Primitive communism

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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][2][3] A primary inspiration for both Marx and Engels were Morgan's descriptions of "communism in living" as practised by the Haudenosaunee of North America.[4] In Marx's model of socioeconomic structures, societies with primitive communism had no hierarchical social class structures or capital accumulation.[5]

Development of the idea[edit]

The original idea of primitive communism is rooted in ideas of the noble savage through the works of Rousseau[6] and the early anthropology of Morgan and Parker.[7][8][9] 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.[7][10] Engels categorised primitive communist societies into two phases, the "wild" (hunter-gatherer) phase that lacked permanent superstructure and had close relationships with the natural world, and the "barbarian" phase which was structure like the populations ancient Germany[8] beyond the borders of the Roman Empire and the Indigenous peoples of North America before the colonisation by Europeans.[11] 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.[12] 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.[13] 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".[14] Anarchists, including Kropotkin and Reclus, believed that societies that exemplified primitive communism were also examples of anarchist society before industrialisation.[15] With the San people of southern Africa being a basis for Kropotkin's anthropological work on anarchism and gift economies in mutual aid.[16] Little development in the research of "primitive communism" occurred among Marxist scholars beyond Engels' study until the 20th and 21st centuries when Ernest Mandel, Rosa Luxemburg,[17] Ian Hodder, Marija Gimbutas and others took up and developed upon the theses.[18][19][20] Non-Marxist scholars of prehistory and early history, did not take the term seriously, although it was occasionally engaged, but then often dismissed.[21][22] Soviet theorists and anthropologists, such as Sternberg, consider some of the indigenous groups of Siberia and Russian far east (such as the Nivkh) to be primitive communist in nature.[23][24] Soviet scholars, such as the ethnographer Zelenin, looked at non hunter-gather societies within Soviet Union to identify remnants of primitive communism within their societies.[25]

The belief of primitive communism as based on Morgan's work is flawed[8] due to Morgan's misunderstandings of Haudenosaunee society and his, since proven wrong, theory of social evolution.[26][27][28][29][30][31][32] Subsequent more accurate research, has focused on hunter-gather societies and aspects of such societies in relation to land ownership, communal ownership and criminality and justice.[32] A newer definition of primitive communism being societies that practiced economic cooperation among the members of their community,[33][34] where almost every member of a community had their own contribution to society and land and natural resources would often be shared peacefully among the community.

The term primitive communism first appeared in Russian scholarship in the late 19th century, with references to primitive communism existing in ancient Crete.[35]

From the 20th century sociologists and archaeologists have looked at the applying the term of primitive communism to hunter-gatherer societies, as were found in the paleolithic, through to horticultural societies, as found in the Chalcolithic.[36][37] Including Paleo-American societies from the lithic stage through the archaic period.[38] Soviet archaeologists interpreted the paleolithic Venus figures, many of which were found in the Soviet Union in the 1920s and 1930s, as evidence of a primeval communist matriarchy.[39][40] Influenced by Morgan's and Engels' works they viewed the various paleolithic cultures as being primitive communist and matriarchal.[41] The psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich concluded in 1931[42][43] the existence of an early communism from the information in Bronisław Malinowski's work.[44] However, Malinowski and the philosopher Erich Fromm did not consider this conclusion to be compelling.[45] Borneman supported Reich's ideas in his 1975 work Das Patriarchat.[46][47]

Primitive communist societies[edit]


In a primitive communist society, the productive forces would have consisted of all able bodied persons engaged in obtaining food and resources from the land, and everyone would share in what was produced by hunting and gathering.[48] There would be no private property, which is distinguished from personal property[49] 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.[50] The few things that existed for any length of time (the means of production (tools and land), housing) were held communally,[51][52][53][54] in Engels' view in association with matrilocal residence and matrilineal descent[55] and reproductive labour was shared.[56] There would have been no state.[57]

A term usually associated with Karl Marx, but most fully elaborated by Friedrich Engels (in The Origin of the Family, 1884),[7] 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.

Domestication of animals and plants following the Neolithic Revolution through herding and agriculture and the subsequent urban revolution was seen as the turning point from primitive communism to class society as it was followed by private ownership and slavery,[58] with the inequality that they entailed.[43] 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.[52][59]

Egalitarian and communist-like hunter-gatherer societies have been studied and described by many well-known social anthropologists including James Woodburn,[60] Richard Lee,[61] and, more recently, Alan Barnard[62] and Jerome Lewis.[63][64] Anthropologists such as Christopher Boehm,[65] Chris Knight[66] and Jerome Lewis[67] 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."[61][68][69][70]

Papers have argued that the depiction of hunter-gatherers as egalitarian is misleading. According to one paper published in Current Anthropology, 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).[71] This argument is in part supported by Testart and others, who has said that a society without property was not free from problems of exploitations,[72] domination[73] or wars.[74] Marx and Engels, however, did not argue communism brought about equality as according to them equality was a concept without connection in physical reality.[75] Testart does support Engels' observations that societies without surplus are economically egalitarian and conversely that societies with surplus are unequal.[76][77][78]

Arnold Petersen has used the existence of primitive communism to argue against the idea that communism goes against human nature.[79] Hikmet Kıvılcımlı in his The Thesis of History argued that in pre-capitalist societies the main dynamic of historical change "was not class struggle within society but rather the strong collective action" of egalitarian and collectivist values of "primitive socialist society".[80]

Example societies[edit]

Çatalhöyük after the first excavations

Due to the strong evidence of an egalitarian society, lack of hierarchy and lack of economic inequality, historian Murray Bookchin has argued that Çatalhöyük was an early example of anarcho-communism, and so an example of primitive communism in a proto-city.[81] It has also been argued that the Indus Valley Civilisation is an example of a primitive communist society, due to its perceived lack of conflict and social hierarchies.[82] Others argue that such an assessment of the Indus Valley civilisation is not correct.[83][84]

The Marxist archaeologist V. Gordon Childe carried out excavations in Scotland from the 1920s and concluded that there was a neolithic classless society that reached as far as the Orkney Islands.[85][86] This has been supported by Perry Anderson, who has argued that primitive communism was prevalent in pre-Roman western Europe.[87] Descriptions of such societies can also be gleamed through the works of classical authors.[88][50]

Biblical scholars have also argued that the mode of production seen in early Hebrew society was a communitarian domestic one that was akin to primitive communism.[89][90] Meillassoux has also commented how the mode of production seen in many primitive societies is a domestic one.[91]

The Indian communist politician Shripad Amrit Dange considered ancient Indian society to be of a primitive communist nature.[92] Other communists within India have also labelled current indigenous groups, such as the Adivasi, as examples of primitive communism.[93]

Rundale clachan patterns of settlement still visible in Inver, Kilcommon, Erris, County Mayo, Ireland

In Radcliffe-Brown's study of the Andamanese at the beginning of the 20th century he comments that they have "customs which result in an approach to communism" and "their domestic policy may be described as a communism".[94] Alexander Mikhailovich Zolotarev [ru] in his 1960 work on the development of religious cult communities from tribal communities in the Balkans spoke of the primitive communism of the "archaic form of the tribal system".[95] Jensen in the 1980s conducted a historical study of Wolof society in west Africa looking at the development of class antagonisms from a primitive communist society.[96] Also in the 1980s, Bourgeault looked at the forceful transition of indigenous societies in Canada from their traditional structures that were anarchist and communistic in nature into capitalist exploitation due to encroaching imperialism and colonialism.[97][19][98] Such an area of interest has been a common topic of research for many fields beyond just Marxist scholars.[99] Some anthropologists, such as John H. Moore, have continued to argue that societies such as those of Native Americans constitute primitive communist societies, whilst acknowledging and incorporating the research showing the complexity in native American societies.[100][101]

James Connolly believed that "Gaelic primitive communism" existed in remnants in Irish society after much of western Europe "had almost entirely disappeared".[102] The agrarian communes of the rundale system in Ireland have subsequently been assessed using a framework of primitive communism, where the system fits Marx and Engels' definition.[103]


A detail from Benjamin West's heroic, neoclassical history painting, The Death of General Wolfe (1771), depicting an idealized indigenous American. An example of the romanticisation of indigenous and non-Western people.[104]

Criticism of the idea of primitive communism relates to definitions of property, where anthropologists such as Margaret Mead, argue that private property exists in hunter-gatherer and other "primitive societies", but provides examples that Marx and subsequent theorists label as personal property not private property.[105][106] The idea has also been critiqued by other anthropologists for being based on Morgan's evolutionary model of society and for romanticising non‐Western societies.[107]

Western and non-Western Scholars have criticised more generally applying models that are too ethnocentrically European to non-European societies.[108][50] Western scholars, including Leacock, have also criticised the ethnocentric point of view and biases in previous ethnographic research into hunter-gatherer societies.[91] This is also similar to criticism of adhering to stadialism in analysing cultures.[109] Feminist scholars have criticised the idea of the lack of subjugation of women as suggested from the works of Engels.[91][7] While Marxist feminists have been critical of and reassessed Engels ideas and suggestion in The Origin of the Family of the development of women's' subjugation in the transition from primitive communism to class society.[110][101][78][21]

The Marxian economist Ernest Mandel criticised the research of Soviet scholars on primitive communism due to the influence of "Soviet-Marxist ideology" in their social sciences work.[50][111]

Use of the term "primitive"[edit]

"Primitive" in recent anthropological and social studies has begun to fall out of use due to racial stereotypes surrounding the ideas of what "primitive" is.[34][112][113][51][50][114] Due to this the term "primitive communism" may be replaced by terms such as Pre-Marxist communism.[115]

Alain Testart and others have said that anthropologists should be careful when using research on current hunter-gatherer societies to determine the structure of societies in the paleolithic, where viewing current hunter-gatherer communities as "the most ancient of so-called primitive societies" is likely due to appearances and perceptions and does not reflect the progress and development that such societies have undergone in the past 10,000 years.[116]

There have also been Marxist historians criticised for their comments on the "primitivism" and "barbarism" of societies prior to their contact with European empires, such as the comments of Endre Sík. Such views on "primitivism" and "barbarism" also being prevalent in the works of their non-Marxist contemporaries.[117][68][118] As well as criticism and denouncement from Marxist anthropologists against specifically Soviet anthropologists and historians for declaring indigenous communities they were studying for primitive communism as being "degenerate".[50]

See also[edit]


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Historic and original texts[edit]

  • (in French) Paul Lafargue, La propriété, Origine et évolution, Éditions du Sandre, 2007 (1890) (Read online, Marxist Internet Archive)
  • Paul Lafargue, The Evolution of Property from Savagery to Civilization, (1891), (new edition, 1905)
  • (in 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)
  • (in German) Heinrich Eildermann [de]: Urkommunismus und Urreligion: Geschichtsmaterialistisch beleuchtet. Nabu, 2011, ISBN 978-1245831512 (reprint from 1921; Full text on
  • (in German) Karl August Wittfogel: Vom Urkommunismus bis zur proletarischen Revolution. Eine Skizze der Entwicklung der menschlichen Gesellschaft. Part 1: Urkommunismus und Feudalismus. Junge Garde, Berlin 1922.
  • (in Hungarian) István Kertész [hu] Az ősközösség kora és az ókori-keleti társadalmak, IKVA Kiadó, Budapest, 1990
  • 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

Further reading[edit]