Table of Contents
- 1 Man and Nature
- 2 Primitive communism
- 3 Women in Primitive Communism (In Defence of Engels)
- 4 The beginnings of cultivation
- 5 The Neolithic Revolution
- 6 The role of ideas
- 7 A new world
- 8 The village commune
- 9 The growth of the surplus
- 10 The Urban Revolution
- 11 The first class society
- 12 Writing and Money
- 13 The birth of the state
- 14 The role of force
- 15 Combined and uneven development
- 16 The role of the individual
- 17 In defence of progress
- 18 References
For hundreds of thousands of years human beings inhabited the Earth without private property, classes, states, or any of the other elements that make up class society as we know it. And yet we are taught that class division is a natural and universal condition of human existence. As Josh Holroyd and Laurie O’Connel explain in this article first published in the IMT’s theoretical journal, In Defence of Marxism, modern archaeology has produced a plethora of evidence attesting to the fact that the division of society into classes is a relatively recent development in human history. And just as it came into existence, Marxists understand it must eventually go out of existence. Click here to subscribe and get the latest issue of In Defence of Marxism magazine.
When we look at the world today and see the billions of lives tormented by poverty, slavery and oppression, it is easy to assume that these horrors have accompanied humanity for its entire existence. After all, for thousands of years, kings, philosophers and priests have told us it has always been in the nature of human beings to suffer these evils. A serious study of our distant past, however, proves the opposite. For almost our whole existence as a species, we lived in communist bands of hunter-gatherers, without lords or masters of any kind.
For defenders of the present order, this simple fact poses a shattering rebuttal to their entire worldview. Many bourgeois historians and philosophers tend therefore to ignore the topic altogether. Those who do take up the gauntlet against our communistic past explain the origins of inequality as our greedy, oppressive nature asserting itself after thousands of years lying dormant. We should understand this for what it is: the false imposition of capitalist morality upon the whole of human history. In reality, as Marx remarks in The Poverty of Philosophy: “all history is nothing but a continuous transformation of human nature.”
If we are to take a genuinely scientific approach to the development of society we must understand the birth of class society, not as some unhappy accident, nor as the awakening of some hitherto dormant, suprahistorical “human nature”, but as a necessary stage in the continuous evolution of society, produced ultimately by perhaps the greatest revolution in humanity’s productive forces ever known. And this is by no means an academic question. By understanding the birth of class society, we can grasp the real nature of its institutions, and discover the means by which we can overthrow them.
Man and Nature
Marx explained that the most basic feature of all society is the relationship between human beings and nature. This is not some abstract ideal, but an entirely practical recognition of the fact that for humans to survive, we have always needed resources, which come from the world around us.
Our relationship with the natural world is mediated by labour, which we carry out socially. Through this process we extract resources and find sources of food and shelter. It has always been the case, despite the embarrassment of many modern archaeologists, that humans have had to labour to survive. As Marx explains:
“Labour, then as the creator of use-values, is the condition of human existence… an eternal natural necessity which mediates the metabolism between man and nature”. 
But while the fact that we labour remains unaltered throughout history, the way in which we labour, and the needs or desires we strive to satisfy, have changed a great deal. Over millions of years, humankind has developed tools and techniques in order to better achieve its ends. But the development of the means to satisfy even our most basic needs necessarily leads to the creation of new needs, new social relations and totally new ways of life. This constant interaction has decided many things for us — whether we move or stay in one place, whether we work all year round or in seasons — and has even affected our physiology and evolution. In every sense therefore, in changing our environment, we change ourselves. In this lies the basis for all human progress.
It was this fundamental principle of historical materialism that Engels summed up in his speech at Marx’s graveside:
“Just as Darwin discovered the law of development or organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of development of human history: the simple fact, hitherto concealed by an overgrowth of ideology, that mankind must first of all eat, drink, have shelter and clothing, before it can pursue politics, science, art, religion, etc.; that therefore the production of the immediate material means, and consequently the degree of economic development attained by a given people or during a given epoch, form the foundation upon which the state institutions, the legal conceptions, art, and even the ideas on religion, of the people concerned have been evolved, and in the light of which they must, therefore, be explained”. 
Marx writes in Capital vol. 1: “The use and fabrication of instruments of labour, although existing in the germ among certain species of animals, is specifically characteristic of the human labour-process”. This can be observed archaeologically for as long as modern humans have been on this planet, and even before. Some of our earliest hominin ancestors, Homo habilis and Homo ergaster, crafted stone tools. The Oldowan tool complex, discovered at the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania, dates back up to 2.6 million years. Throughout the Paleolithic period (covering roughly up to 10,000 BC), we see the emergence of one new tool complex after another – Achulean, Mousterian, Chattelperronian, etc. We can even trace, alongside the production of these tools, the development of consciousness and complex thought. Generally, each tool complex is more symmetrical and requires more forward planning than the last, driving the development of the brain of modern humans to new heights.
It is a further confirmation of the materialist method that even non-Marxist archeologists are forced to periodise the past in terms of the material culture that prevailed in each age. It is not for nothing that we talk of the Paleolithic (from the Ancient Greek for “old stone”), Neolithic (“new stone”), Bronze Age etc. These denominations all refer to the materials used to make the tools upon which production depended at the time. As Marx notes in Capital vol. 1:
“Relics of bygone instruments of labour possess the same importance for the investigation of extinct economic forms of society, as do fossil bones for the determination of extinct species of animals. It is not the articles made, but how they are made, and by what instruments, that enables us to distinguish different economic epochs. Instruments of labour not only supply a standard of the degree of development to which human labour has attained, but they are also indicators of the social conditions under which that labour is carried on.” 
This simple but revolutionary idea is by no means accepted throughout the academic establishment. Indeed, this most basic principle of historical materialism meets in the university faculty the same horror and indignation as Darwin’s theory of natural selection met in Victorian drawing rooms.
The result is that modern academia stands a long way behind even the Ancient Greek philosophers in its understanding of society. Both Plato and Aristotle acknowledged that there was a material basis for their leisure time. As Aristotle writes in his Metaphysics, theoretical arts were developed in places where men had plenty of free time. “Thus the mathematical sciences originated in the neighborhood of Egypt, because there the priestly class was allowed leisure.” This necessarily presupposes a certain degree of development in the productivity of labour, and with it a reorganisation of the structure of society itself. It is to the early beginnings of this development that we will now turn.
Archaeologists have found very little evidence of significant inequality prior to the Neolithic period, which began a little under 12,000 years ago. Evidence gathered from Paleolithic sites all over the world paints a picture of small, overwhelmingly mobile societies, reliant on hunting, fishing and foraging for survival, in which hardly any differences in wealth or status can be detected from goods buried with the dead.
Of course, we will never be able to say exactly how prehistoric hunter-gatherer societies looked in detail. But anthropological studies of existing hunter-gatherer societies like the !Kung people of the Kalahari desert offer a glimpse of what they may have been like. The anthropologist Richard Leaky writes:
“[T]he !Kung have no chiefs and no leaders… no-one gives orders or takes them… sharing deeply pervades the values of the !Kung foragers just as the principle of profit and rationality is central to the capitalist ethic.” 
This outlook is well attested in hunter-gatherer communities across the world and fits perfectly with the evidence provided by Paleolithic sites. But the egalitarianism of our prehistoric past was not a purely cultural or moral phenomenon; at root, it came from the fact that there was, and could be, no private property beyond the possession of tools and other personal items. These groups were successful, skilled hunter-gatherers, but they lived day to day or year to year, not accumulating any significant surplus. Accordingly, there was no concept of land ownership or inheritance.
This can be seen most clearly in the practices of the Aborigines of the Central Australian desert, widely considered one of the oldest continuous cultures on Earth, spanning as far back as 50,000 years. In the 1960s, the anthropologist Richard Gould spent time living with hunter-gatherers at the centre of the Australian landmass. He noted that all food brought back to camp was “meticulously shared between all members of the group, even when it was no more than a small lizard”. Based on the excavation of local rock shelters, Gould hypothesised that the inhabitants of this region had lived in this way since the first occupation of the region by Homo sapiens. The principle behind this extreme, even absolute, form of communism is not hard to discover: scarcity, ultimately caused by the relatively low stage of development of the productive forces and the low level of control over the natural environment. While other hunter-gatherer societies did not face such harsh conditions, the same principle can be seen in operation all over the Paleolithic world.
Women in Primitive Communism (In Defence of Engels)
Another feature of the egalitarian character of paleolithic society is the equal position of women. As Friedrich Engels writes in his masterpiece, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State:
“One of the most absurd notions taken over from eighteenth-century enlightenment is that in the beginning of society woman was the slave of man. Among all savages and all barbarians of the lower and middle stages, and to a certain extent of the upper stage also, the position of women is not only free, but honorable.” 
Basing himself on the most recent anthropological studies of the time, in particular Lewis Henry Morgan’s study of the Iroquois, Engels put forward the revolutionary idea that the systematic oppression of women is in fact a relatively recent development in the history of our species. Analysing not only Iroquois society but also the ancient Athenians, Romans and Germans, he argued that the “historic defeat of the female sex” had an economic foundation: the private ownership of the means of production, in particular the land and herds, and its accumulation in the hands of men.
Further, if women’s oppression had a beginning, Engels concluded, it must therefore have an end. The establishment of a communist society, without private property and class exploitation, would re-establish the freedom and equality of men and women on a higher level than ever before. It is this perspective that has armed and inspired Marxists in the fight for women’s liberation ever since.
However, this revolutionary insight has been dismissed not only by defenders of the present system but even by feminist theorists, who claim that Engels’ interpretation of primitive communist society is nothing but a “comforting myth”. In recent years, even professedly “Marxist” academics have joined these attacks on the basis of Engels’ theory. Christophe Darmangeat of the University of Paris, for example, argues, “the male monopoly over hunting and weapons has everywhere given men a position of strength relative to women”, meaning that “women were everywhere placed in such a situation where they could be reduced to the role of mere instruments in men’s strategies.”
What is remarkable about this argument is that, whilst purporting to correct Engels on the basis of more modern research, it manages to repeat exactly the same false assumption that Engels demolished over 100 years ago. Darmangeat’s first premise is that hunting and weapons were always a male monopoly. In order for this thesis to be valid, it must have a universal application, i.e. it must signify that this alleged monopoly has existed always and everywhere, with no exceptions. But such an assertion cannot be made, since it is contradicted by most modern research, including in hunter-gatherer communities that continue to exist. For example, in the Agta of the Philippines, women are known to practice weapon-assisted hunting. Further back in time, the picture becomes even more complex, with the recent discovery of hunting gear in the grave of a young adult female in the Andes, dated to around 7,000 BC, and depictions of women hunting with spears in the earliest cave paintings in Burzahom, India, dated to around 6,000 BC. However, even if we accept that hunting has commonly been a male preserve, Darmangeat’s argument contains a much more pernicious falsehood: the assumption that wherever this is the case women are reduced to “mere instruments”.
No Marxist would deny that there exist natural differences between men and women, and that therefore some form of division of labour has existed between the sexes in all societies. The fact that women carry and give birth to children is one obvious example of this. Depending on a community’s natural surroundings and resources, this may have meant that men ranged further from the camp, for example participating in hunting expeditions, while women tended to focus on gathering resources closer to home, bringing children along with them. Such a division of labour was observed amongst the !Kung, for example. The crucial point however is that in such societies, occupying a different position in the division of labour at this early stage cannot be presented as proof of oppression or exploitation by another section of society. On the contrary, all the available evidence points to the contrary.
Referring to the !Kung, Patricia Draper writes:
“Men and women of the foraging groups are egalitarian in their dealings with each other. They are typically found in mixed-sex groups in the camp settings, although their work is usually done in same-sex groups. Women do not show deference to men. Living in small bands without well-developed leadership roles, they arrive at decisions by a consensus in which women participate along with men.” 
The women described here could hardly be described as anyone’s “instruments”. Far from it. In many cases, such as that of the !Kung, plants gathered by women “contribute as much as 80% of the community’s daily food intake”, and “unlike male hunters, female foragers retain control over the final distribution of the foods they have collected”. The anthropologist Chris Knight argues that, in many hunter-gatherer societies, “a young man will never acquire permanent sexual rights in the woman he regularly visits. Instead, he must continuously earn approval by surrendering all his hunted meat to his mother-in-law for her to distribute as she pleases.” Again, who is controlling whom here?
Nor does the possession of weapons, or greater strength, necessarily lead to violence against women. One study in 1989 found that the traditional, nomadic or semi-nomadic San were “one of only six societies in the world where domestic violence was almost unheard of”. This is an absolutely astonishing fact when one considers the permanent pandemic of violence against women that claims tens of thousands of lives every year across the world.
The image of men as the dominant “providers” and women as subordinate “housewives” is totally anachronistic – a conception of prehistory taken straight out of The Flintstones. The persistence of this idea has nothing to do with science or historical research. It is merely a reflection of the fact that those who peddle this myth are incapable of rising above the notions and prejudices of present day class society. And if you accept the prejudices of class society then you must ultimately accept its conclusions, rejecting the possibility not only of equality between men and women, but of the establishment of a more equal society in general. That is to say, this allegedly scientific argument ultimately boils down to just one thing: the permanent existence of class society forever and ever, amen.
The beginnings of cultivation
It is sometimes asked how people could have gone from this seemingly utopian primitive communist society to one where the vast majority of people were oppressed. The anthropologist Marshall Sahlins even coined the term, “the original affluent society”, based on his own study of hunter-gatherer groups, which concluded that each adult would only have had to work three to five hours a day to gather enough resources. While this is likely an exaggeration, based on too narrow a definition of work, it does call into question the idea that hunter-gatherer societies were permanently on the edge of starvation. But just as we should reject the Hobbesian myth of life as always “nasty, brutish and short” prior to its liberation by the civilised repression of the state, we should also be wary of bending the stick too far in the other direction.
Paleolithic society did not exist in some Edenic state of health and abundance. Ice Age populations were of necessity small, with little certainty and control over the conditions of their existence. Most would have consumed their food within hours or days, suggesting only a very limited surplus product, if any at all. Most hunter-gatherer groups had a low life expectancy, as well as a low birth rate. Even after the last Ice Age ended, around 9,700 BC, scarcity and hardship continued to be a challenge faced by hunter-gatherer communities. To give just one example, at the site of Mahadaha in India, dated to as late as 4,000 BC, the estimated age of death of all of the 13 skeletons found was between 19 and 28, but “probably much closer to 19”. None were over 50. Then, as now, the driver of development was the struggle for the means to survive and thrive in the face of adversity: “the production and reproduction of the immediate essentials of life”.
Just as the need to improve the way people gathered resources encouraged the development of stone tools, it also drove human beings to look for more diverse and reliable food sources. This process would take on a life of its own as the global climate began to warm roughly 20,000 years ago. In this period, rising temperatures and moisture levels, along with the retreating ice sheets, opened up entire regions for human beings and greatly increased the quantity and variety of available resources. Stimulated by their changing environment, hunter-gatherers rapidly developed new, more sophisticated means of acquiring these resources, producing an explosion in humanity’s productive forces.
Older stone tools like hand-axes were replaced by “microliths”, much smaller stone tools such as drills and arrowheads. Bones were fashioned into fine needles for stitching together different types of fur, creating the warm, layered clothing that humans used to colonise the frozen wilds of Siberia. Harpoons were carved from reindeer antlers in order to exploit the greater availability of fish. Wicker cages were crafted to catch eels. This was a qualitative, as well as quantitative, leap in the productivity and scope of human labour.
Aside from hunting and fishing, people also took advantage of the wild plant foods that began to flourish in the warmer and wetter climate. The earliest known harvesting of wild grasses dates as far back as the last Ice Age, around 21,000 BC, at Ohalo in modern Israel. By around 14,000 BC, wild emmer wheat, einkorn and barley were being cultivated across the region. This development, which at the time may have appeared to be only a small gain, marks the early beginnings of a process that would irreversibly change humanity’s relationship with the natural world, and with it, human life itself.
The first cultivation of cereals and other plants was still a long way from the agricultural production of the Neolithic period. In most places it would have been much closer to a form of “wild gardening”, whereby the cultivators would regularly visit sites where such plants were known to grow so they could gather what was available. But even through this seemingly passive form of gathering, human beings were actively transforming nature in both conscious and unconscious ways.
Many of the plants and animals on which we rely as staples today have not always existed. Maize, beans, squash, staple cereal crops, and even pigs, sheep and cattle as we know them today evolved due to human intervention in nature many thousands of years ago. For example, the wild grasses that were cultivated in places like Ohalo possessed much smaller grains than the wheat we consume today. The discovery of larger-than-average grains at Jerf el Ahmar in modern Syria suggests that, as far back as 13,000 BC, people were deliberately resowing the grasses with larger grains in order to improve productivity.
Even more importantly, the ears of these ancient grasses would break off and disperse spontaneously at varying times, increasing their chances of successful propagation. But what is good for the grass is not necessarily good for the gatherer. A great proportion of the potential crop would be lost before the harvester even arrived. Modern cereal crops have “non-disarticulating rachis”, which means that the ears will stay put until someone comes to harvest them. This biological transformation was the product of the intervention and innovation of human beings. Under the right conditions, the potential selective pressure created by deliberate improvements in the gatherers’ technique would be realised in the evolution of new species of wheat and barley, itself a dramatic development of the productive forces.
The Neolithic Revolution
Alongside the increasing resources and improved tools and techniques of this period, the first ever settlements started to appear. These would likely have first been semi-permanent or seasonal camps that people returned to more and more regularly, such as Starr Carr in Britain (dated from roughly 9,000 BC). But eventually this period would witness the first permanent villages in the world. An early example of this can be found at the “Natufian” site of ‘Ain Mallaha in the Levant, (dated from roughly 12,500 BC), where people settled permanently, relying on the hunting of gazelle along with the cultivation of wild wheat and barley.
However, even in the highest stages of the Epipaleolithic (literally “late old stone” age), permanent settlements were very rare, and can be found only at sites with exceptionally favourable natural conditions, such as ‘Ain Mallaha, or the salmon runs in the Pacific Northwest. At this stage it was very difficult and in some cases impossible to create similar conditions elsewhere, and so to an extent the location of settlements and means of subsistence ultimately remained passively determined by nature. But the developments taking place at this time were preparing the way for a dramatic transformation, in which the exception would become the rule.
Often in history, crises have catalysed the deep processes of change developing under the surface. These crises can be both internal and external. Prior to the development of agriculture in the Near East, the world got significantly colder, in a return to glacial conditions known as the Younger Dryas (roughly 11,000 – 9,700 BC). As herd migrations and the appearance of wild grasses were disrupted, the established way of life for many people became impossible. Some would certainly have perished while many would have had to return to a more mobile way of life. But the preceding development, which had been gradually building up over thousands of years, was not lost.
As people abandoned dying settlements they took harvested grains with them and sowed them in completely new locations. The creation of new plots and the greater reliance that certain communities placed on the cultivation of cereal crops using flint sickles is thought to have accelerated the process of natural and artificial selection that eventually gave birth to fully domesticated wheat, and with it the means of overcoming the limitations of the old hunter-gatherer settlements. We can see this process clearly at Abu Hureyra, in modern Syria, where people responded to the cooling climate by the intensive cultivation of wild rye, resulting in the oldest domesticated cereal grain yet found, dated to roughly 10,500 BC.
From roughly 9,500 BC, people in the Levant and Southeastern Turkey returned to settled life, but this time on a qualitatively higher level, based on domesticated cereals and animals such as sheep and goats, which had also been transformed by the conscious intervention of human hunters turned shepherds. By roughly 8,000 BC, this new way of life had spread across the Near East and would soon begin to be adopted in Europe and South Asia. Settled agriculture also arose independently elsewhere, including China, several parts of Africa and the Americas. The Marxist archaeologist, V. Gordon Childe, referred to this process as the “Neolithic Revolution”.
For bourgeois academics, the description of anything as a “revolution” sounds far too Marxist for an archaeology textbook. Instead, they argue that domestication and the development of agriculture should be referred to as the “Neolithic transition”, because it was a process which developed over a long period of time. This is a childish way of understanding history. The Cambrian explosion (a period of rapid diversification of complex, multicellular animal life) took place over ten million years but it was still explosive compared to the billions of years of incredibly slow evolution that preceded it. The Neolithic Revolution was a similarly massive and rapid transformation from the standpoint of human society. Homo sapiens has existed for around 300,000 years, but these developments took place over only a few thousand years and were totally earth-shattering, giving birth to a new way of life, a new mode of production, and with it a new stage in the history of the human race.
The role of ideas
Another objection to the ‘traditional’ portrayal of the Neolithic Revolution attacks its materialistic conclusions. Looking back at these processes from a distance of over 10,000 years, it is easy to see the profound impact that developments in human labour and technique had on both nature and society. But just as the notion of a Neolithic “Revolution” smells too much of Marxism for today’s academic establishment, this confirmation of the most basic ideas of historical materialism is too much for some ‘scientific’ minds to bear. For instance, Anthony Giddens, the sociologist behind Tony Blair’s “Third Way”, argues that because settlement predates the arrival of agriculture in a few places, the development of the productive forces cannot be considered the determining factor in the Neolithic Revolution, and history in general. Giddens writes:
“Human social life neither begins nor ends in production. When Mumford calls man a ‘mindmaking, self-mastering, and self-designing animal’, and when Frankel sees in human life a ‘search for meaning’, they are closer to supplying the basis for a philosophical anthropology of human culture than Marx was.”
The relatively recently discovered site at Göbekli Tepe in south east Anatolia, modern Turkey, has lately been claimed to provide more evidence for this idealist conception of history. The site is dated to 9,600 BC, at the very beginning of the Neolithic period, and features grand stone altars that clearly suggest that there was a degree of specialisation and surplus labour-time to devote to the site’s construction. There is also plenty of evidence to suggest that this site was in use all year round. However, the abundance of wild animal bones and the absence of domesticates suggests the people who built this “temple” were hunter-gatherers. This remarkable discovery has provoked an effusion of triumphant articles declaring the death of materialism. Rather than settling because of the development of agriculture, or anything else related to production, it has been argued that people first settled for religious purposes and then developed agriculture as a means of feeding the congregation. “I think what we are learning is that civilization is a product of the human mind”, announced the lead archeologist at the site, Klaus Schmidt.
But the insight that civilisation is a “product of the mind” is not nearly as profound as its author might think. The steam engine was also a product of the mind, as was the factory system. The flint sickle was a product of the mind. If even the most militant materialist makes himself a meal, he does so because he had the idea of doing it. But this tells us absolutely nothing beyond the uncontroversial fact that all of these things have been created by conscious human beings.
As Engels put it, “Everything which sets men in motion must go through their minds; but what form it will take in the mind will depend very much upon the circumstances.” It is necessary to ask why the people who built Göbekli Tepe chose to build such a large and permanent place of worship in the first place, and then why they chose to turn to the cultivation of wheat to sustain themselves. Ritual activity was important throughout the Paleolithic and beyond as a means of understanding and controlling the natural world, and the harvesting of wild wheat dates back as long as 23,000 years, so why did a similar development not occur during the last Ice Age? The explanation for this can ultimately only be found in the development of the productive forces: humanity’s relationship with nature, mediated through labour, its instruments, organisation and technique.
The means for the permanent cultivation of domesticated crops and animals had been prepared within the old hunter-gatherer society over thousands of years prior to the construction of Göbekli Tepe. As noted above, domesticated rye grains have been traced back as far as 10,500 BC. Further, more recent excavations at the site have revealed evidence of both domestic buildings and the consumption of wild grains, which had been missed or ignored by Schmidt’s idealist approach. This means that Göbekli Tepe was not just a temple: it was a settlement, which eventually turned to agriculture as a means of overcoming the limitations of hunter-gatherer production. This only reinforces the conclusion that the fascinating altars and religious practices of the people that lived there had a material base. Like the people of Tell Abu Hureyra, who turned to the intensive cultivation of rye in the face of adversity, the culture that created Göbekli Tepe marks a crucial point in the Neolithic Revolution, wherein the necessity of a new form of social organisation is reflected in the conscious actions of individuals. Such is the course of any genuine social revolution. The ideas, desires and religious notions of those individuals did not spring passively and directly from their tools – they were the product of the minds of real, living, human beings – and would undoubtedly have had a decisive effect on the form this process took. But the real content of this process was still provided by the changes taking place in their environment, their society, and the labour upon which it was founded: “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.”
A new world
Marx writes in Capital: “Epochs in the history of society are no more separated from each other by strict and abstract lines of demarcation than are geological epochs.” In this vein, the earliest villages of the Neolithic period would have appeared to be very similar to some of the hunter-gatherer settlements that had emerged at the very end of the Paleolithic. In some cases, Neolithic communities could well have been relatively mobile, settling temporarily to cultivate a plot of land, only to move on to a fresh plot after a few seasons had exhausted the soil, as was observed amongst the Iroquois by Morgan. Hunting, fishing and gathering would have persisted alongside the cultivation of grain. It would take several hundred years before the fundamental changes that were being wrought upon society would become obvious.
One such change was a marked increase in the size and number of settlements. The average Natufian settlement is thought to have housed between 100 and 150 people: a considerable number by hunter-gatherer standards, but tiny in comparison to the Neolithic settlements that would emerge from 9,500 BC onwards. Even a small Neolithic village would tend to house around 250 people, roughly double the Natufian average. Jericho, perhaps the oldest settlement still in existence, boasted a population of up to 1,000 at roughly 9,000 BC, only a few hundred years after the beginning of the Neolithic. This could only have been achieved on the basis of a dramatic leap in the productive forces.
Settled agriculture not only favoured greater concentrations of people, but also fostered population growth overall. This reproductive advantage was substantially offset by the higher rates of child mortality and generally lower life expectancy of Neolithic farmers, caused by a narrower diet and the explosion of previously unknown diseases: the darker side of a sedentary life which places sometimes thousands of people and animals in close proximity. However, in spite of the problems that came with the new settled way of life, the higher birth rate continued to produce both a greater size and spread of farming settlements at the expense of nomadic hunter-gatherer groups. In Britain, continental migrants are thought to have introduced farming from roughly 4,000 BC, replacing the old way of life over the entire island in the space of 2,000 years, a very short period by prehistoric standards.
With the changed mode of production of material life, new ideological and religious forms also took shape. One example of this is the rise of what are interpreted to be ancestor cults, such as the plastered skulls found at Jericho and the burial of deceased relatives in the floors of houses. The notion that one’s ancestors remain with the family, sometimes literally inside the house, and protect their living relatives, is well attested in Chinese culture from very ancient times as well. This would fit well with the continuity and intended permanence of the household, working the same lands.
The transition to settled agriculture also began to affect the division of labour within the family. A dramatically higher birth rate would have meant that women spent more time carrying, delivering and caring for children, meaning they could have been less available for field work. Evidence from a number of Neolithic sites suggests that in many places, this development, combined with the more intensive labour and constant supervision required for the fields and flocks, resulted in a more rigid division of responsibilities within the family.
As cereal cultivation becomes increasingly important, so too does the processing of wheat and barley. At Tell Abu-Hureyra, mentioned above, female skeletons had arthritis in their toes because they spent hours kneeling, rocking backwards and forwards and using their body weight to grind grains into flour. A similar division of labour was discovered at a Neolithic site in China, dated to 5,000-6,000 BC, where male burials tended to include “stone agricultural and hunting implements”, while female graves “lack these sorts of artifacts, but include tools for grinding grain”. This evidence, along with other studies have led many anthropologists to draw a link between the rise of settled agriculture, and the tendency of women to perform “domestic labour” in the home.
This “domestic labour” was by no means secondary or ancillary to the labour of men, however. Neolithic houses are often found with their own areas for weaving. Tool-making, though usually pictured as ‘men’s work’, also took place around the home or village, and in many cases fell to the women of the household. Indeed, anthropological studies of the Konso, a largely agricultural ethnic group in Ethiopia whose hide-workers are some of the last people in the world to use flint-knapped tools on a mass scale, indicates that women in these communities are usually the tool-makers. The Neolithic household was as much a workshop as a home, and evidence suggests that women were increasingly found at the heart of it.
The shift in the division of labour within the family was neither automatic nor absolute. There is plenty of evidence of societies in which men and women perform roughly equal quantities of work inside and outside the household, such as the extremely important Neolithic site of Çatalhöyük in modern Turkey. There have also been many societies in which agriculture tended to be carried out by women instead of men, like the Iroquois documented by Morgan. It would therefore be overly simplistic and false to draw an automatic and immediate link between agriculture in general and the tendency of women to work more in the home. Further, we cannot interpret these changes in the division of labour within the family as solid evidence of the systematic oppression of women and patriarchy that would become the hallmark of all ‘civilised’ peoples later on. While it appears that women were more likely to work at home, their work was highly valued in their society and they enjoyed the same status as men. Many Neolithic burial grounds have been found that contain an equal number of male and female bodies, with no noticeable distinction of wealth or status between them, such as Midhowe Cairn in Orkney.
What Tell Abu-Hureyra and other Neolithic sites indicate is the early, embryonic appearance of new relations within Neolithic society, which tended to place women more regularly in the home. On its own, this shift in the division of labour did not place women in a dependent or oppressed state, but in the course of further development, as the labour and supervision involved in agricultural production became increasingly intense, this tendency would become more pronounced, eventually laying the foundations for an even greater shift in the relations between men and women. But this would not take place during the Neolithic itself; it would require the birth of class society before these developments would be transformed into the systematic oppression of women.
The village commune
Despite the embryonic signs of inequality found in the Neolithic period, social relations were still communistic in nature: we see little to no evidence of private property, class exploitation or inherited wealth. Engels outlines the social structures of these classless societies in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State:
“No soldiers, no gendarmes or police, no nobles, kings, regents, prefects, or judges, no prisons, no lawsuits – and everything takes its orderly course…the household is maintained by a number of families in common, and is communistic, the land belongs to the tribe, only the small gardens are allotted provisionally to the households – yet there is no need for even a trace of our complicated administrative apparatus with all its ramifications. There cannot be any poor or needy – the communal household and the gens know their responsibilities towards the old, the sick, and those disabled in war. All are equal and free – the women included. There is no place yet for slaves, nor, as a rule, for the subjugation of other tribes.” 
Engels, following Morgan, termed this stage in the development of human society “barbarism”, which began with the development of agriculture, the domestication of animals, and pottery. For people living in these early farming communities, who retained the morality and cultural norms of the commune, any other way of life must have been unthinkable.
One important piece of evidence that points towards this is the emergence of group burials, where all individuals are buried communally with no regard to social distinction or status. Midhowe Cairn in Orkney, discussed above, has at least 25 individuals buried together. A resource-intensive monument like this, with multiple, separate stone chambers, does not reflect a lack of respect for the individuals buried within. It fits the morality of a society that was itself communal.
Even very large Neolithic settlements were organised on a communal basis. Çatalhöyük, mentioned above, was home to an estimated 10,000 people at its height, around 7,000 BC. It consisted of closely packed houses, in which each household operated as an individual unit, with burials beneath the floors rather than in common graveyards. But despite this relative household independence, houses showed little difference in size, suggesting very little if any differences in wealth or status.
The egalitarian nature of the Neolithic commune has led some to question the link between the Neolithic Revolution, and the rise of class society. Many Neolithic communities lasted for thousands of years without forced labour, taxation, or even very much inequality, so to what degree can we say the rise of class society was inevitable, or inherent in Neolithic production? Marx famously explained that development within a mode of production necessarily brings about the conditions for its overthrow by new relations:
“No social formation is ever destroyed before all the productive forces for which it is sufficient have been developed, and new superior relations of production never replace older ones before the material conditions for their existence have matured within the framework of the old society. ” 
The inevitability of class society lies in the fact that the development of Neolithic production itself prepared the very conditions upon which the rise of class society was based: the increasingly complex division of labour in society, and most important of all, the growth of the surplus product. We will focus largely on how this took place in the Near East. No argument is made here that every development that took place in this region is an exhaustive model for the rise of all class societies, but in setting out the process in all its phases in one region, we hope to bring out its most basic elements.
The growth of the surplus
As the Neolithic commune continued to develop, and grew both in size and productive capacity, there were more resources to be organised and more complex decisions to be made. Indeed the whole history of the Neolithic could be summed up in the question, “What to do with the surplus?”
One way in which Neolithic communities organised their surplus product was to store it for the future. The villages of the Neolithic, such as Jerf el Ahmar in Syria, generally held storage facilities managed and controlled by the whole community. The surplus also took the form of a greater quantity of labour-time that could be devoted to tasks other than subsistence. The inhabitants of Jericho, for example, channelled their surplus time and energy into carrying out massive communal projects such as the great tower and wall, which have been dated to as early as 8,000 BC. The growth of the surplus also increased trade between the largely self-sufficient Neolithic communes, which began to lay the basis for a regional division of labour, and the interdependence of settlements at a later stage.
The most significant response to the growth of surplus production was the emergence of a new social division between mental and physical labour: the hand and the head. The rising productivity of labour allowed for the liberation of a small section of society from the demands of physical labour in the fields. This development, the final product of the Neolithic, would provide the basis for the first class societies in history. Its history is therefore of special importance.
From around 7,000 BC, Neolithic peoples in the Near East began to move into other, less hospitable but more fertile areas, such as Mesopotamia (modern Iraq), where the first states would eventually develop. This raises the question of the role of the environment in historical development. Evidently, in the “metabolism between man and nature” our natural environment is extremely important. In prehistoric society, much of humanity’s technological and social development appears as a response to external, environmental pressures. However, this is only part of the story, in which ultimately the activity of human beings plays the starring role.
It is often said that civilisation, or class society, was the product of the fertile soils surrounding the Tigris, Euphrates, Nile, Yellow River, or Indus. But the productivity of the Mesopotamian soil would remain nothing more than an empty possibility so long as human beings lacked the means to cultivate it. In 7,000-6,000 BC, much of Lower Mesopotamia was rendered inhospitable by the waterlogged marshes that covered it. Further, the lack of important materials such as wood and (later) copper made places like Lower Mesopotamia very difficult to settle without access to long distance trade networks. These means were provided by the development of the productive forces during the Neolithic.
The use of irrigation was already present at both Jericho and Çatalhöyük as a means of supplementing production. Around 7,000 BC these settlements went into decline but the developments that had taken place there were not lost, as this technology eventually spread into the Mesopotamian plain. The earliest evidence of irrigated agriculture in Mesopotamia has been found at Choga Mami, dated to around 6,000 BC. But the settlement, and the Samarran culture of which it was a part, still had all the hallmarks of the early Neolithic. When settlers, thought to be from the Iranian plateau, began to apply this new technology to the super-fertile marshlands of lower Mesopotamia, however, it would lay the basis for a radical change in the social division of labour which would culminate in the birth of class society.
The Urban Revolution
The Urban Revolution in the Near East did not start with large Neolithic settlements like Jericho, but with small villages, which, while unassuming at the time, possessed a great potential for development. The lowest levels of the site of Eridu, in southern Iraq, have been dated to around 5,800 BC. What makes this settlement significant is not only the fact that it was one of the first settlements to use irrigation canals to drain excess marsh water, but that it contains the earliest evidence of “buildings exclusively dedicated to cultic activities”. These “chapels”, as they are sometimes called, were the physical manifestation of an epoch-making change in social relations: the rise of the priests.
Irrigation must have had a huge effect on the lives and consciousness of the first inhabitants of Eridu, but it also required a profound change in their organisation of labour. The digging of canals required not only the labour of many workers but also a degree of planning and direction. This work could not be effectively carried out by independent households, working alone; it required the co-operation of a relatively large number of workers under the direction of some kind of leadership.
As Marx comments in Capital: “All directly social or communal labour on a large scale requires, to a greater or lesser degree, a directing authority, in order to secure the harmonious co-operation of the activities of individuals.” That this role would first be played by the priests is not surprising. Even in hunter-gatherer society, shamans or other spiritual leaders often held a relatively privileged position in the social division of labour, so they could devote themselves to the understanding and mastery of the community’s natural environment. Those individuals who had the greatest insight into the secrets of nature and the divine were naturally considered the best candidates to secure the blessings of the deity. But even the deity was himself a product of history. The belief that there exist all-powerful gods who intervene in the affairs of human beings, and are therefore to be worshipped, is very rare amongst hunter-gatherer societies, and is thought to have been absent prior to the Neolithic. Ultimately The notion of a god as the highest “directing authority” imaginable was itself the ideological reflection of the increasing control of a section of society not only over natural forces, but over human beings as well.
Nor was this development the product of uniquely Mesopotamian conditions. The crucial task of predicting the Nile floods became the domain of the Egyptian priests, and the eventual source of their power. The Mayan priests in the Yucatan peninsula were likewise required to oversee the sacrifices and ceremonies that ensured the favour of the sacred cenotes (natural sinkholes that would fill with groundwater), the only source of freshwater in a region without rivers. We can also see a similar process unfold with the rise of the Brahmin caste in Vedic India: a group which would remain the social elite for thousands of years.
The creation of a section of society, sustained on the surplus product of the rest of the community and directing its labours, marks a turning point in the history of humanity. With it, the Neolithic in Mesopotamia comes to an end and we see the beginning of what Gordon Childe would call the “Urban Revolution”. However, it must be stressed that Eridu in 5,800 BC was certainly not a class society; both production and distribution remained essentially communistic. The only compulsion the priests could rely on was the acceptance of the community, or at least the majority of its members. In all the above examples, the role played by the priestly ‘caste’, was initially one which benefited the whole community: as the servant, albeit a privileged one, of the commune. But at a certain stage this servant would turn usurper.
The new organisation of labour found at Eridu provided further stimulation for the development of the productive forces. The large tracts of arable land, which had been created by irrigation, allowed for the effective use of the ox-drawn plough, which made an enormous difference to the productivity of labour at the time. The enhanced water supply on these lands also gave rise to the first experiments in arboriculture, with the cultivation of the date palm. On the basis of these developments flourished the “Ubaid culture”, named after the site of Tell al-‘Ubaid in Iraq, which lasted from 5,100 to 4,000 BC. This period saw the proliferation of agricultural settlements along irrigation canals, all possessing a common style of pottery, which was of very high quality. Many of these settlements had a central temple structure, along the same lines as Eridu, but temples of the Ubaid period were much more substantial.
It is evident from the archaeology that the greatly enhanced production of surplus, largely in the form of grain, was contributing not only to the greater wealth and size of the community as a whole, but also to the social weight of its central, directing organ. Individual priests may not have acquired much wealth for themselves by this point, but the institution of the temple certainly commanded a greater and greater proportion of social labour and its surplus product. This would not necessarily have appeared as a fundamental break with the egalitarian norms of the past. After all, if the beneficence of the guardian deity had provided the new lands and abundant harvests in the first place, then who better to receive the surplus product in thanks?
The priests did not put the gods’ wealth to waste either. In the Ubaid period, we find evidence of increasingly specialised craftsmen, and by the end of this period there would emerge a layer of full-time specialists whose workshops formed part of the temple complex. From this we can infer a relation of dependence, wherein the craftsmen were effectively employed by the temple in return for products such as pottery, copper artefacts and semi-precious stones. Here again, we see the development of new productive relations developing within the womb of the old.
Ubaid culture would spread across much of Mesopotamia and even further. However, in no way did this constitute anything like a unified “empire”, or even a state. There is no evidence that the various Ubaid-inspired settlements that we find across the region were either conquered or colonised by the original Ubaid settlements. What is much more likely is that, alongside an increasingly sophisticated network of trade in pottery, copper, obsidian (a volcanic stone used for making sharp blades), semi-precious stones, and other speciality trade goods, there grew up a closer cultural interaction, in which the wealth of settlements such as Eridu inspired other communities to take up similar production techniques without ever being “ruled” by them or anyone else.
Ubaid society already appears radically different to the villages of the early Neolithic. And yet in a number of fundamental respects Ubaid society remained closer in character to primitive communism than class society. In spite of the increasingly unequal distribution of wealth within the community, and the rising power of the priests as the stewards of the surplus, the community itself remained independent of all others, democratic and free from forced labour. What we see in the late Ubaid period could therefore be characterised as a kind of transitional society, containing at the same time powerful elements of both class society and primitive communist society. And out of relations developed within Ubaid society there would arise the first ever class society, based on the rule of the city over the village, and of man by man: Uruk.
The first class society
Uruk is one of the world’s first states, only competing with Ancient Egypt for the definitive title of oldest. The city of Uruk began life as a couple of Ubaid villages around 5,000 BC. Like other settlements of the period, they were centred around relatively large temple complexes: one devoted to Anu (“Heaven”), god of the sky, and one to Inanna (“Lady of Heaven”), goddess of love. Over time, the growth of these villages would cause them to fuse into a single enormous city, which by roughly 3,100 BC was home to a staggering 40,000 people.
As Uruk grew, along with its population of specialised and dependent craftsmen, the ancient self-sufficiency, and therefore independence, of the commune began to break down. The concentration of craft production in the urban centres and of food production in the villages meant that the largest settlements could no longer depend on their own population for the production of food and so began taking part of the surplus product from the surrounding villages. Upon this dramatic shift in the social division of labour arose the earliest separation of the town and country. Marx considered this separation so important to the development of class society he claimed that “the whole economic history of society is summed up in the movement of this antithesis.”
The surplus from the villages would likely have taken the form of an offering for the gods who resided at their respective temples, but there was also something of a ‘contractual’ element involved. The farmers received craft products and trade commodities that would otherwise have been inaccessible. Eventually, this relation was transformed from one of complementary interdependence to outright exploitation, in the form of a “tithe” owed to the temples at Uruk by the surrounding villages, paid in kind irrespective of whether the farmers received anything in return, and extracted by force if necessary.
In addition to the surplus product, the temple bureaucracy also laid claim to the surplus labour-time of the mass of the population. In Uruk we see the transformation of quantity into quality, with the direct control and exploitation of labour on a mass scale, no longer through the old communal structures of the village and the family, but by a distinct class, standing above and usurping the commune.
This turning point is manifested physically in the pottery left behind from the period. In contrast to the expertly made bowls and vases of the Ubaid culture, the most commonly found ceramic artifacts at Uruk were rough, “bevelled-rim bowls”. But this was not the step back it might seem to be; Uruk was flourishing and its potters were busy creating the first mass-produced item in history. Using standardised moulds, specialised craftsmen could produce thousands of these bowls in a short period of time.
But who was using these bowls? The most widely accepted explanation is that they were used to distribute rations to gangs of forced, “corvée” labourers, most likely peasants from the surrounding villages who were conscripted to work on projects such as digging irrigation canals or erecting city walls, and to do seasonal work on temple lands. The huge number of such bowls discovered at Uruk and other sites of the period attests to the size of the workforce and the scale of the projects involved. The labourers could well have been drafted from different villages and family groups, to work for people they did not know, on projects that would confer little to no direct benefit on themselves or their families. New class relations, outside of the old communal structures, were beginning to take form.
The changes taking place in the relations of production at the base of society began to produce changes in property relations. Prior to the Uruk period, all land belonged collectively to the family and could not pass out of it. This meant that it always remained in the possession and under the collective control of the village commune, which was itself made up of several large family groups, similar to the gentes of the Homeric Greeks. Evidence of this gentile or clan ownership of land can even be seen much later, in the Early Dynastic period. In “contracts” for the purchase of fields the purchaser had to distribute “gifts” to the entire extended family of the individual seller before he could secure their permission for the land to be released from their collective control. But the new relations that had emerged out of the city posed a significant threat to this state of affairs.
As Uruk grew, the pre-existing village lands continued to be managed under the old family system. However, the extension of irrigation projects, carried out by corvée labour under the direction of the temple, had created virgin arable land to which no family or village could lay claim. This meant that it naturally fell outside of the old communal system. Instead, these new lands were assigned to the temple. Over time, parts of these temple lands were assigned to individuals in return for services rendered to the city. Naturally, these individuals came from the ruling elite. These assignments did not confer absolute ownership and were considered as a temporary and revocable stipend, but they still had the effect of creating a form of individual possession and control of land, independent of the villages.
The dissolution of the old communal order can also be seen within the city of Uruk itself. The citizens of Uruk did not all benefit equally from the surplus extracted from the villages. The temple held exclusive control over the surplus product, appropriating a greater and greater share for itself. What was not consumed by the temple bureaucracy was stored, distributed and traded under its control. On the other hand, the disintegration of the family system had created an underclass of people without the means to support themselves. The growing weight of surplus extraction bearing down on the villages began to push those peasants who were unable to pay into debt. Those who failed to pay their debts could be enslaved by their creditors, along with their wives and children. In the late Uruk period we begin to see evidence of the employment of widows and orphans as a form of servile labour, producing textiles in workshops attached to the temple. The product of these workshops would then be traded, sometimes across long distances, in return for sought-after goods such as copper and obsidian.
This new product of ‘civilisation’ also gives us a powerful indication of the extent to which the status of women had fallen in Uruk by this time. In the city, wages or lands were conferred to individual craftsmen, priests etc., who were always male. In the countryside, cereal cultivation using the ox-drawn plough was likewise an exclusively male occupation. As this branch of the social division of labour became all-important, so too did the position of men in society.
The place of the woman as an equal producer within the family was “degraded and reduced to servitude”, “the slave of [man’s] lust and a mere instrument for the production of children”, as Engels put it. This was recognised by the Sumerians themselves: “Spread out your robe so he can lie upon you, and perform for this primitive the task of womankind!”, the trapper demands of Shamash, “the harlot”, in the Epic of Gilgamesh. The rise of inheritance through the male line left women entirely dependent on their husbands or male relatives. If their husband died, the only salvation offered by the temple was employment in the workshop, performing the “women’s work” of the home in squalid conditions, only to expand the wealth of the ruling class. Not for nothing did Engels remark that “the first class oppression coincides with that of the female sex by the male”.
Looking back on the rise of class society in Uruk, it is difficult to believe that such a gigantic act of usurpation could have been tolerated. But it could not have been achieved by force alone. As Trotsky writes, “The historical justification for every ruling class consisted in this – that the system of exploitation it headed raised the development of the productive forces to a new level.” On the basis of this development, the living standards and cultural level of a significant section of the population was raised, especially in the cities. This development can be seen in the birth of writing and money, two of the most important innovations in the history of humanity.
Writing and Money
There is a close interconnection between the development of money, writing, and class society. Writing develops more or less simultaneously in both Mesopotamia and Egypt, but for simplicity’s sake, we will focus on Mesopotamia. Symbols on clay, known as accounting tokens, began to appear in the Near East as early as 4000 BC. Someone attempting to account for three sheep might make three ‘sheep’ tokens and string them together on a piece of cord. Over time, as flocks became larger, symbols representing different numbers of livestock were invented. The tokens were often then encased in a clay outer casing, known as a bulla, and baked. Pictographic tablets from sites like Tell Brak in Syria, which show images of animals next to numbers, reflect the furthest that this use of symbols could develop before a fully-fledged writing system emerged.
In Uruk, a writing system developed which allowed temple bureaucrats to communicate complex concepts with each other, based on the pictograms of the previous period. Initially, it was used to organise the economic resources of Uruk. From around 3,200 BC, “cuneiform” writing (referring to the wedged shape of its signs) begins to appear in the archaeological record. Of the cuneiform tablets associated with Uruk, around 85% are economic and administrative in nature. An exceptionally complex writing system such as cuneiform presupposes the existence of a layer in society who had the time to learn to read and write: the scribes. The scribes’ possession of this knowledge secured them an important place in the ruling classes of both Mesopotamia and Egypt. As it says in the Ancient Egyptian Satire of the Trades: “See, there is no office free from supervisors except the scribe’s. He is the supervisor!”
Though it began with economic necessity, writing was then put to use for a whole variety of purposes. Cuneiform came to be used across Mesopotamia for thousands of years. Eventually, the earliest literature and poetry, such as the famous epic of Gilgamesh, the Hurrian Hymn to Nikal, the world’s oldest known song, and Hammurabi’s code of laws would all be inscribed in cuneiform. In this sense, every poet bears within him the “shattered remains” of the accountant.
Just as the growth of the surplus and the temple bureaucracy had created a social need for the communication of information through writing, the increased specialisation and interdependence within society necessitated constant exchange of a wider and wider variety of products. In Uruk, these exchanges were largely managed by the temple. For example, a potter producing bevelled-rim bowls could expect to receive sufficient rations of barley from the temple, which would have been taken as a tithe from the villages.
The sheer scale and complexity of the distribution carried out by the temple went far beyond the limits of the personal exchanges that had been common during the Neolithic period. A more objective system of measurement was therefore required. Weights of silver were measured in grains, shekels, minas, and talents. This system was then used to create units of account, which allowed the temple bureaucrats to compare the values of the various commodities that were passing through their stores, giving rise to money in its earliest and most basic form: a “universal measure of value”.
Initially, both volumes of barley and weights of precious metals played this role: 300 litres of barley was equal to one silver shekel. These early forms of money would almost certainly not have circulated amongst the population as coin or currency. In fact, these quantities of barley and silver were tangible representatives of the abstract measurement of value being carried out within the temple. But like writing, money would not be confined to the desk of the temple bureaucrat forever. It was destined to play an even greater role in the history of civilisation: Currency, credit, and all of the gleaming towers of high finance today can draw their genealogy from these humble weights of silver and rations of barley.
The measurement of time was also standardised, using a sexagesimal counting system that produced an impressively accurate year of 12 months and 360 days. This system is also to thank for our hours containing 60 minutes. Likewise, a standardised measurement of distance was introduced to assist in the planning of agricultural land and irrigation canals. All of these innovations, which Aristotle wisely noted were directly linked to the liberation of the priests and scribes from manual work, provided a colossal impetus to the power of scientific thought, and brought into existence the first astronomers and mathematicians.
The birth of the state
By 3,100 BC, we have ample evidence of a class of priests and scribes, centred around the temple, who held exclusive control over the production and distribution of the wealth of society, and were beginning to secure for themselves a heritable reserve of private wealth. We can also see that this class was becoming fully self-aware, in the sense that it saw itself as separate and superior to the rest of society and propagated an ideology of rule that reflected their interests.
One other feature of the emergence of the new ruling class in Uruk is the rise of the first “priest kings”, who appear in statues and clay-seal designs of this period. No historically verifiable identity or recorded acts can be reliably associated with these anonymous rulers. Even the name “priest king” is something of a misnomer, as the earliest title we can find for the ruler of Uruk is En, meaning simply “high priest”. Whether these kings could be truly considered as heads of state in the fullest sense of the word is open to debate. However, we can be certain that the appearance of these “priest kings” marks a further qualitative shift in the disintegration of the old communal social system, and the beginning of a new form of political organisation.
With the dramatic increase in the surplus product, and its concentration in the temples, it became increasingly necessary for cities such as Uruk to erect walls and organise some form of military force, in order to repel raids from nomadic tribes of herdsmen or even rival cities. However, this military organisation required a commander. Clay seals from the time suggest that this role was fulfilled by the priest kings of Uruk and later Sumerian monarchs.
Beneath the king there also existed the unkin, a communal assembly. This was not simply the continuation of the old communal organisation, however. The old village assemblies had been decision-making bodies that resolved issues within the families that made up the village. By contrast, the emerging state, or proto-state, claimed absolute authority over not only the city where the priest king resided, but a surrounding territory as well. The assembly could advise, like the “Elders” of the Epic of Gilgamesh, who warned the impetuous king before his struggle with the giant, Humbaba. But ultimately the priest-king was answerable only to the god who protected the city, and in reality to the ruling class in whose interests he ruled.
Not long after the rise of the priest kings, Uruk would experience a period of crisis and collapse, marking the end of the so-called “first urbanisation”. After 3,100 BC we find not only a “significant retrogression” of Uruk culture in the archaeological record, but the permanent decline and even complete disappearance of other cities in the region, which had been growing up along with Uruk throughout the fourth millennium BC. For example, at the site of Arslantepe, in northern Mesopotamia, we find evidence that the city’s large temple complex was destroyed by fire and never rebuilt.
Evidence is too scarce to put forward a single definitive explanation for such a widespread collapse. One potential factor is the impact of drought or the impact of over-farming, but other more social factors would also likely have played an important and even decisive role. As can be seen throughout the history of class society, including our own era, the ruling class will tend to shift the burden of any crisis onto the shoulders of the direct producers. When production was expanding, it is possible that the new class contradictions in society could have been somewhat obscured, but with a drop in agricultural production, the conflict between the peasant villages and the ruling class in the cities would likely have been thrown into stark relief.
Mario Liverani, in his book The Ancient Near East, argues that the destruction of the temple at Arslantepe by fire suggests a violent struggle. What can be known with certainty is that it was replaced only by a few simple households, with no return to a centralised temple structure. It is not outside the bounds of possibility that a similar struggle erupted in the territory of Uruk, with villages resisting the demands of the temple for surplus or even attempting to break away altogether.
Following the crisis at the end of the fourth millennium, a totally new structure enters the archeological record: the palace. Uruk and similar settlements were centred around temple complexes, which appropriated and controlled the entire surplus. Later settlements, such as Jemdet Nasr, possessed both a temple and a palace complex, with storerooms and workshops, similar to the temples of the Uruk period. The palace, e-gal (meaning “big house”), thus served as a productive as well as an administrative centre, and was the residence of the lugal (literally “big man”). From this point onwards, the existence of the state, in the fullest sense of the word, is indisputable.
The role of force
The crisis experienced at Uruk, and the complete collapse at other sites such as Arslantepe, suggests that the direct rule of the priests, despite their considerable ideological power, lacked the brute force required to hold down the subject population if the need arose. The first armies were little more than the armed people, drafted for military service. If the people themselves were in revolt, the priests would have had little to fall back on. What was required for the continuation of class relations was a permanent force of “full-time workers, specialised in military activities,” set apart from the population at large, not only to protect the city from outsiders, but to defend the ruling class from the oppressed masses. This “special body of armed men” would become the state, with a “big man” at its head. As Engels explains:
“The state is therefore by no means a power imposed on society from without; just as little is it ‘the reality of the moral idea’… Rather, it is a product of society at a particular stage of development; it is the admission that this society has involved itself in insoluble self-contradiction and is cleft into irreconcilable antagonisms which it is powerless to exorcise. But in order that these antagonisms, classes with conflicting economic interests, shall not consume themselves and society in fruitless struggle, a power, apparently standing above society, has become necessary to moderate the conflict and keep it within the bounds of ‘order’; and this power, arisen out of society, but placing itself above it and increasingly alienating itself from it, is the state.” 
Contrary to the explanation put forward by Engels, anarchist theorists have often argued that the state is the root of all evils, including class society, inequality, and money, which somehow arose on the basis of the organised violence of kings and states. David Graeber, for example, argues that “the real origins of money are to be found in crime and recompense, war and slavery, honour, debt and redemption.” But this is plainly contradicted by the archaeological record, which weighs heavily in Engels’ defence.
What anarchists get right about the state is its absolute interdependence with class society. The experience of Uruk shows that no class society can survive for very long without a state to protect and regulate it. However, to interpret class exploitation as being the product of the state is to put the cart before the horse. Unless we define the state as any form of violence or control, thus rendering the state eternal and meaningless, then it is evident from a study of ancient states that class society was already in the process of formation by the time the first real kings and states arose.
That the rise of class society has everywhere required the forcible creation of the state only reflects the fact that the final dissolution of the old communal relations, which had been prepared over thousands of years, could not be achieved in a peaceful and gradual manner. There remained a large section of society whose interests conflicted directly with the new relations of exploitation that were beginning to emerge. At the same time there were evidently influential sections of society who stood to gain a great deal from the new order. This produced a conflict, which at a decisive point would likely have cleaved the whole of society into opposing camps, and which could only ultimately be decided by force: “Force is the midwife of every old society pregnant with a new one. It is itself an economic power.”
Combined and uneven development
The process of state formation in Mesopotamia provides a fascinating example of how class society developed out of communal, Neolithic society. This led Gordon Childe to set out a list of the important “features” he discovered in these early class societies, including “full-time specialist craftsmen, transport workers, merchants, officials and priests”, the extraction of a surplus, writing, and “a state organisation based now on residence rather than kinship.”
The many critics of Childe have twisted his valuable description of one of the most important processes in human history into some sort of ‘recipe’ for state formation, in which the state is merely any society that contains cities plus all the above features. As a result, they claim that a Marxist analysis of the state is too prescriptive, and really only applies to Mesopotamia. However, this argument holds little water. Marxists understand that state societies are not simply a list of features. There are civilisations, such as the Inca, which never developed writing; and others like Ancient Egypt, in which cities played a smaller economic role. Rather than classifying societies in an empirical, taxonomic way, based on their surface features, it is necessary to look into their origin, development and relation to other societies of the time.
In Capital, Marx writes at length about the development of capitalism in England, where it took its “classical form”, with only passing references to other countries. At the same time, he did not argue that the exact form in which the process took place in England was the only way in which it could take place. What made England the classic country of capitalist development also made it unique. The fact it was the first to develop a capitalist economy out of the development of feudalism meant that the process was stretched out over hundreds of years and many intermediate, transitional forms. This allowed a close study of the underlying, general processes taking place not just in England but in a number of other countries. But, this does not mean that every country had to go through a period of wool production for the market, followed by manufacture and then, finally, the factory system in order to develop capitalism.
The same can be said of the so-called “pristine” states, as found in Sumer, Egypt and China for example. Far from being “pristine”, these early class societies were extremely ‘messy’ and contradictory, bearing the stamp of earlier, communistic relations. The ones that sprang up afterwards and under the influence of these civilisations did so much more rapidly and without much of the prehistoric baggage that could be found at Uruk, for example. Sumerian city states which developed later, such as Ur, could leap head and shoulders above their antecedents. This phenomenon is widely documented throughout history, including in the history of the development of capitalism. The privilege of being the first to develop is quickly succeeded by the “privilege of backwardness”, whereby more economically backward societies can develop faster and more rationally by leaning on the achievements of their more advanced competitors.
A similar process is described in Engels’ The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. He explains that the origins of the Athenian state can be traced back to the massive social tumult caused by the “corrosive” influence of private property, slavery and money, all of which had already been developed elsewhere. In these conditions, the rise of Athenian class society not only occurred in a much shorter period than at Uruk, but even took a completely different form, without a centralised temple bureaucracy or taxation as the primary means of acquiring the surplus product. It was a society based on a qualitatively different mode of production, characterised by a higher level of private property, and with it slavery, precisely because it came later, on the basis of Iron Age as opposed to Bronze Age technology, and in a different environment as compared with Sumer and Egypt.
Marxists are often criticised for applying a rigid template to the development of class societies. However, if we use the Marxist method properly to analyse the rise of the state, we can see that the opposite is true. We could even go so far as to say that it is an iron law of historical materialism that the constant interaction between societies at different stages necessarily produces leaps and variety in social development: a phenomenon referred to by Leon Trotsky as “combined and uneven development”.
Whatever the differences between Mesopotamia and Egypt, the Mauryans and the Maya, or Greece and Rome, the process that underlies the development of these states is the same. In all cases the necessary development of the productive forces leads to the production of a surplus, which in turn allows a group of people to live on the product of others’ labour. In the course of development, this group develops into a class with its own interests, opposed to the rest of society. Either due to external pressure, or the internal contradictions of this new class society (usually both), a state, ultimately representing the interests of this class, raises itself above the rest of society as a guardian of “order” – that is the stability and continuation of the existing relations of production. This process can happen over thousands of years or in a very short period of time, and can take many forms. But the most important lesson is that the development of the state is fundamentally caused by the development of social classes and the contradictions which flow from this.
The role of the individual
This does not mean that a state and classes were bound to develop automatically in every community in which the basic economic conditions had begun to take form. Such a process can be interrupted, scattered, slowed down or reversed in the course of real historical events, particularly the course of the emerging class struggle within said society. As Marx explains in The Holy Family:
“History does nothing, it ‘possesses no immense wealth’, it ‘wages no battles’. It is man, real, living man who does all that, who possesses and fights; ‘history’ is not, as it were, a person apart, using man as a means to achieve its own aims; history is nothing but the activity of man pursuing his aims.” 
Individuals could play a very decisive role in the formation of early states, just as they can in the modern class struggle. In archaeology, a popular concept to explain the rise of the early state is the “aggrandiser principle”. This argues that, in the transition from a chiefdom to a state, individual “aggrandisers”, or “great men”, motivated by increasing their own power, play an instrumental role in the formation of early states. This usually amounts to a “great man” view of history, which presents the actions and personalities of great individuals as an independent and driving factor in the history of society. But with a materialist approach to state formation, it is possible to put these great men in their real place. This is most clear in Egyptian state formation, due to the emphasis on elaborate funerary rituals and royal burials allowing us to pick out the graves of individual kings with ease.
We can see in depictions of Narmer, the king who unified Upper and Lower Egypt, that the process of state formation was far from automatic. The Narmer Palette, which provides one of the earliest known depictions of any king in history, shows Narmer wearing the crown of Upper Egypt, forcing a Lower Egyptian to surrender to him, mace in hand. The Early Dynastic kings did not simply inherit a ready-made state; they had to form one through force.
If Narmer had been an incompetent and cowardly leader, then the formation of the Ancient Egyptian state would likely not have taken the same form. In this sense, the character and actions of individuals are decisive: whether events happen as they do depend on the people who carry them out. However, ambitious, charismatic individuals have existed at every point in history. The question that anyone wishing to understand the rise of the states must answer is why, at that particular point, these individuals were able to achieve their goals in such a historically decisive way.
Individuals like Narmer of the Egyptians, King Jaguar of the Zapotecs, or the lugals of Sumer, may have been acting in their own interests, but they also reflected the underlying necessity that existed in a class society riven by its own contradictions. In the words of Plekhanov:
“A great man is great not because his personal qualities give individual features to great historical events, but because he possesses qualities which make him most capable of serving the great social needs of his time, needs which arose as a result of general and particular causes.”
Like the temple builders of Göbekli Tepe and the Neolithic settlers who drained the marshes of Sumer, the first “great men” were individuals who by their actions and abilities made history. But they did not make it out of nothing. If their vision and ambition appears to have changed society by the sheer force of will alone, it is because this vision disclosed a picture of the future being prepared by much more than the will of any individual.
At the dawn of class society, the overthrow of the commune and the formation of states was one of the “great social needs” of the time. A solution to the crisis that had opened up in society had to be found, and it was found in the birth of the state, in which the actions of leaders like Narmer played an important role. The mistake made by historians and archaeologists is to imply that individual agency and historical necessity are mutually exclusive, when in reality the two are united within every historical event. It is precisely through the conflict of innumerable individual wills that historical necessity exerts itself.
In defence of progress
Considering the hardships faced by Neolithic farmers and the exploitation endured by so many of their descendants under class society, some have questioned whether we can even describe this development as “progress” at all. Certainly, the liberal myth of an enlightened “social contract”, under which all of mankind has lived a more peaceful and prosperous existence, is manifestly false. The life of the Sumerian peasant was likely as “nasty, brutish and short” as many of his Neolithic ancestors. Nor can progress be seen as any sort of moral ascendancy, if the enslavement of women under class society is anything to go by. The only conception of progress that can take into account the obvious development that has taken place over the ages, without twisting oneself into a hopeless tangle of self-contradictions, is that of the development of the productive forces: of humanity’s mastery over the forces of nature and over our own social development.
Certainly, if progress meant an improvement in all areas of life for everyone, we would be hard-pressed to find much genuine progress in human history from the end of the last Ice Age onwards. Nevertheless, the progress of humanity as a whole in this period is unmistakable. Between 5,000 and 2,000 BC, the world’s population increased five times over, from an estimated 5 million to 25 million. Liverani estimates that the rise of the first city states coincided with a tenfold rise in production, as compared with Neolithic levels. This rise in productivity, comprising discoveries in science, mathematics and art that we still use today, was achieved under relations that were much more unequal and oppressive, and only served to strengthen those relations. The same could be said of the rise of capitalism. What made both the rise of class society and the rise of capitalism progressive was not their abstract moral superiority, but their concrete necessity as stages in the development of the productive forces: the only form in which further development could take place.
However, the fact that class exploitation and oppression in various forms have at one time been a necessary part of social development does not mean that they must always be so. Primitive communism was necessary and inevitable, and yet it was just as inevitably overthrown. By what right can class society claim to be the final and absolute expression of human nature, to which all of history has been tending? In history as in nature, “all that exists deserves to perish”; that which serves as a way forward for development is eventually destined to be overthrown by that same development.
Every conquest won in our struggle for existence necessarily brings forth its own obstacles and threats, against which the struggle for further progress must take place. This is especially the case under class society, in which “every step forward is also relatively a step backward, in which prosperity and development for some is won through the misery and frustration of others”. The real content of progress, the development of the social productive forces of humanity, is thus realised in a succession of limited and contradictory forms. If we find those forms objectionable today, all that tells us is that they have become obsolete. But it in no way disproves the fact of progress in general.
Today, we live in a world in which the productive forces that have already been developed are straining against the fetters of private property, the so-called “free market”, and the division of the world into capitalist nation states. The regular economic crises, imperialist wars and growing horrors of climate change all bear witness to the fact that, under capitalism, no further progress is possible for humanity. Only by overthrowing this defunct and dying system can we hope to liberate humanity from the nightmare offered by its continued existence. But this can only be achieved by the seizure of the gigantic productive forces created by the billions of propertyless workers who currently live under capitalism, and the planning of the global economy in a rational and democratic manner. In short, the further progress of humanity means nothing other than the end of class society itself, and all its deadly trappings, not least the state.
Friedrich Engels wrote in 1884:
“We are now rapidly approaching a stage in the development of production at which the existence of these classes has not only ceased to be a necessity, but becomes a positive hindrance to production. They will fall as inevitably as they once arose. The state inevitably falls with them. The society which organises 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 axe.”
Today that stage has long since arrived. The conditions for the overthrow of capitalism and establishment of socialism are not just present, they are “rotten ripe”. Now we must fight to make Engels’ prediction a reality and to build a future of freedom, fulfilment and hope for the whole of humanity.
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