Engels and indigenous peoples

Greg Schofield gschofield at one.net.au
Thu May 3 08:28:28 MDT 2001

Peter Linebaugh writes a nice light article which was a delight to read,
however, not everything is so easy to agree with.

As a reference I will not pick on any specific points, but the author's
dismissal of Engels' "Origin of the Family, Private Property and the
State", a much maligned and misunderstood work. Personally I came a cropper
on it back in 1979 and have not, even now, fully recovered from the shock
of discovery of what it actually contains.

Having gained university entrance after the Labor government made
universities free and also paid a student allowance, two vital aspects that
allowed me enter, I hit upon the brilliant idea of doing my final thesis on
good old Engels - I saw this as a chance to subject the old boy to some
real (read student) criticism and had after reading the work found its
claims spurious and ridiculous.

Over the next three quarters of a year, I gathered every criticism I could
of the work and those I could find on Lewis Henry Morgan (on which it is
based). What a mountain of photostats and notes I had, as I settled in to
begin writing my great critique in latter part of the university year.

It was clear that I had a wonderful mine of criticism, but even then I
noticed how much simply duplicated the other and all seem to have origin in
Franz Boas denunciation of Morgan in the final years of the 19th and the
early years of the 20th century. This worried me not all for this was only
fuel for the pyre I intend to build.

I sat down with Engels to do a final critical reading and then I planned to

The first surprise was how little of the criticism seemed to stick. I mean,
before me was this scholarily pyramid of references poised against this one
slim volume. It should have been easy, but strangely most of it did not
actually counter what was said and where it did it was often erroneous
itself or on some detail which did not effect the argument he was putting
forward. From Boas, and other bourgeois, to marxist and feminist critics
all strangly came to the same conclusion and based on the same material,
(the exceptions being George Thomson's brilliant The Prehistoric Agean and
some of Gorden Ver Childs contributions - in English at least)!

There were errors in Engels' work that were not challenged by anyone,
though they stuck out like sore thumbs. A major one was that Engels assumed
a relatively short duration for the biological evolution of humans (the
then current estimates ran to 100,000 years at most, while a few years ago
3.5 million years was accepted though this has been recently lengthened by
a significant amount).

This short period of evolution makes the differences between apes and
humans appear much greater than it actually is (a longer time of separation
diminishes this impression), what is more it does make humans appear
significantly more advanced than the rest of the animal kingdom just by
virtue that not much time is given for these differences to emerge.

So the obvious error was accounted for by Engels (in common with Marx and
Morgan) by attributing biological impact by social organisation - incest
rules were given a biological imperative that they never had in genetics
and nutrition was seen as perhaps encouraging a greater freedom in
biological evolutionary terms. Another aspect alluded to by Engels and
reflected in Marx's notebooks and Morgan was the suspicion that
civilization may have played a part in increasing brain size (remember at
the time measurements of human brain size across the world had actively
promoted this as fact!  The data was, of course, corrupted - see Stephen
Jay Gould on the topic which is an interesting insight into this "science"
- The MisMeasurement of Man).

However, this error could easily be removed without effecting anything much
of the overall thesis - only in one regard was there an effect and that was
once a biological imperative had been removed from theory there was a small
and important theoretical gap (what was the motive force between humans to
make these changes in kinship - if anyone is interested this could be dealt
with in more depth).

My personal problem had suddenly become compounded (in regard to the thesis
I was supposedly writing). The scholarly criticisms had amounted to very
little and the one great error which no one seemed to have picked up on
could be removed without destroying the main argument. This is a very
embarrassing position for me as in the last minute my thesis simply
evaporated before my eyes and I was left with Engels staring up at me very
much intact (while chiding his use of terminology "primitive, savage and
barbarian" was both anachronistic and childish - besides how often could
this be said within a 100,000 word thesis!) .

Going to Marx's notebooks did no good, there were differences with Engels'
rendition of them, but none seemed important and besides they are
practically impossible to read (Marx's Ethnological Notebooks edited by
Kraeder - the notebooks were full of Marx's very personal shorthand).
Morgan was no help because his Ancient Societies was fairly compressed by
Engels in his slim volume and the actual difference did not seem very much

Criticizing Engels had not been the easy target I thought it would be -
indeed directly behind him lay Marx and Morgan, besides while I still found
the whole thing hard to take seriously, I did not have any real criticism
of it to go on (even the historical references within it checked out).

Well to cut a long and boring story short - my thesis turned out to be a
real stuff-up and my degree very mediocre as a result (so things turned out
for the best its seems).

Of course it had dawned on me that the problem lay not in Engels but my
reading of him, after all we are not really prepared to have a theory of
history waved under our noses, when what we expect to read is just a
history - but then of course I am not the only fool to fall into this trap.

At 08:21  3/05/01 -0400, you wrote:
<deleted for length>

Greg Schofield
Perth Australia

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