Engels, Frederick, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. In the Light of the Researches of Lewis H Morgan. With an introduction and notes by Eleanor Burke Leacock, Professor of Anthropology, Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn. International Publishers, New York, 1972. Reprinted 1985.

The great classics of Marxism include The Communist Manifesto, Capital, and Origin. The Manifesto may be thought of as a quick overview of modern capitalism, and Capital is a microscopic view of its internal workings. Origin, then, may be seen as a broad historical overview of class society, including its beginnings and insightful speculations about where it is going. One may read or download Origin.

Engels applies the power of historical materialism to the field of anthropology and specifically to the works of Lewis H Morgan. Morgan's Ancient Society sets general stages of human development. Both he and Engels demonstrate that these general stages prevail in all geographical areas and in all that anthropologists had discovered. All of the Leacock's introduction and most of Engels' book detail anthropological findings to show that human social developments, though many and varied, are based on the methods of economic production in force during that stage of development.

A great deal of the evidence examined has to do with the roles of women, which has made this line of investigation even more interesting during these decades of female emancipation. In the first known societies, women were at least the equal of men in all decisions. All concepts of family were based on matriarchal lineage, because that was the only lineage that could be determined. People knew who mothered them, but not their fathers.

Today's progressives ask why how female subjugation came about and why. The answers are clear in this book of historical materialism. We also ask how women can be restored to their former esteemed place in society, and we find the answer here.

In the introduction, Engels explains that equality was the norm in our savage state. Women did not rule men just as men did not dominate women. He said, "It soon became clear that matriarchy, in the sense of power held by women over men comparable to that later held by men over women, had never existed."

Lewis Morgan divided anthropological developments into stages:

Engels, armed with notes from the then-deceased Karl Marx, clarified Morgan's work and carried it forward.

In savagery, economic "production" consisted of hunting and gathering food already prepared by nature. There was no accumulation of wealth beyond what could be immediately consumed, and there was no surplus of wealth. Human societies formed gens, or clans, based on matrilineal descent. Group marriage was the common form of cohabitation.

The amazing leap forward that came with the domestication of animals began the stage of barbarism. It was quickly followed by the cultivation of plants. Wealth began to accumulate beyond the immediate needs of its producers. Pairing marriage between co-equal partners was, at first, the common relationship between mothers and fathers.

What is the Source of Women's Oppression?

It was the existence of economic surpluses that brought about trade, extreme divisions of labor, alienation of the producer from his or her product, and their obvious consequences: class society and the subjugation of women. Men, "owners" of the surplus, forced women to become monogamous in order to be sure of their male lineage and make sure that their own heirs would "own" their "property." The old laws and rules governing human society could not withstand the onset of property, and the state became necessary.

Written history began during the upper stage of barbarism, and has made certain to declare its conventions and rules timeless. In fact, it was a stage of human development with both antecedent and replacement. This is the central secret that today's rulers hide: that human history has changed and can be understood; and that it will go on changing and that humanity's future may be studied and understood.

A part of the understanding that comes from Engels' great work is that women have not always been subjugated, and will not always be subjugated in future.

Engels points out that many observers' moralistic pronouncements have obscured the simple truths of human development: "In my opinion any understanding of primitive society is impossible to people who only see it as a brothel."

What is the Source of the Incest Taboo?

Engels: "…incest is an invention, and a very valuable one, too…" In a certain form of family development, Engels says, "If the first advance in organization consisted in the exclusion of parents and children from sexual intercourse with one another, the second was the exclusion of sister and brother." Engels and Morgan found one type of family (Punaluan) the best example to be compared with other forms of savage group marriages.

The incest taboo was an improvement for society, because inbreeding is generally unhealthy. These changes come about not for religious or thoughtful reasons, but by evolution: "There can be no question that the tribes among whom inbreeding was restricted by this advance were bound to develop more quickly and more fully than those among whom marriage between brothers and sisters remained the rule and the law." The healthier tribes, which practiced the incest taboo, were healthier and thus survived while those still practicing inbreeding tended to die out.

Women were Subjugated into Monogamy so that Men could be Sure of their Heirs

Engels clarifies several times that savage women were never enslaved by men. He said, "One of the most absurd notions taken over from 18th century enlightenment is that in the beginnings of society woman was the slave of man."

He explains further: "Thus on the one hand, in proportion as wealth increased it made the man's position in the family more important than the woman's, and on the other hand created an impulse to exploit this strengthened position in order to overthrow, in favor of his children, the traditional order of inheritance. This, however, was impossible so long as descent was reckoned according to mother right. Mother right, therefore, had to be overthrown, and over thrown it was. This was by no means so difficult as it looks to us today. For this revolution - one of the most decisive ever experienced by humanity-could take place without disturbing a single one of the living members of a gens. A simple decree sufficed that in the future the offspring of the male members should remain within the gens, but that of the female should be excluded by being transferred to the gens of their father. The reckoning of descent in the female line and the matriarchal law of inheritance were thereby overthrown, and the male line of descent and the paternal law of inheritance were substituted for them."

"The overthrow of mother right was the world historical defeat of the female sex. The man took command in the home also; the woman was degraded and reduced to servitude; she became the slave of his lust and a mere instrument for the production of children."

The Losers of Wars Stepped Up to Slavery

During the period of savagery, captives were usually murdered. The victors had no reason to keep them alive. After surplus wealth and a division of labor came about, captives were kept as slaves. This has almost nothing to do with the peculiar form of slavery practiced in the Southern United States, which was based on skin color and an elaborate ideology of racial inferiority. Early slaves were simply captives.

Engels goes on to explain how early class society needed the repressive apparatus of a state: "Slavery was an early product of the division of labor and class society. In many cases, slaves became the largest class in population. Ruling those slaves, of course, became a matter for police, prisons, and other instruments of a state."

Monogamy, Oppression, and Prostitution Originated with Class Society

Engels: "It is the existence of slavery side by side with monogamy, the presence of young, beautiful slaves belonging unreservedly to the man, that stamps monogamy from the very beginning with its specific character of monogamy for the woman only, but not for the man. And that is the character it still has today."

"…monogamous marriage comes on the scene as the subjugation of the one sex by the other…"

Engels quotes Marx to say, "The first division of labor is that between man and woman for the propagation of children." Engels continued, "And today I can add: The first class opposition that appears in history coincides with the development of the antagonism between man and woman in monogamous marriage, and the first class oppression coincides with that of the female sex by the male. Monogamous marriage was a great historical step forward; nevertheless, together with slavery and private wealth, it opens the period that has lasted until today in which every step forward is also relatively a step backward, in which prosperity and development for some is won through the misery and frustration of others."

Will Women Be Emancipated?

Engels and Marx felt that the suppression of women resulted from the new relations of production. But women made gains after capitalism became the dominant form of production, to the extent that they were equal workers. As this process continues, and as socialism replaces capitalism, women will be free again. Engels said, "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."

"We are now approaching a social revolution in which the economic foundations of monogamy as they have existed hitherto will disappear just as surely as those of its complement --prostitution."

What Happened to Slavery?

In a discussion of German evolution, Engels said,"Slavery no longer paid; it was for that reason it died out." Slavery tended to bring down the societies that practiced it, because societies that used "free labor" were increasingly more productive. We can see this same process as the reason that the North defeated the South in the Civil War of the United States. Once again, though, Engels limited himself in this book to the kind of slavery practiced by ancient civilizations, not the United States.

If someone wanted to skip all the discussions and arguments, they might begin on page 217 and read the last chapter, only 20 pages, for a succinct summary. In fact, most of the conclusions of the entire book are in the following paragraph on page 220:

"The increase in 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."

As for the future: "The emancipation of woman will only be possible when woman can take part in production on a large, social scale, and domestic work no longer claims anything but an insignificant amount of her time. And only now has that become possible through modern large-scale industry…" In other words, economic conditions for the emancipation of women have arrived. Only capitalists, who want to pay women less, stand in the way.

As class society was formed, the oppressor class needed the repressive apparatus of a state, "The state is distinguished firstly by the grouping of its members on a territorial basis…. The second distinguishing characteristic is the institution of a public force which is no longer immediately identical with the people's own organization of themselves as an armed power…. In order to maintain this public power, contributions from the citizens are necessary - taxes. These were completely unknown to gentile society.'

Engels quotes Morgan to close out the book on page 237: "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."



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