A Middlesex University resource by Jo Twomey

home page for social
science home page to Andrew Roberts'
web site the ABC Study Guide home page

born with broom?

Jo Twomey investigates Engels, Morgan and Morris

"the innate response is to protect what belongs to you... the learned response is to assume domestic duties"

Frederick Engels (1820-1895) began The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State in 1884 and completed it in about two months, shortly after the death of his friend and colleague, Karl Marx (1818-1883). The book is a collaboration of the thoughts and writings of Engels and Marx and it is their interpretation of Ancient Society (1877) written by the American anthropologist, Lewis Henry Morgan (1818-1881). Morgan spent forty years researching and identifying the family patterns of ancient tribes and, in particular, he investigated the indigenous tribes of New York State (the Iroquois). Morgan's studies culminated in him being able to infer backwards, using symbolic artefacts, myths and legends, to reconstruct the family patterns of the savage and barbarian tribes and to create his version of what life may have been like before written history. Engels' studies culminated in him being able to chart the course of woman's political exploitation.

Origin begins by outlining the stages of prehistoric culture broken down into the lower, middle and upper stages of savagery and barbarism. Engels used Morgan's theories to chart the decline in the women-right period of history during the stage of savagery (in which a system of group marriage and communal living prevailed), through to barbarism (when the pairing system of marriage was common), and the rise of the man-right period of history achieved during the course of evolution by the development of agricultural methods and the domestication of animals; which lead to the formation of private wealth and class structures during the period of early human civilisation.

In this essay I will break down the stages of human organisation into the past (being the times of savagery and barbarism followed by early civilisation), the present (the period when Engels wrote Origin) and the future (both Engels' and Morris' communist vision), to discover the history of womankind in relation to politics.

This essay will show that as man's wealth increased so did his position in society and that, once he had gained dominance over the instruments of labour, man used his strong economic position to gain political control over the household to ensure the legitimacy of his offspring and his continued heredity. As woman's dependence on man increased, so her status in society correspondingly decreased. William Morris expressed his view on the future of society in News from Nowhere (1888) in which he elaborated on Engels' vision of the future by providing his prediction of a pathway towards a communist state.

Engels theory on the future of society was based on his belief that women would not be equal in society until domestic freedom had been achieved. Therefore, I will approach the question first from a psychological perspective and look for the stages when changes in household government took place and ask whether domesticity is innate (and natural to men as well as women) or whether it is a learned response. Engels stated that "wealth excites the greed of peoples who already see in the acquisition of wealth one of the main aims of life." (Engels, 1948, p.223) so I will then approach the question from a sociological angle and relate some of the reasons for the failure of communism in many countries to my belief that man's materialistic instinct cannot be curbed as it stems from the period in human history when communal living gave way to emerging class structures and man realised the power of his possessions.

Morgan believed that during the stage of savagery women existed independent of men and lived in self-governing matriarchal groups with inheritance passing through the female line. These women were self-sufficient and responsible for providing the means of subsistence as well as for all household and maternal duties, whilst man's role was more social and spiritual. Throughout the period of savagery and into the stage of barbarism a system of group marriage and communal living developed and man's position in the household grew as he developed basic farming techniques which created a surplus stock of grains and he learnt to domesticate animals. Engels argued that it was during this period that the beginnings of a class structure formed when women began to cede control to men, as the value of the man's possessions (herds of animals and land) were greater than the value of the woman's possessions (household products and children) (Engels, 1884, p.117-118, p.220-221).

In comparison to Engels' view, Bachofen's argument in Mutterrecht (1861) reverted around his belief that during the time of group marriage man was exerting a basic primeval instinct to mate freely in order to strengthen the clan or gens by increasing its size. Bachofen realised that this arrangement caused a problem in identifying the parentage of children as heredity could only be reliably traced through the mother's line; he referred to this as "mother-right". However, as man became aware of the power of his possessions he exerted his financial and political strength to change the balance of control to a period of "man-right".

Engels refers to Morgan's research which uncovered many groups across the globe (particularly in Asia, American, Africa and Australia), who were at the barbaric stage of human development which centred on an easily terminable pairing system of marriage (Engels, 1884, p.102) and the indigenous Hawaiian people whose communal households were split by a consanguine method of group marriage separated by generation (Engels, 1884, p.103). In these systems the women played an equal role to the men and shared many tasks but they specialised in the task which best suited their abilities. The tribe hunted, fought and lived together within the laws of its confederacy. A woman would take up arms and fight in battle or hunt for food if required and the male would assume a childcare role if the female was occupied in other duties. From this discovery it is clear that domesticity is a natural and innate response in all and is not the exclusive domain of the woman.

Civilisation was marked by the introduction of writing as a form of recordkeeping and organisation and the use of iron for the production of tools and weapons. Weapons meant power and the capture of humans created a workforce in the form of slaves (Engels, 1884, p.118). More advanced farming and agricultural techniques meant that a surplus stock of food and materials could be produced and man's economic wealth increased. It was also at this stage that pairing relationships developed into monogamous relationships in the patriarchal family to ensure that man's inheritance was passed solely to his own children and therefore the fidelity of the woman was demanded (Engels, 1884, p.119). Engels states:

"The sole exclusive aims of monogamous marriage were to make the man supreme in the family and to propagate, as the future heirs to his wealth, children indisputably his own." (Engels, 1884, p.128)

At the early stages of civilisation a divide arose between man and woman, as displayed in ancient Greek and Roman culture, and a power shift occurred when man discovered an opportunity to use his wealth to exert absolute power over women (Engels, 1884, p.199). Engels believed that the cause of woman's position in society lay in the class structure which had the effect of her being treated as a servant within the home:

"The man took command of the home also; the woman was degraded and reduced to servitude; she became the slave of his lust and a mere instrument for the production of children." (Engels, 1884, p.120-121)

Moving forward to the time when Engels wrote Origin (1884), the British Empire covered much of the globe but Engels noted that Britain's internal affairs were in turmoil as the people were being politically exploited by a system of capitalist production. Wealth and power belonged to a few, with the mass of people living in poverty and squalor, and a great divide had arisen between the classes. Laws and social reforms were introduced to protect workers and were intended to improve morality and social conditions but these laws also had the effect of excluding many women and children from a source of income. This caused women to become economically oppressed and wholly reliant on the male for financial support and therefore man's status in society and the home increased. Women's status correspondingly decreased when taken out of the workforce to fulfil a domestic role of household and childcare duties and it was at this stage that domesticity of woman became routine and required on moral and social grounds and man's supremacy was complete. Engels recognised that for women to be treated equally they should be free from domestic duties and able to participate in production.

"The emancipation of women will only be possible when women can take part in production on a large, social scale, and domestic work no longer claims anything but an insignificant amount of her time. And only now has that become possible through modern large-scale industry, which does not merely a system of capitalist production was in force following the breakdown of the feudal system of government permit the employment of female labor over a wide range, but positively demands it, whilst it also tends toward ending private domestic labour by changing it more and more into a public industry." (Engels, 1884, p.221)

The equality that Engels talked of is taken a step further in News from Nowhere (1888) by William Morris (1834-1896) when he interpreted the rules contained in The Communist Manifesto (Marx & Engels, 1848, p.104-105) by describing the struggles necessary to achieve a fully functioning communist state and a free and classless society.

Morris concurred with Marx's view that "to be human _ is to be a creative worker" (Roberts, A. Study Document 12, p.2) and Morris believed that a source of happiness lay through beauty and achievement. Morris further believed that people would regain a sense of achievement in their work and their lives by returning to an era before the emergence of economic and social class to a time when no material value was placed on products and services.

The Communist Manifesto (1848) stated that it was necessary "to restore by force the vanished status of the workman of the Middle Ages" (Marx & Engels, (1848), p.89) and suggested that this could only be achieved through the dissolution of private property and through a workers' revolution against the repression of the cash-nexus system of capitalism and class. In News from Nowhere (1888), Morris describes the route his Combined Workers took to freedom and the struggles they endured through the rioting (Morris, 1888, p.293) and strikes (Morris, 1888, p.308) and legal battles (Morris, 1888, p.312) which were the sacrifices necessary to achieve the workers' freedom as the workers were the only people who could promote this change "the class that holds the future in its hands" (Marx & Engels, 1848 p.91). Morris' aim was to remove all power from the state: "The end, it was seen clearly, must be either absolute slavery for all but the privileged, or a system of life founded on equality and Communism." (Morris, 1888, p.313). Morris predicted that, ultimately, slavery and privilege would be the losers.

More than one hundred years after Morris wrote News from Nowhere a system of communism currently exists in a few countries around the world, having been rejected by many more countries following the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the disbanding of the USSR and the liberation of the countries it controlled. The free and classless society that Marx and Morris predicted proved to be unworkable because equality could not be fully achieved whilst there was still a ruling class and an exploited class. The communist dream was shattered internally when the Communist Party lost touch with its socialist ideals and the loyalty of the party members waned under the harsh regime. The lure of wealth from the West became too tempting for poverty stricken Communist countries and many Western Governments and international institutions put pressure on these countries to conform to Western rules. As Morgan had discovered, the power of the North America Indians lay in their number strength and community organisation, however, their system of confederacy collapsed as their numbers dwindled when their lifestyle changed from forest to prairie as they had been tempted by greed (Engels, 1884, p.120). Likewise, communism collapsed due to lack of trust by members in the organisation and through greed. It was not enough for men and women to be equal, man's naturally materialistic instinct dictated that he should hold onto what he had worked for and to protect his property and possessions as this was where he believed the power lay.

"The lowest interests - base greed, brutal appetites, sordid avarice, selfish robbery of the common wealth - inaugurate the new, civilized, class society." (Engels, 1884, p.161)

Finally, returning to my first point asking if domesticity is innate or whether it is a learned response, I believe the innate response is to protect what belongs to you, like an animal staking its claim by spaying its territory or protecting its food source, man believed he had the right to protect and control his possessions, women included. The learned response is that of women who are conditioned to assume domestic duties. However, we know from studying ancient societies that domesticity is not innate and this pattern could be reversed. Similarly, I believe that humans cannot fight their innate materialist instincts, but that it is possible for their attitudes to be reconditioned and changed, and this has to be the way forward. Morgan predicted in his definition of "civilisation" that "the pursuit of property would lead to man's self- destruction" (Morgan, 1877, p.561-562). Let us hope not.


Bachofen, J. (1861) Mutterrecht, 1992 edition, USA: Princeton University Books

De Beauvoir, S. (1949) The Second Sex, London: David Campbell Publishers Ltd

Engels, F. (1870) Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, New York: Pathfinder Press, Inc.

Engels, F. (1884) The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, Fourth Edition, London: Lawrence & Wishart

Engels, F. (1892) The Condition of the Working-Class in England, Moscow: Progress Publishers

Firestone, S. (1972) The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution, London: Granada Publishing Limited

Marx, K. (1846) Karl Marx on Society and Social Change: The Heritage of Sociology, (Edited by N J Smelser, 1973), Chicago: The University of Chicago Press

Marx, K. & Engels, F. (1848) The Communist Manifesto, London: Penguin Books Ltd

Mearns, A. (1883) Bitter Cry of Outcast London, Old Woking: Unwin Brothers

Morgan, L.H. (1877) Ancient Society, London: Macmillan

Morris, W. (1888) Three Works by William Morris: News from Nowhere, London: Lawrence & Wishart Ltd

Roberts, A. (1988) Study Document, William Morris: The Communist Utopia and Human Creativity

Roberts, A. (1989) Study Document 7, Ideas about Politics: William Morris

Roberts, A. (undated) Study Document 12, Marx and Morris: Philosophy, history, economics and art

Smith, A. (1776) The Wealth of Nations, Books I-III, London: Penguin Books Ltd

Trevelyan, G.M. (1944) English Social History, London: Longman Group Limited

Various authors (1983) Feminist Review 14, Southampton: Camelot Press

Essay copyright Jo Twomey 2004

Suggested bibliography entry:

Twomey, Jo 2004 Born with broom? Jo Twomey investigates Engels, Morgan and Morris, available on the Middlesex University Web at http://studymore.org.uk/xtwomey.htm

with in-text references to (Twomey, J. 2004).

ABC Referencing includes general advice on referencing internet sources as well as printed sources.

Study links outside this site
Picture introduction to this site
Andrew Roberts' web Study Guide
Top of Page Take a Break - Read a Poem
Click coloured words to go where you want

Andrew Roberts likes to hear from users:
To contact him, please use the Communication Form

  see Engels

index of some of the essays on this site