Paul Lafargue

The Evolution of Property

Primitive Communism


IF political economists so confidently refer capital to the childhood of humanity, it is because they indulge themselves in a convenient ignorance of the customs of primitive peoples. [1]

There are savages at present in existence who have no conception of landed property, whether private or collective, and who have barely arrived at a notion of individual ownership of the objects which they personally appropriate. Certain Australians possess, for all personal property, the objects attached to their persons, such as arms, ornaments inserted in their ears, lips, and noses; or skins of beasts for clothing; human fat, wherewith to cure their rheumatism; stones laid up in baskets, woven of bark, fastened to the body of the owner. Personally appropriated by them, so to say incorporated with them, these objects are not taken away from them at their death, but are burned or buried with their corpses. Names are among the primary individual property we meet with. The savage never reveals his name to a stranger; it is a precious thing of which he will make a present to a friend: so completely is his name identified with his person, that after his death his tribe ceases to pronounce it. For an object to become individual property, it must be really or fictitiously incorporated with the person of the proprietor: when the savage desires to intimate that an object belongs to him, he will simulate the appropriation of it by licking it with his tongue; the Esquimaux after buying any article, if but a needle, immediately applies it to his mouth, or he will consecrate the object by a symbolical act, significative of his intention to keep the same for his personal use: this is the origin of taboo.

Manufactured articles are, in like manner, owned only if they have been appropriated; thus, an Esquimaux cannot possess more than two canoes; the third is at the disposal of the clan: whatsoever the proprietor does not use is considered as property without an owner. A savage never holds himself responsible for the loss of a canoe or any other borrowed implement for hunting or fishing, and never dreams of restoring it.

If the savage is incapable of conceiving the idea of individual possession of objects not incorporated with his person, it is because he has no conception of his individuality as distinct from the consanguine group in which he lives. The savage is environed by such perpetual material danger, and compassed round with such constant imaginary terrors that he cannot exist in a state of isolation; he cannot even form a notion of the possibility of such a thing. To expel a savage from his clan, his horde, is tantamount to condemning him to death; among the pre-historic Greeks, as among all barbarians, a murder intentional or by accident of one of the members of the clan was punished by exile. Orestes, after the assassination of his mother, was compelled to expatriate himself to appease the public indignation; in very advanced civilisations, like those of Greece and Italy in historic times, exile was considered the worst of penalties. “The exile,” says the Greek poet Theognis, “has neither friends nor faithful comrades, the most doleful thing in exile.” To be divided from his companions, to live alone, seemed a fearful thing to primeval man, accustomed to live in troops.

Savages, even though individually completer beings, seeing that they are self-sufficing, than are civilised persons, are so thoroughly identified with their hordes and clans that their individuality does not make itself felt either in the family or in property. [2]

The clan was all in all; the clan was the family; it was the clan that married; it was the clan, again, that was the owner of property. In the clan all things are in common: the bushmen of Africa who receives a present divides it among all the members of his horde; when he has captured an animal or found any object he shares his booty with his comrades, frequently reserving for himself the smallest portion. In times of famine, the young Fuegians explore the coast, and if they chance to light upon any Cetaceous animal (a favourite dainty) they hasten, before touching it, to inform their comrades of their find. These at once hurry to the spot; whereupon the oldest member of the party proceeds to portion out equal shares to all.

Hunting and fishing, those two primitive modes of production, are practised jointly, and the produce is shared in common. According to Martius, the Botocudos, those dauntless tribes of Brazil, organise their hunt in concert and never abandon the spot on which an animal has been captured until they have devoured it. The same fact is reported of the Dacotas and the Australians. Even among those tribes in which the chase in common is in abeyance, this ancient mode of consuming the prey holds good: the successful hunter invited to a feast all the members of his clan, of his village, and occasionally of his tribe, to partake of his chase: they are, so to say, national feasts. At Svarietie, in the Caucasus, whenever a family slaughters an ox, a cow, or a dozen sheep, it is the occasion of a village feast; the villagers eat and drink together in memory of the relations that have died in the course of the year. The feasts of the dead are reminiscences of these common repasts.

Morgan, who has so minutely studied the primitive communist manners, in his last and important work [3] describes the methods of hunting and fishing practised among the Redskins of North America:

“The tribes of the plain, who subsist almost exclusively upon animal food, show in their usages in hunt the same tendency to communism. The Blackfeet, during the buffalo hunt, follow the herd on horseback, in large parties, composed of men, women, and children.

When the active pursuit of the herd commences, the hunters leave the dead animal in the track of the chase, to be appropriated by the first persons who come up behind. This method of distribution is continued until all are supplied They cut up the beef into strings, and either dry it in the air or smoke it over a fire. Some make part of the capture into pemmican, which consists of dried and pulverised meat, mixed with melted buffalo fat, which is boiled in the hide of the animal. During the fishing season in the Columbia river, where fish is more abundant than in any other river on the earth, all the members of the tribe encamp together and make a common stock of the fish obtained. They are divided each day according to the number of women, giving to each an equal share. The fishes are split open, scarified and dried on scaffolds, after which they are packed in baskets and removed to the villages.”

When the savage ceases to lead a nomadic existence, and when he settles and builds himself a dwelling-house, the house is not a private but a common one, even after the family has begun to assume a matriarchal form. The communal houses resemble those that La Perouse discovered in Polynesia; they are 10 feet high, 110 feet in length, and 10 feet in width, having the shape of an inverted pirogue; the entrance was by doors situated at both extremities, and they afforded shelter for a clan of upwards of 100 persons. The long houses of the Iroquois, which, according to Morgan, disappeared before the commencement of the present century, were 100 feet long by 30 broad, and 20 feet in height; they were traversed by a longitudinal passage having an opening at both ends; into this passage, like the alveoles of a hive, opened a series of small rooms, 7 feet in width, in which dwelt the married women of the clan. Each habitation bore the totem of the clan, i.e., the animal supposed to be its ancestor. The houses of the Dyaks of Borneo are similar, with the difference that they are raised from 15 to 20 feet from the ground on posts of hard timber; they recall the lake cities, built upon piles, discovered in the Swiss lakes. Herodotus says that the Pæonians dwelt in houses of this description in Lake Prasias (V, sec.16). The casas grandes of the Redskins of Mexico presented the appearance of an enormous stairway, with super-imposed storeys, subdivided into cells for the married people: not improbably it is in such like communist dwellings that the prehistoric Greeks lived, as may be inferred from the palace brought to light in Argolis by the excavations of Dr. Schliemann. In these communist dwelling-houses the provisions are in common and the repasts are common.

We must turn to Morgan for a description of the life of the inhabitants of these communal houses. His researches were confined, it is true, to the American Redskins, and principally the Iroquois, amongst whom he had lived; but as he says,

“when any usage is found among the Iroquois in a definite or positive form, it renders probable the existence of the same usage in other tribes in the same condition, because their necessities were the same.”

“The Iroquois who formed a household, cultivated gardens, gathered harvest, and stored it in their dwellings as a common store. There was more or less of individual ownership of these products and of their possession by different families. For example, the corn, after stripping back the husk, was braided by the husk in bunches and hung up in the different apartments; but when one family had exhausted its supply, their wants were supplied by other families so long as any remained; each hunting or fishing party made a common stock of the capture, of which the surplus on their return was divided among the several families of each household, and, having been cured, were kept for winter use.”

In these Indian villages we note the singular phenomenon of individual ownership combined with common usage.

“There is nothing in the Indian house and family without its particular owner,” remarks Heckewelder, in treating of the Delawares and the Munsees; “every individual knows what belongs to him, from the horse or cow to the dog, cat, or kitten and little chicken ... For a litter of kittens or a brood of chickens there are often as many owners as there are individual animals. In purchasing a hen with her brood one frequently has to deal for it with several children. Thus while the principle of community of goods prevails in the state, the rights of property are acknowledged among the members of the family.” [4]

The Indians of Laguna village (New Mexico) had common stores.

“Their women, generally, have the control of the granary,” wrote the Rev. Sam. Gorman to Morgan in 1869, “and they are more provident than their Spanish neighbours about the future; they try to have a year’s provision on hand. It is only when two years of scarcity succeed each other that Pueblos, as a community, suffer hunger.”

Among the Maya Indians food is prepared in a hut, and every family sends for a portion. Stephen saw a procession of women and children, each carrying an earthen bowl containing a quantity of smoking hot broth, all coming down the same road and disappearing among the different houses. [5]

But among the Iroquois each household prepared the food of its members. A matron made the division from the kettle to each family according to their needs; it was served warm to each person in earthen or wooden bowls. They had neither tables, chairs, or plates, in our sense, nor any room in the nature of a kitchen or a dining-room, but ate each by himself, sitting or standing where was most convenient to the person, the men eating first and by themselves, and the women and children afterwards and by themselves. That which remained was reserved for any member of the household when hungry. Towards evening the women cooked hominy, the maize having been pounded into bits the size of a grain of rice, which was boiled and put aside to be used cold as a lunch in the morning and evening and for entertainment of visitors; they had neither formal breakfast nor supper; each person, when hungry, ate whatever food the house contained. They were moderate eaters. This, adds Morgan, is a fair picture of Indian life in general in America, when discovered.

Similar manners obtained in pre-historic Greece, and the syssities (common repasts) of historic times were but a reminiscence of the primitive communist repasts. Heraclides of Pontus, the disciple of Plato, has preserved for us a description of the communistic repasts of Creta, where the primitive manners prevailed during a long period of time. At the andreies (repasts of men) every adult citizen received an equal share, except the Archon, member of the council of the ancients (geronia), who received a fourfold portion one in his quality of simple citizen, another in that of president of the table, and two additional portions for the care of the hall and furniture. All the tables were under the supervision of a matriarch, who distributed the food and ostensibly set aside the choicest bits for the men who had distinguished themselves in the council or on the battlefield. Strangers were served first, even before the archon. A vessel with wine and water was handed round from guest to guest; at the end of the repast it was replenished. Heraclides mentions common repasts of the men only, but Hoeck assumes that in the Dorian cities there were also repasts of women and children. Our knowledge of the constant separation of the sexes among savages and barbarians renders probable the assumption of the learned historian of Creta.

According to Aristotle the provisions for these repasts were furnished by the harvests, the flocks and herds, and the tributes of the serfs belonging to the community; hence we may infer that men, women, and children, in Creta, were maintained at the expense of the state. He asserts that these repasts may be traced back to a very remote antiquity; that it was Minos who established them in Creta and Italus among the Oenotrians, whom he taught agriculture; and as Aristotle finds these common repasts still prevalent in Italy, he concludes that they originated there, ignoring the fact that they occur among all primitive peoples. [6]

Plutarch informs us that at these common repasts no one person was considered as superior to the other, wherefore he styles them aristocratic assemblies (sunedria aristokratika). The persons who sat down at the same table were probably members of the same family. In Sparta the members of a syssitia were formed into corresponding military divisions, and fought together. Savages and barbarians, accustomed at all times to act in common, in battle always range themselves according to families, clans and tribes.

It was of such imperative necessity that every member of the clan should get his share of the aliments, that in the Greek language the word moira, which signifies the portion of a guest at a repast, came to signify Destiny, the supreme Goddess to whom men and gods are alike submitted and who deals out to everyone his portion of existence, just as the matriarch of the Cretan syssitia apportions to each guest his share of food. It should be remarked that in Greek mythology Destiny is personified by women – Moira, Aissa, and the Keres – and that their names signify the portion to which each person is entitled in the division of victuals or spoils.

When the common dwelling house, sheltering an entire clan, came to be sub-divided into private houses, containing a single family, the repasts ceased to be held in common, save on occasions of religious and national solemnities, such as the Greek syssities, which were celebrated in order to preserve the memory of the past; the provisions, although individually possessed by each private family, continue, practically, at the disposal of the members of the tribe.

“Every man, woman, or child, in Indian communities,” says Catlin, “ is allowed to enter anyone’s lodge, and even that of the chief of the nation, and eat when they are hungry. Even so can the poorest and most worthless drone of the nation; if he is too lazy to supply himself or to hunt, he can walk into any lodge, and everyone will share with him as long as there is anything to eat. He, however, who thus begs when he is able to hunt, pays dear for his meat, for he is stigmatised with the disgraceful epithet of poltroon or beggar.”

In the Caroline Isles, when an indigene sets out on a journey, he carries with him no provisions. When he is hungry he enters a lodge without any kind of ceremony, and without waiting for permission he plunges his hand into the tub containing the popoi (a paste of the fruit of the bread tree) and when his hunger is satisfied he departs without so much as thanking anybody. He has but exercised a right.

These communistic habits, which had once been general, were maintained in Ceremoniallong after the Spartans had issued out of barbarism; private property in objects of personal appropriation was extremely vague and precarious. Plutarch says that Lycurgus, the mythical personage to whom the Spartans refer all their institutions, forbade the closing of the house doors in order that everybody might walk in and help himself to the food and utensils he wanted, even in the absence of the owner: a citizen of Sparta was entitled, without permission, to ride the horses, use the dogs, and even dispose of the slaves of any other Spartan.

Very gradually did the idea of private property, which is so ingrained in, and appears so natural to, the philistine, dawn upon the human mind. The earliest reflections of man, on the contrary, led him to think that all things should be common to all.

“The Indians,” says Heckewelder, “think that the Great Spirit has made the earth, and all that it contains, for the common good of mankind; when he stocked the country and gave them plenty of game, it was not for the good of a few, but of all. Everything is given in common to the sons of men. Whatever liveth on the land, whatever groweth out of the earth, and all that is in the rivers and waters, was given jointly to all, and every one is entitled to his share. Hospitality with them is not a virtue, but a strict duty ... They would lie down on an empty stomach rather than have it laid to their charge that they had neglected their duty by not satisfying the wants of the stranger, the sick, or the needy ... because they have a common right to be helped out of the common stock; for if the meat they have been served with was taken from the wood, it was common to all before the hunter took it; if corn and vegetables, it had grown out of the common ground, yet not by the power of man, but by that of the Great Spirit.” [7]

Caesar who had observed an analogous communism among the Germans who had invaded Belgium and Gaul, states that one of the objects of their customs was “to uphold in the people the sense of equality, since every man sees his resources equal to those of the most powerful.” And, in effect, this communism in production and consumption presupposes a perfect equality among all the members of the clan and tribe who consider themselves as derived from a common stock. But not only did this rudimentary communism maintain equality; it developed, also, sentiments of fraternity and liberality which put to shame the much vaunted brotherliness and charity of the Christian, and which have elicited the admiration of the observers of savage tribes before they had been deteriorated by the Bible and brandy, the brutal mercantilism, and pestilential diseases of civilisation.

At no subsequent period of human development has hospitality been practised in so simple and perfect a way.

“If a man entered an Iroquois house,” says Morgan, “ whether a villager, a tribesman, or a stranger, and at whatever hour of the day, it was the duty of the women of the house to set food before him. An omission to do this would have been a discourtesy amounting to an affront. If hungry, he eats, if not hungry, courtesy required he should taste the food and thank the giver.”

“To be narrow-hearted, especially to those in want, or to any of their own family, is accounted a great crime, and to reflect scandal on the rest of the tribe,” says another student of the primitive manners of the American Indians. [8] A guest was held sacred, even though an enemy. Tacitus describes the same usages among the barbarian Germans who invaded the Roman Empire.

“No people,” he says, “are more addicted to social entertainments, or more liberal in the exercise of hospitality. To refuse any person whatever admittance under their roof is accounted flagitious. Everyone according to his ability feasts his guest; when his provisions are exhausted, he who was late the host is now the guide and companion to another hospitable board. They enter the next house, and are received with equal cordiality. No one makes a distinction with respect to the rights of hospitality between a stranger and an acquaintance.”

Tacitus held up the barbarian Germans as an example to his civilised compatriots. Catlin, who, during a period of eight years, from 1832 to 1839, sojourned amongst the wildest Indian tribes of North America, writes:

“Morality and virtue, I venture to say, the civilised world need not undertake to teach them.”

Travellers, who were not ferocious and rapacious commercial travellers like Mr. Stanley, have not hesitated to bear testimony, with Cæsar, to the virtues of the savages, and to attribute those virtues to the communism in which they lived.

“The brotherly sentiments of the Redskins,” says the Jesuit Charlevoix, “are doubtless in part ascribable to the fact that the words mine and thine, ‘those cold words,’ as St. John Chrysostomos calls them, are all unknown as yet to the savages. The protection they extend to the orphans, the widows and the infirm, the hospitality which they exercise in so admirable a manner, are, in their eyes, but a consequence of the conviction which they hold that all things should be common to all men.” [9]

So writes the Jesuit Charlevoix. Let us hear what his contemporary and critic, the free-thinker Lahontan, says:

“Savages do not distinguish between mine and thine, for it may be affirmed that what belongs to the one belongs to the other. It is only among the Christian savages who dwell at the gates of our cities that money is in use. The others will neither handle it nor even look upon it. They call it: the serpent of the white men. They think it strange that some should possess more than others, and that those who have most should be more highly esteemed than those who have least. They neither quarrel nor fight among themselves; they neither rob nor speak ill of one another.” [10]


So long as the savage hordes, composed of 30 or 40 members, are nomadic, they wander on the face of the earth, and fix wherever they find the means of sustenance. It is, probably, in following the seashores and the course of the rivers which supplied them with food that the savages peopled the continents. Such was the opinion of Morgan. The Bushmen and the Veddahs of Ceylon, who live in this state of savagery, do not dream of vindicating the right of property even in the territories of the chase – the most archaic form of landed property.

Primitive man, who does not till the soil, and who supports himself by hunting and fishing, and lives on a diet of wild fruits, eked out by milk, must have access to vast territories for his own sustenance and that of his herds: it has been computed, I know not with what accuracy, that each savage, for his subsistence, requires three square miles of land. Hence, when a country begins to be populous, it becomes necessary to divide the land among the tribes.

The earliest distribution of the land was into pasture and territories of chase common to the tribe, for the idea of individual ownership of the land is of ulterior and tardier growth. “The earth is like fire and water, that cannot be sold,” say the Omahas. The Maoris are so far from conceiving that the land is vendible, that, “although the whole tribe might have consented to a sale, they would still claim with every new-born child among them an additional payment, on the ground that they had only parted with their own rights, and could not sell those of the unborn. The government of New Zealand could settle the difficulty only by buying land for a tribal annuity, in which every child that is born acquired a share.” Among the Jews and Semitic peoples there was no private property in land. “The land shall not be sold for ever, for the land is mine; for ye are strangers and sojourners with me.” (Leviticus xxv., 23.) Christians set the commandment of their God at defiance. Full of reverence as they are for Jehovah and His laws, still greater is their veneration for almighty Capital.

Mankind underwent a long and painful process of development before arriving at private property in land.

Among the Fuegians vast tracts of unoccupied land circumscribe the territories of chase belonging to the tribe. Cæsar relates that the Suevi and Germans founded their pride upon having vast solitudes round their frontiers. (De Bello Gallico iv., 3.) Savage and barbarian peoples limit their territories by neutral zones, because an alien found upon the lands of any tribe is hunted like a wild beast, and mutilated or put to death if taken. Heckewelder reports that the Redskins cut off the noses and ears of every individual found on their territory, and sent him back to inform his chief that on the next occasion they would scalp him. The feudal saying, Qui terre a, guerre a, held good in primitive times; the violations of the territories of chase are among the chief causes of dispute and warfare between neighbouring tribes. The unoccupied areas, established to prevent incursions, came, at a later period, to serve as market places where the tribes met to exchange their belongings. Harold, in 1063, defeated the Cambrians, who made perpetual inroads on the territories of the Saxons; he made a covenant with them that every man of their nation found in arms east of the intrenchment of Offa should have his right hand cut off. The Saxons, on their side, raised parallel trenches, and the space enclosed by the two walls became neutral ground for the merchants of both nations. Anthropologists have noted with a feeling of surprise that the sexes among savage peoples are isolated and live apart; there is reason for supposing that this separation of the sexes was introduced when it was sought to put a stop to the primitive promiscuity and prevent the sexual intercourse that was the rule between brother and sister. This separation of the sexes within the limits of the tribe, necessary in the interests of morality, was upheld and promoted by a differentiation of pursuits and by property. The man is habitually charged with the defence and the procuring of food, while on the woman devolves the culinary preparation of the food, the fabrication of the clothes or household utensils, and the management of the house once it has sprung into existence. [11] It is, as Marx observes, the division of labour which begins and which is based on sex: property, in its origin, was confined to a single sex.

The man is a hunter and a warrior; he possesses the horses and arms; to the woman belong the household utensils and other objects appropriate to her pursuits; these belongings she is obliged to transport on her head or back, in the same way that she carries her child, which belongs to her and not to the father, generally unknown.

The introduction of agriculture enhanced the separation of the sexes, while it was the determinant cause of the parcelling of the lands, the common property of the tribe. The man continues a warrior and a hunter; he resigns to his wife the labour of the fields consenting, on occasion, to assist at harvest time; among pastoral peoples he reserves to himself the care of the flocks and herds, which comes to be looked on as a nobler pursuit than agriculture; it is, in truth, the less arduous of the two. The Kaffirs consider the tending of the herds as an aristocratic occupation; they call the cow the black pearl. The earliest laws of the Aryans forbade agriculture, thought degrading, to the two highest classes, the Brahmins and the Kshattryas, or warriors.

“For a Brahmin and a Kshattryas agriculture is blamed by the virtuous, as the plough with the iron point injures the earth and the beings in it.” [12]

As the use of a thing constitutes the sole condition of its ownership, landed property, on its first establishment among primitive nations, was allotted to the women. In all societies in which the matriarchal form of the family has maintained itself, we find landed property held by the woman; such was the case among the Egyptians, the Nairs, the Touaregs of the African desert, and the Basques of the Pyrenees; in the time of Aristotle two-thirds of the territory of Sparta belonged to the women.

Landed property, which was ultimately to constitute for its owner a means of emancipation and of social supremacy, was, at its origin, a cause of subjection; the women were condemned to the rude labour of the fields, from which they were emancipated only by the introduction of servile labour.

Agriculture, which led to private property in land, introduced the servile labour, which in the course of centuries has borne the names of slave-labour, bond-labour, and wage-labour.


So long as primitive communism subsists, the tribal lands are cultivated in common. “ In certain parts of India,” says Nearchus, one of Alexander’s generals, and eye-witness of events that took place in the 4th century, B.C., “ the lands were cultivated in common by tribes or groups of relatives, who at the end of the year shared among themselves the fruits and crops.” [13]

Stephen cites a settlement of Maya Indians composed of 100 labourers, “ in which the lands are held and wrought in common and products shared by all.” [14]

From Tao, an Indian village of New Mexico, Mr. Miller, in Dec. 1877, wrote to Morgan: “There is a cornfield at each pueblo, cultivated by all in common, and when the grain is scarce the poor take from this store after it is housed, and it is in the charge and at the disposal of the Cacique, called the Governor.” In Peru, prior to the Spanish Conquest, agricultural labour possessed the attraction of a feast. At break of day, from an eminence, or a tower, the whole of the population was convoked men women, and children, who all assembled in holiday attire and adorned with their most precious ornaments. The crowd set to work, and sang in chorus hymns celebrating the prowess of the Incas. The work was accomplished with the utmost spirit and enthusiasm. [15] Cæsar relates that the Suevi, the most warlike and most powerful of the Germanic tribes, annually sent forth to combat a hundred men from a hundred cantons. The men that stayed at home were bound to maintain the men engaged in the expedition; the following year it was the combatants who remained at home and the others who took up arms; in this way, he adds, the fields were always cultivated and the men practised in war. (De Bello Gallico, IV, 1.) The Scandinavians who ravaged Europe had similar communistic practices, combined with warlike expeditions; the latter over, they returned home to assist their wives in gathering in the harvest. This cultivation in common long survived the status of primitive communism. In the Russian villages which are under the regime of collective or consanguine property, a certain tract of land is often cultivated in common and is called mirskia zapaschki (fields tilled by the mir); the produce of the harvest is distributed among the families of the village. In other places the arable lands are tilled jointly, and are afterwards allotted to the families. In several communities of the Don the meadows elsewhere portioned out remain undivided, the mowing is performed in common, and it is only after the hay is made that the partition takes place. Forests, also, are cleared in common. The co-operative ploughing and digging practised in the village communities ought probably to be referred to the period of communist agriculture. In Fiji, when preparing a piece of ground, a number of men are employed, divided into groups of three or four. Each man being furnished with a digging stick, they drive them into the ground so as to enclose a circle of about two feet in diameter. When by repeated strokes the sticks reach the depth of 18 inches, they are used as levers, and the mass of soil between them is then loosened and raised. Mr. Gomme cites, after Ure, an analogous practice of the Scotch highlanders.

Cæsar shows us how the Germans set out annually on predatory expeditions; the booty was, probably, divided among all the warriors, including those who had remained at home to perform the agricultural labour of the community. The Greeks of prehistoric times, also, were audacious pirates, who scoured the Mediterranean and fled with their booty to their citadels, perched on the tops of promontories like eagles’ nests, and as inexpugnable as the round towers of the Scandinavians, built in the midst of the waters. A precious fragment of a Greek song, the Skolion of Hybrias, presents us with a picture of the heroic lives of the Greeks. The hero says:

“I have for riches a great lance, and my sword, and my buckler, the rampart of my body; with these I till the ground and reap the harvest and vintage the sweet juice of the grape; thanks to these I am styled the master of the mnoia (the slaves of the community). Let those who dare not bear the lance and the buckler kneel to me as to a master and call me the great king.”

Piracy is the favourite pursuit of prehistoric times. Nestor inquires of Telemachus, his guest, if he is a pirate (Odyssey III). Solon maintained a college of pirates at Athens (Institutes of Gaius), and Thucydides states that in ancient times piracy was honourable (I., sec. 5).

Wherever the heroes landed, they carried off men, women, cattle, crops, and movables; the men became slaves and common property; they were placed under the supervision of the women, and cultivated the lands for the warriors of the clan. All of the cities of Crete, one of the first islands colonised by these bold pirates, possessed, down to the time of Aristotle, troops of slaves, called mnotie, who cultivated the public domains. The Greek cities maintained, besides a public domain, public slaves, and upheld common repasts similar to those described by Heraclides. [16]

Mr. Hodgson, in 1830, described a village, thirty miles north-west of Madras, the inhabitants of which were assisted in their agricultural operations by slaves who were common property; for they were transferred with the other privileges of the village occupants when those privileges were sold or mortgaged. The mediæval towns and even villages had serfs in common. [17]

Thus we see that everywhere property in land and its produce, in domestic animals, serfs and slaves, was primarily property common to all the members of the clan. Communism was the cradle of humanity; the work of civilisation has been to destroy this primitive communism, of which the last vestiges that remain, in defiance of the rapacity of the aristocrat and the bourgeois, are the communal lands. But the work of civilisation is twofold: while on the one hand it destroys, on the other hand it reconstructs; while it broke into pieces the communist mould of primitive humanity, it was building up the elements of a higher and more complex form of communism. I am here concerned to trace out civilisation in its double movement of destruction and reconstruction.


1. In his recent and notorious discussion with Mr. Herbert Spencer, the learned Professor Huxley, who acts as a champion of capital, and who calls Rousseau an ignoramus, has given a remarkable proof of his ignorance of the customs of savages which he discusses with such assurance, “The confident assertions,” wrote the learned professor in the Nineteenth Century of January 1890, “that the land was originally held in common by the whole nation are singularly ill founded.” “Land was hold as private or several property, and not as the property of the public or general body of the nation.”

2. In savage hordes there exists no private family, not even the matriarchal one. The children belong to the entire horde, and they call mother, indifferently their own mother, the sisters of their mother and the women of the same age as their mother. When, in process of time, the sexual relations, at first promiscuous, began to be restricted, prior to the appearance of the “pairing family,” there obtained the common marriage of the clan. All the women of one clan were the wives of the men of another clan, and, reciprocally, all the men of that clan were the joint husbands of the women; when they met, it was only necessary for them to recognise each other in order to legitimate a conjugal union. This curious form of communist marriage has been observed in Australia by Messrs. Fison and Howitt. Traces of it are discoverable in the mythological legends of Greece.

3. Lewis H. Morgan, Houses and House Life of the American Aborigines, Washington 1881.

4. Heckewelder, History, Manners and Customs of Indian Nations who once inhabited Pennsylvania and the Neighbouring States. Reprinted in 1876. Heckewelder lived as a missionary among the American Indians for fifteen years, from 1771 to 1786, and was conversant with their language.

5. Stephen, Incidents of Travel in Yucatan, II.

6. Aristotle, Politics, Book II, chap.iii., section 4; Book IV. Chap.ix., sections 2, 3, 4. French ed., B. St. Hilaire, 1818.

7. Hobbes, one of the great thinkers of modern times, thought it otherwise.

“Nature hath given to each of us an equal right to all things,” says Hobbes in De Cive. “In a state of nature every man has a right to do and to take whatsoever he pleases: whence the common saying that Nature has given all things to all men, and whence it follows that in a state of nature utility is the rule of right.”

8. James Adair, History of the American Indians, London 1775.

9. Charlevoix, Histoire de la Nouvelle France.

10. Voyage de Lahontan, II.

11. “A man,” said a Kurnai to Pison, “hunts, fishes, fights, and sits down,” meaning that all besides is the business of the woman

12. Laws of Manu, Cap. x.

13. Nearchus apud Strabo, lib.xv.

14. Stephen, Incidents of a travel in Yucatan, II.

15. W. Prescott, Conquest of Peru.

16. The Greek slaves were divided into two classes, the public slaves (Koine douleia) belonging to the state, and the slaves belonging to private individuals, called Klerotes, i.e., adjudged by lot. Athens possessed a number of public slaves, who did not cultivate the soil, but discharged the functions of executioner, police agents, and inferior employees of the administration.

17. Transactions of the Royal Asiatic Society, 1830, vol.ii.

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Last updated on 14.9.2008