WARD, Colin. "Open and Closed Families"

FamilyWARD, Colin (14/8/1924 – 11/2/2010)

From the book "Anarchy In Action", 1973, by Colin Ward, pp 74 - 78)

In choosing a partner we try both to retain the

relationships we have enjoyed in childhood, and to

recoup ourselves for fantasies which have been denied us.

Mate-selection accordingly becomes for many an attempt to cast a particular part in a fantasy production of their own, and since both parties have the same intention but rarely quite the same fantasies, the result may well be a duel of rival producers.

There are men, as Stanley Spencer said of himself, who need two complementary wives, and women who need two complementary husbands, or at least two complementary love objects. If we insist first that this is immoral or ’unfaithful’, and second that should it occur there is an

obligation on each love-object to insist on exclusive rights, we merely add unnecessary difficulties to a

problem which might have presented none, or at least presented fewer, if anyone were permitted to solve it in their own way. -

Alex Comfort, Sex in Society

"Hotel Woodstock", film by Ang Lee

One essentially anarchist revolution that has advanced

enormously in our own day is the sexual revolution. It is

anarchist precisely because it involves denying the

authority of the regulations laid down by the state and

by various religious enterprises over the activities of the

individual. And we can claim that it has advanced, not

because of the ’breakdown’ of the family that moralists

(quite erroneously) see all around them, but because in

Western society more and more people have decided to

conduct their sexual lives as they see best. Those who

have prophesied dreadful consequences as a result of the

greater sexual freedom which the young assert -

unwanted babies, venereal disease and so on - are

usually the very same people who seek the fulfilment of

their prophesies by opposing the free availability to the

young of contraception and the removal of the stigma

and mystification that surround venereal disease.

The official code on sexual matters was bequeathed to

the state by the Christian Church, and has been harder

and harder to justify with the decline of the beliefs on

which it was based. Anarchists, from Emma Goldman to

Alex Comfort, have observed the connection between

political and sexual repression and, although those who

think sexual liberation is necessarily going to lead to

political and economic liberation are probably

optimistic, it certainly makes people happier. That there

is no immutable basis for sexual codes can be seen from

the wide varieties in accepted behaviour and in

legislation on sexual matters at different penbds and in

different countries. Male homosexuality became a

’problem’ only because it was the subject of legislation.

Female homosexuality was no problem because its

existence was ignored by (male) legislators. The legal

anomalies are sometimes hilarious: ’Who can explain

just why anal intercourse is legal in Scotland between

male and female, but illegal between male and male?

Why is anal intercourse illegal in England between male

and female, yet okay between males if both are over


The more the law is tinkered with in the effort to make it

more rational the more absurdities are revealed, Does

this mean that there are no rational codes for sexual

behaviour? Of course not: they simply get buried in the

irrationalities or devalued through association with

irrelevant prohibitions. Alex Comfort, who sees sex as

’the healthiest and most important human sport’ suggests

that ’the actual content of sexual behaviour probably

changes much less between cultures than the individual’s

capacity to enjoy it without guilt’. He enunciated two

moral injunctions or commandments on sexual

behaviour: ’Thou shalt not exploit another person’s

feelings,’ and ’Thou shalt under no circumstances cause

the birth of an unwanted child.’ His reference to

’commandments’ led Professor Maurice Carstairs to

tease him with the question why, as an anarchist,

Comfort was prescribing rules? - to which he replied

that a philosophy of freedom demanded higher standards

of personal responsibility than a belief in authority. The

lack of ordinary prudence and chivalry which could

often be observed in adolescent behaviour today was, he

suggested, precisely the result of prescribing a code of

chastity which did not make sense instead of principles

which are ’immediately intelligible and acceptable to any

sensible youngster’.

You certainly don’t have to be an anarchist to see the

modem nuclear family as a straitjacket answer to the

functional needs of home-making and child-rearing

which imposes intolerable strains on many of the people

trapped in it. Edmund Leach remarked that ’far from

being the basis of the good society, the family, with its

narrow privacy and tawdry secrets, is the source of all

our discontents’. David Cooper called it ’the ultimate and

most lethal gas chamber in our society’, and Jacquetta

Hawkes said that ’it is a form making fearful demands

on the human beings caught up in it; heavily weighted

for loneliness, excessive demands, strain and failure.

Obviously it suits some of us as the best working

arrangement but our society makes no provision for the

others, whose numbers you can assess by asking

yourself the question: ’How many happy families do I


Consider the case of John Citizen. On the strength of a

few happy evenings in the discotheque, he and Mary

make a contract with the state and/or some religious

enterprise to live together for life and are given a licence

to copulate. Assuming that they surmount the problems

of finding somewhere to live and raise a fitmily, look at

them a few years later. He, struggling home from work

each day, sees himself caught in a trap. She feels the

same, the lonely single-handed housewife, chained to

the sink and the nappy-bucket. And the kids too,

increasingly as the years go by, fed trapped. Why can’t

Mum and Dad just leave us alone? There is no need to

go on with the sap because you know it all backward.

In terms of the happiness and fulfilment of the

individuals involved, the modern family is an

improvement on its nineteenth-century predecessor or

on the various institutional alternatives dreamed up by

authoritarian utopians and we might very well argue that

today there is nothing to prevent people from living

however they like but, in fact, everything about our

society, from the advertisements on television to the

laws of inheritance, is based on the assumption of the

tight little consumer unit of the nuclear family. Housing

is in obvious example: municipal housing makes no

provision for non-standard units and in the private sector

no loans or mortgages are available for communes.

The rich can avoid the trap by the simple expedient of

paying other people to run their households and rear

their children. But for the ordinary family the system

makes demands which very many people cannot meet.

We accept it because it is universal. Indeed the only

examples that Dr Leach could cite where children ’grow

up in larger, more relaxed domestic groups centred on

the community rather than on mother’s kitchen’ were the

Israeli kibbutz or the Chinese commune, so ubiquitous

has the pattern become. But changes are coming: the

women’s liberation movement is one reminder that the

price of the nuclear family is the subjugation of women.

The communes or joint households that some young

people are setting up are no doubt partly a reflection of

the need to share inflated rents but are much more a

reaction against what they see as the stultifying rigid

nature of the small family unit.

The mystique of biological parenthood results in some

couples living in desperate unhappiness because of their

infertility while others have children who are neglected

and unwanted. It also gives rise to the conunon situation

of parents clinging to their children because they have

sunk so much of their emotional capital in them while

the children desperately want to get away from their

possessive love. ’A secure home’, writes John Hartwell,

’often means a stifling atmosphere where human

relationships are turned into a parody and where sips of

creativity are crushed as evidence of deviancy.’ We am

very far from the kind of community in which children

could choose which of the local parent-figures they

would like to attach themselves to but a number of

interesting suggestions are in the air, all aiming at

loosening family ties in the interests of both parents and

children. There is the idea of Paul and Jean Ritter of a

neighbourhood ’children’s house’ serving twenty-five to

forty farnilies, there is Paul Goodman’s notion of a

Youth House on the analogy of this institution in some

’primitive cultures, and there is Toddy Gold’s suggested

Multiple Family Housing Unit. These ideas are not

based on any rejection of our responsibility towards the

young; they involve sharing this responsibility

throughout the community and accepting the principle

that, as Kropotkin put it, all children are our children.

They also imply giving children themselves

responsibilities not only for themselves but to the

community, which is exactly what our family structure

fails to do.

Personal needs and aspirations vary so greatly that it is

as fatuous to suggest stereotyped alternatives as it is to

recommend universal conformity to the existing pattern.

At one end of the scale is the warping of the child by the

accident of parenthood, either by possessiveness or by

the perpetuation of a family syndrome of inadequacy

and incompetence. At the other end is the emotional

stultification of the child through a lack of personal

attachments in institutional child care. We all know

conventional households permeated with casual

affection where domestic chores and responsibilities are

shared, while we can readily imagine a communal

household in which the women were drudges

collectively instead of individually and in which a child

who was not very attractive or assertive was not so

much left alone as neglected. More important than the

structure of the family are the expectations that people

have of their roles in it. The domestic tyrant of the

Victorian family was able to exercise his tyranny only

because the others were prepared to put up with it.

There is an old slogan among progressive educators,

Have’em, Love’em and Leave’em Alone. This again is

not urging neglect, but it does emphasise that half the

personal miseries and frustrations of adolescents and of

the adults they become are due to the insidious pressures

on the individual to do what other people think is

appropriate for him. At the same time the continual

extension of the processes of formal education delays

even further the granting of real responsibility to the

young. Any teacher in further education will tell you of

the difference between sixteen-year-olds who are at

work and attend part-time vocational courses and those

of the same age who are still in full-time education. In

those benighted countries where young children are still

allowed to work you notice not only the element of

exploitation but also the maturity that goes with

undertaking functional responsibilities in the real world.

The young are caught in a tender trap: the age of puberty

and the age of marriage (since our society does not

readily permit experimental alternatives yet) go down

while, at the same time, acceptance into the adult world

is continually deferred - despite the lowering of the

formal age of majority. No wonder many adults appear

to be cast in a mould of immaturity. In family life we

have not yet developed a genuinely permissive society

but simply one in which it is difficult to grow up. On the

other hand, the fact that for a minority of young people -

a minority which is increasing - the stereotypes of sexual

behaviour and sexual roles which confined and

oppressed their elders for centuries have simply become

irrelevant, will certainly be seen in the future as one of

the positive achievements of our age.