Are there Ancient Roots to Socialism

Figure 1. Example of a Kalahari Bushmen, which are sometimes described as relatively egalitarian societies.

Since Karl Marx and others began to advocate for societies to develop more equitable economic systems in the form of socialism and even communism, there have been those that advocated that capitalism and, by extension, economic and social inequality evident in societies reflect a deviation from natural or even original human societies. Evidence for more equal societies is often difficult to determine in the distant past, but there have been arguments that social and economic inequality we are witnessing is more recent.

Early Forms of Socialism?

Perhaps the most "equitable" forms of societies are often hunter-gatherer societies. Such societies, ostensibly, often do not display any major social hierarchy (Figure 1). Even if there is a "leader," of the group, often social power is limited and can be easily reversed. Wealth differences are also limited between members of such societies. Based on this, and archaeological evidence, some archaeologists and historians have argued that a form of socialism or at least classless societies existed in the distant past (i.e., more than 7-8,000 years ago in most parts of the world). In fact, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engles had noticed this and advocated that hunter-gatherer societies are egalitarian and represent a type of primitive communism.[1]

Many archaeologists and anthropologists today, in one form or another, have indicated that early and even some modern band or hunger-gather societies are not only classless, but they even display no sexual inequality in that women and men wield comparable power. Such groups usually number between 20-50 individuals. Some have argued that the size of these groups make it easier to maintain relatively flat hierarchies, as individuals and families have almost comparable abilities to accrue food and resources.[2]

While modern hunter-gatherer groups often do show limited differences in classes and even sexes in cases, it is not clear how prevalent this was in the past. Nevertheless, few hunter gatherer groups have been found to have direct evidence where a person would have greater authority or access to resources. One argument is that agriculture likely created the circumstances for inequality to emerge more easily. In this case, with agriculture, the ability to raise resources through the land is not equal. This could be because not all land is equal in productivity and some simply may be better. Once specific individuals were able to accrue more resources than this opened the possibility for socially unequal societies to emerge. Furthermore, agricultural societies create dependencies for individuals, as those who cannot easily take care of themselves through disadvantages they have become dependent on others. This helps to then form the foundation of larger-scale societies, where dependencies between individuals form that create the possibility to have larger communities.[3]

One possibility is that, although agricultural societies may have fostered greater inequality, a type of egalitarian and, even a form of socialist societies, did exist in a type of "vertical egalitarianism." In these cases, kinship and social networks were likely not equal for these communities, which were often larger as they utilized agriculture. However, on the surface, there may have been limited power or no real differences in power between family heads. Wealth may have been similar among families and families would share resources, including farming equipment and land. In essence, such societies display hierarchy, in that not all members are the same and power is unequal; however, authority would be limited in that no central leader or wealthier individuals can easily emerge. What could have limited power for any central authority is that population was still relatively limited and larger groups may divide or fission if power accrued too greatly.[4]

Later Developments in Socialism

Figure 2. Iroquois from around 1914.

With the emergence of towns and cities, it has been commonly seen that classes begin to emerge more clearly and this type of lifestyle spreads in many regions of the world. However, there were still societies that were relatively egalitarian. Nevertheless, all of these relatively equal societies were often small, often hunter-gatherer groups such as some Native American societies or those in Africa and South America. Examples of agriculturally-based egalitarian or something more similar to socialist societies, that is societies with a collective form of rule and ownership of resources, are very rare.

There are cases where agricultural societies, within states, did form a type of socialist or even relatively equal societies, although often they were more similar to vertical egalitarian societies that displayed familial or kinship variation in their access to resources and power. In Middle East, so-called agricultural cooperatives, which shared land, did form in the Medieval and early modern periods from the 19th century and lasted even until today in places. These were villages that collectively owned land, where annually families who shuffle lots to gain access to different plots of land, so that no family could have sole access to the most productive areas or best land. Similar collective agriculture existed in the Aztecs, where at the village level farming and resources was shared. However, these societies were never fully equal. Among the Aztecs, power difference were evident among the elites and this was also true for all Middle East societies in historical periods.[5]

For the Iroquois, matrilineal decent sometimes meant that women yielded more power in society, where wealth could be transferred through the female line. Nevertheless, the Iroquois, relative to colonists they encountered in the 17th-18th centuries, often displayed relatively more limited wealth disparities and showed evidence of equality towards the sexes (Figure 2). However, even Iroquois did keep slaves and wealth differences among leading families and chiefs were evident. The Iroquois, unlike some of the other societies, were relatively larger and, in fact, formed a federation of tribes. In effect, they may have been one of the larger societies we know where, at least on the surface, there was a developed economy that revolved around collectivism.[6]

There is evidence that ancient societies often debated wealth inequality and how much should socialist ideals, or what we would call such ideals, be integrated in society. Both Plato and Aristotle advocated checks to fully market-based societies, as they felt a more communal approach would better harness societies potential and limit dangers to instability. Sparta in ancient Greece has, at times, been seen as a type of socialist society that treated citizens as equals and that even the leaders lived austere lives that were not that different from average citizens. There is some truth to this, as Sparta's ideals were reflected by values of limiting the self and honor for the greater benefit, but this often had to do with military preparation than a peacetime economic system. The fact the state was often in perpetual war may have meant that it had to develop an austere approach to its economy; individuals could not flaunt wealth when sacrifice to the state was required during political difficult times.[7]

Modern Socialism

In many respects, socialism is a modern concept, as no large-scale society that is agriculturally-based in the ancient or more recent past can be called socialist. However, examples of the Iroquois and collective farming communities indicates a form of consensus building and limitation of power and wealth accumulation is possible by pooling resources. In fact, in those cases, where societies tend to best pool resources, it is evident that these societies also formed a type of democratic system in that consensus building had to be developed through agreement or voting. The main problem has likely been that it is hard to have a large-scale society that is socialist, in its true sense, because large-scale societies are often held together by power structures where individuals had to look towards or depend on a large centre. In effect, society is large-scale because there are people who are dependent on others through economic or power relationships. If that was not the case, very likely small communities that could potentially disassociate from a central authority could more easily emerge.[8]

For modern states, what is intended by socialism is not so much a classes society, even if that is what is stated as the ideal by some states or their ruling systems, but rather there is an extensive social welfare program that includes health care, transport, access to work, housing, and other aspects where resources are shared. Among relatively more effective so-called socialist states are not fully socialist but are forms of combined socialist-capitalist societies. Examples include Denmark, Sweden, Canada, and New Zealand, where these countries have wide ranging welfare systems that lower wealth disparities between classes.[9]


To a large extent, outside of small-scale hunter-gatherer groups, there never has been true socialist or even communist societies. Agriculture introduces inequality, as labor and access to land often become unequal as these resources are not equal without constant intervention by the community. Even when there is relative equality among agricultural societies, such as vertical egalitarian societies, these societies were not very large, often about the size of a village (e.g., 1000 individuals). Inequality to resources also exits, although this is relatively limited compared to most modern examples of wealth. From what is evident, power structures that held together larger-scale societies often meant dependencies were need to create large states. The presence of power attracted people who held that power, whether through wealth or through the military. Socialist based societies, when they have existed in a true form, have often been more focused in developing welfare systems and social safety nets that attempted to prevent deep poverty or over accumulation of wealth and power in a limited few.


  1. For more on hunter-gatherer egalitarianism, see: Fitzhugh, B. (2003) The evolution of complex hunter-gatherers: archaeological evidence from the North Pacific. Interdisciplinary contributions to archaeology. New York, Kluwer Academic/Plenun Publishers.
  2. For more on the relationship between group size and social equality, see: Price, T.D. & Feinman, G.M. (2013) Foundations of social inequality . Springer Science.
  3. For more on inequality and equality in ancient societies and size, see: Dyble, M., Salali, G.D., Chaudhary, N., Page, A., et al. (2015) Sex equality can explain the unique social structure of hunter-gatherer bands. Science. [Online] 348 (6236), 796–798. Available from: doi:10.1126/science.aaa5139.
  4. For more on vertical egalitarianism, see: Frangipane, M. (2007) Different types of egalitarian societies and the development of inequality in early Mesopotamia. World Archaeology. [Online] 39 (2), 151–176. Available from: doi:10.1080/00438240701249504.
  5. for examples of collective farming societies, see: Turner, B.S. (1984) Capitalism and class in the Middle East: theories of social change and economic development. London, Heinemann [u.a.].
  6. For more on the Iroquois economic system, see: Michael K. Foster, Jack Campisi, & Marianne Mithun (eds.) (1984) Extending the rafters: interdisciplinary approaches to Iroquoian studies . Albany, State University of New York Press.
  7. For more on Sparta, Aristotle and Plato in regards to equality and class, see: Barker, E. (1956) The political thought of Plato and Aristotle. New York, NY, Dover Publ.
  8. For more on the concepts of socialism and its history, see: Jeremy Jennings (2003) Socialism. Critical concepts in political science . London ; New York, Routledge.
  9. For more on the modern examples of large-scale societies that have some socialist features, see: Busky, D.F. (2000) Democratic socialism: a global survey. Westport, Conn, Praeger.

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