The following is a transcribed essay of a presentation offered for the Midwestern Marx Panel on Marxism and Human Evolution
Here are some observations on the heroic revolutionary and humanitarian Frederick Engels’s book, The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State.
First, let’s discuss and make some inferences from the terms in the title of Engels’s book. The “Family” referred to is the male supremacist family. In the chapter titled The Family, Engels discusses the mother right family and its overthrow. The mother right family is an institution in which descent is traced through the female line. Engels says:
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. This degraded position of woman, especially conspicuous among the Greeks of the heroic and still more of the classical age, has gradually been palliated and glossed over, and sometimes clothed in a milder form: in no sense has it been abolished.
Clearly, Marxists following Engels’s implication here aim to abolish male supremacism in families as well as in income, social, political and economic power: just as we aim to abolish private property.
In the Preface to the First Edition to The Origin, Engels says:
According to the materialistic conception, the determining factor in history is, in the final instance, the production and reproduction of the immediate essentials of life. This, again, is of a twofold character. On the one side, the production of the means of existence, of articles of food and clothing, dwellings, and of the tools necessary for that production; on the other side, the production of human beings themselves, the propagation of the species. The social organization under which the people of a particular historical epoch and a particular country live is determined by both kinds of production: by the stage of development of labor on the one hand and of the family on the other.
This would seem to be an advance over the formulation of the materialistic conception of The Manifesto of the Communist Party- “ The history of all hitherto existing society(2) is the history of class struggles” in that The Manifesto’s formulation emphasizes the struggles of antagonistic productive classes as the determining factor in history; there is no reference to the reproduction of human beings/perpetuation of the species.
Next with reference to “Private Property” it is the aim of Marxists to abolish it as per The Manifesto: “…the theory of the Communists may be summed up in the single sentence: Abolition of private property.”
That is wise of us Marxists because private property is synonymous with greed (the love of money), slavery, antagonistic economic classes, conquest of land and slaves; and necessarily linked to the state, war, conquest.
The State implies in modus ponens sense of implication private Property: no Private Property, no State. Thus, we Marxists hold that upon abolition of Private Property, the State withers away. The State is not abolished directly, as anarchists hold.
As for the process of abolition of the male supremacist family, I’ll follow Engels’s speculative lead:
Full freedom of marriage can therefore only be generally established when the abolition of capitalist production and of the property relations created by it has removed all the accompanying economic considerations which still exert such a powerful influence on the choice of a marriage partner. For then there is no other motive left except mutual inclination.
Sexual love is by its nature exclusive – although at present this exclusiveness is fully realized only in the woman – the marriage based on sexual love is by its nature individual marriage. We have seen how right Bachofen was in regarding the advance from group marriage to individual marriage as primarily due to the women. Only the step from pairing marriage to monogamy can be put down to the credit of the men, and historically the essence of this was to make the position of the women worse and the infidelities of the men easier. If now the economic considerations also disappear which made women put up with the habitual infidelity of their husbands – concern for their own means of existence and still more for their children’s future – then, according to all previous experience, the equality of woman thereby achieved will tend infinitely more to make men really monogamous than to make women polyandrous.
But what will quite certainly disappear from monogamy are all the features stamped upon it through its origin in property relations; these are, in the first place, supremacy of the man, and, secondly, indissolubility. The supremacy of the man in marriage is the simple consequence of his economic supremacy, and with the abolition of the latter will disappear of itself. The indissolubility of marriage is partly a consequence of the economic situation in which monogamy arose, partly tradition from the period when the connection between this economic situation and monogamy was not yet fully understood and was carried to extremes under a religious form. Today it has already broken through at a thousand points. If only the marriage based on love is moral, then also only the marriage in which love continues. But the intense emotion of individual sex-love varies very much in duration from one individual to another, especially among men, and if affection definitely comes to an end or is supplanted by a new passionate love, separation is a benefit for both partners as well as for society – only people will then be spared having to wade through the useless mire of a divorce case.
What we can now conjecture about the way in which sexual relations will be ordered after the impending overthrow of capitalist production is mainly of a negative character, limited for the most part to what will disappear. But what will be new? That will be answered when a new generation has grown up: a generation of men who never in their lives have known what it is to buy a woman’s surrender with money or any other social instrument of power; a generation of women who have never known what it is to give themselves to a man from any other considerations than real love, or to refuse to give themselves to their lover from fear of the economic consequences. When these people are in the world, they will care little what anybody today thinks they ought to do; they will make their own practice and their corresponding public opinion about the practice of each individual – and that will be the end of it.
Let us, however, return to Morgan, from whom we have moved a considerable distance. The historical investigation of the social institutions developed during the period of civilization goes beyond the limits of his book. How monogamy fares during this epoch, therefore, only occupies him very briefly. He, too, sees in the further development of the monogamous family a step forward, an approach to complete equality of the sexes, though he does not regard this goal as attained. But, he says:
When the fact is accepted that the family has passed through four successive forms, and is now in a fifth, the question at once arises whether this form can be permanent in the future. The only answer that can be given is that it must advance as society advances, and change as society changes, even as it has done in the past. It is the creature of the social system, and will reflect its culture. As the family has improved greatly since the commencement of civilization, and very sensibly in modern times, it is at least supposable that it is capable of still further improvement until the equality of the sexes is attained. Should the monogamian family in the distant future fail to answer the requirements of society ... it is impossible to predict the nature of its successor.
After writing The Origin, Engels saw fit to put an anthropological footnote in the famous first sentence of The Manifesto of the Communist Party: “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” that is, all written history in 1847, the pre-history of society, the social organisation existing previous to recorded history, all but unknown. Since then, August von Haxthausen (1792-1866) discovered common ownership of land in Russia, Georg Ludwig von Maurer proved it to be the social foundation from which all Teutonic races started in history, and, by and by, village communities were found to be, or to have been, the primitive form of society everywhere from India to Ireland. The inner organisation of this primitive communistic society was laid bare, in its typical form, by Lewis Henry Morgan's (1818-1881) crowning discovery of the true nature of the gens and its relation to the tribe. With the dissolution of the primeval communities, society begins to be differentiated into separate and finally antagonistic classes. I have attempted to retrace this dissolution in The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State.
There were no antagonistic classes in Stone Age societies. It was pre-private property, so its history is not a history of class struggles over about 2.5 million years of the beginning of human history, pre-written history. There is relatively very slow change in society comparatively because there was no class struggle, the engine of change.
The Stone Age begins circa 2.5 million years ago, with the fossil Homo habilis, when stone tools were made according to design, imagination, language ability, and thinking in symbolic signs or words. However, there was no alphabetic writing. The first clear evidence of Alphabetic writing was approximately 6,000 years ago in Mesopotamia. It originated in Greece in the complex of the male supremacist family, private property and the state essayed in Engels’s book.
The Stone Age did have full language or symbolic sign communication, even if not articulate speech, but in other media such as bodily sign language, dance, inarticulate voice, music-rhythm, et al. The evidence of this is the stone tools made by design and other abilities, such as controlling fire, then eventually picture writing.
The word “origin” in the title of Engels’s book implies that Engels is hypothesizing that the male supremacist family, private property and the state did not exist before that origin; thus, the Stone Age was so-called primitive communism.
The evidence from European ethno-histories and ethnographies of Stone Age societies corroborates this most profound implication of the thesis of The Origin.
Charles Brown is a political activist in Detroit, Michigan. He has degrees in anthropology and is a member of the bar. He teaches anthropology at Community College. His favorite slogan is "What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.”
Special thanks to N.C. Cai for editing and alignment.