Wed Jun 19, 2024
June 19, 2024

Engels and the Materialist Interpretation of the History of Women’s Oppression

Engels was born on 28 November, 200 years ago. In his homage, the International Workers League – Fourth International published a series of articles in defence of Marxism and Engels’ legacy, thus recovering his theoretical and revolutionary heritage as a co-founder of scientific socialism. This series of articles would remain unfinished if we did not address how his contributions allowed Marxism to advance towards a materialist understanding of women’s oppression.

By Kely Núñez

“The Manifesto of the Communist Party (first edition February 1848), by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, scientifically examines the problem of women under the aspect of family and marriage. Friedrich Engels’ The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State deepens and develops the reasonings of the Manifesto, while Karl Marx in The Capital, starting from another view, shows that the extension of women’s work and their exploitation by capitalism are the outcome of the concentration of the capitalist system of production”[1]. Alexandra Kollontai addressed these words to the students of the University Sverdlov in Leningrad during the spring of 1921.

The above quotation largely synthesizes that the question of women was no longer a purely practical aspect of the class struggle, but a question that also had a theoretical foundation. In this context, Marx and Engels’ scientific socialism laid the basis for putting an end to women’s oppression, placing this problem as an inexorable part of the struggle for socialism and the emancipation of the proletariat.

The Communist Manifesto as a starting point

By the time Marx and Engels were writing the Communist Manifesto, the industrial revolution had radically transformed the situation of millions of women, at the same time as a rise in women’s revolutionary activity was being experienced as a result of the changes in the relations of production and reproduction brought about by capitalism. This revolutionary activity began earlier with the French Revolution.

Engels and Marx questioned the bourgeois family and marriage in the Communist Manifesto:

“On what foundation is the present family, the bourgeois family, based? On capital, on private gain. In its completely developed form, this family exists only among the bourgeoisie. But this state of things finds its complement in the practical absence of the family among the proletarians, and in public prostitution. (…) by the action of Modern Industry, all the family ties among the proletarians are torn asunder, and their children transformed into simple articles of commerce and instruments of labour. (…) The bourgeois sees his wife as a mere instrument of production. He hears that the instruments of production are to be exploited in common, and, naturally, can come to no other conclusion than that the lot of being common to all will likewise fall to the women. He has not even a suspicion that the real point aimed at is to do away with the status of women as mere instruments of production.” [2]

In those years, the work of women and children began to be naturalised, and they also were less paid than men for two fundamental reasons: first, their labour was considered less productive. Second, the role of men as the main economic breadwinner of the family was taken into account in the calculation of wages. In this way, women’s labour was undervalued. The bourgeoisie managed to have the whole family thrown into the factory. This led to the destruction of the proletarian family although, contradictorily, women were incorporated into the production after years of domestic servitude. But, this decisive step was taken by capitalism to increase its profits on the basis of the over-exploitation of women and their whole family. That meant that the working-class family did not live in the same conditions as the bourgeois family. Marx also wrote about the value of the family’s labour force in The Capital, but it is not our aim to extend this part.

Before the elaboration of the Communist Manifesto, the young Engels had already been observing the situation of women. In his book The Situation of the Working Class in England (1845), which, although written in the middle of the 19th century, already described the working conditions faced by women: endless working-days of more than 12 hours, low wages, disgusting housing conditions, no job safety, no social security, occupational diseases, high mortality, and constant fear of losing their job.

With these first notes, Marx and Engels started to draw the materialist analysis of the history of women’s oppression. Later, other leaders of the time became interested in the subject. August Bebel of the German Social-Democratic party published Women in the Past, Present and Future (1879), which would be reprinted years later under the title Woman and Socialism (1883), just a year before Engels’ first edition of The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884). The Origin…, in a sense, would be a response to Bebel’s general approach in his book: “It is the common lot of woman and worker to be oppressed.” A similar approach was taken by Karl Kautsky in a series of articles on primitive sexual relations, The Origin of Marriage and the Family (1882-83). [4] Unlike Bebel and Kautsky, Engels would show that women’s oppression has not always existed. Both of these elaborations were crucial to the understanding of the subject among the Marxists of the time.

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

The following chapters are, in a sense, the execution of a bequest.” [5] Thus Engels begins the preface to the first edition of the book in 1884. Marx, his inseparable friend, had died a year before its publication. But Engels was determined to begin the editing of this book: “My work can only provide a slight substitute for what my departed friend no longer had the time to do. But I have the critical notes which he made to his extensive extracts from Morgan, and as far as possible I reproduce them here.” [6] Marx had planned to present the results of the American researcher Lewis H. Morgan. Until 1860, one could not even think of a history of the family. The book, for Lenin, represented “one of the fundamental works of modern socialism.“[7]

Engels, based on Marx’s notes and Morgan’s studies, devoted himself to describing the development of human societies in three stages: savagery, barbarism and civilisation. As the name suggests, Engels’ great premise was to locate how the forces of production developed until the emergence of private property, the division of society into classes, and the emergence of the state as an instrument of domination of the ruling social class.

He also proved that this process brought about changes in the family, in the relations between its members, analysing the forms of family organisation and the sexual division of labour. His analysis can be summarized in that “According to the materialistic conception, the determining factor in history is, in the final instance, the production and reproduction of the immediate essentials of life.” (Preface to the first edition).

The origin… became a basic study material for a materialistic understanding of the history of women’s oppression. Despite any criticism or misunderstanding, Engels’ great contribution is based on the fact that women were not always oppressed, and that their oppression coincides in history with the emergence of private property and social classes.  Until his time, what predominated was the belief that women’s oppressive condition was due to “natural”, unchanging factors.

Let us now review some considerations raised in The Origin

In relation to the family, it concludes that it has a material origin. It was not always the same as the family of his time or the current one. Therefore, women had not always had the same role in the different societies; but, rather, depended on their position in production. The surplus production gave way to the emergence of private property, so it was necessary to have a new organisation in the family that would allow the continuity of that property. Thus, the monogamous family was established. It was necessary to abolish the “mother-right” [8] of the gens so that the “father-right” would prevail and with it the father’s inheritance (and thus perpetuate private property):

“[The monogamous family] is based on the supremacy of the man, the express purpose being to produce children of undisputed paternity; such paternity is demanded because these children are later to come into their father’s property as his natural heirs.  (…) It is the existence of slavery side by side with monogamy, the presence of young, beautiful slaves belonging unreservedly to the man, that stamps monogamy from the very beginning with its specific character of monogamy for the woman only, but not for the man.” [9]

For Engels, monogamy meant the historical defeat of women: “The overthrow of mother-right was the world historical defeat of the female sex. The man took command in 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.” [10]

The monogamous family is the form of family that we know today, and which was transformed by capitalism. For Engels, the social relations that were established within the family are decisive for the institutionalisation of the oppression of women, since it is no longer just a question of the father’s lineage:

“This is the origin of monogamy as far as we can trace it back among the most civilized and highly developed people of antiquity. It was not in any way the fruit of individual sex-love, with which it had nothing whatever to do; marriages remained as before marriages of convenience. It was the first form of the family to be based, not on natural, but on economic conditions – on the victory of private property over primitive, natural communal property.” [11]

The passage from mother-right to father-right made women the property of men, throwing them into domestic servitude and thus into exclusion from productive social work, which implied a historical backward step in relation to primitive communism, where their role in production (as food gatherers) had given them an important, even respectable, status: “We can already see from this that to emancipate woman and make her the equal of the man is and remains an impossibility so long as the woman is shut out from social productive labor and restricted to private domestic labor. The emancipation of woman will only be possible when woman can take part in production on a large, social scale, and domestic work no longer claims anything but an insignificant amount of her time.” [12]

Women’s domestic work was degraded and lost importance in relation to men’s productive work. That is why Marx and Engels studied carefully the women’s labour in the factories as a decisive step towards their emancipation. But soon the contradictions of that incorporation arose, leading to a double oppression for women as housewives and wage labourers. Thus Marxism began to study the dialectic relationship between oppression and exploitation that could not be understood without Engels’ contributions.

In short, Engels was not wrong in stating that women’s oppression has a historical origin based on economic conditions, not on “biological or natural” ones. Thus, Marxism points out that, although it is necessary to daily fight women’s oppression, this struggle is impossible if it is not combined with fighting capitalism, since the only possible way out for the emancipation of women is the abolition of private property and the end of exploitation. This is only possible under the banners of scientific socialism.


1] Kollontai, Alexandra. La mujer en el desarrollo social (1925).  Editorial Labor, S.A. Calabria, 235-239, Barcelona-15, 1976, p. 164.

In this book, Alexandra Kollontai gives fourteen lessons on the Marxist view of the women question, covering the situation of women from primitive communism to the first years of the Russian Revolution.

2] C. Marx and F. Engels. The Communist Manifesto.

3] Kollontai, Alexandra. La mujer en el desarrollo social (1925).  Editorial Labor, S.A. Calabria, 235-239, Barcelona-15, 1976, p. 113

5] Engels, Friedrich. The origin of the family, private property and the state.

6] Idem. Engels refers to Lewis Morgan’s Primitive Society.

7] Idem.

8] Families founded on mother-right, or what Engels calls “matriarchy”, is in reference to matrilineal or matrilocal families. It is important to point out that Engels and the anthropologists of the time were wrong to propose a type of “generalised matriarchy” since the coexistence of both forms (matrilineal and patrilineal) was found in different places. What Engels is not wrong in is detecting how the changes in the productive forces gave rise to the first social strata, and with it the class and power relations that would define a before and after in the situation of women.

9] Idem.

10] Idem.

11] Idem.

12] Idem.

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