The original egalitarian societies: What human history tells us about human nature

For the bulk of our existence, humans have lived in egalitarian societies, argues Caitlin Doyle-Markwick, showing that a society based on competition and greed is not inevitable

One of the most common objections to socialism is the idea that humans are inherently selfish.

It is often assumed that greed and individualism are a biological fact, inherent in so-called “human nature”. The competition and violence in modern societies are assumed to be simply natural.

It follows then that a truly egalitarian society is idealistic and impossible.

This applies to the inequalities between men and women too. Some people, including many feminists, claim that the oppression of women has been common to all human societies, suggesting that men are naturally domineering or aggressive. The upshot of this argument is that it is not possible to create a society in which women and men are truly equal, unless men were to be constrained in some way.

However, exploitation, inequality and the subordination of women to men in the nuclear family do not arise from an inherent and immutable “human nature”. They are products of history.

In fact, for the majority of human history since our emergence as a species 200,000 years ago, people did actually live in egalitarian societies, where sharing and co-operation were the norm.

Hierarchy, inequality and oppression were virtually unheard of. This changed only within the last 10,000 years.

These were hunter-gatherer, or “foraging” societies, in which both women and men contributed to the economic and political activity of the group. Marx and Engels described this as “primitive communism” or “original communism”, and saw it as proof of the possibility of a different way of running society.

These societies call into question the common sense idea that all human societies are naturally driven by selfishness and greed.

The strict equality of societies in Australia and the Americas prior to colonisation has been an important source of inspiration and pride for Indigenous peoples fighting back against the brutalities of the new system.

Fred Maynard, an Aboriginal waterside worker and founder of the Australian Aborigines Progressive Association in the 1920s wrote, in a letter to NSW Labor Premier Jack Lang demanding self determination:

“The members of [the AAPA] have also noted the strenuous efforts of the Trade Union leaders to attain the conditions which existed in our country at the time of invasion by Europeans—the men only worked when necessary, we called no man ‘Master’ and we had no king.”

The film Two Laws shows interviews in Borroloola in the NT during the early 1980s, where local women fighting for land rights argued, “today we’ve got a whitefella boss, but Aboriginal people didn’t have a boss, there were leaders for the ceremony and the land, but no boss over other people. Men never bossed over women”.

This egalitarianism is also evidenced by detailed written descriptions from early contact with Aboriginal people in the Americas and in Australia before the full impact of European colonisation.

Egalitarian societies

From their first arrival in “the New World”, the Americas, European colonists took records of their interactions with the local populations.

Some of the most detailed come from Christian missionaries who attempted to live and work with indigenous people.

A French Jesuit missionary, called Le Jeune, kept meticulous written records from his time spent amongst the Montagnais-Naskapi people in what is now Canada in the year 1633-34. At the time Le Jeune was writing, indigenous societies were still virtually unchanged by interaction with settlers from Europe.

The Montagnais were a hunter-gatherer society that lived by hunting for small and large game, and in summer gathered nuts, berries and roots.

Le Jeune reported that customs amongst the group called for generosity, co-operation and patience. He commented that “good humour, lack of jealousy and willingness to help” characterised daily life. People who didn’t contribute their share weren’t respected and it was an insult to call people stingy.

The Montagnais had no permanent leaders or “chiefs”. Those who were chosen to speak as intermediaries between Native American groups or with the French upon their arrival, were chosen because of their rhetorical ability, but held no formal power within the group. This applied to many other nomadic groups in North America.

Leadership fell at different times to different people because of their superior knowledge on a given topic or practice. Important matters were resolved through considered discussion.

Both men and women took part in these decisions. Le Jeune saw women as holding “great power” and having “the choice of plans, of undertakings, of journeys, of winterings”.

The Jesuits, however, worked very hard to introduce the concepts of hierarchy and male supremacy into Native American societies, with the aim of entrenching the idea that private property should be passed down from father to son, requiring a man to control the sexual activities of his wife.

Le Jeune records a Montagnais man’s bafflement at these suggestions:

“I told him it was not honourable for a woman to love anyone else except her husband, and that this evil being among them, he himself was not sure that his son… was his son. [The Montagnais man] replied ‘Thou hast no sense. You French people love only your own children; but we all love all the children of our tribe’.”

But co-operation didn’t arise by accident. It was a matter of necessity. The stress on generosity follows from the way hunter-gatherers were intensely dependent on one another.

Women’s role

In societies like these there was a sexual division of labour, usually arising from the need for women to bear children and breastfeed, and therefore not being able to join the hunt for risk of danger and jeopardising carrying on the clan.

But this did not mean that women’s labour was less valued. Indeed in most societies gathering, rather than hunting, made up for much more than half of the group’s food intake. By virtue of their essential economic contribution, women were respected and well regarded.

And these divisions were usually not strictly enforced. Care of children also fell to men. Women sometimes joined the hunt, men sometimes gathered.

Spouses in almost any of these societies could also separate without suddenly jeopardising their own livelihood or that of their children.

In Australian Aboriginal societies too, women exercised a degree of autonomy and sexual freedom that their “civilised” sisters could only dream of at the time. They usually chose their own partners. Until they were married, and in many cases even after, women and men often had casual sexual relationships.

Women also had much more control over their own reproduction. In some places abortions were performed if a pregnancy was unwanted, and women tended to space out pregnancies by a few years.

This is true of many hunter-gatherer societies, where women used abortion, abstinence and even infanticide to decide how and when they would have children.

Social behaviour and customs in hunter-gatherer societies also developed to maintain the stress on co-operation and reciprocity.

Amongst the traditional !Kung people of the Kalahari desert in Africa, who maintain a difficult existence even today, behavioural customs are used to maintain equality and keep egos in check, 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.

Men are encouraged to hunt well, but the correct demeanour for the successful hunter is modesty. One of the !Kung explained to anthropologist Richard Lee in the 1960s:

Say a man has been hunting. He must not come home and announce like a braggart. “I have killed a big one in the bush!” He must first sit down in silence until I or someone else comes up to his fire and asks, “What did you do today?” He replies quietly, “Ah, I’m no good at hunting. I saw nothing at all… maybe just a tiny one”. Then I smile, because I know he has killed something big.

Whatever their skills !Kung leaders have no formal authority. They can only persuade, but never enforce their will on others.

Subsistence societies rely on intimate knowledge of the natural environment. Though they were vulnerable to the extremes of that environment, on a day-to-day basis they were not materially poor.

Many hunter-gatherer people worked no more than three to four hours a day to acquire enough from their surroundings to sustain them. This meant they had time for a rich spiritual, religious and cultural life in what some anthropologists have called the “original affluent societies”.

The development of class and women’s oppression

However, after agriculture fully developed for the first time around 10,000 years ago, class divisions developed in some societies.

With the advent of class came the development of a centralised state authority, as well as economic inequality, systematic warfare and the oppression of women.

First, however, society needed to produce enough surplus food to support a group of individuals not directly producing what they ate. Agricultural production allowed settled societies to produce far more than hunter-gatherers.

As agriculture developed, women were increasingly excluded from food production.

As agricultural labour became more complex, involving heavy ploughing and the herding of cattle, it became impossible for child-rearing to take place alongside it.

Instead women took on work in the family home, bringing up children and cooking. Agricultural societies had higher birth rates so women were pregnant more often. Male children, the farmers of the future, became more important.

Long-distance trade became controlled by men, as women remained in the home.

A similar process took place with warfare, as the strict domain of men. The rise of agriculture meant that enough food was produced that it could be stored, and therefore stolen. For the first time systematic warfare began to make sense.

The emergence of a ruling class dominated by men also contributed to the oppression of women. Now it became essential to ensure their property was inherited by their male children and women too became the “property” of their husbands.

Once enough surplus was produced it became necessary for a group of people to be freed from direct labour to look after the stores of food, make sure they weren’t consumed immediately and to co-ordinate large-scale production. But often they found that increasing production to put enough away for lean years, or stopping the immediate consumption of food in good years, required them to bully the rest of the population into line.

Over time such “leaders” turned into “rulers”. They went from acting in the interests of the whole society, to acting with a view to their own personal interests.

They began to use their control of the surplus for their own advancement, even at the expense of society as a whole.

The logic of class societies remains essentially the same, through slavery and feudalism, through to capitalism.

Throughout history the ruling class has justified their control in many and varied ways. Religion was one of the earliest justifications, with many of the first rulers setting themselves up as priests.

Capitalism is no exception. The ruling class works hard to justify its existence and rule by telling us that the private ownership of the vast bulk of world’s wealth by the (less than) 1 per cent is necessary because collective, democratic ownership and control is simply impossible.

Those who wish to preserve the status quo constantly tell us that society cannot fundamentally change because we are constrained by our very human nature.

Meanwhile those same people are materially rewarded on a daily basis for the utmost greed and violence. CEOs and other bosses are richly rewarded for exploiting other humans, deploying weaponry that can kill entire villages, destroying the planet’s resources and finding complex new financial tools to swindle people.

Those who controlled the banks and financial institutions that were partly responsible for the Global Financial Crisis were, rather than being punished, in many cases rewarded with enormous bonuses and salary increases.

Meanwhile these same people cut wages, cut jobs and insist that less money be spent on essential public services. The bulk of us are made to compete for jobs, housing, places at university, space on the train and hospital beds.

This kind of competition, which is forced upon us by the system in which we live, often causes people to behave in selfish or anti-social ways just to get by or get marginally “ahead”.

Even so, there are acts of kindness, solidarity and collective action on a daily basis, whether it be volunteers feeding the homeless, people rallying for women’s rights, for their loved ones to be able to marry their partners, or against war, or going on strike to make our collective lives better.

Humans have enormous potential to be caring, generous and compassionate.

An understanding of the fact that inequality, oppression and violence developed historically shows us that these features do not spring from an unchanging “human nature”, but from specific material circumstances. The egalitarian societies that existed for over 100,000 years across the world demonstrate this perfectly.

We now have the technology and productive capabilities for everyone to live in comfort. What is holding us back is the undemocratic, unaccountable and self-interested power of the capitalist class who continue to divide and rule.

With a radical transformation of society, the economic and political system could again be socialised, and along with them the unequal burden borne by women.

This could allow for co-operation, creativity, collectivism and real democracy to become the basic principles of society once again.


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