Bordiga's 1951 commentary on Engels' 1884 "The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State". Within the text, Bordiga analyzes the spirit of so-called barbarism and proclaims that its characteristics are a welcome addition to socialism. Translated and edited by Radical Reprints, 2021.
There are two great and opposing conceptions of history. The first, great because it has managed to cling to our consciousness for centuries: the determining factor of history lies in the lust for prepotency, in the will to power, in the initiative, in the passion, in the impulse of heroes, of leaders, of groups, who throw themselves into battle in order to be able to bring to their greedy lips the cup that will quench that burning thirst for domination. Within this view, the destiny of humanity depends upon these great clashes.
The second conception is ours, that is, as Marxists. Let us demonstrate this using one of the clearest formulations from Engels:
"According to the materialistic conception, the determining factor in history is, in the final instance, the production and reproduction of the immediate essentials of life.”
This is how Engels introduced, in 1884, his splendid text The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. From the first to the last sentence of this work, as well as from the first to the last sentence of the revolutionary doctrine of the proletariat formulated by Marx, the following thesis runs in an uninterrupted line: family, property, and the state are not institutions formed with the birth of the human species and which the species requires in order to survive. We live in a society, and we had long been living in one before these concepts came to fruition. By demonstrating this scientifically, we also show that one day these three institutions will disappear. We must not write in our program the reform of these three wretched bases of civilization. Instead, we must call for their destruction.
The family and the problem of gender will be dealt with in due course; in this field, too, the individualistic explanation, the aspiration for the pleasure of the ego, with all its abnormal constructions and corruptions, disappears within our conception. We must shatter these voluntaristic explanations, after which a new formulation, deterministic and social, appears in full light.
For the moment, it is enough to quote the sentences that explain what "the production and reproduction of the immediate essentials of life" might mean. Here they are:
"This, again, is of a twofold character. On the one side, the production of the means of existence, of articles of food and clothing, dwellings, and of the tools necessary for that production; on the other side, the production of human beings themselves, the propagation of the species. The social organization under which the people of a particular historical epoch and a particular country live is determined by both kinds of production: by the stage of development of labor on the one hand and of the family on the other.”
Like Pius XII, but unlike the existentialist bourgeoisie always searching for a new stimuli to be found within its next carrion, we see in love a means to produce men, but since we are not guided by mystical or ethical presuppositions, we understand that, in the same way that the child plays so that one day he can run behind the beasts of the forest, or behind the trolleybus of the urban jungle, in the same way that the automobile engine ran on the bench before usefully supplying its energy on the roads, in the same way, sexual activity has a function that extends beyond the moment of the formation of the zygote.
The institutions relating to reproduction precede those relating to the production of manufactured objects, but always:
“The social organization under which the people of a particular historical epoch and a particular country live is determined by both kinds of production: by the stage of development of labor on the one hand and of the family on the other.”
In the wild stages of humanity, the species lived from the product of nature without much effort and labor; at this stage, the predominant determining elements of life are the systems of kinship; in the later stage, that of civilization, where the number of men and the capacity to produce substances have increased, it is the systems of production that are of predominant importance. Social forms are transitory; they disappear after long resistance due to their powerful inertia. Engels draws on Morgan's research, based on Marx's notes on his work, Ancient Society;4 Morgan had found in those systems of kinship of all peoples, various traces of disappeared family types; and although he did not base himself on an asserted materialist system, he observed that while the reality of the sexual and reproductive (familial) fact was changing, the names of disappeared kinship systems still remained, even with their social and legal consequences: these systems, he said, are passive. And this is where Marx notes in the margin:
"The same is true for political, juridical, religious, philosophical systems in general.”
It is precisely when we know the obsolete and passive character of all these systems that we can go beyond the bourgeois and reactionary philosophy of Voltaire's Candide. As it is born and dies venal, the bourgeoisie could only be born and die skeptical. For it the philistine dialogue below is definitive:
"’Do you think,’ said Candide, ‘that mankind always massacred one another? Were they always guilty of lies, fraud, treachery, ingratitude, inconstancy, envy, ambition, and cruelty? Were they always thieves, fools, cowards, backbiters, gluttons, drunkards, misers, vilifiers, debauchees, fanatics, and hypocrites?’ ‘Do you believe,’ said Martin, ‘that hawks have always been accustomed to eat pigeons when they came in their way?’ ‘Doubtless,’ said Candide. ‘Well then,’ replied Martin, ‘if hawks have always had the same nature, why should you suppose that mankind have changed theirs?’"
Candide lays down his arms, stammering that the difference lies in free will... We do not believe in free will like Candide, but we know, as Engels knew, that civilization set in motion the most ignoble instincts and passions of man, unknown in barbaric times: civilization, the highest form of which is the one you were announcing, Mr. Voltaire.
And it is precisely because we are supporters of this second conception of history, which scraps the genius of evil and the genius of good, as well as the bestial "human nature”, that we were able to say in 1914 that it was idiotic to try to determine who was the aggressor among the crowned despots of Petrograd, Berlin or Vienna; and in 1939 that the cynical and unanimous identification of the war criminal within the heads of state of Berlin, Rome and Tokyo was just as idiotic.
Today only a small minority is still able to understand along the same coherent line the emptiness of the respective accusations exchanged at UN meetings by Acheson and the Vyshinsky,6 with an ostentatious homage to the same backwards-looking doctrine of history. Both of them trace the cause of the outbreak of a new and terrible war (between those who yesterday were brothers when it came to punishing the aggressors and judging the criminals) to the desire of the opposite ruling group to have more power, more territory, more control over the human masses.
They both declare that a universal historical cataclysm can be born from this sadistic thirst for power among a restricted hierarchy of leaders, without other causes intervening: both say that peace is their goal, and that it is possible, provided that the opposing group can be detoxified!
Now, among our rare revolutionary Marxist groups that steer clear of the herds that engage with one or the other of the two "super-greats", it is clear that all Marxism disappears when one uses the other, opposite vision of history - if it is clear that, on the contrary, this determining factor must be found in the economic sphere and in the class struggle. If this is obvious, then how is it possible that among these anti-Stalin and anti-Truman groups, some attribute war and oppression to the mere ill will of men? This is indeed what they can only achieve when, in order to "explain today's Russia," they seek a third class in a bureaucratic state hierarchy which, by savoring ever more fully the voluptuousness of the recently conquered power, has blocked our path (that of Engels' little book) from the savage wilderness to communist society with an obstacle larger than was expected.
So we claim that an insignificant little book can contain the whole historical evolution?
Just a moment! Less than anyone, we, modest popularizers of old propaganda themes, who have never been bribed, who have to live from daily work, and who also lack an encyclopedia (perhaps out of hatred for Voltaire), cannot dispute the possibility that a well-trained, well-informed opponent might emerge who could have elaborated immense scientific material drawn from the whole horizon. Morgan himself, on whom Engels stopped to ponder, struggled for more than forty years to study the problem and obtained little support from the American government, then, as he was not in the odor of sanctity (are there still naive scholars?), he was thrown into oblivion. So we are always ready to weigh our ignorance as dilettantes.
We advance only one claim. On all sides one claims to speak in the name of Marx; one does not therefore consider him "outdated" - even if nearly eighty years separate us from his work. Beria, who replaced Stalin at the October commemoration, ended with a hymn to the great teachings of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin. Sir David Kelly, a former Labor Party ambassador in Moscow, disseminates a piece whose title is: "Karl Marx Struck by Stalin's Tyranny".
We will therefore linger in learning from this contradiction when there is one who has the guts to write at the head of a treatise the simple and brief epigram: how stupid this Marx was!
Because it is only then that this adversary will have the right to explain to us that because of such and such indisputable results of a positive research, it follows that the vision of history of which we are the catechumens, is henceforth false.
All the others are too preoccupied with passing themselves off as Marxists not to be, in our eyes, as stupid as they are bastards.
Let's continue with a passage from Engels, to show that everything collapses if we give credit to the blunder of energetic, daring individuals in a hurry to reign, and bureaucratic cliques that have installed their sovereign will into the craters of the great volcanoes of history in order to extinguish their eruptions with the power of flatus a tergo.7
We leave now, as we have said, the problem of gender and the explanation of the primitive forms of the family. We are only interested in quoting a passage, of fundamental importance because it applies to all the problems relating to the future society, since our school has overthrown the utopian school. Monogamy is not a natural state, since it has not always existed; it has been shown that the various peoples have known stages not only of polygamy and polyandry, but also of group marriage. Within the primitive tribe, there are many sub-groups of people; members of the same sub-group of people cannot marry each other; the males of one people or a group of them fall within the "poly-husbands" of a group of "poly-wives" of the other people. We have coined these two terms to help people understand the concept of group marriage, which precedes monogamy and is quite different from undifferentiated sexual promiscuity or fables about free love: it is as stupid to laugh at it as it is to be scandalized. In any case, the present form of the family is recent and contingent. And so it will in turn give way to new forms. Which ones? This is the cry from the heart of the petty-bourgeois. Here Engels concludes:
“What we can now conjecture about the way in which sexual relations will be ordered after the impending overthrow of capitalist production is mainly of a negative character, limited for the most part to what will disappear. But what will there be new? That will be answered when a new generation has grown up: a generation of men who never in their lives have known what it is to buy a woman’s surrender with money or any other social instrument of power; a generation of women who have never known what it is to give themselves to a man from any other considerations than real love, or to refuse to give themselves to their lover from fear of the economic consequences. When these people are in the world, they will care precious little what anybody today thinks they ought to do; they will make their own practice and their corresponding public opinion about the practice of each individual – and that will be the end of it.”
Let Vyshinsky and Acheson, worthy companions, blame each other for the attacks on the sanctity of the family, on the sanctity of the human person and, in general, on the sanctity of the present common civilization. It is not the destroyers, but the defenders of today's institutions of personality, family and civilization, who will end up against the wall.
Let us jump to the outlet from barbarism to civilization. The key to the transitions lies in the successive forms of division of labor. Up to the first stage of barbarism, there is the only natural division of labor, that between the two sexes. The result is the society of people, a limited community of men. Engels writes a real psalm to this barbaric system. This simple organization solves all internal problems without conflict. On the outside, yes, it is war that solves problems: we are not in an Arcadia... or in a world where the United Nations functions as Nenni9 would like it to. Cleanse your ears of Nenni's voice, we move on to Engels':
“War settles external conflicts; it may end with the annihilation of the tribe, but never with its subjugation. It is the greatness, but also the limitation, of the gentile constitution that it has no place for ruler and ruled. Within the tribe there is as yet no difference between rights and duties; the question whether participation in public affairs, in blood revenge or atonement, is a right or a duty, does not exist for the Indian; it would seem to him just as absurd as the question whether it was a right or a duty to sleep, eat, or hunt. A division of the tribe or of the gens into different classes was equally impossible.”
The social division of labor due to technical progress at this point begins to prevail over the natural division of labor between the sexes. In the first great social division of labor, the domestic cattle breeders separate themselves from the simple hunters and fishermen: the former already produce more than they consume, so they learn how to produce extra goods like milk, hides, threads, fabrics, etc. Then, private property was born: I, a poor human animal, could only philosophize that God created it. And today I can only philosophize that the Devil brought it to us.
Learning that one can produce a surplus means learning how to procure labor power: the winning group no longer exterminates the defeated. It has begun to become civilized: it makes the prisoner a slave. The first division into classes was born: slaves and masters.
The second great social division of labor occurred with the differentiation between crafts and agriculture. Slave production was integrated into the social system. A new class division of society between rich and poor is born. We have now arrived at the threshold of civilization; and we have also arrived at the threshold of bureaucracy: tell us about it, old Frederick, and may your shadow forgive us for the points of ellipsis:
"The denser population necessitates closer consolidation both for internal and external action. The confederacy of related tribes becomes everywhere a necessity, and soon also their fusion, involving the fusion of the separate tribal territories into one territory of the nation. The military leader of the people, res, basileus, thiudans – becomes an indispensable, permanent official. The assembly of the people takes form, wherever it did not already exist. [...] War, formerly waged only in revenge for injuries or to extend territory that had grown too small, is now waged simply for plunder and becomes a regular industry. Not without reason the bristling battlements stand menacingly about the new fortified towns; in the moat at their foot yawns the grave of the gentile constitution, and already they rear their towers into civilization. [...] The wars of plunder increase the power of the supreme military leader and the subordinate commanders; the customary election of their successors from the same families is gradually transformed, especially after the introduction of father-right, into a right of hereditary succession, first tolerated, then claimed, finally usurped; the foundation of the hereditary monarchy and the hereditary nobility is laid."
Civilization is now in bloom. With the Middle Ages, a third essential social division of labor brings us the merchants, a class that is not concerned with production but with the exchange of products. We now arrive at the monetary stage; this stage encourages the formation of the greatest wealth and possessions ever seen by man; it accentuates the division into classes; here the State emerges (demonstrating that, like the family and property, it has not existed for all of eternity). Engels shows us how this birth occurs in Athens, in Rome, and among the Germans. And within this we find the fundamental passages cited by Lenin in his State and Revolution.
The first point is a nail we have driven in so many times: the unity of territory. Second point: the institution of a public force.
“It may be very insignificant, practically negligible, in societies with still undeveloped class antagonisms and living in remote areas, as at times and in places in the United States of America. But it becomes stronger in proportion as the class antagonisms within the state become sharper and as adjoining states grow larger and more populous. It is enough to look at Europe today, where class struggle and rivalry in conquest have brought the public power to a pitch that it threatens to devour the whole of society and even the state itself.”
Today, in 1951, it is clear that with the modern navy, air force, and radio, all the great states are permanently "bordering" on each other. But only the blind cannot see that the police and the bureaucracy should, according to our traditional Marxist vision, contribute to their inexorable inflation.
Engels then talks about taxes:
“In possession of the public power (political factor!) and the right of taxation (economic factor!), the officials now present themselves as organs of society standing above society. The free, willing respect accorded to the organs of the gentile constitution is not enough for them, even if they could have it. Representatives of a power which estranges them from society, they have to be given prestige by means of special decrees, which invest them with a peculiar sanctity and inviolability. The lowest police officer of the civilized state has more “authority” than all the organs of gentile society put together; but the mightiest prince and the greatest statesman or general of civilization might envy the humblest of the gentile chiefs the unforced and unquestioned respect accorded to him. For the one stands in the midst of society; the other is forced to pose as something outside and above it.”
Let us laugh! Castoriadis and company discovered this in the middle of the century; the omnipotence of the Stalinist bureaucracy! Let us laugh at Vyshinsky too!
After having established on granite bases the doctrine of the death of the state, deduced from the history of its birth, Engels concludes on civilization:
"Civilization is, therefore, according to the above analysis, the stage of development in society at which the division of labor, the exchange between individuals arising from it, and the commodity production which combines them both, come to their full growth and revolutionizes the whole of previous society. [...] The central link in civilized society is the state, which in all typical periods is without exception the state of the ruling class, and in all cases continues to be essentially a machine for holding down the oppressed, exploited class.”
This civilization whose advent we have shown must necessarily find its apocalypse before us. Socialism and communism transcend civilization, just as civilization had transcended barbarism. They are not a new form of organization.
“Since civilization is founded on the exploitation of one class by another class, its whole development proceeds in a constant contradiction. Every step forward in production is at the same time a step backwards in the position of the oppressed class, that is, of the great majority.”
If therefore, the likes of Truman, Stalin and Churchill can stand as the torch-bearers of civilization, and if Castoriadis and other wrecks want to find a place as figures of anti-barbarism, we, with Marx, Engels and Lenin, wish to sit this game out.
It may be disturbing that communism has not yet been able to emerge from the crumbling of civilization, but it is ridiculous to use the threat of the barbaric alternatives in order to agitate against capitalist satisfaction.
Let's walk a few steps back in order to dedicate an even more venerating love letter to the barbarians. Let us remember the young barbaric forces that destroyed a rotten bureaucracy, the Roman Empire, giving birth to the German state upon its ruins:
"The Roman state had become a huge, complicated machine, exclusively for bleeding its subjects, Taxes, state imposts and tributes of every kind pressed the mass of the people always deeper into poverty; the pressure was intensified until the exactions of governors, tax-collectors, and armies made it unbearable. That was what the Roman state had achieved with its world rule. It gave as the justification of its existence that it maintained order within the empire and protected it against the barbarians without. But its order was worse than the worst disorder, and the citizens whom it claimed to protect against the barbarians longed for the barbarians to deliver them.”
With the barbaric invasions victorious, it seemed that history had finally come to an end taking civilization and culture with it. But this was not so. The young barbarian blood assimilated all that was vital and alive in the classical tradition. As always, all that the vanquished had elaborated in technique, in knowledge, in effective progress did not disappear, but in fact conquered the victor. Here is the passage qui nous faut:17
“The social classes of the ninth century had been formed, not in the rottenness of a decaying civilization, but in the birth-pangs of a new civilization. Compared with their Roman predecessors, the new breed, whether masters or servants, was a breed of men. The relation of powerful landowners and subject peasants which had meant for the ancient world the final ruin, from which there was no escape, was for them the starting-point of a new development. [...] But what was the mysterious magic by which the Germans breathed new life into a dying Europe? Was it some miraculous power innate in the Germanic race, such as our chauvinist historians romance about? Not a bit of it. [...] It was not, however, their specific national qualities which rejuvenated Europe, but simply – their barbarism, their gentile constitution. [...] All the vigorous and creative life which the Germans infused into the Roman world was barbarism. Only barbarians are able to rejuvenate a world in the throes of collapsing civilization.”
It is a vulgar error, unworthy of being called Marxism, to try to explain the end of class antagonism and anti-capitalist revolution by the malevolent will of bureaucratic cliques.
It is an error to place after the stage of capitalist civilization, which we proclaim to be the last and worst of civilization, a new and unforeseen class division within civilization. It is nonsensical to strain your eyes searching for a third class, that is say, a separate, dominant class found within the state. This class is no different from the bourgeoisie. The personnel of the state are not a new character within our struggle, because we have always seen and analyzed it in all class duels and all subsequent forms of the state.
It is an error to establish the historical continuation as: private capitalism, state capitalism, socialism. If this position is allowed to hold the stage, it is no wonder that the bulletin of the French left is forced to cough up not ostracism and disdain, but alliance and support with the state capitalism of Hitler or Stalin, so that it will come as quickly as possible to be the sole ruling party.
In the immediate post-war period, from the first appearance of fascism in Italy in 1919, we solved the great historical-strategic problem: no bloc with the liberal bourgeoisie against fascism - but also no bloc with fascism against the liberal bourgeoisie. We said it right away: this is not a question of two different class societies; they are one in the same.
The fact of having experienced and witnessed the bloc strategy, both varieties, in fact, is enough to explain the retreat of our revolution.
The most empty construction is the one that wants to place before the infamous world of capitalist civilization an alternative contained in the ghost of barbarism. “You will not have the creative revolution of a new world, perhaps you will suffocate it, but you will still have the crisis of disintegration of the present society: should you manage not to pass into socialism, will you fall back into barbarism?” This threat, serving as a purely intellectual exercise, will not frighten any bourgeois and will not incite any proletarian to struggle. No society will fall into decadence on account of its internal laws, of its internal necessities, if these laws and necessities do not lead to the rise of a multitude of men, organized with arms in hand - this is what we know and what we expect. No class civilization, however corrupt and repugnant it may be, knows a death without trauma.
If the sudden death of capitalism were considered by us as a necessary premise for further development, after which we inevitably would have to pass through the errors of subsequent civilizations, then there is nothing horrible about the characteristics of this barbarism as a human form of coexistence that would make us fear its unthinkable return.
As it happened in Rome, with the wild hordes unconscious bearers of a distant but greater revolution, the curators of the greatest contributions of man, we wish for a powerful barbarian wave to come crashing through the gates of this bourgois world.
But today, inside this gate, all forces, even if they oppose and fight each other, remain standing under the banner of civilization.
Once the revolutionary movement of the working class is able to regain its strength and leadership, and once formations emerge that are not at the orders of the civilization of Truman or Stalin, then they will be barbaric forces, which will not disdain the ripe fruit of modern industrial power, but will tear it from the jaws of the exploiters and shatter their teeth while they’re at it.
So let there come with socialism a new and fruitful barbarism, such as that which descended from the Alps and renewed Europe, which did not destroy but exalted the centuries of knowledge and art imprisoned in the dungeon of the formidable empires.
- 5Chapter 21 of Candide.
- 6Foreign ministers of the USA and USSR.
- 9Pietro Nenni was a prominent Italian politician and national secretary of the Socialist Party.
- 17Necessary for explanation.