Ancient Society. Lewis H. Morgan 1877


Morgan studied the American Indian way of life and collected an enormous amount of factual material on the history of primitive-communal society. All the conclusions he draws are based on these facts; where he lacks them, he reasons back on the basis of the data available to him. He determined the periodization of primitive society by linking each of the periods with the development of production techniques. The “great sequence of inventions and discoveries;” and the history of institutions, with each of its three branches — family, property and government — constitute the progress made by human society from its earliest stages to the beginning of civilization. Mankind gained this progress through “the gradual evolution of their mental and moral powers through experience, and of their protracted struggle with opposing obstacles while winning their way to civilization.”

Nature has the same objectivity, for Morgan, as it has for the great philosophers of the seventeenth century. It provides the basis for the development of man, society and its various institutions. In this unitary development, the relationship between the two is not one sided. The growth of human society certainly develops out of nature, but it exhibits so many new categories, relations and laws that it can only be derived from nature in a dialectical relationship. In this sense it goes far beyond nature and distinguishes itself qualitatively from it.

Commenting on this outstanding book in the light of which he had written ‘The Origin of Family, Private Property and State’ which again contains a summary of the important facts established by Morgan in “Ancient Society,” Engels says, “Morgan’s great merit lies in the fact that he discovered and re-constructed in its main lines the pre-historic basis of our written history; so long as no important additional material makes changes necessary, his classification will undoubtedly remain in force.” In a letter to Kautsky (February 16, 1884) he says, “There exists a definitive book on the origins of society, as definitive as Darwin’s work for Biology, and it is, naturally, again Marx who has discovered it: it is Morgan, Ancient Society, 1877. Marx spoke to me of it but I had other matters on my mind and he did not return to the subject. This surely pleased him for I can see by his very detailed extracts that he wanted to introduce it to the Germans himself. Within the limits set by his subject, Morgan spontaneously discovered Marx’s materialist conception of history, and his conclusions with regard to present-day society are absolutely communist postulates. The Roman and Greek gens is for the first time fully explained by those of savages, especially the American Indians, and this gives a solid base to primitive history.”

Morgan’s debt to Darwin is obvious. He saw man, as Darwin did, as a species of animal origin. Man began his long journey towards civilization as a creature hardly distinguishable from savage beasts that surrounded him. But the evolution of human society has been possible because of the development in the faculties of human understanding. Among the causes that set man apart from the animal world are, in his words, “inventions and discoveries” coherent speech and collective life of the community. He says, “With the production of inventions and discoveries, and with the growth of institutions, the human mind necessarily grew and expanded; and we are led to recognize a gradual enlargement of the brain itself, particularly of the cerebral portion.” Here we do find an echo of Darwin’s ideas, but it is not a mechanical scheme of development. Nature is the foundation of life, but his “lines of investigation” are historical. One of these “leads through inventions and discoveries;” and with the knowledge gained therefrom, we may hope to indicate the principal stages of human development.”

Marx poured his scorn on writers who failed to differentiate between the laws of nature and those of society and coined a general law to which both human and animal evolution is subject. In a letter to Dr. Kugelmann, he says” “Herr Lange, you see, has made a great discovery. The whole of history can be brought under a single great natural law. This natural law is the phrase (in this application Darwin’s expression become nothing but a phrase) “the struggle for life,” and the content of this phrase is the Malthusian law of population or, rather, over-population. So, instead of analyzing the struggle for life as represented historically in varying and definite forms of society, all that has to be done is to translate every concrete struggle into the phrase “struggle for life,” and this phrase itself into the Malthusian population fantasy. One must admit that this is a very impressive method — good for swaggering, sham-scientific, bombastic ignorance and intellectual laziness.”

After this brief discussion, we may conclude that Marx would never have praised Morgan in so high terms if it were an extension of Darwin’s Biology to History; or if he had tried to determine the evolution of human society only through environmental influences. “The materialistic doctrine concerning the transformation of circumstances and upbringing forgets that circumstances are changed by men and that it is essential to educate the educator himself.” Marx, Third Thesis on Feuerbach. This is the reason that they ranked Morgan’s work with the greatest and found in it the Materialist Conception of History.

From the Foreword to the First Indian Edition

An eternal being created human society as it is today and submission to ‘superiors’ and ‘authority’ is imposed on the ‘lower’ classes by ‘divine will’ this doctrine preached and propagated from the pulpit, has hypnotised the minds of men and proves to be one of the strongest pillars of exploitation in the Eastern countries even now. Scientific investigation, however, has revealed long before that human society is not cast in a stereotyped mould. Just as organic life on earth — the outcome of a succession of evolutionary changes — assumes different shapes so also the group life of human beings develops different social institutions as a result of the increasing control over environment, especially of production of food, clothing and shelter. This is the message which the works of men like Morgan, Marx, Darwin and others has brought to the humankind.