Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Reading :: The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State

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

I've linked to the free Kindle version of this book (and I have to say it's a real blessing to be able to download these works for free). But you can also find a PDF download at Marxists dot Org; for convenience, I'll be copying quotes from that version.

For background: Engels published this book in 1884, shortly after finishing the draft of Dialectics of Nature in 1882.  But whereas Dialectics of Nature is perhaps best known for its account of how labor made man, the present book is about how the family evolved along with private property and the state.

Engels' book is based in sketchy 19th-century anthropology and, in accordance with Marxism, seeks to explain social dimensions through economics. Much of what he claims here has been since discredited by later anthropology (see Fried's The Notion of Tribe and The Evolution of Political Society and Kuper's The Invention of Primitive Society). Let's acknowledge that openly. But we'll keep our eye on the ball, attending to what this account tells us about the Marx-Engels viewpoint rather than taking it as a true account of societal evolution.

First, Engels sees humanity progressing in defined stages—in accordance with both Marxist theory and 18th century anthropology. In this account, tribes (including contemporary tribes such as the Iroquois) were seen as being in previous stages, progressing to later ones. (Compare to Luria's Uzbekistan study.) Engels argues in Chapter 1, "Stages of Prehistoric Culture," that these stages included:

I. Savagery

  1. The "infancy of the human race," which may have lasted "thousands of years" and involved living in original habitations
  2. The "middle stage," in which man discovered fire and began eating fish—and each other. 
  3. The "higher stage," beginning with the invention of the bow and arrow, involving hunting as an occupation

II. Barbarism
  1. The "lower stage," dating from invention of pottery; at this point, populations began to diverge because of differing natural resources.
  2. The "middle stage," beginning with the domestication of animals, agriculture, and adobe. He locates the Native Americans (specifically the Pueblos) at this stage.
  3. The "higher stage," which "Begins with the smelting of iron ore, and passes into civilization with the invention of alphabetic writing and its use for literary records."
Here, we pass to Chapter 2, on the origins of the family. He bases this account on Morgan's kinship study of the Iroquois and secondarily on other kinship studies. One passage helps us to understand his assumptions:
While, therefore, the American system of consanguinity presupposes a more primitive form of the family which has disappeared in America, but still actually exists in Hawaii, the Hawaiian system of consanguinity, on the other hand, points to a still earlier form of the family which, though we can nowhere prove it to be still in existence, nevertheless must have existed; for otherwise the corresponding system of consanguinity could never have arisen.
This reasoning makes sense as long as one buys the notion that all societies go through the same stages of development.

Engels goes on to catalogue different kinds of families,  fitting them into universal developmental stages (rather than seeing them as different lines of development) and especially paying attention to the interaction with economics. For instance:
Here the domestication of animals and the breeding of herds had developed a hitherto unsuspected source of wealth and created entirely new social relations. Up to the lower stage of barbarism, permanent wealth had consisted almost solely of house, clothing, crude ornaments and the tools for obtaining and preparing food – boat, weapons, and domestic utensils of the simplest kind. Food had to be won afresh day by day. Now, with their herds of horses, camels, asses, cattle, sheep, goats, and pigs, the advancing pastoral peoples – the Semites on the Euphrates and the Tigris, and the Aryans in the Indian country of the Five Streams (Punjab), in the Ganges region, and in the steppes then much more abundantly watered of the Oxus and the Jaxartes – had acquired property which only needed supervision and the rudest care to reproduce itself in steadily increasing quantities and to supply the most abundant food in the form of milk and meat. All former means of procuring food now receded into the background; hunting, formerly a necessity, now became a luxury.
The family, he says, transitions from the pairing family to the monogamous family. Quoting Marx, he argues that the monogamous family is the model of servitude: the wife becomes the husband's property. After some discussion, he adds:
This is the origin of monogamy as far as we can trace it back among the most civilized and highly developed people of antiquity. It was not in any way the fruit of individual sex-love, with which it had nothing whatever to do; marriages remained as before marriages of convenience. It was the first form of the family to be based, not on natural, but on economic conditions – on the victory of private property over primitive, natural communal property.
And he adds:
The first class opposition that appears in history coincides with the development of the antagonism between man and woman in monogamous marriage, and the first class oppression coincides with that of the female sex by the male. Monogamous marriage was a great historical step forward; nevertheless, together with slavery and private wealth, it opens the period that has lasted until today in which every step forward is also relatively a step backward, in which prosperity and development for some is won through the misery and frustration of others. It is the cellular form of civilized society, in which the nature of the oppositions and contradictions fully active in that society can be already studied. 
He concludes: "We thus have three principal forms of marriage which correspond broadly to the three principal stages of human development." (That is, marriage is part of these linear stages.) The most recent form of marriage, like the most recent form of human development, relies on oppression. So he boldly predicts:
We are now approaching a social revolution in which the economic foundations of monogamy as they have existed hitherto will disappear just as surely as those of its complement-prostitution. Monogamy arose from the concentration of considerable wealth in the hands of a single individuals man-and from the need to bequeath this wealth to the children of that man and of no other. For this purpose, the monogamy of the woman was required, not that of the man, so this monogamy of the woman did not in any way interfere with open or concealed polygamy on the part of the man. But by transforming by far the greater portion, at any rate, of permanent, heritable wealth – the means of production – into social property, the coming social revolution will reduce to a minimum all this anxiety about bequeathing and inheriting. Having arisen from economic causes, will monogamy then disappear when these causes disappear?
That is, he sees monogamous marriage as an effect of the economic cause, and changes in economics will thus lead to changes in marriage:
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.
(One can see a similar, but much better grounded, argument in Castells' The Power of Identity.)

In the next chapter, Engels draws on the notion of the noble savage, examining the Iroquois (via Morgan) and their division into gens. The society is seen as wonderful in its simplicity, with little division of labor, little administration, a general caring for the needs of the community, and general equality. "And what men and women such a society breeds is proved by the admiration inspired in all white people who have come into contact with unspoiled Indians, by the personal dignity, uprightness, strength of character, and courage of these barbarians." He adds,
That is what men and society were before the division into classes. And when we compare their position with that of the overwhelming majority of civilized men today, an enormous gulf separates the present-day proletarian and small peasant from the free member of the old gentile society.
But, he concedes, this organization was "doomed" because it could not scale beyond the tribe.

In the next chapter, he discusses the Greek gens, which developed beyond the "stage" represented by the Iroquois. Toward the end of this chapter, he argues that the old gentile order began to disintegrate.
Only one thing was wanting: an institution which not only secured the newly acquired riches of individuals against the communistic traditions of the gentile order, which not only sanctified the private property formerly so little valued, and declared this sanctification to be the highest purpose of all human society; but an institution which set the seal of general social recognition on each new method of acquiring property and thus amassing wealth at continually increasing speed; an institution which perpetuated, not only this growing cleavage of society into classes, but also the right of the possessing class to exploit the non-possessing, and the rule of the former over the latter. And this institution came. The state was invented.
The next chapter describes the rise of the Athenian state. The rise of private property (e.g., herds) led to exchanges in which products became commodities. Once these products were exchanged, the producers lost control over them—the products could even be turned against them. The invention of private land followed, and then money. The division of labor became more complicated and specialized. The state grew. He concludes:
The rise of the state among the Athenians is a particularly typical example of the formation of a state; first, the process takes place in a pure form, without any interference through use of violent force, either from without or from within (the usurpation by Pisistratus left no trace of its short duration); second, it shows a very highly developed form of state, the democratic republic, arising directly out of gentile society; and lastly we are sufficiently acquainted with all the essential details. 
 Skipping a bit, we get to the chapter "Barbarism and Civilization." Here, Engels notes the continuous division of labor, leading to his least favorite: merchants.
Now for the first time a class appears which, without in any way participating in production, captures the direction of production as a whole and economically subjugates the producers; which makes itself into an indispensable middleman between any two producers and exploits them both. Under the pretext that they save the producers the trouble and risk of exchange, extend the sale of their products to distant markets and are therefore the most useful class of the population, a class of parasites comes into being, “genuine social ichneumons,” who, as a reward for their actually very insignificant services, skim all the cream off production at home and abroad, rapidly amass enormous wealth and correspondingly social influence, and for that reason receive under civilization ever higher honors and ever greater control of production, until at last they also bring forth a product of their own – the periodical trade crises.
Merchants were the high priests of money, Engels says, sounding more like a preacher than an economist:
The man who had it ruled the world of production–and who had more of it than anybody else? The merchant. The worship of money was safe in his hands. He took good care to make it clear that, in face of money, all commodities, and hence all producers of commodities, must prostrate themselves in adoration in the dust. 
 For the merchants and for the state, Engels has this prediction:
The state, therefore, has not existed from all eternity. There have been societies which have managed without it, which had no notion of the state or state power. At a definite stage of economic development, which necessarily involved the cleavage of society into classes, the state became a necessity because of this cleavage. We are now rapidly approaching a stage in the development of production at which the existence of these classes has not only ceased to be a necessity, but becomes a positive hindrance to production. They will fall as inevitably as they once arose. The state inevitably falls with them. The society which organizes production anew on the basis of free and equal association of the producers will put the whole state machinery where it will then belong–into the museum of antiquities, next to the spinning wheel and the bronze ax.
(cf. Lenin's The State and Revolution.)

All in all, an interesting read. As suggested above, I don't find this account terribly convincing as a whole. But reading this book—and rereading my notes for this review—helped me to see how much this line of reasoning affected Lenin and Soviet thought in general. The withering away of the State makes more sense from that perspective. But, of course, such a dream was doomed in the Soviet system. 

No comments: