The Myth of Primitive Communism: Part I


Ausangate, a sacred mountain located in the Andes.

The vision of “Primitive Communism” articulates a mythical past of free, communal living lost to the passage of time. This characterization, though, does not align with reality, and Marxists should look to develop a new understanding of such societies which takes into account the reality of their material conditions.

In non-capitalist, “stateless” modes of production, production is frequently characterized by relations to symbolic, cosmological orders. Rather than hierarchical management, reciprocity drives the social division of labor. Production and daily life are not alienated from one another, but rather form a complete whole in the process of reproducing society. Such social arrangements are frequently called “primitive communism”, due to their being stateless and egalitarian. This characterization is limited, and ignores the underlying complexity within these cultures.

In a recent piece in the Hau Journal of Ethnographic Theory, Marshall Sahlins refers to the “original political society” in a fascinating inversion of Hobbes’ argument regarding humanity in the state of nature:

“Even the so-called ‘egalitarian’ or ‘acephalous’ societies, including hunters such as the inuit or Australian Aboriginals, are in structure and practice cosmic polities, ordered and governed by divinities, the dead, species-masters, and other such metapersons endowed with life-and-death powers over the human populations. There are kingly beings in heaven where there are no chiefs on earth. Hobbes notwithstanding, the state of nature is already something of a political state. It follows that, taken in its social totality and cultural reality, something like the state is the general condition of humankind. It is usually called ‘religion’.”

The core of this claims is that, through the creation of beings outside of ourselves (and it does not matter whether or not these being exist – what matters is that people act as though they do, that is to say, they are reified), human societies follow certain laws not set out by any particular individual or social class, but by “kingly beings in heaven”. These beings function in a way that is analogous to the state. Considering that, historically speaking, complex, state level societies are the exception to the rule rather than the rule itself, it would seem the “earthly” politics is much more frequently the co-option of these metahuman forms. It is the earthly state which becomes an analogy for the heavenly state.

In A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Marx refers to the religious forms which alienate humanity from their social existence:

“Man, who has found only the reflection of himself in the fantastic reality of heaven, where he sought a superman, will no longer feel disposed to find the mere appearance of himself, the non-man [Unmensch], where he seeks and must seek his true reality”.

The symbolic orders associated with the “cosmic polities” referenced by Sahlins are one such instance of Marx’s “fantastic reality”. That is, material conditions projected into the realm of the supernatural which then characterize people’s understanding of their productive relations. In much the same way that property arrangements in Feudal and Capitalist states are descended from alien forms, e.g: civil society and kings, so too are social arrangements in so-called stateless societies passed down from the alienated forms of ancestors, gods, and spirits. Society is treated as separate from the people who constitute it.

From what conditions do these fantastic realities emerge? Why do people conjure spirits to organize their social lives, rather than organizing their own social lives along their own terms? How does the “heavenly” state relate to the “earthly” state? To investigate these questions, I will use traditional Andean beliefs as a case study.

Huacas and Aini

Indigenous Andean cosmology assigns reciprocal ties between humans, spirits, labor and land. This cosmological principle is known as aini, and belief in it long precedes the Inca Empire and continues to this day. Spirits (called huacas) are frequently associated with particular physical locations, such as a field or a mountain, and receiving the bounty of that landscape is not achieved through domination or control but rather by asking. Rituals are performed which ask the huacas to provide for the people, and in turn the huacas provide (or not- in which case the rituals must have been performed improperly). These rituals may be tied to objective factors of production, imbued with magical qualities, such as the tilling of fields and scattering of seeds, but also to symbolic factors, such as the spreading of blood over a landscape which is associated with giving life to the land.

In modern conditions, one must consider that the peasant and capitalist economies in the Andes are intertwined. Proletarianization continues to be an ongoing process, and there is internal conflict between those who choose to relocate to the cities and those who remain in their communities. Traditional beliefs are transformed by the relationship to capitalist production, and some of the implications of this will be explored later. Nonetheless, social relations internal to peasant communities continue to be characterized by aini.

The need to cope with mystery is one basis for the human drive to conjure spirits. When a people’s landscape of knowledge is limited in some way, for instance, being unaware of the underlying mechanisms of plant genetics, mythology and storytelling fill in the gaps. Huacas associated with fields, for instance, explain why crops grow. In doing so, the concrete relation between human and plant is alienated as a spiritual relation. The product of labor is viewed as the product of divinity. One specific form of these myths is the etiological myth, which explains the origins of something. For instance, etiological myths regarding the origin of coca, a sacred plant in Andean culture, suggest that it was a gift from Inti the sun god.

These myths themselves take on an alienated character, in that they are the alienation of nature from humanity. Humans are themselves an element of natural systems, as beneath all labor is the metabolism of nature by humanity. In Sahlins’ “acephalous” societies, it is cycles of planting and harvesting, weather conditions, and terrain which dominate people’s productive relations rather than particular social classes (and even as social stratification increases, such factors continue to play a central role). Sahlins claims that “in a way, the reign of the metaperson powers-that-be was classically hegemonic”. These “metaperson powers-that-be”, being the alien reflection of nature itself, reflect then a hegemony of nature over humanity.

A creative element to such mythology, though, should not be understated. Mythology does not simply emerge from material conditions – it is itself a human creation in which humans have agency. Mythology can also function as a form of entertainment, self expression, and a means to record the past.  I recall one story told by a Quechua woman to myself and classmates when I studied abroad in Perú. While I cannot share the same vivid detail the woman shared with me, I will attempt to do the story justice. She told about how one of her ancestors had taken a journey across the highlands into the jungles on the eastern edge of Perú to gather fruit. On her journey, she encountered a group of terrifying dogs which tried to attack her and her companions. She realized, though, that these dogs were the rabid spirits of the Spanish conquistadors. She tamed the dogs, freeing the spirits of the conquest from their hatred. In doing so, she also liberated the land from the spirits of the conquest. Although the story was brief, I was blown away by the complexity held within it. The story aided in  bridging the gap between our two worlds, as I caught a glimpse into her mind and her own understanding of the Spanish conquest.

Aini neither explains the origins of something nor does it fill in a gap in knowledge. Aini is a cosmological principle, the principle of reciprocity. Reciprocity exists in cultures across the globe, and its widespread existence must have some basis. The cross-cultural similarity between disparate geographical regions suggests it is not the result of diffusion, and as materialists we should eschew any mystical notions of “ancestral memory” or “collective unconscious”.

Referring to Marcel Mauss’ analysis of Maori exchange, Michael Taussig summarizes:

“That the underlying basis of [Maori society] is the reciprocity that is associated with the belief that an article that is produced and exchanged contains the life-force (hau) of the person and objects in nature from whence the article is derived.”

The objects of labor are in this case embedded in a multitude of relations, between gift giver and receiver, between life-force and labor. The exchange itself reifies the belief in hau but underlying hau is a material basis, the division of labor. This division of labor is necessary for the reproduction of society and reciprocity is the means by which it can be realized. In stratified societies, social labor is mobilized by dominant social classes. In an egalitarian society, reciprocity allows any individual to mobilize social labor through reciprocal exchanges. In much the same way that a feudal king’s divine right justifies his ability to enact this mobilization, so too does the cosmological principle justify an individual’s ability to enact it. Once more, though, the cosmological principle is alienated from the real basis – solidarity between humans for their mutual survival.

Particular environmental and social conditions in the Andes also play a central role in the symbolic order associated with aini. Modern Perú is made up of radical diversity of ecological niches, frequently along the slopes of a mountain. The foundation of traditional social organization here is the ayllu, which brings several villages along different ecological niches together through kinship ties. Reciprocal ties exist not only between individuals, but between the constituent communities of these ayllu. In this context, principles of reciprocity enable a complex division of labor across geographical regions without requiring hierarchical structures of administration. For instance, one village in a niche may have proper conditions to produce corn, another potatoes, and another quinoa. Independently, each of these niches are not able to produce all the resources necessary to reproduce themselves, but when brought together through ties of reciprocity they can.  


Reciprocity forms for acephalous societies a means for individuals to call upon social labor. This labor is based on the concrete community between humans, but reify alienated, cosmological forms which exist outside humanity and subordinate them to “fantastic reality”. The aim of communism is not only to abolish class domination and the fetishism of commodities present in capitalism, but all forms of fetishism and domination. Just like the myth of the noble savage, so too should we do away with the myth of primitive communism which calls upon humanity to look towards a fictitious past to realize our future. Not only is such an ideal no longer possible, it is no longer preferable. This is not to say that societies which conjure an order of spirits around them are lesser or even incorrect to do so – it is a perfectly rational way to conceive of the world. Exorcising these spirits requires abolishing the material conditions which give rise to them. To do so is to transcend material conditions themselves. Any return to nature simply means a return to human domination by nature.

This exploration has primarily been concerned with the spiritual forms of stateless societies and their relation to material conditions. In state formation, empire building, and the development of capitalism, these forms undergo their own transformation. Stories become coopted, recuperated, destroyed, and renewed, as they cope with social stratification and the clash of modes of production. In part two, I will highlight the dynamics behind these processes through the formation of the Inca Empire, its conquest of the Andes, and finally its conquest by the Spanish.


Karl Marx, A Contribution to Hegel’s Critique of the Philosophy of Right

Gordon McEwan, The Incas: A New Perspective

Marshall Sahlins, the Original Political Society

Michael Taussig, the Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America



1 thought on “The Myth of Primitive Communism: Part I

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s