Anarchism vs primitivism - Brian Oliver Sheppard

Anarchism vs primitivism - Brian Oliver Sheppard

This important pamphlet looks closely at the fundamental conflicts between anarchism and primitivism.

It traces primitivism's basic precepts back to their authoritarian roots, reveals primitivist misconceptions about anarchism, capitalism and technology, shows how the corporate media have used primitivism to discredit anarchism, and also shows how ideology-driven primitivists, much like fundamentalist Christians opposed to evolution, have picked through anthropological evidence to support their predetermined conclusions, while ignoring data that contradict those conclusions.

Sheppard also considers the many primitivist straw-man attacks upon anarchism, and asks: What kind of an anarchist movement do we want - one that looks often ugly, authoritarian social reality in the eye, with the aim of transforming it into something something that will lead to freer, happier lives for all of us on planet Earth, or one that wastes its time fantasizing about a non-existent Golden Age, and that would result in the deaths of billions if its precepts were followed?

This pamphlet was originally published by See Sharp Press, Tucson, Arizona, USA, 2003. It has been digitised by with full permission of the publisher. Any errors in formatting or spelling are solely our own.


Global Dissident
Oct 26 2008 22:54

There is a mistake in part 6. The book Into the Wild is about Christopher McCandless, not Gene Rosselini, although their stories are somewhat similar.

Oct 27 2008 16:59

Glad I found this posting. Always thought that some in the so called "Anarchist Movement" had more in common with this type of primitivist nonsense than they do with any form of class struggle anarchism/communisim.

Had a few run ins with these types of idiots in the 80s and 90s. Spacers like the Green Anarchists who had fuck all in common with real life politics and were just off on a lifestylist ego trip up their own arses. Anything that kicks this kind of twat out of the anarchist arena is good by me.

May 12 2010 19:38

a rather late comment, but here it goes...

It seems to me both sides of the argument merit some consideration in the greater scheme of things. I don't think either side of the argument is willing to accept that we are all struggling to make our lives more open, more free and with some sense of accountability and integrity along the way. No grand theory, no matter how methodical or dialectical the process, will catch a glimpse of the reality of people's lives living day-in and day-out in a world where we are exceeding well beyond the tangible, finite ecological limits of our planet--thus, requiring us to challenge our long held assumptions about the efficacy of "progress" and "prosperity" in a mantra of perpetual economic and material growth.

Whatever way our collective resistance to domination materializes, it should be met with a critical eye, but also should be met with respect and with the promise that the fundamentals of a truly free and open society not be exclusive to a certain epistemology but be recognized in an all-inclusive forum built for differing views and diversity of opinions.

After all, no matter how much we feel strongly one way or the other about our political or lifestyle convictions, we have to come together and find a way where our "commonalities" of liberty, self-determination, voluntary association, mutual aid, etc. hold far more weight than our disagreements about the way things have been, should be or will be. We must let our experiences in the situation lead the way and not our pre-conceived ideas about the past or future set the scene.

How this can be accomplished is a mystery to me; especially if we let the capitalist machine divide and conquer us as they have always done.

in solidarity

Sep 29 2010 18:33

I agree that we must find commonalities and come-together, as they say. It seems to me that the primitivist ideal of a "golden-age" is a false notion based on scant evidence. The anarchist ideal of an egalitarian future seems more probably to me. On the other hand, oil, gas, coal, are indeed finite resources. They will run out, at some point. And we'll have to be prepared...have to figure out ways of living meaningful lives without them. That is a fact. But, who's to say that we won't be able to implement some other form of power (steam for example) that will be more sustainable. Recent documents have shown that the Romans Empire even had steam power,*** made of wood (a sustainable resource if used wisely and not exploitatively).

The wholesale rejection of "Technology" needs a rational critique. Primitivism has some good ideas, as does anarchism. Maybe there's a mean-way between the two where rational thought meets constructive historical analysis. Where the best ideas of both camps can meet while accepting some of the differences and figuring that we'll work them out as things move forward.

***Nevertheless, the Romans were the first technological culture to assemble all essential components of the much later steam engine:

With the crank and connecting rod system, all elements for constructing a steam engine (invented in 1712) — Hero's aeolipile (generating steam power), the cylinder and piston (in metal force pumps), non-return valves (in water pumps), gearing (in water mills and clocks) — were known in Roman times.[4] (from wikipedia)

Jun 1 2011 04:53

this pamphlet is a very bitter and almost hateful understanding of primitivism, it made me sad to read it...

at the end of the day, the issue is of how humanity views itself in relation to our landbase, a great book on this is 'Ishmael' by Daniel Quinn... and for the author, a great book on civilisation and it's effect of mass trauma on the populace is covered by Chellis Glendinning in 'My name is Chellis & I'm in recovery from western civilization'... a couple of very profound views into some of the core concepts of primitivism

also, whilst reading it made me laugh at times... every time the author mentioned how we'd be without high-tech medical care... in 1900 the cancer rate in the US was 1 in 33, today it's 1 in 3... the technology is making us sick and killing us, without technology we'd be much much healthier... there was so much fear in the pamphlet about being at the mercy of nature, but going back to the 'Ishmael' book, that's the issue.... the author is coming from a broken and traumatic background of living in western civilisation... for millions of years humanity lived happy and healthy lives with nature being our source of life, not a source of fear... it's only been several thousand years since that was our home, not enough time for serious evolutionary changes... it spun me out the other day when i came to realisation that i was completely equipped, physiologically, to walk out into the bush and live there unaided... we may have lost the corporate knowledge, but that's where my body is made to live... absolutely amazing

anyways, this pamphlet shouldn't be the last word you hear on primitivism, it's obviously coming from a place that isn't healthy, and unfortunately is just a reflection of the noxious world we live in sad

Chilli Sauce
Jun 1 2011 09:19
in 1900 the cancer rate in the US was 1 in 33, today it's 1 in 3.

From Life expectancy in the US from 1900-98

In 1900 men died at 46 and women died at 48. You know why they didn't get cancer? (1) Because there wasn't very accurate means of testing for it and (2) because people died from influenza, tuberculosis, whooping cough, or polio first*. Now how have we stopped those things...? Advance medical technology, vaccinations, healthier diets, regular medical check-ups....

Have fun is the bush, btw. I'll enjoy air-conditioning, skateboarding, pre-recorded music, and travelling to go see my grandmother. Ironic, tho, isn't it you posted this up on the internet?

*And not smoking cigarettes, to be fair.

Jun 1 2011 09:40

Word, chilli. What a hilariously terrible argument!

Oct 28 2012 02:43

Check out this piss poor "response". I skimmed it and then I was like "wait is that it? REALLY? That's their WHOLE argument?" It basically just says civilization=hierarchy, therefore anarchism=primitivism. Such an idiotic technique of argumentation, resting as it does on petty semantics and definitions not shared by those being critiqued, would be pretty laughable if it didn't have such a horrible effect on political debate.

Chilli Sauce
Nov 1 2012 09:51

Yeah, that is just fucking semantics.

You know what tho, I think primitivism is dead. Class struggle anarchism (for all the faults some strands and organisations may have) seems to have established itself as hegemonic since the crisis. I guess I'm not in the States anymore, but I can't remember the last time I met a self-identified primmo. I don't even think I saw the primmos at the bookfair this year?

Anyway, all good signs.

Dec 18 2012 13:26

Brian Sheppard is right to criticise primitivists for wanting to abandon modern technology. But he makes a number of unfortunate errors in this pamphlet.

One error is that he claims that Marx did not want to ‘relive’ primitive communism. In fact, Marx was pretty explicit that “the vitality of primitive communities was incomparably greater than that of modern capitalist societies” and that a future revolution will lead to “the return of modern society to a higher form of the most archaic type”.

Friedrich Engels and Rosa Luxemburg were also pretty explicit about their hopes of a return to primitive communism at a higher technological level. (See ‘Marx, Luxemburg and the Return to Primitive Communism’.)

Sheppard is certainly right to point out that many tribal societies are stratified and inegalitarian. However, he fails to appreciate that these societies probably evolved from the degeneration of nomadic hunter-gatherers. And studies show that nomadic hunter-gatherers often maintain strong egalitarian and communistic principles - principles that would have been particularly easy to maintain in prehistoric times when people had access to abundant food supplies in the form of mammoths and other mega-fauna. (L.Sims, ‘Primitive Communism, Barbarism and the Origins of Class Society’; J.Gowdy, Cambridge Encyclopaedia of Hunters and Gatherers; D.Shultziner, ‘The Causes and Scope of Political Egalitarianism during the Last Glacial‘.)

Sheppard is also right to refer to authors, like Wilmsen, who argue that today’s hunter-gatherers bear no relation to those of the prehistoric past. But he should have mentioned that this ‘post-modernist’ viewpoint has been repeatedly challenged. (E.g. see F.Marlowe, ‘Why the Hadza are still Hunter-Gatherers‘ and R.B.Lee, ‘Art, Science or Politics?’)

Recent research also contradicts Sheppard’s other claims. For example Gurven’s article, ‘Longevity Amongst Hunter-Gatherers‘, shows that the life-expectancy of hunter-gatherers is surprisingly high. And Douglas Fry’s Beyond War provides strong evidence that nomadic hunter gatherers do not engage in warfare.

Of course, none of this means we should return to hunting and gathering, and hunter-gatherer societies do have many limitations. But such societies did maintain communist relations for tens of thousands of years. So, as Marx, Engels and Luxemburg all realised, we certainly have a lot to learn from them about how to live as communists.

Jan 1 2013 12:23
Chilli Sauce wrote:
Yeah, that is just fucking semantics.

You know what tho, I think primitivism is dead. Class struggle anarchism (for all the faults some strands and organisations may have) seems to have established itself as hegemonic since the crisis. I guess I'm not in the States anymore, but I can't remember the last time I met a self-identified primmo. I don't even think I saw the primmos at the bookfair this year?

Anyway, all good signs.

Funny i was just thinking that too. I mean when was the last time there was a primmo on here arguing their case. Seems like ages ago..

Nov 22 2013 10:20

Well, to be honest, it seems that the main tenets of primitivist discourse has entered into common anarchist discourse, as can be seen from LibCom by just looking the articles about anthropology and the anthropology reading list, or forum . In short, the primitivists won, knee-jerk reactionaries lost. Afaik, the whole setup "anarchism vs. primitivism" was really stupid set up by people who refused to update their views about humanity up to date where anthropology was in general. This essay by Sheppard is an absolute disgrace.

The end of primitivism as a "scene" was in many ways beneficial, as it looks now that the most valid critiques closely related to primitivism has become part of the general anarchist critique. I really don't give a fuck about people who are so in love with their straw men that they desperately hold on to such ideas as "primmies wanting everyone to go Hunter-Gatherers right now" or wanting to kill 6 billion people. In 2013 you really can't escape the critiques of industrialism, civilization etc. Zerzan, as a solid anarchist, has already acknowledged the need for anarchists of different stripes to be able to work together (which doesn't mean espousing leftism or requirement for that), I'm still waiting whether the Friends of Sheppard have grown up or are they still in their infantile rant of wanting to be The Boss.

Chilli Sauce
Nov 22 2013 21:21
I mean when was the last time there was a primmo on here arguing their case. Seems like ages ago..

Almost 11 months ain't bad.

Dumbo, that's a hell of a post to start talking about strawmen...

Nov 23 2013 18:02

dumbo is a dumbo

Nov 23 2013 18:27

dumdo is a dumbo - agreed!

But Dumbo is an elephant. wink

Jun 9 2015 22:57

I fail to see how it is a straw man to argue that what primitivism is promoting would result in mass die offs. No agricultural technology = starvation for many people. This seems like an undeniable fact to me yes it's simplistic, but it's also true. Even the Unabomber has acknowledged this.I'm not suggesting that primitivism is promoting the killing of 6 million people. But I do think that in the world that proponents of primitivism that I've come across say that they want, there would be mass die offs. I suppose you would argue that agriculture could be scaled back slowly, but I still can't imagine that this wouldn't result in many people dieing. Consider also that resources are not currently distributed evenly, do you think reducing the availability of resources is going to fix this problem? I don't think that's the case. If you can for see a feasible way to do what Zerzan et al suggest with out mass die offs, I"d love to hear it. But since even Zerzan seems to acknowledge that his ideas aren't actually feasible, and hasn't attempted to practice them on a personal level, I'm skeptical.

Jun 10 2015 02:30

Chili Sauce - Could you elaborate on your problems with Dumbo's post? I'd be interested in discussing this with you.

(I realize your post is old, but oh well).

Chilli Sauce
Jun 9 2015 23:42
HarrissB wrote:
Chili Sauce - Could you elaborate on your problems with Dumbo's post? I'd be interested in discussing this with you.

(I realize your post is old, but oh well).

Had to re-read this thread to figure out what I was even on about!

Anyway, stuff like this:

the primitivists won, knee-jerk reactionaries lost.


I'm still waiting whether the Friends of Sheppard have grown up or are they still in their infantile rant of wanting to be The Boss.

is obviously without merit or argument to back it up. And, in light of that, I just thought it was ironic that Dumbo was bringing up strawmen in that post.

Jun 10 2015 02:34

Personally I thought it was quite a well written essay. I'm a bit disappointed by the negative posts. Primitivists should be able to deal with criticism of their movement. And I don't think Sheppard is being at all unfair (although I'm not that well read on the issue). Also, some of his points are frankly inarguable.

Jun 10 2015 02:40

"Life expectancy amongst hunter gathers is surprisingly high". Well maybe, but didn't you also say that modern hunter-gathers aren't much like prehistoric ones? Perhaps I'm wrong, but I was just wondering.

Dec 8 2015 23:41

Whatever happened to this guy? Sorta like a flash in the pan

Aug 1 2016 10:14

I don't understand why some people raise the freshhold for aprims?

“Green Anarchy Tour of 2001, they complain of the roads that enable them to travel, the electricity that powers the instruments of their tour's musical acts, and of the existence of the facilities that host their events”

I'm an anti-capitalist living in white male capitalist system. I'm against the system, yet I live in. Why is this somehow different for aprims? They critique civilization and see it (rightfully in my opinion) as being propped up by mass force and violence against the global poor. Additionally the critique includes civilization as being unsustainable as it needs to continuously grow.

So in short, it's fair to be against something and advocate something completely different yet whilst not removing yourself from it.

Just imagine if we had this logic for most acoms? “Ahh I see you're against capitalism yet you have a job and contribute to the capitalist economy”? It just wouldn't make any sense.
Same with, “ah you're a male yet you live in a patriarchal world and benefit from male privilege. That you're against it you bust live somewhere else”. Again this is just shit.

I'm surprised to see so many comments around the web how "prims arent anarchists". It's like people are anarchist judges? The threshold should be, if you're against the state, anti capitalist and against hierarchies i.e. sexism, racism etc and you call yourself an anarchist then that's consistent but ultimately there intepretation. Maybe some people here would make more sense by saying "they're not anarcho communists". Which is true.

I've learnt loads from reading Zerzan, Layla AbdelRahim and the Earth First! Journal. We should stop this dogmatic approach to anarcho-primitivism. I'd recommend reading Zerzan's Agriculture essay. It's shit hot!

Chilli Sauce
Aug 1 2016 13:45

In short, it's possible for primmos to live out what they advocate - which is something that's not true for communists.

Low technology communities exist throughout the developed world: back to the land movements, the Amish, etc. Of course, those communities still have agriculture, but America still has enough empty spaces that, theoretically, small groups of hunter-gatherers could survive.

If primmos are serious about this shit, they should put up or shut up.

On top of that, if they achieved whatever the fuck it is they want to achieve, roads and the internet and mass communication wouldn't exist. Now, compare this to communism, where the problem isn't with mass production, agriculture, or (most) things produced under capitalism, it's the exploitative nature of the production process.

Aug 3 2016 12:32

Amish are patriarchal and hierarchical farmers? :/ That's nothing to do with anarcho primitivism.

There's no room for aprim and civilization, meaning it's impossible for people to live. That's the whole point. Civilization continuously destroys the environment and exploits people. So to put up or shut up follows the logic of having some inconsistent threshold. I mean you can drop out, squat land etc but you're not going to be left alone and you're certainly not going to be any challenge to civ.

They want to achieve a world free of domination and hierarchy. Not just the obviously hierarchies such as the state, capitalism, sexism and racism etc but also dominance over land and the environment. There's nothing wrong with this in my opinion.

Aug 3 2016 13:02

Civilisation also means that our life expectancy is now more than 30, I didn't die in childbirth, I'm not functionally useless and totally dependent on other people because I can get my piss-poor vision corrected by an optician, I have all my own teeth, I speak more than one language, I listen to music, read, play complicated games. I can have a beer if I want one, not die of exposure, or septicemia if I cut myself or have to put up with people who have less than acceptable standards of hygiene. I find indoor plumbing to be stellar achievements of the human race. Also tampons.

Capitalism destroys environments and exploits people. The overcrowded Earth argument is just nonsense. There's actually plenty of space and an abundance of resources to go around, although admittedly there isn't enough space for us all to be hunter-gatherers. I can't imagine why anyone would actually want to be a hunter gatherer, except if you are deluding yourself about how liberating this shite way of life is.

I don't know where you live but in North America there is so much wilderness it is entirely possible for people to wander off into the forest and never come back. If you head to the PNW in particular there are millions of acres of forest, teeming with wildlife, fresh water and every other resource a primmo could need to live out their short and miserable lives. Seriously, it's not hard to do.

As for challenging civilisation, most of us are quite happy not dying of childhood diseases or malnutrition, but if anyone else wants to de-evolve to a pre-agriculture, pre-language state, there really isn't anything to stop them. You can wander off in spaces and never see another human being again. I suspect that most primmos don't do this though is because they actually have zero survival skills and know they'd be dead in a few weeks.

Chilli Sauce
Aug 3 2016 13:21

So, you entirely missed the point about the Amish. It wasn't that they were examples of primitivism ("those communities still have agriculture") it was disproving your nonsense about how "it's fair to be against something and advocate something completely different yet whilst not removing yourself from it." Primmos could live without electricity, the internet, public transportation, mass communication, and various other key tenets of modern, industrial civilization. But they don't, which is some hypocritical bullshit.

Now, I'll grant you that civilization, class society, and social hierarchy all came about at the same time. But to suggest "civilization exploits people" is some illogical nonsense. What exactly is the exploitative mechanism by which "civilization" operates?

The Pigeon
Aug 4 2016 06:08
Fleur wrote:
I suspect that most primmos don't do this though is because they actually have zero survival skills and know they'd be dead in a few weeks.

Not exactly true, re-wilding is pretty popular practice among anti-civ anarchists these days, and by the very nature of it the primmies that do it can't be accounted for. I've met a couple mountain men myself

From what I know, anarchoprimitivism is not just a returning to primitive society, because it is also accompanied by our knowledge gathered through several thousand years of civilization with that return, plus all the inherited tribal practices including herbal medicine accessible to whoever's seeking it. Not that I favor primitivism personally, although I would like to see a huge de-escalation of civilization.

Aug 4 2016 14:27

De-escalation of civilization? What do you mean by that?

Serge Forward
Aug 4 2016 15:03

Silly season, innit.

The Pigeon
Aug 4 2016 16:06
Khawaga wrote:
De-escalation of civilization? What do you mean by that?

I just mean my vision of a free society would reinvent its different components, agriculture, technology, infrastructures and stuff, according to ecological ways of life