The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State

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The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State
Book cover illustration features a simple, stylized drawing of a man near a woman holding a child. All three figures have frowns and wide, sorrowful eyes.
Front cover of the 1983 Pathfinder Press edition
Author Friedrich Engels
Original title Der Ursprung der Familie, des Privateigenthums und des Staats
Country Germany
Language German
Publication date
Media type Print

The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State: in the light of the researches of Lewis H. Morgan (Der Ursprung der Familie, des Privateigenthums und des Staats) is a historical materialist treatise written by Friedrich Engels and published in 1884. It is partially based on notes by Karl Marx to Lewis H. Morgan's book Ancient Society. The book is an early anthropological work, and one of the first major works on family economics. The book gave ideological justification for feminism within the Soviet Union, the People's Republic of China, and other socialist states.[citation needed]

Development of human society and the family[edit]

This book argues that the first domestic institution in human history was not the family but the matrilineal clan. Engels here follows Lewis H. Morgan's thesis as outlined in his major book, Ancient Society. Morgan was an American business lawyer who championed the land rights of Native Americans and became adopted as an honorary member of the Seneca Iroquois tribe. Traditionally, the Iroquois had lived in communal longhouses based on matrilineal descent and matrilocal residence, an arrangement giving women much solidarity and power.

When nonhuman primate society and earliest human society, identifying sexual competition and the "jealousy of the male" as the vital issue that needed to be overcome to allow the emergence of the oldest form of family involving "group marriage". Primitive communism was based in the matrilineal clan where women lived with their classificatory sisters – applying the principle that "my sister’s child is my child". This kinship solidarity empowered women to take action against uncooperative males. Engels identified the "world historic defeat of the female sex" – the switch from what he called "mother-right" to "father-right" – with the onset of farming and pastoralism. This shift from matrilocality to patrilocality manifested itself in men's increased control in the home. Engels wrote: "The man took command in the home also."[1]

The book begins with an extensive discussion of Ancient Society which describes the major stages of human development as commonly understood in Engels' time. In contrast to other contemporary essays on the subject, Engels emphasizes the importance not of primitive psychological development but rather of social relations of power and control over material resources, sometimes related to the development of new technologies. Morgan, whose account of prehistory Engels largely accepts as given, focuses primarily on the first two stages of Savagery and Barbarism but only ventures as far as the transition into Civilization. The terms Savagery and Barbarism as used by Morgan were meant to be objective and not terms of derision or disparagement as they might be assumed to be then or now. Engels summarizes these stages as follows:

  1. Savagery – the period in which man's appropriation of products in their natural state predominates; the products of human art are chiefly instruments which assist this appropriation.
  2. Barbarism – the period during which man learns to breed domestic animals and to practice agriculture, and acquires methods of increasing the supply of natural products by human activity.
  3. Civilization – the period in which man learns a more advanced application of work to the products of nature, the period of industry proper and of art.

In the following chapter on family, Engels tries to connect the transition into these stages with a change in the way that family is defined and the rules by which it is governed. Much of this is still taken from Morgan, although Engels begins to intersperse his own ideas on the role of family into the text. Morgan acknowledges four stages in the family.

The Consanguine Family[edit]

This is the first stage of the family and as such a primary indicator of our superior nature in comparison with animals. In this state marriage groups are separated according to generations. The husband and wife relationship is immediately and communally assumed between the male and female members of one generation. The only taboo is a sexual relationship between two generations (i.e. father and daughter, grandmother and grandson).

The Punaluan Family[edit]

The second stage extends the incest taboo to include sexual intercourse between siblings, including all cousins of the same generation. This prevents most incestuous relationships. The separation of the patriarchal and matriarchal lines divided a family into gentes. Interbreeding was forbidden within gens (anthropology), although first cousins from separate gentes could still breed.

The Pairing Family[edit]

The first indications of pairing are found in families where the husband has one primary wife. Inbreeding is practically eradicated by the prevention of a marriage between two family members who were even just remotely related, while relationships also start to approach monogamy. Property and economics begin to play a larger part in the family, as a pairing family had responsibility for the ownership of specific goods and property. Polygamy is still common amongst men, but no longer amongst women since their fidelity would ensure the child’s legitimacy. Women have a superior role in the family as keepers of the household and guardians of legitimacy. The pairing family is the form characteristic of the lower stages of barbarism. However, at this point, when the man died his inheritance was still given to his gens, rather than to his offspring. Engels refers to this economic advantage for men coupled with the woman's lack of rights to lay claim to possessions for herself or her children (who became hers after a separation) as the overthrow of mother-right which was "the world historical defeat of the female sex". For Engels, ownership of property created the first significant division between men and women in which the woman was inferior.

The Monogamous Family[edit]

Family and property[edit]

Engels' ideas on the role of property in the creation of the modern family and as such modern civilization begin to become more transparent in the latter part of Chapter 2 as he begins to elaborate on the question of the monogamous relationship and the freedom to enter into (or refuse) such a relationship. Bourgeois law dictates the rules for relationships and inheritances. As such, two partners, even when their marriage is not arranged, will always have the preservation of inheritance in mind and as such will never be entirely free to choose their partner. Engels argues that a relationship based on property rights and forced monogamy will only lead to the proliferation of immorality and prostitution.

The only class, according to Engels, which is free from these restraints of property, and as a result from the danger of moral decay, is the proletariat, as they lack the monetary means that are the basis of (as well as threat to) the bourgeois marriage. Monogamy is therefore guaranteed by the fact that theirs is a voluntary sex-love relationship.

The social revolution which Engels believed was about to happen would eliminate class differences, and therefore also the need for prostitution and the enslavement of women. If men needed only to be concerned with sex-love and no longer with property and inheritance, then monogamy would come naturally.


Throughout most of the twentieth century, following the Russian Revolution, these ideas became associated with Bolshevism[citation needed] and deemed so inflammatory that, outside the Soviet Union, they were effectively suppressed[citation needed]. Modern evolutionary anthropology is currently reassessing that position.[2][3]


  1. ^ Kerber, Linda K. (1988). "Separate Spheres, Female Worlds, Woman's Place: The Rhetoric of Women's History". The Journal of American History (University of North Carolina Press) 75 (1): 9–39. doi:10.2307/1889653. 
  2. ^ Hrdy, S. B. 2009. Mothers and others. The evolutionary origins of mutual understanding. London and Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
  3. ^ Allen, N. J., H. Callan, R. Dunbar and W. James (eds.), 2008. Early Human Kinship. Oxford: Blackwell.

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