Frederick Engels wrote The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State with the purpose of providing a materialist analysis of how the family as we know it came to be with the rise of class society--and with it, the oppression of women. While Origin of the Family was written after Karl Marx's death in 1883, it was largely based on notes that Engels and Marx made on the research of anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan, who had published Ancient Society in 1877, making him one of the first to apply a materialist analysis to tell the story of how human social organization had evolved over time. When Morgan observed the Iroquois Indians in upstate New York, he saw kinship relationships totally different from the family relationships considered "normal" during the Victorian era. He found that in more than one case, Native American men and women were organized in communities of relative equality, and that women had a status that would be unfamiliar to readers in Morgan's supposedly more civilized day. Karl Marx and F. Engels located the Origin of women’s oppression in the rise of class society. Their analysis of women’s oppression was not something that was tagged on as an afterthought to their analysis of class society but was integral to it from the very begging. When Marx wrote the communist manifesto in 1848, ideas of women’s liberation were already a central part of revolutionary socialist theory.
Marx and Engels developed a theory of women’s oppression over a lifetime, culminating in the publication of the Origin of the Family and the State in 1884. Engel wrote the Origin, after Marx’s death, but it a joint collaboration, as he used Marx detailed notes along with his own.
The theory put forward in the Origin is based largely upon the pioneering research of the nineteenth century anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan. Morgan’s research, published in 1877 called Ancient Society, was the first materialist attempt to understand the evolution of human social organization. He discovered, through extensive contact with the Iroquois Indians in America, a kinship system which took a completely different from than the modern nuclear family. With it, the Iroquois lived in relative equality and women exercised a great deal of authority. The discovery inspired Morgan to study other societies, and so doing. He learned that Native American societies located thousands of miles from Iroquois used remarkably similar kinship structures. This led him to argue that human society had evolved through successive stages based upon the development of the “successive arts of Subsistence”. Engels built upon Morgan’s theory in the origin to develop, as the title implies a theory of how the rise of class society led to both the rise of the state, which represents the interest of the ruling class in the day to day class struggle, and the rise of the family as the means by which the first ruling classes possessed and passed on private wealth. In order to appreciate fully the path breaking contribution of Engels work. In Origin, Engels uses the materialist method--looking at actual developments in the history of human society--to expand on Morgan's ideas and argue that the family as we know it is not a staple of all human societies, but the result of the rise of class society. Like the state, the family comes about in the interest of a small ruling class seeking to maintain control over their property. Engels quotes the American as saying, “It is the way the Indian or half-breed women here always speak of their illegitimate children...without an intonation of sadness or of blame. So far is this from being an unusual case, that...the opposite seems the exception. Children are frequently quite ignorant of their parentage. They know about their mother, for all the care and responsibility falls upon her, but they have no knowledge"e of their father; nor does it seem to occur to the woman that she or her children have any claim upon...
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