Was Marx correct concerning primitive communism?

One of the most derided item in Marx’s works is the idea of primitive communism. To be sure, it has some problems, such as the narrative that moves from undifferentiation to differentiation. But did Marx pinpoint something all the same?

One of the discoveries I made in The Sacred Economy was the crucial role of what may be called the institutional form of subsistence survival in ancient Southwest Asia. Given that 90% of the sparse population was engaged in agriculture, this is the key to ancient economics. How did it operate? Typically, crops were grown via a system of land shares, reallocated every year or two by means of a village council or elders (and with much debate). These were long and non-contiguous strips that were reallocated depending on a range of factors. Animal husbandry focused on flocks of 2/3 sheep and 1/3 goats, regularly milked and culled for meat, fibre, and bone. Bovines were few and far between, since they need massive amounts of fodder and water. They were used for traction and lived until they dropped. In places with more water, pigs also appear. The focus was on optimal rather than maximal use of resources. Above all, there was little sense of private entrepreneurship, and the idea of private property is simply unhelpful. If people tried that, they simply wouldn’t survive. So, it’s not for nothing that Soviet-era Russian scholars of the ancient world called this the ‘village-commune.’

What is most intriguing is that the subsistence survival regime was by far the most stable. Petty potentates might come and go, their estates might drain labour for a time, hated cockroaches (tax collectors-usurers-merchants-diplomats-landlords all rolled into one) might appear for a time. But given half a chance, people would hasten the destruction of unstable little and big kingdoms. They preferred subsistence-survival, the dominant economic form in periods of what is, from the perspective of the ruling class, called economic ‘crisis’. In the politically and economically marginal zone of the Southern Levant, where Israel appeared belatedly on the scene, subsistence survival was the persistent form.

But did this approach end some time in the first millennium BCE? Not at all. It was still present in Russia into the twentieth century, as also in Iraq, Greater Syria and Greece, to name but a few. What about now?  Recently, I was in a village in Transylvania, Romania. Here the capitalist ‘shock therapy’ of the 1990s has led to deindustrialisation and reagriculturalisation. In response, old and trusted methods have returned. My host and I came across a herd of goats and sheep. I inquired about their numbers and was told they were 1/3 goats and 2/3 sheep, with regular culls and an optimal size of about 40. And I was sent me this link to a story from the Andalusian region in Spain, concerning the village of Marinaleda. Since the 1970s, they too have developed a village-commune, operating in terms of the long history of subsistence survival that I outlined above. Of course, it has been reconfigured in light of wider socio-economic circumstances, but the basic principles remain the same. Nowadays, the villagers call this a version of socialism.

A socialist mural in Marinaleda.


4 thoughts on “Was Marx correct concerning primitive communism?

  1. Rosa Luxemburg also wrote about this, I think it’s in the first volume of the new Collected Works published by Verso. There’s also a MEGA coming on Marx’s notes on the pre-capitalist/non-Western world. Some anthropologists outside the Soviet Union have also treated the question, most notably Richard Lee who worked on the !Kan hunter-gatherers. Most of his work is online actually:


    I find your discussion of the Sacred Economy fascinating, when will it be published? In my own work I’m especially interested in how communal patterns co-exist with the emergence and expansion of states. This calls for a different approach to complexity than evolutionary stage-schemes or the postmodern turn away from complexity as a worthy topic.

    1. That MEGA volume will be very interesting, since so far there’s scattered material, such as the Ethnographic Notebooks, occasional letters (like the one to Vera Zasulich) and so on. The Sacred Economy should be out this year, since the press wants to get it out sooner.

  2. Hi Roland, Any leads on how this might relate or not to the first century CE second testament world under Rome? I should read more on this. Do you deal with it in your writings? Freyne on Galilee probably does to some extent.

    1. Dick Horsley and Neil Elliott and I have been talking much about this. I think you’ll find that the villages and chora operated along these lines, even under Roman dominance. And the various ‘brigand’ groups are an age-old phenomenon. In ancient Southwest Asia they were variously called habiru and ‘nomads’ (with fictional archaic names like the Gutians). They were really people from the rural population who would simply head to the hills if some potentate became too oppressive, carry on a subsistence survival life and strike at palatine and temple estates and so on from time to time.

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