Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State

Friedrich Engels

History and Spanish

Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State

Review by:

Natacha Maurin

22 May 2021

The book I have chosen to review is “Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State” by Friedrich Engels. Friedrich Engels is well known for his collaboration with Karl Marx in writing “The Communist Manifesto”, and so a pioneer of Marxist ideology.

In this 1884 treatise, Engels describes his analysis of the evolution of the family unit. He calls the model reached at the end “The Monogamous Family”, and this is what he states as the family relationships of his time. Using the work of Lewis Henry Morgan, a contemporary anthropologist, Engels argues that as humans advanced in a wealth-based society, inequalities arose within the family unit. The accumulation of wealth as humans turned from hunter gatherers to agriculture meant the beginning of a class society where wealth created inequality. Within this, families moved to become monogamous units, and pre-existing divisions of labour between genders changed.

Whereas before, women and men performed different labours which were valued equally, Engels argued that with class society, and wealth being heavily based in private property, which became men’s domain, women found themselves tied to reproductive labour. Thus, binding them to the home, and unable to take part in labour that elevated them within society.

Throughout the book he refers to examples from Morgan of family units in non-capitalist societies as well as examples from the past, such as the Ancient Greeks, focusing on how women benefit from these. As Engels works through the progression of human families to the contemporary understanding of this, he comes to conclude that monogamous families are fomented by capitalism, and within this framework women cannot be equal, nor can different social classes.

I came across this book whilst studying Paper 20, History of political thought from c.1700 to c.1890. It was part of a gender and political thought topic, and I decided to center my essays on this text as I found it one of the better-structured books on offer in the reading list. Often, political philosophy can seem quite daunting and difficult to understand, so having a book that was very methodically written, with a clear direction helped me understand more complicated ideas.

Although this is directly relevant if you are interested in studying this particular paper, it is also relevant as it is very theoretical. It helps give you an insight on Marxist views on gender, but I also found that it also helped me understand Marxist ideology about class and private property. When studying history these ideologies and concepts come up often and having a basis in these political ideologies helps contextualise historical writings and events.

“In the old communistic household, ..., the task entrusted to the women of managing the household was as much a public and socially necessary industry as the procuring of food by the men. With the patriarchal family, and still more with the single monogamous family, a change came. Household management lost its public character. It no longer concerned society. It became a private service; the wife became the head servant, excluded from all participation in social production.” I find this quote particularly useful as it sums up Engels’ argument about the changing nature of the division of labour between the genders created inequality between men and women.