For the Socialist Workers’ Party, rape is now a big issue. Under very different circumstances – when it was more of a theoretical topic – rape was also a big issue twenty years ago.
The document reproduced below was written in association with the Radical Anthropology Group. It summarizes debates during the SWP’s Marxism event in 1991 – debates triggered by the marxist anthropological theory that the prohibition against rape, enforced through struggle thousands of years ago, was the foundational rule of early human society and culture.
After months of lively discussion – including a well-attended debate between RAG member Lionel Sims and SWP leader Duncan Hallas at ‘Marxism’ – around 20 SWP comrades, including virtually all the party’s anthropologists, were summoned by the leadership to a kangaroo court at which they were told to discontinue the debate on pain of immediate expulsion. Most resigned rather than collude with such censorship. We leave it to readers to decide the nature of any connection between these historical events and the crisis currently engulfing the SWP.
Marxism 1991: BIOLOGY, MARXISM AND ‘HUMAN NATURE’
A reply to some comrades in the debate so far.
The Socialist Workers’ Party, now almost alone on the left, takes Marxist theory seriously. Everywhere else, the basic tenets are being abandoned in favour of liberalism, bourgeois feminism and/or reformism. Either that, or – as in the case of the few remaining crisis-ridden hard left sects – clichés and formulae are routinely preserved as dogmatically asserted, fossilised caricatures of what Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky actually taught. Instead of science, we have dogmas protected artificially from any contact with recent developments in academia, unable to counter bourgeois ideology, cut of from revolutionary practice and therefore devoid of meaning or relevance.
SWP comrades’ recent intensified engagement with anthropology is in this context a sign of strength. The party is returning to a fine tradition established by Marx and Engels themselves. There is no way of countering the right-wing argument that “no revolution can change human nature” except by studying how human language, human labour and human culture came into being. To take a concrete example, there is no way of countering the reactionary argument that biology “has something to do with” the oppression of women, except by showing that for most of early human history, women – whose biology was then exactly what it is today – were not oppressed by men at all!
Engels and Marx were always quick to seize on the exciting scientific findings of the evolutionary biologists and anthropologists of their day. They studied the work of scientists such as Charles Darwin and Lewis Henry Morgan because they knew that in the writings of these and other advanced (even if bourgeois) thinkers lay the keys to an understanding of the question of so-called “human nature”. Marx aimed to unite the biological with the social sciences, and was aware that an understanding of our origins was an essential precondition. As “everything natural must have an origin”, he wrote,
“so man too has his process of origin, history, which can, however, be known by him and thus is a conscious process of origin that transcends itself.”(1)
By knowing our process of origin, we know what we were, are and must become, and this knowledge “transcends itself” – that is, enters as a factor in our further development. Both Morgan and Engels knew that humans are animals – and yet not animals. For one thing, we have labour. For another, and arising out of this, we have language and consciousness. But for the Marxist founders, it was not just a matter of repeating endlessly that humans are “different”. The task was to understand this difference by understanding how it came to be. The question for them was: how did nature “transcend itself”? How did natural evolution proceed to the point at which biological determinism was transcended, replaced by a form of historical determinism operating now on an entirely new level?
To answer this question, both Marx and Engels knew that Darwinism – then the most advanced and yet ultra-bourgeois way of looking at nature – could not be ignored. Humans had once been animals, and during that stage had lived lives subject to biological, not cultural, laws. Engels thought that Darwin’s laws – those by which evolving humans had lived prior to culture – resembled the competitive principles of capitalism.
Darwinism as “primitive capitalism”
Whereas Christianity had advocated the subordination of the egotistic individual to higher cosmic purposes, Darwinism in its popular forms preached “the survival of the fittest”, this concept being borrowed directly from capitalist – specifically Malthusian – economic and political doctrine. In a letter to Engels written in 1862, Karl Marx(2) noted Darwin’s claim to be
“applying the Malthusian’ theory also to plants and animals… It is remarkable how Darwin recognises among beasts and plants his English society with its division of labour, competition, opening up of new markets, ‘inventions’ and the Malthusian ‘struggle for existence’.”
Darwin – Marx argued – was transposing the logic of his own society onto the natural world, and then deriving from “nature” a supposed validation of the very cultural logic from which he had set forth.
In ‘The Dialectics of Nature’, Engels agreed – adding that Darwin
“did not know what a bitter satire he wrote on mankind, and especially on his countrymen, when he showed that free competition, the struggle for existence, which the economists celebrate as the highest historical achievement, is the normal state of the animal kingdom”.(3)
Darwin saw capitalism’s logic as an expression of permanent natural necessity, the laws of individualistic competition embracing the entirety of natural and human history alike.
Darwin’s case appeared well-founded. The parallels between capitalist and zoological laws of competition seemed real enough. Marx himself, after all, had earlier written that capitalist society “is not a society: it is, as Rousseau says, a desert populated by wild animals”.(4) But like any great prophet exorcising rival gods, Darwin had unconsciously excluded other possibilities, thereby anchoring the values of his own particular culture in the inescapable nature of all life itself. Engels commented: “...nothing discredits modern bourgeois development so much as the fact that it has not yet got beyond the economic forms of the animal world”.(5)
Evolving humans, then, had at first lived under competitive laws in some ways resembling those of capitalism. If you have a gradualist evolutionary scenario, then an obvious implication is that no decisive break with this competitive, inegalitarian tradition has ever been made. Capitalism is in our genes. This, of course, is the subliminal message conveyed by David Attenborough and others in all those recent fascinating T.V. documentaries on chimpanzees and other primates in the wild. These animals’ petty status differentials, dominance hierarchies and (according to the sociobiologists) struggles to assert the immortality of their own particular genes form a pattern which fits nicely with the now-rampant privatisation campaigns and hymns In praise of the “free market”.
The Human Revolution
What the popularisers don’t allow viewers to know is that most leading palaeoanthropologists are now agreed that in the human case an immense revolution put an end to the primacy of sociobiological laws. Lengthy scholarly tomes such as Chris Stringer’s and Paul Mellars’ ‘The Human Revolution’(6) tell us how, around the early stages of the last ice age – about 40 to 60 thousand years ago – something utterly extraordinary began to happen. The descendants of a logical construct known as ‘African Eve’ – our ultimate great grandmother, who lived in Africa some 100,000 to 200,000 years ago, and whose mitochondrial DNA all modern humans uniquely share – began migrating across the globe and displacing the various forms of Archaic Homo sapiens (Homo erectus, the Neanderthals etc.) who had previously inhabited Eurasia. This period of initial migration and displacement is known as the ‘Upper PalaeolithIc Revolution’, sometimes referred to also as ‘The Symbolic Explosion’.
In the archaeological record we suddenly find evidence for the first time of art, ritual and music. Beads, bangles and other body-adornments are found. Fragments of little bone flutes have been discovered. Zigzags and other designs are engraved on bones. Periodically engraved notches on mammoth bones match the changing phases of the moon – the first evidence for calendrical time-keeping. Cave walls and rock-shelters are marked with images of the female vulva associated with game animals of various kinds. It is clear that “consciousness” in the human sense – communicated and preserved through linguistic, musical, ritual and other symbols – had burst onto the scene, completely transcending the petty, socioblologlcal level of existence to which humanity’s ape-like ancestors had been confined.
This more-than-biological ‘consciousness’ cannot simply have had a biological explanation. It did not emerge simply because by this time, evolving humans had developed a large enough brain. Human language and consciousness are social products. Their emergence must therefore have been the result of social change.
Gender and class
Chris Knight’s pamphlet, ‘The Origin of Human Society’,(7) as well as his full-length book, ‘Blood Relations’,(8) set out from the idea that to be fully human is to be conscious, and that consciousness in any meaningful sense has something to do with the class struggle. We would probably all agree that this is the case today; but Chris attempts to show that the class struggle as a determinant of “consciousness” didn’t begin yesterday, or even a few hundred years ago. As both Marx and Engels fully realised, if our struggle is traced back far enough in the past, it will be found to take other forms, sexual conflicts being among the most central. There is in fact no way of applying Marxism to the study of human origins without to a very large extent translating the concept of ‘class’ into that of ‘sex’ or ‘gender’: this is simply because classes did not exist during the early and middle Pleistocene, whereas sexual politics and male/female conflicts expressing a comparable logic undoubtedly did.
Some comrades might find the idea of comparing gender struggles with the class struggle difficult – perhaps because it seems dangerously reminiscent of feminism. All one can say is that if you don’t look at sexual conflicts (and their ultimate resolution) as a key factor in human origins, then the heart of social and political conflict as such In this period has to be overlooked. A theory which doesn’t take contradiction, conflict and struggle into account is not going to be a Marxist one.
It must be emphasised that the conflicts being discussed here – primitive ‘class conflicts’, if you like – were only on a formal level comparable with the genuine class conflicts which Marxists normally analyse. And it must also be emphasised that these conflicts were not characteristic of early human society. They were characteristic of prehuman society – society as it existed prior to the revolutionary social processes out of which language and culture were born. Earliest human society was doubtless not a perfect idyll, but chronic conflict belween the sexes was certainly ruled out in favour of the co-operation of men and women as equals. The task is to understand how this sexual equality was achieved. To attribute it to ‘nature’ would be ridiculous. Egalitarianism was consciously constructed and defended by early humans just as It is by modern hunters and gatherers, not merely allowed to happen.
We must get away from the pernicious, reactionary notion that early equality was ‘just an equality of poverty’. Writing of early human hunters and gatherers, Elane Heffernan (‘Socialist Worker’, June 8th, 1991) writes: ‘We shouldn’t idealise these societies. People were engaged in a desperate struggle for survival’. Not so. Academic social anthropologists have long given up these kinds of cultural imperialist prejudices. Communism can’t be built on poverty or desperation. It presupposes abundance and leisure. But to understand this, it is necessary to forget your bourgeois economics and bourgeois sociology completely. The Gross National Product has absolutely nothing to do with it. Of course hunters and gatherers are ‘poor’ by bourgeois monetary standards. But so what? Abundance measures a relationship between humans and the resources around them. It can only be defined on a social basis. True human wealth in fact, can only be measured in terms of units of human time – time free for the enjoyment of actual life itself. By these standards, our early hunter-gatherer ancestors were far from poor.
Even the marginalised Southern African hunter-gatherers of modern times enjoy immeasurably more healthy, varied diets and have far more time for dancing, singing, story- telling and living than capitalism allows to the masses whom it seduces and exploits. lce age hunter-gatherers, as they first moved into the game-rich areas of Eurasia, Australasia and the Americas, would have found themselves still richer. In fact, they were in a hunter’s paradise, surrounded by teeming herds of enormous game animals providing a superabundance of food for the marvellously co-operative hunters which these people were. If you must have your prejudices about ‘savages’ (Duncan Hallas, Saturday’s debate), please reserve them for pre-human hominids such as Homo erectus or the Neanderthals, where they might possibly have some relevance. In a famous book, Stone Age Economics, the leading social anthropologist Marshall Sahlins called the lifestyle of the first fully-human hunters and gatherers ‘the original affluent society’.(9)
Engels and the overthrow of ‘primitive capitalism’
But let us return to origins. Engels held that in the evolution of the primates, collective bands (“hordes”) on the one hand, ‘harem’-type polygamous ‘families’ on the other, were not complementary ‘but antagonistic to each other’. Both ‘hordes’ and ‘families’ could exist within the same monkey or ape group. But there was a fundamental contradiction between these two levels of social and sexual organisation. Somehow, in the human case, the collective group (‘horde’) must have gained the ascendancy – but it could only have done so if the primate ‘family’ were overthrown.
Systems of primate dominance, according to Engels, therefore have ‘a certain value in drawing conclusions regarding human societies – but only in a negative sense’.(10) There are no obvious evolutionary continuities. Where groups of primate females are bound closely in ‘family’ units to their male males, writes Engels, in each case ‘only one adult male, one husband is permissible’. This individualism is in direct contrast with the incipient primate ‘horde’, whose full development becomes possible only once the fragmenting influence of male dominance and jealousy is overcome with the transition to humanity. Whilst nitpicking academics could nowadays find fault with Engels’ formulations here, the basic point he is making is in fact quite correct. Among primates, sex is a cause of conflict. Males tend to fight each other for females, the most dominant ending up with many more mating opportunities than their subordinate male rivals. Nothing in the sexual lives of apes or monkeys seems (by human standards) ‘fair’.
The system of individualistic male sexual dominance, according to Engels, led to continual sexual conflicts:
‘Mutual toleration among the adult males, freedom from jealousy, was, however, the first condition for the building of those large and enduring groups in the midst of which alone the transition from animal to man could be achieved. And indeed, what do we find as the oldest, most primitive form of the family, of which undeniable evidence can be found in history, and which even today can be studied here and there? Group marriage, the form in which whole groups of men and whole groups of women belong to one another, and which leaves but little scope for jealousy’.(11)
In this and the preceding passages, we can see that contrary to what is sometimes supposed, Engels did not restrict himself exclusively to a gradualistic conception of human origins in which continuities between ape and human social forms were stressed. Had he had such a conception, he would not have been able to insist that ‘the animal family and primitive human society are incompatible things....’(12)
Without necessarily following Engels in his conception of ‘group marriage’ (which incidentally is not so implausible as it sounds – most hunter-gatherers do enjoy rituals of sexual license at certain times of the year, and these do approximate towards a kind of sexual communism, albeit temporary), we can certainly agree that male sexual jealousies and general competitiveness – very obvious among all primates so far studied, although taking different forms – had to be overcome before successful big game hunting as a key aspect of social labour could get under way.
The origins of human society
In this context, Chris Knight in ‘Blood Relations’ argues that the story of human evolution is to a large extent the story of Womankind’s eventually successful battle in forcing evolving human males to end their former sexual competitiveness and philandering and instead assist mothers in the task of providing food and other support for their offspring. Culture depends on large brains; these need time to develop. Such brains also need a prolonged childhood in which sufficient learning can take place. The evolution of large-brained Homo sapiens therefore brought with it dramatically intensified parenting burdens. If these burdens were not to defeat the mothers who were primarily responsible, it was vital for evolving women to ensure thal the opposite sex contributed more support than had ever been contributed by male primates, including hominids, before. Mothers, then, had to organise themselves – drawing on sons and brothers as allies – as the condition of their own and their offspring’s emancipation.
‘Blood Relations’ argues that this was the context within which language and rule-making became necessary for the first time. For the first time, evolving humans had arrived at the point ‘at which they had something to say to each other’.(13) The collectivity mobilised in this primordial “class struggle” created the conditions under which grammatical, moral and other ‘rules’ could be established and respected by all. In particular, ‘Blood Relations’ argues that women established their status and equality by gaining collective control over their own sexuality. Instead of remaining privatised by individual sexual partners, women established that ultimate ownership in their bodies was vested collectively in themselves and in their male kin (not husbands) within each clan.
In order to safeguard and periodically re-establish this form of human self-ownership, women could not afford to allow marriage to become a permanent, indissoluble bond. The indissoluble bonds had to be those of ‘blood’, not marriage. One way of reminding women’s sexual partners of this fact of life was to make marital separation very easy; another was to insist on the right to have more than one relationship without fear of jealous reprisals. Yet another method was for women, together, to go periodically ‘on strike’ – an action resorted to (with the full support of men as brothers) whenever the in-marrying husbands were regarded as too lazy to go and hunt! In many ways, this logic – seen in Blood Relations as central to human cultural origins – continues to be discernible in hunter-gatherer societies which have survived right up into modern times. In most hunter-gatherer societies, marriage bonds tend to be weak – much weaker than those of kinship or ‘blood’.
The economic function of what seems to Westerners to constitute hunter-gatherers’ continuous ‘marital insecurity’ needs to be understood. From the point of view of women and their brothers and other kin, the basic point is to keep the in-marrying husbands constantly ‘on their toes’, so that they don’t take sex for granted but get on with the proper provisionlng of their wives, offspring and in-laws. This near-universal institutionalised pattern is known as ‘bride-service’; among hunter-gatherers to this day, it has remained virtually universal, at least for young men in the early years of marriage although in many cultures for much longer.
Women’s sexual autonomy and self-control, in any event, was from the beginnlng not just a matter of their love lives. It had economic implications of immense significance. Women, In fact, could collectivise childcare and other household tasks only to the extent that their sexual partners provisioned them sufficiently, and to ensure this, male hunters had to be powerfully enough motivated. A man who thinks his wife’s sexual value belongs to him personally as an item of property is not going to be very nice or useful to know. He will tend to take his wife’s availability for granted, perhaps throwing his weight around instead of working around the home or helping with the children ‘to earn his keep’. To state this obvious truth doesn’t require the speaker to be a ‘feminist’. It is simply a fact of sexual-political life.
Chris Knight cites an immense body of ethnographic and other evidence for the reality of women’s primordial ‘right to strike’ (too often glossed by bourgeois ethnographers as ‘easy divorce’, a concept which begs the question of what ‘marriage’ in hunter-gatherer societies actually entails). He also shows how women’s collectivity brought them together in comradeship and equality with their sons and brothers within each clan; men as brothers had every bit as much power as women, and as strong an interest in defending their sisters, even though their privilege as husbands were by patriarchal standards curtailed. Chris Knight’s is certainly not a model of ‘matriarchy’ if by that you mean a system In which men on principle had to be ruled over by dominant women to prevent being raped (a disgraceful caricature invented by Elane Heffernan in Friday’s debate)!
Why menstrual synchrony?
Among various lines of evidence drawn upon to support the view that women’s solidarity was intense during the ice age are red-ochred, carved ‘Venus’ figurines and vulva-images in association with lunar calendars – hints that ‘communism in living’ within longhouses and other dwellings enabled women to synchronise their menstrual cycles with one another and that this was important to them. Why might this be theoretically interesting and important to Marxists? The simplest answer is once again to remind ourselves that biology is politically and socially neutral. It can mean one thing in one culture, another in a totally different one. If you are a woman giving birth or caring for children in a collectivised context, supported and provisioned by other women and men of the household, all tasks being shared, then to be a mother – to be biologically female – will feel much more empowering than in a lonely, isolated, privatised context such as that imposed on most working class mothers under capitalism today. Collectivity and solidarity make all the difference.
It’s the same with having a menstrual cycle. Patriarchal and capitalist forms of culture tend to make women feel, at some level, that having a menstrual cycle is some kind of problem or disability. Women may even feel that it has something to do with their oppression. Certainly, menstrual taboos in their contemporary forms do little to dispel such an idea. Why study synchrony? The point is simply that if menstruation, too, was originally experienced within a ritual – i.e. collective – context, it would all have been very different. Is it really so difficult to imagine a culture in which it felt wonderful to be biologically female – just as good as to be biologically male? If imagination is not your strong point, try reading about the Mbuti or other African hunter-gatherers of today, for whom a girl’s first menstruation is treated as a joyful, collective occasion, and for whom this and other aspects of female biology are really no problem at all.(15) Or else read Chris Knight’s book. Incidentally, comrades who acknowledge the reality of collective childcare in early human societies are by implication acknowledging menstrual synchrony as well. It is simply not possible for women to live in close physical and emotional contact with one another without their cycles beginning to synchronise. If some people feel that it didn’t happen, the onus of proof really is on them to explain why it didn’t! And if some comrades agree that synchrony was likely but still ask, “So what?”, then consider the following.
If synchrony occurred, then women would undoubtedly have chosen each period of synchronised menstruation as the best moment to go collectively on strike. Under such circumstances the flowing of the blood, far from symbolising weakness or disability, would have been felt as the symbolic expression of women’s power and solidarity (including solidarity with men as sons and brothers) within each clan. Finally, if such blood-solidarity or clan-solidarity in some ways felt like modern class solidarity – as Engels (albeit in a slightly different context) certainly thought – then the blood’s connotations may have been not too dissimilar from those which the banner of socialism still has for us today. Blood-redness in all cultures tends to symbolise defiance and power. The colour of our own flag – red with our own class blood – is in this context hardly coincidental.
The origins of women’s oppression
If we are to gain a scientific understanding of the roots of women’s oppression, we have no choice but to investigate the precise economic and other mechanisms through which women’s equality and shared power had been maintained in the period before the rise of the family, private property and the state. How did the matrilineal clan system so celebrated by Engels as an inspiration for socialists actually work? What were its economic mechanisms, its sexual mechanisms, its structures of production, circulation and exchange? Only if we understand such issues can we begin to approach the question of what went wrong when women’s oppression arose.
As hinted above, our suggested answer is that post ice-age meat scarcity and therefore poverty was the initial cause of the ‘world-historic defeat of the female sex’. Quite unlike the collectivised hunting of mammoths, herds of reindeer or other large game, this relative poverty (still in many ways mild by contemporary standards) led human groups to split up into small bands and disperse widely in the course of gathering wild (mainly vegetable) foods, a process which isolated women and broke down the intense solidarity which had previously sustained their equality. In the previous period, men would not have been interested In polygamously monopolising wives for the simple reason that the more wives – the greater the necessary effort to provision them and their relatives! But once the reverse economic logic obtalned – once husbands could to a large extent actually live off the labour-produce of their wives – it began to pay men to accumulate them if possible. It also paid them to abandon their sisters on whom they had previously been dependent for meat (meat which in the old system had been taken into the household by these sisters from their in-marrying husbands). Eventually, in certain areas, the same poverty led to the solution provided by horticulture and then plough-agriculture, whose sexual-political logic also did little to sustain intense gender-solidarity. Once women had been sexually and reproductively privatised, “the family” in Engels’ sense had come into being. The economically and sexually productive family which each husband now “owned” was – as both Marx and Engels frequently emphasised – the first form of private property. This had absolutely nothing to do with any reactionary theory about the genetic nastiness of males. If male behaviour became less pleasant as a result of the counterrevolution, it was for social and economic reasons, not “natural” ones.
The human revolution
The future of humanity depends on whether or not the international working class succeeds in organismg itself autonomously and taking power into its hands, setting the knowledge, wealth and labour-power accumulated under capitalism to work for human need rather than for private profit. The best precedent we have for this, in our view, is the process through which human culture itself was first successfully established. The “human revolution” was a political process in the course of which the formerly oppressed, materially burdened sex discovered the logic of solidarity and indeed of strike-action, this being in principle no different from the logic of strike action as manifested in working class struggle today. Human consciousness was forged in proportion as the fighting logic of class solidarity took hold, Marx’s insights in this connection being as valid in explaining the establishment of “primitive communism” as in explaining how socialism nowadays remains a realistic goal. By contrast, virtually everything which the middle class feminists and bourgeois academic anthropologists say about social life in general and “consciousness” in particular is reactionary nonsense.
1. This was the view unfortunately expressed on Friday by Elane Heffernan in the “Origins of Women’s Oppression” debate. Elane suggested that sexual oppression began because women were for biological reasons at a disadvantage in activities such as ploughing fields. Marxists cannot accept this kind of thinking. It is a total non-sequitur, and besides being reactionary is a personal hypothesis which would cause nothing but merriment among our bourgeois academically trained opponents. For one thing, women in many parts of Aboriginal Australia have long been oppressed through the use of male secret initiation rites alld cults – which can be traced back hundreds and probably thousands of years prior to European contact – without any ploughs being used whatsoever. For another, women in many cultures do use ploughs, and in fact do heavier work than men, without this being in any way empowering for them. There is certainly nothing intrinsically empowering about using a plough!
Still more importantly, the very same female biology which Elane holds to have prevented women using ploughs is also stated by her to have hindered pregnant or child-burdened women from using spears or other weapons in the direct hunting of big game. Yet on the basis of that logic, one would predict that women who were physically strong and not burdened wilh offspring would engage in this kind of hunting. Biut the fact is that a virtual taboo against women engaging in such blood-shedding activities (a taboo which is perhaps the nearest thing we have to a hunter-gather cross-cultural universal) applies to all women indiscriminately, regardless of physical strength or reproductive condition. Obviously, then, factors other than biology are at work.
There is one final problem. Elane argues that women in all hunter-gatherer or ice-age hunter cultures have or had high status. During the ice age, when abundant game made scarcity for the most part unknown, this argument seems very plausible, although we cannot be dogmatic about it for all cultures which then existed. But in general Elane’s argument at this point can be accepted. In that case, logic would require Elane to admit that women’s biology excluded them from a vital part of the productive process – the hunting of big game – and that despite this women’s status was high. But then this makes Elane’s entire argument about ploughs and female biology illogical. It now turns out that one and the same biology acts in one scenario to permit women’s high status despite thelr exclusion from the basic male productive activity (women have power yet are excluded from hunting) and in another to undermine that status because of women’s exclusion from the basic male pruductive activity (women lose power since they are excluded from plough-agriculture). We are entitled to ask: In what sense, then, can “women’s biology” as such explain anything at all?
From, all this, Marxists can and must draw the conclusion that having a female anatomy has little more to do with women’s oppression than having black skin-pigmentation has something to do with being oppressed under racist regimes. The biological factor has absolutely nothing to do with it, except in the trivial sense that in the case of both women and black people, the socio-cultural system either may or may not discriminate against any selected biologically defined group. Biology is a constant. It therefore cannot be invoked to explain a change – let alone so massive a world-historic change as the origin of women’s oppression.
We stress all this in order to suggest that in place of the arguments of the academic bourgeois feminists (too heavily relied upon by some of our own comrades in the past), the line which Engels himself argued may still in fact be sustainable today. Comrades should be open to the possibility that a full rather than minimalist defence of Engels is still tenable. Yet none of what has been argued above, let us emphasise, can be asserted to have been proved beyond possibility of doubt. We are not interested in establishing new faiths. Certainly, science doesn’t move forward through haranguing matches or the clash of bald assertions. A complex and controversial book such as Chris Knight’s is bound to be flawed in many places; it at no point aspires to constitute some marble mausoleum, enshrining the final word on the massive range of difficult topics that it broaches. A good book is a machine to think with and it is in that spirit that we believe all interested comrades should take ‘Blood Relations’ seriously. The Radical Anthropology Group is a forum for thinking about language, labour and the other things which first established us as fully human. Regardless of the outcome within the SWP, a rational debate on these issues can only benefit us all.
2. The ‘sex-strike’ theory of human origins provides powerful arguments for lesbians and gays. Since the strike would have acted against marital sex, which implied heterosexual sex, it goes far towards explaining the uniquely polymorphic nature of human sexuality – the fact that humans are sexually diffuse, with the sex act focused not simply on reproduction but harnessed to wider social needs. The sex-strike model envisages a ritual ban on marital relations triggered by the onset of menstruation and then lasting for anything up to a fortnight – i.e. one half of a lunar month (comrades must remember that people didn’t have our modern, exclusively solar Christian Gregorian calendar then). The other half of the month would have been given over to marital relations.
Up to half of each month, then, may have been spent in non-heterosexual comradeship, the other half in marital sex. What the sisters and brothers would have been doing to enjoy themselves while marital relations were suspended we can only guess at! The point is that no one would have been fixated by compulsion in either one mode of being sexual or in the other. Early humans had the freedom of choice to experience both sides of their sexuality, the majority of humans doubtless enjoying the variety which came from the chance to be bonded to the opposite sex during one lunar phase, to their own during the other.
People who are gay or lesbian have everything to gain from this theory. It demonstrates in an entirely new way that the open and not-so-open bigots who keep whispering on about whether alternatives to heterosexuality can possibly be ‘natural’ are missing the point altogether. In Chris Knight’s model, going on strike against heterosexuality was the very factor which made us human. Humans are cultural, not just natural, creatures. Yet culture, resting on gender-solidarity, has powerfully shaped our deepest nature. ‘Man’, as Duncan Hallas reminded us on Saturday, ‘makes himself. ‘Blood Relations’’ contribution has been to remind comrades that Woman makes herself too. She did it in the first place by following a sex-strike strategy, one of whose consequences was to revolutionise our deepest sexual nature. To validate one’s sexuality within the context of relations with one’s own sex is In this context neither natural nor unnatural. What matters is that from our very origins, this form of love has been central to what we are.
1. Marx, K. 1971 . The economic and philosophic manuscripts. In D. McLellan (ed.) ‘Karl Marx: Early Texts’. Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 130-83. The quotation is on page 169.
2. Marx, K. n.d. (1862). Letter to Engels, 18 June. In K. Marx and F. Engels, ‘Selected Correspondence’. Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, pp. 156-7.
3. Engels, F. 1964 [1873-86]. ‘The Dialectics of Nature’. Moscow: Progress, pp. 35-36.
4. Marx, K. and F. Engels 1927-35. ‘Historisch-kritische Gesamtausgabe. Werke, Schrifen, Briefe’. 12 vols. Edited by D. Riazanov. Moscow: Marx-Engels Institute. 1, 5: 394. Quoted in Kamenka, E. 1962. ‘The Ethical Foundations of Marxism’. London: Routledge, p. 36.
5. Engels, F. n.d. . Letter to F. A. Lange. In K. Marx and F. Engels, ‘Selected Correspondence. 1843-1895’. Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House.
6. Mellars, P. and C. Stringer (eds.) 1989. ‘The Human Revolution. Behavioural and biological perspectives in the origins of modern humans’. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
7. Knight, C. 1991. ‘The Origins of Human Society’. Radical Anthropology Group.
8. Knight, C. In press (for October 1991). ‘Blood Relations. Menstruation and the origins of culture’. New Haven and London: Yale Universlty Press.
9. Sahlins, M. D. 1974. ‘Stone Age Economics’. London: Tavistock.
10. Engels, F. 1972 (1884). ‘The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State’. New York: Pathfinder Press, p. 49.
11. Engels, ‘Origin of the Family’, pp. 49-50.
12. Engels, ‘Origin of the Family’, p. 49.
13. Engels, F. 1964 . The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man. In Engels, F. ‘The Dialectics of Nature’. Moscow: Progress, pp. 172-186.
14. Turnbull, C. 1976. ‘The Forest People.’ London: Pan Books. 15. Engels, ‘Origin of the Family’.
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