From Marxism to Shamanism

Review : The Decadence of the Shamans by Alan Cohen. Unpopular Books, London 1992. (Box 15, 138 Kingsland High St, London E8 2NS, UK).

Its obscure title belies the ambition of this pamphlet; it is an attempt to integrate the gradually growing understanding of the Golden Age of "primitive communism" which existed prior to the emergence of Civilization, into the Marxist theory of Progress.

Pre-civilized communities were not poor, even in the material sense. They lived in vast forests and plains teeming with edible flora and fauna of all kinds. Starvation was rare. Today it is endemic. This is the bitter fruit of 5000 years of development. In a way, there is little more to say. To argue for the necessity of Civilization is ridiculous enough in America. In Africa, it is obscene. But human beings have lost more than material wealth. To the First People, what mattered were dances, visions, rituals and shamanic trances. But rather than urging an abandonment of the evils of Civilization, Alan Cohen tries to maintain an understanding of the shamanic experience in primitive society within a theory of historical development which argues that the advantages of primitive communism will be realized on a higher level AS A RESULT of the development of class society.

This pamphlet originated at a conference on northern and Arctic religions in Helsinki. Siberia and the Arctic was an area of the world virtually untouched by class society until recently; it was still inhabited by people whose spiritual masters, or SHAMANS, regularly induced ecstatic states, journeys to the "other world". Quotations from Black Elk Speaks and other acounts of the shamanic experience, our last connection with the universal consciousness which once stretched from Australia to Alaska, give something of the flavour of these journeys, and any but the most bone-headed materialist will be stimulated. These sympathetic accounts jar bizarrely with Cohen's defence of Progress. He is unable to refute the primitive communist position, so he resorts to amateurish insults. This is a sign of weakness.

The author has great insight into the content of shamanic trances, especially considering how little is left of primitive communist society, but he expresses ignorant assumptions about the content of pre-Civilized society in general. Following Marx, he states that "labour is the specific and central human activity" (p5), so labor existed in primitive communism. Because of humanity's innate urge to develop production, a consequence of the fact that labor is our specific and central activity, it was inevitable that "the very 'ascent of man' through the labour process, his break with the rest of the animal kingdom, was also the 'fall' into alienation" (p6).

Cohen's ontological error is based on a factual one. The labor process was not the means by which humans broke from the animal kingdom. The People of the Beginnings did not LABOR. They hunted, they picked berries, they may have scattered seeds, but this was not LABOR. "Hunter-gatherers" did not wake up cursing the fact that they had to go out hunting and gathering; they just did it. They did not regard food-collection as a chore, serving the more important activities of ritual, dancing, storytelling and collective vision-sharing; it was all part of life, and it was simply lived. Talk of labor in primitive society is an error; Marxists see the primitive community through class society, then use this distorted vision to explain how the latter "developed" out of the former. It is easy to believe primitive communists lived in scarcity, because the few remaining examples do so. Wherever mis- anthropologists looked, they saw the sad remnants of primitive society living in refugee camps, and concluded that this was how they had always lived. Capitalism created the material foundations of its own anthr-apology.

Class society did not develop; it was imposed. A very small minority of human beings, probably the immediate predecessors of the ancient Sumerians, enslaved their neighbors and spread the curse of labor. Labor did not develop because it is the essence of humanity, because of the spontaneous urge to develp the forces of production. The state did not 'arise' because of the needs of 'society'. Political authority arose from usurpation, and imposed needs ON society.


To ensure that we have not distorted Cohen's position, let's cite him at length :

Marxism is undoubtedly a theory of progress. It sees historical development as an overall forward movement based on the gradual accumulation of contradictions and sudden qualitative leaps onto new and higher levels: in broadest outline, from animal to man, from primitive communism to civilisation (class society), from the cycle of class societies based on natural economy to capitalism, based on generalised commodity production; and eventually, from capitalism to communism. At a time when a senile bourgeois order has lost any sense of historical progress, when the terrible events of the 20th century and the increasing decomposition of the dominant ideology has inaugurated the reign of nihilism, of disbelief in any future as well as innumerable desperate attempts to go back to the past, it becomes more than ever necessary to affirm this. As the theoretical outlook of the only class that can take society out of its present impasse, marxism alone can dare to look the present in the face and to hold fast to a vision of the future (p7).

We think this is a good summary of the Marxist theory of Progress; we reject it entirely. Some sophisticated Marxists try to argue that this sort of fundamentalism is a vulgarization of Marx and Engels' real position [1]. Although Marx unquestionably contributed much to the class struggle, and although he certainly began to break with Marxism (compare his Ethnological Notebooks with Engels' The Origins to see how the two great minds were thinking less and less alike), the theory of Progress is true to the bulk of his writings, and his and Engels' political activity. In the Communist Manifesto, The German Ideology, the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, the Critique of Political Economy, through letters and articles supporting the American Civil War and the massacre of the Mexicans by the progressive forces, to the Grundrisse, Marx was for most of his life, capitalism's most able apologist:

... Will Bakhunin reproach the North-Americans for waging a 'war of conquest' which, of course, meant a severe blow to his theory based on 'justice and humanity', but which was carried out successfully to the advantage of civilization only? Or is it by chance that the wonderful California was snatched from the lazy Mexicans, who didn't know what to do with it? Is it a misfortune for the wonderful Yankees to exploit the gold mines there, to increase the means of transport, to make, in a few years, of the most appropriate coast of that peaceful ocean, a place with a high density of population and a busy trade, to build big cities, steamboat lines, a railway line from New-York to San Francisco, to really open for the first time the Pacific Ocean to civilization and, for the third time in history, give a new orientation to world trade? (Neue Rheinische Zeitung, cited in Communism no. 7, April 1992).

Later, Marx filled in the theoretical foundations of this position:

THE MOST EXTREME FORM OF ALIENATION - wherein labour appears in the relation of capital and wage labour... is a necessary point of transition - and therefore already contains in ITSELF, in a still only inverted form, turned on its head, the dissolution of all LIMITED PRESUPPOSITIONS OF PRODUCTION, and moreover creates and produces the unconditional presuppositions of production, and therewith the full material conditions for the total, universal development of the productive powers of the individual (Grundrisse, p515, cited in Cohen, p36). We should be so lucky.

If Engels subsequently turned Marxism into a more vulgar theory of Progress, this can only be welcome. Engels does not fudge the issues. Either class society is a necessary precondition for real communism, or it isn't. We prefer to see warrants for genocide unadorned by dialectical gilding: "The power of these primordial communities had to be broken, and it was broken" (Engels, The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State, p101).

Alan Cohen has also faced up to the problem, and come down squarely on the side of Engels and the productive forces; "the historical process, with its ever-increasing burden of alienation and repression, unhappiness and guilt, is a necessary 'travail', an unavoidable stage in the true birth of mankind" (p37). Still, he needs to explain the difference between "the Stalinist anthropology which has been used to justify the destruction of shamanic cultures in Russia and China", against which he rails, and the views of Engels, to which he subscribes: "The power of these primordial communities had to be broken". To say something is necessary is to support it, by promoting the defeatist notion that resistance is futile.

It is pure hypocrisy for Marxists to "call capitalism to account for centuries of crime committed against the primitive peoples" (Luxemburg). Belief in "inevitability" is one of the strongest prejudices which holds people back from struggling against development. To reinforce, with clever-sounding theories, the popular view that you can't stand in the way of Progress is to side with the conquistadores against the invariant program of General Ludd.

Cohen believes that "the art of ecstasy is the expression of an immemorial human struggle to overcome the harsh limitations imposed on him [sic] by scarcity and the struggle for survival". This view of primitive society has now been supplanted by research into the "original affluent society" (Sahlins).

We don't pretend to have great insight into the rich traditions of visions and trances which have survived into the present age, themselves only a minute fragment of the original Dream Time, the once-universal human culture which stretched from Australia to the Arctic, which the blood-sucking monster Civilization has all but destroyed. Cohen's book contains a scholarly yet exciting introduction to shamanic and mystical experiences. The nearest most people in the west come to "other realities" is limited to occasional experiments with psychedelic drugs. Without the social context in which such stimulants can be taken, and the novice user guided through the various terrors which lurk in the collective unconscious, little is gained from such experiences. Primitive societies had this social context. They were also more able to deal with what we call "madness".

Those called to the shamanic profession, particularly among the Siberian tribes, often pass through a deep mental crisis that is hard indeed to distinguish from a descent into insanity: candidate shamans become withdrawn and dreamy and babble all kinds of nonsense; they may wander off for days, living like wild beasts in the forests; they become sick; they experience frightening hallucinations which frequently involve fantasies of being dismembered, torn to pieces by demonic spirits, and so on (p20).

This kind of behaviour has been normal to human beings at various points in their lives for millennia; primitive people understood and accepted it; capitalism persecutes it. The point is not whether these spirits "exist" in the same way as this computer exists. Shamanism is neither a science nor a religious cult; it is a view of the world which makes sense, which works.

We don't know exactly what the content of communism will be, but we can state now that it will not develop the productive forces and complete man's conquest of nature. On the contrary. Although it is impossible to simply "go back", a large component of the revolution will have to be a return to the state which existed everywhere before the State existed anywhere. Marxists like Cohen say it will be a return on a higher level, but it will take incalculable efforts before we have even managed to regain the achievements the pre- Civilized community, never mind improving upon them. Civilization has wiped out millenia of human culture - it will have to be recreated from scratch.

According to Marxist eschatology, "The 'great civilizing mission of capitalism' is the unprecedented development of man's productive capacities and the creation of a world economy, laying the material basis for a truly global community founded on abundance instead of scarcity". But such an abundance existed before Civilization, which has systematically impoverished more and more people. "On the intellectual plane, it signifies the breaking down of religious illusions and the full development of the historical, scientific world- outlook" (p11). This world outlook is the pitiless glare of the vivisectionist and the calculating myopia of the programmer. It is a religious illusion in itself, with Value in the place of God. John Zerzan, in Elements of Refusal(Left Bank Books, Seattle, 1988), quotes Andrew Ure, leading theorist of early industrial capitalism, as follows: "when capital enlists science into her service, the refractory hand of labour will always be taught docility". We would go further (in fact, so would Zerzan... much further...). As the ICG put it in Aids, Pure Product of Science! in Communism #8: "Science, as knowledge subsumed by capitalist valorisation, is rotten to the core. Like all of Capital's productive forces, Science is fundamentally inhuman; not only in its applications, but in its foundations". .

It is increasingly difficult to defend the traditional Marxist view of historical development as it becomes obvious to almost everyone that it has been 'misery in misery', and increasingly, revolutionaries "dream of a return to the simplicities of the remote past" (p37). American readers can't understand why we even bother to argue the point - in the wake of the 500 Years of Resistance Campaign, surely Progress is now universally reviled? Perhaps they are all members of "that disintegrating petty bourgeoisie which can only look backwards because it has no historical future" (p12).

Cohen has some understanding of why the disintegrating petty bourgeoisie opposes Progress: "today, even the most remote Amazonian tribes are being wiped out by the 'development' of the rain forests, a development which in a period where capitalism has become totally irrational, is posing a real threat to the very fabric of planetary life" (p12). He puts 'development' in apostrophes for the same reason lefties enquote the word 'democracy', as if capitalism was not really democratic. These little quotation marks imply that capitalism isn't really developing the Amazon, as though there was, or there could be, a kind of development which was not destructive. He effortlessly explains how this false 'development' is destroying the planet; capitalism has become totally irrational. But capitalism has always devastated nature and wiped out human culture; it is no more irrational now than ever before, though the consequences have gotten worse and worse as development, or the war against life, has progressed. In fact this war has been going on since the dawn of class society. The deserts of the Middle East were created by ancient civilizations. Yet the Amazon once contained hundreds of thousands of people living in a sustainable relationship with their environment, since they didn't try to develop it.


Marshall Sahlins, author of Stone Age Economics, is the most famous academic opponent of economistic views of primal man. In retrospect, his arguments seem understated. He accepts that Stone Age peoples lived in poverty, but since their desires were few, their supply exceeded their demand (The Fifth Estate, Vol 14 #3, 1979). In fact, a consistent economist would not conclude that they were poor. Think of the value of game reserves in, say, Scotland. Only millionaires can afford to hunt in them. The First People all had access to forests compared to which Sutherland is a Sahara. This leisure facility would of course have to be weighed against the absence of CD players in their caves. But we do not accept an economist's view of the People of the Beginnings. We cannot say that their material needs were few, since this implies measuring them, implies Value. We cannot measure the value of living in a tipi against a two- bedroom house. Even their material conditions are unmeasurable. How much more absurd is it to try to measure culture.

Without the premiss of the hungry hunter- gatherer, Cohen's model of historical development falls to the ground. He says labor necessarily arose from the struggle against "the hitherto prevailing conditions of scarcity" (p14), hence alienation and psychological repression; "'the tribe was the boundary for man', the individual was dominated by the collectivity, which in turn was dominated by the struggle for survival" (p36). However, "the historical accumulation of alienation/repression, far from being a mere misfortune, is a precondition for the true emancipation of man" (p15). But if primitive man's life was not a relentless struggle for survival [2], than all this repression and alienation was not a necessary precondition for anything - it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Richard Tate.

1. Although the autonomist Marxists who produce Aufheben are our friends and comrades, when it comes to the Civilization debate, they speak with corpses in their mouths:

"Abandonment of the idea that the historical development of the productive forces is a progress towards socialism and communism has resulted in three main drifts in thought: 1) The abandonment of the project of abolishing capitalism and a turn to reformism of the existing system by the 'new realists', 'market socialists' etc. 2) the post-modern rejection of the notion of a developing totality, and denial of any meaning to history resulting in a celebration of what is, 3) The maintenance of an anti-capitalist perspective but identification of the problem as 'progress' or 'civilisation'; this romanticism involves the decision that the idea of historical movement was all wrong and what we really want to do is go back. These directions are not exclusive of course; post-modernist practice, to the extent it exists, is reformist while the anti-progress faction has its roots in the post-modern attack on history. In the face of the poverty of these apparent alternatives it is understandable that many revolutionaries would want to reaffirm a theory of decadence or decline..." (Aufheben 2, 1993, p27).

Neither we, nor Perlman, nor The 5th Estate have said that we can simply "go back". Perlman's position is not that "the idea of historical movement was all wrong", it is a theory of historical movement. Accusing us of post-modernism is an example of the amalgam technique. The "anti-progress faction" does not "have its roots" in post-modernism nor any other product of academia: this jibe could be more aptly applied to Aufheben, if we wanted to descend to their level of debate. It has its roots in thousands of years of class struggle. Aufheben don't explain why the anti-Civilization current, market socialism and post-modernism are only "apparent" alternatives: "of course" they're the same, aren't they? Neither do they give us their own position on progress and historical inevitability. They will need all their dialectical agility to continue avoiding the issues addressed in this series of articles, but if they wish to confront them seriously, our pages are open to them.

2. The Internationalist Communist Group are consistent opponents of progress. However, they believe that the development of alienation was inevitable because of OCCASIONAL outbreaks of scarcity:

"Yet, if we regard primitive communism as an embryonic prefiguration of the future human community, it is nevertheless true that this community was still imperfect and limited (we do not intend to revive the myth of "paradise lost") because it was strictly subordinated to the external natural conditions, inclement weather, melting ice, earthquakes,... which at times, caused scarcity and therefore the necessity to produce stores, to accumulate. The dissolution of natural community through exchange - brought about, on one side, by the accumulation of surplus for exchange, and on the other side by scarcity (the first and essential scarcity being historically that of women) -first takes place on the outskirts of the community, and then causes more and more strongly the gathering and hunting societies to become agricultural/stock-breeding societies, which means : production for exchange, emergence of value and then of money as a medium of exchange, expropriation of men, division of labour, division into classes etc." (Communism no. 6, p4).

Temporary scarcities must have been common among the homo sapiens who first left Africa, but this did not lead to exchange. If this were the case, Civilization would have started developing much earlier than it actually did.