Lewis Henry Morgan, the punaluan family, the gentes and the defence of materialism

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My approach here is a bit cack-handed (again) given the first question is a couple of stages removed, but bear with me because there are important questions here of a defence of materialism as well as the mechanics of the transition from barbarian society to class society and the state. But first a slight diversion: Jens agrees with Christophe Darmangeat when he says that no text in the workers' movement has the "status of untouchable religious texts". I also agree with that but that doesn't at all preclude the defence of positions in the workers' movement. Jens goes on: "it is absolutely obvious that we cannot take 19th century texts as the last word and ignore the immense accumulation of ethnographic knowledge since then". Well, I would back Morgan's 19th century work as a whole, and in specifics in this case, against any ethnographic knowledge since then. Ethnographic observations can be very important but like the examination of sub-atomic particles, they affect the position of what's being looked at. By its very enquiry one alters the other - as it must do. Ethnographic evidence of the 19th century will tell you what the peoples observed were saying, thinking and doing in the 19th century, and ethnographic evidence of the 21st century will tell you what the peoples observed were doing, thinking and saying in the 21st century - and, in both cases, it will also tell you what the observers were thinking, doing and saying in the relative timescales. Later ethnographic "evidence" applied further back is not necessarily more accurate - in fact it's just as likely that it will be less so. Ethnographic evidence can bring important clarifications, but it has to be approached with extreme caution. Morgan turned ethnographic quantity into the greatest quality. And as Engels said, he made conclusions from his studies using terms that Marx himself might have used.

I've seen this specific criticism of Morgan's work that Jens relays from Darmangeat, a year or so ago, from an SWP member of the Radical Anthropology Group. I rather lazily moved on to something else when he describes Morgan in terms of a "capitalist speculator" (from memory, something like that). This is the specific "contradiction" of Morgan described by Darmangeat and, not having read him myself, I'll let Jens describe it: "according to Morgan the ‘punaluan’ system is supposed to represent one of the most primitive and social stages, and yet it is to be found in Hawaii, in as society which contains wealth, social inequality, an aristocratic social stratum, and which is on the point of evolving into a full-blown state and class society". My first reaction to this "contradiction" was so what? Where do you expect a ruling class to come from if not from the society that it grew up in? Of course the development towards the state came from existing society. There's nowhere else for it to come from. Let's look at the question in more detail from the point of view of the materialist Morgan.

The punaluan family (punalua, "intimate companion") is indeed extremely ancient and, with Morgan, I wouldn't like to attempt to put a date on it. It was world-wide, existing in Europe, Australia, Hawaii, Polynesia, South America and, possibly, Mongolia and China. Morgan could only hint at its beginnings: "It may be impossible to recover the event that led to its deliverance"... "it remained an experiment through an immense amount of time" until it became universal and the origins of which "belong to a remote antiquity... a very ancient condition of society" (Ancient Society OR Researches in the Lines of Human Progress from Savagery through Barbarism to Civilisation, Lewis Henry Morgan). It's not an invariable, monolithic system but has adaptations, variations and so on. Morgan details, over pages, the relationships of the punaluan, where peoples would address each other by their family relations rather than by name. Its greatest achievement, in laying the ground for the development of the gentes, was to be instrumental in helping to eliminate incestuous family relations, particularly between own brother and sister but also parents and their children and even first or second cousins: "the evils of which could not forever escape human observation" (LHM). As Marx put it in his Ethnographic Notes: "The larger the group recognising the marriage relations, the less the evil of close interbreeding ...". And Morgan again, "the gradual exclusion of own brothers and sisters... spreading slowly and then universal in the advancing tribes still in savagery... illustrates the principle of natural selection." There's no state here in the essence of this system, no ruling class to enforce it, its laws are organic. The change towards and into the punaluan is conflictual but radical, part of an "upward movement" as Morgan says. In punaluan relations there's a sisterhood of wives, marriage between groups of brothers and groups of sisters, which are not always taken up, while eliminating sexual relations between own brothers and sisters. Partners were held in common in the plural marriage and mother-right was strengthened. But most importantly, the punaluan laid the basis for what, in my opinion, is one of the most remarkable achievements, if not the most remarkable achievement of mankind up until then: the barbarian gentes. Morgan again: "Advancing to the civilised nations, there seems to have been an equal necessity for the ancient existence of the punaluan group among the remote ancestors of all such as possessed the gentile organisation - Greeks, Romans, German, Celts, Hebrew..." And "Such a remarkable institution of the gens would not be expected to spring into existence complete or to grow out of nothing". Just as the punaluan grew out of an even earlier form of relations, so the gentes grew out of the punaluan. And both of these forms of social organisation show an organic, collective memory and the further development of kinship ties.

The materialism of Morgan above, whatever ethnological observations have been made since, has to be defended here. And Morgan is absolutely specific on the question of the Hawaiian punaluan where he talks about the Hawaiian system containing the same elements for the germ of the gentes confined to the female branch of the custom, but: "The Hawaiians, although this group existed among them, did not rise to the conception of a gens" (my emphasis, Chapter III). So let's be clear here: the criticism of Morgan, made by Darmangeat, an SWP member of the Radical Anthropology Group and tacitly approved by Jens, is that, with Morgan's analysis, elements of the ruling class in Hawaii came from the punaluan system and this is a contradiction. But, as we see elsewhere, the superior form of the gentes, which was in turn a higher form of barbarian organisation than the punaluan, was transformed - not everywhere - into ruling elites, castes and classes. The Hawaiian punaluan did not transform into gentes, so where did the ruling class in Hawaii come from? There are only two possible explanations: either it came from the punaluan system, or it came from outer space.

In some cases elements of the punaluan persisted in the gentes that, themselves, weren't all incorporated into class society. As you would expect from an ancient and world-wide phenomenon, punaluan customs remained long into parts of civilisation in Europe, South America, Australia and Asia. Caesar notes their expression amongst some tribes of Britons, and Herodotus mentions them in the Massagetae, an Iranian nomadic confederation. Morgan is rightly wary of both witnesses here.

I don't believe that we should treat the "Old Masters" of the workers' movement with religious awe or, on the other hand, see them as "primitive" stumbling attempts to look at the development of humanity. But we should incorporate them, be very careful about the "what they didn't know at the time" type arguments and defend their materialism. I can't see any contradiction in ancient systems persisting into class society. Marx noted it in the system of the gentes persisting through the mighty Persian Empire. In civilisations all over the world ancient pre-civilised customs and forms of organisation persisted, attesting to their original scope and strength. The development into civilisation, class society and the state didn't happen through complete breaks and compartmentalised incremental steps signposted all the way. It's much more complex than that - as we can see with the gentes.

The punaluan groups contained the germs of and laid the basis for the development of the gentes, the two basic rules of which in the archaic form were:

  1. Prohibition of intermarriage between brothers and sisters;
  2. Descent in the female line (and descent from the same common ancestor).

The gentes "improved mental and moral qualities" (Morgan above) of humanity. Under the firmer establishment of mother-right, I would guess sometime in the period of the epipalaeolithic (sedentism), this organisation laid the basis for cultivation (agriculture proper), the development of the means of production (tools, ceramics, metallurgy, architecture, etc.), and contributed to the development of written language (barbarian art, in all its various forms from Europe to China, unsurpassed in beauty in my opinion, carried some of the "motifs" and "signs" of the Upper Palaeolithic parietal and portable art). It also laid the basis for private property, patriarchy, class society and the state and for Morgan's marxist conclusion that for society to survive, it must recreate the egalitarianism, the common households, the communistic tendencies and the democracy of the old gentes at a higher level: "It (a higher plane of society) will be the revival, in a higher form, of the liberty, equality and fraternity of the ancient gentes".

In relation to the transformation of the gentes into class society, Marx summed up in three simple words the profound change in the Athenian gentes: "gentilis became civis". And Shakespeare, in Titus Andronicus, his disturbing tale around the decomposition of imperial Rome, specifically pointed to the corruption of the mores of the old Roman gentes. Just like the "comforting chains" of primitive communism, the chains of the egalitarian gentes, had to be broken and from this came class society, written laws, government, human slavery, the "war of the rich against the poor", capitalism and the modern proletariat.

There was no one "civilisation" but many civilisations that, again, were universal but independent in time and space and culturally specific. And here there's no linear development either. Some forms of the barbarian gentes persisted a long way into civilisation, ironically even helping to save the Roman metropolis from the collapse of Roman imperialism. Different, changing forms of the gentes, with the absence of a state, were expressed throughout Europe and the Americas. I agree with Jens that one can't automatically tie in Morgan's social developments with those of production and I think that it's missing the point to try to do so. Morgan's 3 stages of Savagery, 3 stages of Barbarism and one of civilisation are all over the place, wildly inaccurate, out by over a three-quarters-of-million years in some places. That's not what is important about Morgan's book and Engels summary and additions to it in The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State. Both of which, whatever punctual errors they contain (and there's no error over the Hawaiian punaluan and the class of appropriators that arose from it), should be defended as materialist explanations of our past, of where we are today and the road to take.

Morgan's seven stages, however far out in time, do, as Jens says, provide a fundamental framework for the major stages of the development of society, even if they don't all tie into and agree with all other aspects of society. I don't think that discrepancies in time matter one bit. We, with our more up to date knowledge, can fill in the details that weren't known, while defending his overall analysis and materialism (the same applies to Engels). But with the relatively recent gentes and onwards, Morgan does tie in the developments in the means of production and the family systems. Obviously from here the development of the patriarchal family and civilisation, the growth of property isclosely connected to inventions, discoveries and to developments in social institutions, etc. There are a lot of silly criticisms aimed at Engels/Morgan's work particularly from the politically-correct police: they are wrong on brain sizes (archaeologists today, with all the technical equipment available to them, fight among themselves about brain sizes all the time); there's a contradiction here or there in this or that detail; they suggest "progress"; the question of the origins of human society is "unprovable"; they are anti-women, they don't appreciate 'battered women" and so on. I don't believe in the idea of determinism of fate, but it's patently clear that humanity has progressed, be it by fits and starts and setbacks and not in the "circumstances that would have been chosen". Our ancestors railed against the chains of primitive communism however comforting they were. And they broke the relatively secure chains of the gentes, , though the circumstances were far from determined or ideal. There's a whole wealth of detail, complexity and analysis that needs to be uncovered and made just about the transition from hunter-gatherers to a sedentary existence, let alone agriculture and the rise of the ruling appropriating class and the state. There's a lot that need to be clarified and deepened. But for me, Morgan and Engels will do for a good start and I embrace and defend the materialism of these "Old Masters". As far as their perspectives go we have gone from independent but universal developments of the family, civilisations and the state to a confrontation between the two major classes: bourgeoisie and proletariat. While there's been a complexity in this transition from the barbarian gentes into class society, there's also been a clarification in the eventual confrontation of the two major classes. Can we revive at another level all that was positive about the antecedents of the working class - the barbarian gentes. Is it possible to revive the sexual and political egalitarianism and the warrior spirit that so marked this society; there's a lot of doubt around, a certain lack of confidence. I think that historically, when we look at the fight put up by the working class, the sacrifices and solidarity that it has expressed, to keep fighting after getting knocked down again and again, there's no question of its capacity to take on this decaying system. Even looking at some struggles going on in the last few years and going on today, we see a will and capacity to fight, sometimes in the most unfavourable circumstances, repression and worse. More and more, against the sexual division imposed by capitalism, we see that the solidarity of the sexes, that was evidenced in the gentes, needs to be revived at a higher level with the spirit of unity rather than duplicity being a way forward.