In honor of the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, I want to start a conversation about the big picture, the transition from capitalism to socialism. Let’s start at the beginning. An article by John Lanchester appeared in the September 18th New Yorker entitled “The Case Against Civilization” argues that our hunter-gatherer ancestors had better lives than we do: African tribes that still live the hunter-gatherer lifestyle “work” about 17 hours a week to find adequate food – 2300 calories, about what we’re supposed to eat.
While Lanchester doesn’t mention Engels and barely mentions the rise of class society, I was struck by how similar his argument was to “The Origin of Family, Private Property, and the State,” first published in 1884. Lanchester uses the Bushmen of Namibia and Botswana of the 1990s as an example, just as Engels used the Iroquois of the Northeast U. S. Engels called Iroquois society “primitive communism.” Just as Engels relied on the work of anthropologist Lewis Morgan, Lanchester uses the work of anthropologist James Suzman:
Lanchester: “The most valuable thing a hunter can do is come back with meat. Unlike gathered plants, whose proceeds are ‘not subject to any strict conventions on sharing,’ hunted meat is carefully distributed according to protocol, and the people who eat the meat that is given to them go to great trouble to be rude about it. This ritual is called ‘insulting the meat.’ And it is designed to make sure the hunter doesn’t get above himself and start thinking that he’s better than anyone else…. For these hunter-gatherers, Suzman writes, ‘the sum of individual self-interest and the jealousy that policed it was a fiercely egalitarian society where profitable exchange, hierarchy, and significant material inequality were not tolerated.’”
While it’s unlikely that even if both capitalism and the climate continue collapsing as they seem to be doing that we will return to hunter-gathering. But we could go back to fierce egalitarianism. As the Manifesto proclaims: “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” Humans have been around for 200,000 years, but mired in class struggle for only 12,000 years. Can we go back to imagining what a classless society might look like?