Spartacist South Africa No. 11

Winter 2014


From the Archives of Women and Revolution:

Friedrich Engels, Karl Marx’s Partner, on:

The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State

We reprint below, in excerpted form, an article from Women and Revolution (W&R) No. 45 (Winter-Spring 1996). W&R was published by the Women’s Commission of the Spartacist League/U.S., section of the International Communist League, between 1973 and 1996. From 1998, W&R articles have been published in Spartacist, the quadrilingual theoretical journal of the ICL. Written over 18 years ago, the article highlights many aspects of the brutal oppression of women which, despite some changes, continue to be relevant today.

Friedrich Engels' The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State (1884) is the basic Marxist text on the roots of the subjugation of women in private property. Engels outlines the successive social and economic forms which underlay early history, as humanity gained mastery over the means of existence. The book drew from Ancient Society (1877) by the anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan, who befriended the Iroquois and studied the development of property relations in ancient history and the relationship between social production and kinship forms, or the family. Ties of kinship formalized as "gentes" (gentile society) or "clans," the term more commonly used today, formed the social framework of primitive agriculturalists. Although not a political leftist, Morgan recognized that the “property career" did not exist in the early stages of society and looked to the "liberty, equality and fraternity of the ancient gentes" as a goal for the future.

Much has been learned in the fields of anthropology and archaeology since Morgan's time; for example, Engels estimated 2,500 years for the existence of class society, whereas the figure is now known to be at least 5,000 years. But Morgan's central insight—that social relationships reflect the material basis, or "successive arts of subsistence," of human society—has only been confirmed. "Morgan in his own way had discovered afresh in America the materialistic conception of history discovered by Marx forty years ago," as Engels wrote in his preface.

In the primitive communal hunter-gatherer society, the division of labor between men and women was based not on female dependency but on the biological reality of childcare. The work that women undertook for the community had to allow for pregnancy, breast-feeding (there was no cow's milk or porridge substitute for human milk) and the care of infants and small children. As anthropologist Eleanor Burke Leacock says, “The significant point for women's status is that the household was communal and the division of labor between the sexes reciprocal; the economy did not involve the dependence of the wife and children on the husband…. Both sexes worked to produce the goods necessary for livelihood.”

It is not only Marxists and most anthropologists who recognize this social equality. Early European explorers in America were scandalized to find that Native women had "the command of their own Bodies and may dispose of their Persons as they think fit; they being at liberty to do what they please."

This primitive social equality was overthrown when inventions such as agriculture began to develop the social surplus which provoked the division of society into classes. With classes came the development of the institution of the monogamous family and patrilineal descent, which Engels called "the world historical defeat of the female sex." The biological fact of childbearing and child rearing was henceforth tied to the social oppression of women. Society split into antagonistic classes, and the ruling, or property-owning, class governed society through the armed state. As a means of the consolidation of wealth in the hands of a tiny minority, the patriarchal family decreed monogamy for women to determine inheritance of property. Today, the intellectual windbags occupying the halls of academia and scribbling in the capitalist media peddle the lie that the cruel society we live in is “inevitable”; that war, competition and aggression are “innate”; that social inequality is "in the genes”; that the state power is necessary to "control" the evil in people.

On the contrary, the state is an instrument for the repression of one class by another. The Paris Commune of 1871 proved that a successful socialist revolution must conquer through the dictatorship of the proletariat, which will root out all vestiges of capitalist rule and lay the basis for the withering away of the state, altogether. The following selection of quotes from Engels book show that oppression and exploitation are rooted in private property, a human invention as subject to change as any other.

In the old communistic household, which comprised many couples and their children, the task entrusted to the women of managing the household was as much a public, a socially necessary industry as the procuring of food by the men. With the patriarchal family and still more with the single monogamous family, a change came. Household management lost its public character. It no longer concerned society. It became a private service; the wife became the head servant, excluded from all participation in social production. Not until the coming of modern large-scale industry was the road to social production opened to her again—and then only to the proletarian wife. But it was opened in such a manner that, if she carries out her duties in the private service of her family, she remains excluded from public production and unable to earn; and if she wants to take part in public production and earn independently, she cannot carry out family duties. And the wife’s position in the factory is the position of women in all branches of business, right up to medicine and the law. The modern individual family is founded on the open or concealed domestic slavery of the wife, and modern society is a mass composed of these individual families as its molecules.

*   *   *

…the peculiar character of the supremacy of the husband over the wife in the modern family, the necessity of creating real social equality between them and the way to do it, will only be seen in the clear light of day when both possess legally complete equality of rights. Then it will be plain that the first condition for the liberation of the wife is to bring the whole female sex back into public industry, and that this in turn demands that the characteristic of the monogamous family as the economic unit of society be abolished.

*   *   *

The increase of production in all branches—cattle raising, agriculture, domestic handicrafts—gave human labor power the capacity to produce a larger product than was necessary for its maintenance. At the same time it increased the daily amount of work to be done by each member of the gens, household community or single family. It was now desirable to bring in new labor forces. War provided them; prisoners of war were turned into slaves. With its increase of the productivity of labor and therefore of wealth, and its extension of the field of production, the first great social division of labor was bound, in the general historical conditions prevailing, to bring slavery in its train. From the first great social division of labor arose the first great cleavage of society into two classes: masters and slaves, exploiters and exploited.

*   *   *

The distinction of rich and poor appears beside that of freemen and slaves—with the new division of labor, a new cleavage of society into classes. The inequalities of property among the individual heads of families break up the old communal household communities wherever they had still managed to survive, and with them the common cultivation of the soil by and for these communities. The cultivated land is allotted for use to single families, at first temporary later permanently. The transition to full private property is gradually accomplished, parallel with the transition of the pairing marriage into monogamy. The single family is becoming the economic unit of society.

*   *   *

It is by the vilest means—theft, violence, fraud, treason—that the old classless gentile society is undermined and over thrown. And the new society itself during all the 2,500 years of its existence has never been anything else but the development of the small minority at the expense of the great exploited and oppressed majority; today it is so more than ever before.

*   *   *

Only one thing was wanting: an institution which not only secured the newly acquired riches of individuals against the communistic traditions of the gentile order, which not only sanctified the private property formerly so little valued and declared this sanctification to be the highest purpose of all human society; but, an institution which set the seal of general social recognition on each new method of acquiring property and thus amassing wealth at continually increasing speed; an institution which perpetuated not only this growing cleavage of society into classes but also the right of the possessing class to exploit the nonpossessing, and the rule of the former over the latter.

And this institution came. The state was invented.

*   *   *

The state is therefore by no means a power imposed on society from without; just as little is it "the reality of the moral idea," "the image and the reality of reason," as Hegel maintains. Rather, it is a product of society at a particular stage of development; it is the admission that this society has involved itself in insoluble self-contradiction and is cleft into irreconcilable antagonisms which it is powerless to exorcise. But in order that these antagonisms, classes with conflicting economic interests, shall not consume themselves and society in fruitless struggle, a power, apparently standing above society, has become necessary to moderate the conflict and keep it within the bounds of "order"; and this power, arisen out of society but placing itself above it and increasingly alienating itself from it, is the state.

*   *   *

As the state arose from the need to keep class antagonisms in check, but also arose in the thick of the fight between the classes, it is normally the state of the most powerful, economically dominant class, which by its means becomes also the politically dominant class and so acquires new means of holding down and exploiting the oppressed class. The ancient state was, above all, the state of the slave owners for holding down the slaves, just as the feudal state was the organ of the nobility for holding down the peasant serfs and bondsmen, and the modern representative state is an instrument for exploiting wage labor by capital.

*   *   *

The state, therefore, has not existed from all eternity. There have been societies which have managed without it, which had no notion of the state or state power. At a definite stage of economic development, which necessarily involved the cleavage of society into classes, the state became a necessity because of this cleavage. We are now rapidly approaching a stage in the development of production at which the existence of these classes has not only ceased to be a necessity but becomes a positive hindrance to production. They will fall as inevitably as they once arose. The state inevitably falls with them. The society which organizes production anew on the basis of free and equal association of the producers will put the whole state machinery where it will then belong-into the museum of antiquities, next to the spinning wheel and the bronze ax.