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What it is to be human

Perhaps the most fascinating and certainly the most important question facing modern science is what it is to be human … and therefore how and when we became human. Answers from mainstream anthropology, palaeontology, sociobiology, evolutionary psychology, etc, contain the occasional nugget. But in general there is ideological bias, narrow-mindedness and sheer nonsense on stilts.

Surely Marxism ought to be able to say something useful here. After all, in their later years Karl Marx and Frederick Engels immersed themselves in studying anthropology. Both men were particularly impressed by the groundbreaking writings of Lewis Henry Morgan. The origin of the family, state and private property, almost an instant classic, completed by Engels in 1884, comes with the subtitle “In light of the researches of Lewis H Morgan”. Though it is methodologically flawed in this or that respect, and is clearly held back by the underdeveloped knowledge of his time, this wonderful book, especially its tightly argued introduction, contains many profound insights.

Overcoming male jealously had to be a crucial turning point, argued Engels. Without that social solidarity, trust and language are impossible. Indeed strong evidence has come to light from archaeological digs in southern Africa that there was a female-led human revolution in the middle Palaeolithic. It overthrew alpha male domination and instituted a system of militant counterdominance, group marriage and the matrilineal family. Socially constructed patterns of behaviour that were bound up with speciation. So humans are a revolutionary species.

Until the Neolithic counterrevolutionary revolution humanity lived under conditions of primitive communism and equality between men and women. Not surprisingly the communist system envisaged by Marx and Engels was considered a “revival in a superior form of an archaic social type”.

Sadly, subsequent Marxist thinkers failed to develop Marxism in this field. There were a few honourable exceptions. Robert Briffault (1876-1948) comes to mind. But he was largely ignored. In general Marxists did not bother themselves with anthropology. In fact, in this field there was intellectual regression. That is until 1991 and the publication of Chris Knight’s Blood relations.

We present some of comrade Knight’s talks to Community University along with a selection of articles written for the Weekly Worker. His colleagues Camilla Power and Lionel Sims, also of the Radical Anthroplogy Group, are featured too.

Jack Conrad’s defence and engagement with their theories seves as a useful introduction. He takes to task both the woeful inadequacies of ‘official’ communism and ‘official’ Trotskyism too. The dreadful philistinism of Chris Harman and the Socialist Workers Party is also exposed.


Origins of religion and the human revolution – part 1

Jack Conrad gives his assessment of some of the main theories and asks what apes can teach us

Origins of religion and the human revolution – part 2

Jack Conrad gives his assessment of some of the main theories and asks what apes can teach us

What makes us human?

Does human nature exist? Does it run against the grain of the communist project? Michael Malkin addressed the CPGB's Communist University and gave some answers. This is the first of two articles

Denying human nature

Michael Malkin concludes his two-part article by taking on the Marxist critics of Marx

The Human Revolution

Sex and the human revolution

Chris Knight of the Radical Anthropology Group looks at the transition from ape to human and quantity into quality, plus the importance of language, counter-dominance and sex in the human story. This is an edited version of the speech he gave to the CPGB’s Communist University in August

Chris Knight: Blood Relations

Anthropologist Chris Knight's book 'Blood Relations: Menstruation and the Origins of Culture' can be downloaded for free and ordered from his website above.

Sex and the human revolution

Socialist Worker has begun a series of articles by Sally Campbell. They purport to explain the origins of women's oppression. However, there exists an obvious lacuna in her account. If women became unfree, when and how did they become free? Camilla Power of the Radical Anthropology Group insists that sex played a big role in the human revolution - a taboo subject for the SWP

Anti-Marxist myth of our time

Chris Knight examines Noam Chomsky's 'scientific' fairy tales about language and its origins

Frederick Engels' ‘The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State’

The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State

Frederick Engels' 1884 classic is not the most empirically informed work of anthropology, but it's argument, that the nuclear family came about as a result of the development of class society and the state, still provokes debate.

Primitive communism, barbarism and the origins of class society

Socialist Workers Party member Lionel Sims identifies both errors and the profound truths discovered by Engels in his 'Origins'