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Primitive communism: life before class and oppression

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We are told that competition and division are hard-wired into humanity. But, says Martin Empson, evidence from pre-history points in the opposite direction
Issue 2355
7,000 year old cave painting of women in Algeria
7,000 year old cave painting of women in Algeria

Socialists are fighting for a society that is free of oppression and exploitation. But sometimes we are told that such a society is impossible. Hierarchy and oppression, it is argued, have always existed. 

Karl Marx’s collaborator Frederick Engels argued that this was not true. 

In 1884 he described what human society was like “before class divisions arose”, writing, “Everything runs smoothly without soldiers, gendarmes or police, without nobles, kings, governors, prefects or judges, without prisons, without trials”. 

He went on, “There can be no poor and needy—the communistic household… know their responsibility towards the aged, the sick and those disabled in war… All are free and equal, including the women.”

Engels called this pre-class society “primitive communism”. His description wasn’t entirely accurate. We now know there was little or no war, for instance, in pre-class societies. Yet many of his ideas have stood the test of time.

Human society stretches back a very long way.

Archaeologists have found stone tools that are 2.6 million years old. Homo Sapiens, the species that we commonly refer to as humans, evolved in Africa around 130,000 years ago. To put this in perspective, construction of the Stonehenge monument began about 5,000 years ago.

For most of human history people lived in very small groups, hunting and gathering food. Few archaeological remains have survived, so in order to understand them anthropologists have studied hunter-gatherer communities that have survived into modern times.

Such societies are constantly transformed by their interaction with class society and the modern world. This means they are very different from Engels’ understanding of primitive communism, but many such societies retain many characteristics of the earlier groups.

What they teach us supports his general arguments. 

The most important part of life for hunter-gatherer communities is obtaining food. Both men and women are responsible for doing this and once collected, the food is shared amongst the whole group.

This collective activity is not because humans in these societies are generally nicer, but because this is the only way for the community to survive.

Other social roles, such as childcare, are not the preserve of one sex or the other, rather the group takes a collective responsibility.

A recent study of Semaq Beri hunter-gatherers in Malaysia found that while mothers spent more time with children than fathers there were no differences between the genders when it came to time spent holding and carrying children.

In such societies there may be a division of labour, however, with men taking on much of the hunting and women the gathering. 

This is a response to the problems of social reproduction. Because the community is frequently on the move, it cannot support many young children. 

Pregnant women or those nursing babies avoid the dangers of the hunt in order to protect the next generation. But in many hunter-gatherer societies women do take part in the hunt when not pregnant or nursing.

In other aspects of hunter-gatherer life, such as leadership, there is no division of labour. Both men and women take part in the decision making. 


These societies are not characterised by permanent leaders either. In the 1970s, an anthropologist asked a member of another hunter-gatherer people, the !Kung of Botswana, if they had chiefs. He replied, “Of course we have headmen! In fact, we are all headmen, each one of us is headman over himself.” 

“Leaders” among the !Kung had no real authority. They could persuade, but not enforce their opinions. At different times in hunter-gatherer societies, individuals take on leading roles, but this tends to be temporary, based on their ability at navigation, hunting or similar skills.

Nor are the lives of hunter-gatherers always difficult and short.

The Hadza people are a community of hunter-gatherers who live in northern Tanzania.  A classic study of their lives showed that in times past the Hadza worked on average less than two hours a day collecting food.

And while infant mortality rates are high among hunter-gatherer communities, a child that survives to adulthood is likely to become a grandparent. The age at which most adults die is between 68 and 78.

So for hundreds of thousands of years our ancestors lived lives that were more communal and more equal than today. 

However, at a specific point in human history this changed. This occurred with the rise of class society. The old ways of organising society were transformed. 

Why did humans move from a society of equality and communal living, to one marked by oppression and exploitation? The first answer is that not every­one did.

Some groups like the Hadza remained much as they always had. Others, including some groups of indigenous people in northern America, were destroyed when the land where they existed was “discovered” by more powerful societies.

Still others did develop some hierarchical organisation, but retained much of the social relations of the hunter-gatherers.

The second answer is that the rise of class society was a drawn out process tied up with the development of agriculture.

Conditions for most hunter-gatherers were by no means idyllic. There were many cases in which the availability of food could barely sustain the group. Droughts or floods could cause devastating famines.

In times of crisis, there were only two options if such groups were to be maintained. One was to resort to raiding others for food, so beginning warfare.

The other was to develop more intensive and productive forms of agriculture. There was a premium on technological innovation. This process changed social relations.

Early agriculturalists were slash and burn farmers who moved location every few years, but they were less nomadic than traditional hunter-gatherers. Because of this, and due to  the fact that having more labour increases the benefits from agriculture, women would have more children. 

But the biggest change occurs because agriculture allows the production of far greater amounts of food than hunting and gathering. Farmers can store a surplus of food above what they need each day. 

The most successful at this process of accumulation are able to use the surplus in the collective interest. 

But new cultivation and rearing methods also required greater planning and the freeing of some individuals from a life of relentless backbreaking labour.


Over time some of those who controlled surpluses began to use them for their own interests. For the first time in human history, it was possible for a small section of society to live through the production of others. This marks the beginning of class society. 

An important consequence of this division was the beginning of the systematic oppression of women. 

The social transformation that took place with the development of agriculture was so dramatic that the Marxist archaeologist, V Gordon Childe, called it the Neolithic Revolution. 

It took place over centuries, but it fundamentally transformed human relations.

In early agricultural societies there tended to be a division of labour between men, who looked after the animals or cleared woodland, and women, who grew food. This early farming was done with simple tools. But once the plough was invented, women’s role in food production was sharply reduced. 

Partly this was because of children. Hoeing a small area could be done while keeping an eye on small children, but once the plough was introduced it was more difficult and dangerous to do this. In addition, agricultural societies had higher birth rates so women were pregnant more often.

Even today this is noticeable in countries like Burundi where farming is based on the hoe and women make up 90 percent of the agricultural workforce. By contrast, in Pakistan, where the plough dominates, only 16 percent of agricultural workers are women. 

The social impact of this is so dramatic, that it is felt even outside agriculture.

An extensive 2011 study concluded that societies which traditionally used the plough have “lower rates of female participation in the workplace, in politics… as well as a greater prevalence of attitudes favouring gender inequality”.

In hunter-gatherer and early agricultural societies, women were central to the production of food. As agriculture developed they were increasingly excluded from production. 

In societies that did not develop the plough, women often lost out because they were excluded from other aspects of production—such as the building of irrigation works.

They tended to take on work in the family home, bringing up children and cooking. Male children, the farmers of the future, became more important so land was passed down the male side of the family. 

The subordinate role of women became entrenched both socially and legally, amounting to what Engels termed, “the world historic defeat of the female sex”.

Since the end of “primitive communism” humans have lived in many different forms of class society. 

Because we know that in the past humans lived without oppression and exploitation, we know the barriers to this happening again are not because of human nature, but are social.

Read more
  • The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884), £14.99
    Friedrich Engels
    Influential critique of the Victorian nuclear family. Engels argued that the traditional monogamous household was in fact a recent construct, closely bound up with capitalist societies.
  • A People’s History of the World (2008), £12.99
    Chris Harman
    A breathtaking sweep across the centuries that places ordinary people at the centre of change

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