Overcoming group identity

Marc Mulholland evaluates Karl Kautsky’s thesis on the nomadic origin of classes and the state

Karl Kautsky, the leading Marxist intellectual of the Second International, always had the ambition to write a ‘universal history’, uncovering the evolution of prehistoric and historic society.

If anything, his first interest was anthropology - obviously the base line for any such work. His doctoral thesis - completed in 1881-82, but never submitted for bureaucratic reasons - was on the pre-historic origin of marriage and the family.1 Kautsky was for many years distracted by polemics and theoretical ‘firefighting’, developing a programme for the ‘Marxist centre’ against anarchism and semi-anarchism on the left, reformism and revisionism on the right. This put his ‘universal history’ on the long finger.

Another reason for long delay, however, might have been his unwillingness to explicitly reject Marx’s and Engel’s dicta on the “origins of family, private property and the state”. It was only in semi-retirement that he finally published his magisterial Materialist conception of history (1927) - the summa of his life’s intellectual work. This substantial piece - derided or ignored by the Hegelian ‘western Marxist’ tradition and long untranslated into English - has never had the attention it deserves. Here I will look at just one aspect of it - Kautsky’s theory as to the origin of the class state - and attempt to evaluate its cogency as a contribution to Marxist theory.

Engels had seen the development of private property and the state as having its point of origin in the family. Following the American anthropologist, Lewis H Morgan, he hypothesised that the primitive social organisation of humanity was the ‘gens’ - a matrilineal descent group, in which marriage was communal, children were raised collectively and women largely controlled common property. The first social revolution, therefore, was the emergence of the ‘pairing family’. This arose, Morgan and Engels suggested, because women wanted some security in their domestic arrangements. If so, it proved to be a fatal mistake on their part. Women were now tied to a privatised child-rearing, while their male partners could still roam freely. Given this male advantage, monogamy inevitably evolved into the patriarchal family, in which the man owned and subjugated his women and children, giving him control over household production: the basis of agriculture. So, as Engels put it, patriarchal society “develops from the pairing family”.2

From this point the expansion of patriarchy into generalised private property, classes and finally the state as the “official expression of antagonism in civil society”3 was a process of adaptation to the requirements of production and ‘civilisation’. This was because the surplus that was required to maintain the directors of production and creators of higher culture could only be accumulated by pumping it out from direct producers (peasants, slaves and so on) for the benefit of a minority. While the seed of private property, classes and the state was to be found in the family, their growth was necessary for the expansion of productive forces and the development of civilisation. As Marx put it, development is possible

only if some persons satisfied their needs at the expense of others, and therefore some - the minority - obtained the monopoly of development, while others - the majority - owing to the constant struggle to satisfy their most essential needs, were for the time being (ie, until the creation of new revolutionary productive forces) excluded from any development.4

For Engels, as he elaborated in various writings, the state is an essentially protective carapace spontaneously generated by society to preserve itself from external attack and internal class tension: a protective apparatus that is then easily captured by the dominant class.5

There are a number of problems with this view. First, it is quite clear that Morgan’s and Engels’ concept of the ‘gens’ was simply mythological. While not exactly monogamous, humans are a naturally pairing species. Although the ‘family’ can take various socially mandated forms, it is not itself a social creation - still less the outcome of a pre-historic ‘revolution’ that overthrew ‘mother right’. It is a biological and psychological imperative for the purposes of sexual companionship and child-rearing.

Second, once we accept the family as a naturally occurring basic unit, then Engels’ making this unit the fons et origio of class actually only serves to naturalise class stratification. If Engels was right that the pairing family leads to class society, it would strongly suggest that a classless society is entirely unrealisable. However, it is abundantly clear that a high degree of social equality and common property - a classless society - did actually coexist with the ‘family’ for most of human history.

Third, while a class society may be necessary (if not sufficient) to develop the productive forces until they have reached a certain advanced level, productive forces do not, of themselves, have agency.6 They cannot make people do things. It is both rational and historically the norm for people of all classes to prefer leisure, freedom and self-development to sacrificing their personal welfare for the sake of advancing the productive forces. In practice, direct producers have developed productive forces only when it will benefit themselves and their family within a very short time range, or when ruling classes can maximise their own welfare by coercively exploiting the direct producers.

Fourth, the state as such is something qualitatively distinct from those mechanisms of self-regulation and defence evolved by a sufficiently complex society. Defence from external attack was commonly the responsibility of “all who were old enough to bear arms” rather than a specialised elite.7 Complex societies in their internal aspect can also do without a distinct state structure, with functions of public authority falling by rote to citizens or maintained by hereditary families nominated by custom. The self-governing tribe, horde, polis, túath, mir, zadruga or commune is not the same as a ramified state and has no endogenous tendency to turn into one. This is why anthropologists have minimally defined states as socially stratified and bureaucratically governed societies with at least four levels of hierarchal settlement (usually large capital city, cities, villages, hamlets). ‘Primary state formation’, pace Engels, was not a seamless evolution from societal self-regulation, but a revolutionary rupture under very particular circumstances: there are only 10 more or less certain examples in the prehistory of Eurasia, the Americas and the Pacific.


We are left then with a problem: if we reject the Morgan-Engels argument (logically more feminist than Marxist) that class and state unfold spontaneously from the pairing family, if we refuse a fetishistic technological determinism and if we accept that complex societies can self-regulate without a “terrifying parasitic body which enmeshes the body of … society and chokes all its pores”,8 how do we then explain the origins of class society and the state? However did the exploiters get their foot on the neck of the direct producers?

One possible argument (suggested by Nicolai Bukharin in his 1921 book, Historical materialism) is that emergent technology requires a dedicated leadership to utilise it and that humans will naturally subordinate themselves to such leaders, who are then able to shape themselves into a ruling class.9 This might seem appealing, but it is very problematic. If classes are based upon technical or managerial leadership roles, then the end of class society would require either a very radical erasure of the division of labour or a universalisation of leadership capacity across all spheres; if this was even possible, it would be unimaginably wasteful of human capacities and onerous on human inclinations (we recall Paul Lafargue’s ironical but serious demand for the ‘right to be lazy’).

More fundamentally, leadership roles are not in fact a side-effect of technical development, but inherent in human social organisation. In any social setting, whether it be for work or leisure, individual leaders best suited for the task in hand will consciously or unconsciously present themselves and they will be consciously or unconsciously followed. If spontaneous leadership must inevitably crystallise as class society, then it is hard to see how class society could ever end, and we are left with the nagging conundrum: why then did class society emerge so late in homo sapiens’ habitation on earth?

Kautsky did not consider all these points in his Materialist conception of history, but certainly did not feel constrained to accept arguments put forward by Marx and Engels without dispute. In his alternative theory for the emergence of classes and the state, he was clearly much influenced by Franz Oppenheimer - a German anarchist sociologist, who in a book first published in 1908 argued that “the state, as a class state, can have originated in no other way than through conquest and subjugation”.10 Oppenheimer was a non-Marxist and it was Kautsky’s ambition to amend his thesis for Marxist purposes.

Kautsky’s intellectual formation was as a Darwinian. He rejected Hegelian dialectics as metaphysical and preferred an evolutionary dialectic, based upon the interaction of the individual and the environment. From Darwin Kautsky took the view that mankind is inherently sociable. This sociability, however, was originally limited to the kinship group. Humans spontaneously organise into tight-knit and closed-off societies, loyal to each other, but hostile to outsiders. The development of articulated language, which in some senses defines humanity, actually made human societies more aggressively tribal than animal societies. It tightened in-group bonds, for mutual protection and for work, and allowed for genealogical relationships to be recorded and recalled. Common language ultimately develops into common culture. The metalogical power of shared ideas, usually in magical form, was oppressively powerful within the clan group.

As human societies bound by language emerge, they form a ‘polity’ (Gemeinwesen) rather than a state. The polity has leaders, but they are functional, maintaining their authority by championing the interests of the tribe more vigorously and effectively than rivals. (Kautsky did not add, but could have, that they were usually role-limited: different leaders for the hunt, the trek, the ritual, childcare, herb-gathering, and so on). As social effectiveness was key, these offices tended not to be hereditary in practice.

‘Property’, as distinct from ‘possession’, Kautsky argued, is specific to humanity. It requires social sanction, and exists only in and through society. The Lockean idea that man owns what he creates or obtains through his labour (whether personal or owned) is not ‘natural’. Because primitive hunting and fishing is unreliable, for example, the perpetuation of society actually requires a common rather than a private claim. Food must be redistributed for society to survive. When a large kill was made in the hunt, the meat would be evenly shared around rather than kept or sold by the individual hunters.

Contrary to 19th century speculation, Kautsky argued, there likely was never a stage of pure ‘primitive communism’. Common property always coexisted with private property in some objects. Land, in the form of the hunting ground, was always held in common. At the same time, tools, weapons and ornaments as objects of personal use were usually private property. Forest, pasture and water long continued to be undivided common property. Family houses and horticultural plots, such as fruit trees, would usually be private property.

Different forms of possession, therefore, arose out of economic practice, but acquired property status only by social sanction. Which category possessions fell into was not at the discretion of individuals. Society would determine what would become private property and what would be common property. Due to the conservatism of human psychology, however, and the enormous weight of tradition, laws of property tend to become untethered from calculations of social usefulness.

The human development of tools facilitated a concordant division of labour, collaborative working and a common plan. In contrast to animals, the acquisition of food was for humans a social activity. A limited sexual division of labour is probably innate. The rearing and protection of infants fell especially to women, aided by men. Concerned with care of infants, women were less likely to participate in hunting expeditions. Human technology probably began as a sexual division of labour, with men using tools as weapons, women as a means of production. Women tended fire, learned to plait and weave, fashioned clay vessels and ultimately cultivated plants.

In early warfare any enemies captured, if their lives were spared (which was probably rare enough for males), would be enslaved. As slaves were relatively few in number and distributed among free households, however, a class state was not required to hold them in subjection. Slaves were not, as such, a class, but ‘unfree’ individuals probably on their way to absorption into the polity if they survived. Classes did not, therefore, develop from the distinction between the free and the unfree within the polity. Nor were they a spontaneous development of the sexual division of labour, even as this was accentuated with the development of horticulture (women being more involved in food production, men in hunting). So long as individuals are free to move from one occupational group to another, Kautsky argued, the exploitation of one occupation by another, exchanging more labour for less, will not crystallise. All participants in labour will insist on a roughly equivalent exchange of effort.


Full classes, therefore, did not arise within polities, according to Kautsky, but rather from contact between them. Some polities will find themselves concentrated in highly fertile ecologies, others spread themselves over wide-open spaces. This spatio-economic distinction, Kautsky argued, was crucial.

In the riverine polities - off the Nile, Euphrates, Tigris, Indus, Ganges, Yangtze and Hoangho - cultivation of the soil by ox-drawn plough and irrigation works relied increasingly on male labour, which was drawn away from hunting. Such agricultural polities tended not to be expansionist - their population being bound to the tasks of cultivation, lacking in military skills honed by hunting and coveting little that could be found in the arid hinterland. They become peasant societies, fearful of and disgusted by nomadic ‘barbarians’ roaming outside their river valleys.

Nomads in the wildernesses, in contrast, were equipped for mobility and rapid concentration of force, and ultimately developed as skilled horsemen. As their mode of subsistence was uncertain and heavily dependent on changeable climate, they were permanently tempted to raid and rob those settled peasant polities they scorned as cautious and unadventurous.

Nomads subsisted partly by regularly raiding and pillaging agricultural polities. With more overwhelming victory over their peasant neighbours, herdsmen would impose regularised robbery on the agriculturalists. The peasants would be left to organise themselves, but required to pay over regular tribute to their nomad neighbours. A proto-class relationship had emerged.

True class-based societies appear, however, only when one polity not only subordinates, but unifies with, another. In this case the entire labour of the vanquished polity is put at the service of the conquerors and a coercive apparatus is put in place to hold and discipline the conquered agriculturalists.

This is the form, Kautsky argues, in which the state first develops:

Where it occurs, the division into classes appears not through the splitting of a polity into different subdivisions, but through the union of two polities into one … The coercive apparatus imposed on the vanquished by the victors develops into the state.11

When warrior peoples conquer a pre-existing class society, they either exterminate the native ruling class or employ it to its own ends. There appear, in the latter case, distinct but ancillary ruling castes - one of warriors drawn from the conquering polity; the other a collaborationist, indigenous priesthood.

While the primitive polity was limited to one tribe, the state was an unequal amalgam of two tribes or more. The larger the number of conquered tribes, the easier it was for the conquerors to divide and rule. Once a state is in existence, all-out warfare becomes endemic and state structures spread by conquest.

The nomads, Kautsky argued, were the creators of the class state. He was quite aware that his view was at variance to that of Marx and, in particular, Engels. Indeed, it had something in common with Eugen Dühring’s ‘force theory’ of history polemicised against by Engels. Nonetheless, Kautsky felt that he had retained the underlying determination of the socio-economic base:

Consideration of the conditions of production and of life of herdsmen and of agriculturalists suffices to comprehend the peculiarity of the mentality of the ones and of the others. The capacity of force, of war, for creating states is thereby completely explained by its economic conditions.12

Kautsky rejected Marx’s famous remark that “no social order is ever destroyed before all the productive forces for which it is sufficient have been developed”.13 On the contrary, he insisted:

Historical materialism must not be understood to mean that a mode of production cannot be overcome as long as it remains economically vigorous. Let us recall our discussion of the original formation of the state and of classes … The peasant economy remained technologically at the same state of development, … but its economic position was changed. The free peasant … became a serf subject to taxation … This new mode of production was not a consequence of the decline of the peasant economy that preceded it …The new mode of production was a product of force.14

Kautsky could argue, nonetheless, that he was actually applying Marx’s mature methodology, as expressed in his work on the ‘primitive accumulation’ of capital, to the original formation of state authority and classes.15

Kautsky’s view of the origin of the state, creditable enough at the time, soon sank from respectability. The reason for this is obvious. Rampaging nomads, ‘blonde beasts’, conquering peasant societies and setting themselves up as a ruling class, was central to the Nazi mythopoeia.16 As might be expected, Kautsky was at pains to dismiss racist fantasies, and did so in Materialist conception at some length and to good effect. Nonetheless, pre-historians and anthropologists from the 1940s have generally much preferred models of cultural contact and diffusion to those of migration, conquest and exploitation as being not only less amenable to the perversions of fascist racialism, but also conformable to liberal capitalist ideology.


V Gordon Childe - not only a Marxist, but the most influential archaeological theorist of the 20th century - in 1928 published a monograph on The Aryans, in which he argued that these blonde nomads, on swift horses and bearing battle-axes, had swept into Mesopotamia in 1600 BC, expanding thereafter to India, Iran and the Mediterranean. Though they conquered more advanced peoples, they laid the basis for Greek, Roman and post-Roman civilisation.

Though Childe discomfited the German ultra-nationalists by locating the origin of the Aryans on the southern Russian Pontic-Caspian steppe, he nonetheless conceded “the truth underlying the panegyrics of the Germanists: the Nordics’ superiority in physique fitted them to be vehicles of a superior language”.17 Unsurprisingly, given the rise of the Nazis, Childe went on to disown this book. Nonetheless, the Aryans have survived in anthropological thought - not as a ‘racial group’, but as a language (Indo-European) that spread, it was surmised, by trade and diffusion rather than conquest.

Childe went on to lay the framework for our understanding of the two most significant social transformations before the industrial revolution: the transition to agriculture (the Neolithic Revolution); and the appearance of the state and sharply class divided society (what Childe called the “Urban Revolution”). Childe argued, no doubt correctly, that these hierarchical, centralised societies - with a ruling class and a large number of non-food producers in the form of craft workers - could not have been possible without the surpluses produced by agriculture. How this transition happened, however, nonetheless remains obscure. Why would the peasant majority allow the emergence of an exploitative and entrenched ruling class? Where does the Kautsky thesis stand?

Very clearly, there are mechanisms against the spontaneous evolution of the class state in hunter-gatherer society. Certainly, there are ‘leaders’. Anthropologists of modern hunter-gatherer societies have found particular honour and respect paid to the old and venerable, individuals gifted with supernatural powers, those most skilled at hunting and combat for the tribe, and any who are considered equable and wise. Fractiousness, arrogance and vain ambition, however, attract ire and contempt. Social inequality is discouraged by putting a high premium on leisure-time activities, such as sleeping, dreaming and storytelling. No-one is permitted, even by excess ‘graft’, to set themselves up as hereditary rulers by engrossing a superfluity of material goods.

Hunter-gatherer societies certainly had and have leaders, but they are functional, maintaining their authority by championing the interests of the tribe more vigorously and effectively than rivals, and liable to be changed at any time. Anthropology of modern hunter-gatherer cultures suggest that most are bound by a more or less democratic council. Chieftains and headsmen usually have specific responsibilities rather than general authority and they enjoy virtually no tenure. They lack the wealth that might allow them to pass advantages onto their children. Leadership is a matter of recognised talent rather than class privilege.

It seems reasonably clear, however, that the emergence of agriculture (between 13,000 to 10,000 years ago) of itself helped propel greater social differentiation. Peasants, tied to their farms, find it more difficult to move to escape oppression. But this should not be exaggerated. So long as ample unoccupied land existed, as it certainly did in pre-historic agricultural society, the peasant could simply leave an oppressively unequal polity.

Still, agriculture does see a limited growth of social inequality. While bands (hunter-gatherer societies) and tribes (enlarged bands, with elements of horticulture) are broadly egalitarian, agricultural ‘chiefdoms’ are ‘ranked’ societies, able to support a specialised warrior caste, and usually with a hereditary head supported by henchmen. In theory, a considerable number of key offices in chiefdoms are transmitted as ‘property’ from one generation to the next, as in the case of the North American Hasinai chieftainship.

In practice, however, it is clear that certain controls operate to prevent abuses in chiefdoms. There are no gross inequalities in material possessions and few capital goods that can be monopolised to control the means of production. Numerous opportunities exist for able men and women to advance themselves. The main resource competed over is prestige and influence, and to maintain themselves elites must continuously prove themselves able in war, observant of custom and open-handed with the material surplus they nominally ‘own’ (potlatch). Any leaders with ambitions to tyrannise are always exposed to assassination if they press too far.

Though social equality can be seen in rudimentary form in the chiefdom, the class state is quite a different matter. Territorial reach is much more extensive and populations - only very rarely reaching 15,000 in simple horticultural societies - now range from hundreds of thousands to millions. An elite, usually hereditary, effectively controls the means of production via massed private property and through an organised bureaucracy. Wealth is systematically extracted from the producers and monopolised by the elites. Grandiloquent temples and palaces appear in the archaeological record. Slavery becomes common, as does usually much more important tribute exacted from conquered peoples.

What accounts for the change? Most archaeologists have preferred to see class division and the state arise more or less ‘naturally’ from agricultural communities, but there has always been reason to doubt this. From the 1950s to the 1970s, the Lithuanian archaeologist, Marija Gimbutas, maintained a (non-racist) version of the ‘Aryan’ thesis. Drawing on both linguistic and archaeological evidence, she identified the Proto-Indo-Europeans with the Kurgan culture of the Russian steppe. The Kurgan lived as nomadic pastoralists, with an economy based on sheep, goats, cattle and pigs. Gimbutas argued that the Kurgan were a warlike and male-dominated society, worshipping masculine sky-gods. They were highly mobile, using ox-drawn wagons and horses for transport, and terrifyingly well-adapted to military expansion.

Gimbutas’ work was controversial, but recent genetic-lineage research has highlighted the extreme violence migrating nomads could inflict on peasant peoples. The Yamnaya (what used to be called Aryans) - a culture of axe-wielding livestock herders who occupied the Eurasian steppe north of the Black Sea and the Caucasus - rolled across swathes of Europe between 3000 and 2000 BC, exterminating the largely peaceable and communal Neolithic cultures as they went.18 About 90% of the gene pool in Britain was entirely replaced.19 These horse warriors descended into India, similarly imposing themselves as a ruling and destroying caste, monopolising power, prestige and sexual partners. As the geneticist David Reich notes,

The descendants of the Yamnaya or their close relatives spread their Y chromosomes into Europe and India, and the demographic impact of this expansion was profound, as the Y-chromosome types they carried were absent in Europe and India before the Bronze Age, but are predominant in both places today.20

This looks like a prehistoric genocide.

The origin of the state would not be found in such extermination by nomads, but rather in their subjugating and systematically exploiting more advanced peasant cultures.

‘Primary states’

The problem with explaining the nature of the first states, and the period of ‘primary state formation’, is, of course, the lack of historical records which might allow us to identify their origin. We have here a ‘chicken and egg’ problem: such records only exist when a state is already entrenched and able to generate its own (self-serving and usually mythological) scribal accounts.

Nonetheless, indications that these ‘primary states’ emerged by ‘backward’ but mobile cultures conquering advanced but stationary ‘peasant’ cultures are not absent. The ‘Sumerian problem’, for example, continues to bedevil debates regarding the origin of the very first states in Mesopotamia from around 3500 BC. It remains an unproven but intriguing thesis, based primarily upon philology, that they formed when a relatively sophisticated indigenous culture was conquered by nomadic Sumerian invaders (origins unknown, but perhaps the Caspian region).21

The origins of the Egyptian civilisation is likewise much debated, but recent work suggests that Saharan pastoralists, fleeing aridification, encountered and subjugated a peasant farming society in the long, narrow strip of productive land in the Nile Valley, giving rise to the extreme class inequalities and state structures of ancient Egypt.22

The Indus Valley (or Harappan) civilisation from about 2600 BC extended over a wide area of Pakistan, southern Afghanistan and northwest India. So far as archaeological remains suggest, this was a remarkably egalitarian civilisation, with none of the bombastic monuments characteristic of an exploitative ruling class. However, climate change degraded the civilisation until it was overrun in about 1500 BC by Aryan horsemen from central Asia, and a highly unequal caste society came into existence.

The first attested dynasty in China, the Shang, ruled from 1600 to 1046 BC. It certainly looks like a nomadic empire dominating settled agriculturalists. In a manner characteristic of a pastoralist ruling elite, its ‘capital’ moved at least eight times.

An apparent problem for Kautsky’s ‘nomadic conquest’ theory is Mesoamerica, which lacked the kind of animals that could be domesticated for a typical pastoral economy.23 Here, however, hunter-gatherer and nomadic Chichimecas, issuing from the mountains, seem to have conquered horticultural cultures in the valleys. At any rate, it was from the Chichimecas that the Toltec and Aztecs ruling classes claimed descent.24 It looks plausible, as Oppenheimer speculated, that “in the new world the contrast is between the sedentary and the roving tribes”.25

When we move into the historical period proper, we see state formation by emulation, by splits in pre-existing states and by colonisation. Clearly settled states can ‘reproduce’, as it were. Nonetheless, the frequency of state formation through the conquest of settled peoples by nomadic warriors - the latter imposing themselves as a ruling class - is remarkable. Oppenheimer gave a loose list:

Everywhere we find some warlike tribe of wild men breaking through the boundaries of some less warlike people, settling down as nobility and founding its state. In Mesopotamia, wave follows wave, state follows state - Babylonians, Amoritans, Assyrians, Arabs, Medes, Persians, Macedonians, Parthians, Mongols, Seldshuks, Tartars, Turks; on the Nile, Hyksos, Nubians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Turks; in Greece, the Doric states are typical examples; in Italy, Romans, Ostrogoths, Lombards, Franks, Germans; in Spain, Carthaginians, Visigoths, Arabs; in Gaul, Romans, Franks, Burgundians, Normans; in Britain, Saxons, Normans.26

Nomads tend to leave little trace in the archaeological record. The evidence for primary-state formation through nomadic conquest of peasant cultures is not definitive, therefore. But it is highly suggestive.

The class state must have a root in some determinate human psychology. If it is not in the pair-bond family, as Engels (and most modern feminists) suspected, it may be in the human instinct to readily form powerful ‘group’ identities. As Kautsky pointed out and anthropology confirms, the pre-state human polity is broadly egalitarian within itself, but generally hostile to those whom they see as the ‘other’: Homo homini lupus est. Relations must exist with the out-group of course, for trade and sexual exogamy (‘marry out or die out’), but the ‘stranger’ is seen as fundamentally inferior. The psychological basis of class oppression arises, therefore, not within, but between, polities. Slavery, for example, begins as an imposition on the ‘stranger’: “Whilst little regard is paid to the liberty of strangers, custom everywhere, as a rule, forbids the enslaving of tribesmen.”27

The antagonism between nomadic and peasant polities is heightened beyond even this by the sharp cultural difference between two forms of production (peasant agriculture and pastoralism). Settled societies feared and despised the nomads as sub-human or terrifyingly powerful demi-gods. The Greek myth of the Centaur - man and beast so at one as to seem welded together - gives an idea of the horrified awe in which pastoralist warriors were held. Nomads for their part scorned the peasantry as degenerates who had given up their freedom to roam. “You look forward to eating, drinking and sleeping, but not to accompanying me?” a nomad asked rhetorically in 1770 BC. “Sitting or sleeping will not redden you from the sun. As for me, if I keep myself inside just one day, until I leave the city walls behind to renew my vigour, my vitality ebbs away”.28

The Hindu Mahabharata, the Hebrew Bible, the Chinese political theory of the Mandate of Heaven, and the epics of the Iliad and Odyssey all pivot around the conflicts between nomadic warrior elites and settled tribes. As the Islamic scholar, Ibn Khaldun, famously observed in 1377, history is replete with the collision of the settled and the nomadic, by land and by sea. Nomadic warriors spread a world religion (Islam) and with the Mongols created the largest contiguous land empire in history. Only by the 18th century, Edward Gibbon observed in his epic Decline and fall of the Roman empire, were the settled European states at last more or less sure of being able to defend themselves against “savage conquerors” from “the deserts of Tartary”.29 And, as Kautsky pointed out, well into the modern era warfare (and hunting) was almost the exclusive function of the ruling class, and purity of blood their reigning arrogance. The aristocracy owed much to the psychology of the nomad.

‘In group’

Group identity and, at a minimum, suspicion of the ‘out group’ is likely a hard-wired human predilection - no doubt a necessary evolutionary adaptation for a ‘social animal’, which relies upon ‘in group’ cooperation. Certainly, those peoples far away, about whom we know little, inspire less empathy than those close to us. Hostility whipped up against migrants - even cold-blooded indifference to refugees, risking their lives to cross St George’s Channel - demagogically plays upon a probably indelible part of human psychology. However, it would be quite wrong to see this as making either hostility to foreigners or class stratification as inevitable or ‘natural’.

Group identities are not at root based upon any actual characteristic in common other than ascribed membership of the group.30 The idea that either an inherent race solidarity or race hostility underpins human group consciousness - or, for that matter, an inherent division of groups along such lines as sex, intelligence, skills, managerial role - is baseless. Rather, groups are formed and interact on the basis of mutual benefit or mutual antagonism. An ‘out group’ may be looked upon with a prior heuristic of suspicion, but only until a basis for cooperation is established. Evolutionary psychologist Pascal Boyer writes that “groupishness is not a blunt instinct to follow the herd, so to speak. People behave in ways that seem to favour the in-group because they implicitly use a social exchange heuristic”.31

This “social-exchange heuristic” means that there is no absolute limit to the aggregate size of a solidaristic bloc. It is probably the case that the ‘natural’ maximum size of the close-bonded human primate group is about 150.32 But, as the historical purchase of world religions, imperial citizenships (Civis romanus sum), national identities and class-consciousness clearly shows, the ‘solidaristic group’ shows no such absolute limit. It is likely that none such exist.

In prehistoric society, outright aggression was probably not the norm, either between or within groups. Stephen Pinker has argued that primeval man is murderous and only ‘enlightenment’ (for which, read capitalist rationality) has gentled our condition. However, there is little doubt that he extrapolates unacceptably from certain contemporary hunter-gatherer societies subsisting in those few niches left to them. These are forbidding ecological wastes, where the harsh conditions for survival maximally accentuate frustration/aggression. From our evidence of prehistoric hunter-gatherer society, living in conditions of ‘primitive affluence’, a very different picture emerges.33 The absence of depictions of warfare or interpersonal violence in prehistoric cave paintings, created between 4500BC and 2000BC, is very striking. Recent work has even done much to diminish the idea that these elaborate creations must have been the monopoly of a male shamanistic elite:

Today … analyses of the hand stencils left by these Palaeolithic artists have shown that men, women and children all played a role in producing the works. In fact, one study of rock art in various French and Spanish caves showed that 75% of the hand stencils were female.34

Even the great megaliths of Neolithic Europe such as Newgrange and Stonehenge - built when agriculture had already displaced the hunter-gatherer mode of production - are no definite evidence of tribal egoism or proto-class stratification. The archaeologist, Mike Pitts, has suggested that peoples across a large number of tribes probably provided their labour freely and willingly, in the context of rituals, traditions and social customs. The Indus Valley civilisation, mentioned above, may have been the highest level of cooperative labour ever reached by pre-class state society.

If Kautsky was right, the class state emerged not as a natural consequence of human psychology and economic development, but rather through the collision of settled peasant societies and predatory nomadic warriors, the latter becoming the ruling class. This is one solution, perhaps more satisfactory than that advanced by Marx and Engels, for the conundrum of how humans - social animals - came to internalise within their own polities the deeply asocial structures of class.

Kautsky was of the view that the capitalist state was not so much the apogee of the class state as the beginning of its transcendence. This may have reflected his increasingly blithe reformism by the 1920s - but that is a question for another day. For now, one can say that the Kautsky thesis on the origin of classes and the state is unproven, but compelling.

  1. See K Kautsky, ‘Development of a Marxist’ (1924) in B Lewis (editor and translator) Karl Kautsky on democracy and republicanism Leiden 2019, pp284-85.↩︎

  2. F Engels Origins of the family, private property and the state (1884): marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1884/origin-family/ch02d.htm.↩︎

  3. K Marx Poverty of philosophy (1846): marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1847/poverty-philosophy/ch02e.htm.↩︎

  4. K Marx The German ideology (1846): marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/german-ideology/ch03abs.htm.↩︎

  5. F Engels Anti-Dühring (1878), Ludwig Feuerbach (1886), Housing question (1887).↩︎

  6. I say ‘not sufficient’, as periods of basic technological development have been rather few in the history of civilisation: the earliest river-valley civilisation of Neolithic Egypt, Sumeria, China, the ‘west’ in the 11th century and from the 16th century stand out.↩︎

  7. However, see Tacitus Germania (98 AD), on the pre-state tribes beyond the frontier of the Roman principate: “The woman must not think that she is excluded from aspirations to manly virtues or exempt from the hazards of warfare” (facultystaff.richmond.edu/~wstevens/history331texts/barbarians.html). For the quote in the text, see Caesar Gallic wars (58-49 BC): classics.mit.edu/Caesar/gallic.mb.txt.↩︎

  8. K Marx Eighteenth Brumaire (1852): marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1852/18th-brumaire/ch07.htm .↩︎

  9. Bukharin argued that only “a colossal overproduction of organisers” could “nullify the stability of the ruling groups” in Soviet Russia and prevent the crystallisation of a new ruling class”. As he put it, “The increasing production of technologists and of organisers in general, out of the working class itself, will undermine this possible new class alignment. The outcome of the struggle will depend on which tendencies turn out to be the stronger.” NI Bukharin Historical materialism: a system of sociology (1921): marxists.org/archive/bukharin/works/1921/histmat/8.htm. In fact, the Stalinist and post-Stalinist regime was rather effective at producing technologists and organisers out of the Soviet working class. There were about 23,500,000 beneficiaries of higher education by 1984, which compared very well to the capitalist west. The problem was that as a caste these leaders were never efficiently brought under societal control, either by terror or by bribery, and they were the vanguard of capitalist restoration in the 1990s. The point is not to eliminate ‘leaders’, but to control them by limiting their strategic control over the affairs of others.↩︎

  10. F Oppenheimer The state: oll.libertyfund.org/titles/oppenheimer-the-state.↩︎

  11. K Kautsky The materialist conception of history (1896 - abridged, annotated and introduced by John Kautsky; translated by Raymond Meyer and John Kautsky) London 1989, p274.↩︎

  12. Ibid p282, my emphasis.↩︎

  13. 1859 preface: marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1859/critique-pol-economy/preface.htm.↩︎

  14. K Kautsky The materialist conception of history, op cit pp425-26.↩︎

  15. Ibid p277.↩︎

  16. Oppenheimer was Jewish and vehemently hostile to the Machtstaat, so naturally his book was one of those added to the Nazi bonfires.↩︎

  17. V Gordon Childe The Aryans New York 1928, p212.↩︎

  18. C Barras, ‘Story of most murderous people of all time revealed in ancient DNA’ New Scientist March 27 2019.↩︎

  19. I Olaldeet et al, ‘The Beaker phenomenon and the genomic transformation of northwest Europe’ Nature Vol 555, pp190-96 (2018).↩︎

  20. D Reich Who we are and how we got here Oxford 2018.↩︎

  21. JR Ziskind, ‘The Sumerian problem’ The History Teacher Vol 5, No2, January 1972.↩︎

  22. T Wilkinson Genesis of the pharaohs: dramatic new discoveries that rewrite the origins of ancient Egypt London 2003.↩︎

  23. Kautsky waves away the problem: “Under different geographic conditions, other kinds of states emerged … all based on the rule over sedentary agriculturalists of a tribe or an association of tribes coming from without. As for the formations of states by natives in the Americas, …their influence on general human development is so slight that we disregard them here” (K Kautsky The materialist conception of history, op cit p341).↩︎

  24. CM Gradie, ‘Discovering the Chichimecas’ The Americas Vol 74, issue S2, 2017.↩︎

  25. F Oppenheimer The state: oll.libertyfund.org/titles/oppenheimer-the-state.↩︎

  26. Ibid.↩︎

  27. E Westermarck The origin and development of the moral ideas New York 1906-08.↩︎

  28. J Coatsworth, ‎ Cole, ‎MP Hanagan Global connections Vol 1, Cambridge 2015, p76.↩︎

  29. E Gibbon, ‘General observations on the fall of the Roman empire in the west’: sourcebooks.fordham.edu/source/gibbon-fall.asp.↩︎

  30. For the ‘minimal group paradigm’ see psychology.iresearchnet.com/social-psychology/group/minimal-group-paradigm.↩︎

  31. P Boyer Minds make societies: how cognition explains the world humans create London 2018, p41.↩︎

  32. ‘Dunbar’s number’: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunbar%27s_number.↩︎

  33. See RB Ferguson, ‘Pinker’s list: exaggerating prehistoric war mortality’ and the other chapters in DP Fry (ed) War, peace and human nature: the convergence of evolutionary and cultural views Oxford 2015.↩︎

  34. ‘Fingerprints studied at rock art site in Spain’ Archaeology World September 16 2020: archaeology-world.com/fingerprints-studied-at-rock-art-site-in-spain.↩︎