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Egalitarianism in 17th Century Palmares (in Brazil)

April 8, 2018

For at least ninety-eight years, from 1597 to 1695, in a part of Brazil known as Palmares, there was an egalitarian society. It consisted of about 15,000 people (the same population as Massachusetts in 1650), mostly escaped African slaves and indigenous people plus a small number of Europeans. Palmares was in the northeast part of Brazil, stretching across a band about 200 miles long and of varying width, located some 50 miles inland from the coast in what is today Brazil's state of Alagoas. This and all other facts about Palmares in this article are from the book, Quilonbo dos Palmares: Brazil's Lost Nation of Fugitive Slaves, by Glenn Alan Cheney, published in 2014.

The Portuguese slave-owning ruling elite that controlled Brazil imported slaves from Africa to labor in sugar cane fields along the coast of Brazil. Slave life-expectancy was about five years. Palmares began when some slaves escaped to the interior forest, which provided protection from the pursuing slave-owners. Eventually the former slaves began attacking the Portuguese slave-owners to free more slaves. The Portuguese slave-owners viewed (correctly!) the very existence of Palmares as an existential threat to their slave capitalist society and tried to extinguish it with the military might of the Portuguese colonial regime. This proved extremely difficult to accomplish, but after ninety-eight years the slave-owners finally succeeded.

The slave-owners destroyed Palmares so totally that very little remains from which to learn about it. The surviving written records are only those left by the slave-owners, and they are all about how to destroy Palmares, not describe it objectively or fairly.

Nonetheless, there is one contemporary account of Palmares society that suffices to show that it was egalitarian. Around 1677 a slave-owner named Manuel de Inojosa offered freedom to one of his slaves if he went into Palmares, "reconnoitered the way people lived there, and reported back. The slave did so, spending six months in Palmares before returning. The report has been lost, but the document that accompanied it summarizes what the spy reported." Here is what that document said:

"In this [attached] report, Manuel de Inojosa, for the sake of the conquest [of Palmares], sent a negro slave of his, with the promise of emancipation, to live among the negroes, pretending to flee captivity and thus enter into their trust and observe the way in which they live, work, marry, and govern because knowing the ways of the enemy facilitates success in war. For six months said slave was among the negroes as one of them, in every way gaining the confidence of not just residents but the highest leaders. Every negro who arrives at the mocambo [a village; Palmares consisted of "at least eleven" villages "of notable size"--J.S.] fleeing his masters is soon heard by a counsel of justice that seeks to know his intentions because they are greatly suspicious and are not won over just because it is a negro who has presented himself.

"But as soon as they certify his good intentions, they give him a woman whom he possesses along with two, three, four, or five other negroes. Since there are few women, they have adopted this practice to avoid contention. All the husbands of the same woman live in the same mocambo with her, all in peace and harmony, an imitation of a family but appropriate for barbarians without the light of understanding and shame that religion imposes. All of these husbands recognize themselves as obedient to the woman, who keeps order over everything in life as well as in labor. To each one of thes so-called families the counsel of leaders gives a piece of land for cultivation, and this the woman and husbands do. They have these lands, but not as their own because they can't sell them, and they lose them under imprisonment if they fail to plant them as directed by the counsel of leaders.

"Among them, everything belongs to all, and nothing belongs to anyone, as the fruits of what they plant and harvest or what they make in their workshops they are obliged to deposit in the hands of the counsel which divides to each according to what they need for their sustenance.

"They all arise to war when most needed, without the exception of women, who on these occasions seem more like wild animals than people of their gender.

"Complaints, be they of the pretend family or of the republic, are heard by the counsel of justice, without recourse. The leaders, all of them, are chosen by a meeting of the negroes who live in the mocambo, but the main leader is chosen by the leaders. The main leader resolves issues of war without consultation or contrary opinion of anyone whatsoever, and anyone who does not go into battle in conformance with his will he has put to death.

"In war, they use knives, spears, firearms, and gunpowder, of which they have copious amounts stolen in their attacks or bought from whites with whom they have an understanding. They are willing to die before they will abandon Palmares." [1] [I have inserted paragraph spacing for easier readability.]

It seems reasonable to suppose from this document that the authority of the "main leader" in matters relating to war is not substantially different from the authority of military leaders that I propose for an egalitarian society here.

The economic principle of Palmares, it seems evident from this document, was essentially the egalitarian one, namely "From each according to reasonable ability, to each according to need or reasonable desire with scarce things rationed equitably according to need."

The document unfortunately does not say anything about any government above the level of the local villages (mocambos). One can surmise that if there had been a strong central government based on the anti-egalitarian invalid authoritarian principle (discussed here) then the document would have mentioned it. Certainly the genuinely democratic spirit seems to be evident in the local village government: "The leaders, all of them, are chosen by a meeting of the negroes who live in the mocambo." This "meeting of the negroes who live in the mocambo" seems to be essentially the same as the Local Assembly of egalitarians in a voluntary federation type of government that I advocate here.

A key aspect of the egalitarianism I advocate is that anti-egalitarians do not have a right to participate in the Local Assembly. It seems that the people in Palmares probably agreed with this principle and would simply not have allowed anti-egalitarians to remain in their community: "Every negro who arrives at the mocambo fleeing his masters is soon heard by a counsel of justice that seeks to know his intentions because they are greatly suspicious and are not won over just because it is a negro who has presented himself."

The Enormous Significance of Palmares

Is egalitarianism sustainable in the long term? The existence of egalitarian Palmares, for nearly a century under constant attack by the might of the Portuguese military aiming to destroy it, shows that egalitarianism is a viable kind of society. Some people try to dismiss egalitarianism as impractical and unsustainable for the long term by pointing to the fact that egalitarianism in Spain (1936-9) [read about it here and here and here ] was so short-lived. They don't agree that the Spanish egalitarian society in almost half of Spain would have persisted if not for the fact that the capitalist nations supported the Spanish fascist general Franco to militarily crush it. But what would these nay-sayers say about the fact that egalitarianism, under brutal military attack in Palmares, persisted for ninety-eight years? They could hardly deny that this shows egalitarianism to be a sustainable way to live.

Is egalitarianism compatible with human nature? Today's ruling elites want us to believe that human nature makes egalitarianism impossible. I have written about how this is a Big Lie here. What makes egalitarianism so difficult and so rare on a large scale (nowadays) is that the minority of people who hate egalitarianism use violence to stop people from making society egalitarian. But as Palmares demonstrates, when people escape from the anti-egalitarians (the slave-owners, back in the 17th century) then nothing in "human nature" prevents them from making an egalitarian society. Indeed, most people today would make society egalitarian if they were freed from the domination of the minority of anti-egalitarians, just as the inhabitants of Palmares did.

Was Karl Marx right about "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need"? No, he was not right! Many people today who, to their credit, want society to be based on this egalitarian principle, mistakenly believe that Karl Marx championed this idea; some even think he was the first to come up with it. Both beliefs are mistaken.

Regarding the former belief, this wonderful egalitarian principle was first expressed--in the pithy form that Marx made famous--by a Frenchman named Morelly as early as 1775 (Marx was born in 1818) in his Code de la Nature ou le Veritable esprit de Ses Lois, in which he  wrote (in French) that his aim was "To distribute work according to capacity; products according to needs." The same idea appears even earlier, in the Bible (Acts, 4:43-35): "Neither was there any among them that lacked: for as many were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold, And laid them down at the apostle's feet: and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need."

Regarding the latter belief, when Marx mentioned "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need" his point was that this principle could NOT be the basis of society until very far in the future after all economic scarcity had been eliminated with vastly increased economic productivity (because--implicitly--human nature was selfish and people could not be expected to share according to this egalitarian principle when there was scarcity.)

Marx expressed it this way in his Critique of the Gotha Program:

"In a higher phase of communist society, after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labor, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labor, has vanished; after labor has become not only a means of life but life's prime want; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-around development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly -- only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!"  [my emphasis]

Palmares (like the example of Spain) shows that, contrary to Karl Marx, egalitarianism--"From each according to ability, to each according to need"--is both desirable and possible even when the economy is very under-developed and there is a lot of scarcity.

For discussion about how we can make an egalitarian society today, despite the military power of the anti-egalitarian rulers, a good place to start is here.


1. The source for this given in the text is "Freitas, 'Sobre a conquista dos negros dos Palmares,' Republica de Palmares, 141-142.]"; there is a bibliography at the end of the book that has two "Freitas" sources, but it's not clear which one is the correct one for this source. The two are 1) "Freitas, Decio. Republica de Palmares: pesquisa e comentarios em documentos historicos do seculo XVII. Maceio, Alagoas: U. Federal de Alagoas, 2004.--------. Palmares: A Guerra dos Escravos, 5th edition. Rio de Janeiro: Edicoes Graal, 1990." and 2) "Freitas, M.M. de. Reino Negro de Palmares vol. II. Rio de Janeiro, Cia. Editora Americana, 1954".

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