Spartacist Canada No. 160

Spring 2009


Bountiful, B.C.

Mormon Polygamists—Leave Them Alone!

On January 7 the RCMP arrested two religious leaders of the polygamist Mormon community in Bountiful, B.C., Winston Blackmore and James Oler. After two decades of prying, successive governments could find no evidence for their claims that women and young people were being abused in Bountiful, and so they charged Blackmore and Oler under a 19th century law outlawing polygamy. The only crime here is an all-sided government attack on a vulnerable and easily scapegoated community, whose rights to voluntary marital arrangements and to practice their religion are being crushed under a state juggernaut. Anyone who doubts this should listen to B.C. Attorney-General Wally Oppal: “Some people are of the view that people of consenting age ought to have the right to enter into polygamous relationships under religious principles. I disagreed with that” (Globe and Mail, 8 January). Today it is the Mormons, but ultimately this witchhunt targets anyone who does not conform to the bourgeois sexual norm of “one man on one woman for life.”

The arrests in Bountiful follow a brutal crackdown in the U.S. In April 2008, the Mormon community of Eldorado, Texas was stormed by police and other state agencies in an outrageous mass kidnapping of more than 500 women and children, based on a phone call claiming sexual abuse. The state admitted that this call was probably a hoax. The spiritual leader of the community, Warren Jeffs, was already in prison charged with “rape as an accomplice” for performing a marriage—“rape” because the young woman was underage at 14 and the groom was her 19-year-old cousin.

We Marxists have a longstanding position in defense of polygamous Mormons against state persecution. The Mormons have the right to be left alone, to practice their religion and live their private lives however they see fit. This stance, like our support for the right of gay marriage, stems from our opposition to government interference with the rights of individuals to effect whatever consensual arrangements they wish. Leave the Mormon polygamists alone!

The Bountiful Mormons, having breached the bourgeoisie’s marital norms, are at the vortex of an intense “war on crime” and an equally intense drive to make criminals of people for their private consensual arrangements. The NDP is directly complicit in this assault on basic rights. On the heels of the Texas raid, Vancouver-area NDP MP Dawn Black wrote to the federal Tory justice minister demanding that polygamy and “statutory rape” charges be laid against the Bountiful Mormons. Saluting the Tories for placing a “high priority on the issue of crime,” Black’s 23 April 2008 letter stated that “a refusal to lay charges could be seen as tacit approval of or support for the activities in Bountiful.”

The Bountiful community, the main Canadian branch of the U.S.-based Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS), a long-established split-off from the mainstream Mormons, has long been in the government’s crosshairs. Polygamy was officially renounced by the Mormon Church in 1890, as a condition set by the U.S. Congress for Utah to obtain statehood. Several factions, including the FLDS, broke from the main church in order to continue the practice of polygamy. Today an estimated 10,000 FLDS followers live in communities around the Utah-Arizona border and nearby states, and about 1,200 in B.C.

Canada’s anti-polygamy law—Section 293 of the Criminal Code—was enacted in 1892 for the sole purpose of keeping Mormons out of the country. It makes illegal “any kind of conjugal union with more than one person at the same time, whether or not it is by law recognized as a binding form of marriage.” Under this law, anyone entering into any kind of multiple partner relationships or long-term extramarital affairs—and all kinds of people do—could find themselves tarred as a criminal. As right-wing National Post (9 January) columnist Colby Cosh noted wryly, “any man who has ever thrown a party for his mistress might look at section 293 and shudder slightly.”

Indeed, not everyone is marching in lockstep with this ominous campaign. A 2005 study commissioned by the federal government’s own Status of Women Canada recommended repeal of the polygamy law. One of the authors, McGill University law professor Angela Campbell, recalled what repeal of this law would mean to the Bountiful women she interviewed:

“A few women reflected on the relief they would feel to live without the stigma of being branded a ‘criminal.’ Others said they believed that decriminalization would foster broader social acceptance of their lifestyle and reduce the hostility they occasionally encounter outside Bountiful. Some women recounted having been spat on and verbally assaulted.”

Gazette [Montreal], 26 July 2008

The B.C. Civil Liberties Association, in a February 9 news release, called to drop the charges against Blackmore and Oler, noting, “Literally thousands of Canadians might be captured by a strict enforcement approach to polygamy law.” And the gay rights activists at noted, “Now the trial of two cultish leaders of a tiny conservative religious sect could very well be one of the most important legal battles of the next decade for gays and lesbians and all people who have flirted with unconventional sexual expression. Will we be brave enough to tackle it?” (“Knives out for polygamy,” 14 January). In sharp contrast, the government’s persecution of the Bountiful Mormons has thus far been met with stony silence by the reformist left.

Capitalist Rulers’ Anti-Sex Witchhunt

The persecution of polygamists is part of a broader anti-sex hysteria whipped up by the capitalist ruling class. In the 1980s and 1990s, people were force-fed the lie that there was an epidemic of child molestations and ritual abuse of children, while sexual predators supposedly lurked behind every teacher’s desk. In 2004 the federal Liberal government created a new crime of “sexual exploitation” that makes consent irrelevant. The Criminal Code now says that a relationship between someone under 18 and another in a “position of authority”—e.g., a teacher or sports coach—is by definition exploitative, a crime for which the latter could spend up to ten years in jail. Then there is the Tory government’s “anti-crime” law, passed last year with the backing of the NDP. Among many other sweepingly reactionary provisions, this law raised the “age of consent” from 14 to 16.

The state uses “age of consent” laws to oppress youth—who are supposed to go against nature and be “sexless” especially if they’re female. We oppose “age of consent” and “statutory rape” laws, which strengthen the repressive reach of the state, as well as serving as a diversion from the real brutality of this sick capitalist society. We uphold effective consent as the only guiding principle in sexual relations—i.e., mutual agreement and understanding, as opposed to coercion. As long as those who take part agree to do so at the time, no one, least of all the state, has the right to tell them they can’t do it. Rape and violent abuse are terrible crimes that occur in society and in monogamous as well as polygamous families. But the prosecution of the Mormons for polygamy can only force possible victims to retreat further underground in legitimate fear of the authorities.

The bourgeois state persecutes the religious practices of smaller, fringe sects or oppressed minorities to reinforce the authority of “mainstream” religions and, more importantly, the capitalist state itself. To defend their class rule, the capitalists wield their machinery of repression—the cops, the courts and the military—against working people and the oppressed, especially immigrants and other minorities. The horrific taser killing of Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski by cops at the Vancouver airport in October 2007 provoked outrage around the world. Now they are killing Dziekanski all over again in a whitewash “inquiry” whose purpose is to refurbish the image of the racist capitalist state. Racist cop terror in Vancouver again made the headlines this January, when three off-duty policemen were caught in the act of brutally beating a newspaper delivery man of Fijian origin, Firoz Khan.

The Family and Organized Religion: Props of Bourgeois Rule

With revolting hypocrisy, the government is wielding its “save the children” card to more thoroughly target those it deems “deviant,” including the Bountiful community. The lie of government concern for mothers and children is worn threadbare, as Liberal, Tory and NDP regimes alike have slashed social programs, with a huge toll on the most impoverished. Even before the current economic collapse, 15 percent of children in Canada were living in poverty. In B.C., according to the government’s own statistics, the figure was 22 percent; in Vancouver 29 percent.

The institution of the family is the fundamental basis for the oppression of women and youth. The family arose with the advent of private property as the mechanism for passing property from one generation to the next, with the monogamous wife supposedly ensuring the heirs’ paternity. The family serves as the social mechanism to rear the next generation, and under capitalism serves, along with religion, to instill obedience to authority among youth. It reinforces, as Friedrich Engels put it, “the domination of the man over the woman and the single family as the economic unit of society” (The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State [1884]). Engels captured the absurdity of the bourgeoisie’s claim that the monogamous family is the pinnacle of “normalcy,” writing:

“If strict monogamy is the height of all virtue, then the palm must go to the tapeworm, which has a complete set of male and female sexual organs in each of its 50 to 200 proglottides or sections, and spends its whole life copulating in all its sections with itself. Confining ourselves to mammals, however, we find all forms of sexual life—promiscuity, indications of group marriage, polygyny, monogamy.”

Indeed, the sexual proclivities of a group-living mammalian species such as our own are patently ill suited to the rigid heterosexual monogamy which forms the ideological foundation of the institution of the family, reinforced by organized religion.

Certainly the family is a cesspool of frustration, coercion and abuse—whether the capitalists’ favoured monogamous family or that of the Mormon polygamists. But it is almost universally far worse to fall into the clutches of this barbaric and brutal government’s institutions. Youth who try to escape their families have nowhere to go and often end up on the streets or in detention centers. We fight for 24-hour, quality daycare and for safe shelters for youth and teens as well as for free contraceptives and abortion on demand. If they so choose, teenagers should be able to emancipate themselves from their parents, both legally and through real access to education, training and union jobs. These are basic measures needed to help those most in need to escape poverty and stultifying family life.

The family structure, whether monogamous or polygamous, necessarily oppresses women. However, not everybody understands the source of their oppression, and people do all sorts of things that are undoubtedly bad for them that the state still has no business throwing them in prison for.

As Marxists, we understand that the private property system, upheld by the bourgeois state, and the family cannot be “reformed” away. Only socialist revolution on an international scale can lay the material basis for the liberation of women. The working class in power would abolish the capitalist private property and inheritance system, replacing it with a planned collectivized economy based on material abundance in which child-rearing and other functions now performed by the family will be the responsibility of society as a whole.

Bourgeois Oppression, Imperialist Barbarism

In a vicious editorial saluting the Bountiful witchhunt, the Globe and Mail (14 January) stated that if the government had not launched this prosecution, then “everything would be up for grabs—wife assault, genital mutilation, culturally specific practices of corporal punishment, Islamic courts.” Grotesquely, this equation of voluntary relationships with the most horrific anti-woman violence and oppression is echoed by the pseudo-leftists of the International Campaign Against Shari’a Court in Canada. Calling to extend the polygamy prosecutions to Muslims, Campaign leader Homa Arjomand told the Vancouver Province (8 January), “I am hoping one day all people who commit polygamy will face jail time.”

Mormonism is one of many unusual North American religious sects (check out Christian Science and L. Ron Hubbard’s Scientology) essentially chosen by their practitioners. But in many regions of the world the legacy of precapitalist social backwardness means that women are held to be little more than property, requiring struggle by communists to abolish institutionalized polygamy, as well as the bride price, female genital mutilation and other such practices. In countries of belated capitalist development, social backwardness is reinforced and manipulated by imperialist domination. For example, the U.S. and Canadian imperialists prop up reactionary client states like impoverished Afghanistan and oil-rich Saudi Arabia, where women are forcibly veiled from head-to-toe and denied virtually any rights. At home or abroad, looking to the imperialist rulers of Canada—whose troops are currently killing innocent civilians in the brutal occupation of Afghanistan—to be liberators of women is deadly dangerous and deeply reactionary.

As for religion itself, Marxist materialism is counterposed to reactionary superstition and mysticism and we are for the separation of church and state. As Marxists committed to building a revolutionary party, we strongly opposed the proposal five years ago to give Islamic sharia courts legal standing in Ontario:

“Religion ought to be a private matter in relation to the state. People should be free to practice their religion without the state persecution and religious bigotry which has spawned centuries of repression and bloodshed. But these religious tribunals are not a matter of private religious practice. Their rulings will have the force of law, making them part of the legal machinery of the capitalist state which in turn is to be the enforcer of religious obscurantism.”

—No to Ontario’s ‘Sharia Courts’!” SC No. 142, Fall 2004

Religion provides moral justification for exploitation and reactionary prejudices. It deflects workers’ struggles into piety and acquiescence to bourgeois power. But religious beliefs cannot be “abolished” by decree; they will only wither away when material want is overcome and the oppressed masses no longer feel the need to resort to the supernatural to provide for the hope of a better life, which is unattainable in capitalist society.

Political and religious dissenters have long sought a haven in rural areas of western Canada, and there are numerous examples of the bourgeoisie wielding the state’s enormous repressive powers against them. For many decades, the Doukhobors—pacifist refugees from Tsarist repression who fled to Canada more than 100 years ago—were targeted for their communal mode of living and their refusal to send their children to public school because they did not want them indoctrinated with militarism.

Persecuted by state authorities, the Doukhobors protested in the nude and burnt buildings—both their own and those of the government. For their beliefs, they endured mass arrests in the 1930s and a campaign of hysteria and repression during the Cold War 1950s. This culminated in a vicious 1953 raid on their Kootenay community by the right-wing B.C. government of W.A.C. Bennett. The cops seized 170 children and threw them into the same fenced and guarded “residential school” in New Denver where Japanese Canadians were interned during World War II. Treated brutally, allowed only minimal contact with their parents and barred from speaking their native Russian language, many were held until 1959.

While the Bountiful Mormon polygamists may be a peculiar sect, they are not the ones wielding the massive apparatus of violence and death that is the bourgeois state. Capitalism is an irrational, destructive system that breeds racism, war and oppression. It will take a socialist revolution to end the oppression of women and youth and liberate humanity from the clutches of capitalist barbarism. This requires the working class to come to the understanding that the capitalist state with its cops, courts and military must be smashed and replaced with a workers state, on the way to building a classless communist society where social oppression based on race, gender or age will be but a dim memory of a brutal past.