Frederick Engels
Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State

Preface to the Fourth Edition, 1891

The earlier large editions of this work have been out of print now for almost half a year, and for some time the publisher has been asking me to prepare a new edition. Until now, more urgent work kept me from doing so. Since the appearance of the first edition seven years have elapsed, during which our knowledge of the primitive forms of the family has made important advances. There was, therefore, plenty to do in the way of improvements and additions; all the more so as the proposed stereotyping of the present text will make any further alterations impossible for some time.

I have accordingly submitted the whole text to a careful revision and made a number of additions which, I hope, take due account of the present state of knowledge. I also give in the course of this preface a short review of the development of the history of the family from Bachofen to Morgan; I do so chiefly because the chauvinistically inclined English anthropologists are still striving their utmost to kill by silence the revolution which Morgan’s discoveries have effected in our conception of primitive history, while they appropriate his results without the slightest compunction. Elsewhere also the example of England is in some cases followed only too closely.

My work has been translated into a number of other languages. First, Italian: L’origine delta famiglia, delta proprieta privata e dello stato, versions riveduta dall’autore, di Pasquale Martignetti, Benevento, 1885. Then, Rumanian: Origina famdei, proprietatei private si a statului, traducere de Joan Nadeide, in the Yassy periodical Contemporanul, September, 1885, to May, 1886. Further, Danish: Familjens, Privatejendommens og Statens Oprindelse, Dansk, af Forfattern gennemgaaet Udgave, besorget af Gerson Trier, Kobenhavn, 1888. A French translation by Henri Rave, based on the present German edition, is on the press.

Before the beginning of the ’sixties, one cannot speak of a history of the family. In this field, the science of history was still completely under the influence of the five books of Moses. The patriarchal form of the family, which was there described in greater detail than anywhere else, was not only assumed without question to be the oldest form, but it was also identified – minus its polygamy – with the bourgeois family of today, so that the family had really experienced no historical development at all; at most it was admitted that in primitive times there might have been a period of sexual promiscuity. It is true that in addition to the monogamous form of the family, two other forms were known to exist – polygamy in the Orient and polyandry in India and Tibet; but these three forms could not be arranged in any historical order and merely appeared side by side without any connection. That among some peoples of ancient history, as well as among some savages still alive today, descent was reckoned, not from the father, but from the mother, and that the female line was therefore regarded as alone valid; that among many peoples of the present day in every continent marriage is forbidden within certain large groups which at that time had not been closely studied – these facts were indeed known and fresh instances of them were continually being collected. But nobody knew what to do with them, and even as late as E. B. Tylor’s Researches into the Early History of Mankind, etc. (1865) they are listed as mere “curious customs”, side by side with the prohibition among some savages against touching burning wood with an iron tool and similar religious mumbo-jumbo.

The history of the family dates from 1861, from the publication of Bachofen’s Mutterrecht. [Mother-right, matriarchate – Ed.] In this work the author advances the following propositions:

(1) That originally man lived in a state of sexual promiscuity, to describe which Bachofen uses the mistaken term “hetaerism”;

(2) that such promiscuity excludes any certainty of paternity, and that descent could therefore be reckoned only in the female line, according to mother-right, and that this was originally the case amongst all the peoples of antiquity;

(3) that since women, as mothers, were the only parents of the younger generation that were known with certainty, they held a position of such high respect and honor that it became the foundation, in Bachofen’s conception, of a regular rule of women (gynaecocracy);

(4) that the transition to monogamy, where the woman belonged to one man exclusively, involved a violation of a primitive religious law (that is, actually a violation of the traditional right of the other men to this woman), and that in order to expiate this violation or to purchase indulgence for it the woman had to surrender herself for a limited period.

Bachofen finds the proofs of these assertions in innumerable passages of ancient classical literature, which he collected with immense industry. According to him, the development from “hetaerism” to monogamy and from mother-right to father-right is accomplished, particularly among the Greeks, as the consequence of an advance in religious conceptions, introducing into the old hierarchy of the gods, representative of the old outlook, new divinities, representative of the new outlook, who push the former more and more into the background. Thus, according to Bachofen, it is not the development of men’s actual conditions of life, but the religious reflection of these conditions inside their heads, which has brought about the historical changes in the social position of the sexes in relation to each other. In accordance with this view, Bachofen interprets the Oresteia of Aschylus as the dramatic representation of the conflict between declining mother-right and the new father-right that arose and triumphed in the heroic age. For the sake of her paramour, Ęgisthus, Clytemnestra slays her husband, Agamemnon, on his return from the Trojan War; but Orestes, the son of Agamemnon and herself, avenges his father’s murder by slaying his mother. For this act he is pursued by the Furies, the demonic guardians of mother-right, according to which matricide is the gravest and most inexpiable crime. But Apollo, who by the voice of his oracle had summoned Orestes to this deed, and Athena, who is called upon to give judgment – the two deities who here represent the new patriarchal order – take Orestes under their protection; Athena hears both sides. The whole matter of the dispute is briefly summed up in the debate which now takes place between Orestes and the Furies. Orestes contends that Clytemnestra has committed a double crime; she has slain her husband and thus she has also slain his father. Why should the Furies pursue him, and not her, seeing that she is by far the more guilty? The answer is striking: “She was not kin by blood to the man she slew.”

The murder of a man not related by blood, even if he be the husband of the murderess, is expiable and does not concern the Furies; their office is solely to punish murder between blood relations, and of such murders the most grave and the most inexpiable, according to mother-right, is matricide. Apollo now comes forward in Orestes’ defense; Athena calls upon the Areopagites – the Athenian jurors – to vote; the votes for Orestes’ condemnation and for his acquittal are equal; Athena, as president, gives her vote for Orestes and acquits him. Father-right has triumphed over mother-right, the “gods of young descent,” as the Furies themselves call them, have triumphed over the Furies; the latter then finally allow themselves to be persuaded to take up a new office in the service of the new order.

This new but undoubtedly correct interpretation of the Oresteia is one of the best and finest passages in the whole book, but it proves at the same time that Bachofen believes at least as much as Ęschylus did in the Furies, Apollo, and Athena; for, at bottom, he believes that the overthrow of mother-right by father-right was a miracle wrought during the Greek heroic age by these divinities. That such a conception, which makes religion the lever of world history, must finally end in pure mysticism, is clear. It is therefore a tough and by no means always a grateful task to plow through Bachofen’s solid tome. But all that does not lessen his importance as a pioneer. He was the first to replace the vague phrases about some unknown primitive state of sexual promiscuity by proofs of the following facts: that abundant traces survive in old classical literature of a state prior to monogamy among the Greeks and Asiatics when not only did a man have sexual intercourse with several women, but a woman with several men, without offending against morality; that this custom did not disappear without leaving its traces in the limited surrender which was the price women had to pay for the right to monogamy; that therefore descent could originally be reckoned only in the female line, from mother to mother; that far into the period of monogamy, with its certain or at least acknowledged paternity, the female line was still alone recognized; and that the original position of the mothers, as the only certain parents of their children, secured for them, and thus for their whole sex, a higher social position than women have ever enjoyed since. Bachofen did not put these statements as clearly as this, for he was hindered by his mysticism. But he proved them; and in 1861 that was a real revolution.

Bachofen’s massive volume was written in German, the language of the nation which at that time interested itself less than any other in the prehistory of the modern family. Consequently, he remained unknown. His first successor in the same field appeared in 1865, without ever having heard of Bachofen.

This successor was J. F. McLennan, the exact opposite of his predecessor. Instead of a mystic of genius, we have the dry-as-dust jurist; instead of the exuberant imagination of a poet, the plausible arguments of a barrister defending his brief. McLennan finds among many savage, barbarian, and even civilized peoples of ancient and modern times a form of marriage in which the bridegroom, alone or with his friends, must carry off the bride from her relations by a show of force. This custom must be the survival of an earlier custom when the men of one tribe did in fact carry off their wives by force from other tribes. What was the origin of this “marriage by capture”? So long as men could find enough women in their own tribe, there was no reason whatever for it. We find, however, no less frequently that among undeveloped peoples there are certain groups (which in 1865 were still often identified with the tribes themselves) within which marriage is forbidden, so that the men are obliged to take their wives, and women their husbands, from outside the group; whereas among other peoples the custom is that the men of one group must take their wives only from within their own group. McLennan calls the first peoples “exogamous” and the second “endogamous”; he then promptly proceeds to construct a rigid opposition between exogamous and endogamous “tribes.” And although his own investigations into exogamy force the fact under his nose that in many, if not in most or even in all, cases, this opposition exists only in his own imagination, he nevertheless makes it the basis of his whole theory. According to this theory, exogamous tribes can only obtain their wives from other tribes; and since in savagery there is a permanent state of war between tribe and tribe, these wives could only be obtained by capture. McLennan then goes on to ask: Whence this custom of exogamy? The conception of consanguinity and incest could not have anything to do with it, for these things only came much later. But there was another common custom among savages–the custom of killing female children immediately after birth. This would cause a surplus of men in each individual tribe, of which the inevitable and immediate consequence would be that several men possessed a wife in common: polyandry. And this would have the further consequence that it would be known who was the mother of a child, but not who its father was: hence relationship only in the female line, with exclusion of the male line – mother-right. And a second consequence of the scarcity of women within a tribe – a scarcity which polyandry mitigated, but did not remove – was precisely this systematic, forcible abduction of women from other tribes.

As exogamy and polyandry are referable to one and the same cause – a want of balance between the sexes–we are forced to regard all the exogamous races as having originally been polyandrous.... Therefore we must hold it to be beyond dispute that among exogamous races the first system of kinship was that which recognized blood-ties through mothers only.

(McLennan, Studies in Ancient History, 1886. Primitive Marriage, p. 124)

It is McLennan’s merit to have directed attention to the general occurrence and great importance of what he calls exogamy. He did not by any means discover the existence of exogamous groups; still less did he understand them. Besides the early, scattered notes of many observers (these were McLennan’s sources), Latham (Descriptive Ethnology, 1859) had given a detailed and accurate description of this institution among the Indian Magars, and had said that it was very widespread and occurred in all parts of the world – a passage which McLennan himself cites. Morgan, in 1847, in his letters on the Iroquois (American Review) and in 1851 in The League of the Iroquois, had already demonstrated the existence of exogamous groups among this tribe and had given an accurate account of them; whereas McLennan, as we shall see, wrought greater confusion here with his legalistic mind than Bachofen wrought in the field of mother-right with his mystical fancies. It is also a merit of McLennan that he recognized matrilineal descent as the earlier system, though he was here anticipated by Bachofen, as he later acknowledged. But McLennan is not clear on this either; he always speaks of “kinship through females only,” and this term, which is correct for an earlier stage, he continually applies to later stages of development when descent and inheritance were indeed still traced exclusively through the female line, but when kinship on the male side was also recognized and expressed. There you have the pedantic mind of the jurist, who fixes on a rigid legal term and goes on applying it unchanged when changed conditions have made it applicable no longer.

Apparently McLennan’s theory, plausible though it was, did not seem any too well established even to its author. At any rate, he himself is struck by the fact that “it is observable that the form of capture is now most distinctly marked and impressive just among those races which have male kinship” (should be “descent in the male line”). (Ibid., p. 140) And again: “It is a curious fact that nowhere now, that we are aware of, is infanticide a system where exogamy and the earliest form of kinship co-exist.” (Ibid., p. 146.) Both these facts flatly contradict his method of explanation, and he can only meet them with new and still more complicated hypotheses.

Nevertheless, his theory found great applause and support in England. McLennan was here generally regarded as the founder of the history of the family and the leading authority on the subject. However many exceptions and variations might be found in individual cases, his opposition of exogamous and endogamous tribes continued to stand as the recognized foundation of the accepted view, and to act as blinders, obstructing any free survey of the field under investigation and so making any decisive advance impossible. Against McLennan’s exaggerated reputation in England – and the English fashion is copied elsewhere – it becomes a duty to set down the fact that be has done more harm with his completely mistaken antithesis between exogamous and endogamous “tribes” than he has done good by his research.

Facts were now already coming to light in increasing number which did not fit into his neat framework. McLennan knew only three forms of marriage: polygyny, polyandry and monogamy. But once attention had been directed to the question, more and more proofs were found that there existed among undeveloped peoples forms of marriage in which a number of men possessed a number of women in common, and Lubbock (The Origin of Civilization, 1870) recognized this group marriage (“communal marriage”) as a historical fact.

Immediately afterwards, in 1871, Morgan came forward with new and in many ways decisive evidence. He had convinced himself that the peculiar system of consanguinity in force among the Iroquois was common to all the aboriginal inhabitants of the United States and therefore extended over a whole continent, although it directly contradicted the degrees of relationship arising out of the system of marriage as actually practiced by these peoples. He then induced the Federal government to collect information about the systems of consanguinity among the other peoples of the world and to send out for this purpose tables and lists of questions prepared by himself. He discovered from the replies: (1) that the system of consanguinity of the American Indians was also in force among numerous peoples in Asia and, in a somewhat modified form, in Africa and Australia; (2) that its complete explanation was to be found in a form of group marriage which was just dying out in Hawaii and other Australasian islands; and (3) that side by side with this form of marriage a system of consanguinity was in force in the same islands which could only be explained through a still more primitive, now extinct, form of group marriage. He published the collected evidence, together with the conclusions he drew from it, in his Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity, 1871, and thus carried the debate on to an infinitely wider field. By starting from the systems of consanguinity and reconstructing from them the corresponding forms of family, he opened a new line of research and extended our range of vision into the prehistory of man. If this method proved to be sound, McLennan’s pretty theories would be completely demolished.

McLennan defended his theory in a new edition of Primitive Marriage (Studies in Ancient History, 1876). Whilst he himself constructs a highly artificial history of the family out of pure hypotheses, he demands from Lubbock and Morgan not merely proofs for every one of their statements, but proofs as indisputably valid as if they were to be submitted in evidence in a Scottish court of law. And this is the man who, from Tacitus’ report on the close relationship between maternal uncle and sister’s son among the Germans (Germania, Chap. 20), from Caesar’s report that the Britons in groups of ten or twelve possessed their wives in common, from all the other reports of classical authors on community of wives among barbarians, calmly draws the conclusion that all these peoples lived in a state of polyandry! One might be listening to a prosecuting counsel who can allow himself every liberty in arguing his own case, but demands from defending counsel the most formal, legally valid proof for his every word.

He maintains that group marriage is pure imagination, and by so doing falls far behind Bachofen. He declares that Morgan’s systems of consanguinity are mere codes of conventional politeness, the proof being that the Indians also address a stranger or a white man as brother or father. One might as well say that the terms “father,” “mother,” “brother,” “sister” are mere meaningless forms of address because Catholic priests and abbesses are addressed as “father” and “mother,” and because monks and nuns, and even freemasons and members of English trade unions and associations at their full sessions are addressed as “brother” and “sister.” In a word, McLennan’s defense was miserably feeble.

But on one point he had still not been assailed. The opposition of exogamous and endogamous “tribes” on which his whole system rested not only remained unshaken, but was even universally acknowledged as the keystone of the whole history of the family. McLennan’s attempt to explain this opposition might be inadequate and in contradiction with his own facts. But the antithesis itself, the existence of two mutually exclusive types of self-sufficient and independent tribes, of which the one type took their wives from within the tribe, while the other type absolutely forbade it – that was sacred gospel. Compare, for example, Giraud-Teulon’s Origines de la Famille (1874) and even Lubbock’s Origin of Civilization (fourth edition, 1882).

Here Morgan takes the field with his main work, Ancient Society (1877), the work that underlies the present study. What Morgan had only dimly guessed in 1871 is now developed in full consciousness. There is no antithesis between endogamy and exogamy; up to the present, the existence of exogamous “tribes” has not been demonstrated anywhere. But at the time when group marriage still prevailed – and in all probability it prevailed everywhere at some time – the tribe was subdivided into a number of groups related by blood on the mother’s side, gentes, within which it was strictly forbidden to marry, so that the men of a gens, though they could take their wives from within the tribe and generally did so, were compelled to take them from outside their gens. Thus while each gens was strictly exogamous, the tribe embracing all the gentes was no less endogamous. Which finally disposed of the last remains of McLennan’s artificial constructions.

But Morgan did not rest here. Through the gens of the American Indians, he was enabled to make his second great advance in his field of research. In this gens, organized according to mother-right, he discovered the primitive form out of which had developed the later gens organized according to father-right, the gens as we find it among the ancient civilized peoples. The Greek and Roman gens, the old riddle of all historians, now found its explanation in the Indian gens, and a new foundation was thus laid for the whole of primitive history.

This rediscovery of the primitive matriarchal gens as the earlier stage of the patriarchal gens of civilized peoples has the same importance for anthropology as Darwin’s theory of evolution has for biology and Marx’s theory of surplus value for political economy. It enabled Morgan to outline for the first time a history of the family in which for the present, so far as the material now available permits, at least the classic stages of development in their main outlines are now determined. That this opens a new epoch in the treatment of primitive history must be clear to everyone. The matriarchal gens has become the pivot on which the whole science turns; since its discovery we know where to look and what to look for in our research, and how to arrange the results. And, consequently, since Morgan’s book, progress in this field has been made at a far more rapid speed.

Anthropologists, even in England, now generally appreciate, or rather appropriate, Morgan’s discoveries. But hardly one of them has the honesty to admit that it is to Morgan that we owe this revolution in our ideas. In England they try to kill his book by silence, and dispose of its author with condescending praise for his earlier achievements; they niggle endlessly over details and remain obstinately silent about his really great discoveries. The original edition of Ancient Society is out of print; in America there is no sale for such things; in England, it seems, the book was systematically suppressed, and the only edition of this epochmaking work still circulating in the book trade is – the German translation.

Why this reserve? It is difficult not to see in it a conspiracy of silence; for politeness’ sake, our recognized anthropologists generally pack their writings with quotations and other tokens of camaraderie. Is it, perhaps, because Morgan is an American, and for the English anthropologists it goes sorely against the grain that, despite their highly creditable industry in collecting material, they should be dependent for their general points of view in the arrangement and grouping of this material, for their ideas in fact, on two foreigners of genius, Bachofen and Morgan? They might put up with the German – but the American? Every Englishman turns patriotic when he comes up against an American, and of this I saw highly entertaining instances in the United States. Moreover, McLennan was, so to speak, the officially appointed founder and leader of the English school of anthropology. It was almost a principle of anthropological etiquette to speak of his artificially constructed historical series – child-murder, polygyny, marriage by capture, matriarchal family – in tones only of profoundest respect. The slightest doubt in the existence of exogamous and endogamous “tribes” of absolute mutual exclusiveness was considered rank heresy. Morgan had committed a kind of sacrilege in dissolving all these hallowed dogmas into thin air. Into the bargain, he had done it in such a way that it only needed saying to carry immediate conviction; so that the McLennanites, who had hitherto been helplessly reeling to and fro between exogamy and endogamy, could only beat their brows and exclaim: “How could we be such fools as not to think of that for ourselves long ago?”

As if these crimes had not already left the official school with the option only of coldly ignoring him, Morgan filled the measure to overflowing by not merely criticizing civilization, the society of commodity production, the basic form of present-day society, in a manner reminiscent of Fourier, but also by speaking of a future transformation of this society in words which Karl Marx might have used. He had therefore amply merited McLennan’s indignant reproach that “the historical method is antipathetical to Mr. Morgan’s mind,” and its echo as late as 1884 from Mr. Professor Giraud-Teulon of Geneva. In 1874 (Origines de la Famille) this same gentleman was still groping helplessly in the maze of the McLennanite exogamy, from which Morgan had to come and rescue him!

Of the other advances which primitive anthropology owes to Morgan, I do not need to speak here; they are sufficiently discussed in the course of this study. The fourteen years which have elapsed since the publication of his chief work have greatly enriched the material available for the study of the history of primitive human societies. The anthropologists, travelers and primitive historians by profession have now been joined by the comparative jurists, who have contributed either new material or new points of view. As a result, some of Morgan’s minor hypotheses have been shaken or even disproved. But not one of the great leading ideas of his work has been ousted by this new material. The order which he introduced into primitive history still holds in its main lines today. It is, in fact, winning recognition to the same degree in which Morgan’s responsibility for the great advance is carefully concealed. [1]

Frederick Engels
London, June 16, 1891


[1] On the voyage back from New York in September, 1888, I met a former member of Congress for the district of Rochester, who had known Lewis Morgan. Unfortunately, he could not tell me very much about him. He said that Morgan had lived in Rochester as a private individual, occupied only with his studies. His brother was a colonel, and had held a post in the War Department in Washington; it was through him that Morgan had managed to interest the Government in his researches and to get several of his works published at public expense. While he was a member of Congress, my informant had also on more than one occasion used his influence on Morgan’s behalf.

Preface (1884) | Chapter One