The Myth of Primitive Communism

Juhoansi02In my new article at FEE, “The Myth of Primitive Communism,” I argue that hunter-gatherers like the Ju/’hoansi share food with each other, not because they are selfless communists, but because favors and obligations are their most valuable commodities.

Please take a look. I’d be very interested in my fellow Notewriters’ erudite responses.

3 thoughts on “The Myth of Primitive Communism

  1. A good article, Mike (no surprise there).

    I want to hone in on this segment of your article, though:

    We play this game while studying the famous Ju/’hoansi hunter-gatherers. Until the colonial encroachments of the 20th century, most Ju/’hoansi lived in small, nomadic groups in the Kalahari desert, the men hunting with bows and arrows and the women collecting nuts, berries, and roots with digging sticks and carrier sashes […] This behavior seems to be an important part of why Richard B. Lee, the most prominent anthropologist in the study of the Ju/’hoansi, describes them as “primitive communists” in the Marxian sense.

    The depiction of the Ju/’hoansi as hunter-gatherers in research as well as mass media, thanks largely to the work of Lee and his students, was the topic of a book by an anthropologist named Edwin Wilmsen titled Land Filled with Flies: A Political Economy of the Kalahari. The book stirred up a lot of controversy and won a number of prestigious awards.

    In the book, Wilmsen draws on archival, ethnographic, and archaeological data to argue, convincingly in my opinion, that the current status of the Ju/’hoansi as foragers is just that: current. Wilmsen, aside from attacking Lee and co’s “primitive communist” theory, draws on a rival Marxian theory (“world systems”) to argue that the Ju/’hoansi are forced to forage because they lost a number of short, unofficial wars to both their “black” neighbors and the Europeans who showed up in the 19th century. That is to say: the narrative of the Ju/’hoansi as longtime hunter-gatherers is utterly wrong and it contributes to their present-day status as second-class citizens in Botswana, Namibia, and South Africa.

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