Primitive Communal System

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Primitive Communal System


the first socioeconomic formation in human history. The foundations for the doctrine of the primitive communal system as a special socioeconomic formation were laid by K. Marx and F. Engels and were subsequently developed by V. I. Lenin. Most Soviet scientists and scholars believe that the primitive communal system existed from the appearance of the first human beings to the emergence of class society. From the standpoint of archaeology, this period basically coincides with the Stone Age. In the primitive communal system the relationship to the means of production was the same for all members of society. Consequently, the mode of obtaining a share of the social product was the same for all. For this reason, the term “primitive communism” is applied to this system, which is distinguished from succeeding stages of socioeconomic development by the absence of private property, classes, and the state.

There are various viewpoints concerning the origins of the primitive communal system. In the earliest period of history, human beings and society developed. People lived in a formative society that many Soviet scholars call the primitive human herd. If the archanthropoi (for example, Pithecanthropus, Sinanthropus, Atlanthropus, and Heidelberg man) are considered to be the first human beings, the origin of the primitive human herd dates from about 1,000,000 B.C. If pre-Zinjanthropus, or Homo habilis (capable human), is considered to be the first human being, then the primitive herd dates from at least 2,000,000 B.C., and perhaps earlier. According to the most widely held point of view, the epoch of the primitive human herd coincides with the Lower Paleolithic period. Approximately 40,000 to 35,000 years ago, during the transition from the Lower Paleolithic to the Upper Paleolithic, the transformation of the paleoanthropoi into human beings of the modern type (neoanthropoi) was completed. The development of man (anthropogenesis) could not have been completed without the formation of society (sociogenesis). Consequently, there are grounds for believing that the primitive human herd was transformed into a genuine, shaped human society on the threshold of the Upper Paleolithic.

Most scholars refer to the primitive human herd as the first stage of the primitive communal system. Others believe that the concept of socioeconomic formations is applicable only to the levels of evolution of a shaped society. Accordingly, they treat the primitive communal system as the initial stage of development of a shaped society, a stage preceding the emergence of classes and the state. In archaeological terms, this stage coincides with the Upper Paleolithic, the Mesolithic, the Neolithic, and perhaps the beginning of the Aeneolithic period.

Throughout the period of primitive communism there was no written language. The history of the primitive communal system has been reconstructed primarily through the data of paleoanthropology, archaeology, and cultural anthropology. There are anthropological and archaeological materials dating from this epoch, but although they provide an adequate idea of the physical appearance and material culture of primitive humans, they tell little about social relations. On the basis of data collected by cultural anthropologists, it is possible to make judgments about all aspects of primitive communal society as a whole. However, cultural anthropology is confined to knowledge of primitive communal systems in the form they acquired among peoples who remained at the stage of preclass society through modern times—that is, epochs six millennia after the appearance of the first class societies. Therefore, contemporary ideas of the primitive communal system include both firmly established propositions and quite a few disputed ones.

Soviet researchers are united on a major point—the belief that the primitive communal system was collectivist. But they differ over many more concrete questions. There are two main lines of thought: the “clan” theory and the “commune” theory. According to the clan theory, on the threshold of the Upper Paleolithic the primitive human herd, in which promiscuity prevailed, was transformed into a matrilineal clan, which was in fact the first instance of a shaped society. By virtue of exogamy, the clan could not exist without ties to other clans. Consequently, the emergence of the clan coincided with the appearance of a system consisting of two intermarrying clans—dual organization. Marriage originated with the clan—initially, group marriage (dual organization) and, in addition, dislocal marriage. As a result of dislocal marriage, the matrilineal clan coincided completely with the community: the clan was the community; the community was the clan.

Some adherents of the matrilineal clan theory do not accept the thesis of dislocal group marriage but favor the thesis of matrilocal marriage. From their point of view, the matrilineal clan and the community do not completely coincide from the very beginning. Each community was made up of people from several clans, but each had as its foundation a single clan. In this sense, each was a clan community. Adherents of the proposition that group marriage was dislocal believe that the clan community structure emerged later, after the appearance of pairing marriage and the family. In many instances, the clan remained matrilineal until the epoch characterized by the accumulation of riches and the transition to the private possession of wealth by individual families. These developments usually resulted in the emergence of the patrilineal clan. Taking this as their point of departure, some researchers distinguish matriarchy and patriarchy as the main stages in the evolution of the primitive communal system. However, cultural anthropology has found evidence that under certain concrete conditions (for example, among the Australian aborigines), the matrilineal clan gave way to the patrilineal clan long before the beginning of the formation of private property. In other cases, the matrilineal clan persisted until the emergence of classes and the state (for example, among the Minangkabau of Sumatra, the Nasi of Yünnan Province in the People’s Republic of China, and the Ashanti of West Africa).

As the primitive communal system develops, the clan gradually loses many of its original functions, including its economic ones, and ceases to be the foundation of the community. It may continue to exist for a long time, but primarily as an institution regulating marital relations, ensuring the defense of its members, and supervising the observance of traditions, worship, and rituals. In this capacity the clan is encountered in class society (for example, among the ancient Greeks and the Romans). At a later stage of the primitive communal system the main economic unit was the commune, which usually consisted of representatives of many clans. This circumstance is the basis for the periodization that designates the epoch of the primitive clan commune and the epoch of the primitive territorial commune as the main stages of the primitive communal system.

According to another viewpoint, the “commune” theory, the basic unit of the primitive communal system at all stages of its development was the primitive commune, which always consisted of pairing families. The commune and the family were the defining and universal units of the primitive communal system. The clan never had economic functions. Its main role was the regulation of marriage. Adherents of this viewpoint do not agree on when the primitive commune first developed. Some of them believe that it emerged on the threshold of the Upper Paleolithic period. Others date its origin to an earlier time; in so doing, they often express opposition to the concept of the “primitive human herd.” Supporters of the commune theory also disagree on when the clan emerged.

The disagreements between the supporters of the clan and commune theories should not, however, be overestimated. If extreme viewpoints juxtaposing the clan and the commune are excluded, the majority of researchers generally agree that during the epoch when the primitive communal system flourished, the clan and the commune essentially coincided.

The collectivist character of primitive production, which is recognized by all Marxist researchers, was the result of the extremely low level of development of the productive forces. K. Marx observed: “This primitive type of collective or cooperative production resulted, of course, from the weakness of the isolated individual, and not from the socialization of the means of production” (K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch, 2nd ed., vol. 19, p. 404).

The weakness of human beings in the struggle against nature was particularly telling in the earliest stages of the primitive communal system. The first humans (archanthropoi) settled in a comparatively small area restricted to regions with a warm climate (Africa, East and South Asia, and Southwestern Europe). The dominant form of human activity was usually hunting, including collective hunting for large animals. Wooden spears and clubs, as well as stones, served as weapons. Gathering, which apparently supplied most of the food, played an important role. It is an indisputable fact that Sinanthropus used fire, although it is probable that they had not yet learned how to make it. With the transition to paleoanthropoi (Neanderthals), hunting became the main source of livelihood. Humans became acclimatized in regions with harsh conditions. Although methods of working stone were perfected, on the whole, there was little progress in making tools during the hundreds of thousands of years of the Lower Paleolithic. From pebbles with one or two crude chips on one end, man progressed to a relatively small number of conventional implements, of which the best known are the side-scraper and the triangular point.

Techniques of working stone changed radically with the transition to the Upper Paleolithic period. A very valuable and varied set of specialized implements appeared (for example, chisels, adzes, knives, and saws). Techniques of working bone and horn developed. For the first time, various composite implements were made (spears, javelins, and harpoons with flint and bone tips). These developments resulted in the increased productivity of the economy, which, however, continued to be appropriative throughout the Upper Paleolithic and Mesolithic periods (approximately 25,000–30,000 years). Hunting and gathering, supplemented by fishing, were the principal sources of livelihood. The inhabited area continued to expand: humans settled in Australia, entered northwestern America via the Bering Strait, and gradually populated the entire Western hemisphere.

The Lower Paleolithic period—the epoch of the primitive human herd—was characterized by the formation of social relations in general, and especially primitive collectivism. There were two main stages in the evolution of the developed primitive communal system, which began with the transition to the Upper Paleolithic period. During the first stage the productive forces had reached a level of development at which the product was no greater or only slightly greater than was necessary to guarantee physical existence, or survival. (In other words, the product was life-supporting, and if there was a surplus product, it was small.) Under these conditions, the only possible mode of distribution was the equalizing mode. Essentially, equalizing relations meant that the entire product, regardless of how and by whom it was obtained, was the complete, indivisible property of the group. As a result, by virtue of affiliation with the group, each member had a right to a share of the product. Neither participation in production nor the amount of the individual member’s contribution to the creation of the product was taken into account in distribution, which was basically carried out solely in relation to need. Consequently, members of the group received unequal shares. Adult males, for example, received a greater share of the product than children. The absolute size of the portions depended on the size of the product. This provided sufficient motivation for labor, as long as there was no surplus product or an extremely small one. Only the strenuous activity of all able-bodied members of the group could guarantee that each member would receive the share necessary for survival. Thus, at the earliest stage of the evolution of the primitive communal system, there could only be collective property. What was sometimes called personal property was actually collective property available for personal use.

The emergence of a minimal surplus product presented the possibility for exchange between members of different groups. Gradually, this possibility became a reality. However, the type of exchange that developed in primitive communal society did not involve commodities. In ethnology, it is referred to as the exchange of gifts, or gift exchange, a form prevalent in preclass society. Cultural anthropologists have found evidence that the principal motivation for the gift exchange was the creation of new ties, or the maintenance of previously existing social ties between individuals or groups.

During the first stage of the evolution of the primitive communal system, the groups usually consisted of no more than a few dozen members. Although they were small, they were independent social organisms in many respects, especially in economic matters. There were no special governing bodies or officials. Some individuals enjoyed considerable influence, but it was based exclusively on their personal qualities. The only regulator of behavior was the will of the group (its moral code), which was expressed in public opinion and consolidated in traditions. Equality between men and women was characteristic of this stage.

The total independence of groups in deciding internal affairs did not preclude ties between them. Moreover, exogamy made these ties inevitable. As a rule, several groups living in an area constituted a system of social organisms—a tribe. Usually, the primitive tribe was not an organized unit. In particular, it lacked general governing bodies. Contacts between groups within a tribe were more frequent and more regular than contacts between groups from different tribes. Consequently, all the groups in a single tribe had a common language and culture, and the primitive tribe was also an ethnic community.

In many respects, the intellectual pursuits of the people of this epoch were undifferentiated and syncretic. The differentiation of various forms of social consciousness was just becoming evident. Through practical activities, the people built up a body of knowledge about their environment and about themselves. However, their ideas included much that was erroneous and illusory. The existence of religion in the Upper Paleolithic is indisputable. At this stage, it consisted of magic and totemism, the rudiments of which had apparently emerged by the time of Neanderthal man. It is also probable that animism had developed by the Upper Paleolithic period. Representational art dates from this period. Realistic, multicolored drawings of animals have been found in caves in southern France, northern Spain, and the Southern Urals (the Kapova Cave). Primitive sculptures in bone, horn, stone, and clay have been discovered. Drawings from the Upper Paleolithic provide evidence of primitive dances.

Production developed slowly but steadily. Progress was made in techniques of working stone, bone, and horn. Methods of hunting and fishing were perfected. During the Mesolithic period the use of the bow and arrow began to spread. Apparently, the domestication of the dog dates to this period. These developments created the conditions for the transition from the first phase of the primitive communal system to the second.

In the second phase of the primitive communal system the level of development of the productive forces made possible a comparatively large surplus product, which laid the foundation for and predetermined a fundamental reconstruction of the entire system of socioeconomic relations.

During the epoch of the primitive communal system the overwhelming majority of tools were used by individuals. As the isolation and parceling of labor increased, owing to improvements in the instruments of production and labor processes, an ever-increasing part of the product created by human labor became more or less completely private property. Referring to this period of history, Marx wrote: “The most essential point is the parceling of labor, the source of private appropriation” (ibid., p. 419).

The parceling of labor proceeded at an extremely slow, gradual pace. At this stage, no person, no family, could exist without sharing (systematically) the products of its labor with other people or other families, without constantly offering and receiving aid. Inasmuch as there was no need for a more or less exact correspondence between what a person gave and what he received in return, these relations were a form of equalizing distribution. The labor mode of distribution presupposed equivalent compensation for all the products and services received by a person. In other words, it presupposed the transformation of distributive relations into exchange relations. The type of exchange associated with this stage of the primitive communal system was qualitatively different from commodity exchange, which developed later. Nonetheless, it contributed to the rise of a type of exchange in which the product gradually assumed the character of a commodity. In the initial stages, the exchange of commodities took place only between members of different communities. It was originally based on the different natural resources at the disposal of different communities. The development of exchange promoted the establishment of the labor mode of distribution. The sphere of operation of the labor mode of distribution gradually expanded. At first, it included only the surplus product; later, it included the product necessary for survival. As a result, the proportion of the social product subject to equalizing distribution decreased, and the circle of persons within which the equalizing principle continued to operate contracted.

Among the inevitable consequences of the parceling of labor was the consolidation of personal property, although communal property persisted for a long time. The parceling of labor also led inevitably to the growth of the family’s role as an economic unit and the emergence of a degree of inequality in property among individuals and families. Gradually, the bulk of the surplus product was concentrated in the hands of a few people, creating the conditions for the appearance of rudimentary forms of exploitation. Communities became larger, often including hundreds of people. Structurally, communities became more complex, consisting of several more or less isolated subdivisions, which, in turn, might be subdivided. Ties between communities became stronger. In many cases, more or less stable associations of communities emerged, often developing as leagues of clans. Like the earlier associations of groups, they were usually called tribes. Some of them had several thousand members. At this time, most tribes had a definite internal organization. Apparently, among some primitive peoples this stage was marked by the emergence of specialized clan, community, and governing tribal bodies and special officials, such as elders and chiefs. In some cases, the posts of chief and elders became hereditary.

The transition to the second phase of the primitive communal system took place as early as the epoch of the dominance of the appropriative economy. However, it was possible only among hunters, gatherers, and fishermen who lived under the most favorable conditions. Others remained at the previous stage of development. This is a graphic demonstration of the unevenness of historical development. The transition to the second phase was not ruled out for tribes living by appropriation, but for those whose economy was based on production, it was altogether inevitable. Cultural anthropologists do not know of any people who engaged in land cultivation and in livestock raising and remained in the first phase of the primitive communal system.

Archaeological data provide evidence that in some parts of the Middle East (northern Iraq and Palestine) the transition to land cultivation and livestock raising took place during the Mesolithic period, in the ninth-seventh millennia B.C. By the fifth millennium B.C. a new form of economy had become established in many areas of Southwest Asia (Turkmenia, Iran, Anatolia, and Syria) and in the Balkans, and by the sixth-fifth millennia B.C., in Mesopotamia, the Nile Valley, and Central Europe.

The transition to land cultivation and livestock raising was a very important turning point—a genuine revolution—in the development of mankind’s productive forces. Previously, human beings had simply used implements they had created to appropriate food found in ready form in nature. With the transition to land cultivation and livestock raising, human beings, having brought certain natural processes under their control for the first time, began to produce food, thus creating the conditions for a relatively rapid growth of population.

Because it ensured the regular production of a surplus product, the emergence of land cultivation and livestock raising made possible, and subsequently inevitable, the transition from preclass to class society. All the necessary conditions for the beginning of the formation of class society had been created by the end of the second phase of the primitive communal system. The formation of class society was a protracted, complex, contradictory process. The parceling of labor, which had originated in the preceding stage, gradually moved toward completion. The community was slowly transformed into a system of households increasingly isolated from each other. Pairing marriage was transformed into monogamy. Often, this transformation was mediated by the emergence of the large patriarchal family.

Distinct crafts began to take shape, promoting the further development of commodity exchange. Inequality in property, which had emerged as early as the preceding stage, became more deeply entrenched. As they developed, the embryonic forms of appropriation of the surplus product were transformed into a system of relations of exploitation. Slavery and various forms of bondage developed. Increasingly, the free population was stratified into a wealthy, distinguished minority (sometimes called the clan aristocracy) and a mass of ordinary community members. Private property developed gradually. Social antagonisms emerged and grew sharper.

The state began to develop. One of its forms was the military democracy. Wars for plunder became more and more important, greatly accelerating the formation of classes and the state. Social organisms grew to include tens and even hundreds of thousands of people. Increasingly, communities ceased to be independent social units and became parts of larger organisms, which were formative states. To a tremendous degree, these changes contributed to the formation of comparatively large ethnic communities. The unification of tribes gave rise to ethnicity (narodnost’).

The formation of class society affected social consciousness. The unitary moral code of the primitive communal system disappeared, giving way to class morality. Law developed. The stratification of society was reflected in the stratification of the supernatural world in the popular consciousness—in the distinguishing of particularly powerful beings, or gods, among the more or less equally important supernatural beings (demons, totemic ancestors). Polytheism, which developed with the rise of class society, sanctified the exploitation of man by man. Religion was the first form of ideology.

The formation of class society was first completed in two regions of the Old World—Mesopotamia and the Nile Valley. The Sumerian and Egyptian civilizations developed in the fourth millennium B.C., during the Aeneolithic period. In the Aegean basin (including western Asia Minor), the Indus Valley, and the Huang Ho Valley early class societies emerged during the Bronze Age, in the third and second millennia B.C. The problem of the socioeconomic structure of the first early class societies is open to discussion. Some Soviet scholars regard them as slave-holding societies; others view them as societies characterized by the Asiatic mode of production. Throughout the world, the emergence of class societies was associated with the period when the use of metals became widespread. The only known exception is the ancient Mayan kingdom in the New World (first millennium A.D.). However, the transition to the use of metal implements could not in itself transform a particular society into a class society. Historians and cultural anthropologists have found that some peoples did not reach the stage of class society, even though they were acquainted with the use of iron implements, as well as copper and bronze ones. If these peoples were exposed constantly and for a long time to the influence of a major system of more advanced social organisms based on class, the formation of class society inevitably acquired a specific character among them. They made the transition to a higher socioeconomic class formation, skipping stages of development through which the rest of humanity had already passed. For example, among the Slavs and the Germanic peoples, the formation of class society was completed with the emergence of the feudal system.

The concept of the primitive communal system as the first socioeconomic stage of development is found only in Marxist science. Among bourgeois scholars, the evolutionist L. H. Morgan came closest to developing the concept in Ancient Society (1877), a work that was highly regarded by the classic authors of Marxism. The results of Morgan’s research were used by Engels in The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State (1884). For a time, Morgan’s ideas were rather widely accepted in ethnology, but in the late 19th century there was a sharp turn against evolutionism in bourgeois scholarship on primitive society. Many schools and currents emerged, including various strains of diffusionism—the British school (G. E. Smith and W. Perry); the German Kulturkreise school (F. Graebner); the Viennese cultural-historical school, an offshoot that developed the ideas of the German school (W. Schmidt); the American “historical” school (F. Boas); and the structural-functional school (B. Malinowski and A. R. Radcliffe-Brown). All of these schools were characterized by narrow empiricism, an extreme antihistoricism, and repudiation of the lawlike and progressive, or advancing character of society’s development. Bourgeois researchers have tried in various ways to prove that private property and monogamy have always existed. Some have attempted to demonstrate the primordial character of religion. Cultural relativism, another antievolutionary trend, treats each culture as a unique, individual system and defines history as quantitative changes within a single tradition.

The exposure of the bankruptcy of the narrowly empiricist and antihistorical approach to the study of primitive society prompted a search for new approaches, beginning in the 1950’s. Neo-evolutionism became popular in bourgeois ethnology. Typically, the neo-revolutionists retreat from the extremes of theoretical nihilism and antihistoricism. However, a genuinely historical approach is alien to them, as is evident in the theory of multilinear evolution developed by J. H. Steward (USA). The rejection of general laws of development of society underlies Steward’s theory. However, a growing number of Western European and American cultural anthropologists and archaeologists recognize the unity and the advancing, or progressive character of society’s development and are making an effort to discover its laws (L. White, R. Redfield, R. Adams, E. Service, M. Sahlins, and R. Frankenberg, for example). Some of them have made efforts to periodize the history of primitive society. For example, Service and Sahlins have distinguished a number of “levels” of evolution: the level of bands; the level of tribes; the level of prestate associations headed by chiefs (chiefdoms); and the level of “primitive states.” The level of empires or archaic civilizations, which follows the level of primitive states, is not included under “primitive” society. Although the adherents of this line of thought do not transcend a particular form of technological determinism, some of them arrive at conclusions similar to the Marxists’ on a broad range of questions.


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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.