Primitive Communism or Primitive Property Rights?
The Origin [The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State by Karl Marx] is like Yuval Noah Harari’s blockbuster Sapiens (2014) but written by a 19th-century socialist: a sweeping take on the dawn of property, patriarchy, monogamy and materialism. Like many of its contemporaries, it arranged societies on an evolutionary ladder from savagery to barbarism to civilisation. Although wrong in most ways, The Origin was described by a recent historian as ‘among the more important and politically applicable texts in the Marxist canon’, shaping everything from feminist ideology to the divorce policies of Maoist China.
Of the text’s legacies, the most popular is primitive communism. The idea goes like this. Once upon a time, private property was unknown. Food went to those in need. Everyone was cared for. Then agriculture arose and, with it, ownership over land, labour and wild resources. The organic community splintered under the weight of competition. The story predates Marx and Engels. The patron saint of capitalism, Adam Smith, proposed something similar, as did the 19th-century American anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan. Even ancient Buddhist texts described a pre-state society free of property. But The Origin is the idea’s most important codification. It argued for primitive communism, circulated it widely, and welded it to Marxist principles.
This is from Manvir Singh, “Primitive communism,” Aeon, April 19, 2022.
The problem is, according to Singh, that primitive communism was largely wrong:
Compared with the Aché, many mobile, band-living foragers lay closer to the private end of the property continuum. Agta hunters in the Philippines set aside meat to trade with farmers. Meat brought in by a solitary Efe hunter in Central Africa was ‘entirely his to allocate’. And among the Sirionó, an Amazonian people who speak a language closely related to the Aché, people could do little about food-hoarding ‘except to go out and look for their own’. Aché sharing might embody primitive communism. Yet, [Kim] Hill admits, ‘the Aché are probably the extreme case.’
More important than its simplicity and narrative resonance, however, is primitive communism’s political expediency. For anyone hoping to critique existing institutions, primitive communism conveniently casts modern society as a perversion of a more prosocial human nature. Yet this storytelling is counterproductive. By drawing a contrast between an angelic past and our greedy present, primitive communism blinds us to the true determinants of trust, freedom and equity. If we want to build better societies, the way forward is neither to live as hunter-gatherers nor to bang the drum of a make-believe state of nature. Rather, it is to work with humans as they are, warts and all.
HT2 to the excellent Cyril Morong, who also writes that the above article reminded him of the following passage about the Kwakiutl from Ruth Benedict’s book Patterns of Culture:
The tribes of the North-West Coast had great possessions, and these possessions were strictly owned. They were property in the sense of heirlooms, but heirlooms, with them, were the very basis of society. There were two classes of possessions. The land and sea were owned by a group of relatives in common and passed down to all its members. There were no cultivated fields, but the relationship group owned hunting territories, and even wild-berrying and wild-root territories, and no one could trespass upon the property of the family. The family owned fishing territories just as strictly. A local group often had to go great distances to those strips of the shore where they could dig clams, and the shore near their village might be owned by another lineage. These grounds had been held as property so long that the village-sites had changed, but not the ownership of the clam-beds. Not only the shore, but even deep-sea areas were strict property. For halibut fishing the area belonging to a given family was bounded by sighting along double landmarks. The rivers, also, were divided up into owned sections for the candlefish hauls in the spring, and families came from great distances to fish their own section of the river.