Friedrich Engels: The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State (2023)

Applying Historical Materialism to Understanding the Family and Male Domination


Friedrich Engels: The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State (1)

When we think about Friedrich Engels, we often think of him as Robin to Karl Marx’s Batman. He’s the side-kick standing in the shadow of the much greater and more prolific philosopher. He is, of course, most famous for co-authoring The Communist Manifesto with his friend, Marx.

This Batman and Robin schema is weird for a number of reasons. First, in the relationship between Marx and Engels, it was Engels who was the wealthy patron. Engels owned multiple textile and cotton factories in England and Germany. He later sold these businesses and was able to live quite comfortably off of his investments. That’s right, Friedrich Engels, the great communist, was a capitalist!.

Most importantly, however, Engels was a brilliant scholar and writer in his own right. He met Karl Marx as a Young Hegelian, having already published works on his own and mastered multiple languages. When he and Marx collaborated, they did so as equals. The greatest collaborations were The Communist Manifesto and The German Ideology. After Marx died, Engels took over his papers, but also continued his own work. Arguably the most important of these works was his invaluable The Origin of Family, Private Property and the State.

(Video) Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State

In The Origin of Family, Private Property and the State (heretofore referred to as The Origin) Engels applies the Marxist notion of Historical Materialism to understanding the family as a social institution. Most critically, he sees the family, in the context of private property and capitalism, as the driving force subjugating women and promoting male dominance. Consequently, The Origin can be seen as an early example of feminist writing.

Engels’ Theory

To understand what Engels was trying to do in The Origin, it’s important to contrast his theory with what could be called the “common sense” notion of male domination in history. According to this idea, male domination in society is a natural result of childbirth and child rearing. In human biology, children are born helpless. This is very different from other species in which newborn offspring are able to walk and find food on their own. Human babies, because of our mondo braincase, are born much earlier in our fetal development. Therefore, human babies require intensive care and dedication from the mother. To secure this, it is in the mother’s interest to acquire the assistance of a man to help her secure resources for herself and the baby. Men, however, are not inclined to do this unless they are sure that the baby is their own offspring. Hence, the division of labor between men as the providers and women as the nurturers creates a natural superiority of men and specifically monogamous supplication of women. It’s all perfectly natural.

Engels rejects this. Remember, he and Marx were Historical Materialists. In other words, they saw history as being driven not by human nature, not by ideas, but by the material realities in which they lived. As human beings emerged from a state of what Marx referred to as Primitive Communism into a society in which surpluses were created and commodities had exchange value rather than just use value, we see emerging what Marx and Engels called Dialectical Materialism. In other words, history is driven by the conflict between those who control the material resources and those who must exchange their labor in return for some of the material resources in order to survive.

So, The Origin is Engels’ attempt to apply this notion of Historical and Dialectical Materialism to understanding the family as a locus of male domination and female subordination (1).

(Video) "The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State" by ENGELS (audiobook)

Engels drew much of his conclusions from the work of anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan. In his major work, Ancient Society, Morgan examined Iroquois society and proposed a stagist description of history that Engels adopted. The stages of human history, according to Morgan and Engels, were Savagery, based on hunter-gatherer societies, Barbarism, as agriculture became the dominant form of production, and Civilization in which surpluses were used to create urban and, ultimately, industrial society.

According to Engels, the periods of Savagery and Barbarism were marked by what he and Marx referred to as Primitive Communism. In these primitive communist societies, since everyone was dedicated to the same pursuits, namely food acquisition, everyone was largely equal. Even the clan chieftain performed much the same labor as any other man in the tribe. Yes, there were some divisions of labor and status, but for the most part, everyone depended on each other for survival, so there were no real social classes as we know them today. Furthermore, many of the problems we see today, like crime and poverty and homelessness, did not exist.

This was also true when it came to men and women. Yes, according to Engels, there was a gendered division of labor in which men went out and hunted and women did the gathering. This division of labor resulted from the needs of children and was not a source of inequality. Indeed, modern research into food acquisition in early human societies suggests that, calorie for calorie, gathering was far more productive in most tribes than was hunting. Furthermore, women in these early human societies had significantly more power than in civilized societies. Specifically, families tended to be matrilineal and sexual relations were not necessarily monogamous.

All of that changes with the invention of the plow and the development of modern economies that eventually leads to capitalism. According to Engels, in early societies men and women did similar work. The invention of the plow, however, gave men an advantage in production. The agricultural surplus resulting from this farming revolution meant that people no longer had to be dedicated to food production and acquisition. Surpluses could be exchanged. Consequently, the commodities produced by these societies didn’t just have Use Value, or value based on the usefulness of an item. Commodities had Exchange Value, or value based on what others were willing to give for access. These exchange commodities were largely in the hands of men. For the first time in history, men had a class advantage over women.

(Video) Friedrich Engels & The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State

Furthermore, if we are dealing with surpluses that have exchange value, then there is the question of who owns the commodities to be exchanged. Once we start to associate commodities to ownership rather than to communities, we have the concept of Private Property, or property owned and controlled by individuals. And once you have the concept of Private Property, you need to have something in place that protects that private property. Namely, you need armed people who will protect that private property. You need ways to assess this private property. You need rules in place with regard to this private property. And if you have rules, you need some structure designed to enforce those rules. In other words, you need a State, or an institution that is recognized as legitimately empowered to enforce the rules and to sustain power relations, even if doing so requires violence (2).

Again, since private property as it evolved is in the hands of men, it turns out that the state is also in the hands of men, which means that men control the market, or the economic sphere of society, and the political sphere of the society. Since the politics is largely set up for the sake of maintaining the economy, and the economy largely funds and supports the state, this arrangement is referred to as Political Economy. In civilized societies, the political economy is controlled by men, but not all men, just some men. Now we get into the Dialectic proposed by Marx. There is the class that controls the factors of production, in modern societies this is the Bourgeoisie, or the Capitalist Class; and there are those who must sell their labor in exchange for the means of survival, in modern societies this is the proletariat.

This is where we see Engels crucial contribution to this proposition. Engels points out that the political economy developing from private property and capitalism is played out in the family. As men took greater control of the political economy, they also took greater control of the family. Families stopped being matrilineal and became patrilineal. In other words, family lineage was based on the male family line.

Um…well that’s tenuous. After all, it’s always clear who the mother of a child is, but let’s face it, who’s the Daddy is subject to more speculation. Consequently, in patrilineal societies we see much more acutely coercive divisions of sexual labor in which female monogamy must be strictly enforced. It is in the interests of the state, representing the male heads of families, to be able to clearly define the father. After all, the father owns the property and wants to hand that property down to his own offspring. Engels says it best, “Monogamy arose out of the concentration of considerable wealth in the hands of one person – and that a man – and out of the desire to bequeath this wealth to this man’s children and to no one else’s. For this purpose monogamy was essential on the woman’s part, but not on the man’s; so that this monogamy of the woman in no way hindered the overt or covert polygamy of the man.” (The Origin)

(Video) “The origin of the family, private property, and the state” by Friedrich Engels

Marriage in such gendered societies lose their focus on the emotional ties of men to women and children to parents. Instead, marriage becomes a matter of property and that property owned and controlled by men. Women and women’s sexuality then becomes just another form and expression of male owned property. In his book Sociological Insight, Randall Collins refers to the forms of property in marriage as erotic property, or rights over human bodies, generational property, or rights over children, and household property, or rights over goods held by the family (3). In The Origin Engels points out that all forms of property are held by men.

Furthermore, this gendered dialectic in the household serves to mitigate the impacts of the labor dialectic in the economy. After all, every man is not a bourgeoisie with the status and privilege that goes with it. But every man is a man, and being so carries with it status and privilege of its own. In other words, most men may be exploited in the workplace, but when they come home, they get to be the bourgeoisie and become the exploiters of women who are perpetually in the role of proletariat.

So, for Engels, marriage in modern capitalist societies are intrinsically oppressive much as capitalism is intrinsically oppressive in the marketplace. As a communist, Engels recognized that capitalism cannot be made egalitarian. It must be overthrown and replaced by socialism. This is the case for marriage as well. According to Engels, until women gain equal power in the marketplace and in the political economy, they will never have equality in the home. This is the underlying premise of Marxist Feminism.


So Engels’ The Origins of Family, Private Property and the State is a really valuable work to understand, especially when it comes to your Cambridge Exams. But it is also a strong commentary on modern family life. Of course, we can argue some of the particulars. The truth is that marriage and family has always carried with it an emotional element that Engels does not consider in his materialist approach to the study. Even during Engels’ time, as you know from Stephanie Coontz, Marriage, A History, love and emotional commitment were playing an increasingly dominant role in marriage. So to what extent is this emotional commitment or love influenced by or distorted by the material realities of family? To what extent might emotional ties mitigate economic domination?

(Video) Family strcuture in Marxism: The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State

We can also make a postmodernist critique of Engels’ concept of marriage. After all, women today certainly seem to be fulfilling Engels’ expectations of increasing power in the market and the political economy as a whole–It should be noted that they are doing so without Marx’s and Engels’ presupposition of a revolutionary overthrowing capitalism. As women gain greater say in a capitalist market does this translate to greater say in the family, in the marriage? Does this threaten capitalism as we know it or simply reinforce capitalism by incorporating or trapping the other fifty percent of the population in an hopeless cycle of working to consume and consuming to work? Or is there a more positive outcome of equality in the household corresponding to equality in the marketplace?

We can also critique Engels using a functionalist “fit thesis” by which the family may have evolved from matrilineal to patrilineal structures as agricultural societies became more complex. This transition, however, could be seen as functional to the larger society and instrumental in maintaining social stability. Furthermore, from a neo-functionalist perspective, the breakdown of traditional gender roles in the market could be leading to an unstable transition of a breakdown in gender roles in the family. So a New Right perspective could suggest that Engels’ call for equality may be destabilizing to the larger political economy when perhaps we should be trying to find ways to salvage traditional family values.

Anyway, understanding The Origin is a very useful theory when it comes to the Cambridge Exam. It is also a powerful commentary for navigating your own experiences with family.

  1. It’s important to note that Engels himself rejected marriage. He did have a loving relationship with a woman named Mary Burns. They lived together in what could be called a common law marriage.
  2. Note how I’m using the word state. For sociologists, there is a difference between a “government” and a “state”. Government refers to how power is organized in a society. A state, is the actual structure that performs the tasks associated with government. So the United States government is a Representative Democratic Republic. In other words, the United States has no royalty empowered to make the rules (making it a Republic). Instead, the people vote for representatives to make the rules in their interest (the Representative Democracy). That’s the government. The State is the Congress, White House, Supreme Court and all of the associated bureaucracies that make it all work, from the most isolated rural post office to the West and East Wings of the White House.
  3. Sociological Insight: An Introduction to Non-Obvious Sociology is a book I recommend to my sociology students as a supplement.


What is the origin of the family private property and the state Friedrich Engels about? ›

The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884), was a provocative and profoundly influential critique of the Victorian nuclear family. Engels argued that the traditional monogamous household was in fact a recent construct, closely bound up with capitalist societies.

What did Engels say about the family? ›

Engels argued that family had a clear economic function for capitalism, by ensuring that wealth remained in the hands of the bourgeoisie. Family relations, based on clear legal contracts, facilitate inheritance and therefore when rich people die it is their children who keep hold of their wealth.

What was Marx Engels view of private property? ›

In another version of this same analysis, Marx argues that private property is a form of theft where owners are stealing from the workers. The idea of alienation is Marx's social critique of the market, and this idea of theft is his economic critique of the market.

What is the core idea of Engels the origin of the family? ›

Engels argues that “the modern individual family is founded on the open or concealed domestic slavery of the wife.” This family structure has far reaching consequences for both sexes, as well as for society. This wage inequality between men and women reinforces male supremacy by placing more power in men's hands.

What were the main ideas proposed by Friedrich Engels? ›

Friedrich Engels
RegionWestern philosophy
SchoolContinental philosophy Marxism
Main interestsPolitical philosophy, political economy, class struggle, criticism of capitalism
Notable ideasAlienation and exploitation of the worker, dialectical materialism, historical materialism, false consciousness
17 more rows

What does Engels say about the state? ›

Withering away of the state is a Marxist concept coined by Friedrich Engels referring to the idea that, with the realization of socialism, the state will eventually become obsolete and cease to exist as society will be able to govern itself without the state and its coercive enforcement of the law.

What does Friedrich Engels believe? ›

In 1842 Engels was converted to communist beliefs by the German Socialist Moses Hess. In the same year he met Karl Marx. In a Manchester, England, textile firm between 1842 and 1844, Engels came into contact with chartism, the movement for extension of suffrage to workers.

What is the place of origin of family? ›

Your family of origin is often defined as the family unit in which you were raised. This term is not to be confused with "biological family." A biological family might have little to do with your development if they did not raise you. A biological family may be people you are genetically related to.

When did Engels write the origin of the family? ›

The writing of The Origin of the Family began in early April 1884, and was completed on 26 May. Engels began work on the treatise after reading Marx's handwritten synopsis of Lewis H.

Did Marx believe in a right to private property? ›

In his essay “On the Jewish Question,” Marx said that “the right of man to property is the right to enjoy his possessions and dispose of the same arbitrarily without regard for other men, independently, from society, the right of selfishness.” This is correct, but far from the whole story.

Why did Marx believe that private property should be replaced by common ownership? ›

According to socialists, common ownership ensures that the needs of the many override those of the few - the public sector can allocate scarce resources on a much more equitable manner than that of the marketplace.

What did Marx object to in regards to private property? ›

Although Marx does acknowledge some of the benefits of capitalism, his manifesto consists in removing the private property of the elite class and putting it solely into the hands of the workers of the factories.

What did Friedrich Engels write about? ›

Engels alone wrote, among other works, The Condition of the Working Class in England; The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State; and numerous polemical articles.

What type of government did Friedrich Engels believe in? ›

It was during his time in Berlin that Engels became a communist, and also an atheist, something that would have been very shocking to his devout Protestant family. He believed that a communist revolution was inevitable somewhere in Europe, due to the oppressed conditions of its workers and their vast numbers.

What did Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels argue about? ›

The Communist Manifesto, written by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, was first published in 1848. It formed the basis for the modern communist movement as we know it, arguing that capitalism would inevitably self-destruct, to be replaced by socialism and ultimately communism.

What is conflict theory Friedrich Engels? ›

In the classic example of historical materialism, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels argued that all of human history is the result of conflict between classes, which evolved over time in accordance with changes in society's means of meeting its material needs, i.e. changes in society's mode of production.

What is origin of state according to Engels? ›

Engels has observed that though the state is the product of society, gradually but steadily it became the owner of huge power and it stood above society. But though the state stood above the society, it was always responsive with the owners of property.

What is Marx Engels theory? ›

Marxism was first publicly formulated in 1848 in the pamphlet The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, which lays out the theory of class struggle and revolution. Generally, Marxism argues that capitalism as a form of economic and social reproduction is inherently flawed and will ultimately fail.

What was the conception of the state in the philosophy of Marx and Engels? ›

By the time he wrote The German Ideology (1846), Marx viewed the state as a creature of the bourgeois economic interest. Two years later, that idea was expounded in The Communist Manifesto: The executive of the modern state is nothing but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.

What are the three main points Marx and Engels are making? ›

The three main ideas from The Communist Manifesto are class conflict, ephemeral capitalism, and inevitable revolution. Marx and Engel focused on class conflict as the driving force for their argument.

What were the views of Friedrich Engels on socialism? ›

He rejected the reformist notion that socialism could arise upon the bourgeois economic system. Engels argued that the socialist credentials of a socio-economic system depend upon the class character of the state. Socialism can emerge only when the working class seizes state power and establishes its hegemony.

Why is it important to know family origin? ›

It gives you a sense of identity

Discovering more about your ancestors, celebrating family traditions, embracing your culture, and understanding where you came from can open your eyes to how beautiful and unique you are. It can also give your sense of self-worth and belonging a boost.

Who makes up your family of origin? ›

One's family of origin—the family one grew up in, as opposed to the people one currently lives with—is the place that people typically learn to become who they are. From the family of origin a person learns how to communicate, process emotions, and get needs met.

What are family origin issues? ›

Family of origin issues can also include emotional abuse, neglect and domestic violence. How you communicate with others, hold your emotions, get your needs met, the way you see yourself and how you experience the world are all learnt from growing up in your family.

What is the idea of private property? ›

'Private property' refers to a kind of system that allocates particular objects like pieces of land to particular individuals to use and manage as they please, to the exclusion of others (even others who have a greater need for the resources) and to the exclusion also of any detailed control by society.

What is the concept of private property? ›

something, especially land or buildings, that belongs to a particular person or company, rather than to a government: Activists are asking government to pay compensation when environmental regulations diminish the value of private property.

Why does Marx criticize private property? ›

Contrary to Locke, who views property right as an essential part of individual freedom, Marx employs the labor theory of value to argue for the abolition of private property, which he sees as a source of alienation and a major obstacle for the attainment of individual freedom.

How do Marx and Engels distinguish between the abolition of private property and the abolition of bourgeoisie property? ›

Marx and Engels call for the “abolition of private property.” They explain that they are not against property generally, but are opposed to “bourgeois property,” characterized as “the exploitation of the many by the few.”

Why is private property important to capitalism? ›

Private property promotes efficiency by giving the owner of resources an incentive to maximize its value. The more valuable a resource, the more trading power it provides the owner of the resource. This is because, in a capitalist system, someone who owns property is entitled to any value associated with the property.

How does Marx explain the relationship between private property and alienation? ›

Of capitalism's material conditions, Marx specifically describes private property as 'the material, sensuous expression of man's alienated life'68. This is because private property enslaves the class of workers, the proletariat, to alienated labour69.

What is the importance of private property? ›

Private property provides an incentive to conserve resources and maintain capital for future production. Although this is important, the full benefit of private property is not realized unless owners have the ability to exchange it with others.

What is Marx's distinction between personal and private property? ›

In Marxist theory, private property typically refers to capital or the means of production, while personal property refers to consumer and non-capital goods and services.

What are examples of private property? ›

Private property may consist of real estate, buildings, objects, intellectual property (copyright, patent, trademark, and trade secrets). The transfer of a private property commonly takes place by the owner's consent or through a sale or as a gift.

What did Friedrich Engels argue in The Condition of the Working Class in England? ›

He focused on both the workers' wages and their living conditions. He argued that the industrial workers had lower incomes than their pre-industrial peers and they lived in more unhealthy and unpleasant environments.

How does Engels describe the living conditions for the working class? ›

In The Condition of the Working Class in England, he described the living conditions in English industrial towns as 'the highest and most unconcealed pinnacle of social misery existing in our day'.

What is the origin of private property according to Locke? ›

Locke stressed labor as the foundation of private property because some form of labor is the basic method by which we sustain ourselves, even if that labor consists of nothing more than picking up acorns off the ground.

What is Chapter 2 of origin of the family about? ›

Chapter 2: The Family

Here Engels explains many of the ideas formulated by Morgan on the evolution of human kinship. It outlines the development of the family through 4main stages: the Consanguine family, the Punaluan family, the Pairing family, and finally, the Monogamous family.

Who created the idea of private property? ›

Ideas about and discussion of private property date back to the Persian Empire, and emerge in the Western tradition at least as far back as Plato. Prior to the 18th century, English speakers generally used the word "property" in reference to land ownership.

What is the justification of private property John Locke summary? ›

' Locke, in essence, argues that man's own labour is the justification of property; that private property rights are natural rights because, while God gave earth to all men, people should have “ownership of the fruits of their labour.” (2ndtreatise).

What happened in Chapter 2 of on the come up? ›

Hype announces the rookie battle next and calls a boy named Milez. Milez is the son of Supreme, Lawless's old manager, and Pooh recognizes him as the kid responsible for the popular yet bad song "Swagerific." Hype then calls her up, and Bri knows this means she has to win. Terrified, Bri introduces herself.

What was the point of all in the family? ›

All in the Family's impact went beyond the world of television. The show became the focus of a heated national debate on whether the use of comedy was an appropriate means by which to combat prejudice and social inequality. In addition, the character of Archie Bunker became nothing short of an American icon.

What was all in the family based on? ›

All in the Family became one of the most successful sitcoms of its time. The show was based on the popular British comedy Till Death Us Do Part (1965–75) and was adapted for an American audience by producers Norman Lear and Alan (“Bud”) Yorkin.

What is the Marx Engels Reader summary? ›

Summary This edition of the leading anthology provides the essential writings of Marx and Engels -- those works necessary for an introduction to Marxist thought and ideology. The volume is arranged to show both the chronological and the thematic development of the two great thinkers.


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