Anthropology: Luxemburg was right

How do Rosa Luxemburg’s ideas on primitive communism stand up today? This is an edited version of a speech given by Chris Knight of the Radical Anthropology Group to this month’s Historical Materialism conference

The launch of an English-language volume which includes Rosa Luxemburg’s quite extraordinary essay, ‘Introduction to political economy’, is a wonderful occasion. I would like to congratulate those who got it out. I suppose we could say, however, that it is a bit late in the day. It is difficult for me to understand, now that I have looked at it, why on earth these writings have remained untranslated into English for so long.

I am an anthropologist. Pretty much all of my adult life I have explored the questions that Rosa Luxemburg is exploring here. In particular I have repeatedly asked myself this question: were Marx and Engels right about primitive communism? Were they right about the details of, for example, the matrilineal clan? Yet, despite focusing on those issues for five decades, I was quite unaware until a few years ago that these questions were a starting point, a primary focus, for Rosa. I only learnt about this when rumour started circulating about Peter Hudis’s forthcoming translation. Of course, it is partly my fault - to my shame, I do not read or understand German. But still I think we do need to ask ourselves why this marvellous work of Rosa’s remained untranslated and ignored for so long.

I would like to start with a few short extracts. Then I would like to look at the reaction against the idea of primitive communism in Rosa’s time. The assault on that idea had already started before her assassination, when she was in prison, but it was to get much more vicious. Finally I would like to ask why it was that these issues were abandoned by virtually the whole of 20th century Marxism, despite the fact that they had been considered by the early Marxists so vital to the revolutionary programme.

Rosa quotes those famous lines from the Communist manifesto: “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” She reminds us that, not long after writing these words, Marx and Engels realised that they were actually wrong - there had been a long period of time before written history when there were no classes. She goes on to describe the impact that Lewis Henry Morgan’s work had had on Marx and Engels.

I was astonished when I read these pages to discover the extraordinary breadth of scholarship that Rosa shows. She was not prepared to take Morgan or Engels on trust. Maybe, she thought, they had got it all wrong. So she made it her business while she was in prison to read all the most up-to-date ethnographies. It was as if today a leading Marxist were to read Sarah Hrdy, Richard Dawkins or Chris Stringer - scientists who nowadays are working on evolutionary theory and investigating human origins. Sadly, in the case of today’s Marxists, that is almost unthinkable!

Sarah Hrdy, for instance, is a leading evolutionary biologist and the author of a wonderful book, Mothers and others. She has taken into the scientific mainstream the idea that, yes, originally we were a cooperative species. But what was the form which that cooperation took? It was, she writes, cooperation in childcare - an onerous task for our distant ancestors as they were becoming human. Collective childcare was in fact what got us up and running. Of course, anyone who has read Morgan or Engels knows that that was the core idea about the form of sharing that made us human.

Class blip

Here is my first quotation from Rosa: “Only by being clear about the specific economic peculiarities of primitive communist society … is it possible to grasp with due thoroughness why today’s capitalist class society offers for the first time a historical leverage for the realisation of socialism.” She then goes on to discuss at some length the “specific economic peculiarities” prevailing among African, Australian Aboriginal and other hunter-gatherer societies.

You might ask, what on earth have hunter-gatherers in Africa got to do with capitalism today or with a possible socialist future? Rosa replies that it is rather difficult to argue for communism, or even for a future of general equality, if our entire history had been one of male dominance, competition, violence, private property and war. If those things had always existed, it would be very difficult to argue against those essentialist ideologues who today claim that no revolution can possibly change the one key thing: human nature. In which case, what hope is there for us?

Rosa’s position was that class society is a kind of blip, an aberration occupying a very brief period on a geological or historical timescale. Here she is again: “For the political economists, all primitive forms of economy were merely unsuccessful attempts that preceded the discovery of the one true form of economy: that of private property and exploitation, with which written history and civilisation begins. Morgan dealt this conception a decisive blow by portraying the whole of primitive cultural history as an equally valid - indeed an infinitely more important - part in the uninterrupted developmental sequence of humanity, infinitely more important than the tiny section of written history.”

Rosa quotes Morgan’s inspiring words:

Since the advent of civilisation, the outgrowth of property has been so immense, its forms so diversified, its uses so expanding and its management so intelligent in the interests of its owners, that it has become, on the part of the people, an unmanageable power. The human mind stands bewildered in the presence of its own creation. The time will come, nevertheless, when human intelligence will rise to the mastery over property. Democracy in government, brotherhood in society, equality in rights and privileges, and universal education, foreshadow the next higher plane of society, to which experience, intelligence and knowledge are steadily tending. It will be a revival, in a higher form, of the liberty, equality and fraternity of the ancient gentes (matrilineal clans).

Marxists find in this wonderful statement the idea of a dialectical return: future communism as a restoration of something ancient and natural to us, but on a higher level. What we are talking about is getting back to a way of life that we can once again be comfortable with.

We humans feel most in touch with ourselves when we are able to laugh (as African hunter-gatherers love to laugh) at those who get a bit above themselves, telling other people what to do. We feel happy and relaxed when we are joking among equals, when we can look into each other’s eyes and see ourselves as others see us. Laughter makes us relax, make us feel happy and healthy. In fact, communism as a return to such a way of life, full of laughter and play, is an infectious idea. There is a very powerful argument that capitalism itself has only survived by feeding off the fact that, despite its competitive logic, we remain sociable, sharing animals, full of inventiveness, happiest when rebelling against social norms which feel alienating and ridiculous. Rosa is very well aware - in fact she takes up quite a few pages on the subject - why learned professors hate, and feel they must destroy, the very idea that we could ever relax and enjoy ourselves while living as communists.

In the late 19th century, right up to World War I, virtually all evolutionary theorists, archaeologists and prehistorians had accepted that early human kinship was matrilineal, that early childcare was collective and that the nuclear family is a relatively recent invention which developed along with private property. Those ideas were not specifically Marxist, but were almost universally accepted. But as revolutionary upheavals broke out almost everywhere in the aftermath of World War I, the ruling classes felt insecure as they had never felt before. They decided to strike back. During the 1920s and 30s, following Rosa’s assassination and the defeat of the German revolution, anthropology was completely reorganised. In reaction against Morgan/Engels-style historical materialism, the dominant school in Britain became functionalism, whose leader was Bronis?aw Malinowski.

Good and bad science

Many leftwing activists today think it makes no difference whether or not early human kinship was matrilineal or childcare was collective. Well, the post-war establishment did not think such issues were irrelevant. Here is what Malinowski had to say in a radio broadcast in 1931:

A whole school of anthropologists … have maintained that the maternal clan was the primitive domestic institution. In my opinion, as you know, this is entirely incorrect. But an idea like that, once it is taken seriously and applied to modern conditions, becomes positively dangerous. I believe that the most disruptive element in the modern revolutionary tendencies is the idea that parenthood can be made collective. If once we came to the point of doing away with the individual family as the pivotal element in our society, we should be faced with a total catastrophe, compared with which the political upheaval of the French Revolution and the economic changes of Bolshevism are insignificant. The question, therefore, as to whether group motherhood is an institution which ever existed, whether it is an arrangement which is compatible with human nature and social order, is of considerable practical interest.1

In fact we now know that early human kinship was matrilineal, early residence was matrilocal and early childcare was collective. The crucial question for Morgan and subsequently for Engels was whether gender equality existed. They understood that this depended on whether a woman on marriage was able to stay with her mother, her sisters and her brothers - whether, instead of being isolated under the control of her husband, she could stay with her kin and be empowered as a result.

Here is Morgan quoting a missionary on the Iroquois family system:

… when occupying the old long-houses [communistic households comprising several families], it is probable that some one clan [gens] predominated, the women taking in husbands, however, from the other clans [gentes] ... Usually, the female portion ruled the house ... The stores were in common; but woe to the luckless husband or lover who was too shiftless to do his share of the providing. No matter how many children, or whatever goods he might have in the house, he might at any time be ordered to pick up his blanket and budge; and after such orders it would not be healthful for him to attempt to disobey. The house would be too hot for him …2

In this account, women had real solidarity and hence power. Men could have sexual relations with them, but only if they behaved, and even then sex did not mean they had rights over the children - and it certainly did not mean they had the right to push the women around. Women’s solidarity and power was made possible by matrilocal residence, meaning that a woman following her marriage remained living not with her husband, but with her kin, so that she could enjoy day-to-day support from her mother, sisters and brothers within an extended household.

I am sometimes attacked for being old-fashioned and still believing in science. I am told that Marx invented critical theory, which means that he criticised science, just as Foucault and the postmodernists today criticise science. Yes, I know this, but Marx criticised rubbish science - ideology disguised as science. Far from attacking science, he aimed to peel away the ideology precisely to get at the science.

At a conference on hunter-gatherers I attended in Liverpool earlier this year there were a lot of geneticists. And it is clear that through genetics we can now tell whether or not Morgan, Engels, Marx and Luxemburg were right on the issue of matrilocal residence. By taking a hair of someone’s head in Africa and examining the DNA, we can now establish whether in early human society women moved out of the family home to join their husbands when they married (patrilocal residence) or remained with their mothers (matrilocal residence).

The answer is that over tens of thousands of years, in that part of the world where our species evolved, residence was overwhelmingly matrilocal. Women remained in an extended household with their mothers, sisters and brothers, all looking after one another’s children. In a nutshell, Rosa Luxemburg was right.


1. R Briffault, B Malinowski, A Montagu Marriage, past and present: a debate between Robert Briffault and Bronis?aw Malinowski Boston 1956, p76.

2. F Engels Origins of the family, private property and the state: www.marxists.org/archive/marx/ works/1884/origin-family/ch02c.htm.

Further reading

P Hudis (ed) The complete works of Rosa Luxem­burg Vol 1: Economic writings London 2013.

S Hrdy Mothers and others: the evolutionary origins of mutual understanding London 2009.

C Knight, ‘Early human kinship was matrilineal’ in NJ Allen, H Callan, R Dunbar and W James (eds) Early human kinship Oxford 2008, pp61-82.