Engels and Ownership

For centuries, philosophers had been trying to determine the origin of property.  Almost without exception, from Rousseau to Hobbs, property was the equivalent to the apple in the Garden of Eden. Property was the cause of the fall of the human raced from grace. In 1884 Friedrich Engels (1820-1895) wrote The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. Like the Utopian socialists before him, Engels imagined the end of the state and the coming of a communal equality, but the barrier is property. So fundamental to human nature that it was hard to eliminate, property had to start at some point in society and the question was why and how? Engels located the origin of property in the transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture. Once tribes settled onto a specific piece of land in order to farm it, the urge to claim the land and the fruits of the land evolved. Property ceased to be tribal and became individual over time and began to include the domesticated animals that assisted in the process of cultivation. But people were also crucial in the planting and tending and harvesting and agriculture was labor intensive. At some point, men emerged or put themselves forward as “owners” of “property” that was theirs along with “their” animals and “their” people, including “their” wives and “their” children. This document is an anthropological treatise, a long discourse on the passage from prehistoric to historic times, wrapped around the sub-text of how did we arrive at this point of some people owning “property” and some people owning no property and why? Engels wrote that “ proportion as wealth increased, it made the man’s position in the family more important than the woman’s, and on the other hand created an impulse to exploit this strengthened position in order to overthrow, in favor of his children, the traditional order of inheritance. This, however, was impossible so long as descent was reckoned according to mother- right. Mother-right, therefore, had to be overthrown, and overthrown it was. This was by no means so difficult as it looks to us today. For this revolution – one of the most decisive ever experienced by humanity – could take place without disturbing a single one of the living members of a gens. All could remain as they were. A simple decree sufficed that in the future the offspring of the male members should remain within the gens, but that of the female should be excluded by being transferred to the gens of their father. The reckoning of descent in the female line and the matriarchal law of inheritance were thereby overthrown, and the male line of descent and the paternal law of inheritance were substituted for them. As to how and when this revolution took place among civilized peoples, we have no knowledge.”

Property became male and private; society became unequal; people became property. Just as Rousseau had trouble in explaining why free humans would voluntarily come together under the control of a social system, Engels had difficulty in explaining why women allowed men to become the owners of the very property they worked on.  The transformation of women into property was undoubtedly facilitated by marriage in which a woman was exchanged between two men, her father, who “gives” her to her husband.  Property, as land, objects, animals and people, was crucial to capitalism.  Property, under capitalism, was transformed from its traditional form of land into commodities that could be purchased and owned. Engels quoted earlier observations from Marx: “Fourier characterizes epochs of civilization by monogamy and landed private property. The modern family contains in germ not only slavery (servitus), but also serfdom, since from the beginning it is related to agricultural services. It contains in miniature all the contradictions which later extend throughout society and its state.” The problems of civilization began before the historic period and were already well in place and slowly became universal by the time of writing. At the root of social problems was the monogamous marriage in which the man owns the woman and the children as property. Engels asked an interesting question: “Having arisen from economic causes, will monogamy then disappear when these causes disappear?” HIs answer is interesting and in some ways anticipates contemporary life which provided women with an alternative to the kind of restrictive marriage of which Engels wrote. Engels could not foresee the invention of the Pill or birth control which was a huge social revolution, but he imagined what life would be like for women in a communal society: “..the position of men will be very much altered. But the position of women, of all women, also undergoes significant change. With the transfer of the means of production into common ownership, the single family ceases to be the economic unit of society. Private housekeeping is transformed into a social industry. The care and education of the children becomes a public affair; society looks after all children alike, whether they are legitimate or not. This removes all the anxiety about the “consequences,” which today is the most essential social – moral as well as economic – factor that prevents a girl from giving herself completely to the man she loves.” For Engels, prostitution or the traffic in sex was ubiquitous in the nineteenth century and functioned on two levels–as a source of income for women and a way in which men would further their exploitation of women, who, in the time of Engels had no power. He wrote, Here a new element comes into play, an element which, at the time when monogamy was developing, existed at most in germ: individual sex-love.”

Given that we are getting closer to the reality envisioned by Engels, albeit for different reasons, it is interesting to read his ideas on what life would be like if the economic foundation of marriage was removed. “Full freedom of marriage can therefore only be generally established when the abolition of capitalist production and of the property relations created by it has removed all the accompanying economic considerations which still exert such a powerful influence on the choice of a marriage partner. For then there is no other motive left except mutual inclination.” With men and women both working and earning salaries the balance of power has shifted with the increase of opportunities for women. But the result has been quite different from that which Engels envisioned–women see little reason to marry and are now marrying later if at all and they are having fewer children. Marriage, as he had hoped, is more of a choice than a necessity and it seems that it is the women who are increasingly viewing marriage as an option rather than a necessity. Engels followed his discussion of he family with long passages outlining the historical development of the state in Western Europe. Out of the family come tribes and out of tribes comes the state. As he wrote, “As the state arose from the need to keep class antagonisms in check, but also arose in the thick of the fight between the classes, it is normally the state of the most powerful, economically ruling class, which by its means becomes also the politically ruling class, and so acquires new means of holding down and exploiting the oppressed class. The ancient state was, above all, the state of the slave-owners for holding down the slaves, just as the feudal state was the organ of the nobility for holding down the peasant serfs and bondsmen, and the modern representative state is the instrument for exploiting wage-labor by capital.”

It should be noted that this book is not pure Engels. Published a year after Marx died, there are occasional quotes from his former writing partner in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. Much of the material is based upon the work of Lewis Morgan in Ancient Society, giving the text an overall imbalance. The leap from the family to the state is made without much explanation and there is little attempt to make a distinction between early economic systems and modern capitalism. An uneasy mixture of speculation and history, there is little empirical evidence to bring the concept of the nuclear family as the fundamental problem of society into focus. In her book, Marx on Gender and the Family: A Critical Study Heather Brown discussed the analysis of Georg Lukács from History and Class Consciousness in which Engels is critiqued “for his acceptance of the methods of natural science as ‘praxis in the dialectical, philosophical sense.’ Instead of being the proper method for understanding politics and society, the scientistic-empiricist model tends to abstract from society and ignore how different factors interact with each other..Through the appropriation of the empirical model expense of other important areas of study. This is particularly true in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State.” Brown noted that Engels and Morgan speculated (colorfully) on early societies of which we know very little and that they cannot account for their assumption of egalitarian societies suddenly changing to cultures which subjugated women. And lastly, she pointed out that neither author examined non-Western societies. Twentieth century feminists also found Engels account of the oppression of women wanting–private property alone cannot account for the universal and long lasting domination of women by men. Despite the gaps in analysis, Engels and Marx both attempted to account for the way in which women were held powerless in society. Certainly some of the reasons for subordination were economic but there are for example psychological components that need to be considered–who do women believe that they are inferior? How do the social and familial pressures weigh on women, preventing them from asserting themselves? Why are certain cultures willing to prevent women from participating in the economy with the price of losing half their productivity? There are cultures in the contemporary world today which are willing to sacrifice economic productivity for male domination. The need for males to dominate and control women–a psychological issue–cannot be explained by the economy alone.


Also read:  “Late Nineteenth Century Philosophy” and “The Philosophy of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels”and “Marx, Engels and Alienation” and “Marx, Engels, and Capitalism” and “Marxism, Art and the Artist”  

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.  Thank you.

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If you have found this material useful, please give credit to Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.
Thank you.

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