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Primitive communism is a concept originating from Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels who argued that hunter-gatherer societies were traditionally based on egalitarian social relations and common ownership. A primary inspiration for both Marx and Engels were Lewis Henry Morgan's descriptions of 'communism in living' as practised by the Iroquois Indians of North America. In Marx's model of socioeconomic structures, societies with primitive communism had no hierarchical social class structures or capital accumulation.
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". 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
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, in Engels' view in association with matrilocal residence and matrilineal descent. 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.
Bourgeois ideology would have us believe that primitive communism doesn't exist. In popular consciousness it is lumped with romanticism, exoticism: the noble savage. Oh, surely you don't really believe that they're communist?
— Richard B. Lee, 1992. Demystifying Primitive Communism. In Christine Ward Gailey (ed), Civilization in Crisis. Anthropological Perspectives. Gainesville FL: University of Florida Press, pp. 73-94
Egalitarian hunter gatherer societies have been studied and described by many well-known social anthropologists including James Woodburn, Richard Lee, Alan Barnard and, more recently, Jerome Lewis. Anthropologists such as Christopher Boehm, Chris Knight and Jerome Lewis 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.
- Scott, John; Marshall, Gordon (2007). A Dictionary of Sociology. USA: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-860987-2.
- Morgan, L. H. 1881. Houses and House-Life of the American Aborigines. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.
- DeVore, Irven (1969). Man the Hunter. Aldine Transaction. ISBN 978-0-202-33032-7.
- Engels, cited by T. B. Bottomore, A Dictionary of Marxist Thought, Oxford, Wiley-Blackwell, 1991, p174.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- James Woodburn (1982) ‘Egalitarian Societies’, Man (NS), Vol. 17, No. 3, pp. 431-451
- Richard B. Lee, 1992. Demystifying Primitive Communism. In Christine Ward Gailey (ed), Civilization in Crisis. Anthropological Perspectives. Gainesville FL: University of Florida Press, pp. 73-94
- 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)
- 2008b Ekila: Blood, Bodies and Egalitarian Societies. In Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute. 14:2: 297-315.
- Boehm, C. 2001. Hierarchy in the Forest. The evolution of egalitarian behavior. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Knight, C. 2002. Language and revolutionary consciousness. In A. Wray (ed.), The Transition to Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 138-160.
- 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.
21st century texts
- (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
- (French) Paul Lafargue, Le Déterminisme économique de Karl Marx. Recherche sur l'origine des idées de Justice, du Bien, de l'âme et de dieu, L'Harmattan, 1997 (1909)
- Paul Lafargue, The Evolution of Property from Savagery to Civilization, (1891), (new edition, 1905)
- (French) Paul Lafargue, La propriété, Origine et évolution, Éditions du Sandre, 2007 (1890) (Lire en ligne, Archives marxistes sur Internet)
- Friedrich Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, 1884
- Lewis Henry Morgan, Ancient Society, 1877
- Johann Jakob Bachofen, Myth, Religion, and Mother Right: Selected Writings of J.J. Bachofen by Joseph Campbell (Introduction) and George Boas (preface), Princeton University Press, 380p., 1992