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Study Notes

Families: Marxism

AS, A-Level

Last updated 19 Mar 2021

The traditional Marxist view on families is that they perform a role not for everyone in society but for capitalism and the ruling class (the bourgeoisie).

Families & Households: Marxism and the Family

As is often the case, there are similarities between the functionalist and Marxist case: they both think that families perform important functions for the society as it is currently constituted. The difference is that Marxists disagree with the way society is currently constituted. Instead of seeing a consensual society which works to benefit all its members, they see a society based on class struggle, which works to benefit a rich minority.

Engels (1884) on Family

Engels argued that family had a clear economic function for capitalism, by ensuring that wealth remained in the hands of the bourgeoisie.

Family relations, based on clear legal contracts, facilitate inheritance and therefore when rich people die it is their children who keep hold of their wealth.

For Engels, then, family is all about blood lines and proof of parentage.

Zaretsky (1976) on Family

An interesting variation on Parsons’ warm bath theory, Zaretsky argued that family life gave proletarian men something they could control and a space where they could be the “boss”. This provided a clear function for capitalism because it meant that workers would tolerate the powerlessness and frustration of being exploited at work because they had this private domain where they were “king of the castle” and could take out their stress and frustrations.

This again ties in with Fran Ansley’s Marxist-feminist perspective of women being the “takers of shit”.

Marxists see families as essentially a conservative institution that helps to preserve capitalism. They also weaken the position of individual workers in relation to the boss. If you think you are not being paid enough or being treated badly, a single person may well choose to walk away and hope that they can find better employment soon. Or they can join with other workers and go on strike and temporarily do without pay by way of a protest to push for better pay or conditions. But when that worker has to also take dependents into account (e.g. a spouse and children) that becomes a much more difficult decision. This weakness benefits the boss.

Evaluating Marxist views on the role of families and households

  • Engels’ theory is certainly not a very romantic take on marriage! Clearly family must be about more than what happens to your money when you die. After all, people who do not have property also choose to live in families (although Engels would argue this is because they are influenced by bourgeois ideology).
  • Functionalists point out that, in the vast majority of societies, humans live in families and that in fact the essential form and function of those families remain quite similar: it is not simply a feature of capitalist society. However, a counter-argument to that is that Parsons himself suggested that the nuclear family evolved to suit an industrial economy (as we’ll consider in the next section) which could be said to back the idea that it is a feature of capitalism rather than all societies.
  • Despite some experiments with communal living and alternative households immediately after the Russian Revolution, people have continued to live in family groups in communist countries too.
  • Zaretsky’s theory is clearly outdated: it assumes the worker is male and that there is only one worker in the family. It also ignores the other benefits that all family members may get from family life: the emotional support, comfort and generally the positive benefits.

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