The fall of woman: property, oppression and the family

The oppression of women and the origins of the family as we know it remain key issues facing anyone who wishes to fight for a better world today. Huge numbers of women still suffer sexual abuse and harassment. In some parts of the world they live in slave-like conditions. Millions of girls and women alive today have been forced to undergo female genital mutilation, one of the most barbaric methods used to control women’s sexuality, while millions of young women are trafficked for sexual exploitation. Violence against women is still an everyday occurrence, with femicide a continuing phenomenon.

This is the barbarism of the society we live in today, and despite some important conquests, we are still very far from achieving genuine and full equality between men and women. We must ask ourselves the following question: is all this the natural way of men and women relating to each other? We are often told that it is; that the monogamous ‘nuclear’ family, with a dominant and powerful father figure, has always existed, and that men are naturally aggressive towards women. But is this really the case?

Marx and Engels answered this question firmly in the negative. Engels in particular developed the Marxist approach to women’s oppression in his famous work, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, published in 1884. He based himself mainly on Lewis Henry Morgan’s text, Ancient Society (1877), which argued: “the idea of the family has been a growth through successive stages of development”, of which the modern, monogamous family was only “the last in its series of forms.”[1] He explained that this was closely connected to the development of new techniques, tools and weapons, i.e. of the productive forces.

Morgan had a fundamentally materialist approach on this question, and initially he had a big influence among anthropologists of his time. But eventually his ideas came to be seen as a threat to the stability of bourgeois society, and this was especially the case after Engels used his findings to elaborate the Marxist view on this question.

In the 20th century, the ideas of Morgan and Engels were ferociously attacked by conservative anthropologists, such as Bronisław Malinowski, who stated candidly:

"If once we came to the point of doing away with the individual family as the pivotal element of our society, we should be faced with a social catastrophe compared with which the political upheaval of the French revolution and the economic changes of Bolshevism are insignificant." [2]

Others, such as those of the Boas school of anthropology, rejected the very idea of stages in history, “determinism” and “evolutionary theory” in favour of an idealist approach that still exerts a powerful influence over the field today.

Undoubtedly, Morgan was limited by the level of scientific knowledge available in the mid-19th century, and some of his ideas have not survived the test of time. But a much more important question is: what did he get right? And what does this tell us about the evolution of the family and its possible future?

These questions have a decisive significance for the struggle for a better world. And ultimately, they can only be answered by a genuinely scientific approach to the history of our species.

Materialist method

Morgan applied himself to a study of early forms of society and made a genuine attempt to understand their internal social structures and what drove the changes in these structures – in the same way that Darwin had dedicated himself to the study of biological evolution.

Morgan felt that, by looking at then-contemporary societies at different levels of development and comparing one to the other, it was possible to reconstruct a picture of how human society as a whole had evolved. In doing so, he developed a theory of social evolution: that societies go through similar stages of development, and that there is a direction to that process, from less to more developed forms.

Lewishenrymorgan public domainMorgan unconsciously drew conclusions very similar to those of historical materialism / Image: public domain

Morgan understood that social institutions come into existence in accordance with specific developments in social conditions. In doing so, he unconsciously drew conclusions very similar to those of historical materialism, the method developed by Marx and Engels. We find a clear example of this method where Morgan states:

"The important fact that mankind commenced at the bottom of the scale and worked up, is revealed in an expressive manner by their successive arts of subsistence. Upon their skill in this direction, the whole question of human supremacy on the earth depended. Mankind are the only beings who may be said to have gained an absolute control over the production of food; which at the outset they did not possess above other animals. Without enlarging the basis of subsistence, mankind could not have propagated themselves into other areas not possessing the same kinds of food, and ultimately over the whole surface of the earth; and lastly, without obtaining an absolute control over both its variety and amount, they could not have multiplied into populous nations. It is accordingly probable that the great epochs of human progress have been identified, more or less directly, with the enlargement of the sources of subsistence." [3]

Morgan’s evolutionary approach to the development of society, determined by the development of the productive forces, stands out clearly. He divided society into different stages, “savagery, barbarism and civilisation”, with savagery spanning three periods, Lower, Middle and Upper, the lower being the least developed. Morgan explained that with new tools and techniques, such as fishing, or the bow and arrow, humanity moves from one stage to the other. “Barbarism” he divided similarly into three, as pottery is mastered; as humans learn to domesticate animals, plant crops, develop early irrigation systems, make bricks, etc.; and finally master the use of metals, such as bronze and iron.

The words he uses, “savagery, barbarism and civilisation”, have assumed somewhat derogatory connotations, but we should not see Morgan’s use of these words in the same way. What interests us here is the essence of the meaning and not what those words have become today. Likewise, his timeline of development no longer corresponds exactly to what over 150 years of further research have established, but the idea of humanity developing through stages is essentially correct.

That human society has gone through several stages of development, based fundamentally on the materials used for the production of tools, is generally acknowledged by archaeologists today, when they give periods of history names such as the Stone Age, the Bronze Age and the Iron Age. Through the development of tools, humans moved from hunter-gathering to farming in the Neolithic, or “New Stone Age”. Later, metalworking advances were made, first with bronze and later with iron, which allowed for the rise of the great civilisations of the ancient world. This was not a linear and identical process in all the continents of the world. In part this also depended on the available local resources. Nonetheless, this is the generally accepted picture.

It was this materialist approach that attracted the attention of Marx and Engels. As Engels explained in 1884:

"Morgan in his own way had discovered afresh in America the materialistic conception of history discovered by Marx forty years ago, and in his comparison of barbarism and civilization it had led him, in the main points, to the same conclusions as Marx."[4]

Marx, in fact, had studied Morgan’s Ancient Society, together with the works of other anthropologists of the period, and he wrote extensive notes, with the intention of producing a text with his own interpretation of their latest findings. Unfortunately, Marx died before he could complete this work, but his notes [5] were used by Engels to produce his classic text in 1884 shortly after Marx’s death. Engels’ work on the origins of the family can therefore be considered a joint work of the founding fathers of Marxism.

Inbreeding and promiscuity in early humans

Morgan maintained that early human society started out with what he called the “consanguine” family, that is, breeding among close relatives. Only later, he explained, through various stages, was sexual reproduction between related individuals eliminated and certain prohibitions put in place.

When Morgan first raised this idea it was indignantly rejected, and still is in many circles. After all, what could be more alien to the social mores of our time? Because it seemed so unnatural in their own time, some sociologists, such as Westermarck, maintained that there was a natural instinct to avoid inbreeding.

However, recent studies have given support to the idea that inbreeding existed among early humans, demonstrating just how much our notion of the family has changed over the millennia. A paper published in 2018 concluded that the relatively high proportion of deformities in Ice Age skeletons was most likely caused by inbreeding, a theory supported by the low level of genetic diversity found in these skeletons.[6]

But this evidently did not remain the case, and an interesting study produced at the University of Cambridge reports that the analysis of human remains at the site of Sunghir, in Siberia, showed:

"Early humans seem to have recognised the dangers of inbreeding at least 34,000 years ago, and developed surprisingly sophisticated social and mating networks to avoid it […]" [7]

This is significant because crucially it demonstrates that sexual relations between human beings changed. At a certain stage the human family evolved, with new relations emerging out of the old. Indeed, the “sophisticated social and mating networks” might even represent the earliest forms of what would later become known as the “gens”.

Willendorf VenusThe emergence of the modern family required a complete overturn of the existing order / Image: Jorge Royan,

Morgan saw four subsequent stages of development of the family based on incest prohibition, where males and females were not allowed to mate with members of their own clan or “gens”, to use the Latin expression. In other words, systems emerged which forbade mating within a certain group.

He hypothesised that, under this system, “group marriage” was the norm. Did this mean all the men of one group having all the women of another group as their “wives” at the same time? Not necessarily. Societies have been found where “group marriage” effectively involved a form of “alliance” between groups, in which individuals in one group could only select their partners from within the other group.

What should be emphasised, however, is the relatively promiscuous nature of mating in the early period of human society. Contrary to the traditional conception of the family, men and women were not tied permanently to one partner, could freely break the relationship and seek another partner.

Thousands of years of a morality that has evolved under the pressure of class society, where woman has been considered the property of man, and where the woman must be faithful to one man all of her life, have left in the collective consciousness the idea that this is a natural and universal state of affairs. Many studies, however, indicate that “promiscuity” – in the sense of the freedom of individuals to choose who they mate with, when and for how long – was clearly present in early human societies.

As Engels explains: “What, then, does promiscuous sexual intercourse mean? That the restrictions in force at present or in earlier times did not exist.” But then he also adds, “It by no means necessarily follows from this that a higgledy-piggledy promiscuity was in daily practice. Separate pairings for a limited time are by no means excluded; in fact even in group marriage they now constitute the majority of cases.”[8]

The existence of “pairings”, or couples in the context of the larger clan or “gens”, however, should not be seen as “marriage” as we know it. Morgan emphasised that “it was founded upon the pairing of a male with a female under the form of marriage, but without an exclusive cohabitation […] Divorce or separation was at the option of both husband and wife.” [9] (Emphasis added.) This means that both men and women were not tied to each other permanently in marriage as we know it.

Nevertheless, this prepared the ground for the later, monogamous family, which, according to Morgan: “was founded upon the marriage of one man with one woman, with an exclusive cohabitation; the latter constituting the essential of the institution. It is pre-eminently the family of civilised society, and was therefore essentially modern.”[10] But the emergence of this modern family required a complete overturn of the existing order to come into being.

Matrilineal descent

The position of the woman was not subordinate to that of the man before the appearance of the monogamous and patriarchal family, and it is on this question that Morgan arguably made the greatest contribution to our understanding of human society.

Morgan was not an armchair anthropologist, but did real, concrete fieldwork among the Iroquois, whom he studied closely, living among them for a period. He also studied other indigenous peoples of the Americas, while gathering information from many other sources on peoples in the early stages of human development.

IroquoisMorgan was not an armchair anthropologist, but did real, concrete fieldwork among the Iroquois / Image: William Alexander Drennan

He saw that women had a much more equal status amongst the Iroquois than in the “civilised” world. Engels, drawing on his research, commented: “All are equal and free – the women included.”[11] But why was this the case?

Morgan concluded that, in a previous period, humans were organised in matrilineal clans, in which descent was traced through the maternal line, not the patriarchal family (literally, rule of the father) that eventually came into being with the emergence of private property and class society.

There is much debate about whether “matriarchy” has ever existed, but this is a false and misleading debate. Matriarchy implies the rule of women, but what Morgan highlighted was matrilineality, i.e. tracing descent through the mother’s line in the very early period of human society, as the absence of strict or permanent pairing meant there was no sure way of knowing who the father was. Matrilineality did not mean that men had no role, or were subordinate to women.

There are many attempts to deny matrilineality, and that is because all written history, which starts from the 4th millennium BCE, is from civilisations that were patriarchal, class societies. Therefore it is easy to see where the idea that “men have always dominated women’’ comes from. However, surviving examples of matrilineal societies today offer support for Morgan’s theory.

In China’s Yunnan and Sichuan provinces we have the Mosuo people, where lineage is still traced through the women of the family and property is handed down the female line. Children belong to and reside within their mother’s household. Mosuo men have the duty of bringing up the children of their sisters and female cousins (a phenomenon Morgan describes in the matrilineal societies he studied) and they are in charge of rearing animals and fishing, all of which they learn from their uncles (mothers’ brothers) and older male members of the family.

The Bribri of Costa Rica, the Minangkabau in West Sumatra, some of the Akan people of Ghana, and the Khasi in India, still trace descent through the female line. None of these societies have had any contact with one another.

The influential anthropologist, Franz Boas, attempted to find examples of passages from patrilineality to matrilineality, in order to discredit Morgan’s whole schema. He believed he had found this among the Kwakiutl on the Pacific Northwest Coast of America. But this was later shown to be an invalid example. Boas found descent being traced through both male and female lines, but what he ignored was that this society had undergone tremendous trauma under the impact of contact with Europeans, and their whole system was breaking down under the pressure.

It is easy to imagine how the tracing of descent and inheritance of whatever property that existed through the maternal line would bolster the position of women in society. But there is another important factor in prehistoric society that has to be taken into account: the extremely egalitarian nature of hunter-gatherer society in general.

Primitive communism

We have to note that, although Morgan himself was no communist, but a US Republican and a well-to-do bourgeois who believed that the political system of the United States was the highest form of society, he refers several times in his Ancient Society to the fact that early humans lived in a communist manner, i.e. there was no private property.

Colin Renfrew is a former Professor of Archaeology at Cambridge University, and was a Conservative member of the House of Lords 1991-2021 – and therefore someone who cannot be accused of having communist sympathies! In his book, Prehistory – The making of the Human Mind, he states the following:

"Early hunter-gatherer societies, like those of our palaeolithic ancestors, seem always to have been egalitarian communities, where individuals participated on a basis of equality […]"[12] (Emphasis added.)

What was this egalitarianism based on? In hunter-gatherer societies there was no division into classes, no owners of the means of production, no landed property. The little “property” that existed were rudimentary tools and weapons for hunting and butchering animals and for foraging and the clothing people wore on their backs.

As there was no private property or division of society into classes, there was no exploiters and exploited, and therefore no armed apparatus standing above society. Morgan states:

"The state did not exist. Their governments were essentially democratical, because the principles on which the gens, phratry and tribe were organised were democratical."

In his description of the Iroquois he states that: “each household practised communism in living”.[13]

The idea that humans lived in what Marx and Engels referred to as “primitive communism”, with no concept of private property, for most of their existence is unacceptable to those who defend the idea that rich and poor, or exploiters and exploited, have always existed; that the dog-eat-dog individual competition of modern-day capitalism, is simply part of “human nature” and we have to accept it.

As the American anthropologist Leslie A. White put it in his The Evolution of Culture, The Development of Civilization to the Fall of Rome:

"[…] so menacing did the theory of primitive communism become, apparently, that members of three anthropological ‘schools’ have felt called upon to scotch it. Lowie of the Boas school has attacked it repeatedly. Malinowski, a leader of the Functionalist school, branded it 'perhaps the most misleading fallacy there is in social anthropology' […] Lowie has been commended by Catholic scholars for his criticism of the theory of primitive communism, and through this, his opposition to socialist doctrines. […] It would appear that an effort was being made to 'make the world safe for private property'."[14]

In spite of all the objections, however, there are many studies that confirm the egalitarian nature of hunter-gatherer societies, where women enjoyed a much higher position in society, and were treated as equals, not as the property of the men. [15]

A key characteristic of humans is their tendency towards cooperation and sharing. Humans could not have survived without this. We are not particularly fast or strong compared to many other animals. As isolated individuals, in the conditions that pertained at the time, we would have been in constant danger of being attacked by the large carnivores, while at the same time finding it much more difficult to procure food. This cooperation did not come from some abstract spirit of altruism, therefore, but was a material necessity. Cooperation was necessary not only in hunting, but also in gathering.

Hunting, gathering and matrilocality

It appears that there was a division of labour between the sexes in prehistoric hunter-gatherer societies, although it varied from one people to another, and wasn’t a strict division, as we find in later, class societies such as the Greeks.

Men sometimes participated in the gathering and women helped in the hunting, as has been shown by recent discoveries of women in tombs with their weapons. But in general, the males tended to go on hunting trips and the women tended to forage. And one was not less important than the other. In fact, hunting trips sometimes saw the men return empty-handed, while the foraging always brought home something. Thus, the division of labour at this stage of human society does not imply the subordination of woman to man.

In fact, the division of labour that existed within the family actually tended to promote the position of women in many cases. Kit Opie and Camilla Power, authors of Grandmothering and Female Coalitions – A Basis for Matrilineal Priority?[16], argue that, in the societies they examined, the number of calories required to feed all the adults and the children in a group would require the cooperation of women, and their female relatives, in particular the grandmothers, together with the men. Amongst the !Kung of the Kalahari desert, for example, studies show that “gathering contributes 60 to 80 percent of the total diet”.[17]

Women who cannot go foraging, either because they are in the late stages of pregnancy or are nursing newborn babies, are assured their daily calories because the other women will provide for them. Again, this is not due to some abstract spirit of altruism. It is standard practice that everyone helps everyone else out, because they know when they find themselves in the same condition they too will be provided for.

SAN namibiaThe idea that the women were totally dependent on the men, and therefore even in early human societies a woman had to look for an individual man to survive, does not hold / Image: public domain

Thus, the idea that the women were totally dependent on the men, and therefore even in early human societies a woman had to look for an individual man to survive, does not hold.

All this provides a material basis upon which the equality between the sexes rested. Opie and Power also explain the role of older women, who could no longer bear children, but could play a key role later in life in helping to provide for their daughters’ offspring. This would explain the matrilocal nature of families – women staying close to their mothers – and therefore also the matrilineal nature of society.

They point out that:

"Evidence from molecular genetics suggests that an ancestral tendency of female kin to stick together persisted with the emergence of modern humans. Studies reveal difference in philopatry [the tendency of an individual to return to, or stay in, its home area, or birthplace] patterns between hunting and farming populations in sub-Saharan Africa."[18]

They add: “The greater the reliance on hunting in these populations, the less likely they are to be virilocal.” This means that the women in hunter-gatherer societies tend to stay within a group where the women are related, with mothers, sisters, female cousins, but where the men they mate with come from outside. All this is a striking confirmation of what Morgan described back in 1877!

There are, of course, exceptions to this rule, such as the indigenous people of North Alaska, among whom we find “men providing almost all of the food”. They are hunters, and not agricultural. However, this is not due to the fact that the people there simply “think” hunting is better, and “choose” not to adopt the planting of crops.

Another article explains that in “some arctic and subarctic regions, there are comparatively few small animals to be had and no vegetable foods of dietary significance, so large game accounts for a very large proportion of all food consumed.”[19] There is a concrete material reason why men play such an important role in obtaining food in such a situation: “The possibility for either significant gathering or moving to agriculture is not likely in these arctic or subarctic societies.”[20]

Finding these “exceptions” does not deny the overall picture of social evolution, where the conditions have been favourable for the development of agriculture. As the authors explain:

"For the purpose of understanding the transition to agricultural societies, these groups may also be of limited interest as a model for the hunter-gatherer societies that came to exist in Africa, Europe and elsewhere that experienced the transition to agriculture."[21]

This clearly has enormous significance for the position of women in these societies. Individual women did not move from their father’s house to that of their husband and remain there, surrounded by his extended family, as is very common today all over the world. This meant they were significantly less dependent on their partner. Rather, their partner found himself surrounded on all sides by his partner’s relatives and was, to an extent, dependent on them.

In some cases, male hunters had to give all their catch to their partner’s mother before she distributed it amongst the family. No wonder surviving examples of these communities see such a lower rate of violence towards women than our own.

Property, inequality and monogamy

This egalitarian way of life began to change following the emergence of agriculture, in what became known as the Neolithic Revolution, roughly 12,000 years ago.

Studies have confirmed that gender inequality gradually changed over a long period, as humans transitioned from hunter-gathering to agriculture, in particular crop cultivation. Archaeological evidence from all over the world suggests a changing division of labour between men and women following the adoption of agriculture. The direct causes vary from place to place, but a number of important factors clearly played a role: rising birth rates and therefore greater childcare responsibilities, greater food processing requirements, and eventually the use of heavier implements such as the plough.

A study published by the Social Science Research Network in 2012 explains:

"[…] the move to agriculture led to a division of labour within the family, where the man used his physical strength in food production and the woman took care of child rearing, food processing and production and other family-related duties."

It continues:

"The consequence was that women’s role in society no longer gave her economic viability on her own. In essence, the general shift in the division of labor associated with the Neolithic Revolution aggravated women’s outside options (outside marriage), and this increased male bargaining power within the family, which, over generations, translated into norms and behavior which shaped the cultural beliefs on gender roles in societies. […] In sum, we provide new evidence consistent with the hypothesis that an early Neolithic Revolution, via its effects on cultural beliefs, is a source of modern gender roles."[22]

Alongside the shift in the division of labour, there also appears to have been a shift away from matrilocality to patrilocality, which would have had a further impact on the position of women in the home. A 2004 paper from La Sapienza University of Rome revealed that a study of mitochondrial DNA in 40 populations from sub-Saharan Africa showed “a striking difference in the genetic structure of food-producer (Bantu and Sudanic speakers) and hunter-gatherer populations (Pygmies, !Kung, and Hadza)”[23]. Women in hunter-gatherer populations, such as the !Kung and Hadza, were more likely to remain with their mothers after marriage than women from food-producing populations reliant on agriculture, suggesting a strong link between agriculture and patrilocality.

When exactly matrilineal descent gave way to patrilineality is of course almost impossible to pinpoint. The change would have taken place in a remote period of the unrecorded past, and each individual society would have developed in its own way and at its own pace. But it is certain that this transition took place at some point between the advent of agriculture and the rise of the first class societies, roughly 5-6,000 years ago, because every single one of these societies were patrilocal, patrilineal and, above all, patriarchal.

Morgan identified the key to this dramatic shift in the rise of private property, explaining that:

"[…] the question of inheritance was certain to arise, to increase in importance with the increase of property in variety and amount, and to result in some settled rule of inheritance."[24]

Property did not immediately arise as private, as initially the rules of inheritance were based on the common ownership of land and herds within the gens, essentially the wider family units that formed the basis of society right up to the formation of the first states. This meant that property could not be transferred outside the gens.

Under the matrilineal gens, the children remained within the gens of the mother. Therefore, it was through the female line that property was inherited. This meant that the children of men were not within the gens of their fathers, but in those of their female partners. At a certain point, however, in different parts of the world and at different times, as men accumulated greater and greater property, a switch took place whereby property rights were passed down through the male line.

Grant Wood American GothicInequality, classes and the oppression of women did not arise immediately from the first forms of agriculture and domestication / Image: Grant Wood

Inequality, classes and the oppression of women did not arise immediately from the first forms of agriculture and domestication. But once the passage to agriculture had been accomplished, the conditions had been laid for achieving greater and greater productivity of the land. As can be seen for a host of Neolithic sites, “communism in living” continued even as humans moved from a nomadic existence to a sedentary one. However, the surplus that was eventually produced meant that it was only a question of time before classes would appear, and with them social inequality, the first victim of this being women. In the period from the early sedentary agricultural societies to the appearance of the early civilisations known in history, this process was completed.

This was repeated independently in many parts of the world, including Mesopotamia (now Iraq), Egypt, Central and South America, China, South Asia, and parts of Sub-Saharan Africa. None of these were perfect carbon-copies of each other, but they had many common features.

We cannot say exactly how the passage from matrilineal to patrilineal descent took place. However, Morgan was able to interview members of several tribes in North America and noted that some of them had recently transitioned from inheritance through the female line to the male line – in some cases in living memory. As he says:

"Many Indian tribes now have considerable property in domestic animals and in houses and lands owned by individuals, among whom the practice of giving it to their children in their life-time has become common to avoid gentile inheritance."[25] (Emphasis added.)

He explains that as property increased in quantity the disinheritance of the men’s children began to “arouse opposition to gentile inheritance”, that is, through the maternal line. This is actually a living example of how the transition from matrilineality to patrilineality may have taken place in other societies.

Thus, the emergence of private property was the key element in determining the radical change in the status of women, from equals to subordinates of men. “The monogamian family owes its origin to property”[26], wrote Morgan.

A new form of society emerged, where the male owners of property began to impose on women previously unknown conditions. The only way of making sure that the woman produced the husband’s children was to impose strict rules of behaviour, such as the seclusion of the women within the house, the banning of women from leaving the house unaccompanied, and strict fidelity. Morgan outlines the process thus:

"After houses and lands, flocks and herds, and exchangeable commodities had become so great in quantity, and had come to be held by individual ownership, the question of their inheritance would press upon human attention […]"

Morgan explains that the family eventually became “a property-making organization”, and he adds:

"The time had now arrived when monogamy, having assured the paternity of children, would assert and maintain their exclusive right to inherit the property of their deceased father."[27]

Morgan, as we have seen, did not limit himself to observing the Iroquois, or to the information he received from other scholars and travellers. He also looked at other sources, for instance, at the ancient Greeks and Romans, and what could be discerned from their early writings, from their myths and legends, about their earlier family structures.

He finds traces of the gens in the very early texts and myths of the ancient Romans and Greeks, as well as in the Irish “sept”, the Scottish “clan”, the Sanskrit “ganas”, and so on. This is highly significant, as these cultures could never have had any contact with the native American tribes that Morgan observed.

The ancient Greeks and Romans had adopted a male-based gens, having transitioned from the earlier female-based gens, and he describes how this continued in the early period of urbanisation.

In ancient Greek society, we see the downfall of women in one of its worst forms. Fearing that any contact with other men could lead to sexual intercourse, Athenian men did not allow their wives to be seen in public, and men from outside the family were not allowed to be with the women of the household. In ancient Rome, the paterfamilias was the supreme authority, with power of life and death over all family members, wife, offspring, as well as slaves.

It should be noted that this “monogamy” was in reality only for the women. And alongside this new, restrictive morality emerged different forms of female (and in some cases male) prostitution across ancient class societies. The Athenian state even regulated prostitution, with the introduction of brothels.

Before these class societies emerged, women had been revered and honoured as the givers of life. Greek epics refer to goddesses and female warriors, elevated to a position of worship and respect. Robert Graves in his The Greek Myths (1955) expressed the view that Bronze Age Greece had transitioned from a “matriarchal” society – we would say matrilineal – to a patriarchal one. He refers to the story of Zeus swallowing Metis, the Goddess of Wisdom, after which “the Achaeans suppressed her cult and arrogated all wisdom to Zeus as their patriarchal god.”[28]

This demotion of woman in the heavens was clearly a reflection of her demotion on earth. William G. Dever has argued in his book, Did God have a Wife?, that a similar process took place in the mythology of the ancient Hebrews, who in their early period believed Yahweh (their god) had a wife, considered the Queen of the Heavens.[29]

Morgan and Engels on the future of the family

What Morgan had to say on the past development of the family challenged traditional views, but what he said about the future of the family was even more disconcerting for the bourgeois:

"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."[30]

Engels went further:

"[…] what we can conjecture at present about the regulation of sex relationships after the impending effacement of capitalist production is, in the main, of a negative character, limited mostly to what will vanish. But what will be added? That will be settled after a new generation has grown up: a generation of men who never in all their lives have had occasion to purchase a woman’s surrender either with money or with any other means of social power, and of women who have never been obliged to surrender to any man out of any consideration other than that of real love, or to refrain from giving themselves to their beloved for fear of the economic consequences. Once such people appear, they will not care a rap about what we today think they should do. They will establish their own practice and their own public opinion, conformable therewith, on the practice of each individual – and that’s the end of it."[31]

Engels is often maligned as a man of the Victorian period, but in these few sentences we see that he was actually far ahead of his time on the question of the family and on how humans will relate to each other sexually in the future.

Friedrich EngelsEngels is often maligned as a man of the Victorian period, but he was actually far ahead of his time on the question of the family / Image: public domain

After Engels produced his classic work, the ranks of the Second International, and later the Communist International, were educated in the ideas he elaborated on this question. When the Bolsheviks came to power in 1917, they began to implement these ideas, which can be seen in the various laws and reforms adopted in relation to marriage, women’s rights, childcare, etc.

Alongside political reforms, Lenin and Trotsky both stressed the need for genuine social as well as political equality, by liberating women from the burdens of housework, childcare etc., which weigh disproportionately on women to this day.

The isolation of the revolution in a single, backward country meant that many of those progressive reforms could only be partially achieved as the Soviet Union did not have sufficient material resources to maintain them. Nonetheless, their bold reforms provided us with a glimpse of what a genuine socialist society could achieve. And it is precisely for this reason that not only the Bolsheviks, but even Morgan himself, could not be forgiven by the ruling class.

Bourgeois reaction against Morgan and Engels

It is worth noting here the very different treatment of Darwin and Morgan. Darwin also did not fully understand the way evolution took place, and that was because certain scientific discoveries had not yet been made, such as genetics. This does not detract from his historical role of having enormously pushed forward our understanding of how life has evolved.

Morgan was treated differently. The bourgeoisie can live with the idea of biological evolution. They even attempt to twist it in order to use it to justify capitalist society itself. But they cannot live with an idea that leads inevitably to the conclusions that capitalism itself is a mere phase, destined to come to an end.

Although Morgan was no enemy of capitalism, his findings in the hands of Engels pointed in one direction: Just as society had changed in the past in line with the development of the productive forces, so a further development of these forces was preparing the conditions for the demise of capitalism itself, and with it the family as it had been known for thousands of years under different forms of class society. Therefore, Morgan’s ideas had to be undermined and discredited, for to undermine his outlook meant also undermining Engels and the views of the Marxists, who were seen as promoting dangerous ideas that threatened the stability of bourgeois society.

It is of course necessary to be objective in dealing with Morgan and the anthropology of his period. For example, he did not understand the level of development that had been achieved by more advanced Amerindian cultures, such as that of the Aztecs. He believed them to be at the same level of the Iroquois. Even when his mistake was pointed out to him by one of his students, he persisted in this view.

Nonetheless, it remains clear that Morgan had clearly broken from the narrow outlook of his predecessors – and even contemporaries – and unconsciously applied the method of historical materialism to the understanding of early human development. He made a major contribution to our understanding of the development of human society and that should be recognised.

What we have to understand, however, is that those who attack Morgan or Engels do not do so from the point of view of sharpening our understanding on the basis of more up-to-date studies – something Engels himself would have been open to. No, they attack and attempt to discredit his scientific method, the method of dialectical materialism, as part of a wider and more general attack on Marxism.

Up to the mid-19th century – the period of capitalist ascent – early bourgeois economists, historians, palaeontologists and anthropologists were still genuinely seeking to discover the mechanisms that determined the development of society. Adam Smith, for example, was grappling with the mechanisms that determined how capitalism functioned. But it required Marx to draw out all the logical conclusions.

However, by the turn of the 20th century, as capitalism reached its limits and began to stagnate and enter into crisis, the capitalist class had ceased to play any genuinely progressive role, and this impacted also on their approach to such studies.

The bourgeois class had now become utterly reactionary and was seeking ideas to justify its continued existence. The reason is abundantly clear: their wealth and privileges depend on the continuation of the present system and therefore they seek to show that it can never end.

The renowned anthropologist, Bronisław Malinowski, was an important figure in this bourgeois onslaught. “[T]he individual family has always existed, and […] it is invariably based on marriage in single pairs”[32], he stated in 1931.

Malinowski was reacting to the idea that the family had evolved over time, going through different forms. His position was that a historical analysis of earlier forms of the family lacked evidence, and that it had always been, is and always will be nuclear. As quoted above, he believed that the “individual family” (with man at the head) was the “pivotal element of our society”, and to do away with it would be a “social catastrophe”.

Here we see how many anthropologists who have tried to understand earlier societies, have seen them through the lens of the society they were born into. In science there can be such a thing as social prejudice. Science is not a neutral ‘forum’ for ideas; it is a battleground which reflects all the pressures of class society.

Anthropology, because it is a study of human society, is one of the sciences most prone to such social prejudice. Religious beliefs, traditions, morality and class prejudices can all play a role in blinding anthropologists to seeing what is actually before them, particularly when it comes to sexual norms, but also to the question of the ownership of property.

From the beginning of the 20th century, anthropology therefore saw a growing reaction against Morgan’s ideas. Marvin Harris in his The Rise of Anthropological Theory (1968) explains that modern anthropology entered the 20th century with the mandate to “expose Morgan’s scheme and destroy the method on which it was based”.[33] (Emphasis added.)

What was the method they were out to destroy? Harris explains that: “19th-century anthropologists believed that sociocultural phenomena were governed by discoverable lawful principles.” In the 20th century, however, “It came to be widely believed that anthropology could never discover the origins of institutions or explain their causes.”[34]

This was a rejection of a scientific and materialist approach to anthropological studies and a turn to unscientific and idealistic methods. This led to a situation where:

"On the basis of partial, incorrect, or misinterpreted ethnographic evidence, there emerged a view of culture that exaggerated all the quixotic, irrational, and inscrutable ingredients in human life. Delighting in diversity of pattern, anthropologists sought out divergent and incomparable events. They stressed the inner, subjective meaning of experience to the exclusion of objective effects and relations. They denied historical determinism in general, and above all, they denied the determinism of the material conditions of life."[35]

This idealist approach rejected the materialist, evolutionary method, and with it the idea that one could elaborate a global and long-term historical view of the development of society; it rejected the idea that laws of development of society could be found, and instead insisted that each culture should be viewed in isolation as unique and with no specific order to development. Franz Boas (1858-1942) was a pioneer of this trend, with his theory of “historical particularism”.

Galileo before the Holy Office Joseph Nicolas Robert FleuryScience is not a neutral ‘forum’ for ideas; it is a battleground which reflects all the pressures of class society / Image: public domain

This, in effect, was an anticipation of postmodernist thinking, which saw a number of disillusioned leftists and even “Marxists” shift away from a scientific, materialist outlook, towards the denial not only of laws of development, but of development itself.

There were anthropologists who fought this trend, such as Leslie A. White and Marvin Harris, who in their own ways resisted the drift towards idealism and maintained a materialist approach. But as Harris commented in 1999 in his Theories of Culture in Postmodern Times: “I must confess that the turn theory has taken – away from science-oriented processual approaches and toward an ‘anything goes’ postmodernism – has been far more influential than I thought would be possible as I looked ahead from the end of the 1960s.”[36] This turn was by no means coincidental.

With the Boasian and later, postmodernist approaches, all we are left with is a mass of individual case studies, of isolated facts, unconnected to each other, with no attempt to establish a relationship of cause or effect, with the final conclusion that reality is unknowable.

One of the criticisms the Boasian school made of Morgan, and of all the social evolutionists of the period, was that they had a rigid view of how human cultures developed, imposing a model into which all local cultures had to be forced.

It is true that human societies did not all evolve in exactly the same manner, following every phase in a kind of preordained plan. Can we deny that in different geographic and climatic conditions there have been different tempos and directions of development? This would be absurd and unscientific. For example, it has been shown that there have been cases where cultures that had embarked on early forms of agriculture, subsequently returned to hunting. Why was that? Because in the given conditions, agriculture proved to be less productive, or climatic changes forced these human groups to move. There was a concrete, material reason for this shift back to what one might presume a less developed form of sustenance.

If we apply this to the family, we see that, in spite of their adoption of agriculture and domestication, some Neolithic sites suggest a continued equality between the sexes, even for very long periods of time. And we can also come across hunter-gatherer societies where the oppression of women has emerged under the influence of later forms of society, where there has been contact with farmers – a striking example of the law of combined and uneven development.

This does not, however, disprove that there are discernable laws of social evolution, and stages. The point is the general process did tend in one direction, and for material reasons we can understand. Not a single class society has ever featured the level of equality observed under a wide range of hunter-gatherer societies, past and present.

An objective view of the development of society, an observation of the given facts, shows that, yes, social evolution took slightly different paths, depending on the local conditions. But it is one thing to acknowledge this, and a completely different thing to draw the conclusion from this that there are no discernable laws of social development.

Boas was by no means the only anthropologist to adopt such an outlook. Others after him have adopted a similarly idealist approach. What we can say is that their method, regardless of intent, suits the capitalist class of today down to the ground. Instead of using the openly reactionary language of Malinowski, they can hide behind a philosophy that presents itself as progressive, when in actual fact it is profoundly reactionary.

The need for a theoretical understanding

To conclude, we can ask the question: Why does all this matter? Why do we defend the core ideas elaborated by Morgan and Engels, of social evolution and with it the idea that the family has evolved? The answer to that question is that a theoretical understanding is necessary in the fight to abolish oppression.

This debate is not of mere academic interest. The conflict between materialism and idealism in all spheres of life is a conflict between progress and reaction. It is actually part of the class struggle.

If we accept the anti-materialist and idealist outlook that came to dominate anthropology in the 20th century – and continues to do so today – we are left with no real understanding of how and why society changed, how and why the family changed, and therefore how and why it can change again in the future. We are left with the idea that it is the minds of individuals that determined the changes, and not the changed conditions that determined the changes in thinking.

The move away from the materialist and evolutionary outlook in anthropology was a retrograde step, as it left no room for a genuine scientific understanding of how human society evolved from its earlier stages, through various forms right up to present-day industrial society.

It leaves us with the idea that there is no point in fighting for a radical change in the structure of society. Instead, we must work on the individuals that make up society. That leaves us with no concrete way of changing the material conditions. It means, in the case of the struggle for the rights of women – and of other oppressed layers of society – that the class struggle has no role to play. Everything becomes a battle for words, for meanings. On this road the movement ends up in a blind alley.

What is required is a return to the idea that there is a direction to the development of society, that the different stages of development have brought us to where we are today, and that the present stage, that of capitalist society, has merely prepared the ground for a higher stage, that of socialism, that needs to be fought for.

The future of the family

To those who deny that the family has evolved through several different forms, we can point to the fact that, in spite of the earnest desires of figures like Malinowski, it is abundantly clear that the family has undergone much change even in the relatively short period that separates us from the days of Morgan and Engels.

Down with kitchen slavery posterIt is clear that the oppression of women will not peacefully pass away under capitalism / Image: public domain

We have witnessed it in living memory. Almost 50 percent of all marriages in the United States today end in divorce or separation, while the figure in the UK is around 42 percent. Recent estimates also show that around 40 percent of births in the United States occur outside of marriage.[37]

In many countries around the world, marriages are becoming less common, people are marrying later, and there is a ‘decoupling’ of parenthood and marriage. As one article puts it, “Within the last decades the institution of marriage has changed more than in thousands of years before.”[38]

These changes have taken place due to several factors, the most important of which has been the huge influx of women into the labour market, giving women a greater degree of independence.

There is still a significant gender pay gap, however. In spite of the progress made, especially since the 1970s, the majority of women are not totally economically independent due to persistent inequality, poverty, and austerity. But it is still true that women are not as dependent on men as they used to be in the past – at least in the advanced industrialised countries – and with this increased financial independence has come a greater demand of women for equality in law and in social conditions.

We could therefore ask a further question: If in the past 70 years all the change described above has taken place in the family, why can even greater changes not have taken place over tens of thousands of years, and why can’t it change in a progressive direction in the future?

Having said that, it is clear that the oppression of women will not peacefully pass away under capitalism. In addition to the material barriers faced by women, thousands of years of class society, culture and the ideology of misogyny still determine, to one degree or another, the outlook of billions of people today. Prejudice and class-based morality have accumulated one upon the other, and still remain strong under capitalism.

It is often mistakenly stated that capitalism is the root of women’s oppression. That is enormously oversimplifying the issue. As we have seen, male domination over women came about thousands of years ago as the first forms of class society emerged. However, what is true is that misogynistic culture continues to flourish under capitalism and is actively used by the ruling class when its position is threatened, as we see today.

Anything that can be used to divide the working class is useful to the capitalists. Racism, homophobia, transphobia, religious and ethnic divisions, all are seen as useful tools in pitting one group of workers against another. This is a powerful reason why the nuclear family is still presented as one of the “cornerstones of civilisation”, and always will be under capitalism.

The final and true emancipation of women will only be achieved when class society is removed once and for all. As Marx and Engels put it, “revolution is the driving force of history”.[39] Our task today is to fight for the overthrow of the present oppressive capitalist system, which has outlived its historical role.

Once all the contradictions that flow from this society are removed, and once the productive forces are freed from the constraints of the profit motive and are placed under the control of those who produce the wealth, the working class, the material conditions will radically change, and with this radical change it will be the future generations who will decide how they wish to relate to each other. Relations between humans will be finally free from material want, and from the distorted morality imposed by class society.


[1] L H Morgan, Ancient Society, Bharati, 1947, pg 498

[2] M F A Montagu (ed.), Marriage, Past and Present – A Debate Between Robert Briffault and Bronislaw Malinowski, Extending Horizons, 1956, pg 76

[3] L H Morgan, Ancient Society, Bharati, 1947, pg 19

[4] F Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, Wellred Books, 2020, pg xxvii

[5] L Krader (ed.), The Ethnological Notebooks of Karl Marx, Van Gorcum & Comp. B.V., 1974

[6] E Trinkaus, “An abundance of developmental anomalies and abnormalities in Pleistocene people” in PNAS, Vol. 115, No. 47, 2018

[7] “Prehistoric humans are likely to have formed mating networks to avoid inbreeding”, University of Cambridge, 5 October 2017

[8] F Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, Wellred Books, 2020, pg 16

[9] L H Morgan, Ancient Society, Bharati, 1947, pg 28

[10] ibid.

[11] F Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, Wellred Books, 2020, pg 78

[12] C Renfrew, Prehistory – The making of the Human Mind, Modern Library, 2007, pg 135

[13] L H Morgan, Ancient Society, Bharati, 1947, pg 66, 69

[14] L A White, The Evolution of Culture, The Development of Civilization to the Fall of Rome, McGraw-Hill, 1959, pg 256

[15] See H Devlin, “Early men and women were equal, say scientists”, The Guardian, 14 May 2015

[16] K Opie, C Power, “Grandmothering and Female Coalitions: A Basis for Matrilineal Priority?” in Early Human Kinship, From Sex to Social Reproduction, Wiley, 2008, pg 168-186

[17] C W Hansen et al., “Modern Gender Roles and Agricultural History: The Neolithic Inheritance” in Journal of Economic Growth, Vol. 20, 2015, pg 7-8

[18] K Opie, C Power, “Grandmothering and Female Coalitions: A Basis for Matrilineal Priority?” in Early Human Kinship, From Sex to Social Reproduction, Wiley, 2008, pg 185

[19] S L Kuhn, M C Stiner, “What’s a Mother To Do? The Division of Labor among Neandertals and Modern Humans in Eurasia” in Current Anthropology, Vol. 46, No. 6, 2006, pg 995

[20] C W Hansen et al., “Modern Gender Roles and Agricultural History: The Neolithic Inheritance” in Journal of Economic Growth, Vol. 20, 2015, pg 9

[21] ibid.

[22] ibid. pg 3-5

[23] G Destro-Bisol et al., “Variation of Female and Male Lineages in Sub-Saharan Populations: the Importance of Sociocultural Factors” in Molecular Biology and Evolution, Vol. 21, No. 9, 2004, pg 1673

[24] L H Morgan, Ancient Society, Bharati, 1947, pg 74

[25] ibid., pg 168

[26] ibid., pg 398

[27] ibid., pg 554

[28] R Graves, The Greek Myths, Penguin Books, 1972, pg 20

[29] William G. Dever’s Did God have a Wife?, 2005

[30] L H Morgan, Ancient Society, Bharati, 1947, pg 449

[31] F Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, Wellred Books, 2020, pg 63

[32] M F A Montagu (ed.), Marriage, Past and Present – A Debate Between Robert Briffault and Bronislaw Malinowski, Extending Horizons, 1956, pg 41

[33] M Harris, The Rise of Anthropological Theory, Thomas Y Cromwell, 1968, pg 249

[34] ibid., pg 1

[35] ibid., pg 2

[36] M Harris, Theories of Culture in Postmodern Times, Altamira, 1999, pg 13

[37] E Wildsmith et al., “Dramatic increase in the proportion of births outside of marriage in the United States from 1990 to 2016”, Child Trends, 8 August 2018

[38] E Ortiz-Ospina, M Roser, “Marriages and Divorces”, Our World in Data, 2020

[39] K Marx, F Engels, The German Ideology, Prometheus Books, 1998, pg 61

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