Chris Harman

A people’s history of the world

Part one: The rise of class societies

Before class

The world as we enter the 21st century is one of greed, of gross inequalities between rich and poor, of racist and national chauvinist prejudice, of barbarous practices and horrific wars It is very easy to believe that this is what things have always been like and that, therefore, they can be no different. Such a message is put across by innumerable writers and philosophers, politicians and sociologists, journalists and psychologists They portray hierarchy, deference, greed and brutality as ‘natural’ features of human behaviour. Indeed there are some who would see these as a feature throughout the animal kingdom, a ‘sociobiological’ imperative imposed by the alleged laws’ of genetics. [1] There are innumerable popular, supposedly ‘scientific’ paperbacks which propagate such a view – with talk of humans as ‘the naked ape’ (Desmond Morris) [2], the ‘killer imperative’ (Robert Ardrey) [3], and, in a more sophisticated form, as programmed by the ‘selfish gene’ (Richard Dawkins). [4]

Yet such Flintstones caricatures of human behaviour are simply not borne out by what we now know about the lives our ancestors lived in the innumerable generations before recorded history. A cumulation of scientific evidence shows that their societies were not characterised by competition, inequality and oppression. These things are, rather, the product of history and of rather recent history The evidence comes from archaeological findings about patterns of human behaviour worldwide until only about 5,000 years ago, and from anthropological studies of societies in different parts of the world which remained organised along similar lines until the 19th and earlier part of the 20th century The anthropologist Richard Lee has summarised the finding:

Before the rise of the state and the entrenchment of social inequality people lived for millennia in small-scale kin-based social groups, in which the core institutions of economic life included collective or common ownership of land and resources, generalised reciprocity in the distribution of food, and relatively egalitarian political relations. [5]

In other words, people shared with and helped each other, with no rulers and no ruled, no rich and no poor. Lee echoes the phrase used by Frederick Engels in the 1880s to describe this state of affairs, ‘primitive communism’. The point is of enormous importance. Our species (modern humans, or Homo sapiens sapiens) is over 100,000 years old. For 95 percent of this time it has not been characterised at all by many of the forms of behaviour ascribed to ‘human nature’ today There is nothing built into our biology that makes present day societies the way they are. Our predicament as we face a new millennium cannot be blamed on it.

The origins of our species go much further back into the mists of time than 100,000 years. Our distant ancestors evolved out of a species of ape which lived some four or five million years ago in parts of Africa. For some unknown reason members of this species gave up living in trees, as do our closest animal relatives, the common chimpanzee and the bonobo (often called the ‘pygmy chimpanzee’), and took to walking upright. They were able to survive in their new terrain by cooperating more than any other species of mammal, working together to make rudimentary tools (as chimps sometimes do) to dig up roots, reach high berries, gather grubs and insects, kill small animals and frighten off predators. The premium was on cooperation with each other, not competition against one another. Those who could not learn to adopt such forms of cooperative labour, and the new patterns of mental behaviour that went with them, died out. Those who could survived and reproduced.

Over millions of years this resulted in the evolution of a mammal whose genetic inheritance was very different to that of other mammals. It lacked the highly specialised physical features which enable other mammals to defend themselves (large teeth or claws), to keep warm (thick fur) or to flee (long legs). Instead, early humans were genetically programmed for extreme flexibility in response to the world around them – by being able to use their hands to hold and shape objects, being able to use their voices to communicate with each other, being able to investigate, study and generalise about the world around them, and being able, through long years of child rearing to pass on their skills and learning. All this required the growth of large brains and the ability and desire to socialise. It also led to the development of a means of communicating with each other (language) qualitatively different to that of any other animals, and with it the ability to conceptualise about things which were not immediately present – that is, to become conscious of the world around them and of themselves as beings within it. [6] The emergence of modern humans, probably in Africa some 150,000 years ago, was the culmination of this process. [7]

Over the next 90,000 years groups of our ancestors slowly spread out from Africa to establish themselves in other parts of the globe, displacing other human species like the Neanderthals in the process. [8] By at least 60,000 years ago they had reached the Middle East. By 40,000 years ago they had made their way to western Europe and also somehow managed to cross the band of sea separating the islands of south east Asia from Australia. By 12,000 years ago, at the latest, they had crossed the frozen Bering Straits to reach the Americas, and were scattered across every continent except Antarctica. The small groups which established themselves in each location were often almost completely isolated from each other for many thousands of years (melting ice made the Bering Straits impassable and raised the sea level to make the passage from south east Asia to Australia difficult). Their languages grew to be very different and each accumulated its own set of knowledge and developed distinctive forms of social organisation and culture. Certain minor hereditary characteristics became more marked among some than others (eye colour, hairiness, skin pigmentation and so on). But the genetic inheritance of the different groups remained extremely similar. Variations within each group were always greater than variations between them All of them were equally capable of learning each other’s language, and all had the same spread of intellectual aptitudes. The human species was separated into widely dispersed groupings. But it remained a single species How each grouping developed depended not on anything specific about its genetic make up, but on how it adapted its manipulative skills and forms of cooperation to the needs of making a livelihood in its particular environment. It was the form taken by this adaption which underlay the different societies which emerged, each with its own distinct customs, attitudes, myths and rituals.

The different societies shared certain common, fundamental features until about 10,000 years ago. This was because they all obtained their food, shelter and clothing in roughly the same way, through ‘foraging’ – that is, through getting hold of natural produce (fruit and nuts, roots, wild animals, fish and shellfish) and processing them for use. These societies were all what are normally called ‘hunting and gathering’ – or, better, ‘foraging’ – societies. [9]

Many survived in wide regions of the world until only a few hundred years ago, and the remnants of a few still exist at the time of writing. It has been by studying these that anthropologists such as Richard Lee have been able draw conclusions about what life was like for the whole of our species for at least 90 percent of its history.

The reality was very different to the traditional Western image of such people as uncultured ‘savages’ [10], living hard and miserable lives in ‘a state of nature’, with a bitter and bloody struggle to wrest a livelihood matched by a ‘war of all against all’, which made life ‘nasty, brutish and short’. [11]

People lived in loose-knit groups of 30 or 40 which might periodically get together with other groups in bigger gatherings of up to 200. But life in such ‘band societies’ was certainly no harder than for many millions of people living in more ‘civilised’ agricultural or industrial societies. One eminent anthropologist has even called them ‘the original affluent society’. [12]

There were no rulers, bosses or class divisions in these societies As Turnbull wrote of the Mbuti pygmies of Congo, ‘There were no chiefs, no formal councils. In each aspect of ... life there might be one or two men or women who were more prominent than others, but usually for good practical reasons ... The maintenance of law was a cooperative affair’. [13] People cooperated with each other to procure the means of livelihood without either bowing before a great leader or engaging in endless strife with each other. Ernestine Fried reported from her studies, ‘Men and women alike are free to decide how they will spend each day whether to go hunting or gathering and with whom’. [14] Eleanor Leacock told of her findings: ‘There was no ... private land ownership and no specialisation of labour beyond that of sex ... People made decisions about the activities for which they were responsible. Consensus was reached within whatever group would be carrying out a collective activity’. [15] Behaviour was characterised by generosity rather than selfishness, and individuals helped each other, offering food they had obtained to other band members before taking it themselves Lee comments, ‘Food is never consumed alone by a family: it is always shared out among members of a living group or band ... This principle of generalised reciprocity has been reported of hunter-gatherers in every continent and in every kind of environment’. [16] He further reports that the group he studied, the !Kung [17] people of the Kalahari (the so called ‘Bushmen’), ‘are a fiercely egalitarian people, and they have evolved a series of important

cultural practices to maintain this equality first by cutting down to size the arrogant and boastful, and second by helping those down on their luck to get back in the game’. [18] An early Jesuit missionary noted of another hunter-gathering people, the Montagnais of Canada, ‘The two tyrants who provide hell and torture for many of our Europeans do not reign in their great forests – I mean ambition and avarice ... not one of them has given himself to the devil to acquire wealth’. [19]

There was very little in the way of warfare, as Friedl notes:

Contests for territory between the men of neighbouring foraging groups are not unknown ... But on the whole, the amount of energy men devote to training for fighting or time spent on war expeditions among hunter-gatherers is not great ... Conflicts within bands are normally settled by the departure of one of the parties to the dispute. [20]

Such evidence completely refutes claims by people such as Ardrey that the whole prehistory of humanity, from the time of Australopithecus – the first ape-like animal to walk on two legs – through to the emergence of literacy, was based on the ‘killing imperative’, that ‘hunter-gatherer bands fought over water holes which tended all too often to vanish under the baking African sun’, that we are all ‘Cain’s children’, that ‘human history has turned on the development of superior weapons ... for genetic necessity’, and that, therefore, only a thin veneer of ‘civilisation’ conceals an instinctive ‘delight in massacre, slavery, castration and cannibalism’. [21]

This is of immense importance for any arguments about ‘human nature’. For, if such a nature exists, it was moulded by natural selection during the long epoch of hunting and gathering Richard Lee is quite right to insist:

It is the long experience of egalitarian sharing that has moulded our past. Despite our seeming adaptation to life in hierarchical societies, and despite the rather dismal track record of human rights in many parts of the world, there are signs that humankind retains a deep-rooted sense of egalitarianism, a deep-rooted commitment to the norm of reciprocity a deep-rooted ... sense of community. [22]

From a very different perspective, Friedrich von Hayek, the favourite economist of Margaret Thatcher, complained that humans have long-submerged innate instincts’ and ‘primordial emotions’ based on ‘sentiments that were good for the small band’, leading them to want ‘to do good to known people’. [23]

’Human nature’ is, in fact, very flexible. In present day society it enables some people, at least, to indulge in the greed and competitiveness that Hayek enthused over. It has also permitted, in class societies, the most horrific barbarities – torture, mass rape, burning alive, wanton slaughter. Behaviour was very different among foraging peoples because the requirements of obtaining a livelihood necessitated egalitarianism and altruism

Hunters and gatherers were necessarily intensely dependent on one another. The gatherers usually supplied the most reliable source of food, and the hunters that which was most valued So those who specialised in hunting depended for their daily survival on the generosity of those who gathered, while those who specialised in gathering – and those who were temporarily unsuccessful in the hunt – relied for valued additions to their diet on those who managed to kill animals. The hunt itself did not usually consist of an individual male hero going off to make a kill, but comprised a group of men (sometimes with the auxiliary assistance of women and children) working together to chase and trap a prey. At every point, the premium was on cooperation and collective values. Without them, no band of foragers could have survived for more than a few days.

Linked to this was the absence of male supremacy over women. There was almost always a division of labour between the sexes, with the men doing most of the hunting and the women most of the gathering This was because a woman who was pregnant or breastfeeding a child could only take part in the hunt by exposing it to dangers, and thus threatening the reproduction of the band. But this division did not amount to male dominance as we know it. Both women and men would take part in making key decisions, such as when to move camp or whether to leave one band and join another. The conjugal unit itself was loosely structured. Spouses could separate without suddenly jeopardising their own livelihood or that of their children. Missing was the male supremacism which is too often assumed to be part of ‘human nature’. [24]

Finally, there could not have been the obsession with private property that we take for granted today. The normal size of foraging bands was always restricted by the need to find enough food each day in the area of the camp. Within that area, the individual members were continually moving from one source of plant food to another, or in pursuit of animals, while the band as a whole had to move on every so often as the food supplies in a locality were used up. Such continual movement precluded any accumulation of wealth by any band member, since everything had to be carried easily At most an individual may have had a spear or bow and arrow, a carrying bag or a few trinkets. There would be no concept of the accumulation of personal wealth. The material conditions in which human beings lived conspired to produce very different societies and very different dominant ideas to those taken for granted today.

The history of humanity over the last few thousand years is, above all, the history of how such very different societies and sets of ideas developed. That history is woven out of the actions of innumerable men and women, each attempting to make decent lives for themselves, their companions and their loved ones, sometimes accepting the world as it is, sometimes desperate to change it, often failing, sometimes succeeding. Yet through these interminable, interlinking stories two things stand out. On the one hand, there is the cumulative increase in humanity’s ability to extract a livelihood from nature, the overcoming of the primitive material conditions which were part of ‘primitive communism’. On the other, there is the rise of successive forms of organisation of society that oppress and exploit the majority of people to the benefit of a small, privileged minority.

If we trace these parallel sets of changes we will be able see, eventually, how the world we face at the beginning of the 21st century arose. It is a world in which wealth can be produced on a scale undreamt of even by our grandparents, yet also a world in which the structures of class rule, oppression, and violence can seem as firmly entrenched as ever. A billion people live in desperate poverty, billions more are plagued by insecurity, wars and civil wars are endemic, and the very bases of human life are at risk from uncontrolled technological change. The dominating question for everybody ought to be whether it is possible to use the wealth to satisfy basic human needs by getting rid of the oppressive structures, to subordinate it to a society based upon the values that characterised the lives of our ancestors for the hundreds of generations of primitive communism.

But first, we have to look at how class rule and the state came into being.


1. In fact, such arguments certainly cannot be drawn from the genuinely scientific study of genetics. See, for example, S. Rose, Lifelines (London, 1997); R. Hubbard, The Politics of Women’s Biology (New Jersey 1990); R. Lewontin, The Doctrine of DNA (London 1993).

2. D. Morris, The Naked Ape (London 1967).

3. R. Ardrey African Genesis (London 1969).

4. R. Dawkins, The Selfish Gene (Oxford 1976).

5. R. Lee, Reflections on Primitive Communism, in T. Ingold, D. Riches and J. Woodburn (eds.), Hunters and Gatherers, vol.1 (Oxford 1988).

6. The ability to use language is, according to the generally accepted theory of Noam Chomsky, a genetically determined feature of all modern humans. The connection between language, abstraction and human consciousness is spelt out in the books written by the Russian Marxist Voloshinov during the 1920s, and in part two, Labour, of the Ontology by the Hungarian Marxist Georg Lukacs.

7. I am here giving a very brief preçis of very long debates. For fuller details and references, see the earlier parts of my article, Engels and the Origins of Human Society, in International Socialism 65 (Winter 1994).

8. There has been a century-long scientific debate on the exact relation between the Neanderthals and modern humans – over, for instance, whether they could have interbred. I cannot go into the debate here. Suffice to say, the displacement of the Neanderthals did not necessitate their butchery by modern humans, as some ‘born in blood’ accounts of our origins, like those of Ardrey, would have us believe. See my article, Engels and the Origins of Human Society, for an amplification of this point.

9. ‘Hunting and gathering’ is a somewhat misleading term, since gathering of vegetable food usually played a bigger part in providing people with a diet than hunting animals.

10. Hence the old use of the word ‘savagery’ used to describe such societies – a term used even by those like Lewis Morgan, Frederick Engels and C. Gordon Childe who attempted to provide a scientific account of their development.

11. The phrase is from the 17th century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, but it sums up the ‘common sense’ attitude which pervaded most accounts of these societies until the 1960s and which is still to be found in popular books like R. Ardrey, African Genesis.

12. M. Sahlins, Stone Age Economics (London 1974).

13. C. Turnbull, The Forest People (New York 1962), pp.107, 110, 124-125.

14. E. Fried, Women and Men: the Anthropologist’s View (New York 1975), p.28.

15. E. Leacock, Myths of Male Dominance (NewYork 1981), pp.139-140.

16. R. Lee, The !KungSan (Cambridge, 1979), pl!8.

17. The ! at the beginning of !Kung denotes a ‘click’ sound which does not exist in Indo-European languages.

18. R. Lee, The !KungSan, p244.

19. Le P.P. Lejeune (1635), quoted in M. Sahlins, Stone Age Economics, p.14.

20. E. Fried, Women and Men: The Anthropologist’s View (New York 1975), pp.15, 28.

21. All the quotes are from R. Ardrey, African Genesis, pp.300, 399.

22. R. Lee, Reflections on Primitive Communism.

23. Quoted in E. Gellner, Plough, Sword and Book (London 1991).

24. Engels was right in insisting that there was no systematic domination of women in these societies. However, he was wrong in one important detail – he vastly overestimated the role played by lineages in most hunting-gathering societies. For the full argument on this, see my Engels and the Origins of Human Society.

Last updated on 26 January 2010