There are two “right answers” to the question of marriage on the American left today. Let’s call the people who give these answers the Joiners and the Quitters. (The conservative right would be the Keep-Outers.) In many ways, the split between the Joiners and the Quitters is the same divide faced by civil-rights movements throughout U.S. history, whether on behalf of women, workers, African-Americans or queer folk: Joiners demand that an excluded group be granted access to some set of common rights and privileges, while Quitters argue that the very existence of those rights and privileges is the problem and that the solution lies in their total abolition. Such abolition may take the form of a frontal assault, but is more likely to appear as a secession from normality: the creation of a counter-culture, the quitting of the system. The Joiners vs. Quitters distinction is also the distinction between moderates and radicals, or reformists and revolutionaries, and it is what gives the left its tension. When the issue in question is a “cultural” one, it sometimes maps onto the distinction between philistines and bohemians, or squares and hipsters.
With respect to marriage, it seems that the current climate on the left allows one to be a Joiner, a Quitter, or even both together, as expressed in this immortal tweet by Feminist Hulk on March 26, 2013: “Hulk support queer and feminist challenges to marriage as institution. Hulk also champion same-sex marriage. Hulk vast, contain multitudes.” One frequently encounters this attempt to have one’s satisfying civil rights victory and eat it too. The logic seems to be: Sure, marriage may be an obsolete relic of a time when women were passed from one male householder to another like chattel, but dammit, if the law is going to confer tangible material benefits on married couples, then same-sex couples deserve equal access to those benefits.
It’s hard to say which is more prevalent: this muddled compromise, or the two starker positions it mashes together. It’s certainly not too difficult to find Quitters who insist that the gay marriage movement is a huge detour. They have little sympathy for what they see as the hobbyhorse of well-to-do bourgeois couples, out to save money on their taxes and be accepted as normal Americans, since American heteronormativity is exactly what needs to be attacked. Gays in the military? Don’t fight their wars! Gay marriage? Don’t prop up the breeders’ Holy Family! From this perspective, the throngs outside the Supreme Court are little more than dupes of otherwise normative gays who will do anything to avoid being associated with the real scary queers—the proud queens, transfolks, pansexuals, omnisexuals and assorted other radicals who do pose a threat to the sexual security of straight America.
By the same token, one can easily find Joiners—Andrew Sullivan has been the most persistent and the most prominent—eager to trumpet the conservatism of the gay marriage movement, claiming that traditionalism is its greatest strength. The fact that most self-identified conservatives oppose gay marriage is seen as a temporary artifact of post-Reaganite rightward political drift. In time, as even rural Americans get used to the idea of the gay couple down the street holding the neighborhood potluck and coaching Little League, resistance will ebb away and gay married couples will simply be woven into the national fabric, as unremarkable as their straight neighbors. Maybe there will even be some salutary change to American normality, worked from the inside, as gay married couples provide straights with a model of egalitarian partnership.
This last possibility indicates that even the Joiners are not totally reconciled to the marriage status quo. They recognize that gender inequality has an ineradicably negative impact on the state of marriage, and that the problem can’t be solved by means of a conservative restoration of an imaginary Golden Age in which both men and women understood their proper roles. Their hope is that an infusion of new blood into the stale institution will revive it. The Quitters have an answer, of course: there’s no difference between this argument as it relates to marriage and to other spheres of life. Capitalism doesn’t change when there are more women CEOs, and government doesn’t change when there are more female officeholders. In other words, the office influences the occupant more than the other way around, and it’s sheer fantasy to imagine that feminine compassion or gay egalitarianism can transform the patriarchal institutions to which they so fiercely fight for admittance.
The Joiner/Quitter debate poses stark alternatives, no matter how many would prefer to stand on two branches, trumpeting every achievement in the struggle for gay marriage while simultaneously forecasting the future abolition of heteronormativity writ large. Progressives love to be on the right side of history, and to forecast the inevitable sweeping away of cultural-conservative opposition on the receding tides. But the possibility always remains, nagging, that what has been achieved is not in fact a “step forward” but only sideways, or even backwards, if it pushes back the day when the real victories are won.
And as it turns out, this argument has been going on for over a hundred years.
Let’s travel back, then, to the turn of the last century, when bohemians lived in Bohemia, or in its general vicinity. A young Erich Mühsam endured repeated beatings at the hands of his father and his schoolmasters; they were trying to kill the anarchist poet in him and let the respectable bourgeois pharmacist be born. In 1900, 22-year-old Erich relocated to Berlin and made the acquaintance of the Neue Gemeinschaft [New Community], a kind of mystical-intellectual discussion group founded by the brothers Julius and Heinrich Hart. He found the Hart brothers pompous and their secular communal mysticism mostly useless, though he did take one valuable thing from the encounter: the friendship of Gustav Landauer, a notorious anarchist activist eight years his senior. Both men quit the New Community in haste, but the friendship they made there would last for decades.
Landauer encouraged Mühsam’s aesthetic and political pursuits, and the two would become frequent collaborators in the years ahead—their greatest and most ill-fated collaboration being the proclamation of the Bavarian Council Republic on April 6th, 1919 (it lasted six days). Both men believed in the radical transformation of society into a self-governing network of democratic councils: workers’ councils, soldiers’ councils, peasants’ councils. In this sense they were comrades, far closer to each other politically than to any others outside their small circles. Yet even within this close-knit friendship there was room for radical disagreement, especially on the issue of marriage.
Mühsam was in many ways a representative bohemian of his time; in 1904 he moved to the famous artists’ colony in Ascona, Switzerland, where he spent four years living communally with like-minded vegetarian socialist artist types (his own art was theater—drama and cabaret). Like other anarchists, he stood for free love, women’s rights and an open attitude towards homosexuality. Unlike many communists and socialists of the era, Mühsam insisted that these issues were not separate from or secondary to the struggle for economic and political revolution. “The personal is political” may be a slogan associated with the feminism of the 1960s and 70s, but activists like Mühsam and Emma Goldman already preached it at the turn of the century; it was obvious to them that one could not be a revolutionary in public and a reactionary in the home. Cultural philistinism, they thought, went hand in hand with the central bureaucratic state, the predatory capitalist economy and the hierarchy of the church.
Landauer, on the other hand, thought that the battle lines could not be drawn so clearly. Other anarchists in his milieu occasionally called him “the conservative revolutionary,” since he was given to nostalgia about the Middle Ages and could often be heard defending marriage and the family from libertine attack. Landauer considered the conservative label a misunderstanding. His position could not be reduced to a simplistic revolutionary/ reformist dichotomy; he was neither a Joiner nor a Quitter, but something else entirely.
In 1910, a Russian aristocrat, Maria Tarnowska, went to trial in Venice for allegedly inciting one of her lovers to murder another one. The case was a sensation, drawing international attention both to the progress of the trial and to the sordid details of Tarnowska’s personal life. Landauer commented in his paper, Der Sozialist, that the case showed the perils of free love and its disconnect from anarcho-socialist struggle. He then offered Mühsam a platform in a subsequent issue of Der Sozialist to disagree. In an article called “Women’s Rights,” Mühsam declared:
As long as we live in the present state, in a society with unhealthy institutions and values, we cannot predict the ways in which decadence and strength will express themselves in private life under socialist conditions. … It is a completely arbitrary demand that people who are in close relationships should remain “faithful” to one another. The state makes these demands largely in light of inheritance laws—they have nothing at all to do with socialism.
Mühsam did not rule out the possibility that marriage and the family would continue to exist under socialism, but he argued that to proclaim these a social foundation under current conditions was to fall into a conservative trap. The important thing was to maintain the intense focus on achieving women’s rights and sexual liberation in the here and now.
Landauer responded in his turn with a wide-ranging article, “On Marriage.” He protested against any interpretation of his words as diminishing the energy required to struggle for the rights of women. In our current society, it may well be the case that intimate life is regulated by bureaucratic systems of coercion, just as public life is. This does not mean, however, that marriage—and here he distinguishes marriage from “monogamy,” which he by no means exclusively recommends—has no basis in human nature. In a just society, marriage would really become what conservatives say it already is: the basic unit or cell of society, which instantiates in microcosm all the values and relations that we want to see manifested in society as a whole. For Landauer, marriage was not only ineradicable but an essential channeling of the deepest human energies: “All our intimacy, all our holy things, all our fantasy and mysticism, all our religion dwells in this covenant of two sexes, with the progeny growing from their unification, and so also all our lust and animal delight.”
Since his general anarchism was predicated on the immediate realization of socialist projects, rather than waiting for the Revolution-with-a-capital-R to break out as the inevitable result of the march of history, Landauer saw the defense of marriage as a socialist project. If one really imagines the relationship between spouses as an egalitarian, loving phenomenon within which each member constantly strives to improve his or her consideration for the flourishing of the other, in word and in deed, then that relationship is a test case for social relations more generally: if you can’t create a miniature utopian society with one other person, you can’t expect to do it with millions of other people.
To be sure, such solidarity is difficult— but this is exactly why it is essential. The constant negotiation necessary for a successful egalitarian marriage is a school for democratic decision-making. One cannot build one’s personal life around relationships that founder as soon as they encounter difficulties and at the same time hope to create a lasting social structure that encourages solidarity rather than selfishness and brutality. A community of people who know how to be married, Landauer thought, is a community of people who know how to negotiate across difference.
At the same time, permanence is not to be valued above all else. Landauer’s own life reflected his commitments, in that both of his marriages involved functioning as a unit within a particular milieu: he married Grete Leuschner, a needleworker, while he was involved in labor-based anarchist politics, and later Hedwig Lachmann, a poet, when he withdrew from politics to focus on philosophy and criticism. The marriage to Lachmann lasted for 18 years, until her life was cut short by illness; Landauer composed a tribute to her called “How Hedwig Lachmann Died” and distributed it to their closest friends. One year later, Landauer himself would be murdered by proto-fascist troops of the Freikorps as penalty for his involvement in the council republic; his friend Martin Buber would write that the loss of his wife had given Landauer a death wish.
Landauer’s position gained few followers. It was less intuitive than that of Mühsam and his fellow Quitters, which drew on the fact that marriage was enumerated by conservatives among the guardians of law, order and right conduct (assuming that the reactionary list of things to support provided the best guide of things to oppose). And it wouldn’t be attractive to Joiners either, since it assumed prior engagement in a fight for radical change across social and economic institutions. Nonetheless, a contemporary version of Landauer’s position could be a powerful interlocutor for the various critiques and defenses of marriage we encounter today.
Take the conservative position. Ryan T. Anderson, a Heritage Foundation fellow and co-author of What is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense, recently spoke to an assembly of the Alliance Defending Freedom (a conservative legal group pursuing cases it deems threats to religious freedom), and claimed that “the argument for marriage hasn’t been heard and rejected; it simply hasn’t been heard.” As framed by Anderson and other natural-law advocates like Princeton’s Robert P. George, marriage provides the optimal environment for child-rearing by endowing each child with a mother and a father, each of whom acts as an irreplaceable element of a family unit that requires both. Long before our culture was enmeshed in the same-sex marriage controversy, Anderson argues, “far too many people bought into a liberal ideology about sexuality that makes a mess of marriage: Cohabitation, no-fault divorce, extra-marital sex, non-marital childbearing, massive consumption of pornography and the hook-up culture all contributed to the breakdown of our marriage culture.” Not only are mothers and fathers not interchangeable, Anderson argues, but rational arguments underlie the values of permanence, exclusivity and monogamy that in turn underpin marriage. (He has little to say about the fact that really “traditional” marriage doesn’t historically involve much exclusivity or monogamy, but that’s another matter.)
Anderson may be anthropologically, historically and philosophically wrong about natural law, and therefore wrong about marriage, but he is right that there are few on the left who take conservative arguments seriously, rather than simply dismissing them as bigotry. The left is often so caught up in its internal battles that it neglects the contest with conservatism. Occasionally one gets the sense that it is considered embarrassing even to contemplate debating conservative ideas, as though they might corrupt or infect. It is worth asking, however, even if the appeal must be made on strategic grounds rather than by reference to the lofty ideals of public discourse, where the power of the conservative position comes from. The “pro-life” movement has fought on for decades after Roe v. Wade; the “defense of marriage” movement is gearing up to do the same thing.
Joiners, who seek only to gain admittance for gays to the institution of marriage as we know it, may concede the praise of permanence, exclusivity and monogamy, and contest only the claim that the mother and father have eternal, specific roles written in natural law. Quitters, by contrast, argue that such concessions go too far; yet in the process they seem to fit the caricature that conservatives present of the left, seemingly committed to the destruction of all stability and tradition. For all their radicalism, however, the Quitters pay too little attention to whether the dissolution of the marriage bond isn’t completely in step with the march of capitalism, under which “all that is solid melts into air.” In an era when many young people have more “connections” than friends, is it really liberation to imagine our relationships as a constantly forming and re-forming nebulous mass, related to completely amorphous and contingent feelings and desires? Don’t many of the lefty criticisms of marriage start to seem like capitalist defenses of consumer choice?
The conservative vision of marriage, in which a Father does Father-Things, a Mother does Mother-Things, and no untoward hanky-panky ever takes place, is indeed a microcosm of the patriarchal vision for society as a whole (the authority of a father over his household is a classic model in political theory, alongside that of the ship’s captain, for the authority of the state). It deserves to be met by a vision of love and commitment that is open and flexible, but not subordinated to the consumerist logic of individual whims. A left committed to such a vision might discover resources to combat the social disintegration of post-industrial life, without the false panaceas of nationalism, trade solidarity, or state-sponsored religious initiatives. Or as Landauer once put it, summing up both a commitment to utopianism rooted in the present, and a belief in the intimate ties between the personal and the political: “The message is: It is in you! It is not on the outside. It is you.” The utopian imagination must be directed inward, from which point it can radiate out to the neighbor, the spouse, the neighborhood, the city, the country and the world.