Read With Me: Friedrich Engels' The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State - Part 1

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Erik Rostad for AdamSmithWorks

Friedrich Engels makes an abrupt shift with the following statement: “The modern individual family is founded on the open or concealed domestic slavery of the wife, and modern society is a mass composed of these individual families as its molecules.”In the pages that follow, Engels calls for a social revolution as well as the abolishment of monogamy, private property, and the state. It’s a startling shift in the book. Engels’ thesis is that monogamy and its enforcement mechanism, the state, have created irreconcilable class differences that must be eliminated. His ultimate goal is a return to the communistic life and group marriage, which he believes will result in equality between the sexes.
The cover of the Penguin Classics edition of Friedrich Engels' The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State contains a photo of a poverty-stricken family from the East End of London in the year 1900. The family consists of three children and what is assumed to be their mother. The father is conspicuously absent.
 
The cover alone prompts an immediate question: where is the father?
 
This photo was taken 5 years after author Friedrich Engels had passed away, so he obviously didn’t choose it for the modern-day Penguin edition cover, but it does hint at the overarching question he raises:
 
Is the patriarchal nuclear family the oldest and most natural form of the family?
 
In other words, when considering prehistoric people, should we assume that monogamy was the original family structure?
 
Engels uses the introduction to familiarize the reader with the studies of contemporary anthropologists researching the prehistoric family. These anthropologists put forth a concept much different from the patriarchal family. In fact, they propose a prehistoric commune consisting of group marriages in which promiscuity ruled. In the absence of a monogamous pairing of mother and father, the only way to prove a child’s descent was through the mother. The father, unaware of which children were his, would benevolently care for all of the children in his group.
 
This research provided a starting point for Engels to provide a grand sweep of prehistory. The first chapter reads like Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens and Jared Diamond’s Pulitzer-winning Guns, Germs, and Steel. Engels creates a narrative of how the structure of the family changed along with the state. He seeks to answer the following questions:
 
•      If prehistoric people lived in promiscuous communes, is that humankind’s natural state?
•      What happened in history to overthrow the communal family structure in favor of the monogamous family structure?
 
Had Engels just focused on those questions, the book probably wouldn’t have the word “classic” next to a penguin. However, at the mid-point of the book, Engels makes an abrupt shift with the following statement:
 
“The modern individual family is founded on the open or concealed domestic slavery of the wife, and modern society is a mass composed of these individual families as its molecules.”
 
In the pages that follow, Engels calls for a social revolution as well as the abolishment of monogamy, private property, and the state. It’s a startling shift in the book. Engels’ thesis is that monogamy and its enforcement mechanism, the state, have created irreconcilable class differences that must be eliminated. His ultimate goal is a return to the communistic life and group marriage, which he believes will result in equality between the sexes.
 
What Engels has done in the book is to create a worldview that is at odds with 1800s society. In his view, there was a prehistoric Eden with equality of the sexes. There was a fall of humankind where men gained the upper hand and institutions propped up the new power structure. His call was a call to redemption through revolution.
 
This worldview did not allow for a gradual change back to Eden. The institutions of the state, private property, and monogamy were too ingrained and would not give up power that easily. The only way forward was to dismantle the whole thing, irrespective of the immediate damage.
 
Engels' thesis and worldview were based upon a set of assumptions. In Part II, I’ll take a specific look at three of those assumptions.

You can also listen to Erik Rostad talk about the book on his Books of Titans podcast.

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