Communism in living
What can early human society teach us about the future? Camilla Power looks at the lessons of primitive communism
We need to appreciate the significance that understanding primitive communism held for the early Marxists.
Marx himself put aside his work on Capital to do some anthropology, which we find in his notebooks - from which Engels extracted the work which led to The origin of the family, private property and the state. Besides Marx and Engels, there is Rosa Luxemburg: as a prisoner in World War I, she wrote Introduction to political economy, where she deployed the cutting edge of anthropology of her day.
All of them took the view that we will not be able to understand the communist future unless we understand primitive communism. They all asked, where do we come from? And they had a concept of ‘back to the future’. To quote Engels, in some sense the communism of the future will be “a revival in a higher form of the liberty, equality and fraternity of the ancient gentes [matrilineal clans]”. What humans were in the first place will inform what we are to become.
This obviously makes sense. If you take the view that, as a result of human nature, there has always been an elite, a hierarchy, where men dominated women, then what hope is there for any kind of communist revolution? But, on the other hand, if Marx and Engels, drawing on Lewis Henry Morgan’s work, are right in concluding that men and women were equals, that there was no private property, that there was common holding of resources, then a revolutionary return - on a higher level - to what we once were becomes possible as part of our human nature. This was the position that was popular in the early 20th century. To quote Luxemburg from Introduction to political economy:
Only by being clear about the specific economic peculiarities of primitive communist society is it possible to grasp with due thoroughness what exists today in capitalist class society. This means there is real historical leverage for the realisation of socialism.
So by learning from so-called primitive communism what was possible, we can identify where this revolution could potentially take us, as well as understand what it really means to be human. In other words, “communism in living” - a phrase which came from Lewis Henry Morgan - is not something that only concerns the past, with no relevance for today. In fact, we have more information today about egalitarian hunter-gatherers, and how they actually operate - “communism in living” - than Marx, Engels and Luxemburg had. To put this in perspective, here is Rosa talking about Lewis Henry Morgan on private property:
He dealt this conception a decisive blow by presenting the whole history of primitive culture as an equally important part in the uninterrupted sequence of humanity - infinitely more important than the tiny section of written history.
We now know far more about the origins of modern human culture in Africa 100,000-200,000 years ago, which impacted on our modern psychology. Societies that developed significant hierarchy, accumulation of wealth and private property represent a much more recent occurrence. The heritage of those earliest truly human societies is still with us, in some senses, today. We evolved physically, psychologically and emotionally as hunter-gatherers in intensively - we could say assertively - egalitarian societies. The subsequent impact of farming and herding has been historically short-term.
Alan Barnard, a major anthropologist of the southern African Bushmen, has tracked how Europeans have viewed and discussed the idea of hunter-gatherers back to the 17th century. There were debates about communal versus individual ownership, and about humans in their ‘natural state’. This was taken to mean a state of fear, ignorance, poverty ... and nastiness - contrasted to ‘civilisation’, with all its benefits of security and wealth. We know the famous saying from Thomas Hobbes: the life of man in his natural state is “poor, nasty, brutish and short”.
As we move through to the 18th century and to Rousseau, we have the belief emerging that foraging was innately peaceful, happy and egalitarian. It is from here that we first get the notion that social inequality began with agriculture - the ‘first farmer putting up the first fence’. In other words, with the beginning of civil institutions which exist to mediate and protect property rights. In the Scottish enlightenment the likes of Adam Ferguson and William Robertson believed that hunter-gathering meant the absence of private property and the communal distribution of food. The Glaswegian philosopher of civil law, Jonathan Miller, began to look at the question of property in relation to sex and gender.
‘Savagery’ and ‘civilisation’
But it was Lewis Henry Morgan in the middle of the 19th century, and in particular his 1877 publication Ancient society, who employed the phrase, “communism in living”, which had so much influence on Marx and Engels. Morgan focused on the Iroquois, who were not hunters and gatherers as we would understand the term today: they grew maize; they comprised the political and military alliance of the Six Nations. But the description of an Iroquois village illustrates what Morgan was talking about. The basis of their economy and kinship lay in the longhouses. The fundamental aspects picked up by Morgan - and by Engels, of course - were those of matrilineal kinship, the organising principle of the clans or “gentes”. The longhouse economy stressed resources in common, and within it women acted in solidarity - particularly against any man who was not willing to pull his weight. If there was a husband who was not up to the job, he could be thrown out. He had no rights within his wife’s matrilineal household, while she had the full economic support of her kinsfolk.
Morgan was very committed to evolutionary theory and established himself as the pioneering evolutionary anthropologist. He met Darwin just after the completion of On the origin of species, and he linked human evolution to his idea of a progression from “savagery” to “civilisation”. We might prefer different terminology - “savagery”, for instance, is what we would call hunter-gathering, and “barbarism” would include early horticulture, but Morgan actually fills these with positive content. He is describing cultures which have valuable and sophisticated ways of life, so “savagery” was not a term of denigration. We need to move away from the notion that primitive communism is something which is way down on the evolutionary scale. There are parts of us - our hearts, our minds, our bodies and souls - which are still hunter-gatherer and always will be, since that is what made us human.
Morgan focused on longhouse life as the matrix of female autonomy. The anthropologist, Paul Bohannon, refers to Morgan’s description of this as a “simple, resilient and pliable institution ... charged with political or legal life in the ... community; it can be the unit of economic production and distribution; it can form the basis of ceremonial and ritual”. It has all these aspects at once: it provides education, social insurance and emotional security.
The domestic architecture and social ethos he describes can be readily transposed from the Iroquois setting into the hunter-gatherer camp, of the type that is familiar in central Africa. There are small clusters of huts, with people leaning against doors and each other, able to see what everyone else is doing. Among the Iroquois, the smallest of these “towns”, as he called them, might have 10-40 houses. These would correspond to different clans and family relations, where people would live in common. He explicitly connects this egalitarian sociality to “communism in living”, and what he describes as women’s extraordinary “judicial power” within this organisation. Their participatory and decision-making role would certainly correspond to our understanding of modern hunter-gatherers.
This is what attracted the attention of Marx and Engels. The original theoretical connections Morgan made between kinship, specifically matrilineal clans, sex and the rise of private property were, of course, used by Engels in his great work. Morgan’s evolutionary framework was borrowed by Marx and Engels to attribute the changes in matrilineal kinship, and forms of marriage, to changes in relations of production and the concurrent rise of social inequalities. In this way they were able to work out why things changed.
When Morgan talks about “communism in living” in Ancient society he is referring particularly to the concept of group marriage and sexual communism. He described whole groups of women of one clan marrying whole groups of men - classificatory brothers - of another.
We have said that the Iroquois are not really hunter-gatherers in the proper sense, but the matrilineal clan was still in evidence amongst them - the exact opposite of the nuclear family, within which a woman was appropriated as property under the control and dominion of a husband. Here, groups of women are united by kinship, responsibilities and most especially shared childcare, shared land and shared resources. Engels very much took the view that, when it comes to ‘civilisation’, in the form of family, property and the state, the freedom that existed previously was lost. The idea that primitive societies were “nasty, brutish and short” was really being challenged, and the notion that the institution of the family and private property are intrinsically necessary and a part of human nature was disproved. The most provocative idea taken up by Engels, which caused a huge reaction against him in the field of social anthropology, was the power of matrilineal coalitions, able to control resources.
When Rosa Luxemburg was writing during World War I, she was particularly interested in the idea of communal sharing and the ways this occurred in ritual among Aboriginal Australians, as well as the southern African Bushmen. But, with the founding of modern social anthropology after the war, under the likes of Bronislaw Malinowski in Britain and Robert Lowe and others in the American school, these positions of Marx and Engels came under very sharp attack. Marvin Harris, an anthropologist writing in the mid-20th century, described modern anthropology’s mandate as being to “expose Morgan’s scheme and destroy the method on which it was based”.
This is an inherently political mandate, and the thing that above all was being attacked was the idea of communal property. Robert Lowe made a point of trying to prove decisively that private property existed in hunter-gatherer societies. Working with North American Amerindian cultures, he had his work cut out trying to show that. Malinowski especially attacked the veracity of collective motherhood, which he regarded as more revolutionary, more dangerous than the French and Russian revolutions put together. It was his mandate to ‘prove’ that the nuclear family and pair bonding were the natural relations between men and women, and the intrinsic characteristics of human life, and that this was never going to change. It was his position, and the position of social anthropology generally, that study into human origins was to be dismissed as a field lacking in any evidence and to be ignored.
After World War II, however, a real ethnography started to emerge, based on studies of a range of hunter-gatherers - foremost among them that of Canadian ethnographer Richard Lee, whose family had a heritage of leftwing politics. His ‘Reflections on primitive communism’ considers Morgan’s understanding of communism in relation to his own experience of work with the Ju/’hoansi in Botswana and Namibia. And then there was James Woodburn, with his long-term fieldwork on the Hadza egalitarian hunters of Tanzania. These two men were especially influential in the period leading up to an important conference entitled ‘Man the Hunter’, held in 1966. Lee, when talking about primitive communism, said it could be defined as “a quintessential otherness, in negative terms, in the absence of leadership, the absence of inequality, the absence of property” - almost suggesting the absence of society. So the idea that society in itself had to be bound up with the norms of capitalist civilisation was questioned.
The core features that Lee identified in terms of primitive communism were mobile, small groups, land held in common, free access to resources and an egalitarian ethos that prevents the personal accumulation of wealth, aggrandisement or authority. There are very definable patterns of sharing and a respect for autonomy, as well as cooperation as equal individuals and a lack of any kind of coercion. He produced some very valuable material and stories on how this worked in principle.
Lee told how one Christmas he wanted to present a big ox to the camp where he was working, so that everybody would have a feast. However, he was dismayed because the response when he produced this animal was indifferent - it was too lean, they said. He was quite upset about this, until he began to understand what was going on: it was exactly the same dynamic he had observed when the hunters themselves had produced a very fine piece of game. That is, people would criticise, so that anybody who thinks they have done a great job bringing this beautiful game animal home would soon be brought back down to earth. There are many stories of this kind.
James Woodburn came up with the concept that egalitarian societies could be fundamentally identified with what he termed “immediate return”: whatever was produced would be consumed almost immediately. There are some problems with that concept, because if you compare hunter-gatherer communities to primate hunting, it is clear that hunter-gatherers do not necessarily consume the animals immediately. There is, however, an important truth in this, in that in societies where almost everything is consumed quickly it is impossible to accumulate wealth. Woodburn compared this situation to that of what he called “delayed return” societies, which would include any agricultural or pastoral-based group, where resources would be stored or held, or where people would wait for crops to be harvested. He noted that “immediate return” societies were always hunter-gatherer-based - although not all hunter-gatherer societies are based on immediate return: some are storage hunting economies.
However, Woodburn had once again identified the social, ideological imperative of sharing. The mechanism today is called ‘demand sharing’ - a person cannot be refused if they ask. This is particularly the case with valued foods, such as meat and honey. There must also be direct access to material resources necessary for life, and nobody is allowed to control these individually. People also have autonomy and knowledge of their own. In the case of the Hadza, even the children know how to find food. Everybody has that autonomy, so all members have equality, irrespective of age, gender or other qualities. There is an unparalleled respect for freedom of movement, and there is the concept of voting with your feet: if you do not like what someone is doing, then you can just leave and live somewhere else. And it is possible to go to other places because the social network is there.
These communities are extremely mobile, and this is seen as an important and positive value. Even when it is possible to store food and not share it, these communities will not do that: they prefer to offload excess to other parts of the network, or bring others in to take part in a feast if a large game animal has been caught. Everything will be used up. The societal dynamic is to oppose anything that allows individual accumulation.
Even gambling serves an important purpose in a community like the Hadza. Valuable items - particularly metal arrowheads - will be used to bet with, but it is a brilliant way of ensuring that no one person retains all the arrowheads. They are distributed purely through a game of luck, requiring no skill whatsoever.
Woodburn also identified the importance of weaponry itself. Everyone will have access to the poison that is put on arrowheads, which is so strong that the slightest scratch is enough to cause a person’s death. Among the Hadza the women did not have access to the poison, but they did still have plenty of weaponry they could use on an individual whose guard was down. What Woodburn was pointing to was that no-one could aggrandise themselves or become too violent or obnoxious, because others would take action against them. So weaponry too has a role in checking dominance.
Woodburn was quite explicit in talking about primitive communism, and other anthropologists, such as the anarchist, Brian Morris, have described south Indian hill hunter-gatherers in terms of their anarcho-communism, and certainly their communist way of life. Alan Barnard, in reference to the 19th century evolutionary theorist, Pyotr Kropotkin, wrote a paper called Kropotkin visits the Bushmen about mutual aid amongst hunter-gatherer social networks. There is a generation of anthropologists who have succeeded these early figures, including Jerome Lewis, now one of the main movers for the study of egalitarian societies. He refers to the fact that the Mbendjele people have an idiom about ‘cutting’ and ‘tying’: a person can have too much autonomy and drift away or, on the other hand, too much dependency. It is a very delicate balance, but hunter-gatherers are experts at striking that balance.
None of these anthropologists, although they stress gender equality, have really identified how it operates. For example, sexual joking is used as a levelling mechanism, with women talking in very loud voices about a husband’s performance inside the hut - once more a means of stopping men getting above themselves. Women are strikingly vigilant over men’s ability to provide.
Morgan was a Darwinian, but there is a whole raft of Darwinian anthropology which has a big problem with all this. Because Darwinians think about animals in terms of competition, natural selection and contests of fitness and reproductive success, some of them find it very hard to think in terms of egalitarianism. That is why there are recurring efforts by Darwinians to attack the notion of egalitarianism in hunter-gatherer societies. There is a notorious article, by Eric Alden Smith and colleagues, on wealth transmission, where it is asserted that despite the fact that there is no private property, despite the fact that everybody shares everything, there are still social differences and inequalities. Such Darwinians focus on physical characteristics - some might have better health, different strengths or be able to grip the bow harder, which might make them more successful.
Yes, there is natural variance of abilities, most obviously between men and women, but this is spectacularly missing the point of what these cultures are trying to do: that is, to negate differences, not letting anyone amplify them in order to value one person more than another. The idea, as with the gambling example, is that, if one person has more success in the hunt, then that success gets spread around. James Woodburn described the Hadza’s extraordinary bows: they are actually far too big to be very efficient in hunting, and this actually counteracts skill and brings luck more into the equation.
There are all sorts of cultural mechanisms preventing a build-up of prestige or self-importance. Take the example of the Mbuti forest people. If any particular hunter is having ‘too much’ success in the hunt, consistently catching where others are not, then members of the camp will pile into their hut looking for the ‘medicine’ that must be causing this inequality.
Andrew Whiten, an evolutionary psychologist, has focused on what he calls “Machiavellian intelligence” amongst primates. This idea is that the main cause of the evolution of intelligence is the need to deal with the social world. With chimpanzee politics, “Machiavellian intelligence” is expressed in very sophisticated but fickle alliances between males, whereas in bonobos they occur more with females. This ‘Machiavellian’ model is very interesting and thoroughly dialectical, when it is used to explain the mechanisms of egalitarianism, particularly in an economic sense. The more Machiavellian intelligence evolves, the more alliances can be manipulated and negotiated, and the harder it is for any particular individual to dominate, because it is always possible to muster together an alliance against that person. The best strategy then becomes not to dominate, but to make sure that you are not dominated. You just make sure that if someone else has food, then you also get your share. This ‘counter-dominance’ underpins the pattern of egalitarianism in all hunter-gatherer societies.
Our evolution in that period of distinctive egalitarianism configured most aspects of human psychology in very particular ways. Whiten’s concept of “deep social mind” associates this egalitarianism with our willingness to share our thoughts and read each other’s minds, giving rise to an explosion of cultural transmission in our species.
Another evolutionary psychologist who has focused on hunter-gatherer societies, and particularly on egalitarianism, is Peter Gray, whose material is well worth studying. His model for “immediate return” hunter-gatherers, holds that they operate through play, in the sense that decisions and associations are all consensual and negotiated, and it is not a matter of any individual being a leader (although some may be followers). The point is that there are agreed rules for these levelling ‘games’, and decisions can be made through this process. This is obviously connected to the importance of ritual discussed earlier - Jerome Lewis speaks about how particularly women will ape and impersonate any man who steps out of line. This creates contagious laughter, until the man either walks off in a huff or swallows his pride and joins in the general amusement. Laughter and mimicry are the most powerful counter-dominance forces to deal with unruly or self-important individuals.
Jerome Lewis, who was educated by the Mbendjele, discovered they had a concept known as massana, which, on the one hand, is a word that can mean play, or even child’s play, although it also has a connotation of shared enjoyment. But, on the other hand, massana also encompasses sacred rituals. This makes it hard to distinguish between play and religion. Even children engage in rituals, whereby they summon spirits; as with the adults, this is strongly gendered activity. Boys prepare the way for the spirit and girls dance and sing to lure them from the forest. Each gender group is continuously subverting and undermining the prestige that could accrue to the other group: women have huge importance, as those who reproduce, while men, as the hunters, also have a vital role.
However, massana celebrates the gender of each group, asserting their autonomy, but at the same time their interdependence. There is a constant, dialectical movement, which relates to the ‘tying’ and ‘cutting’ mentioned earlier: autonomy, but also interdependence; separation, but also unity; subversion, but also respect. These rituals operate in a reverse-dominant way. If men summon the sacred forest spirit, then the women can counter this by summoning their own spirit. During ritual time, either sex, with its own secret rituals, can create a secret path in the forest, drawing individuals back into gendered coalitions and creating ‘political’ groupings. Solidarity within the same gender creates solidarity in the other, but neither gender can establish any sort of dominance.
Morna Finnegan has extended Morgan’s main concept, “communism in living”, seeing it as dynamic: not just ‘living’ in a regularised and routinised sense, but as “communism in motion”. Hunter-gatherer societies are societies in motion - they go beyond what Woodburn described as “immediate return” or “delayed return”. Anything valuable - good to eat, good to hold - is on the move, given to somebody else. People are always visiting relatives. But it is in rituals where this is most visibly observed. Finnegan’s major point is that these rituals are the dynamic forces or the direct actions which constitute egalitarianism. With central African hunter-gatherer groups, the dramatic ritual activity both enacts the independence and autonomy of the gender groups and affirms their interdependence. The same pendulum swing exists among the Hadza too. This is not just some superstructural expression of egalitarian relations: it is the very operation of the those relations.
One of the most important, most material areas of egalitarianism in these societies, which is the subject of more and more research, is the nursing of infants. Where obviously the sharing of food and so on is communistic, there can be nothing more communistic than collective childcare, including breastfeeding by other than the mother. Sarah Hrdy’s book Mothers and others demonstrates the significance of cooperative childcare for human evolution. It is what made us human. And it is above all evident to this day among egalitarian hunter-gatherers - a reciprocal and very intimate relationship based on kinship. It embodies the ultimate in terms of communistic, shared childcare.
A Barnard, ‘Images of hunters and gatherers in European social thought’, in R Lee and R Daly (eds) The Cambridge encyclopaedia of hunters and gatherers Cambridge 1999.
A Barnard, ‘Primitive communism and mutual aid: Kropotkin visits the Bushmen’, in CM Hann (ed) Socialism: ideals, ideologies and local practice London 2003, pp27-42.
F Engels The origin of the family, private property and the state Moscow 1968.
M Finnegan, ‘The politics of Eros: ritual dialogue and egalitarianism in three central African hunter-gatherer societies’ Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute No19, 2013, pp697-715.
P Gray, ‘Play as a foundation for hunter-gatherer social existence’ American Journal of Play spring 2009, pp476-522.
S Hrdy Mothers and others: the evolutionary origins of mutual understanding Harvard 2009.
RB Lee, ‘Reflections on primitive communism’, in T Ingold, D Riches and J Woodburn (eds) Hunters and gatherers Vol 1: History, evolution and social change Chicago 1988, pp252-68.
J Lewis, ‘Egalitarian social organization: the case of the Mbendjele BaYaka’, in BS Hewlett (ed) Hunter-gatherers of the Congo Basin: cultures, histories and biology of African Pygmies London 2014, pp219-43.
R Luxemburg, ‘Introduction to political economy’ (unfinished) See P Hudis (ed) The complete works of Rosa Luxemburg Vol 1: Economic writings London 2013.
LH Morgan Ancient society New York 1877.
A Whiten, ‘The evolution of deep social mind in humans’, in M Corballis and SEG Lea (eds) The descent of mind: psychological perspectives on hominid evolution Oxford 1999, pp173-93.
J Woodburn, ‘Egalitarian societies’ : https://egalitarian.wikispaces.com/Egalitarian+Societies+-+Woodburn.