This article appeared originally on the Truth and Charity Forum of HLI.
The Communists were right about a good many things, but often misguided in their solutions. In Friedrich Engels’ account of the family from “The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State,” accuses monogamous marriage as the beginning of class oppression in society, and he describes the family as “the cellular form of civilized society.” In the latter sentiment, he is correct: the family is the basic cell of society. But in the wider sense, the Communists have the answer painfully reversed.
Engels argued in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State:
The first class opposition that appears in history coincides with the development of the antagonism between man and woman in monogamous marriage, and the first class oppression coincides with that of the female sex by the male. Monogamous marriage was a great historical step forward; nevertheless, together with slavery and private wealth, it opens the period that has lasted until today in which every step forward is also relatively a step backward, in which prosperity and development for some is won through the misery and frustration of others. It is the cellular form of civilized society, in which the nature of the oppositions and contradictions fully active in that society can be already studied.
Viewing the family as a vehicle for power relations and nothing more, Marx and Engels argued for its dissolution.
In the Communist Manifesto, Marx wrote that “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.”
Ironically, he rightly points out hypocrisy so present in upper-middle class families, i.e. the bourgeois, where adultery and use of prostitutes is present; and he is also right that family relations among the poor are looser with more children born out of wedlock, something we still see today. Marx’s solution is to abolish the family, or more accurately, he argued that it would disappear as private property was abolished.
Though their analysis is largely correct about problems in the family, it does not mean that the family is intrinsically bad or the source of disorder.
Precisely because the family is the basic unit of society, the answer to society’s problems is not to dismantle the family, but to heal it. Harmony within families is realistic and attainable, just as I believe harmony in society is possible. A family in balance can be a.model for society rather than something to be torn down, as Marx and Engels argued.
The family is primary and essential because it is where new humans, the constituents of society, derive from. Babies come from one, unique act that is only possible between one man and one woman. This relationship, marriage, is therefore the foundation of the family. And emotionally, children fare best when they come into a stable family environment; the existence of other arrangements does not change this fact.
The Catholic Church’s social teaching has long declared:
The priority of the family over society and over the State must be affirmed.The family in fact, at least in its procreative function, is the condition itself for their existence. With regard to other functions that benefit each of its members, it proceeds in importance and value the functions that society and the State are called to perform. The family possesses inviolable rights and finds its legitimization in human nature and not in being recognized by the state. The family then does not exist for society or the State, but society and the State exist for the family (214 Compendium of Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church).
The Church here points out the key reversal; the family is prior to the state, not the state to the family. Herein lies a crucial difference between Catholic and other traditional thought and more modern thought as we see in the communists. Communist philosophy sees human beings as individuals only, unattached on an essential level to family or community relations. They see labor and capital, ie economics, as the primary identifiers of human persons. But I believe that human experience does not bear this out.
More accurately, each person is irreversibly part of a family, even a broken or lost one, and profoundly influenced by his or her circumstances, though not irredeemably bound.
Alasdair MacIntyre, the great philosopher and Marxist-turned-Catholic, elucidated this view in After Virtue: “The story of my life is always embedded in the story of those communities from which I derive my identity. I am born with a past; and to try to cut myself off from that past, in the individualist mode, is to deform my present relationships.” What this means is that the self-understanding of our life that gives it meaning necessarily includes our background, our culture and family or lack thereof and that we cannot ignore that without doing damage to ourselves in our present relationships.
This is not to say that we are hopelessly confined to the circumstances surrounding our birth. MacIntyre adds that, “it is in moving from such particularity that the search for the good, for the universal, consists. Yet particularity can never be simply left behind or obliterated.” Our background and our search for transcendence and the universal go together.
To this, the Communists might argue that man would fare better if severed from the ties to families.
But there is something unrepeatable about a family that is well-ordered. The Church rightly points out that “within the family, the person is always at the center of attention as an end and never as a means.” For this reason, “A society built on a family scale is the best guarantee against drifting off course into individualism or collectivism” (Compendium 213).
In collectivism and individualist societies, the person is too easily subordinated to the group, not in the sense of a legitimate common good, but more in the sense domination by the collective. This is easily seen in the concept of euthanasia for the elderly: the value of the person simply for existing is dismissed as a burden to the group. But a well-functioning society exists to serve its members, because they are who actually comprise it.
A healthy society then is nothing more than a conglomeration of healthy families. Anything more removed than that is simply not realistic of how humans function. The question then becomes, if Marx and Engels are right about problems in the family, but wrong to argue for its dissolution, how then do we heal the family?
Where do we find models of families functioning well? And how does a family function well as an essential component of a nation? If Catholics and conservatives in general want to argue against most liberal thought for the good of the family in society, we will have to find ways to address these questions.