The Left's War on the Family

Conservatives have long advocated the importance of strong families and deplored efforts, by socialists, feminists, and government bureaucrats, to weaken familial ties.  Indeed, for many conservatives, the family —— the traditional, 'nuclear' family —— is the fundamental cornerstone of society, an absolutely indispensable form of social organization.  As John Mueller of the Family Research Council, a conservative advocacy group, has argued, 'the basic social unit of society is the family—based household.'  Similarly, former secretary of education William Bennett has written, 'the nuclear family, defined as a monogamous married couple living with their children, is vital to civilization's success.' 


Leftists, by contrast, have long taken a decidedly jaundiced view of the traditional family. To them, a household consisting of an adult male and female —— united in matrimony —— and their offspring is an antiquated, repressive institution standing in the way of constructing a 'better,' more egalitarian world.


The famous 19th century socialist Robert Owen included the family, along with marriage and private property, in his 'triumvirate of evil,' which, he asserted, has 'cursed the world ever since the creation of man.'  He advocated the public care of children at his utopian community 'New Harmony' in Posey County, Indiana.  The family, Owen declared, must give way to the 'scientific' association of from five hundred to two thousand people.  By association, Owen meant that children ought to be transferred from parental to institutionalized care.  This was a task heartily embraced by one of Owen's chief 'lieutenants,' William Maclure.  He developed a Spartan system of education for the children of 'New Harmony,' which consisted of divorcing children from their parents and placing them in communal living arrangements. 


Communists have likewise almost invariably proposed to destroy, change, or regulate the institution of the family.  Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto were hardly coy about their distaste of the family, declaring that the 'hallowed correlation of parent and child' is nothing more than 'bourgeois claptrap.'  They went on to add, 'Do you charge us with wanting to stop the exploitation of children by their parents?  To this crime we plead guilty.'  Engels even devoted an entire book, his The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, to an extended attack on monogamous marriage and the family.  First published in 1884, the book focused on early human history, following the disintegration of primitive societies, which Engels believed were characterized by an early form of communism, and the emergence of a class society based on private property.  Engels identified the family as the basic unit of capitalist society, and of female oppression.  He declared that the family unit is a decadent, destructive, and wasteful institution for everyone except the ruling class. 


Taking their cue from Marx and Engels, many Communist governments have attempted to curtail and regulate the institution of the family.  Alexandra Kollontai, the Commissar for Social Welfare in the Soviet government, wrote in 1920, 'There is no escaping the fact: the old type of family has seen its day...It is worse than useless, since it needlessly holds back the female workers from more productive and far more serious work.'  And in communist China—region>, the regulation of the family is well known.  Since 1980, China—region> has pursued a policy of limiting one child per family.  The so—called 'Womb Police,' members of the State Family Planning Commission, vigorously enforce this edict, often posting details of the menstrual cycles of women for public display.  Violation of the 'one child' policy frequently results in heavy fines and imprisonment as well as compulsory sterilization and abortions. 


Many contemporary leftists, especially Marxist—inspired feminists, would concur with the sentiments of Engels and Kollontai.  Indeed, many have taken up where their 19th century forbears left off.  Gloria Steinem, the famous celebrity feminist, once declared, 'We have to abolish and reform the institution of marriage...By the year 2000 we will, I hope, raise our children to believe in human potential, not God...We must understand what we are attempting is a revolution, not a public relations movement.' 


Novelist and feminist Toni Morrison concurred, announcing, 'The little nuclear family is a paradigm that just doesn't work.  It doesn't work for white people or for black people.  Why we are hanging on to it, I don't know.' 


MaryJo Bane, a professor of education at Wellesley College made the statement that, 'In order to raise children with equality, we must take them away from families and communally raise them.' 


Feminist author Vivian Gornick made the observation that, 'Being a housewife is an illegitimate profession... The choice to serve and be protected and plan towards being a family—maker is a choice that shouldn't be.  The heart of radical feminism is to change that.' 


Linda Gordon, a radical feminist writer, attempted to rally her sisters by announcing, 'The nuclear family must be destroyed, and people must find better ways of living together...Whatever its ultimate meaning, the break—up of families now is an objectively revolutionary process.  Families have supported oppression by separating people into small, isolated units, unable to join together to fight for common interests.' 


Standing foursquare against the institution of the family has become something of a cottage industry for feminist academicians and writers.  But their criticism of the family is intellectually dishonest, in as much as anti—family advocates are generally mute when it comes to proposing concrete alternatives to family organization. How society is to be rearranged once the family is dissolved is never explained.  The experiment conducted by Israel—region>'s socialist kibbutzim settlements, taking children from their parents and raising them collectively, has been almost completely abandoned, in favor of more conventional nuclear family life.  In the few surviving kibbutzim, children live with and are raised by their parents rather than by the community as a whole


Vague references are still occasionally made by theoreticians to communal living arrangements, in which children are removed from their parents' care and placed in some form of state—sponsored facility.  But just exactly how this is to be accomplished is never specified.  By coercive force?  What if some people object?  What is to be done then?  And what about the numerous studies showing that, compared to children raised in families, institutionalized infants are slower in learning how to sit up, grasp objects, walk and talk, and are often undersized even when they receive adequate food? 


The failure of leftists to propose serious alternatives to family organization doesn't mean, of course, that anti—family advocates aren't deadly serious about their stated goals.  On the contrary, while their alternatives to family organization may be ill—considered and intellectually bankrupt, their hostility toward the family is quite real.  Nor does it mean that their anti—family diatribes should be taken lightly.  Much damage has been caused by ill—conceived and emotionally charged rhetoric ('Ideas have consequences,' as the conservative writer Richard Weaver once said). 


Like numerous other intellectual fads and fashions, the animosity toward the family has managed to seep into the larger culture, and has influenced millions of women (and many men).  In college, for example, feminist professors wield enormous influence, especially on impressionable young women.  These students are often told that marrying and starting a family is a betrayal of womanhood.  In even more explicit terms, they are taught that marrying, having children, and assuming the role of a housewife is tantamount to being a slave or a prostitute. 


Of perhaps even more influence, however, is the widespread belief —— currently enjoying cachet among the intellectual elite —— that the two—parent family is nothing more than a socially created fiction, or, in the parlance of postmodernism, a 'social construct.'  There is nothing neither new nor original about the postmodernist approach to deconstructing social institutions, such as the family.  Such a perspective goes back to the ancient Greek sophists, who made many of the same observations. The family, when viewed as a mere arbitrary choice of the moment, is seen as in a continual state of evolution; it is a transitory phenomenon, something that can be altered and changed according to fiat. 


Certainly, in anthropological terms, the family is difficult to define.  If anything, anthropology has demonstrated that, cross—culturally, the family is an institution that takes many forms, from the Tibetan polyandrous household to the Hopi extended family. Variety, however, does not rule out the preponderance of a single form. The nuclear family, though not universal, has been quite prevalent throughout human history.  It is by no means a recent historical invention or the result of the Industrial Revolution, as some scholars have suggested.  In fact, nuclear families were the dominant form of human kinship during hunter—gatherer times, which accounts for more than 90% of human existence.  Many leftist ideologues would like to use this observation as a club with which to bludgeon advocates of two—parent families.  But, as should be clear, the fact that different family forms exist says absolutely nothing about their relative merit or value.  An evaluation of this sort requires comparing the effectiveness of different family forms within the same cultural context.  It requires assessing each form's performance vis—�—vis certain criteria, such as caring for, raising, socializing and preparing children for adult life. 

If one uses this type of evaluation, it is increasingly clear is that, in the context of modern Western society, the nuclear family is an important —— even indispensable —— form of human organization.  It is now literally impossible for any informed person to maintain that the family 'doesn't work,' is harmful to children, or is outmoded and antiquated. 


Study after study has shown that children who live in single—parent homes tend to have more problems —— emotional, educational, and physical —— than children living with both parents.  It is a well—known statistic, for example, that fully 70% of all prison and reform school inmates come from fatherless homes.  It is equally well known that instances of abuse in single—parent households are much higher than in two—parent households.  Children in single—parent households are 77% more likely to be physically abused and have a 165% greater chance of experiencing physical neglect, according to a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services study.  And, according to a recent Swedish study, children who are raised in households with only one parent are more likely to suffer health problems, such as mental illness and suicide risk, than children raised by two parents. 


The Left's ongoing war against the family —— for surely it is a war —— has been deeply destructive.  The above statistics demonstrate just how destructive this war has been.  Removing the father from the home and denigrating the role of motherhood has opened the door to a host of social pathologies that currently afflict American society.  Rather than liberating women and children from the supposed 'tyranny' of the family, the Left, in its headlong quest to remake society, has unleashed social chaos, poverty, illegitimacy, and crime.  For many leftists, of course, this is their goal.  Underlying the Left's hatred of the family is an even greater antipathy toward Western culture in general and American society in particular.  Anything that might undermine the American way of life, such as the devaluation of the family, is heartily applauded by leftists. 


With all this in mind, it is time for conservatives and those who value American society to stand up and redouble their efforts to preserve and defend the traditional family.  It is also time to peg leftists with their true label —— enemies of American society. 


The author holds a Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of California, Davis, and works as an archaeologist in Santa Cruz, California.