Part Three of “Once Were Communists,” a series of four articles by Terry Coggan
It is a “guiding principle” of Marx’s historical materialism that “at a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production”, and that “from forms of development of the the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters”. (39) This remains the historic justification for socialist revolution today – that given the productive potential of social labour and modern technology, it is only the continuing survival of capitalist social relations that prevents every human being on Earth from enjoying the decent, secure material standard of living that would free him or her to take part in the universal advance of culture. But the principle applies throughout history, and explains why the epoch of primitive communism was destined to come to an end. The development of the productive forces produced economic surpluses, but only enough to enrich some, not all. In these circumstances, the only way the productive forces could be expanded was for the favoured some to pursue their individual interests, marking off increasing portions of the common estate as their private property in the process. Plekhanov puts it this way:
“Social ownership of movable and immovable property arises because it is convenient and moreover necessary for the process of primitive production. It maintains the existence of primitive society, it facilitates the further development of its productive forces, and men cling to it, they consider it natural and necessary. But now, thanks to those property relations and within them, the productive forces have developed to such an extent that a wider field has opened for the application of individual efforts. Now social property becomes in some cases harmful for society, it impedes the further development of the productive forces, and therefore it yields place to personal appropriation.” (40)
Around the prehistoric world, over many thousands of years, there were different routes out of primitive communism that arrived at different new modes of production based on some form of private appropriation. The principal ones were slavery, (41) the Asiatic mode, and different tributary modes, such as those that arose in Peru or Hawai’i. (42) In some parts of the world these new modes were themselves superceded. In the case of Western Europe, the first extensively studied, the ancient slave civilisations collapsed into feudalism, which in turn gave way to modern capitalism. Although it is necessary to trace such ‘broad outlines’, in Marx’s phrase, it is also necessary to recognise that the actual historical process was not so neat. If an economically more advanced society came into contact with a society still at an earlier stage of development, the law of uneven and combined development came into play, giving rise to a variety of hybrid formations. This is certainly what happened in Aotearoa/New Zealand after 1769. Underlying all changes was an explosive growth in the productive forces. The potato and the pig, suited to New Zealand conditions, along with metal tools, produced what a number of historians have called an agricultural “revolution” when they were introduced at the end of the eighteenth century. (43) Opportunities opened up to trade these and other items like flax with visiting ships. The first European settlers to arrive in numbers after 1840 were initially kept alive by Maori-produced food, by now including a range of other introductions; cereals, especially wheat, fruits and vegtables. Maori agriculture bloomed, entering what has been called its “the golden age” in the 1840s and 1850s.
The relations of production of traditional Maori society strained to contain the new productive forces. With capitalism pushing at the door, history did not have the leisure to repeat its experiments in production mode construction. It did, however, attempt to start down routes it had taken before. The first of these was slavery. Engels explained the origin of the first slavery this way: “The increase of production in all branches – livestock breeding, agriculture, domestic handicrafts – enabled human labour power to produce more than was necessary for its maintenance. It simultaneously increased the amount of work that daily fell to every member of the gens or household community or single family. The attraction of more labour power became desirable. This was provided by war; captives were made slaves. Under the given overall historical conditions, the first great social division of labour, by increasing the productivity of labour, that is wealth, and enlarging the field of production, necessarily carried slavery in its wake…..Slavery, which had been nascent and sporadic in the preceding stage, now became an essential part of the social system.” (44) To meet the sudden increase in the demand for labour power, slavery in the Maori economy experienced a short, sharp expansion during the period of the “musket wars.” Now, however, it was not geared to produce use values in a closed system, but commodities for trade or sale, as on the cotton plantations of the Southern United States at the same time. According to one historian, “Opportunities for foreign trade, which had provided the incentive to increase agricultural production may have been significant factors behind the unprecedented violence of the 1810s to 1830s and stimulated the desire of Northern chiefs in particular to increase their slave-holdings. So much so, thought Polack [a European trader who lived in the Bay of Islands in the 1830s], that their profitable employment in rearing pigs, planting provisions, cutting timber and cleaning flax had resulted in an end to the practice of sacrificing slaves to accompany deceased chiefs to the spirit world”. (45) The Ngati Toa warrior chief Te Rauparaha is said to have had at least 2000 slaves at one point, acquired through wars in the lower North Island and the South Island. (46) But slavery, exposed as economically inefficient compared to the “free” labour preferred by an expanding capitalism, did not have a long term future, a fact recognised by the British rulers when they abolished it in their empire in 1833. Its decline in the Maori economy was as rapid as its expansion, even before it ran into the legal barrier of its abolition.
We can detect another impulse in the nineteenth century Maori economy that had been felt before elsewhere, the desire of some individuals to farm for themselves. When the new modes of production had emerged out of primitive communism, they had done so alongside, or in some cases incorporating and underpinned by, the surviving communities of the first cultivators. But these communities too were subject to internal differentiations and transformation, from the kinship-based groupings such as those of the Maori, based on pervasive common property and equal distribution of the fruits of production, to rural settlements which were not bound together solely by blood ties, and in which varying degrees of private claim had been established over arable land and its product, at the same time as forests, pastures and other common land remained communal property. Marx and Engels identified features of what they called these “agricultural communes” in various stages of evolution in, among others, the the Asian village, the Germanic Mark, the Peruvian Marca (the Ayllu), and the Russian peasant commune (the Mir, or Obshchina), and attributed their historical longevity, at least until the advent of modern capitalism, to their innate “dualism”, which combined the “solid foundation” of common ownership of the land with “a scope to individuality” afforded by parcel farming under the control of separate households. (47)
Repeating the general point made by Plekhanov quoted above, and relating it to internal change in the old communistic farming communities, Luxemburg writes:
“Communist ownership of the means of production, as the basis of a rigorously organised economy, offered the most productive social labour process and the best material assurance of its continuity and development for many epochs. But even the progress in labour productivity that it secured, albeit slowly, necessarily came into conflict with the communist organisation over time. After the decisive progress to a higher form of agriculture, with the use of the ploughshare, had been accomplished and the mark community had retained its solid form on this basis, the next step in the development of the technology of production after a certain amount of time necessitated a more intensive land cultivation which could only be achieved at that stage of agricultural technology by more intensive smallholding and by a stronger and closer relationship of the individual labourer to the soil. Longer use of the same parcel of land by a single peasant family became the precondition for its more careful treatment…” (48)
We can see traces of this tendency among participants in the Maori “agricutural revolution” of the first part of the nineteenth century, for example in Rangiaowhia (in the Waikato near present-day Te Awamutu), which was likened by one contemporary observer to “an English village.” In 1850 it had 1320 acres under crops and sold 100 tons of flour on the Auckland market. In 1851, some Maori there proposed dividing the land into sections to be farmed individually. (49) One South Island community did experiment with individual tenure and production, according to the “new custom of making everyone equal,” they said. (50)
Paul Monin, an historian writing in The New Oxford History of New Zealand, says “… in early Maori-European contact, Maori were quite capable of producing and selling food surpluses to Europeans on the basis of their pre-capitalist mode of production and exchange, which privileged communal over individual interests”, and that Maori “indigenous values and institutions demonstrated compatibility with the demands of participation in the market economy”. (51) This mistakes appearance for reality, and so obscures the central circumstance of nineteenth century New Zealand history, which was the basic incompatibility between Maori communism and settler capitalism. Only use values were produced in the natural economy of the pre-European Maori, and labour was directly social, as it will be in future communist society. But “participation in the market economy” was not something Maori producers could do on their own terms without risking the consequences. To function, a market economy requires private property rights and free reign for the profit motive, both concepts inimical to Maori communism. It also requires the production of commodities, exchange values, and the use of money, the independent existence of exchange value, which did begin to replace barter as trade between Maori and Europeans expanded. For Maori to start down this path was a step on the slippery slope to the world of capitalist commodity fetishism, where social relations are no longer straightforward, but “assume the fantastic form of a relation between things.” (52) Speaking of “the pleasant dawn of civilisation among the Athenian people,” Engels wrote “… the developing money system penetrated like corroding nitric acid into the traditional life of the rural communities founded on the natural economy. The gentile constitution is absolutely incompatible with the money system.” (53) One tangible thing money made possible, as Engels pointed out, was the use of debt, backed up by state law protecting the creditor against the debtor, as a lever to prise the land out of the hands of its original occupiers. It is a notorious and well documented fact that indebtedness to colonial capitalists or their government forced many Maori to sell land, from early contact until well into the twentieth century.
(to be continued)
Notes to Part Three
- Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Marx and Engels Collected Works (MECW), vol 29. pp. 262-63.
- G. Plekhanov, The Development of the Monist View of History, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1974, p. 158. Engels masterfully describes the dialectical logic of this historical process, and projects it into the future, tracing the course of development from primitive communism to the communism to come: “All civilized peoples begin with the common ownership of the land. With all peoples who have passed a certain primitive stage, this common ownership becomes in the course of the development of agriculture a fetter on production. It is abolished, negated, and after a longer or shorter series of intermediate stages is transformed into private property. But at a higher stage of agricultural development, brought about by private property in land itself, private property conversely becomes a fetter on production, as is the case today both with small and large landownership. The demand that it, too, should be negated, that it should once again be transformed into common property, necessarily arises. But this demand does not mean the restoration of the aboriginal common ownership, but the institution of a far higher and more developed form of possession in common which, far from being a hindrance to production, on the contrary for the first time will free production from all fetters and enable it to make full use of modern chemical discoveries and mechanical inventions.” Anti-Duhring, MECW, vol. 25 p. 128.
- Some people studying history, especially those who tend to romanticise hunter-gatherer societies, are initially puzzled by a proposition which can seem counter-intuitive, namely that slavery represented progress for humanity. But it is the cruel dialectic of history that it was necessary for the development of the productive forces. As Engels wrote, “We should never forget that our whole economic, political, and intellectual development presupposes a state of things in which slavery was as necessary as it was universally recognised. In this sense we are entitled to say: Without the slavery of antiquity no modern socialism.” (Anti-Duhring, op. cit., p.168.) Even the anti-Marxist Raymond Firth sees this point: “Moreover, the provision of a certain class of persons to carry out the disagreeable but necessary tasks of society affords a greater opportunity to others to develop the finer arts of life. There is much to be said for the point of view that slavery promotes culture.” (op. cit. p. 201.)
- The uneven pace of economic development among different peoples around the world through history is basically explained by various material and geographical factors, not any innate characteristics of the people concerned. This is the theme of Jared Diamond’s book Guns, Germs and Steel. His central idea, correct as far as it goes, is already found in Engels’ The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, written over a century earlier. Engels wrote “With the advent of barbarism, however, we reach a stage where the difference in natural endowment of the two great continents begins to assert itself. The characteristic feature of the period of barbarism is the domestication and breeding of animals and the cultivation of plants. Now the Eastern Continent, the so-called Old World, possessed almost all the animals suitable for domestication and all the cultivable cereals with one exception; while the Western one, America, possessed only one domesticable mammal, the Ilama, and even this only in a part of the South; and of all the cultivable cereals only one, but the best: maize. The effect of these different natural conditions was that from now on, the population of each hemisphere went its own separate way…” (op. cit. p. 136.)
- An interesting thought experiment is to imagine what might have been the outcome if during his visit in 1642, the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman had left pigs and potatoes behind – something that could feasibly have happened. Would James Cook, the next European to arrive a century and a quarter later, have found a different society, one with levels of social stratification more like those he did encounter in Tahiti or Hawai’i?
- The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, op. cit. p. 261, p. 263.
- Petrie, op. cit., p. 67. Engels also writes of the origins of the original slavery: “Up to that time one had not known what to do with prisoners of war, and had therefore simply killed them; at an even earlier period, eaten them. But at the stage of “economic situation” which had now been attained the prisoners acquired a value; one therefore let them live and made use of their labour.” Anti During, op. cit. p. 167-68.
- The third draft of Marx’s 1881 reply to Vera Zasulich, in Shanin, op. cit., p. 20.
- op.cit., p. 227.
- R. P. Hargreaves, “The Maori Agriculture of the Auckland Province in the Mid-Nineteenth Century”, The Journal of the Polynesian Society, vol 68, no.2, 1959, pp. 61-78, p. 66.
- Belich, op. cit., p. 215. The new colonial rulers understood the significance of these developments: Donald McLean, the Crown’s chief land purchasing officer in the 1840s and 50s, tried to encourage individual Maori where land was sold to get individual Crown land grants or buy back sections for themselves so that, he said, “their present system of communism may be gradually dissolved.” Ann Parsonson, “The Challenge to Mana Maori”, Geoffrey W. Rice ed., The Oxford History of New Zealand, 2nd edition, 1992, p. 182
- Paul Monin, “Maori Economies and Colonial Capitalism”, The New Oxford History of New Zealand, 2010, p. 125, p. 137. Petrie makes a similar judgement: “The evidence, therefore, does not support claims that Maori social systems and communal ownership of land were either inefficient or detrimental to production.” op.cit., p. 231 (I assume she means production in the new market economy.) Interestingly, an Hayekian neoliberal economist, in a paper written for the Business Roundtable, has a more accurate view. He argues that Maori “tribal systems” were a fetter (he uses the term “institutional speed limit”) on economic development, which he naturally equates with the forward march of capitalism, in the first half of the nineteenth century. Frederic Sautet, Once Were Iwi? A Brief Institutional Analysis of Maori Tribal Organisations Through Time. New Zealand Business Round Table Working Paper 3, Wellington, 2008.
- Marx, Capital, Volume 1, MECW vol. 35, p. 83.
- The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, op. cit., p. 215. Marx describes the role of trade in the breakdown of “the original communities”, where he says it would have been “treason” to sell land: “Only by and by can exchange be extended from its original sphere, that of moveable property, to that of immovable property. It is only by expanding the former, that capital gradually takes hold of the latter. Money is the principal agent in this process.” Grundrisse, MECW, vol 29, p. 126. The same process took place, albeit in a very compressed time span, in the first decades of contact between Maori and European. Marx adds “Since money is the universal equivalent, the general power of purchasing, everything is purchasable, everything is convertible into money. But it can be converted into money only by being alienated, by its owner giving it up. Everything is therefore alienable, or indifferent for the individual, external to him. The so-called inalienable, eternal possessions, and the immoveable settled property relations corresponding to them, therefore collapse before money.” Ibid., p. 215.