Class Struggles

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Class Struggles

The State
Having declared in the opening sentence of the Manifesto that all history is the history of class struggles, Marx adds immediately in a footnote of written history.
For prior to the invention of writing, societies were nomadic, organised in tribes, each tribe made of less than 100 individuals. There was hardly any division of labour, other than sexual. The tribe would designate a chief, and modern ethnology tells us the chief had very little power. His main function was to defuse any conflict among tribesmen, not as a judge, he had no power to judge, but more by using his charisma to talk people out of their quarrels. His authority would be limited to leading the hunt and, of course, the war. That’s all. In his essay, The Origin of Property, Family and the State, Engels describes social life in these primitive tribes very much as something like anarchy.
I would like to add here that modern anthropology supports Engels’ analysis. Primitive societies did not know anything that resembles political power, let alone a state. They had no use for it. Pierre Clastres, in his fascinating book, Society Against State, notes that the only distinctive feature between primitive and modern societies is not agriculture, it is not sedentary life, it is the institution of a state. A modern society is a society that is subject to the power of a state. So called primitive societies were not.
In economic terms, nomadic tribes (which Engels calls gens) do not accumulate a lot of goods. The only capital they use is what people can carry on their back or on the back of an animal. Not much. Thus, between tribes, violence is limited, there is not much to conquer and to loot, and war is considered more like a sport, a rough athletic competition. Note that war was a game played by all tribesmen. All valid men went to war, when called for, there were no professionals.
How did the state come about ? With agriculture began a process of capital accumulation. In order to farm, one needs first to clear the land. Trees have to be uprooted, fields have to be irrigated, tilled and planted. Granaries have to be built to store grain for the year, pending the next harvest. All this preparation and construction may take many months, and it is hard work. So people started to think : Why should we do it ? When we go at war, we take prisoners, let the prisoners do the hard work. And so, says Engels, society experienced its first division into classes, between a class of masters and a class of slaves, between exploiters and exploited.
Of course, the society which has accumulated this capital becomes the envy and the target of its neighbours. War is no longer a sport, it can pay, and pay big, because if you conquer the enemy’s land that has already been cleared and irrigated, with a year or more supply in storehouses, it is saving you the investment and hard work. So each society had to organise some sort of permanent defence against marauders and invaders. Each society took out of its surplus enough food to pay for a group of people who would have no other function than protection, i.e., a professional army.
Now once the rulers had an armed force at their disposal, the temptation was there permanently to use it against their own people, to consolidate the rulers’ power. Thus, says Engels, there emerged a new institution, which would maintain order in society, and of course an order favourable to the dominant class. This institution is called the state.
Let me quote directly from Engels :
 
In order to maintain this public power, contributions from the state citizens are necessary -- taxes. These were completely unknown to gentile society [the so-called primitives]. We know more than enough about them today ! With advancing civilisation, even taxes are not sufficient ; the state draws drafts on the future, contracts loans, state debts. Our old Europe can tell a tale about these, too.
[Engels was writing this in 1867. What would he have to say about our modern Europe, with states plundering a full 50% of all wealth created in society and

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