From the March 1922 issue of the Socialist Standard
Socialism stands for a society of equals in which the distinctions between rich and poor, exploiters and exploited, no longer exist. Opponents of this revolutionary conception assure us frequently that no such form of society has ever existed, or ever will ; that there always have been rich and poor, and always will be, and so on. The following is an attempt to show this statement to be false by depicting the social conditions obtaining amongst the native races of the interior of Africa prior to the European invasion. This invasion having taken place (so far as the countries known as Kenya and Uganda are concerned) during the past generation only, living evidence of previous conditions still exists. It takes the form of customs not yet entirely abandoned, of institutions not yet completely destroyed, and, above all, of the wonderful memories of the old men of the tribes, memories which, of necessity, are enhanced and sharpened by the absence of any literature of native origin.
The evidence above described has been the subject of much investigation on the part of Government officials, missionaries, and travellers in the course of their occupations, some of which has found expression in book form. To this the present writer is much indebted ; but the key to the understanding of native life was supplied to him by one (Lewis H. Morgan) who actually had very little knowledge of Africa; for the obvious reason that it had hardly been opened up at the time he wrote his master-work, "Ancient Society." This speaks volumes for the thoroughness with which Morgan dug to the foundations of barbaric society.
He discovered that among the American Indians the clan (or gens) was the central institution of society, the pivot on which turned the customs and beliefs of the people. He further showed that the same condition had obtained in ancient Greece and Rome before the development of political society, that is, society founded on economic classes ; and also among the barbaric races of Northern Europe and Western Asia who subsequently came under the sway of the above Empires. The case is the same in Africa!
The essential feature of the clan is kinship, i.e., its members are supposed to be descended from a common ancestor more or less remote. Being of the same blood, they may not intermarry. Each member of the clan must find his or her mate among the members of the other clans, the children ultimately becoming members of their fathers' clan. This occurs at the age of puberty, when the rite of circumcision is practised amid great ceremonial and rejoicing. Henceforth they are regarded as adults eligible for marriage. The young men at this age are trained as warriors. Their function is to protect the flocks and herds (which constitute the tangible wealth of the clans), and occasionally, when considered necessary, to undertake raiding expeditions on hostile tribes to augment this wealth.
At this age the young men and women enjoy a considerable amount of sexual freedom, which, as might be expected, gives bourgeois, who are establishing themselves there, a horrible shock and provides them with ample material for the propaganda of measures, such as forced labour, etc., which convert the men into wages-slaves and the women into whores. Infanticide appears to be practised before marriage, but this latter state is seldom long delayed, whereupon children become an important object in life. In fact, barbaric sentiment with regard to the younger generation, only equalled by its respect for the old, surpasses anything the present writer has seen expressed among the civilised races.
The first-born child marks yet another change in the status of its father, who thereupon commences to take an active part in the administration of tribal affairs. He serves at this stage an apprenticeship, as it were, in the art of judging cases such as are brought from time to time before the council of elders, the supreme judicial authority of the tribe. A man becomes an elder upon the circumcision of the firstborn. He thus enters upon the final stage of his career. Those dying before reaching this stage are exposed for the wild beasts to devour ; the elders, however, are accorded burial and their spirits become the guardians of the tribe. This brings us to another aspect of native life, i.e., its religious aspect. It is difficult, however, to say just where this aspect begins and ends. Unlike the abstract religions that have succeeded it, ancestor worship is an everyday religion. From birth to death the life of the individual is hedged around with superstitious observances to secure the favour of the guardian angels and, through them, of nature, the supreme element in a social order based upon primitive modes of living. As a result there exists a hierarchy of so-called medicine-men, elders who are supposed to have special intimacy with the spiritual forces surrounding the tribe and are expected to exercise their influence for its benefit.
Mr. A. C. Hollis, in his work, "The Nandi," gives a curious instance of a chief medicine-man who was put to death by his tribesmen for being the assumed cause of a serious military disaster. Misfortune, however, of various kinds continued to dog the path of the tribes, who then, with characteristic lack of consequence, attributed this to the murder of the medicine-man!
The medicine-men share with the people at large the selection of the chiefs from among the warriors to direct military affairs, and their advice also guides the people in the choice of times and seasons for stock movements in the case of pastoral tribes, and planting, etc., for those depending on horticulture. Thus the religious and conservative element dominates and holds together the destinies of the people, as is but natural in a State where economic conditions hardly vary from generation to-generation.
Between the different leagues of tribes, or peoples, the mode of life naturally varies. Thus, in the mountain fastnesses, clad in dense forest, dwell the Wandorobo, hunters of the big game (elephant, buffalo, and the like), whose bows and poison-tipped arrows are practically their sole means of production. Out on the open plains the Masai herd their cattle, wandering from place to place according to the rainfall and the growth of grass. Among the lower hills and the valleys formed by the streams, live people like the Kikuyu, cultivating with primitive knives and hoes small patches of ground for grains, legumes, tuberous roots, plantains, etc. But although normally hostile to one another, each people recognises amongst itself the principle of common access to the means of life, i.e., the land. With the hunters and the pastoral nomads this is obvious ; but even in the case of the horticultural tribes the same principle applies. The family (normally polygamous) holds from the clan sufficient land for its needs. It is entitled to that, and no more, and if by chance it dies out the land reverts to the clan.
Private property is confined to tools and domestic utensils, weapons and ornaments. These are all in such an immature state of development that it is impossible for them to form means for exploitation through monopoly. Agriculture strictly so-called (i.e., the cultivation of fields by drawn ploughs) not having arisen, the productivity of the individual is too small to make slavery a source of wealth. The slaves would produce little more than they would consume. Hence only the female sex are taken captive in battle, and they are adopted into the captor's family either as daughters or wives. Cattle occupy a peculiar importance in native economy. Their slaughter for food is practically confined to festivals and sacrifices. Their milk, of course, is used, but their principal function seems to be to serve as equivalents to human beings. Thus, when, by marriage, a man takes a woman from another clan, he has to compensate that clan, through the father, for the loss, with so many head of cattle. When, again, a man kills another, of a different clan, similar compensation must be made.
To kill a member of the same clan as himself is apparently a hopeless crime, for which no compensation can avail. The murderer becomes an outcast for the rest of his life.
After a raid the relatives of any warriors who have been slain receive, again, this same compensation. The herds are so numerous in excess of economic requirements and are distributed so liberally among the families from the heads of the clan downwards, and are, withal, regarded with such an intense sentiment, bordering on (if not actually amounting to) superstition, that they appear as a part of the tribe rather than a form of property.
Thus European civilisation has discovered in Africa a form of society somewhat similar to that examined by Morgan in America, a system in which economic classes do not exist, in which each individual becomes in turn warrior, worker, and counsellor, thus combining in his own person the social functions, the division of which, later in history, formed the basis for the origin of classes.
Some bourgeois critics, impatient for an end to this primitive form of communism, do not hesitate to describe it as the enslavement of the people by the chiefs.
Their assertions, however, are based on a very scanty acquaintance with the facts, and are effectively refuted by the painstaking literary efforts of prominent officials such as Sir Alfred Sharpe and Sir Harry Johnston, men whose life-work is the overthrow of this same communism in favour of British capitalist Imperialism, and consequently they are not prejudiced on its side.
The chiefs and elders express the unity of the clan. They have no power apart from it. They are its agents in dealing with other clans and with its individual members. Any privileges which may be incidental to their office are in the nature of special rewards for special services. They depend upon the voluntary tribute of the people and not upon any political or economic means of extortion. (Such means are a later innovation of the British Government, anxious to undermine native solidarity.) The chiefs are the creatures of the customs which they enforce ; any antagonism between them is fatal for the chief. As for the so-called subjection of the female sex, this is readily seen to be a form of division of labour dictated by the conditions of social existence. The women till the gardens, look after their houses, prepare the food, and nurse the young; but the bourgeois critic conveniently forgets that the tribes would soon expire if the male sex did not clear and break up the ground, fell the trees and build the houses, and devise and construct the tools and weapons (of iron) with which the ground is tilled and the herds protected from the wild beasts.
Still the defender of capitalism remains unsatisfied. "Even so," he will say, "admitting that society existed without economic classes for hundreds of thousands of years from the days of the ape-man to the dawn of history, granting that in that time it developed speech, discovered the art of making fire, domesticating animals, the use of grains and vegetables, and evolved from promiscuous herds to organised groups, even so, it did not produce the comfort and leisure without which art and science, in a word, civilisation, would not have come into being ! To do this the subordination of the ignorant many to the intelligent few was necessary."
This admits that civilisation is based on the servitude of the people; for it is not they who enjoy comfort and leisure, art and science, although they produce these desirable conditions by their labour. They do not even obtain the same security of life as the clansman ! But the same onward march of the productive forces which burst asunder the narrow communism of the past is preparing the economic basis of the world-communism of the future, i.e., enough wealth, comfort, leisure, art and science for all !