In The Ethnological Notebooks, Marx was tracing the origins of patriarchy –one of the primary forms of social inequality– back to communal property and showing that male dominance can’t be solely explained through the presence of private property.

In this piece I will try to analyze The Ethnological Notebooks[1] through socialist feminist perspective and trace Marx’s ideas on the oppression of women, origins of patriarchy, relationship between women and men throughout history and women’s emancipation. More importantly, I would like to show that Marx has tackled issues such as development of societies, formation of classes and the state in relation to gender relations and the institution of family in these notebooks. This points to a holistic analysis of societies. This methodology provides opportunities to analyze today’s bourgeois society and even our conception of future societies within a larger framework. When we consider this in conjunction with the subjects he has emphasized in his final years, we can say that he has shed light on revolutionary potentials in these notebooks. Thus, it could also be said that the notebooks bear the potential of breathing new life into the socialist feminist struggle.


First of all, Marx goes back to the issues he has worked on prior to Capital in these notebooks: the oppression of women and their emancipation. In these earlier works, he was analyzing societies not only through production relations but by including family and gender relations. He was touching upon women’s position in the society and underlining points regarding male dominance. For example, he has deemed the position of women in bourgeois society inhumane in The Holy Family and quoted French utopian socialist Charles Fourier’s words with slight adaptations: “The change in a historical epoch can always be determined by the progress of women toward freedom… The degree of emancipation of women is the natural measure of general emancipation.” However, Marx does not mention the relationship between women and men in Grundrisse and Capital. Even though he has underscored a few points in the parts that he has investigated women workers’ working conditions in Capital, he has turned “a blind eye” to “the woman question” in Grundrisse.

Marx goes back to these subjects later in The Ethnological Notebooks. He was inspired by the communal societies Morgan and others had studied; not only by the lack of exploitation but also by gender equality. For example, he admired the fact that Iroquois were way more progressive than any “civilized” society when it came to women’s freedom and their participation in social life.

Ethnological readings have also led Marx to analyze the development of conflicts in communal society structures. By quoting Raya Dunayevskaya’s words, he wrote that “elements of oppression in general, and of women in particular, arose from within primitive communism”, and that gender inequality was present way before private property. For instance, this is interesting: According to Morgan, in the Iroquois community women were expressing their opinions and demands through a representative of their own choosing. This was fascinating. But Marx wrote a commentary on Morgan’s words: However, “the decision [was] made by the [all-male] Council”.

Secondly, in these notebooks Marx analyzes issues such as development of societies, formation of classes and the state in relation to families and the oppression of women. A similar research methodology can be found in his earlier works. In German Ideology he has written with Engels, they had drawn a theoretical framework to analyze societies in a holistic manner and discussed society as a totality comprised of moments where essential objects, means of production and people were produced[2]. These three forms of social activity were not to be taken as three stages, “but just as three aspects or, three “moments,” which have existed simultaneously since the dawn of history and the first men, and which still assert themselves in history today.

The notebooks go beyond the social circulation of capital and paves the way towards a holistic approach in analysis that will include other subjects such as family –another important element of the society– and gender inequality, namely the male dominance. Such holistic analysis reveals the inequalities deeply ingrained in the society and allows us to recognize how capitalist class exploitation fosters these inequalities and gets reinforced by them in return. The ideal of theoretical and contemporary communism can only be realized by combating these multi-layered social structures, and this form of holistic analysis also provides the means for such a struggle.

In his notes, Marx was approaching pre-capitalist societies through a “holistic” methodology, from a perspective that includes families and relationships between women and men. He was analyzing the transformations various social institutions have gone through in conjunction with their implications on women’s position in the society. For example, while quoting Lange he noted that during the development of Roman civilization traditional laws were replaced by secular state laws; and this has decreased the power of paterfamilias whereas empowered women –at least among the aristocrats. The part where he describes the changes in marriage rituals and women’s role in the society during the transition from the Law of Moses to Levitical Laws by using quotes from Morgan illustrates this power shift. On the other hand, he was studying the changes in women’s standing in terms of its effects on social production relations. The fact that he points to the discrepancy between the patriarchal family and the communal property, reflects his particular perspective. According to Marx, communal property and patriarchal family relations couldn’t co-exist forever, because the basis of patriarchal family relations was in direct conflict with communal property.

These notes also reveal the dialectic within Marx’s reasoning. Marx didn’t study phenomena as they existed, he considered them with their negations and dialectical movements, within history. While Morgan has written male dominance in Ancient Greece was not only “legitimized” by men but also by women; Marx has reminded us that male dominance has grown stronger over the course of history and referred to the times when women were free. Or while Morgan was touching upon Iroquois women’s “freedom” to express themselves through a representative, Marx was drawing attention to this freedom’s limitations; and asserting that even though women’s participation in the social life was progressive, the boundaries of their freedom were drawn by men.

In other words, he was underscoring that conflicts, stratification, and inequalities were already forming through the introduction of the chief system, prior to the total abolishment of communal property. He was demonstrating that the seeds of patriarchy and male dominance were sown during the reign of these societies where women were more liberated than they are today. In a sense, he was tracing the origins of patriarchy –one of the primary forms of social inequality– back to communal property and showing that male dominance can’t be solely explained through the presence of private property. Patriarchy’s roots in communal societies reveal that it can also sustain its capacity to exist in post-capitalist communist societies. This also supports the socialist feminist theory that does not limit the struggle to anticapitalism.

Thirdly, the notebooks present threads regarding human possibilities. For Marx, humans were the predominant subjects during the social, historical “development” —humans who produce the society and themselves and function within social relations, realizing themselves. Stanley Diamond asserts that Marx has retained his perspective on human possibilities –that he has strived to materialize all throughout his life– in the notebooks, and in this endeavor, he investigated the origins of social exploitation. Obviously, human possibilities encouraged Marx to imagine a society where not only the exploitation of surplus, but also all of inequalities, oppression and relationships of dominance would be abolished. The ancient inequality was the one between men and women; and women’s emancipation became the prerequisite for realizing their human possibilities.

According to Marx, communist society’s goal was to create opportunities for people to realize themselves, in other words for the development of all of their skills. In Grundrisse, Marx argued that with the abolishment of capitalism, new possibilities would arise for the free development of individuality; people would have more time to engage with fields such as science, arts, and philosophy. His words in Grundrisse describe real wealth as:

What is wealth other than the universality of individual needs, capacities, pleasures, productive forces?;… The absolute working-out of his creative potentialities… which makes this totality of development…. Where he does not reproduce himself in one specificity, but produces his totality? Strives not to remain something he has become, but is in the absolute movement of becoming?”

Marx has touched upon this subject in Grundrisse without considering gender inequality, in an “objective” manner. But would he be able to reaffirm this analysis now without considering women’s oppression under male dominance? Is it possible for him to argue that women’s inclusion in the workforce undermines the class struggle as he did in Kapital, in this new epoch? In fact, in a letter he wrote to his friend Dr. Kugelmann a few years after Kapital’s publication he noted “Anybody who knows anything of history knows that great social changes are impossible without the feminine ferment.” Marx proposed the foundation of a women workers’ branch during the subcommittee meeting of the General Council that was assembled to prepare for the International Congress that was to take place in London, on September 11, 1871. Isn’t that also a sign of his consideration?


Even though it is an incomplete text, The Ethnological Notebooks remains as a contribution to feminist theory. Just as it presents threads regarding the origins of patriarchy and social oppression; it investigates social transformation by including women’s role and draws attention to the social impact of women’s changing position in the society. In this respect, these notebooks constitute one of the initial steps taken to establish a holistic approach to analyze societies. As for the “human possibilities” we trace in the notebooks, according to this notion socialist feminist struggle is not limited to combating patriarchy and capital; it is also a struggle for creating a world in which women can realize their potentials and use their creativities –human possibilities.

The new “human possibilities” that will be revitalized by women’s struggle for liberation, herald new potentials, new forms of “wealth”. Such that the new “human possibilities” point to a brand-new world – new humans, new human relations, new “families”.

For the original in Turkish / Yazının Türkçesi için

Translator: Gülşah Mursaloğlu

Proof-reader: Müge Karahan

[1] The Ethnological Notebooks are the notebooks of Marx that were discovered very late. These notebooks which have been transcribed and translated by Lawrence Krader were published in 1972. They were based on the ethnographic studies Marx had conducted between 1881 and 1882. They include Marx’s notes on works by four scholars of anthropology: Morgan, Maine, Phear and Lubbock. Marx did not only record these findings, but he also made additions and commentaries on the conclusions these studies have put forward . But unfortunately, we can’t find anything beyond the outlines in these notebooks.

[2] According to the multidimensional framework they’ve created to analyze societies; three basic activities that define societies were determined. First basic activity was the production of the means to satisfy basic needs such as food, water, shelter, and clothing, meaning “the production of material life itself”. Second activity involved the creation of new needs once the essential ones were met. The tools that were used to meet these needs also created other needs. The third one which has always been included in narratives of historical development was “the reproduction of humans who daily remake their own lives, the creation of new humans”. This refers to the relationship between women and men, mothers, and fathers, namely the family.


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