Engels on the Development of Monogamy and the Nuclear Family and the Privatization of Property
Friedrich Engels, one of the founding thinkers of Marxism as a whole, is additionally noteworthy as one of the earlier figures of sociological analysis from a Marxist perspective. One of the key areas he turned an analytical eye to was that of culturally institutionalized monogamy and nuclear families, in his book On the Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State. The book’s analysis is ingenious, and its philosophical impact has been immense. Its language, however, is somewhat dated; it uses terms that have developed troubling connotations in the modern era and makes copious references which made sense to readers at the time but are confusing and obscure today. As such, in the interest of improving the accessibility of Marxist education, I have tried to simplify and condense Engels’s basic points on the subject into a brief article. The book itself goes through a detailed scientific analysis of the history of human and animal development in order to reach its conclusions about this topic (which is only one of several it touches on), but here I have condensed only those conclusions themselves with minimal notes for evidence and historical analysis. For further sources, see the book itself.
It was when Engels was writing- and still is- generally accepted that the human way of living is and has always been essentially monogamous and that the nuclear family unit in its current form has always been a dominant social institution, with the few deviations from this in any given society always being deviants and hedonists which existed only on the social margins. Engels, however, questioned this assumption. He examined several societies which were then in earlier stages of social development- the Algongquin hunter-gatherers and pre-industrial Hawaiians, among others- and showed they had radically different concepts of family and marriage. From this, it can be extrapolated that the current forms of marriage and organized family units- and presumably the ideas as a whole- are not inherent to humanity but instead emerged at some point in human social development. The next question, then, is how and why they emerged.
From here, Engels next turned to an analysis of the family unit in certain non-human species. He showed that, across all social species, there is a clear dichotomy between the family unit and society as a whole: where and when the patrilineal organized family unit exists, it takes social power and influence away from any larger unity of society. For instance, the example of birds: in social species of birds, the females and the young express the least contributions to the good of the flock as a whole during mating season, when they are tied up into temporary family units with males. Thus, we may understand the essential social function of developing the organized and enforced family unit: to concentrate material social power into the hands of a few familial patriarchs. In the example of the birds, the existence of the family unit as an enforced social norm gives the male power over the (re)productive labour-power of females. But, if the function of the family unit is to concentrate social power into a few hands, how does this play out in the human example?
This is where the exact timeline of the family unit’s development, which Engels had earlier laid out, becomes important. Not only did the family unit as monogamous and nuclear develop as society developed, it very specifically moved in tandem with the phases of social development: as civilization moved more toward sedentary, stratified, and industrial societies, so too did the family unit become more and more monogamous and nuclearly centered on a single man and his children. And, of course, there was another key development that was a direct consequence of the invention of agriculture which led to this sedentarization of society: the concept of economically productive property. So, as property was born, grew, and developed, the family unit became more rigid even as the amount of property to be controlled became greater and greater. And, as these family units developed, property became private and private ownership over it was kept in the family, ever more rigidly as the amount of property to control increased. As, such given that the social function of the family unit is to concentrate social power into a few hands, the function of the nuclear family unit and enforced rigid monogamy in human society has been and remains to keep control over property away from society as a whole, to justify and reinforce the increasing private control over productive property and labour.
What, then, is the sociocultural nature of this entrenched propertarian institution of “the family” today? The development of this rigid family unit has created and been accompanied by an increasing cultural animosity towards any deviations from standard monogamy, in order to enforce it and thus enforce the private ownership of property. The demonization of promiscuity, polyamory, and any other deviant sexual tendencies as “unnatural”- despite their being observable as inherently common to earlier stages of human societal development- became an entrenched social law alongside the institution of the nuclear family unit. As, such the conservative cultural obsession with “family values” can be understood as a rigid defense of bourgeois control over production. The social pressure to establish a family is in fact a social pressure to preserve current property relationships. And, ultimately, the whole cultural image of the family that is idolized and enforced in modern culture is a tool of the cultural superstructure which enforces the power of the bourgeoisie over property and workers.