Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, The

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, The


In writing The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, Engels was guided by Marx’ detailed summary of Ancient Society, a book by the American ethnologist and historian L. H. Morgan (1877). Following Marx, Engels placed a very high estimation on Morgan’s discovery of the clan organization in primitive society and made extensive use of Morgan’s findings, especially the vast factual material he had gathered. Engels used this to substantiate and develop the materialist conception of history and Marx’ economic theory. Engels cited a number of other sources, significantly broadening the range of questions considered by Morgan and drawing upon his own findings, based on studies of Greek, Roman, ancient Irish, and ancient German history. In preparing the fourth edition (1890–91), Engels made substantial changes and additions; this is especially true of the chapter on the family, in the final version of which he also made use of the findings of M. M. Kovalevskii. Modern data make it possible to give a more complete picture of the evolution of primitive society, a picture based on the development of productive relations in that society and not only on the development of its material culture, as was the case in Morgan’s work. But the more precise information about the history of the primitive age, particularly concerning some forms of the primitive family and the mechanism of class formation, does not affect the basic conclusions of Engels’ work.

Engels’ book consists of nine chapters. The first and second chapters analyze the conditions of life for people in the most ancient period, up until the rise of the clan structure. Engels investigates the development of family and marital relations in class society and critically examines the bourgeois family. Just as he had in an earlier work, The Part Played by Labor in the Transition From Ape to Man, Engels here develops the basic methodological postulates of the Marxist conception of the primitive stage as a separate stage in human history. According to this conception, labor, which began with the making of tools, is what separates human beings from animals and is the prime and fundamental condition of human life.

In Chapters 3 through 9, Engels examines the particular features of the clan form of social organization as the basic structural cell of preclass society and describes primitive tribal “communism.” In following the decomposition process of the clan system, Engels investigates the economic conditions that undermined the clan form of social organization at its highest stage of development and later, with the transition to civilization, completely swept it away. He shows that the development of productive forces, the division of labor, and the increased productivity of labor made it possible for the products of one person’s labor to be appropriated by another. The exploitation of one man by another began, and society was divided into hostile classes, resulting in the emergence of the state as the instrument of the exploiting class to hold down the class of the oppressed.

As he examines the various specific forms of the state, Engels discloses their class character and analyzes the tendencies in the further development of the bourgeois state. Although he notes that democratic freedoms alone cannot lead to the emancipation of the workers as long as capitalism is preserved, he emphasizes that the proletariat has an objective material interest in preserving and extending democratic rights to the maximum, since these freedoms create conditions favorable to the struggle for the revolutionary transformation of society.

In The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, Engels showed that the disintegration of primitive society takes place in dissimilar forms under different natural and historical conditions; the basic content of the disintegration—the transformation of preclass society into class society—is the same for all countries and peoples, however. This analysis was a vivid confirmation of the dialectical materialist proposition concerning the historical unity, progressive development, and logical succession of the forms of social life. Engels’ book represented an important stage in the development of Marxist doctrine on the state. This doctrine was developed further in its application to new historical conditions by Lenin, primarily in his State and Revolution.

Engels’ book is directed against bourgeois conceptions of the state as a force standing above classes and having the supposed purpose of defending the interests of all citizens to an equal extent.


Marx, K. “Konspekt knigi L’iuisa G. Morgana ‘Drevnee obshchestvo.’” In Arkhiv Marksa i Engel’sa, vol. 9. [Moscow-Leningrad] 1941.
Lenin. V. I. “Ogosudarstve.” Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 39.
Fridrikh Engel’s: Biografiia. Moscow, 1970. Pages 448–54.
Engel’s—teoretik. Moscow, 1970. Pages 219–25,253–62.
F. Engel’s o gosudarstve i prave. [Moscow, 1970.]
Problemy etnografi i antropologa v svete nauchnogo naslediia F. Engel’sa. Moscow, 1972.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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