Engels and indigenous peoples

Greg Schofield gschofield at SPAMone.net.au
Fri May 4 00:48:33 MDT 2001

In regard to Charles Brown for something a little more in-depth on the
Engels' Origins

As stated in earlier post I believe that Engels mistakenly identified
aspects of social evolution with biological evolution, a mistake stemming
from the level of scientific development of his time. Removing this element
from his work is easy and effects very little, however it shows a gap,
whereas Engels thought there might be some nexus between biology and social
development that was explanatory it served to disguise the fact that there
was no explicit engine for change throughout the Primitive Communist Mode
of Production.

Of course we know far more now than Engels knew then and can safely
disregard any determining nexus between biology and society in the sense of
mutual evolution. It is clear now that we have been recognisably human for
a very long time (Homo Erectus) and modern (Homo Sapien) for at least as
long, and perhaps longer than scientists of Engels day consider for the
entire development of biological humanity.

The recent finding of no genetic intermingling between modern Europeans and
ancient Neanderthals is interesting (the only known case of actual
subspeciation since Homo Erectus), The other aspect of this (Neanderthals
and moderns being descendants of Erectus) is that it virtually puts the
nail in the coffin of the rather reactionary idea that modern races
descended from different populations of Erectus.

There is other evidence within the archaeological record but suffice it to
say that race per se is a very recent development confined within our
development as modern Humans (the whole development confined within a
bracket of the last 100,000 years to the last 30,000 - note there are
interesting exceptions, one where a group of Europeans developed very dark
pigmentation in less than 10,000 years before the present which shows how
swiftly, in biological terms such superficial changes, can be taken up and

Just on passing, on this topic of the physical characteristics (that is the
superficial aspects of our human form) is interesting in itself, none of
which gives any succor to racism, rather the reverse and that is just on
archaeological evidence alone. I would also warn all readers to treat
carefully the conclusions drawn by genetic reconstructions of mutual
ancestry where this is locked into chronologies (in otherwords the generic
relationships are accurate but the clocking is made on the basis of
assumptions which ultimately rest on fairly feeble chronological theories -
the relationships found are arguable, the time frames are spurious).

In short, any biological nexus in social evolution can be repudiated on
evidence without requiring the slightest political motivation (not that
disproved ideas are not clung to and the hesitation of some scientists to
draw the logical conclusions from their own research is still pretty much
in evidence).

So that is not what we are interested but had to be stated in order to be
clear that the removal of the biological aspects is based on more than just
political repugnance but has a basis in the development of science itself
(even at such a superficial level of treatment).

Returning to the problem itself.

Examining either past or surviving pre-class societies has always posed a
problem with exchange for marxists. Exchange is going on all the time but
none of it fits anything found in the first chapter of Capital - or so it

One approach is to see it as an exchange based on exchange-value which in
effect turns pre-class societies into little capitalism - this is the
default bourgeois approach, easily found by any marxist looking over the

Another attempt by Marshal played with the idea of the exchange of
use-value, he produced heaps of interesting facts (measuring the time taken
to provide so many calories etc), but as anyone familiar with use-value
would have guessed it was something like a fools quest, theoretically
speaking that is.

For the most part serious marxists doing work in the area tend to be forced
back onto what is basically the bourgeois position although qualifying what
is going on and not just painting the pre-class economy as incipient
bourgeois-want-to-be-s (by the way the exchange of surplus labour no-way
escapes the necessary presumption of exchange-value as some have tried to
make out).

There is something left which until Peggy Dobbins wrote From Kin to Class
in the mid 1970's I am pretty sure no one else discovered.----------->

(Pre-class)Kin exchanges are exchanges of EQUAL AMOUNTS OF NECESSARY LABOUR.

It seems simple but it packs a wallop!!

For me this as exciting as it gets, for once placed back into the Origin
the whole scheme begins to move.

I stress exchanges of EQUAL amounts of NECESSARY LABOUR - that is the
labour absolutely necessary for the reproduction of people on a daily
basis. There is NO SURPLUS componant but from this surplus arises - here it
get really exciting.

To digress a little - ever wondered why the products and exchanges of the
most useless (here meaning ritual rather than practical) products is seen
by pre-class people as the most valuable and magical?

Because the making of these objects (often intricate and labour intensive)
is a sacrifice of human personal self realised into a symbolic thing,
moreover a thing designed for the purpose of giving away.

Given by generous impulse, cannily given to solicit like return, given as
payment for some great sacrifice or percieved as a reward for some conduct
or friendship that is exceptional and usually outside the obligated kin
relations - sacred objects of exchange contain the sacrifice of the life
that brought them into being - wonderful stuff this exchange of EQUAL
amounts of NECESSARY LABOUR more so that it accords to what the people say
of such objects themselves.

Such exchanges support widespread differentiation of labour, someone
gathers, someone fishes, another hunts and all have fish, meat and the
fruits of the earth.

No mean barter here, across the ancient Americas, across Australia, across
large parts of the earth, rare and precious,practical and ceremonial things
travelled, exchanged through kin and non-kin, equitably based on mutual
sacrifice of labour. In this way volcanic glass crossed a continent for
tens of thousands of years in Australia and there is hardly a place on
earth that was not connected via this mechanism with all other places on
earth (an Egyptian mummy had nicotine in its hair believed to have come
from the Americas via the Bearing strait).

But what of the power of this relation to make change, to become a dynamo
for change?

Things now get very, very, interesting.

You will note that the things above seem to point to conservative communal
societies (afterall it all depends on equitable exchanges of personal
labour - not socialised but personal - hence a willing sacrifice of one
person for another as a daily background of life itself - the very notion
seems to assume equity).

You will have to excuse my childish excitement with this stuff comrades but
it has burned in isolation for nearly twenty years and leaps out now that
it has a chance.

To digress again - how does our bourgeois see the past - as an image of the
bourgeoisie of course - where does innovation come from? Leisure of course.
Does not the innovator benefit from innovation - it is not only just but
efficient - a natural law.

Just as clans are made of families, tribes of clans, and states by tribes,
accumulate, accumulate,  accumulate! From the richest parts of the earth
comes surplus, from the surplus leisure, from leisure innovation and
surplus is increased once again. The bourgeoisie is the final product of a
line of unerring development to itself.

This nonsense fills the textbooks, even the researchers cast their data
into this pre-given mold, the assumptions of the present remold the past so
it becomes familiar, Pharaohs become monarchs (absolute ones at that),
massive irrigation works the result of a ruling class which they are not.
In short making sense of history does not make a lot of sense on this basis.

The along comes Peggy Dobbins with her exchanges of equal amounts of
necessary labour and she turns the whole thing on its head and nobody pays
it the slightest bit of attention.

She uses as her example a story from the bible (quoted from memory so sure
to be full of errors) - Laban wants a wife and to get the one he desires he
must come into an exchange relationship with his inlaws. For seven years he
must give a portion of his cattle in exchange for equal portions of grain
(equal that is in terms of necessary labour).

After his seven years the canny farmer allows him to marry the wrong
daughter and requests another seven years in order to marry the other - (I
think I have foreshortened the story) Laban works another seven years
surrendering a portion of the his herd each year and receives his grain in

He complains. Laban has a secret, the secret of the bull (probably the
castration of all but a select number of healthy bulls who sire more
healthy calves) he is very productive, the farmers less so. The equal
exchange of necessary labour means he gives away a lot of cows but gets in
return just "a mess of porridge".

Here the least productive, the farmers, obtain surplus use-value (more cows
than they can eat) for a small amount of grain. It is not surplus value,
but it is the beginning of surplus wealth, its precursor. Laban gains some
porridge and the wrong wife (I think there may have been three daughters
involved in the end so some 21 years of labour just so Laban could marry
the woman he loved - or so goes the story).

Despite bourgeois prejudice the most innovative and productive become
slaves of the least productive. Innovation is not as welcome in such
communities as the bourgeois professors desire, in fact, innovation comes
more often from desperate circumstance than leisure. Hence the apparent
contradiction that massive irrigation works are often carried out by tribal
(not very stratified societies) and latterly ruling classes appear to take
the credit.

I would add to Dobbins this observation - the law of peripheral
development. That is those squeezed to the least favourable positions are
forced to innovate techniques (this is of course always relative and not
the same as absolute privation).

Consider the rise of agriculture in the middle east - not in the fertile
valleys but the barren hills. The argiculturalists later took over (the
interpolation of opposites perhaps).

It also points to another dynamic of social evolution. Slowly accumulating
innovations (or perfections of production) result in an unequal division of
social wealth. The old kinship rules become oppressive and the need for
change infects a society (we have behind us a history of revolt and
rebellion and irony).

So rather than as Engels thought Matriarchy is overturned by men wishing to
ensure their inheritance to their biological children, rather Matriarchy
has destablisied itself, the most productive being milked by the least
productive matrilineal kin-in-law. A simple solution solves the problem
overnight - take rights through the father instead - for a short while
things are equitable again, but then new contradictions emerge. A spiral of
social evolution always coming back to itself and then accumulating woes
and being forced to change itself in response.

Grant you this is all very sketchy but I would be interested in any
comments - by the way this approach also explains how kinship systems tend
to resemble each other across the world, starting on similar premises, each
stage presumes the last (at least in broad outline) yet each in its own way
is a social innovation requiring no external god-like hand to guide it.

Greg Schofield
Perth Australia

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