The idea that early man had gone through a long stage of primitive communism is by no means confined to Marx and Engels, Lewis Morgan, Tylor, and the orthodox anthropologists influenced by Darwin in the late nineteenth century. It is shared by all the classical historians from Greece to China and is part of the mythological history of almost all cultures. This much is self-evident. People who hunt and gather cannot be anything but communist. Even in the most favorable environments the land can only support a very small number of people in any one group who live only by taking what nature is able to offer. Division of labor is minimal — hunting for the man, gathering for the woman. A few men may be more expert in chipping flints; a few women more expert in dressing skins. Here and there an individual may have more intense religious experiences than others in a small band.
Sometimes these primitive specialists may have become known over fairly wide areas. We have archaeological evidence for paleolithic “flint factories” in the form of great heaps of chips and rejects, and for trade in finished flints over long distances. It is improbable that extensively painted caves like Lascaux or Altamira were of interest only to the few people in the locality. Presumably they were religious centers to which many bands came from a wide territory. Also it is difficult to believe that the very high degree of skill shown in many paleolithic painted caves was not the result of specialization. Altamira and Lascaux were painted by artists. It is true, of course, that modern Stone Age peoples show almost as widely diffused artistic talent as do kindergarten children. It is the specialization demanded by society which destroys aesthetic response and artistic ability.
This is about the limit of the division of labor possible in a hunting and gathering society, and to survive no individual can be too specialized. The women gathering bulbs must be able to cope with any animal, herbivorous or carnivorous, they encounter; and it is obvious prima-facie that the artists of Altamira had a thorough anatomical knowledge of the animals they painted. In a hunting and gathering society it is impossible to accumulate much of a surplus. The mammoth rots away before he can be eaten up. Rodents make off with the store of roots and wild grain — we have no archaeological evidence for grain pits and other methods of storage before the advent of “incipient agriculture.”
In such a society it is impossible for class structure to arise. Although it is an unwarranted assumption that present hunting and gathering peoples are exactly like their and our paleolithic ancestors, nevertheless the ecology is determinative — form follows function. They are without exception “communistic”; they cannot be anything else.
Until recent years archaeologists have not been too familiar with anthropological studies of surviving hunting and gathering peoples. Most of them live even today surprisingly well while having to do surprisingly little work — which is one reason why they refuse to become civilized. This continues to be true in spite of the fact they have been segregated into lands nobody else wants — the Bushmen into the Kalahari Desert in Africa; Blackfellows into the deserts of Central Australia, or the dense jungles in Northwest Australia; others into the wildernesses of Malaysia, India, Ceylon, South America, and other parts of Africa. Very often they live alongside people who practice slash-and-burn agriculture in the jungle; and the hunters and gatherers seem to have fully as adequate and a far more varied diet.
John Muir has estimated that the pine nuts of the one-leaf piñon in the open forests on the western slope of the Sierras gave the Piutes more calories per acre than the corn plots of the Iroquois. In California, west of the Sierras, the harvest of acorns, buckeye, roots, and seeds, as well as small game, mostly rabbits, supported the densest Indian population on the continent. Several tribes which had once practiced big-game hunting or agriculture, abandoned these pursuits when they entered California’s natural abundance. Most of this largesse has disappeared, destroyed by modern grazing and agriculture. The highly nutritious camass bulb whose blossoms once made the western meadows look like lakes, and the wild seeds rich in protein of the original perennial grass cover, are both gone forever, but still today it would be perfectly possible for a family of five to live by fishing and harvesting of a few oak trees and some wild plants.
Natural foods were almost as abundant in the deciduous forests of Eastern America and Northern Europe, which is why an exclusive dependence on agriculture took so long to evolve. This forest life produced a peculiar power structure. In California, power simply dissolved in abundance that offered no Archimedes’ fulcrum. In the deciduous forest, power came to be internalized in the organization of warfare as a sport and in the exploitation of the bearers of what culture there was — the women. The men were hunters and warriors and held on by force to a way of life that was a kind of revival of the paleolithic big-game hunters. The women were the weavers, basketmakers, potters, dressers of skins, food gatherers and agriculturalists, even porters and builders when the camp was moved — and were beaten for their pains. The conquest of civilized Europe by peoples with a forest background established this ethic, especially amongst the ruling class, where it endures today.
Paleolithic and neolithic are out-of-date terms; but it is still not too widely realized that chipped flint tools are by and large better for the work they were called upon to do than are polished stone ones, and chipped flint for many purposes survived all through the neolithic. Polished stone came in with agriculture (chipped flint microliths remain better for sickles) and with the use of a far wider range of stones, especially hard metamorphic rocks like quartzite which do not have regular fracture.
Social stratification in the village economy of early agriculture was never more than at arm’s length. The war leader or shaman was immersed in the community and subject to it. Only with large-scale systematic agriculture and irrigation and the urban revolution do specialists, castes, and classes become remote from one another.
The typical early agricultural community is Jarmo on the edge of the Persian plateau, twenty-five small houses, possibly one hundred and fifty people. However, at Jericho, at a spring in the Palestinian desert, there seems to have been a town even before there was agriculture. In the valleys above the Mesopotamian plain, social stratifications, class, and status appear in the grave goods of the burials during the transition from village to town, contemporary with small-scale systematic irrigation, free-threshing cereals, woolly sheep (that is, deliberate breeding of domestic plants and animals), and the plow, soon to be ox-drawn; but the towns were still widely separated. With large-scale irrigation and cities man ceased to be in ecological balance with the biota. An accelerated imbalance becomes apparent in the flourishing of weeds and the salting of irrigated land. This resulted in a political dynamism in which life became ever more “unnatural” in internal and external relations.
Towns and cities developed in the richer lands opened up by the new technology in the Mesopotamian plain. In the piedmont valleys the ancient villages were left to the old ways. By 4000 B.C. village life in the Near and Middle East was established in all of its essentials as it was to endure until the mid-twentieth century. The State would remain a distant reality and impinge on village life only in a violent role — in war, in the collection of taxes, and, rarely, in the pursuit of a major criminal.
In Europe the “megalithic religion” that produced monuments like Stonehenge seems to have preceded the rise of towns. The deciduous slash-and-burn culture produced a priestly class and a widespread cult at a technologically more primitive level than in the Mediterranean world, as witness the history of Mayan civilization.
In village life religion took the form of group activity in which the entire community participated: the rites of spring and harvest, group marriage in the fields, clay “mother goddesses” with exaggerated sexual characteristics in domestic shrines. With the growth of towns religion became a ceremonial cult in which the populace participated as spectators or, at best, marchers in procession.
Agricultural surpluses permitted the growth of specialist craftsmen. In the early priestly states of Mesopotamia we find records of highly organized communities — herdsmen, craftsmen, fieldworkers, scribes — all united in a kind of religious syndicalism. Eventually priests and warriors took advantage of the increased specialization to develop a rigid caste structure topped by imaginary crafts supposedly vital to survival, and then to force the peasant to contribute more work to support this superstructure. Here was the origin of alienation: in work for a distant authority and in unpaid labor. But this early alienation was overcome by supernatural and patriotic sanctions and never reached the degree, even with slavery, that it did under industrialism. The results of work remained clearly visible. The peasant way of life always produces tangible goods from this closest of all work with nature. As long as the results of work are visible, work preserves some creativity and is not psychologically destructive. Of course the early craftsmen and scribes did not suffer from this primitive alienation at all, quite the reverse, and we have abundant literature praising their way of life.
As agriculture developed and became the principal means of livelihood, larger buildings began to appear, as we see in some of the ruins in upland Iraq and Iran. Some have hearths every five meters or so and may have been family dormitories like the long houses of the Iroquois. Others have none and perhaps served as assembly halls or early temples, although they lack altars. A few have a single large hearth and may have been communal dining halls.
To judge from the evidence of the earliest agricultural societies that we know, at Jericho and on the Persian plateau, for instance, life still must have been almost as communistic as amongst hunting and gathering people. The neolithic revolution — agriculture, domestication of plants and animals, weaving, pottery, polished stone tools and weapons, sedentary village communities — altered life profoundly. Still the archaeological evidence is that the division of labor and the class structure were little more developed than they had been in the paleolithic. The community was still small; the structure was still communalistic; but the surplus admitted a greater degree of specialization. Where such societies still existed into modern times we find potters, weavers, shamans, shamanesses, medicine men, tool-makers, and sometimes, especially in Africa, professional artists. But we do not find individuals who live by power over their fellows. Exploitation of man by man and by the State come in together with the second revolution, the urban revolution — the development of towns and agriculture over wide areas. Kings, priests, and a caste of traders appear together with the first small cities, as do warfare with organized armies, large-scale irrigation, and, a little later, writing.
We think of the civilizations of the late neolithic and early Bronze Age as having left primitive communism far behind. As a matter of fact, most of them were what we would call today State socialist. This term is often applied to the Inca civilization of Peru. What might be called the myth of Chinese civilization, not just Confucianism, but the whole universe of discourse in which Chinese political and economic theory operate from the beginnings to the present day, is what, if we were to translate it into Western terms, we would certainly call State socialist.
Communistic societies survive well into the neolithic revolution both historically and amongst people in that stage of development today. The most immediately obvious are the Pueblo Indians of the American Southwest. These are people speaking various languages and with differing historical antecedents and they lie within the radiation zone of the highly structured civilizations of the Mexican plateau. Nevertheless they all share a passionately guarded communal life which they have managed to protect even until now against the onslaughts of Spanish missionaries and American free enterprise. In some the communal ethic is more apparent than in others. The Zuni may well be the most homogeneous people on earth. Some Pueblos are yielding to the enveloping American civilization and becoming at best a kind of human zoo for tourists; and others are disintegrating altogether. Even where the economic life of the community has become largely Americanized, it is still the community with its councils and committees that rules, however riven by conflicts between the old ways and the new. Similarly the religious life of the Pueblos is not controlled by an exploiting caste of priests but is in the hands of traditionally sanctioned groups, to at least one of which everyone in the community belongs.
Perhaps it was religious brotherhoods such as the Pueblo communities which made the transition to the monasticism which we find in most of the later city and nation-state civilizations. A monastic order is by definition a communistic, usually authoritarian, religious society. We know that there were such societies in Egyptian civilization; there were thousands of what we would call monks in great centers such as Heliopolis, in the Aztec, Mayan, and Peruvian civilizations of the New World, in Mesopotamia at least after Sumeria, and possibly earlier, and of course India. The only major civilization in which monasticism does not seem to have arisen was the Chinese before Buddhism. Life amongst the servitors in the temples in pre-Exilic Palestine must have been organized on something like monastic principles.
The remarkable thing is that we know almost nothing about these communities. Even Egypt with its enormous mass of surviving records provides us with little direct evidence. Our evidence comes from Herodotus and other Greek and Roman historians. We know close to nothing whatever about the Druids. It is disputed if they even existed as an organized religious brotherhood. The life and teachings of early monasticism are the province of the occultists who have certainly made the most out of them. Perhaps it is characteristic of such communities that they are in fact occult. Their way of life and their teachings are kept secret from the general population, even though they are, in the great “hydraulic civilizations,” to use Wittvogel’s term, part of the State apparatus.
In Greece and post-Exilic Israel such communities are both occultist and alienated, or at least at cross-purposes with their dominant societies. The early Pythagorean brotherhood is shrouded in the legends of late Hellenistic neo-Pythagoreanism and neo-Platonism. There seem to be few facts ascertainable. The early followers of Pythagoras seem to have been a non-celibate monastic community devoted to the study of primitive science, especially to a mathematical mysticism, with no belief in the myths and cults of ordinary Greek religion, and with an authoritarian, caste-structured, communalistic theory of society which survives in a highly modified form in Plato’s Republic. At first they seem to have taken no part in the usual political life of the communities in which they lived in Magna Graeca, in the instep of the Italian boot. The famous fragment attributed to Pythagoras, “wretches, utter wretches, keep your hands from beans!” is supposed not to refer to diet, but to democratic politics — the Greek citizen voted yes or no with white and black beans. In the course of time the Pythagorean brotherhood became political and controlled several cities, most notably Cortona and Metapontum. Eventually people rose against them and they were massacred. How much of all this is history and how much is legend, it is impossible to say; but it is remotely possible that for a few years in a few communities, a polity vaguely like Plato’s Republic, but far more simple, actually existed.