Friedrich Engels and Primitive Communism

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By MICHAEL LÖWY*

Comment about the book "The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State"

In November 2020, socialists around the world celebrated the bicentenary of the birth of Friedrich Engels. It is a mistake, often repeated, to consider Engels simply as a vulgarizer of Marx's ideas. Not only did he contribute, along with Marx in 1844-48, to the formation of a new view of the world – the philosophy of praxis or historical materialism – but he developed analyzes and arguments on themes that Marx was unwilling or unable to address. to study. One of them is the issue of primitive communism – which is not absent in Marx, especially in his unpublished “Ethnographic Notebooks”, but is much more elaborated in Engels’ book The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884)

Starting from the works of the American anthropologist Lewis H. Morgan on the gentile society of prehistory, Engels will study, with great interest, and even enthusiasm, this primitive form of society without classes, without private property and without the State. A passage from family origin illustrates this sympathy well: “How wonderful was the gentile constitution! No soldiers, no gendarmes or police, no aristocrats, Kings, regents, judges, no prisons (…) All equal and free – including women. (...) Civilization is a degradation, a fall, in relation to the simple moral greatness of the ancient gentile society”.

This Engelsian analysis of primitive communism – another term for what anthropologists called “gentile society” (from “gens”, tribal, clan or familial community) has several important methodological implications for the materialist conception of history:

(1). It delegitimizes the attempt by bourgeois ideology to “naturalize” social inequality, private property and the state as essential features of all human societies. Primitive communism reveals that these social institutions are historical products. They did not exist during the thousands of years of prehistory and they may cease to exist in the future.

The same goes for patriarchy. Engels uses, following Morgan and other anthropologists of the time (Bachofen), the concept of “matriarchy” to define primitive communism. It is a debatable term, which has provoked, until today, many controversies among historians, anthropologists and/or feminist theorists. I think the most important thing is what Engels says in the passage we quoted: in these primitive societies, there was a high degree of equality between men and women. It is also a question here of demystifying the self-proclamation of patriarchy as a timeless structure, common to all social formations.

(two). It breaks with the bourgeois vision – but shared by a good part of the left – of history as linear progress, continuous advance of the “enlightenment”, of civilization, of freedom and/or of the productive forces. Engels proposes, in place of this conformist doctrine, a dialectical view of the historical process: in many respects, civilization represented progress, but in others, it was a social and moral regression in relation to what primitive communism was.

(3). It suggests the existence, in the course of human history, of a dialectic between the past and the future: modern communism obviously will not be a return to the primitive past, but it takes up, in a new form, aspects of this first form of classless society : absence of private property, state domination, patriarchal power.

It is important to note that, in The origin of the family…, Engels does not refer only to the prehistoric past. Like Morgan, he notes that even in his time, indigenous communities still existed with this type of egalitarian social organization. He will be enthusiastic, for example, for the Confederation of the Iroquois, an alliance of indigenous nations in North America: primitive communism is also present in the XNUMXth century.

These ideas of Engels were taken up by some of the best Marxist thinkers of the XNUMXth century. For example, Rosa Luxemburg in her (posthumous) book Introduction to the Critique of Political Economy  he dedicates almost half of the work to primitive communism. She considers the struggle to defend these communitarian social forms against the brutal imposition of capitalist private property as one of the reasons for the resistance of the peoples of the periphery to colonialism. According to Luxemburg, primitive communism is present on all continents; in the case of Latin America, she notes the persistence, until the XNUMXth century, of what she calls “Inca communism”.

Unaware of this book by Rosa Luxemburgo (he did not read German), José Carlos Mariategui, the founder of Latin American Marxism, uses exactly the same term, Inca communism, to describe indigenous communities (ayllus) at the base of Inca society prior to Hispanic colonization. For him, these indigenous community traditions persisted until the XNUMXth century and could constitute one of the main social bases – along with the urban proletariat – to develop the modern communist movement in the Andean countries.

Today, in the XNUMXst century, faced with the ecological crisis that threatens human life on this planet, another aspect – mentioned but little studied by Engels – has to be taken into account. “Primitive communism” was a way of life in true harmony with nature, and even today indigenous communities are characterized by a deep respect for Mother Earth. It is therefore not by chance that they find themselves, from North to South of the American continent, at the forefront of resistance to the destruction of forests and the poisoning of rivers and land by oil multinationals, pipelines, and export agribusiness. Berta Caceres, the indigenous leader murdered in Honduras, is a symbol of this tenacious struggle, which in Brazil has at its center the fight of the indigenous people to save the Amazon from the destructive rage of the kings of cattle and soybeans – with the unabashed support of the government neofascist and ecocide of Jair Bolsonaro.

*Michael Lowy he is director of research at the Center National de la Recherche Scientifique (France). Author, among other books, of Marxism against poitivism (Cortez).

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