Lewis Henry Morgan and the Last 100 Years
One hundred years ago, in March 1877, Morgan’s final work, Ancient Society, appeared. Morgan was not a Socialist, but his book was the result of objective investigation into mankind and its social institutions. If anything, he was religious. The book is dedicated to the Rev. Mcllvaine, DD, a close friend, and describes the evolution of society in approximately 600 pages. Marx and Engels praised the work, and Engels, writing in the 1884 preface of his own work The Origin of the Family, said Morgan “in his own way had discovered afresh in America the materialist conception of history discovered by Marx forty years ago”. Marx intended to present the result of Morgan’s researches in the light of his own conclusions, but his death in 1883 prevented it. Engels took over the task and based The Origin of the Family on Morgan, but went far beyond Morgan by showing the political and economic implications, the changing political systems arising from the historic development of property, the emergence of social classes and consequently the State.
Working independently, Morgan provided the scientific corroboration of Marx’s theories. He was the founder of the science of anthropology, but his work was largely ignored on both sides of the Atlantic when it was realized that his theories and discoveries clashed with the ideas and interests of the ruling class. The established capitalist view was that religion, property and the family are as old as man himself, and these institutions had always existed and were unchanging elements in society. Scientific ideas which challenged this concept were treated with hostility. Morgan, a Republican Senator and lawyer, spent forty years on the preparation of his book, his sole purpose being to explain the evolutionary process, but in doing so he inadvertently committed the cardinal sin of exposing the working of society. He showed that the idea of property had undergone the same growth and development as had society generally, and was far removed from being an eternal category:
“Commencing at zero in savagery the fashion for the possession of property as the representative of accumulated subsistence has now become dominant over the human mind in civilised races.” (Ancient Society, p.vii preface. MacMillan, 1877)
Part 4 of the book goes into greater detail and investigates the growth of the idea. The growth of property is shown to be closely connected with the increase of invention and discovery, and with the improvement of social institutions, commencing with the stage defined as Savagery. Human progress from a state of ignorance in Savagery slowly advanced as men gained experience, as nature forced them to obtain subsistence or perish. The procuring of the means of subsistence is intimately associated with the idea of property in the very early stages of man’s development. The gradual accumulation of knowledge leading to greater control over nature pushes society along through its various stages up to Civilization: the idea of property is no longer based on subsistence but on its social power.
“Since the advent of civilisation the outgrowth of property has been so immense, its form so diversified, its uses so expanding, and its management so intelligent in the interests of its owners, that it has become on the part of the people an unmanageable power. The human mind stands bewildered in the presence of its own creation, The time will come nevertheless when human intelligence will rise to the mastery over property, and define the relations of the State to the property it protects, as well as the obligations and the limits of the rights of its owners. The interests of society are paramount to individual interests, and the two must be brought in to just and harmonious relations. A mere property career is not the final destiny of mankind, if progress is to be the law of the future as it has been of the past.” (Ancient Society, p. 552)
Views like these, backed up by factual evidence coming from a capitalist politician who was a rich man in his own right, shocked the capitalist class at the time. It was just as well that Morgan secured an audience at which he shook hands with the Pope in 1871. He certainly would not have received one after his book was published in 1877. These ideas attack the roots of capitalism and its claim to permanence.
But this was not all. The central theme in Morgan’s work was that mankind had gone through several successive stages in its road to Civilization. The proposed ethnical periods described by Morgan commenced with the three stages of Savagery — the lower status, middle and upper. Then came the lower, middle and upper status of Barbarism, and finally the status of Civilization. Food supply commenced with the collecting of natural food in tropical forests and the gradual acquiring of the knowledge of the use of fire and a fish subsistence, The invention of the bow and arrow prepared man’s entry from the upper stage of Savagery into the lower stage of Barbarism. This began with the invention of pottery and the domestication of animals, followed by the cultivation of plants and the use of clay bricks in the middle status of Barbarism. The upper stage of Barbarism commenced with the smelting of iron ore, the use of iron tools, and the development of field agriculture. Civilization was reached with the invention of the phonetic alphabet and the use of writing.
These seven stages, claimed Morgan were universal as were the forms of social organization based upon the gens which corresponded to them. From Australia in the south, the whole of Europe including Rome and Greece, the Eastern Mediterranean and India — all their respective social organizations were based upon the gens. Although Morgan commenced his researches among the American Red Indians (he was a blood-brother of the Iroquois) he made an extensive study of the known forms of tribal society, and studied the histories of all forms of civilization.
The point of Morgan’s theories was that ethnic groups who had reached civilization had only done so after a long development through these seven stages, and that this general evolutionary principle governed all social development which had taken place. The fact that backwoods tribes discovered today in the state of savagery can be brought forward rapidly into capitalist civilization without undergoing the long development as postulated, does not invalidate the theory.
The materialist conception of history discovered by Marx forty years earlier had the same principles, but with the addition that the economic organization and social relations corresponded to the’ particular stage society had reached in the development of its productive forces. Morgan proved the existence of a social organization which was neither political nor economic, but purely administrative. It was based on gentes, phratries and tribes, and he demonstrated how this form of organization held ancient society together and prevailed throughout the entire ancient world. The gens were founded upon kin; descent was linked to the female line and it embraced all persons who could trace their descent through a common female ancestor, and possessed a common gentile name.
These gentile institutions were thoroughly democratic. Two or more related gens organized themselves in phratries (brotherhoods), and a number of phratries constituted a tribe. Several tribes formed a confederacy, and eventually coalesced into a nation occupying common territory. Because the basic unit of organization was democratic there was no State or political society. As special social needs or objectives arose, the form of organization was enlarged to meet them, but its democratic function was maintained throughout. Bureaucracy could not arise because there was no separation between administration and people, as exists today in the form of the coercive state which has replaced the administration of ‘people by territorial government administering and maintaining property relations in the interests of a small minority of people.
Morgan also showed that systems of communal ownership gave rise to and were the basis of this social organization for many thousands of years. The State, which according to the capitalists had existed throughout history, was a comparatively recent development, and arose with the advent of private property.
Theories such as these could not go unchallenged. The ruling class did what it will always do when its interests are threatened: ignore or misrepresent the facts. Anthropology was taught in universities in England and America, but up to very recently Morgan was ignored, although many of his theories and methods were plagiarized. His classification of ethnic periods was attacked, as also was his theory of the origin of the family, and the role of women as the original property owners. Morgan showed that the family had passed through successive forms commencing with consanguinity, which was founded on the marriage of brothers and sisters (own and collateral) in a group. This was succeeded by the Punaluan (intimate friend) family founded up on the intermarriage of several sisters with each other’s husbands in a group. Also, the intermarriage of several brothers with each other’s wives in a group. Then the pairing family founded upon single pairs, but without exclusive co-habitation and with voluntary separation. The patriarchal family founded upon the marriage of one man with several wives. Finally, the present monogamous family founded upon single pairs with an exclusive co-habitation.
The impact this information had on bourgeois Victorian society who bad barely recovered from the shock of Darwinism, was startling. Darwin at least dealt mainly with animals and man’s biology, but the shame of being confronted in the respectable atmosphere of Victorian society steeped in cant about the dignity of the family and marriage, with tales of incest, group sex and polygamy, and all the other alleged vices (practised in secret by wealthy parasites) brought forth an avalanche of protest led by the religious hyenas of all creeds. The anti-evolutionary school of anthropology was founded by Dr. Franz Boas, Professor Westermarck, Malinowski, Lowie, Ashley Montague and many others. Their object was not so much to develop the infant science of anthropology as to prove Morgan wrong. The Catholic “cultural historical” school of anthropology led by Fathers Wilhelm Schmidt and Wilhelm Sylvester, and A Sieker, SJ, set out to oppose the theories of primitive communism. As far as the Jesuits were concerned Morgan’s work was more beneficial to Socialists like Marx and Engels than any other section of the community. Lowie insisted that the State in various forms had always existed, and C. H. Stark and Professor Westermarck maintained that the present capitalist-type family had always existed. Dr. Franz Boas of Columbia University refused to admit discussion of the question because in his opinion there was no evidence, nor could there be any. He described Morgan’s stages as arbitrary postulations. Morgan also upset the Jews by pointing out that Abraham married his half-sister Sarah.
The last hundred years have produced numerous controversies about certain aspects of Morgan’s theories. For the most part these are peripheral and largely concern questions of detail. The main body of his work has stood up and remains the cornerstone of modem anthropology. The section in Ancient Society dealing with the origin of early Greek and Roman society is a classic by any standards, and brought particular praise from Marx.
Morgan has become the Marx of anthropology, and like his famous contemporary is always being repudiated — a periodical exercise which usually collapses through lack of evidence being presented by the detractors, Typical of the kind of criticism are the remarks contained in Peter Farb’s book Man’s Rise to Civilisation (Paladin Books, 1971):
“He was a thoroughly conventional man, unquestioning in religious orthodoxy, and also a staunch capitalist, but he published his theories in Ancient Society at the same time Marx was working on the third volume of ‘Das Kapital’ (p. 100).
There is no connection between the two, but the object is to discredit Morgan by implying that if it bad not been for Marx Morgan’s theories would have had no importance. Later Farb makes his position clear:
“That bourgeois gentleman, Morgan, is to this day enshrined in the pantheon of socialist thinking,” (p, 100)
Again the innuendo being: only because of Marx and Engels’s influence. Rubbish like this is supposed to represent a criticism of Morgan’s work, but Farb carefully refrains from going into the work itself. His other nonsensical statement that “By a strange irony the League of the Iroquois has become a model for Marx’s theory” shows his ignorance of the subject and of Morgan’s theories as well as Marx’s.
The relevance of Morgan and Marx to modem Socialist thought and propaganda is in providing the positive proof that capitalist society is the culmination of a whole series of historical social changes. Men’s ideas change, habits of thought and conceptions of life change. The man of today is not the man of tomorrow; the environment of today is not the environment of tomorrow, any more than the man of yesterday and his environment are relevant today. Capitalism is not the end of social progression, although the capitalist class and their servile adherents will claim it to be so, Morgan reckoned that out of an estimated 100,000 years that man bad spent on earth, at least 60,000 (three-fifths) had been spent in a state of Savagery; 35,000 years in the various stages of Barbarism, and 5,000 years in Civilization. Out of those five thousand years only the last 250 years have been spent under capitalism.
The intensity of capitalism’s development, with its compression of time and space, has produced the subjective man with little sense of history, dominated by social conditions which are not only anti-social but obsolete and unnecessary. Man must become objective and not dominated by his immediate conditions. We must move on to Socialism. A Socialist society will organize itself on a democratic basis at every level. The social form will not, nor cannot be, tied to the past, but it will truly reflect the great contribution of the past in he form of the accumulated knowledge and social experience so painfully acquired which has made Socialism possible. It should not be forgotten that the principal institutions of mankind have developed from a few germs of thought and a few simple cells of organization. The natural form of social man is that which equates him with his fellow man, and that great equalizer is common ownership of the means whereby he lives.