The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State  

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antiquity, sociocultural evolution, family, property, the state

The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State: in the light of the researches of Lewis H. Morgan is a historical materialist treatise written by Friedrich Engels and published in 1884. It is partially based on notes by Karl Marx to Lewis H. Morgan's book Ancient Society.


Development of human society and the family

The book begins with an extensive discussion of Ancient Society which describes the major stages of human development as commonly understood in Engels' time. In contrast to other contemporary essays on the subject, Engels emphasizes the importance not of primitive psychological development but rather of social relations of power and control over material resources, sometimes related to the development of new technologies. Morgan, whose account of prehistory Engels largely accepts as given, focuses primarily on the first two stages of Savagery and Barbarism but only ventures as far as the transition into Civilization. The terms Savagery and Barbarism as used by Morgan were meant to be objective and not terms of dersion or disparagement as they might be assumed to be then or now. Engels summarizes these stages as follows:

  1. Savagery - the period in which man's appropriation of products in their natural state predominates; the products of human art are chiefly instruments which assist this appropriation.
  2. Barbarism - the period during which man learns to breed domestic animals and to practice agriculture, and acquires methods of increasing the supply of natural products by human activity.
  3. Civilization - the period in which man learns a more advanced application of work to the products of nature, the period of industry proper and of art.

In the following chapter on family, Engels tries to connect the transition into these stages with a change in the way that family is defined and the rules by which it is governed. Much of this is still taken from Morgan, although Engels begins to intersperse his own ideas on the role of family into the text. Morgan acknowledges four stages in the family.

The Consanguine Family

This is the first stage of the family and as such a primary indicator of our superior nature in comparison with animals. In this state marriage groups are separated according to generations. The husband and wife relationship is immediately and communally assumed between the male and female members of one generation. The only taboo is a sexual relationship between two generations (ie father and daughter, grandmother and father)..

The Punaluan Family

The second stage extends the incest taboo to include sexual intercourse between siblings, including all cousins of the same generation. This prevents most incestuous relationships. The separation of the patriarchal and matriarchal lines divided a family into gentes. Interbreeding was forbidden within gens, although first cousins from separate gentes could still breed.

The Pairing Family

The first indications of pairing are found in families where the husband has one primary wife. Inbreeding is practically eradicated by the prevention of a marriage between two family members who were even just remotely related, while relationships also start to approach monogamy. Property and economics begin to play a larger part in the family, as a pairing family had responsibility for the ownership of specific goods and property. Polygamy is still common amongst men, but no longer amongst women since their fidelity would ensure the child’s legitimacy. Women have a superior role in the family as keepers of the household and guardians of legitimacy. The pairing family is the form characteristic of barbarism, as group marriage is characteristic of savagery and monogamy of civilization. However, at this point, when the man died his inheritance was still given to his gens, rather than to his offspring. Engels refers to this economic advantage for men coupled with the woman's lack of rights to lay claim to possessions for herself or her children (who became hers after a separation) as the overthrow of mother-right which was "the world historical defeat of the female sex". For Engels, ownership of property created the first significant division between men and women in which the woman was inferior.

The Monogamous Family

This form evolved out of the pairing family in the transitional period between the middle and upper stages of barbarism at the dawn of civilization. It is based on the supremacy of the man, the express purpose being to produce children of undisputed paternity. Such paternity is demanded because these children are later to come into their father's property as his natural heirs. The wife has become more subservient and the dissolution of the marriage is only possible by the will of the husband. While we cannot speak of monogamy yet in the modern sense of the word, since men were still free to have extramarital sex as much as they wished to, Xenophon in his Oeconomus pointed out that such behavior was seen as degrading for men, and that it could harm their public image as it was frowned upon. While the Monogamous Family is not yet based on "sex-love", and is better referred to as hetaeristic, its emphasis on legitimacy and inheritance did form the basis for the monogamous relationship.

Family and property

Engels' ideas on the role of property in the creation of the modern family and as such modern civilization begin to become more transparent in the latter part of Chapter 2 as he begins to elaborate on the question of the monogamous relationship and the freedom to enter into (or refuse) such a relationship. Bourgeois law dictates the rules for relationships and inheritances. As such, two partners, even when their marriage is not arranged, will always have the preservation of inheritance in mind and as such will never be entirely free to choose their partner. Engels argues that a relationship based on property rights and forced monogamy will only lead to the proliferation of immorality and prostitution.

The only class, according to Engels, which is free from these restraints of property, and as a result from the danger of moral decay, is the proletariat, as they lack the monetary means that are the basis of (as well as threat to) the bourgeois marriage. Monogamy is therefore guaranteed by the fact that theirs is a voluntary sex-love relationship.

The social revolution which Engels believed was about to happen would eliminate class differences, and therefore also the need for prostitution and the enslavement of women. If men needed only to be concerned with sex-love and no longer with property and inheritance, then monogamy would come naturally.

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