Marx & Engels on Morgan
As noted previously, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels found Morgan’s analysis of pre-class and early class society of great value. In the preface to the first edition of “The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State,” Engels writes, “Karl Marx had made it one of his future tasks to present the results of Morgan’s researches in the light of the conclusions of his own — within certain limits, I may say our — materialistic examination of history, and thus to make clear their full significance.” (p. 71)
Morgan’s findings were based not on religious dogma or philosophical meanderings, but rather on a consistently objective approach, a scientific approach, to the reality of existing clan and tribal societies.
Engels offered a profound tribute to Morgan: “This rediscovery of the primitive matriarchal gens as the earlier stage of the patriarchal gens of civilized peoples has the same importance for anthropology as Darwin’s theory of evolution has for biology and Marx’s theory of surplus value for political economy.” (p. 83)
‘The part played by labor’
What Engels was able to add in “Origin” to Morgan’s conclusions was a political perspective based on how human technological innovations, like the development of plant cultivation and the domestication of animals, affected the productivity of human labor. He explained how this increasing productivity affected human social relations, specifically the role and position of women, and social development, resulting ultimately in the division of society into antagonistic social classes of rich and poor based on private property and the alienation of human labor.
“Labor is the source of all wealth, the political economists assert. … But it is even infinitely more than this. It is the prime basic condition for all human existence, and this to such an extent that, in a sense, we have to say that labor created man himself.” These intriguing words grace the beginning of Engels’ unfinished essay, “The Part Played by Labor in the Transition from Ape to Man.” They also serve as an introduction to Engels’ comments in “Origin” on the economic conditions of early humanity:
“At all earlier stages of society, production was essentially collective, just as consumption proceeded by direct distribution of the products within larger or smaller communistic communities. This collective production was very limited; but inherent in it was the producers’ control over their process of production and their product. They knew what became of their product: they consumed it; it did not leave their hands. And so long as production remains on this basis, it cannot grow above the heads of the producers nor raise up incorporeal alien powers against them, as in civilization is always and inevitably the case.” (p. 233)
This distinction between production for use and, by implication, commodity production for private profit is crucial to an understanding of what it was that transformed the matrilineal societies that Morgan studied into the patriarchal societies that enslaved women and fundamentally altered marriage relations. Production for private profit is based on private ownership of the means of production and the alienation of the worker from the product of her or his labor.
The importance of women in production
Engels notes that the first division of labor was between men and women, specifically with regard to reproduction, “the propagation of children.” But this was a benign division. A number of contemporary anthropologists argue that one of the things that distinguished our species and strengthened our survival potential was the willingness of men to cooperate in the care of children, at the very least by sharing meat.
But both men and women contributed to the sustenance of the communal group and enjoyed equal social status. Anthropologist Richard Lee, in his paper titled, “What Hunters Do for a Living,” concludes, “Since a 30 to 40 percent input of meat is such a consistent target for modern hunters [in foraging and hunting groups] in a variety of habitats, is it not reasonable to postulate a similar percentage for prehistoric hunters?” (p. 43)
In other words, the labor of women as foragers was crucial (although men also foraged). Women’s foraging activities would have contributed the other 60 percent to 70 percent of the food supply. And this fact in no way diminishes women’s role in hunting, both of small animals and in group roundup activities, and in scavenging, which some anthropologists think preceded hunting among early humans. Contemporary anthropologists also speculate that one of the first “tools” invented by women, along with the digging stick, was the baby sling, greatly increasing the mobility and productivity of mothers.
Group marriage and promiscuity
Engels was impressed by Morgan’s ability to extrapolate the forms of sexual and kinship relations in the remote past based on the more complex forms existing in the foraging and hunting societies he was familiar with in the 19th century:
“The study of primitive history … reveals conditions where the men live in polygamy [multiple wives] and their wives in polyandry [multiple husbands] at the same time, and their common children are therefore considered common to them all — and these conditions in their turn undergo a long series of changes before they finally end in monogamy. The trend of these changes is to narrow more and more the circle of people comprised within the common bond of marriage, which was originally very wide, until at last it includes only the single pair, the dominant form of marriage today.
“Reconstructing thus the past history of the family, Morgan, in agreement with most of his colleagues, arrives at a primitive stage when unrestricted sexual freedom prevailed within the tribe, every woman belonging equally to every man and every man to every woman. Since the 18th century there had been talk of such a primitive state, but only in general phrases. Bachofen — and this is one of his great merits — was the first to take the existence of such a state seriously and to search for its traces in historical and religious survivals. Today we know that the traces he found do not lead back to a social stage of promiscuous sexual intercourse, but to a much later form — namely, group marriage. The primitive social stage of promiscuity, if it ever existed, belongs to such a remote epoch that we can hardly expect to prove its existence directly by discovering its social fossils among backward savages. Bachofen’s merit consists in having brought this question to the forefront for examination.” (pp. 96-97)
We will return to Engels’ “Origin” further along when we consider the changes wrought in the institutions of marriage and kinship by the victory of patriarchy over the matrilineal clans. In the next installment of this series, however, we’ll review contemporary studies of chimpanzees and bonobos in their natural settings and in zoos by trained observers. These scientific reports, which were lacking when Bachofen, Morgan and Engels were puzzling over the theoretical possibility of a remote past of “promiscuous sexual intercourse,” offer the “traces” what we now might project as early hominin homosexual and heterosexual behavior.
McCubbin is the author of “The Roots of Lesbian and Gay Oppression: A Marxist View,” New York: World View Forum, 3rd ed., 1993.