The Family by F Engels

Avash Bhandari

Avash Bhandari (24)

This essay is a summary of a second chapter “The Family” from F. Engels’ celebrated monograph ‘The Origin of Family, Private Property and State’. Here, Engels discusses on the forms and features of families, from primitive past to the modern day (this book was first published in 1884). He builds his arguments upon researches of Lewis H. Morgan, who divided human history into three grand stages namely savagery, barbarism and civilization based on evolutionary model. Congruent with these stages were the forms of families: ‘For savagery- group marriage, for barbarism- pairing marriage and for civilization – monogamy.’ Let us dwell upon Engels’ theoretical approaches first.

Engels calls for a flat rejection on any approaches that rests upon physiological reduction and comparative sketch with other members of animal kingdom. He also adds that the relation between man and woman emerge from the actual conditions of life not from the religious ideas men hold. Convinced of his historical or ‘evolutionary’ materialist approach Engels subsides all conclusions that are based on parallels drawn between their (anthropoid apes) family forms and those of primitive man.

The most primitive form of marriage of which ‘undeniable evidence can be found in history’ is group marriage. We can infer from this the existence of less sophisticated and simpler forms of marriage and family. It is very likely that a period of promiscuous intercourse corresponded to the period of transition from animality to humanity. “Promisculty was characterized by the absence of any restrictions on sexual intercourse. There were no barriers set up by custom regulating / prohibiting sexual relations. Even the sexual relations between parents and children aroused little or no disgust ‘prior to the invention of incest (and it is an invention of utmost value). Sexual intercourse between parents and children could be no more disgusting than between other persons belonging to different generations …”

Stages of family development

  1. Consanguine Family – The exclusion of first sexual relation was that between parents and children. In this first stage of family, marriage groups ranged according to generations. Here, brothers and sisters, precisely because of this relation were also husbands and wives.
  2. The Punaluan family – this form of family began probably with the exclusion of natural brothers and sisters from sexual relations and culminated with the prohibition of marriage even between the collateral brothers and sisters. These prohibitions led to the emergence of ‘gens’. Common wives (either natural or collateral sisters) and their common husbands (brothers they no longer had to be) formed the nucleus of family that developed out of the consanguine family. Likewise with the group of natural / collateral brothers. Husbands in the first case and wives in the second addressed each other as punalua i.e. intimate companion.

    Variations grew along with time in this form of family but basic characteristic feature remained i.e. ‘mutual community of husbands and wives within a definite family circle, from which, however, the brothers of the wives – first the natural brothers and later the collateral brothers were also excluded the same applying conversely to the sisters of the husband’. It is uncertain who the father of a child is but not so with the mother for she is certain and therefore decisive. Group marriage begs for the recognition of female line because descent is traceable only on the side of the mother, a common descent group, first forming the belonging to the institution of ‘gens’. The forms and secondary characters of group family varied between ‘roving savages’ and ‘settled communistic communities.”

  3. Pairing family – Engels tells us that this family ‘arose on the borderline between savagery and barbarism.’ Pairing family evolved out of the earlier form and consisted of principal husband and wife among others. Authenticated father too existed alongside mother. It developed with the successive exclusion first of closer then of remoter relatives. Women were predominant here with communistic household serving as its material foundation. Even after the pairing family had become a standard feature, relics of group marriage were reenacted during certain feasts and popular gathering in the form of free sexual intercourse. Jus prime noctus (right of first night) too persists amongst some tribes as a relic of group marriage.

    One of the most important phases at this stage is the transition to monogamy carried out by women (for the discovery of which Engels gives credit to Bachofen) because with she leading the transition to pairing marriage, men could never have introduced ‘strict monogamy.’ Sadly, Engels adds this monogamy applied only to women.

    Great changes were taking place in pairing family as history marched towards the upper stages of barbarism. New social relationships were being created in the wake of new source of wealth resultant of the domestication of animals and the breeding / tending of herds. This slowly led to private property in herds then in the course of this development and consolidation of private property. It also gave rise to slavery and marriage and where, upon wives was imposed ‘exchange value.’

    In the heyday of barbarism when pairing family prevailed inheritance took place through female line to and from the blood relatives on the mother’s side and one belonged to ‘gen’ of his/ her mother, thereby inheriting according to its custom. The inception of private property riding on immense increase in wealth altered this state profoundly. Man began to acquire higher status as owner of property, first in herds then in land too.

    This state of affairs, ‘created a stimulus to utilize this strengthened position to overthrow the traditional order of inheritance in favor of his children.’ And for this, ‘descent through the mother’s line had to be overthrown first and it was overthrown’. This ‘over-throw of mother right was the world historic defeat of female sex’ and it instituted male lineage and right of inheritance.

    In between pairing and monogamous family, patriarchal family existed for some period as an intermediate form of family. It consisted of ‘the organization of a number of persons, bond and free into a family, under the paternal power of the head of the family.’ It might also be important to note that the root word of family, famulus meant household slaves and familia meant the totality of slaves belonging to one individual. With patriarchal family, we also enter the field of written history.

  4. Monogamous family – It Probably arose in the transition period from the middle to upper stages of barbarism from the pairing family and its victory corresponds with the beginning of civilization. Monogamy is based on supremacy of man and its ‘express aim is the begetting of children of undisputed paternity.’ Monogamy remained marriage of convenience as before and it is not the fruit of individual sex love about which we will reflect at the end of this essay. Its rigidity applied only to women. Monogamy brought with it the seclusion and surveillance of women curtailing the greater sexual freedom of her past. (Spartan woman enjoyed a much more respected position and a greater sexual freedom while Greek woman lost all her freedom and status.)

    Monogamy appeared on the scene with the subjection of one sex by the other and to Engels, ‘It was the first form of marriage based not on natural but on economic conditions, namely, on the victory of private property over original, naturally developed common ownership.’ Sea of changes was to be seen, as the development of class antagonism also appears for the first time alongside the family. In the same vein that sowed the first division of labor between man and woman for child breeding, first class oppression was that of female sex by male.

    This unequal and also unnatural tie between man and woman also commenced hetaerism and adultery. Hetaerism is the extramarital sexual intercourse between men and unmarried women which exists alongside monogamy, prostitution being its most extreme form. Adultery stands for the same phenomena amongst women. So it is fair to say hetaerism / adultery on the part of the male and female sex are the inherent contradiction of monogamy. Monogamy also gave birth to prostitution in its dual forms: courtesan was a wage earning prostitute while wife became an enslaved one. Despite all phony debates on arranged marriage versus love marriage, till modern day marriage is still determined by the class position of the participants. Birth is still a dominating factor like it was in earlier ages.

Conclusion: Love and women revisited

Sex-love, individual inclination and mutual affection never had any weight in influencing the choice of one’s partner and this is still so among the propertied class. Engels sees the possibility of the existence of sex-love only amongst proletariat class because owing to the large scale industry, property distinction between husband and wife has been wiped out of existence by transferring the woman from house to labor market and factory. Property distinction, pecuniary interest, class politics ceases to function as a determinant of marital partners among the proletariat and love, individual inclination and mutual affection is restored to where it should belong, centre of nuptial tie. ‘Proletarian marriage is monogamous in the etymological sense of the word, but by no means in the historical sense.’

Hetaerism and adulterism have negligible role in the proletarian monogamy, characterized by right of separation where parting is preferred when called for. Meanwhile, marriage by voluntary agreement with couple based on equal footing is impossible as long as class difference exists, ignoring sentence of the law which presumes unequal as equals to perpetuate inequality. Despite law favoring ‘love marriage’ and bourgeoisie class glorifying it to the extent of making a fetish of it in its arts and literature. Inheritance, parental consent and restrictions limit the freedom of a participant to choose his/her partner. Family and its class interest prevail over individual inclination. Even after the rise of the bourgeois class who burst asunder all inherited fetters of ages past, marriage retained its class character although, ‘ within the confines of the class, the parties were accorded a certain degree of freedom of choice.’

As said earlier, monogamy till its present day, especially amongst the property owning class, stands upon the subjection of women by men. ‘The modern individual family is based on the open or disguised domestic enslavement of the woman.’ In family, husband is the bourgeois and wife a proletariat but Engels is optimist about ‘impending social revolution’ which will propel a complete realization of monogamy for woman as well as man. Revolution, Engels says, will turn the means of production into common property thereby ending the role of a family as the economic unit of society. This will also transform ‘private house keeping……..into social industry.’ Women too will be relieved of all anxieties forced upon her by her dependence upon men for livelihood. This cutting off of economic consideration from marital tie will liberate both sexes from clutches of property and love will become the only motivation for marriage. Legally ‘free’ and ‘equal’ people created by capitalism will mature only under socialism.

MA  in Sociology 2012-14
Central Department of Sociology/Anthropology


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