On Engels’ “Origin of the Family”

One of the great classics of Marxism is the book by Frederick Engels entitled ‘The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State’. Engels applies the method of historical materialism to this earliest period of pre-history to uncover the past. As a contribution to International Women’s Day, we are republishing an article by Mary Hansen and Rob Sewell which examines this question.

Not until the scientific discoveries of the American anthropologist Lewis H. Morgan in the 19th century was the family recognised, not as an eternal institution, but as an historical entity. Up until then, the view of the family was dominated by the outlook of the Five Books of Moses.

The research of Morgan was revolutionary in the field of anthropology and the development of an historical approach to the evolution of the state, family and private property. Such were the implications of Morgan's ideas, that they were eagerly taken up by Marx and Engels as confirmation of their own views on history. “Morgan rediscovered in America,” states Engels, “in his own way, the materialist conception of history that had been discovered by Marx forty years ago...”

According to the materialist conception of history, the key factor in history, in the last analysis, is the production and reproduction of life. Before men and women can do anything they first have to produce the means of life. This means first and foremost the production of the means of subsistence. The society under which men and women live is determined by the stage of production which in turn is reflected in social relations. However, the more primitive the productive basis, as under 'primitive communism', the greater preponderance does the social order appear to be dominated by sexual relations. In reality, the whole basis of society is underpinned by how things are produced.

Earliest origins

Since the discoveries of Morgan in particular, which delved into the vast stretch of human history from our earliest origins to the threshold of civilisation, and the publication of Engels' Origins of the Family, there has been an enormous development in related sciences, anthropology, zoology and palaeontology.

Although this has brought many new insights into our pre-history, it has also been accompanied by various interpretations which have been steeped in the prejudices of modern class society. Some observers, like zoologist Desmond Morris, falsely characterise early human development by mindless violence, aggression, brutality and hierarchical domination - reflecting the weaknesses of human nature. These writers see no qualitative difference between man and ape, despite the evolution of human consciousness over the last million years.

Deliberate efforts were made to undermine Engels' writings by discrediting Morgan's research upon which the former analysis was based. According to the newly revised Open University book entitled Understanding the Family (1995), “Engels' work is now generally viewed as pioneering - in that it raised the issue of the nuclear family as a vehicle by which men control women's sexuality - but is also seriously flawed.” (Page 24). On the contrary, the thrust of Engels argument was not about “men's control of women”, but in understanding the family, the state and private property, as historical stages in human development.

Karen Sacks explains:

“Though he made a number of specific ethnographic errors, I think his main ideas are correct and remain the best way of explaining data gathered since he wrote - mainly ethnographic and historical data which show that women's social position has not always been, everywhere or in most respects subordinate to man.” (Towards Anthropology of Women, p211)

Engels acknowledged in his 1891 preface to Origins of the Family, that as the result of new evidence “some of Morgan's hypotheses pertaining to particular points have been shaken, or even become untenable.”

Shoshoni tipis in the 19th centuryShoshoni tipis in the 19th centuryDespite its limitations, Morgan's work attempted to shed light in evolutionary terms on the earliest period of human development. In a materialist fashion he divided up history into three phases: savagery, barbarism and civilisation, dealing primarily with the two earlier phases. Each stage was characterised by a certain type of economic activity. Savagery, which constituted 99% of human existence, was based upon food gathering, scavenging and hunting.

Barbarism was based on agriculture and the rearing of cattle. Civilisation, based upon private property, introduced commodity production. The long period of savagery and barbarism constituted the period of 'primitive communism', which was based on co-operation and common ownership of the primitive means of production.


Human existence in its earliest phase was composed of bands of hunters and gatherers, unaffected by classes, the state, family, private property, the market or any attributes of class society. These bands or groups became organised through blood relationships in 'gentes' or 'clans' (which are called 'lineages' by modem anthropologists). According to Engels, in this 'primitive communist' society “everything runs smoothly without soldiers, gendarmes or police; without nobles, kings, governors, prefects or judges; without prisons; without trials.”

“All quarrels and disputes are settled by the whole body of those concerned - the gens or the tribe or individual gentes among themselves... There can be no poor and needy - communistic households and the gens know their obligations towards the aged, the sick and those disabled in war. All are free and equal - including the women.” (Page 159)

 As a means of survival, social co-operation must have determined the character of early human society, which is directly linked to the production of tools and co-operation in hunter-gather activities. They had a nomadic form of life based upon the common appropriation of the products of their labour. This inherent equality of primitive society is confirmed by the evidence of surviving hunter-gather societies, such as the !Kung San of the Kalahari and others (the ! denotes a click sound). The key note of the !Kung, in complete contrast to class society, is their egalitarianism, modesty and co-operation.

R. B. Lee in his book, ‘The !Kung San,’ describes the attitude of a successful hunter:

“Say that a man has been hunting. He must not come home and announce like a braggart, 'I have killed a big one in the bush!' He must first sit down in silence until I or someone else comes up to his fire and asks, 'What did you see today?' He replies quietly, 'Ah, I'm no good for hunting. I saw nothing at all - maybe just a tiny one.' Then I smile to myself because I now know he has killed something big.” (page 244)

Division of labour

As with the overwhelming majority of hunter-gather groups there is a sexual division of labour between men and women, where men generally undertake hunting and women gather roots and plants. This is nothing to do with a division based upon prestige or superiority, but due to the women's role in child bearing and the need to protect the fertility of the group. : “The burden of carrying infants on food-gathering expeditions is great”, writes Richard Leakey and Roger Lewin.

“!Kung women walk more than 1500 miles a year with a suckling infant on their backs), but they are clearly equal to the task. But, although collecting plant foods is not without hazards from potential predators, the dangers of hunting are greater.

“The loss of the child to the hungry jaws of a carnivorous cat would be a serious blow to a woman's reproductive career. To put the child at risk would therefore not be biologically sensible, either for the woman or her mate... for these and other reasons, women only rarely hunt.”

Engels underlines the equality amongst men and women in these early societies. Based on Morgan’s research, he stresses the importance of the gens or lineages, which was theoretically based on 'blood', in determining social relations. For instance, in matrilineal societies where descent is reckoned through the female line, a person's most important ties are with their mother and their mother's brother; in a similar fashion, the man's main responsibility is towards his sister's children.

Again in matriarchal societies, a man enters a household run by his wife, her mother and sisters. Each household represents a different lineage or gens with its definite obligations and responsibilities. Morgan outlines the first stage of family as the ‘consanguine’ family where all descendants of a pair are all mutual husbands and wives.

This apparently gave way to the ‘punaluan’ family, where parents and children were excluded from sexual relations. This was characterised as group marriage and gave way to the pairing family.

However, this view has been challenged as recent evidence of hunter--gather societies have not been so rigid with flexibility between the lineage or clan. Engels nevertheless sees this development as the earliest form of social organisation. Sexual relations (“primitive promiscuity”) would have meant that offspring could only identify their mother.

Only later, with the further development of society, did it give way to patrilineality or decent through the male line, especially with the emergence of private property.

Gordon Childe argues:

“Among pure cultivators, owing to the role of the women's contributions to the collective economy, kinship is naturally reckoned in the female line, and the system of mother right' prevails. With stock-breeding, on the contrary, economic and social influence passes to the male and kinship is patrilinear.” (What Happened in History, p 73).

The development of technique, particularly of agriculture 10,000 years ago revolutionised social and sexual relationships. Childe calls it the 'Neolithic Revolution', which marks the step from savagery to barbarism.

The development of agriculture and the domestication of animals pushed forward new methods and implements, such as hoes, storehouses, grindstones, pottery. "All the foregoing inventions and discoveries", says Childe, "were, judged by ethnographic evidence, the work of the women. To that sex, too, may by the same token be credited the chemistry of pot-making, the physics of spinning, the mechanics of the loom, and the botany of flax and cotton." (What Happened In History, page 66)

However, the introduction of the plough "relieved women of the most exacting drudgery, but deprived them of their monopoly over the cereal crops and the social status that conferred. Among barbarians, whereas women normally hoe plots, it is men who plough fields." (Page 89) The new advances and the wealth created began to weaken the bonds of the gens. Although wealth remained with-in the gentes or clan, "it gave the man a more important status in the family than the woman, and on the other hand, created a stimulus to utilise this strengthened position in order 'to overthrow the traditional order of inheritance in favour of his children. But this was impossible as long as decent according to mother right prevailed. This had, therefore, to be overthrown, and it was over-thrown..." (Engels Origins, page 90)


The transition from 'primitive communist' society to civilisation and class society took place unevenly. The creation of a surplus over and above the needs of the clan or tribe marked a revolutionary advance, yet it also stimulated private property and the dissolution of the old gens.

This period coincided with intensive agriculture and the use of metals. For Childe, "the worst contradictions in the Neolithic economy were transcended when farmers were persuaded or compelled to wring from the soil a surplus above their own domestic requirements, and when this surplus was made available to support new economic classes not directly engaged in producing their own food. The possibility of producing the requisite surplus was inherent in the very nature of the Neolithic economy." Its realisation required a change in social and economic relations, or in other words, a break up of the old social order. The social surplus, derived primarily from agriculture, was gradually concentrated into the hands of a privileged caste of priests and officials which gradually separated itself from the rest of society.

Over a period of time, private property also became increasingly concentrated in the hands of family chiefs. This was a decisive step towards the creation of a ruling class. With the introduction of cattle rearing, metallurgy, and cultivation, the social surplus rose considerably. From this time onwards slavery became an economic viability.

In the past, when no surplus was produced above the needs of the population, conquered tribes were butchered or a source of cannibalism but not slavery. As soon as a surplus came into being, the capture of slaves became very profitable.

As Childe comments: "the vanquished need not have been exterminated. If some survived as guardians of the ritual tradition of a local god, others may have been left alive as serfs or slaves. Men would have been domesticated', like oxen and asses. Conquests would have produced stratified societies, divided into masters and slaves, embryos of the class division revealed in the oldest historical cities? (Page. 96)

The movement towards class society, reflected itself in the dissolution of the gens and the development of new social relations. The nascent ruling class concentrated greater economic and social power into its hands. Monogamy thus arose out of the concentration of wealth into the hands of one person and the need to pass this on to the man's children. It was the beginning of the oppression of women. "The overthrow of mother right was the world historic defeat of the female sex", says Engels.

The new patriarchal family went hand in hand with the development of classes, the state, and other attributes of class society. "In short, wealth is praised and respected as the highest treasure, and the old gentile institutions are perverted in order to justify forcible robbery of wealth", states Engels. "Only one thing was missing: an institution that would not only safeguard the newly-acquired property of private individuals against the communistic traditions of the gentile order, would not only sanctify private property, formerly held in such light esteem, and pronounce this satisfaction the highest purpose of human society, but would also stamp the gradually developing new forms of acquiring property, and consequently, of constantly accelerating increased wealth, with the seal of general public recognition; an institution that would perpetuate, not only the newly-rising class division of society, but also the right of the possessing class to exploit the non-possessing classes and the rule of the former over the latter. And this institution arrived. The state was invented." (Page 178)

The emergence of civilisation brought with it new products of class society, including the sub-ordination of women and the emergence of a new social power: money.

With the development of private property came the existence of commodities and private debt. The old gentile order crumbled and the new class societies, such as in the Greek city states, emerged based on slavery.


The development of slavery, feudalism, and then capitalism changed the forms of exploitation and the production of surplus value from the labour of the exploited mass. The role of women in society was confined to the household. In this subordinate position, cut off from social production, the female's role was largely reproduction.

This is continued in the present bourgeois family. In fact, as The Communist Manifesto explained, "The bourgeois sees in his wife a mere instrument of production... Our bourgeois, not content with having the wives and daughters of their proletarians at their disposal, not to speak of common prostitutes, take the greatest pleasure in seducing each other's wives."

However, the fireworks of economic expansion under capitalism in the second half of the 20th century has opened the way for women to enter industry on a wide scale. In Britain women are roughly half the workforce. This is an enormously progressive fact. As Engels says: "The emancipation of women becomes possible only when women are enabled to take part in production on a large, social scale, and when domestic duties require their attention only to a minor degree."

However, this is impossible under capitalism. The disintegration of the welfare state, as well as the break up of the family, is a product of the crisis of capitalism. Rather than a move towards equality, there has developed the most glaring inequalities. Working class women are forced into soul destroying dead-end jobs, the bulk of which are part-time. The gap between rich and poor is greater than at any time since 1886.

The real emancipation of women is not linked to the largely middle class feminists who see the issue as a means of self-promotion. The plight of millions of ordinary working class women are a million miles removed from the petit bourgeois that infest the so-called women's movement. For them the position of women is con-fined to male attitudes and prejudices, rather than the manifestation of class society.

They see the issue as a problem of 'men' and seek to solve the subordination of women from the viewpoint of sexual domination and not class. They operate within the confines of capitalism, hoping to expand the number of professional jobs, such as lawyers, judges, MPs, company directors, for middle class women.

The position of working class women is fundamentally a class question, which requires the unity of the working class -men and women -, in the common struggle to overthrow the capitalist system, based upon exploitation and inequality. Only with the overthrow of class society can the liberation of men and women be achieved.

As Engels explains: "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 impending social revolution, however, by transforming at least the far greater part of permanent inheritable wealth - the means of production - into social property, will reduce all this anxiety about inheritance to a minimum." (Origins, p 123)

What will the character of the future socialist family be like? As monogamy arose out of definite economic causes, will it disappear when they too disappear? With the abolition of private property, the family ceases to be an economic unit. The care of children becomes the responsibility of society, as not only the material basis of society changes, but its whole social and moral outlook. The egalitarian foundation of socialism is enhanced as all the "old crap" of class society is eliminated. The development of an economy of super abundance and the democratic involvement of the population at all levels transforms the outlook of society.

Planned economy

The planned economy, with is use of the most scientifically advanced techniques, will reduce working hours to a minimum, fully allowing the participation of men and women in art and culture. "Monogamy, instead of declining, finally become a reality - for the men as well", concludes Engels.

Women's liberation is bound into the liberation of society from class domination. A pre-condition of this is the involvement of working class women in the Labour movement in the struggle to change society. This is a key question.

Only by campaigning on socialist policies that will transform the lives of ordinary working people will the movement attract women workers in large numbers. This must be linked to childcare provision, so domestic difficulties are minimised, and the opportunities for participation are enhanced.

In reality, we can only speculate on the form of family under socialism. For Engels, people under a new society "will not care a rap about what we today think they should do. They will establish their own practice and their own public opinion, con-formable therewith, on the practice of each individual - and that's the end of it."

The only thing that can be established with certainty is that relationships will embody respect and will be free from the harmful effects of class society. Humankind will be free to enjoy the full fruits of life.

Engels' great work can be ordered from Wellred Books.