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International Socialism, Winter 1990


Sheila McGregor

A reply to Lionel Sims


From International Socialism 2 : 49, Winter 1990, pp. 129–136.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.


At first sight Lional Sims’ note on my Rape, pornography and capitalism in International Socialism 2 : 45 appears to be a quibble about anthropological sources. But I used these sources to substantiate the fundamentals of Engels’ view firstly, that women’s oppression only arose with class society, the family and the state and, secondly, that prior to the rise of class society there existed a period of ‘primitive communism’.

So Sims’ argument about sources is designed to buttress his claim that I and others who have written in International Socialism have been ‘retreating under the weight of patriarchy theory-inspired anthropology’ and that instead we should look to ‘a number of recent authors’ who provide a better anthropological framework and therefore a better understanding of primitive societies.

The purpose of this reply is to make absolutely clear that the anthropological data which I used vindicates Engels and that Sims’ criticisms are broadly similar to those traditionally made by opponents of Engels. Sims’ article asserts that my reference to the Yanomamo is the first time a member of the Socialist Workers Party has mentioned, in print, that pre-state societies exist in which there is systematic oppression of women. [1]

Firstly, this is not true. Chris Harman deals extensively with the whole question in the first note to his article Women’s Liberation and Revolutionary Socialism in the International Socialism of spring 1984. [2] Secondly and more importantly, what does Sims mean by ‘pre-state’ society? Marx and Engels used the term primitive communism and related the historical rise of the state to the development of classes. Sims’ term ‘pre-state society’ seems to imply that there can be class societies which are stateless. If this is why Sims has coined the term it represents a departure from Marxism. If not, it is precisely the kind of fudged terminology which allows others to depart from a clear understanding of Marx and Engels.

My article was not a discussion of anthropology and the way in which it is used to endorse or refute Engels’ analysis. The use of anthropological evidence was to illustrate a point denied by radical feminists, anthropologists (including Godelier), and right wing politicians alike: that there have been societies in which women’s status was as high as men’s and which were free from violence. I said:

Since Engels’ time a number of Marxist and feminist anthropologists have used contemporary studies of hunter-gatherer societies to substantiate the essentials of his argument. [3]

I did not say that all contemporary studies bear this out. Nor did I say that all anthropologists have reached this conclusion. Far from it. The overwhelming majority use contemporary evidence to refute Engels and assert that the family is the most natural of all relationships and that women have always been subordinate to men. The argument is not whether all contemporary evidence vindicates women’s equal role, lack of violence and so on, but whether there is any evidence at all of pre-class societies based on egalitarian relationships between men and women and whether such evidence can be used to illustrate how the earliest human societies may have been organised.

Obviously, since human society arose approximately 1 million years ago (3.5 million on some accounts), evidence from today (or even the evidence of 500 years ago) has to be treated with the utmost care. Radical feminists and bourgeois anthropologists alike gleefully recite one example after another of hunter-gatherer or horticultural societies to argue that the position of women and violence against women have nothing to do with the rise of class society. They always deny the examples where this is not the case as their main concern is to establish a norm of male behaviour across all time and regardless of historical change.

Sims’ method is similar, down to quoting many of the same examples.

He appears to dismiss entirely the impact of class society on contemporary or recent pre-class societies, for example, in his point ‘a) war externally imposed from colonial impact.’ [4] The reason I mentioned the case of the Yanomamo, albeit in a footnote, was precisely because they are one such example trotted out to refute the very idea that egalitarian societies could have existed.

Since Sims does not accept this argument I will try to explain it more clearly. Class society arose approximately 6,000 years ago as the result of the development of agriculture. This involved land coming under permanent cultivation, settled populations, urban civilisation, trade and so on. This necessarily encroached on the availability of land for nomadic societies and must have affected distribution of wild life. In other words the conditions, for nomadic societies were permanently transformed without any direct human contact between class societies and classless societies. Hunter-gatherer and horticultural societies were typically nomadic.

To attempt to argue that pre-class societies which survived the rise of civilisation and the subsequent development of class society throughout the world were unaffected by this is not only patently absurd but to deny the reality of human history. The impact of the rise of capitalism, a world economic system, has been even more devastating. As Leacock says:

First, the societies studied by anthropologists are virtually all in some measure incorporated into world economic and political systems that oppress women, and must have been involved in these larger systems for centuries. Anthropologists know this historical reality well, but commonly ignore it when making generalisations about pre-class social economic systems. [5]

Quite. Wallerstein makes a similar point:

Such ‘mini-systems’ [self contained subsistence economies] no longer exist in the world. Furthermore, there were fewer in the past than is often asserted, since any such system that became tied to an empire by the payment of tribute as ‘protection costs’ ceased by that fact to be a ‘system’, no longer being a self contained division of labour. [6]

Wallerstein appears to extend his insight to the impact of the development of agriculture and the rise of class society in the way that Leacock does not. However Leacock’s main concern was with the misuse of accounts of societies during the rise of capitalism as a world system. It is these conditions which make the very nature of anthropology incapable of allowing us to know exactly what was the impact of the rise of class society 6,000 years ago. Pre-class societies, by definition, could leave no written evidence of what happened to them or the impact of class society on their internal organisation, cohesion and the like. This inevitably means that anthropology can never be an exact science like physics.

The fact that some accounts of pre-class societies written in the last few hundred years show low status for women and interpersonal violence should not surprise us. After all we are talking about a period in which world capitalism came to dominate and subvert all relationships and transform the environment in which we live, with or without direct human contact between members of capitalist societies and members of pre- class societies. The observers from capitalist societies have undoubtedly been influenced by their own preconceptions about women’s status. Leacock and others have succeeded in explaining many of the ways in which the world capitalist order has transformed the inner workings of pre-class societies:

Other factors that have been undermining the self contained division of labour of mini-systems for centuries are trade, involvement in raiding or being raided for slaves (in the New World as well as in Africa), taxation of various kinds (often as an incentive to wage work) and wage labour, often entailing men ’s absence from home villages for long periods. In all cases, missionizing played an important role in urging people toward an individualised work ethic and a nuclear family form. [7]

In other words, levels of violence and subordination of women may well be the result of external influence and are therefore a matter for historical explanation. We have to be equally aware that the transition from egalitarian pre-class society to a fully fledged class society is a lengthy one. In the process transitional forms combining elements of egalitarian relationships with new forms resulting from the development of oppression and exploitation will have occurred. More of this later. Looking at societies today, even given anthropologists ideologically predisposed to examining such matters, it can be difficult to unravel whether a recent pre-class society exhibiting signs of women’s inequality was one in transition or suffering under the impact of external pressures, or both.

How does this have a bearing on the Yanomamo, an example I used to illustrate how historical developments and external pressures can be overlooked in explaining current behaviour? Sims claims the Yanomamo were ‘unknown to the outside world until a few decades ago. [8] He should check his facts. Some of the Yanamamo were known to have come into contact with a Spanish exploring party as early as 1758 in a period when the Spanish and Portuguese were on the lookout for slaves. [9]

Sims is not only wrong about my example, he is also wrong about his own. He claims the Baruya were a ‘pre-state’ society ‘almost untouched by colonialism’. [10] But in the Making of Great Men Godelier has the following interesting passage:

However, as we have seen, in the decade preceding the arrival of the first white men, the steel at and machete made their appearance, trickling through the channels of intertribal trade in the opposite direction to the salt bars. Without any encouragement or pressure, the Baruya then considerably stepped up their production of salt in order to substitute these new means of production for their traditional stone tools. [11]

This is a classic example of how trade leads to commodity production. The Baruya, to get their steel machetes, started to produce salt for the market. This means their economy would cease to be an independent, self sufficient unit but become subordinate to the market. This in turn would transform the internal relations of their society, the role of women, the means of decision making and the like, depending on who controlled the production of salt. It is precisely the failure to take this kind of analysis into account that Leacock, Wallerstein, Sacks and many other Marxist anthropologists have been concerned to expose in anthropological studies.

Sims is also completely confused about the point I made about ‘scarcity’ amongst the Yanomamo. His point, b) ‘war as a result of resource stress’ (although I talked about violence, not war – SMcG) illustrates this. Sims contends:

Further, if we contribute to Engels ’ mistaken view that all the earliest societies were living in absolute scarcity, then that also implies that all these societies, following Sheila’s logic, also were societies that oppressed their women. Either Engels was wrong about primordial absolute scarcity, or Sheila is wrong in equating scarcity with women’s oppression. Either they both cannot be true or both are wrong. [12]

There is another alternative: Sims does not understand Marx and Engels. In Marx’s vision of primitive communism the level of technique or interaction with nature was such that the earliest human societies lived directly off nature. All the adult members of hunter-gatherer bands were involved in securing food for the band. The only division of labour possible was a sexual one with men and women undertaking different tasks to ensure survival. [13] Not until the level of productive technique had changed with the development of agriculture was it possible for a much more complex division of labour to develop which involved members of society not being involved in the direct production of food.

The distinction Marx and Engels make is between scarcity and the capacity to produce a surplus sufficient to sustain a minority ruling class but insufficient to release the majority from the drudgery of day to day production. Although the level of technique in pre-class society did not allow for the generation of surplus in this Marxian sense, this should not lead us to conclude that such societies lived on the edge of starvation.

Gordon Childe warns against precisely such a mistaken view of hunter-gatherer and horticultural societies. [14]

I was meaning it in the plain English sense of ‘on the edge of starvation’, shortage of food, lack of protein. Sims may think lack of food has no bearing on behaviour. Others disagree – Leacock says some bands decided who should be left to die when food was scarce. [15]

Now let me respond to Sims’ point, c) ‘war generated between or within pre-state societies by men for “supremacy” leads to the oppression of women’. [16] As I wrote about Sumerian society:

The crucial turning point came with the establishment of empire and the consolidation of a ruling class which destroyed all previous egalitarian, kinship structures, drove women out of their respected occupations and instituted a centralised state, laws and the patriarchal family. The key to male dominance was military prowess. Only when fighting becomes a systematic feature of society does women ’s reproductive capacity become a handicap.

This is not a statement about wars between or within ‘pre-state’ societies. It is a description of how the consolidation of power by a ruling class through destroying kinship structures came about. From Rohrlich’s account in ‘The State Formation in Sumer and the Subjugation of Women’ it would appear that kinship structures, which are the means by which high status for women is upheld, survived late in the development of class divisions in Sumer. To put it another way, new class divisions emerged in the womb of the old kinship organisation of society. These ultimately became a fetter on further development and had to be broken if a ruling class in control of the state was to emerge secure in its power in society.

Rohrlich argues that military prowess was central to this process. She may be wrong. I may have been wrong to quote her. But what she is describing has nothing to do with Sims’ point c).

Rohrlich’s account is historically specific to Sumer. It is not intended as an ahistorical model for the rise of all such societies. The rise of civilisation in different parts of the world at approximately the same time can only be explained by the same method if the concrete variations for Egyptian civilisation or the Minoan civilisation in Crete and so on are carefully noted. Thus Rohrlich’s account of the rise of class society about 5,000 years ago in Sumer cannot be used to explain a horticultural and trading people like the Baruya today. I fail to understand how Sims could even imagine the one might have a bearing on the other.

Sims also objects to my use of Sanday. Firstly, I nowhere claimed that ‘all “band” societies are free from “sexual oppression”’. [17] I would hardly quote Sanday’s own statistics and the case of the Yanomamo and try to make such a silly claim in the same article. But since Sims accuses me of distorting Sanday [18], I will quote her in full,

In discussing the basis for male dominance, it is essential to distinguish male aggression against women from the exercise by women of political and economic power. When the former exists in the presence of the latter, the term mythical male dominance will be employed to describe the relationship between the sexes. When women are excluded from economic and political decision making, the relationship between the sexes will be defined as unequal. Finally, where males do not display aggression against women and women exercise political and economic authority or power, the relationship between the sexes will be defined as equal. Employing these criteria as guidelines, the relationship between the sexes is classified as equal in 32 percent of the societies of this study and unequal in 28 percent. The remaining 40 percent of the societies either fit the criteria expressive of ‘mythical’ male dominance or represent cases in which women exercise economic but not political power. [19]

Clearly, Sanday is not saying what Sims says she is saying. The category ‘mythical male dominance’ is one which includes male aggression but excludes rape. Sanday is trying to grapple with exactly the kind of contradictions which do occur in societies in transition and which I described above. She is trying to avoid a simplistic one sided understanding of sex roles and to show that women can have economic and political power even where there is male aggression. I did not go into this question as it was not relevant to the main thrust of my article.

The reason I quoted Sanday was simply to illustrate that even in the relatively recent past a significant proportion of pre-class societies continued to exhibit egalitarian relationships. That a significant proportion – 40 percent – illustrate ambiguity is precisely what might be expected given the impact which class society can have on the shape of such societies. All this does rather make a nonsense of the claim of radical feminists and most anthropologists that women have always been subordinate to men and suffered violence at their hands. That is why I quoted Sanday.

One final point on Sanday. She is not a Marxist. I used her work for what I considered useful insights. Perhaps they were not. But it is standard practice for Marxists, including Marx himself, to use research done by non-Marxists. Engels drew extensively on one Lewis Morgan in The Rise of the Family, Private Property and the State. Perhaps he should not have. After all, Morgan was a lawyer, not an academic anthropologist. But then Charles Darwin was neither botanist nor biologist but a ‘man of independent means’. But if Sims wants to discontinue this practice, perhaps he should look to some of his own sources. [20] Maurice Godelier was an Althusserian. And if Sanday tends to idealism, Chris Knight, who believes that human society developed because women organised a sex strike thousands of years ago, is a full blown mystic.

Indeed, far from needing Sims’ new authors as a means of supporting Engels, readers should be aware that such people are concerned to refute Engels’ main argument that women’s oppression only arose with class society. In fact, those interested in this debate could do a great deal worse than read Leacock. Sadly, Sims reminds me of all those radical feminists I have done battle with over the years in meetings on rape and women and violence. They quoted bourgeois anthropology to prove that men have always been violent and women subordinate in all human societies. Fortunately they, and Sims, are wrong. Engels, and those modern anthropologists who support his findings, are right.


1. L. Sims, Rape and Pre-State Societies: a note on Sheila McGregor’s anthropology, in this journal.

2. See pp. 37–40.

3. S. McGregor, target="new">Rape, Pornography and Capitalism, International Socialism 2 : 45, p. 6.

4. L. Sims, op. cit.

5. E.B. Leacock, Myths of Male Dominance (London 1981), p. 34.

6. Quoted in ibid., p. 156.

7. Ibid., p. 157.

8. L. Simms, op. cit.

9. E.B. Leacock, op. cit., p. 198. Leacock goes on to quote further evidence that the behaviour of highland Yanomamo was quite different from those of the aggressive lowlanders. The highlanders were relatively peaceable, women and old men respected and decisions taken collectively.

10. L. Sims, op. cit.

11. M. Godelier, The Making of Great Men (Cambridge 1988), p. 5.

12. L. Sims, op. cit.

13. I will ignore Sims’ cheap jibe that ‘we [the SWP] have succumbed to the feminist theory of woman-the-gatherer’ – Sims, op. cit.. Sims clearly does not understand the way egalitarian relations between men and women are rooted in their autonomous economic role, nor that a sexual division of labour can be non-exploitative and non-oppressive.

14. G. Childe, Man Makes Himself (New York 1951), p. 53.

15. E.B. Leacock, op. cit., p. 125.

16. L. Sims, op. cit.

17. Ibid.

18. Ibid., footnote 6.

19. P.R. Sanday, Female Power and Male Dominance (Cambridge 1981), p. 165.

20. M. Godelier says that ‘however meagre our historical anthropological sources ... it seems at the moment reasonable to suppose that men have so far dominated power in the last analysis ... In all societies, including the most egalitarian, there is a power hierarchy, with the top places occupied by men’ – quoted by C. Harman in International Socialism, Spring 1984, p. 37.

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