Marxist thinkers from Frederick Engels to Dorothy Ballan have long maintained that, for most of human existence, the social structure was based on mother-right, or matriarchy, in which a fundamental equality existed between women and men.
Today this period of human social development is often called the primary commune. Some Indigenous communities still live in this social structure.
A recent paper written by nine anthropologists at University College London and published in the May 15 issue of Science magazine not only confirms this idea but adds a strong genetic component to it. Entitled “Sex Equality Can Explain the Unique Social Structure of Hunter-Gatherer Bands,” the study asserts that “within-camp relatedness is reduced if men and women have equal influence in selecting camp members.” The lead author of the study, Mark Dyble, says: “It gives you a far more expansive social network with a wider choice of mates, so inbreeding would be less of an issue.”
Ballan’s pamphlet, titled “Feminism and Marxism,” was published in 1971 on the cusp of the Women’s Liberation movement that was sweeping the U.S. and the rest of the world at that time. Her pamphlet critiqued the bourgeois view that there was an “eternal” conflict between the sexes and that men had always dominated women in society.
No, no, wrote Ballan: “To survive and develop in the struggle against nature with little or no tools, men and women lived and worked cooperatively, equally and communally, with a division of labor that came naturally.”
Ballan noted: “The period of time that began with the transformation from animal to human, and known as the period of mother-right, or matriarchy, was a very long and complex period. If we were to reduce the many hundreds of thousands of years of human development to the scale of one year, the equivalent scale would leave only a few days of historical time to the patriarchy; over 360 days would belong to the matriarchy.”
Ballan cited the work “The Family, Private Property and the State” by Frederick Engels, Karl Marx’s closest collaborator. Engels, in turn, had studied the writings of Lewis Henry Morgan, an American scholar and anthropologist who had lived among the Iroquois and studied their social organization.
“At the dawn of humanity,” wrote Ballan, “group marriage prevailed. Paternity was not even understood, let alone determined. It required no complex scientific reasoning to determine who the mothers were. Therefore children always remained with the mother. As the gens, a unit of blood relative descended through the mother, developed and separated into different units, the men would leave their gens to join the gens of the women, and descent continued through the mothers.”
Eventually, Ballan explained, the circle of marriage evolved from large groups to its last unit, the “human pairing.” “Although this sounds like the modern family unit, we must remember not to look at primitive society through property-tinted glasses. This pairing existed within the gen, which meant that the woman was not materially dependent in any way on the man. The gen was responsible for the material subsistence of all its members, and also mother-right still prevailed.”
It is clear now that gay, lesbian and transgender relationships also coexisted right along with these pairings.
Sexual equality, a ‘human norm’
The article in Science magazine mirrors these findings: “[I]n contemporary hunter-gatherer tribes, men and women tend to have equal influence on where their group lives and who they live with. The findings challenge the idea that sexual equality is a recent invention, suggesting that it has been the norm for humans for most of our evolutionary history.”
Dyble told the Guardian newspaper, “Sexual equality is one of an important suite of changes to social organization, including things like pair-bonding, our big, social brains, and language, that distinguishes humans. It’s an important one that hasn’t really been highlighted before.” (May 14)
Just as Morgan came to his conclusions by studying the Native people living here, particularly the Iroquois nation, so the authors of this current article based their finding on studying the Mbendjele BaYaka people in the Congo and the Agta people in the Philippines. They arrived at astonishingly similar conclusions.
In each of these cultures, human pairings are the norm, but there is no domination by the men over the women. The researchers even measured the food calories that each sex acquired for the community and found the amounts to be equal. Men are also active in childcare.
The Science article continues: “Our results suggest that pair-bonding and increased sex egalitarianism in human evolutionary history may have had a transformative effect on human social organization. Many unique human traits such as high cognition, cumulative culture and hyper-cooperation have evolved due to the social organization patterns unique to humans.”
The authors also found that, by preventing the narrowing of the families into male-dominated units and by widening the community base, the genetic component of the human species is widened as well. Dangerous inbreeding is avoided, and favorable genetic traits can be more easily integrated into the community.
Private property & oppression of women
There is no recognition of Marxist studies, or even that of the capitalist Morgan, in the Science article. It suggests that an “imbalance” occurred simply with the dawn of agriculture and food surpluses. “Men can start to have several wives and they can have more children than women,” said Dyble. “It pays more for men to start accumulating resources and becomes favorable to form alliances with male kin.”
But Ballan pointed out: “When social production becomes transformed into private production, the nature of the family changed from a socially cooperative foundation as it existed under the matriarchy to the private foundations of the patriarchy.”
Engels put it this way: “The overthrow of the mother-right was the world historic defeat of the female sex. The man seized the reins in the house also: the woman was degraded, enthralled, the slave of the man’s lust, a mere instrument for breeding children. This lowered position of women … has become gradually embellished and … clothed in milder forms, but by no means abolished.”
Thus it was the rise of the first class society — ancient slavery — that destroyed the egalitarian matriarchy. Slavery gave way to feudalism and then capitalism, which sustains gender inequality to the present day, along with every other form of oppression.
Not satisfied with just academic research on this, Marxists view the legacy of egalitarian matriarchy, of the primary commune, to be a springboard into the present-day struggle against this outmoded, racist, sexist, anti-gay, oppressive class society.
Because of the early level of the productive forces, humans in the original communes faced a tough, uphill struggle against the forces of nature. Yet they provided evidence that we humans can build a powerful social model in which to survive and grow, based on equality and filling the needs of the whole community.
Today, we humans have developed vast powers of production that could be used to satisfy our needs. Instead, in most countries, economic life is chained to the profit motive. To reach the next step on the ladder of social development — the construction of a society that meets the needs of all people on a much higher level — this rotting capitalist system has to be overthrown.