Chris Harman


Engels and the origins of human society

(Part 2)


II) The origins of classes and the state

The Part Played by Labour ended with a few paragraphs suggesting how, once the human species was established biologically, its labour on the world then led to successive changes in its social institutions. The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, written eight years later, built on these insights, developing an overall account of the evolution of class society.

It held that originally humans had lived in societies without private property in the sense in which we use the term today (i.e. no private wealth, as opposed, say, to tooth brushes), without any division into classes, and without any domination of women by men. But changes in the way humans co-operated to produce their livelihoods led to the replacement of these “primitive communist” societies by a succession of forms of class society, of which modern capitalism is the most recent. And with class society came the state and different forms of family in which women were oppressed.

If The Part Played by Labour was ignored by established social science, The Origin of the Family was systematically denounced. The whole idea of “primitive communism” was dismissed as a fairy story. The experience of the American anthropologist Eleanor Leacock was typical. She tells how it was “generally accepted when I was a student that ‘the communism in living’ referred to by Lewis Henry Morgan and Frederick Engels had in fact never existed”. [82]

In part, the attack on Engels was political, linked with the general attack on socialist ideas. But the attack also corresponded to a general ahistorical, anti-evolutionary trend in sociology and social anthropology. Whereas in the 19th century these disciplines had originated as speculative attempts to show how all of human history had grown organically into the marvel of modern capitalism, in the 20th century the trend was in the opposite direction – to reject any notion of social evolution whatsoever. There were many accounts of life within individual cultures. There were attempts to show how the different aspects of particular “primitive” societies had the “function” of keeping society going. There were even attempts to provide a “theory” for the functioning of each and every society, of which the most grandiose and the most fruitless were the writings of Talcott Parsons. But there was a repudiation of any attempt to account for social evolution.

Yet throughout this period, the actual researches of social anthropologists proved the existence of vast number of societies in which classes, the state or women’s oppression as we know it did not exist – for instance Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa, Ruth Benedict’s Patterns of Culture, even Bronislaw Malinowski’s Argonauts of the Western Pacific and Sex and Repression in Savage Societies, and Meyer Fortes’ and Evans Pritchard’s African Political Systems.

Only in one discipline, that of archaeology, did notions of evolution persist. This may have been partly because archaeologists found human bones and artefacts embedded in geological layers laid down at different points in the past and were therefore prone to see some as succeeding others. But it was also because the most eminent figure in British archaeology was a left wing socialist, V Gordon Childe, who was attracted to a Stalinised version of Marxism in the 1930s and used some of Engels’ insights to come to terms with inadequacies in his own previous accounts of cultural change (which had depended on elaborate schemes by which culture “diffused” from one society to another). [83]

Then in the late 1960s the intellectual climate changed – a change which could not be divorced from wider upheavals of the decade. On the edges of the academic world some anthropologists (among them Marxists like Eleanor Leacock and anti-imperialists like Richard Lee) began to work with archaeologists (who were often influenced by Gordon Childe) to elaborate evolutionist interpretations of human society. They effectively re-established the validity of ideas that had been anathematised for two generations, especially the contention that for hundreds of thousands of years humanity lived in societies without classes, private property and the state.

Today, an influential non-Marxist like Ernest Gellner can accept that for a vast period humans lived in as “hunter/gatherers ... defined by the fact that they possess little or no means of producing, accumulating or storing wealth”, in societies “characterised by a low degree of division of labour”. [84] And Richard Lee can argue quite respectably: “Before the rise of the state and the entrenchment of social inequality, people lived in for millennia in small scale kin based social groups, in which the core institutions of economic life included collective or common ownership of land and resources, generalised reciprocity in the distribution of food, and relatively egalitarian political relations.”

This does not mean we can simply take all of Engels arguments and treat them as sacrosanct. He himself noted in 1891 that what he had written in 1884 needed to be revised to take account of “important progress” in knowledge. And we live not seven, but more than 100 years on from that. As Gailey has noted, in a study very much in the tradition laid down by Engels, much of the “ethnographic” (i.e. anthropological) data in The Origin of the Family has been overtaken by further researches. [85] There is a core to Engels’ argument in The Origin which remains extremely valuable. But it is necessary to disinter it from a range of factually incorrect data and speculative arguments which have been treated as gospel since by some would-be Marxists and used by opponents to discredit all of Engels’ insights. [86]



Primitive communism

Engels’ starting point was a reformulation of the point he and Marx had made back in 1845-6, that the ways human beings secure a living from nature determine how they co-operate with each other and so lay the basis for societies in which they live:

The determining factor in history is, in the last resort, the production and reproduction of immediate life... On the one hand the production of the means of subsistence, of food, clothing and shelter and the tools required therefore; on the other the production of human beings themselves, the propagation of the species. The social institutions under which men of a definite epoch and definite country live are conditioned by both kinds of production ... [87]

Morgan, quite independently of Marx and Engels, had come to a somewhat similar conclusion: [88]

Mankind are the only beings who may be said to have gained an absolute control over the production of food ... Without laying the basis of subsistence mankind could not have propagated themselves into other areas... and ultimately over the whole surface of the earth ...

It is accordingly probable that the great epochs of human progress have been identified more or less directly with the enlargement of the sources of subsistence. [89]

Engels followed Morgan in dividing human history into three great stages – savagery, barbarism and civilisation. Each had “a distinct culture and mode of life more or less special and peculiar to itself” and rested on a particular way of achieving a livelihood: [90]

Savagery – the period in which the appropriation of natural products, ready for use, predominated; the things produced by man were, in the main, instruments that facilitated this appropriation.

Barbarism – the period in which knowledge of cattle breeding and land cultivation was acquired, in which methods of increasing the productivity of nature through human activity, were learnt.

Civilisation – the period in which knowledge of the further working-up of natural products, of industry proper, and of art, was acquired. [91]

The terms themselves reflected the prejudices of the late 19th century, of the idea of so-called “primitive” societies as “savage” and “barbaric”. But Morgan and Engels, who both by and large rejected those prejudices, were able to use these distinctions to grasp what is central to any scientific study of human social development: the distinction between societies where human beings get a livelihood through gathering berries, nuts and roots and hunting wild creatures (so called “hunter-gatherer” or “foraging” societies); societies where human beings cultivate the land and herd mammals (“agricultural societies”); and societies which are to a greater or lesser extent urbanised (“civilisation” in the literal sense of being based on towns). [92] This in turn enabled Engels to challenge many orthodox prejudices about society.

Most reactionary thinkers claim “primitive societies” are markedly hierarchical, under the sway of brutal, aggressive and murderous males. [93] Since these societies have existed much longer than “civilisation”, it is said to follow that human nature is likewise brutal, aggressive and murderous.

Engels’ view was very different. He argued that early societies were organised along completely different lines to class societies, using as his model Morgan’s account of the North American Iroquois. There was no private property in them and no division into classes. And they were not held together by a state in the sense of “a special public authority separated from the totality of those concerned in each case”. Instead, they were organised through extended, interlinked “consanguine” groupings (that is, of people who were related to each other, or at least thought they were) – groupings which Engels called “gentes”, “clans” or “phatries” and which modern anthropologists usually call “lineages”:

This gentile constitution is wonderful in all its childlike simplicity. Everything runs smoothly without soldiers, gendarmes or police; without nobles, kings, governors, prefects or judges; without prisons, without trials. All quarrels and disputes are settled by the whole body of those concerned ... Although there are many more affairs in common than at present – the household is run in common and communistically by a number of families, the land is tribal property, only the small gardens being temporarily assigned to the household – still, not a bit of our extensive and complicated machinery of administration is required.

There can be no poor and needy – the communistic household and the gens know their responsibility towards the aged, the sick and those disabled in war. All are free and equal, including the women. There is as yet no room for slaves nor, as a rule, for the subjugation of alien tribes ...

This is what mankind and human society were like before class divisions arose ... [94]

Modern studies of surviving hunter-gatherer and early agricultural societies have upheld the essential core of Engels’ account. Hunting-gathering peoples live in what are usually called “band societies” – based on loose knit groups of 30 or 40 people which may, periodically, get together with other groups into bigger gatherings up to a couple of a hundred strong. There is no formal leadership, let alone class division within these societies.

Individual decision makings are possible for both men and women with respect to their daily routines ... Men and women alike are free to decide how they will spend each day: whether to go hunting or gathering, and with whom ... [95]

There was no differential access to resources through private land ownership and no specialisation of labour beyond that of sex ... The basic principle of egalitarian band societies was that people made decisions about the activities for which they were responsible. [96]

Individual band members enjoy a level of autonomy infinitely greater than the mass of people in class societies. But it is not accompanied by selfishness in their relations with each other. On the contrary, the stress is on generosity, on individuals helping each other:

Food is never consumed alone by a family: it is always shared out among members of a living group or band ... Each member of the camp receives an equitable share ... This principle of generalised reciprocity has been reported of hunter-gatherers in every continent and in every kind of environment. [97]

There is a very strong disdain for the competitive notions which are taken for granted in our society. As Richard Lee tells of the !Kung [98] people of the Kalahari (the so-called “Bushmen”):

The !Kung are a fiercely egalitarian people, and they have evolved a series of important cultural practices to maintain this equality, first by cutting down to size the arrogant and boastful, and second by helping those down on their luck to get back in the game ... Men are encouraged to hunt as well as they can, but the correct demeanour for the successful hunter is modesty and understatement. [99]

One of the !Kung reports:

Say a man has been hunting. He must not come home and announce like a braggart. “I have killed a big one in the bush!” He must first sit down in silence until I or someone else comes up to his fire and asks, “What did you do today?” He replies quietly, “Ah, I’m no good at hunting. I saw nothing at all ... maybe just a tiny one”. Then I smile, because I know he has killed something big. [100]

An early Jesuit noted of another hunter-gathering people, the Montagnais of Canada: “The two tyrants who provide hell and torture for many of our Europeans do not reign in their great forests, – I mean ambition and avarice ... as they are contented with a mere living, not one of them has given himself to the devil to acquire wealth”. [101] There are no chiefs or bosses in such bands. Thus the Mbuti Pygmies of the Congo:

never have chiefs ... In each aspect of Pygmy life there might be one or two men or women who were more prominent than others, but usually for good practical reasons ... The maintenance of law was a co-operative affair ... The more serious of crimes, such a theft, were dealt with by sound thrashing which was administered co-operatively by all who felt inclined to participate, but only after the entire camp had been involved in discussion of the case ... Pygmies dislike and avoid personal authority. [102]

Among the !Kung “patterns of leadership do exist”, but they are very different to power as we know it. In discussions the opinions of some individuals tend to have more impact than others. “These individuals are usually older people who have lived here the longest ... and have some personal qualification worthy of note as a speaker, an arguer, a ritual specialist, or a hunter.” But,

Whatever their skills !Kung leaders have no formal authority. They can only persuade, but never enforce their will on others ... None is arrogant, overbearing, boastful or aloof. In !Kung terms, these traits absolutely disqualify a person as a leader ... Another trait emphatically not found among traditional camp leaders is a desire for wealth or acquisitiveness. [103]

What is more – and on this Engels was wrong – there was very little in the way of warfare among hunter-gatherers. There might occasionally be clashes between different bands, but these were of marginal importance. [104] Among the !Kung, for instance, there is a sense in which a water hole and the area of land around it is “owned” by a group and passed from generation to generation. But other groups may use the land, provided they ask permission. “Disputes between groups over food are not unknown among the !Kung, but they are rare ...” [105]

Such evidence refutes completely the claims that the whole prehistory of humanity, from the time of the Australopithecines right through the emergence of literacy, was based on a “killing imperative”, that “hunter-gatherer bands fought over water holes that tended all too often to vanish under the baking African sun”, that we are all “Cain’s children”, that “human history has turned on the development of superior weapons ... for genetic necessity”, and that, therefor, only a thin veneer of “civilisation” conceals an instinctive “delight in massacre, slavery, castration and cannibalism.” [106]

The “primitive communist” attributes of band societies can only be understood by looking at the way they subsist. The normal size of bands is restricted by the need to find enough food each day in the area of their camp. Within that area, the individual members will continually be moving, from one source of plant food to another or in pursuit of animals. And the band as a whole will have to move on every so often, as the food supplies in a locality get used up. The continual movement precludes any accumulation of wealth by any band member, since everything has to be easily carried. At most an individual may have a spear or bow and arrow, a carrying bag or a few trinkets. “The ultimate value is freedom of movement ... the desire to be free from the burden and responsibilities which would interfere with the society’s itinerant existence.” [107]

The stress on the value of generosity follows from the way the hunters and gatherers are intensely dependent on each other. The gatherers usually supply the most reliable source of food, the hunters that which is most valued. So those who specialise in hunting depend for their daily survival on the generosity of those who gather, while those who specialise in gathering – and those who are temporarily unsuccessful in the hunt – rely on valued additions to their diet from those who manage to kill animals. And the hunt itself does not usually consist of the individual male hero going off to make a kill, but rather a group of men (sometimes with the auxiliary assistance of women and children) working together to chase and trap a prey.

There is nearly always a division of labour in these societies between the men and the women, with the men doing most of the hunting and the women most of the gathering. This is because a woman who is pregnant or breast feeding a child could only take part in the hunt by exposing it to dangers – and thus threatening the reproduction of the band. But this division does not amount to male dominance as we know it in present day society. Both females and males take part in key decisions, such as when to move camp or whether to leave one band and join another. And the conjugal unit itself is loosely structured. The spouses in any of these societies can separate without suddenly jeopardising their own livelihood or that of their children. [108]

Thus Engels was right in insisting that there was no systematic domination of women in these societies. However, he was probably wrong in one important detail – he overestimated the role played by lineages in most hunting gathering societies. The bands of surviving hunter-gatherers are loose and flexible. People are free to enter and leave them. They are not tightly controlled by lineage groups, even though the members of a band will often be related to each other and, through intermarriage, have loose ties to other bands. [109]

Engels’ belief in the power of the gens or clan among all existing “primitive societies” was a result of the anthropological knowledge of his time. He relied mainly on Morgan’s first hand account of the Iroquois and his second hand account of Polynesian society – both early agricultural (or “horticultural”) societies – rather than hunter-gatherers, about which neither Engels nor Morgan knew very much.

Existing hunter-gatherer societies are not necessarily the same as those all of humanity once lived in. Peoples like the !Kung, the Mbuti, the Eskimos and the Australian aborigines have a history as long as a our own – and their history will have been influenced first by the impact of neighbouring agricultural societies and then, traumatically, by Western colonialism. [110] So their patterns of social life could be different in many respects to those of our common forebears. These may possibly have had strong lineage structures, as Engels thought, but we have no evidence to prove it.

On the question of egalitarianism, however, we are on much firmer ground. The stress on sharing, the strong co-operative values and the flexible make-up of the bands must have characterised the life of our forebears for tens of thousands of years, just as it characterises modern hunter-gatherers. These values fit perfectly with the needs of the nomadic, hunter-gatherer life. They are not the sorts of values found in class societies, and so their existence among surviving hunter-gatherers cannot be a result of external pressures. Lee quite rightly stresses, “for all its economic and military power and its near monopoly of the ideological apparatus, the capitalist state has not succeeded in eradicating innumerable pockets of communalism [primitive communism]”. [111] This in itself points to primitive communism as a stage prior to the rise of class society, as the condition of all of humanity at one stage in our history.

This is of immense importance for any arguments of “human nature”. For if such a nature exists it was moulded, by natural selection, during the 2.5 million year long epoch of hunting and gathering between the first appearance of homo habilis and the first planting of crops by 8th millennium BC homo sapiens. Lee is quite right to insist:

It is the long experience of egalitarian sharing that has moulded our past. Despite our seeming adaptation to life in hierarchical societies, and despite the rather dismal track record of human rights in many parts of the world, there are signs that humankind retains a deep-rooted sense of egalitarianism, a deep rooted commitment to the norm of reciprocity, a deep rooted ... sense of community ... [112]



The first agriculturalists

More than 99.9 percent of humanity today live in societies that have been moulded by a change that began about 10,000 years ago. It involved the establishment of settled villages, the use of new, more varied and more intricate kits of stone, wooden and bone tools (hence the term “neolithic”, meaning “new stone age”), the use of clay pots for storage and cooking, and, perhaps most importantly, the first cultivation of the soil.

Today this change is usually referred to by Gordon Childe’s term “neolithic revolution”. Engels equated it with the transition from “savagery” to “barbarism”. He argued it began with the introduction of pottery and then continued in the Eastern hemisphere (Eurasia and Africa) “with the domestication of animals”, and in the Americas “with the cultivation of edible plants by means of irrigation and with the use of adobe (bricks dried in the sun) and stone for building”. [113] In the Eastern hemisphere, but not in the Americas, there followed an “upper stage of barbarism” which “begins with the smelting of iron”. Here for the first time we encounter the iron ploughshare drawn by cattle, making possible land cultivation on wide scale and, in the conditions of the time, virtually unlimited increase in the means of subsistence. And “in connection with this we find also the clearing of the forests and their transformation into arable and pasture land – which again would have been impossible without the iron axe and spade. But with this there also came a rapid increase in population and dense population in small areas ...” [114] These changes in production during “barbarism”, Engels went on to argue, laid the basis for the first development of class society:

To whom did this new wealth belong? Originally, doubtless to the gens. But private ownership of herds must have developed at an early stage ... On the threshold of authenticated history we find everywhere the herds are already the separate property of the family chiefs, in exactly the same way as were the artistic products of barbarism, metal utensils, article of luxury and, finally, human cattle – the slaves.

For now slavery too had been invented. The slave was of no value [while] human labour power at this stage yielded no noticeable surplus as yet over the cost of its maintenance. With introduction of cattle breeding, of metal working, of weaving and, finally, of field cultivation, this changed ... [115]

Engels’ account is wrong on a number of significant points. Class society and civilisation did develop in central and south America as well as in Eurasia and Africa. Cultivation of the land (although not using the plough), began at about the same time as the domestication of animals, not after it. The first form of class society was not slavery, which seems to have been a marginal form of exploitation of the oppressed classes until Graeco-Roman times. Yet his overall picture of the rise of class society is basically correct.

The whole organisation of society did undergo radical change as human groups developed new ways of getting a livelihood. At different times they turned from hunting-gathering to cultivation, independently of each other (in several regions of the Americas, at least three distinct parts of Africa, the uplands of Iraq, the Indus valley, Indochina, the valleys of central Papua-New Guinea, and China [116]). And where cumulative change went furthest it did lead to the first division into classes, the first states and the first systematic oppression of women. But the full change took place over a very long period of time – 4,000 or 5,000 years in the most studied case, that of Mesopotamia (present day Iraq). And in most societies it never got this far, so that even a century and a half ago millions of people were still living in non-class agricultural societies.

The first form of agriculture (often called “horticulture”) involved clearing the land (by cutting away at woodland and brush with axes and then burning off the rest), and then planting and harvesting seeds or tubers, using a hoe and or a digging stick. Usually, after a couple of years the fertility of the land would be exhausted. It would be allowed to return to the wild and a new area was cleared for cultivation. The crop yield from a given area of land was not nearly as great from this “slash and burn” shifting agriculture as from later forms based on irrigation or the plough, but it was considerably greater than to be obtained by most forms of hunting and gathering.

This in itself had immediate social consequences. People no longer needed to be on the move all the time, as with hunting and gathering; indeed, it would have been disastrous to move between sowing and harvesting. For the first time, it made sense to construct heavy clay pots and to store things in them. And the local food supply was often enough to sustain five or ten times as many people as before, so permitting village life for the first time.

Changes also, necessarily, took place in the internal structure of each social group. On the one hand, the individual household became less reliant on co-operation with the rest of the group for obtaining its subsistence: group-wide co-operation was often needed in clearing the land, but the each household could sow and harvest its own patch of cleared land by itself. On the other hand, there had to be ways of ensuring that households with lots of labour but few mouths provided assistance to those which have lots mouth but little labour – especially those with lots of young children. [117] For children represented the future labour supply of the village as a whole, and if they were not adequately cared for, the group itself would eventually die out.

The move to agriculture produced, in fact, a very important change in the group’s needs when it came to reproduction. Under hunting and gathering, the need to carry children, both on the daily round of gathering and on the periodic moves of the whole camp, led to a tight restriction on the birth rate. Women could not afford to have more than one child who required carrying at a time, and so births were spaced every three or four years (if necessary through sexual abstention, abortion or infanticide). With fixed village life based on agriculture, by contrast, not only did the child not have to be carried after it was a few months old, but the greater the number of children, the greater the area of land that could be cleared and cultivated in future. Provision for reproduction became central to the dynamics of the society.

Something else had to be provided for if the group was to flourish – some new mechanism of social control. A big dispute in a band of hunter-gatherers can be solved simply by the band splitting or by individuals leaving it. This option is hardly open to a group of agriculturalists once they have cleared and planted their land. They can only survive argument, conflicts and infractions of social norms if there is a much more developed superstructure of control than among hunter-gatherers.

This can explain the much enhanced role of lineages. They bind people much more tightly in early agricultural than in most hunter-gatherer societies. People now have clearly spelt out sets of rights and obligations vis-a-vis members of other households with whom they are related, either directly through kinship or indirectly through intermarriage or age group associations. Individuals who haven’t got enough food can expect to get it from those designated as “uncles” or “cousins” in their lineage (not just immediate relatives, also second, third, even fourth cousins and so on). And the way to attain social prestige is to have enough surplus food at one’s disposal to enable one to be a big giver.

The lineages, by preventing any individual household going hungry, ensure the reproduction of the group as a whole. But that is not all. As they become responsible for exercising social control over their members, they become much more formalised in their mode of operation. Decision making begins to be concentrated in the hands of some members of the lineage – usually those who are among the eldest. And in many societies things go a stage further so that some lineages come to have more prestige than others. The point can even be reached, as in Tonga even before contact with Europeans, in which the leading people (“chiefs”) in prestigious lineages are able to escape from the burden of productive work and begin to try to turn themselves into an exploiting class. [118]



The first hierarchies

Why does this differentiation happen? The most plausible explanation goes along the following lines: Once human groups settle down in one place they can begin to store considerable quantities of food and other valuable. Those lineages which are most successful at this – even if purely for accidental reasons, like being lucky enough to cultivate land which is more fertile than the average – will be able to make bigger gifts than other lineages, and so gain greater prestige. And, similarly, within each lineage, certain households will be able to become wealthier than others and again earn great prestige. The very values of generosity built into such a society encourage a differentiation of status.

This leads to the emergence of what anthropologists call “big men”, individuals who gain prestige because of the wealth at their disposal. Yet, and this is very important, these individuals do not use this wealth for their own well being. They gain prestige precisely because they give it to others.

In its most developed form, a whole system of collecting and giving away wealth arises. “Big men” use their prestige to gather in their hands any surplus left in the hands of other members of their lineage. But they then reinforce their prestige by giving the surplus back, through great ceremonial feasts for those who are directly and indirectly related to them. And a particular lineage can raise its prestige above that of other lineages, to whom it is connected by intermarriage, by giving feasts for those lineages.

The system is one in which some individuals and some lineages have higher prestige than others, in some cases culminating in establishment of hereditary chiefs and chiefly lineages. But it is not a class system, in which one section of society consumes the surplus which another section produces. Despite the establishment of hereditary or semi-hereditary hierarchies in terms of prestige, the mode of production remains communal, with consumption patterns marked by egalitarianism and sharing.

Richard Lee notes that “a large number of pastoral and horticultural societies in the third world share the same traits” of “communal property concepts” as hunter-gatherer societies. “In numerous chiefdoms described by anthropologists in Africa, Oceania and lowland South America one notes, for example, much of what tribute the chiefs receive is redistributed to subjects, and the chiefs’ power is subject to checks and balances by the forces of popular opinion and institutions.” [119] Thus among the Nambikwara of South America:

The chief must not just do well. He must try, and his group will expect him to try, to do better than the others ... Although the chief does not seem to be in a privileged position from the material point of view, he must have under his control sufficient surplus quantities of food, tools, weapons and ornaments ... When an individual, a family or a band as a whole, wishes or needs something, it is to the chief that an appeal is made. Generosity is, therefore, the first attribute to be expected of a new chief. [120]

This can even lead to the leader having a harder time materially than those under him. Thus among the New Guinea Busama, the clubhouse leader “has to work harder than anyone else to keep up his stocks of food ... he must toil early and late – ‘his hands are never free from earth, and his forehead continually drips with sweat’.” [121] In such societies many core values remain much closer to those of hunter-gatherer societies than to those we take for granted in class societies. Thus, an early 18th century observer of the Iroquois horticulturalists noted, “If a cabin of hungry Iroquois meets another whose provisions are not entirely exhausted, the latter share with the newcomers ... without waiting to be asked, although they expose themselves thereby to the same dangers of perishing as those whom they help ...” [122] And a similar story emerges in a classic study of the Nuer pastoralists. [123]

Yet, these communal, egalitarian values often face the beginnings of a challenge, with household trying to evade their wider obligations in a way that does not happen among hunter-gatherers. Hidden beneath the egalitarian, communal ideology are often found incipient tendencies to place the needs of the household above the needs of the community. The Bemba in East Africa, for instance, will hide beer when a visit from an elderly relative takes place, telling him, “Alas, we are poor wretches, we have nothing to eat”. [124] Among the Maoris there is a saying, “Broil your rat (a favourite dish) with its fur on, lest you be disturbed by someone”. [125] After a hurricane caused acute shortages among the Tikopia – a people noted for their generosity – households began to avoid eating when people with whom they were meant to share were present. [126]

This contradictory behaviour is not the result of some inherently selfish “human nature”, but of a contradiction built into the productive system. Production itself does not rely on co-operation from the whole group, as in hunter-gatherer societies, but is based, by and large, on the care of crops and animals by the individual household. [127] The lineage and group are concerned with redistribution and reproduction, rather than production. As Karen Sachs puts it, there is a “contradiction” in this “mode of production” between lineage-based “relations of production” and “forces of production” that mainly depend on households. [128]

The survival of society depends on both the individual concerns of households which sustain production and the co-operative, altruistic, sharing within the group which ensures reproduction. And this means that the household can put up resistance to its obligations to the wider society if conditions arise in which its own survival is at stake. It is not a question of individual benefit versus social welfare, but of the needs of one element in the mode of production clashing with other elements.

Usually the household succeeds in reconciling the contradictory pressures, and the system does not break down. But it not difficult to see how internal changes (new productive techniques) or external pressures (natural catastrophes, exhaustion of the land, the impact of other societies) could create conditions of acute crisis in which the old order would no longer be able to continue, leading some wealthy household or lineages to break completely with their old obligations. What had been wealth to be given away to others in return for prestige then becomes wealth to consume while others suffer. “In advanced forms of chieftainship ... what begins with the would-be headman putting his production to others’ benefit ends, to some degree, with others putting their production to the chief’s benefit.” [129]

There is another very important change in the transition from hunter-gathering to agriculture. For the first time systematic warfare makes sense. Wealth that is stored is wealth that can be stolen from other groups of agriculturalists. Whereas clashes between rival bands are very rare among hunter-gatherers, “Organised warfare for the purpose of defending or expanding territory is endemic ... among horticulturalists”. [130]

But warfare allows some individuals and lineages to gain great prestige as they concentrate loot and the tribute from rival societies into their hands. Hierarchy becomes more pronounced, even if it remains hierarchy associated with the ability to give things to others. And to this extent, warfare is a factor opening up the possibility of class relations emerging in the face of some great social crisis.

Thus, Christine Ward Gailey suggests the attempts between 1100 and 1400 AD by the highest ranking groups of chiefs in Tonga to cut themselves off from their obligations to lower ranking people – to attempt to form themselves into a ruling class – were a result of their victory in battle over the inhabitants of other islands.



The origins of agriculture

One problem has long perplexed those who have studied the transition from hunting-gathering to agriculture. Why did people make the change? It used to be thought the change must have led to such improvements in people’s lives as to make them readily accept it. But today there is a lot of evidence refuting any such simple notion. In many hunter-gatherer and horticultural societies people have actually worked less and been at least as well fed as in societies based on intensive agriculture. Thus the !Kung of the Kalihari desert may seem to have lived in a region devoid on any great resources to sustain human life. But they enjoyed a balanced diet and a calorific input rather higher than the average in modern India – and did not need to work more than three or four hours a day. They seem to have lived in what Marshall Sahlins has called, “the original affluent society”. [131]

This explains why many hunter-gatherer societies have refused to make the transition to agriculture, even when they have been fully aware of certain agricultural techniques. They identify agriculture with an unnecessarily heavy workload.

More recent accounts of the transition from hunter-gatherer to agricultural societies focus, instead, on how certain changes could have produced tensions in hunter-gatherer societies before the transition to agriculture. In particular they stress that not all hunger-gatherer societies are continually on the move. Some have found a more or less static source of food to sustain them in fixed camps, which sometimes develop into villages several hundred strong. This, for instance, is true of the original inhabitants of the north west pacific coast of America, who sustain themselves from plentiful supplies of fish. Significantly, in such societies there is already some incipient social stratification: because a surplus can be stored and because a relatively large social group has to be held together, some people gain prestige (although not power or higher living standards) by fulfilling these tasks. [132] At the same time, however, life for the majority of people has advantages over that with nomadic hunter-gathering. Young children do not repeatedly have to be carried long distances, and so there is no longer any need to space births, whether by abortion and infanticide or by abstention from sex. And the larger permanent social groupings provide more opportunities for socialising, opportunities that are usually restricted among nomadic hunter-gatherers to the few weeks in the year in which several different bands camp together.

If life is easier for nomadic hunter-gatherers than for agriculturalists, it is easier still for non-nomadic hunter-gatherers, providing they have a large, static food supply. It is not surprising that some nomadic hunter-gatherers should opt for the new way of life and that under such conditions, there should be rapid population growth.

However, the new way of life depended on the ready availability of copious local supplies of wild foodstuffs. If these supplies disappeared for some reason, people faced immense problems. Their communities were too large for them to return to a way of life based on small, wandering bands. That would involve a complete break with an established way of life, massive social disruption, the learning (or relearning) of survival techniques – and probably starvation on a wide scale at first. And so they had an incentive to look to new ways of getting food, even if this involved an intensification of work.

This is what seems to have happened in the fertile crescent of the Middle East. About 11,000 BC climatic conditions in the region changed in such a way as to provide local “Natufian” peoples with copious source of both meat (from herds of antelopes) and wild grain, so that they could begin to live in large, sedentary groups (villages) without having to abandon the hunter-gatherer mode of subsistence. But after about three millennia, ecological conditions changed again, and they could no longer rely on the wild herds and wild grains to feed them. “The imbalance between population and resources is reflected in dietary stress, female infanticide and declining meat consumption.” [133]

At this point human survival for the inhabitants of the society depended upon changing their way of life. There were two directions in which change could go: towards putting effort into cultivating the crops and herding the animals they had previously collected and hunted, or, alternatively, to an abandonment of village life by splitting into small bands which would wander the land seeking naturally occurring food supplies which were not to be had close at hand. In fact, Natufians seem to have gone in both directions. Some used their knowledge of plant and animal life to undertake the planting of seeds and the domestication of herds, others reverted to the life style of their nomadic ancestors. We do not know on what basis individual groups made their choice. But it seems likely that those that adopted farming did so by accepting a reorganisation of the local economy under the direction of those prestigious individuals previously responsible for the collecting and redistribution of surpluses. [134]

Such an account explains why the transition to agriculture took place, independently, in so many different parts of the world. [135] It was the result of the emergence of hunter-gatherer societies which became so successful at exploiting local food resources that they grew too big to adapt when, after hundreds or thousands of years, those resources dried up. At that point they had either to change or die.

Once the transition to agriculture had taken place among any group in a region, something irreversible had happened. The populations of those societies practising agriculture began to grow much more rapidly than those of societies that still depended on hunting and gathering. The surpluses which their sedentary life style enabled them to store provided the basis for increased specialisation in the making of artefacts, initially of stone, later of copper and brass. And among the new artefacts were the weapons they made and stockpiled for fighting each other – weapons that could also be used to drive neighbouring hunter-gatherers from the most productive soil. The new farming societies began to spread out from their place of origin, budding out into new areas as they grew, conquering or converting the hunter-gatherers around them. So, for instance, farming spread from the fertile crescent uplands some 8,000 to 9,000 years ago across the plains of the region and through south east Europe 7,000 to 8,000 years ago and then into north Europe by 4,500 to 4,000 years ago. [136]

Hunting and gathering did not disappear everywhere. Ecological niches with abundant wild animal life remained in the middle of agricultural areas, allowing the survival for millennia of societies that opted to stay with hunting and gathering. And groups of agriculturalists sometimes found it expedient to return to hunting and gathering as they moved into new areas. Nevertheless, there is no mistaking the overall trend towards the dominance of whole regions by agriculture, with the remaining hunter-gatherers being driven into the areas not suitable for agriculture – the forests, the deserts, the arctic wastes.



The first class societies

Very few agricultural societies developed into full class societies as a result of their own internal development. This began to happen in Mesopotamia about 6,000 years ago, in Egypt, Iran, the Indus Valley and China several hundred years later, on the middle Nile (in what is now Sudan) and the eastern Mediterranean a thousand years after this, and in Meso-America, the Andean region, the Ethiopian highlands, and west and south east Africa between 2,500 and 1,000 years ago. [137] In all these cases the main pressures for the development of a new social order were internally generated. But in most other parts of the world external pressures were necessary. The old purely horticultural or agricultural societies continued to persist until foreign trade, military defeat or colonisation led to change. This was true, for instance, of northern Europe until between 2,500 and 1,000 years ago, and of highland New Guinea right through until the early 1930s.

Engels associated the rise of class society with intensive agriculture and the first use of metals. Gordon Childe accepted a similar view, calling the process of change, the “urban revolution” (although, unlike Engels, he recognised that it followed thousands of years after the first settled agriculture of the “neolithic revolution”).

On the one hand, the population growth associated with early agriculture eventually ran, in every locality, into limits in the amount of land that could be cultivated using existing techniques. “The growth of the neolithic populations was eventually limited by contradiction in the new economy.” This encouraged an increasing resort to warfare, with “stone battle axes and flint daggers” becoming increasingly common in “the later stages of the neolithic revolution in Europe”. On the other, the self sufficient neolithic village could never escape from the threat of natural catastrophe:

All its labours and plans might be frustrated by events still beyond its control: droughts or floods, tempests or frosts, blights or hailstorms, might annihilate crops and herds ... Its reserves were too small to tide it over any prolonged succession of disasters.

The urban revolution eventually offered a way out of both problems:

The worse contradictions of the neolithic economy were transcended when farmers were persuaded or compelled to wring from the soil a surplus over and above their domestic requirements and when this surplus was made available to support new economic classes not directly engaged in producing their own food.

But this, in turn, required technical advance – “additions to the stock of science”:

The thousand or so years immediately preceding 3000 BC were perhaps more fertile in fruitful inventions and discoveries than any period in human history prior to the 16th century AD. Its achievements made possible that economic reorganisation of society I term the “urban revolution”. [138]

The advances in technology included the discovery of how to smelt copper and then of how to alloy it with tin to produce bronze, the use of the plough instead of the hoe and of animal power (at first oxen) to drag it through the soil, the employment of the first wheeled carts (and war chariots), the building of regular channels and dams for irrigation, new ways of building and sailing of boats.

All of these changes involved what Childe calls “modifications in social and economic relations” – changes in the relations of people with each other, as well as in their relations with nature. Metal smelting was a much more skilled occupation than pot making, and came to depend on groups of highly skilled specialists, passing the secrets of their trade on from generation to generation. The use of the plough tended to increase the division of labour between the sexes, since it was a form of heavy labour not easily done by women bearing or nursing children. The building and maintenance of regular irrigation channels tended to mean the co-operation of dozens or even hundreds of households, and encouraged a division between those who supervised work and those who undertook it.

The use of wheeled carts and sailing craft encouraged growing trade between widely separated groups of agriculturalists – giving people access to a range of useful things they could not produce themselves. The increased productivity of labour as a result of these changes enabled the average size of settlement to rise enormously, until in some regions the villages of the neolithic period gave way to cities. And the enlarged surplus resulting from the increased productivity provided an added motive for war preparations.

Gordon Childe describes the transformation that occurred in Mesopotamia, as people settled in the river valley of the Tigris and Euphrates. They found land which was extremely fertile, but which could only be cultivated by “drainage and irrigation works”, dependent upon “co-operative effort”. [139] A much more recent study of Mesopotamia by Maisels suggests that people who had already learned agriculture on naturally irrigated land found, in fourth millennium BC, “the river channels flowed between levees [mud banks] which had only to be locally breached to extend the productivity of nearby areas. High and sustained levels of output could thus be attained given the right agricultural conditions.” But not all this increased output was consumed immediately. Some was put into reserve:

Surpluses were required for exchange against pastoral and other subsistence products, while further stores had to be held against years of drought, pests, or growing season damage, for instance by storms ... Such reserves ... mean permanent means of organising production and consumption so there is always a safety margin. [140]

Over thousands of years the agricultural settlements based on the new methods of irrigation grew into towns, and the towns into cities. The storage of grain came to require sizeable buildings which, standing out from the surrounding land, symbolised for people the continuity and preservation of social life. Those who supervised the granaries became the most prestigious group in society. In short, temples emerged which were watched over by priests. [141]

With the foundation of a permanent grouping of priestly administrators something else, of enormous historical importance, arose: a system of signs for keeping account of society’s wealth, the first alphabet. As Gordon Childe put it:

To keep account of the receipts and expenditure of the deity the priestly corporations administering the temple estate devised and sanctioned a system of conventional signs – i.e. writing; the only written documents [until 2800 BC] are account tables. Thus the accumulation of a substantial social surplus in the temple treasuries – or rather granaries – was actually the occasion of the cultural advance that we have taken as the criterion of civilisation.

The deity may he regarded as a representative or projection of the community, and the priests who served him would therefore be servants of the community, though doubtless better paid than the rest of god’s people. [142]

Over the generations, the priestly layer became increasingly separate from the rest of society, until it formed a class with quite distinct interests. Gordon Childe describes how, “Favoured priests practised various forms of extortion (overcharging for burials, for instance) and treated the god’s (i.e. the community’s) land, cattle and servants as their own private property and personal slaves”, quoting an edict of the city of Lagash from around 2500 BC:

The high priest came into the garden of the poor and took wood therefrom. If a great man’s house adjoined that of an ordinary citizen’, the former might annexe the humble dwelling without paying any proper compensation to its owner.

“This archaic text”, he concludes, “gives us unmistakeable glimpses of a real conflict of class ... The surplus produced by the new economy was, in fact, concentrated in the hands of a relatively small class.” [143]

In Mesopotamia, the first exploited class were not slaves conquered in war, as originally suggested by Engels (and accepted to some extent by Gordon Childe), but “erin” people, formerly independent peasant households who had been forced into dependency on more powerful groupings, especially the temple, and who worked for rations and wages at digging canals, cultivation or in military service. [144]

The scale of exploitation grew until it was massive. T.B. Jones tells how in Lagash about 2100 BC:

A dozen or more temple establishments were responsible for cultivating most of the arable land. About half (the crop) was consumed by the cost of production (wages for workers, feed for draft animals and the like) and a quarter went to the king as royal tax. The remaining 25 percent accrued to the priests. [145]

The ordinary labourer’s normal subsistence was three silla (about 2.4 litres) of grain a day, plus supplements of beer and oil. This diet was probably deficient in protein, minerals and vitamins, but still amounted to 3,000 calories a day, 1,000 calories a day more than most people in India or Sub-Saharan Africa get today. [146] So much for the wonders of capitalism compared with other class societies!

Mesopotamia was probably the first – and has certainly been the most studied – example of the transition to “civilisation”. But as we have seen it was not the only one. The conditions that led to the first elements of urban life and of class division occurred, as we have seen, in several parts of the world. Engels was misled by the evidence available at his time to see them arising from the use of iron by the “pastoral” semitic and Indo-European speaking peoples of Eurasia. What is more, there were many more instances of agricultural societies developing, on their own accord, to a level where hundreds or even thousands of people could be mobilised to construct imposing stone edifices – as with the stone temples of third and fourth millennium BC Malta, the third millennium BC stone circles of which Stonehenge is the best known example, 18th century AD statues of Easter island and stepped platforms of Tahiti. [147]

Sometimes the development towards “civilisation” would be influenced by one that had occurred elsewhere. [148] But this does not alter the fact that the processes leading to the formation of towns and cities, and often to the invention of writing, began independently in several different locations, because of the internal dynamic of society once agriculture advanced beyond a certain point. This makes nonsense of any attempt to claim that one group of the world’s people are somehow “superior” to others because they arrive at “civilisation” first.

In place after place, different peoples arrived at a similar end point, summed up by Gordon Childe as “the aggregation of large populations into cities; the differentiation within these of primary producers (fishers, farmers, etc), full time specialist artisans, merchants, officials, priests and rulers; the use of conventional symbols for recording and transmitting information (writing), and equally conventional standards of weights and measures of time and space leading to some mathematical and calendrical science”. [149]

But the exact route from hunter-gathering through horticulture and agriculture to civilisation did vary considerably from one society to another. [150]

Studies of the beginnings of stratification within contemporary “communal” agricultural societies do suggest this can take different paths – sometimes with lineage elders emerging as tribal chiefs, sometimes with “big men” turning into village headmen, sometimes with whole lineages developing into priestly castes, sometimes with some household coming to control others. Some fully established class societies do seem to have developed in the way Engels talked about, through the immediate growth of private property in land, crops and animals. But in others the evidence points to a ruling class which initially exploited the rest of society without private property – along lines which Marx and Engels referred to (somewhat misleadingly) as “the Asiatic mode of production”. [151] In these cases class exploitation remained hidden within old communal forms of social organisation, rather than being openly revealed through private property. It was, however, just as surely class exploitation, with the old “communal” organisation of production in reality completely transformed by the enforced payment of tribute to the exploiting priests or bureaucrats. The heads of communal organisations (whether villages, lineage groups or extended households) no longer served their needs alone, but increasingly became also the means by which the demands of the ruling class were imposed on their fellows. [152]

The divergent forms under which class society emerged must not make us forget the enormous similarities from society to society. Everywhere there was, in the beginning, primitive communism. Everywhere, once settled agricultural societies were formed, some lineages, lineage elders or “big men” could begin to gain prestige through their role in undertaking the redistribution of the little surplus that existed in the interests of the group as a whole. Everywhere, as the surplus grew, this small section of society came to control a greater share of the social wealth, putting it in a position where it could begin to crystallise out into a social class.

What is more, even where it crystallised into a collective social class, it could, over hundreds of years, give birth to classes of private property owners. This certainly happened in Mesopotamia [153] and ancient India, “where not only is there evidence to prove the existence of private property, but also ... the role of private property changes significantly over the centuries”, [154] and may have happened in Titohuacan in Central America. [155] Even in Egypt, where the power of the monarchy was enormous, there was a tendency for both temples and the governors of local provinces (“nomes”) to develop economic power of their own by the end of the old kingdom (about 2000 BC), and by Ptolemaic times a new warrior caste owned about half of the land. [156] The German-American ex-Marxist Wittfogel attempted to develop an overall theory of “Oriental despotism”, applicable to all these societies, in which economic power was completely in the hands of an all-powerful collective ruling class; but his own early studies of China suggest a different picture, in which a state bureaucracy, local gentry and merchants were all involved in bitter battles for control in 5th century BC China.



How class began

So far we have seen that there was, indeed, a transition from hunter-gatherer societies to urbanised societies, and that parallel to that went a transition from primitive communist to the class societies. About the fact of this transition there can today be no doubt. This, in itself, is an enormous vindication of Engels. It also undercuts some of the most basic anti-socialist arguments about humans being so intrinsically selfish as to make a co-operative commonwealth impossible.

But still unresolved are a couple of important points about the origins of class rule and the state: why did people move from hunter-gathering to agriculture and then cities? Why did they accept the rise of ruling classes? Why did those rulers come to exploit rather than serve the rest of society?

These are questions Engels did not fully answer. As Gailey points out, his explanation in The Origin seems at points to amount to just blaming greed – some people found they had a surplus in their hands and used it to the detriment of others. [157] In Anti-Dühring he puts forward a fuller account, with the stress being on the initial advantages to society as a whole of having the surplus set aside in such a way that it could not be immediately consumed by the producers. But he still does not explain why people should then be motivated to consume much of this themselves, or why others should accept this. [158]

There is an argument among academic evolutionists over precisely this question. E.R. Service has put forward what may be termed a “functionalist” theory of the rise of the state (and by implication, of classes). Rulers, it says, arose because it was in everyone’s interests that they should do so. “This development fulfilled the tremendous potentialities that lay in centralised leadership ...” and arose from “the simple attempts of primitive leaders to perpetuate their social domination by organising such benefits for their followers”. [159] As against this, Morton Fried argues that the formation of the state was not “functional” for all of society, but was part of a process by which one section of society exploited and coerced the rest. [160]

But this does not explain why a group which had not previously exploited and oppressed should suddenly start doing so, nor why the rest of society put up with this new exploitation and oppression.

The only way to answer such questions lies in Marx’s stress on the interaction between the development of relations of production and forces of production. [161] Classes arise out of the divisions which occur in society as a new way of advancing production emerges. A group discovers it can increase the total social wealth if it concentrates resources in is own hands, organising others to work under its direction. It comes to see the interests of society as a whole as lying in its own control over resources. It defends that control even when that means making others suffer. It comes to see social advance as embodied in itself and in the protection of its own livelihood against sudden outbreaks of scarcity (due to harvest failure, pests, wars etc) that cause enormous hardship to everybody else.

It is not difficult to see how the spread of farming led to pressures for changes in production that required direction from above. The first farming communities probably established themselves in localities with exceptionally fertile soil. But as they expanded, survival came to depend on coping with much more difficult conditions. That required a further reorganisation of social relations. Renfrew has argued:

The relatively small neolithic population could in fact select soils such as fertile alluvial areas whose potential yield was many times greater than the areas later taken into cultivation ... The spread of settlement to areas where yields were more vulnerable to fluctuations in rainfall, for instance, would have increased the need for redistributive mechanisms which would allow the local surpluses to be fully used. [162]

D.R. Harris has made a similar point in relation to tropical agriculture in Africa and south east Asia. At first it was,

small scale and depended on ecosystem manipulation rather than the creation of artificial ecosystems by large scale transformations ... The techniques ... normally being limited to human labour using simple tools such as axes, knives, planting sticks and hoes. “The unit of labour” was “the family”, and there was no need for a “level of social organisation” more complex than that of the simple segmentary tribe. [163]

But agriculture that produces more also demands “units of labour greater than the family” and “a more complex” level of “social organisation” which is achieved through “the medium of ranked chiefdoms and socially stratified states with a dependent peasantry”. [164]

Groups with high prestige in preceding, non-class societies would set about organising the labour needed to expand agricultural production by building irrigation works or clearing vast areas of new land. They would come to see their own control of the surplus – and the use of some of it to protect themselves against natural vicissitudes – as in everyone’s interest. So would the first groups to use large scale trade to increase the overall variety available for consumption. So too with those groups who were most proficient at wresting surpluses from other societies through warfare. In this way, the advance of the forces of production in each locality would turn groups and individuals who previously gained prestige by fulfilling redistributive or ceremonial functions into classes which imposed the demand of surplus extraction upon the rest of society.

In many parts of the world societies were able to prosper right through to modern times without resorting to labour intensive methods such as the use of heavy ploughs or extensive hydraulic works. This was true of much of North America, the islands of the Pacific ocean, inland Papua-New Guinea, and parts of Africa and south east Asia. But in other conditions survival came to depend on adopting new techniques. Ruling classes arose out of the organisation of such activities, and so did towns, states and what we usually call civilisation. From this point onwards, the history of society certainly was the history of class struggle.

Such groups could not keep the surplus in their own hands at times when the whole of society was suffering great hardship unless they found ways of imposing their will on the rest of society, unless they established coercive structures, states, and legal codes and ideologies to back them up. But once such structures and such ideologies were in existence, they would perpetuate the control of the surplus by a certain group even when it no longer served the purpose of advancing production. A class which emerged as a spur to production would persist even when it was no longer such a spur. And it would be protected by a military-juridical-ideological superstructure which could constitute a growing burden on the production of society as whole.

This was shown dramatically with all the first great civilisations when, after longer or shorter period, they collapsed amid enormous internal discontent: the great crises of Sumerian society around the beginning of the second millennium BC, the temporary disintegration of the Egyptian state at the end of the old kingdom around 1800 BC, the collapse of the Mycenean and Cretan civilisations after the middle of the second millennium BC, the collapse of the Teotihuacan civilisation in Central America around 700 AD. It has been shown repeatedly since, from the fall of the Roman Empire to the present day crisis of world capitalism.

Class was then, as Marx and Engels always insisted, a necessary development once scarcity faced society. But, as they also insisted, once a class is established in power, further advance depends on the fight against it. Engels wrote of the downfall of primitive communism:

This organisation was doomed to extinction. It ... presupposed an extremely undeveloped form of production, that is, an extremely sparse population spread over a wide territory, and therefore the almost complete domination of man by external nature, alien, opposed, incomprehensible to him ...

The power of these primordial communities ... was broken by influences which from the outset appear to us as a degradation, a fall from the simple moral grandeur of the ancient ... society. The lowest interests – base greed, brutal sensuality, sordid avarice, selfish plunder of common possessions – usher in the new civilised society, class society ... And the new society ... has never been anything but the development of the minority at the expense of the exploited and oppressed great majority; and it is so today more than ever. [165]

We could not go back to primitive communism even if that were what we wanted. It would mean wiping out 99.9 percent of humanity (the population of Southern France under foraging 30,000 years ago was about 400 and of the whole world 10,000 years ago about 10 million). But Marx and Engels insisted that this is not necessary. Capitalism has created so much wealth that, for the first time in human history, it is possible to conceive, not of a primitive communism, but of an “advanced communism”. What is more, if we do not move to this, we will not see a simple continuation of existing society but a regression through “the mutual destruction of the contending classes”. As Engels put it at the end of The Origin of the Family, we reach “a stage in the development of production at which the existence of classes not only will have ceased to be necessary, but will become a positive hindrance to production”. [166]




82. E. Leacock, Women in Egalitarian Society, in Myths of Male Dominance (New York, 1981), p.31.

83. See B. Trigger, V. Gordon Childe.

84. E. Gellner, Plough, Sword and Book (London, 1991), p.16.

85. C. Ward Gailey, From Kinship to Kingship (Austin), p.16.

86. This has been true of some of the Stalinist interpretations. But it has also been true of some people from the genuine left. Thus Evelyn Reed’s account in Women’s Evolution, although often very good at criticising the old anti-evolutionist orthodoxy, goes astray by seriously misinterpreting anthropological data so as to fit it in with things said by Engels at certain points in The Origin. This is true, for instance, of her assertions about bitter “competition” between early human males, about the alleged role cannibalism in “primitive” societies and about the alleged connection between inheritance along the male line and recognition of paternity. For a thorough critique of Reed’s work, see the review by Eleanor Leacock in Myths of Male Dominance (New York, 1981), pp.183-194.

87. F. Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (Moscow, n.d.), p.6.

88. Although in Morgan’s case this materialist insight was mixed with an idealist view, arguing that “social and civil institutions, in virtue of their connection with perpetual human wants, have been developed from a few primary germs of thought”, L.H. Morgan, Ancient Society, p.5. Morgan was also, it should be added, not a revolutionary. He believed the bourgeois democracy was the highest form of human society to which all others were striving.

89. Ibid., p.24.

90. Ibid., p.18.

91. Engels, The Origin of the Family, op. cit., pp.42-43.

92. In fact, modern archaeologists extend the definition a little to include certain societies in which cities do not play the major part, like early Ancient Egypt and the Maya culture of Central America, because they contained most of the other features usually associated with urban societies – separate groups of artisans and administrators, the widespread use of metals, literacy etc. In the same way they usually include societies like those of the Incas or of pre-Islamic West Africa, in which there were cities and states but no alphabet.

93. Although one of the gurus of Thatcherism, Hayek, dissented, arguing that thousands of years of primitive communism had produced what he regarded as very dangerous “innate instincts”, leading the mass of people today to want “a just distribution, in which organised power is used to allocate to each what he deserves”, to “pursue perceived desirable common objects” and “to do good to known people”.

94. Engels, The Origin of the Family, op. cit., pp.157-159.

95. E. Friedl, Women and Men, the Anthropologist’s View (New York, 1975).

96. E. Leacock, Women’s Status in Egalitarian Societies, Myths of Male Dominance, op. cit., pp.139-140.

97. R. Lee, The !Kung San (Cambridge, 1979), p.118.

98. The “!” at the beginning of !Kung denotes a “click” sound which does not exist in Indo-European languages.

99. R. Lee, op. cit., p.244

100. Guago, quoted in Richard Lee, op. cit., p.244

101. Le P.P. Lejeune (1834), quoted in M. Sahlins, Stone Age Economics (London, 1974), p.14.

102. Colin Turnbull, The Forest People (New York, 1962), pp.107, 110 and 124-5.

103. R. Lee, op. cit., pp.343-345.

104. E. Friedl, Women and Men, op. cit., p.15.

105. R. Lee, op. cit., p.336-338.

106. All the quoted phrases are from R. Ardrey, op. cit., pp.300, 30 and 399.

107. W. Lloyd Warner, A Black Civilisation (New York, 1964), quoted in Sahlins, Stone Age Economics, op. cit., p.12

108. E. Friedl, Women and Men, op. cit., p.14

109. See R. Lee, op. cit., p.55, see also C. Turnbull, The Forest People, op. cit., p.127; M. Sahlins, Stone Age Economics, op. cit., p.123.

110. As M. Sahlins has noted, “The surviving food collectors are displaced persons ... occupying marginal haunts ... untypical of the mode of production ... barred from the better parts the earth, first by agricultural, later by industrial economies”. There is the “possibility that the ethnography of hunters and gatherers is largely a record of incomplete cultures. Fragile cycles of ritual and exchange could have disappeared without trace, lost in the earliest stages of colonialism, when the intergroup relations they mediated were attacked and confounded”: Stone Age Economics, op. cit., p.8 and p.38. For evidence that some different principles of social organisation may have applied among the !Kung a century ago to now, see R. Lee, op. cit., p.340. For speculation about how palaeolithic hunter-gatherer societies may have different from shriving ones, see R. Foley, Hominids, humans and hunter-gatherers, in T. Ingold, D. Riches and J. Woodburn, Hunters and Gatherers, Vol.I (London, 1988, p.207-221.

111. R. Lee, Reflections on primitive communism, in T. Ingold, D. Riches and J. Woodburn, Hunters and Gatherers, Vol.I (New York, 1991), p.262.

112. R. Lee, Reflections on primitive communism, op. cit., p.268.

113. F. Engels, The Origin of the Family, op. cit., p.37.

114. Ibid., p.41.

115. Ibid., p.87.

116. See J.V.S. Megaw (ed.), Hunter Gatherers and the First Farmer Beyond Europe, and the essays by M. Dolukhanov, G.W.W. Baker, C.M. Nelson, D.R. Harris and M. Tosi in C. Renfrew (ed.), Explaining Cultural Change, op. cit.

117. This is one of key arguments in M. Sahlins’ Stone Age Economics.

118. C. Ward Gailey, Kinship to Kingship (Austin 1987), pp.67.

119. R. Lee, Reflections on primitive communism, as above, p.262.

120. C. Levi Strauss, quoted in M. Sahlins, Stone Age Economics, op. cit., p.132.

121. H.I. Hogbin, quoted in M. Sahlins, ibid., p.135.

122. J.F. Lafitau, quoted in R. Lee, Reflections on primitive communism, op. cit., p.252.

123. E. Evans-Pritchard, quoted in R. Lee, Reflections on primitive communism, op. cit., p.252.

124. A Richards, quoted in M. Sahlins, Stone Age Economics, op. cit., p.125

125. R. Firth, quoted in M. Sahlins, Stone Age Economics, op. cit., p.125

126. R. Firth, quoted in M. Sahlins, ibid., p.129

127. So M. Sahlins refers to “the domestic mode of production”, Stone Age Economics, op. cit.. By contrast, K. Sachs refers to “the corporate mode of production”, see Sisters and Wives, op. cit., p.109

128. K. Sachs, ibid., op. cit., p.116-117

129. M. Sahlins, op. cit., p.140

130. E. Friedl, Women and Men, an Anthropologist’s View (New York, 1975), p.51.

131. See M. Sahlins, op. cit., chapter one, R. Lee, !Kung San, op. cit., and C. Turnbull, The Forest People, op. cit..

132. This is a point made A. Testart, Les chasseurs-cuedleurs ou l’origin des inegalités, Paris 1982.

133. D.O. Henry, From Foraging to Agriculture (Philadelphia, 1989), p.227.

134. D.O. Henry argues that the collapse of the ecological conditions for “complex” foraging was caused from climatic changes. But the cause could have been the cumulative impact on the environment of growing numbers of foragers. The growing human population could have had a dramatic impact on the size of the wild mammalian herds it fed on, producing sudden, acute shortages. This would explain why there are repeated historical instances, in different parts of the world, of society based on complex foraging (sometimes, as in parts of Latin America with limited recourse to horticulture) suddenly either going over completely to agriculture or reverting to nomadic hunting and gathering.

135. For accounts of the transition to agriculture in the Americas see, for example, R. McAdams, The Evolution of Urban Society (London, 1966), pp.39-40; F. Katz, Ancient American Civilisations (London, 1989), pp.19-22; W. Bray, From Foraging to Farming in Mexico, in J.V.S. Megaw (ed.), Hunters, Gatherers and the First Farmers outside Europe, p.225-234.

136. According to P.M. Dolukhonov, The Neolithisation of Europe:a chronological and ecological approach, in C. Renfrew (ed.), Explaining Cultural Change op. cit., p.331-336. The datings here, as elsewhere, are approximate and might well be subject to revision in the light of more recent knowledge.

137. For estimates of dates, see C.K. Maisels, The Emergence of Civilisation (London, 1990); M. Rice, Egypt’s Making (London, 1990); M.I. Finlay, Early Greece: the Bronze and Archaic ages (London, 1981); F. Katz, Ancient American Civilisations, op. cit.; and G. Connah, African Civilisations (Cambridge 1987).

138. V. Gordon Childe, What Happened in History, op. cit., pp.59-62.

139. Ibid., p.80-81.

140. C.K. Maisels, The Emergence of Civilisation: from hunting and gathering to agriculture, cities and the state in the Near East (London, 1993), p.297.

141. C.K. Maisels, ibid., p.297.

142. V. Gordon Childe, Social Evolution (London, 1963), pp.155-6.

143. V. Gordon Childe, What Happened in History, op. cit., p.88.

144. See C.K. Maisels, op. cit., p.146.

145. T.B. Jones, quoted in C.K. Maisels, op. cit., p.184.

146. T.B. Jones and J.W. Snyder, quoted in C.K. Maisels, op. cit., p.186.

147. See for a discussion on these pre-urban stone constructions, see C. Renfrew, Before Civilisation (Harmondsworth, 1976).

148. Thus it is certain that developments in the Aegean were encouraged by what had happened on the Asian mainland to the south east and the African mainland to the south, it is likely that some of the developments in Egypt (the sorts of grains which were sown, some of the artefacts) were influenced, to a limited degree, by contacts with the earlier developing Mesopotamian civilisation; and it is just possible that the Latin American civilisations had had some contact with those of East and South East Asia.

149. V. Gordon Childe, Social Evolution, op. cit., pp.160-161.

150. Ibid., pp.160-161. Gordon Childe argues: “No doubt in the old world plough cultivation had everywhere replaced hoe cultivation before the rise of civilisation. But the plough was unknown to the civilised Mayas, who had in fact no domestic animals at all ... In Crete and temperate Europe as well as in Hither Asia wheeled vehicles were used before civilisation was achieved, but on the Nile such were unknown for 1,500 years after the rise of civilisation ... In Egypt and Crete and among the Celts civilisation was preceded by the rise of chiefs to the status of divine kings who concentrate the social surplus. In Mesopotamia, on the contrary, it was the temple of a superhuman divinity that performed this function ... while ‘royal tombs’ are recognisable only later ...”

151. Marx’s insights into the possibilities of a society in which a bureaucratic ruling class owned property and exploited the rest of society collectively were probably misapplied in his writings on early 19th century India, where there had been widespread private ownership of land for more than a thousand years. See R. Tharpar, Ancient Indian Social History (Hyderabad, 1984).

152. A point made by C. Gailey, op. cit., p.22.

153. See, for example, C.K. Maisels, op. cit., p.269.

154. R. Tharpar, Ancient Indian Social History, op. cit., p.19.

155. See the discussion on this question in F. Katz, Ancient American Civilisations, op. cit., p.70.

156. Estimates given in A.B. Lloyd, The late period, in B. Trigger, Kemp, O’Connor and Lloyd, Ancient Egypt, A Social History, op. cit., p.310.

157. C. Gailey, op. cit..

158. And, to be honest, Gailey does not succeed in such explanation either.

159. E.R. Service, Classical and modern theories of the origins of government, in R. Cohen and E.R. Service (eds.), Origin of the State.

160. M.H. Fried, The state, the chicken and the egg, or what came first?, in R. Cohen and E.R. Service, ibid., p.35.

161. Especially in the famous Preface to The Critique of Political Economy.

162. C. Renfrew, The emergence of civilisation, in C. Renfrew (ed.), Explaining Cultural Change, op. cit., p.421 and p.424. What is more, cultivation itself could destabilise the environment – by lowering the water table level or exhausting the soil – leading to “increased instability” in society and “local pressures on population, provoking change”. C. Renfrew, op. cit., p.427.

163. D.R. Harris, The prehistory of tropical agriculture, in C. Renfrew (ed.), Explaining Cultural Change, op. cit., p.398-9.

164. Ibid., p.399.

165. F. Engels, The Origin of the Family, op. cit., p.160-161.

166. Ibid., p.286.


Last updated on 17.4.2004