Socialist and non-socialist working-class perspectives on marriage and the family in Britain in the 1830s and 1840s



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Socialist and non-socialist working-class perspectives on marriage and the family in Britain in the 1830s and 1840s
Colin Creighton (University of Hull)

Historically, socialist discourse on marriage and the family has lacked unity and consistency, covering a wide spectrum from calls to abolish the family to claims that the nature of capitalist society prevents the potential for mutually-fulfilling relationships within the family from being realised. Reflecting this analytical diversity, socialist praxis has taken three main forms: (i) a critical rejection of the family leading to attempts to transcend it, e.g. by creating co-operative or communal living units (ii) struggles for reforms which improve the immediate conditions of family life but do not challenge its underlying power relations and (iii) criticism of the 'bourgeois' family but postponement of fundamental change until after the revolution.



Substantive concerns have been twofold. One has been to protect the family, seen as a unit of mutuality, against the destabilising effects of the subordination, within capitalism, of reproduction to production. The other has been to challenge gender asymmetries of power and dependence in marriage in the pursuit of freely-consenting, egalitarian relationships. These two objectives, however, have generally been pursued independently from each other. Indeed, solutions to each have often been in conflict. It is only recently that the necessity of developing strategies which encompass both aims simultaneously has been recognised, while agreement on how this can be done is far from being achieved (Gardiner,1997; Fraser, 1994).

Another obstacle to adequate praxis stems from the divergence between practical and strategic interests. As developed in recent feminist discourse, a concern with practical interests leads to actions which improve women's conditions of life without necessarily weakening the underlying causes of oppression; indeed, such advances may work against more fundamental change as illustrated by the expansion of welfare measures during the 20th century, which offered considerable protection to the family but consolidated the dependence of women through strengthening the male breadwinner model of family life. A focus on strategic interests, in contrast, attempts to attack the fundamental causes but, when divorced from practical interests, lacks effectiveness.


I propose to apply the distinction between practical and strategic interests to a comparison of the programmes towards marriage and the family of several social movements of the 1830s and 1840s. These decades saw intense conflict over family life and an unprecedented richness of theorising and experimentation, especially from the socialist movements whom Marx and Engels dismissed with the withering epithet, 'Utopian socialists'. Recently, there has been a resurgence of interest in these groups (Taylor, 1983). I shall compare the approach of the Owenite movement in Britain with that of the Ten Hour Movement (THM) for factory reform and Chartism.
All three were creative responses to socio-economic changes which were producing considerable misery but whose novelty and apparent fluidity allowed people to imagine more equitable social arrangements. Their praxis towards the family, however, differed considerably. Much recent scholarship has argued that Owenism indicated exciting possibilities for the pursuit of progressive policies towards marriage and the family but that these were not followed within the THM and Chartism because of men’s desire to restore their power within the family (and workplace) (Taylor, 1983; Rose, 1988; Schwarzkopf, 1991; Clark, 1995). I shall argue that it is more productive to see the differences between these movements and Owenism in terms of the contrast between the practical and strategic interests of working-class men and women in family life and the dilemmas of choosing between them.
Even though Owenism and Chartism were rival movements, their objectives were sufficiently similar for many individuals to be supporters of both. At the local level, especially, there was considerable interplay of ideas and overlap of individuals (Claeys, 1989; Pickering, 1995). Moreover, while neither Chartism nor the THM were socialist movements, socialists of both Owenite and non-Owenite persuasions participated in them and argued for their beliefs.

There were important points of convergence between Owenism and the other two movements in the analysis of the family, yet the differences were far more significant and centred around their assessments of the relationship of the family to capitalist society and the balance between co-operation and conflict within marriage.

For Owen, the 'single family system' was one of the three great evils of existing society. It promoted individualism and self-interest, both as a bastion of private property and in its own right, since every person thought first of their own family and put its interests above those of others. To overcome the selfishness of individual family life it was necessary to create cooperative communities in which couples would be part of, and responsible to, a wider network of social obligations and in which the separation of family and communal life would be bridged by the socialisation of much domestic labour and child care. To replace existing family arrangements was crucial for achieving the Owenite vision of the 'New Moral World' (Owen, 1835; Harrison, 1969; Saville, 1978).

Owen condemned marriage, as then practised, because of its inhumanity. Marriage should be based only on mutual attraction and free consent, yet considerations of wealth, property and security meant that this was seldom the case. Moreover, couples were forced to stay together in misery, even when love had gone, because of the opposition of the Church and law to divorce. Owen thus argued vigorously that couples should be able to separate by mutual consent and his plans for community life contained provisions to this effect (Harrison 1969; Saville, 1978).

Chartists and Ten Hour activists also regarded marriage as a potentially fulfilling relationship which should be based upon free choice and mutual affection and respect and which all should have the opportunity to enjoy. They rejected, even more fervently than Owen, prevailing Malthusian thought and Poor Law practice which posited that marriage and parenthood were privileges that the working class were entitled to enjoy only if they could support themselves economically without assistance. Yet the Chartist ideal of marriage was part of a very different discourse to that of Owen. It had a far more pronounced class element, in that it presented the working classes as the bearers of advanced social values in contrast to the hypocrisy of the middle and upper classes whose marriage arrangements were subordinated to considerations of wealth, property and status; such bargains were fatal to marital happiness and especially harmful to women (Schwarzkopf, 1991; Clark, 1995).
A more fundamental difference, however, was their conception of the relation between the family and the economic system. As indicated above the family, for Owen, both mirrored economic competition and underpinned it; the individual family and capitalism were interdependent. Chartism and the THM, in contrast, stressed the tension between capitalism and the family, contending that the family was being undermined by the practices of a society based on competitive principles. The THM, which emerged in 1830-31 to campaign for restrictions on child labour, launched the first sustained challenge to the impact of industrial capitalism upon the family. Their analysis, continued by Chartism, maintained that competition in an overstocked labour market drove wages down to a level which made it impossible to sustain family life; low wages and poor housing conditions made domestic comfort unobtainable; long hours of work, together with the involvement of all family members in employment outside the home, reduced the time for domestic tasks, child care and family life in general; while the labour of children undermined their health, denied them education and disrupted generational relations. In short, the operations of unregulated competition threatened the very existence of the family and its ability to reproduce itself (Creighton, 1992).

The social policies of the period reinforced the threat to the family since both Whig and Tory administrations promoted the ideology and practice of laissez-faire which stripped away all protection from the family in the face of the unrelenting demands of the economy. Of particular significance here was the hated New Poor Law which sought to abolish outdoor relief and to force applicants into the workhouse, where wives would be separated from husbands and parents from children.
Chartists thus sought to secure family life against the various forces which threatened to overwhelm it. Their strategy was fundamentally political, to secure the vote so as to influence the policies of the state. Similarly, the THM fought for legislation to regulate working conditions (Ward, 1962). Owenites were uninterested in such tactics. Although they shared the detestation of laissez-faire economics, Malthusianism and the New Poor Law, they believed that political reform was futile since by itself it would not cure the evils of the existing system while the new moral society would of itself solve both political and social problems (Miliband, 1954; Claeys, 1989). They thus held aloof as a movement from the great campaigns for defending the family against the depredations of capitalist society.

Another area of divergence was the issue of divorce. While Owenites considered that this was an essential component of the reform of marriage, Chartists rejected its appropriateness. Confronted by the realities of female poverty and the contempt of the New Poor Law for family ties. Chartists prioritised immediate practical interests and considered that women needed the relative financial security that marriage could provide. Rather than making it easier for couples to separate, Chartists concentrated upon stabilising marriage and improving its quality by encouraging men to be more responsible and caring husbands.
The movements differed also over gender relations in the family, an issue taken far more seriously by Owenites. Owen argued for the essential equality of men and women and while women's emancipation was not central to his social philosophy, the Owenite movement provided a space highly conducive to further examination of the position of women and the role of marriage in perpetuating their subordination (Taylor, 1993).
Within the Chartist movement there was diversity of opinion and Chartists seldom debated the relationship between family structure and the subordination of women. As Anna Clark (1995) has pointed out, the Chartist critique of bourgeois marriage avoided confronting the reality of male oppression within the working class by projecting it almost entirely upon the middle and upper classes. And while Chartists sought to overcome sexual antagonisms within the working class and to encourage companionate marriage, they also accepted the notion that men and women had complementary natures and complementary roles to perform in the family, and deplored the employment of women outside the home.
The differences between the movements can be seen, in large measure, in terms of a contrast between the pursuit of strategic and of practical needs. Owenites developed a deeper critique of the institution of marriage and presented a far more radical programme for its transformation. Its very radicalism, however, made its application difficult. Even the prominent feminist Owenite, Frances Morrison (1838), considered that the prevalence of 'licentious libertinism', meant that marriage was still a practical necessity and could be abolished only in a rational state of society. Chartists and Ten Hour activists, in contrast, were so troubled by the vulnerability of the working-class family that they were willing to subordinate other issues to its defence (Humphries, 1977). In the 1830s and 1840s the gap between the pursuit of practical and strategic interests was particularly deep. One of the reasons for the failure of Owenite socialism to leave a more lasting legacy regarding marriage and the family was its neglect of the pressing practical interests of the working class. The greater impact of the THM and Chartism was due largely to their espousal of practical interests, but this came at the expense of reconstructing gender relations in the family.
In the 1830s and 1840s the future of the organisation of family life within the working class seemed relatively open. The inability of the movements discussed here to combine their ideas resulted in the consolidation of a structurally unequal model of family life. It is a striking example of the failure to combine practical and strategic interests. The problem persists to this day, and successful socialist praxis depends upon the ability to transcend the division between them.





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