The Marxists Perspective on the Family

By Charlotte Nickerson, published April 03, 2022 | Fact Checked by Saul Mcleod, PhD


Key Points

  • Marxists believe that the family is a tool of capitalism and its main function is to maintain capitalism and reinforce social inequalities.
  • Marxism is a conflict perspective in the family that argues that the working-class, the proletariat, is exploited by the capitalist class, who profit off of their labor.
  • Marx and Engels believed that the monogamous nuclear family emerged from, and benefits, capitalism. According to Engels, the nuclear family promotes inheritance and consequently intergenerational inequality.

The Conflict View of Society

Marxism is a structural conflict perspective in sociology. This means that Marxists see society as being structured along class lines.

Institutions generally work in the interests of the small, elite bourgeoisie class who have economic power or those of the much larger working class, or proletariat.

In Marxism, the bourgeoisie gain their wealth through exploiting the labor of the proletariat. For this reason, there is an inherent conflict of interest between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat.

Engels: Inheritance of Wealth

An isolated nuclear family means that men can confirm whether a child belongs to them and ensure that wealth remains in the family through private inheritance. It helped preserve capitalism by depositing wealth in a private family instead of passing it on to the community.

In Engels view, the monogamous nuclear family emerged with capitalism. Before capitalism, traditional and tribal societies were classless and did not have private property. Instead, property was collectively owned, and this was reflected in family structures.

Rather than the modern nuclear family, family tribal groups existed in groups where there were no restrictions on sexual relationships. This means that Engels believed that anyone could have sexual relations with anyone else in the tribal group, and multiple partners (Stern, 1948). 

However, the emergence of capitalism, a system of private ownership, in the 18th century changed society and the family.  The bourgeoisie, or capitalist class, used their personal wealth to invest in businesses in order to make a profit which they did not invest for the benefit of everyone else. 

Eventually, the bourgeois started to look for ways of creating intergenerational wealth, rather than having it distributed among the masses of society. The monogamous nuclear family guaranteed that people could pass on their property to their own kin, as monogamy made clear whose children were whom (Stern, 1948). 

Ultimately, however, this arrangement served to reproduce inequality. As the children of the rich grew into wealth, the children of the poor remained poro. Thus, the nuclear family served to benefit the bourgeois more than the proletariat. 

Zaretsky’s Cushioning Effect

The cushioning effect is similar to Parson's theory of the Warm Bath, in that the family acts as a relief from social stress and tension. However, Zaretsky believed that the family allowed the breadwinner man to feel in control and strong, which they did not feel at work due to the oppression of the bourgeoisie capitalist class. Therefore the family maintains capitalism because it prevents the proletariat from acknowledging its oppression and starting a revolution.

In Zaretsky's view, the family works in the interests of capitalism. Writing from the Marxist perspective, the sociologist Zaretsky developed the view that modern capitalist society created an illusion that the "private life" of the family is separate from the economy. 

Zaretsky was interested in psychology, and specifically the idea that the family can perform a psychological function. People can be nurtured, supported, and have their individual needs met by the family. This is in parallel to the Functionalist Talcott Parsons warm bath theory (Tilly, 1978). 

However, fundamentally, Zaretsky did not believe that the family is able to provide for the psychological and social needs of the individual. While cushioning the effects of capitalism, the family perpetuates the system and cannot compensate for the alienation between the rich and poor created by capitalist society. 

Zaretsky believed that the family is a prop to the capitalist economy. For example, the capitalist system depends on the unpaid labor of mothers who reproduce, feed, and clothe future generations of workers.

Workers who have families are also less likely to rebel against their bosses, such as by going on strike, because the loss of earnings could affect not only them, but also their dependents.

For Zaretsky, the family could only serve as a way of providing psychological support for its members when there is an end to capitalism (Tilly, 1978).;

The Family as a Unit of Consumption

In Zaretsky's view, the family also serves as a vital unit of consumption. Not only do capitalists and business owners want to keep workers' wages low in order to make a profit, but they also must be able to sell the worker's goods. In order to sell the workers' goods, however, they must create demands for their products. The family structure builds demand for goods in several ways. 

Key to understanding this theory of the family as a "unit of consumption" is the idea of "false needs." Marxist theory considers false needs to be perceived needs created by the capitalist system, rather than by people's real needs (Zaretsky, 2010). 

Real needs, for example, are basic material things such as food, shelter, clothing, transportation, health, education, and general welfare.

False needs, meanwhile, arise due to the demands of the capitalist system rather than the real needs of individuals. These can include things that make life in a capitalist system bearable, such as things that fulfill a need for distraction.

Additionally, false needs can encompass anything people may buy to give a sense of social status, or something that people buy or do to give themselves or their children an advantage in an artificially unequal world.

False needs can also include many of the products that people buy out of fear, or in order to make themselves safe, especially if that fear is engineered by the capitalist system in order to keep the population under control (Zaretsky, 2010). 

These false need purchases could include, in a family (Zaretsky, 2010):

  • Purchases parents make to quit their children and give them time to manage their lives in situations where parents do not have enough time at home due to their obligation to work in the capitalist system. This could include toys, tablets, and subscriptions to entertainment.

  • Purchases parents make too advantageous for their children educationally. Marxism contends that education reproduces class inequality because the middle classes can buy their children a better education. For example, tutoring or preparatory schools could widen inequality. 

  • Purchases parents make to give their family a sense of status to outsiders. This could be for the whole family — sick as a new car — or parents giving their children high-status clothes or electronics.

  • Products bought to keep children "Safe," 

Further exacerbating these purchases motivated by "false needs" is the built in obsolescence of many products.

For example, the latest phone will become obsolete, or even nonfunctional, a few years after it is purchased and clothing tends to go frequently in and out of fashion.

There are two additional main factors that drive the family as a unit of consumption in the view of contemporary Marxists (Delphy, 1980):

  1. Families must keep up with the material goods and services acquired by neighbors and peers.

  2. Media and companies target children through advertising. These children can then persuade their parents to buy more expensive items. 

Althusser: The Family as a Socializer

Althusser argues that the family, as part of the superstructure of capitalist society, socializes children into norms and values that are useful to the capitalist ruling class. That is to say, the family is an ideological agent, a puppet, of the ruling class.

For example, children learn obedience and respect for those in authority within the family. This means that the capitalist class can later exploit these children because, when these children become adults, they are more likely to view the power and authority of the capitalist class as natural.

By socializing children into ruling-class values, the family ensures that children will become uncritical and conformist adults and passive workers who accept exploitation with little complaint. 

Marxist vs. Functionalist Views of the Family

Marxism and Functionalism are both macro or structural theories. This means that they are both interested in how the family contributes to the running of society, rather than how individuals experience family life on a daily basis.

However, whereas functionalists tend to see the family as good for both society and the individual, Marxists suggest that the family, particularly the nuclear family, is used by the capitalist class to ensure that extreme inequalities in wealth and income produced by capitalism are never challenged by the proletariat.

Criticisms

Marxists have been criticized for overemphasizing how the family is shaped by the needs of capitalism. Indeed, Marxists have done little research to investigate whether members of families actually do have this relationship with capitalism. Interactionists, meanwhile, are critical of Marxism because they believe that Marxists ignore the meanings families have for individuals (Brown, 2012).

Scholars have also argued that Marxism presents people with an oversocialized view of humans, seeing socialization as a one-way process where children are imbued with capitalist culture. This does not consider the possibility that proletariat parents and children may actively resist this process (Thompson, 2014).

Additionally, the Marxist view of the family has been criticized for its over-focus on the negative aspects of the family while ignoring the satisfaction it gives people. For example, the positive experience of being a housewife and mother are dismissed as capitalist ideology and false consciousness regardless of how real these feelings are for the individuals involved.

While Marxists focus on the nuclear family by way of showing how it meets the needs of capitalism, Marxists ignore recent economic and educational changes which seem to have resulted in a radical change in how women think of their careers.

Resultantly, a small percentage of women are housewives. The last hundred years has also ushered in a diversity of family forms such as dual-career families, single-person households, same-sex couples, polyamorous groups, and so on.

These alternative conceptions of the family are outside of Marxist analysis of the nuclear family (Thompson, 2014).

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About the Author

Charlotte Nickerson is a member of the Class of 2024 at Harvard University. Coming from a research background in biology and archaeology, Charlotte currently studies how digital and physical space shapes human beliefs, norms, and behaviors and how this can be used to create businesses with greater social impact.

Fact Checking

Content is rigorously reviewed by a team of qualified and experienced fact checkers. Fact checkers review articles for factual accuracy, relevance, and timeliness. We rely on the most current and reputable sources, which are cited in the text and listed at the bottom of each article. Content is fact checked after it has been edited and before publication.

This article has been fact checked by Saul Mcleod, a qualified psychology teacher with over 17 years' experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in psychology journals including Clinical Psychology, Social and Personal Relationships, and Social Psychology.

Cite this Article (APA Style)

Nickerson, C. (2022, April 04). Functions of the family: Marxism . Simply Sociology. https://simplysociology.com/functions-of-the-family-marxism.html

References

Althusser, L. (1969). For Marx (B. Brewster, Trans.). London: Penguin Press. (Original work published 1965)

Althusser, L. (1971). Lenin and philosophy and other essays (B. Brewster, Trans.). London: New Left. (Original work published 1970)

Althusser, L., & Balibar, E. (1970). Reading Capital (B. Brewster, Trans.). London: New Left. (Original work published 1968) Brown, H. (2012). Marx on gender and the family: A critical study (Vol. 39). Brill.

Delphy, C. (1980). Sharing the same table: consumption and the family. The Sociological Review, 28(1_suppl), 214-231.

Johnson, D. P. (2008). Contemporary sociological theory. An Integrated Multi-Level Approach. Texas: Springer.

Stern, B. J. (1948). Engels on the Family. Science & Society, 42-64.

Tilly, L. A. (1978). The family and change.

Thompson, K. (2014). The Marxist Perspective on The Family.

Zaretsky, N. (2010). No direction home: The American family and the fear of national decline, 1968-1980. Univ of North Carolina Press.