The whole of human history consists precisely in the struggle of humankind to raise itself above the animal level. This long struggle began seven million years ago, when our remote humanoid ancestors first stood upright and were able to free their hands for manual labour. Ever since then, successive phases of social development have arisen on the basis of changes in the development of the productive force of labour – that is to say, of our power over nature.

Stages of historical development

Homo habilis

Human society has passed through a series of stages that are clearly discernible. Each stage is based on a definite mode of production, which in turn expresses itself in a definite system of class relations. These further manifest themselves in a definite social outlook, psychology, morality, laws and religion.

The relationship between the economic base of society and the superstructure (ideology, morality, laws, art, religion, philosophy, etc.) is not simple and direct but highly complex and even contradictory. The invisible threads that connect the productive forces and class relations are reflected in the minds of men and women in a confused and distorted manner. And ideas that have their origin in the primeval past can linger on in the collective psyche for a very long time, persisting stubbornly long after the real basis from which they sprang has disappeared. Religion is a clear example of this. It is a dialectical interrelation. This was clearly explained by Marx himself:

"As to the realms of ideology which soar still higher in the air, religion, philosophy etc., these have a prehistoric stock, found already in existence and taken over in the historic period, of which we should today call bunk. These various false conceptions of nature, of man's own being, of spirits, magic forces, etc., have for the most part only a negative economic basis; but the low economic development of the prehistoric period is supplemented and also partially conditioned and even caused by the false conceptions of nature. And even though economic necessity was the main driving force of the progressive knowledge of nature and becomes ever more so, it would surely be pedantic to try and find economic causes for all this primitive nonsense.
"The history of science is the history of the gradual clearing away of this nonsense or of its replacement by fresh but already less absurd nonsense. The people who deal with this belong in their turn to special spheres in the division of labour and appear to themselves to be working in an independent field. And insofar as they form an independent group within the social division of labour, in so far do their productions, including their errors, react back as an influence upon the whole development of society, even on economic development. But all the same they themselves remain under the dominating influence of economic development." (Marx and Engels, Selected Correspondence, pp. 482-3.)

And again:

"But the philosophy of every epoch, since it is a definite sphere in the division of labour, has as its presupposition certain definite intellectual material handed down to it by its predecessors, from which it takes its start. That is why economically backward countries can still play first fiddle in philosophy." ( ibid., p. 483).

Ideology, tradition, morality, religion etc., all play a powerful role in shaping people’s beliefs. Marxism does not deny this self-evident fact. Contrary to what the idealists believe, human consciousness in general is very conservative. Most people do not like change, especially sudden, violent change. They will cling to the things they know and have got used to: the ideas, religions, institutions, morality, leaders and parties of the past. Routine, habit and customs all lie like a leaden weight on the shoulders of humanity. For all these reasons consciousness lags behind events.

However, at certain periods great events force men and women to question their old beliefs and assumptions. They are jolted out of the old supine, apathetic indifference and forced to come to terms with reality. In such periods consciousness can change very rapidly. That is what a revolution is. And the line of social development, which can remain fairly constant and unbroken for long periods, has been interrupted by revolutions that are the necessary motor-force of human progress.

Early human society

If we look at the entire process of human history and prehistory, the first thing that strikes us is the extraordinary slowness with which our species developed. The gradual evolution of human or humanoid creatures away from the condition of animals and towards a genuinely human condition took place over millions of years. The first decisive leap was the separation of the first humanoids from their simian ancestors.

The evolutionary process is, of course, blind – that is to say, it does not involve an objective or specific goal. However, our hominid ancestors, first by standing upright, then by using their hands to manipulate tools and finally by producing them, found a niche in a particular environment that impelled them forward.

Ten million years ago apes constituted the dominant species on the planet. They existed in a great variety – tree dwellers, ground dwellers, and a host of intermediate forms. They flourished in the prevailing climatological conditions that created a perfect tropical environment. Then all this changed. About seven or eight million years ago most of these species died out. The reason for this is not known.

For a long time the investigation of human origins was bedevilled by the idealist prejudice that stubbornly maintained that, since the main difference between humans and apes is the brain, our earliest ancestors must have been apes with a large brain. The “big brain” theory utterly dominated early anthropology. They spent many decades searching – without success – for the “missing link”, which they were convinced would be a fossil skeleton with a large brain.

So convinced were they that the scientific community were completely taken in by one of the most extraordinary frauds in scientific history. On the 18th of December 1912 fragments of a fossil skull and jawbone were said to be that of the “missing link – Piltdown Man'. This was hailed as a great discovery. But in 1953 a team of English scientists exposed Piltdown Man as a deliberate fraud. Instead of being almost a million years old, the skull fragments were found to be 500 years old, and the jaw in fact belonged to an orang-utan.

Why was the scientific community so easily fooled? Because they were presented with something they expected to find: an early humanoid skull with a large brain. As a matter of fact, it was the upright stance (bipedalism), and not the size of the brain, which freed the hands for labour, that was the decisive turning point in human evolution.

Friedrich EngelsThis was already anticipated by Engels in his brilliant work on human origins, Labour in the Transition of Ape to Man. The celebrated American palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould wrote that it was a pity that scientists had not paid attention to what Engels wrote, as this would have spared them a hundred years of error. The discovery of Lucy, the fossilised skeleton of a young female who belonged to a new species called Australopithecus Afarensis, showed that Engels was right. The body structure of early hominids is like our own (the pelvis, leg bones etc.) thus proving bipedalism. But the size of the brain is not much bigger than a chimpanzee.

Our distant ancestors were small in size and slow-moving in comparison with other animals. They did not have powerful claws and teeth. Moreover, the human baby, which is only born once a year, is completely helpless at birth.  Dolphins are born swimming, cattle and horses can walk within hours of being born and lions are able to run within 20 days of birth.

Compare this to a human baby who will require months just to be able to merely sit without support. More advanced skills like running and jumping may take years to develop in a newborn human. As a species, therefore, we were at a considerable disadvantage in comparison to our numerous competitors on the savannah of East Africa. Manual labour, together with co-operative social organisation and language, which are connected with it, was the decisive element in human evolution. The production of stone tools gave our early ancestors a vital evolutionary advantage, triggering the development of the brain.

The first period, which Marx and Engels called savagery, was characterised by an extremely low development of the means of production, the production of stone tools, and a hunter-gatherer mode of existence. Due to this the line of development remains virtually flat for a very long period. The hunter-gathering mode of production originally represented the universal condition of humankind. Those surviving remnants that, until quite recently, could be observed in certain parts of the globe provide us with important clues and insights into a long-forgotten way of life.

It is not true, for example, that human beings are naturally selfish. If this were the case, our species would have been extinct over two million years ago. It was a powerful sense of co--operation that held these groups together in the face of adversity. They cared for the small babies and their mothers and respected the old members of the clan who preserved in their memory its collective knowledge and beliefs. Our early ancestors did not know what private property was, as Anthony Burnett points out:

“The contrast between man and other species is equally clear if we compare the territorial behavior of animals with property-holding by people. Territories are maintained by formal signals, common to a whole species. Every adult or group of each species holds a territory. Man displays no such uniformity: even within a single community, vast areas may be owned by one person, while others have none. There is, even today, ownership in people. But in some countries private ownership is confined to personal property. In a few tribal groups even minor possessions are held in common. Man has, in fact, no more a ‘property-owning instinct’ than he has an ‘instinct to steal’. Granted, it is easy to rear children to be acquisitive; yet the form of the acquisitiveness, and the extent to which it is sanctioned by society, varies greatly from one country to the next, and from one historical period to another.” (Anthony Burnett, The Human Species, p. 142.)

Perhaps the word “savagery” is unfortunate nowadays because of the negative connotations it has acquired. The 17th century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes famously described the lives of our early ancestors as one of “continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man solitary, poor, nasty , brutish, and short.” No doubt their life was a hard one, but these words hardly do justice to our ancestors’ way of life. The Kenyan anthropologist and archaeologist Richard Leakey writes:

"Hobbes's view that non-agricultural people have 'no society' and are 'solitary' could hardly be more wrong. To be a hunter-gatherer is to experience a life that is intensely social. As for having 'no arts' and 'no letters', it is true that foraging people possess very little in the form of material culture, but this is simply a consequence of the need for mobility. When the !Kung  move from camp to camp they, like other hunter-gatherers, take all their worldly goods with them: this usually amounts to a total of 12 kilograms (26 pounds) in weight, just over half the normal baggage allowance on most airlines. This is an inescapable conflict between mobility and material culture, and so the !Kung carry their culture in their heads, not on their backs. Their songs, dances and stories form a culture as rich as that of any people." (Richard Leakey, The Making of Mankind, pp. 101-3)

He continues, “Richard Lee [anthropologist and author of The !Kung San: Men, Women, and Work in a Foraging Society, 1979] considers that the women do not feel themselves exploited: ‘They have economic prestige and political power, a situation denied to many women in the 'civilized' world’.” (Ibid. p. 103)

kung-instrumentIn these societies classes in the modern sense were unknown. There was no state or organised religion and there was a deep sense of communal responsibility and sharing. Egotism and selfishness were regarded as deeply anti-social and morally offensive. The stress on equality demands that certain rituals are observed when a successful hunter returns to camp. The object of these rituals is to play down the event so as to discourage arrogance and conceit: “The correct demeanour for the successful hunter”, explains Richard Lee, “is modesty and understatement.”


"The !Kung  have no chiefs and no leaders. Problems in their society are mostly solved long before they mature into anything that threatens social harmony. (…) People's conversations are common property, and disputes are readily defused through communal bantering. No one gives orders or takes them. Richard Lee once asked /Twi!gum whether the !Kung  have headmen. 'Of course we have headmen, he replied, much to Richard Lee's surprise. In fact, we are all headmen; each one of us is a headman over himself!' /Twi!gum considered the question and his witty answer to be a great joke.” (ibid. p.107)

The basic principle that guides every aspect of life is sharing. Among the !Kung  when an animal is killed, an elaborate process of sharing the raw meat begins along lines of kinship, alliances and obligations. Richard Lee emphasises the point strongly:

“Sharing deeply pervades the behaviour and values of !Kung foragers, within the family and between families, and it is extended to the boundaries of the social universe. Just as the principle of profit and rationality is central to the capitalist ethic, so is sharing central to the conduct of social life in foraging societies.” (Ibid.)

Boastfulness was frowned upon and modesty encouraged, as the following extract shows:

“A !Kung  man describes it this way: 'Say that a man has been hunting. He must not come home and announce like a braggart, 'I have killed a big one in the bush!' He must first sit down in silence until someone else comes up to his fire and asks, 'What did you see today?' He replies quietly, 'Ah, I'm no good for hunting. I saw nothing at all... Maybe just a tiny one.' Then I smile to myself because I now know he has killed something big. 'the bigger the kill, the more it is played down. (…) The jesting and understatement is strictly followed, again not just by the !Kung  but by many foraging people, and the result is that although some men are undoubtedly more proficient hunters than others, no one accrues an unusual prestige or status because of his talents." (Leakey, pp. 106-7.)

This ethic is not confined to the !Kung; it is a feature of hunter-gatherers in general. Such behaviour, however, is not automatic; like most of human behaviour, it has to be taught from childhood. Every human infant is born with the capacity to share and the capacity to be selfish, Richard Lee says. “That which is nurtured and developed is that which each individual society regards as most valuable.” In that sense the ethical values of these early societies are vastly superior to those of capitalism, which teach people to be greedy, selfish and antisocial.

Of course, it is impossible to say with certainty that this is an exact picture of early human society. But similar conditions tend to produce similar results, and the same tendencies can be observed in many different cultures on the same level of economic development. As Richard Lee says:

“We mustn't imagine that this is the exact way in which our ancestors lived. But I believe that what we see in the !Kung  and other foraging people are patterns of behaviour that were crucial to early human development.' Of the several types of hominid that were living two to three million years ago, one of them – the line that eventually led to us – broadened its economic base by sharing food and including more meat in its diet. The development of a hunting and gathering economy was a potent force in what made us human." (Quoted in Leakey,  pp. 108-9.)

In comparing the values of hunter-gatherer societies with those of our own times, we do not always get the better of it. For example, just compare the contemporary family, with its ghastly record of wife and child abuse, orphans and prostitutes, with the communal child-rearing practiced by humanity during most of its history; that is, before the advent of that strange social arrangement that men are fond of calling civilization:

"'You white people,' an American Indian said to a missionary, 'love your own children only. We love the children of the clan. They belong to all the people, and we care for them. They are bone of our bone, and flesh of our flesh. We are all father and mother to them. White people are savages; they do not love their children. If children are orphaned, people have to be paid to look after them. We know nothing of such barbarous ideas.'" (M. F. Ashley Montagu, ed., Marriage: Past and Present: A Debate Between Robert Briffault and Bronislaw Malinowski, Boston: Porter Sargent Publisher, 1956, p. 48.)

However, we must not have an idealised view of the past. Life for our early ancestors remained a hard struggle, a constant battle against the forces of nature for survival. The pace of progress was extremely slow. Early humans began making stone tools at least 2.6 million years ago. The oldest stone tools, known as the Oldowan continued for about a million years until about 1.76 million years ago, when early humans began to strike really large flakes and then continue to shape them by striking smaller flakes from around the edges, resulting in a new kind of tool: the hand axe. These and other kinds of large cutting tools characterize the Acheulean culture. These basic tools, including a variety of new forms of stone core, continued to be made for an immense period of time – ending in different places by around 400,000 to 250,000 years ago.

The Neolithic Revolution

The whole of human history consists precisely in the struggle of humankind to raise itself above the animal level. This long struggle began seven million years ago, when our remote humanoid ancestors first stood upright and were able to free their hands for manual labour. The production of the first stone scrapers and hand axes was the beginning of a process whereby men and women made themselves human through labour. Ever since then, successive phases of social development have arisen on the basis of changes in the development of the productive force of labour – that is to say, of our power over nature.

For most of human history, this process has been painfully slow, as The Economist remarked on the eve of the new millennium:

"For nearly all of human history, economic advance has been so slow as to be imperceptible within the span of a lifetime. For century after century, the annual rate of economic growth was, to one place of decimals, zero. When growth did happen it was so slow as to be invisible to contemporaries – and even in retrospect it appears not as rising living standards (which is what growth means today), merely as a gentle rise in population. Down the millennia, progress, for all but a tiny elite, amounted to this: it slowly became possible for more people to live, at the meanest level of subsistence." ( The Economist, December 31, 1999)

Human progress begins to accelerate as a result of the first and most important of these great revolutions which was the transition from the primitive hunter-gatherer mode of production to agriculture. This laid the basis for a settled existence and the rise of the first towns. This was the period Marxists refer to as barbarism, that is, the stage between primitive communism and early class society, when classes begin to form and with them the state.

The prolonged period of primitive communism, humankind's earliest phase of development, where classes, private property, and the state did not exist, gave way to class society as soon as people were able to produce a surplus above the needs of everyday survival. At this point, the division of society into classes became an economic feasibility. Barbarism arises out of the decay of the old commune. Here for the first time society is divided by property relations, and classes and the state are in the process of formation, although these things only emerge gradually, passing from an embryonic stage and eventually consolidating as class society. This period begins approximately 10,000 or 12,000 years ago.

On the broad scales of history, the emergence of class society was a revolutionary phenomenon, in that it freed a privileged section of the population – a ruling class – from the direct burden of labour, permitting it the necessary time to develop art, science and culture. Class society, despite its ruthless exploitation and inequality, was the road that humankind needed to travel if it was to build up the necessary material prerequisites for a future classless society.

Here is the embryo out of which grew the towns and cities (such as Jericho, which dates from about 7,000 BC), writing, industry and everything else that laid the basis for which we call civilization. The period of barbarism represents a very large slice of human history, and is divided into several more or less distinct periods. In general, it is characterised by the transition from the hunter-gathering mode of production to pastoralism and agriculture, that is, from Palaeolithic savagery, passing through Neolithic barbarism to the higher barbarism of the Bronze Age, which stands at the threshold of civilization.

Vere Gordon_ChildeThis decisive turning point, which Gordon Childe called the Neolithic revolution, represented a great leap forward in the development of human productive capacity, and therefore of culture. This is what Childe has to say: "Our debt to preliterate barbarism is heavy. Every single cultivated food plant of any importance has been discovered by some nameless barbarian society." (G. Childe, What Happened in History, p. 64)

Farming began in the Middle East around 10,000 years ago, and represents a revolution in human society and culture. The new conditions of production gave men and women more time – time for complex analytical thought. This is reflected in the new art consisting of geometrical patterns – the first example of abstract art in history. The new conditions produced a new outlook on life, social relations and the relations that bind men and women to the natural world and the universe, whose secrets were probed in a way previously undreamt of. The understanding of nature is made necessary by the demands of agriculture, and advances slowly to the degree that men and women actually learn to conquer and subdue the hostile forces of nature in practice – through collective labour on a grand scale.

The cultural and religious revolution reflects the great social revolution – the greatest in all human history till now – that brought about the dissolution of the primitive commune and established private property of the means of production. And the means of production are the means of life itself.

In agriculture, the introduction of iron tools marks a big advance. It permits a growth in population and bigger and stronger communities. Above all, it creates a bigger surplus that can be appropriated by the leading families in the community. In particular, the introduction of iron marked a qualitative change in the process of production, since iron is far more effective than copper or bronze, both for the making of tools and weapons. It was far more available than the old metals. Here for the first time weapons and warfare become democratic. The most important weapon of the times was the iron sword, which first puts in an appearance in England about 5000 BC. Every man can have an iron sword. Warfare thus loses its aristocratic chiefly character and becomes a mass affair.

The employment of iron axes and sickles transformed agriculture. The transformation is shown by the fact that one acre of cultivated land can now maintain twice as many people as before. However, there is still no money, and this remained a barter economy. The surplus produced was not reinvested, as there was no way this could be done. Part of the surplus was appropriated by the chief and his family. Part of it was used up in feasting, which occupied a central role in this society.

In a single feast as many as 2-300 people could be fed. In the remains of one such feast the bones of 12 cows and a large number of sheep, pigs and dogs were discovered. These gatherings were not only the occasion for excesses of food and drink – they played an important social and religious role. In such ceremonies people gave thanks to the gods for the surplus of food. They permitted the mingling of the clans and the settling of communal affairs. Such lavish feasts also provided the chiefs the means by which to display their wealth and power and thus boost the prestige of the tribe or clan concerned.

Out of such meeting places gradually there arose the basis of permanent settlements, markets and small towns. The importance of private property and wealth increases along with the increased productivity of labour and the growing surplus that presents a tempting target for raids. Since the Iron Age was a period of continuous wars, feuds and raids, the settlements were often fortified with huge earthworks, such as Maiden castle in Dorset and Danebury in Hampshire.

The result of warfare was a large number of prisoners of war, many of whom were sold as slaves, and these – in the latter period – were traded as merchandise with the Romans. The geographer Strabo comments that “These people will give you a slave for an amphora of wine.” Exchange thus began on the periphery of these societies. Through exchange with a more advanced culture (Rome), money was gradually introduced, the earliest coins being based on Roman models.

The dominion of private property means for the first time the concentration of wealth and power into the hands of a minority. It brings about a dramatic change in the relations between men and women and their offspring. The question of inheritance now begins to assume a burning importance. As a result we see the rise of spectacular tombs. In Britain, such tombs begin to appear about 3,000 BC. They signify a statement of power of the ruling class or caste. They also provide an assertion of proprietary rights over a definite territory. The same thing can be seen in other early cultures, for example, the plains Indians of North America, for which detailed accounts exist in the 18 th centuries.

Here we have the first great instance of alienation. Man’s essence is alienated from him in a double or triple sense. First, private property signifies the alienation of his product, which is appropriated by another. Second, his control over his life and destiny is appropriated by the state in the person of the king or pharaoh. Last, but not least, this alienation is carried over from this life to the next – the inner being (“soul”) of all men and women is appropriated by the deities of the next world, whose good will must be continually obtained through prayers and sacrifices. And just as the services to the monarch form the basis of the wealth of the upper class of mandarins and nobles, so the sacrifices to the gods form the basis of the wealth and power of the priest caste that stands between the people and the gods and goddesses. Here we have the genesis of organised religion.

With the growth in production and the productivity gains made possible by the new economies of labour, there were new changes in religious beliefs and customs. Here too, social being determines consciousness. In place of ancestor worship and stone tombs for individuals and their families, we now see a far more ambitious expression of belief. The building of stone circles of staggering proportions attest to an impressive growth in population and production, made possible by the organised use of collective labour on a grand scale. The roots of civilization are therefore to be found precisely in barbarism, and still more so, in slavery. The development of barbarism ends up in slavery or else in what Marx called the “Asiatic mode of production.

Historical Materialism Part 3 Link

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Historical Materialism Part 5 Link