Society and Morals. Part III. The Pre-Class Stage

In our “first part” it was stated that man starts out with a society akin to those of the less advanced animals in being an organisation to secure mutual welfare. Now, as we enter into the evidence for this, into the details of savage and barbarian society and morals, it will be useful to quote from authoritative sources. But before doing so let us briefly examine the manner in which the peculiar character of the human animal affects the manifestation, in him, of the social instincts.

Reason and the Social Impulse
Among the simpler forms of animals impulse and action seem to be more or less identified: The gathering together of single cells is probably due to a form of chemical affinity or attraction. Even in the highly complex and social insects elaborate inherited instincts seem to determine even the details of individual action. But in the higher vertebrates, consciousness and intelligence make for the reasoning out, more or less clearly, of the precise actions to be taken to satisfy the social impulses, which, however, remain inherent. This makes possible a far readier adaption of conduct to varying circumstances. To an overwhelming degree is this the case in man with the relatively rapid changes and variety in his needs, due to technical evolution and division of labour.

But reason leads to results which cannot occur with unconscious reflex action which, with a given stimulus, always takes a certain inevitable line. Efficiency in a man’s actions, however, must be based upon a correct estimate of the essential circumstances he is in contact with. This itself depends upon the extent of his experience and the ability he has of analysing and comparing the various perceptions he receives. Consequently errors of opinion and therefore mistakes in action can easily occur through insufficient experience and defective reasoning.

Man is the victim of all manner of wrong conceptions and superstitious beliefs. This fact is apparent in the study of morality. In practice man’s activities are not determined by their actual interests, individual or collective, but by what they believe their interests to be. This belief, often correct enough in immediately practical affairs, is frequently very wide of the mark when concerned with complex matters which are known and felt only indirectly.

Speech and writing, which enable tho acquisition of the experiences and thoughts of other people, thus greatly extending the field of knowledge, also make possible the spread of wrong opinions, both unintentionally and as frequently happens, through a deliberate desire to bring about a certain mode of action.

These facts must be remembered when considering the problem of morals, for they explain the often useless and fantastic practices in religious ritual as well as the concern of a modern proletarian for his master’s interests and capitalist exploitation.

The feeling of duty, that “mysterious” conscience, despite all the weird talk about it, arises from a social impulse which, as we have seen, is animal, not “divine,” in origin. The social instincts, however, like all the other bodily and mental traits of animals, vary, being of different strength in distinct individuals, some men being potential martyrs, others moral cowards. In cases where conscience is too weak to enforce moral action, it frequently happens that respect for public opinion (itself generated by the social impulse) as manifested, for instance, in the love of praise and dislike of blame, ensures adherence to the code. But where, as in class-divided societies, there are widespread interests permanently opposed by the generally accepted code, the violation of which is therefore liable to be frequent, the force of the State is added to that of public opinion.

Primitive Society
Although savages and barbarians have long been outrageously misrepresented by ignorant and antagonistic invaders, thieving traders and prejudiced missionaries, the patient and sympathetic methods of real investigators have made possible an approximately true idea of primitive societies and morals. Of this we can hear, of course, only sketch an outline.

Like the animal societies in which the offspring remain in the same herd as their parents, the earliest human societies were groups, usually small, of kinspeople, related in blood. Primitive man’s life was bound up with that of his community, without which he could not exist. Separation from the tribe or horde was the equivalent of suicide, for, alone, he was at the mercy of mysterious and terrible natural powers and the ferocity of alien men.

In primitive societies, both in practice and in theory, the welfare of the group is recognised as the supreme good, this, however, as we have seen, in the killing of the aged and infirm, necessitates the sacrifice of individuals in certain circumstances.

Social and Economic Equality
The small yield of production made inevitable, in the beginning, equal division of the common produce, and the strength of social ties developed this into a cardinal principle. Even presents received are divided equally, as Darwin saw the Feugians do. Every able person is expected to aid in production. Hospitality and generosity are practised as a duty. Catlin, who lived for many years among the American Indians, says, “Every man, woman, or child in Indian communities is allowed to enter anyone’s lodge, and even that of the chief of the nation, and eat when they are hungry.”

Only the objects in permanent personal use, such as weapons and clothing, are regarded as private property, and often at that only very vaguely. “An Eskimo,” says Larfargue (“Evolution of Property”), “cannot possess more than two canoes; the third is at the disposal of the clan.” Natural resources may be freely utilised by any member or members of the group, providing only that it has the power to prevent other groups from acquiring them. Thus, although no private property in land exists, or is even conceived as possible, the tribe very zealously guards from trespassers its hunting grounds, and, later, pasturage territories or preserves.

So objectionable is inequality that when, owing to various circumstances, differences in wealth arise, periodical redistributions are made. This persisted until quite late in the history of the Jews.

The affairs of the community were managed democratically, all adult males and females taking part in the election of chiefs and speaking in the public assemblies. The chief wielded no despotic power, but only administered the will of the people. He could be deposed if occasion required. In the councils not even the majority decided: “Among the Iroquois the final resolution had to be passed unanimously,” says Engels in his “Origin of the Family.” (P. 112).

In dealing with internal disputes the sentiment of equality again manifests itself. A life for a life was the rule; tooth for tooth, eye for eye, wound for wound. To neglect to avenge an injury, or obtain satisfaction, is considered shameful. Usually, and especially in later times, mediation is first attempted by the public council, but, even after fines and other penalties are permissible the right to blood revenge could not be denied as a last resort. But to shed the blood of a kinsman was so opposed to the communal spirit, was considered so unutterably criminal, an injury to a tribesman being an injury to the tribe and treated by them as such, that it was a very rare occurrence. Speaking of the Aleoutes Kropotkin says in his “Mutual Aid” that in 1840 “one murder only had been committed since the last century in a population of 60,000 people.”

Fridjof Nansen says: “For the Esquimo it has especial value that he should be able to rely on his fellows and neighbours. In order, however, that his mutual confidence, without which common action in the battle for life is impossible, should continue, it is necessary that he should act honourably to others as well,” and he remarks about their truthfulness, which is a necessary factor in this. Veniaminoff, the Russian missionary, wrote, that the Aleoute is with difficulty moved to make a promise, but once he has made it he will keep it, whatever happens. Primitive man’s equalitarian habits harmonise so well with his inborn social instincts that he has no need to force his children to conform to a code of artificial restraints. A Sioux chief expressed surprise to Catlin at seeing “along the frontier white men whip their children: a thing that is very cruel.” “Spare the rod and spoil the child” is evidently not accepted as a motto.

Sex Relations
The evidence available tends to show that man emerged from the ape condition with indiscriminate intercourse between the sexes. As primeval mankind developed in intelligence and experience the injurious elfects of close inter-breeding were evidently recognised, for we find at a very early stage moral restrictions placed upon sex intercourse, first between parents and children, and then between brothers and sisters born of the same mother. The covering of the sex organs probably became virtuous to minimise unrestricted sexual desire, for absolute nakedness was, in warm climates, habitual up to the period of puberty.

The mutual or communal marriage of entire groups of each sex has left traces of its former prevalence in the customs of almost every people, and the system exists to-day among the savages of Australia, as the recent investigations of Prof. Spencer and Mr. Gillen have finally and abundantly proven. As Jenks says in his “History of Politics,” “all the men of the Snake totem are husbands of all the women of the Emu totem in the same generation.” (P. 10.) Even after the marriage of a woman or several woman to one man became habitual, although at first in loose and easily dissolved unions, unlimited intercourse was allowed at certain festivals. Prof, Westmarck, in his “History of Human Marriage,” says Engels, gives “a whole series of examples of such periodical saturnalia restoring for a short time the ancient sexual freedom . . . among the Hos, the Santals, the Punjas and Kotars of India, among some African nations, etc.”

Out of the attempts to prevent close interbreeding arose that social organisation known as the “gens” or “clan,” The gens was a subdivision of the tribe whose members were morally bound not to intermarry. In its original and purest form all the children remained in the gens of the mother, no matter from which gens came the father, so that (except in the rare cases of adoption) all the members of a gens had a common ancestress. This was the only possible way of recognising kinship, for there being, as yet, no permanent marriage of women with one man, the father of the child was not known with certainty, and descent was therefore only traceable through the mother—in the female line. The material gens gave to women that respected and important social standing which she has in all savage and early barbarian communities.

With the division of the group into gentes the “horde” stage was passed and the gens became the unit of organisation until at a later date it gave way to the patriarchal family. The gens had its own chiefs and public meetings. “All the members of an Iroquois gens,” says Lewis Morgan, who lived, by adoption, in one for many years, “were personally free, and they were bound to defend each other’s freedom; they were equal in privileges and in personal rights, the sachems (peace chiefs) and chiefs claiming no superiority; and they were a brotherhood bound together by ties of kin.” In a modified form the gens persisted well into the era of civilisation.

So-called secret societies within the tribe are also a widespread feature. There are male “societies” and female “societies” into which the young people on “coming of age” are initiated and taught under the presidency of the aged and experienced the duties of their sex (hunting and fighting methods, the development of endurance, etc., for males; domestic work and the management of children for females) together with the “mysterien of sex.” As, however, everything is accounted for by spirit action or magic, the activities of the societies are frequently largely made up of intricate ceremonies, propitiation of spirits, sacrifices and other rites, all of which must be kept in the strictes secrecy.


The primitive motive for war was food—either the preservation or acquisition of hunting territory, or, at a very early stage, human meat, which, as we have seen, is necessary and therefore moral. While, within the tribe, each for all and all for each was the rule, making habitual sympathy and trustworthiness, to those outside the tribe, as a rule, the same did not apply. So in savage warfare extreme cruelties and what appear to us as horrible attrocities are perpetrated. The outsider, the alien, is not of “the kin.” has nothing in common with it. He is a spy upon the tribal secrets, a thief and a trespasser upon the tribal territories.

Practically all people outside the tribe or its related groups are regarded as enemies. Engels says : “Theoretically, each tribe was at war with every other tribe with which it had not formed a treaty of peace.” (“Origin of the Family,” p. 112.) To slay an enemy was beneficial, was good. Thus the scalps collected by a redskin “brave” are like the medals of many a doughty general—claims to the admiration of his follows. The Dyaks of Borneo collect the heads and adorn their huts with the skulls of those neighbouring peoples who fall into their hands. Yet these same men condemn murder within the tribe. As Kropotkin says (Ibid p. 15), in “head-hunting” the Dyak “is not actuated at all by personal passion. He acts under what he considers a moral obligation towards his tribe.” The Australian aboriginee “is a murderer when his tribe requires a murder to be done,” says Dr. Keane (“The World’s Peoples,” p. 49). “This state of things is not really contradictory,” says Tylor in his “Anthropology.” “The tribe makes the law, not on an abstract principle that manslaughter is right or wrong, but for its own preservation.” When tribes live in a condition of almost perpetual war, as do the Dyaks, “they put a social premium upon the warrior’s proof of valour in fight against the enemy.” (Tylor, p. 413.) Hence the record kept in skulls or scalps.

Courage and endurance are two of the highest of primitive virtues, and to acquire them deliberate self-privation and self-torture are practiced. The young men, incipient hunters and warriors, are tested as to their endurance of pain, and to wince or utter a sound under torture is considered weak and therefore shameful.


Primitive man with his meagre experience and knowledge changes his means of production very slowly. The early evolution of man’s tools was a painfully protracted process, little improvement being made throughout immense periods. The same continuous or constantly recurring needs are felt over a correspondingly extended time, and their satisfaction causes the continual repetition of practices which are ages old. That which is old, is tried and tested, is safe; new methods have unforeseen results, are mysterious and dangerous.

Moreover the savage and barbarian has other reasons for habitually following the traditional ways of his people. He believes in ghosts as firmly as he believes in the existence of bodily men. Not being capable of understanding sleep, dreams or death, he “explains” them as the wanderings from the body of a phantom or ghostly second-self. The spirits of the dead, of his ancestors, persist after their bodies have long since decayed. His kinsmen, whom he looks to and respects, are not only the living men but the dead also.

Those invisible inhabitants of the “land of the dead” are wiser and more powerful than the living men. They it is, thinks the savage, who move the wind and the stream, who howl in the storm and rustle in the woods. They must be honoured and conciliated, care being taken not to make them angry. The customs which the venerated ancestors practised in life must be faithfully adhered to by their living descendents who look to them for aid in times of dire distress. (*)

Innovation is an insult to the gods—it is criminal for outraged ancestors will visit their wrath upon the tribe. In primitive society, no matter how a practice originates, it tends to harden into a habit rigidly and religiously adhered to. Morality is identified with custom—that which is customary is right, if it is uncustomary it is wrong. This veneration for practices ages old makes very difficult, sometimes impossible, the understanding of many a moral custom where the real needs which brought it into existence have long passed away.

The “closeness” of primitive man’s societies—the importance given to blood kinship and the intolerance and hatred of strangers is reflected in his religious views. As Edward Jenks says in his excellent little “History of Politics,” “The view that their ancestors belonged to them alone, naturally made the tribesmen very jealous of strangers acquiring any knowledge of their forms of worship.” (P. 38.) Therefore the ritual was kept strictly secret, and it was the blackest treachery to reveal its mysteries to strangers, who would only mock and blaspheme.

The belief in spirits is the cause of eome of the most peculiar practices and moral ideas of primitive man. Attention to the requirements of the dead is a profound duty. Tools, weapons, and animals are buried or burned with the corpse for the use of the spirit. Food and drink must be provided in the shape of offerings made at the grave. Human and animal sacrifices are made. Charms are worn to ward oft evil spirits-—the ghosts of aliens. Human spirits are believed to enter the bodies of certain animals and trees which then become “taboo”—objects of respect and fear which it is awful sacrilege to destroy or injure. But the effects of savage superstition are almost endless in their number and variety so that the above sketchy indications must suffice.

* * *

The social organisation, therefore, of man in savagery and lower barbarism, together with the morality which therefrom flowed was based as the above testifies upon the principle of mutual aid and communal support in its every aspect. No class interests marred its unity despite its many (to most moderns) anomalous and absurd characters. Moral theory and practice were identical, modern conventional morality and corresponding hypocrisy was unknown—the “age of cant” was not yet. This was only acquired during his “rise to civilisation” which will be our next consideration.

(*) The widespread view, to which we have made previous reference, that a people’s ethical code is ordained by God arises in the above way, for gods are as a rule, only exalted ancestral spirits.


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