The Marxist Perspective on The Family

Class notes on Engel’s theory of the relationship between capitalism, private property and the family; and contemporary marxist views on the family.

Marxists argue that the nuclear family performs ideological functions for Capitalism – the family acts as a unit of consumption and teaches passive acceptance of hierarchy. It is also the institution through which the wealthy pass down their private property to their children, thus reproducing class inequality. This post is primarily designed to help students revise for the A level sociology 7192 exam, paper 2, families and households option.

Marxist perspective family mind map

Before reading this post, you might like to look at this summary of the key ideas of Marxism.

Overview of the Marxist Perspective

Marxism is a ‘structural conflict’ perspective. They see society as structured along class lines with institutions generally working in the interests of the small elite class who have economic power (the ‘Bourgeoisie’) and the much larger working class (the ‘Proletariat’). The Bourgeoise gain their wealth from exploiting the proletariat. There is thus a conflict of interests between the Bourgeoise and the Proletariat.

However, this conflict of interests rarely boils over into revolution because institutions such as the family perform the function of ‘ideological control’, or convincing the masses that the present unequal system is inevitable, natural and good.

Something else Marxists suggest about the family (like the Functional Fit theory) is that the family type generally changes with society – more specifically, the nuclear family emerges not because of the needs of industrialisation, but because of the needs of the capitalist system.

Explaining the emergence of the nuclear family – Engels

According to Engels, the monogamous nuclear family only emerged with Capitalism. Before Capitalism, traditional, tribal societies were classless and they practised a form of ‘primitive communism’ in which there was no private property. In such societies, property was collectively owned, and the family structure reflected this – there were no families as such, but tribal groups existed in a kind of ‘promiscuous horde’ in which there were no restrictions on sexual relationships.

Marxist perspective nuclear family
Hunter-gatherer societies – promiscuous hordes?

However, with the emergence of Capitalism in the 18th Century, society and the family changed. Capitalism is based on a system of private ownership – The bourgeois use their own personal wealth to personally invest in businesses in order to make a profit, they don’t invest for the benefit of everyone else.

Marxism Family

Eventually the Bourgeois started to look for ways to pass on their wealth to the next generation, rather than having it shared out amongst the masses, and this is where the monogamous nuclear family comes from. It is the best way of guaranteeing that you are passing on your property to your son, because in a monogamous relationship you have a clear idea of who your own children are.

Ultimately what this arrangement does is to reproduce inequality – The children of the rich grow up into wealth, while the children of the poor remain poor. Thus the nuclear family benefits the Bourgeois more than the proletariat.

Criticisms of Engels

Gender inequality clearly preceded Capitalism….. The vast majority of tribes in Africa and Asia are patriarchal, with women being barred from owning property, having no political power, and having to do most of the child care and hard physical labour.

Wealthy Capitalist economies such as the UK and USA have seen the fastest improvements in gender equality over the last 100 years. Capitalism, increasing wealth and gender equality within a nation seem to be correlated.

Contemporary Marxism – The family as an Ideological Apparatus

The modern nuclear family functions to promote values that ensure the reproduction and maintenance of capitalism. The family is described as an ideological apparatus – this means it socialises people to think in a way that justifies inequality and encourages people to accept the capitalist system as fair, natural and unchangeable.

One way in which this happens is that there is a hierarchy in most families which teaches children to accept there will always be someone in “authority” who they must obey, which then mirrors the hierarchy of boss-worker in paid employment in later life.

The modern nuclear family – a hierarchical structure which supports capitalism?

Contemporary Marxism – The Family as a Unit of Consumption

Capitalists/business owners want to keep workers’ wages down so they can make a profit, but to do so they must also be able to sell the workers goods i.e. they must create demand for their products. The family builds demand for goods in a number of ways

1) Families must keep up with the material goods/services acquired by their neighbours and peers e.g. family holidays, cars – this is known “Keeping up with the Joneses”. There are significant amounts of advertising and TV programmes influencing parents in this way.

2) The media and companies target children in their advertising who then persuade their parents through pester power to buy more expensive items. This is particularly bad in the UK where there few legal restrictions on adverts aimed at children; in Sweden advertising aimed at children under 12 is illegal.

Are nuclear families just a ‘unit of consumption’ which keeps capitalism going?

Overall Criticisms of Marxism

  • It’s too deterministic – it assumes people passively accept socialisation and family life, and that the future is pre-determined. There are plenty of families who reject the consumerist lifestyle and many families bring their children up to be independent thinkers.
  • The Marxist perspective ignores family diversity in capitalist society, the nuclear family is no longer the main type of family. In fact, family breakdown may be better for Capitalism – as divorce is expensive and more money has to be spent on maintaining family relationships and later on forming new families.
  • Feminists argue that the Marxist focus on social class inequalities downplays the role of patriarchy, which is the real source of female oppression. Feminists would point out that sex inequalities exist within all families, irrespective of social class background.
  • Marxism ignores the benefits of nuclear family e.g. both parents support the children. The New Right point out that this is the most functional type of environment in which to raise children, and the nuclear family is found in most societies around the world, suggesting it is something people choose.

A Level Sociology Families and Households Revision Bundle

Families Revision Bundle Cover

If you like this sort of thing, then you might like my AS Sociology Families and Households Revision Bundle which contains the following:

  1. 50 pages of revision notes covering all of the sub-topics within families and households
  2. mind maps in pdf and png format – 9 in total, covering perspectives on the family
  3. short answer exam practice questions and exemplar answers – 3 examples of the 10 mark, ‘outline and explain’ question.
  4.  9 essays/ essay plans spanning all the topics within the families and households topic.

Related Posts 

The Marxist perspective on the family is normally taught after the Functionalist perspective on the Family, and is normally the second of five perspectives on the family within the families and households module in A-level sociology.

Essay plan on the Marxist perspective on the family

Marxist Feminist Perspectives on the Family

Feminist Perspectives on the Family

16 thoughts on “The Marxist Perspective on The Family”

  1. That’s A-Level Sociology for you. All I’ve done here is provided the A-Level Version! It’s quite usual for this to bare no resemblance to the original texts.

  2. This post is a simplification and caricaturization of marxism. To begin with in “The origin of family, private property and the state” Engels explains the origin of the family by the decadence of primitive collectivism, far before capitalism. So he never wrote that family beginned in capitalism, as this post suggests. This is completely wrong and anyone who knows Engel’s book are aware that the interpretation here presented is completely absurd and does not corresponds to the real theory of marxism. What is here is a caricature of marxism, with the goal of making the marxian theory look like ridiculous.

  3. I was wondering if you have a list of your sources on this subject as well as the subject of Marxist Sociology in general. I am doing a research project for my high school sociology course, and would like to learn more about this subject.

  4. Thanks – the summary above is really just meant for A level students – Unfortunately it is necessary to simplify most theory to the point of misrepresenting it – because the exam board and text book authors at this level operate in such simplistic terms. Useful link though so thanks again!

  5. The lines

    “Ignores family diversity in capitalist society, and that many women now work full time as well”
    and
    “Marxism ignore the benefits of nuclear family e.g. both parents support the children”

    disprove each other, how do parents support the children in teaching them right and wrong if both parents are working full time? How do the parents talk to them about life, and take them to the park to play?

    “Feminists argue that the Marxist focus on class ignores the inequalities between men and women, which is the real source of female oppression.”

    This is a complete mischaracterization of Marxism. Marxism asserts that workers cannot unite if they are divided, and he talks in great deal about the plight of women.

    http://monthlyreview.org/2014/06/01/marx-on-gender-and-the-family-a-summary/

    Here is also commentary on his ideas and cites the mentioned texts.

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