Nancy Lindisfarne and Jonathan Neale, Why Men? A Human History of Violence and Inequality, (Hurst & Company 2023), x, 444pp. Nancy Lindisfarne and Jonathan Neale, Why Men? A Human History of Violence and Inequality, (Hurst & Company 2023), x, 444pp.

An ambitious attempt to explain the origin of class and women’s oppression appears to lead to pessimistic conclusions, and doesn’t wholly convince, argues Elaine Graham-Leigh

Appeals to ideas about human nature are common in conservative and liberal thinking. Whether they’re justifying women’s oppression, class inequalities or racism, there is no shortage of arguments that such things are inescapable because humans are just naturally like that. Some have even argued that far from violence and inequality being the creation of class society, liberal democracies are the only structures saving us from the worst effects of our evolved behaviour. This is not simply a matter of academic debate, but an ideology which runs deep through our personal lives. ‘And when inequality is naturalised so deeply through all our relationships, we become tangled in love knots, and it becomes nearly impossible to say, ‘“No, inequality is NOT natural, but benefits a few people and harms many others”’ (p.12).

The temptation in response is to argue against the existence of a human nature, to regard us at an individual or societal level as beyond any such innate tendencies or constraints. This was for example essentially the position taken by David Graeber and David Wengrow in The Dawn of Everything, arguing that every human society has had a choice between inequality and egalitarianism. Lindisfarne and Neale have no time for this sort of denial, commenting on the question of whether there is such a thing as human nature, ‘but of course there is, and everyone knows it’ (p.4). Their aim here is to consider human society in the light of the material conditions of human prehistory, but to argue that this does not mean conceding that we are all just inherently violent and hierarchical.

An alternative position would of course be along the lines of Rousseau’s view of humanity fallen from a prelapsarian, childlike state of innocence. Lindisfarne and Neale avoid this, positing that as with other primate species, early humanity would have been hierarchical rather than egalitarian. In their view, co-operation and equality are learned behaviours for humans, behaviours we adopted to enable us to succeed as ambush hunters and then retained as the advantages of shared caring and affectional bonds helped us survive and spread.

As an argument, this seems to owe something to the old-fashioned view of hunting as ‘the master behaviour of the human species’,i stressing big-game hunting rather than less risky sources of protein. Lindisfarne and Neale do, however, reject the often-concomitant idea that hunting as a male preserve would have given rise to male dominance over women, being explicit that meat gained through co-operative hunting would be shared co-operatively with the whole band. Palaeolithic woman as 1950s housewife, waiting for her man to bring home the aurochs steaks, has no place here.

Contradictory potential

Despite this learned egalitarianism, however, for humanity, the potential for a return to inequality is always there, lurking beneath the surface of those co-operative, hunter-gatherer societies.

‘However, the tendency to create dominance hierarchies was also part our primate inheritance. It did not disappear, but was suppressed. Creating, and submitting to, hierarchy remained part of our human nature. Understanding this apparent contradiction – our simultaneous disposition both to equality and inequality – is basic to understanding ourselves as human beings’ (p.2).

This became important with the beginnings of agriculture and the development of societies with surplus production, private property, class and women’s oppression, raising the question ‘why men?’

Lindisfarne and Neale are clear on the connection between class and women’s oppression, reviewing and disposing of a number of examples often cited as evidence to the contrary. In some cases, such as some tribal peoples in New Guinea, societies which very clearly do have women’s oppression, can also be seen to have economic and political inequalities, so the idea that they represent non-class societies with women’s oppression does not appear to be tenable. In others, such as Australian Aboriginal societies, it is the extent of women’s freedom and independence in traditional societies which has been minimised or misunderstood by researchers. Those traditional societies have also, of course, been seriously affected by colonialism, so it is possible that before European contact, Australian Aboriginal societies were without both class and women’s oppression.

That women’s oppression arises from the development of class societies was argued by Engels in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. Lindisfarne and Neale are explicit in their rejection of Engels, and much of Marx as well. Engels’ Origin of the Family is ‘an awful book’ with ‘over a hundred illogical or offensive passages’, including racism and homophobia (p.335). This is unfair to Engels, who, as is noted here, along with Marx was ‘markedly non-racist by the standards of their time and place’ (p.339), and it is hardly surprising that anthropological and historical understandings of human prehistory have changed somewhat since the 1870s. Lindisfarne and Neale’s objections to Engels’ ideas here though go beyond their presentation to represent a substantially different view of the origins of class and women’s oppression.

One difference, which is not explicitly stated in the section on Engels, is that while Engels was talking about women’s oppression, ‘the world-historic defeat of the female sex’,ii Lindisfarne and Neale are talking about gender inequality. Precisely what this means is not spelled out. It only becomes evident gradually that ‘gender inequality’ is not simply a synonym for women’s oppression but is intended to encompass oppression on the basis of gender identity and, in places, sexuality as well.

That this is significant for the argument becomes clear at various points, such as in the section on various First Nations communities on the Great Plains after the end of the Cahokian state in the late thirteenth century. Lindisfarne and Neale indicate that some of these communities did have women’s oppression: ‘gender hierarchies characterised the social organisation of some groups of warlike Plains Indians’ (p.252). Nevertheless, because they were accepting of gender fluidity and a range of sexual behaviours, they are seen here as egalitarian: ‘a different egalitarian and gender-fluid space emerged [after the fall of Cahokia]’ (p.264).

The apparent argument that toleration of different sexualities or gender fluidity (however defined) means that evidence of women’s oppression somehow doesn’t count is an odd one, and not one which would be easy to defend across different societies. Are we to regard ancient Greek city-states, for example, as paragons of gender equality? Presumably not, but it is difficult to escape the conclusion that these passages demonstrate the confusion that can creep in when historical arguments are conducted in terms set by current debates rather than by the nature of the evidence. This is underlined by the comment that these Plains societies had ‘a tolerance of … male and female prostitutes’ (p.251), without any explanation of how the existence of people selling sex for money is consistent with a non-class society, in which one would expect neither the commodification of sex nor significant disparities of wealth.

Family, property and oppression

In considering the origins of ‘gender inequality’, however, Lindisfarne and Neale do appear to be considering women’s oppression specifically, and indeed advance a theory based explicitly in differences between male and female biology. This theory though is not Engels’. For Engels, women’s oppression developed along with private property because men in the new class societies had to dominate women in order to identify their children and ensure that they would inherit their property. The development of a class system meant that the reproduction of labour was now a private matter for each household, rather than a collective concern, and for men to be able to control it, they had to control women. Lindisfarne and Neale argue against this that ‘it required humans not to have had any sort of family before class society’ (p.339) and that the connection between the family and the control and inheritance of property has been disproved by the fact that women’s oppression has not broken down among people who don’t personally own significant property.

Neither of these appear as particularly effective refutations. The first depends on the definition of the family. In the sense that the family in class society is an institution designed for the maintenance of hierarchy and the transmission of power and property, it would be more surprising if it did exist in egalitarian societies. This is not the same as arguing that people in pre-class societies did not have special bonds with their relatives. The second falls into the trap of seeing structures which work at the level of a society on an individual basis. Individuals may indeed not own much worth passing on to their heirs, but in a society structured around the family, it is not proof of anything if they do still live in families. If we could identify entire societies which have successfully and permanently done away with private property but still retain patriarchal family structures, that would be something, but that social experiment is yet to be conducted.

In place of the inheritance of property, Lindisfarne and Neale identify violence as the reason for the development of women’s oppression as a result of class. Early class societies were extremely violent, relying on coercion both to extract labour from their populations and to capture new labourers to enable expansion or just to replace workers who escaped them. There is a clear argument here for the importance of violence in advancing and maintaining inequality and of the role of violence in rituals for enforcing class power. That it can reasonably be seen as the basis for women’s oppression as opposed to a way of enforcing it is however less clear.

Lindisfarne and Neale argue that it would have been men who, with their on average greater physical strength, would have been sought after by the elites in the new class societies to act as their enforcers, carrying out the violence which underwrote their class power. This may be so, although given the evidence for a small number of women acting as warriors even in class societies in the historical period, it may not be an entirely safe assumption. It is however difficult to see how you get from a minority of men acting as the lord’s goons to a system in which women across the society are oppressed, or why that would be beneficial to the elites.

Lindisfarne and Neale comment that ‘with violence a prerequisite, it makes sense to put the men in the warrior slot and use gendered difference to further divide and rule’ (p.147), but this is not particularly convincing. It is worth noting that while it was clearly in elite interests, women’s oppression is not precisely a divide-and-rule strategy. For example, a male head of household would, by virtue of his patriarchal position, expect the women of his household to support him in, say, abandoning his city for the nearest non-class society. Yet, the control that women’s oppression gave that head of household over the reproduction of labour and transmission of property might make him less likely to consider that abandonment, and stay under the shelter of a patriarchal state. That would be an argument worth pursuing, but isn’t the hypothesis offered here.

Was class inevitable?

To be fair, Lindisfarne and Neale appear at points to be offering the violence hypothesis rather tentatively, commenting that ‘why the ideology favours men over women is an enormous question and one without the possibility of a definitive answer’ (p.125). It is clear though that they regard the violence of class societies not just as something which societies developed with class, but as the re-emergence of a basic human trait which egalitarian hunter-gatherer societies had been supressing. The answers to ‘why men?’ are, they argue, ‘to be found between our primate heritage and the character of class society’ (p.3).

It is, of course, the case that no society can develop forms of behaviour which are outside the human range. We develop as social beings within our biology. Lindisfarne and Neale are, however, implying something different: that rather than the early class societies making use of the ability of humans to be violent, they were letting out an inherent tendency to violence which individuals retained from the distant past. Seeing the violence used in enforcing class society as an individual matter shifts it from a structural issue to a matter of human nature. As Lindisfarne and Neale comment: ‘all it requires is that the people who run the system rely on both violence and a marked gendered divide to keep the hierarchy in place. And to do this they can call on aspects of our primate heritage we had once left behind’ (p.151).

If the violence of class societies is a matter of humans reverting to type, then this also raises the question of whether we should see the development of class societies as inevitable. If class develops once you have a surplus over the bare subsistence needs of the population, does that mean that it is impossible to maintain egalitarianism and a decent standard of living? Does human nature just forbid it?

Lindisfarne and Neale note correctly that class did not spread automatically from the heartland of the Neolithic agricultural revolution, and that the development of class was a contested process:

‘From these early centres, the idea of farming spread around the world. But class society did not automatically follow. In some places, people sometimes farmed for thousands of years before they developed classes and states. The growth of class society was never straightforward, linear or simple’ (p.104).

Can we change the world?

Despite this, the overall impression given by the ensuing discussion is rather the opposite, that egalitarianism is technologically determined, and that once you get agriculture, you get class. That appears to be the point of the discussion of the Chumash of the US Pacific coast, which in arguing that the agricultural surplus that produces class does not have to be a grain surplus – salmon work just as well – seems to support the general idea of the inevitability of class. That class and agriculture are inextricably connected is also implied by this comment on how forms of agriculture practised by non-sedentary peoples could represent an escape from it:

‘Rather than grain agriculture, development of class hierarchy and male dominance, we can see that process’s hopeful mirror in the links between slash-and-burn agriculture, flight from class hierarchy and egalitarian gender relations’ (p.195).

This is a crucial argument because of its implications for our hope of building a more equal society in the future. Lindisfarne and Neale clearly recognise this, commenting that Graeber and Wengrow were trying, in The Dawn of Everything, to fend off the conclusion that ‘once inequality appeared as a result of farming, urban life and economic complexity, there was – there is – no hope of changing the world’ (p.344).

Given its centrality, Lindisfarne and Neale are surprisingly unspecific about what they feel is the answer to this question. We’re left to speculate on what they think are the implications of ‘the material conditions of the planet and climate change’ (p.346) that they accuse Graeber and Wengrow of ignoring. It would be possible to read the argument here as supporting the idea that overthrowing class society and addressing the climate crisis are both impossible unless we returned to living in small groups of hunter-gatherers. Whether that is what is intended is oddly hard to tell.

When considering the development of class, it is important to understand it as not only contested, but contingent. Class societies won in the end both because they are inherently expansionist in a way that egalitarian societies are not, and because they cannot live side-by-side with free societies offering a continual way out for their oppressed populations. The spread of class across the globe does not demonstrate that it was inevitable or that it arose naturally from human nature. The evidence, not discussed here, of sedentary societies with relatively high standards of living but without class, in places like ancient Anatolia and the Indus Valley, indicates that there is nothing inherent about the connection between generating a surplus and generating inequality.

The lesson of human prehistory is not that we are naturally violent and oppressive, nor that we used to be so but can overcome it with extensive effort, but that we are adaptable. It is not denying the existence of human nature to note, as Marx said, that humans and only humans labour purposefully to shape our environment, or that we can similarly work to shape our societies. Class societies and the violence their elites use to maintain their position were not lying in wait in our nature, waiting to break out once we got too comfortable. They were historical developments, and that understanding is what holds out the hope that we can, someday, make class and oppression history.

i Roger Lewin, Bones of Contention. Controversies in the Search for Human Origins, (Simon & Schuster, New York 1987), pp.315-7.

ii Frederick Engels, The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State, (Pathfinder Press 1972), p.85.

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Elaine Graham-Leigh

Elaine has been an environmental campaigner for more than a decade. She speaks and writes widely on issues of climate change and social justice, and is a member of Counterfire. She is the author of A Diet of Austerity: Class, Food and Climate Change and Marx and the Climate CrisisHer sci-fi novel, The Caduca, is out now from The Conrad Press. 

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