How Society Changes

Anthropology has always been an interesting subject to Socialists. Morgan’s Ancient Society and Engels’ Origin of the Family, are only two of the books which have helped us to see how society has changed and developed in the past, and therefore gives us an indication of how it is likely to change in the future.

This process of change is very clearly shown in a report by Dr. Ralph Linton, Professor of Anthropology at Columbia University, which appears in the book “The Individual and His Society,” by Kardiner and Linton.

The report derives from Linton’s own field work among the Tapala and Betsileo tribes in the island of Madagascar, and relates how a simple change in the mode of production revolutionised a whole tribal society.

The Tanala
On a forested mountain plateau live the Tanala. They are an agricultural tribe, living mainly by rice cultivation. They grow the rice “dry”—that is, like an ordinary cereal. Only one or two crops can be raised on any one piece of land by the methods which they use; after that the land has to be allowed to grow up in jungle and left for ten to fifteen years.

At the beginning of the season the elders of the lineage arrange the heads of the families within that lineage along the edge of the land to be cleared for that year’s crop, and assign to each family a strip of given width. The men of each family then clear their strip as far back as they consider necessary to meet their rice needs for the year. This assignment is made equitably—if a family gets poor land one year it will be given good land the next. Each family has full rights on the strip which it has cleared while crops are actually being grown; after that it reverts to the general lineage property.

There are no ceremonies or magic connected with food, except for a small family offering made to the ancestors at harvest time. Everything except land is individually owned, but there is little, if any, difference between rich and poor in living standards, and there are no social classes.

Wet Rice
Such a description is far from complete, of course; but it does give one a picture of the sort of society which Linton found still existing among the Tanala. It was a society which consisted of a number of independent mobile villages, where money was unimportant, where a large degree of social equality prevailed, and where anxiety about property was very largely absent. But even while Linton was there, important and far-reaching changes had been brought about by a gradual change from dry rice to wet rice cultivation. The latter is the ordinary type of rice growing found in India, China, etc., where permanent paddy-fields are used. To the ordinary observer, this change might seem trifling, but to a Socialist it is far from insignificant, because it affects the economic basis of the society. Let Linton take up the story from here:—

“ [Wet rice cultivation] was at first an adjunct to dry rice carried on by individual families. Before the new method was introduced on a large scale, there were already rice swamps of permanent tenure, which never reverted to the village for reassignment. But land favourable for this use was very limited, because of natural factors. Thus there gradually emerged a group of landowners, and with the process came a breakdown in the joint family organization. The cohesiveness of this older unit was maintained by economic interdependence and the need for co-operation. But an irrigated rice field could be tended by a single family, and its head need not recognise any claim to share it with anyone who had not contributed to its produce.

“This group of permanent rice sites formed the nucleus of a permanent village, because the land could not be exhausted as was the land exploited by the dry method. As land suitable for wet rice near the village was presently all taken up. the landless households had to move farther and farther away into the jungle. So far away would they be that they could not return the same day. These distant fields also became household rather than joint family affairs . . . (p.282)

“The mobile villages had been self contained and endogamous. The settled villages were much less so . . . Intermarriages became common. In this way, the transformation from independent villages to a tribal organization took place

“The process brought further changes in the patterns of native warfare. The old village had to be defended; but not at so great a cost nor with the necessity for permanent upkeep. When the village became permanent the defences had to be of a powerful kind involving big investments and permanent upkeep.

“Slaves who were of no economic significance in the old system, now acquired economic importance. . . . Thus the tribal organization grew in solidity, and with the change the old tribal democracy disappeared. The next step was a king at the head who exercised control over the settled elements but not over the mobile ones.” (p.283.) There were now real differences between rich and poor. Poverty and oppression became known for the first time among the Tanala.

The Betsileo
Now let us look at the Betsileo, near neighbours of the Tanala, whose society has been based for a long time on wet rice cultivation. There are more swamps and valleys in their part of the country, and they have also taken up irrigation. But from all indications, their original set-up was the same as that of the Tanala. Basically, “we can regard Betsileo as the Tanala culture, after all the changes consequent upon wet rice had become consolidated, organized, and institutionalized. We are therefore observing an important experiment in the dynamics of social changed (p. 284.)

Among the Betsileo there is a rigid system of ground rent, paid by a proportion of the produce. There is a rigid class system, with a king, nobles, commoners and slaves. The powers of the king are absolute over the life and property of everyone. “In short, here was a feudal system of a kind” (p. 285.)

The power of the father in the household became supreme, particularly in the sense of ownership. Unlike the Tanala system, among the Betsileo all household property belongs to the father except his wives’ clothes and gifts to his wife and children. Children not infrequently desert their parents—a thing unknown among the Tanala.

There is much more emphasis on the supernatural. “The Betsileo make a clear distinction between life and soul. Life ceases with death, the soul continues.” (p. 288.) Much of this interest has to do with apprehensions over losing money or position.

The Process of Change
Here, then, we see social change in action. We see changes in the mode of production causing changes in types of ownership. We see these new types of ownership causing changes in the relations which one person can have to another. We see new attitudes arising out of these relations. We see new institutions arising out of these attitudes. (We see these new institutions causing further changes of attitude, and so on). We see, as Linton has already pointed out, the dynamics of social change in action.

Here is another clear and valuable example of a process which is going on daily and hourly around us here in the world today. Let no one say that the Materialist Conception of History is a mere empty theory when we can see it justified up to the hilt in such a practical example as this.

The whole book is of some interest to Socialists, since the main author. Dr. Abram Kardiner, openly acknowledges the great debt which social anthropology owes to historical materialism. Here is another example of the way in which ideas long put forward by Socialists are being today painfully rediscovered by the academic world.


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