Engels' Marxism and Stages

These are all the sentences in the final chapter of Engels' "The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State" that contain a reference to stages. The chapter is titled "Barbarism and Civilization", which speaks volumes in itself.

1) In conclusion, let us examine the general economic conditions which already undermined the gentile organization of society at the upper STAGE of barbarism and with the coming of civilization overthrew it completely. Here we shall need Marx's Capital as much as Morgan's book.

2) Arising in the middle STAGE of savagery, further developed during its upper STAGE, the gens reaches its most flourishing period, so far as our sources enable us to judge, during the lower STAGE of barbarism. We begin therefore with this STAGE.

3) But humanity did not everywhere remain at this STAGE.

4) At the earlier STAGES only occasional exchanges can take place; particular skill in the making of weapons and tools may lead to a temporary division of labor.

5) In no case could exchange arise at this STAGE except within the tribe itself, and then only as an exceptional event.

6) Now the chief article which the pastoral tribes exchanged with their neighbors was cattle; cattle became the commodity by which all other commodities were valued and which was everywhere willingly taken in exchange for them -- in short, cattle acquired a money function and already at this STAGE did the work of money.

7) Horticulture, probably unknown to Asiatic barbarians of the lower STAGE, was being practiced by them in the middle STAGE at the latest, as the forerunner of agriculture.

8) Of the industrial achievements of this STAGE, two are particularly important.

9) But in the main it must have occurred during this STAGE.

10) The next step leads us to the upper STAGE of barbarism, the period when all civilized peoples have their Heroic Age: the age of the iron sword, but also of the iron plowshare and ax.

11) At the lowest STAGE of barbarism men produced only directly for their own needs; any acts of exchange were isolated occurrences, the object of exchange merely some fortuitous surplus.

12) In the middle STAGE of barbarism we already find among the pastoral peoples a possession in the form of cattle which, once the herd has attained a certain size, regularly produces a surplus over and above the tribe's own requirements, leading to a division of labor between pastoral peoples and backward tribes without herds, and hence to the existence of two different levels of production side by side with one another and the conditions necessary for regular exchange.

13) The upper STAGE of barbarism brings us the further division of labor between agriculture and handicrafts, hence the production of a continually increasing portion of the products of labor directly for exchange, so that exchange between individual producers assumes the importance of a vital social function.

14) At our STAGE of development, however, the young merchants had not even begun to dream of the great destiny awaiting them.

15) The settled conditions of life which had only been achieved towards the end of the middle STAGE of barbarism were broken up by the repeated shifting and changing of residence under the pressure of trade, alteration of occupation and changes in the ownership of the land.

16) Rather, it is a product of society at a particular STAGE of development; it is the admission that this society has involved itself in insoluble self-contradiction and is cleft into irreconcilable antagonisms which it is powerless to exorcise.

17) On the contrary, it marks a low STAGE in the development of the state.

18) At a definite STAGE of economic development, which necessarily involved the cleavage of society into classes, the state became a necessity because of this cleavage.

19) We are now rapidly approaching a STAGE in the development of production at which the existence of these classes has not only ceased to be a necessity, but becomes a positive hindrance to production.

20) Civilization is, therefore, according to the above analysis, the STAGE of development in society at which the division of labor, the exchange between individuals arising from it, and the commodity production which combines them both, come to their full growth and revolutionizes the whole of previous society.

21) At all earlier STAGES of society production was essentially collective, just as consumption proceeded by direct distribution of the products within larger or smaller communistic communities.

22) These economic laws of commodity production are modified with the various STAGES of this form of production; but in general the whole period of civilization is dominated by them.

23) We saw above how at a fairly early STAGE in the development of production, human labor-power obtains the capacity of producing a considerably greater product than is required for the maintenance of the producers, and how this STAGE of development was in the main the same as that in which division of labor and exchange between individuals arise.

24) The STAGE of commodity production with which civilization begins is distinguished economically by the introduction of (1) metal money, and with it money capital, interest and usury; (2) merchants, as the class of intermediaries between the producers; (3) private ownership of land, and the mortgage system; (4) slave labor as the dominant form of production.

25) Therefore the more civilization advances, the more it is compelled to cover the evils it necessarily creates with the cloak of love and charity, to palliate them or to deny them -- in short, to introduce a conventional hypocrisy which was unknown to earlier forms of society and even to the first STAGES of civilization, and which culminates in the pronouncement: the exploitation of the oppressed class is carried on by the exploiting class simply and solely in the interests of the exploited class itself; and if the exploited class cannot see it and even grows rebellious, that is the basest ingratitude to its benefactors, the exploiters.

The "4 stage" theory of history was widely accepted in 17th and 18th century Europe. I alluded to Lord Kames and William Robertson the other day, but these two are just the tip of the iceberg. For the whole story, I recommend Ronald L. Meek's "Social Science and the Ignoble Savage" (Cambidge, 1976). Meek might be known to many of you for his book on the labor theory of value published by Monthly Review press. "Social Science and the Ignoble Savage" is essential reading for those who are trying to come to grips with the Eurocentric character of much of Marx and Engels' writings.

Meek makes a very important point. Central to the writings of 17th and 18th century social science was a belief that American Indians were the prime example of the 'first' or 'earliest' stage of human social development. Unlike those like Rousseau who made the case for a 'noble savage,' these historians and philosophers thought that American Indians represented the worst humanity had to offer. Since American Indian society was on the lowest stage of human development, its disappearance would represent progress. John Locke was one such thinker and his justifications for British colonialism are well-known.

Just to refresh your memory on the 4-stages, Adam Smith gave lectures at the University of Glasgow that described them as 1) the Age of Hunters, 2) the Age of Shepherds, 3) the Age of Agriculture, 4) the Age of Commerce. He described stage one:

"If we should suppose 10 or 12 persons of different sexes settled in an uninhabited island, the first method they would fall upon for their sustenance would be to support themselves by the wild fruits and wild animals which the country afforded. Their sole business would be hunting the wild beasts or catching the fishes. The pulling of a wild fruit can hardly be called an employment. The only thing among them which deserved the appellation of a business would be the chase. This is the age of hunters."

You can practically see the austere, pleasure-hating Scotsman spitting out the words "can hardly be called an employment."

Another stagist was the French philosopher Cornelius de Pauw who wrote something called "Recherches Philosphiques sur les Américains" in 1768. Meek comments that the book was filled with bizarre speculations about the habitants of the New World, which he thought included cannibals, albinos, giants and hermaphrodites. Perhaps de Pauw was anticipating 1998 Manhattan, who knows? Much more disturbing and outrageous was his claim that the inhospitable climate of the continent explained the ignobility of the indigenous peoples. He writes:

"I return here to that great principle of which I have already made use, and say it is not only natural but also necessary that there should be, as between savages located in such similar climates, as many resemblances as there possibly are between the Tunguses [Siberians] and the Canadians. Equally barbarous, equally living by hunting and fishing in countries which are cold, infertile, and covered with forests, what disproportion would one expect? Where people feel the same needs, where the means of satisfying them are the same, where the atmospheric influences are so similar, can the manners be contradictory, and can the ideas vary?"

This is called objectification and it was essential to the task of creating racial myths of superiority so as to allow Western Europe to dominate and exploit the rest of the globe.

There were some attempts at critical thought during this depressingly Eurocentric period, even from men who operated within the general framework of the 4-stage theory. One was the German Johann Gottfried von Herder who wrote "Ideen zur Philosophie der Geschichte der Menscheit." He tried to distance himself from the crude "progressivism" of people like Smith and de Pauw and even edged toward a version of "combined and uneven development." Referring to the actors in the first stage of history, he wrote in 1791:

"they vary with almost every region, and for the most part run into each other in such a manner, that this mode of classification is very difficult to apply with accuracy. The Greenlander, who strikes the whale, pursues the reindeer, and kills the seal, is occupied both in hunting and fishing; yet in a very different manner from that, in which the Negro fishes, or the Araucoan hunts on the deserts of the Andes, the Bedouin and the Mungal, the Laplander and the Peruvian, are shepherds: but how greatly do they differ from each another, whole one pastures his camels, another his horses, the third his reindeer, and the last his pacoes and llamas. The merchants of England differ not more from those of China, than the husbandmen of Whidah from the husbandmen of Japan."

And even more revealingly, he speculates whether the higher stage of agriculture is really any sort of advance at all:

"Generally speaking, no mode of life has effected so much alteration in the minds of men, as agriculture, combined with the enclosure of land. While it produced arts and trades, villages and towns, and, in consequence, government and laws; it necessarily paved the way for that frightful despotism, which, from confining every man to his field, gradually proceeded to prescribe to him, what alone he should do on it, what alone it should be. The ground now ceased to belong to man, but man became the appertance of the ground."

It would take sustained field research to break down the racist views contained in de Pauw and dozens of other bourgeois ideologists. Instead of viewing the American Indian as an object, it would be necessary to view him or her as a subject. Lewis Morgan was a pioneer in this respect. What Morgan did not give up was the notion that the various stages of history represented upward progress. Commenting on Morgan's contributions, Thomas Patterson states in "Western Civilization", a new Monthly Review title:

"Lewis Henry Morgan, who was mainly concerned with the development of human society, saw the evolutionary succession from savagery through barbarism to civilization as a generalization about human history. Not only did human society develop in this manner, but it could not have developed otherwise. Progress--the movement from one stage to the next--was the result of technological innovations that transformed the modes of subsistence and the social institutions that were inextricably linked to them. But while Morgan believed that progress was ultimately inevitable and beneficial, he also thought that the rise of civilization had destroyed something valuable: the values of those and present-day peoples who knew neither private property nor the profit motive."

Patterson characterizes Marx and Engels as critics of civilization and groups them with Freud and Nietzsche, while making his identification with socialism clear nonetheless. What he does not address, however, is the exact difference between the views of someone like Morgan and Engels _up until the consolidation of the modern capitalist system_. Where Engels differs from Morgan in "Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State" is on the question of what comes after capitalism, namely socialism. That Morgan and Engels share the presuppositions of 17th and 18th century historians and philosophers on the question of progress is indisputable. What is open to question is whether this heritage should be accepted in an uncritical manner. In our critique of the postmodernists and Vandana Shiva, it is imperative that we not end up in the enemy camp. If the only yardstick of progress is advances in the mode of production, then Marxism will inevitably fail to distinguish itself from the bourgeoisie which has developed this to a science.