The Long War Against the Family (Part I)

The progressive cultural elite has long perpetuated prejudices against the family that, unchallenged, lead to its ruin. Among several I cite three: (1) the assertion that marriage makes men and women less free; (2) the assumption that children are a burden; and (3) the insistence that sexual differentiation is a fiction. These three ideas represent, as it were, three waves of the anti-family movement of the past 150 years. The first is the Marxist contribution; the second is the eugenicist; the third is the fruit of recent gender theorists.

Social conservatives too often play a battle of catch-up with the progressive left.  We marvel at abortion; we worry over divorce; we wonder at the rise of the homosexual lobby. It is right that alarm is sounded.  But even before lobbying, if the family is ever to regain its natural position of prominence, conservatives need to recover the memory of how the “traditional family” lost its way.  In this and the next two articles I would like uncover the three stages of the long war against the family, and then note briefly some helpful lines of response to them.  We’ll begin first with the Marxist contribution.

Common to both Marx and Engels is the belief that social relations not characterized by strict material equality are unjust. In his influential study, The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State (1884), Karl Marx’s collaborator Friedrich Engels attacked the family as the original cell of inequality and slavery. As an extension of man’s first desire for property—Marxism’s equivalent of the fall—man also wished to secure the transmission of property to his posterity. In Engels’ account this drive is what gives rise to monogamy. Men with land want heirs with a legitimate title. Hence, in marriage women belong to men simply “as an instrument for the production of children.” In Engel’s view the enslavement of women, naturally, like all inequalities, will cease once the means of production are transferred from private ownership to the state. With no right to property and no possibility of handing on an inheritance, men will no longer care to identify their offspring. An upshot is that once the economic conditions that gave rise to marriage cease, so also will marriage. At the end of history, sex will again be unfettered.

RebuildingCultureEngels predicted that the coming revolution would strike a blow to both family and the bourgeois sexual morality that sustained it. In the socialist future, “the single family ceases to be the economic unit of society,” which will result in “the gradual growth of unconstrained sexual intercourse.” Evidently, Freud was not the first to suggest that sex is what people are really after.


Whatever the defects of his theory, Engels was prescient at least about its ramifications: as socialism advances, family recedes. As the tasks of raising children, caring for the old, and making money are absorbed by the state, fewer and fewer reasons will remain for a man and a woman to form a lasting bond.

In my travels in former communist countries I have been struck by how closely our attitude towards the education of children match communist methods. There is this difference, however: under communism millions of mothers were forced to work out of the home and send their children to state institutions.

In the free world many of us do this of our own choice. When children from the age of three years spend two or more meals with strangers, it is not surprising that parents find it difficult to command the level of loyalty that was once taken for granted. More than “quality time” young children need quantities of time, and when the home is vacant, children transfer their allegiances elsewhere, usually to their peers.

Boys and girls exposed early to state institutions become easy prey to what has been called “youth culture”—that sum of the popular music, expensive clothing, and crass entertainments devised by corporations to provide an easy market. When Mom is at work, parenting becomes more difficult too. In fact, the demands of work can come to look fun when set beside parenthood. For more and more parents, the sacrifices at home appear to offer a meager return. Certainly some young mothers have no choice but to work outside the home; but the need is hardly the norm. The household has to be more than just a bus terminal where connections to other destinations are made. It has to return to being a center for meaningful activity. Education, work, prayer, nurture, and play are all essential functions belonging to the household properly ordered. Restoring the strength of the single-unit family turns on its ability, then, to recover ground from outside agencies to which its activities have been transferred.

Writing a generation after Marx and Engels, Pope Leo XIII understood well what was at stake in the fight against socialism. Rerum Novarum (1891) had in view not only the rights of the worker but also the survival of his family. Both have rights that are grounded in nature and disclosed by revelation: “Behold, therefore, the family, or rather the society of the household, a very small society indeed, but a true one, and older than any polity!” The indignation of couples needs to be aroused at the present danger that confronts their happiness. Equality and complementarity can in fact coexist in happy union. The Christian simply does not need to accept that equality must (as in Marxist terms) be reduced to wage parity and equal opportunity for sexual license. In this first wave of attack on the family, any sign of mutual interdependence was viewed as a threat to freedom. Those working against the family have insisted that submission to an exclusive contract is a sacrifice of autonomy. As Simone de Beauvoir claimed, in marriage, “man and wife together undergo the oppression of an institution they did not create.”

Needless to say, the oppression under which men and women suffer most is not the result of marriage but of broken promises. Even by such pedestrian indexes as wealth, health, and reported happiness, a mountain of social-scientific research has long overturned the popular wisdom of such 1960s thrillers as The Second Sex and Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. Like men, women simply thrive better in marriage. They suffer less depression, are more financially secure, and experience more fulfilling intimacy (for copious evidence see Linda Waite and Maggie Gallagher’s The Case for Marriage, Broadway Books). Even today, after decades of assault on the ideal of the nuclear family, a mere 8 percent of women say they hope to remain unwed.  So much for the first wave.

The second wave also accepted the Marxist premise that justice demands strict material equality.  But next, the wagging finger turned from men to children.

Editor’s note: This article is adapted from Dr. Topping’s new book Rebuilding Catholic Culture: How the Catechism Can Shape our Common Life (Sophia Institute Press). This excerpt will be published in three parts over the next three days.

Ryan N. S. Topping


Ryan N. S. Topping is a Fellow of Thomas More College of Liberal Arts. A native of Saskatoon, Canada, he earned his M.Phil. and D.Phil. in theology from Oxford University. His latest book is Rebuilding Catholic Culture: How the Catechism Can Shape Our Common Life (Sophia Institute Press, 2012). He and his wife have six children.