April 2013        

The family, private property, and the state

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

If you’re looking for an accessible but informative introduction to dialectical materialism, this is an excellent place to start. It was recommended to me recently as being just that: a highly useful insight into the Marxist way of thinking. However, this book is not simply confined to those fascinated by the theories espoused within it. A riveting guide to anthropology is presented, with the conditions surrounding the advent of civilisation receiving a particularly good analysis.

     Engels certainly set himself a hard task by choosing to explain such a novel subject. But there can be no doubt that he achieved it, ensuring that the book deals with exactly what it says on the cover.
     Engels discloses in the preface that Marx had been planning to publish such a book shortly before his death in 1883. Marx had intended to respond to the excellent work of the American anthropologist Lewis H. Morgan in his book Ancient Society, published in 1877. The aim was to link Morgan’s extensive research on human development with Marx’s “materialist conception of history.” Engels strives throughout the book to fulfil this objective.
     An abundance of information is used in the book. Although Engels mainly deals with the results of Morgan’s research, he refers to works by many of his contemporaries, including John Lubbock, John F. McLennan, and, in particular, the Swiss anthropologist Johann Bachofen. Engels starts off by succinctly summarising Morgan’s definition of the three “great epochs of human progress,” namely savagery, barbarism, and civilisation. He then continues to analyse the origins of the family.
     What is striking is how different the family of today is from the family of the era of barbarism, and how much development it underwent in the interim. Most people, including myself before having read the book, would ignorantly suppose that the nuclear family, founded on the institution of marriage, has always been in existence: we see it as the natural, obvious structure of human kinship. Engels conclusively shows that this is not the case. He scrutinises four stages in the development of the family and describes the economic and social factors that contributed to its progress through these stages.
     Engels pays particular attention to the old mother-right that existed in the early forms of family, whereby consanguinity (the sharing of a common ancestor) could be proved only through the mother line, because at the time both men and women had multiple partners and within a single community, the gens. Engels shows that as the gentes became more settled and produced more than they needed to sustain themselves, this surplus produce began to be acquired as private property, instead of the common property that had always existed within the gens. The men took control of the surplus produce, and the concept of inheritance was born.
     The produce was solely their property, and the men sought to pass it on to their children. Women were prevented from marrying more than one person at a time, in order to facilitate this, and so the age of monogamy and “civilisation” was born. The female sex became inferior, and the women were at the command of their husbands.
     Engels points out that this is the very first division of labour—between men and women for the purpose of child-rearing, with women confined to the home. It is therefore true to say that when mother-right was in force during the age of barbarism there was equality between the sexes, but with the inception of civilisation the role of women was greatly diminished.
     Morgan used the Iroquois peoples of North America as a case study during his research to demonstrate the origins of the family, because they had not yet reached the stage of civilisation. Engels draws attention to this and gives a clear understanding of how the gens (the form of the Iroquois family) functioned. Common property, group marriage and unquestionably democratic, participatory systems of governance all existed within the gens. Engels refers to this as “primitive communism.” Although not terribly advanced, there is social harmony and equality between the sexes.
     Following from this, Engels analyses the defining characteristics of the early civilisations, particularly in Ancient Greece and Rome. Slavery, monogamy, inheritance, descent according to father-right and elitist parliamentary systems (the Senate) were now all in vogue. Social harmony is absent, and the origins of class divisions are present, between those who own property and those without it.
     Engels describes the steps that led to the formation of the state, which, he concludes, is the rule of one class over another, pure and simple. It is a conclusion reached taking into account a large volume of scientific and historical evidence, an utterly convincing argument.
     Engels succeeds in explaining the origins of the family, private property and the state and exposes them for what they really are: not natural institutions that have existed indefinitely along with humankind but institutions that have developed from economic and social conditions, disposed to creating class divisions among the people, innately fostering antagonisms, inequality, and disharmony. The materialist conception of history accurately accounts for the cold, hard facts, and Engels presents both the latter and the former with unswerving precision.
     This work deals mainly with three concepts: family, private property, and state—concepts seldom discussed in historical publications of any kind, where they are normally taken for granted. What Engels shows is that these three fundamentals that form the bedrock of civilisation, upon which our entire modern society is built, have been and will always be subject to constant change; and the study of their development gives one a fascinating insight into why our world functions the way it does.
     It is this sort of knowledge that empowers people, that allows them to think critically about their environment, that makes them question the conventionally unquestionable. This book is a highly informative and yet thoroughly engrossing read.

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