A review of Abolish the Family! A Manifesto for Care and Liberation, Sophie Lewis (Verso, 2022), £8.99
Abolish the Family! is an extended essay that looks at a range of thinkers and movements in order to reveal the co-dependent relationship between the family and capitalism—and to propose the idea of a world without either. This work should be welcomed at a time when the right wing is seeking to re-centre the family as a key pillar of society through culture wars and attacks on the rights of women and transgender people. Author Sophie Lewis reminds us that the institution of the family is unable to meet people’s many and varied needs, with damaging and sometimes tragic consequences. By weaving communist, feminist and queer theories together with snapshots of the colonised experiences of black and indigenous people, Lewis seeks to transcend cultural divides and argue that alternative forms of social organisation are both necessary and possible.
A brief overview of traditional indigenous practices paints an inspiring picture of future possibilities. Many groups, Lewis points out, practised “few or no forms of patriarchy; raising children collectively, honouring more than two genders, placing only loose social strictures on sexual pleasure, counting non-human relatives among their kin, and sometimes conceptualising mothering practices (such as breastfeeding) as gender-inclusive and diplomatically important”. Anthropological accounts, such as those collated by Friedrich Engels in the late 19th century and by Eleanor Burke Leacock from the 1970s, show that such practices were common among pre-class societies. These societies had egalitarian social structures and were often found to be matrilineal (that is, kinship passed through the female line), affording women sexual freedoms and political power.1 The emergence of private property and patrilineal inheritance in the family structures of early class societies overthrew these rights. This move was described by Engels as “the world historic defeat of the female sex”, owing to the family’s reliance on the intellectual, domestic and sexual subjugation of women.2 The brutality later endured by indigenous communities for practising traditions that challenged this subjugation reveals capitalism’s unequivocal dependence on both the family and sexism. Lewis details how colonial governments deliberately set out to destroy systems of sex equality (such as what the colonialists described as “petticoat government” among Cherokee people) by instituting patrilineal inheritance of private property as well as the incarceration of indigenous children in re-education centres.3
Capitalism continues to rely on the family. Despite this, inherent contradictions in the system periodically threaten the family’s existence, resulting in continuous efforts to remould the institution. The incorporation of female and child labourers, working long hours, into the factory system in 18th century England and the ensuing threat of societal breakdown was documented by both Engels and Karl Marx.4 Their resulting prediction that the family would “wither away” under capitalism was mistaken. The development of a “family wage”, combined with restrictions on child labour and women’s participation in some industries, as well as an ideological offensive aimed at shoring up the family, helped to reinstate the institution.
Neither these discussions, nor Engels’s writings on pre-class society, feature in the relevant section of Lewis’s manifesto. She instead looks at earlier works such as Marx and Engels’s The German Ideology and Marx’s The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844. Nonetheless, Lewis explores marginalised histories to highlight the same pattern: capitalism’s breaking down and remoulding of family units, tearing people apart and forcing people together. Slavery, Lewis notes, ripped apart the social units of those it captured, prompting slaves and their descendants to form alternative “kinship” structures, which many were reluctant to relinquish following emancipation. After the abolition of slavery in the United States, Lewis details how “from the state’s point of view, too many freed people still tended to cohabit promiscuously, raise children non-monogamously and take an alarmingly relaxed approach to the meaning of marriage”.5 What followed was aggressive enforcement of the norms of the nuclear family onto African Americans through a nexus of social workers, church ministers, police officers and lawmakers. This enforcement regime could also be seen a century later, in the 1960s, with US welfare officers’ “man in the house” rule, which “denied benefits to any mother caught ‘living’ (even just for a couple of hours) with a member of the opposite sex”.6 Around the same time, the lesbian and gay liberation movement was fighting homophobic state policies, but the pressures of the system ultimately led them to abandon their intentions to “explode the nuclear family”, instead offering renewed life to the institution in the form of the gay family.7 This pattern, explored again in Lewis’s final chapter, can be seen today when the state rips apart refugee families while simultaneously attempting to force women and trans people into gendered roles by limiting their bodily autonomy.
Lewis also offers some thoughts on the philosophy and linguistics of abolition. For example, she considers the German form of the word “abolition” used by Marx and Engels, “Aufhebung”, which has connotations of both cancellation and preservation.8 Similarly, Lewis posits that the family should not be simply erased from existence, but lifted up, destroyed, preserved and radically transformed all at once.9 The “utopian kernels” that do exist within the family (namely, reciprocal care, interdependence and belonging) should be preserved in a new formation. In Lewis’s view comradeship—rather than kinship—should form the basis of this formation. The blood-bond connotations of kinship should, in the meantime, be supplanted by the concept of “kith”, that is, a dynamic bond that is grounded in “knowledge, practice and place”.10
It should be noted that the author does not claim her manifesto is a systematic work. The writing is eclectic, sometimes contradictory and engages in a fair amount of speculation. Lewis is under no illusion regarding this aspect of her work, arguing that speculation over future possibilities is “a matter of some considerable urgency” amid “present conditions of suffocating anti-utopianism”. Lewis’s vision inspires, even though it leaves unanswered the question that it necessarily poses: how can we get to there from here? How can we move from the suffocating reality of capitalism and the nuclear family to a liberated society?
Marxists, from Marx and Engels onwards, have offered an answer to this question: working-class revolution. The central role of workers within the capitalist system makes them the only social force with the interest and capacity to radically transform the world and bring about an egalitarian and classless society. This could create the basis on which institutions such as the family could also be overthrown. Indeed, working-class revolution has produced the most serious and large-scale attempts at abolishing the family to date. In two short years after 1917, the socialist revolution in Russia, which was previously a socially backward and deeply sexist society, resulted in major social, political and legal rights for women. These included abortion, divorce, votes and care provisions. These rights did not materialise in Britain or the US until far later—in fact, the right to abortion is now again inaccessible for many women in the US. Without a focus on working-class struggle, even those with the most comradely ideals will find themselves trapped in a mire, making bold yet ineffectual arguments that can only hope to inspire a few isolated experiments rather than wholesale radical transformation. Lewis falls into this trap at a couple of points, for instance, when she sympathises with calls for a “compulsory transgenerational revolutionary creche” and says “nothing” ought to be put in place of the family.11 This latter claim appears to be designed more for provocation than for offering a route to the future she envisages, and it is hard to square with her approach, described above, of retaining elements of the family.
Humanity’s admittedly limited forays into working-class revolution make clear that both consent and care must be at the heart of dismantling the nuclear family. The influential Bolshevik Alexandra Kollontai, whose efforts do feature in Abolish the Family!, took great pains to reassure parents that communist society “takes care of every child and guarantees both him and his mother material and moral support”:
Society will feed, bring up and educate the child. At the same time, those parents who desire to participate in the education of their children will by no means be prevented from doing so.12
Her arguments made the case for both ample care in the form of welfare provisions and sought to gain consent by reassuring parents that they could continue to oversee the welfare of their own children.
Although stopping far short of successful proletarian revolution, Sudan’s ongoing revolt is one of the most advanced episodes of class struggle in recent history. Promisingly, we can see within this revolutionary process an abundance of social life beginning to spring up as traditional capitalist institutions falter. Popular committees have sought to ensure that people’s needs for care are met by, among many other things, organising medical treatment, repairing homes, water and electricity supplies, and distributing food and money. Revolutionaries involved in these processes commented that “for most people this is much better than what is available in ‘ordinary times’”. Committees were even set up to uplift people’s spirits and spread joy with “music, stories and poetry”.13 This gives a further glimpse into how revolutionary processes can begin to lay the basis for a systemic alternative to capitalism’s nuclear family.
Though short on strategy, Abolish the Family! contains important ideas. By detailing marginalised histories, Lewis exposes capitalism’s reliance on the family and the toxic role played by this institution. These histories and her own experiences at radical occupations (with the protest kitchens that, she suggests, may be “the best starting point to abolish the family”) offer a glimpse of what might be possible.14 Lewis appeals to all those inclined to rebel against the burial of their own narratives under the institution of the family—women, black and indigenous communities, lesbian, gay and transgender people—and seeks to unite them in aspiration. The united struggle of workers, in all our glorious multitude of ethnicities, nationalities, genders and sexualities, can lead this unification in practice and break a path towards a different world. In that new world, we could burst asunder the psychological strictures imposed by the pre-written scripts of husband/wife and parent/child.
Francesca Manning is a teacher and union activist based in London.
1 Leacock, 1981.
2 Engels, 2010.
3 Lewis, 2022, pp40-41.
4 Engels, 2009; Marx, 1970, chapter 15.
5 Lewis, 2022, p44.
6 Lewis, 2022, p45.
7 Lewis, 2022, p66.
8 Marx and Engels’s Communist Manifesto calls for the abolition of the family (“Aufhebung der Familie”)—see Marx and Engels, 1969, p17. Aufhebung is a term associated with the dialectical philosophy of G W F Hegel, a key influence on Marx’s early thought, and the word is often translated into English as “sublation”.
9 Lewis, 2022, p80.
10 Lewis, 2022, p85.
11 Lewis, 2022, p87.
12 Lewis, 2022, pp48 and 49-50, quoting Kollontai, 1920.
13 Kimber, 2021.
14 Lewis, 2022, p78.