Property Love

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= concept used by the Marxist-Feminist Alexandra Kollontai, during the time of the Russian Revolution, in the context of the abolition of the family


Mary Harrington:

"The architects of communism took aim particularly at the bourgeois family. In Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State, Engels argued that the bourgeois family was a recent invention, rationalised as eternal, that served as a means of perpetuating inequality. The Communist Manifesto denounced this con-trick as a fake universal that, for the proletariat, didn’t even deliver joy or intimacy. Instead, it served as a machine for manufacturing new factory operatives: a cynical enterprise in which proletarian children were “transformed into simple articles of commerce and instruments of labour”.

More recent critics of the family take this even further. It’s not just the bourgeois family that has to go. It’s every family — even those of the poor, vulnerable, oppressed and helpless, for whom the alternative to relying on blood kin is destitution. This is the argument made by anti-family theorist Sophie Lewis in Abolish the Family: that the revolution must come for everyone. The family, she says, “is to be abolished even when it is aspired to, mythologised, valued, and embodied by people who are neither white nor heterosexual, neither bourgeois nor colonisers”. For it’s only in “collectively letting go of this technology of privatisation, the family, that our species will truly prosper”.

She echoes Marx and Engels in viewing such affective bonds not as a space of respite from the market, but as inextricable from it and a crucial site of its reproduction. For Lewis, though, the harm done by particularistic love within families goes further than perpetuating economic injustice. Families are not just delivery-mechanisms for violence and cruelty. They are sexism, racism, chauvinism writ small: “a microcosm of the nation-state”. As such, they are a tool of white cis-heteronormative oppression, employed to entrench wickedness of every kind.

This draws on a long tradition of Marxist feminism, for which family isn’t just a vehicle for reproducing capitalism but also a key means of oppressing women. Alexandra Kollontai, the earliest and most influential Marxist feminist, decried the particularistic affection granted to family members as “property love”. In Kollontai’s view, this love imposed profound negative consequences on women: the inconvenient calls such love of dependents can make on our time and resources is an impediment to women’s equal participation in public life. To solve this, she suggested, under communism children would be cared for by “society” in general, while “material and moral support” would be forthcoming for mothers.

For Kollontai, this could be attained by expanding the affective stinginess of “property love”. This “narrow and exclusive affection” should bathe not just our particular children but “all the children of the great, proletarian family”, a proposal Lewis views as “magnificent”. Subsequent feminists in the same tradition, such as the radical Shulamith Firestone, envisioned modern technologies helping to bring this about, resulting in “the diffusion of the childbearing and childrearing role to the society as a whole, men as well as women”.

In reviving these arguments, Lewis cements her position as perhaps the most eloquent contemporary exponent of a doctrine that views itself as socialist, but is more accurately understood as the utopian face of neoliberalism: one that sets itself against every given, arbitrary, particularistic and so-called “natural” feature of individual and social human life, in the name of radical liberation.

This includes attachment bonds, especially those between a mother and baby, where these are an obstacle to self-actualisation. And, in Abolish the Family, this includes all special social or political value accorded to family life. This revolutionary war on relationships must proceed even if, as Lewis accepts, it’s resisted by those for whom there is no protection from the world’s cruelty save the bonds of family. And it can, and should, come at the cost of our selfhood itself: “If the world is to be remade utterly, then a person must be willing to be remade also.”