From primitive communism to class society

This is a chapter from ‘Stop Supporting Capitalism – Start Building Socialism’ by Stan Parker, published by Bridge Books (2002). Published by agreement with the author.

Compared with a lion, a gorilla, or even a horse, the human animal is weak, slow and defenceless. And yet homo sapiens has become the dominant species of the planet. Our species developed none of the specialised attributes that have fitted other creatures so well for their environments. Physiologically, we have hardly evolved at all since we became a distinct species. Whereas other species have evolved to fit their environments and the available food supplies, human beings have remained unspecialised, but very adaptable. Instead of their bodies altering to suit their environments, they have altered their environments to suit themselves.

Human beings spread across the surface of the planet, occupying tropical rain forests, deserts, temperate regions, and even polar ice. They lived on virtually every type of food possible, from seal fat to tropical fruits and desert insects. And from this variety of life-pattems there arose wide differences in knowledge, beliefs, attitudes, feelings and behaviour. Almost every conceivable kind of belief has been adopted by some humans at some time somewhere. Although we are one species, from the jungle of New Guinea to the streets of New York, the inhabitants of different places may think and act in quite dissimilar ways

And yet a baby, carried across the world from New Guinea to New York and brought up there, could become a complete New Yorker, with the accent, the food preferences, the personal habits, the love of baseball, and the average tendency towards obesity, heart disease, divorce and crime. The basic animal is the same, but all behaviour patterns and ideas are shaped by the society in which the child is brought up.

But if societies mould individuals, different types of society are themselves shaped by a number of external factors, as well as by the activities of individuals and classes within them. The basic needs of the human animal are, like those of any other mammal, food, drink, warmth and sex. But these needs have not always been easily met .For most of human existence, the lives of the great majority have been dominated by scarcity. The methods of making a living from the land and sea have therefore been the major influences on the sorts of lives people have led, the types of society that have been formed, and the attitudes and behaviour of those societies

We do not know exactly how long ago human beings evolved from other species. Modern man, according to many anthropologists, emerged in Africa about 100,000 years ago, and gradually spread out from there to replace all earlier species in the rest of the world (Snooks, 1996:50). For most of that time people lived communally, through hunting and gathering. For many thousands of years there was no private property, no money, no working for wages, no stock exchange and no class divisions. People lived with and for one another. It was a system of primitive communism.

The comic cartoon idea of the cave man with his club displaying aggression towards everyone is a fiction. Such an individual would not have lasted a week in the world of prehistory. Human beings have survived and prospered because they are adaptable and they have co-operated with one another. Long before there were private property societies with their class divisions and exploitation, small hunter-gatherer communities relied for their existence on all members playing their part. This co-operation lasted for many tens of thousands of years. The remnants of it can still be seen in surviving primitive communities such as of the Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert, the pygmies of the Congo rain forests, Australian aborigines and South American Indians.

The earliest human societies -as self-sufficient producer groups -would have been composed of relatively small numbers whose members survived in nature as nomadic bands capturing and killing wild animals and gathering wild plants, fruits and insects. The particular character of these material conditions of production demanded a certain division of labour between hunters, gatherers and those engaged in making the tools used in these activities. They also demanded free access to nature, the main means of production

Thus, in accordance with the material conditions of production in which hunter-gatherer societies operated, they were societies which did not know private ownership of the means of production. There was no private ownership of what was produced. What was produced -whether by hunting or gathering -was not the private property of the hunter or the hunting party or of the gatherer(s) but was to be shared out among all the members of the group on an equitable basis. Hunting, gathering and tool-making were all regarded as essential activities entitling those who performed them to be maintained by the whole group.

It used to be thought that living by hunting and gathering was a bad way to live. But recent evidence suggests that they lived in surprisingly abundant environments that provided all of the basic calories, nutrients and proteins they needed, and they worked relatively few hours to enjoy those things. This left them plenty of free time for visiting relatives, playing games, or just relaxing (Sanderson, 1995:21).

Anthropologists who live among the hunter-gatherers who survive today describe the ways in -which they are generally free from material pressures. According to Sahlins:

It is not that hunters and gatherers have curbed their materialistic impulses; they simply never made an institution of them… We are inclined to think of hunters and gatherers as poor because they don’t have anything; perhaps better to think of them as free. A good case can be made that hunters and gatherers work less than we do; and, rather than a continuous travail, the food quest is intermittent, leisure abundant, and there is a greater amount of sleep in the daytime per capita per year than in any other condition of society (1972:14)

Settled agriculture

The practice of settled agriculture represented a major change in the material conditions of production. It meant an end to nomadism and the establishment of settled communities. It also meant an increase in the amount of food available, so permitting an increase in the size of human communities. But it also involved a different division of labour which paved the way, as it developed, for the emergence of minority control over access to the means of production.

The first settled agricultural communities would have been established by societies which had previously practised hunting and gathering and so had a communistic economic structure. This was characterised by the absence of private ownership of the means of production and by the sharing of products according to need. After the adoption of agriculture, these communistic economic arrangements survived for a while, but tended to break down in the long run as they no longer corresponded to the material conditions of production.

The social arrangement for meeting the material requirements of early agriculture is most likely to have been the allocation to family units of plots of land to cultivate. This was not yet the establishment of private ownership, but it meant the end of free access to the means of production that had obtained in hunter-gatherer societies. It ruled out any member of society simply helping themselves to the products of any plot of land. Normally they would only have free access to the products of the plot cultivated by the family unit to which they belonged.

Nevertheless, such a limitation is not incompatible with the continuation of some communistic practices. The actual cultivators could still be regarded by the community as performing a function on its behalf and be required by social custom to contribute any surplus product to a common store on which any member in need could draw. This could happen, for instance, as a result of their crops having failed or been destroyed by a storm. Such social arrangements have been discovered in societies at this stage of development which have survived into modern times.

The existence of a common store becomes another aspect of the society’s material conditions of production and requires a social arrangement for managing this store -collecting and distributing the surpluses. The usual arrangement seems to have been to confer this responsibility on a particular family. Arguments can go on as to whether being given this responsibility was conferred on a family whose head had already acquired this status for other reasons -perhaps military or religious. But the fact remains that this role of collecting and redistributing surpluses had to be filled if all the members of the community were able to meet their basic needs as of right.

The Emergence of Class Society

It is easy to imagine how over time the co-ordinating role in distribution could become a source of privileged consumption for the chief and his family. The duty to contribute any surplus products to the common storehouse could become a duty to contribute this to the chief, and the chief and his family could come to consume an excessive amount of the stores at the expense of distributing them to those in need.

The tendency for what was originally a necessary technical function to evolve into a social privilege would have been even more pronounced when the co-ordinating role concerned production rather than simply distribution. It was the case when large-scale irrigation works had to be managed so that agriculture could be practised. For instance, this happened with agriculture in the Nile, Euphrates and other river valleys. It was the main material condition of production which gave rise to an economic structure in which the cultivators were exploited by a class of priests who collectively controlled the key means of production which the irrigation works represented.

The emergence of control over means of production by a section of society, or social class, was a radical departure in human social arrangements. Production was no longer controlled by society as a whole. Such societies ceased to be communities with a common interest and became divided, with one class, on the basis of its control over access to and use of the material forces of production, exploiting the productive work of the other class and allocating itself a privileged consumption.

The emergence of class and property meant that some humans acquired the power to exclude others from access to the material forces of production, including nature, except on their terms. In these circumstances, humans ceased to be a united community seeking to satisfy the needs of all its members. Instead they became members of a class-divided society in which there is internal conflict over how the material forces of production and distribution should be used: to satisfy the needs of all or to accumulate wealth for the few.

Throughout history this conflict has nearly always been settled in favour of the class that has controlled the means of production. There are two main reasons for this. First, the power of this class was based on a real functional role within the division of labour, at least originally. Secondly, this class controlled armed bodies to enforce its will, thus enabling it to hold on to power, at least for a while, even after its original function in organising production had disappeared and been taken over by some other group as a result of technological change

The discovery and utilisation of metals, and the development of more and more complex tools and machines have usually gone hand in hand with progress in methods of making a living, increasing the amount of wealth produced per capita many times over. But the benefits of these improvements have not been shared by all members of society. After the rise of settled townships on an agricultural base in Mesopotamia, trade between localities developed. For the first time the products of hands and brains took on an alien life as commodities to be bartered, and then bought and sold with the abstract commodity of money. Property, realised at the boundary between tribes, began to impinge within them. The first property society came to be developed when people were bought and sold as slaves.


Slavery differs fundamentally from wage labour. With the wage system the labour power of the worker becomes one of the main commodities in the marketplace. With slavery the workers themselves become commodities, they have no rights and are legally the property of the person who controls them. Slaves were fundamental to the economy of ancient Greece and Rome during their classical periods -the fifth to third centuries BC for Greece and the first century BC to the second century AD for Rome (Applebaum, 1992:170).

Anyone might have become a slave through capture in war, piracy, or breaking the law. They could be bought or sold through the slave trade on the open market. Slaves in theory had no rights. They were property and might be disposed of as their masters wished. In practice, slaves did have some protection under the law -the owner could not maltreat slaves or put them to death with impunity.

Access to political power was unthinkable for slaves. The only form of action they could take was running away when a favourable opportunity arose. However, it cannot be assumed that all slaves occupied a low status in Greek and Roman society, although undoubtedly most of them did. Slaves worked on farms, in workshops and in mines, mostly under harsh conditions. But there were slaves employed as managers and administrators, especially during the Roman Empire. Slaves were also employed as professionals, teachers, doctors, and household servants. Some slaves who were engaged in commerce even engaged their own slaves.

Between 1500 and 1870 plantations in the southern USA, the Caribbean and Brazil contained 10 million slaves (Wallace, 1990:71). Although it is mainly an institution of the past, slavery or slave-like practices are still common around the world (Levinson and Christensen, 1996:291). The three main forms are child labour, debt bondage and forced labour. Around 100 million children world-wide are forced to work long hours in unhealthy conditions and are paid little or nothing for their labour. In India alone an estimated 6.5 million people have pledged their labour against debts. Often the debt bondage (illegal since 1976) remains so for life.


In the feudal system absolute ownership of the land is vested in the feudal lord but, unlike the slave owner, his title to the worker (serf) is not absolute. The lord owns him merely by title to a share of his labour. In return he is obligated to grant the worker use of some land, some ownership of tools and some of the products of his own labour. Slavery thus gave way to serfdom. In both cases the majority was exploited by the minority. The slave owned none of the products of his labour but was fed and clothed by his owner. The serf had enough to keep himself and his family alive, but the rest was appropriated by the lord, a non-producer (Venable, 1945:100).

Feudalism evolved as a hierarchical system of personal relationships in which land and military power – and of course the labour of the serfs – were the principal commodities exchanged. (Singman 1999:4). The system was strengthened and expanded in Britain with the eleventh-century Norman Conquest. In feudal times the king nominally owned all the land. He granted lands to his tenants-in-chief, the aristocracy, and they in return had to give military service to him and pay customary dues which comprised a percentage of their wealth. Not only did the feudal aristocracy and the church own most of the land, but they controlled the men and women who lived and worked on it. The landlords had their own courts, they levied taxes and exacted services from their serfs and, in times of war, they ordered their subjects to fight their battles.

The power of the feudal lord depended on the amount of land he owned and the number of peasants he could control. Peasants had feudal obligations to their landlord. They either had to work on his land for a certain length of time each week or else they had to give him a portion of their produce in return for living on his land. Either way, the landlord received his wealth without having to work.

Every family had access to a piece of land for cultivation and to the commons for pasturing their animals. Their rights were recognised by all. The behaviour which regulated society was not backed by sanctions -law, police or army -but by custom which was a condition of existence: expulsion from the community could mean death from hunger or exposure (Smith, 1994:58).

Capitalist social relations emerged with the expropriation of common land by the aristocracy in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The lands were enclosed to be used for sheep farming rather than arable cultivation. One reason for this was that the new Flemish woollen industry made sheep more profitable tenants than peasants. Enclosure destroyed the lives of thousands of peasant families, turning them into propertyless vagabonds. In dealing with the primitive accumulation of capital, Marx wrote:

The fathers of the present working class were chastised for their enforced transformation into vagabonds and paupers. Legislation treated them as voluntary criminals and assumed that it depended on their own good will to go on working under the old conditions that no longer existed (1954, vol. 1 :686).

Deprived of their land, their homes, their traditional surroundings and the protection of the law, the expropriated peasantry were left to sell the one thing they possessed -their ability to work. The introduction of wage labour was the starting point of capitalism.

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