Primitive communism

Primitive communism is a way of describing the gift economies of hunter-gatherers throughout history, where resources and property hunted and gathered are shared with all members of a group, in accordance with individual needs. In political sociology and anthropology, it is also a concept often credited to Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels for originating, who wrote that hunter-gatherer societies were traditionally based on egalitarian social relations and common ownership.[1] A primary inspiration for both Marx and Engels were Lewis Henry Morgan's descriptions of "communism in living" as practised by the Iroquois Nation of North America.[2] In Marx's model of socioeconomic structures, societies with primitive communism had no hierarchical social class structures or capital accumulation.[3]

Engels offered the first detailed elaboration upon that of primitive communism in 1884, with the publication of The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. Marx and Engels used the term more broadly than Marxists did later, and applied it not only to hunter-gatherers but also to some subsistence agriculture communities. There is also no agreement among later scholars, including Marxists, on the historical extent, or longevity, of primitive communism.

Marx and Engels also noted how capitalist accumulation latched itself onto social organizations of primitive communism. For instance, in private correspondence the same year that The Origin of the Family was published, Engels attacked European colonialism, describing the Dutch regime in Java directly organizing agricultural production and profiting from it, "on the basis of the old communistic village communities". He added that cases like the Dutch East Indies, British India and the Russian Empire showed "how today primitive communism furnishes ... the finest and broadest basis of exploitation".[4]

Nature of primitive communist societiesEdit

A term usually associated with Karl Marx, but most fully elaborated by Friedrich Engels (in The Origin of the Family, 1884),[5] and referring to the collective right to basic resources, egalitarianism in social relationships, and absence of authoritarian rule and hierarchy that is supposed to have preceded stratification and exploitation in human history. Both Marx and Engels were heavily influenced by Lewis Henry Morgan's speculative evolutionary history, which described the "liberty, equality and fraternity of the ancient gentes", and the "communism in living" said to be evident in the village architecture of native Americans.

—John Scott and Gordon Marshall, 2007, Dictionary of Sociology.

In a primitive communist society, all able bodied persons would have engaged in obtaining food, and everyone would share in what was produced by hunting and gathering. There would be no private property, which is distinguished from personal property[6] such as articles of clothing and similar personal items, because primitive society produced no surplus; what was produced was quickly consumed and this was because there existed no division of labour, hence people were forced to work together. The few things that existed for any length of time (tools, housing) were held communally,[7] in Engels' view in association with matrilocal residence and matrilineal descent.[8] There would have been no state.

Domestication of animals and plants following the Neolithic Revolution through herding and agriculture was seen as the turning point from primitive communism to class society as it was followed by private ownership and slavery, with the inequality that they entailed. In addition, parts of the population specialized in different activities, such as manufacturing, culture, philosophy, and science which is said to lead to the development of social classes.[7]

Mbendjele hunter-gatherer meat sharing

Egalitarian and communist-like hunter gatherer societies have been studied and described by many well-known social anthropologists including James Woodburn,[9] Richard Lee,[10] and, more recently, Alan Barnard[11] and Jerome Lewis.[12] Anthropologists such as Christopher Boehm,[13] Chris Knight[14] and Jerome Lewis[15] offer theoretical accounts to explain how communistic, assertively egalitarian social arrangements might have emerged in the prehistoric past. Despite differences in emphasis, these and other anthropologists follow Engels in arguing that evolutionary change—resistance to primate-style sexual and political dominance—culminated eventually in a revolutionary transition. Richard Borshay Lee criticizes the mainstream and dominant culture's long-time bias against the idea of primitive communism, deriding "Bourgeois ideology [that] would have us believe that primitive communism doesn't exist. In popular consciousness it is lumped with romanticism, exoticism: the noble savage."[16]

Arnold Petersen has used the existence of primitive communism to argue against the idea that communism goes against human nature.[17]

One paper has argued that the depiction of hunter-gatherers as egalitarian is misleading. According to the paper, while levels of inequality were low, they were still present, with the average hunter-gatherer group having a Gini coefficient of 0.25 (for comparison, this was attained by the nation of Denmark in 2007).[18] Marx and Engels, however, did not argue communism brought about equality as according to them equality was a concept without connection in physical reality.[19]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Scott, John; Marshall, Gordon (2007). A Dictionary of Sociology. USA: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-860987-2.
  2. ^ Morgan, L. H. 1881. Houses and House-Life of the American Aborigines. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.
  3. ^ Lee, Richard; DeVore, Irven (1969). Man the Hunter. Aldine Transaction. ISBN 978-0-202-33032-7.
  4. ^ Engels, cited by T. B. Bottomore, A Dictionary of Marxist Thought, Oxford, Wiley-Blackwell, 1991, p174.
  5. ^ Engels, Friedrich (1972). The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, in the Light of the Researches of Lewis H. Morgan. International Publishers. ISBN 978-0-7178-0359-0.
  6. ^ "Eight myths about socialism—and their answers". Party for Socialism and Liberation. Archived from the original on 2013-10-25. Retrieved Aug 30, 2013.
  7. ^ a b The Neolithic Revolution and the Birth of Civilization Archived 2010-07-26 at the Wayback Machine, World Civilizations: The Global Experience, Peter N. Stearns, Michael B. Adas, Stuart B. Schwartz, Marc Jason Gilbert, ISBN 0321164253, ISBN 9780321164254, Pearson, 2004.
  8. ^ Knight, C. 2008. Early Human Kinship Was Matrilineal. In N. J. Allen, H. Callan, R. Dunbar and W. James (eds.), Early Human Kinship. Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 61-82.
  9. ^ Woodburn, James (September 1982). "Egalitarian Societies" (PDF). Man. 17 (3): 431–451. doi:10.2307/2801707. JSTOR 2801707.
  10. ^ Richard B. Lee, 1992. "Demystifying Primitive Communism". In Christine Ward Gailey (ed), Civilization in Crisis. Anthropological Perspectives. Gainesville, Florida: University of Florida Press, pp. 73-94
  11. ^ Alan Barnard, 2008. "Social origins: sharing, exchange, kinship". In Rudolf Botha and Chris Knight (eds), The Cradle of Language (Studies in the Evolution of Language 12). Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp 219-35. (2009)
  12. ^ 2008b Ekila: "Blood, Bodies and Egalitarian Societies". In Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 14:2: 297-315.
  13. ^ Boehm, C. 2001. Hierarchy in the Forest. The evolution of egalitarian behavior. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
  14. ^ Knight, C. 2002. "Language and revolutionary consciousness". In A. Wray (ed.), The Transition to Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 138-160.
  15. ^ Knight, C. and J. Lewis 2014. "Vocal deception, laughter, and the linguistic significance of reverse dominance". Chapter 21 in D. Dor, C. Knight and J. Lewis (eds), The Social Origins of Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  16. ^ Richard B. Lee, 1992. "Demystifying Primitive Communism". In Christine Ward Gailey (ed), Civilization in Crisis. Anthropological Perspectives. Gainesville, Florida: University of Florida Press, pp. 73-94
  17. ^
  18. ^ Smith, Eric Alden, Kim Hill, Frank W. Marlowe, David Nolin, Polly Wiessner, Michael Gurven, Samuel Bowles, Monique Borgerhoff Mulder, Tom Hertz, and Adrian Bell. "Wealth transmission and inequality among hunter-gatherers." Current Anthropology 51, no. 1 (2010): 19-34.
  19. ^ "Letters: Marx-Engels Correspondence 1875". Retrieved 2020-09-19.


21st-century textsEdit

  • (in French) Christophe Darmangeat, Le Communisme primitif n’est plus ce qu’il était, Toulouse Collectif d'édition Smolny, 2009, new edition completely revised, 2012
  • (in French) Alain Testart, Avant l'histoire : l'évolution des sociétés, de Lascaux à Carnac. Gallimard, 2012
  • (in French) Alain Testart, Le communisme primitif, économie et idéologie, Maison des Sciences de l'Homme, 1995

Historic and original textsEdit

Further readingEdit