New Labour plays happy families

Michael Malkin discusses Labour’s green paper

The launch of ‘Supporting families’, Labour’s consultation paper, was an uncharacteristically subdued affair. Mindful of the Tories’ disastrous experience with their ‘Back to basics’ campaign to restore ‘moral values’, Labour’s first priority was to deny any suggestion that they were seeking to set an ethical agenda for the conduct of family life. Modesty, perhaps even a little humility, was the order of the day.

Hence Jack Straw’s confessional references to his own divorce and his upbringing in a one-parent family. Hence also his assertion that the document “is not about telling people how to live their lives” and that it is “not about values”, but “about practical support for families ... nor do we moralise or issue edicts on personal relationships. We are not interested in lecturing. It is not the business of government to pressurise people into one type of relationship.”

In other words, Straw would have us believe that ‘Supporting families’, in effect an extended sermon to the nation, actually has no socially or morally normative content whatever, but is merely the crystallisation of objective conclusions derived from sociological data garnered by a regiment of experts. Ostensibly the paper represents a purely pragmatic approach to solving certain well known social problems that are, we are told, causally related to the break-up of the family.

The core thesis of the document, however, makes this position unsustainable. Nobody can assert that “the evidence is that children are best brought up where you have two natural parents and it is more likely to be a stable family if they are married”, and still claim to be eschewing normative pronouncements. What we have here is not pragmatism but ideology with profound ethical implications - nowhere more so than in the notion that “marriage is best”. Four out of 10 marriages in Britain end in divorce; a quarter of families are headed by a single parent; a third of births take place outside wedlock. What are those people to think, whose lives, for a wide variety of reasons and not necessarily because of their own ‘fault’, do not correspond with the ideal set out by the home secretary? They must inevitably feel themselves stigmatised as in some sense inferior, as having ‘failed’ to achieve what is “best” for themselves and for their children. The effect, no doubt intended, is to marginalise large numbers of people, to place them firmly outside the socially desired norm.

Labour is in the process of completing its transformation from a bourgeois party of the working class into a bourgeois party of the bourgeoisie. An important part of this process involves a more explicit endorsement of the ethical presuppositions of bourgeois ideology derived from orthodox Judeo-Christian morality, with its emphasis on the traditional patriarchal family and the sanctity of marriage. Small wonder that ‘Supporting families’ was warmly welcomed by the archbishop of Canterbury. Taking time off from urging us to ‘forgive and forget’ the crimes of General Pinochet, George Carey praised the document for showing that “ministers share a very high priority that the church places on the stability and integrity of the family. I particularly welcome the explicit recognition that marriage provides the surest foundation for raising children, and the undertaking to strengthen the institution of marriage” (The Guardian November 5). Given that there has been a tenfold increase in cohabitation during the last 25 years and that annual marriage rates have reached an all-time low, one can understand why the archbishop should take succour from Labour’s commitment to marriage.

Finding himself and his party in the warm embrace of the church evidently causes Straw no embarrassment. In this connection, it is interesting to note that one of the advisers employed in helping to frame Labour’s consultation paper was the influential catholic psychiatrist-theologian and all-round expert on marriage, Jack Dominian. Straw’s own Christian convictions led him to voice his personal opposition (doubtless shared by god’s representative in Downing Street) to delicate issues such as gay adoptions and lesbian IVF mothers. Straw is entitled to believe what he wishes, and perhaps he thought there were some votes to be harvested from appealing to homophobic prejudice. But to use the launch of a policy document as a forum for promoting his religious beliefs was injudicious, to say the least, especially since it casts grave doubt on the claim that Labour’s policy on the family is inclusive, ethically neutral and merely concerned with giving practical help.

The specific measures intended to furnish this ‘practical help’ have been widely publicised and need not detain us long. Suffice it to say that this time the Millbank mountain has brought forth a mouse. Using the now familiar blunderbuss approach to policy formation, ‘Supporting families’ fires off a salvo of heterogeneous initiatives at its target. Among the more risible suggestions is that registrars should become secular parsons - if couples cannot be lured to the altar and the font, then registrars will be on hand to offer them premarital counselling and baby-naming ceremonies. The already hard-pressed health visitor service is to be given a much wider remit, supervising every aspect of child-rearing, from the moment of conception to the time a child leaves school. “Advising on weaning, toddler training, helping with behavioural problems, and offering advice on issues such as sibling rivalry” are just a few of the tasks envisaged (The Guardian November 5). To top it all, a National Family and Parenting Institute is to be set up as a source of wisdom on ‘best practice’.

With its facile sermonising and incoherent practical solutions to the real problems faced by families in contemporary Britain, ‘Supporting families’ is an easy target for criticism. But how do we, as Marxists, view the question? What is our theoretical position on the family? As always, we proceed from a materialist standpoint. Whereas bourgeois ideology, rooted in philosophical idealism, grasps the abstract concept of ‘family’ and tries to use it for its own purposes by superimposing it on social reality, we begin by taking the family as a concrete, historically, socially and culturally determined phenomenon. Our aim in so doing is to dispel the mist created by the illusions constitutive of class society under capitalism. We endeavour to separate facts from values, to see the family as it is, rather than as it ought to be.

With Engels, we maintain that “the determining factor in history is, in the final instance, the production and reproduction of immediate life ... 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 human species (F Engels The origin of the family, private property and the state London 1972, p71). Historically, the propagation of the species has taken place under many forms of social organisation. The patriarchal form of family organisation regarded as paradigmatic in bourgeois ideology dates back to Roman times. As Engels reminds us, “The original meaning of the word ‘family’ (familia) is not that compound of sentimentality and domestic strife which forms the ideal of the present-day philistine; among the Romans it did not at first even refer to the married pair and their children but only to the slaves. Famulus means domestic slave and familia is the total number of slaves belonging to one man ... the term was invented by the Romans to denote a new social organism whose head ruled over wife and children and a number of slaves, and was invested under Roman paternal power with rights of life and death over them all” (ibid p121). In the epoch of capitalism, the family became a mirror of the relations of power and property prevalent in society as a whole, containing, as Marx observed, “in miniature all the contradictions which extend throughout society and its state” (ibid p122).

Rooted as it is in bourgeois ideology and pledged to the maintenance of capitalism, the Labour Party cannot and will not acknowledge the fact that the problems which afflict the family and all institutions in capitalist society are not primarily the result of individual failings and weaknesses, but are inherent in the capitalist system itself. Social relations like marriage and the family are not the result of human design or calculation, not something that can be superimposed on society, but the product of society itself. At the most fundamental level, these social relations reflect the way in which human beings satisfy their needs and exercise their powers through collective labour.

Under capitalism, human beings are alienated from the product of their labour, from the act of labour itself and from one another. This dehumanisation is the outcome of a form of social organisation in which relations between human beings are metamorphosed into relations between things - it is having rather than being that forms the essence of life under the capitalist system, and which cripples and distorts all social relations, including the family and marriage.

Does this mean that we reject the family and marriage as they exist in our society as so much “bourgeois clap-trap”? Some vulgar Marxists and infantile leftists would have it so. They base their view on a misreading of a well known passage in the Communist Manifesto: “Abolition of the family! Even the most radical flare up at this infamous proposal of the communists ... The bourgeois clap-trap about the family ... about the hallowed co-relation between parent and child, becomes all the more disgusting, the more, by the action of modern industry, all family ties among the proletarians are torn asunder, and their children transformed into simple articles of commerce and instruments of labour” (K Marx, F Engels CW vol 6, p502).

What the ‘abolitionists’ fail to notice is that Marx is referring to the abolition of the bourgeois family, rather than the family as such: “On what foundation is the present family, the bourgeois family, based? On capital, on private gain. In its completely developed form this family exists only among the bourgeoisie. But this state of things finds its complement in the practical absence of the family among the proletarians and in public prostitution. The bourgeois family will vanish as a matter of course when its complement vanishes, and both will vanish with the vanishing of capital” (ibid p501). For Marx, the “abolition” of the family signifies not the disappearance of the family per se, but the replacement of an alienated social institution under capitalism with an emancipated one under socialism.

This is the key to our position. As communists, we support the struggle for human institutions, the family included. In our own society the practice of couples pairing off and setting up families (with or without marriage) is the socially and culturally determined way in which the propagation of the species is ensured. This situation is unlikely to change, even after the victory of socialism. What will change is that from being microcosmic reflections of the crippled and alienated relations inherent in capitalist society, families will form the nucleus of a liberated and fully human social organism.

Although the family is not included in the draft programme of the CPGB as such, many of our immediate demands concerning wage workers, youth, the elderly and so on have a direct bearing on the well-being of workers’ families. We support the family for the simple reason that it is the fundamental economic unit of capitalist society, the unit in which the overwhelming majority of the working class live out their daily lives and struggles, a soul in a soulless world. If we were to reject the family as an institution simply on the grounds that the bourgeoisie try to endow it with mystificatory moral significance, we would be making a serious mistake and would be failing in our duty to fight now and fight hard for the interests of the working class.

Finally, it goes without saying that our support for the family does not in any sense imply that we elevate it to a status of ‘moral’ superiority over other forms of social life, such as the alternative lifestyles practised by single heterosexuals, gays and lesbians. We struggle on behalf of all oppressed human beings, whether they live inside or outside the family.