Engels on the family, property and the state
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`Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State’ by Frederick Engels
In the `Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State’, Engels looks at how these three institutions emerged from about six thousand years ago, in stages across the world, as a way to establish the rule of the many over the few. Essentially, they protect the propertied classes and enable them to pass on wealth to heirs. Militarism and the oppression of women as sex objects are just two injustices that came in their wake. It wasn’t always this way. Private property of land resulted in an overthrow of the mother-centred families and the emergence of special bodies of armed men.
Engels’ 1884 work is based on knowledge available in his day from societies around the globe. Whilst new scientific discoveries have made some of his comments outdated, they have confirmed his conclusions in a remarkable way. An associated short article by Engels, "The part played by labour in the transition from ape to man" could be part of today's debates on human origin with almost no hint of its age.
`Origins’ can sometimes be a difficult book to wade through due to the detail, especially different family arrangements that make the average legal document seem like a playschool text! As with the Native American system, whereby: "the children of my mother's sisters are still her children and they are all my brothers and sisters. But the children of my mother's brothers are now her nephews and nieces, the children of my father's sisters and his nephews and nieces, and they are all my male and female cousins"!!! But it is worth trying to get the gist at least. Engels looks at length at different forms of the family, which in the past were far more complex than the modern mum, dad and the kids and changed as the economic basis to society became more complex.
Nomadic, or wandering peoples, ran everything based on “gens" (a Latin term for kinship organisations), or `clans’, instead of territory. Ownership of any wealth was based on clan property, entirely communally, a form of communism, albeit primitive. The early form of the family saw unrestricted sexual freedom, every woman `belonging’ equally to every man and every man to every woman. Family lineage was traced through the mother and women had high status in society. Group marriage developed, whereby a group of women had a group of husbands in common - with descent still reckoned on the female side.
Engels looks at evidence concerning the Dravidian, Deccan, Gaura and Tamil tribes in the Indian sub-continent, and also the Hawaiian islands. He believes, rightly, that "(w)hen a system is general throughout America and also exists in Asia ... when numerous instances of it are found with greater or less variation in every part of Africa and Australia, then that system has to be historically explained, not talked out of existence".
So, he looks in some detail at the Iroquois Native Americans, who lived in what is now New York State. Marriage between members of a gens was prohibited, parenthood traced via the mothers and property remained within the `clan’. Neither men nor women were in control but a woman's brother had more standing than her husband. Each gens elected a peace chief (more like a chair than a leader), who could be a woman, and, when needs be, a war chief, who was usually a man.
There were five tribes or nations and each had a council. The members of this acted as `voices’ to and from the council and the clan. The five nations formed the Iroquois Confederacy, with a common central council, which related to and from the tribal councils. Historians now widely believe that the modern American constitution was in part inspired by the democracy of the Iroquois Confederacy, which was remarkably stable.
Communistic housekeeping meant the supremacy of women; amongst the Iroquois, “the female … ruled the house.... The stores were in common; but woe to the luckless husband or lover who was too shiftless to do his share of the providing. … he might at any time be ordered to pick up his blanket and budge … retreat to his own clan; or … go and start a new matrimonial alliance… The women were the great power among the clans … They did not hesitate … "to knock off the horns" … from the head of a chief, and send him back to the ranks of the warriors."
But the practice of living together in a primitive communistic household set a limit to the maximum size of the family community. In Hawaii, one or more lines of sisters would form the nucleus of the one household and their own brothers the nucleus of the other (the `punaluan’ family, Hawaiian for `intimate companion’). Later a number of variations, towards the common possession of husbands and wives within a definite family circle, developed.
In early single pair marriages, one man is linked to one woman but this can easily be dissolved by either partner. Before and after separation, the children belong to the mother alone. This led on to the capture and purchase of women – a symptom of a much deeper change. Finally, there remains only the “single, still loosely linked pair, the molecule with whose dissolution marriage itself ceases”. This in itself shows what a “small part individual sex-love … played in the rise of monogamy”. Love relationships in the modern sense only occur in anitquity outside official society. But the new prctice, which brought unrealted persons into the marriage relation, also created a more vigorous stock, physically and mentally, aiding supremacy over other tribes.
The early systems of wide blood relationship (consanguinity) only changed when the economy of society radically changed; moreover, “the same is true of the political, juridical, religious, and philosophical systems in general". The trend of these changes was to narrow the circle of people comprised within the common bond of marriage, which was originally very wide.
For, as societies settled in one place when agricultural production began, the development of private property in land, cattle and slaves led to the patriarchal or male power, form of society with descent traced through the male line. Wealth accumulated outside the home - which was women's domain - and so shifted the power base to men. Men decided they wanted to ensure "their" wealth passed to "their" children. Men, therefore, needed exclusive sexual possession of women. The state developed with commerce, because it became necessary to regulate everyone within a given territory, irrespective of family.
Unlike pre-Columbus America, in Europe, the early wider communal system of government was replaced by the Greek and RomanStates, in a rapid move associated with the shift to slave owning forms of production. The original meaning of the word `family' among the Romans did not at first even refer to the married pair and their children, but only to the slaves! A famulus meant a domestic slave, and a `familia' was the total number of slaves belonging to one man.
During the Middle Ages, the development of serfdom, the separation of town and country and emergence of a merchant class necessitated a stronger central state. Both involved the development of "citizenship" in one's own right and not by virtue of family membership. `Free’ but waged-slaved forms of labour only came with the modern "bourgeois", or capitalist state. Thus, as society passed through successive modes of production it saw corresponding changes in institutions.
Engels makes a theoretical link between the earlier suppression of women and the need for emancipation in the modern era, which will “only be possible when women can take part in production on a large, social scale, and domestic work no longer claims anything but an insignificant amount of her time". Clearly, the development of modern production process heralds this possibility. But only communism will make it fully possible, in this sense Communism is the ultimate in feminism!
Perhaps some readers will also be surprised to learn that Communists aim in the long run for a stateless and moneyless society. Engels’ work was an elaboration of how this may be viewed as the logical outcome of this long historical process he laid out. Co-operative labour will see the withering away of the state, which can have no function when there is no ruling class or exploited class. With the transfer of the means of production into common ownership, the single family will ultimately cease to be the economic unit of society; private housekeeping and the care and education of children becoming a public affair.
Engels’ book, `Origins’ is therefore a truly landmark text, not always easy to read but always thoroughly novel, even today. In a very practical way, he sets out the case for what Marxists call the `historical materialist conception’ of events; life being moulded by reality of how societies replicate themselves through a new generation. Private ownership changed the nature of the family and this in turn forced new forms of social control. Collectivity gave way historically to personal power and this in turn will once again fade in favour, not of primitive Communism, but a technologically sophisticated but humane Communist society of the future. Powerful stuff, just from looking at cousins!!!!