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Home Info What is Socialism? Labor, Human Origins, and Our Communal Past

Labor, Human Origins, and Our Communal Past

by Eugene E. Ruyle

Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Friedrich Engels (1820-1895), the founders of scientific socialism, were also avid students of anthropology. This interest led Engels to write two classics of Marxist thought: "The Part Played by Labor in the Transition from Ape to Man" (1876), and Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State (1884). Both are available in the Marx & Engels Internet Archive ( Few Marxists have attempted to update these important works with modern anthropological fact and theory, and, with few exceptions, they have been ignored by anthropologists. This is unfortunate, since Marx and Engels provided insights which continue to enrich our thinking about who we are and how we got here.

Modern anthropology continues to be under the sway of what Engels, in the above essay on the part played by labour, called "that idealistic world outlook:"

"All merit for the swift advance of civilisation was ascribed to the mind, to the development and activity of the brain. Men became accustomed to explain their actions as arising out of thought instead of their needs (which in any case are reflected and perceived in the mind); and so in the course of time there emerged that idealistic world outlook which, especially since the fall of the world of antiquity, has dominated men's minds. It still rules them to such a degree that even the most materialistic natural scientists of the Darwinian school are still unable to form any clear idea of the origin of man, because under this ideological influence they do not recognise the part that has been played therein by labour."

Almost universally, anthropologists see culture as the defining feature of our species, and culture is usually seen in an idealistic way, composed of symbols, ideas, values, and so on. It is rarely acknowledged that human culture is built on a foundation of labor. For Marx and Engels, it is precisely labor and social production that serve to define our species. As Marx & Engels put it in The German Ideology:

"Men can be distinguished from animals by consciousness, by religion or anything else you like. They themselves begin to distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence."

In the aforementioned essay, Engels was even more direct:

"First labour, after it and then with it speech -- these were the two most essential stimuli under the influence of which the brain of the ape gradually changed into that of man."

Engels wrote before there was any real fossil evidence for human evolution, but the fossil finds over the last century have confirmed his insights. What these fossils show is that our bodies became human first, and only later, after our ancestors began manufacturing stone tools, did our brains begin to enlarge and become human.

Our earliest human ancestors, known collectively as australopithecines, lived between about 2 and 5 million years ago. They were small, bipedal hominids with essentially ape sized brains. One can view them as apes with human bodies or humans with ape brains. The fact that they were bipedal means they had already adapted to a way of life that required that the hands be free to engage in rudimentary labor processes, making and carrying things. This early productive system involved: 1) making simple tools such as digging sticks and leaf baskets out of wood, twine, and leaves and using unmodified stones and other objects as tools, 2) carrying these tools with them on the food quest, 3) collecting food and carrying it back to a common home base, where 4) food was shared by members of the group. All of these behaviors are within the behavioral capabilities of living apes.

What was new is that these early humans were dependent upon this new behavioral way of life. In contrast to the individual food quest of all other primates, our early ancestors had to rely on each other in new ways. To paraphrase Marx, in the social production of their existence, our early ancestors entered into communal social relationships that were indispensable and independent of their will. These social relationships formed the basis for the evolution of our species.

Our dependence on social labor created selective pressures which transformed our ape-like ancestors into humans. This development took millions of years to unfold. The adaptive changes required were costly and disadvantageous for any way of life other than one based on social labor. Bipedalism, for example, frees the hands for making and carrying tools and food, but chimps can dash short distances and climb trees with their hands and feet much faster than bipedal humans. Large brains require large investments of nutrients and energy but are required to plan complex social production. Chimps, on the other hand, do quite well with the brains they have. These changes presuppose a new behavioral way of life involving social production.

As the late Marvin Harris, Professor of Anthropology at Columbia University, wrote in Our Kind: Who We Are, Where We Came From, Where We Are Going:

"And so had we been present where the forest meets the savanna one morning five million years ago, we would have caught a glimpse of our ancestors. Still in shadow, they stood peering anxiously across the bright panoramas. It would have been easy at a distance to mistake them for a family of chimpanzees. Except that as they started forward through the grass, they kept erect. Each of the adults held a pointed stick in one hand. All of history was there that morning--all that we were to become and still might be."

Once we became dependent upon social production, our evolution was lawful and progressive.

About two million years ago, our ancestors began making rudimentary stone tools ushering in the pithecanthropine (aka Homo erectus) phase of human evolution. Since that time we can see, on the one hand, a progressive development of the forces of production, as manifest in ever more finely made stone tools, and on the other, a progressive increase in the size of the human brain.

Language develops probably rather late in this process. The connection between language and labor is, first of all, that labor develops the mental capabilities upon which language is based, and second, labor creates the need for better communication within a system of social production. As Engels put it, people finally "had something to say to each other."

By about forty thousand years ago, Upper Paleolithic cultures comparable to those of modern hunters and gatherers appear and, presumably, the full range of behaviors of modern culture: language, kinship, religion and art, for examples. Throughout this entire period, our ancestors were communists. For millions of years of human evolution, there were, as Engels wrote of the Iroquois in Origins,

"No soldiers, no gendarmes or police, no nobles, kings, regents, prefects, or judges, no prisons, no lawsuits - and everything takes its orderly course.... 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."

Humanity evolved under conditions of liberty, equality, and solidarity in the ancestral commune. By about 30-50,000 years ago, quite likely earlier, humanity had achieved our present level of mental, physical, and spiritual capabilities. Since that time, there has been no significant genetic change in our ability to acquire, use, and develop productive systems and other aspects of culture. We have continued to evolve, but significant evolutionary change has been cultural, not genetic.

It is only within the last five or ten thousand years, after the development of new productive systems based on plant and animal domestication, that some men began to develop structured systems of inequality and injustice that have characterized civilization. Slavery, patriarchy, racism, exploitation, and oppression are not inevitable. They are simply a phase we are passing through. Marx and Engels were particularly impressed with the judgment of civilization by the American Anthropologist, Lewis Henry Morgan in his classic, Ancient Society:

Eugene E. Ruyle is an Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at California State University, Long Beach. He has published a variety of articles on Anthropology and Marxism. A former Marine, he has been active in the Peace and Freedom Party since 1982. This original article (available here: was edited with the assistance of Bob Maschi.
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