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In the earliest stages of society people did not go into factories, work to produce things they would not normally consume, and be 'rewarded' at the end of the week with pieces of coloured paper or decorated discs which other people would be quite prepared to accept in exchange for the food, clothing, etc., which they needed. Such behaviour would have struck our remote ancestors as quite fantastic.
Nor did many of the other features of modern society we so much take for granted exist. What socialist has not heard the argument "People are bound to be greedy and grabbing. You can't get socialism because you can't change human nature?
In fact, society divided into classes has existed for no more than about 10,000 years-one hundredth of the time mankind has been on this planet. For the other 99% of the time there was no class society, that is, no enforced inequalities, no state, and no family in the modern sense.
This was not because primitive people were unaccountably more noble than us, but because production relations produced a different sort of society, and so a different 'human nature'. Being determines consciousness, and if people's social being changes--if the society they live under changes--then their consciousness will also change.
The basis of primitive society was gathering and hunting. The only division of labour was that between men and women for the entirely natural biological reason that women were burdened much of the time with young children. They gathered vegetable foods while the men hunted.
Thus each sex played an important part in production. On the basis of studying tribes such as the !Kung in the Kalahari desert, who still live under primitive communist conditions, it has been estimated that the female contribution to the food supply may well have been more important than the male's.
All these tribal societies had features in common. The hunting grounds were regarded as the common property of the tribe. How could they be anything else when hunting itself is a collective activity? The very insecurity of existence leads to sharing. It's no good hiding a dead hippo from your mates--you won't be able to eat it before it rots anyway, and there may well come a time when other tribesmen have a superfluity while you're in distress. It's common sense to share and share alike.
Private property did exist in personal implements, but in the most different tribal societies there existed similar rules to burn or bury these with the body of the owner, in order to prevent the accumulation of inequality. Even after these tribes began to develop agriculture there was a progressive redivision of the land, so strong were the norms of primitive communism. The Roman historian Tacitus noted such rules among the German tribes.
Women were held in high esteem in such societies. They contributed at least equally to the wealth of the tribe. They developed separate skills--it seems women invented pottery and even made the crucial breakthrough to agriculture.
No such institution as the state was necessary, for there were no fundamental antagonistic class interests tearing society apart. Individual disputes could be sorted out within the tribe.
Old men with experience certainly played leading parts in the decision-making of the tribe. They were chiefs, however, and not kings--their authority was deserved or it did not exist. As late as the third century AD (when it was ceasing to be true) Athanaric, leader of the German tribe, the Visigoths, said: "I have authority, not power".
Society developed because it had to. Beginning in tropical Africa, as population grew to cover more inhospitable parts of the globe, people had to use their power of thought and labour to develop--or die. From gathering fruit, nuts, etc., it was a step forward to cultivating the land--actually ensuring that vegetable food was to hand. From hunting it was a step to husbandry, penning in the animals. Tribal society remained the norm.
The first great revolution in mankind's history was the agricultural, or neolithic revolution. Grains were selected and sown, and the ground ploughed up with draught animals. For the first time a substantial surplus over and above the subsistence needs of the toilers came into existence.
Under primitive communism there had been simply no basis for an idle class. There was no point in enslaving someone else, since they could only provide for their own needs. Now the possibility arose for idleness for some, but mankind could still not provide enough for everyone to lead such a life.
On this basis, class societies arose--societies divided between possessing and labouring classes.
The main issue in the class struggle down the ages has been the struggle over the surplus produced by the toilers. The way this surplus was appropriated--grabbed--depended on the different mode of production inaugurated by agriculture. This change provided the base for the complete transformation of social life.
Tribal norms died hard. At first, land was redivided. Even in feudal Europe, village communities in some areas carried on the traditions of primitive communism in a transmuted form by redivision of the original peasant land.
But agriculture, unlike hunting, could be more an individual activity. By working harder you could get more and, when everyone lived on the margin of survival, that was important.
Moreover, the agricultural revolution--involving the use of draught animals in ploughing, etc., mainly handled by men--relegated women to the home, working up materials provided by the man. It was the lack of a direct role in production that led to the world--historic defeat of the female sex.
Men wanted to pass on their unequal property to a male heir. In primitive communist society descent had been traced through the female line (inheritance had been unimportant). Now inheritance began to be traced through the male line.
We do not know exactly how class society came into being, but we can piece together the story from bits of evidence available to us. We call this process a revolution, and so it was in the profoundest sense of the word.
But we must remember that transitional forms between the different types of society were in existence for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years before the new type definitively replaced the old. Human progress did not proceed evenly but according to the law of combined and uneven development.
It was not the well-situated people of equatorial Africa, but people in more temperate climes (probably the near East) who were first forced to develop agriculture.
The first agriculture was of course very rudimentary, probably consisting of 'slash and burn' cultivation. This meant that the tribe kept on the move, for the cleared land offered good crops for only a couple of years before yields dropped off.
Thus tribal society remained in existence, but underwent modifications. Tacitus describes the military democracy of the German tribes of his time, with a constitution of a war chief, councils of elders and assembly of warriors (women had now been disenfranchised). This was typical for tribes at this stage of development.
Though the assembly could reject or approve all decisions (by banging their spears on their shields), in the war chief we see the embryo of a king, and in the council of elders the outline of a ruling aristocracy.
The landlord rulers of Rome were organised in the senate ("old men") and the Anglo-Saxon kings were advised by a Witan ("'wise men"), both relics of a democratic tribal constitution that had been turned into its opposite. The German tribes were now organised for warfare because a surplus existed, however precariously, which could be taken unless defended.
Anthropologists such as Leakey have shown that, contrary to the views of writers such as Desmond Morris (The Naked Ape) and Robert Ardrey ( The Hunting Hypothesis), the human being is not inherently aggressive. While primitive communist societies engaged in battles, e.g. over scarce hunting grounds, wars began to be an established and regular feature of history only at the stage when there was something worth fighting for.
We have spoken of agriculture as being the breakthrough to a society where a surplus could be produced. In fact the raising of the productivity of labour made possible by agriculture allowed a more extensive division of labour--people could turn their hands to producing other things.
So the agricultural revolution brought in its train associated revolutions in technique (such as in pottery and metal-working) and in the whole social structure.
Inequalities developed between different tribal peoples as well as within the tribes. For geographical and other reasons some tribes began to concentrate on stock rearing, fishing, etc.
As agricultural peoples began to settle down around villages fortified to protect their surplus (or rather, the surplus some of their number had acquired) these fishing and stock-rearing peoples took over the job of exchanging goods. Before, exchange had been a casual act between tribes who met one another on their travels. Now it became a regular occasion.
Metal was of course one of the most important items of trade. The Jews were one of the most famous stock-rearing peoples (in the Bible, the wealth of Abraham is always measured in herds) who developed into traders between Egypt and the Mediterranean civilisations.
Trade developed from ritual gifts between tribes. What was the measure of the value of a gift? As soon as people could form some conception of how long it took to produce the gifts they got, they would attempt to outdo the donors in generosity by giving the product of more labour in return.
As trade became more regular, the need naturally arose for a universal equivalent--something which could readily be exchanged in trade and which would be accepted generally as a measure of value. At first this need was met by cattle (the Latin pecunia meaning 'money' is derived from pecus meaning cattle).
Later this need was fulfilled more conveniently by ingots of metal, in which there was a burgeoning trade, and which were stamped by the monarchs as a guarantee of weight.
Ritual gifts would usually be given to the chief as representative of the tribe. As society grew wealthier, it became worth-while to be a chief. The chief's house became the beginnings of a market place in the village.
Metal working placed a tremendous new power for good or ill in the hands of men. Metal, particularly copper and bronze, was rare. The first need of these new societies was defence of the living standards they had built up. Naturally the tribal chief, as the leading fighting man should be first to avail himself of the new strategic material.
The consequences of this are to be seen in the legends of the ancient Greek poet, Homer. He describes the city of Troy beseiged by an army of bronze-armoured Greek military aristocrats. Not mentioned much are the host of common soldiers, often armed only with flint-tipped spears, who did most of the fighting and dying. Clearly they are not considered a subject for literature.
The ancient legends of Homer depict a society where primitive communism had been thrust aside by the evolution of tribal chiefs through a life of war and plunder into a network of aristocrats and kings. A ruling class now had the monopoly of effective, armed, might. Thus the development of tribal society had-produced its own 'grave-diggers', putting an end to classless equality.
Incidentally, the Germanic sagas arose at an identical stage in the dissolution of German tribal society. Their "heroic age, produced similar art forms (epic poetry) and even a similar system of the gods, corresponding to a similar stage in the development of production as in ancient Greece.
The Bronze Age civilisation described by Homer was swept away by Dorian invasions, a period equivalent to the west-European Dark Ages. The historical record dies out for hundreds of years. But the invaders brought something new--iron.
Iron was potentially more plentiful than bronze. Homer's ruling class could not have used it to arm the common people, for that would have deprived them of their military monopoly, the basis of their social power. They fell before invaders who were still tribesmen.
The invaders' society was not class-divided. So they all used iron weapons and were invincible for their time. Sometimes mankind has to step back in order to go forward.