The expanded model of historical materialism

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Joined: 30-01-17
Nov 5 2018 20:59
The expanded model of historical materialism

After reading Engels' On the Origins of the Family, combined Marx and Engels' views on the materialist view of history found in The German Ideology, I've been thinking about the traditional schema of Primitive Communism - Slave Society - Feudal Society - Capitalist Society - Communism and see in a different way than this traditional linear portrayal. I think my thoughts on it are actually in line with what Marx and Engels had in mind dialectically but they never got around to expressing it in this way.

Primitive Communism

Engels borrows from Morgan and divides this into two distinct stages: Savagery and Barbarism. Each stage is divided into three sub-stages. Each sub-stage is predicated on the existence of the prior sub-stage due to the developments in the means of production achieved in the previous stage.


Lower stage - developed speech thus allowing spread of ideas
Middle stage - developed fire thus increasing food options and allowing for migration to colder areas
Upper stage - invention of early tools including the bow and arrow (allowed for game hunting)


Lower Stage - developed pottery which allowed for storage of foods and other goods
Middle stage - humans begin to domesticate plants and animals
Upper stage - development of iron smelting allowing for better tool production (e.g. ploughshares).

The corresponding development of the family over these two periods was as follows:

Consanguine family - all grandfathers and grandmothers within the family are husbands and wives of each other, as are their children and their grandchildren, etc. Sexual relations occurring between siblings as they are technically husbands and wives.
Punaluan family - incest taboo emerges. Now one or more line of sisters would form the nucleus of one household while their brothers would form the nucleus of another.
Pairing family - replaces the group marriage. One man lives with one woman but polygamy and occasional infidelity remain the right of men. The pairing family was still too weak to form an independent household so it did not destroy the existing communistic household.
Monogamous family - the victory of the male sex and corresponding to the rise of private property. Men now enforce monogamy in order that they may know who their offspring are (paternity uncertain before this). This is so they can bequeath their new-found property to their children. This was the first form of the family based on economic, not natural conditions.

What we see during this period is the growing productivity of humans within Primitive Communism due to improved mastery of nature and the means of production (domestication and tools), and increased population growth and quality as a result of the narrowing of family boundaries (lack of incest). But these developments weren't put in motion by class struggle (i.e. 'the history of all human society') because classes did not yet exist. Instead, the cause of these developments can be found primarily in the division of labour which existed on a sex-based line, although remaining largely egalitarian throughout the period (until monogamy). Men tended to hunt while women tended to look after the home. This meant men were more exposed to the means of production and the products of their labour itself. Therefore, as the means of production developed and productivity increased, certain men came into possession of increased amounts of means of subsistence (herds, etc).

This is the crucial point as to why Primitive Communism collapsed and transformed into private property. Humans had started to produce significant quantities of surplus on a regular basis and communal society was unable to answer the question: how should this surplus be distributed on an egalitarian basis? Primitive Communism had no answer to this and so collapsed and the era of private property was born. Thus we see the beginnings of patriarchy (the men as dominant sex due to their possession of property) and the state (an institution designed to preserve the practice of private property).


This is the point where the traditional Marxian model appears to go along the linear journey to Slavery-Feudalism-Capitalism-Communism, but I think we should stop here and see things in a slightly different way. Unlike Slavery, Feudalism and Capitalism, Primitive Communism is fundamentally different from these societies. The former, while being different stages of production, are nonetheless all forms of private property while Primitive Communism is a form of communal property. Morgan/Engels call the stage immediately following Barbarism the stage of Civilisation (equating to Slave Society in the Marxian schema in The German Ideology). This means we should see Slavery, Feudalism and Capitalism as separate sub-stages within the stage of Private Property (aka Civilisation), rather than unique stages in their own right.

Under this overall period the family ceases to change beyond the monogamous family (which exists to this day) since this is the family model designed to favour private property. For the first time it becomes class struggle which is the mover of history because class struggle is still an attempt to answer the same question that Primitive Communism could not: how should surplus be distributed on an egalitarian basis? The propertyless classes wage a constant class warfare throughout all these sub-stages because they are trying to secure more of the surplus than they receive under the economic model. Therefore under Slavery the slaves fight the slave owners and eventually overthrow them to become a new landowning class (the aristocracy). The peasants fight the aristocracy under Feudalism but simply to increase their landholdings (thus preventing them from being a truly revolutionary class), but the bourgeoisie fight against the aristocracy in order to secure the rights of capital over those of landed property. Finally the proletarians fight the bourgeoisie for higher wages and benefits within the wage-labour system. All these are battles for the surplus produced within the era of Private Property and throughout, the state remains the tool of the ruling class to suppress the oppressed classes.


The period of Communism represents a fundamental change once more with the existing stage of Private Property. Once more humanity returns to its communal economic model as last seen thousands of years ago, only this time it is finally predicated on having successfully answered the question: how should surplus be distributed on an egalitarian basis? This is what makes this subsequent stage of communism 'higher' than its primitive predecessor, because the latter could not answer this question. The question of class struggle, patriarchy and private property are solved in this final stage.

So now the dialectic of Marx and Engels' theory of history appears as:

Communism-------mediated by its opposite (Private Property/Civilisation)------Communism (higher stage)

Just as Primitive Communism is divided into its sub-stages, so is the period of Private Property.

Mike Harman
Joined: 7-02-06
Nov 5 2018 21:12

The 'traditional schema' is based entirely on Western Europe, and doesn't cover the way that capitalism traveled around the globe - i.e. it was intentionally imported into Japan during Meiji rather than growing out of Feudalism, and imposed on nearly everywhere else.

Marx wrote about this later in life, to unfortunately little effect:

Joined: 30-01-17
Nov 5 2018 22:08

I agree with this, especially as capitalism failed to develop in many parts of the world. Some societies even remained in Primitive Communism until they encountered Europeans. This latter fact is why I think in many ways it doesn't matter whether what societies reached what "stages" and when. Capitalism, being a global system with a tendency to spread into and transform every market and society in its own image, created a unified and global mode of production. I would argue it in fact needs to become even more global and even more unified in order for a truly world revolution to develop. This was the progressive nature of capitalism: to bring the pre-capitalist societies under the capitalist mode of production.

Joined: 31-12-18
Dec 31 2018 01:06

Anthropological research and theory has advanced considerably since Morgan.I recommend Marvin Harris, proponent of a synthesis of cultural ecology and historical materialism. I particular, I recommend his book Cultural Materialism. One section of the book is a schematic account of human social evolution, informed by the latest (as of 1979) insights in anthropology.

No contemporary anthropologists view human evolution as linear (neither did Marx, incidentally).

I recommend also Harris's books for popular audiences, such as Our Kind. Also, check out some 1st year text books, which typically provide many examples of the variety of human behaviour and customs, even if the theoretical framework is flawed.