The Collapse of the Socialist Family
Economist Philip Pilkington interrogates the idea of the “longhouse,” and demolishes the socialist left’s radically subversive view of the family.
Understood correctly, all roads in today’s social debate lead back to the family. More accurately perhaps, we might say that all roads in today’s social debate lead back to the politicization of the family that started in the nineteenth century and was implemented in the twentieth.
Today on the right it is commonplace to encounter metaphorical talk of ‘longhouses’ that ultimately reduces to frustrated male ambition, often channelled into adolescent Nietzschean rage. Yet if we understand the actual history behind these ideas, we will see that the longhouse is not simply a woolly metaphor concocted by would-be weightlifters, but rather a central theme in the politicization of the family.
At the same time, the socialist and social democratic left has become lost and aimless, tilting at windmills, and fighting wars from nearly a century ago. The socialist left seems perfectly capable of complaining, but their prescriptions seem lacklustre and wanting. Would raising the minimum wage or raising taxes on the wealthy make any difference to any of today’s structural economic problems? Would either policy make a dent in the social problems that we see metastasize and proliferate year after year? Obviously not.
The reality that the socialist left simply refuses to recognise is that no matter how they cut it, most people in advanced Western societies are vastly wealthier than they were half a century ago – and yet, at the same time, social problems seem to have gotten much worse. Wealth generation seems to have been accompanied by a deterioration in actual standards of living, a strange paradox that no one seems to want to examine. And since wealth distribution (the left’s policy “Rosetta Stone”) is just a means of raising wealth for certain groups there is no reason to think the effects would be any different than the manic march to increase GDP that we have seen over the past century.
Yet when we start to dig beneath the surface, we find that both trends (the gender politics of the longhouse and the collapse of the socialist left) go back to the family and the desire, born of the latter group, to meddle with it. In fact, the family is the true Rosetta Stone that allows us to understand all the paradoxes and problems of the 21st century. From masculinist neuroticism over being hen-pecked in a longhouse on the right, to the inability of the modern socialist left to even articulate compelling political goals — the core problem is all in the family.
The Socialist Longhouse
In 1884, one year after the death of his friend and mentor Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels published a book entitled The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State. As with much of Marxist literature after Marx himself had died, the book was highly derivative. The book’s main source was the work of the American anthropologist and activist Lewis H. Morgan, especially his book Ancient Society, published in 1877.
Morgan was, like Marx and Engels, temperamentally Whiggish in his ideas about social development. He believed fundamentally in history’s tendency toward ever-greater progress. But like many progressives before him Morgan was fascinated by less developed societies, especially those that he thought were being repressed by the contemporary social order of his day. In the 1840s, Morgan and some like-minded friends formed a society called the ‘New Confederacy of the Iroquois’. The group met on the upper floor of the Masonic temple in Aurora, New York with the goal of resurrecting the spirit of the Iroquois people. They even adopted Iroquois names and underwent a secret mystical rite that they called ‘inindianation’.
Later in his life, after deep engagement with native Americans and some genuine fieldwork, Morgan came to believe that the first domestic institution in human history was that of the matrilineal clan; that is, a family structure in which kinship is traced through the maternal, not the paternal line. Morgan studied native American tribes whose lives were based around communal longhouses in which women held a great deal of power. Both Marx and Engels were fascinated with this theory as they viewed anthropological work on tribes as showing a system of social organisation that they referred to as ‘primitive communism’. In primitive communist societies, resources are gathered – typically by hunter-gatherers – and then shared with the rest of the community; not unlike what might happen if you go on a camping trip with your friends.
Primitive communism was closely related to the idea, popularised by Jean-Jacques Rosseau, of the ‘noble savage’. Rousseau’s idea was that people in very primitive social organisations are far freer than those in more advanced social organisations. This notion was captured in Rousseau’s famous phrase: “Man is born free but everywhere in chains”. There isa straight line between these popular radical ideas and, say, Morgan’s and his friends’ obsession with the Iroquois. Radicals since Rousseau saw the goal of radical movements – in Rousseau’s time republicanism, in Marx’s time communism – as restoring the conditions of supposed freedom enjoyed by the noble savage, but in such a way that would maintain the advantages of living in a large, industrialised, modern society.In their reading of Morgan’s anthropological work on the supposedly matriarchal roots of society, Marx, Engels and many communists and socialists after them would posit as their goal to return society to these roots. Their manifestos can, without much effort, be read as attempts to create a new socialist longhouse.
Yet, for Engels, these utopian ideals extended far beyond simple economic arrangements. Engels believed, like most Marxists, that all of life’s miseries were ultimately due to material economic arrangements. The misery that most occupied Engels in his 1884 book was what he saw as the abusive nature of ‘bourgeois marriage’. For Marx and Engels, this form of marriage was based mainly on a property relationship, with the man being able to maintain control over the property. This control over the property, Engels believed, was what caused men to misbehave in their marriages – to commit adultery or to hire prostitutes, for example.
The abolition of private property, Engels argued, would lead to a world without infidelity and this in turn would result in more stable family relationships. “If now the economic considerations also disappear which made women put up with the habitual infidelity of their husbands”, he wrote, “concern for their own means of existence and still more for their children’s future – then, according to all previous experience, the equality of woman thereby achieved will tend infinitely more to make men really monogamous than to make women polyandrous.”
Many might be surprised by this early development in Marxist thought. After all, is Marxism and communism not opposed to the existence of the family as such? Yes and no. What Marx and Engels wanted to achieve was a maximum of freedom for individuals. They believed that if the state were allowed to play a much larger part in everything from the education of children to the distribution of resources, individual freedom would increase. For Marx and Engels, if the state were allowed to effectively simulate the communal longhouses of the primitive communist hunter-gatherer societies, people – both parents and children – would have far more freedom to do as they pleased.
“What we can now conjecture about the way in which sexual relations will be ordered after the impending overthrow of capitalist production is mainly of a negative character, limited for the most part to what will disappear,” Engels writes, “But what will there be new? That will be answered when a new generation has grown up: a generation of men who never in their lives have known what it is to buy a woman’s surrender with money or any other social instrument of power; a generation of women who have never known what it is to give themselves to a man from any other considerations than real love, or to refuse to give themselves to their lover from fear of the economic consequences. When these people are in the world, they will care precious little what anybody today thinks they ought to do; they will make their own practice and their corresponding public opinion about the practice of each individual – and that will be the end of it.”
Clearly the end of capitalism was not needed to achieve Engels’ dream. What he describes sounds very much like what we have at the beginning of the 21st century. Today most people are not marrying due to any economic pressure. Women arguably have slightly more control over marital property than men because divorce courts tilt in favour of women when it comes to custody of children, and this can be used as leverage in divorce negotiations. Yet Engels’ dream of free people happily choosing monogamy and prioritising the needs of their children has not come to pass. Instead, divorce rates have skyrocketed, and fertility rates have collapsed. We cannot statistically compare infidelity today to what existed in the 19th century but given that family bonds were loosened in the 1960s and 1970s and we have seen a massive decline in female life satisfaction it is not hard to conclude that Engels’ happy-go-lucky predictions have not come to pass.
Sweden: The Actually Existing Longhouse
During the 20th century non-communist socialist reformers started to realise that Marx and Engels’ basic vision could be achieved without needing to overthrow the capitalist mode of production. After the Second World War, much of the left in Western Europe lost interest in establishing a communist utopia. This was in part because the Actually Existing Socialism of the USSR did not look so nice in practice. But it was in part simply because they realised that many of their goals could be achieved by utilising the ever-expanding administrative and welfare state. With respect to the family, the most radical attempt to establish Engels’ socialist longhouse was undertaken in Sweden.
Gunnar & Alva Myrdal (Sweden, 1942)
It started with a group of student radicals in the 1920s. These included the famous Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal, his wife, the sociologist Alva Myrdal, and a group of their friends, many of whom were architects. Alva described the circle as forming “in Sweden the avant garde of constructive social radicalism” and their goal as being the formation of a “higher type of human being”. One of their first ideas, fittingly enough, was the construction of a modern variant of a communal longhouse. In his seminal paper on the Swedish experiment, Allan Carlson summarises the experiment as such:
“It involved a dramatic restructuring of the family. Industrialization, she reasoned, had already stripped marriage and the private home of most productive functions. Housework, childcare, and consumption would now be transferred from the home to the collective as well. Myrdal’s House featured small apartments largely composed of sleeping rooms and closets, complemented by a collective kitchen and dining room, a collective nursery for infants and twenty-four-hour care centre for toddlers, and a central laundry, library, community room, and telephone centre. Private family life, Alva Myrdal concluded, must be socialized in this manner for the good of all.”
The group even took photographs to illustrate what life would be like in the new socialist longhouse. These photos can be seen with their original Swedish captions below, together with an English language translation. The resemblance between the Myrdals’ plan for food provision in the socialist longhouse and modern food delivery apps is uncanny.
TRANLSATION: (11) Pictures showing the main idea of the collective house John Ericssonsgatan in Stockholm. (12) Not until entering the home after work the wife needs to think of dinner. (13… 14) She orders food from the restaurant at the ground floor and a few minutes later the meal arrives through the food lift to the apartment. After eating the dishes are sent down for cleaning.
The architectural ideas of the Myrdals which led them to build an actual longhouse were soon transformed into a social engineering project to turn the whole of Swedish society into a functional longhouse. Interestingly, the Myrdals were a variant of leftist that passed from the scene long ago: they were pro-natalist socialists. Gunnar Myrdal was keenly aware of the decline in birth rates in the interwar period, driven by both the depression and the beginning of the crack-up in social mores that took root after the First World War. The Myrdals responded to these demographic issues with their seminal book Crisis in the Population Question, published in 1934. The book was very far removed from the anti-natalist, ‘green’ leftism that we are familiar with today. It took the impact of declining fertility rates and their impact on economic and social stability very seriously.
The Myrdals book celebrated the emerging industrial society as having destroyed what Marx and Engels referred to as the ‘bourgeois family’. Being practical socialists, as opposed to ideological communists, they recognised that there was no need to end capitalism to promote the ideas about the family that captured the imaginations of the early communists. Rather they turned to the state bureaucracy to undertake the social revolution. As with Engels, the Myrdals maintained an almost quaint belief in monogamous marriage. But they saw it as a purely individualistic affair. All family relationships should be mediated through the state, the Myrdals argued. They suggested that this could be done by socialising all the costs of bearing and raising children. Carlson summarises the Myrdal’s program as such:
“The Myrdals argued that the state should provide prenatal and maternity care and child health and dental services without cost. Public daycare should also be provided free of cost, along with clothing allowances, breakfasts and lunches at school, summer camps, and all levels of education. In addition, the government would deliver subsidized housing, specifically designed, and constructed to accommodate working mothers and children. Taken together, these benefits amounted to a broad socialization of consumption. To pay for these benefits, tax reforms would redistribute income horizontally between the “child poor” and the “child rich,” and vertically between socioeconomic classes. This project also required a “full employment” policy guaranteeing jobs for all men and women and state economic planning to ensure stabilized production levels for socialized consumption.”
Clearly this is a very radical program. The goal was to completely collectivise child-rearing. Parents would effectively be separated from their children, so that they would be allowed to lead lives of work and leisure, while the children were raised by the state. The Myrdals were all tooaware of the radicality of their proposal saying that “the population question is so transformed into the most effective argument for a thorough and radical socialist remodelling of society”. And in describing how this turned society into a giant communal longhouse, the Myrdal’s summarised as such:
“In the new family, . . . the [former] housewife will stand as a comrade alongside her husband in productive labor. During the working hours, the seven or eight hours in the middle of the day, the family shall be divided so as to adapt to industrial society’s broader division of labor: working adults must be at their jobs; the children must play, eat, sleep, and attend school. Common housing, shared free time, together with that elusive, subtle, personal relationship that is, we maintain, a key element of the family, will remain. However, maintaining a private household, individualistic parental authority, and the housewife’s sheltered life will not remain. These must be removed from the picture as the family’s adaptation to modern life requires.”
The Myrdal’s book was used as a template to craft Swedish law. In response to its arguments, the Swedish Social Democratic government created the Royal Population Commission in 1935. Gunnar Myrdal had since become a powerful politician in the Swedish Senate and joined the Commission as its leading member, advised by Alva Myrdal. The Commission produced 17 major reports that addressed everything from taxation policy to abortion, from eugenic sterilisation policy to socialist summer camps. The Swedish socialist longhouse was born. The country subsequently became the most radical experiment in using state institutions to force society back into living arrangements thought by Engels and the other fathers of socialism as being constitutive of primitive communism.
The Longhouse’s Short Legacy
Despite what many socialists may tell you, the problem is not that socialism has never been tried, but that it has been tried and it did not work. The same can be said of the socialist longhouse. While the most radical experiment in this direction was undertaken in Sweden, components of the Myrdal program for the Swedish family can be found in all developed countries. Socialists, social democrats, and American progressive liberals all ended up converging on some watered-down variant of the Myrdals’ basic ideas. The results, however, have not met expectations. The socialist longhouse model, everywhere and always, is accompanied by falling fertility rates. This model has shown over the past century that it cannot solve, in the words of the Myrdals, the “crisis in the population question”.
Perhaps the easiest way to see this is to take two extremes andcompare Sweden and Ireland. Where Sweden started its unusually aggressive transition to the socialist longhouse model in 1935, Ireland maintained traditional family structures wholly intact until the 1990s (divorce was only legalised in Ireland in 1995) making it unique in the Western world. The chart below shows fertility rates in Sweden and Ireland from 1935, when the Royal Population Commission was instigated in Sweden, up until today.
The pattern is clear. During the period when Ireland maintained the traditional family structures despised by Marx, Engels, and the Myrdals, birth rates remained far above replacement. As Ireland shifted to the socialist longhouse model in the 1990s, its birth rates fell. Sweden, meanwhile, saw the same postwar Baby Boom that took hold across mid-century Europe. But this waned after the immediate postwar optimism dried up, as it did elsewhere. By 1975 Sweden was experiencing periodic bouts of below replacement fertility rates and this is where the country has remained ever since.Today Sweden is experiencing extremely high levels of inward migration which in turn is leading to a crisis in social harmony and a questioning of the very foundations of the country’s welfare state. This is because Sweden needs large-scale inward migration to grow its population and its economy. This is exactly what the Myrdals feared would happen if fertility rates were allowed to remain below replacement; they were keenly aware that their socialist state model required high levels of social trust and integration.Hence, on its own terms, the Myrdalian socialist longhouse model has failed miserably.
The problem with the Myrdal’s socialist longhouse is not with the idea that the state should incentivise family formation as such. Rather it is a problem of anthropology. Since Marx and Engels – perhaps since Rousseau – the liberal-socialist tradition has been based on the anthropology of the noble savage and the communal longhouse. The left has long convinced itself that the primitive man is freer than the civilised man and that the state can step into the role previously played by centralised tribal life. From a purely qualitative point-of-view, the state playing this centralised role tends to be much less gentle than the longhouse matriarchs – that much has been proved by history. We cash in on our capacity to indulge our instincts and then we pay the piper in obedience to the overweening state. In the socialist longhouse we have not become highly autonomous individuals freely choosing monogamous love, but rather atomised agents subjected to manipulation by the market and the state. But even leaving qualitative views of this arrangement aside, it is now clear that it is a self-destructive system because it cannot reproduce itself. The tribal longhouse can produce the children needed to keep the tribe growing and thriving; the socialist longhouse cannot. These are simply the facts.
Meanwhile, the Nietzschean right adopts a similar autonomist anthropology to the socialist left and then feels frustrated when this ideology of “let the men run free” turns out in practice to be the sterile longhouse that they loath. They appear surprised that the segments of society where men are allowed to indulge their base instincts turn out to be little islands of matriarchy. But why are they surprised? Do they not see in Nietzsche’s antisocial Übermensch the same noble savage that Rousseau and the Marxists extolled?
The reality is that the right Nietzscheans are nothing more than the basement-dwelling wayward sons of the liberal-socialist left. They think that reacting purely ‘against’ the outcomes of the ideologies that they otherwise adopt is a form of rebellion, when the truth of the matter is they are just the mischievous element that gives the longhouse they loath the police powers it needs to retain control. The Nietzschean right are the logical ‘excessive’ element that allows the socialist longhouse to extend its tentacles of power ever deeper into all human relationships; the criminal who is no real threat to the system but is an excellent justification for extending the powers of the law. Nor do they seem any less sterile than their liberal-socialist parents, focused as they are only on reproducing narcissistic-aspirational photographs of themselves on the internet and showing no inclination to reproduce themselves biologically. Another group of image-consumers living on borrowed time and on the backs of other groups with higher reproduction rates who will be forced to look after them as they age and their weight-lifting selfies fade into distant memory.
The anthropology of the communal longhouse and the noble savage, wedded to one another always and everywhere, came out of the radical individualism that inhabits both liberalism and socialism. It is a bad anthropology, one that is naïve and corrosive to society. The goal for postliberals should be to take a more realistic anthropology, one that recognises the importance of the rights and duties associated with the family and marry this to a project of social engineering that is as respectful of the status of the family as possible. Policies should be chosen based on prudence, balancing the power they give the state and their relative intrusiveness with their efficacy in promoting family life. The goal should be to empower the family as much as possible and use of the state should be as aggressive as needs be but never allowed to become an end in itself. Anyone not focused on this questionhas nothing remotely of interest to contribute to political or policy discussion in the 21st century. Late liberal society is losing its ability to reproduce itself. The socialist longhouse, now shorn of anything even resembling a telos, becomes more like a circus by the day – and the circus performers seem anxious not to be reminded that they are growing old in ever-larger proportions.