Marx's theoretical partner was enthusiastic about "primitive communism", which is still present today among indigenous groups. He stressed that it is possible to overcome social classes and the State; and rejected the belief in “progress” as the only meaning of history
In November 2020, socialists around the world celebrated the bicentenary of the birth of Friedrich Engels. It is a mistake, repeated frequently, to consider Engels simply as a vulgarizer of Marx's ideas. Not only did he contribute, together with Marx in 1844-48, to the formation of a new worldview - the philosophy of praxis or historical materialism - but he developed analyzes and arguments on topics that Marx did not have or had the opportunity to discuss. to study. One of them is the question of primitive communism - which is not absent in Marx, especially in his unpublished “Ethnographic Notebooks”, but is much more elaborated in Engels' book The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884).
Starting the work of the American anthropologist Lewis H. Morgan on the gentile society of prehistory, Engels will study, with great interest, and even enthusiasm, this primitive form of society without classes, without private property and without the State. A passage the family's Origin clearly illustrates this sympathy: “How wonderful was the gentile constitution! Without soldiers, without gendarmes or policemen, without aristocrats, kings, regents, judges, without prisons (…) All equal and free - including women. (..) Civilization is a degradation, a fall, in relation to the simple moral greatness of the ancient Gentile society ”.
This Engelsian analysis of primitive communism - another term for what anthropologists called "gentile society" ("gens", tribal, clan or familial community) has several important methodological implications for the materialist conception of history:
(1). It delegitimizes the bourgeois ideology's attempt to “naturalize” social inequality, private property and the state as essential characteristics of all human societies. Primitive communism reveals that these social institutions are historical products. They did not exist during the thousands of years of prehistory and they may cease to exist in the future.
The same goes for patriarchy. Engels uses, following Morgan and other anthropologists of the time (Bachofen), the concept of “matriarchy” to define primitive communism. It is a debatable term, which has provoked, until today, many controversial among historians, anthropologists and / or theorists of feminism. I think the most important thing is what Engels says in the passage we quoted: in these primitive societies, there was a high degree of equality between men and women. Here, too, it is a question of demystifying the self-proclamation of patriarchy as a timeless structure, common to all social formations.
(two). It breaks with the bourgeois view - but shared by a good part of the left - of history as linear progress, continuous advance of the “lights”, of civilization, of freedom and / or of the productive forces. Engels proposes, instead of this conformist doctrine, a dialectical view of the historical process: in many ways, civilization represented progress, but in others, it was a social and moral regression in relation to what was primitive communism.
(3). It suggests the existence, in the course of human history, of a dialectic between the past and the future: modern communism will obviously not be a return to the primitive past, but it takes up, in a new form, aspects of this first form of classless society : absence of private property, state domination, patriarchal power.
It is important to note that, in The Origin of the Family ..., Engels does not refer only to the prehistoric past. Like Morgan, he notes that even in his day, there were still indigenous communities with this type of egalitarian social organization. He will be excited, for example, by the Confederation of the Iroquois, an alliance of indigenous nations in North America: primitive communism was also present in the 19th century.
These ideas by Engels were taken up by some of the best Marxist thinkers of the 20th century. For example, Rosa Luxemburg in her (posthumously) Introduction to Critique of Political Economy dedicates almost half of the work to primitive communism. She considers the struggle to defend these social community forms against the brutal imposition of private capitalist property as one of the reasons for the resistance of the peripheral peoples against colonialism. According to Luxembourg, primitive communism is present on all continents; in the case of Latin America, she notes the persistence, until the 19th century, of what she calls “Inca communism”.
Without knowing this book by Rosa Luxemburg (he did not read German), José Carlos Mariategui, the founder of Latin American Marxism, uses exactly the same term, Inca communism, to describe the indigenous adhesions (ayllus) at the base of Inca society prior to Hispanic colonization. For him, these indigenous community traditions continue until the 20th century and may constitute one of the main social bases - together with the urban proletariat - to develop the modern communist movement in the Andean countries.
Today, in the 21st century, faced with the ecological crisis that threatens human life on this planet, another aspect - mentioned but little studied by Engels - has to be taken into account. “Primitive communism” was a way of life in true harmony with nature and even today indigenous communities are characterized by a deep respect for Mother Earth. It is therefore no accident that they are, the North to the South of the American continent, at the forefront of resistance to the destruction of forests and the poisoning of rivers and lands by oil multinationals, oil pipelines, and exporting agribusiness. Berta Caceres, the indigenous leader murdered in Honduras, is a symbol of this tenacious struggle, centered, in Brazil, on the fight of the indigenous people to save the Amazon the destructive fate of the cattle and soy kings - with the blatant support of the government neofascist and ecocidal by Jair Bolsonaro.