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Marx, Engels, Luxemburg and the Return to Primitive Communism

By By Mark Kosman, 18 December 2012
*Marx, Engels and Luxemburg were all keen to return to the egalitarian relations of
primitive communism, at a higher level. But how does the egalitarianism of early
human societies connect up with Marxism’s prime focus on the rise and decline of

As capitalism continues to disintegrate, this article looks at the egalitarian

origins of money in ancient Greece for clues as to how we might transcend the whole
money system.*

In  /The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State/, Engels claims that
“the overthrow of mother-right was the world-historic defeat of the female sex”. He
goes on to argue that this counter-revolution led to the decline of primitive
communism and the rise of class society. He also predicts that humanity will one day
return to communistic relations. He then ends the book with a quote from the
pioneering anthropologist, Lewis Henry Morgan, which states that this future society
“will be a revival, in a higher form, of the liberty, equality and fraternity of the
ancient gentes.”

 Contemporary Marxists sometimes use these arguments to show that sexism and class
divisions are not inherent to human nature. But it is rare for them to defend
Engels’ anthropology and rarer still for them to argue that Engels’ ideas can help
us understand the nature of any future revolution.

 Yet, although Engels made many errors, anthropological and genetic studies of
African hunter-gatherers do now show that early human society may have been both
matrilocal and matrilineal. Hunter-gatherer societies are far from perfect but
studies also show that hunter-gatherer women have more power than women in
agricultural societies and that hunter-gatherer childcare is more collective.
Furthermore, unlike other tribal societies, nomadic hunter-gatherers maintain
strong egalitarian and communistic principles as regards material wealth.[1] These
principles of equality and sharing would have been particularly easy to maintain in
prehistoric times when hunters had access to abundant food supplies in the form of
mammoths and other mega-fauna.[2] So, perhaps, we should look again at the early
Marxists and their hopes of a return to primitive communism, at a higher
technological level.

 Engels wrote  /The Origin of the Family/ at Marx’s ‘bequest’ and he derived many of
its ideas from Marx’s intensive research into anthropology. In his later years,
Marx seems to have prioritised this research, rather than finishing further volumes
of  /Capital/. Unfortunately, he then died before he could connect up this
anthropological work with his analysis of capitalism. However, an unsent letter to
the Russian revolutionary, Vera Zasulich, gives us some idea of what he was

 In that letter, Marx writes that “the vitality of primitive communities was
incomparably greater than that of … modern capitalist societies.” He goes on to
argue that “the best proof that the development of the Russian ‘rural commune’ is
in keeping with the historical trend of our age is the fatal crisis which
capitalist production has undergone in the European and American countries where it
has reached its highest peak, a crisis that will end in its destruction, in the
return of modern society to a higher form of the most archaic type - collective
production and appropriation.” Well aware of how radical this argument was, Marx
reassures any readers that “we must not let ourselves to be alarmed at the word

 One of the first Marxist theorists, August Bebel, was certainly not ‘alarmed’ by
ideas of returning to the ‘archaic’. In his classic text, / Woman under Socialism/,
Bebel even quotes the 19th century anthropologist, Johann Bachofen, who argued that
“the end-point of political development resembles the beginning of human existence.
The original equality returns again at last. The materialistic, maternal existence
opens and closes the cycle of human history.” Bebel also writes that “the line of
human development returns at the end of its journey to social structures similar to
those of primal society, only at a much higher level of culture.... The whole
development forms a spiral heading upwards, whose end point is exactly above the

 Rosa Luxemburg was also not ‘alarmed’ by such ideas. In her last book,  /Einfuhrung
in die Nationalokonomie/, she argues that “primitive communism, with its
corresponding democracy and social equality [was] … the cradle of social
development.” She goes on to claim that “the whole of modern civilisation, with its
private property, its class domination, its male domination, its compulsory state
and compulsory marriage [are] merely a brief passing phase, which, because they
first formed from the dissolution of primitive communist society, in future will
become higher social forms.… The noble tradition of the ancient past, thus holds
out a hand to the revolutionary aspirations of the future, the circle of knowledge
closes harmoniously, and the present world of class domination and exploitation …
becomes merely a minuscule transient stage in the great cultural advance of


 These quotes by the early Marxists raise the question of how contemporary Marxists
can connect up this return to primitive communism with Marx’s analysis of
capitalism in his master-work, / Capital./

 The most obvious connection between primitive communism and  /Capital/ is that the
word ‘capital’ derives from the Indo-European word ‘caput’, which probably refers
to ‘head’ of cattle. In ancient Greece, wealthier men would donate cattle to the
temple for sacrifice. The priests would then give worshippers a share of the cooked
meat as a symbol of their integration into society. Ancient Greece was, of course,
no longer a primitive communist society. But these rituals seem to have derived
from hunter-gatherer traditions in which the meat of hunted animals is carefully
shared between every member of the tribe.[5]

 Unlike egalitarian hunter-gatherers, the Greek priests gave higher class men
considerably more of these shares. Then, later, the priests seem to have
distributed pieces of metal, in the form of coins, rather than pieces of meat. In
fact the coin, the drachma, derives its name from the Greek for a ‘handful’ of
spits - where ‘spits’ refers to the skewers used to cook the ritual sacrifice.[6]

 The uniform nature of the first coins may have been a response, like Athenian
democracy, to people’s desire for equality at time of growing inequality. However,
once coins were introduced, they spread to markets and trade, and eventually people
started selling themselves for coins.

 Is this, at least partially, the origins of wage labour - with all its insecurities
and real, though limited, freedoms? If so, how does this understanding help us
transcend the whole money system? How does this understanding help us go from a
society held together by the fake equality of money and wage labour to one held
together by the real equality of sharing and community? How does this understanding
help us fulfil the hopes of the early Marxists by returning to the social relations
of primitive communism, at a higher level?

 There are no obvious answers to these questions. But, as Marx predicted - 130 years
too soon - capitalism’s crisis does appear to be heading towards the disintegration
of the money system (with Greece, uncannily, at the centre of this crisis). Even 
/The Financial Times/ now admits that, for most people in the West, the bad times
will not just last for a few years, but forever.[7]

 Capitalism was surprisingly resilient in the 20th century because it was usually
able to keep its promise of improving living standards. However, once people
realise that this promise is over - forever - it is only a matter of time before
they will start looking for alternatives to the whole money system.

 As the system stumbles from crisis to crisis, it will take a while for people to
realise that they will need to transcend it completely. After all, we have been
selling ourselves for coins for several thousand years. But we do need to remind
ourselves that we spent much longer than this - tens of thousands of years -
sharing everything as communist hunter-gatherers, without coins, classes or states.
We also lived for tens of thousands of years without patriarchy.


 By achieving better employment opportunities, women have significantly weakened
patriarchy. By sacrificing more of their time for coins, women have become fully
integrated into Western capitalist society. But, despite this improvement,
individualised childcare means that proletarian women’s workload has only
increased. On top of this, cuts in welfare and jobs have now brought a halt to any
further improvement in women’s lives. Consequently, it may only be a matter of time
before women start looking to collective and revolutionary solutions to their

 If women do take a leading role in any future anti-capitalist revolution, they are
unlikely to put up with the continuation of individualised childcare. If such a
revolution does collectivise childcare - putting human care, not material
production, at the centre of society - women would then have an unprecedented
opportunity to reverse what Engels called, “the world-historic defeat of the female
sex”. Humanity could then return to the better aspects of primitive communism, to,
what Marx called, “a higher form of the most archaic type”.[8]

 [The author can be contacted via hghg2 (at)]

 *1*. L.Sims,
‘Primitive Communism, Barbarism and the Origins of Class Society’ ;
C.Knight, ‘Engels was Right: Early Human Kinship was Matrilineal’ ;
S.Hrdy, Mothers and Others; C.Boehm,  /Hierarchy in the Forest/; R.B.Lee,  /The
Cambridge Encyclopaedia of Hunters and Gatherers/, esp. J.Gowdy  p391-7.
(Available at

 *2*. These mega-fauna eventually died out and the subsequent scarcity and
insecurity seems to have encouraged people to look to leaders to adjudicate between
conflicting interests. At first these leaders probably advocated egalitarianism but
then the temptation to attain individual security and wealth became too great. This
decline of egalitarianism seems to be reflected in ancient Greek culture in Aesop’s
fable of ‘The Wolf and the Ass’. In that story, the leader of the wolves announces
“laws to the effect that whatever was caught by hunting would be shared
communally.” However the ass then declares: “What about your catch of yesterday
which you have concealed in your lair? Bring it out and share it with the
community.” Aesop then ends the fable with the sentence: “The wolf, disconcerted,
abolished his laws.” / Aesop, Complete Fables/ p170.

 *3*. J.D.White,  /Karl Marx and the Intellectual Origins of Dialectical Materialism
/p275-84;  /MECW /Vol.24.

 *4*. P.Davies,  /Myth, Matriarchy and Modernity/ p67.

 *5*.  *A.Semenova, 'Would You Barter with God? Why Holy Debts and Not Profane
Markets Created Money'*
,  /American Journal of Economics and Sociology/, Vol.70 p378-92 (also on web);
P.Wiessner,  /Food and the Status Quest/ p171ff.

 *6*. The earliest Greek word for coinage,  /nomisma/ and the word for law, 
/nomos/, both derive from  /nemein/, meaning ‘to distribute’. Moreover, the word
‘collateral’ seems to derive from the Greek for a ‘receiver of limbs’. These
derivations presumably refer to the distribution of pieces of sacrificial animals.
Semenova (ibid); R.Seaford,  /Money and the Early Greek Mind/ p49-50, 79, 102ff.

 *7*. M.Wolf, ‘Is Unlimited Growth a Thing of the Past?’,  /Financial Times/,

 *8*. In the era of classic Marxism, the theorist who went furthest in describing
this future revolution was the Communist Party member and, at one time,
highly-regarded colleague of both Freud and Jung, Otto Gross. Dr. Gross argued
“that the entire structure of civilisation since the destruction of the primitive
communistic mother-right order is false.” He called for “the dissolution of the
father-right family by socialising the care of motherhood” and for a revolution for
“Communist Mother-Right”. See ‘Otto Gross - The Anarchist Psychoanalyst’ and ‘Is
Revolution Back on the Agenda’  (at