Primitive Societies and Social Myths

Submitted by Reddebrek on October 30, 2017

IN THIS PAPER I WISH TO DISCUSS the relation between the future societies visualized by anarchist and communist writers, and the nature of social existence in primitive societies. In doing so I will hold up to scrutiny those aspects of life in primitive society which anthropologists and utopian thinkers have referred to by such terms as "ordered anarchy" and "primitive communism". My premise is that a social existence which is either anarchic or communistic has been realized only in such societies. As an American anthropologist, Leslie White, stresses, it is only here that liberty, equality and fraternity have been realized. In stepping toward civilization we have stepped away from liberty, equality and fraternity.

In speaking, therefore, of the "withering away of the state" and the ushering in of a society based on the principle "to each according to his need, from each according to his ability", anarchist and communist writers are projecting into the future a form of social existence, the like of which has been approximated to only in the past. (By the past, I mean the social or cultural, rather than the chronological, past, for in historical times primitive societies have functioned despite the rise of civilization, and some still exist today.)

I am further going to suggest to you that talk of the withering away of the state and the ushering in of a society based on the principle "to each according to his need, from each according to his ability", can be regarded as a social mythology, a mythology for radicals and revolutionaries. The social myths are not a set of propositions predicting what life will be like in some future time, but can more fruitfully be regarded as a critique of present society. They are a spur to action in the present.

I now propose to take a look at those aspects of primitive society which are anarchic or communistic. In what ways are they anarchic? In what ways are they communistic? And what do I mean by a primitive society?

KENNETH MADDOCK of Auckland University delivered this paper at a World Affairs Council weekend camp at Wellington, N.Z., last summer.

When classifying certain societies as primitive, anthropologists have in mind such characteristics as non-literacy, simple technology, small size, lack of specialization and importance of kinship in determining social relations. Why is it that some societies have not reduced their language to writing? Why do they lack specialization? One useful way of explaining these characteristics is to introduce the concept of energy. Societies are primitive when they harness only a small quantity of energy per capita. One thinks of the Eskimos and Australian aborigines, who are virtually dependent on human energy alone. The domestication of animals and cultivation of plants lays the foundation for the transition from primitive society to civilization, through greatly increasing the quantities of energy per capita. The social consequences include surplus production, specialization, growth of population, dominant and subordinate classes and, ultimately, cities, nations and empires. This is the Agricultural Revolution.

The transition from primitive to civilized life is also a transition from a social existence in which liberty, equality and fraternity are realized, or approximated to, to one in which these values are absent or attenuated. Because the quantities of energy harnessed are low in the primitive societies their life is necessarily characterized by many features which are anarchic or communistic.

In delineating primitive anarchy I can do no better than to begin with the wonderfully anarchic Nuer, a pastoral people living in the southern Sudan, who were studied by the Oxford anthropologist, E. E. Evans-Pritchard. He described them as living in "ordered anarchy" (Evans-Pritchard 1940: 181), without law in any strict sense of the word, and without government.

How does their social system, lacking law and government, work? The Nuer are divided into tribes, each of which segments according to circumstance into smaller and still smaller sections. Thus the Lou tribe segments into the Mor and Gun primary sections. Gun segments into Rumjok and Gaathal secondary sections. Gaathal segments into Leng and Nyarkwas tertiary sections. The tertiary sections, in turn, segment into village communities, the smallest political units of Leng and Nyarkwac tertiary sections. The smallest political units of Nuerland. And every tribe segments in the way I have described for Lou. Each tribal section has many of the characteristics of the tribe itself: thus a segment, any segment, compares to the tribe in that it has a name, is infused with a common sentiment, is associated with a territory and is aware of its position in the segmentary system.

Branching through the segmentary political system is a kinship system of clans and lineages, which also operate on the segmentary system. For each order of political segmentation there is a matching order of kinship segmentation. In fact, the two systems are inseparable. The clan, and the segmentary lineages thereof, resemble the tribe and the segmentary sections thereof, in possessing a name, a common sentiment, an association with a territory and an awareness of position in the system as a whole. There is more than one clan in a tribe, and therefore more than one set of lineages, but the Nuer regard one clan and its lineages as dominant. It is this dominant clan, and the lineages thereof, which is associated with the tribe, and the sections thereof. "Dominance", I might add, does not imply for the Nuer any ruler-subject relationship.

The Nuer tribe is defined not only by its distinctive name and so on, but by two other features. One is that it is the largest unit within which feuds are fought and compensation paid for homicide and other torts. The other is that it is the smallest unit to engage in war. In short, disputes within the tribe are settled by the exacting of vengeance or the payment of bloodwealth; disputes outside the tribe can be settled only by war.
I have sketched out some of the structural principles on which this anarchic social system is based. How does it cohere?

Because the system is segmentary it involves a balance of alliances and oppositions between the parts, one of the effects of which is to maintain the whole. Thus, within a tribe, two village communities of the same tertiary section may be in opposition, but, if either is threatened by a village of another tertiary section, they will both join in alliance against the new danger. An endless process of fission and fusion takes place at all levels of segmentation. The tribal segments combine, split away and recombine in pursuit of their various ends. The fact that parts aligned against one another on one occasion are aligned with one another on other occasions has an overall unifying effect on the whole.

The tribe is also unified by the cross-cutting kinship bonds between the tribal segments. Because the clans are exogamous a man must take his wife from some other clan. This gives him kin in clans other than his own, and the presence of such kin in other villages, other tertiary sections, other secondary and primary sections, inhibits too great a development of hostility between segments within the tribe. Moreover, not all the members of the dominant clan or lineage live in the political section associated with it; they live perhaps in adjacent areas and this, too, inhibits hostility. Indeed, Evans-Pritchard likens these cross- cutting kinship ties to elastic bands which stretch apart in time of injury by one man to another, but eventually pull the opposed segments together.

Ritual beliefs are another mechanism of integration. Members of groups between which there is a blood feud cannot eat or drink together. Social relations are severed. This is a further incentive to heal the breach by pressing the injured party to accept compensation, instead of seeking vengeance.

Finally, we must note the ecology of the Nuer. They are a pastoral people and migrate each dry season from their villages inland to rivers and other watering places. Because they must cross the territory of other Nuer groups, whether of the same tribe or not, there is an incentive imposed by ecological conditions to keep the peace, at least to some degree.

No account of the Nuer social system would be complete without a glimpse of the people themselves:
The lack of governmental organs among the Nuer, the absence of legal institutions, of developed leadership, and, generally, of organized political life is remarkable … The ordered anarchy in which they live accords well with their character, for it is impossible to live among Nuer and conceive of rulers ruling over them.

The Nuer is a product of a hard and egalitarian upbringing, is deeply democratic, and is easily roused to violence. His turbulent spirit finds any restraint irksome and no man recognizes a superior. Wealth makes no difference … Birth makes no difference …

That every Nuer considers himself as good as his neighbour is evident in their every movement. They strut about like lords of the earth, which, indeed, they consider themselves to be. There is no master and no servant in their society, but only equals who regard themselves as God's noblest creation … Among themselves even the suspicion of an order riles a man, and he either does not carry it out or he carries it out in a casual and dilatory manner that is more insulting than a refusal. (Evans-Pritchard, 1940: 181-2).

The Nuer are aware of the difference in spirit between themselves and neighbouring peoples whose social systems are governmental. Thus, in speaking of the Shilluk, one Nuer told Evans-Pritchard:
They have one big chief, but we have not. This chief can send for a man and demand a cow or he can cut a man's throat. Whoever saw a Nuer do such a thing? What Nuer ever came when some one sent for him or paid anyone a cow? (Evans-Pritchard 1940: 182).

In passing from the Nuer to the Shilluk we are passing from primitive anarchy to the servile state.
I wish now to describe the social system of a quite different, though still anarchic, people — the Land Dayaks of Sarawak in Borneo. Like the Nuer, the Land Dayaks live in villages. But, unlike the Nuer, they lack a segmentary system to unite the villages in larger and still larger units. Instead, each village is economically, politically and ritually autonomous, though there may be limited ties with one or two neighbouring villages which were once parts of the same settlement.

Each village has a headman, chosen for his possession of qualities of the kind valued by the Land Dayaks. His powers are very limited, and, indeed, he may not have existed at all in pre-colonial times. He certainly does not dominate the village :

It must be remembered that we are dealing with a society of democrats, if not anarchists. The small boy scarcely hesitates to tell a headman if he thinks he has made a mistake, and criticism by his adult equals at village meetings is often forthright. He must labour on his own behalf like the poorest man in the village. Any attempts to maintain a superior dignity would be laughed down. (Geddes 1954: 51).
In reading this passage I am reminded of the relation between pupils and staff, including headmaster, at A. S. Neill's famous school, Summerhill. The non-coercive and non-authoritarian character of social life is striking:

Every man is to some extent a chief, and instructs others, even including the headman, what to do, but no notice other than a retort is taken of such commands unless they express what the person is going to do in any case, or show him a more pleasing way of doing it. (Geddes 1954: 51).
The Nuer are fierce individualists. The Land Dayaks are gentle individualists, timid and peaceful folk among whom violence is so rare as to be practically non-existent. How, then, do they settle disputes? There are three means for this.

In the first place, the offended party may himself assess a fine and impose it on the wrongdoer. Such fines are usually paid. If this delightfully simple and harmonious means fails to work, then the matter may be referred to the headman. He arranges a time for a hearing, at which he sits with some elders and anyone else who cares to participate. The proceedings are quite informal, and resemble a public debate rather than a law suit. The headman is guided to his verdict by the tenor of opinion expressed, and only in fixing the penalty does he exercise much personal initiative, though even here the views of other people count. The third means of settling a dispute is to refer it to authorities at a level higher than the village headman. This, however, seldom occurs.

A Nuer relies for what is his due on force, or the threat of it. With the Land Dayaks force is not a sanction. Instead, there is the fear of punishment by demons. And there is shame, resulting from loss of public esteem, which a person experiences when he knows that others are aware of his act and regard it as unworthy. This is the strongest sanction of all, and may even drive a wrongdoer out of the community altogether. Finally, there is a belief that demons will punish those who do not receive what is their due. Thus, if a wrongdoer is fined but fails to pay, the offended party is in danger of injury from demons. The wrongdoer now faces even stronger public disapproval, for the demonic injury has been added to the original one.

From my description of the Nuer and Land Dayaks it can be seen that, if not actually living in anarchy, they are as close to it as social existence could be. And this anarchic way of life is widespread in the primitive world, wherever the quantity of energy harnessed is too low to produce large societies, centralized and stratified.

The term "ordered anarchy", initiated, I think, by Evans-Pritchard, has now become quite commonplace among students of the stateless societies, but "primitive communism" can be used only at some peril. Why it should be held in such odium can briefly be explained. The standard objections are that it is ambiguous, for communism means all things to all people, has emotional undertones and is misleading, for it blurs the network of clan, family, individual and other rights which are found in all primitive societies.

What these critics overlook, however, are the qualitative differences between primitive and civilized societies. In contrast to the latter, the former are characterized by a high development of co-operation and mutual aid in social and economic life. Members of the group enjoy free access to the resources of nature, and society is not divided into antagonistic classes. It is to qualities of this kind that the proponents of primitive communism were drawing attention. The best of them never denied the existence of group and individual rights; indeed, it is hard to see what these have to do with the issue. One of the principles underlying social and economic life in the primitive societies is reciprocity, according to which a person who receives some benefit now is obligated to return an equivalent at a later date. In what way is this inconsistent with communism? I would say that it is inseparable from any system of mutual aid. Mutual Aid was, of course, the title of Kropotkin's most famous book, and it is interesting to note how frequently this term crops up in anthropological monographs, though Kropotkin is never mentioned.

At least some of the opposition to the concept of primitive communism arises on other grounds. Engels borrowed the term from Lewis Henry Morgan for his The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, and the concept entered the armoury of communist thinkers. This, together with the dogmatic and vituperative spirit in which Marxists defend certain otherwise useful ideas, is probably an incentive to non-Marxists to drop it themselves. Nor, though, should we forget White's apt comment on opponents of the concept: "It would appear that an attempt was being made to 'make the world safe for private property'." (White 1959: 256).

I would now like to look quickly at some aspects of Nuer and Land Dayak economy. Each Nuer tribe and section thereof has its own pastures and water supplies, freely available to its members. The cattle, which are the pride of every Nuer, are owned in family herds over which the head of the household has rights of disposal while still alive. But his wives enjoy rights of use, and each son is entitled to cattle from the herd for his marriage payment. When a daughter marries, the cattle received for her are distributed among a wide number of kin. The small local groups pasture their cattle in common, for individual households are too small to protect and graze their herd alone. The Nuer also grow millet, but questions of land tenure never arise because there is land for everyone. A man may cultivate the ground behind his homestead, unless someone else is already using it, and unused land outside the village is freely available to all.

Each Nuer household owns its own food, but Nuer eat in one another's homes to so great an extent that, in effect, the community is sharing in a common supply. Hospitality and the rules for distribution of meat and fish ensure that available supplies are widely distributed. The Nuer do tend to suffer from food shortages, but this does not result in satiation and hunger existing side by side, as in more civilized communities. Instead, it gives rise to "share and share alike … since everybody is thereby insured against hunger. He who is in need today receives help from him who may be in like need tomorrow" (Evans- Pritchard 1940: 85).

With the Land Dayaks, also, there is no shortage of land and anyone may clear jungle to establish a paddy field. While the person who cleared the field is still alive, he enjoys individual tenure but after death his rights pass to all his descendants. Fortunately, people tend to forget many of their claims; if they did not the system would become very cumbersome. How does a man go about using a field cleared by one of his ancestors? If none of those who share rights in it object, he is free to use it. If someone does object, then there are two simple rules to determine who has the best claim. First, the rule of least use, by which the claimant who has made least use of the land recently has the right. Secondly, superior right of the older claimant where both are descended from the person who last used the field. This rule can be interpreted as an extension of the first, since the older a person is, relative to other claimants, the less his opportunity of farming the land before death.

The Land Dayaks work their land in groups recruited according to a complex labour exchange system based on the reciprocity to which I referred earlier. A man seeks the aid of friends, kinsmen and neighbours in working his fields, and owes each a day's labour for each day each of them puts in on his field. Usually the labour groups so recruited are larger than efficiency dictates, but this is more than offset by the value the people place on working in company with others.

When a party goes hunting or fishing, an equal distribution is made among its members, whatever their roles. Geddes interprets equal distribution as a manifestation of extreme individualism, not of primitive communism, for each is reluctant to give more than he himself receives (Geddes 1954: 90). Be that as it may, the Land Dayaks do have marked uncommunistic features, manifested, for instance, in their practice of usury. Shortages of food are remedied among the Nuer by mutual aid, among the Land Dayaks by usury.

From my description of the Nuer and Land Dayaks it can be seen that, whether or not living in primitive communism, their life is characterized to a high degree by co-operation and mutual aid, reciprocity and free access to nature. And these qualities are true also of other primitive societies. In summing up the anarchic and communistic features of primitive societies I can do no better than quote Leslie White:

The type of social system developed during the human-energy era was unquestionably the most satisfying kind of social environment that man has ever lived in. By this we mean that the institutions of primitive society were the most compatible with the needs and desires of the human primate, the most congenial to his nature and temperament. In primitive society all men were brothers, or kinsmen. All were free. Everyone had free access to the resources of nature. And all were equal; no one held another in servitude or bondage. Mutual aid characterized these primitive societies. Production was carried on for use, and human rights and welfare wenJ placed above property rights and institutions. (White 1959: 367).

Now what is interesting about this passage is that it could almost be drawn from a description by an anarchist or communist writer of life in the future utopia, when the state has been abolished or has withered away. I wish therefore to look at the kind of society envisaged by these writers.

William Godwin, perhaps the earliest of systematic anarchist thinkers, drew a distinction between society and government. The former is produced by our wants, men associating for the sake of mutual assistance. The latter is the product of our wickedness and is, at best, a necessary evil. When men apply the supreme law of human existence, which is the general welfare, there will be no state. Instead, matters affecting the general good will be the subject of deliberations in which all will be free to participate. Property is to be abolished, and goods distributed according to need.

Godwin is one of those thinkers whom it is fashionable to dismiss as utopian. Certainly, he laid down no convincing strategy for realizing the goals he proclaimed. Let us turn, therefore, to anarchists who thought they understood the paths to the future.

Bakunin and Kropotkin were both evolutionists, which is not surprising considering the climate of progressive opinion in their day. For Bakunin, mankind is evolving from a less perfect to a more perfect existence; from bestial to human existence. For Kropotkin, there is a process of transformation from a less happy to a more happy form of existence. Both conveniently regard those aspects of society of which they disapprove as products of an early stage of evolution. Thus the state and enacted law will pass, for both are now retarding the evolutionary process. Bakunin sees private property in capital goods as also belonging to a low evolutionary stage, but private property in consumer goods will remain. For Kropotkin, however, future society will be communistic, with the joint property freely available for use by all. Men will live in free association without the state, says Kropotkin. Men will achieve complete humanity only when living together in a society without the state, says Bakunin. This is the direction in which human society is growing, but both advocate revolution to supplement the slower evolutionary process. Indeed, as Kropotkin rather nicely says, revolution is accelerated evolution (see Eltzbacher 1960 for the anarchists referred to).

Now for the communists. Marx and Engels share an evolutionary perspective with the contemporary anarchists, and both are also in favour of revolution to remove obstacles in the path of mankind's progress onward. The state has not always existed, for there have been societies without it. Instead, economic development, producing a cleavage of society into classes, necessitated the state form. The continuation of economic development will, one day, make these classes a hindrance to production, just as once it had called them into being. When this happens the state will wither, giving way to "an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all" (Marx and Engels 1958: Vol i, 54). In this new form of social existence, "the government of persons is replaced by the administration of things" (Engels 1958: Vol. ii, 151).

Future utopian society bears a close resemblance to past primitive society. The evolutionary process will return man to a form of social existence like that from which it has taken him, though technology and scientific knowledge will have been greatly advanced in the intervening ages. The simple technology of primitive peoples necessitated a way of life which was anarchic and communistic in many aspects; the tremendously powerful technology of the future will also necessitate such a life. I am not suggesting that the utopias are simply mirror images of primitive social existence; they are different, but, only in degree, not in kind:

Democracy in government, brotherhood in society, equality in rights and privileges, and universal education, foreshadow the next higher plane of society to which experience, intelligence and knowledge are steadily tending. It will be a revival, in a higher form, of the liberty, equality and fraternity of the ancient gentes.
Engels approvingly quotes this passage from Morgan's Ancient Society at the end of his The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. It is an attractive vision, and one which has intoxicated the imagination of radicals and revolutionaries.

The kind of historical perspective held by Bakunin and Kropotkin and Marx and Engels is still officially adhered to in Russia. In the latest textbook the withering away of the state and the ushering in of a society based on the principle "to each according to his need, from each according to his ability" is affirmed. Moreover, "Communism is the most just social system. It will fully realise the principles of equality and freedom, ensure the development of the human personality and turn society into a harmonious association, a commonwealth of men of labour" (Kuusinen: 866).

At the beginning of this paper I suggested that the utopian predictions of anarchist and communist writers are social myths, whose usefulness depends on their capacity to spur men to action in the here and now. Far from foreshadowing the future, these myths reflect the past of mankind. The Left "sucks its life from utopia", says Nicolas Walter. Fair enough, but the utopias suck whatever reality they have from the primitive world. How do the social myths stimulate action? They hold up an attractive prospect toward which history can be steered, though it would arrive there in any case. Man has fallen from liberty, equality and fraternity, but he can be redeemed. The social myths, as we have seen, are accompanied by schemes of action, some more practicable than others. The prospect of redemption inspires the believers to get these schemes under way. Revolutions and general strikes and awakening the working class to a consciousness of its historic mission, may be viewed, according to taste, as the birthpangs of a new society or as essential steps towards it.

Whatever Bakunin and Kropotkin, Marx and Engels may have thought, whatever utopian socialists and scientific socialists may suppose, the social myths are not scientific hypotheses. But implicit in my chain of argument is the notion that at one point the social myths do run parallel to scientific hypotheses: just as one test of the usefulness of a scientific hypothesis is the fruitfulness of the research it stimulates, so, too, I am arguing, one test of the usefulness of a social myth is the fruitfulness of the action it stimulates. We need no reminding of the many beneficent changes brought about in our society through the striving of reformers and revolutionaries, whether proletarian or bourgeois.

The social myths are not merely reflections of the primitive past. They are also reverse reflections of the present. We can appreciate this better by considering the nature of myth. Since Malinowski, anthropologists, to use Firth's words, have ceased to regard myths as "descriptive embryonic records of the past, or as simple intellectual products" (Firth 1961: 5). The interpretation of myths is a sociological one. The myths of a society are ideologies which can be related point by point to the existing political system, as Nadel has demonstrated for the Kede of Nigeria and Firth for the Tikopia. Variations in ideology within the one society can, as Firth has shown, be related to the variations in power and influence of different factions.

Accepting this interpretation, we can regard the social myths, not as descriptive embryonic records of the future, or as simple intellectual products, but as reverse reflections of present sociological reality. Not straight reflections, mark you, but reverse reflections which mirror the qualities absent or attenuated in our society. In a primitive society liberty, equality and fraternity are real; with us they are aspirations. Just as utopian constructs may be interpreted as a turning back toward the primitive past, so, too, may they be interpreted as a turning away from the civilized present. Indeed, the words Marx applied to religious myths can appositely be applied to utopian myths, including his own:

Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people. (Marx and Engels 1957: 42).
There is only one point at which we must disagree with Marx's formulation. Utopian myths are not opium-like, though I suppose they could begin to play that function when the utopians win power in a country, as in Russia, for instance. Instead, as Lasswell and Kaplan put it, in their Power and Society, "The ideology is the political myth functioning to preserve the social structure; the utopia to supplant it."

But if utopias do turn toward the past to find a model of future society, if they do reflect the human values absent in the present, and if they do turn toward the future in revulsion from the present, then acceptance of the views I am expressing here would be intolerable for many of the radical and revolutionary spirits to whom utopia has beckoned. My views would be intolerable precisely because that which they are hoping to build away from is intolerable. Thus the myth of the general strike will persist for anarcho-syndicalists, the myth of the withering away of the state for communists and, one might add, the myth of a hereafter for the religious.

In conclusion it seems worthwhile to glance at the prospect for those who, while conceding the utility of social myths for the weaker brethren, prefer an attitude which is tough-minded, bloody- minded … and realistic.
Bakunin, in a quotation by George Molnar which I have been unable to find, once proclaimed that "to think of the future is criminal." Kropotkin interpreted the history of our civilization as a conflict between two opposed tendencies, "the authoritarian tradition and the libertarian tradition." Realistically, he added that "Between these two currents, always alive, always struggling in humanity … our choice is made" (Kropotkin 1946: 43). As we applaud Bakunin and Kropotkin for their sentiments, so, too, we may agree with them in their tough-minded moments. And with Zamyatin, when he proclaims infinite revolution, terrible and unending and inevitable.

Plumbing the primitive past and the utopian future leaves us with the present. We have seen that the anarchic and communistic aspects of the past, necessitated by low levels of energy harnessed, have been caught up into social myths and projected into the future, supposedly as descriptions of what the future would be for those living in it And the myths are reverse reflections, critiques, of the present, for the qualities they mirror from the past are precisely those qualities lacking in the present. We have seen, too, that the myths may have a certain utility in spurring men on to action. For the tough-minded, however, there is an alternative philosophy:

… we can take freedom as a character, not of societies as a whole but of certain groups, institutions and people's ways of life within any society, and even then not as their exclusive character. Equally, on this view, piecemeal freedoms will always meet with opposition and those who are caught up in them will resist conformist pressures. The "permanent protest" implied by this is carried on without the promise of final triumph but in a spirit of "distrusting your masters and distrusting your emancipators", and with no intention of wanting to make the world safe for freedom. (Molnar 1958: 16).

I am not as pessimistic as Molnar, for I think that here and there we can take some faltering steps in the direction of liberty, equality and fraternity, the great triad extolled by Morgan and White in the primitive world. But we are living in the present, and to think of the future is criminal.

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Evans-Pritchard, E. E. (1940), The Nuer, London: OUP.
Firth, Raymond (1961), History and Traditions of Tikopia, Wellington (NZ.): Polynesian Society.
Geddes, W. R. (1954), The Land Dayaks of Sarawak, London: HMSO.
Kropotkin, Peter (1946 edition), The State, its Historic Role, London: Freedom Press.
Kuusinen, O. W. (ed.) (no date), Fundamentals of Marxism-Leninism, Moscow:
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