Chris Harman


Engels and the origins of human society

(Part 3)


III) The origins of women’s oppression

The Origin of the Family was not, of course, just about the rise of classes and the state. It was also about the origins of women’s oppression. A central argument is that women were not subordinate to men until the rise of classes, that “the first class antagonism which appears in history coincides with the development of the antagonism between man and woman in monogamous marriage, and the first class oppression with that of the female sex by the male”. [167]

On this Engels was undoubtedly right. The evidence, meticulously put together by Eleanor Leacock and others, is that there was no domination of men over women among the nomadic hunter-gatherers European settlers encountered in the 17th to 19th centuries. [168] There was a division of labour between men and women, with men doing most of the hunting and women most of the gathering. But since gathering usually produced more of the average diet than hunting, this did not necessarily lead to any higher evaluation of men and their work than of women and theirs. The anthropologist Ernestine Friedl does accept that in the few societies, for instance among Australian aborigines, in which meat was the central component of the diet, men were more highly ranked than women. [169] But she insists:

Individual decisions are possible for both men and women with respect to their daily routines ... Men and women alike are free to decide how they will spend each day: whether to go hunting or gathering and with whom ...

She notes that when it comes, for instance, to discussion on whether to move camp to a new area, women and men both take part. [170] And women still exercise enormous powers in their own right. So, for instance, among Australian aborigines, “older women exercise influence over their own marital careers, and on those of their sons and daughters”, and married women often have affairs with young unmarried men – a state of affairs anathema to the sexual codes of conduct of almost all class societies. [171]

Anthropologists of the Eleanor Leacock school go even further. They discount the evidence accepted by Friedl for men ever having higher status than women, arguing that this simply reflects prejudices of the Western observers who gathered it. [172]

Class society’s notions of “the place of women” are also absent in societies based on horticulture. There is sometimes the beginning of a hierarchy which gives men a higher standing than women, just as there can be the beginning of a hierarchy between lineages and households. Men (or at least, some men) may have greater decision making power than women. But there is still no systematic oppression of women. Women retain their own spheres of decision making, and can counter decisions made by their spouses.

Structures usually exist which restrict who people can marry, and this is interpreted by the influential structuralist school of anthropology, inspired by Claude Levi Strauss, as meaning that women are treated simply as objects of negotiation between men. But, as Karen Sachs, Christine Gailey, Ernestine Friedl and others have emphasized, it is not men as such who lay down who people are permitted to marry, but the “kin corporate” lineages. And older women as well as older men usually have a say in these decisions.

This is most obviously the case in societies which are described by anthropologists as “matrilineal” and “matrilocal”. In matrilineal societies descent is reckoned down the female line: someone’s most important ties are not be to their father (who belongs to a different lineage), but with their mother and their mother’s brother; in the same way, a man’s main responsibility is not to his biological children but to his sister’s children. In matrilocal societies a man does not run a household himself, but moves into one run by his wife, her sisters and her mother.

Where society is both matrilocal and matrilineal, men exercise very little authority in the households in which they actually live. A man’s formal rights and responsibilities are always with another household, which is part of another lineage – that of his mother, his sister and her children. There they may exercise some authority – which is why these societies are not “matriarchies”, societies ruled by mothers. But their absence from that household necessarily means this is a limited authority, no greater than that of the women.

Significantly, the structuralist school, with its insistence that women are everywhere the object of arrangements between males, hardly refers to such instances. [173]

Not all matrilineal societies are matrilocal. Among, for instance, the Ohaffia, an Ibo people in Eastern Nigeria, descent is reckoned along the female line but residence is in with the husband’s kin. But even here wives are not subordinate to husbands. [174] In this society, “divorce is usually granted merely at the wish of either spouse”, “daughters are highly prized”, and “the relationship ... of husband and wife ... seems to be one of mutual respect and accommodation to each other”. [175]

Finally there are horticultural societies where descent is through the male line and residence after marriage is with the husband’s family. But even here women still have much greater influence than is usual in class societies. This is exercised through the lineages. A woman is not just a wife, a subordinate in a strange household and lineage. She is also a sister, someone with influence in the decision making of her own lineage. And her husband’s kin will want to maintain good relations with that lineage. Her position as a wife gives her husband’s kin (including his mother and sisters) some control over her productivity. But her position as a sister in turn gives her some claim over the produce of her brothers and their wives. In the course her lifetime, she will move from being mainly regarded as a subordinate, as a “wife”, to being mainly seen as a “sister” and “mother”. And as such she is a “controller” of “labour and productive means”. [176]

This is not a world of isolated nuclear families in which the individual woman is subject to the whims of her partner. Nor is it a world of patriarchal households in which fathers lay down the law for wives, children and servants. It is a world in which everyone, male or females, is tied into a network of mutual rights and responsibilities which vary from one stage in life to another, delimiting people’s freedom in various ways, but still leaving them with more autonomy than is general in class societies. [177]

The movement of a woman from one household (that of her father), to another (that of her husband) is seen by structuralist anthropologists as an “exchange” of women between men. But the woman does not move between men, but between lineages, each of which involves other women. Her standing is such that she is seen as a loss to one household and a gain to another. The husband’s father often had to hand over goods to her parental household (what is called by Europeans the “bride-price”) to compensate for its loss, a situation markedly different to that in societies which devalue women, where the women’s family have to pay a dowry to get rid of her. And in marrying, the woman herself can gain “an increase in individual status and autonomy”, as Gailey tells of Tonga. [178]

The structuralists confuse reciprocal obligations that tie different lineages together in pre-class societies with the commodity exchange of capitalism, and so confuses a situation in which ‘women move back and forth as valued people, actively operating within and manipulating the networks of relations their moves creates’ with their reduction to virtual commodities. [179]

The confusion is made easier by the integration of the economies of almost all surviving horticulturalists into the world economy with the use of money. [180] People’s need for money to spend on market goods leads them to see old relations of reciprocal obligation in a new way, as a means of realising cash. It is usually males who relate directly to the market outside the village and this tends to give them a power and a standing they never used to have. Contact with the capitalist world causes the horticultural societies to mimic its social relations – and Western anthropologists then claim this proves those social relations typical of capitalism are universal to all societies.

Any scientific analysis of early agricultural societies has to cut away such distortions.

We may never know whether matrilineal descent was once universal, as Eleanor Leacock suggests, since we have no way of studying in detail preliterate societies before the impact of the world economy. What we can say, however, is that there was no universal experience of female oppression and that it only became a systematic aspect of society with the division into classes and the rise of the state. On this Engels was 100 percent right.



Minor mistakes

Engels was, however, badly wrong on a couple of subordinate questions which he himself took so seriously as to make The Origin of the Family a misleading work if not read critically.

He took over from Morgan the view that the classifications of relatives that exist in lineage societies (where, for instance, every woman in the lineage who is of your own generation is called “sister”, every male of your parents’ generation is called “uncle”, as so on) harked back to a previous, quite different form of social organisation. [181] The system of classifying relatives was, he held, a “social fossil” that enabled one to decipher the history of the family. He also took over from Morgan the conclusion that these “fossils” proved that there had existed a stage of “group marriage”, when a group of brothers married a group of sisters. [182] This, he argued, was “characteristic of savagery”, while “the pairing family” was characteristic of barbarism. [183]

In fact, as we have seen, nomadic hunting and gathering (“savagery”) is not characterised by strong lineages let alone group marriage but by the flexible organisation of couples and their children into bands. [184] Engels saw lineage organisations as relics of a time when sexual relations had a “naive, primitive, jungle character”. [185] In fact, they were complex mechanisms which co-ordinated society once early agriculture had allowed the formation of villages of hundreds of inhabitants – they were in fact, an expression of the development of the forces of production, not some hangover from old “relations of reproduction”. Engels was wrong, not because his basic Marxist methodology was wrong, but because he did not apply it consistently enough.

He was also mistaken to try to decipher an even earlier form of the family, that which he refers to as “primitive promiscuity”. He claimed such a stage must have existed as ancestral apes evolved into humans, because it alone could have prevented “jealous males” disrupting all attempts at the co-operation needed to cope with nature. Yet, his logic breaks down only a page or so later, when he notes, “jealousy is an emotion of comparatively late development” – a conclusion which, as we have seen, research into gorillas and chimps suggests to be correct. [186] And his own conception of what “primitive promiscuity” amounted to is by no means clear, since at one point he suggests it was little more than what we would today call “serial monogamy”, based on “separate pairings for a limited time”. [187]

In fact, Engels here makes the mistake of falling into blind speculation about a very long period (more than 3 million years) about which neither he nor we know anything with certainty. We do not know whether the ancestral apes were organised in male centred groups like the common chimpanzees or female centred groups like the pygmy chimps, and we certainly do not know how the form of organisation characteristic of modern nomadic hunter gatherers arose. It is preferable to stick with what we do know – that the relations between women and men among surviving hunter-gatherers, have been very different to those taken for granted in class societies and embodied into most notions of human nature. [188]

There is one other mistake that Engels himself did not actually fall into, but which is often ascribed to him by both supporters and opponents. That is the use of the term “matriarchy” implying a period of female rule prior to that of male domination. Those who employ it presuppose there has always been something akin to class domination and the state, but that at one time it was under aegis of women not men. Engels explicitly rejected any such notion. He took over the term “mother right” from the German writer Bachofen to describe the reckoning of decent along the female line which, he believed, was universal at one stage. But he added, “I retain the term for the sake of brevity. It is however an unhappy choice, for at this social stage there is no such thing as right in the legal sense.” [189] Certainly, the characteristic of both hunter-gatherer and early agricultural societies is that both women and men take part in decision making, not that either excludes the other.



Engels’ argument revisited

Engels is at his best when he describes the rise of women’s oppression, “the world historic defeat of the female sex”, as he put it, and relates it to the rise of class society. Yet his argument sometimes falters when he tries to spell out mechanisms behind this defeat. He does not show why it is necessarily men who dominate in the new class society. He says men came to produce both the food and the tools of production, that this necessarily gave them ownership rights and control over the surplus, [190] and that they wanted to pass on ownership to their sons, not to their wife’s relatives. But he does not show why they should suddenly get this desire after thousands of years in which their closest relationships were with their sisters’ children. [191] Two sorts of attempts have been made to fill the gap in his argument.

First there is the account of those like Eleanor Leacock and Christine Gailey who have emphasized the impact of the rise of the state in smashing the old lineages in which women exercised their influence. The state subordinates the rest of the society to the newly emerging ruling class. But that means destroying “the relative authority and autonomy” of the old kin communities. Insofar as they survive, it is as transmission belts for imposing the demands of the state and the ruling class on the mass of people. And this involves taking not just productive, but also reproductive decisions away from the members of these communities. Women, as the biological reproducers, lose out. [192]

But this account, by itself, does not explain any better than Engels’ why women should not have an equal share of power and influence with men in the new ruling class and state – nor why women should usually also be reduced to a subordinate role among the exploited class. It explains the collapse of the old order, but not the gender hierarchy that exists in the new.

An alternative account, put forward in different ways by Gordon Childe and Ernestine Friedl, stresses the productive role of women and the role played by biology at different points in historical development.

Childe points out that in the early neolithic period women played a major role in production. There was a division of labour, in which men looked after the flocks and herds. But the key to the neolithic revolution, he argued, was:

to discover suitable plants and appropriate methods for their cultivation, devise special implements for tilling the soil, reaping and storing the crops and converting it into food ... All these inventions and discoveries were, judged by ethnographic evidence, the work of the women. To that sex too may be credited the chemistry of pot making, the physics of spinning, the mechanics of the loom and the botany of flax and cotton. [193]

And, “owing to the role of women’s contributions in the collective economy, kinship is naturally reckoned in the female line and the system of ‘mother right’ prevails.” [194]

All this changed, however, once the plough replaced the hoe and the digging stick as the major agricultural implement. Stock keeping was already a male sphere, and the plough turned arable farming into one as well, sharply reducing women’s place in production:

The plough ... relieved women of the most exacting drudgery but deprived them of their monopoly over the cereal crops and the social status that it conferred. Among the barbarians whereas women normally hoe plots, it is men who plough. And even in the oldest Sumerian and Egyptian documents the ploughmen really are males. [195]

Ernestine Friedl argues that the relative standing of men and women in horticultural societies depends on their contribution to production. There are, for example, some horticultural societies in which women produce the basic crops and men the ones that are exchanged, and others in which men produce the basic crop and women the one that is exchanged. [196] It is in the first sort that men have the higher standing. “The prevalence of male dominance is a consequence of the frequency with which men have greater rights than women to distribute goods outside the domestic group.” [197]

She points out that certain activities tend in most societies to be done by men rather than women. In some hunter-gatherer societies women do hunt, but “are barred from hunting in the later stages of pregnancy ... [and] after childbirth by the burden of transporting the child”. [198] In early agricultural societies, crafts can be done by either sex, but “metal working is almost entirely a man’s skill”. [199] And in most societies – although not all – men are the only warriors.

An interaction between biological imperatives and social needs underlies such changes in the division of labour. The human species has to reproduce itself if any society is going to survive. But the scale of its reproduction – how many children are needed from each adult woman – varies enormously. In a nomadic hunter-gatherer society, as we have seen, there is a premium on spacing children so that no woman is responsible for more than one infant at a time. By contrast, for agricultural societies, each child is, potentially, an extra cultivator, and there is the need to compensate for a higher death rate, the result of a greater vulnerability to infectious diseases, and the ravages of interminable wars. [200] So the higher the birth rate the more successful that society is likely to be. It is in the interests of the whole society (including its women) for women not to take part in activities (such as warfare, long distance travel and heavy agricultural tasks) which expose them to the greatest risks of death, infertility or abortion – or which expose to danger infants dependent on their mother’s milk for food.

This would explain why women often do most of the food producing in societies which rely on the hoe and the digging stick, but not in those which rely on the plough or on cattle herding. The first set of activities may involve hard and tiring physical labour, but is not likely to affect the reproduction rate unduly in the way that the second set would. The women of such a society are of more value to the village, the lineage or the household when it comes to physical reproduction than the men – and so are kept clear of activities which might endanger them, or at least their reproductive potential.

The result is that women are central to production, as well as reproduction, in hunter-gatherer and early agricultural societies. But they are excluded from the sorts of production that produce the biggest surplus with the rise of heavy agriculture, the urban revolution, and the shift from “communal” or “kin corporate” society to class society.

An account just in terms of the plough and cattle farming is not sufficient, since classes emerged in the New World a millennium and half before the European conquest led to introduction of the plough. [201] However, there was a turn to a different sort of heavy agriculture with the first use of local irrigation works. And there was a growth of other activities from which women were usually excluded by their reproductive role – long distance trade and warfare. All these activities increased the surplus available to a particular society. All of them tended to be performed by men rather and women. And all of them encouraged the transformation of highly esteemed groups of people into dominating classes.

Most of the men who carried through the burden of these new productive activities did not become part of the dominant class. Most ploughmen did not become princes and most soldiers did not become warlords, and neither of them made up the priesthood which often came to constitute the first ruling class and which never got involved in heavy work of any sort. But the new forms of production encouraged the breakdown of the old lineage based communal forms of organisation, the key element in the account of Gailey and Leacock.

So long as much of food production was carried out by women it made sense to everyone for land and other means of production to be under the control of lineages running through the female line. This guaranteed a continuity of cultivation across generations. A woman, her sisters and their spouse would be able to look forward to their daughters cultivating the lineage’s land and so providing for them in their old age. The fact that land did not pass to the son did not matter to either the mother or the father, since he would not be responsible for the main burden of food production.

Once, however, the main food producers became the men, the situation changed. A couple became dependent on the production of the next generation of males to keep them once they were no longer physically able to provide fully for themselves. The survival of any particular household came to depend much more on the relationship between the males in one generation and the next than between the females. Relying on the father’s sisters sons, who would themselves work on land controlled by other lineages (that of their wives) was much less dependable than trying to keep the couple’s sons attached to the parental household. Patrilineality and patrilocality began to fit in with the logic of production much more than matrilineality and matrilocality.

The replacement of shifting (or slash and burn) agriculture by continual cultivation of the same land encouraged this development. It necessitated measures to improve the land over more than one generation, measures which would be carried through mainly by the men and would therefore be encouraged by a new stress on relations between successive generations of male cultivators, tied to the same piece of land.

Finally, the rise of classes and the state at the expense of the lineages encouraged male dominance among the lower classes once men were the main producers of the surplus. It was on them that the newly emerging authorities would place responsibility for handing over part of the crop. And they would then have to impose these demands on the household unit as a whole, beginning to direct its work and control its consumption.



Class, the state and women’s oppression

Whether or not matrilineal-matrilocal relations were originally universal hardly matters in this scheme. For, even if they had only existed in a minority of cases, they would almost everywhere by replaced by patrilineal relations once agriculture developed beyond a certain point. And the development of classes and the state would, in turn, begin to transform patrilineality – descent through the male line, checked by a complex network of kinship relations – into patriarchy, the domination of the household by the senior man.

But the development of classes and the state did not take place over night. It was a process taking hundreds, even thousands of years. Those who made up the first ruling classes were those whose ancestors had acquired high standing in the pre-existing non-class societies by concentrating in their hands resources, albeit resources to be redistributed back to the rest of society. And since these societies had already begun to make the transition to patrilineality, they tended to be male.

What was involved was not one single moment of transition, but a long, dialectically developing process. The move to patrilineality would encourage the emergence of men as the key figures controlling society’s resources. This, in turn, would encourage the emergence of patriarchy in the households. And patriarchy in the household would then encourage the domination of males within the ruling class and the state. They would begin to turn the old control of lineages over marriage arrangement to their own advantage, so that the intermarriage between lineages that had once bound whole societies together through ties of reciprocity was transformed into a conscious “exchange of women” aimed at enhancing the flow of resources into the hands of the dominant male line.

Women, who had been key producers as well as reproducers, now became subservient to males at all levels of society. Among the exploited classes they still worked. But even in the frequent cases where they actually produced more than the men in total terms, they did not produce and control the key surpluses which determined the household’s relationship to the rest of society, and so were still subordinate to the men (or, more accurately, to the one man who ruled over both the women and the younger men in the patriarchal farming or artisan household). The only exceptions were in the occasional cases where the absence of the male from the household (for instance in some fishing communities or among some groups of artisans when there was the early death of the husband) or the participation of the women in certain forms of trade (for instance, in parts of West Africa) gave them control over the surplus. The woman, in these cases, became a sort of female patriarch. But these cases were necessarily the exception, never the rule. And, of course, in cases where production was based on gang labour by slaves, there was no household and no male dominance at all at the base of society.

Among the ruling classes women became oppressed in a different way. They became playthings in the manoeuvring between different rulers, used to enhance the standing of one at the expense of another. So although they participated in the exploitation of the rest of society, they were rarely full equals to the ruling class men, initiating events on their own behalf. And in extreme instances, they were confined to a world of their own, a world of purdah or of the harem, in which the only sort of participation they could hope for in the wider world was at one remove, through manipulation of the affections of a husband or a son. Again, there were occasional exceptions, of the queen or the dowager who took total power into her own hands. But again, the exception never became the rule.

Engels, then, may have been wrong in his explanation of some of the processes involved in the rise of the patriarchal family. But he was right to insist on its historical novelty and to see it as a “world historic defeat” for women, as not simply a “revolution”, but “one of the most decisive ever experienced” in the history of humanity. He was also right to add that it happened in a way which “need not have disturbed one living member” of the society.

The transformation in the reality at the top and bottom of society was necessarily reflected in transformations in ideology. Among the remains of prehistoric societies of the early neolithic period female statuettes abound, suggesting the worship of goddesses, while phallic statues are lacking. [202] Once class societies develop, the stress is increasingly on the role of gods, with the great religions which dominated from the 5th century BC onwards across most of Eurasia characterised by the omnipotence of a single male god. The ideology of both rulers and ruled became one of male dominance, even if female figures were sometimes allowed a subordinate role.

Engels also insisted on something else. The further development of the means of production brought about further changes in the form of the family and the character of women’s oppression. This, he claimed, happened with the replacement of the ancient slave mode of production by feudalism, which, according to him, was accompanied by the replacement of the “patriarchal household” by the “monogamous family”. “The new monogamy ... clothed the domination of men in milder forms and permitted women to occupy, at least with regard to externals, a far freer and more respected position than in ancient antiquity.” [203]

The details of the change do not concern us here. What is important is Engels’ insight that there have been variations, even within class society, in the nature of the family and the character of women’s oppression. The whole process cannot be subsumed under one single category of “patriarchy” in the way that many modern feminist theorists have tried to do. There have always been enormous differences between the families of the exploiting class and the exploited classes: you cannot simply equate the family of the Roman slave owner and the family of the Roman slave, nor the family of the feudal lord and the family of the feudal peasant. And there have been considerable differences in the family as you move from one ruling class to another. A society in which ruling class women play a public but subordinate role – as in feudal Europe as viewed by Chaucer or Boccacio – is different in significant respects to one in which they live in purdah. A society in which bride-price exists is different than one in which dowry payments exist. To say this is not to ignore women’s oppression in each case, but to insist on the changes it undergoes – a precondition for recognising it is not some expression of human nature, but a product of concrete historical developments, something that can be done away with by further developments.

Some of the most important passages in The Origin of the Family begin to outline these further developments. Engels emphasises that even under capitalism the women of the working class enter the workforce, and so get incomes of their own – on a scale unknown in previous class societies:

Since large scale industry has transferred the woman from the house to the labour market and the factory, and makes her, often enough, the bread winner of the family, the last remnants of male domination in the proletarian home have lost all foundation – except, perhaps, for some of that brutality towards women which became firmly rooted with the establishment of monogamy. Thus the proletarian family is no longer monagamian in the strict sense, even in cases of the most passionate love and strictest faithfulness of the two parties ... The woman has regained, in fact, the right of separation, and when the man and woman cannot get along, they part. [204]

But if the entry of women into the paid workforce offers the potential for liberation, the continued organisation of reproduction within the individual family prevents the realisation of this potential:

When she [the proletarian woman] fulfils her duty in the private service of her family, she remains excluded from public production and cannot earn anything; and when she wishes to take part in public industry and earn her living independently, she is not in a position to fulfil her duties. [205]

Thus women in existing society are in a contradictory situation. They can see the possibility of full equality and therefore challenge male dominance with a confidence unparalleled since the destruction of communal production. But they are still hindered from achieving this equality unless they forego having children. No amount of legislation could overcome this painful contradiction, although, Engels insisted, legislation was to be welcomed, since it would bring into the open the need for a further, revolutionary, change:

It will then become evident that the first premise for the emancipation of women is the reintroduction of the entire female sex into public industry; and that this again demands the quality possessed by the individual family of being the economic unit of society be abolished ...

With the passage of the means of production into common property the individual family ceases to be the economic unit of society. Private housekeeping is transformed into a social industry. The care and education of children becomes a public matter. [206]

This will transform completely relations between the sexes. Once the obsession with reproduction and property rights is gone, Engels argues, people will be free to relate to each other in, new, genuinely liberated ways. We can only “conjecture” about what the new relations will be like:

That will be settled after a new generation has grown up ... Once such people appear, they will care not a rap about what we today think they should do. They will establish their own practice and their own public opinion on the practice of each individual – and that’s the end of it. [207]

If other sections of The Origin of the Family suffer from using outdated material and, occasionally, for the use of circular arguments, these passages shine because of their modernity. Engels was, in fact, far ahead of his time when he wrote them. As Lindsey German and others have written, after virtually abolishing the family among the working class in the early stages of the industrial revolution, capitalism sought to impose a form of the bourgeois family in the second half of the 19th century as the only way of ensuring the socialisation of the next generation of workers. [208] Hence attempts to use the law and religious preaching to limit women’s involvement in the workforce. Since the Second World War, however, the relentless drive of capital accumulation has everywhere broken through these restraints, so that even in countries dominated by Catholic moralising or by Islamic codes, the proportion of women in the workforce has climbed relentlessly, while in parts of Britain women are now the majority of the employed working class.

Yet, reproduction remains privatised, even if the state is compelled to play a much larger role than in Engels’ time in the provision of social services and education. Most women are wage earners and expect, as never before, to live a life of independence, yet still find themselves forced back into bearing the burden of childcare within the confines of the nuclear family. Out of this has grown a resistance among both women and men to many things which were taken for granted in the past – unequal pay, sexual stereotyping of jobs, the treatment of women’s bodies as commodities, domestic violence, frustrating and soul destroying marriages. It is a resistance that raises everywhere the vision of a better life for all, yet within a society which prevents that vision becoming a reality.




Very few scientific writings from 100 years ago still inspire current research. This is not surprising, given the explosion of research, knowledge and theorising that has accompanied the frenetic accumulation of capital. The Part Played by Labour and The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State were attempts both to develop and popularise the insights of the science of their time. It is an enormous credit to Engels and to the method that he and Marx developed in the mid-1840s that they still provide us with insights which are lacking in so many present day writings on the evolution of our species and of society. They contain much which has to be discarded or rejigged on the basis of what had been discovered since Engels died. But what remains is still of immense value. It forms an invaluable starting point for anyone who wants to make sense of the mass of empirical material produced on an almost daily basis by archaeologists and anthropologists. And so it helps us today to refute the nonsense of “sociobiologists” and “naked ape” theorists when they claim that capitalism is inevitable because it rests on the foundations of an unchanging “human nature”.




167. F. Engels, The Origin of the Family, op. cit., p.105. N.B.: the passage should not be misread, as it is occasionally, as saying the first class oppression is that of the female sex by the male sex. The key expression is “coincides”.

168. See E. Leacock, Myths of Male Dominance, op. cit..

169. This is the argument of E. Friedl, Women and Men, an Anthropologist’s View, op. cit., p.22.

170. Ibid., p.29

171. Ibid., p.25

172. M. Etienne and E. Leacock, Introduction, in M. Etienne and E. Leacock, Women and Colonialism: Anthropological Perspectives, (New York, 1980). “Most description of Australian culture suffer from-male bias ... Recent work ... has discovered evidence of female autonomy the participation of women in ceremonial decision making ceremonies, the marriage of older women to younger men, the building of female solidarity among in-laws, the women’s section of the camp which is off-limits to men and whose women can carry on affairs with men they wish to without any obligation to formal marriage.” See also D. Bell, Descent politics, in the same work.

173. As E. Leacock points out, Levi Strauss only devoted one and a half pages of his massive The Elementary Structures of Kinship to matrilocal-matrilineal societies – and makes four inaccurate statements in the course of doing so. See E. Leacock, Myths of Male Dominance, op. cit., p.235.

174. P.S. Nsugbe, Ohaffia: a Matrilineal Ibo People (Oxford, 1974), p.68. The adult women have a law making body, the Ikpirikpe, which “is the one and only body which can deal with offenses committed by women”. If the men were to make a decision the women disapproved of, it would take counter-measures – for example, it could rule that “the village housewives leave their homes and husbands en masse, abandoning all children temporarily, and not return unless their views were heard”.

175. P.S. Nsugbe, ibid., pp.82, 83, 85.

176. K. Sachs, Sisters and Wives, op. cit., p.117 and 121.

177. For an elaboration of this point, see E. Leacock, Myths of Male Dominance, op. cit. p.120.

178. Gailey, Kinship to Kingship, op. cit., p.12.

179. E. Leacock, Myths of Male Dominance, op. cit., p.217.

180. E. Friedl, Women and Men, op. cit., p.46.

181. F. Engels, The Origin of the Family, op. cit., p.47.

182. For Morgan’s views, see L.S. Morgan, Systems of Consanguinity and Knowledge of the Human Family (New York, 1871), p.487, and Ancient Society, op. cit., p.31.

183. F. Engels, The Origin of the Family, op. cit., p.85.

184. See, for instance, E, Terray, Marxism and “primitive societies” (New York, 1973), p.139-40.

185. F. Engels, The Origin of the Family, op. cit., p.84.

186. Ibid., p.55.

187. Ibid., p.56.

188. C. Fluer Lobban notes that Marx was “rather sarcastic about the notion of primitive promiscuity” in his own Ethnological Notebooks, see C. Fluer Lobban, Marxist reappraisal of matriarchy, Current Anthropology, June 1979, p.347.

189. F. Engels, The Origin of the Family, op. cit., p.65-6.

190. Ibid., p.88.

191. K. Sachs makes exactly this point, see Sisters and Wives, op. cit., p.104.

192. This is a summary of Gailey’s argument. It is possible that in summarising it, I may have put my own gloss on an argument which, at times, I found slightly obscure. See C. Gailey, Kinship to Kingship, op. cit., px.

193. V. Gordon Childe, What Happened in History, op. cit., p.52-3.

194. Ibid., p.59. Childe seems, later, to have become more sceptical about a “matriarchy” stage. See his Social Evolution, op. cit., pp.66-67.

195. V. Gordon Childe, What Happened in History, op. cit., p.72.

196. E. Friedl, Women and Men, op. cit., p.54.

197. Ibid., p.9.

198. Ibid., p.17.

199. Ibid., p.59.

200. Due to the greater density of population.

201. A point made by Gordon Childe in Social Evolution, op. cit., p.159.

202. It has been argued, for example by Gordon Childe (Social Evolution, ibid., p.67), this need not, necessarily, have meant a society in which females were equal to men – after all, modern Hinduism contains a significant goddess and the Catholic church has the cult of the Virgin Mary. But there is all the difference in the world between an ideology in which female gods can be supreme and one in which female figures play a mediating role between worshippers and the dominant male figure.

203. F. Engels, The Origin of the Family, op. cit..

204. Ibid., p.116

205. Ibid., p.120

206. Ibid., p.119

207. Ibid., p.134-5

208. See L. German, Sex, Class and Socialism, (second edition, Bookmarks, 1994). Notes to Chapter Four.


Last updated on 17.4.2004