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Engels was a bro!

Originally published: Transform Europe on December 23, 2020 by Andrea Peniche (more by Transform Europe)  | (Posted Dec 30, 2020)

A tribute to Friedrich Engels’ The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State and the groundwork for feminism by the Jubilarian.

Engels was born 200 years ago. From all his works, those he signed alone and those he shared with Marx, I want to underline the importance of “The origin of the family, private property and the State”[1], because it represents a remarkable intellectual undertaking, namely for contemporary feminist studies. In times marked by superficiality, rejection of study and an embrace of obscurantist and fundamentalist theories, diving into this text is an intellectual balm, for which it reveals intuition and astuteness and the unavoidable contribution to the knowledge of the genesis of central social institutions–family, economy, State–and their relationship with oppression and exploitation.

Published in 1884 by Friedrich Engels, his main sources were the book “Das Mutterrecht” (“The Matriarchy”) by the Swiss Johann Jakob Bachofen, published in 1861, and in particular the “Ancient Society”, published in 1877, by the United States’ Lewis Morgan, which Marx had read and noted abundantly, as Engels pointed out at the opening of the book:

The following pages are, in a way, the execution of a will. Marx was willing to set out, in person, the results of Morgan’s research in relation to the conclusions of his (to some extent I can say our) materialistic analysis of history, thus clarifying its full scope. (…) My work can only weakly replace the one my late friend never wrote. I have, however, not only the detailed excerpts that Marx took from Morgan’s work, but also his critical notes, which I reproduce here whenever appropriate. (pp. 7-8)

“The origin of the family, private property and the State” is a fruitful dialogue between historical materialism and the emerging Anthropology as science field, in which the author establishes the relationship between Capitalism and what he calls the constantly changing institution, the family. Therefore, it is a historical reading of the family and its relation to class, female subalternity and private property questions. At a distance of almost a century and a half, we can perceive that the work is permeated by several inaccuracies. Curiously, Engels, as critical thinker, is aware that he is not writing the last word, and therefore states that Lewis Morgan’s analysis “(…) will certainly remain in force until a wealth of data far more considerable forces us to modify it” (p. 31). However, it is unfair to criticise Engels in the light of what we know today and to miss the work of the time in which he lived. If we refuse a-historical readings and situate the work in its time, we will discover an extraordinary potential in it, since Engels, with the few tools he had at that time, was able to identify patriarchy as a social structure and to find the historical thread that built and reified inequality between men and women.

“Woman Converted into a Servant”–First Division of Labour

Engels sought to understand how the passage from gynocrat societies (based on maternal law) to patriarchal societies (based on paternal law) occurred. He is characterising “the collapse of maternal law” as “the great historical defeat of the female sex throughout the world”, since “man also took over the house; woman found herself degraded, converted into a servant, into a slave of man’s lust, into a simple instrument of reproduction” (p. 76). Marx and Engels in “The German Ideology” had already stated that the first sexual division of labour was the one which occurred between men and women for the procreation of children. In this work, Engels reinforces this idea and argues that, until the emergence of the syndiasmic family, a kind of matriarchal family in which the marital bond was easily dissolved and the children remained under maternal responsibility (pp. 61-62), a communist domestic economy prevailed. There was a preponderance of women within the family, even though a sexual division of labour already existed as the first form of division of labour. Anthropological discoveries thus questioned whether the oppression of women had a biological origin, claiming that societies did not always organise themselves in this way. If this had not always been the case, it is because oppression has historical roots, rather than being the result of any female or male essence. Thus, based on anthropological data, Engels investigates and concludes that gynocratic societies have been superseded by others into which the social order has been transformed. He locates this transformation between the middle and upper phases of barbarism[2], when a new family model emerges, the monogamous family, which supersedes the syndiasmic family and responds to the need to transfer property to legitimate heirs. This now restricts the forms of relationship and acts as a branding iron on women’s free sexual expression, giving rise to the emergence of a new sexual morality that authorises male infidelity and imposes female chastity. The monogamous family was thus born. He states:

Its definitive triumph is one of the symptoms of the nascent civilisation. It is based on the predominance of man; its express purpose is to procreate children whose fatherhood is indisputable; and this indisputable fatherhood is demanded because children, as direct heirs, will one day enter into the possession of their father’s goods. The monogamous family differs from syndiasmic marriage in that it is much more solid than marital ties, which can no longer be broken by the will of either party. Now, as a rule, only a man can break them and repudiate his wife. Man is also granted the right to marital infidelity, sanctioned at least by custom (the Napoleonic Code expressly grants this right as long as he does not bring his concubine to the conjugal home), and this right is exercised more and more widely as society develops. When a woman, by chance, recalls old sexual practices and attempts to renew them, she is punished more rigorously than in any previous age (pp. 81-82).

“Enslavement of One Sex to the Other”–First Class Oppression

For Engels, monogamy does not represent a free will union. On the contrary, he sees in it the subjugation of the feminine to the masculine:

Monogamy does not appear in history, therefore, as a reconciliation between man and woman, and even less as the highest form of marriage. On the contrary, it appears in the form of enslavement of one sex to the other, as a proclamation of a conflict between the sexes, ignored until then in prehistory. In an old unpublished manuscript written in 1846 by Marx [“The German Ideology”] and myself, I find the following sentence: “The first division of labour is that made between man and woman for the procreation of children”. Today I can add: the first class antagonism that has appeared in history coincides with the development of the antagonism between man and woman in monogamy; and the first class oppression, with the oppression of the female sex by the male (p. 86).

Engels relates the rise of private property to the subordination of women and signals it as a historical milestone in the beginning of the class struggle. The patriarchal monogamous family is therefore what sustains the development of new relations of property and production, as well as establishing a new sexual division of labour, consigning women to domestic space and economic dependence. In this context, marriages with an economic matrix are those which predominate in bourgeois societies and focus on the need to transfer property. Engels has the shrewdness to realise that one of the transformations to the family structure introduced by the exploitation of industrial capitalism puts working women in an unsustainable situation, since they, if they dedicate themselves to domestic chores, have no space in wage work that guarantees them economic autonomy. If, on the other hand, they are wage workers, they are prevented by the endless working day from guaranteeing domestic chores.

The home management has lost its social character. Society no longer had anything to do with it. The home management became a private service; the woman became the first maid, with no participation in social production. Only today’s big industry has opened again–though only for the proletarian–the path of social production. But it has done so in such a way that if a woman carries out her domestic duties within the family, she is excluded from social work and can earn nothing; and if she wants to take part in social industry and earn her living independently, it is impossible for her to fulfil her domestic obligations. As in the factory, this is what happens to women in all professional sectors, including medicine and advocacy. The modern individual family is based on the domestic slavery, frank or disguised, of women, and modern society is a mass whose molecules are the individual families. (pp. 96-97)

Differences Between Bourgeois and Proletarian Forms of Family

If bourgeois marriage is sustained by economic interests, proletarian marriage is not necessarily so, since there is no property to convey, so the irony of history can be the free expression of the wills of oppressed men and women, as Engels argues:

In relations with women, sexual love can in fact only be a rule among the oppressed classes, that is, in our days, among the proletariat, whether or not such relations are official. But all the foundations of classical monogamy have also disappeared in these cases. Here, too, there is a complete lack of the goods of fortune, for the preservation and transmission of which the monogamy and the dominion of man have been instituted by inheritance; and therefore, here too, there is every reason to establish male supremacy. What is more, even the means of achieving this are lacking: bourgeois law, which protects this supremacy, exists only for the possessing classes and to regulate the relations of these classes with the proletarians. (…) The dominant class continues to be subject to the known economic influences and, only by exception, presents cases of marriages truly carried out with complete freedom; while these marriages, as we have already seen, constitute the rule in the oppressed classes. (pp. 94, 107)

Similarly, the question of the economic dependence of women which marriage brings about, because it brings them into the domestic sphere, has no parallel between bourgeois and proletarian forms of family. Access to and possession of property is what explains male supremacy within patriarchal families. If this scenario does not occur in working class families, there is another. Capitalism was replacing industrial proletarians with female and child labour because of even lower wages, and this disorganised the way families were organised. This meant that it was the historical context, rather than any moral or political superiority of the male proletarians, that caused patriarchal authority to manifest itself differently in working families and women to enjoy a certain degree of autonomy:

Moreover, especially since big industry took women out of the home to throw them into the labour market and into the factory, often making them the mainstay of the house, the remains of the supremacy of men in the proletarian home have been deprived of any basis, except perhaps for a certain brutality in dealing with women, which has been very ingrained since monogamy was established. That is why hetaerism and adultery, eternal companions of monogamy, play an almost non-existent role here; women have in practice regained the right to divorce and spouses prefer to separate when they can no longer understand each other. In short: proletarian marriage is monogamous in the etymological sense of the word, but by no means in its historical meaning. (pp. 94-95)

However, the identification of oppression by the economic place occupied by women in production and the assumption that relations between men and women in the working class would be free, or freer, from oppression because there is no economic interest in such a marriage is indicative of enormous optimism without support in reality. Optimism, which clouds even the firm condemnation of conjugal violence which it identifies in proletarian families, understanding it only as a derivation from monogamy. Engels continues: “The family is a product of the social system and will reflect the cultural state of that system” (p. 109), which means that there is the possibility of forming another type of family. By abolishing private property, which is at the origin of economic marriages, it is possible to forge another type of marriage, a relationship based on love and “equality between the two sexes” (p. 110). This marriage is monogamous, but extirpated from the characteristics imposed by property relations: male supremacy and indissolubility. Therefore, he concludes:

If marriage based on love is the only moral, only marriage where love persists can be moral. But the duration of sexual love varies greatly, according to the individual, particularly among men; because of this, when affection disappears or is replaced by a new love, divorce will be a benefit both for both parties and for society. (p. 108)

Rejection of Gender-Essentialism

Without prescribing recipes for what the new family will look like or should look like, Engels rehearses some answers to problems he recognises and anticipates:

When the means of production become the common property, the individual family will no longer be the economic unit of society. The domestic economy will become the social industry. The care and education of children will become a public affair; society will care for all children, whether legitimate or natural, with the same commitment. The fear of “consequences”, which is today the most important social motive–both morally and economically–which prevents a young single woman from giving herself freely to the man she loves, will thus disappear. Will this not be enough to develop progressively freer sexual relations, and also to make public opinion less strict about the honour of virgins and the dishonour of women? (pp. 99-100)

This work has even more importance if situated historically and with the realisation that it appears in a context in which, not only in common sense, but also in intellectual circles, the thesis that hegemonised the thought was that the subordinate social, political, economic and cultural situation of women was the fruit and expression of women’s nature/essence. The revolution operated by Engels consists in the rejection of essentialism and in the search for historical reasons capable of explaining male domination and female subordination. This is basically the leaven that in the 20th century will give rise to the gender theory, which recognises in social relations and power the explanation for the formal, symbolic and practical inequality of women. In other words, what Engels did was apply historical materialism to the situation of women. This process has allowed the denaturalization of oppression, has made it possible to realise that women’s depreciated place in social, cultural and economic structures is rooted in history and not in an essence, a biological characteristic. The analysis of the family from the relations of production produces another remarkable effect, the dismissal of the moralistic discourse. As a result of all this, Marx and Engels come to perceive women as historical subjects, which allows them to be conceived as workers and part of the working class and not as strangers to the process of human emancipation. If today this consideration seems banal to us, it is necessary to contextualise it in the time and debates of the time, including in the socialist movement. For example, Proudhon (1809-1865), one of the most influential thinkers of the time, was one of the main opponents of the inclusion of women in wage work, even rejecting their name and characterisation as workers, describing them as inferior beings, according to him equivalent to two-thirds of men[3]. He claimed that women, who he considered to be fragile and intellectually limited, were not prepared to perform work in the public arena, arguing that the role that best served them was that of household fairy, mother and disciple. As a corollary, he designated women’s desire for emancipation as one of the faces of the pornocracy linked to the new industrial feudalism[4]. He therefore looked with disdain upon the movement which placed women in the space of wage labour and politics, hence in the space of class struggle. He wrote in Le Peuple, the newspaper he directed, on 27 December 1848:

We believe it is necessary to declare from now on that our intention is to combat the mystical language of women who speak at the banquets[5] and to make it clear that they lack the role that they should play in humanity when they take the initiative for this type of celebration. The role of women is not in outer life, in active life and unrest, but rather in the intimate life, feeling and tranquillity of the home. Socialism has not only come to restore labour; it has also come to rehabilitate the home, the sanctuary of the family, the symbol of marriage union[6].

Is Engels Still Contemporary?

There are historical limitations and inaccuracies in his work, which were much discussed by the feminist movement in the 1970s. For example, the thesis of matriarchy does not find scientific support today, and currently speaking of matrilinearity and matrilocality. Similarly, Engels underestimated the participation of women in agricultural work, and subsequent studies have revealed their presence in this economic sector in a very significant way, as well as in various other economic activities. And all this has implications in the way the sexual division of labour has been understood and theorized, particularly in a somewhat candid approach that has somehow naturalized it at a certain point in history.

Engels linked male domination to the emergence of private property, underestimating culture and linking, in an overly optimistic way, the overcoming of gender oppression to the overcoming of class oppression. The method he used, tried to relate the sphere of production to the sphere of reproduction, which gave rise to various interpretations, one of them markedly mechanistic and economicist, since it results in the belief that it is sufficient to collectivise the means of production, to increase female participation in the sphere of production, to collectively take responsibility for children, the elderly and the sick in order to automatically achieve emancipation. But history has proved to us that this direct relationship does not exist and that inequality between men and women does not disappear with the abolition of classes or private property, as the Soviet experience has proved. Just as it does not disappear with the consecration of the principle of equality between men and women in legal systems, as the Western democracies prove. Thus, if public policies and public services are indispensable, if the recognition of the principle of equality between men and women is absolutely necessary, they are not sufficient to overcome the structure of domination. And this observation directly challenges the socialist movement, forcing it to rethink itself as a global and universal response to exploitation and oppression. It challenges the labour movement, in the sense of the need to reconfigure the concept of labour so that the experience of women is included in it, and to abolish the boundaries between productive and reproductive work, recognising domestic and care work as work. Similarly, it appeals to the feminist movement, claiming from it an anti-capitalist perspective if it is to be consistent in responding to inequalities. A feminism that is satisfied with the presence of women in all spheres of life fails the essential because, by limiting itself to gender equality, it ends up accepting the structures that produce domination.

There is now a broad consensus on the means advocated by Engels (and others before him) to ensure the emancipation of women: work that guarantees economic independence and social facilities that support domestic and educational tasks. However, feminist criticism has had the merit of taking the reflection further and insisting on the importance of going beyond role specialisation, both in the family and in the rest of society. As long as women (and only women) are responsible for the sphere of reproduction, they will always be in inequality in the labour market. From this point of view, Engels was right: the emancipation of women implies a complete reorganisation of society, both from the point of view of reproduction and production. This calls for the development of social facilities and public services, but also for a substantial reduction in working hours, for both women and men, not only to respond to unemployment, but also to distribute the costs of reproduction between them.

Engels was not the only author of his time to focus on the relationship between economics, the family and female subordination, but he was a pioneer in advancing a materialistic theory on the origin of inequalities, which removed explanatory power from biology and the inequality inscribed in bodies. He denaturalized oppression by explaining the relationship between women’s subordination and the family as a unit of economic reproduction, allowing the imagination of the future as an open field of possibilities and not as a waistcoat of forces for the reproduction of inequalities.


Engels was a man of his time. He looked at reality, interpreted it and tried to transform it. If today we know that the anthropological studies on which his studies were based are outdated, we must understand the importance of his proposal beyond the data from which he started, which were available at the time. The acumen he has undertaken in the paradigmatic transition of which he was the forerunner and the method and instruments of analysis he has mobilised to understand the genesis of inequality and, consequently, the opening up of other possible futures is a valuable heritage that we should not underestimate.

Many contemporary feminist readings in his text suffer, in my opinion, from a fundamental problem: they confuse desire with historical possibility and therefore accuse him of not having had the same radicality with women’s issues that motivated him in other subjects.

I dispute this criticism, precisely on the basis of his intellectual career, because I see in him a growing sensitivity to the role of patriarchy as a builder of inequalities and to the way in which it has been absorbed into capitalist modernity. Marx and Engels are not exempt from criticism, which, by the way, would be contradictory to their own thought, which is critical and anti-dogmatic. They did not know all the texts of their time, perceiving that they were in dialogue, preferably with the thinkers who expressed themselves in the field of politics and not in other territories. ut they were able to inquire about the origin and deep roots of inequality and to place women as subjects in the process of human emancipation. I therefore see them as builders of a monument to colossal thought and I perceive them as protagonists of the most important philosophical and political revolution of the eighteenth century. What they did was monumental and it would be unfair (and false) to say that they forgot about women. They discovered them as subjects of the working class and their approach to working conditions and exploitation was somehow gendered. They are allowing us today to know and understand how working class women lived and, with them, to conclude what Clara Zetkin said in her speech at the founding congress of the Second International: “It is not women’s labour itself that lowers wages by competing with men’s labour, but the exploitation of women’s labour by the capitalists who appropriate it”[7]. At a time when part of the socialist and labour movement was opposed to women’s entry into wage labour, Marx and Engels were part of this dispute and chose the women’s side, recognising their status as workers and thereby including them in the human emancipation movement. Let us remember that in their thinking the working class is the historical subject, the engine of history, and women are part of it. This is no small thing, especially if we realize that this was a dissonant conception in the spirit of the time, and therefore absolutely radical. Because we recognise Marx and Engels as pillars of socialist thought, we nurture the desire that they were also pillars of feminist thought. But this desire clouds the reading of the radicality of their proposal. We wish that they had gone further, that they had been more incisive in denouncing and condemning violence within working families, that they had not made mistakes about the forms and role of the sexual division of labour, that they had included in the free union of wills other forms of love and relationship than heterosexual. However, Marx and Engels are inescapable to feminism, not because they have theorised specifically about the emancipation of women, but because they have made them visible and included them in history. And the instruments of thought of Marxist theory, even though they were not proposed for the struggles against patriarchy, are fundamental to the understanding and transformation of the structures that engender oppression. They did not go any further than that, but that path was immense. Let us not make a dogma of it, but let us not underestimate it.


  1. Friedrich Engels (1884/1975). The origin of family, private property and the State
  2. Engels characterised Morgan’s classification as follows: “Wild state–a period in which the appropriation of products of nature, ready to be used, prevails; man’s artificial productions are, above all, intended to facilitate such appropriation. Barbarism–the period in which cattle farming and agriculture by means of human labour appear. Civilisation–a period in which man continues to learn to produce natural products, a period of industry itself and of art. In” The origin of the family, private property and the state”.
  3. In the United States, an agreement–Three-fifths Compromise–was signed at the 1787 Philadelphia Convention between the Southern and the Northern States, as the counting of enslaved persons was necessary to determine the number of seats of each State in the House of Representatives and the amount of tax payable. The agreement counted three out of five enslaved persons as persons. In other words, the rule of infra-humanity applied to enslaved persons is therefore, in some way, drawn from the one traced and applied also to women.
  4. Proudhon, Pierre-Joseph (1858). La pornocratie, ou les femmes dans les temps modernes.
  5. The “banquets” were political meetings organised throughout France between 1847 and 1848, thus designed to circumvent the ban on political meetings.
  6. Lalouette, Jacqueline (2001). “Les femmes dans les banquets politiques en France (vers 1848)”
  7. Clara Zetkin in her speech at the Founding Congress of the II International in 1889. In Wendy Goldman (2014), Mulher, Estado e Revolução: política familiar e vida social soviéticas, 1917-1936. São Paulo: Boitempo, p. 62.
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