Primitive communism

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Primitive communism is a concept originating from Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels that hunter-gather societies of the past practiced forms of communism.[1] In Marx's model of socioeconomic structures, societies with primitive communism had no hierarchical social class structures or capital accumulation.[2]

Engels offered the first detailed theorization of primitive communism in 1884, with publication of The Origin of the Family. Marx and Engels used the term more broadly than later Marxists, 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".[3] 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".

Nature of primitive communist societies[edit]

A term usually associated with Karl Marx, but most fully elaborated by Friedrich Engels (in The Origin of the Family, 1884[4]), 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 & 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 other than articles of clothing and similar personal items, because primitive society produced no surplus; what was produced was quickly consumed. The few things that existed for any length of time (tools, housing) were held communally,[5] in Engels' view in association with matrilocal residence and matrilineal descent.[6] 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.[5]

Primitive communist societies have often been studied by anthropologists such as Margaret Mead.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Scott, John; Marshall, Gordon (2007). A Dictionary of Sociology. USA: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-860987-2. 
  2. ^ DeVore, Irven (1969). Man the Hunter. Aldine Transaction. ISBN 978-0-202-33032-7. 
  3. ^ Engels, cited by T. B. Bottomore, A Dictionary of Marxist Thought, Oxford, Wiley-Blackwell, 1991, p174.
  4. ^ Engels, Friedrich (1972). The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, in the Light of the Researches of Lewis H. Morgan (translation from the original German). International Publishers. ISBN 978-0-7178-0359-0. 
  5. ^ a b The Neolithic Revolution and the Birth of Civilization, World Civilizations: The Global Experience, Peter N. Stearns, Michael B. Adas, Stuart B. Schwartz, Marc Jason Gilbert, ISBN 0321164253, ISBN 9780321164254, Pearson, 2004.
  6. ^ 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.


21st century texts[edit]

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

Historic and original texts[edit]

Further reading[edit]