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Primitive communism: The genealogy of an idea

Lecturers: Miri Davidson, Simon Barber, Christina Chalmers and Cooper Francis

Originally Taught: Winter School 2021

This course explores the idea of primitive communism as it appears in a series of writings at the nexus of anthropology, philosophy and political theory in nineteenth and twentieth-century continental thought. Each lecture investigates a different angle on primitive communism by looking at it through the lens of a particular concept: nature, family, exchange, economy, and power. Guided by these concepts, the course explores some of the ways in which continental philosophy is premised on a relationship with non-philosophical fields such as anthropology, economic history and prehistory, and on the imaginary of a primitive society considered as an exemplar of non-alienated social relations. The relationship between this category of primitive society and the ideas of communism, communalism, and community will constitute the major thread of our investigations.

Lecture 1: Nature (with Simon Barber) – 14 June

Our first session introduces some of the key problems and contradictions generated by the idea of primitive communism as it is understood by Marx and Engels. We focus in particular on the concept of the naturwüchsig (‘naturally developed’), often translated as ‘primitive’, which expresses the ambiguous relationship between primitivity and nature in Marx’s thought. For this session, Simon Barber will join us to discuss Marx’s ideas of the primitive community in relation to Māori conceptions of tangata whenua.

Core readings

  • Marx, ‘Chapter 1’, Pre-Capitalist Economic Formations, pp. 67–99.
  • Simon Barber, ‘Māori Mārx: Some Provisional Materials’. 

Supplementary readings

  • Marx and Engels, ‘I. Feuerbach: Opposition of the Materialist and Idealist Outlooks’, in The German Ideology.
  • Judith Butler, ‘The inorganic body in the early Marx: a limit-concept of anthropocentrism’.

Lecture 2: Family (with Christina Chalmers) – 21 June

Our second session focuses on Engels’s The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State (1884) and its feminist reception. We consider Engels’s rendering of the stage-theory of Lewis Henry Morgan, and his claim that parallel emergence of private property and the patriarchal family represented the ‘world-historical defeat of the female sex’. We will look at varying conceptions of ‘origins’ in different feminist readings of Engels’ text, as well as how this cleaves time between the pre-history of primitive matriarchy, and the historical time of class society.

Core readings

  • Friedrich Engels, ‘The Family’, in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, pp. 94–146.
  • Friedrich Engels, ‘The Iroquois Gens’, in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, pp. 146–161.
  • Lise Vogel, ‘Engels: A Defective Formulation’ in Marxism and the Oppression of Women, pp. 77–96.

Supplementary readings

  • Juliet Mitchell, ‘The Holy Family’, in Psychoanalysis and Feminism, pp. 364–401.
  • Shulamith Firestone, ‘The Dialectic of Sex’ in The Dialectic of Sex, pp. 11–23.
  • Lea Melandri, ‘Critique of Survival’ (translated excerpt to be provided).

Lecture 3: Contract (with Christina Chalmers) – 28 June

This session examines the idea of gift exchange as the basis of what Marshall Sahlins called ‘a kind of social contract for the primitives’. Beginning with Marcel Mauss’s The Gift, we consider how the idea of generalised reciprocity was used to conceptualise forms of non-market exchange and social cohesion in the primitive community. We then look at how this was extended by Claude Lévi-Strauss in his Elementary Structures of Kinship to encompass the ‘exchange of women’ in marriage. Throughout, we will seek to excavate the political substructure of Mauss and Lévi-Strauss’s frameworks of exchange in relation to the non-Marxist socialism of the SFIO.

Core readings

  • Marcel Mauss, The Gift, pp. 1–12.
  • Lévi-Strauss, ‘The Principles of Kinship’, in The Elementary Structures of Kinship, pp. 478–497.
  • Camille Robcis, ‘Lévi-Strauss’s structuralist social contract’.

Supplementary readings

  • Gayle Rubin, ‘The Traffic in Women: Notes on the “Political Economy” of Sex’. 
  • Carole Pateman, extracts from The Sexual Contract.

Lecture 4: Economy – 5 July (with Cooper Francis)

Our fourth session looks at how the very idea of the economy is thrown into doubt by primitive societies, in which the production and distribution of material goods was seen to be unseparated from the social and spiritual life of the community. We will focus on Karl Polanyi’s arguments about ‘embedded’ and ‘disembedded’ economies, take a detour via the notion of moral economy popularized by E. P. Thompson, and end by returning to the themes of contract and property discussed in the previous lectures.

Core readings

  • Karl Polanyi, ‘The Economy as Instituted Process’.
  • Karl Polanyi, ‘Aristotle discovers the economy’.

Supplementary readings

  • Henry Sumner Maine, ‘From status to contract’, excerpt from Ancient Law.
  • E. P. Thompson, ‘The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century’.

Lecture 5: Power – 12 July (with Cooper Francis)

Our final session examines Pierre Clastres’s vision of primitive society as a ‘society against the state’, which inverts Hobbesian social contract theory and initiates a rethinking of power and representation in political philosophy. We will consider Clastres’s ideas in relation to his left-libertarian political engagements and especially the critique of Soviet bureaucracy initiated by the group Socialisme ou Barbarie.

Core readings

  • Pierre Clastres, ‘Society Against the State’, in Society Against the State, pp. 189–218.  
  • Pierre Clastres, ‘Power in Primitive Societies’, in Archaeology of Violence, pp. 163–170. 
  • Pierre Clastres, ‘Archaeology of Violence: War in Primitive Societies’, in Archaeology of Violence, pp. 237–277.

Supplementary readings

  • Samuel Moyn, ‘Modern and Savage Liberty’.
  • Alberto Toscano, ‘“By contraries execute all things”: Figures of the savage in European philosophy’.
  • Miguel Abensour, ‘“Savage Democracy” and the “Principle of Anarchy”’, in Democracy Against the State: Marx and the Machiavellian Moment, pp. 102–124.