1935 • Free unions

Adrienne is reading aloud to Paul. The book is Engels’ Origin of the Family.

origin book cover small

“Apparently, in Ancient Times, under Primitive Communism,” she begins ironically, speaking slowly so he gets it all, “women lived separately, with their own clan, in a big house Engels calls the long-house. Everything is owned in common—”

“Yes, of course.” He knows all this.

“But wait, you’ve got to hear this bit: ‘woe to the luckless husband or lover who was too indolent or too clumsy to contribute his share to the common stock.’ This is Engels. Have you got to this bit yet? ‘No matter how many children or how much private property he had in the house, he was liable at any moment to receive a hint to gather up his belongings and get out. And he could not dare to venture any resistance; the house was made too hot for him—.’ … And all the hapless husband can do now is go back to his own clan, or find himself a new wife in some more distant clan. The women (are you listening?), ‘The women were the dominating power.’ Not equal, notice.” [RED, page 18]

Engels’ book was read widely by artists and writers on the Left at the time, and “free unions” was a popular subject of talk, at least. Less talked about was Engels’ view that women “were the dominating power”. Engels goes on to suggest that monogamy replaced this early state of free unions, with harmful results:

Monogamy … enters [history] as the subjugation of one sex by the other …”  “In the bourgeois family, [the man] is the bourgeois, the woman represents the proletariat … The modern monogamous family is founded on the open or disguised domestic slavery of women.”  (Frederick Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, tr. Untermann, Charles H. Kerr & Co., 1902, pp. 89, 90. See also p. 60)

In describing the long-house Engels is quoting Asher Wright, “for many years [1831-1875] a missionary among the Seneca Iroquois”. How “primitive” or communist the Iroquois actually were might be debated.


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