Once Were Communists – Part One: The first communism

Note from James Robb: The next four posts in this blog will be a series of articles on primitive communism in New Zealand by Terry Coggan, a longtime member of the communist movement.

Once Were Communists – Part One: The first communism.   By Terry Coggan

At a public meeting in the 1970s, I heard Maori rights activist Syd Jackson say that Europeans came to Aotearoa (New Zealand) with a culture that was “materially superior” but “spiritually inferior” to that of the indigenous Maori people they encountered. As a newly minted Marxist, I knew that by material and spiritual culture he meant the economic base, the legal and political superstructure, and the forms of social consciousness particular to each society, even if I wasn’t sure how value judgments like “inferior” or “superior” belonged with such a scientific analysis. But Marx and Engels would have agreed with Jackson. Theorists from Sigmund Freud to Jared Diamond have sought evidence from traditional Maori society, which Marx and Engels would have called primitive communism, to support their arguments, but I don’t know that much has been written about the prehistory of New Zealand from a Marxist viewpoint. It is beyond my competence to do so in any comprehensive manner, but I offer some perspectives, focusing on the the concept of primitive communism, its nature, destruction and legacy, in the light of writings by Marx, Engels, Rosa Luxemburg and others. (1) (Footnotes at the end of the article).

Parkinson, Sydney, 1745-1771 :The head of a chief of New Zealand, the face curiously tataow'd, or marked according to their manner. S. Parkinson del. T. Chambers sc. London, 1784. Plate XVI.. Parkinson, Sydney, 1745-1771 :A journal of a voyage to the South Seas, in his Majesty's ship, 'The Endeavour'. Faithfully transcribed from the papers of the late Sydney Parkinson. London; Printed for Charles Dilly, in the Poultry, and James Phillips, in the George-Yard, 1784.. Ref: PUBL-0037-16. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22753134

Parkinson, Sydney, 1745-1771 :The head of a chief of New Zealand, the face curiously tataow’d, or marked according to their manner. S. Parkinson del. T. Chambers sc. London, 1784. Plate XVI.. Parkinson, Sydney, 1745-1771 :A journal of a voyage to the South Seas, in his Majesty’s ship, ‘The Endeavour’. Faithfully transcribed from the papers of the late Sydney Parkinson. London; Printed for Charles Dilly, in the Poultry, and James Phillips, in the George-Yard, 1784.. Ref: PUBL-0037-16. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22753134

The founders of modern communism thought it important that the workers’ movement should learn about the first communism. They described it as primitive not to disparage it – they on the contrary held it in high regard – but to relate it to the fight for the communist society of the future, which while able to incorporate the admirable elements of the earlier stage, would be a type of society “superior” in a new sense, based on a qualitatively higher productivity of labour. “Only by being clear”, wrote Luxemburg, “about the specific economic peculiarities of primitive communist society, and the no less particular features of the ancient slave economy and medieval serfdom, is it possible to grasp with due thoroughness why today’s capitalist society offers for the first time a historical leverage for the realization of socialism, and what the fundamental distinction is between the world socialist economy of the future and the primitive communist groups of primitive times.” (2)

In the opinion of the American Marxist George Novack the destruction of primitive communism based on common land ownership by the Indian tribes, indispensable to the development of U.S. capitalism, was a more radical social upheaval than the contest between the colonists and the mother country that culminated in the first American Revolution. (3) New Zealand’s colonial rulers never had to face a contest like the latter, but they were obliged to wage the same war of destruction against Maori society that their American brethren carried out against the Indians. At the start of the nineteenth century the land that was to become New Zealand was a communist society. There were no classes, no state, no commodity production, no money.

Frederick Engels

Frederick Engels

To the Maori, its only inhabitants and sole possessors, the idea that rights of private property could be claimed over the land or its bounty would have seemed outlandish. They carried out their principal economic activities, hunting, fishing, gathering, cultivating, building, collectively. By the end of the century the land was gone, in the hands of a ruling class with almost exclusively white and bewhiskered faces, controlling a modern capitalist state which rested on a society in which social relations based on private property prevailed. A society ruled by the lore of ancestors had been transformed into one ruled by the law of value. One mode of production had supplanted another, in other words there had been a revolution, and as has always happened in history when such basic social transformations occur, it had been accompanied by violent struggle.

The first communism

Pointing out the significance of the discovery that all of humanity shared a communist heritage, Luxemburg wrote, “From the mid-nineteenth century through to the 1870s, a wealth of material came to light that eroded and soon tore to shreds the old idea of the eternal character of private property and its existence from the beginning of the world. After agrarian communism had been discovered as a pecularity of the Germanic people, then as something Slavic, Indian, Arab-Kabyle, or ancient Mexican, as the marvel state of the Peruvian Inca and in many more “specific” races of people in all parts of the world, the conclusion was unavoidable that this village communism was not at all a “peculiarity” of a particular race of people or part of the world, but rather the general and typical form of human society at a certain level of cultural development. The first reaction of official bourgeois science, ie. political economy, was obstinately to resist this knowledge. The English school of Smith and Ricardo, which prevailed throughout Europe in the first half of the nineteenth century, simply denied the possibility of common property in land.” (4)

Marx and Engels on the other hand warmly welcomed the new knowledge, particularly the work of pioneer American anthropologist Lewis Morgan, as confirming their materialist and evolutionary view of history, and validating their faith in the communist future. But “the reaction of official bourgeois science” only intensified, and from the end of the nineteenth century was directed at countering the growing influence of Marxism across the whole range of social sciences. Raymond Firth was part of that reaction. His Primitive Economics of the New Zealand Maori remains the most influential book on the prehistory of New Zealand, and is still being reprinted, and quoted in reports of the Waitangi Tribunal. He wrote it in the late 1920s, only a decade after the Russian Revolution had put the Fear of God into the international bourgeoisie, and made its ideologues’ task of discrediting the idea of communism all the more urgent. Reading his book now, it can almost appear that Firth had accepted a brief to obfuscate the communistic nature of pre-European Maori society. “It has now been sufficiently well shown,” he writes, “that the formula of “communism”, not backed by any attempt at clear definition has been loosely and unnecessarily employed in speaking of Maori institutions.” (5) His own definition is a caricature. He asserts, quite falaciously, that “Communism, properly understood, is incompatible with an extensive system of private and personal rights,” (6) and equates personal property in weapons, tools, clothing, and other common articles with private ownership of the means of production. The principle that obtained among Maori of reciprocity in gift exchange also proved, according to Firth, the absence of communism, which he seems to understand as a system in which people take from “an absolute community of goods” without contributing anything in return. (7) He assigns to the chief the role of “entrepreneur”, asserting he “acted as a kind of capitalist, assuming the initiative in the construction of “public works” if the term may be so used.” (8) On the central question of the land, Firth claims that because a whanau (extended family group) might be assigned a right of use to a certain cultivation plot, or because an individual could claim exclusive access to a birding tree or a place to set an eel trap, “In this analysis of the Maori system of land tenure it has been clearly shown that the simple description of it as “communal” or “communistic” is grievously inadequate.” (9)

The emerging New Zealand ruling class of the nineteenth century had a more hard-headed view of the matter. With their sharper class instincts, they more clearly

The Maori King Tūkāroto Matutaera Pōtatau Te Wherowhero Tāwhiao, who numbered European workers among his people.

The Maori King Tūkāroto Matutaera Pōtatau Te Wherowhero Tāwhiao, who numbered European workers among his people.

recognised what one of them, C.W. Richmond, called “the beastly communism” of the Maori for what it was. Henry Sewell, one of the prinicpal architects of the Native Lands Act of 1865, the Versailles Treaty of the nineteenth century New Zealand land wars, spelt it out in an 1870 address to the Legislative Council, which as historian David Williams rightly says, “deserves to be quoted often”:

“The object of the Native Lands Act was twofold: to bring the great bulk of the lands of the Northern Island which belonged to the Natives ….within the reach of colonization. The other great object was the detribalization of the Natives, – to destroy, if it were possible, the principles of communism which ran through the whole of their institutions, upon which their social system was based, and which stood as a barrier in the way of all attempts to amalgamate the Native race into our own social and political system. It was hoped that by the individualization of titles to land, giving them the same individual ownership which we ourselves possessed, they would lose their communistic  character, and that their social status would become assimilated to our own.” (10)

Rosa Luxemburg

Rosa Luxemburg

In her Introduction to Political Economy, Luxemburg drew out the connection between the wars of conquest waged by the colonizing powers against indigneous peoples and the class war they fought against the workers movement in their home countries:

“Colonial policy, as we have seen, involved a collision of palpable material interests between the bourgeois world and primitive communist conditions. The more the capitalist regime began to establish as all powerful in Western Europe after the mid-nineteenth century, in the wake of the storms of the February revolution of 1848, the sharper this collision grew. At the same time, and precisely after the February revolution, a new enemy within the camp of bourgeois socety, the revolutionary workers’ movement, played an ever-greater role. After the June days of 1848 in Paris, the “red specter” never again vanished from the public stage, and in 1871 it reappeared in the dazzling light of the struggle of the Commune, to the fury of the French and international bourgeoisie. In the light of these brutal class struggles, primitive communism as the latest discovery of scientic research showed a dangerous face. The bourgeoisie, clearly affected in their class interests, scented an obscure connection between the ancient communist survivals that put up stubborn resistance in the colonial countries to the forward march of the profit-hungry “Europeanization” of the indigenous people, and the new gospel of revolutionary impetuousness of the proletarian mass in the old capitalist countries. When the French National Assembly was deciding the fate of the unfortunate Arabs of Algeria in 1873, with a law on the compulsory introduction of private property, it was repeatedly said, in a gathering where the cowardice and bloodlust  of the conquerors of the Paris Commune still trembled, that the ancient common property of the Arabs must at any cost be destroyed, “as a form that supports communist tendencies in people’s minds.” ” (11).

Pre-European Maori society was not a homogeneous entity: there were changes both through time from the first settlement 800 years ago to when the first Europeans made landfall in 1769; and by region, from communities which produced about half their total food requirement through gardening, (12) to those that lived entirely as hunters and gatherers, like the Moriori of the Chatham Islands. (13) But at no time or nowhere did the society evolve beyond what Marx and Engels called primitive communism.  It is sometimes stated that the society was divided into classes: rangatira (chiefs) and tutua (commoners), or rangatira, tutua and taurekareka (slaves). But this confuses the concepts of rank and class. Class divisions are based primarily on differentiated rights of ownership of the means of production, including the land. No such differentiation existed in traditional Maori society. The fundamental fact was that the level of technology the Maori possessed, no metal tools, and the environmental conditions they faced, which didn’t allow the garden crops they brought from their East Polynesian homeland to flourish, meant that an economic surplus large and reliable enough to allow the development of sytematic specialisation in the division of labour and a class society could not be generated.(14) Even the development of elaborate food storage techniques, which according to some authorities was the most important technological development Maori made in the pre-contact period, could only suffice to get the population through to the next season. Everybody had to work, including the chiefs. One scholar says “Despite the greater access Maori chiefs had to material resources, the fixed wealth of the chief was not much greater than that of any ordinary tribesperson. The fact was that such resources were redistributed almost as soon as they were accumulated to maintain the influence of the chiefs. This was hardly likely to lead to the permanent entrenchment of chiefs as a ruling class.” (15) Captives taken in warfare were put to work as “slaves”, but because the prevailing economic conditions meant their labour power could not produce much more than was necessary for their own maintenance, slavery could not consolidate itself as an institution, as it did in some societies emerging out of  primitive communism in other parts of the world at other times.

Traditional Maori society contrasts with pre-contact Polynesian societies in other Pacific Island groups such as Hawai’i, Samoa, Tonga or Tahiti where conditions allowed of a larger population and economic surplus. Hawai’i, where the widest fissures in communal society had opened up, had reached the stage where, according to Patrick Kirch, “the chiefly class regarded themselves as directly descended from the gods and were internally ranked into seven or eight different grades, in which the highest chiefs practiced sibling or half sibling marriage to concentrate the blood line; where corvee labour was mobilised on a massive scale to build temples and irrigation works; where tribute consisted of daily food supplies offered to the extended household and entourage of the paramount chief; where insignia of rank such as feathered cloaks and finely carved food bowls were highly elaborated; and where land was alienated from the common people, who held rights of usufruct only by right of regular tribute offerings to their chiefs.” (16)

(to be continued)

Notes to Part One

  1. Engels’ The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State is the core work. I reject the long tradition among some “Marxist” writers to denigrate Engels in relation to Marx, claiming he lacked his collaborator’s “dialectical subtlety”, and accusing him of “economic determinism,” of setting out “unilinear” instead of “multilinear” paths of historical development, of being the progenitor of Stalinist stagism, etc. These authorities no doubt feel that as they peruse Marx’s unpublished manuscripts, they can uncover hidden gems that Engels, with his unfortunate limitations, missed. A particularly egregious recent example of the anti-Engels bias is Marx at the Margins by Kevin B. Anderson, Chicago, 2010. Anderson claims, for instance, that Marx had a “more nuanced” picture of the male dominance in classical Greece than the “utterly bleak” one painted by Engels, as evidenced by his (Marx’s) reference to the traces of a more free and powerful position of women in an earlier period that can be found in Greek drama and mythology, ignoring the fact that Engels makes the same reference more than once. He also claims that Engels misses the point that Marx makes about the existence of hierarchies and the opening up of conflict between rich and poor inside the old gentes. But Engels quotes the pertinent remarks from Marx’s notes on this. For a more general refutation of the Engels detractors, see George Novack, “In Defense of Engels”, in Polemics in Marxist Philosophy, Pathfinder Press, New York, 1978.  Or Engels’ own letters of September 21, 1890 to Konigsberg, July 14, 1893 to Mehring, and January 25, 1894 to Borgius.
  1. The Complete Works of Rosa Luxemburg Volume 1: Economic Writings 1 ed. Peter Hudis, Verso, London 2013, p.195
  1. Genocide Against The Indians, Pathfinder Press, New York 1970.
  1. op. cit., p. 156.
  1. Primitive Economics of the New Zealand Maori, Routledge, Oxford 2011, p. 357.
  1. Ibid., p. 356.
  1. Ibid, p. 354. Firth forgets the first part of Marx’s famous motto “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”
  1. Ibid., p. 226, 119. There is no objection to the term “public works”, but the terms “entrepreneur” or “capitalist” are ahistorical if used to describe the function of the chief in traditional Maori society. Both the chief and the capitalist entrepreneur perform leadership roles in the economic life of their respective societies, but with different motives. The interests of the chief and his people were inseparable: when he acted to promote the community’s well being he at the same time increased his own mana. The interests of the capitalist and the working population are opposed: he acts to increase his personal wealth, which he can only do by finding ways to channel as much as possible of the product of their labour into his own pockets. Leaders in the future communist society will much more closely resemble the Maori chief. Recalling Marx’s remark that the ethnologists he was reading all seemed to discover bourgeois man in the primitive societies they studied, Firth finds the awareness of “individual interest”, and the “concepts of equivalent, of profit, of bargaining”, and “the notion of trade” already “implanted” in the breast of the ancient Maori. (Ibid., p. 423, pp. 425-26.) This “Firthian” line is a common one in New Zealand historiography: for example Hazel Petrie writes that the new opportunities for trade in the nineteenth century “boosted an inherent entrepreneurial spirit” in Maori, and, more generally, that “the tendency to characterise Maori ownership systems simplistically as ‘communal’ without giving attention to how individual rights were defined within them has obscured the complexity of communal ownership systems, and consequently, the process of transition towards more individualistic ideas of property that impacted on the social order during the first quarter-century of colonisation.” Hazel Petrie, Chiefs of Industry: Maori Tribal Enterprise in Early Colonial New Zealand, Auckland University Press, 2006, p. 66, p.179.
  1. Ibid., p. 375.
  1. Quoted in David Williams, Te Kooti Tango Whenua: The Native Land Court 1864-1909, Wellington 1999, p. 88. As Williams points out, this was not the rhetoric of an ideologue, but a matter-of-fact and dispassionate description of laws previously passed.
  1. op. cit., pp. 163-4. The connection between the workers’ movement and the resistance of colonised peoples of which Luxemburg speaks here the was first made in New Zealand by one leader on the Maori side in the land wars, King Tawhiao: “All Pakeha-Maori, Pakeha storekeepers, blacksmiths and carpenters are my people.” Michael King, Te Puea, Auckland 1977, p. 29. Tawhiao’s words were famously echoed in 1924 on London’s Westminster Bridge by Wiremu Ratana: “When all your stone houses are destroyed in time to come then will the carpenters, the blacksmiths and the shoemakers be in power and I will be the government.” Tony Simpson, Te Riri Pakeha, Auckland 1986, p. 244.
  1. James Belich, Making Peoples; A History of the New Zealanders, Auckland 1996, p. 73.
  1. It is hard to disagree with Patrick Kirch: “Looking upon vestiges of archaic East Polynesian settlement in the Chatham Islands, lashed by the roaring forties, one can only marvel at the adaptive propensities underlying the shift from tropical horticulturists to sub-Antarctic hunters.” The Evolution of Polynesian Chiefdoms, Cambridge, 1984, p. 22.
  1. James Belich light-mindedly dismisses the significance of the development of agriculture in human history by saying that mobile societies of hunter and gatherers can also produce surpluses “and a complex and impressive culture, more volatile and less cumulative than sedentary gardeners, but perhaps also more dynamic.” (op. cit. p. 64.) No one denies the cultural achievements of pre-agricultural peoples, (they do occupy ninety percent of human history), but if it is not true that agriculture is a prerequisite of political and technological development as Belich claims, what other route was there to civilization? It is a basic tenet of historical materialism that without the neolithic revolution (agriculture and animal husbandry), there would be no modern world, (and no books by James Belich).
  1. Kwen Fee Lian, “Tribe, Class and Colonisation: the Political Organization of Maori Society in the 19th Century”, The Journal of the Polynesian Society, vol 101, no.4, 1992, pp. 387-408, p. 399. Or “On important occasions he [the chief] was always recognizably the representative of his hapu; clad in their best cloak, seated on the ground amidst his elders, he received visitors and envoys. But he was as likely to be found digging fern root, or fishing… The sheer drudgery of Maori existence had to some extent inhibited the emergence of a leisured class”. Ann R. Parsonson, “The Expansion of a Competitive Society”, New Zealand Journal of History, vol 14, no. 1, 1980, p. 49.
  1. P.V. Kirch, On the Road of the Winds: an Archaeological History of the Pacific Islands before European Contact, University of California Press, 2000, p. 323.
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One response to “Once Were Communists – Part One: The first communism

  1. Will you announce them on twitter please. Looking forward to your references to my old friends Jack and Elsie or maybe they were post primtive.

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