A society divided into classes

June 28, 2012

Early societies free of class divisions and oppression had no need for kings ruling from above.

FOR MOST of our history, human societies knew "no soldiers, no gendarmes or police, no nobles [or] kings, no prisons," Frederick Engels wrote.

"All quarrels and disputes are settled by the whole of the community affected," Engels said of the Iroquois Indians of North America, citing the work of those who studied the Iroquois before its social relations were shaped by the European colonizers. "There cannot be any poor or needy--the communal household and the gens know their responsibility toward the old, the sick, and those disabled in war. There is no place yet for slaves, nor, as a rule, for the subjugation of other tribes."

The status of women in communal societies like the Iroquois' was far higher than in class societies that followed. Among the Iroquois, a woman could dissolve her marriage simply by placing her husband's belongings outside the household door.

Subsequent anthropological research has reinforced Engels' view that most societies that practiced hunting and gathering--as well as many societies that engaged in simple agriculture--were free of class divisions and oppression. Such societies had no need for kings, priests and soldiers elevated above society and ruling over it. Wrote Engels:

The state has not existed from all eternity. There have been societies that have managed without it...At a definite stage of economic development , which necessarily involved the cleavage of society into classes, the state became a necessity because of this cleavage.

But why did class society, the state and inequality develop "at a definite stage of economic development?" The answer lies in the fact that several thousand years ago, some societies, as a result of declining resources, moved from hunting and gathering to domesticating animals and growing crops.

This not only created the possibility of larger and more sedentary populations, it both necessitated and made possible the production of a surplus over and above the immediate needs of the population--as a guarantee against future hard times.

Early agricultural societies rewarded those "big men" who worked the hardest to increase food production. But the "big men" didn't appropriate the fruits of anyone else's labor. The prestige of these "redistributor" chiefs rested on their ability to produce and give away more than anyone else.

Still, their status as providers placed them in control of society's surplus. As the surplus grew, such chiefs could take some of the extra surplus and use it to pay for specialists--craftsmen, priests, servants and professional warriors.

Anthropologist Marvin Harris wrote:

Under certain circumstances, the exercise of power by the redistributor and his closest followers on the one side, and by the ordinary food producers on the other, became so unbalanced that, for all intents and purposes, the redistributor chiefs constituted the principal coercive force in social life.

When this happened, contributions to the central store ceased to be voluntary contributions. They became taxes. Farmlands and natural resources ceased to be elements of rightful access. They became dispensations. And redistributors ceased to be chiefs. They became kings.

Why did the mere existence of a surplus produce class division? As Engels put it:

So long as the total social labor only yields a produce which but slightly exceeds that barely necessary for the existence of all; so long, therefore, as labor engages all or almost all the time of the great majority of the members of society--so long, of necessity, this society is divided into classes. Side by side with the great majority, exclusively bond slaves to labor, arises a class freed from directly productive labor, which looks after the general affairs of society.

But capitalism's productive power has long since created the conditions in which class divisions and the state are no longer necessary. As Engels concluded:

We are now rapidly approaching a stage in the development of production at which the existence of...classes has not only ceased to be a necessity but becomes a positive hindrance to production...The society which organizes production anew on the basis of free and equal association of the producers will put the whole state machinery where it will then belong--into the museum of antiquities, next to the spinning wheel and the bronze ax.

First published in the April 27, 2001, issue of Socialist Worker.

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