Sophie Lewis’s latest book, Abolish the Family: A Manifesto for Care and Liberation, was published by Verso in October of 2022. Lewis poses a set of reflections on the need to reconfigure personal ties beyond the logic of property, gender subordination, and economic dependence, all characteristics of capitalism. She ponders the wisdom of building this project under the provocative slogan “abolish the family,” landing on a proposal which she says converges with other self-styled “abolitionist” currents, from the movements for police and prison abolition, to those for the elimination of borders. Lewis acknowledges that the affinity she establishes, between such abolition movements and the project of dismantling the family, may be shocking. However, she maintains that all these currents are part of the same practical project, one which seeks to advance the construction of an alternative to capitalism in the here and now, prefiguring new social relations.
With this objective, the author attempts to revive what she considers to be a long tradition of family abolitionism, from includes Charles Fourier and the utopian feminists, to Marx and Engels, through to Alexandra Kollontai, whose writings on family, sexuality and free love were central to many debates of early Bolshevism. Next, and not without an important historical leap, she traces the contributions of Shulamith Firestone and the Wages for Housework campaign, promoted by the autonomists of Second-wave feminism. Lewis dialogues with the criticisms raised by some Black feminists against the idea of family abolition—although she does not delve too deeply into these arguments—and champions the positions of various contemporary transfeminist authors. In the final chapter, she raises some ideas on how to move towards new social relations based on camaraderie.
In this article, we’ll re-trace Lewis’s journey through the rich history of debates on this issue. And, though we share her aspiration for an emancipated society where personal relationships are free of the ties that bind us today, we will raise some issues with Lewis’s approach. We find in her proposals a certain return to utopian socialist perspectives, devoid of foundations regarding the possibilities of a transition beyond capitalism, and lacking a strategy to face the challenges that will arise on the way.
In the socialist feminist tradition, criticism of the patriarchal family as an institution (as a unit of social reproduction, with a certain legal and hierarchical order, etc.) has always been linked to the struggle to transform the whole of capitalism. The patriarchal family, along with the oppression of women—or the subordination of children, who are often considered “property”—cannot be dissolved by an act of sheer will. The task is to open the conditions of possibility for improvement: new material, social and cultural foundations that allow a radical transformation of personal relationships, love, friendship, and care, in the transition to socialism.
The Family and the Privatization of Care
In the book’s first chapter, titled “But I love my family!”, the author acknowledges that the mere mention of the idea of “abolishing the family” is extremely provocative. According to Lewis, this is because it breaks with an established common sense that identifies only the family with aspirations for generating care, affection, love for children, and elder care. For her, it’s necessary to define the family in another way: as a space that is not only associated with care, but also breeds competition, sexist violence, and chauvinism, and which generally contributes to the production of individuals adapted to capitalist society and the establishment of social hierarchies. Taking up the words of Mario Mieli, Lewis points out that the family constitutes the “cell of the social tissue.” In an ironic paraphrase of Jameson’s well-known maxim, she says that, for all this, it would still be “easier to imagine the end of capitalism than the end of the family.”
To define the role of families, the author draws on Kathi Weeks’s definition of the process of private enclosure of care. By “privatization of care”, she refers to the the fact that a large portion of care work takes place in the domestic sphere, in individual households. From this perspective, only by superseding the existing mechanisms of privatized care could we progress towards freer relationships.
In that sense, Lewis claims that “everyday utopian experiments do generate strands of an altogether different social tissue: micro-cultures which could be scaled up if the movement for a classless society took seriously the premise that households can be formed freely and run democratically; the principle that no one shall be deprived of food, shelter, or care because they don’t work.”1Lewis, Sophie. Abolish the Family: A Manifesto for Care and Liberation. Verso, 2022. Lewis draws attention to the idea that “there are other possibilities”, i.e. that the usual relationships between men and women, in couples, or between adults and minors in a family unit, are not the only ones possible.
Lewis takes up a debate with several Black feminists who have, at various times, questioned the idea of family abolition, whose central argument has been that, very often, Black families have been sites of resistance against racism. Similarly, we could point to many experiences of class struggle in which sectors of working families have played a key role against the attacks of capital: supporting strikes, establishing relations of solidarity between factories and neighborhoods, staging rent strikes, maintaining soup kitchens, creating movements in defense of public services, and many other forms of resistance. The tradition of “women’s commissions” in strikes, for example, has allowed the working class to articulate fighting forces far beyond the workplace.
To this criticism Lewis responds that, even so, we should not cease working for the abolition of the family, since we would not need its “protective shield” if we managed to build a society without racism. The argument contains a grain of truth, but it stops halfway. It fails to contemplate the role that the family relations within sectors of the working class and oppressed can play in moments of heightened class struggle. On another level, it doesn’t account for the fact that capitalism, while it needs such a “social cell” for its own reproduction, constantly undermines working families’ very conditions of existence. Marx and Engles remarked on this in the mid-19th century, pointing to the length of the working day, the lack of decent housing, and the general precariousness of working class life.
Finally, there is another issue to consider: historically, many functions of social reproduction that belonged to families have since passed into the social sphere, in the forms of state services or private companies. But the trend towards greater private sector involvement in health, education and elder care, among other sectors, alongside brutal cuts to public services, have once again forced responsibility for many of these tasks back into the domestic sphere, a phenomenon which became especially clear during the pandemic and its many attendant care crises. In other words: the question of the family includes a set of dimensions and contradictory tendencies that must be taken into account from an emancipatory perspective.
The Long History of Abolition
The author makes brief reference to the question of family abolition in ancient Greece, but the history of abolitionism she proposes gains its first momentum in the figure of Charles Fourier (1772-1873). Fourier’s thought identified the nuclear family as one of the main obstacles to the emancipation of women. His ideas, quite disruptive for the time, inspired utopian feminist movements that raised proposals for the reorganization of houses without kitchens, the restructuring of work, and the end of monogamy, among others.
Certainly, Fourier was a trailblazer in his critiques of the patriarchal family and marriage. His elaborations on the topic are found in works such as “The New World of Love” and “The Theory of the Four Elements.” He proposes the establishment of small communities based on universal income and housing. He envisions the development of a new architecture, with green and recreational spaces; the reduction of work time, and rotation through different jobs so as not to fall into a single routine; and more time for creative leisure. In these communities, which he termed Phalanstères, Fourier intended for men and women to engage in non-monogamy, to enjoy sexual freedom without the ties of marriage, and to combine pleasure, art and production in novel ways. In the phalansteries, all domestic chores would be transformed into social work, including child care. According to Lewis:
Fully committed to female sexual freedom, [Fourier] promulgated an orgiastic proto-queer theory avant la lettre. The original feminism, then, is inseparable from family abolition, queer sex, and socialist utopianism. Good to know, right? Vive le phalanstère!2 Lewis, idem.
As Lewis observes, by questioning the family as the mainstay of society’s domination, the thought of Utopian socialists like Fourier helped reveal the “the wasted opportunities and the hidden possibilities of our own lives.”
From the Communist Manifesto to the Russian Revolution
Lewis asserts that the idea of family abolition is “orthodox Marxism”, a newly provocative definition. To substantiate this, we should recall that Marx and Engels were equally opposed to religion, the family, and the state, as institutions of the bourgeois order. Lewis cites fragments of the Philosophical Manuscripts, where Marx stated that, by abolishing private property, other forms of alienation such as religion, the family, and the state, can also be usurped. According to Lewis, Marx and Engels’s most important achievement in this area is historicizing family relationships: to show that there is nothing about family that is eternal or fixed. The family, as a social entity, is transformed. Lewis also returns to the idea, raised in the Communist Manifesto, that children’s education, which at that time was largely done in the home, could be replaced by a more social form of education.
We cannot delve deeply here into Marx and Engels’s conceptions of family, property, and the state; we have dealt with the subject in other articles. But, it is important to note that Lewis’s reading of Marx and Engles into the abolitionist tradition leaves aside several things. To begin with, they did not propose that the family could be abolished “here and now;” rather, they pondered the possibilities of superseding the family as part of the transition to socialism. That is to say, they never raised the question of “abolishing” the family, nor the state, as an immediate task. In a polemic with the anarchists, they maintained that it was, first and foremost, a question of overthrowing the capitalist state in order to establish a workers’ government, and thus advance, temporarily, towards abolishing all forms of the state (and, in this process, also of the family institution). We will return to this issue later.
Continuing her historical journey into the Russian Revolution, Lewis upholds Alexandra Kollontai as a central figure of what she calls the “Soviet family abolitionist” current. Lewis refers to the 1920 pamphlet “Communism and the Family,” in which Kollontai expands the horizons of Marx and Engels’s thought on post-family life, wherein “society will gradually take upon itself all the tasks that before the revolution fell to the individual parents.” Parents’ obligations to their children “wither away gradually” as society assumes greater responsibility for the education and care of children.
Communist society takes care of every child and guarantees both him and his mother material and moral support. Society will feed, bring up and educate the child. At the same time, those parents who desire to participate in the education of their children will by no means be prevented from doing so. Communist society will take upon itself all the duties involved in the education of the child, but the joys of parenthood will not be taken away from those who are capable of appreciating them. Such are the plans of communist society and they can hardly be interpreted as the forcible destruction of the family and the forcible separation of child from mother.
Lewis touches upon several of Kollontai’s other writings on the subject of love and interpersonal relationships, including the latter’s criticism of the form of love-property characteristic of capitalist society, and the endless tragedies associated with it: jealousy, violence and anguish in couple relationships. Instead, Kollontai promoted non-monogamous relationships of love-comradeship and friendship.
Kollontai and Inessa Armand founded the Zhenotdel, a special commission dedicated to political work among working and peasant women. They, along with Clara Zetkin, Rosa Luxemburg and other leaders, are among the key intellectual leaders of socialist feminism, However, Kollontai’s political position was not without contradictions: after defending positions of the Workers’ Opposition3The Workers’ Opposition arose in 1919-1920, raising criticisms of the unions to the state. Its members took positions against the NEP and, at the international level, against the theses of the United Front of the Third International. criticizing the Bolshevik leadership, she would spend the following decade subservient to Stalinism, as Lewis points out.
Tragically, Alexandra Kollontai seems to have abandoned her liberationist, syndicalist beliefs, serving Stalin from afar for the rest of her life, even as he reinstated the most anti-communist (not to mention gender-conservative and patriarchal) forms of social order. She never criticized Stalin publicly, survived, and died in Russia in 1952.4 Lewis, idem.
Even so, Kollontai’s earlier work on sexuality, personal relationships, and women’s oppression as part of the socialist struggle represent an enormous contribution fo feminist from the Marxist tradition.
After this historical tour, Lewis leaps forward half a century to focus on Shulamith Firestone, a thinker who combined an idiosyncratic reading of Marxism with the works of Sigmund Freud and Wilhelm Reich, and who became one of the referents of the radical feminists of the 1970s. For Lewis, Firestone’s work represents a continuation of the abolitionist tradition. As part of Second-wave feminism, Firestone’s work explored the family and sexuality as spaces of oppression and violence. Her bet was that, through scientific and technological development, new contraceptive methods and in vitro fertilization, women could be freed from biologically determined motherhood.
However, Firestone’s proposals are somewhat inimical to those of the authors Lewis has reviewed so far. Firestone developed a critique of historical materialism that led her to a culturalist position, one characteristic of radical feminism. She argued that the failure of the Russian Revolution could be ascribed to its failure to eliminate the family and sexual repression. By combining elements of Bolshevism and Stalinism, she ended up discarding the foundations of Marxism entirely. Firestone proposed a revision to historical materialism from a new “dialectic of sex” where women and men constitute opposing sexual classes. This shows the distance between the positions of socialist feminism and those of radical feminism, but Lewis does not explore these contradictions here.
Lewis rounds out the book with an account of the most progressive sectors of the LGBTQ movement and of post-1968 feminism, perspectives which were largely choked off by the imposition of 1980s neoliberalism and the accompanying neoconservative family ideologies of Thatcher and Regan. And, coming into the present, Lewis points to the appearance of new publications by transfeminist and so-called queer Marxist thinkers on the issue of family abolition.
In answer to her ultimate question, “What is to be done with the family?” Lewis proposes a new configuration of social relations founded on camaraderie. As an example, she draws upon the example of Philadelphia’s Camp Maroon, an encampment organized to advocate for community housing. For Lewis, Camp Maroon just the type of self-management and mutual care in which new types of social relationships and cohabitation could arise, a showcase of what abolitionism means in practice, a movement of “destruction-preservation-transformation-realization.” As a parting thought, Lewis points out that, while we can’t know what will come after the family, she bets that it will be much better than what currently exists.
Revolution, Family, Culture
So far, we have traced Lewis’s main arguments, and pointed to some of their limitations. Next, though, we should clarify a few controversies. As we have seen, the author locates in the Russian Revolution and in the works of Kollontai, a key moment of advance in the debates around family abolition. However, she barely stops to analyze the transitional measures implemented by the Bolsheviks to move in this direction. Most importantly, we find no reflection on why the abolitionist objective was not achieved, nor any references to the processes that led to the consolidation of the Stalinist bureaucracy. This is a glaring absence, since the Russian Revolution was an incredibly advanced historical experience, in which the prospect of superseding the patriarchal family was raised, not only as a wish, but as a real possibility, an open hypothesis within the framework of the revolutionary social transformations experienced by millions of workers and peasants.
Of course, from the Bolsheviks’ perspective, family abolition could not be accomplished by decree, no more than the state could simply be swept away all at once. This represents a thread of intellectual continuity with the reflections of Engels and Marx, but in a different and concrete historical context. Even after their seizure of power, and the overthrow of private property as society’s organizing principle, relationships of family dependency could not be dissolved by a sheer act of will. Instead, the task was to consolidate the conditions of possibility for its realization. New material, social and cultural bases needed to be established to allow the transformation-superseding of the family, as part of the broader transition to socialism.
Establishing democratic and reproductive rights for women (such as equality before the law, the right to divorce, and the right to free and accessible abortion) were important steps in that direction. The Russian Revolution’s achievements for women greatly advanced the progress towards these same rights in the capitalist democracies of the time, but they were still insufficient. The Revolution proposed to radically advance the socialization of domestic work; to uproot it from the privatized “feminized” sphere, and transform it into another branch of social production. This would have allowed the full incorporation of women into all self-organization and decision-making bodies, with the objective of revolutionizing all areas of daily life, culture, and interpersonal relationships.
Taking stock of that monumental historical experience, Trotsky wrote in 1936 that “the family as a shut-in petty enterprise was to be occupied, according to the plans, by a finished system of social care and accommodation: maternity houses, creches, kindergartens, schools, social dining rooms, social laundries, first-aid stations, hospitals, sanatoria, athletic organizations, moving-picture theaters, etc.” This would allow the “complete absorption of the housekeeping functions of the family by institutions of the socialist society, uniting all generations in solidarity and mutual aid, was to bring to woman, and thereby to the loving couple, a real liberation from the thousand-year-old fetters.”
However, in the early years of the revolution, it “proved impossible to take the old family by storm,” not for a lack of will in the revolutionary ranks or a lack of initiative among worker and peasant women. Rather, the limit was set by the scarce resources of the young State, which did not correspond to the aspirations of the Bolshevik Party.
“You cannot “abolish” the family; you have to replace it. The actual liberation of women is unrealizable on a basis of “generalized want.” Experience soon proved this austere truth which Marx had formulated eighty years before.”5Trotsky, Leon. The Revolution Betrayed (1936). Chapter 7: Family, Youth and Culture.
The scarcity of resources, and the low quality of social services for washing clothes, food, care for the sick and elderly, and childcare, created an enormous pressure to allow these necessities to fall back on the family and the private sphere. The ravages of the civil war, and the USSR’s isolation after the defeat of the German revolution, made any attempts to move in another direction difficult.
However, a leap occurred in the 1930s, when the Stalinist bureaucracy began to transform necessity into virtue. While the speeches of the state bureaucracy claimed that 99% of the objectives of socialism had been achieved, reactionary laws, such as a prohibition of abortion, were promulgated. This conservative ideology promoted the return of women from state facilities to the family home, and to a traditional maternal role —“The philosophy of a priest endowed also with the powers of a gendarme,” in the words of Leon Trotsky. A new “cult of the family” was promoted by the bureaucracy, both to consolidate a more stable hierarchy of social relations, and to lay the foundations of a new authoritarian state power. To do this, it had to suppress and defeat revolutionary tendencies, and liquidate Soviet democracy through dictatorial methods.
This process, though, is not accounted for in Lewis’s book, The author does not reflect on why such emancipatory proposals never achieved their objectives in Soviet Russia. Would it have been possible to move in another direction? Could the revolution have carried out a radical transformation in all spheres of daily life beyond capitalism? That possibility was open, and in reconsidering that question today, we cannot simply wipe the slate clean of those important historical experiences without drawing lessons for the present.
A Return to Utopian Socialism?
Lewis proposes to multiply spaces where alternative “micro-cultures” are configured, like Philadelphia’s Camp Maroon. She speculates that such spaces “could be scaled up if the movement for a classless society took seriously the premise that households can be formed freely and run democratically; the principle that no one shall be deprived of food, shelter, or care because they don’t work.”
In response to this idea of fleeing from capitalism, of creating small spaces of “autonomy” in the interstices of the system, we might raise several objections. In the first place, if this type of experience occurs on a “micro” scale, it would only be a way for a few to be saved. And if, instead, they become widespread, acquiring a much larger scale, will not the capitalists, their states, and their repressive forces respond with full force? The Utopian dream of evading the state collides again and again with the fact that the capitalist state is still there. Or, would the capitalists let the example stand? Would they let people occupy empty houses, land and buildings, and build a functioning, democratic societal alternative right under their noses? All historical experience indicates otherwise. If the fight becomes radicalized, sooner or later a confrontation is assured. Therefore, the strategic discussion about how to prepare must be considered relevant.
On the other hand: under what conditions of possibility can the abolition-superseding of the family take place? We agree with Lewis when she says that, to democratically manage our ways of life, “no one shall be deprived of food, shelter, or care because they don’t work.” So, how might we ensure such living conditions for millions of people? Is it even possible to do this within the framework of the capitalist system?
The reality is that, under 21st century capitalism, millions live in deplorable conditions of extreme poverty, without any assurance of being able to feed their families from one day to the next. Capitalism, as Marx and Engles proposed long ago, not only reproduces the family institution as a key part of society; it also degrades the conditions of the working family in the extreme, denying millions of people the right to a home and a job, without the time or opportunity to enjoy the pleasures of life. In this context, the prospect of achieving freer interpersonal relations cannot be separated from the fight against this degradation of the life of the working class. It is part of the more general struggle to end all forms of exploitation and oppression.
Forecasting the potential reconfiguration of personal relationships in a communist future can contribute to awakening a radical imagination and desire for another society. In the same way, fighting against misogyny, homophobia, or the idea of love as property, along with all conservative ideologies, is key to any emancipatory struggle today, to consolidate the unity of all the oppressed into relations of camaraderie. However, the idea that it is possible to “abolish the family” here and now, in small self-managed spaces that escape capitalism but do not end it, is a complete illusion.
The thought of Utopian socialists, according to Engles, contained the seeds of powerful ideas about communist society; these thinkers projected ideas of a perfect social order conceived entirely in their own minds, to “implant it in society from the outside, through propaganda, and if possible, by example, through model experiments.” But these models never went beyond the terrain of utopia while there was only an incipient development of the working class, the one social force that could actually transform those dreams into a reality.
Many ideas raised by Lewis in this book aim to awaken ideas of an alternative society, while at the same time questioning the personal relationships that are shaped by capitalism. But, 200 years after Fourier proposed the Phalanstery, it’s not enough to simply conjure up the contours of a new society from thin air. What is urgent, instead, is a socialist and revolutionary strategy to win such a new society. Such a strategy would put the struggle of the working class at the center, along with those of other oppressed sectors, to develop new forms of self-organization that aim to defeat the capitalists and establish a new type of state. Only in a proper working-class state, which places all technical and industrial resources in the hands of producers, would it be possible to guarantee that no one will lack food, housing and care. Only in such a state could we guarantee reduction of working hours and the socialization of care work to free women from the burden of the domestic sphere. Only such a state could organize and direct the necessary innovations of education and culture based on democratic deliberation among workers. Only in such a state could the chains of necessity that bind us within the patriarchal family be broken. Only in this manner, through the conscious self-activity of society at all levels of life, can the family institution be superseded and, finally, be archived in the museum of human history.
Originally published in Spanish in Ideas de Izquierda, November 11, 2022.
Translated by B. C. Daurelle
|↑1||Lewis, Sophie. Abolish the Family: A Manifesto for Care and Liberation. Verso, 2022.|
|↑3||The Workers’ Opposition arose in 1919-1920, raising criticisms of the unions to the state. Its members took positions against the NEP and, at the international level, against the theses of the United Front of the Third International.|
|↑5||Trotsky, Leon. The Revolution Betrayed (1936). Chapter 7: Family, Youth and Culture.|