By Sally Campbell
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Engels revisited

This article is over 8 years, 10 months old
There has been a recent resurgence in writers about women's oppression looking to Marx and Engels for answers, with some arguing he crudely emphasised class at the expense of oppression. Here, Sally Campbell looks at the claims of those writers and defends Engels from the critics
Issue 378

There is a common assertion that Marxism as a set of ideas does not or cannot account for oppression. Some argue, for example, that Marxism is a form of economic determinism that reduces all the complexity of human interaction down to production; because we see workers’ revolution as the solution, we see all other struggles – against racism or gender oppression – as subordinate to the struggle in the workplace.

This comes from the right – they want to attack revolutionary ideas, full stop.

But it can also come from the left, from those who genuinely want to see an end to oppression and are seeking the theories that can best help do that.

In recent years there has been a return to Marx and to the works of those who have attempted to use Marxism to explain oppression. American academics Martha Gimenez and Lise Vogel and Italian theorist, Silvia Federici, are among those who see their task as taking Marx’s historical materialist approach and applying it to the study of women and the family. Here lies an implicit argument, however, that Marx didn’t get round to, or wasn’t interested enough in dealing with women’s oppression, but that they can take something useful from his method and apply it themselves.

A recent book by Canadian academic Heather Brown, Marx on Gender and the Family, takes a different approach. She has identified everything Marx wrote specifically on the family and women’s and men’s roles. She argues that all of Marx’s work is fundamentally concerned with real human beings and how they are shaped by and shape their world. As such we can find in his writings a guide to genuine human emancipation. She rightly shows that Marx was deeply concerned with women’s liberation as part of this wider human emancipation throughout his life.

What these authors have in common, however, is that they all, to some degree, downplay or dismiss the key classical Marxist text on the family and women’s oppression: Friedrich Engels’s The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State.

Engels, who worked, organised and theorised with Marx throughout his life, wrote The Origin in 1884 – a year after Marx’s death. He used Marx’s Ethnological Notebooks as well as his own notes as the basis of the text. The notebooks contained Marx’s notes on Ancient Society by Lewis Henry Morgan, an American anthropologist who studied indigenous tribes in North America. His work looking at the kinship systems of the Iroquois people was the basis of a groundbreaking materialist account of the development of early human societies.

Impact of anthropology
Anthropology was a new science in Marx’s and Engels’s time. Darwin had only published the Origin of Species in 1859, and the study of early human remains was just beginning. Morgan’s great strength was his attempt to look at human history through successive stages of development of the productive forces and the social relationships that went with them. It took Engels, building on Marx’s insights, to develop this into a theory of how the rise of class society brought with it the development of the private family and thus women’s oppression.

Mainstream academia has long dismissed Morgan’s and thus Engels’s work as “outmoded”. As the US Marxist Hal Draper pointed out, “The issue is not this or that detail of Morgan’s views – in this respect Darwin and Newton are ‘outmoded’ too” – the issue they have is with his method and its revolutionary implications. So to say that Engels is rejected by modern anthropologists is “as true as the statement that Marx is rejected by ‘modern sociologists’.”

The Origin is not an extensive study such as Marx’s Capital. It is a short book which summarises Morgan’s findings and puts a polemical argument about the nature of “primitive” society, the rise of commodity production and, with it, the emergence of classes and the state. Engels contends that, for the vast majority of human existence, some 200,000 years (or 2 million years if we include other human-like species), people lived in small communities that were relatively egalitarian, that didn’t contain systematic oppression by one group or another, and to whom concepts such as property and wealth would have had no meaning.

Humans had not yet learned how to cultivate plants or rear animals. These hunter-gatherer societies could sustain only a relatively small population which would have to move on if resources became scarce. Sharing and communal living were the best way to ensure the survival of the group. There would have been a division of labour between men and women, but this did not mean the domination of one group by the other – each person would make the decisions about the activities they were involved in.

Rather than living in family units of two parents and their children, people lived in communal systems of kinship – children would be the responsibility of everyone. This was not some kind of utopia before the fall, but there was a profoundly different set of values, traces of which could still be found in Engels’s time and beyond.

In the 1630s a French Jesuit missionary visiting Naskapi Indians in Eastern Canada was horrified at the freedom and status enjoyed by women: “In France women do not rule their husbands…I told him that it was not honourable for a woman to love anyone except her husband, and that this evil being among them he himself was not sure that his son, who was there present, was his son.” But the Naskapi replied, “Thou hast no sense. You French people love only your own children, but we love all the children of our tribe.”

In The Origin Engels used Morgan’s terms to describe the broad development of human societies: “savagery” (hunter-gather), “barbarism” (horticultural) and “civilisation” (class societies). He identified corresponding forms of marriage – group marriage for hunter-gatherers, pairing marriage for horticultural societies in which couples would form but the relationships were dissoluble at any time by either partner, and monogamy with class society, which is characterised by a crucial shift away from the old kinship structures centred around mothers to a family based on the domination of fathers over their wives and children. Monogamy only really applied to the woman. Engels points out that for the husband it was always supplemented by prostitution and adultery.

This was not a reversal of a previous state of matriarchy. The old kinship systems were centred on mothers because it was possible to identify with certainty who their children were and thus build up a network of blood relationships around that knowledge, giving every member of the group a line of descent and a role. The “household” was communal, and the fruits of women’s and men’s labour were shared among families. There was no separation between what we would now consider housework and all other work – there was no public/private divide.

The rise of the family
The new male-dominated family broke up this intricate, communal system by placing the family as the key economic unit of society, the means through which wealth would be owned and passed on. Rather than the woman being an equally important economic actor in society, she and her children became dependent upon the individual man.

What had changed was people’s ability to produce more than they immediately needed to consume. The development of agriculture and the domestication of animals meant goods could be produced for trade – commodities could be exchanged for other things or, eventually, money. More specialised tools became crucial to production and thus very valuable property. Men tended to be the ones responsible for animal rearing and increasingly for agriculture – so they owned the tools and made the economic decisions, gradually increasing their importance in relation to women.

For the first time women’s ability to give birth became a burden. This was partly because settled communities with greater productive capacity could sustain larger populations – in fact needed more labourers to work in the fields – and so women would tend to spend more time pregnant or with young children. But the main source of women’s oppression was the separation of the family from the communal clan. Women’s labour in the home became a private service under conditions of subjugation. This was the “world historic defeat of the female sex” that Engels wrote about:

“The man took command in the home also; the woman was degraded and reduced to servitude; she became a slave of his lust and a mere instrument for the production of children. This degraded position of women…has gradually been palliated and glossed over, and sometimes clothed in milder form; in no sense has it been abolished.”

As Marx noted, “The modern family contains in germ not only slavery but also serfdom, since from the beginning it is related to agricultural services. It contains in miniature all the contradictions which later extend throughout society and its state.”

This was a profound change in human relations caused, not by some latent desire in men to dominate women, but by the needs of commodity production and the way it developed. The monogamous family was “the first form of the family to be based…on economic conditions – on the victory of private property over…communal property”. Along with domestic slavery came slave labour and the beginning of systematic exploitation. Once communal property was undermined this was inevitable – private property for some always means no property for others. Engels writes that this process “opens the period that has lasted until today in which every step forward is also a step backward, in which prosperity and development for some is won through the misery and frustration of others.”

Gimenez has written that it is “un-Marxist” to look for the origins of oppression in some distant past; we should study structures rather than history. I would argue, however, that Engels’s approach is sound. He shows, using the available evidence (much of which has been backed up since – see Eleanor Burke Leacock’s Myths of Male Dominance), that we can identify a process that changed human existence and ushered in an era of class struggle in which we still live today. Certainly, this took place over many thousands of years and in many different ways, but it did take place. Engels placed human activity at the centre of this. We are not simply beings trapped inside structures which precede us; we made the structures but we also struggle inside of them to change them.

Economic determinist?
This leads on to the most common criticism of Engels from the left: economic determinism.

Brown compares Engels unfavourably with Marx, seeing in Marx a humanism that allows more conflict and variety than she finds in Engels’s framework. Her argument is not a new one, but is credited to Raya Dunayevskaya, a leading US Marxist and part of a generation of communists who broke from Stalinism in the post-war period and sought to find again the emancipatory heart of Marx’s writings. Like Brown, she studied Marx’s Ethnological Notebooks and compared them with Engels’s The Origin in an article written in 1979.

Dunayevskaya argued that, while Marx saw human action as the driving force of history, Engels saw only “stages” of history dominating over people. She claimed that where Marx saw conflict, contradiction and choice, Engels saw productive forces developing towards the present with a fearsome inevitability. For Brown and Dunayevskaya there was no “historic defeat” – they saw elements of male domination already at work in what Engels would term “primitive communism”, and they see in Marx’s notes some evidence of this. Both downplayed the extent to which Engels relied on Marx’s notes so they could divide the “nuanced” Marx from the “mechanical” Engels.

But as Leacock pointed out that for Engels the “stages” were a conceptual framework, a way of thinking about history, rather than an attempt to impose order on a complex process. The existence of some examples of male domination before class society, for example, does not invalidate the categories but rather show a complex process of transition from one to the other.

But at some point quantitative change becomes qualitative. Engels didn’t claim that there was a straightforward, one-way relationship between the development of the productive forces and the social relations – there is always a battle. But everything doesn’t influence everything equally:

“It is not that the economic situation is cause, solely active, while everything else [political, philosophical, religious, etc, development] is only passive effect. There is rather interaction on the basis of economic necessity, which ultimately always asserts itself.”

For Engels, there is a “historic defeat” because something fundamental changes in the economic base of society. We develop ways to produce a surplus, not by nature’s bounty but by our own labour. Engels’s historical materialism was developed along with Marx and was a shared approach. The attempt to separate them seems to relate to a second criticism of Engels – that he is “reductionist”, that he reduces oppression to a side effect of class. If, as Engels argues, oppression arose alongside class society then is he saying that, once we get rid of class society, oppression will automatically disappear?

This was a common argument in the 1970s and 1980s, and understandably so. Some socialist feminists, such as Sheila Rowbotham, looked at the so-called “really existing socialism” of China and the USSR, and saw that women’s oppression was rife. If class had been overcome there then surely it showed that there must be a separate battle against oppression. For those in the International Socialist tradition this was not a question – it was clear that class society had no more been overthrown in the Eastern Bloc than in the West, it had simply been nationalised.

Society in turmoil
But the question is also raised today when looking at struggles taking place across the Middle East and North Africa, or looking forward to possible socialist revolutions in the future. The answer is to ask what revolution really involves. In order to get to a situation where the question of workers’ power is even raised, a society would be in turmoil and all human relationships could be thrown into question. This has been the case in the past, be it the English Revolution of the 1640s during which ideas of free love abounded, or the Russian Revolution of 1917, which briefly but profoundly shook up sexual and gender relations.

There is nothing “automatic” about a revolution – if it is to win. Everything must be fought for and argued over and, crucially for sexual oppression, all kinds of issues considered private in class society – precisely because of the role of the family – become questions for public concern. Marx wrote that a revolution is needed not just to wrest control of the means of production, but because people themselves must go through the process of taking power because only then could they hope to rid themselves of the “muck of ages” and make themselves fit to run a new society.

Victorian moralism?
This brings me to the last point about Engels: is he a Victorian moralist?

There are a couple of passages in The Origin that make the modern reader wince. In reference to ancient Greece Engels refers to men “degrading” themselves through the “abominable practice of sodomy”. He is talking about a divided society in which women are so degraded that they are not considered desirable sexual partners, and that men too are degraded by this – that all sexuality is distorted by this alienated society. As Jeffrey Weeks writes, “It would have been extraordinary in the early 1880s, when the exploration of homosexuality was in its infancy, had Engels thought otherwise.” But it is a blind spot in his otherwise historical approach to sexuality.

Also surprising is his view that (genuine) monogamy is surely the ideal form. But this is his opinion and pure speculation – he doesn’t argue that it necessarily follows from the theory! His real point is contained in this famous passage:

“What we can now conjecture about the way in which sexual relations will be ordered after the impending overthrow of capitalist production is mainly of a negative character, limited for the most part to what will disappear. But what will there be new? That will be answered when a new generation has grown up: a generation of men who never in their lives have known what it is to buy a woman’s surrender with money or any other social instrument of power; a generation of women who have never known what it is to give themselves to a man from any other considerations than real love or to refuse to give themselves to their lover from fear of the economic consequences. When these people are in the world, they will care precious little what anybody today thinks they ought to do; they will make their own practice and their corresponding public opinion about the practice of each individual – and that will be the end of it.”

The new generation will not be those who have had to rid themselves of the “muck of ages” – they will never have known the muck. So in this sense, yes, once the material basis for oppression – class division, private property and its family form – has disappeared then oppression will cease to be reproduced. The challenge is to build a force within the working class as it actually exists now – with all the distorted ideas and relationships of class society – which is capable of leading a fight to overthrow the structures built by previous generations. For Engels, the entry of women into the workforce was a necessary – though not sufficient – precondition for success. Every battle today by working class women and men defending social provision of care services is a blow against the private family. Every workplace struggle involving women and men is an attack on the notion that they have different interests.

Engels shows that in pre-class societies, exploitation and oppression arose out of natural necessity – the productive forces simply couldn’t develop without some people being freed from labour in order to exploit others. Capitalism is different.

Class today is not “necessary” except to preserve the power and wealth of capitalists. Infact it holds back humanity and threatens our very existence. To reject this class analysis of oppression and of human history is to reduce the struggle for socialism to an act of will, rather than what it is: an act of necessity.

For further reading try The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State,, Friedrich Engels, £14.99,

Myths of Male Dominance, Eleanor Burke Leacock, £12.99

Sexism and the System, Judith Orr, £3

All available from Bookmarks the socialist bookshop,

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