Haven in a Heartless World

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The third volume of Tony Cliff's selected writings is now available and contains this extract on the family, first published in 1984.

The family does not serve as a safe haven insulated from the world of work. Work intrudes into every aspect of the worker's life. Lasch writes [in 'Haven in a Heartless World']: 'The same historical developments that have made it necessary to set up private life - the family in particular - as a refuge from the cruel world of politics and work, an emotional sanctuary, have invaded this sanctuary and subjected it to outside control. A retreat into "privatism" no longer serves to shore up values elsewhere threatened with extinction.'

A Ford worker describes his situation: 'I never thought I'd survive. I used to come home from work and fall straight asleep. My legs and arms used to be burning. And I know hard work. I'd been on the buildings but this place was a bastard then. I didn't have any relations with my wife for months. Now that's not right is it? No work should be that hard.'

A study of the effect of the 'Continental' shift system shows that the men cannot sleep properly, their appetite is affected, they feel permanently tired, get constipation, ulcers, rheumatoid arthritis, headaches and rectal complaints. In addition: 'The most frequently mentioned difficulties in husband-wife relationships concern the absence of the worker from the home in the evening, sexual relations, and difficulties encountered by the wife in carrying out her household duties ... Another area of family life that seems to be adversely affected by certain kinds of shift work is the father-child relationship' [from PE Mott et al, 'Shift Work'].

Capitalism has also transformed sex itself into a major commodity, serving a huge market in fashion goods which claim to increase the sexual attraction of women and potency of men, and in pornography. Sexuality becomes a set of physical sensations alienated from the person. As George Frankl, in 'The Failure of the Sexual Revolution', puts it: ' ...the mass manufacturers of dreams ...concentrate entirely on sexual performances and sexual situations, and do not allow the personality of their subjects to obtrude.' Long ago, in 1921, Alexandra Kollontai denounced this concept of sex: 'The bourgeois attitude to sexual relations as simply a matter of sex must be criticised and replaced by an understanding of the whole gamut of joyful love-experience that enriches life and makes for greater happiness. The greater the intellectual and emotional development of the individual the less place will there be in his or her relationship for the bare physiological side of love, and the brighter will be the love experience.'

A mechanical approach to sex increases anxieties among both women and men. The woman asks herself, 'Am I as attractive, as successful in bed as the women portrayed in magazines, on films and TV?' The man asks himself, 'Am I a potent stud?'

Sexual permissiveness has not challenged the idea that a woman's place is in the home; it has simply added 'and in the bed'.

Capitalism distorts all human beings in society, depriving men, women and children of the capacity to develop their potentialities in every area of life. The family, that part of this society to which people look for love and comfort, reproduces the external relationships, and this turns it into a cauldron of personal conflicts - of anger, jealousy, fear and guilt. Both men and women fail to live up to the impossible ideal stereotype which society gives them of one another.

Why, if the family is less and less effective in securing the emotional, personal needs of people, do people still cling to it? Why, of all institutions, does this one show the greatest ability to survive?

While it is true that the harsher the world, the less effective is the family in protecting the emotional and material needs of its members, at the same time the greater is the need for just such a sanctuary. The satisfaction of almost all personal needs is to be found nowhere else. To be outside the nuclear family, an orphan, widow or widower with no close relatives, or a middle-aged or old single man or woman, is lonelier and worse. Mutual aid is a basic necessity for men and women. Out of loneliness the nuclear family gains strength. The institution of the family oppresses the woman. She, on her part, participates in creating the chains that bind her, decking them with flowers of love.

The family is an opaque wall preventing people from seeing and questioning the harsh, competitive society outside. It makes a person's inhumanity to another more bearable. The horrors of the outside world explain the extreme tensions in the family, but also explain its perseverance. The contemporary family is the product of capitalism and one of its main supports.