The modern commons theorists discussed in the last post did not explicitly refer to the Enlightenment or Romantic thinkers whose theories may have influenced them. Yet the striking similarities between these two groups of theories, separated though they were by two centuries, seem to provide evidence of influence. It is likely that thinking in terms of civilizational stages was simply so deeply entrenched in the intellectual baggage of educated Westerners, whether through study of the classics, of Blackstone, or of Gibbon, that modern commons theorists replicated its patterns as a matter of course. Nevertheless, I suggest we can also trace more concrete lines of influence through the intertwined disciplines of anthropology and human ecology, as well as through the worlds of international development and conservationism.
The Victorian-era thinkers who strongly influenced anthropology in its founding era — Henry Maine, Lewis Henry Morgan, Karl Marx, and Friedrich Engels — were themselves influenced by the stadial theories of the late eighteenth century, and saw societies as evolving through modes of subsistence or production, viewed largely through the lens of property. But while Maine saw the transition from common to private property as a sign of civilization, Morgan, and, following him, Marx and Engels, saw this transition as a form of injustice and source of inequality (though perhaps a necessary one).
Morgan, based on his knowledge of American Indians and reading of classical sources, argued that property was a key factor in the evolution of society as it progressed from a state of savagery (based on hunting) to barbarism (based on herding and farming) to one of civilization:
The idea of property was slowly formed in the human mind, remaining nascent and feeble through immense periods of time. Springing into life in savagery, it required all the experience of this period and of the subsequent period of barbarism to develop the germ, and to prepare the human brain for the acceptance of its controlling influence. Its dominance as a passion over all other passions marks the commencement of civilization. It not only led mankind to overcome the obstacles which delayed civilization, but to establish political society on the basis of territory and of property. A critical knowledge of the evolution of the idea of property would embody, in some respects, the most remarkable portion of the mental history of mankind.As twentieth century anthropology developed the tool of ethnographic fieldwork, the work of many anthropologists, particularly in North America, revolved around supporting or disproving Morgan’s evolutionary account, with one arena of contention concerning the question of whether “primitive” hunting societies had private property or not.