100 years ago, soon after the 1917 Revolution, Russian Marxist-Feminist Alexandra Kollontai published a piece on ‘Communism and the Family’ (1920). The Marxist critique of family which Kollontai advances is considered ‘too radical’ even today and the destruction of traditional ‘family values’, which entailed women’s subjugation, is mourned. Yet, a century later, her ideas remain strikingly relevant to the struggles of working-class women in capitalist patriarchy.
Below are selected excerpts (edited for clarity) from Kollontai’s article.
The typical family where the woman had no will of her own, no time of her own and no money of her own, is changing before our very eyes. In the course of history, the structure of the family has changed many times; it was once quite different from the family of today. There was a time when the kinship family was considered the norm: the mother headed a family consisting of her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, who lived and worked together. At another period the patriarchal family was the rule.
But over the last hundred years this customary family structure has been falling apart in all the countries where capitalism is dominant and where the number of factories and other enterprises which employ hired labour is increasing. It is the universal spread of female labour that has contributed most of all to the radical change in family life. Formerly only the man was considered a breadwinner. The wages of the “breadwinner” being insufficient for the needs of the family, the woman found herself obliged to look for a wage and to knock at the factory door.
What kind of “family life” can there be if the wife and mother is out at work for at least eight hours and, counting the travelling, is away from home for ten hours a day? The woman who is wife, mother and worker has to expend every ounce of energy to fulfil these roles. She has to work the same hours as her husband in some factory, printing-house or commercial establishment and then on top of that she has to find the time to attend to her household and look after her children. Capitalism has placed a crushing burden on woman’s shoulders: it has made her a wage-worker without having reduced her cares as housekeeper or mother. Woman staggers beneath the weight of this triple load. Life has never been easy for woman, but never has her lot been harder and more desperate than that of the millions of working women under the capitalist yoke in this heyday of factory production.
“The wives of the rich have long since been freed from these irritating and tiring domestic duties. Why should working woman continue to be burdened with them?”
The circumstances that held the family together no longer exist. The family is ceasing to be necessary either to its members or to the nation as a whole. The old family structure is now merely a hindrance. What used to make the old family so strong? First, because the husband and father was the family’s breadwinner; secondly, because the family economy was necessary to all its members: and thirdly, because children were brought up by their parents. What is left of this former type of family?
All that was formerly produced in the bosom of the family is now being manufactured on a mass scale in workshops and factories. What housekeeper would now bother to make candles, spin wool or weave, cloth? All these products can be bought in the shop next door… the working woman has neither the time nor the energy needed to perform these domestic operations. First and foremost, she is a hired worker. Thus, the family economy is gradually being deprived of all the domestic work without which our grandmothers could hardly have imagined a family. What was formerly produced in the family is now produced by the collective labour of working men and women in the factories. The family no longer produces; it only consumes.
The wives of the rich have long since been freed from these irritating and tiring domestic duties. Why should working woman continue to be burdened with them? But even if housework disappears, you may argue, there are still the children to look after. The family is supposed to bring up the children, but in reality proletarian children grow up on the streets. Under capitalism children [are] frequently, too frequently, a heavy and unbearable burden on the proletarian family.
The capitalists are well aware that the old type of family, where the woman is a slave and where the husband is responsible for the well-being of his wife and children, constitutes the best weapon in the struggle to stifle the desire of the working class for freedom and to weaken the revolutionary spirit of the working man and working woman. The worker is weighed down by his family cares and is obliged to compromise with capital. The father and mother are ready to agree to any terms when their children are hungry.
All the old pillars which supported the family as a social unit are being removed: the domestic economy is dying, and working-class parents are unable to take care of their children or provide them with sustenance and education. There is no escaping the fact: the old type of family has had its day.
The workers’ state needs new relations between the sexes, just as the narrow and exclusive affection of the mother for her own children must expand…, the indissoluble marriage based on the servitude of women is replaced by a free union of two equal members of the workers’ state who are united by love and mutual respect.
Excerpts are taken from here.