A brief history of ‘marriage’

Part 1: Two schools of thought lock horns

Supreme Court decisions are expected sometime in June on the constitutionality of California’s Prop 8, which prohibits same-sex marriage, and the federal so-called “Defense of Marriage Act,” which discriminates against same-sex married couples in the administration of more than 1,000 federal programs. However, it is a foregone conclusion that, with or without the support of these “unelected for life” justices, lesbian women and gay men are going to win this basic legal right that the heterosexual majority already take for granted.

An April editorial in Workers World newspaper, titled, “Why same-sex marriage matters,” pointed out that same-sex marriage “is a class issue.” The editorial elaborated some of the material basis for this struggle: “There are major income tax advantages from which couples not permitted to marry are barred. Social Security survivor payments go only to heterosexual spouses. Bosses that provide medical benefits to straight employees’ spouses do not have to provide them to same-sex partners. Thus, not being allowed to marry is pure discrimination.”

Public opinion polls show that an ever-growing majority of people are coming around on this issue. They have realized the inherent injustice of the ban. So how do the defenders of the ban justify their homophobia/homo-hatred?

Marriage: Everywhere and always the same?

“Marriage is a binding contract between one man and one woman for the establishment of an individual family.” In recent times, people have heard slight variations on this basic formulation over and over again, from numerous conservative politicians, religious leaders, radio and TV talk-show hosts and garden-variety right-wing bigots, as the struggle for same-sex marriage rights has heated up in states across the U.S. and at the very heights of bourgeois political power in Washington, D.C.

Interestingly, though, this quote comes not from any contemporary “authority” on the subject, but from the mouth of a prominent 20th-century anthropologist defending “traditional” marriage in a debate that took place 82 years ago.

Polish-born Bronislaw Malinowski is known as the founder of social anthropology. He was born in 1884, held academic posts in both Britain and the U.S. during the course of his career, and did anthropological fieldwork in many areas of the world, including Papua New Guinea and the Trobriand Islands. His writings are considered anthropological landmarks. He died in Mexico in 1942.

Robert Briffault, also of European origins, was born in 1876. His monumental, three-volume contribution to anthropology, “The Mothers,” was published in 1927. He died in 1948.

“Marriage, Past and Present: A Debate Between Robert Briffault and Bronislaw Malinowski” (Boston: Porter Sargent, 1956) provides a transcript of the 1931 BBC broadcasts where these two giants of anthropology locked horns.

Malinowski’s position throughout the debate series was to repeatedly deny that there has ever been, throughout the whole history of human social evolution, any significant variation in the forms by which societies organized their members for sexual and reproductive purposes.

“Through all the changes and vicissitudes of history and development,” Malinowski stated, “the family and marriage still remain the same twin institution; they still emerge as a stable group showing throughout the same characteristics: the group consisting of father and mother and their children, forming a joint household, co-operating economically, legally united by a contract and surrounded by religious sanctions which make the family into a moral unit.” (p. 80)

The foundation of marriage: romance or economics?

Briffault countered that “if, following out the various forms of the institution of marriage, we work our way up from the Australian black [the Aboriginal peoples that Briffault references as an example of pre-horticultural and pre-pastoral societies], through the various stages in the evolution of culture, glancing at the matrimonial arrangements of African chiefs [tribal societies], or Chinese mandarins [slavery/feudalism], up to those of a French peasant or of an English duke [feudalism], we shall find in every quarter of the globe and in every age that the transaction rests chiefly, and in most instances exclusively, upon economic considerations.” (p. 56)

Malinowski, however, insists that the basis of all marriage is romantic love. “There is nothing more important to realise with regard to the institution of marriage than that it is everywhere based on love and affection.” (p. 68)

Briffault’s rejoinder rests on his prodigious knowledge of pre-horticultural and pre-pastoral societies. “Our reports and observations about savages [this is the unfortunate word that anthropologists used for many years to describe societies whose food sources were based on hunting animals and foraging for plants] are very emphatic and uniform as to the absence of romantic love amongst them.” (p. 56)

Briffault explains this by contrasting the social conditions of communal, band- and clan-based societies with those of more technologically developed societies riven by class divisions. “Among savages, who are every bit as affectionate as we are, affection is not concentrated on the man-woman relation; it is diffused in the comradeship of the clan. The savage, as a general rule, is quite kind and tender to his women. But no more so to his wife than to his mother or sisters or his brothers or children of the clan. The most definite and unanimous testimonies which we have of affection between man and woman among savages refer to the devotion between very old married couples. In other words, love among savages is the result, rather than the cause of marriage.” (p. 57)

Malinowski is adamant in this debate that another foundation of what he terms “the individual family” is the need to “legitimize” the children. Briffault responds, “Where women remain after marriage in their own home and among their people, and the husband joins them there, the children belong to their mother’s clan. A child is not the heir to his father’s property or to his name, he derives both from his mother and from his relatives. One consequence of that organisation and that form of marriage, which we call matrilocal, is that there are no illegitimate children.” Later he continues, “A legal contract is required to make a child legitimate only where he must inherit his father’s name and property.”

Providing a historical context as communal societies began to give way to societies with class divisions, Briffault notes: “Among many people, such as the Samoans, there are very elaborate marriage contracts and ceremonies, but only in the case of chiefs and owners of important property. The common and poor people, although they may bring up large families, are not said to marry, but to live at their pleasure in concubinage [cohabitation without a legal marriage].” (pp. 58-59)

The counterrevolution in anthropology

In “Feminism and Marxism” (New York: World View Publishers, 1971), an important polemic addressed to the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s, Workers World Party founder and leader Dorothy Ballan comments on the ideological struggle between the original, historical materialist approach to anthropology and the bourgeois school that has come to dominate this social science:

“What is involved here is whether to accept the revolutionary teachings of the historical materialist school of thought as expounded by [Frederick] Engels (and in part based on the researches of Lewis H. Morgan) or whether to take the bourgeois anti-evolutionist position, which has dominated anthropology in this country for many decades. The latter aims as one of its principal objectives to discredit, disqualify and destroy the monumental contributions of Morgan and Engels.” (p. 40)

The anti-evolutionary school of anthropology represented by Malinowski and other well-known anthropologists of the 20th century has been seriously undermined by the work of contemporary anthropologists, many of whom hold the groundbreaking work of Lewis Henry Morgan and Frederick Engels in high regard. In forthcoming parts of this series we’ll attempt to summarize the important guideposts these two historic figures contributed to the origins and development of human social, sexual and reproductive relations.

McCubbin is the author of “The Roots of Lesbian and Gay Oppression: A Marxist View,” World View Publishers, 1993.

Part 1: Two schools of thought lock horns

Part 2: The challenge of uncovering human prehistory

Part 3: What was Lewis Henry Morgan’s contribution?

Part 4: Marx & Engels on Morgan