Marx, Engels, Luxemburg and the return to primitive communism - Mark Kosman

rosa luxemburg

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 capitalism? 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.

Submitted by ptar on December 18, 2012

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 thinking.

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 ‘archaic’.”[3]

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 start.”[4]

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 humanity.”


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 problems.

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; 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, 2/10/12.

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



11 years 6 months ago

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Submitted by ptar on December 23, 2012


Another question raised by this history is whether ancient traditions of equal sharing could reappear in a revolutionary situation. The answer is 'yes' if the Spartacus slave revolt is anything to go by.

Spartacus not only banned his fellow rebels from owning gold and silver, he also "divided the spoils [from his plundering of the Roman countryside] in equal shares." (Appian, The Civil Wars, p65-6.)


11 years 5 months ago

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Submitted by JimJams on December 29, 2012

Mutual aid of some sort seems to happen in every revolutionary or crisis situation. (recent actions in Grecce and NYC being good examples). The problem imo isn't whether they happen but how to make them (part of) of the predominant social relations in those situaions and beyond it.


11 years 5 months ago

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Submitted by Croy on January 17, 2013

I liked this article on the whole but constantly it is said that we can return to the good bits of primitive communism only at a higher level. This seems like a bit of a vague term and it is never explained. My guess would be about technological advancement and automation etc. Anyone else got any ideas ?


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Submitted by baboon on January 18, 2013

I think that technology, automation and a general tendency to make labour more pleasant and rewarding would be part of the development towards a communist society. I think that it can be a dead-end though in seeing the revolution as a result of the development of technology. Anton Pannekoek makes this mistake and reduces the question of consciousness against one of a higher technological development (leading to revolution and communism). That's how I understand some of his writings but I'd put Pannekoek firmly on the side of the proletariat generally and recommend his 1953 work, "Anthropogenesis", as a serious study in the development of our very early ancestors, particularly the relationship of touch, tools and the effects on consciousness. I don't think that Chris Knight, who is mentioned above, offers a materialist analysis on the development of tools and the means of production in early humanity (Pannekoek does in my opinion).

On the text above, I welcome its clear position on the transient nature of capitalism and the finality of its economic crisis -a position against those that see capitalism always able to get out of its crisis, as a sort of eternal system. Also its broad characterisation of the development of the Athenian gentes into a class based division. Cattle, rather than agricultural produce, was one of the main factors in the development of civilisation and it's no accident that the first coins pictured engravings of oxen on them. Around 850 bc, civilisation begins with the Asiatic Greeks and the change in lines of descent from female to male. For the first time intermarriage is permitted within gentes and property rights move to the father. The gentilis are transformed into civis as a foundation of class society.

Also on the opening post, I'm not sure that the wiping out of the mega-fauna is all that significant in relation to primitive communism and the adaptability of this general society. And I don't think that employment opporutunies for women have significantly weakened patriarchy - as the text above says. No more than "positive discrimination" has weakened racism. In fact, in my opinion, both these factors have served to strengthen capitalism on an ideological and economic level.

The "higher level" from primitive communism to full communism is a long way into the future, largely unknown, probably includes many levels but we can make some observations I think. Marx wrote that "the political relation" (ie, the development of the family, private property and the state) "is the negation of the collective primitive relation...". As tribal property increases, the office of chief becomes more clearly that above society - the state appears and the task from this, where the material possibility exists, is "the negation of the negation".
Marx doesn't give an abstract theory of man who he says is opposite to human essence and human nature and becomes human by his use of tools (first with the hands). With the appropriation of the common property of the gentes by individuals, castes, etc., inequality and class society is born. The state, which does not appear in ancient society, "represents" this divided and opposed society. Against H.S. Maine, Marx argued that "the seeming supreme independent existence of the State is itself only seeming and it is in all its forms an excrescence of society; just as its appearance itself arises only at a certain stage of development, it disappears again as soon as society has reached a stage not yet attained". The abolition, the "withering away" of the state if you like, being a fundamental "return" at a higher level, to the ancient gentes.
I like to think of the ancient gentes, and their universal development within barbarian society, as the direct ancestors of the proletariat.


11 years 5 months ago

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Submitted by Alf on January 24, 2013

This article, a chapter of the ICC's book on communism, goes into Marx's 'late work' on primitive communism and takes in the same question about the return at a higher level:

Rosa certainly followed Marx in this notion of a return on a higher level. She made an extensive study of primitive communism in Introduction to Political Economy, which Mark quotes from (Einfuhrung in die Nationalokonomie),. As yet unavailable in English, I believe an English translation is due to be published soon.


11 years 1 month ago

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Submitted by p-tar on May 7, 2013

The long-awaited English translation of Luxemburg's 'Introduction to Political Economy' will appear in Verso's Complete Works of Rosa Luxemburg: Vol.1 later this year.

There she clearly states that: "a communist and democratic society, even if in different and more primitive forms [than any future communist society], embraced the whole long past of human cultural history prior to the present-day civilization." She then goes to describe the communistic tendencies of many so-called 'primitive' societies - including the way they hunt and distribute meat.

She also describes how cattle were often used as means of wealth in the past and how the word 'pecuniary' derives from the word for cattle, 'pecus'. She even writes about the origins of coined money in ancient Greece.

Unfortunately, when she was writing, no-one had yet made the connection between Greek animal sacrifice and the origins of coinage. But it is intriguing to imagine what she might have made of that discovery!


11 years 1 month ago

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Submitted by baboon on May 7, 2013

I think that Marx covered some of the main elements of the relations between cattle and the development of money. In his Ethnological Notes he writes that "roman law placed the oxen in the highest class of property (with land and slaves)". Sanskrit writings show that oxen was first eaten as food and then became sacred. And Marx notes that the earliest coined Roman money was stamped with an ox.
Marx also allies the phenomenon of cattle as money with the development and extension of slavery: "The same causes which altered the position of the ox and turned him into an animal partially adscriptus glebae (attached to the soil and put in a state of serfdom, B) undoubtedly produced a great extension of slavery".