The history of humankind

CHRISTINE THOMAS reviews a new book which, despite the author’s reluctance to use Marxist terminology, vindicates the method of interpreting historical and social change that Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels developed.

The Story of Work: A New History of Humankind

By Jan Lucassen

Published by Yale University Press, 2021, £25

The disruptive effect of the Covid pandemic has sparked a wide-ranging discussion about the nature of work in the ‘new normal’. Viewed in that context, Jan Lucassen’s recent book is very timely. However, while the main heading is ‘The Story of Work’, it is the subhead, ‘A New History of Humankind’, which really sums up the book’s subject matter. A well-researched and detailed work of enormous scope, it covers the rise of humanity to ‘late capitalism’, with work at its core. While its overall analysis is flawed from a Marxist point of view, it does nonetheless incorporate new discoveries and material, and covers in some detail those areas of the world that are often ignored or superficially skirted over in other books.

A big section of Lucassen’s book is given over to hunter-gatherer societies and the transition to stratified and class-based societies around the world. Here the book is at its strongest and confirms the analysis of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels that for most of our history (around 95% in fact) humans lived in communal and egalitarian subsistence societies. Given the dearth of material and scientific evidence available during their lifetime, this is a testament to the analytical power of historical materialism, the scientific method of interpreting historical and social change that Marx and Engels developed in the mid- to late-nineteenth century.

While not ignoring or downplaying the impact that individuals and ideas can have in the historical process, they argued that it is ultimately material conditions which are decisive: “It is not the consciousness of men that determine their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness”. (Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, 1859) For Marx and Engels, “the mode of production in material life determines the social, political and intellectual life processes”. In other words, the way in which economic production is organised in society – the base – determines our social and cultural life – the superstructure.

But the relationship between base and superstructure is not an automatic and linear process: “Political, juridical, philosophical, religious, literary, artistic, etc, development is based on economic development. But all these react upon one another and also upon the economic base. It is not that the economic position is the cause and alone active, while everything else only has a passive effect. There is rather, interaction on the basis of economic necessity, which ultimately always asserts itself”. (Friedrich Engels, Letter to Borgius, 1894)

‘Work’ in hunter-gatherer societies

Lucassen explains that in the hunter-gatherer economic system ‘work’ consisted of procuring food through hunting and scavenging animals and/or fishing, and the gathering of wild foodstuffs such as seeds, nuts, berries, vegetables etc. Control over the natural world was very limited. ‘Work relations’ were based on a flexible gendered division of labour involving the adult members of a small nomadic kinship band, with men generally hunting and women generally gathering. But these were cooperative, non-hierarchical and non-exploitative relations. Hunting was collaborative, all food was shared and distributed within the band, and all of its members depended on each other for their survival.

Lucassen’s research underlines the Marxist understanding that the way in which hunter-gatherer societies organised economic production was reflected in their social relations, which were relatively egalitarian. Childcare, although generally carried out by women, was the responsibility of the whole group. Decision making was collective and consensual, with no state apparatus and no person in a position to impose their will on other members of the band. The dominant values of hunter-gatherer societies were cooperation and reciprocity.

It was, as Engels outlined in his book, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, a significant change in how the productive forces were organised that lay the basis for a radical transformation in the way that society itself was structured. “What we refer to as the ‘Neolithic Revolution’,” writes Lucassen, “is a fundamental change in our means of subsistence from extensive food-extracting (‘living off the land’) to intensive food-producing economies, in which humans took responsibility for the reproduction of their food through the domestication of plants and animals”. Over time, this agrarian revolution, which took place around 12,000 years ago, led to a significant increase in labour productivity and a rise in what had now become sedentary populations.

Unlike the hunter-gatherer ‘mode of production’, which was for immediate consumption and use, agricultural societies were potentially able to produce over and above the immediate needs of the group: a surplus that could be redistributed in times of hardship caused by famines, droughts etc, and which enabled some members of the group to be released from food production in order to specialise in different tasks such as pottery, housebuilding, weaving, priestly duties, etc. This paved the way, in some societies, for a social division for the first time into exploiting and exploited classes. At the same time, the family/household replaced the communal band as the basic unit of social organisation, and a state apparatus arose, controlled by the exploiters.

The transition to class society

A revolution is not, however, a single event, but a process. In the case of the transition from hunter-gatherer to class-based societies, the factors underpinning that transformation accumulated within the old societies over thousands of years. Lucassen explains that in Mesopotamia, where class relations are first thought to have arisen, it took as long as 5,000 years before ‘overproduction’ was so large that the first cities could emerge.

As productivity increased, it became necessary to organise the production, gathering, storage, redistribution, etc of the surplus. Some groups and individuals gained in prestige and status, and in some societies went on to constitute a ruling class. But elements of the cooperative, reciprocal way of organising society continued to exist alongside the new stratified, hierarchical relations, and acted as a certain check on them, until the old relations were finally overturned, a process that in some societies was never completed. Even where the transition to class rule did take place, the ruling class often continued to lean on the customs and beliefs of communal societies in order to justify and legitimise its rule.

Lucassen refers to these societies in transition as ‘transegalitarian’. Initially the tasks and roles carried out by the chiefs, ‘big men’, priests etc were done in the interests of society as a whole, on the basis of reciprocity and mutual obligations, with no personal gain for themselves. But over time, in some societies, that control eventually enabled them to dispense with these socially expected obligations and responsibilities in order to exploit and coerce the labour of others for their own and not just society’s benefit.

“Every producer”, writes Lucassen in relation to Mesopotamia, “surrenders his surplus and this is then redistributed by the temple among non-farming fellow citizens”. “At a certain point the system took on the character of a tax or corvée [forced labour for infrastructure, large-scale agriculture etc] rather than the redistribution of collective production”. “Voluntarism also gave way to coercion”. The ruling elite did not own the means of production (land) which was still considered collective property, but through its control of the surplus became an exploiting class – controlling the labour of the producers and expropriating part of the surplus for themselves, which it was able to use to construct a state apparatus under its own control to aid in that task and maintain its privileges and wealth.

Marx referred to this form of class society as the ‘Asiatic mode of production’. But this a misnomer, as evidence emerging since Marx’s time has shown that it arose in many different parts of the world. Instead, Lucassen uses the more widely recognised term ‘tributary-redistributive’. Although production was now organised on the basis of exploitative labour relations, the ruling classes initially played a progressive role in massively expanding production through more intensive agricultural methods, such as large-scale irrigation works, for example. And the non-producing classes had the leisure to further develop culture, science and technique.

Combined and uneven development

Although it is possible to trace the general lines of historical development towards class-based societies, each society clearly has its own internal dynamic. What Lucassen does is add an enormous amount of useful detail about the effects of the Neolithic revolution in the different parts of the world where it took place independently – in Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, the Indus valley, the Americas, parts of Africa etc, and the rise of civilisations in those areas. Those new methods of production, and alongside them the new social relations, then spread to other parts of the world, such as Europe, where they were adopted and adapted to conditions there.

But they didn’t reach every part of the world; some hunter-gatherer societies maintained their communal way of life until relatively recently in human history. In other cases, agriculturalists were forced by environmental conditions to revert back to a hunter-gatherer way of life. Historical change has often been portrayed by defenders of the capitalism system as a gradual, linear, evolutionary transition from lower to higher stages of production methods and social relations, with capitalism at its apogee – the ‘end of history’. For Marxists, however, capitalism is simply one passing historical stage in the development of society. In his introduction, Lucassen himself points out that it is not a “simple steady line of development from hunter-gatherers to the slaves of antiquity, the serfs of the Middle Ages, the farmers and artisans driven into factories, via a detour to communism (or not)… to the here and now”.

On the contrary, historical change proceeds through what Marxists have termed ‘combined and uneven development’, involving both evolution and revolution, and a struggle of conflicting forces that can lead to both historical progress and regression. Lucassen refers, amongst others, to the Mayan civilisation in the Americas. Unlike the Aztec and Inca civilisations, this collapsed before the arrival of the Spanish ‘conquistadors’ in the sixteenth century because the existing production methods and environment were not sufficient to maintain its bloated superstructure. More familiar perhaps, although Lucassen doesn’t really go into the processes involved in any detail, is the decline of slave-based Roman society, which also eventually collapsed under its own internal contradictions.

The new society within the old

In the words of Marx “the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production”. The slave mode of production meant that in order to maintain its wealth and privileges the ruling slave-owning class was compelled, not to revolutionise production techniques in order to increase productivity, but to fight constant wars to conquer new territories and obtain ever more slaves to exploit to death. This was extremely costly, and had an enormously disruptive effect on the economy. Neither was it in the interest of the slaves to improve production. Although there were slave revolts against their exploitation, the Spartacus-led uprising being the most significant, their social position meant that neither they nor any other class (freemen, peasants etc) were able to wage a successful struggle to transform society.

The result was the disintegration of slave society and its overrun by German ‘transegalitarian’ tribes. The feudal class society that rose from the ashes of the old slave system in combination with that of the invading groups was based on ownership of land and serfdom. Initially, economic production and the cultural level of society was massively thrown back, the so-called ‘Dark Ages’ – although, as Lucassen explains, at the same time the Chinese and Islamic civilisations were flourishing. But in Western Europe, over hundreds of years, the forces eventually emerged to take economic production forward at an even higher level.

The economic and social processes which enabled capitalism to dominate the globe germinated over centuries within feudal society. Lucassen gives details of how the rigid economic and social relations of feudalism, based on the exploitation of peasant production for consumption, with the surplus appropriated by the landowning classes, became broken down by a gradual shift to commodity production for the market and the expansion of trade.

We see the growth of towns, the ‘proletarianisation’ of the peasantry, the extension of ‘free’ wage labour, class differentiation within the craft guilds, and how the merchants and money-lenders were able to achieve what Marx called the “primitive accumulation of capital”. This, as Lucassen outlines, involved the brutal exploitation of slaves traded from Africa and worked to death in the mines and plantations of the American colonies. Marx wrote that “capital comes dripping from head to toe, from every pore with blood and dirt”. Nevertheless, despite terrible exploitation and oppression, and polluting of the planet, capitalism was from an historical point of view an enormously dynamic and progressive system, hugely expanding the productive forces and developing science and technique to unimaginable levels.

The motor-force of history

In the Communist Manifesto Marx and Engels famously wrote: “The history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggle”. However, struggle, both between and within social classes, is a missing link in Lucassen’s work. That’s not to say that he doesn’t refer to slave uprisings, peasant revolts and workers’ strikes – he does, and sometimes in detail, but class struggle is nowhere considered a key motive force propelling social change. In the introduction he writes: “I have refrained from giving the terms capitalism (and the associated class and class struggle)… a central place in this book. Not because I am against Marx… but because I believe these terms have become so contaminated in the discussion of the last one to one-and-a-half centuries that they have largely lost their analytical power in global labour history”.

And this leads to huge weaknesses in Lucassen’s book. Reading it you would think that the rise of capitalism was purely a gradual, evolutionary economic process, albeit with significant turning points, such as the ‘industrious revolution’ – resulting in an increase in productivity in the countryside, and, of course, crucially, the industrial revolution, in which the mechanisation of production processes laid the basis for the exploitation of wage workers in large-scale factories and workplaces.

Totally absent from his narrative, however, are the social revolutions which were necessary to enable the rising capitalist classes to strengthen and extend their economic power through a rupture with the old social relations. They wanted to be able to shape laws that would further their economic interests; sweep away feudal impediments such as taxes and tariffs that could hold back capitalist development; and consolidate strong nation states that could encourage and allow capitalist production to flourish unhindered.

In other words, they wanted political power to match the economic power they had already obtained. But that inevitably led to conflict with the aristocracy, absolute monarchies and their supporters, who fought to cling on to their own power and privileges which had derived from the old economic relations. The result was revolutionary uprisings in England in the 1640s, and in America and France towards the end of the eighteenth century. These were bourgeois revolutions, led by the rising capitalist class but leaning on and mobilising lower social groups to fight their battles. However, the spoils went to the bourgeoisie, paving the way for the capitalist mode of production to spread to every part of the world.

The importance of terminology

Capitalism is not just ‘market relations plus’ as Lucassen implies. Determining which form of economic exploitation and class relations are dominant at any particular time, and how they function, is important for understanding historical development, especially for those who study it not for abstract or academic reasons but in order to bring about fundamental social change. That is why Karl Marx spent so much of his life studying the workings of capitalism. But because Lucassen relies on descriptions and classifications of different types of work, and refuses to use the term capitalism, his account can be quite confusing.

Production for the market and money, as he himself points out, also existed in a limited way in some tributary-redistributive societies: in Mesopotamia he identifies six different forms of employment, including wage labour, slavery, and independent forms of labour. And of course, slavery had a rebirth with the ‘discovery’ and colonisation of the Americas. Capitalism is a particular form of production for the market in which capital, owned and controlled by a minority, exploits labour to make a profit. The driving force of capitalism is competition which compels the capitalist to invest in new machinery and technique. It is this that gave the system its initial dynamism.

But in order to invest the capitalists need markets in which to sell their goods profitably. Because profit derives from workers not being paid the full value of what they produce, this places limits on the market. In an attempt to overcome that contradiction the various capitalist nations, led by Britain, colonised most of the globe in the search for profitable markets for their goods and capital, securing cheap raw materials in the process.

But by the end of the nineteenth century, most of the world had been divided up between the main imperialist powers. From an historical perspective, the capitalist system had reached its limits as a progressive system, graphically exposed by the carnage of the first world war as the capitalist nations sought to re-divide the already conquered world markets at the expense of their rivals, in the interests of their own capitalist class.

In his conclusion Lucassen asks the question: “What does the historical record tell us about what needs to be done in order to better control our future?” This is a key question but one that he is unable to answer. He can see that the capitalist system is now in a severe crisis. He writes about the problem of growing social inequality, the spread of precarious working, the stagnation in social mobility, and the fact that the average working week is about the same length now as it was at the time of hunter-gatherer societies! He correctly states that “economic growth accompanied by an equal distribution of welfare (the norm in the 1950s and 60s) is over”. And he laments the fact that there are no longer mass parties opposing the iniquities of the system, creating a space for right-wing populism to grow. But although he urges us not to lose sight of “meaning, cooperation, fairness”, the reality is that he can’t see a future beyond the current system, whatever he chooses to call it.

The subjective factor

One of the various theoretical options for the future he does present is that of historians who predict that capitalism will inevitably perish due to its internal weaknesses. But unlike the Mayan civilisation or the Roman empire, capitalism will not collapse from its internal contradictions alone. Unless it is overthrown it will find a way to renew itself although, as we have seen, at a huge cost to the working class and poor internationally through increased exploitation, oppression, war and environmental destruction.

The class that led the bourgeois revolutions necessary for capitalism to flourish emerged from within the old feudal society. Capitalism has also given rise to the class that has the capacity to end a system that is now rotten to the core – the grave diggers as Marx and Engels called them. A basic contradiction of the capitalist system is that while the production process itself is social, carried out by workers collectively exploited by the capitalist class, the appropriation of the surplus is carried out privately by the capitalists because of their monopoly control of the means of production. But it is from that collective exploitation in the production process that the power of the working class lies: it is the class that has the interest and the potential ability to overthrow capitalism.

Of course, capitalism is not a static system and it has undergone many changes throughout its history. Lucassen refers to some of the more recent such as the decline of manufacturing in some of the more developed capitalist countries; the growth of offshoring and globalisation; the increasing precarity and fragmentation of work; the weakness of trade unions compared to the exceptional period of the long economic upswing after world war two; and the growing political vacuum on the left. But regardless of these changes and the difficulties they throw up, the potential power of the working class to transform society is still present. However, the working class has to be conscious of its revolutionary potential to bring about social change. While consciousness changes through experience, the ‘historical record’ shows that a mass party with a revolutionary programme – a crucial missing factor in the decades since the Russian revolution – is also essential.

Marx and Engels wrote about the potential for a society of ‘superabundance’ where each would contribute according to their ability and take according to their needs. Capitalism has developed science and technique to levels which even Marx and Engels could not have envisioned – more than sufficient to satisfy the basic material needs of the majority in society. But that remains impossible as long as the current organisation of production, appropriation and distribution of the surplus remains in place. These need to be brought into sync through expropriating the capitalist class, enabling the anarchy of capitalism to be substituted by democratic collective planning of the economy and society.

This is the task of the socialist revolution that would usher in the next phase of human history, in which the egalitarian hunter-gather values of solidarity and cooperation would predominate, but based on a huge leap in the productive forces and the protection of the planet for future generations.