Peter Tobin “Clarifying the Primitive Communism Question”

The previous post on primitive communism was attacked by rightwing capitalist ideologues who insisted that primitive man did not live under primitive communism at all.

Peter Tobin responds:

These folks are profoundly wrong and apparently have read nothing, never mind bothering to find out what Marx and Engels actually said. Their knowledge appears to be derived from the first twenty minutes of Kubrick’s 2001.

Engels, rather than Marx, is pre-dominant in this area as the term arises in his seminal work Origins of the Family, Private Property and State. The key work that inspired them work was the American Morgan’s groundbreaking Ancient Society.

What Morgan does, in a serious materialist way, is to trace human progress from, what he terms, savagery to civilization. What Engels takes from this is that there are identifiable stages in human social evolution. So the primitive stage is sub-divided into lower, middle and upper stages. In the lower stage there were no classes, and state and economic relationships were broadly egalitarian. Hence there was a collective right to basic resources, and the question of a superior authority (kings, priests or elders) did not arise.

Morgan himself speculated on the “liberty, equality and fraternity of the ancient gentes.” He even finds contemporary evidence in the layout of the Native American village, which he calls “communism in living.”

At this time family groups were consanguine, and Engels refers to these family groups as the “original communistic common household” which lasted to the late middle stage of barbarism. There was even group marriage and incest, which existed in Polynesia and lasted until quite recently (to the horror of Christian missionaries). He does not hold this that stage up for emulation, instead, “communism” is used a technical terms to denote the “sharing” of sex with a related group.

This stage gave way to new household communities (Hausgemeinden), which Morgan calls the punaluan family, which prohibits sex between brothers and sisters and children and parents, but allows it between cousins. But this is not the bourgeois form of the family where one man possesses and dominates one women, as women were common wives and men were common husbands.

Far from extolling the former, Engels make the point that as it withered, the human stock grew stronger and better by outbreeding as opposed to inbreeding.

The other important factor that must be considered is the emergence of man as a hunter of animals and hence an omnivore. His brain grew bigger and his teeth smaller. What is salient here is the behavioral changes took place, especially in the process of socialization. In order to hunt effectively man had to organize communally and develop stratagems for success.

Consider, by contrast, the earlier hominids, such as the australopithecines, who were herbivores and consequently had larger teeth and smaller brains – a trait shared by many vegetarian animals today.

You can all these forms, “communist,” “socialist,” “communal” or whatever nomenclature denotes shared activity, because this phenomena is self-evident.

These stages gave way as man settled down and took up agriculture. Private property and the growth of surplus and authority became prevalent, although residual forms of the earlier stages continued.

For example, Grote, in his History of Greece, defining the characteristics of the emerging Greek tribes, found evidence of: common religious ceremonies, common burial, common rights of inheritance, common obligation to help the tribe in times of struggle, and the common ownership of property, while at the same time he noted the growth of authority figures, kings, priests, lawgivers and even treasurers.


Engels, Frederick. 2001 (1884). Origins of the Family, Private Property and State. Honolulu, HA: University Press of the Pacific.

Grote, George. 2000 (1846-1856). The History of Greece: From the Time of Solon to 403 B. C. London: Routledge.

Morgan, Lewis H. 1887. Ancient Society, or Researches in the Lines of Human Progress from Savagery Through Barbarism to Civilization. London: MacMillan & Company.

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6 thoughts on “Peter Tobin “Clarifying the Primitive Communism Question””

  1. It’s interesting to note how Tobin himself brings up the issue of outbreeding as solution for making “human stock [grow] stronger” as if almost to say that in the earliest stages of primitive man, there was a homogeneity amongst these supposed “communist” families in both thought and labor output.

    As I stated before, while it could theoretically be possible for such a communism to exist, even Tobin points to the growing diversity of thought as a positive. If men were ants, it is true, there would be no interest in human freedom. If individual men, like ants, were uniform, interchangeable, devoid of specific personality traits of their own, then who would care whether they were free or not? This according to Tobin’s research via Morgan seems to be the case in the first-stage primitive man. Fine. But that’s not the status quo.

    “In order to hunt effectively man had to organize communally and develop stratagems for success” Tobin points out. His blunder is in using the word “communaly” when what he means is “socially”. That’s because he’s talking about a key issue of economic science which is the division of labor. Granted that for primitive man, the range of division of labor was small, and hence it may seem like some sort of communism, but this is precisely why freedom is a necessary condition for the full development of the society and it is by no means the only requirement. Society itself must be sufficiently developed for the individuals within it to prosper. No one, for example, can become a creative physicist on a desert island or in a primitive society. For, as an economy grows, the range of choice open to the producer and to the consumer proceeds to multiply greatly.

    No one can fully develop his powers in any direction without engaging in specialization! I’M TALKING SPECIFICALLY TO A PERSON LIKE YOURSELF, ROBERT. The primitive man, bound to an endless round of different tasks in order to maintain himself, could have no time or resources available to pursue any particular interest to the full. IN OTHER WORDS, you wouldn’t have the time to write for your blog Robert, how is that a better world? Primitive man had no room to specialize, to develop whatever field he was best at or in which he was most interested. The philosopher, the scientist, the builder, the merchant — none could develop these skills or functions if he had had no scope for specialization. Furthermore, no individual who does not live in a society enjoying a wide range of division of labor can possibly employ his powers to the fullest. He cannot concentrate his powers in a field or discipline and advance that discipline and his own mental faculties. Without the opportunity to specialize in whatever he can do best, no person can develop his powers to the full; no man, then, could be fully human.

    SO AGAIN, we go around and around. While communism may have existed for the most primitive of homo sapiens, we can neither claim they were fully human, just like we can’t claim what they were living in was communism as only a fully human being could conceive. I never attacked the validity of communal living of primitive man, I only attacked the idea you espoused that it may somehow be natural which it is certainly NOT.

  2. Listen Robert, I hope I’m not coming off as abrasive. That’s not my intention. When I capitalize sentences it’s to get your attention and to show how passionate and excited I am about this subject.

    I may not agree with you on your points, but I still like your specialization, especially when it comes to subjects of anthropology. I believe it is capitalism and the market-based economies that have allowed you to have the time to be specialized in such things and I aim at trying to convince you of that by commenting when you post on such subjects as economics and history.

    But I don’t know what “HTH. HAND” means and I’d appreciate it if you told me what specifically was making you angry. Thanks

    1. HTH = Hope this helps.

      HAND = Have a nice day.

      Ok, thx for your apology. Read over the comments section again and make sure that your comments have a friendly tone, even if you agree with me.

  3. I would like to start with Mr Taylor’s last sentence and say how much I agree with it, as this is exactly the point that Engels was implying and which I was trying, however inadequately, to precis.
    To wit: communism is not ‘natural’.Marxists argue that there is no such thing as ‘human nature’ and that equally, therefore no other form of social organisation mirrors some reducible essence; such as one based on possessive individualism. Any appeal to ‘human nature’ is what Moore (definitely not a Marxist) termed the ‘naturalistic fallacy’. This is an appeal to some normative core that is inherent in mankind.
    Like the use of the word ‘freedom’ it is a loaded term, tossed about by supporters of capitalism and communism alike.
    That is why I stressed that Engels, in this seminal work, did not glorify, the earlier stages in humanity’s social evolution, neither did he hold them up for emulation. The use of the term ‘primitive communism’ is scientifically descriptive. That is why I pointed out one could use any term to describe a group or collective activity, such as hunting. I appreciate that Mr Taylor is not challenging the concept of an earlier collectivism, but with his idea of the ‘fully human’, he appears to regard them as somehow ‘untermensch’. Let me be clear; we would not be what we are if they were not as they were.
    So instead of advancing any particular ideology to define man, we take the position that social being determines social consciousness. That is, people, by and large, whether individuated or ‘en masse’, are fungible and adapt to whatever historical stage or form of organised society in which they are located. Consciousness therefore shapes itself to the contingent dominant ideology.
    Interestingly enough the NF is mostly used by right wing ideologues who echo one strain of the ‘Social Darwinist’ tradition (fascism is another), which contends, inter alia, that man is by nature competitive and that society is a war against all, whereby the strong flourish, and the weak perish. Or conversely, where the strong dominate and the rest agree to a Hobbesian contract in order to survive.
    Capitalism, by extension, reflects this latter weltanschauung and polity, with the dominance of the market, therefore, it is argued, more accurately reflects and satisfies this core ‘human nature’.
    I apologise for not being more explicit in spelling this out, but if you read my short piece, you can see it by implication.
    What Mr Taylor says, regarding the later stages of the division of labour is quite right and uncontroversial. It does not contradict what I said, via Morgan and Engels, about the earlier stages in man’s development.
    Can I further commend the last sentence of Mr Taylor’s penultimate paragraph as a perfect encapsulation of Marx’s idea of a future communist society where individuals would thrive based on the axiom: “From each according to his needs, to each according to his ability.”
    Finally, can I apologise for the use of the term ‘peckerwood’. It was gratuitous and evidently uncalled for in Mr Taylor’s case, for while he might occupy the same ideological terrain as Rush Limbaugh,(who would probably think that ‘homogeneity’ was some form of sexual deviance), he is smarter.
    PS The term ‘man’,or the third person male pronoun, used is not gender specific.

  4. This doesn’t answer the most important question which is do these views still hold up in light of more evidence and information on ancient cultures. It seems to me that without looking at modern historic information and interpretation and comparing it with what facts and information was available at the time and the biases which every human has and asking if they still have validity in representing a factual rather than mythical interpretation driven by the biases of the period. If not what does that say about our own biases and where does that reinterpretation of the past lead us to in terms of new ideas and visions.

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