to stay and live in the different locations of the planet, within communal relations in which they are completely safe, cared for and nurtured in their personal development by each and all.

These contrasting ways of rearing children relates to what Marx meant when he wrote that… 

the ability of children to develop depends on the development of their parents and that all this crippling under existing social relations has arisen historically, and in the same way can be abolished again in the course of historical development. Even naturally evolved differences within the species, such as racial differences, etc,…can and must be abolished in the course of historical development. 

(Marx, The German Ideology. p.425) 

The psychology and behaviour of children is a sensitive indicator of the general character of the social relations of the epoch. Vygotsky proposed that the development of the individual involves the psychological assimilation of the dominant social relationships and modes of behaviour. Specifically, relative to child development, he writes that…

Any function in the child’s cultural development appears on the stage twice, on two planes, first on the social plane and then on the psychological; first between people as an interpsychological category, and then inside the child, as an intrapsychological. This applies equally to voluntary attention, to logical memory and to the formation of concepts. The actual relations between human individuals underlie all the higher functions.

[Vygotsky, L.S. Development of Higher Mental Functions. Psychological Research in the U.S.S.R. (Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1966) pp.44-45.]

This implies that children’s subjective experience of people and the world (how they think and feel about each other and themselves) is largely conditioned by the psychological internalisation of the social relationships within which they are reared.

The maturation of children in the commune outside the social relations of the nuclear family facilitates a higher degree of personal independence in children than can ever exist in bourgeois society. This accords with the human freedom that necessarily results from the establishment and development of classless, communal social relations beyond the epoch of capital.

The dependencies and attachments (‘family ties’) which characterise the nuclear family of bourgeois society must disappear with it as a social formation. The abolition of private property and the evolution of the commune forms the social basis for the dissolution of the nuclear family. People’s needs become unconditionally guaranteed (‘to each according to their needs’) and attainable outside the bounds and parameters of the traditional social unit of the nuclear family. It becomes historically redundant and obsolete as a social structure.

If the needs of children in the complete sense of the term (and not simply material needs like food, shelter, clothing, etc) are unconditionally guaranteed by society as a whole, then this must further serve to dissolve the traditional ties of the nuclear family based on the existence of private property. This must also transform children subjectively in terms of their internal psychological world and in their relations with each other and adults. For children, as with adults, it is only within the commune that each individual has…. 

the means of cultivating his gifts in all directions; hence personal freedom becomes possible only within the community. In previous substitutes for the community, in the state, etc, personal freedom has existed only for the individuals who developed under the conditions of the ruling class, and only insofar as they were individuals of this class. The illusory community in which individuals have up till now combined always took on an independent existence in relation to them, and since it was the combination of one class over against another, it was at the same time for the oppressed class not only a completely illusory community, but a new fetter as well. In the real community the individuals obtain their freedom in and through their association. 

(Marx. The German Ideology. p.78)

Shaun May

September 2018