Tribal society

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See also: Primitive communism.

Tribal society is the stable social system with a division of labour organised around extended family relations, in which people lived before the rupture into social classes.

“The population is extremely sparse; it is dense only at the tribe’s place of settlement, around which lie in a wide circle first the hunting grounds and then the protective belt of neutral forest, which separates the tribe from others. The division of labour is purely primitive, between the sexes only. The man fights in the wars, goes hunting and fishing, procures the raw materials of food and the tools necessary for doing so. The woman looks after the house and the preparation of food and clothing, cooks, weaves, sews. They are each master in their own sphere: the man in the forest, the woman in the house. Each is owner of the instruments which he or she makes and uses: the man of the weapons, the hunting and fishing implements, the woman of the household gear. The housekeeping is communal among several and often many families. What is made and used in common is common property-the house, the garden, the long-boat. [Friedrich Engels, Origins of the Family, Chapter 9]

“Tribal society” is a description which covers a vast array of societies, from the earliest humans who first stood upright and who have long since disappeared from the Earth, up to the citizens of the early Greek polis before about 600 B.C. and indigenous people in many remote parts of the world today, who maintain herds, live in settled villages and engage in a certain amount of trade.

What characterises tribal society is that there are no social classes; for this reason the earliest stages of tribal society is sometimes referred to as “primitive communism”.

“No soldiers, no gendarmes or police, no nobles, kings, regents, prefects, or judges, no prisons, no lawsuits – and everything takes its orderly course. All quarrels and disputes are settled by the whole of the community affected ...; only as an extreme and exceptional measure is blood revenge threatened ... the household is maintained by a number of families in common, and is communistic, the land belongs to the tribe, only the small gardens are allotted provisionally to the households – yet there is no need for even a trace of our complicated administrative apparatus with all its ramifications. The decisions are taken by those concerned, and in most cases everything has been already settled by the custom of centuries. There cannot be any poor or needy – the communal household and the gens know their responsibilities towards the old, the sick, and those disabled in war. All are equal and free – the women included. There is no place yet for slaves, nor, as a rule, for the subjugation of other tribes.” [Friedrich Engels, Origins of the Family, Chapter 3]

Failure of tribal society[edit]

Tribal society was in all cases governed by a very definite constitution and system of laws (Engels calls it the “Gentile Constitution”) regulating marriage, inheritance, religious observance, dispute resolution, decision-making and so forth. The rights conferred by tribal law, based on relationships of kinship, did not extend to anyone lying outside the tribe, even if they lived and worked on the territory of the tribe. Consequently, if a foreigner came to live in the tribal lands, they were either killed or inducted into the tribal structure by marriage or adoption. Once included in the kinship structure, their role was defined. Production and consumption in tribal society were closely linked, and though there could be no notion of “equality”, nor was there any room for exploitation. Slavery, tribute and wage-labour are unknown, because tribal society had no means of compelling people to work nor any way of providing for their livelihood other than the traditional tribal division of labour.

Tribal society has survived up to the present day in many parts of the world where intercourse with the outside world has been prevented by mountain ranges or other natural barriers. Tribal society has frequently been obliterated by the intervention of outsiders with their guns, their diseases, their greed and their cheap commodities, but on every continent, at a certain stage in its development, tribal society has given birth to class society.

How this transition took place varied from place to place, and is shrouded in the mists of time. We know that in ancient Greece, as a result of trade, there were large numbers of foreigners living in the midst of their society and a money economy developed, leading to a situation where the tribal lands were all mortgaged to money-lenders. The local tribes re-asserted their power by imposing a constitution institutionalised the rights of landowners and made provision for slavery.

While the story doubtless differs in every case, wherever tribal society has given birth to class society out of its own development, it has been the increase in the productivity of labour which is the essential feature responsible for the breakdown of tribal life:

“The increase of production in all branches – cattle-raising, agriculture, domestic handicrafts – gave human labour-power the capacity to produce a larger product than was necessary for its maintenance. At the same time it increased the daily amount of work to be done by each member of the gens, household community or single family. It was now desirable to bring in new labour forces. War provided them; prisoners of war were turned into slaves. With its increase of the productivity of labour, and therefore of wealth, and its extension of the field of production, the first great social division of labour was bound, in the general historical conditions prevailing, to bring slavery in its train. From the first great social division of labour arose the first great cleavage of society into two classes: masters and slaves, exploiters and exploited.” [Friedrich Engels, Origins of the Family, Chapter 9]

While tribal society is distinguished by harmony with nature and the absence of exploitation, tribal society should not be idealised:

“But we must not forget that this organisation was doomed. It did not go beyond the tribe. The confederacy of tribes already marks the beginning of its collapse, .... Outside the tribe was outside the law. Wherever there was not an explicit treaty of peace, tribe was at war with tribe, and wars were waged with the cruelty which distinguishes man from other animals, and which was only mitigated later by self-interest. The gentile constitution in its best days, as we saw it in America, presupposed an extremely undeveloped state of production and therefore an extremely sparse population over a wide area. Man’s attitude to nature was therefore one of almost complete subjection to a strange incomprehensible power, ...” [Friedrich Engels, Origins of the Family, Chapter 3]

Human history has not unfolded in the same way on every continent, and generalisation is difficult. Anthropology and the study of ancient society was in its infancy in Marx and Engels’ day, however, the next great stage of social development they identified was Slave Society.


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This page was originally adapted from an MIA Encyclopedia entry written by Brian Baggins and/or Andy Blunden.

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