Primitive communism is the earliest mode of production in Marxist thought. Karl Marx proposed that Asiatic, ancient, feudal, and bourgeois modes of production are epochs that mark the transitions of societies. Also, the changes in the mode of production from primitive communism through slavery, feudalism, capitalism, and socialism to communism are due to the method of dialectic, and the theory of materialism. The dialectic method involves the meeting of extreme forces that merge into synthesis. At the early state of primitive communism, primitive forms of hunting gave way to primitive forms of agriculture and cattle rearing. Also, dialectic changes of the matriarchate to the patriarchate types were recognized. In the matriarchate form, women played a dominant role in production under primitive agriculture, while the men roamed the forest after game. In the patriarchate form, men played the dominant role in the hunting and cattle-rearing stages because they were efficient with a bow, arrows, spears, and lasso. The actual process of analyzing the changes of modes of production follows a materialistic theory. Through evolution, human beings developed a consciousness that became sensitized to material change. In primitive societies, production was in the simple form of adapting to nature. Land was cultivated before it was divided, and the consciousness was communal. As production processes changed, envisaging private ownership, people’s consciousness changed in that direction.
One purpose of studying primitive communism is to understand how the three major classes—wage-laborers, capitalists, and landlords—have developed under capitalism. During primitive communism property belonged to the community and labor owned all the product of its labor in the absence of capital- and land-owning classes. If one tribe was conquered by another, the conquered tribe became propertyless, as was the case with slavery and serfdom. A tribe and its property formed a sort of unity that originated from the mode of production where individuals related to one another and to nature. The object of production was to reproduce the producer. For Marx, production is not possible without capital. In primitive communism capital could be just the hands of a hunter-gatherer. Strictly speaking, capital is specific to the bourgeois mode of production. Tools are not capital outside of capitalism. And production is not possible without human labor, not tools, which are a product of human labor and natural resources.
Marx wrote, “In early communal societies in which primitive communism prevailed, and even in the ancient communal town, it was this communal society itself with its conditions which appeared as the basis of production, and its reproduction appeared as its ultimate purpose” (Marx 1967b, p. 831). Primitive communism dissolved when the mode of production changed.
In specific forms of primitive communism, one finds two major forms of unity between labor and production conditions. This unity was observed in Asiatic communal systems and in small-scale agriculture (Rosdolsky 1977, p. 273). Marx appraised the small and ancient Indian community as possessing common ownership of land, blending agriculture and handicraft, and possessing an invariable form of division of labor. As the market was unchanging, the division of labor could not evolve to, for instance, the manufacturing level.
If population increases, a new community is formed on vacant land. Production is governed by tradition, rather than by command or markets. According to Marx, “this simplicity supplies the key to the secret of the unchangeableness of Asiatic societies” (Marx  1967a, pp. 357–358).
For Marx, logical methods based on observation and deduction can lead one to “primary equations” that point to the history of capitalism (Marx  1967b, pp. 460–461). It starts “… from simple relations, such as labor, division of labor, need, exchange value, to the level of the state, exchange between nations and the world market” (Marx  1973, pp. 100–101). These simple relations explain how production, distribution, and consumption are conducted within all societies. These activities are in turn subsumed under relations of production and forces of production. A fact of primitive communism is that although “the categories of bourgeois economies possess a truth for all other forms of society.… They contain them in a developed, or stunted, or caricatured form, etc., but always with an essential difference” (Marx  1973, p. 106).
Marx’s writings on primitive communism occupied his mind all his life. The 1880–1882 Ethnological Notebooks containing his study of the ethnologists Lewis H. Morgan (1818–1881), John Phear, Henry Maine, and John Lubbock remain his last view on the subject. Morgan sourced property rights in primitive societies to personal relationships and Maine to impersonal forces, but to Marx the source is from the collective. Marx basically accepted Morgan’s view on the ethnology of primitive peoples. He studied primitive groups for the origin of civil society and the state and he traced the production mode from these primitive groups to modern society.
Further exposition of primitive communism was taken up by Friedrich Engels (1820–1895), based on the works of Morgan, whose materialistic conception of history was similar to Marx’s. Morgan discovered a kinship system among the Iroquois Indians that was common to all the aboriginal inhabitants of the United States. He found that the system was common to Asia, and to some extent to Africa and Australia. Morgan introduced the concepts of the matriarchate and patriarchate to characterize primitive communes. The order of primitive communes originated with the production of food, or subsistence needs. The human race has progressed from lower to higher forms to modern civilization as lower forms of savagery and barbarism have progressed to higher forms. The arts of subsistence advanced as inventions and instruments evolved. Property, government, and family progressed in this natural process. For instance, evolution bequeathed group marriage for savages, pairing marriage for primitive communes, and monogamy for civil societies. Morgan’s process paralleled Marx’s ideas expressed some forty years earlier.
Engels, Friedrich.  1942. The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State. New York: International Publishers.
Marx, Karl.  1973. Grundrisse. Trans. Martin Nicolaus. New York: Vintage.
Marx, Karl.  1965. Pre-Capitalist Economic Formations, ed. Eric J. Hobsbawm, trans. Jack Cohen. New York: International Publishers.
Marx, Karl.  1967a. Capital, Volume I. New York: International Publishers.
Marx, Karl. [1880–1882] 1972. The Ethnological Notebooks of Karl Marx: Studies of Morgan, Phear, Maine, Lubbock, ed. Lawrence Krader. Assen, Netherlands: Gorcum & Company.
Marx, Karl.  1967b. Capital, Volume III. New York: International Publishers.
Morgan, Lewis H. 1877. Ancient Society, or Researches in the Lines of Human Progress from Savagery, through Barbarism, to Civilization. London: Macmillan.
Rosdolsky, Roman. 1977. The Making of Marx’s ‘Capital’. Trans. Pete Burgess. London: Pluto Press.
), where dispute centres on the nature of property rights, status, and authority among so-called primitive peoples.