Tuesday, 17 March 2009

‘A Worker Reads History’

Who built the seven gates of Thebes?
The books are filled with names of kings.
Was it the kings who hauled the craggy blocks of stone?
And Babylon, so many times destroyed.
Who built the city up each time? In which of Lima’s houses,
That city glittering with gold, lived those who built it?
In the evening when the Chinese wall was finished
Where did the masons go? Imperial Rome
Is full of arcs of triumph. Who reared them up? Over whom
Did the Caesars triumph? Byzantium lives in song.
Were all her dwellings palaces? And even in Atlantis of the legend
The night the seas rushed in,
The drowning men still bellowed for their slaves.

Young Alexander conquered India.
He alone?
Caesar beat the Gauls.
Was there not even a cook in his army?
Phillip of Spain wept as his fleet
was sunk and destroyed. Were there no other tears?
Frederick the Greek triumphed in the Seven Years War.
Who triumphed with him?

Each page a victory
At whose expense the victory ball?
Every ten years a great man,
Who paid the piper?

So many particulars.
So many questions.

Bertolt Brecht

Originally entitled ‘Fragen eines lesenden Arbeiters’ — you can read the German original here.

Monday, 16 March 2009

Class society

With the Neolithic Revolution, humanity finally began to produce more food than was necessary to merely subsist. The existence of a surplus had many consequences, not the least a struggle over who would control it. Would these new riches be shared out equally, or would they be appropriated by some at the expense of others? The material basis had been laid for the division of society into classes, which would mean a profound change in the social role of art.

This pattern developed in various forms across history — slave and owner in the ancient world, serf and lord under feudalism, and proletarian and capitalist in the modern age. What each form of class society has in common is a ruling class that appropriates the majority of society’s wealth and a labouring majority that creates, but does not control, that wealth.

A class is a group of people who share the same relationship to the mode of production. Marx explained:

In the process of production, human beings work not only upon nature, but also upon one another. They produce only by working together in a specified manner and reciprocally exchanging their activities. In order to produce, they enter into definite connections and relations to one another, and only within these social connections and relations does their influence upon nature operate — i.e., does production take place.

These social relations between the producers, and the conditions under which they exchange their activities and share in the total act of production, will naturally vary according to the character of the means of production.[1]

The ‘character of the means of production’ in early civilisation was based upon the system of ancient communal ownership, accompanied to varying extents by slavery. Typically, the principal classes were a ruling aristocracy and priesthood, a mass of workers of varying kinds, and slaves. These formed a hierarchy of power ranging upwards from people who were literally the possessions of others to despots boasting kinship with the gods.

The transition to class society

As we have said before, prehistoric society was probably egalitarian. There wasn’t enough food for some members of the tribe to hoard any at others’ expense, and every person’s contribution will have been important. There was therefore little social basis for one group of people to exert power over another or for inequality in the distribution of resources. These observations receive some support by the prevalence of egalitarianism in surviving hunter-gatherer societies.

Although Paleolithic humans had the skills and technology to put our species on a secure footing, we did not yet have the social surplus necessary for society to be able to divide into classes. The only division was according to sex, where men hunted big game and women foraged and raised children; this was based upon the difficulty for women bearing children of participating in a hunt. But it seems unlikely that this brought with it conceptions of one sex’s work being more important than another’s, as happened later. Land and tools were held in common. Engels wrote that the gentile chief “stands in the midst of society” (The Origin of the Family). The hunter-gatherer mode of production therefore was a pre-class society.

This is not to say that no differentiation of rank or status existed — the bodies found at Sungir, with their burial objects and masses of beads, imply a certain special status. Archaeologists sometimes use the term ‘chiefdom’ in referring to such ranked societies. But the existence of a hierarchy of status is not the same as division into classes based upon unequal ownership of the means of production. A person in pre-class society could be highly respected without them claiming any disproportionate control over that society’s resources, and would have lived in the same relationship to the mode of production as the rest of the tribe.

Rock art by San bushmen, north of Mossel Bay in South Africa. Prehistoric art tends to depict humans as a collective, without special status being accorded to dominant individuals. Photo: Andrew Moir.

Early settlements like Çatalhöyük are often striking for the absence of large homes set apart from the rest, or of evidence for significant differentiation in how wealth was shared. Settlements were based upon households, often with shared kinship, in which all members had obligations to the others and in which neither sex was dominant over the other. This was not because of any innate moral goodness but a necessity — the group needed to support all its component parts if it was to succeed.

This changed when the Neolithic Revolution was succeeded by the Urban. The possibility of some people controlling more resources was not of course enough. It took a few thousand years before the innovations of the Neolithic could produce mature class society.

How then did the rise of classes occur?

Agricultural society, with its larger populations, introduced many new problems. There would be disputes over marriages, or land, which in settled society could no longer be resolved simply by one group moving away. Rising populations put pressure upon supplies of food and housing. Inequalities in wealth led to the novel problem of thieving. And there were military threats from other societies. Such considerations made it necessary to develop a new level of social organisation and leadership, with more formalised structures.

A new layer of specialists therefore arose to solve the new problems of cultivator society. These administrators settled disputes, exacted payments, approved public projects, distributed the surplus, and so on, and originally operated as a kind of council of elders. In Sumeria, during times of war a lugal or ‘big man’ would be appointed with special powers. In the beginning this was a useful social development that would help a more complex society to function, and the ‘chieftains’ were still not differentiated enough to form a privileged class.

Over time these specialists perfected their skills, taking centralised control of public finances and of the military; their successes in war won them particular prestige, and resources with which to reward followers. The ‘big men’ gradually extended their power to the point of appointing their own successors and thus creating dynasties. They had become kings.

The storehouses of the surplus, always the principal focus of the community, became centres of power, its administrators figures of prestige raised above the common people. This was the origin of the priesthood, whose temples were the largest buildings in early cities, and who stood to gain a great deal by providing the ‘big man’ with religious legimitisation. As the surplus product of society increased, so did the power of the ‘big men’ relative to other members of society. Jared Diamond wrote:

Once food can be stockpiled, a political elite can gain control of food produced by others, assert the right of taxation, escape the need to feed itself, and engage full-time in political activities. Hence moderate-sized agricultural societies are often organised in chiefdoms, and kingdoms are confined to large agricultural societies.[2]

Thus we see the creation of a ruling class.

In this way, after a few thousand years the seeds sown by the Neolithic Revolution grew to maturity, and class society made its first appearance — roughly coinciding with ‘history’. In ancient Sumer there was a word for ‘slave girl’ by 3000 BCE. In the Babylonian civilisation, society seems to have been divided into three classes: the amelu, or government officials, priests and soldiers at the top of the hierarchy; the mushkinu who were merchants, teachers, shopkeepers, artisans and labourers; and a bottom layer of slaves.[3]

As for the power of the priesthood, Gordon Childe cites a telling decree from the Sumerian city of Lagash:

Favoured priests practised various forms of extortion (overcharging for burials, for instance) and treated the god’s (i.e. the community’s) land equipment and servants as their own private property and personal slaves. Then ‘the high priest came into the garden of the poor... and took wood therefrom.’ ‘If a great man’s house adjoined that of an ordinary citizen,’ the former might annex the humble dwelling without paying any proper compensation to its owner… This text gives us an unmissable glimpse of a real conflict of classes.

The surplus produced by the new economy was, in fact, concentrated in the hands of a relatively small class.[4]

Needless to say, this meant a considerable gulf in living standards between the aristocracy and the common people. For example, Diamond observed:

Only in a farming population could a healthy, non-producing elite set itself above the disease-ridden masses. Skeletons from Greek tombs at Mycenae circa 1500 B.C. suggest that royals enjoyed a better diet than commoners, since the royal skeletons were two or three inches taller and had better teeth (on the average, one instead of six cavities or missing teeth). Among Chilean mummies from circa A.D. 1000, the elite were distinguished not only by ornaments and gold hair clips but also by a fourfold lower rate of bone lesions caused by disease.[5]

Class society was not an inevitable outcome of the Neolithic Revolution — Diamond cites the example of Papua Guinea, which discovered agriculture in around 7000 BCE but preserved an egalitarian social system until the arrival of Europeans. Every society proceeds according to its own conditions, resulting in a rich range of outcomes. This does not mean however that broad patterns are not clear.

Increasingly, society was based upon exploitation. A labouring majority produced a social surplus which was then appropriated by a minority. In order to protect this process, the ruling class had to introduce the novel concept that some members of a society had a right to accumulate wealth even if it meant hardship for others, and that some members of society ought to work for the benefit of a leisured few. This did not necessarily mean the institution of private property — in early civilisation it was sufficient to control the surplus extracted by the workers from communal property. Where the old chieftain system still obliged those with authority to use it for the common good, the aristocracies of the early civilisations preserved the illusion of acting in the common interest while enriching themselves. New rules had to be introduced to enshrine the right of an elite to control a disproportionate amount of society’s wealth, laying the basis for legal systems and requiring ‘special bodies of armed men’ to enforce them. The social order of prehistory was truly broken, and embarked upon an era of kings, pharaohs and emperors.

The evidence for the existence of class society is so strong that it is uncontroversial among anthropologists and archaeologists [6]. Renfrew and Bahn for example observe of early state societies: “Society no longer depends totally upon kin relationships: it is now stratified into different classes.”[7] Or Bruce Trigger: “‘Early civilisation’ may thus be summarily defined as the earliest and simplest form of class-based society... Power was based primarily on the control of agricultural surpluses, which the upper classes extracted in various ways from the rest of the population.”[8]

If it seems extraordinary that one section of the population would allow itself to be treated in this way, we must remember that these developments were gradual and grew out of the social conditions of the times. Labourers did not wake up one morning and suddenly find themselves the victims of exploitation: class society grew out of a genuine and necessary reorganisation of social relations that kept early communities functioning. The priests who governed the surplus were supposedly providing a service for the social good, and the more society prospered the more the labouring masses, already afraid of famine, flood and wars, felt awe and a sense of debt. The ruling class ‘guaranteed’ the population against both natural and human-made calamities, a point repeatedly struck home by elaborate religious rituals and grandiose works of art.

The Indus Valley civilisation: a classless society?

The civilisation that appeared around 2600 BCE in the Indus Valley in modern-day Pakistan, whose major cities were Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro, poses us with a historical puzzle. This sophisticated culture had high quality urban planning, and built public buildings, baths, city walls and advanced sanitation. Yet at the same time, the culture’s rulers are, in Colin Renfrew’s words, ‘self-effacing’ [9]: there is no evidence of elite burials or palaces, there are no large scale temples, and political and class divisions remain obscure. The Indus Valley culture achieved a high quality of art without the overt ‘iconography of power’ associated with other advanced societies of the time. This does not necessarily mean that class society did not exist, but we do not have the same material evidence as elsewhere.

Childe however noted:

Well-planned streets and a magnificent system of drains, regularly cleared out, reflect the vigilance of some municipal government. Its authority was strong enough to secure the observance of town-planning bye-laws and the maintenance of the approved lines for streets over several reconstructions rendered necessary by floods.[10]

Renfrew goes on, ‘Clearly, there are different kinds of power, and power is attained in different ways.’ It is extremely improbable that the Indus Valley culture had developed urban civilisation without also developing class society, but its precise social structure remains open until archaeology can provide us with new answers.

The contradictions of progress

The consequence of class society for artists was a change in their social role. Whereas Stone Age art served the entire community, artists now owed service to the god-king, and their work had to help immortalise him in paint and stone. The most astonishing artistic achievements of early civilisation — the pyramids and ziggurats, the colossal statues, the gorgeous palaces and temples — are dedicated to the kings who embodied the ruling class, and to gods whom those kings used for legitimisation.

Should we see these works as a grotesque waste of human resources? In one sense they certainly were: the Pyramids, for example, are burial mounds dedicated to an afterlife that simply does not exist. Nonetheless they provided a livelihood for probably several thousand workers, and left us with some of the most awe-inspiring wonders of human labour. It may indeed have been preferable for such wonders to have expressed the will of the common people, and been directed by them, but there is little point in condemning now-extinct conditions, or dreaming about a course of events that could never have taken place. It is better to admire the works that resulted from the definite social conditions of the era as remarkable human and social achievements — the Pharaohs would not personally have lifted a finger to construct the tombs that were to receive them — and concentrate upon changing one’s own time.

Civilisation proved to be a mixed blessing. While the benefits of a secure food surplus are self-evident, there was a price to pay in leaving primitive communism behind, as pointed out by Engels:

The power of this primitive community had to be broken, and it was broken. But it was broken by influences which from the very start appear as a degradation, a fall from the simple moral greatness of the old gentile society. The lowest interests — base greed, brutal appetites, sordid avarice, selfish robbery of the common wealth — inaugurate the new, civilised, class society. It is by the vilest means — theft, violence, fraud, treason — that the old classless gentile society is undermined and overthrown. And the new society itself, during all the two and a half thousand years of its existence, has never been anything else but the development of the small minority at the expense of the great exploited and oppressed majority; today it is so more than ever before.[11]

The concept of dividing resources unequally on the basis of birth seems to fair-minded people a repugnant invention. But the existence of specialists was hugely progressive. It enabled huge advances in production and in the accumulation of human knowledge. It is to class society that we owe the relative material luxury — in advanced countries, even the working class is vastly better off than our Neolithic predecessors — in which millions of people live today.

It is because productive forces have grown to the point where everyone in the world could lead a life of comfort and dignity, but is being hindered by private ownership of the means of production, that Marxists struggle to bring about the next great stage in human history that will eventually bring classes to an end. For there is nothing that even the most powerful potentate, ancient or modern, can do to escape from history: no culture, no class, no mode of production, is immune from the transitory nature of human society. However immense the tombs and images the ruling class ordered to be built in its name, the search for immortality would always be futile — an irony summed up by Shelley in his famous poem Ozymandias:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

[1] Karl Marx, Wage Labour and Capital (1847).
[2] Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel (1998).
[3] According to the Code of Hammurabi.
[4] V. Gordon Childe, What Happened in History (1942).
[5] Jared Diamond, The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race (first published in Discover magazine, 1987).
[6] The existence of class society is uncontroversial — the existence of class struggle is less so. Marx’s materialist conception of history may in general co-exist peacefully with bourgeois science until it applies itself to capitalism, whereupon those who identify with the bourgeoisie find the logic of materialism suddenly disagreeable.
[7] Colin Renfrew and Paul Bahn, Archaeology: Theory, Method and Practice (5th ed., 2008).
[8] Bruce Trigger, Understanding Early Civilisations (2003).
[9] Colin Renfrew, Prehistory: The Making of the Human Mind (2007).
[10] V. Gordon Childe, What Happened in History (1942).
[11] Engels, close of Chapter 3, ‘The Iroquois Gens’, of The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884).

Sunday, 8 March 2009

Engels on the origin of civilisation

Until the work of Gordon Childe, the only significant Marxist writing on the development of early civilisation was Engels’ book The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. First published in 1884 and updated by Engels in 1891 to allow for new scholarship, this work was remarkable for its time, and a blog on Marxism cannot examine early society without reference to it. So before we take a look at the art of early civilisation, it is useful to pause for a brief assessment of whether Origin is still useful for us today.[1]

Marx and Engels made significant contributions to the theory of how the earliest human societies evolved. For Origin, Engels took as a starting point Marx’s critical notes on the work of the American anthropologist Lewis H. Morgan. Morgan was an American anthropologist, influenced by Darwinism, with a particular interest in the social forms of Native American societies. His great work of 1877, Ancient Society, finds the roots of social change in successive stages of material and technological change, and thus, in Engels’ view, stumbled upon the materialist conception of history. Morgan asserted, for example:

Mankind are the only beings who may be said to have gained an absolute control over the production of food… It is accordingly probable that the great epochs of human progress have been identified, more or less directly, with the enlargement of the sources of subsistence.[2]

Engels did considerable additional research into history and ethnography, drawing Morgan’s research into a clearer dialectical materialist framework to create what Lenin called “one of the fundamental works of modern socialism.”[3] In the same sentence, Lenin added: “every sentence of which can be accepted with confidence.” Whether he was right is a question we shall explore here.

The origins and character of early society

In Origin, Engels studies prehistoric society, its historical development, and the advent of class society. Borrowing directly from Morgan, he proposed a progression from hunter-gatherer ‘savagery’, to agricultural ‘barbarism’ and then to ‘civilisation’:

Savagery — the period in which man’s appropriation of products in their natural state predominates; the products of human art are chiefly instruments which assist this appropriation.

Barbarism — the period during which man learns to breed domestic animals and to practice agriculture, and acquires methods of increasing the supply of natural products by human activity.

Civilisation — the period in which man learns a more advanced application of work to the products of nature, the period of industry proper and of art.[4]

These stages of development broadly coincide with periods familiar to us under other names. ‘Savagery’ refers to the Paleolithic, from the origins of humans, through the creation of tools to the discovery of the bow and arrow and canoe. In its later stage we see the beginnings of Neolithic technology. The main feature of ‘Barbarism’ is agriculture and the domestication of animals, with the characteristic advances of the Neolithic such as the growth of towns; Engels anticipates Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel by a hundred years when he points out that the availability of domesticable animals and cultivable cereals was to determine the futures of continents. For Engels it is in the late stage of ‘Barbarism’, with the discovery of writing, iron, chariots, walled towns, etc, that human society begins the transition to ‘Civilisation’. Engels thus extended ‘Barbarism’ to include the archaic Greece of Homer, the pre-Roman Italian tribes and “the Normans in the days of the Vikings”.

Engels also describes the development of social organisation, beginning with a series of systems based on the gens, or “the form of kinship organisation which prides itself on its common descent... and is bound together by social and religious institutions into a distinct community.”[5] An early ‘consanguine’ family group which contained no sexual barriers between its members gave way to the ‘punaluan’ family that barred sex between siblings, and these group families in turn gave way to pair-bonding and monogamy. These early societies were egalitarian. Until the advent of class society, a ‘primitive communism’ was practised — Engels never actually uses the term, but does refer to ‘communistic’ organisation [6]. Women were valued as highly as men, and descent was matrilineal, i.e. because of the loose character of marriage, ancestry was traced through the female line, as only the mother’s parentage was certain. Disputes were settled by gatherings, land and goods were held in common, every privilege also carried a duty, and there were no classes and no state.

This (Marxist) view that Stone Age society was egalitarian, and that the creation of a surplus allowed specialists and the appearance of class society, is now widely accepted in the scientific community.[7] For example, in a bestselling textbook Colin Renfrew and Paul Bahn describe the first farming societies as “small, independent sedentary communities without any strongly centralised organisation. They seem in the main to have been relatively egalitarian communities.”[8]

In time, however, organisation according to family forms was superceded by new conditions that arose out of increases in productivity. Private property, the division of labour, the mingling of many different peoples in towns, division into classes and the advent of slavery led to the rise of a state with which the gens was incompatible, and kinship as a predominant form of social organisation came to an end. The rise in productivity also made the part of the economy for which men were responsible disproportionately important, leading to the overthrow of matrilineal descent and sexual equality, and to a domination by men that is still with us.

With this scheme, Engels clarifies and refines the one outlined in The German Ideology forty years earlier. In that work, Marx and Engels had written:

The first form of ownership is tribal ownership. It corresponds to the undeveloped stage of production, at which a people lives by hunting and fishing, by the rearing of beasts or, in the highest stage, agriculture. In the latter case it presupposes a great mass of uncultivated stretches of land. The division of labour is at this stage still very elementary and is confined to a further extension of the natural division of labour existing in the family. The social structure is, therefore, limited to an extension of the family; patriarchal family chieftains, below them the members of the tribe, finally slaves. The slavery latent in the family only develops gradually with the increase of population, the growth of wants, and with the extension of external relations, both of war and of barter.

The second form is the ancient communal and state ownership which proceeds especially from the union of several tribes into a city by agreement or by conquest, and which is still accompanied by slavery. Beside communal ownership we already find movable, and later also immovable, private property developing, but as an abnormal form subordinate to communal ownership. The citizens hold power over their labouring slaves only in their community, and on this account alone, therefore, they are bound to the form of communal ownership... The division of labour is already more developed. We already find the antagonism of town and country; later the antagonism between those states which represent town interests and those which represent country interests, and inside the towns themselves the antagonism between industry and maritime commerce. The class relation between citizens and slaves is now completely developed.[9]

Paleolithic and Neolithic society is here described as practising a system of ‘tribal ownership’, now better known as primitive communism, succeeded by an urbanised form of ownership, which unified peoples under a state that practised slavery. It is highly unlikely that slaves existed in ‘tribal ownership’, as Marx and Engels here claimed, and the role of slavery in ancient society has its own complexities. The second form of ‘communal and state ownership’ endured through the Greek and Roman empires until its collapse through external pressure and internal exhaustion led to its replacement with feudalism. The discussion of ‘tribal ownership’ in Marx’s work is very brief compared to the great detail with which, necessarily, he wrote about capitalism. Morgan’s research provided a wealth of information that enabled Engels to expand upon the Marxist analysis of that period.

The scheme set out by Engels in Origin, classifying the Neolithic era along with early civilisation including the Greeks, diverges from that of Childe, who suggested a break between the Neolithic and an ‘Urban Revolution’ connected with the rise of the first cities. But such schemes are, of course, an abstraction, and this disagreement is more about where one draws historical lines than about the course of history. The achievement of Morgan and Engels — and of course Marx — was to identify distinct stages of development in human society, from hunting and gathering to agriculture and then to urban, literate civilisation, and to recognise that these stages depended in the main upon the developing forces of production.


Engels’ book does not survive unscathed from a hundred years of advance in anthropology and other social sciences.

Firstly his use of terms such as ‘savagery’ (Wildheit) and ‘barbarism’ (Barbarei) reflect the bourgeois prejudices of his time (prejudices also apparent in his phrase “the perversion of boy-love”). They have negative, even racist connotations, which is why they have died out. This is however a superficial flaw, in that it is merely a matter of Engels’ choice of words — his arguments are anti-racist because they argue that human development is governed by history, not racial characteristics. In the nineteenth century, ‘savagery’ was widely used as a label for describing the hunter-gatherer mode of production. Studies of surviving hunter-gatherer societies suggest his conception that prehistoric society had an egalitarian distribution of wealth and no formal leadership was probably correct, as such societies do not have the material basis for anyone to lord it over others.

Another problem comes when Engels assumes in his preface to the first edition that ‘the determining factor in history’ is ‘the production and reproduction of the immediate essentials of life’, which has a twofold character:

On the one side, the production of the means of existence...; on the other side, the production of human beings themselves, the propagation of the species. The social organisation under which the people of a particular historical epoch and a particular country live is determined by both kinds of production: by the stage of development of labour on the one hand and of the family on the other.

The family cannot be considered of equal importance to labour. Engels himself recognised the primacy of labour in the unfinished article The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man, as we have discussed. Also it is likely that the relationships within kinship groups were less important than Engels claimed, writing as he did with very little data about hunter-gatherer society. In that egalitarian stage of society, people had more freedom to move from one group to another, and a strong tendency to cooperation would make family distinctions relatively unimportant. Surviving hunter-gatherer peoples do not organise themselves into strict family units — although we must always remember that ethnographic parallels can be misleading. Morgan drew conclusions from the practice of hunter-gatherer societies removed by many generations from prehistory, and it would be wrong to suppose that such societies have been in stasis ever since.

In addition, the American anthropologist Eleanor Leacock commented:

The assumption upon which [Morgan’s] theory was based, that kin terms represent actual or possible biological relationships, has been superceded by the understanding that the literal biological meaning of terms are often secondary to their social implications.[10]

This is not to say that kinship, or ‘lineage’, is not important to prehistoric or surviving hunter-gatherer peoples. It is rather that Engels accepts a number of Morgan’s assumptions — such as the existence of the ‘consanguine’ family — that we simply cannot make about the social organisation of distant peoples for whom there is such an incomplete record.

We may make a similar point regarding Engels’ belief that matrilinearity was general among primitive peoples. In reality, the absence of written records means that we cannot say this for certain.

Another failing inherited from Morgan is the inadequate discussion of the states of non-European peoples. Engels’ only example of a transition from kinship organisation to the state is ancient Athens, making no reference to the history of class society between the rise of city states in Mesopotamia around 5000 BCE and Greece 4500 years later. By leaping over a few millennia of development, Engels makes the rise of the state appear a Greek creation and so gives a very incomplete picture.

The jump to Greece and Rome leads to an over-emphasis of the role of slavery. The importance of slavery in the earliest phase of class society is disputed. Although slavery existed already in Sumer, it probably wasn’t a decisive part of the mode of production until Greece and Rome. In earlier societies it would have existed side by side with various forms of state and communal ownership where the main class division was between the aristocracy and the peasantry, i.e. nearer to Marx’s so-called ‘Asiatic’ mode of production.

Where the pattern of development of class society is concerned, although wrong on several details — such as not recognising that domestication of plants and animals arose concurrently — Engels is broadly correct. Nonetheless it is essential to point out that the stages of development he describes are broad patterns and, in every time and place, will have worked through into their own specific, often divergent and contradictory, forms. Primitive communism will not have looked the same everywhere — there were as many versions as there were societies, displaying all the diversity of human life.

One of the serious charges laid against the Marxist theory of history is that it seeks to slot historical periods into stages, in an inevitable and unilinear sequence; Marxists then have to make evidence fit a pre-determined scheme. This was true in the case of Soviet archaeology from Stalin onwards, which looked to Origin in particular to justify a schematic approach. In an essay on dialectical materialism, Stalin listed the modes of production and concluded, “if the passing of slow quantitative changes into rapid and abrupt qualitative changes is a law of development, then it is clear that revolutions made by oppressed classes are a quite natural and inevitable phenomenon’ (my italics) [11].

It is important to point out that such ‘inevitablist’ and unilinear schemes are the simplistic product of a bureaucracy, and diverge greatly from the dialectical method of Marxism. Engels lays out a series of stages for the development of society, but it is common practice in archaeology and anthropology to recognise such stages. Engels does not apply them in a rigid fashion and nor should anyone else. Good Marxism is always scientific: evidence from the real world must come first, and theory is only valuable insofar as it is backed up by such evidence. Marx himself advised how to read the periodisation of history:

Viewed apart from real history, these abstractions have in themselves no value whatsoever. They can only serve to facilitate the arrangement of historical material, to indicate the sequence of its separate strata. But they by no means afford a recipe or schema, as does philosophy, for neatly trimming the epochs of history. On the contrary, our difficulties begin only when we set about the observation and the arrangement — the real depiction — of our historical material, whether of a past epoch or of the present. The removal of these difficulties is governed by premises which it is quite impossible to state here, but which only the study of the actual life-process and the activity of the individuals of each epoch will make evident.[12]

As always, when we return to Marx and Engels we find not a reductive system but a complex and highly mediated view of history that retains its power to this day.


The reality of development across so many prehistoric and ancient societies is hugely more complex than can be shown in Marx and Engels’ brief account in The German Ideology, or the still relatively brief Origin, especially on the basis of the limited data of the nineteenth century. We are today much better informed, but we too must struggle with incomplete evidence, and our picture of early society is continually being revised by new discoveries.

Certain lessons need to be learnt. The materialist conception of history disproves the idiocies of racism, which hold that certain peoples are superior to others and are destined to rule; it also kills the idealist myth that human society sprang into existence perfectly formed, or that the state has always existed. The great mass of archaeological and historical evidence shows that social forms — even those such as the family and sexual ‘couple’ that seem so innate to us — are based upon material development and are therefore ultimately transitory. The sex drive is innate, but the social forms through which it is expressed are not. This is why modern sociobiology is reductive — concepts such as Richard Dawkins’ ‘selfish gene’ attempt to explain by genetics alone a set of behaviours that cannot be divorced from their social context.

This reminds us that the sciences do not exist in a climate of perfect objectivity. As Leacock wrote:

Social science has always been vexed by the political implications of one or another theory, and evolutionary assumptions have always aroused subjective and ambivalent responses… Engels sharpened the implications of the comparison Morgan drew between primitive communal and class society, using it as an argument for socialism. Therefore, both Morgan’s and Engels’ work have had chequered careers.[13]

Leacock points out that many attempts were made to discredit their work by claiming, for example, that the state had always existed, or that primitive communism never happened. It is quite usual for Origin, which is one of the most important works of nineteenth-century anthropology, to be completely ignored by academics. The dangerous (for the bourgeoisie) political implications of dialectical materialism lead many to turn their backs on it and pursue a narrower, more reductive science.

Was Lenin right to say we could accept every word of Origin with confidence? As he turns out, he wasn’t, but then the anthropological research available to Engels was slim compared to today. As with his dialectical treatment of evolution in The Part Played by Labour, Engels was at the cutting edge of anthropology in his time, and remains more advanced in his views even than many contemporary writers. Few works of the 1880s and 1890s are still able to excite scientific debate, yet although some of Engels’ data has become superceded, it would be wrong to miss the wood because of concern about some of the trees. This work’s broad historical pattern and materialist method remain valid to this day.


[1] One of Engels’ most important achievements in the book is his explanation of the social inferiority of women to men. I will post a dedicated article on this topic and for that reason won’t deal with it here.
[2] Morgan, from Chapter 2 of Ancient Society (1877). Despite his materialist conception, Morgan was not a Marxist but a liberal with illusions about bourgeois democracy.
[3] Lenin, The State — A Lecture Delivered at the Sverdlov University (1919).
[4] Engels, from the end of Chapter 1 of The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884). Morgan, and therefore Engels, divided each of these into three further stages, which one can read about in detail in the original texts.
[5] See Engels, op. cit., Chapter 3 ‘The Iroquois Gens’.
[6] The term was however current in Engels’ own time. It was used for example by Paul Lafargue in The Evolution of Property from Savagery to Civilisation (1890).
[7] An exception to this is the view that complex societies may predate agriculture, as suggested for example by the temple complex at Göbekli Tepe in Turkey. Even if some hunter-gatherer societies proved able to build structures previously only associated with cultivators, it is unprofitable to isolate these examples from the general pattern of history.
[8] Colin Renfrew and Paul Bahn, Archaeology: Theories, Methods and Practice (5th ed 2008).
[9] Marx and Engels, Chapter 1 section A, ‘First Premises of the Materialist Method’ from The German Ideology (1845–6).
[10] Eleanor Leacock, introduction (1972) to Engels’ The Origin of the Family.
[11] Stalin, Dialectical and Historical Materialism (1938). I do not recommend Stalin’s writings to anyone interested in understanding Marxism.
[12] Marx and Engels, from Part One of The German Ideology (1845).
[13] Ibid.