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The Socialist Phenomenon 2.4
Part 8 - State Socialism, Ancient Egypt
The following is part of a series looking at The Socialist Phenomenon by Igor Shafarevich (1923-2017), first published in 1975 under the title Sotsializm kak iavlenie mirovoi istorii by YMCA Press. My intention is to offer summaries only - I cannot hope to provide robust commentary - Shafarevich provides a masterful historical analysis of socialism in a rare systematic and scientific manner. He was a mathematician of some significance in Russia and applied a similar disciplined and objective approach in his study of socialism. He, like Solzhenitsyn, believed that socialism was ultimately nihilistic and motivated by a death drive that destroys individualism.
For those interested you can find the full English translation here http://robertlstephens.com/essays/shafarevich/001SocialistPhenomenon.html
Shafarevich now moves onto some remarkable social structures of state in the Kingdoms of Ancient Egypt. This epoch saw the bringing together people, in massive numbers, and subjugating them to the will of a central power at a scale not seen before. Wielding the “technology of power” rather than the “technology of production”, the state, under rule of the king, took absolute control of all aspects of life. There were thirty dynasties of Ancient Egypt, spanning some 3,000 years from 3,100 BCE to the conquest of Egypt by Alexander the Great in 332 BCE. Throughout these dynasties Ancient Egypt created monumental architecture, art, literature and technology that amazes us still. It also, as a hierarchical monarchy with a strong bureaucracy, demonstrates again the socialist phenomenon.
Shafarevich is brief in his appraisal of Ancient Egypt, and so will this summary be.
In the early dynasties of Ancient Egypt the pharaohs held dominion over all the land, administrated by the state bureaucracy. Parts were transferred temporarily to individuals, but for the most part the land was the king’s domain, worked by peasantry under the supervision of officials. There were obligatory labour time peasants needed to fulfill for the construction of state infrastructure, for the nobility and king’s family, and large projects like the pyramids.The crafts were concentrated, for the most part, in state and temple workshops, where the workers were supplied with tools and raw material, while the finished products were turned over to storehouses. Shipbuilders, carpenters, joiners, masons, potters, metal workers, glass and ceramics workers, either worked in palace and temple shops or depended on them for raw materials and orders. Highly skilled artisans with the status of hired free workers were in the minority. A number of important branches of craft production were monopolized by royal and temple workshops. For example, the temples manufactured papyrus for writing material as well as for mats, ropes, footwear and shipbuilding.
The economy was based on the barter of things based on real value, even officials were paid primarily in produce. Key elements of the economy are as follows:
Agricultural Production: The Nile River provided fertile land for growing crops such as wheat, barley, flax, and vegetables. Irrigation systems and canals allowed for efficient agriculture and the large surplus of food allowed for trade. This is probably one of the main reasons Ancient Egypt maintained its powerful status for thousands of years.
Trade: Ancient Egypt traded with neighbouring countries, such as Byblos, Nubia, and Punt, exchanging goods like spices, gold, silver, and textiles - maintaining a robust system of internal trade and a thriving market economy.
Self-Sufficient Economy: Ancient Egypt was largely self-sufficient, producing what it needed to sustain its population. However, trade and the exchange of goods helped to enrich the economy and increase its wealth.
Currency and Taxation: Barter of goods was primary but there was also barter with metal currency, such as copper and silver. The government, in a sophisticated system of determination, collected taxes in the form of grain, livestock, and precious metals.
Society was built around a bureaucracy of a multitude of officials who maintained control over live, including detailed inventories to determine taxes and deliveries to individuals. By the fourth dynasty the departments for fields and personnel and all their regional and sub-departments sounds a little like the bureaucracy of today. It may have technically been a kingdom, in practice it was a thriving bureaucracy. Officials rose through the ranks based on merit, or rather the king’s grace, and his welfare depended entirely on the state (personified by pharaoh).
By the time we get to the Eighteenth Dynasty (16-14th Century BC) we still see the state, in the person of pharaoh, wielding total control. No activity could be done without the sanction of the state, and changes of occupation had to have official authorisation. Here, again we see the socialist phenomenon at play - state officials controlled the people (with the exception of the priests, military, and nobility), and the land remained pharaoh’s.Land relations during this epoch were shaped by the recent war for the liberation of the country from the Hyksos invaders. The military nobility, which arose during this struggle, possessed a small portion of the land. Their holdings were passed down, as a rule, by right of primogeniture from father to son, but ultimate control of even these lands belonged to the pharaoh. Thus heirs assumed possession of land only after this was confirmed by the central authorities.
With the exception of these lands and the temple lands, other land belonged to the state in the person of the pharaoh and was tilled by peasants under state control. In the tomb of Vizier Rekhmara, for example, the agricultural workers are shown along with their wives and children getting sacks of grain and returning empty ones in exchange, under the supervision of an official.
Furthermore the merchants who traded abroad acted as state agents and all importing as well as internal trade was under the administrative control - the state supervised all markets. However, Shafarevich notes that despite this total control by the state the system could not very well be called a slave system nor a feudal system. “Written records contain numerous terms indicating dependence on the state--i.e., people sent to compulsory work or war prisoners used in building and other state works. However, not one of these terms can be interpreted as slave under the personal control of another individual and employed in economic activity.”
Shafarevich does not have much more to say about Ancient Egypt except to comment about the god status of the pharaohs. I guess we can see in some communist regimes the semi-divine or at least divine mandate upon a leader, giving a little connection to the pharaohs of old. But that might be clutching at straws in an attempt to draw too much of a likeness. The main point, as I see it, is the power structure, the totalitarianism of pharaoh/state, headed by a single individual who holds absolute power for which opposition is not tolerated. Now of course the socialist will deny this is the essence of the philosophy but it is the historical reality. I’m certain the pharaohs were not looking for a classless society and equality for all, nevertheless we see characteristics here of the socialist phenomenon. The god status of the pharaoh, also correlates with the god-like status of the communist rulers of the 20th Century.
Next time we will consider Ancient China.
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