Social Experiment

The family as an economic unit and as a union of parents and children based on the need to provide for the material welfare of the latter is doomed to disappear.

Aleksandra Kollontai (Kollontai, 1921).

The impulse to control the breeding of children through politics and eugenics, to dismantle the family and replace it with the state, and to do all this under a cloak of secrecy has been common to utopian thinkers and totalitarian states since at least the time of Plato, who devised a system in which all aspects of child rearing would be collectivised and controlled by the state,

Their children are to be common, and no parent is to know his own child, nor any child his parent.

Plato, 380BC

Such ideas often go hand-in-hand with misanthropic environmentalism.  President Barack Obama’s science and technology advisor, John Holdren, is an advocate of balancing populations through rigid state control of insemination and abortion.  Too large a population?  Raise the number of forced abortions or sterilise the population by putting drugs in the water supply.  Too small?  Increase the number of permitted inseminations,

Although free and easy association of the sexes might be tolerated in such a society, responsible parenthood ought to be encouraged and illegitimate childbearing could be strongly discouraged.  One way to carry out this disapproval might be to insist that all illegitimate babies be put up for adoption…  If a single mother really wished to keep her baby, she might be obliged to go through adoption proceedings and demonstrate her ability to support and care for it…  It would even be possible to require pregnant single women to marry or have abortions, perhaps as an alternative to placement for adoption, depending on the society.

Ehrlich, Ehrlich, & Holdren, 1977

Kay Goodger, senior advisor in the New Zealand Ministry of Social Development says,

The family distorts all human relationships by imposing on them the framework of economic compulsion, social dependence and sexual repression.  Our goal must be to create economic and social institutions that are superior to the present family.  The rearing, social welfare and education of children should become the responsibility of society rather than individual parents.

Paterson, 2005

Following the Russian Revolution the victors perpetrated a terrible experiment upon the nation’s children.  They saw the destruction of the family as the first step towards the achievement of economic rebirth and the ideal communist society and sought the transfer of the responsibility for child-rearing from parents to the state.  Why?

Because it is through the family that social, cultural, and religious beliefs and customs are passed down to the next generation.  The stubborn persistence of the family as a competing power structure is a threat to totalitarian regimes and therefore, where it survives, a safeguard against tyranny.  Indeed, the family stands in resistance to the imposition of any new form of governance, and is thus peculiarly vulnerable to assault.  Families are intrinsically conservative; they preserve the social and cultural status quo and curb radical or antisocial behaviour.

Whereas the Bolshevik ideology envisaged the family withering away as the result of other reforms within society, there were radicals amongst them who would not wait and advocated immediate abolition.  The socialist feminist Aleksandra Kollontai, who was Commissar of Social Welfare, wrote in 1921,

The communist economy does away with the family.  In the period of the dictatorship of the proletariat…  the family loses its significance as an economic unit.  The external economic functions of the family disappear, and consumption ceases to be organised on an individual family basis… the family economic unit should be recognised as being, from the point of view of the national economy, not only useless but harmful.

The economic dependence of women on men and the role of the family in the care of the younger generation also disappear as the communist elements in the workers’ republic grow stronger… The economic subjugation of women in marriage and the family is done away with, and responsibility for the care of the children and their physical and spiritual education is assumed by the social collective.

The family as an economic unit and as a union of parents and children based on the need to provide for the material welfare of the latter is doomed to disappear.

Kollontai, 1921

Let us look now at what happened as the leaders of Bolshevik Russia began to enact laws to realise the ideal of a society in which marriage would be based only on mutual love (‘free union’) and the economic foundations of monogamy would disappear, to be replaced by the economic care of all citizens by the state.  Because of the predominance of the Church in regulating marriage and fostering the family, the first reform was to de-legalise religious marriage and make both marriage and divorce fully secular.  The liberalising of divorce enabling either partner unilaterally to end the marriage without any legal consideration of the merits was introduced on the 19th December 1917, far in advance of the West’s adoption of unilateral, no-fault divorce in the late 1960s and early ‘70s.  By 1926 the Russian divorce rate was 18 times that of England (Goldman, 1993).

The effect of these reforms, compounded by famine and war, led to the unravelling of family and community ties.  The importance of the family was revealed only once it was destroyed, as ‘liberated’ women demonstrated their continuing economic dependence on men by taking to prostitution to support their children or showed that the family remained the primary source of security by petitioning the courts in their thousands for alimony.  By 1925 alimony cases outnumbered divorce cases and the courts could barely cope.

The 1918 Family Code only allowed spousal support to disabled dependents and then only for six months, but fathers were deemed responsible for their children to the age of 18.  The courts, driven by the need to reduce costs to the state, acted favourably towards mothers and their children but in an age without DNA testing were little concerned with proving paternity – which most men denied – beyond a loose probability.  If more than one man were the possible father to a child, all would have to pay.

Non-payment was a major problem, with 90% of men defaulting: many workers were scarcely earning subsistence; some in the peasantry were paid in kind – in flour or milk; if they had a second family and had to pay a third of their earnings in child support they couldn’t afford it.  Awards were meagre – a pig, a shed – and made reluctantly, if at all: a family couldn’t give a woman a third of a horse.  Men complained the system was unfair to them; many requested custody but, although this was logically the most efficient solution, the courts resisted.  Men said the laws ‘punished’ them for having committed no crime; they left town and changed jobs.  The ideology of ‘free union’ was at odds with reality, soviet family policy was irreconcilable with individual and state economics: the liberation of women was a myth.

In a rural society morality was pragmatic: illegitimate children brought shame because they could not inherit land and thus could not support themselves or their offspring; once grown up they would be forced to leave the village.  In 1918 the legal distinction between legitimate and illegitimate children was eradicated – inheritance would be based only on birth.  By the mid-20s young women could sue for child support of illegitimate children in the courts, further eroding traditional morality.  In addition adult sexual behaviour formerly regarded as unacceptable, including adultery, homosexuality and even polygamy were decriminalised.  Childbearing outside of marriage thus received state approval.  These reforms were profoundly destructive, rejecting religion, traditional morality and family structures, but putting nothing constructive in their place and encouraging irresponsible sexual behaviour.

This was further encouraged in November 1920 by the legalisation of abortion which became available without charge.  Although illegal, abortion had become widespread, the incidence increased rapidly, overwhelming medical facilities and forcing them to restrict abortion according to social divisions.  Concomitantly, adoption was banned: it made no sense to allow the formation of families and responsible parenting of other parents’ children if abortion enabled the destruction of potential families before they formed.  In the same year the new Family Code replaced the 1918 version and removed any distinction between registered and de facto marriage, giving rights to cohabitees formerly enjoyed only by married couples.  Effectively marriage as an institution was abolished; the divorce rate soared.  What remained unresolved, though, was the argument over whether de facto marriage represented the progressive socialist future or a sign of social collapse.

The consequences of this reckless experiment were a huge increase in individual suffering, broken families – to the extent that amongst the peasantry family life ceased to exist, moral decline and psychological excess.  Civil and de facto marriage lacked the solemnity and permanence of a church marriage and men changed wives with alarming ease and frequency; it became commonplace for young men of twenty to have had 3 or 4 marriages and their sisters to have had as many abortions.  Divorced women became an economic problem as they returned to their parents’ families for support; in the absence of a welfare state the soviet vision could not make women independent of their families.  Kollontai proposed a tax to support children’s homes and single mothers, but the proposal was rejected by legislators who also dismissed the idea that if the state created unwanted children through its policies on free-union and de facto marriage, the state should pay to house and raise them.

In the absence of welfare seven and a half million homeless children – the besprizorniki – roamed the streets.  Boys joined gangs of thieves while girls as young as eight turned to prostitution in return for a crust of bread.  The numbers of children in state care swelled from 30,000 in 1917 to 540,000 in 1921; the calamity was exacerbated by terrible famine which killed one in three children and left many more homeless.  Society lost its ability to sustain itself; individuals could no longer turn to the family for support.  Historian Wendy Z. Goldman observed,

The family had not withered away gradually, it had been smashed.  The brutal blows of war and famine had rapidly accomplished what Soviet theorists had envisioned for a considerably more distant future.  And the new state was left, woefully unprepared, to shelter the human wreckage.

Goldman, 1993

Ideologically driven law makers in the cities gave little thought to the manifest incompatibility of the new legislation with an agrarian economy with no welfare state.  Many peasant women, however, took full advantage of the new divorce and alimony laws, despite the fact that single women with children were ostracised by their communities and struggled to survive on tiny plots of land they could not afford to cultivate; they were seized with a dangerous new sense of entitlement which flew in the face of economic realities.  In the West in the 1960s and ‘70s the foolhardiness of the identical social experiment was masked by easily accessed welfare and an urban economy.

The legislative changes in Russia were short-lived; in 1925 the criminologist S. S. Tizanov wrote that it was more efficient for the state to support families than to raise children in the huge state orphanages (Tizanov, 1925); it came to be appreciated that the family performed a vital function and it made no economic sense to transport children from intact families into institutions of social child-rearing.  In 1926 the policy of state parenting was abandoned, the prohibition against adoption was reversed and the peasantry were encouraged to adopt orphans in return for financial compensation; this was purely a pragmatic measure to reduce besprizornost and associated crime: the ideology remained but could not be put into practice.

By 1935 there was a clear shift towards stabilising and re-establishing the family; it was recognised that the cause of persistent besprizornost wasn’t famine and war but divorce, family breakdown and single motherhood.  Russia began to return to more traditional, conservative family policies, conceding that the family could better care for children than the state.  Sexual licence and irresponsibility were denounced and Engels’ theory that the family would wither away was proved false.  In 1934 homosexuality was re-criminalised and a campaign against sexual promiscuity implemented.

Despite an increasing marriage rate the birth-rate was falling, particularly amongst the higher social classes, and Russian mothers were using abortion to restrict the size of their families; in 1936 abortion was de-legalised and mothers were awarded benefits for families of 6 or more; medals were struck – such as the Order of the Glory of Motherhood – for the most fertile.  The birth rate rose briefly then fell again as illegal abortion proliferated.  The new legislation increased penalties for defaulting on alimony, expanded childcare provision and made divorce more difficult, increasing the cost of each successive divorce.  In 1944 cohabitation was stripped of its legal status, illegitimacy reintroduced and divorce returned to the courts.  Those associated with the ‘withering away’ doctrine were shot, murdered, or committed to mental institutions.

The backlash, introduced by the Party without debate, created new problems: besprizorniki adopted, fostered or returned to their families were abused, exploited and malnourished, with no monitoring by the state; the re-criminalisation of abortion led to a return to higher levels of illegal abortion and large numbers of women hospitalised with complications.  The new measures were pragmatic but not ideological: officials were still committed to the eventual ‘withering away’ of the family.

Women’s liberation never happened: although millions of women entered the workforce – making up 35% of the economy by 1937 – they remained dependent on the family.  Between 1928 and 1932 wages fell by half and where one income had been sufficient two were now necessary; the state was exploiting the family: industry was getting two workers for the price of one.  With their mothers out at work, unsupervised children mingled with the besprizorniki on the streets and took to petty crime.  In 1935 there was a draconian clampdown, the besprizorniki were rounded up, prosecuted for petty crimes in adult courts and sent to work on collective farms and in factories.  Abandoned and neglected children, no longer housed in state homes, were incarcerated in prison camps paid for, where possible, by the parents; the family had now become an instrument of state control.

The state perpetrated a wicked deceit on Russian women:  it defaulted on its promise to take on the functions of the family; as it withdrew from the family and abdicated social responsibility it imposed upon women the double burden of motherhood and the responsibilities of work.  Besprizornost was falsely blamed on paternal irresponsibility and the failure to pay alimony; parents, too, were arrested and imprisoned.  The state began a campaign on spousal and child maintenance, naming and shaming men who didn’t pay and teaching women to blame their menfolk for their troubles; Wendy Goldman quotes a female technician, ‘the father who does not want to fulfil his paternal responsibilities is a destroyer of the family’, discounting the fact that a family in which alimony has become necessary is already destroyed.

The abolition of the family has been presented as a tenet of Marxism, but this may be based on a misreading of this passage from Marx and Engel’s Communist Manifesto in which they wrote,

Abolition of the family!  Even the most radical flare up at this infamous proposal of the Communists.

On what foundation is the present family, the bourgeois family based?  On capital, on private gain.  In its completely developed form this family exists only among the bourgeoisie…

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.

Our bourgeois, not content with having the wives and daughters of their proletarians at their disposal, not to speak of common prostitutes, take the greatest pleasure in seducing each other’s wives.

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 legalized 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.

Marx & Engels, 1848

Ronald Fletcher has shown us that we should read this passage exclusively as a critique of bourgeois marriage and not of marriage generally,

Marx and Engels were attacking the ‘bourgeois family’: the nature of marriage and the conception and practice of family life among the property owning and manufacturing ‘ruling’ classes.  It was this social form of the family they wished to see abolished.

Fletcher, 1988

Fletcher also stressed they were condemning the demotion of women within this kind of marriage to the status of property and as instruments of production.  He went on to present evidence which portrays Marx as a remarkable family man, happiest when in the company of his children.  To have urged the abolition of this institution which afforded him such joy, strength and succour when his son, ‘Musch’, died would have been anathema to him.  His daughter, Eleanor, said of her parents,

Having played together as children and become engaged as a young man and girl, the couple went hand in hand through the battle of life… His whole life long Marx not only loved his wife, he was in love with her.  Before me is a love letter the passionate, youthful ardour of which would suggest it was written by an eighteen-year-old.

One implication of this episode from Russian history is that when our own backlash comes, it will be harshly patriarchal and fascist; writers such as George Gilder and Ivor Catt have warned that because feminism is irrational and inconsistent, its ultimate collapse will create a vacuum which will suck in alternative extremisms (Gilder, 1986) (Catt, 1999).  Fatherless, disenfranchised boys are more likely to lurch to the right than to the left.

Works Cited

Catt, I. (1999). The Coming of Fascism. Retrieved from

Ehrlich, P. R., Ehrlich, A. H., & Holdren, J. P. (1977). Ecoscience: population, resources, environment.

Fletcher, R. (1988). The Abolitionists: The Family and Marriage under Attack. Routledge.

Gilder, G. (1986). Men and Marriage. Louisiana: Pelican.

Goldman, W. Z. (1993). Women, the State and Revolution. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press.

Kollontai, A. (1921). Theses on Communist Morality in the Sphere of Marital Relations. Kommunistka.

Marx, K., & Engels, F. (1848). Manifesto of the Communist Party.

Paterson, S. (2005, May 14). Feminist agenda reaches fruition. New Zealand Herald.

Plato. (380BC). The Republic, Book V.

Tizanov, S. S. (1925). K Voprosu Narkomprosa o Bor’be s Detskoi Besprizornost’iu. Kummunistica.