Documents in: Bahasa Indonesia Deutsch Español Français Italiano Japanese Polski Português Russian Chinese Tagalog
International Communist League
Home Spartacist, theoretical and documentary repository of the ICL, incorporating Women & Revolution Workers Vanguard, biweekly organ of the Spartacist League/U.S. Periodicals and directory of the sections of the ICL ICL Declaration of Principles in multiple languages Other literature of the ICL ICL events

Deutsch, English, Español, Français

Get Spartacist with a subscription to an English-language ICL periodical

View the Spartacist and Women & Revolution archives

Printable version of this article

Spartacist English edition No. 66

Spring 2020

A Tribute to Lewis Henry Morgan

On the Genesis of Women’s Oppression

(Women and Revolution pages)

Pioneer American anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan (1818-1881) was the author of Ancient Society (1877), the groundbreaking work that for the first time put the study of early history and culture on a scientific basis. As such it was the inspiration for Friedrich Engels’ The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State (1884), the key Marxist work laying out the institution of the family as the main source of the oppression of women.

One of the more pernicious myths promulgated by bourgeois ideologists is that the family and the subordination of women are decreed by biology and have always existed. Morgan’s work proved that the “tribe” (clan), not the family, was “the primitive and spontaneously developed form of human association” in early society (Engels, footnote to Capital, Vol. 1, 1883). Morgan often used the Latin term “gens” or its plural “gentes,” now called clan or band. In the tribal organization, the original division of labor between the sexes was egalitarian and reciprocal, kinship was reckoned through the maternal line, and sexual relations were relatively free. There was no dependency of women and children upon the support of a man, and the care of the children was the work of the clan as a whole.

In Marxist terms, Morgan’s work showed that the family and the oppression of women arose out of the breaking up of the communal, egalitarian hunter-gatherer clan. The advance of productive technology (e.g., agriculture, domestication of animals, metallurgy, textiles) in the late Neolithic period allowed for the production of a social surplus for the first time and laid the basis for the emergence of a class-divided society based on the exploitation of labor by a ruling elite. The invention of private property brought with it the institutions of the state and the family to defend and differentiate the tiny group of exploiters from the masses of toilers. Thus the source of the subordination of women is neither biology (as reactionaries of all sorts claim) nor male-supremacist ideology (as feminists often claim). Women’s oppression is the product of a certain stage of historical development, and it inevitably is affected as the social and economic level of society changes.

Morgan saw his analysis of cultural history as “provisional” and “convenient and useful,” commenting that it “may require modification, and perhaps essential change in some of its members.” Indeed, since the publication of Ancient Society some of Morgan’s hypotheses have been shaken or even become untenable, but Morgan’s broader understanding of the evolution of early human society is confirmed by findings in anthropology, human evolution and archeology over the last 150 years.

The issue of updating Morgan’s data has often been used by anti-communists to attack Engels’ The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State. On the contrary, a dialectical materialist analysis of early history as presently understood deepens, confirms and reinforces the conception that the genesis of women’s oppression lies in private property and the family; it also confirms the Marxist perspective of women’s liberation through socialist revolution. Marxists see the emancipation of women as part of a worldwide socialist transformation that will include the full replacement of the family with socialized childcare and housework in a society of abundance created by a globally planned economy based on the most advanced technology.

Morgan and the Materialist Conception of History

In his preface to the first edition of Origin, Engels wrote:

“The following chapters constitute, in a sense, the fulfillment of a behest. It was no less a person than Karl Marx who had planned to present the results of Morgan’s researches in connection with the conclusions arrived at by his own—within certain limits, I might say our own—materialist investigation of history and only thus to make clear their whole significance. For Morgan rediscovered in America, in his own way, the materialist conception of history that had been discovered by Marx forty years ago, and in his comparison of barbarism and civilisation was led by this conception to the same conclusions, in the main points, as Marx.”

Origin, subtitled In the Light of the Researches by Lewis H. Morgan, was based on extensive extracts from and notes on Ancient Society that Marx made before he died in 1883. (For Marx’s actual notes, see The Ethnological Notebooks of Karl Marx, Lawrence Krader, ed. [Amsterdam: International Institute of Social History, 1972].)

Morgan spent a lifetime in original research and fieldwork that was initially sparked by his discovery of a kinship system among the Iroquois in upper New York State that had been unknown to European science. This led to his discovery of the original egalitarian, clan-based organization of human society and of the fact that the family itself had evolved and changed, based on the underlying social and economic structure. Through subsequent worldwide research, Morgan hypothesized that human history as a whole could be defined in terms of successive stages. His starting point was the fact of the uneven development of the different peoples of the world, illustrating the sequence of social evolution.

The purpose of Ancient Society was stated in its subtitle, Researches in the Lines of Human Progress from Savagery through Barbarism to Civilization. Morgan wrote:

“As it is undeniable that portions of the human family have existed in a state of savagery, other portions in a state of barbarism, and still other portions in a state of civilization, it seems equally so that these three distinct conditions are connected with each other in a natural as well as necessary sequence of progress.”

Bourgeois ideologues have slandered Morgan as a racist for using the terms “savagery” and “barbarism.” But as Rosa Luxemburg noted:

“By filling the descriptions ‘savagery,’ ‘barbarism’ and ‘civilization’ for the first time with a positive content, Morgan made them into precise scientific concepts and applied them as tools of scientific research. For Morgan, savagery, barbarism and civilization are three sections of cultural development, separated from each other by quite particular material characteristics.”

—“Introduction to Political Economy,” 1909-10

The stages that Morgan called savagery and barbarism are now called Old Stone Age (Paleolithic) and New Stone Age (Neolithic), while the story of the evolution from one to the other and further to class-divided society has been enriched and broadened.

Independently of Marx and Engels, Morgan pointed to the same force propelling social evolution, namely that of the development of the mode of production: “Mankind commenced their career at the bottom of the scale and worked their way up from savagery to civilization through the slow accumulations of experimental knowledge” by inventing more effective methods of producing the means of subsistence (food, clothing, tools, shelter). He postulated parallel sequences in the history of social, economic and political institutions: the evolution of the family, private property and the state.

While he began with a materialist framework, Morgan saw social evolution as springing from the development of a series of “original ideas” (the “idea” of government, of the family, of property). It fell to Engels in Origin to apply a fully historical-materialist understanding to Morgan’s findings and to sharply define their theoretical implications.

Morgan Founds Scientific Anthropology

Born into a prosperous farming family in upstate New York, Morgan was well educated and soon showed the scholarly dedication that led to his becoming one of the premier American scientists of his generation. He served as the president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and founded its anthropology section, was elected to the National Academy of Sciences and delivered innumerable papers to the prestigious New York Historical Society and others. He was part of the first generation that contributed to the newly founded Smithsonian Institution; he worked to build museum collections of Native American artifacts. He met with and corresponded with Charles Darwin and other prominent scientists of his day.

Morgan’s interest in ethnology began as a youthful romantic infatuation with Native Americans, specifically the Iroquois. His father’s farm was located within their historic territory; the federal government awarded the land to Morgan’s grandfather in recognition of his service in the Continental Army in the American Revolution. Morgan founded a fraternity with his friends modeled on Iroquois dress, language and customs. Soon he made the acquaintance of the 16-year-old Ely Parker, a Seneca Indian from the Iroquois tribe who later became famous in his own right as a Civil War brigadier general under U.S. Grant and as the author of the terms of the Confederate surrender at Appomattox. Parker introduced Morgan to his friends and family at the Tonawanda Reservation.

On one of these visits Morgan made the discovery that set the course of his life: he found that the Iroquois had a kinship system at odds with customary practice in the country. As an example, among the Iroquois one called one’s biological mother and her sisters by the same kinship term, and the children of one’s mother’s sisters were called “brother” and “sister.” A man called his brother’s children “son” and “daughter”; however, the children of his sister were “nephew” and “niece.” The Iroquois rule of exogamy (marriage outside the group) meant that mother and father were in different clans. This, not biological relationships, determined the concepts and terms of kinship. Morgan had discovered the kinship terminology of a clan based on matrilineal descent.

Morgan pursued his studies of Iroquois ethnology with Parker’s assistance, both at Tonawanda and at the Six Nations Reservation in Canada. In 1851, he published the first major scientific account of Native Americans, The League of the Iroquois, dedicated to Parker and considered to this day one of the finest studies of Iroquois culture. Morgan never lived among the Iroquois, as Engels claimed—this error was widely believed in Europe at the time. In fact, he was adopted into the Hawk clan of the Seneca tribe and tried to help the Native Americans in their struggle against attempts to defraud them of their land.

Settling in Rochester, New York, in 1844, Morgan earned his living as a successful railroad lawyer and businessman, traveling widely throughout the Midwest in the process. On his journeys he always pursued opportunities to meet and interview members of different Native American tribes (including the Ojibwas, who belonged to a different language family from the Iroquois) and soon found evidence of similar kinship systems among them. After amassing comfortable wealth through stocks and investments, he retired from his Rochester law practice but continued to serve as an attorney for railroad and mining operations in Michigan. He undertook a series of field trips to the west—including the Kansas-Nebraska territory, the Missouri River region, Colorado and New Mexico—collecting artifacts and recording the details of kinship systems.

In 1871, Morgan published Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity of the Human Family based on the comprehensive collection of kinship terminology current among the peoples of the world. The data came from his own fieldwork among Native Americans as well as through a massive correspondence with missionaries, traders and government agents in Australia, India, Africa, the Pacific Islands and other places.

The analysis of his data led him to the observation that similar systems of naming kinsmen existed independently in different parts of the world. On this basis he postulated that kinship terminology has sociological significance, pointing to earlier stages of actual social relations. Drawing as well on his extensive knowledge of ancient Greek and Roman history, in 1877 Morgan published Ancient Society, in which he reconstructed the early foundation of written history.

Morgan hypothesized that when the technique of obtaining the means of subsistence reached the upper stage of barbarism (late Neolithic), conditions were created for a qualitative transformation of social organization based on the growing productivity of labor. In the original clan-based society, the labor of the entire community was required to maintain the minimum level of subsistence. Property was held in common and the relations of production were collective.

There was no distinction between a public world of men’s work and a private world of women’s household service. The division of labor between the sexes was reciprocal; both were necessary to the well-being of the group. All able individuals participated directly in the acquisition of necessities; both men and women had control over their production. Decisions were made by those who would carry them out. The marriage tie was loose and easily dissolved on either side. While all individuals maintained their autonomy, scarcity necessitated interpersonal dependence and mutual cooperation. The social cohesion of the band was a vital component of its survival kit.

With the development of techniques that increased the productivity of labor and the availability of goods, a process of exchange emerged at the periphery of the communal society. New relations arose outside of the band that gradually undermined its cohesion. Trade, in the form of barter of valued goods such as amber, shells and stone, had long existed in the Stone Age. The later production of goods exclusively for exchange, however, necessitated a new division of labor, with craft specialization and the demand for a surplus to support the craftsmen and traders. Men and women could no longer combine the tasks of obtaining food and making their own tools. As the intensification of production, long-distance trade and craft specialization took place, so too did the tendency for some individuals to accumulate wealth and authority.

Morgan named the governing system of the original clan organization societas, recognizing that no laws or special institutions were needed because the clan, based on communal property, would make decisions when conflicts or differences arose. The new social order he called civitas because a separate governing apparatus was necessary when the determining factor in social relations became private property. In Marxist terms, Morgan had discovered the origin of the state: the division of society into antagonistic classes. The conflict between the direct producers and those who expropriated their surplus product had brought about the need for a special institution to guard private property. Hence the advent of the state institution as special bodies of armed men that defend the ruling class against exploited labor. As V.I. Lenin wrote in The State and Revolution (1917), which quotes extensively from Engels’ Origin, the state is “the product of the irreconcilability of class antagonisms” and “a power standing above society and ‘alienating itself more and more from it’.”

Engels wrote in Origin that Morgan’s “rediscovery of the original mother-right gens as the stage preliminary to the father-right gens of the civilised peoples has the same significance for the history of primitive society as Darwin’s theory of evolution has for biology and Marx’s theory of surplus value for political economy.” At a time when 4004 B.C. was still considered by many to be the date of creation (based on the biblical calculations of a 17th-century Anglican Irish priest), Morgan unequivocally argued for a “hundred thousand or more years” for the age of man and immeasurably more for nonhuman species and for geologic time. He attacked the so-called theory of “human degradation” peddled by theologians of his day, which held that primitive peoples had been reduced to depravity according to the Christian concept of the fall of man.

Morgan repeatedly affirmed the common origin of the human species, writing, “The history of the human race is one in source, one in experience, and one in progress.” In the very last paragraph of Ancient Society, Morgan emphasized that “we owe our present condition, with its multiplied means of safety and of happiness, to the struggles, the sufferings, the heroic exertions and the patient toil of our barbarous, and more remotely, of our savage ancestors.”

Morgan’s Politics

In his own way, Morgan recognized the qualitative differences between the original equality of what Marxists call primitive communism and the oppression and exploitation of class-divided society. Thus he spoke of property becoming “on the part of the people an unmanageable power” and of the human mind standing “bewildered in the presence of its own creation.” He revealed an inspiring vision of the future when he wrote, “Democracy in government, brotherhood in society, equality in rights and privileges, and universal education, foreshadow the next higher plane of society to which experience, intelligence and knowledge are steadily tending. It will be a revival, in a higher form, of the liberty, equality and fraternity of the ancient gentes.

But Morgan was no conscious revolutionary. For him, the march of humanity toward the equality of the future was a spontaneous process, a pious dream. He was a child of the optimistic period of ascendant American capitalism, when technological inventions and new methods of production were expanding at a rapid pace. He was a member of the Republican Party, which at its founding in 1854 represented the progressive, anti-slavery wing of the Northern bourgeoisie. He believed that the government could be a vehicle for achieving social equality, which he defined as the diffusion of prosperity among the masses of people, and served one term in both the New York State Assembly and the New York State Senate. Morgan, a bourgeois radical, saw European aristocracy and state-sponsored religious hierarchy as the main obstacles to equality, and these had been eliminated in the U.S. As he wrote toward the end of his European tour (1870-71):

“I shall be quite glad when I get there [New York], and am once more under the Stars and the Stripes. Our country is the favored and the blessed land. Our institutions are unrivalled, and our people the most advanced in intelligence, and in diffused prosperity upon the surface of the whole earth.”

—quoted in Introduction, Leslie White, ed., Ancient Society (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1964)

The vehemently anti-clerical Morgan spoke of the dogma of Immaculate Conception as a “silly figment of degrading superstition.” In his European travel journals, as quoted in Leslie White’s Introduction to Ancient Society, Morgan lambasted the ruling classes and the church, writing, “It is singular as well as true that in all modern popular insurrections the populace strike simultaneously at the despot and the priest.” In Paris, which he visited soon after the defeat of the Commune in 1871, he wrote, “The Commune, the principles, objects and acts which made up its history, have been unjustly condemned, because not justly understood.” After listening to speakers addressing workers in London’s Hyde Park, Morgan commented, “When the time comes, if it ever does, the working men will have to rise upon the merchants and traders as well as the aristocrats and push them out of the way in one body.”

But his own class interests blinded him to the bitter class struggle in the United States, which had just emerged from four years of bloody war to destroy the Southern slavery system. In the 1870s, the United States witnessed an unprecedented wave of labor strikes, from the textile factories of New England to the coalfields of Pennsylvania. This culminated in the great rail strike of 1877, the year Ancient Society was published. Yet, as anthropologist Leslie White, the foremost scholar of Morgan’s work and editor of the definitive modern edition of Ancient Society, observed in the book’s Introduction, “In all of Morgan’s writings, published and unpublished, no recognition of this bitter class struggle in the United States can be found.”

Much of Morgan’s political activity focused on a lifelong defense of Native Americans. In 1876, when the U.S. erupted in a frenzy of genocidal hatred after the Sioux warriors’ annihilation of General Custer and his troops at Little Big Horn, Morgan defended the Native Americans in an eloquent letter to the Nation (20 July 1876). Recounting the history of the Sioux’s loss of their way of life to the advancing white population, land-grabbing “treaties” and forced resettlement, he wrote, “Who shall blame the Sioux for defending themselves, their wives and children, when attacked in their own encampment and threatened with destruction?” Nevertheless, while Morgan considered the federal authorities’ treatment of the American Indians “disgraceful,” he had illusions in the ability of the capitalist government to find a “remedy” for the Indians’ catastrophic situation. He sought, but did not get, appointment as the federal Commissioner of Indian Affairs.

Morgan was an advocate for women’s rights. While his project to establish a women’s college was not successful, he willed his entire estate to the University of Rochester to advance higher education for women. Speaking of the “great institution of the family, as it now exists,” he knew that the modern monogamous family was related to the subordination of women but felt that the institution could be perfected “until the equality of the sexes is attained.” Morgan recognized that the family must continue to change as society itself changes. He wrote, “Should the monogamian family in the distant future fail to answer the requirements of society, assuming the continuous progress of civilization, it is impossible to predict the nature of its successor.”

Marx and Engels, in sharp contrast, recognized the family as an institution that had to be thoroughly replaced to bring about the liberation of women. Decades before Ancient Society was published, they were deeply influenced by Charles Fourier, the early 19th-century utopian socialist, about whom Engels wrote: “He was the first to declare that in any given society the degree of woman’s emancipation is the natural measure of the general emancipation” (Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, 1880). Fourier understood the role of private property in the subjugation of women and advocated the replacement of the family by collective child-rearing and full sexual freedom. However, Fourier believed that such a society could be created by example alone and tried to set up various socialist communes, which inevitably collapsed under the pressure of the competitive capitalist economy.

Recognizing that the capitalist mode of industrial production constituted a qualitative leap forward, Marx and Engels were the first to put socialism on a scientific basis. They fought for a socialist revolution—the proletarian seizure of power as the first step toward building a worldwide planned economy that would make it possible to abolish private property and liberate women. They dedicated their lives to building a revolutionary organization to lead the workers to victory.

Morgan’s Impact on Marx and Engels

When Marx and Engels drafted the Communist Manifesto in 1848, their knowledge of pre-class primitive society was fragmentary; hence the opening statement in the Manifesto that “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” After they became acquainted with Morgan’s work, they realized that this formulation was out of date. In 1872, Marx and Engels had recognized that “the Manifesto has become an historical document which we have no longer any right to alter.” Thus in the Manifesto’s 1888 edition Engels added a footnote:

“The inner organisation of this primitive Communistic society was laid bare, in its typical form, by Morgan’s crowning discovery of the true nature of the gens and its relation to the tribe. With the dissolution of these primeval communities, society begins to be differentiated into separate and finally antagonistic classes.”

This was more than a mere addition of some technical data. Morgan’s work showed that the primitive communist clan, far from having been a peculiar feature of some particular human groups, represented a stage in the natural social evolution of man.

In Anti-Dühring (1878), Engels wrote that for Marx to fully develop historical materialism, “an acquaintance with the capitalist form of production, exchange and distribution did not suffice. The forms which had preceded it or those which still exist alongside it in less developed countries, had also, at least in their main features, to be examined and compared.” Morgan’s researches and discoveries enabled Marx and Engels to more fully formulate the dialectics of social evolution. Morgan’s researches have, in an important sense, been incorporated into the fabric of Marxism.

Dialectical materialism—Marxism—is entirely counterposed to Morgan’s emphasis on ideas as the driving force in historical change. Marx succinctly explained in A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859):

“In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or—this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms—with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure.”

In opposition to the romantic idealizers of primitive man, such as the French Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Marx and Engels did not see the replacement of the egalitarian hunter-gatherer clans by class-divided societies as the secular equivalent of paradise lost. In Anti-Dühring, Engels described pre-class human society as “still half animal, brutal, still helpless in face of the forces of nature, still ignorant of their own strength; and consequently as poor as the animals and hardly more productive than they.”

Increasing human control over the forces of nature and transforming human culture itself required raising the productivity of labor through the progressive accumulation of scientific knowledge and ever more advanced technologies. Prior to the development of industrial capitalism, building the material, cultural and intellectual wealth of the human collective could not happen without the existence of a privileged class maintained by the labor of the mass of toilers. As Engels explained in Anti-Dühring:

“So long as the really working population were so much occupied with their necessary labour that they had no time left for looking after the common affairs of society—the direction of labour, affairs of state, legal matters, art, science, etc.—so long was it necessary that there should constantly exist a special class, freed from actual labour, to manage these affairs; and this class never failed, for its own advantage, to impose a greater and greater burden of labour on the working masses. Only the immense increase of the productive forces attained by modern industry has made it possible to distribute labour among all members of society without exception, and thereby to limit the labour-time of each individual member to such an extent that all have enough free time left to take part in the general—both theoretical and practical—affairs of society. It is only now, therefore, that every ruling and exploiting class has become superfluous and indeed a hindrance to social development.”

The Roots of Women’s Oppression

In Ancient Society Morgan wrote, “The family represents an active principle. It is never stationary, but advances from a lower to a higher form as society advances from a lower to a higher condition, and finally passes out of one form into another of higher grade.” Women maintained an egalitarian status until the advent of the patriarchal family: “The incorporation of numbers in servile and dependent relations, before that time unknown…stamped the patriarchal society with the attributes of an original institution.” Only the abundance generated by modern industrial production in a worldwide planned economy will make it possible to wholly replace the functions of the family with socialized childcare and housework, freeing women to become full participants in social and political life.

In developing a hypothetical history of the forms of the family, Morgan believed that kinship terminology directly reflected biological relationships of the recent past. Based on this framework and using the data he had collected from fieldwork and historical sources, he developed a theory of the stages of the family—from an original primitive promiscuity to group marriage, pairing marriage and eventually monogamy with the advent of private property. In his view, because of the impossibility of recognizing the male parent with certainty in conditions of group marriage, descent and blood relationships were thus determined through the female line (mother right).

With the advent of relatively settled agricultural societies, he posited, exclusive relationships between men and women began to emerge, pairing for a longer or shorter period. The man had a chief wife among his many wives, and for her he was the most important among her many husbands. But the marriage tie was still loose and could easily be dissolved. After such a separation, the children belonged to the mother’s clan. Morgan further hypothesized that the pairing marriage introduced a new element into the family: it provided the attested father with a warrant of paternity. The key factor of inheritance of private property through the male line, Morgan believed, was the root of the patriarchal family and monogamy (for women).

However, Morgan’s five stages of the family (Consanguine, Punaluan, Syndyasmian, Patriarchal and Monogamian) were based on an overly literal interpretation of the data. If a father and his brothers were called by the same kinship term, as were a mother and her sisters, Morgan believed that there must have been a time when groups of brothers married groups of sisters. Morgan’s theory—that mother right prevailed because no one knew who the fathers were—rested upon a faulty premise.

Modern anthropologists recognize that kinship terminologies represent social relationships and obligations rather than actual marriage and descent. In fact, flexibility in kinship systems and social systems is most beneficial to people living on the edge of survival, as primitive peoples often do and did. Both matrilineal and patrilineal systems can be found among primitive peoples. But Morgan’s key insight remained solid: the family and its accompanying codes of sexual conduct and morality changed according to social and economic conditions. Patriarchy and monogamy for women were inventions just as much as the stone ax or the spinning jenny.

Engels followed Morgan’s flawed hypothesis about the evolution of the family almost entirely in Origin. Much of the detail in the chapter dealing with early stages of the family has been superseded by a deeper and more complex knowledge that shows even more variety in the many forms of kinship, sexual relations and clan structure that human beings have created. Furthermore, the development of the production surplus and the organization necessary to support a class-divided society was far more complex and prolonged than either Morgan or Engels could possibly have known.

Relying on Morgan’s data, Engels emphasized that the advent of the patriarchal family was due almost entirely to the overthrow of mother right in favor of inheritance through the paternal line. He rightly identified the patriarchal family as “the first form of the family based not on natural but on economic conditions, namely, on the victory of private property over original, naturally developed, common ownership.” However, Engels also relied on Morgan’s data to explain how those economic conditions affected the family, leading to some conclusions that today we can see are problematic. He believed that the providing of food was the province of the “male sphere” in the primitive community. He did not know that women as the gatherers in the division of labor provided at least as much food for the clan as did men as hunters. He also followed Morgan’s hypothesis that agriculture was a late invention by male herders who needed a food source (grain) for their animals. But we know now that agriculture was a very early Neolithic invention, and anthropologists generally credit its invention to women as the plant gatherers.

Assuming, therefore, that the new surplus originated in the male sphere, Engels wrote:

“Thus, as wealth increased, it, on the one hand, gave the man a more important status in the family than the woman, and, on the other hand, created a stimulus to utilise this strengthened position in order to overthrow the traditional order of inheritance in favour of the children. But this was impossible as long as descent according to mother right prevailed. This had, therefore, to be overthrown, and it was overthrown.”

Engels continued in one of the most famous passages in Origin:

“The overthrow of mother right was the world-historical defeat of the female sex. The man seized the reins in the house too, the woman was degraded, enthralled, became the slave of the man’s lust, a mere instrument for breeding children.”

If the reason men became dominant was not because they controlled the surplus, why did it happen? Certainly a legitimate male line—assured by female monogamy enforced through custom, law and moral codes—was important for the orderly transfer of property and power to the next generation of the new ruling class. But after study and debate in our party, we have concluded that women’s childbearing role itself—in the conditions of the new class society—also played a major role in the development of their subordination in the family. This took place in a gradual, complex and dialectical process over a long period of time.

In the communal clan, the care of the children was the work of the whole group. Hunter-gatherers controlled their birth rate (spacing births and resorting to infanticide when necessary), since a balance of men, women and children was necessary for survival. With the advent of a farming economy, more labor was needed to work the fields and a new division of labor emerged. Seeking to increase their wealth and power, the new ruling class wanted yet more people as a labor force, as an army, as slaves to buy and sell. As the birth rate increased, women were ever more tied down in pregnancy and the care of babies and small children and were isolated in the household. Their household work was denigrated as it could not be a source of profit in the new economy of production for commodity exchange.

The transformation from egalitarian to class society and the foundation of the family cannot be attributed to a single historical development such as paternal inheritance, the rise of agriculture, the invention of the plow or the domestication of animals. Before this transformation occurred, the strong bonds that tied the kin collective together had to be gradually severed and the collective ownership of productive property had to be shattered.

The full story of what happened in the transition from the egalitarian clan-based societies to class society, which happened not once but many times and in many places, must rest on a certain amount of informed speculation. There were enormous variations in material conditions—such as climate and natural resources (plants, animals, minerals)—as well as history, culture, social customs and sexual practices according to time, place and circumstance. Future research may question some of the conclusions that scholars now draw.

Bruce D. Smith’s The Emergence of Agriculture (New York: Scientific American Library, 1995) usefully summarizes modern findings in archeology and genetics (tracing the changes in genes from wild to domesticated species of plants and animals) that show the protracted nature of the transition from a mode of existence based on food gathering to settled farming villages based on food production. The origins of agriculture in the Near East (one of seven known regions in the world where agriculture developed independently) reveal roots going back at least 12,500 years, with some 2,000 years of development before agriculture became dominant over hunting and gathering. Villages of thousands of people grew up in places like Jericho (on the West Bank) and Çatalhöyük (in Turkey). Ongoing excavations at Çatalhöyük reveal evidence of a culture in which relations between people, including those between the sexes, were still egalitarian. As Smith says, there may well have been “an increasingly important role for women as cultivators in early farming societies.”

In the Near East, fully developed class society came into existence only with the emergence of the Mesopotamian city-states of ancient Sumer. Ur, dating to at least 5,000 years ago, flourished as the hub of trade from the Persian Gulf to the rivers in the Mesopotamian heartland, becoming a city of fabulous wealth. Men may have ruled in the family, but the society as a whole was ruled by a new class of exploiters that usurped the products of the toilers.

Walled cities, magnificent palaces and temples, organized armies and territorial conquest, lavish tombs—all of these came about with extensive transfer of land and property to a new ruling elite. For example, in The Evolution of Urban Society: Early Mesopotamia and Prehispanic Mexico (Chicago: Aldine Publishing Co., 1966), anthropologist Robert McC. Adams addressed the impact of intensive agriculture based on irrigation systems. Communal systems of land tenure were disrupted by irrigation works that restricted access to often-scarce water, promoting the “concentration of hereditable, alienable wealth in productive resources, and hence also the emergence of a class society.” (Adams’ book originated as the 1965 presentation at the University of Rochester’s Lewis Henry Morgan Lectures.)

Even so, these early city-states were often fragile due to epidemic disease, ecological catastrophe or political unrest. A useful summary of the current state of knowledge about ancient Mesopotamia can be found in James C. Scott’s Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017). Scott wrote:

“If, however, the state often broke up, it was not for lack of exercising whatever coercive powers it could muster. Evidence for the extensive use of unfree labor—war captives, indentured servitude, temple slavery, slave markets, forced resettlements in labor colonies, convict labor, and communal slavery (for example, Sparta’s helots)—is overwhelming. Unfree labor was particularly important in building city walls and roads, digging canals, mining, quarrying, logging, monumental construction, wool textile weaving, and of course agricultural labor. The attention to ‘husbanding’ the subject population, including women, as a form of wealth, like livestock, in which fertility and high rates of reproduction were encouraged, is apparent.”

The family is one leg of a tripod of oppressive institutions (family, state and organized religion) propping up the system of exploitation—three key parts of the “legal and political superstructure” of class society, as Marx defined it. While for the ruling class the family is crucial as a means of defining the inheritance of property and power, it serves a different purpose among the toilers. The means for raising the new generation of labor to be exploited, the patriarchal family is the cradle for the indoctrination of obedience and deference to authority. As the basic economic unit of the new fractured society, the family emerged as the social replacement for the clan and instilled an ideology of subordination and rank into the previously egalitarian social order. Anthropologist Eleanor Burke Leacock wrote in her fine introduction to Origin (New York: International Publishers, 1972):

“These transitions occurred in the context of developing exploitative relations whereby communal ownership was being undermined, the communal kin group broken up, and the individual family separated out as an isolated and vulnerable unit, economically responsible for the maintenance of its members and for the rearing of the new generation. The subjugation of the female sex was based on the transformation of their socially necessary labor into a private service through the separation of the family from the clan.... The separation of the family from the clan and the institution of monogamous marriage were the social expressions of developing private property.”

It is notable that in Ancient Society, Morgan specifically put aside the subject of religion as “environed with such intrinsic difficulties that it may never receive a perfectly satisfactory exposition.” Perhaps not in the way that Morgan himself wished, but new findings shed light on this subject as well. Archeological digs at the sites of ancient Sumer indicate that the temples were the first depositories of the surplus as religious offerings, while studies of cuneiform tablets reveal that the first uses of writing were as inventories of goods in those temples.

Organized religion, with its harsh moral codes and rigid hierarchy, developed as an institutional bulwark of the exploitative order and a powerful partner of the new state. Laws regulating the family and morality are in the Code of Hammurabi, the earliest complete law code yet discovered. An earlier, less complete one, dating from around 4,450 years ago, criminalized the practice of polyandry (wives taking multiple husbands), institutionalized descent through the paternal line and imposed monogamy on women only (Ruby Rohrlich, “State Formation in Sumer and the Subjugation of Women,” Feminist Studies 6, No. 1, Spring 1980).

The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State was based on the best material available to Engels at the time. Even though some of this material is now obsolete, Engels recognized the heart of the matter:

“The old society, based on ties of kinship, bursts asunder with the collision of the newly developed social classes; in its place a new society appears, constituted in a state, the lower units of which are no longer groups based on ties of kinship but territorial groups, a society in which the family system is entirely dominated by the property system, and in which the class antagonisms and class struggle, which make up the content of all hitherto written history now freely unfold.”

The establishment of the patriarchal family was indeed the “world historical defeat of the female sex.” Women lost their early status of equality and became dependent on male support, while a new ideology of male superiority helped legitimize the inequality and oppression of the class-divided society.

For Women’s Liberation Through Socialist Revolution!

The last words in The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State are Morgan’s, projecting an end to the “mere property career” that has dominated existing civilization. While Morgan could only daydream of such a thing, Marx and Engels could project that with the advent of industrial production and the proletariat as the new prospective ruling class, it could actually become a reality.

While the advances in scholarly research throw light on the genesis of women’s oppression, it is the lessons of the October 1917 Russian Revolution and the Bolshevik work for the emancipation of women that illuminate the necessity of the full replacement of the family by collectivized childcare and housework. Insofar as they were able in the conditions of impoverished Russia, the early Bolsheviks sought to create job and educational opportunities for women and to establish collective childcare. But in the absence of adequate resources to fully replace the family, Russian working women often could not take advantage of the opportunities legally open to them. Replacing the family has to be a conscious act of building collective alternatives, organized from top to bottom by the workers state in control of abundant productive resources. (See “The Russian Revolution and the Emancipation of Women,” Spartacist [English edition] No. 59, Spring 2006.)

Communist society can develop only on the basis of the overcoming of economic scarcity through the progressive increase in the productivity of labor. The first step on this road must be a series of workers revolutions to take power from the capitalist class and forge workers states in which the means of production is in the hands of the toilers. Only then will it be possible to construct a new, socialist order based on a worldwide planned economy. A society would develop in which the state has withered away and the institution of the family has been replaced by collective means of caring for and socializing children and by the fullest freedom of sexual relations. As the Spartacist League/U.S. wrote in “Communism and the Family” (Workers Vanguard No. 1068, 15 May 2015):

“When the family has withered away along with classes and the state, the communal upbringing that replaces it will lead to a new psychology and culture among the people that grow up in those conditions. Patriarchal social values—‘my’ wife, ‘my’ children—will vanish along with the oppressive system that spawned them. The relationship of children to one another and to the persons who teach and guide them will be many-sided, complex and dynamic….

“Replacing the family with collective institutions is the most radical aspect of the communist program and will bring about the deepest, most sweeping changes in daily life, not least for children.”

It will be indeed Morgan’s vision of the future, as quoted by Engels in italics at the end of his book: “a revival, in a higher form, of the liberty, equality and fraternity of the ancient gentes.


English Spartacist No. 66

ESp 66

Spring 2020

Down With the EU!

· IEC Plenum: Fighting Centrist Bending
  to the European Union

· ICL Statement: No Participation
  in EU Pseudo-Parliament!


A Tribute to Lewis Henry Morgan

On the Genesis of Women’s Oppression

(Women and Revolution pages)


James Robertson



Edward Cliffel



Victor Granovsky



République ouvrière and Workers Tribune:

Raising the Banner of Leninism!

For Quebec Independence and Socialism!


ICL Expels Members of Polish Section


Correction: On the Spartacist League/Australia and the 1991 New South Wales General Strike




A Trotskyist Program and Tactics in Postwar France

May 1946 Constitution: Why the PCI Was Right to Vote Yes