Ch. 2) Democracy in pre-class societies

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Ch. 2) Democracy in pre-class societies

Communal living in pre-class society reflected collective economic relationships. Here, a Vietnamese long house
Communal living in pre-class society reflected collective economic relationships. Here, a Vietnamese long house

The word “democracy” brings to mind many meanings and connotations. For many, it denotes the participation of citizens in government. It carries the sense of equal rights for all members of society. The principle of “one person, one vote” is closely connected with the democratic ideal.

In U.S. politics, democracy has become a shorthand phrase for representative government and a two-party system. Democracy in the general sense of the word, however, extends to both public and private groupings as well as institutions.

Marxism as a science of social change pays particular attention to the class character of a given society. V.I. Lenin posed the problem most sharply in his 1917 pamphlet “State and Revolution,” drawing on the early works of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. Lenin defined the state not as the political leadership in a given society, but as the organization of force and violence—armies, police, jails, courts—used by one class to repress others. The particular form that a government takes, be it an elected parliament or a military dictatorship, has significance for the form that the class struggle may take in that society. But regardless of the form of government, which can go through many changes and alterations, the state always functions to defend a particular class in society. Only a social revolution changes which class holds the reigns of power.

Marxists understand democracy as a particular form of class rule. “A democratic republic is the best possible political shell for capitalism,” Lenin wrote in “State and Revolution.” “Therefore, once capital has gained possession of this … it establishes its power so securely, so firmly that no change of persons, institutions or parties in the bourgeois democratic republic can shake it.”1 In other words, under capitalism, a change of faces, administrations or parties does not change the system of exploitation and oppression of the poor and working class.

Frederick Engels was the first to put this view into a world-historical context. In his 1884 book, “The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State,” he describes the evolution of human society as a product of social relations, productive capacities and technological advancement. In particular, the gradual division of society into classes—with a tiny exploiting ruling class on top—required the creation of a repressive apparatus to maintain and enforce its power and privileges against the lower working classes. These organs of repression were used in the interests of the most powerful or economically dominant class to suppress any revolt or rebellion by the exploited or oppressed classes. Herein lies the thesis that the state is fundamentally an instrument of repression of one class by another.

Democratic forms have existed in other forms of class rule as well, not just capitalism. In ancient Greece, for example, citizens participated in the decision-making process directly, as opposed to indirectly through representatives, congresspeople or senators. There were 90,000 Athenian citizens who were eligible to take part in this direct democracy—although there were 365,000 slaves, not to mention the entire population of women, who were barred from the political process.2

The Roman Republic experienced similar types of exclusions, demonstrating that “democracy” in these class societies really only existed for the elites.

Has there been a democratic state without class rule?

Strictly speaking, no. If democracy is a form of class rule, then a democratic state, as a particular form of repression of one class by another, would have no reason for existence without classes.

That does not mean, of course, that some characteristics of what we popularly understand as democracy—participation of all in society or equality for all—have not existed in societies before classes. In fact, Engels devoted substantial attention to studying pre-class societies in order to show how a society could be organized without oppression.

Engels collected evidence of a social order based on cooperation and satisfying human needs. Far from the idealistic and unscientific claims that humanity is inherently good or inherently evil, Engels showed that human beings are a product of the social and economic system in which they live.

Societies with no classes

Engels highlighted the work of the progressive U.S. scholar Lewis Henry Morgan. Morgan’s diligent research on ancient societies was the first to show a well-defined social order in cultures with primitive economies. Morgan emphasized kinship organizations, which he described using the Latin word “gens,” as a type of social organization that bound people together by a common ancestry—typically the female line. This form of organization was virtually identical for the earliest societies in ancient Greece, the ancient Romans and the Native Americans of North America. The gens organization was, in fact, “an institution common to all barbarians [sic] until their entry into civilization and even afterwards.”3 This was a central fact for Marx and Engels, because it meant that even primitive or pre-class societies could be studied with a scientific approach.

Engels emphasized important discoveries in Morgan’s research on the gens in the Iroquois Confederacy. He found that not only did key democratic forms such as participation and equality exist in the Iroquois gens, but in addition, they existed without the same contradictions found in class society.

There was no such thing as slavery, inequality or poverty in these societies. All men and women could participate in the collective decisions of the tribe. Leaders were elected by the gens to represent them in federal and tribal council meetings. But their powers were very limited. They possessed no powers of coercion, only a moral authority. They could be immediately recalled by the people.

There was also a division of labor between men and women. Men hunted for food, gathered raw materials and fought in war. Women took care of the home, prepared food and made clothing. Each took possession of their respective tools, but everything else was communal, including housework. The division of sexes did not imply a dominant or unequal relationship between men and women. Each dominated their respective field, and neither received more or less for their work.

As a member of a gens, one was obligated to help, protect and especially assist in avenging injury by strangers to another member of the gens. This was a protection that was guaranteed to everyone. But there was no obligation to fight in wars. There were no police, no judges, no prisons, no lawsuits. And yet, as Engels points out, “everything took an orderly course.” Weapons were not restricted to this or that special institution like a police or an army distinct from the whole gens.

Quarrels and disputes were settled by the whole community affected. Only as an extreme and exceptional measure was blood revenge threatened. Even then, a process of mediation was sought first, and if that could not console the aggrieved parties, the wronged gens would appoint one or more avengers whose duty it was to pursue and kill the slayer.

Morgan was very fond of pointing out the liberty, equality and solidarity of the ancient gentes (plural of “gens”). But he, along with Marx and Engels, understood that this epoch of human development could not be a goal for modern society, a “good old days” to try to recapture. Marx and Engels referred to this epoch as “primitive communism,” because although the society was organized around cooperation and meeting human needs, the society was characterized by “primitive” or low-level technologies and productive capacities. It was a communism of scarcity and necessity.

Engels believed that capitalism was rapidly approaching a stage where the existence of classes not only ceases to be a necessity for the development of production, but becomes a “positive hindrance” to production. The capitalist class, a class of parasites and leeches, is no longer necessary for the development of production. Their order, like the order of the gens, becomes outdated through the course of history and is therefore doomed to fall.

“The state inevitably falls with them,” Engels wrote. “The society which organizes production anew on the basis of free and equal association of the producers will put the whole state machinery where it will then belong – into the museum of antiquities, next to the spinning wheel and the bronze ax.”4

Based on these observations, along with the study of class societies and their contradictions, Marx and Engels were able to show the potential for society without classes or exploitation—and based on abundance instead of scarcity, on freedom and planning instead of necessity.

Lenin summarized their position in “State and Revolution:”

Only in communist society, when the resistance of the capitalists has been completely crushed, when the capitalists have disappeared, when there are no classes (i.e. when there is no distinction between the members of society as regards their relation to the social means of production), only then ‘the state … ceases to exist,’ and ‘it becomes possible to speak of freedom.’ Only then will a truly complete democracy become possible and be realized, a democracy without any exceptions whatever. And only then will democracy begin to wither away, owing to the simple fact that, freed from capitalist slavery, from the untold horrors, savagery, absurdities and infamies of capitalist exploitation, people gradually become accustomed to observing the elementary rules of social intercourse that have been known for centuries and repeated for thousands of years in all copybook maxims.5

When workers overturn capitalism and its attendant crimes—imperialist wars and foreign occupations, overproduction, hoarding and the destruction of our natural resources, enforced poverty, a chaotic and de-regulated global economy and all of the other crimes of capitalism—then and only then will working people have laid the social foundation and opened the door for the eventual triumph of freedom, equality and solidarity between peoples.


1. V.I. Lenin, State and Revolution, in Collected Works v. 25, (Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1974), p. 398.

2. F. Engels, Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, (International Publishers, New York, 1972), p. 181.

3. Ibid., p.147. Morgan attempted to use terminology—bearing the marks of the 19th century that today would be considered derogatory—in a scientific way. For him, “savage” societies were those that subsisted on hunting and gathering, “barbaric” societies were those with the beginnings of agriculture and domesticated animals, and “civilized” societies were marked by the development of large-scale agriculture.

4. Ibid., p. 232.

5. Lenin, State and Revolution, p. 467.

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