What is to be done with Engels ? On the uses of The Origin of the Family in french marxist anthropology

Juan Sebastian Carbonell


The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State by Friedrich Engels is among marxism’s most read theoretical work. However, following French anthropologist Alain Testart, we can say it has had a particularly « harmful » effect on the posterity of marxist thought, « not by Engels’ fault, he says, but by those that followed him ». Being as read as it is misunderstood, marxist intellectual tradition has either accepted it as politically true, or rejected it as scientifically outdated, mainly due to the provisional nature of its conclusions.
The « destalinization » process in the sixties produced a wide range of new researches that, in contrast with Engels’ secondary source material, were based on new ethnographical data coming mainly from African colonial societies. It was through the light shed by these results that a whole generation of marxists anthropologists discussed the validity of Engels’ work.
We will discuss in this paper some of the uses of Engels’ thesis developed in The Origin of The Family in the french marxist anthropology of the 1970’s. We will see, on one hand, how marxist anthropology positioned itself regarding Engels by positioning itself relative to L. H. Morgan’s methodology. It will particularly be the case regarding the scientific pertinence of social evolutionism, which will crystallize many of the oppositions in the anthropological renewal of marxism. On the other hand, we will try to understand what were the logics of scientific oppositions in the discussion around categories, such as « mode of production », used to describe the dynamics of « primitive » societies and their relation to capitalism.

Engels - Anthropology - France