Chris Harman

100 Years On

The Origins of the Family

(September 1984)

From Socialist Worker Review, No. 68, September 1984, pp. 15–20.
Amended in accordance with the inserted correction slip.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde for the Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Chris Harman looks at Engels’ classic work on the family, and its critics

Frederick Engels spent the period after Marx’s death in 1883 in a frantic labour of love. He took notebooks which Marx had filled with notes on ‘ethnography’ (what today is usually called cultural anthropology – the study of non-civilised peoples) and wrote, on the basis of them The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State, which was published for the first time in 1884.

The book has been one of the most abused in the Marxist canon. Anyone who has studied sociology or anthropology in the last 20 years will have been told that it is ‘out of date rubbish’, not to be taken seriously.

The book has faults. As Engels himself noted, it was based on ethnographical material ‘now available’ in 1884; much more such material has become available since. This means there are bound to be limitations to Engels’ argument. What is more, he projected backwards from periods of early history about which there was some, limited knowledge, to draw conclusions about pre-historic periods about which there was virtually no knowledge at all.

But Engels’ real ‘offence’ is that he made three arguments of immense importance:

  1. Women’s oppression is not a general feature of ‘human nature’, but has material roots in the sort of family which prevails.
  2. The family itself is not invariant, and we can look back to societies in which the sort of family we know did not exist, and nor did women’s oppression.
  3. The move to the oppressive family coincided with the rise of class society.

The three contentions have revolutionary implications. It follows from them that women’s oppression is not a result of biology or of the behaviour of individual men, but of class society. Women’s liberation is then a very real possibility. But it cannot be achieved either by reforming the present system or by women cutting themselves off from men. It requires, instead, socialist revolution.

How do these contentions stand up against the evidence which is available to us today?

We have two main sorts of evidence: from archaeology and from anthropology. Both are limited in what they can tell us.

Archaeological evidence is based upon the material remains of societies that existed many thousands, or even millions of years ago. This can tell us something about the physiology of the earliest human beings; it also provides us with some of their tools, ritual artefacts and the remnants of some of the food they consumed.

But of certain key elements in their lives there is little trace: any wooden or woven tools or artefacts; any vegetarian food; their language and mythology.

So from the scantiest of evidence we have to make guesses as to their relations with nature and each other.

However, there are certain limited things we can conclude with some certainty. The most important concerns the ways in which human beings have provided for themselves materially.

Until about ten thousand years ago all human societies were based upon gathering and hunting. Tools were used to collect, cook and if necessary kill sources of food, shelter and clothing which were to be found ‘wild’ in the locality: nuts, wild fruit and tubers on the one hand, wild animals on the other. Because the supplies of both vegetable and animal foodstuffs in any locality would be limited, the size of the groupings humans lived in were limited too. And because the supplies would be exhausted after a certain period of time, the groupings were forced to move from place to place at fairly frequent intervals. Under such circumstances they could not accumulate more than a very small number of tools or foodstocks.

This was the period of pre-history which Engels, following Morgan and other nineteenth century writers called ‘savagery’. It accounted for something like 90 percent of the span of existence of human beings with a biological makeup identical with our own (rather more than 99.5 percent if you include those of our earlier ancestors who were human rather than apelike in characteristics).

If there is a biological ‘human nature’, its features must have been laid down in this period (which is why the form of social organisation and the relationships between the sexes in that period has a bearing on all sorts of present day arguments).

Then, about 10,000 years ago peoples in some parts of the world discovered how to produce regular crops through burning off the wild vegetation, and then planting seeds in ground which had been scratched with a hoe-like tool or had holes made in it with a digging stick. The initial techniques might have been rudimentary, but they increased the productivity of the particular locality enormously.

The human grouping now only had to move when the fertility of the soil was exhausted – every few years rather than every few months. It made sense to put a lot of labour into making relatively sophisticated artefacts, even if they were quite heavy. So now human beings devoted a lot of effort to the manufacture of clay pots: that in turn allowed them to store foodstuffs in a way which had not been possible previously. The increased and more secure supplies of food enabled them, in turn, to attract to them, and tame, relatively large animals (sheep, goats, pigs, cattle etc.).

The average size of the groupings in which people lived was now much greater: it was not restricted by the locally available supplies of wild food; on the contrary, a bigger population could, up to a certain point, increase the amount of labour applied to the land and the output of food.

The evidence from archaeology

Archaeology provides evidence of one other important change which takes place at this point as well. For the first time there are stocks of weapons deliberately designed for killing other human beings. It becomes worth the while of one group of humans waging war on another in order to get control of their fertile land and their stores of food and artefacts.

These societies (known to present day anthropologists as ‘horticultural’ societies and to those who used the Morgan-Engels terminology as ‘lower barbarism’) in turn underwent a further development in some places. People discovered how to apply the muscle power of certain of their domesticated animals (especially the ox) to an improved wooden tool for tilling the soil, the plough. The result was a further massive improvement in agricultural productivity, the provision of enough food both to allow a much larger human population to live in the locality, much greater herds of animals to be bred, and many more human resources to be put into the production of tools and artefacts as opposed simply to food.

This stage of agriculture proper (or ‘higher barbarism’ in the Morgan-Engels terminology) provided a material basis on which was possible the development of towns, non-agricultural crafts, the first forms of writing, professional armies and priesthoods – in short, the stage of agriculture proper (or ‘higher barbarism’ in the Morgan-Engels terminology) provided a material basis on which was possible the development of towns, non-agricultural crafts, the first forms of writing, professional armies and priesthoods – in short, the stage of ‘civilisation’.

The transitions from gathering-hunting to horticulture, from horticulture to agriculture proper and from agriculutre to civilisation did not take place everywhere. Indeed, until capitalism spread out from Western Europe to sink its tentacles into all pre-existing societies, a very large portion of the world’s peoples lived under material conditions very little different from those which preceded the rise of civilisation.

Anthropology has been the attempt to develop a ‘science’ based upon observing these so-called ‘primitive’ societies and drawing general ‘theoretical’ conclusions about them.

These observations and conclusions have then been used to make assertions about the nature of pre-historic societies existing in similar material conditions.

Although Engels and the American ethnologist Morgan who influenced him were among the first to use this approach, most people who have done so in the last half century have claimed the evidence refutes Engels’ arguments about women’s oppression and the family.

Thus the American anthropologist Linton claimed the family was an invariant of all societies, even existing among the higher monkeys. The most influential British anthropologists, Malinowski and Evans Pritchard tried to prove the same thing, with Evans Pritchard insisting, ‘regardless of forms of social structure, men are always in the ascendancy (over women)’. The French anthropologist, Levi-Strauss, despite claiming in his earlier writings that he owed a debt to Marx, asserts the universality of male dominance by seeing the complex incest rules you find in many pre-civilised societies as ‘rule for the reciprocal exchange of women by men’.

Some Marxists have taken these assertions as proof that Engels was wrong. Godelier argues, ‘we can assume that in any society men’s labour is evaluated more highly than women’s’ and Maurice Bloc denies there were ever societies in which ‘women were equal to men, or in which classes did not exist’.

Finally, separatist feminists like Firestone, Ortner and Rosaldo have accepted the same basic argument. They accept that men have always been and will always tend to dominate – unless women separate themselves off.

Yet this use of the evidence from anthropology falls down on two counts.

Firstly, the ‘primitive’ societies which exist today cannot simply be assumed to be the same as those which existed everywhere until 5,000 or 10,000 years ago. They have gone on changing in periods since. Some of the gatherer-hunter societies that now exist (for instance, in parts of the Amazon region) were once horticultural societies that regressed; some of the peoples who live in agricultural societies are the descendants of civilisations which collapsed.

The existence alongside them of societies based on more developed forms of production has necessarily influenced all of the ‘primitive’ societies. Gathering-hunting peoples have usually only been able to maintain themselves in the face of pressures from horticulturalists, agriculturalists and, above all the ‘civilised’ in the most marginal areas – the Arctic, the Kalahari and Australian deserts, the tropical forests.

What is more all three sorts of pre-civilised society have been to a greater or lesser degree integrated into the world market: hunters sell animals’ skins to capitalist traders; horticulturalists produce seeds or fibres for the Western multinationals; agriculturalists are part of the world’s biggest single industry.

Gatherer-hunter societies

With the bourgeois market has come the bourgeois state and bourgeois religion, consciously setting out to change norms of behaviour to fit in with their own notions of morality.

It would hardly be surprising, then, to find imprinted on these societies today features of male dominance, which may not have existed in the past.

The second problem is that there is no doubt that the great majority of anthropological observers have expected to find these features. For all of their pretence at being ‘scientists’, they have been little more than individuals from established bourgeois societies who have gone to look at ‘primitive’ societies from the outside, often not even speaking the language, and taking with them all the prejudices of bourgeois society.

Such anthropologists have gone out to look at primitive societies in the expectation of finding exactly the features which capitalism has been imprinting on them. They have then used their observations to draw the conclusion that these features have always existed and must always exist!

It has only been in recent years, as some non-separatist feminists influenced by Marxism have looked again at their evidence that its faults have been revealed. Malinowski, for instance, was able to claim that women played very little economic role in the Trobriand society he observed because he completely ignored the role of women in the collecting of banana leaves – even though he was photographed in front of a pile of them.

Other anthropologists have asserted that women play no role in certain Australian aborigine rituals: failing to observe a key point in the ritual in which the men (including, presumably, the male anthropologists) turn their backs while the women make vital ritual gestures.

So if we want to use the evidence of anthropology in order to understand the development of human society, we have to treat it very cautiously and very critically. We must not make the mistake of those who simply parrot the words of Malinowski, Evans Pritchard or Levi-Strauss. Nor should we follow certain would-be Marxists (especially Evelyn Reid) by indulging in speculations which no evidence can support.

Nevertheless, there are a few conclusions we can draw.

Existing gathering-hunting peoples live in bands 20 or 30 strong. There is little in the way of a formal authority structure in these bands and no division into classes. People enter the bands quite freely, and if there is a dispute one or other party to it simply leaves and joins another band.

Women and men live within the band as couples, and there is a sexual division of labour between them, with women mainly involved in gathering and men in hunting (although some women may choose to take part in this).

This has led many writers to the view that the men dominate the women in an early version of the patriarchal family. But, in fact, this is not so. In most (if not all) surviving gathering-hunting societies women and men both take part in decision-making (for instance, as to whether to leave the band and join another), and either member of the couple can break the liaison if they wish to.

The view that men must dominate is usually based on the myth of ‘man the hunter’: that somehow gathering tubers, berries and nuts must be intrinsically less important than hunting. In fact, gathering provides for a much greater proportion of the diet than hunting. Meat rarely accounts for more than 30 percent of the diet, and it is a much less reliable source of food than gathering.

The sexual division of labour in these societies is not something imposed on women by men, but fits in with the needs of the band. It cannot survive unless a certain minimal number of children are born and reared, which involves breast feeding in infancy. The band is continually on the move in search of new food supplies, and so a woman who is rearing a child has to carry it about with her until it is about four years old. Under those circumstances, she cannot have children more than once every four years and, since about half of the children die in infancy, the average woman has to be either pregnant or rearing a child throughout almost all of her adult life if the band is to survive.

This does not mean that women alone bear a responsibility for child raising. Men play an increasing role from the age of four onwards. But it does make it difficult for women to be involved in hunting.

Hunting for larger animals involves rapid movement, hardly compatible with carrying a child. What is more, it is usually a precarious, even dangerous occupation. The band can afford the risk of losing a few of its men; it cannot afford to lose those of its members who alone can give birth to the next generation.

The important point, however, is that although the division of labour arises out of the biological differences between the sexes, it does not automatically lead to the domination of one sex by another.

The American anthropologist Ernestine Friedl has argued that in those gathering-hunting societies where hunting is of most importance in terms of supplying the diet (in the Arctic and Australia, for example) men have greater prestige and power. But even she insists that this is nothing like the systematic domination of men over women you get in class societies.

Eleanor Leacock and Karen Sacks both go further than this. They argue that if you look critically at the evidence, you find a rough equality of men and women in all gatherer-hunter societies.

But in either case, we are a long way from the ‘universal domination of men’ that so many people claim to exist. If a basic ‘human nature’ was produced in the huge period of time our ancestors lived in such societies, there is no reason to believe it involved any innate tendency of men to oppress women or of women to accept such oppression.

The rise of class society and women’s oppression

If there is room for some argument about the relative contribution of men and women to material production in gatherer-hunter societies, there is no such room in the next stage of development, horticultural societies.

The tilling of the soil with the hoe and digging stick developed out of the gathering of vegetable foodstuffs, and is almost everywhere a female occupation (although men are likely to be responsible for clearing the land). These are societies in which women are the main providers of food and clothing, and women’s social standing is correspondingly high.

In these societies, women help appoint war chiefs, take part in decisions as to who marries whom, decide for how long prisoners will be tortured.

It was one of these societies, the Iroquois of New York state that Morgan studied. It was on the basis of these studies that Engels claimed there had been a stage in human society of mother right, or matriarchy.

The Iroquois is one of a number of societies based upon what anthropologists today call ‘matrilineality’ and ‘matrilocality’. By these terms they mean that descent is reckoned through the female line and that men go to live at the homes of their wife’s mother. Women’s standing in such societies is especially high: the man is always a stranger in the house in which he lives, along with his wife, her mother, her sisters, and the assortment of men to whom they are married.

However, it is wrong to apply the term ‘matriarchy’: that implies that women dominate men in the same way that men dominate women in class societies. But such domination of one group in society over another cannot exist until you get class society.

What is more, most surviving horticultural societies are not ‘matrilineal-matrilocal’. Descent is often reckoned through the male line, and residence is usually at the male home.

Nevertheless, these are still societies in which women’s standing is high. The reason, as Engels noted, is the key role played in them by kin-groups (what he called the ‘gens’ or the ‘clan’).

In all these societies the key element of social organisation is the line of descent in which someone finds themselves (in patrilineal societies their relationships to their father, their siblings, their uncles and aunts on their father’s sides, and so on; in matrilineal societies their mother, mother’s brother, mother’s sister and her children and so on). Marriage is always outside this line, but its ties remain all important for the individual – more important in many ways than their ties to their spouse. Marriage is not just an individual relationship, but a relationship between lineages mediated by individuals.

So although the woman is a ‘wife’, she is also, more importantly a ‘sister’ – and any oppression of her by her spouse would rapidly lead to the intervention of her lineage in her defence. And within her own lineage, decisions are taken not simply by the men, but by the elder women as well (for a fuller elaboration of these arguments, see Karen Sacks’ Sisters and Wives).

The systematic exploitation of one section of the population by another is not possible in gatherer-hunter and horticultural societies. The productivity of human labour is simply not great enough to produce such an excess of food and clothing over and above what is needed to keep the mass of people alive so as to allow a minority of the population either to devote themselves to non-productive tasks or to live in idleness. No significant surplus exists in these societies.

This only comes into being with the great leap forward in productivity which results from the transition from horticulture to agriculture. It is this change which allows embryonic class divisions to begin to emerge.

A stratum of rulers, priests or merchants who are not tied to continual agricultural labour begin to develop. This provides certain benefits for the community as a whole: the stratum can devote some of their time to studying how further to improve its productivity, to increasing its trade with neighbouring communities, to building regular armed forces for raiding the neighbours. However, the benefits are monopolised by the rising class (so while in gatherer-hunter societies the average working day is about four hours, in agricultural societies it is much longer).

The division into classes is necessarily accompanied by the rise of the state – of a body of armed men cut off from the rest of society. The new exploiting class needs this in order to protect its own position and to extend it through conquest, the taking of slaves and so on.

The changes that occur with the rise of agriculture, class society and the state have very important implications for the position of women. Ploughing and the herding of animals involves labour which is not comparable, on a continuous basis, with bearing and breastfeeding children. In this sense agricultural labour proper differs from the preceding horticultural labour.

As C. Gordon Childe has noted:

‘The plough changed farming from plot cultivation to agriculture and welded indissolubly cultivation and stock breeding. It relieved women of the most exacting drudgery but deprived them of their monopoly over the cereal crops and the social status that inferred. Among the barbarians, although women normally hoe plots, it is men who plough fields. And even in the oldest Sumerian and Egyptian documents, the ploughmen really are males.’ (What happened in history, p. 72)

Women continued to do productive, as well as reproductive tasks. But the production of the main means of livelihood – and the source of the new, growing surplus – was in the hands of men.

Two of the other changes also tended to enhance the position of men at the expense of women. The trading of surpluses between different communities could involve long and arduous journeys, not easily carried out by women burdened with young children; that trade often (although not always) became a male monopoly. And the demands of child rearing also meant the new full time armies tended to be all male institutions (there are some societies which have female warriors, but they are few and far between).

The people who came to control the new surplus tended to be men. For them, male dominance was one aspect of their overall domination of the rest of society. Women became for them playthings, ornaments, or means of establishing alliances with other rulers; they ceased in any sense to be regarded as human beings of the same standing as men.

What is more, the polarisation into classes undermined the kinship lineages. As class and state replaced the clan or gens, the woman lost the last vestiges of protection from the man in the household.

This had its impact on the exploited peasants (or occasionally artisans) as well as on the new ruling class. The exploited class was now organised not in lineage groups, but in households where one male would come to control the main productive activity and where most of the men (his sons and servants or slaves) and all the women would play a subordinate role.

The rise of class society and the disintegration of the old lineage groups produced the patriarchal family and the oppression of women.

Engels today

This account allows us to see how relevant remains the central, revolutionary core of Engels’ argument. His account was not perfect. But he was absolutely right to insist that women’s oppression does not follow from human nature but from a particular family form; that the family form depends upon the material production and reproduction of society; and that the oppression of women was associated with the rise of class society and the state.

The argument continues to have revolutionary implications today. Through most of humanity’s time on the earth, women’s biological differences from men did not condemn them to oppressions, although there was a certain sexual division of labour. It was only at a very late stage in human history with the rise of class society, that biology and oppression became associated. Finally, the most recent stage of class society, capitalism, has increased the productive potential of humanity so much that there is no longer any material reason for women to be excluded from the most productive processes.

Their oppression today is not a product of human nature or of their own biology. It is a product of a class society which has to be overthrown if the whole of humanity is not to face a return to something much worse than barbarism.

Last updated on 8 October 2019