by Daphne Liddle
“ONE OF the most absurd notions taken over from 18th century enlightenment
is that in the beginning of society woman was the slave of man. Among all
savages and all barbarians of the lower and middle stages, and to a certain
extent of the upper stage also, the position of women was not only free,
but honourable,” – from Engels' The origin of the family, private property
and the state.
Families with a lot of stock or wealth would be very particular about the
qualities desirable in a husband. These routinely involved proof of his
ability to hunt or herd or otherwise keep up a good contribution to the
They could also involve proof of ability to fight and protect the family
and even prowess in magic.
Many old fairy tales carry the theme of young suitors having to prove
their magic skills in order to win a bride. In remote rural areas of Europe
and Asia these traditions lasted until after the Roman Empire had disappeared.
The beginning of barter and bargaining led to the introduction of money as
a way of simplifying exchanges. The first coins carried images of cattle to
show they were worth the value of one cow. This in turn led to the
beginnings of writing – initially simple marks on soft clay tablets to
record transactions – and of course arithmetic to work out how much money
should be paid and how it should be divided up among the sellers.
Then came the concept of private property. If someone could make a profit
from a bit of buying here at one price, and selling there at another, did
the money belong to the trader or the tribe?
Market towns grew up along the herding/migration routes, where people
could live just by buying and selling or by making goods for the market.
They no longer depended on their tribal group. It was possible to live by
being a professional specialist craftsman or woman.
Civilisation literally means living in towns. Along with this came all the
phenomena we usually associate with the word civilisation: writing and
arithmetic, learning and culture, professional craftsmanship, buying and
selling, private property and debt, greed and economic insecurity, slavery
and freedom (without one, the other has no meaning).
In the West, the first towns sprang up in the fertile crescent of the
Middle East from Sumer through to Egypt.
Merchants from these towns travelled and interacted with tribal peoples
throughout Asia, Africa and eventually Europe. The vast majority of people
still lived in villages in tribal groups.
There were two main economic divisions: the nomadic herding tribes who had
to keep moving to where the best pastures were and the settled tribes who
stayed in one place and cultivated food, vegetables and now corn.
Naturally in the first group the economic contribution of the men was
predominant, meaning that the women became dependent on the men, making the
men more powerful. In the settled groups, the economic contribution of the
These contrasting ways of life threw up contrasting cultures, traditions
and religions. The nomads tended to worship male gods while the settled
farming tribes worshipped female gods.
There were many violent clashes between the cultures, as between the
farmers and the cowmen in the 19th century United States.
It was the nomadic tribes naturally who first combined being merchants
with being herdsmen and among whom private property first existed.
The new towns brought with them anti-social factors like debt and greed,
cheating and lying. Private property brought a division between rich and
poor. Wealth brought power and society divided into classes – those who had
wealth could force those who had no money into servitude. They could employ
others to make them richer.
The old tribal councils could not cope with the breakdown of law and
order. The new ruling classes used their power to create a state machine –
government, written laws, a penal system, taxes and armies.
Armies were needed as rival towns fell into wars with each other.
Previously tribal clashes had mainly been about which tribe had rights to
extract food from a particular territory. Once the losing tribe had been
driven away there was no reason to continue the conflict.
But towns had great wealth to plunder – including human property, slaves.
As Engels put it in The origin of the family, private property and the
state, “Only one thing was wanting: an institution which not only secured
the newly acquired riches of individuals against the communistic traditions
of the gentile order, which not only sanctified the private property
formerly so little valued and declared this sanctification to be the
highest purpose of all human society; but, an institution which set the
seal of general social recognition on each new method of acquiring property
and thus amassing wealth at continually increasing speed; an institution
which perpetuated not only this growing cleavage of society into classes
but also the right of the possessing class to exploit the non-possessing,
and the rule of the former over the latter.
“And this institution came. The state was invented.”
This had a dramatic effect on the status of marriage. Men no longer needed
to enter into complex economic commitments with the wider, maternally-based
families in order to get a female bed mate. They could simply buy one in
The home base of the marriage was shifted from the matrilocal home to a
home that was the man’s private property – as was everything in it.
From then on the men could dictate the terms and conditions of marriage.
And having accumulated some wealth, they wanted sons to pass it on to; they
wanted to be sure their sons were their sons, so they put heavy
restrictions on the sexual activities of their wives. They insisted on
virgin brides and then restricted the lives of all their women.
This completely undermined the women’s rights within the family. Engels
wrote, once again in The family, private property and the state, “The
overthrow of mother right was the world historical defeat of the female
sex. 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.
“This degraded position of woman, especially conspicuous among the Greeks
of the heroic and still more of the classical age, has gradually been
palliated and glossed over, and sometimes clothed in a milder form, in no
sense has it been abolished.”
The clash between the old and new, the matrilocal and patriarchal marriage
traditions are revealed in the classical stories of the Trojan Wars. Helen
and her sister Clytemnestra are queens of the matriarchal towns of Sparta
They chose their own husbands, Menelaos and Agamemnon who are newly arrived
rough and ready adventurer immigrants from the Achæan family and from a
patriarchal tradition. They become kings only by marrying queens, like
their cousin Odysseus who marries Penelope, queen of Ithaka.
The queens are free to change their minds and choose another husband. But
when Helen dumps Menelaos in favour of Paris she leaves Sparta to go with
him. This leaves Sparta in trouble – she embodies the city’s sovereignty,
without her, no one can be king. The Achæan brotherhood are forced to make
an alliance to get her back.
“Helen herself, the fairest of them all, had chosen her husband for
herself from the Achæans competing for her hand; and having chosen freely
in the first instance, she was free to change her mind. In this case it was
the husband who objected, and the Achæans rallied to his side. It took more
than Helen’s face to launch the thousand ships. Paris stole goods as well.
The wealth went with the woman. The fights about fair ladies were fights
about hard cash,” – from George Thomson’s The prehistoric Aegean.
The most important aspect of the ancient Greek goddess Demeter to her
worshippers was that she upheld the right of women to divorce their husbands.
This right disappeared when private property was concentrated in the hands
of the men, cutting off women’s economic independence.
In the later Greek classical era of Pericles’ Athens, women were entirely
confined to their homes, and only a part of the home at that. They were not
allowed to venture out or meet with guests.
The only exceptions were immigrant women, not born in Athens. They were
excluded from marriage with Athenian men. Most of them became hetaerae, or
high class prostitutes. This gave them a degree of economic independence
and they mixed socially with men on far more equal terms. They kept their
own households, organised social gatherings and were often respected as
intellectuals and great debaters. They were far freer than the Athenian
women who were technically of a higher status.
We are often told that Greece, at the time of Pericles, is the birthplace
of democracy. Yet before then the more ancient Greek peoples had tribal
councils that operated at least as democratically. Frederick Engels writes,
in The origin of the family, private property and the state: “Among the
Homeric Greeks, this Umstand [those standing around], to use an old German
legal expression, had already developed into a regular assembly of the
people, as was also the case among the Germans in primitive times. It was
convened by the council to decide important questions; every man had the
right to speak. The decision was given by a show of hands (Aeschylus, The
Supplicants) or by acclamation.
“The decision of the assembly was supreme and final, for, says Schömann,
in Griechische Altertümer [Antiquities of Greece] ‘if the matter was one
requiring the co-operation of the people for its execution, Homer does not
indicate any means by which the people could be forced to co-operate
against their will’.”
It would seem the chief difference between the traditional village tribal
council and the Athenian agora is not that every man had the right to speak
and vote, but that there was a state apparatus to compel compliance.
And the new laws that had to be complied with were chiefly about property
and wealth. Wealthy Athenians, by lending money to local farmers, acquired
great power over the peasant class. Engels says that “all the fields of
Attica were thick with mortgage columns bearing inscriptions stating that
the land on which they stood was mortgaged to such and such for so and so
much”. Peasants had to count themselves lucky if they were allowed to
remain on the land as a tenant and live on one sixth of the produce of
If they defaulted the land was sold. If the money raised did not cover the
debt, or if the debt was contracted without any security, the debtor was
obliged to sell his children into slavery abroad. If this still did not
meet the terms of the contract, the debtor himself was sold into slavery.
“Children sold by their father – such was the first fruit of father right
and monogamy! Thus the pleasant dawn of civilisation for the Athenian
people,” wrote Engels.
Rome later followed a similar path. The arrival of private property
changed a village with a military tradition but basic tribal democracy, in
which the women were free and respected and all labour was voluntary into a
powerful city state.
This later transformed into the hub of a military empire that brought the
“blessings” of civilisation to most of Europe and imposed its own version
of civilisation on those that already existed in North Africa, the Middle
East and Greece.
Romans always remembered their early years of freedom in the annual
Saturnalia, the festival of the god Saturn, which was celebrated in
December. At this time, for one day, slaves were set free and were waited
on by their masters and they drank to the days when “no man was master and
no one’s work was a burden because each reaped the benefit of their own
Even in the early Christian years this persisted as the festival of Lord
of Mischief, the Lord of the Flies, the Bishop of Unrule, the Archbishop of
Anarchy or Father Christmas as we know him now. It marked a temporary,
token relaxation of class separation and accompanying anarchy. Even in
Victorian times, big households put on a Servants’ Ball when the owner and
family would dance with their staff.
The very word family comes from the Latin familia, which actually means
the household slaves – such was the status of the wife and children they
were included in this group. The male householder had absolute power of
life and death over all the people and animals in his household. They were
all his private property.
New babies born either to his wife or his slaves had to be shown to the
master. He had the power to decide whether to keep the new arrival or
discard it on a rubbish dump. This decision usually depended on his income
and ability to feed another mouth. This was family planning under the slave
The Roman Empire was built by slaves and its economy was totally dependent
on the slave system. It was undermined by the emergence of a new more
productive economic system in the centre of northern Europe – both inside
and outside the German borders of the empire.
That system was feudalism in its early stages and was based on a new
system of agriculture. Thus its economic roots were in villages rather than
towns. It gave the workers of the land – now serfs rather than slaves – a
guarantee of security.
They, and the land they tilled, could no longer be sold away. They were no
longer private property but held in fee. In return they were absolutely
tied to that land and obliged to render either produce from the land or a
fixed amount of work to their local feudal lord.
The lord in turn owed feudal duties – money, service or goods and absolute
loyalty – to their superior lord, and so on up to the king.
Some of the first feudal lords were veteran Roman soldiers who had been
given parcels of land on retirement and there were thousands of different
versions of the system practised in different locations. For many years it
operated alongside slavery but slavery declined as feudalism grew.
The nature of the family changed accordingly. It became very much rooted
in a particular place. No marriages were allowed without the consent of the
lord of the manor. He was usually in favour of any marriage that would
bring a new labourer into his village and opposed to those that took
workers away. Newly married peasants were guaranteed a home and a portion
of land to farm.
Marriages among the upper classes were entirely to do with economic and
political alliances. In this respect at least the peasants were better off
in that usually they had some degree of choice in their partner.
Eventually the landlords found they could make more wealth out of keeping
sheep than keeping peasants, so the peasants were driven off the land into
the cities to become wage slaves for the newly emerging industrialists.
When feudalism gave way to capitalism the nature of the family changed
again. The capitalist needed a good supply of cheap workers willing to sell
their labour power. The more members of the family who could work for
wages, the more profits he could make from them.
The capitalist system also needed them to be mobile and flexible, to move
from one area to another as needed. The old ties with the land were torn up
and much of the old rural culture went with it.
Families became the narrow bourgeois nuclear families we know now – father,
mother and their children. For many women this meant total social isolation
in their homes, bringing up children. Lenin pointed out that this was the
cruellest aspect of housework. Human beings are naturally sociable; to
isolate them is to drive them slowly mad. And so the myth of the
silly-headed woman grew as women who were isolated did suffer from lack of
But the bosses’ greed has undermined even this. They can now make more
profit out of women by turning them into wage slaves as well as mothers.
Capital investment in housework – washing machines, vacuum cleaners,
take-away dinners and so on – have freed women to become wage slaves
alongside their husbands and partners albeit on a lower wage.
This puts a colossal burden of work on most women but does restore an
element of economic independence. This independence has restored to women
the freedom of divorce. The legal right to divorce has no meaning without
The nature of the family is again changing. Now many more single parents
are rearing children alone. But they still cannot really do it completely
alone. They need wider family support (usually their own mothers)and
support from society, with the social wage, affordable childcare and so on.
The nature of the family will to continue to change. Under socialism,
economic considerations will be taken right out of personal relationships.
People will still fall in and out of love, make and break relationships,
break their hearts, have children, settle down, live together and so on.
But they will do all this freely. Money, dependence, debts and so on will
not be factors in decision making. There will be no artificial social
constraints to limit them to particular patterns.
We are likely to see a much wider variety of relationships, with society at
large protecting children from economic and social insecurity and playing a
larger role in nurturing them.