Friedrich Engels: The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State

Applying Historical Materialism to Understanding the Family and Male Domination

Background

When we think about Friedrich Engels, we often think of him as Robin to Karl Marx’s Batman. He’s the side-kick standing in the shadow of the much greater and more prolific philosopher. He is, of course, most famous for co-authoring The Communist Manifesto with his friend, Marx.

This Batman and Robin schema is weird for a number of reasons. First, in the relationship between Marx and Engels, it was Engels who was the wealthy patron. Engels owned multiple textile and cotton factories in England and Germany. He later sold these businesses and was able to live quite comfortably off of his investments. That’s right, Friedrich Engels, the great communist, was a capitalist!.

Most importantly, however, Engels was a brilliant scholar and writer in his own right. He met Karl Marx as a Young Hegelian, having already published works on his own and mastered multiple languages. When he and Marx collaborated, they did so as equals. The greatest collaborations were The Communist Manifesto and The German Ideology. After Marx died, Engels took over his papers, but also continued his own work. Arguably the most important of these works was his invaluable The Origin of Family, Private Property and the State.

In The Origin of Family, Private Property and the State (heretofore referred to as The Origin) Engels applies the Marxist notion of Historical Materialism to understanding the family as a social institution. Most critically, he sees the family, in the context of private property and capitalism, as the driving force subjugating women and promoting male dominance. Consequently, The Origin can be seen as an early example of feminist writing.

Engels’ Theory

To understand what Engels was trying to do in The Origin, it’s important to contrast his theory with what could be called the “common sense” notion of male domination in history. According to this idea, male domination in society is a natural result of childbirth and child rearing. In human biology, children are born helpless. This is very different from other species in which newborn offspring are able to walk and find food on their own. Human babies, because of our mondo braincase, are born much earlier in our fetal development. Therefore, human babies require intensive care and dedication from the mother. To secure this, it is in the mother’s interest to acquire the assistance of a man to help her secure resources for herself and the baby. Men, however, are not inclined to do this unless they are sure that the baby is their own offspring. Hence, the division of labor between men as the providers and women as the nurturers creates a natural superiority of men and specifically monogamous supplication of women. It’s all perfectly natural.

Engels rejects this. Remember, he and Marx were Historical Materialists. In other words, they saw history as being driven not by human nature, not by ideas, but by the material realities in which they lived. As human beings emerged from a state of what Marx referred to as Primitive Communism into a society in which surpluses were created and commodities had exchange value rather than just use value, we see emerging what Marx and Engels called Dialectical Materialism. In other words, history is driven by the conflict between those who control the material resources and those who must exchange their labor in return for some of the material resources in order to survive.

So, The Origin is Engels’ attempt to apply this notion of Historical and Dialectical Materialism to understanding the family as a locus of male domination and female subordination (1).

Engels drew much of his conclusions from the work of anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan. In his major work, Ancient Society, Morgan examined Iroquois society and proposed a stagist description of history that Engels adopted. The stages of human history, according to Morgan and Engels, were Savagery, based on hunter-gatherer societies, Barbarism, as agriculture became the dominant form of production, and Civilization in which surpluses were used to create urban and, ultimately, industrial society.

According to Engels, the periods of Savagery and Barbarism were marked by what he and Marx referred to as Primitive Communism. In these primitive communist societies, since everyone was dedicated to the same pursuits, namely food acquisition, everyone was largely equal. Even the clan chieftain performed much the same labor as any other man in the tribe. Yes, there were some divisions of labor and status, but for the most part, everyone depended on each other for survival, so there were no real social classes as we know them today. Furthermore, many of the problems we see today, like crime and poverty and homelessness, did not exist.

This was also true when it came to men and women. Yes, according to Engels, there was a gendered division of labor in which men went out and hunted and women did the gathering. This division of labor resulted from the needs of children and was not a source of inequality. Indeed, modern research into food acquisition in early human societies suggests that, calorie for calorie, gathering was far more productive in most tribes than was hunting. Furthermore, women in these early human societies had significantly more power than in civilized societies. Specifically, families tended to be matrilineal and sexual relations were not necessarily monogamous.

All of that changes with the invention of the plow and the development of modern economies that eventually leads to capitalism. According to Engels, in early societies men and women did similar work. The invention of the plow, however, gave men an advantage in production. The agricultural surplus resulting from this farming revolution meant that people no longer had to be dedicated to food production and acquisition. Surpluses could be exchanged. Consequently, the commodities produced by these societies didn’t just have Use Value, or value based on the usefulness of an item. Commodities had Exchange Value, or value based on what others were willing to give for access. These exchange commodities were largely in the hands of men. For the first time in history, men had a class advantage over women.

Furthermore, if we are dealing with surpluses that have exchange value, then there is the question of who owns the commodities to be exchanged. Once we start to associate commodities to ownership rather than to communities, we have the concept of Private Property, or property owned and controlled by individuals. And once you have the concept of Private Property, you need to have something in place that protects that private property. Namely, you need armed people who will protect that private property. You need ways to assess this private property. You need rules in place with regard to this private property. And if you have rules, you need some structure designed to enforce those rules. In other words, you need a State, or an institution that is recognized as legitimately empowered to enforce the rules and to sustain power relations, even if doing so requires violence (2).

Again, since private property as it evolved is in the hands of men, it turns out that the state is also in the hands of men, which means that men control the market, or the economic sphere of society, and the political sphere of the society. Since the politics is largely set up for the sake of maintaining the economy, and the economy largely funds and supports the state, this arrangement is referred to as Political Economy. In civilized societies, the political economy is controlled by men, but not all men, just some men. Now we get into the Dialectic proposed by Marx. There is the class that controls the factors of production, in modern societies this is the Bourgeoisie, or the Capitalist Class; and there are those who must sell their labor in exchange for the means of survival, in modern societies this is the proletariat.

This is where we see Engels crucial contribution to this proposition. Engels points out that the political economy developing from private property and capitalism is played out in the family. As men took greater control of the political economy, they also took greater control of the family. Families stopped being matrilineal and became patrilineal. In other words, family lineage was based on the male family line.

Um…well that’s tenuous. After all, it’s always clear who the mother of a child is, but let’s face it, who’s the Daddy is subject to more speculation. Consequently, in patrilineal societies we see much more acutely coercive divisions of sexual labor in which female monogamy must be strictly enforced. It is in the interests of the state, representing the male heads of families, to be able to clearly define the father. After all, the father owns the property and wants to hand that property down to his own offspring. Engels says it best, “Monogamy arose out of the concentration of considerable wealth in the hands of one person – and that a man – and out of the desire to bequeath this wealth to this man’s children and to no one else’s. For this purpose monogamy was essential on the woman’s part, but not on the man’s; so that this monogamy of the woman in no way hindered the overt or covert polygamy of the man.” (The Origin)

Marriage in such gendered societies lose their focus on the emotional ties of men to women and children to parents. Instead, marriage becomes a matter of property and that property owned and controlled by men. Women and women’s sexuality then becomes just another form and expression of male owned property. In his book Sociological Insight, Randall Collins refers to the forms of property in marriage as erotic property, or rights over human bodies, generational property, or rights over children, and household property, or rights over goods held by the family (3). In The Origin Engels points out that all forms of property are held by men.

Furthermore, this gendered dialectic in the household serves to mitigate the impacts of the labor dialectic in the economy. After all, every man is not a bourgeoisie with the status and privilege that goes with it. But every man is a man, and being so carries with it status and privilege of its own. In other words, most men may be exploited in the workplace, but when they come home, they get to be the bourgeoisie and become the exploiters of women who are perpetually in the role of proletariat.

So, for Engels, marriage in modern capitalist societies are intrinsically oppressive much as capitalism is intrinsically oppressive in the marketplace. As a communist, Engels recognized that capitalism cannot be made egalitarian. It must be overthrown and replaced by socialism. This is the case for marriage as well. According to Engels, until women gain equal power in the marketplace and in the political economy, they will never have equality in the home. This is the underlying premise of Marxist Feminism.

Critiques

So Engels’ The Origins of Family, Private Property and the State is a really valuable work to understand, especially when it comes to your Cambridge Exams. But it is also a strong commentary on modern family life. Of course, we can argue some of the particulars. The truth is that marriage and family has always carried with it an emotional element that Engels does not consider in his materialist approach to the study. Even during Engels’ time, as you know from Stephanie Coontz, Marriage, A History, love and emotional commitment were playing an increasingly dominant role in marriage. So to what extent is this emotional commitment or love influenced by or distorted by the material realities of family? To what extent might emotional ties mitigate economic domination?

We can also make a postmodernist critique of Engels’ concept of marriage. After all, women today certainly seem to be fulfilling Engels’ expectations of increasing power in the market and the political economy as a whole–It should be noted that they are doing so without Marx’s and Engels’ presupposition of a revolutionary overthrowing capitalism. As women gain greater say in a capitalist market does this translate to greater say in the family, in the marriage? Does this threaten capitalism as we know it or simply reinforce capitalism by incorporating or trapping the other fifty percent of the population in an hopeless cycle of working to consume and consuming to work? Or is there a more positive outcome of equality in the household corresponding to equality in the marketplace?

We can also critique Engels using a functionalist “fit thesis” by which the family may have evolved from matrilineal to patrilineal structures as agricultural societies became more complex. This transition, however, could be seen as functional to the larger society and instrumental in maintaining social stability. Furthermore, from a neo-functionalist perspective, the breakdown of traditional gender roles in the market could be leading to an unstable transition of a breakdown in gender roles in the family. So a New Right perspective could suggest that Engels’ call for equality may be destabilizing to the larger political economy when perhaps we should be trying to find ways to salvage traditional family values.

Anyway, understanding The Origin is a very useful theory when it comes to the Cambridge Exam. It is also a powerful commentary for navigating your own experiences with family.


  1. It’s important to note that Engels himself rejected marriage. He did have a loving relationship with a woman named Mary Burns. They lived together in what could be called a common law marriage.
  2. Note how I’m using the word state. For sociologists, there is a difference between a “government” and a “state”. Government refers to how power is organized in a society. A state, is the actual structure that performs the tasks associated with government. So the United States government is a Representative Democratic Republic. In other words, the United States has no royalty empowered to make the rules (making it a Republic). Instead, the people vote for representatives to make the rules in their interest (the Representative Democracy). That’s the government. The State is the Congress, White House, Supreme Court and all of the associated bureaucracies that make it all work, from the most isolated rural post office to the West and East Wings of the White House.
  3. Sociological Insight: An Introduction to Non-Obvious Sociology is a book I recommend to my sociology students as a supplement.

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