On “Engels was right...” by Chris Knight
The text by Chris Knight can be found by Googling the above where, as if by magic, a number of copies will appear. It's an interesting text and represents a positive contribution to the discussion. Some first thoughts on it...
The full title is “Engels was right, Early Human Kinship was Matrilineal”. This is a position that I agree with and the text is a defence of the positions of both the works of Engels and Lewis Henry Morgan, the early works of Marx and, implicitly, the analyses of Darwin and Wallace. I also think that this is a development of CK's earlier position and something of a contradiction to fundamental elements contained in “Blood Relations”, which in my opinion was a bit of a shot in the dark, particularly his Social Darwinist characterisation of early males as aggressive numbskulls. The text is an effective attack on the position of the bourgeoisie, on bourgeois ideology generally, that gives the impression that the organisation of society has been generally, if not always, been along patriarchal lines. Knight attacks the way that developing anthropology of the 20th century, exemplified by the LSE's Bronislaw Malinowski, has tried to perpetrate the myth of 'eternal patriarchy' and the individual family against Morgan's and Engel's mother-right as the cornerstone of prehistoric society, the latter position being generally accepted by “science” up to the 1920's. Knight says that he was 'delighted and astonished' that this paper generally bought agreement from his professional colleagues recently but I don't think he should be surprised. As he suggests himself, the insistence on the patriarchal, individual family was part of the counter-revolution from the scientific establishment in response to the very real threat from the proletariat that was clearly expressed in the revolutionary wave of the early part of the 20th century. Knight demonstrates, through the defence of Morgan and Engels, how patriarchal society became the norm with civilisation and the development of private property and although mother-right persisted well after the fall of the Roman Empire, civilisation bore the stamp of class divided society, the oppression of women and the “war of the rich against the poor”. Group motherhood was too dangerous a concept for the counter-revolutionary bourgeoisie and, as Chris Knight says, it would be more accurate to define the social anthropology of the twentieth century as “moulded specifically in reaction against the ideas of Marx and Engels”.
CK explains well, through historical and ethnological examples and the theorising of communist militants (including Morgan), the organisation of society along the lines of mother-right. He talks of the importance of grandparents, particularly the grandmother. On the maternal certainty of parenthood as opposed to the possible uncertainty of fatherhood, CK shows how this was positive. Even now, according to Steve Jones in “The language of genes”, DNA tests among the “middle-class” show that 1 in 20 children have a biological father that is not the wife's husband. Darwin insisted the strong and complex tribal connections in relationships with the offspring being a major consideration and these loose forms of marriage with the strength of the mother child relations underpinning it all. Morgan thought, that while the “family” developed, these communal forms of marriage must have been universal and he demonstrates this with some detail in his analysis in the universality of the gentes. This choice of the mother, which emanates from the social instincts, doesn't have to be towards a certain partner; be it brief, seasonal, the whole year, it “suffices for the work of sexual selection” (“The Descent....”, Darwin). The most successful sexual selection made the most successful progenitors and, within the mutual aid and solidarity of these primitive societies, this was for the good of all. Sex between a male and a female is the motor force for this. Steve Jones again: “To define sex is simple; it is a process that brings together genes from different ancestors. It provides a chance to purge ourselves of the harmful mutations which arise in each generation and represents, in more ways than one, the antithesis of age”. Though this question of sexual selection is central to the role of womanhood and her selection of the more positive attributes of the male, Darwin did take it too far with the implication that biological characteristics could be favoured by it leading to a certain “racial” explanation to mankind's development.
I don't agree with some of the stuff around paternity quoted from the Steven Beckerman and Paul Valentine book about male strategies. I haven't read the book but I don't think that it was “male strategies” giving rise to “patrilineal descent”. Maybe it's out of context, but it wasn't male strategies that gave rise to agriculture on one hand, in which both sexes played a major role, or of rise of private property and the state.
I'm also a bit dubious about CK's use of the quote from Engel's “The Origin...”, which says that there is only a negative value in drawing conclusions from animal societies. Certainly “the animal family and primitive human society are two incompatible things”, but there are positive elements from the social instincts of the animal kingdom – Engels himself mentions the horde – and, in relation to the male dominated primates that he also mentions in the quote, evidence over the last thirty years or so has shown many primate societies, baboons for example, have complex and maternal dominated relationships. And one major omission from CK's defence of Engels is the latter's insistence on the development and use of tools and their role in cohering primitive society around a communistic method of production. But I welcome this text that takes a close and sometimes incisive look at the analysis of womanhood in early primitive society – and it's important to insist here that we are talking about early primitive society and not homo sapiens in Africa ninety-thousand years ago. The context here is from around 2 million years ago.
For me, there's a very important quote used by CK from an F. Marlowe, author of the text “Marital residence among foragers”, whom he calls “a major specialist on this topic”:“Across all societies, the greater the dependence on gathering, hunting and fishing, the less likely that residence is virilocal (patrilocal)” CK concludes: “Hunting has the strongest effect and, contrary to the proponents of the standard model, results in less patrilocality, not more”. And further, in order to underline his agreement with this position, Chris Knight adds: “A study conducted in 2004 reviewed the evidence behind the standard doctrine that patrilocality is the hunter-gatherer norm. Most of the widely used classifications turn out to have been based on totally inadequate data and ignore insightful discussions that took place in early anthropology”. What's being put forward here is not a society of aggressive, dominant animal-like males but a society that's altogether more cooperative and functional involving mother-right early on. This idea of very early cooperation in the post-ape transition is further underlined in recent evidence put forward elsewhere of research by Professor Henry Bunn suggesting systematic hunting by homo at least as far back as the 1.8 million-year-old Oldowan period which reinforces the position of Marlowe above. This organised hunting is a long way from the “marginal scavenger” thus painted in social Darwinist terms by the archaeologist Lewis Binford in Chris Knight's “Blood Relations”. There's a division of labour certainly between the male and female of the species of homo, but such hunting suggested by Bunn, and hunting and foraging, suggested by Marlowe, shows a wider cooperation and solidarity between the sexes – there had to be or we wouldn't be here to talk about it.
To use the quote of Engels again: “animal family and primitive human society are incompatible things”. If I said earlier that there are some “compatibilities” between the two, then Engels is absolutely correct to insist on the major leap out of the animal kingdom that is expressed by the appearance of homo. Given the environmental circumstances some two million years ago, the dangers and precariousness facing these puny creatures' very existence, not least given the lack of the controlled use of fire, a solid form of organisation minimising antagonisms between the sexes was absolutely essential. The most important demand for humanitie's future, for its very existence, was the raising and protection of children. Matrilineality was the abiding basis for this society both in sexual selection and the social consequences of mother-right – the “special role of womanhood”. Within this cooperation and solidarity between the sexes must have been one of the major advances out of the animal kingdom, particularly with the greater role of the male in the upbringing and protection of both mother and children, whether a parent or not.