Chris Harman

In Perspective

Artificial “human nature”

(October 2007)

From Socialist Review, October 2007.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

We are encouraged to believe that capitalism is the natural and only way for people to live. But, unexpectedly, for all their faults, glimpses of other cultures in TV programmes like Tribe can show that there are alternative, more equitable ways of running society

One thing on television irritates me nearly as much as Big Brother. It is those programmes in which someone goes to different parts of the world supposedly to throw light on some historical or political question by acting in a silly or joking way.

I watched an episode of the BBC series Tribe only because I could not face the rubbish on two dozen other channels. It was built on the “silly man” formula, with its presenter, Bruce Parry, putting on an inane grin as he dropped in for a couple of weeks on the people who live on the South Pacific island of Anuta.

My instincts were wrong. It was a fascinating programme, in part because Parry dropped the usual patronising arrogance of Westerners when faced with people from very different cultures. He was indeed shown to be silly when it came to trying to master the skills and knowledge of the islanders.

More importantly, it provided a brief glimpse of a society very different to that of modern capitalism in all its cultural variants. Here was a society in which competition did not rule, in which those who obtained food shared it equally with everyone else, and in which childcare was not the prerogative of one woman but was shared by men, including those who were not the father.

Some of the same elements emerged in another programme of the series I managed to see, on the Akie people of East Africa.

Such glimpses are important. Such has been the spread of capitalist society across the world in the last 150 years most people today have no notion that any other is possible. Supporters of capitalism trade on this ignorance to insist that “human nature” creates the ills associated with the present system – greed, competition, war, inequality, male ascendancy over females, etc.

In the course of the 20th century the same preconception often came to cloud the judgements of many of those Western academics who set out to study precapitalist societies. Their predecessors until the 1920s or 1930s had often stressed what was different about such societies. But the tendency by the 1950s was to stress what they had in common with capitalism. This was made easier by the way that colonisation and the spread of the world market had begun to reshape them in a capitalist direction (so Tribe showed the immense pressures to change acting on the Akies).

Hierarchy, inequality and male supremacy were all said to be universal attributes. The very word “tribe” used to describe those societies took such things for granted.

Those who claimed humans had once lived in egalitarian societies – “primitive communism” – were treated as “dogmatic” throwbacks to a long superseded “unscientific” approach. Any attempt to trace the evolution of different patterns of human behaviour over the tens of thousands of years of human history was ruled out. This erasure fitted in with the ideological climate created by McCarthyism in the US and the role of most British anthropology as a handmaiden to colonialism.

For a couple of decades at least, the only field of study in which ideas challenging the orthodoxy continued to be taken seriously was in archaeology. And this was because of the pioneering scientific labours of an Australian socialist influenced by Marxism, Vere Gordon Childe.

The late 1960s and early 1970s produced a degree of change. Figures like Eleanor Leacock (previously barred from academic jobs because of her left wing views) and Richard Lee (who took a year off his research to organise against the Vietnam War) produced studies of “hunter-gatherer” (or, more accurately, “foraging”) societies that showed they were based on sharing and lacked hierarchies of class, gender and power.

Such conclusions were immensely important, since for hundreds of thousands of years our ancestors lived by foraging (as opposed to the less than 200 years in which industrial capitalism has been dominant, even in the West).

It became possible to provide an overall outline of human development, linking the sorts of relations humans have with each other with ways in which they make a livelihood – something first suggested by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels in The German Ideology in the 1840s.

“Primitive communism” was the pattern for societies which lived by hunting and gathering and for the least burdensome forms of agriculture (like those practised by the Anuta). But in the course of millennia environmental and other pressures led some societies to move to heavier forms of agriculture, encouraging the emergence of a hierarchy between those doing the work and those supervising it, and between men and women.

Primitive communism gave way to class society, and this in turn evolved further with the spread of trade and the development of new forms of creating wealth based on crafts and industry. Out of the clashes between classes at each stage emerged the capitalist society we know today.

Just telling this story challenges attempts to claim that capitalism provides the only possible way for people to live. That is why even today it is an account which is marginalised in mainstream academic life and never finds its way into the popular media.

So we should be thankful for Tribe, even if Bruce Parry sometimes has to adopt a silly pose to give us a glimpse of a different way of living.

For an excellent account of Gordon Childe’s life and ideas, see the forthcoming issue 116 of International Socialism.

Last updated on 27 December 2009