A brief history of ‘marriage,’ part 18

The ‘Privatization’ of Marriage

Where did the innovation of private property — a concept totally alien to foraging and hunting peoples — come from? First, it should be noted that Marxists make a distinction between private property and personal property. Both your toothbrush and your home — if you’re lucky enough to have a house with the mortgage paid off — fall within the realm of personal property.

For the foraging woman or the male hunter, her or his tools, weapons, personal ornamentation, ritual gear and other such materials constituted personal property. The customs of pre-class societies concerning disposal of this personal property upon the possessor’s death varied. It might be destroyed or buried with her or him, or divided among surviving clan members.

One of the Supplementary Texts penned by Karl Marx in his book, “Pre-Capitalist Economic Formations,” includes the passage: “As the last phase of the primitive formation of society, the agricultural community is at the same time a transitional phase to the secondary formation — i.e., transition from society based on common property to society based on private property. The secondary formation comprises … the series of societies based on slavery and serfdom.” (New York: International Publishers, 1965, p. 145)

In “The German Ideology,” a book which Marx and Frederick Engels co-wrote, they further develop this idea: “The first form of ownership is tribal … ownership. It corresponds to the underdeveloped stage of production, at which a people lives by hunting and fishing, by the rearing of beasts or, in the highest stage, by agriculture. In the latter case it presupposes a great mass of uncultivated stretches of land.

“The division of labour is at this stage still very elementary and is confined to a further extension of the natural division of labour existing in the family. The social structure is, therefore, limited to an extension of the family; patriarchal family chieftains, below them the members of the tribe, finally slaves. The slavery latent in the family only develops gradually with the increase of population, the growth of wants, and with the extension of external relations, both of war and of barter.” (New York: International Publishers, 1970, pp. 43-44)

The ‘commodification’ of human beings

With regard to the institution of slavery, Engels writes the following in “The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State”: “We saw [in an earlier section of this book] how at a fairly early stage in the development of production, human labor power obtains the capacity of producing a considerably greater product than is required for the maintenance of the producers, and how this stage of development was in the main the same as that in which division of labor and exchange between individuals arises.

“It was not long then before the great ‘truth’ was discovered that man can also be a commodity, that human energy can be exchanged and put to use by making a man into a slave. Hardly had men begun to exchange than already they themselves were being exchanged. The active became the passive, whether men liked it or not.” (New York: International Publishers, 1972, p. 234)

In a related passage, Engels refers to the capture and purchase of women for marriage. Although in this passage he connects the origin and prevalence of these practices to the time when pairing marriage was still the dominant form, the objectification of women that such practices suggest is certainly more characteristic of the onset of patriarchal monogamy. (p. 112)

The factor that may have been in play during this earlier period was the tendency of matrilineal clans to regard both the male and the female members of other clans with whom there were no peaceful contacts as somehow less than human. Evelyn Reed deals with this aspect of early hominin life in her book, “Woman’s Evolution.” (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1974)

In any case, in “Origin,” Engels further contextualizes his view of the evolution of purchase marriage: “With the preponderance of private over communal property and the interest in its bequeathal, father right and monogamy gained supremacy, the dependence of marriages on economic considerations became complete. The ‘form’ of marriage by purchase disappears; the actual practice is steadily extended until not only the woman but also the man acquires a price — not according to his personal qualities but according to his property. That the mutual affection of the people concerned should be the one paramount reason for marriage, outweighing everything else, was and always had been absolutely unheard of in the practice of the ruling classes; that sort of thing only happened in romance — or among the oppressed classes, who did not count.” (p. 142)

Marriage as an instrument bolstering class rule

While it will be impossible in this series to offer more than the barest mention of the multitude of distinct features that characterized ruling-class marriages in the early kingdoms and empires, Stephanie Coontz offers a succinct appraisal of their economic and political basis in her book, “Marriage, a History”: “More than four thousand years ago a few regional chiefdoms and small-scale warrior societies grew into mighty states in and around the Tigris-Euphrates Valley of the Middle East and the Nile Valley of Africa. Over the next two thousand years other states and empires arose along the Indus and Yellow rivers in India and China respectively, and by 800 B.C., military aristocracies in the Mediterranean region had established several powerful kingdoms there as well. A thousand years later the Mayan empire spread out across Central America. The Aztecs of Mexico and the Incas of South America were relatively latecomers, but they developed in ways similar to their predecessors.

“These societies were separated from one another by thousands of years and a myriad of distinctive cultural practices. But in all of them, kings, pharaohs, emperors, and nobles relied on personal and family ties to recruit and reward followers, make alliances, and establish their legitimacy. Marriage was one of the key mechanisms through which such ties were forged.” (New York: Penguin Books, 2006, p. 53)

Thus, as Engels noted in “Origin,” the marriages of the people “who counted,” the private property-based rulers under slavery and feudalism, had little or nothing to do with that precious human emotion called love.

The next installment in this series will take up the distortions in human social/sexual relations and particularly the social status of women in societies based on slave or serf labor.