The Origin of the Family, Private Property and State
By Frederick Engels

Extracts from the 1891 edition in
Marx-Engels Selected Works, volume three, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1970.

[Shortly after Marx’s death in 1883, Engels took over one more project on which his friend had been working, an analytic critique of Ancient Society, or Researches in the Lines of Human Progress from Savagery Through Barbarism to Civilisation by Lewis H. Morgan, published in New York in 1877. Marx and Engels saw in Morgan support for their ‘materialistic conception, the determining factory in history is, in the last resort, the production and reproduction of immediate life’ (p. 191). They had seen in Darwin’s The Origin of Species in 1859.

Marvin Harris argues that Engels, ‘By omitting all reference to ‘germ thoughts’ and by skillful editing … succeeded in bringing forth a suitably materialistic Morgan. But it is Engels and not Morgan who presents the first clear-cut periodisation of prehistory, based on the mode of production . The moral of this part of our story is not the Engels at Marx’s institution distorted Morgan’s view of history. That is probably true, but it is insignificant. Moreover, the modifications which Engels introduced were on the whole quite sound and imparted to Morgan’s scheme a logical coherence that it lacked in the original. The Rise of Anthropological Theory, A History of Theories of Culture, Thomas Y. Crowell Company, New York, 1968, pp. 246-8.

Vast amounts of information have been added in the intervening 120 years. As ever, Engels had underlined that his explanations of each point had to remain provisional. No one did more the stress the gap between relative knowledge and absolute truth.]

Until the beginning of the sixties [1860s] there was no such thing as a history of the family. In this sphere, historical science was still completely under the influence of the Five Books of Moses. 193

The patriarchal form of the family, described there in greater detail than anywhere else, was not only implicitly accepted as the oldest form of the family, but also – after excluding polygamy – identified with the present-day bourgeois family, as if the family had really undergone no historical development at all. 194

[Engels surveys a handful of writers. He accepts a pattern of progress from savagery through barbarism to civilization, with layers in each stage. He regularly refers to the current state of knowledge, indicating that every conclusion remains provisional.]

It has become the fashion of late to deny the existence of this initial stage [promiscuous intercourse] in the sexual life of mankind. The aim is to spare humanity this ‘shame’.   212

And if strict monogamy is to be regarded as the acme of all virtue, then the palm must be given to the tapeworm, which possess a complete male and female sexual apparatus in every one of its 50 to 200 prolottids or segments of the body, and passes the whole of its life in cohabiting with itself in every one of these segments.  212-3.

If, however, we limit ourselves to mammals, we find all forms of sexual life among them: promiscuity, suggestions of group marriage, polygamy and monogamy. Only polyandry is absent. This could be achieved only by humans.  213

If anything is certain, it is that jealousy is an emotion of comparatively late development. The same applies to the conception of incest. 215

To me it rather seems that all understanding of primitive conditions remains impossible so long as we regard them through brothel spectacles.   216

In one of several mentions of indigenous Australians, Engels remarks:

… so that here also group marriage is gradually dying out, the only question being which will first disappear from the scene as a result of European influence – group marriage or the Australian Negroes who indulge in it.  224.

This fact alone shows little individual sex love, in the modern sense of the word, had to do with the origins of monogamy. 225

The communistic household, in which most of the women or even all the women belong to one and the same gens, while the men come from various other gentes, is the material foundation of that predominancy of women which generally obtain in primitive times; and Bachofen’s discovery of this constitutes the third great service he has rendered.

I may add, furthermore, that the reports of travellers and missionaries about women among savages and barbarians being burdened with excessive toil in no way conflict with what has been said above. The idiom of labour between the two sexes is determined by causes entirely different from those that determine the status of women in society. Peoples whose women have to work much harder than we would consider proper often have far more real respect for women than our Europeans have for theirs. The social status of the lady of civilisation, surrounded by sham homage and estranged from all real work, is infinitely lower than that of the hard-working woman of barbarism, who was regarded among her people as a real lady and was such by the nature of her position. 226-7

Only after the transition to pairing marriage had been effect by the women could the men introduce strict monogamy – for the women only, of course.  229

To which Marx adds: ‘the modern family contains in embryo not only slavery but serfdom also, since from the very beginning it is connected with agricultural services. It contains within itself in miniature all the antagonisms which later develop on a wide scale within society and its state.’  234

It is the existence of slavery side by side with monogamy, the existence of beautiful young slaves who belong to the man with all they have, that form the very beginning stamped on monogamy’s specific character as monogamy only for the women, but not for the man. And it remains this character to this day. 238

The Spartan women and the elite of the Athenian hetaerae [prostitutes] are the only Greek women of whom the ancients speak with respect, and whose remarks they consider as being worthy of record.  238

That one had first to become a hetaera in order to become a woman is the strongest indictment of the Athenian family.  239

Monogamy was a great historical advance, but at the same time it inaugurated, along with slavery and private wealth, that epoch, lasting until today, in which every advance is likewise a relative regression, in which the well-being and development of the one group are attained by the misery and repression of the other.  240

Although, in reality, it [prostitution] is not only tolerated but even practiced with gusto, particularly by the ruling classes, it is condemned in words. In reality, however, this condemnation by no means hits the men who indulge in it, it hits only the women: they are ostracised and cast out in order to proclaim once again the absolute domination of the male over the female sex as the fundamental law of society.  241

Thus, in the monogamian family, in those cases that faithfully reflect its historical origin and that clearly bring out the sharp conflict between man and woman resulting from the exclusive domination of the male, we have a picture in miniature of the very antagonisms and contradictions in which society, split up into classes since the commencement of civilization, moves, without being able to resolve and overcome them. Naturally, I refer here only to those cases of monogamy where matrimonial life really takes its course according to the rules governing the original character of the whole institution, but where the wife rebels against the domination of the husband. That this is not the case with all marriages no one knows better than the German Philistine, who is no more capable of ruling in the home than in the state, and whose wife, therefore, with full justification, wears the breeches of which he is unworthy. But in consolation, he images himself to be far superior to his French companion in misfortune, who, more often he, fares far worse.  242

This, for the fist time, created the possibility for the greatest moral advance which we derive from and owe to monogamy – a development taking place within it, parallel with it, or in opposition to it, as the case might be, namely, modern individual sex love, previously unknown to the whole world.  243

Since, in every kind of marriage, however, people remain what they were before they married, and since the citizens of Protestant countries are mostly Philistines, this Protestant monogamy leads merely, if we take the average of the best cases, to a wedded life of leaden boredom, which is described as domestic bliss. The best mirror of these two ways of marriage is the novel; the French novel for the Catholic style, and the German novel for the Protestant. In both cases, ‘he gets it’: in the German novel the young man gets the girl; in the French, the husband gets the Cuckold’s horns. Which of the two is in the worse plight is not always easy to make out. For the dullness of the German novel excites the same horror in the French bourgeois as the ‘immorality’ of the French novel excites in the German Philistine, although lately, since ‘Berlin is becoming a metropolis’, the German novel has begun to deal a little less timidly with hetaerism (prostitution] and adultery, long known to exist there.  244-5 [e.g., Theodor Fontane began his Berlin sequence with L’Adultera in 1882.]

In both cases, this marriage of convenience often enough turns into the crassest prostitution – sometimes on both sides, but much more generally on the apart of the wife, who differs from the ordinary courtesan only in that she does not hire out her body, like a wage-worker, on piece-work, but sells it into slavery once for all. And Fourier’s words hold good for all marriages of convenience:

Just as in grammar two negatives make a positive, so in the morals of marriage, two prostitutions make one virtue.  245

Here, there is complete absence of all property, for the safeguarding and inheritance of which monogamy and male domination were established.  245

In short, proletarian marriage is monogamian in the etymological sense of the word, but by no means in the historical sense.  245

Our jurists, to be sure, hold that the progress of legislation to an increasing degree removes all cause for complaint on the part of the woman. Modern civilized systems of law are recognising more and more, first, that, in order to be effective, marriage must be an agreement voluntarily entered into by both parties; and secondly, that during marriage, too, both parties must be on an equal footing in respect to rights and obligations. If, however, these two demands were consistently carried into effect, women would have all that they could ask for.

This typical lawyer’s reasoning is exactly the same as that with which the radical republican bourgeois dismisses the proletarian. The labour contract is supposed to be voluntarily entered into by both parties. But it is taken to be voluntarily entered into as soon as the law has put both parties on an equal footing on paper. The power given to one party by its different class position, the pressure it exercises on the other – the real economic position of both – all this is no concern of the law.  246

What happens behind the legal curtains, where real life is enacted, how this voluntary agreement [to marry] is arrived at – is no concern of the law and the jurist.  246

It is clear, therefore, that despite this, or rather just because of this, among those classes which have something to inherit, freedom to marry is not one whit greater in England and America than in France or Germany. 246

The democratic republic does not abolish the antagonism between the two classes; on the contrary, it provides the field on which it is fought out. And, similarly, the peculiar character of man’s domination over woman in the modern family, and the necessity, as well as the manner, of establishing real social equality between the two, will be brought out into full relief only when both are completely equal before the law. It will then become evident that the first premise for the emancipation of women is the reintroduction of the entire female sex into public industry; and that this again demands that the quality possessed by the individual family of being the economic unit of society be abolished.  247

Thus, in nine cases out of ten, a long engagement is practically a preparatory school for conjugal infidelity. 248

What will most definitely disappear from monogamy, however, in all the characteristics stamped on it in consequence of its having arisen out of property relationships. These are, first, the dominance of the man, and secondly, the indissolubility of marriage. The predominance of the man in marriage is simply a consequence of his economic predominance and will vanish with it automatically. The indissolubility of marriage is partly the result of the economic conditions under which monogamy arose, and partly a tradition from the time when the connection between these economic conditions and monogamy was not yet correctly understood and was exaggerated by religion. Today it has been breached a thousandfold. 254

If only marriages that are based on love are moral, then, also, only those are moral in which love continues. The duration of the urge of individual sex love differs very much according to the individual, particularly among men; and a definite cessation of affection, or its displacement by a new passionate love, makes separation a blessing for both parties as well as for society. People will only be spared the experience of wadding through the useless mire of divorce proceedings. 254

Thus, what we can conjecture at present about the regulation of sex relationship after the impeding effacement of capitalist production is, in the main, of a negative character, limited mostly to what will vanish. But what will be added? That will be settled after a new generation has grown up: a generation of men who never in all their lives have had occasion to purchase a woman’s surrender either with money or with any other means of social power, and of women who have never been obliged to surrender to any man out of any consideration other than that of real love, or to refrain from giving themselves to their beloved for fear of the economic consequences. Once such people appear, they will not care a rap about what we today think they should do. They will establish their own practice and their own public opinion, comfortable therewith, on the practice of each individual – and that’s the end to it. 255

Engels as homophobe
But the degradation of the women recoiled on the men themselves and degraded them too, until they sank into the perversion of boy-love, degrading both themselves and their gods by the myth of Ganymede.  239

On the contrary, the Germans, in their migrations, particularly South-East, to the nomads of the steppes on the Black Sea, suffered considerable moral degeneration and, apart form their horsemanship, acquired serious unnatural vices from them, as is attested to explicitly by Ammianus about the Taifali, and by Procopius about the Heruli.  243

And sex love in our sense of the term was so immaterial to that classical love power of antiquity, old Anacreon, that even the sex of the beloved one was a matter of complete indifference to him. 250

There is no skating around the fact that on the question of same-sex love, Engels was as much a product of his time as he accused the German Philistines of being in regard to all sexual matters. The best we can say is that had he left eh closet door ajar for those brought up in different times:

Once such people appear, they will not care a rap about what we today think they should do. They will establish their own practice and their own public opinion, comfortable therewith, on the practice of each individual – and that’s the end to it. 255