Sunday, 8 March 2009

Engels on the origin of civilisation

Until the work of Gordon Childe, the only significant Marxist writing on the development of early civilisation was Engels’ book The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. First published in 1884 and updated by Engels in 1891 to allow for new scholarship, this work was remarkable for its time, and a blog on Marxism cannot examine early society without reference to it. So before we take a look at the art of early civilisation, it is useful to pause for a brief assessment of whether Origin is still useful for us today.[1]

Marx and Engels made significant contributions to the theory of how the earliest human societies evolved. For Origin, Engels took as a starting point Marx’s critical notes on the work of the American anthropologist Lewis H. Morgan. Morgan was an American anthropologist, influenced by Darwinism, with a particular interest in the social forms of Native American societies. His great work of 1877, Ancient Society, finds the roots of social change in successive stages of material and technological change, and thus, in Engels’ view, stumbled upon the materialist conception of history. Morgan asserted, for example:

Mankind are the only beings who may be said to have gained an absolute control over the production of food… It is accordingly probable that the great epochs of human progress have been identified, more or less directly, with the enlargement of the sources of subsistence.[2]

Engels did considerable additional research into history and ethnography, drawing Morgan’s research into a clearer dialectical materialist framework to create what Lenin called “one of the fundamental works of modern socialism.”[3] In the same sentence, Lenin added: “every sentence of which can be accepted with confidence.” Whether he was right is a question we shall explore here.

The origins and character of early society

In Origin, Engels studies prehistoric society, its historical development, and the advent of class society. Borrowing directly from Morgan, he proposed a progression from hunter-gatherer ‘savagery’, to agricultural ‘barbarism’ and then to ‘civilisation’:

Savagery — the period in which man’s appropriation of products in their natural state predominates; the products of human art are chiefly instruments which assist this appropriation.

Barbarism — the period during which man learns to breed domestic animals and to practice agriculture, and acquires methods of increasing the supply of natural products by human activity.

Civilisation — the period in which man learns a more advanced application of work to the products of nature, the period of industry proper and of art.[4]

These stages of development broadly coincide with periods familiar to us under other names. ‘Savagery’ refers to the Paleolithic, from the origins of humans, through the creation of tools to the discovery of the bow and arrow and canoe. In its later stage we see the beginnings of Neolithic technology. The main feature of ‘Barbarism’ is agriculture and the domestication of animals, with the characteristic advances of the Neolithic such as the growth of towns; Engels anticipates Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel by a hundred years when he points out that the availability of domesticable animals and cultivable cereals was to determine the futures of continents. For Engels it is in the late stage of ‘Barbarism’, with the discovery of writing, iron, chariots, walled towns, etc, that human society begins the transition to ‘Civilisation’. Engels thus extended ‘Barbarism’ to include the archaic Greece of Homer, the pre-Roman Italian tribes and “the Normans in the days of the Vikings”.

Engels also describes the development of social organisation, beginning with a series of systems based on the gens, or “the form of kinship organisation which prides itself on its common descent... and is bound together by social and religious institutions into a distinct community.”[5] An early ‘consanguine’ family group which contained no sexual barriers between its members gave way to the ‘punaluan’ family that barred sex between siblings, and these group families in turn gave way to pair-bonding and monogamy. These early societies were egalitarian. Until the advent of class society, a ‘primitive communism’ was practised — Engels never actually uses the term, but does refer to ‘communistic’ organisation [6]. Women were valued as highly as men, and descent was matrilineal, i.e. because of the loose character of marriage, ancestry was traced through the female line, as only the mother’s parentage was certain. Disputes were settled by gatherings, land and goods were held in common, every privilege also carried a duty, and there were no classes and no state.

This (Marxist) view that Stone Age society was egalitarian, and that the creation of a surplus allowed specialists and the appearance of class society, is now widely accepted in the scientific community.[7] For example, in a bestselling textbook Colin Renfrew and Paul Bahn describe the first farming societies as “small, independent sedentary communities without any strongly centralised organisation. They seem in the main to have been relatively egalitarian communities.”[8]

In time, however, organisation according to family forms was superceded by new conditions that arose out of increases in productivity. Private property, the division of labour, the mingling of many different peoples in towns, division into classes and the advent of slavery led to the rise of a state with which the gens was incompatible, and kinship as a predominant form of social organisation came to an end. The rise in productivity also made the part of the economy for which men were responsible disproportionately important, leading to the overthrow of matrilineal descent and sexual equality, and to a domination by men that is still with us.

With this scheme, Engels clarifies and refines the one outlined in The German Ideology forty years earlier. In that work, Marx and Engels had written:

The first form of ownership is tribal ownership. It corresponds to the undeveloped stage of production, at which a people lives by hunting and fishing, by the rearing of beasts or, in the highest stage, 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.

The second form is the ancient communal and state ownership which proceeds especially from the union of several tribes into a city by agreement or by conquest, and which is still accompanied by slavery. Beside communal ownership we already find movable, and later also immovable, private property developing, but as an abnormal form subordinate to communal ownership. The citizens hold power over their labouring slaves only in their community, and on this account alone, therefore, they are bound to the form of communal ownership... The division of labour is already more developed. We already find the antagonism of town and country; later the antagonism between those states which represent town interests and those which represent country interests, and inside the towns themselves the antagonism between industry and maritime commerce. The class relation between citizens and slaves is now completely developed.[9]

Paleolithic and Neolithic society is here described as practising a system of ‘tribal ownership’, now better known as primitive communism, succeeded by an urbanised form of ownership, which unified peoples under a state that practised slavery. It is highly unlikely that slaves existed in ‘tribal ownership’, as Marx and Engels here claimed, and the role of slavery in ancient society has its own complexities. The second form of ‘communal and state ownership’ endured through the Greek and Roman empires until its collapse through external pressure and internal exhaustion led to its replacement with feudalism. The discussion of ‘tribal ownership’ in Marx’s work is very brief compared to the great detail with which, necessarily, he wrote about capitalism. Morgan’s research provided a wealth of information that enabled Engels to expand upon the Marxist analysis of that period.

The scheme set out by Engels in Origin, classifying the Neolithic era along with early civilisation including the Greeks, diverges from that of Childe, who suggested a break between the Neolithic and an ‘Urban Revolution’ connected with the rise of the first cities. But such schemes are, of course, an abstraction, and this disagreement is more about where one draws historical lines than about the course of history. The achievement of Morgan and Engels — and of course Marx — was to identify distinct stages of development in human society, from hunting and gathering to agriculture and then to urban, literate civilisation, and to recognise that these stages depended in the main upon the developing forces of production.


Engels’ book does not survive unscathed from a hundred years of advance in anthropology and other social sciences.

Firstly his use of terms such as ‘savagery’ (Wildheit) and ‘barbarism’ (Barbarei) reflect the bourgeois prejudices of his time (prejudices also apparent in his phrase “the perversion of boy-love”). They have negative, even racist connotations, which is why they have died out. This is however a superficial flaw, in that it is merely a matter of Engels’ choice of words — his arguments are anti-racist because they argue that human development is governed by history, not racial characteristics. In the nineteenth century, ‘savagery’ was widely used as a label for describing the hunter-gatherer mode of production. Studies of surviving hunter-gatherer societies suggest his conception that prehistoric society had an egalitarian distribution of wealth and no formal leadership was probably correct, as such societies do not have the material basis for anyone to lord it over others.

Another problem comes when Engels assumes in his preface to the first edition that ‘the determining factor in history’ is ‘the production and reproduction of the immediate essentials of life’, which has a twofold character:

On the one side, the production of the means of existence...; on the other side, the production of human beings themselves, the propagation of the species. The social organisation under which the people of a particular historical epoch and a particular country live is determined by both kinds of production: by the stage of development of labour on the one hand and of the family on the other.

The family cannot be considered of equal importance to labour. Engels himself recognised the primacy of labour in the unfinished article The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man, as we have discussed. Also it is likely that the relationships within kinship groups were less important than Engels claimed, writing as he did with very little data about hunter-gatherer society. In that egalitarian stage of society, people had more freedom to move from one group to another, and a strong tendency to cooperation would make family distinctions relatively unimportant. Surviving hunter-gatherer peoples do not organise themselves into strict family units — although we must always remember that ethnographic parallels can be misleading. Morgan drew conclusions from the practice of hunter-gatherer societies removed by many generations from prehistory, and it would be wrong to suppose that such societies have been in stasis ever since.

In addition, the American anthropologist Eleanor Leacock commented:

The assumption upon which [Morgan’s] theory was based, that kin terms represent actual or possible biological relationships, has been superceded by the understanding that the literal biological meaning of terms are often secondary to their social implications.[10]

This is not to say that kinship, or ‘lineage’, is not important to prehistoric or surviving hunter-gatherer peoples. It is rather that Engels accepts a number of Morgan’s assumptions — such as the existence of the ‘consanguine’ family — that we simply cannot make about the social organisation of distant peoples for whom there is such an incomplete record.

We may make a similar point regarding Engels’ belief that matrilinearity was general among primitive peoples. In reality, the absence of written records means that we cannot say this for certain.

Another failing inherited from Morgan is the inadequate discussion of the states of non-European peoples. Engels’ only example of a transition from kinship organisation to the state is ancient Athens, making no reference to the history of class society between the rise of city states in Mesopotamia around 5000 BCE and Greece 4500 years later. By leaping over a few millennia of development, Engels makes the rise of the state appear a Greek creation and so gives a very incomplete picture.

The jump to Greece and Rome leads to an over-emphasis of the role of slavery. The importance of slavery in the earliest phase of class society is disputed. Although slavery existed already in Sumer, it probably wasn’t a decisive part of the mode of production until Greece and Rome. In earlier societies it would have existed side by side with various forms of state and communal ownership where the main class division was between the aristocracy and the peasantry, i.e. nearer to Marx’s so-called ‘Asiatic’ mode of production.

Where the pattern of development of class society is concerned, although wrong on several details — such as not recognising that domestication of plants and animals arose concurrently — Engels is broadly correct. Nonetheless it is essential to point out that the stages of development he describes are broad patterns and, in every time and place, will have worked through into their own specific, often divergent and contradictory, forms. Primitive communism will not have looked the same everywhere — there were as many versions as there were societies, displaying all the diversity of human life.

One of the serious charges laid against the Marxist theory of history is that it seeks to slot historical periods into stages, in an inevitable and unilinear sequence; Marxists then have to make evidence fit a pre-determined scheme. This was true in the case of Soviet archaeology from Stalin onwards, which looked to Origin in particular to justify a schematic approach. In an essay on dialectical materialism, Stalin listed the modes of production and concluded, “if the passing of slow quantitative changes into rapid and abrupt qualitative changes is a law of development, then it is clear that revolutions made by oppressed classes are a quite natural and inevitable phenomenon’ (my italics) [11].

It is important to point out that such ‘inevitablist’ and unilinear schemes are the simplistic product of a bureaucracy, and diverge greatly from the dialectical method of Marxism. Engels lays out a series of stages for the development of society, but it is common practice in archaeology and anthropology to recognise such stages. Engels does not apply them in a rigid fashion and nor should anyone else. Good Marxism is always scientific: evidence from the real world must come first, and theory is only valuable insofar as it is backed up by such evidence. Marx himself advised how to read the periodisation of history:

Viewed apart from real history, these abstractions have in themselves no value whatsoever. They can only serve to facilitate the arrangement of historical material, to indicate the sequence of its separate strata. But they by no means afford a recipe or schema, as does philosophy, for neatly trimming the epochs of history. On the contrary, our difficulties begin only when we set about the observation and the arrangement — the real depiction — of our historical material, whether of a past epoch or of the present. The removal of these difficulties is governed by premises which it is quite impossible to state here, but which only the study of the actual life-process and the activity of the individuals of each epoch will make evident.[12]

As always, when we return to Marx and Engels we find not a reductive system but a complex and highly mediated view of history that retains its power to this day.


The reality of development across so many prehistoric and ancient societies is hugely more complex than can be shown in Marx and Engels’ brief account in The German Ideology, or the still relatively brief Origin, especially on the basis of the limited data of the nineteenth century. We are today much better informed, but we too must struggle with incomplete evidence, and our picture of early society is continually being revised by new discoveries.

Certain lessons need to be learnt. The materialist conception of history disproves the idiocies of racism, which hold that certain peoples are superior to others and are destined to rule; it also kills the idealist myth that human society sprang into existence perfectly formed, or that the state has always existed. The great mass of archaeological and historical evidence shows that social forms — even those such as the family and sexual ‘couple’ that seem so innate to us — are based upon material development and are therefore ultimately transitory. The sex drive is innate, but the social forms through which it is expressed are not. This is why modern sociobiology is reductive — concepts such as Richard Dawkins’ ‘selfish gene’ attempt to explain by genetics alone a set of behaviours that cannot be divorced from their social context.

This reminds us that the sciences do not exist in a climate of perfect objectivity. As Leacock wrote:

Social science has always been vexed by the political implications of one or another theory, and evolutionary assumptions have always aroused subjective and ambivalent responses… Engels sharpened the implications of the comparison Morgan drew between primitive communal and class society, using it as an argument for socialism. Therefore, both Morgan’s and Engels’ work have had chequered careers.[13]

Leacock points out that many attempts were made to discredit their work by claiming, for example, that the state had always existed, or that primitive communism never happened. It is quite usual for Origin, which is one of the most important works of nineteenth-century anthropology, to be completely ignored by academics. The dangerous (for the bourgeoisie) political implications of dialectical materialism lead many to turn their backs on it and pursue a narrower, more reductive science.

Was Lenin right to say we could accept every word of Origin with confidence? As he turns out, he wasn’t, but then the anthropological research available to Engels was slim compared to today. As with his dialectical treatment of evolution in The Part Played by Labour, Engels was at the cutting edge of anthropology in his time, and remains more advanced in his views even than many contemporary writers. Few works of the 1880s and 1890s are still able to excite scientific debate, yet although some of Engels’ data has become superceded, it would be wrong to miss the wood because of concern about some of the trees. This work’s broad historical pattern and materialist method remain valid to this day.


[1] One of Engels’ most important achievements in the book is his explanation of the social inferiority of women to men. I will post a dedicated article on this topic and for that reason won’t deal with it here.
[2] Morgan, from Chapter 2 of Ancient Society (1877). Despite his materialist conception, Morgan was not a Marxist but a liberal with illusions about bourgeois democracy.
[3] Lenin, The State — A Lecture Delivered at the Sverdlov University (1919).
[4] Engels, from the end of Chapter 1 of The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884). Morgan, and therefore Engels, divided each of these into three further stages, which one can read about in detail in the original texts.
[5] See Engels, op. cit., Chapter 3 ‘The Iroquois Gens’.
[6] The term was however current in Engels’ own time. It was used for example by Paul Lafargue in The Evolution of Property from Savagery to Civilisation (1890).
[7] An exception to this is the view that complex societies may predate agriculture, as suggested for example by the temple complex at Göbekli Tepe in Turkey. Even if some hunter-gatherer societies proved able to build structures previously only associated with cultivators, it is unprofitable to isolate these examples from the general pattern of history.
[8] Colin Renfrew and Paul Bahn, Archaeology: Theories, Methods and Practice (5th ed 2008).
[9] Marx and Engels, Chapter 1 section A, ‘First Premises of the Materialist Method’ from The German Ideology (1845–6).
[10] Eleanor Leacock, introduction (1972) to Engels’ The Origin of the Family.
[11] Stalin, Dialectical and Historical Materialism (1938). I do not recommend Stalin’s writings to anyone interested in understanding Marxism.
[12] Marx and Engels, from Part One of The German Ideology (1845).
[13] Ibid.

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