In The German Ideology and Civilization and Its Discontents, Marx and Freud, respectively, explore how families arose in primitive society, how they came to exist throughout human history, and the ways in which the structure of the family contributed to a mode of civilization which has ultimately led to an profound dissatisfaction throughout society.
Both Marx and Freud place particular emphasis on the family as a foundational element of society and its development. Freud describes the family as arising from a man’s consistent need for “genital satisfaction” and a woman’s desire to protect “her helpless young,” thus becoming “obliged, in their interests, to remain with the stronger male” (Freud 77). The expression of these simultaneously existing needs ultimately results in the formation of the family by demanding a shared living space between the man, woman, and child.
Alternatively, Marx’s conception of familial origin does not rely upon the sexual instincts of man and the need for a woman to protect her young, but rather on the importance of the production of the means of subsistence and the material life of an individual. The family, Marx asserts, is marked by “latent slavery” because the husband—as a result of “the unequal distribution, both quantitative and qualitative, of labour and its products”—is enabled with “the power of disposing of the labour-power” of the wife and children (Marx 52-53). In Marx’s idea of the family, the relationships between members of a family are cemented by patriarchal dynamics in production, wherein the father may reap the benefits of the labor, which he directs, of his wife and children. Despite the lack of consensus between Marx and Freud on the origin of family, both thinkers identify the familial structure as obtrusively patriarchal. Marx, in his comparison of the original family to the practice of slavery, tacitly concurs with Freud’s claim that “[in] this primitive family . . . [t]he arbitrary will of its head the father, was unrestricted” (Freud 79). The Marxist and Freudian analysis of the family both seek to contextualize the role of the family in society at large. Freud argues that “the communal life of human beings had . . . a two-fold foundation: the compulsion to work, . . . created by external necessity, and the power of love, which made the man unwilling to be deprived of his sexual object —the woman—and made the woman unwilling to be deprived of the part of herself which had been separated off from her—her child” (Freud 80). In placing love at the center of the development of human society, Freud also establishes the family as a fundamental building block of civilization. Because the availability of genital satisfaction afforded to an individual by his sexual partner is so tenuous in nature, there arises a tendency to develop a supplementary form of love, “aim-inhibited affection,” which forms the basis of friendships (Freud 81-82). However, Freud seems to suggest that as long as “sexual (genital) love,” which “afford[s] [man] the strongest experiences of satisfaction, and in fact provide[s] him with the prototype of all happiness,” exists, the family—which ultimately preserves access to that form of love—will dominate as the foundational element of society (Freud 80).
Marx also positions the family at the center of society, describing society as “individual families opposed to one another” (Marx 53). Marx claims that a division of labor is omnipresent in human society, and thus humans are subject to its consequences on both an intra-familial and inter-familial plane. Within the family, the “division of labour in the sexual act” gives rise to a “division of labour which develops spontaneously or "naturally" by virtue of natural predisposition (e.g. physical strength), needs, accidents, etc.,” setting the stage for the husband to dispose of the labor power of his family members (Marx 51). However, these forces cannot be contained within the familial structure, and surely enough, the division of labor comes to define all social relations. Both thinkers ultimately deliver a scathing criticism of the familial dynamic by revealing the underlying contradictions between the family, its members, and society. Per Marx, “the division of labour,” which was said to arise from the separation of simple tasks within the family, “implies the contradiction between the interest of the separate individual or the individual family and the communal interest of all individuals who have intercourse with one another” (Marx 53). So, according to Marx’s view, the formation of the family results in an antagonistic relationship between the families that constitute society as they scramble for the unequally distributed products of divided labor. This antagonism between families culminates in the development of “classes, already determined by the division of labour” (Marx 53). In turn, those classes struggle against each other to dominate the State, which imposes an illusory general interest upon the population. Throughout modern history, the proletarian class has rarely taken the reigns of the State, and consequently, the formulated general interest has always run in contradiction to the interest of the common individual. Marx declares, “as long as a cleavage exists between the particular and the common interest, as long, therefore, as activity is not voluntarily, but naturally, divided, man's own deed becomes an alien power opposed to him, which enslaves him instead of being controlled by him.” (Marx 53). The ubiquitous enslavement of man by his own deed can thus be traced to the spontaneously composed familial structure and all subsequent social relations.
Freud is also hypercritical of the family, as he explores the contradictions that pervade the family and the love that binds it together. Freud observes a similar tension between the family unit and society at large: “[w]e have already perceived that one of the main endeavors of civilization is to bring people together into large unities . . . but the family will not give the individual up” (Freud 83). Just as Marx revealed a rising antagonism—wrought by the division of labor— between a family vying to fulfill its own material interests and society at large, so too does Freud identify a burgeoning conflict between a family and the rest of civilization, as extraneous forces of genital and aim-inhibited love as well as other sources of happiness draw members of said family away. Freud continues, “the more closely the members of a family are attached to one another, the more often do they tend to cut themselves off from others, and the more difficult is it for them to enter into the wider circle of life” (Freud 83). The same alienation Marx sees as controlling society makes its mark in Freud’s conception of the family, creating schisms between the interests of the individual and the collective within the family: the more an individual—more specifically, the child—in a family succeeds in seeking his or own happiness, the more fractured the other’s source of satisfaction becomes. Freud also levies criticism against the family due to its role in the integration of sexual libido in the perpetuation of civil society and economy: “[s]ince a man does not have unlimited quantities of psychical energy at his disposal, he has to accomplish his tasks by making an expedient distribution of his libido . . . [w]hat he employs for cultural aims he to a great extent withdraws from women and sexual life” (Freud 84). The family, according to this criticism, ultimately reduces the woman to a reservoir of sexual energy for men to draw from for extra-familial endeavors. Therefore, both thinkers patently take issue with the concept of family, and wish to dethrone it as an eminent societal value and formation.
Freud’s central argument through Civilization and Its Discontents is that in the end, the way civilization has fallen into place over the long course of human history runs counter to the ability of an individual to attain pure happiness, because it greatly restricts the primordial instincts of man. The family, a product of societal development, greatly hinders the acquisition of happiness by laying the groundwork for the reduction of women to sexual-energy-extraction objects. Furthermore, as Freud writes, “the economic structure of the society also influences the amount of sexual freedom that remains . . . in this respect civilization behaves towards sexuality as a people or a stratum of its population does which has subjected another one to its exploitation” (Freud 84-85). Civilization reduces sex, for all genders, to an economic tool, which fuels civil interactions but cannot be allowed to realize its potential and attain liberation. Therefore, civilization prevents sex from ever delivering primal and unrestricted happiness. As a result, the civilization built on the basis of familial structures shatters any possibility of the sexual liberation of humanity, further contributing to humanity's discontent.
Marx’s primary claim in The German Ideology is that the most prominent philosophers of his time fail to form their conceptions from the basis of reality and instead apply idealist abstractions to their attempts to describe the human condition. In direct contrast to the dominating German ideologies, Marx propounds a historical materialist method, which carefully derives conclusions about humanity from material conditions and the historical events driven by them. The analysis of the family structure is an application of historical materialism and seeks to explain the process by which private property arose and created a rift between people, their work, and the interests of the society they find themselves in. The historical materialist analysis of the family and the alienation wrought by a society based on it yields a clear and solitary solution for Marx: communist revolution, which would result in a “conscious mastery of these powers [of social relations], which, born of the action of men on one another, have till now overawed and governed men as powers completely alien to them” (Marx 55).
Although Freud’s case often seems intertwined with Marx’s, I take issue with certain aspects of Freud’s argument, while I tend to agree with Marx. To me, Freud fails to address assumptions he made in detailing the origin of the family. Specifically, in assigning the formation of the family the drivers of man’s need for genital love and woman’s need for the protection of her offspring, Freud does not explain why this arrangement inherently produces an imbalance in power between man and woman. Why is the result patriarchal? Perhaps it is because the woman’s motivation, by Freud’s argument, exists outside of herself and in her children, and so by default she has made herself subject to the whims of a being outside her own, but Freud never explains this. Furthermore, the argument ignores the undeniable fact that women are not in any way less mentally complex than men; Freud makes a fundamental mistake in not acknowledging the fact that women also have a libido that they might like satisfied. Freud’s gender bias makes itself apparent further in the text: “[t]he work of civilization has become increasingly the business of men, it confronts them with ever more difficult tasks and compels them to carry out instinctual sublimations of which women are little capable of” (Freud 84). This offensive inclusion supposes a mental inferiority of women and goes wholly unexplained. It seems not to be a critical analysis of civilization’s effect on women and instead a reflection of Freud’s implicit disdain for the opposite sex. Marx’s argument, in my mind, is not problematic like Freud’s, as it recognizes civil society's deleterious effect on women without laying the blame with them.
That is not to say, however, that all of Freud’s analysis is invalid. In fact, both thinkers produce a valid argument in explaining why the family, in many respects, lies at the core of the self-imposed tribulations of human civilization.
Freud, S., Hitchens, C., & Strachey, J. (2010). Civilization and its discontents. New York, NY: W. W. Norton.
Marx, K., & Engels, F. (1974/). The German Ideology: Part One, with selections from Parts Two and Three, together with Marx's "Introduction to a Critique of Political Economy." (918795504 721794530 C. J. Arthur, Ed.). London, United Kingdom: Lawrence & Wishart
By Samuel Araura