Community, State, and the Question of Social Evolution

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  • Article: Community, State, and the Question of Social Evolution in Karl Marx's Ethnographic Notebooks. By Christine Ward Gailey.


Chapter 2 from the book: The Politics of Egalitarianism. Ed. by J. Solway. Berghahn Books, 2006.


Vasilis Kostakis:

"The author claims that Marx repeatedly emphasised the viability of communal forms as lived in particular societies: "Over and again Marx showed how they pose inherent opposition to state forms of control and are therefore targeted in repeated attempts by state agents to prevent their reproduction as communally organized" (32). Galley points to the importance of kinship and community as "the most compelling dynamics that either deflect or reflect what is a terrifying insecurity" (32). Always referring to Marx's Ethnological Notebooks, the author argues that "the resilience of communal forms in the face of overarching structures of domination was a central issue in Marx's examination of literature on precapitalist societies" (34).

It explicitly stated that Marx was against Social Evolutionism: "Marx recognises periods of dramatic change in social organization of political economy, but these are historically, not naturally or evolutionary determined" (35). According to Gailey, Marx highlights that "communal property cannot coexist indefinitely with patriarchal family relations because of the fundamental opposition the latter poses to the formerQ similarly "common usage" or custom cannot persist unchallenged alongside state-associated law. Where archaic forms persist, Marx does not depict them as "vestiges" or cultural lags, but fundamentally as evidence of resistance to the penetration of state-associated institutions" (35). According to Gailey's reading of Marx's Notebooks, "the state is fundamentally parasitic. Nowhere in the Notebooks does Marx discuss the state as a progressive force in human evolution or as a force in ameliorating social problems" (37); the state, following Marx, "in all forms is an excrescence of the society" (46).

The author shares Diamond (1975) and Krader's (1975) view concerning the continuity of "Marx's attention to the primitive commune as a model, at a different level of socioeconomic integration, of an emancipatory future" (43) and brings to the front conclusions from critical anthropological research in North America. Then Gailey explains why Marx's Ethnological Notebooks has been marginalised by researchers and scholars articulating that their reading reaches the conclusion that socialism is not a telos: "Socialism would be beneficial only insofar as it facilitated the achievement of a dialectical return to the communal societies of the past" (45). "Fully capitalist societies...would be less likely to foster socialist transformations, since communities are...effectively dissolved" (48). Therefore, according to Gailey's understanding of Marx's Notebooks, capitalism is not a necessary stage on the road to socialism."