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My last essay of my sociology undergrad! I thoroughly enjoyed researching and writing this, and learned some information that was new to me, so thought others might be interested in the result 🙂 Please share your thoughts. 

Friedrich Engels, Monogamy, and Private Property

This paper will discuss the major independent contributions of Frederick Engels, focussing on his controversial text The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State. This text will be applied to the contemporary sociological issue of polygamous marriages.

Engels was writing in Germany during a time of great social and intellectual change, according to Engels in a “nation that cared less than any other of its time for the history of the present family” (1902, 17). Engels is most well known for his collaborative work with Karl Marx, particularly The Communist Manifesto, which describes and analyzes the social context of their time in great detail. During the time of Engels writing there was great conflict between the bourgeois (capitalist class) and the proletariat (working class). The proletariats were suffering exploitation and alienation from the bourgeois, who profit from the alienation, or disconnect between the workers and the products of their labour.

According to Professor Terrell Carver, the majority of academic discussion regarding Engels’ work focuses on his collaborative contributions as Marx’s partner rather than Engels’ independent contributions to theory (2003, 16). Therefore this paper intends to fill some of that void in the literature. The original work of Engels that will be discussed is The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State. In Engels’ own words, prior to the 1860s “a history of the family cannot be spoken of” (1902, 13). The general understanding of the family prior the 1860s was that the most ancient construction of the family was identical to the modern construction; the patriarchal monogamous family (Ibid). This understanding came primarily from the books of Moses, which describe a patriarchal monogamous family and which most people accepted to be describing the earliest form of the family (Ibid).

Engels’ Intent, Insight, and Thesis

The general intent and purpose of Engels writing the The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State was to demonstrate the historical relationship between the development of each of these three concepts. This is an expansion of Marx and Engels’ materialistic conception of history, because “according to the materialistic conception, the decisive element of history is pre-eminently the production and reproduction of life and its material requirements”(Ibid, 9). Though Marx theorized extensively on the production of life (or the production of means of existence), he wrote very little about the reproduction of life, leaving this aspect of the theory up to Engels to expand on. Engels relied heavily on data collected by anthropologist Lewis Morgan, who studied familial relations within Native tribes in North America, particularly the Iroquois people. Morgan’s theories reflect the materialistic conception of history presented by Marx and Engles: Morgan’s core thesis is that that an important factor in the evolution of humanity is progress with regards to modes of production of the necessities of life (Zeitlin 2001, 182).

Engels and Morgan outline that the differences between Iroquois society and modern European society are  not limited the structure of their families. Zeitlin summarizes the comparison vividly, describing Iroquois society as one of individual freedoms and a community of people who support and look out for one another, compared to civilized society, which is a culture of inequality; plagued with patriarchy, private property, classes, states, masters and slaves, gendarmes and police. ( Ibid, 187).  Engels’ theories focus on determining what historical processes led to society transitioning from the communal form with few institutionalized structures into a society revolving around private property, class differences, and governmental coercion and control (Ibid, 188). In order to search for the answer to this question, Engels not only focused on Morgan’s descriptions of the Iroquois society, but also on historical accounts of Greek, Roman, Celtic, and Germanic societies (Ibid, 188).

In summary, Engels concluded that the acquisition of private property led to the problem of inheritance (Engels 1902). Prior to the emergence of the domestication of animals, which resulted in a change in division of labour and the transition from communal property to private property, lineage was traced matrimonially (Ibid). This is because it was common place for both women and men to have multiple sexual partners, which meant that while it was always clear who a person’s mother was, it was often unclear who the father was (Ibid). Therefore the origin of private property brought about the origin of inheritance, which led to monogamy; the modern construction of the family, thus making it possible for fathers to confidently pass their inheritance to their sons. According to Zeitlin, the emergence of the monogamous family represents private property being victorious over communal property (Zeitlin 2001, 185).

Alongside this shift away from monogamy was a shift towards patriarchy. When women were the sole identifiable parents of their children they were held in very high regard (Ibid, 184). Women also had control over the home due to their responsibility for communally caring for the home (Ibid). When people began domesticating animals, the division of labour became more dynamic. The men were responsible for caring for the animals, and thus the animals became his “property”, just as his means of production were his property when he hunted and fished for food.  This meant that if a man and woman were to separate the man would keep the animals, which provided a surplus of milk, meat, and wool, giving the men a power over the women that they did not have prior to the domestication of animals (Ibid, 185).

Understanding the origin of the family, and therefore the system of reproduction of life, is of great importance to Engels because “there is a definite relationship between the socioeconomic structure of a society and the form and content of the family” (Ibid, 181). This leads us to the emergence of the state, which Engels explain occurs as an eventual result of the new division of labour, and exists in order to minimize conflict between the classes (Engels 1902, 205 & 208). Engels writes that the public power of coercion exists in every state; therefore individual freedoms have been lost (Ibid, 207).

Engels’ methodology has always involved empirical evidence. When he was an 18 year old journalist it was important to Engels that his readers understood that he based all of his writing on factual information from first hand sources (Terrel 2003, 17). In writing The Origin Engels consults a range of sources to collect historical information that supports the theories and Marx and Engels introduced (Ibid, 53).

Contemporary Sociological Issue

The issue of polygamous marriage is something that is occasionally discussed in both American and Canadian politics, though it is often used as a defense against same-sex marriage, based on the idea that legalizing same-sex marriage would challenge the sanctity of marriage and could lead to more radical changes such as the legalization of polygamous marriages. The dominant cultural attitude in North America is that polygamy is extremely taboo, even a “barbaric” sexual practice.

The Government of Canada introduced the Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act in November of 2014, in order to send “a clear message to individuals coming to this country that harmful and violent cultural practices are unacceptable in Canada” (Government of Canada 2014). The first point mentioned on the government website as to how this bill will protect Canada from violence and harm is to “render permanent residents and temporary residents inadmissible if they practice polygamy in Canada” (Ibid). Though the Act does also cover underage marriage, forced marriage, and spousal killings, it is clear that the initial goal of the Act is to protect Canada from polygamy, as this is the first point on the government’s list of how the Act will “provide more protection and support for vulnerable immigrants” (Ibid). Therefore in the news release about this new Act the Canadian government imply that Canada considers polygamy barbaric, harmful, and violent. This relates to Engels’ The Origin, as Engels’ work suggests that polygamy is an ancient form of the family that was popular globally prior to the acquisition of private property. Using Engels’ theory connecting private property, patriarchy, and monogamy, it could be suggested that the Canadian government’s passionate disapproval of polygamy symbolizes their attachment to private property, capitalism, and patriarchy, and therefore fear of communalism, socialism and feminism.

The form of polygamy most common in North America is polygyny, which occurs most frequently in Southern States, particularly Utah. Polygyny is a form of polygamy with one male partner and multiple female partners, as opposed to polyandry, when one female partner has multiple male partners. It is interesting that this form of polygamy would be the most common in the United States, a country that highly values capitalism and therefore private property. Engels’ theory involving inheritance would suggest that if this form of polygamy had been the most ancient form it may not have transitioned to monogamy. This is because in a polygynous relationship, the paternal lineage is as easy to trace as in a monogamous relationship, as each woman only has one male sexual partner, and thus determining a child’s father is a simple process. This therefore suggests the question of why the group marriages that Morgan documented and Engels analyzed transitioned into monogamous families rather than polygynous families.

Evaluation and Conclusion

Engels is a very critical writer, particularly in his preface to the fourth edition of The Origin. He criticizes the English prehistoric school, which he states is “tinged with chauvinism [and] continually doing its utmost to kill by its silence the revolution in primeval conceptions effected by Morgan’s discoveries” (Engels 1902, 12). Engels states that Bachofen, the man often credited for introducing the history of the family to academic literature, as being “biased by his mystic” and states that his formulations are lacking in clarity (Ibid, 10). Of McLennan Engels is the most extreme in his criticism, stating that McLennan “makes it painfully obvious” that his primary thesis is a construct of his own imagination, and claims that it is a “fact that he has done more harm… than he has done good by his investigations” (Ibid, 18 & 20). Regardless of the validity of Engels’ criticisms, the extreme language he uses in this introduction seems exaggerated and to be mocking his peers, which takes away from the seriousness of his work.

Many academics, theorists, and other writers speak highly of Engels and his contribution to sociological theory. As Zeitlin states, “what makes Engels’ work especially interesting is the effort to provide a theoretical and historical analysis that ties together the origins of male supremacy, private property, socioeconomic class, and the State” (2001, 187).  According to Untermann, wbvho translated Engel’s The Origin, “by opening the eyes of the deluded throng and reducing the vaporings of their ignorant or selfish would-be leaders in politics and education to somber reality, it [Engels’ The Origin] will show the way out of the darkness and mazes of slavish traditions into the light and freedom of a fuller life on earth” (Untermann 1902,  8).

Though Untermann’s prediction in 1902 may not have been yet realized, the reason could lie in that Engels’ contributions (that are not available in any form at a library within Guelph or Wellington Country) have not reached enough eyes, rather than that they are not powerful enough to instigate change. Engels wrote more than 100 years ago and his ideas are still extremely applicable and controversial today.


BuzzFeed News. 2014. “Polygamy is Legal in Utah, For Now.” Last modified August 27. Accessed

March 14.


Carver, Terrell. 2003. Engels: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.  Ebook


Engels, Frederick. 1902. The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State. Translated by

Ernest Unterman. Chicago: Charles H. Kerr & Company. Ebook Edition.

Government of Canada. 2014. “Protecting Canadians from Barbaric Cultural Practices.” Last modified

November 5. Accessed March 14.

Inquisitr. 2015. “Polygamy: Louisiana City Legalizes It & Polygamists Line Up.” Last modified March

13. Accessed March 14.


Unterman, Ernest. Introduction to The Origin of the Family, Patriarchy, and the State, by Frederich

Engels, 5-8. Chicago: Charles H. Kerr & Company. Ebook Edition.

Zeitlin, Irving. 2001. Ideology and the Development of Sociological Theory, 7th Edition. Toronto:

Prentice Hall. Pages 181-193.