The resurrection of socialist ideas at the turn of the 21st century is a fairly evident phenomenon among part of the population of Western countries. Proponents of socialism have employed various “proofs” showing the supposed advantages and naturality of the collective way of existence. There is a line of thought that humanity, for most of its history, lived in a mode of complete collectivization. Thus, socialism is, instead, a natural state of the human community, while other socio-economic formations, especially capitalism, were necessary but unfavorable turns in the evolutionary process.
Such ideas are not new, and can be traced to the founders of scientific communism, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Founders of Marxism labeled hunter-gatherers’ socio-economic order as “primitive communism.” Thus, Engels wrote in his famous work, The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, “Production at all former stages of society was essentially collective, and likewise, consumption took place by the direct distribution of the products within larger or smaller communistic communities.” This point of view had been prevailing among scholars and entrenched in scientific literature and school textbooks ever since.
According to the third law of dialectical materialism (“the negation of the negation”) Marxists envision the historical process as a spiral, where the movement comes back to the position it started, but at a higher level. In simple terms, along the course of human development, individualism had negated collectivism in order to be negated by collectivism but on a more advanced stage. Marxism stated that socialist change is objective and independent of someone’s will and would inevitably happen when the contradiction between the unbalanced development of productive forces and production relations within society reaches its apogee in the majority of industrialized nations (historical determinism).
The materialist conception of history was called in question by Marxist intellectuals themselves at the turn of the 20th century when it became evident that society was not entirely developing according to the Marxian prescription (crisis of Marxism). This led to the creation of many reformists and revisionists proposing theories that either rejected Marxism altogether (revolutionary syndicalists, fascists) or left the form but entirely changed the content of the teaching (Bolshevism, social democracy). However, new approaches to societal development were not better off than the original Marxism.
The “new” socialists had entertained an idea of building society according to a pre-developed plan under the supervision of capable elites by employing elements of social engineering and coercion of varying degrees. Thus, the theoretician of socialism, Tugan-Baranovsky, in Socialism as a Positive Doctrine affirmed, “The socialist system is artificial, invented form of human society, as opposed to the natural, spontaneously developed forms of society that exist today.” In essence, he revealed that collectivism is not a naturally occurring way of existence but rather an improvised quality. Therefore, by the beginning of the 20th century, socialists had dramatically changed the rhetoric from the idea of natural evolution that culminates with socialist revolution to the concept of rational purpose.
The fiasco of building socialism on demand due to its economic unsustainability and a prevailing trend toward moral decadence has not brought an end to socialist thinking. The Left has not given up and has excavated once again an old argument of the existence of communist bands of hunter-gatherers, who did not know of private property. They argue, therefore, that there is an obligation for all progressive-thinking people to put society back on the right track and embrace collectivization again as it is imprinted in human genes. As is often the case with socialists, they are right about precisely the opposite.
The proponents of the “primitive communism” doctrine pointed out that nomads had just a few possessions, that is, items that they were able to carry on a journey; thus, a sense of private property did not have enough material roots to evolve. However, a few possessions do not mean an absence of ownership. It is enough to have just one item, appropriated and carried continuously by a hunter, for an intimate attachment to develop between a man and an object. Indeed, according to Hans-Herman Hoppe’s first axiom of the theory of property rights, “Everyone is the proper owner of his own physical body, as well as of all places and nature-given goods that he occupies and puts to use by means of his body, provided that no one else has already occupied or used the same places and goods before him.” Here, it is also appropriate to add that everyone is the proper owner of his or her state of mind.
Hence, yet another essential point in defense of a proposition that prehistoric humans had a sense of private property was tool-making activities. Tool-making consists of original appropriation of nobody’s stone or branch and then the addition of one’s skilled labor. This appropriation improved the welfare of the toolmaker, and at the same time, no one was made worse off by this act. As such, the tool-making included in itself two significant factors of economic growth: private ownership and innovations. Undoubtedly, the evolution of human society would capitalize on these elements.
The question of land ownership in hunter-gatherer’s society is rather intricate. Indeed, hunter-gatherers had not yet planted trees, cultivated the land, or raised animals; in other words, they had not intentionally changed the environment to their advantage. However, ancient foragers had secured the “nucleus” of the area where they organized shelters, food storage, fire pits, primitive workshops — all that made up their provisional camp. But most essential is that hunter-gatherers established temporary control on the fuzzy perimeter that encompassed their habitat. They guarded the boundaries of their natural environment, like any other territorial species of the animal world. Thus, they restrained the influx of strangers from competing groups, since their well-being and survival depended on the exclusive exploitation of food resources on land and keeping this habitat inaccessible to others. Humans controlled borders of the area, but not nature-given goods within it. That is why their habitat exhibited duality; it was both controlled but at the same time, unappropriated environment.
When the time came, hunter-gatherers began to enjoy the act of initial appropriation on a scale that human societies did not experience after them. They were the original appropriators of goods and places, and each private property on land today (theoretically) can be traced back to those original owners.
Another argument in favor of “primitive communism” states that Paleolithic people flocked together due to extreme hardship and poverty; they utilized food-sharing behavior according to the scheme of generalized reciprocity (according to the ethnographic observation of indigenous people). However, experience shows that it is not poverty that results in communism; it is communism that leads to poverty.
The food-sharing behavior of hunter-gatherers is best described as a system of borrowing and lending or as a manifestation of an insurance strategy. Thus, Richard Posner in A Theory of Primitive Society, with Special Reference to Law explained,
The conditions of production, in particular, the difficulty of storing food, create considerable uncertainty with regard to the future adequacy of an individual’s food supply and hence considerable variance in his expected wealth. In these circumstances a transaction whereby A, who happens to produce a harvest that exceeds his consumption needs, gives part of his surplus to B in exchange for B’s commitment to reciprocate should their roles someday be reversed will be attractive to both parties.
Therefore, a generous gift-giving or direct redistribution that some had observed on a surface, in reality, happened to be evidence of a more sophisticated economic life, such as the return of the debt, or a “hunger insurance” payment. The generalized reciprocity between members of the family was erroneously applied to the whole band.
Society of early humans is characterized by the rudimentary division of labor between sexes, close cooperation, a fundamental sense of private property, few possessions, a limited number of commodities and services in consumption and exchange, and slight inequality in income distribution. Therefore, pre-historic human societies had all the needed ingredients of the market economy, but on such a small level that the majority of scholars tended to ignore them. However, in the evolutionary processes, one cannot overlook even the slightest delta because it would be impossible to explain behavioral changes over time. An initial and primitive socio-economic setup predetermined a gradient of development of humans as an intelligent species who would use their intellect to organize ever-advanced modes of production.
Assuming that some groups of foragers indeed practiced “primitive communism,” they would have died out because they had lost the fierce competition with the more economically viable “libertarian” tribes. Communism has never appeared spontaneously and naturally in the history of mankind. Several attempts to build a communist society were planned and carefully thought-out actions of the revolutionary elements. Hunter-gatherers could not think of such a grandiose and at the same time self-destructive plan because of their primitive stage of development. They instinctively adhered to what was natural. Therefore, the hypothesis of “primitive communism” does not stand up to criticism and should occupy a place in the history of science as an example of a gross blunder.