Family Values

Capitalism, Marxism and Women’s Oppression


  • Sinéad Kennedy Socialist Workers Network


The opening sentence of Leo Tolstoy’s famous 1878 novel, Anna Karenina, declares what while “[a]ll happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way’. In Anna Karenina the greatest factor in determining happiness is1 loving ‘correctly’. For Tolstoy, appropriate love is, familial love, linked in the novel to nature, spirituality, and childhood, experienced within the traditional family structure and centred on the continuation of the family unit. While ‘unhappy families’ undoubtedly provided Tolstoy with the narrative grit required to sustain his 800 page novel, he shows little interest in the invisible substructures that sustain this ‘happy family’ he cherishes so dearly. For the feminist writer Ursula K. Le Guin (1929-2018), it was the reverse of Tolstoy’s dictum that reveals a more profound truth about the family under capitalism. Those who speak of stable, ‘happy families’, Le Guin suggests, conveniently ignore the ‘substructure of sacrifices, repressions, suppressions, choices made or forgone, chances taken or lost, balancing of greater and lesser evils’ that create the foundation of familial happiness. This is not wilful ignorance; it is rooted in structures that mean women often make more sacrifices, harder ‘choices’, in the interests of the wider unit. The happiness of men and children often comes at the expense of women, and as Sophie Lewis notes, the attendant unhappiness can feel unique, but only because its structural quality, like the structure of capitalism, is obscured from view.