David North
Marxism, History and Socialist Consciousness

Brenner on the family and backwardness

For you, Comrade Brenner, the principal source of the virtually insuperable obstacles to the building of a socialist movement is to be found in the traumatized state of the human psyche. The blame, you believe, lies with the impact of the family upon consciousness. Therefore, before any real progress can be made toward the development of socialist consciousness, the party will have to work out a program to deal with this institution and make it the focus of party work. “One shouldn’t have to argue over whether socialists need a policy on the family,” you exclaim. “Since we are fighting to create a world where people can live fully human lives for the first time in history, it is obvious that this goal is inconceivable without an overhaul of the institution responsible for the socialization—i.e., humanization—of children, and where in class society the earliest and often the deepest wounds are inflicted on the human personality.” The family represents “sexual oppression and backwardness.” Beams’ failure to address this supreme problem, you assert, “is simply incredible.” While you assure us that “it isn’t the business of socialists to dictate to people how to live their personal lives,” you are nothing less than aghast that Beams “completely ignores the measures that need to be taken” to overcome the obstacles created by the family to the development of consciousness. Socialists, you insist, “should have a great many things to say about the family—from programmatic demands to fight backwardness and sexual oppression to educational material about the goal of a collective family and the nature of personal life under socialism.”

Beams’ failure to commit the revolutionary movement to the advocacy of an alternative to the existing nuclear family represents a form of “socialist ‘laissez-faire.’” Rejecting his statement that the future family “will develop on the basis of the constantly evolving forms of economic and social organization which will arise in socialist society,” you reply: “The whole point of socialism, however, is that for the first time in history human beings will consciously direct those changes, including in the family.”

The panacea that you offer is the “collective family,” which will “make it possible for both children and parents to break out of what Wilhelm Reich once called ‘family-itis,’ that stifling atmosphere of emotionally overloaded and compulsive family ties that breed so many deep and abiding psychological problems.” You are somewhat vague as to how the “collective family” will be established and how it will differ from the present state of affairs. Those who count themselves among your disciples will have to satisfy themselves with only a few general indications of how the family will operate in your utopia:

There are deep sexual and emotional bonds between lovers, and between parents and children that must also be accommodated within a collective family. In that sense the collective family doesn’t abolish the nuclear family but transcends it in a dialectical sense, i.e. it preserves romantic love and parental love while doing away with the repressive relationships and social alienation that make family life such a misery in bourgeois society.

For you, Comrade Brenner, the problems of the family are rooted, essentially, not in social conditions, but in individual psychology. Your animus is directed, not so much against the existing economic system, as it is against the family which, you are convinced, generates out of itself intense misery. What you therefore demand of socialists is that they invent a different, ideal, relationship—the so-called “collective family”—and place it in their program. This requires a significant misrepresentation of the attitude taken by Marx and Engels to this issue.

You claim that Marx and Engels “openly defied the stifling morality of the Victorian age by calling for the abolition of the family and denouncing marriage as legalized prostitution.” Without directly quoting Marx and Engels, you suggest to a reader unfamiliar with their writings that they were for the dissolution of all family relations, the practice of universal free love, etc. This corresponds to the caricature of communism found in the most reactionary literature. As a matter of fact, Marx and Engels did not speak of the family as an ahistorical abstraction in the Communist Manifesto. Rather, they posed the following question: “On what foundation is the present family, the bourgeois family, based?” They answered:

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.

The bourgeois family will vanish as a matter of course when its complement vanishes, and both will vanish with the vanishing of capital.” [57]

Similarly, Marx and Engels speak not of marriage in general, but of bourgeois marriage. Their treatment of this issue begins with a mocking dismissal of the bourgeois claim that it is the intention of communists to create a “community of women,” i.e., to make women the property of a public harem. They reply:

The bourgeois sees in his wife a mere instrument of production. He hears that the instruments of production are to be exploited in common, and, naturally, can come to no other conclusion than that the lot of being common to all will likewise fall to the women.

He has not even a suspicion that the real point aimed at is to do away with the status of women as mere instruments of production.

For the rest, nothing is more ridiculous than the virtuous indignation of our bourgeois at the community of women which, they pretend, is to be openly and officially established by the Communists. The Communists have no need to introduce community of women; it has existed almost from time immemorial…

Bourgeois marriage is in reality a system of wives in common and thus, at the most, what the Communists might possibly be reproached with, is that they desire to introduce, in substitution for a hypocritically concealed, an openly legalised community of women. For the rest, it is self-evident that the abolition of the present system of production must bring with it the abolition of the community of women springing from that system, i.e., of prostitution both public and private. [58]

In another essay, entitled Principles of Communism,which was written almost simultaneously with the Communist Manifesto, Engels offered the following reply to the question, “What influence will the communist order of society have on the family?”

It will make the relation between the sexes a purely private relation which concerns only the persons involved, and in which society has no call to interfere. It is able to do this because it abolishes private property and educates children communally, thus destroying the twin foundation of hitherto existing marriage—the dependence through private property of the wife upon the husband and of the children upon the parents. Here also is the answer to the outcry of moralising philistines against the communist community of women. Community of women is a relationship that belongs altogether to bourgeois society and is completely realised today in prostitution. But prostitution is rooted in private property and falls with it. Thus instead of introducing the community of women, communist organisation puts an end to it. [59]

For all your visionary pretensions, you seem singularly uninterested and ill-informed about the realities of life for most working class families. Fixated on the psychological and sexual dimension of the family trauma, you have remarkably little to say about the practical aspects of the problems they confront. There is no indication, in your document, that you have considered the urgent needs of families living outside the wealthiest capitalist countries. A reference to universal access to quality day care is thrown in as an aside. You give the impression of believing that there is relatively little that a socialist revolution can do, in terms of practical measures, that will significantly improve the conditions of working class families, aside from waging a propaganda campaign against various forms of social backwardness. “The nub of the issue is that the problems of the family,” you write, “will not automatically disappear once socialism has arrived.”

Whoever imagined that anything would happen automatically? The socialist revolution is not the same as launching an auto-install program on one’s computer (which, as it so happens, is usually a process fraught with unforeseen difficulties). But this sort of remark, so typical of philistines, is intended to denigrate the basic perspective of socialism—that the key to the alleviation of all forms of human suffering lies in overthrowing the existing capitalistic property relations, upon which contemporary society is based. The solution to the great problem posed by private ownership of the means of production will clear the way for the gradual solution of many other important problems of the human condition.

No, not all problems of inter-familial relationships will be solved in the first year of socialism, or even, perhaps, in its first century. No one can reasonably assume that, under socialism, all marriages or unions between conjugal partners will be happy, or that all children will be satisfied with their parents, or vice-versa. However, what we can certainly assume is that the major material causes of a great deal of present family hardship and misery will be alleviated fairly rapidly by a revolutionary reorganization of the economic structure of society along socialist lines.

A modern socialist program must address itself practically to the problems of men, women and children as they concretely manifest themselves in the first decade of the twenty-first century. Your reference to freeing women “from domestic servitude” appears somewhat quaint, at a time when the overwhelming majority of mothers hold jobs outside their homes. You apparently have not noticed that the percentage of households corresponding to the “Father Knows Best” two-parent model is a fraction of what it was when that sitcom aired in the 1950s. And, we might add, the image of the authoritarian paterfamilias bears little relation to contemporary reality—especially that of working class fathers, who find themselves in the clutches of that system of legal torture known as the “Friend of the Court” (which can order the deduction of as much as half his weekly wage to cover child-support expenses). Working class families are beset by financial difficulties from which they can find no escape. The vast complexity of social life, and the pressure it places upon families, requires not the invention of a new family form but, rather, shifting the weight of the burdens now falling more or less entirely upon individuals to society as a whole.

The significance of your discussion of the family, however, lies not in the demands you advance, but in the light you, Comrade Brenner, unwittingly shed on the wholly idealist outlook and method of contemporary neo-utopianism. You stress repeatedly that the family is a bulwark of social backwardness. As always, however, you locate the source of this backwardness, not in the economic organization of society, but in individual psychology, specifically in “the repressed feelings in the unconscious,” which persist in a human being’s “congealed, unexamined past.” You oppose the view that changes in the economic organization and structure of society will prove decisive in overcoming backwardness, which “will persist and perpetuate itself.” An intervention of a different sort will be required: “The content of that intervention is what this discussion is all about—the fight against sexual oppression and the socialist transformation of the family, since the only way to address problems at the root of human personality is to change the way human beings are brought up.” [Emphasis added]

The chasm between your perspective and that of the revolutionary socialist movement could not be stated more explicitly. Were your proposals and perspective to be adopted, the result would be the dissolution of the SEP, the ICFI and the Trotskyist movement. There would be no need for an international party whose aim is the revolutionary-strategic orientation of the international working class, based on the development of its conscious understanding of the objective laws governing the entire socioeconomic system. The ICFI would be replaced by an organization focused on psychotherapy, examining the “repressed feelings in the unconscious” of its members and supporters, and addressing the sexual anxieties that you believe are embedded in the family structure.

We will return somewhat later to the very disturbing and reactionary implications of this deeply disoriented perspective. But first it is necessary to take note of the glaring contradiction in your argument. If, as you state, the vanquishing of social backwardness requires nothing less than a massive program of psychological rehabilitation, personality reconstruction, and the transformation of the family, how can the consciousness of the masses ever be raised to the point where the revolution itself—upon which this unprecedented project of societal reengineering depends—is even possible? In a society consisting of people who are, according to you, Comrade Brenner, psychologically damaged as a result of their upbringing, how can socialism become a mass movement? You cannot resolve this contradiction. Instead, you deepen it by reproducing the ahistorical conceptions of the old utopians. You assert, as did the old utopians, that “the only way to address problems at the root of human personality is to change the way human beings are brought up.” In other words, we must provide them with a different type of family. But since this cannot be done, for obvious reasons, before the social revolution, it means that the conquest of power must depend on the actions of people as they exist now—which would seem to rule out a revolution. Yet, if, by some miracle, all these damaged humans still manage to overthrow capitalism, it will then be necessary to repair and reeducate them. Your conviction that the running of society must be left “for a considerable period of time” in the hands of specially trained socialists, pre-indocrinated with the prescribed consciousness, follows logically from your idealist schema.

The idea that the transformation of society depends upon changing human personality (i.e., human nature), which, in turn, depends upon changing their upbringing, is the very conception that led the utopians and their followers to organize their own sectarian societies, where the education of the youth would proceed in accordance with principles laid down by the official educators. These experiments, which all eventually led to dead ends, were based on a fundamentally false conception of social development. Marx subjected this utopian illusion to trenchant criticism in the third of his Theses on Feuerbach:

The [mechanical] materialist doctrine that men are products of circumstances and upbringing, and that, therefore, changed men are the products of other circumstances and changed upbringing, forgets that it is men who change circumstances and that the educator must himself be educated. Hence, this doctrine is bound to divide society into two parts, one of which is superior to society (in Robert Owen for example).

The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionising practice. [60]


Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto (New York: W.W. Norton, 1988), p. 71.


ibid., p. 72.


Marx-Engels Collected Works, Volume 6 (New York: International Publishers, 1976), p. 354.


Marx-Engels Collected Works, Volume 5, p. 7.