The Origins of Class Society

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By Christopher C.

Since Marx, socialists have argued that class society is not inevitable. It is a product of human development and can be abolished by human activity. Given the increasingly stratified society we live in now, it is natural to distrust these ideas. Classes seem fixed and eternal, but this is not the case.

It is important to recognize that, for the vast majority of human history, people have not been divided into classes. Classes did not develop because people became greedy. Class society developed out of the progress that humans made in the management of nature in order to sustain themselves and their communities. Class society came about came about as a result of the methods of production. These methods allowed for the generation of a surplus. In this sense, class society was a historically progressive phenomenon. We should not celebrate its arrival, but we should recognize that certain ideologies and events can be progressive and reactionary at different points, or even at the same time. Class society was the product of change in the mode of production: from hunter-gatherer societies to sustained agricultural societies. This was not a uniform process; it happened at different times and in different ways all over the world. In Europe, for example, state-sanctioned enclosures resulted in this change. Elsewhere, European expansion and imperialism brought it about. This process took place over many centuries, and was never instantaneous. Regardless, class society was the result of a fundamental reordering of social relations.

In order to understand where class comes from, we need to understand how people lived before classes. Prior to the development of surpluses, people lived in cooperative communities in which they were mutually dependent on one another. Pre-class societies, therefore, were not characterized by oppression and inequality. Anthropologist Richard Lee puts it this way: “Before the rise of the state and the entrenchment of social inequality, people lived for millennia in small-scale, kin-based social groups in which the core institutions of economic life included collective or common ownership…generalized reciprocity in…distribution, and relatively egalitarian political relations.” Class societies are a fairly recent phenomenon.

The lack of control over nature made people dependent on one another for survival. Historically, pre-class societies were based primarily on hunting and gathering. Gatherers supplied the most reliable sources of food, and hunters the most valued nutritionally. Both groups, although they performed largely the same function (the procurement of food) were both valuable to society, in many ways equally so. Those who hunted depended on gatherers for their day-to-day survival, and those who gathered depended on hunters to add much-needed nutritional elements to their diets so that they could remain healthy enough to continue gathering.

Hunters and gatherers did not work alone, but went about their labor in groups. At every point, the premium was placed on cooperation and collective values. This does not mean that life was universally fulfilling for pre-class people. In the same way that we should not romanticize class society for its historically progressive elements, we should also refrain from idealizing pre-class societies for their resemblance to communism. Natural abundance existed in certain places, allowing for a significant amount of leisure time. However, pre-class people existed at the whim of nature, and thus lacked the security necessary for an ideal life. Survival was still in question in pre-class societies, meaning that most time in hunter-gatherer societies was spent hunting and gathering, in order to eek out enough food to survive.

Both hunters and gatherers related to the means of production in the same way: they both used tools that they owned collectively to procure or produce necessary goods. As such, these two groups, although distinct from one another in a number of important ways, did not constitute different classes.6 It was not until the Neolithic period, with the development of more advanced tools, that people became less reliant on nature to provide them with what they needed to survive. They were more able to exert control over nature and enjoy a more secure and sustainable existence. The development of agriculture, it is important to note, is not synonymous with the development of class society. While agriculture was a necessary condition for this development, it was not a sufficient one.

Roughly ten thousand years ago, in the “fertile crescent,” people used tools to cultivate crops and domesticate animals. Similar developments took place in Mesoamerica and other parts of the world.8 This turn to agriculture began to transform the whole of society. However progressive this was in the long term, agricultural societies did not immediately lead to improvements in quality of life. Class society did not make work shorter, easier, or “better.” Class society only made work different. Life expectancy decreased, and women were placed in subordinate positions to men. People did not spontaneously decide to develop agriculture because it made life easier for them. Rather, they were in some sense “forced” to develop agriculture due to the development of the tools they used to work and the environment in which they performed labor. The climate in the area around the fertile crescent became drier, which caused a decline in the direct availability of certain necessary grains, and consequently a decrease in the deer and antelope populations that made up the bulk of the hunter’s prey.

Understandably, the hunter-gatherer societies faced a crisis. They could no longer live as they had in the centuries past. Thus, they had two choices: They could either break up into smaller family units and return to a nomadic lifestyle, or find a way to make up for the deficiencies of nature with their own labor. They chose this latter option because of the experience and knowledge they had acquired from living off of wild vegetation. Their pre-class upbringing influenced the transition into class society, showing that it was largely determined by broader social and economic forces rather than the choices of individual people.

People used this knowledge of wild plants to plant the seeds of wild plants. They became discerning about which seeds would yield the highest return, and soon resolved to plant only those seeds. Once the need to develop agriculture became apparent, the process of development itself took place comparatively quickly and successfully.  The wild plants began to breed domesticated varieties, leading to regular harvests. This made it possible to tether and feed more tame varieties of wild sheep goats, cattle, and so on who would then breed animals that were even tamer. This allowed for greater domestication of animals.

The first societies like this were called horticultural societies. These involved the clearing away of land and several years of use of that land. When particular plots of land stopped yielding, people would move onto another group of plots. There was not an immediate jump from hunter-gatherer society to permanent settlements, and thus not an immediate jump from pre-class society to class society. The reorganization of society also involved the advancement of tools and implements. The name “neolithic” refers to the development of new stone tools, such as axes, which were more effective at clearing away land than previous tools. Over the course of centuries, this change in the mode of production developed into agricultural class societies.

The move to agriculture as a mode of production brought about a total reorganization of the way people worked and lived, even if this process took place over a prolonged period of time. Socially, people became more rooted to their villages than ever before. They could not wander off because they had to tend crops in between planting and harvesting cycles. People also had to figure out new ways of cooperating to clear land. It is impossible for one person to clear an entire forest. It was necessary to clear away land, decide which land would be cleared in the first place, plant crops, and manage the surplus, and raise children. In short, many more tasks needed to be accomplished than just hunting and gathering. Since these tasks required some degree of specific knowledge, people began to specialize in one task or another, This gave rise to what is known as the division of labor, which is an important (though again not sufficient) element of class societies.

Despite these profound changes, class society itself did not emerge until many thousands of years after the development of agriculture. Anthropologists have found evidence that, in the early years of agriculture, “significant differentiation in wealth was almost entirely absent.” There was not, then, the traditional hallmark of class society: inequality.

Households tended to be responsible for cultivating a particular piece of land, but private property in land form did not exist, nor did the drive for individuals to pile up goods at the expense of others. Notions of private property and class did not develop just because people needed to plant crops. In the beginning, agriculture was still very much a communal process. The new tasks described above, however, caused people to grapple with the task of organizing the new society.

On certain occasions, the spread of crop-raising and herding lead to the first differentiation into social ranks, but these did not yet constitute classes. Although one farmer may have been (slightly) wealthier than another, both were still farmers. Both used tools that they owned as a community to plant, tend to, and harvest crops. Both were still members of the same class. What anthropologists call “chieftainships” or “kingdoms” first arose in this period, with some enjoying greater prestige than others, but this was nothing like the class distinctions that would come later. Chieftains did not consume a surplus which others worked to produce without working themselves. In fact, chieftains were chosen based on their service to the community, meaning that they often worked more than their non-chieftain counterparts. Thus, egalitarian and cooperative principles were still the norm.

How, then, did agricultural societies develop into class societies? In order to sustain agriculture times of hardship (brought about again by changes in climate) society (broadly) took two paths, each of which contributed to the development of classes. The first was that they engaged in warfare to raid neighboring societies for their supplies, leading to the creation of advanced weaponry and bronze tools. This represented the degradation of the cooperative values that characterized pre-class societies.

The other tactic was the development of more productive and labor intensive forms of agriculture, which placed a premium on technological innovation. Such innovations could be as simple as deciding to plant a new kind of crop, or as complex as using larger domesticated animals and developing the plow. These changes caused new and different forms of organization. The use of the plow, for instance, increased the division of labor between the sexes, since it was a form of labor not easily engaged in by pregnant or nursing individuals. The development of class society, then, gave rise to inequality and oppression both within and outside of the labor process as such.

The building of irrigation canals also lead to a division of labor between the vast numbers of people required to physically construct the waterways, and the handful of people who supervised this construction. Specialized knowledge morphed from a component of society to its primary driver, leading to the creation of classes. People with this specialized knowledge also took on the storage and maintenance of surplus food, creating a further division of labor between these individuals and those who actually harvested the food. Those who maintained this surplus were unable to engage in any other kind of work, so they related to the means of production in a way unlike the way in which laborers related to the means of production. This, combined with the special status afforded to knowledgeable people and the aforementioned erosion of egalitarian values, lead to the first owning class and the first producing class.

Advanced technological development in this period also lead to the rise of craftsmanship and handiwork. While some people produced food, others (who typically owned their own tools rather than being directed by a lord) physically built the tools they used.  The food produced by laborers went not only to the laborers themselves, but also the lords and the artisans who manufactured tools. For the first time, collective labor became something that was only performed by a particular group of people, as well as something distinct from distribution. Thus, a new way of relating to the means of production-a new class-was born.

Because of this more productive agriculture, a rise in the growth of the population occurred. Both the production of food and the growth of the population are mutually dependent on one another. If one cannot grow more food, one cannot have a larger population. At the same time, a larger population will necessitate the growth of more food. This rise in population placed a premium on production, which increased the division of labor. Workers needed to produce more and rest less frequently, leading to the creation of a state that could discipline them. The first class conflict, then, was between the workers and those who commanded them to produce, all the while appropriating their surplus labor to feed a growing population. This opened up the possibility of larger towns, settlements, and eventually cities. Societies were no longer confined to small “kin-based social groups” as they had been prior to the development of classes.

Because workers needed to produce more, those who could direct workers-and who understood what needed to be produced and how this could be accomplished-acquired special status. People who directed labor and controlled grain stores became the first priests, and rose to a higher social status than others. They focused all their time on making these choices, rather than engaging in productive labor. Because they did not produce food, this new class had to take part of the surplus away from the workers. Controlling labor became something different from performing labor, and those who controlled labor lived off the work that others performed. They exploited labor. In addition to the division of labor, exploitation is a crucial component of class society. In times of hardship, the exploiters had to use coercion to expropriate the product of the worker’s labor even when the workers themselves were starving. Exploitation soon became a coercive process, leading to class conflict. The advent of this conflict marked the real onset of class society.

Christopher C is a Marxist-Leninist activist and writer.

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  10. Ibid.
  11. John Scott, Class: critical concepts (1996) Volume 2 p. 310
  12. Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels. “Manifesto of the Communist Party”, Selected Works, Volume 1; London,’ 1943; p. 231.
  13. Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels. “Manifesto of the Communist Party”, Selected Works, Volume 1; London,’ 1943; p. 231
  14. Karl Marx. Capital: An Analysis of Capitalist Production, Volume 1; Moscow; 1959; p. 332.



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