Skip to Content

Editorial: What it Means to be Human

Socialists argue that the current way of organising society is not the best one. This naturally means that we are interested in alternative forms of social system. We propose a classless society based on common ownership, and we present arguments to support the view that such a system (socialism) is both realistic and preferable. There are plenty of other suggestions along similar lines, such as the science fiction writer Ursula Le Guin’s novel The Dispossessed, with its depiction of a radically egalitarian and non-hierarchical world.

Various disciplines deal with different types of social organisation: politics, economics, history, sociology. But perhaps the widest-ranging is anthropology, which has been defined as ‘the study of humankind – of ancient and modern people and their ways of living’ (Marvin Harris). Which makes it a pretty comprehensive science, covering everything from biological evolution and the spread of homo sapiens around the earth to language and the development of art and religion, and much more besides. Incidentally, Le Guin’s parents were both anthropologists.

This issue contains a number of articles on anthropology, designed to explore the socialist case by discussing various forms of society, how they came into being, just how people live in such societies and whether they have anything to teach us nowadays. Are some of these alternatives just primitive set-ups that are appropriate for technologically-simple people living in small bands who survive by hunting animals and foraging for fruit and vegetables, or do they show that other systems are viable ways for people to organise themselves?

Forty years ago Marshall Sahlins published a book Stone Age Economics that began with a chapter entitled ‘The original affluent society’. Against the prevalent view that life was hard for hunter-gatherers, he argued that their wants were easily satisfied, since they desired little. Free from the influences of markets, advertising and pressures to consume, they ‘lived in a kind of material plenty’ and worked just a few hours a day. Dan Everett writes of the Pirahã, hunter-gatherers who still live in Brazil, that they ‘show no evidence of depression, chronic fatigue, extreme anxiety, panic attacks, or other psychological ailments common in many industrialized societies’.

It is clear, then, that alternatives to a system based on wage labour and capital are perfectly possible. It is not just a matter of how people get their means of subsistence, though. Anthropologists have studied many people who live in essentially stateless societies, with nothing resembling modern-day governments. The exact status of ‘primitive communism’ is a controversial area, but there is little doubt that societies structured along similar lines existed for millennia.

At the very least, the study of anthropology, the study of humankind, demonstrates that capitalism is not the sole way of running society and that alternatives, based more on sharing and caring and co-operation, are available and maybe even preferable. We hope this issue will help you to reflect on these and similar topics.