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Engels and Women’s Liberation

It is 130 years since the publication of The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, by Friedrich Engels. Long considered by Marxists an important text regarding the origin of women’s oppression, it has been criticised by those promoting alternative explanations of women’s second-class status in society. CHRISTINE THOMAS weighs up the book’s relevance for women’s struggles today.

In the preface to the first edition of the Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, Friedrich Engels modestly described his work as “a meagre substitute for what my departed friend [Karl Marx] could no longer accomplish”. In his final years, Marx had been particularly interested in studying early societies as part of his general analysis of the functioning and historical development of capitalism. Engels drew on Marx’s then unpublished notes. He also acknowledged that his book owed an enormous debt to Ancient Society, the ground-breaking work by American lawyer and amateur anthropologist, Lewis Henry Morgan, which had been published seven years previously.

The starting point for understanding the historical development of society, argued Engels, is the process of production and reproduction. Changes in how we obtain a living alter production and social relations, although in a complex interplay of economic and social forces. Social institutions, such as the state, the family, and its linked oppression of women, are historically specific and subject to change. Basing himself primarily on Morgan’s study of the North American Iroquois and on Polynesian society, Engels attempted to show how egalitarian societies have existed in the past in which there was no private property, no state, no systematic oppression of women, and in which the family was not the primary social institution.

In the light of over 100 years of archaeological and anthropological research we can say that the general thrust of Engels’s argument retains its validity. However, the Origin has to be seen as a product of its time: revolutionary and explosive in that it sought to challenge the prevailing ideology maintaining that the institutions in capitalist society were universal and natural; at the same time, a work hampered by reliance on the scant scientific evidence available in the 1880s. As a consequence, the Origin inevitably includes factual errors concerning the details of early societies and their evolution. Engels recognised that his book would need to be revisited as new evidence was uncovered.

Closely following Morgan, Engels identified the communal, egalitarian ‘gens’ as the basic social unit of non-class societies. Today’s anthropologists would recognise the historical existence of the ‘gens’, if not the terminology, referring instead to ‘kinship group’ or ‘kin corporate group’. There would also be general agreement that classless social groups without private property, in the sense of the private ownership of the means of production, and without a state structure, existed for an important part of history.

What would not be accepted is Engels’s evolutionary sequence for how the ‘gens’ came into being. There is no evidence for the various stages he outlined: from unrestricted ‘promiscuity’ to ‘pairing’ (no sexual relations between generations), and then ‘group marriage’ (marriage ban between descendants). This was mere speculation. Like Morgan before him, Engels mistakenly thought that prevailing kinship terms – how people addressed each other: ie, sister, father, wife – in those societies being studied reproduced relationships and marriage systems from the distant past. In reality, they reflected relatively contemporary social and economic relationships.

The communal ‘gens’ of Morgan and Engels was the basic social organisation of societies based on simple agriculture (horticulture). These were often matrilineal societies (descent traced through the mother) in which women could have considerable authority. Eleanor Burke Leacock(1) explained how, among the Iroquois, women controlled the store of vegetables, meat and other goods, arranged marriages, and nominated and deposed the sachems. Some readers of the Origin have assumed that a period of ‘matriarchy’, rule by women, preceded patriarchy, the institutionalised control of women by men. In fact, there is no evidence for this, and when Engels referred to ‘mother right’ he meant matrilineality and not matriarchy. Engels did believe that matrilineality in all cases preceded patrilineality. Leacock seemed to agree with this when she stated that there are numerous examples of matrilineal societies becoming patrilineal but not vice versa. We have no real evidence either way, however, so this remains an open question.

Moreover, the earliest known societies were not horticultural but were based on the simpler technology of hunting/fishing and gathering. Anthropologists, such as Leacock and Richard Lee(2) have made extensive studies of hunter-gatherer (forager) societies through direct experience with surviving peoples and by analysing historical accounts, including the writings of 17th century Jesuits regarding the Montagnais-Naskapi native Canadians of the Labrador peninsular. Clearly, each society has its own specific characteristics which can be shaped by differences in geography, environment, etc, but this does not negate the possibility of outlining the general features shared by hunter-gatherer societies.

There will always be exceptions and it is important to understand whether, for example, a hunter-gatherer group had contact with societies based on alternative modes of production or maybe even reverted back to hunter-gathering from a more advanced technological system. It is also necessary to be aware of possible prejudices and assumptions of the original writer/researcher when basing an analysis on second-hand accounts. But with these caveats in mind, some general points can be made about the organising principles of these hunter-gatherer societies.

Different but equal

While size could vary depending on the environment and available food supply, hunter-gatherers normally lived in small social groups or bands (30-40 people usually considered an optimum figure) based on kinship. The make-up of a band could be very loose with a fluid membership and a flexible interpretation of ‘kin’ – not necessarily blood relatives. Bands were mobile in search of food, getting together on various occasions to cooperate, socialise, etc. The production and distribution of goods was social and cooperative and the means of production very basic. While there may have been some personal private possessions, the means of production were communally owned, with little accumulation given that the group was continually on the move. Although gift exchange took place between bands production was primarily for direct use.

All able-bodied adults were normally directly involved in the production and distribution of food. The main division of labour was on the basis of sex. In general, men had responsibility for hunting and women were predominantly engaged in the gathering of fruits, nuts, berries, etc, with the goods of both sexes being collectively shared by the band. Because Engels’s sources came mainly from horticultural societies, he did not refer to women’s role as gatherers concentrating, instead, on their responsibility for childcare and household management. Nevertheless, Engels was correct in stressing the ‘public’ nature of women’s role in kinship societies. The care of children was a social role carried out for the benefit of the whole band and there was no artificial division between a woman’s private role in an individual household and her public role in society generally, as has been the case in capitalism and other class societies.

In hunter-gatherer societies personal relationships between men and women could be both stable and fluid, as could residency after ‘marriage’ – ie matrilocal (in the wife’s kinship group) or patrilocal (the husband’s) – depending on which was more convenient. But, because of the cooperative nature of the band, separation would not necessarily result in economic hardship for women or children. The main social unit was the collective group not the family or household, and this was based on the economic interdependence of the whole band and not of individual women on male partners.

Leacock, Stephanie Coontz and Peta Henderson(3), and Christine Ward Gaitley(4), all warn of the dangers of making assumptions about the role of women in pre-class societies based on the unequal social relations which hold sway under capitalism. A division of labour between men and women does not necessarily imply inequality. Women’s economic contribution in hunter-gatherer societies normally supplied the bulk of the nutritional needs of the group. While men and women’s roles varied, they were neither superior nor inferior but both valued and necessary for the band.

Leacock showed how women had control of their own production, autonomously making decisions about the activities for which they were responsible. Although women were usually the main carers of children, and their reproductive role normally restricted their ability to hunt (it would clearly be dangerous for pregnant and nursing mothers), this did not confer on them a lower social status. In reality, the division of labour was often quite flexible, with women scavenging, hunting small game and accompanying men on hunts if they were not pregnant or lactating. In the same way, men often readily cared for children when necessary.

Women’s current unequal social status, therefore, cannot simply be explained by women’s reproductive role abstracted from social and economic relations, as some radical feminists (and non-feminists) have attempted to do. Theories of male supremacy being due to greater strength or violence are similarly shown to be untenable. Although violence and even sporadic warfare sometimes occurred in early non-class societies they were both quite rare. Leacock’s studies led her to list the main values of communal bands as being cooperation, reciprocity, solidarity, generosity, patience and respect. Even hunting was normally an activity based on cooperation between men, and sometimes women, unlike the stereotypical, crude, biological determinist depiction of the aggressive ‘man the hunter’.

Hunter-gatherer societies were marked by non-stratified, non-hierarchical economic and social relations with no social differentiation on the basis of wealth. There was no state. Decision making and resolution of conflict were usually carried out informally on the basis of discussion and consensus. Where conflict could not be resolved, it is likely to have led to someone leaving the group. The band may have been more inclined to listen to the opinions of certain members of the group but this ‘authority’ was based on the personal attributes or the age of those particular people and did not derive from property relations. They could persuade and convince but had no power to impose their views or compel others to act or behave in any particular way.

Neolithic revolution

For Engels, the breakdown of the communal ‘gens’ and the process towards the rise of private property, classes, the family as a social institution, women’s oppression and the state was rooted in the development of technology and the productive forces. In the first chapter of the Origin, he outlined an evolutionary schema using 19th century terminology – savagery, barbarism, civilisation – which, clearly, would be unacceptable today. Anthropologists are now likely to speak of hunter-gatherer/forager, agricultural and urban societies. Some of the details Engels put forward for how societies changed would also be challenged by the evidence accumulated since the period in which he was writing. Nonetheless, there is overwhelming agreement that around 8-10,000 years ago, a revolutionary transformation in production took place – generally referred to as the ‘Neolithic revolution’, a term first used by the archaeologist V Gordon Childe – potentially unleashing processes towards social stratification, inequalities of power, wealth and gender, and class differentiation

This radical transformation was rooted in the new ability of societies to domesticate plants and animals. Engels thought, incorrectly, that pastoralism or animal husbandry preceded the planting and harvesting of crops. Instead, historical records show that they arose closely together (in historical timescales) probably, initially, in the Fertile Crescent of southwest Asia and the ‘near east’. Simple agriculture arose independently in at least five areas of the world, and probably more, spreading to other regions through the migration of farmers, the dissemination of knowledge of the new techniques or by conquest. Agriculture arrived in Europe from west Asia around 3,500-6,000 BC.

These were not unilinear processes. Some societies did not take up food production until colonial contact, others resisted even this, continuing with their hunter-gatherer mode of production until quite recent times. Engels is often criticised for advocating a unilinear vision of social development in the Origin but this would be in contradiction with his and Marx’s general writings on historical development. Such criticism would seem to be based on the lack of information available to Engels about different societies, as well as the mistakes of his ‘interpreters’ and ‘followers’, rather than Engels holding such a view.

Why ancient peoples moved from hunter-gathering to simple agriculture probably differed from region to region. Environmental factors, such as a reduction in the available wild food supply or an increase in domesticable plants, would probably have played a role. A few hunter-gatherer societies living in areas which were particularly environmentally rich (the Pacific north-west coast of North America, for example) were able to lead relatively sedentary lives but most were nomadic, moving around to exploit food resources.

With production based on simple agricultural techniques (slash and burn, hoe and digging stick) this began to change. The ground had to be prepared and crops sown and harvested, requiring more constant attention from cultivators. Over time, some kinship groups became more settled, forming small permanent villages and eventually giving up their nomadic way of life. A sedentary lifestyle, together with increased productivity, laid the basis for a rise in female fertility and population density.

The size of hunter-gatherer bands was normally restricted to take account of the need to be on the move and by the food resources available. Women would not want to be carrying more than one infant and so they attempted to control the spacing of children (to around four years) through lactation and abstinence but also, if necessary, by abortion and infanticide. In settled communities these restrictions lessened, with women giving birth more regularly (with an average two-year gap). Populations began slowly to grow.

In simple agricultural societies production was often, although not always, carried out by individual or extended households but land was ‘owned’ collectively by the kinship group. Food distribution was communal and, in general, economic and social relations were organised on the basis of kinship ties which, as society developed, tended to become more formalised. Socially accepted norms about access to resources – on what basis production was organised, the division of labour, how produce was distributed and exchanged within and between groups, who people could marry, etc – gradually became more regulated and structured but were still organised on the basis of kinship and communal values of cooperation, balanced reciprocity, and mutual obligations and responsibilities agreed by the group.

The emergence of class society

As Engels explained, the new economic and social forces which arose from the changed methods of production contained the seeds of potential conflict within and between kinship groups. They undermined the egalitarian, communal organising principles on which the group was based. This was not, however, an inevitable or unilinear process and each society had its own dynamic. In some, the internal processes progressed all the way towards class differentiation. In others, they halted at intermediate stages of development, sometimes collapsing before the process could be completed. For many, class society did not arise internally but through external imposition from colonial powers. Moreover, these were processes which, in most cases, unfolded gradually over thousands of years.

Production in hunter-gatherer societies was predominantly for direct use by members of the band. With the development of agricultural and concomitant technological improvements such as pottery and metal working, and later more intensive production techniques based on the plough and irrigation, it became possible over time to produce over and above the immediate needs of the group. A store of surplus grain or other foodstuffs could then be drawn upon in times of hardship caused by crop failure due to storms, drought, pests, etc.

A growing surplus also allowed for some individuals and groups to withdraw from food production, such as artisans, traders, warriors and priests. In some societies, one particular member of the group who had acquired a certain prestige (village elder, ‘big man’, etc) took responsibility for gathering and distributing the surplus, often through ceremonial feasts. To begin with this role, performed on behalf of and for the benefit of the group as a whole, conferred no privileges or means of control on the individual concerned who, following the customs of reciprocity and generosity, was usually expected to give more than he received. The basis was laid, however, for emerging differences and competition among lineages (kinship descent groups) and households, with the most productive gaining in prestige.

In some cases, the position of lineage head became hereditary and chiefs emerged who, in the more stratified societies, obtained privileged access to resources, although without total control. Ranking, hierarchy and unequal access to resources developed alongside and in contradiction with the existing horizontal communal organising principles of the group. In those societies where the dominant lineage, group, chief, etc, attempted to move away from the obligation of reciprocity the way was paved for class differences to emerge, with one or more social group appropriating part or all of the produce and/or labour of others without complying with the kinship obligation of equivalent return.

Consolidating the state

As growing inequalities and class differentiation matured, so did the need for special institutions and coercive forces to administer increasingly complex societies, to compel producers to increase production, and to extract tribute/taxes and labour. These in turn served to protect, legitimise, strengthen and continue the privileged position of the ruling groups. There were, of course, recorded episodes of resistance and rebellion against chiefly and incipient class rule. But the developing ruling elites often rested on aspects of kinship relations which continued to exist even when class relations were dominant. Kin-corporate ideology played a crucial part in justifying stratification and exploitation, and in securing their acceptance by the wider social group.

The most successful lineages and their heads were normally considered those closest to the group’s ancestors and gods. It was this proximity which explained their ability to increase production, fertility, etc, and justified their continuing rule as essential for the wellbeing of the entire group. The role of priests and priestly castes was closely linked with the ideological legitimisation of the economic and political power of the ruling stratum and, in some cases (Mesopotamia, for example), the ruling groups emerged from these layers themselves. Where processes developed furthest ideology became institutionalised as state religion.

How class relations unfolded varied greatly from society to society and could be a changing process with struggles emerging between different elite groups. In the Origin, Engels outlined the processes involved in the formation of slavery in classical Greece and Rome. The first known class societies, however, were based on what Marx called the Asiatic mode of production. This is a misnomer as these societies also arose outside of Asia. Although slavery may have existed it was not the dominant mode of production. The land was not privately owned, as it was in feudal society, but was considered the ‘property’ of the state which exploited the peasants and other subordinate groups through the expropriation of tribute/taxes and collective labour on large-scale communal works, such as road building, irrigation, temples and burial sites for the benefit of the ruling elite. The first city states probably arose in Mesopotamia around 3,700BC. There, economic redistribution, religion, crafts, writing, trade, etc, were organised through and around the temple. The state provided peasants with the means of production and expropriated the surplus.

The decline in the status of women in society relative to men was inextricably linked to these economic and social processes which gave rise to stratification, class inequalities and the state. Therefore, it was not a sudden event, as some ‘interpreters’ of Engels seem to imply, but a long contradictory development unfolding over thousands of years with varying levels of subordination existing in different societies at different stages of development. Engels never fully explained why it was men who became the dominant sex and not women but the available evidence would indicate that, as a result of the already existing division of labour between men and women in kinship groups, the positions in society most closely associated with the accumulation, storage and distribution of the surplus were normally held by men.

Although there is evidence of women being chiefs, traders and shamans, especially in African societies, generally it is men who have held these positions, as well as being the warriors responsible for defending and accumulating the surplus product. In those societies where agricultural techniques became heavier and more intensive, it was men who had the responsibility for the plough and irrigation. A division of labour, which under egalitarian, communal economic and social relations entailed no hierarchy of gender relations, then laid the basis for (some) men’s growing prestige and power in society based on their control of the growing surplus.

Institutionalised gender inequality

At the same time, changing production techniques increased the importance of the individual household as an economic unit alongside of and in competition with the kinship group. In the earliest class societies, the state, in appropriating part of the household production, relied on male heads of households to hand over the tribute, thus strengthening male control over women’s production within an individual household/family. As a consequence, women increasingly became economically dependent on a single male head of household, losing their relative autonomy in society. At the same time, their work, which had previously been performed as a social role for the kinship group, gradually became a private activity within the individual household unit. Women who formed part of the economically dominant group/s also normally lost their economic autonomy, coming under the control of men, but still retaining a certain social power with regards to the subordinate classes whose labour was exploited to produce the surplus.

In early kinship groups, exogamy (‘marrying’ outside the group) did not, as Engels assumed, necessarily exclude marriage between relatives (incest) but was linked primarily to building cooperation between different groups. Neither was it men who ‘exchanged’ women as if they were commodities, as structuralist anthropologists(5) and some feminists have argued, since it was the kinship group as a whole, including women, who were involved in these decisions(6). With the rise of class inequalities, marriage among the ruling elite began to take on a political role aimed at increasing and consolidating wealth, power and prestige.

As the economically dominant groups sought to keep wealth and economic control within ruling lineages and households, inheritance assumed a growing importance, strengthening and helping to generalise patrilocality and patrilineality. At the same time, control of women’s reproduction and sexuality increased, eventually giving rise to harsh punishments for adultery committed by women. Over time, the monogamous patriarchal family which Engels referred to, in which an individual male had total control over all household members, including the right to use physical violence, became the main form of family unit, although arising at a later stage in the development of class society than Engels suspected. With the consolidation of class rule these gender inequalities gradually became institutionalised, enshrined in law, reinforced and perpetuated through state ideology and religion.

True liberation

By locating women’s oppression in historical processes, by showing that male dominance and the systematic oppression of women were not universal, Engels’s Origin remains a powerful book, in spite of its inaccuracies. It showed that, just as past economic and social changes have altered women’s status in society, so future changes can lay the basis for a transformation of women’s lives and an ending of oppression. “The first condition for the liberation of women”, argued Engels, “is to bring the whole of the female sex back into public industry”.

We have seen over the past few decades how structural changes in capitalism have led to a significant increase in the participation of women in the workforce in many countries worldwide. While this has undoubtedly had a positive effect on the ideas and aspirations of women themselves, as well as influencing social attitudes more broadly, women’s economic, social and personal autonomy are limited by the needs of capitalism. Engels went on to explain that “this in turn demands the abolition of the monogamous family’s attribute of being the economic unit of society”. The family as an institution and women’s role within it, have clearly undergone significant changes since Engels wrote The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. Nevertheless, it retains an economic and ideological relevance for 21st century capitalism which is suffering from a systemic crisis and is riven with contradictions: a system which exploits women as low-cost labour in the workplace while depending on their traditional role as unpaid carers within the home.

Capitalist ideology concerning women’s role and status in society has also evolved since the late 19th century, but the ideas and values of a system based on commodity production for profit and inequalities of wealth and power rest on, combine with, and perpetuate the residue of outmoded ideas of male authority and supremacy which have their roots in earlier class societies. As a consequence, women continue to experience violence, sexual abuse and restrictions on their sexuality and reproductive rights, while facing sexism, discrimination, gender stereotyping and double standards.

For Engels the basis for resolving the problems which women face in society entails “the transfer of the means of production into common ownership”. In this way, “the monogamous family ceases to be the economic unit of society. Private housekeeping is transformed into social industry. The care and education of children becomes a public affair; society looks after all children alike…” In a socialist society, personal relations will be freed from the economic and social constraints which continue to limit them even today. The basis for true liberation will be laid. One-hundred-and-thirty years after they were first written, Engels’s words regarding the ending of women’s oppression maintain all their force.


1. Leacock: Myths of Male Dominance, Monthly Review Press.

2. Leacock and Lee: Politics and History in Band Societies, Cambridge University Press, 1982; Lee, The !Kung San, Cambridge, 1979.

3. Coontz and Henderson: Women’s Work, Men’s Property, Verso, 1986.

4. Gaitley: Kinship to Kingship, Gender Hierarchy and State Formation, University of Texas Press, 1987.

5. See, in particular, Levi-Strauss.

6. See Leacock, Gaitley, Coontz and Henderson, op cit.

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