Socialism: Ideals, Ideologies, and Local Practice

By C. M. Hann | Go to book overview

Chapter 1

Primitive communism and mutual aid Kropotkin visits the Bushmen 1

Alan Barnard

But still we know that when the Europeans came, the Bushmen lived in small tribes (or clans), sometimes federated together; that they used to hunt in common, and divided the spoil without quarrelling; that they never abandoned their wounded, and displayed strong affection to their comrades.

Peter Kropotkin (1987a [1902]:83)

Concepts such as 'anarchist', 'communist', 'socialist', and even 'Bushman', are artificially constructed. This does not mean that they have no meaning. On the contrary, it means that their meanings are contingent on the anthropological and sometimes the political perspectives of the commentators. Each ethnographer's understanding of the 'Bushmen' is mediated through a desire to represent them within a larger theory of society.

For the last seventy years or so, 'primitive communism' has erroneously been equated with either 'revolutionary communism' or 'Marxism'. My intention in this chapter is to provide an alternative, very much non-Marxist view of primitive communism-namely that of Peter Kropotkin, anarchist Russian prince, geographer, and an early mentor of A.R. Radcliffe-Brown. Whereas Marx and Engels perceived history as a sequence of stages, Kropotkin saw it in terms of a continuity of fundamental human goodness. His own contribution on 'Anarchism' in the eleventh edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1910; reprinted in Kropotkin 1987c: 7-22) is a classic summary of the historical setting for his social theory. After hearing a lecture entitled 'On the law of mutual aid' by the Russian zoologist Karl Fredorovich Kessler in 1880, and reading The Descent of Man (Darwin 1871) in 1883, Kropotkin resolved to put forward his own version of Darwinism (Kropotkin 1987a:13-14; see also 1988a [1899]:298-301). The result was Mutual Aid (Kropotkin 1987a [1902]). This was conceived as an answer to the Social Darwinists, who saw in nature a mutual struggle which validated the aims of capitalism.

Among other noteworthy writings are Kropotkin's influential comments on 'Anarchist Communism' (1987b [1887]) and The state' (1987d [1897]). The former was originally published in The Nineteenth Century as

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