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Essay: Discover Marx and Engels’ Refutations of Liberal Enlightenment Theory on Marriage Contracts

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  • Published: 1 April 2019*
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  • Tags: Marxism essays

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Marx’s Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 are riddled with unfavorable references to liberal enlightenment theorists. “Political economy teaches us nothing”, Marx begins; he enumerates in detail the concepts that political economy “conceals”, “takes for granted”, “does not explain”, and “does not grasp”. This essay takes as its focus two particular critiques of liberal enlightenment theory taken up by Marx and Engels: their parallel critiques of the marriage contract and the social contract (i.e. state).  In particular, I explore how and why Marx and Engels repeatedly call attention to the contradiction between the social and marriage contracts in their abstract legal form (i.e. “on paper” ) and how they play out in practice for real living individuals. Using the works of the Liberal Enlightenment scholars John Locke and John Stuart Mill as a lens, I echo Marx in demonstrating how the notion of   “free” and “equal” contractual relationships based on “mutual consent” in the Liberal Enlightenment sense are illusory notions that function to distort reality and reinforce status quo social relations under capitalism.

I. Marriage Contract

Marx’s overall emphasis on exposing the hypocrisy of the marriage contract constitutes a radical departure from the traditional values articulated by liberal enlightenment theorists. In the writings of both John Locke and John Stuart Mill, equality before the law and confidence in the rule of law more generally are regarded as quintessentially important democratic ideals. In his 1869 essay, The Subjugation of Women, the English philosopher John Stuart Mill makes a case for gender equality that rests, fundamentally, on the conviction that equality before the law—i.e. the equal rights between persons “on paper”—is sufficient to actualize social change (and gender equality in particular) in practice. On the subject of the present “legal subordination” of women in marriage, Mill takes issue with “the despotic power which the law gives to the husband” and notes that on paper, the married woman is completely subordinate to her husband as she is given no rights before the law. This absence of rights or any form of legal recourse for the wife enables extremely unequal marital relations, in which the woman may be held in conditions akin to slavery: “he [the husband] can [legally] claim from her and enforce the lowest degradation of a human being, that of being made the instrument of an animal function contrary to her inclinations” (Mill 160). What’s more, the product of the marriage—“the children in whom she and her master [husband] have a joint interest”—are by law his children, and he alone retains the legal rights to them (Mill 160). It is in this context that Mill makes the case for equality “before the law” as sufficient to ensure gender equality and move on from the vestiges of the pre-modern order: the “equality of married persons before the law”, he writes, is “the sole mode in which that particular relation [marriage] can be made consistent with justice on both sides…conducive to the happiness of both [parties]” (Mill 173). In addition to gender equality, Mill makes the lofty claim that cementing gender equality in the law might undo our prior socialization into traditional gender roles. Emphasizing that gender is socially constructed, Mill notes that women are “universally taught that they are born and created for self-sacrifice” (Mill 172), but argues that granting women “equality of rights” in the law “would abate the exaggerated self-abnegation which is the present artificial ideal of feminine character…a good women would not be more self sacrificing than the best man” (Mill 172). Finally, it is crucial to note that Mill’s notion of the then present-day marriage contract (i.e. the marriage contract in which women “on paper” have no rights or recourse whatsoever) is notably optimistic in that it does not foreclose marital success. To this end, Mill writes:  “I readily admit (and it is the very foundation of my hopes)  that numbers of married people even under the present law, (in the higher classes of England probably a great majority), live in the spirit of a just law of equality” (Mill 175). Taken altogether,  we see that for Mill, giving women legal rights where they previously had none is thought to be sufficient for enacting equality between the sexes. Mill’s prescription for ending women’s oppression is fundamentally rooted in legal equality and granting women’s voices “equal consideration” in society’s existing institutional structures.  

 It is worth mentioning that Locke too, provides some commentary on his notion of the marriage contract, also quite optimistic (esp. Locke’s radical charge regarding the possibility of divorce based on mutual consent and shared decision making). Briefly, in his Second Treatise, Locke states that the “conjugal society is made by a voluntary compact between man and woman”, thus suggesting that the marriage contract is preceded by a moment of consent. Furthermore, “conjugal society” has a clear function for Locke: marriage is initiated for the purpose of “procreation and mutual support and assistance while they [the husband and wife] are together” (Locke 35).  

Relative to other bourgeois conceptions, Engels reminds us that matrimony is considered the “most important” “contract” or “legal affair” of them all—when two bodies and minds are supposedly adjoined for life in mutual love. To expose the hypocrisy of this contract, Marx and Engels field a series of comparisons between the law “on paper” and the law in practice, thus exposing the contradictions between the marriage contract in its abstract, legally recognized form and the marriage contract in lived reality. To begin with, Engels problematizes the marriage contract as not based on real consent: “True enough”, he charges, while the “bargain” of matrimony may “formally” (i.e. before the law) have been “struck voluntarily” with the “consent” of both parties, the question of “how this consent was obtained” and of “who really arranged the marriage” is “known only two well” (i.e. is questionable) (Engels 749). Similarly, in The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, Marx refers to marriage as most “certainly a form of exclusive private property” (Marx 82), while Engels, in The Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State, classifies the supposedly consensual marriage as the “forced surrender of the female slave” (Engels 739), arguing that while she may supposedly “consent” freely in the law, this is not real consent considering that she realistically has no other choice outside prostitution.

The differences between Mill’s prescription and Marx and Engels’s conception of the political conditions required to bring about gender equality are fundamentally irreconcilable.  Where Mills believes that equality before the law will be sufficient to actualize gender equality, Marx and Engels discard legal equality and rights “on paper” as wholly insufficient mechanisms for gender equality and social change more generally; only a radical transformation of social relations and the political and economic order (the communist revolution) could accomplish such a feet.

Marx and Engels construct a parallel critique of liberal enlightenment theorists in the context of the social contract (i.e. what Marx and Engels refer to as the state), once again by emphasizing the contradictions between the state “on paper” (i.e. its claim to functioning in the interest of the majority) versus the state in practice—i.e. how the state functions to systematically advantage the property owning bourgeois class at the expense of the proletariat majority under capitalism.

For Locke, the principle function of the state is to guarantee the safety and security of one’s formerly unprotected private property. In his germinal work, The Second Treatise on Government, Locke explains that individuals initially chose to leave the “state of nature” and join civil society (thereby forming the State) for the sole purpose of “mutual preservation of their lives, liberties, and estates which, I call by the general name, property” (p). lthough Locke’s notion of the state is primarily tasked with protecting private property rights, it also plays a role in upholding the “natural rights” of individual persons under the law, namely self-determination and individual freedom.

In the context of the State, Marx and Engels call attention to the discrepancy between what the state claims to do in the abstract and what the citizens of a given state experience in real time– when social circumstances are quite unequal few citizens have the power or privilege to act on their supposed “freedom” of choice.

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