Society without violence and killing. Examples from history

Tolstoy Center for Nonviolence

Feb 06, 2022

When you once again hear about «innate» human cruelty, and that a society without violence or killing can’t possibly exist, remember the real historical examples that calmly and convincingly prove the opposite.

— M.A. Engelhardt, Progress as the Evolution of Cruelty, 1899

Of the primitive tribes that have remained outside the general movement of humanity, the most important for our purposes are the Sri Lankan Veddahs, as the tribe is really the most primitive in all respects — both in terms of the level of civilization and for the continuity of their race, possibly the oldest of all who now inhabit the globe. To the Veddahs can be added the primitive Mongols of the coast of the Chikhachyova Bay, who were described by La Pérouse as a tribe that had not yet emerged from the primary stage of hunter-gatherer families. They lived in a state of "benevolent anarchy," "en état d'anarchie bienveillante" in Letourneau's phrase. They were unfamiliar with war, compulsory organizations, slavery, or fanaticism; they never quarreled or fought among themselves; husbands did not beat their wives and did not overburden them with work; the tribe took care of the elderly and treated children with a degree of tenderness that would be incomprehensible to a European.

These examples also include the Ainu, who have been significantly corrrupted by the Japanese, but who still retain the main features of their primitive character: truthfulness, meekness, and gentleness. Also included: some hill tribes of Bengal: Dhimáls, Bodos, Lepchas, Santals, often mentioned by Spencer; the Nanai people and some other ethnic minorities of Siberia.

All these peoples, fragments of prehistoric races, can serve as a type that represents humanity of the era before wars began. Among other tribes of the world, the Eskimos of the far north come closest to the examples above, striking all visitors with the gentleness of their morality, but already exhibiting the beginnings of tribal organization and intertribal hostility. The Bushmen, the culturally and anthropologically inferior, but morally superior African type, should also be included. They are the least culturally developed tribes of the Hottentots. But having developed the rudiments of civilization, these tribes have also acquired the rudiments of those negative qualities that civilization develops.

As for the Veddahs, and those who are like them, we find a complete absence of instincts, feelings, and habits that are familiar to us. These are a group of tribes who are completely separate from what we know, who are incomprehensible to us and to whom we are incomprehensible. There is no war among them, and no concept of war; they "are unable" to fight, but can only defend themselves from attack, which they are necessarily accustomed to by being surrounded by predatory tribes. They do not find pleasure in war, do not know — unfortunate people! — the delights of striking and crushing enemies. For example, the Veddahs are known for their “timidity”; they are hiding, escaping from the cultured Sinhalese, Tamils, and Europeans. And at the same time, their fearlessness, and their cold-blooded, calm courage is astounding. When it is necessary to defend their family, when a fight is unavoidable, a Veddah will unblinkingly act alone against a panther, or a fearsome Ceylon sloth bear, or an even more fierce and fearsome European.

But the Veddah avoids war. The Spanish proverb referred to by Turgenev, “a man must be fierce” would leave them utterly bewildered. The song of Ragnar Lodbrok (9th century), “Life is boring for those not wounded in battles ... From my youth I learned to stain iron with blood ... bloody dew dripped from our swords: I rejoiced at this, as if my beloved were sitting next to me,” etc.) or a poem by Denis Davydov (19th century), “I love a bloody battle,” etc., would seem, to a Veddah, to be the poetry of monsters, not human beings.

Even simple quarrels and fights are alien to them; they do not have this source of entertainment. This characteristic is a trait that has been preserved among many tribes who remain close to a primitive state. Thus, the Aleuts, according to Veniaminov (who lived among them for decades), never fight or swear, and they do not beat or scold children, so that even children do not know how to swear and fight. Thus, the absence of quarrels among the Eskimos of northeast Greenland amazes European visitors. For a whole year, for example, a hundred families might live under one roof in a common house, and during this whole time no fights occur, nor even major misunderstandings or squabbles.

The Caribs, according to Laveau, do not have fights, and the most severe punishment for children is that their mother or father splashes water in their face. Travelers and missionaries of the last century — Lafiteau, Charlevoix, Lahontan — say the same thing about the most primitive tribes of the North American Indians.

The primitive person does not have a concept of fighting as fun. The Veddah, for example, "cannot imagine how it is possible to hit a person." They do not understand what kind of pleasure could be found in it. [...]

They do not have despotic hierarchies, classes, estates, or castes: they enjoy complete and absolute equality, factual and legal — “as wonderful as it seems, it is really true” (Hodgson about the Bodo and Dhimál tribes). There is also no slavery. In short, they have no military or similar establishments that serve as drivers of progress. There is no fanaticism: their basic level of belief in the supernatural has not yet assumed a bloody character.

They have no anger: they are good-natured, gentle, meek, they do not know violence and cruelty, neither against fellow tribesmen and neighbors, nor against strangers. There is no lust for power, nor its antithesis — servility. The Veddah, Lepcha, and others like them do not submit to violence and injustice; they cannot endure oppression and are themselves incapable of inflicting oppression. They do not understand the pleasure of “making someone knuckle under.”

There is no vindictiveness among them; disagreements are resolved “without malice and fights,” and insults are forgiven and forgotten. The feelings of a modern Frenchman towards the Germans, or an Englishman decorating a statue of General Gordon with a wreath with the inscription: “At last you are avenged!” would be completely incomprehensible to a Veddah, an Ainu, or a Lepcha. These unfortunate people can be annoyed by an attack; but they are decidedly incapable of preserving, nourishing, and cherishing an evil feeling. However, this cannot be said about the opposite feelings; for example, Veddahs are “sensitive and grateful,” and do not forget favors; in this respect they could be teachers of “cultured” people.

The absence of cruelty, anger, and lust for power penetrates into all spheres of life; in family relationships there is no despotism; men and women are equal. A Veddah man, for example, never beats or even scolds his wife; Ainus, Lepchas, and similar tribes treat women “with respect and attention.” The attitude towards sons and daughters is the same; boys do not have an advantage over girls, and children are brought up without punishment. Nobody ever says “Spare the rod, spoil the child”; and, without a doubt, any Veddah who got acquainted with European child-raising practices would be indignant.

The absence of cruelty, violence, and oppression is naturally connected with the lack of feelings that are consequences of violence: deceitfulness, meanness, etc. The Veddahs “are living parables of truthfulness and trustworthiness,” the Ainus “truthful and scrupulously honest,” Goshutes can be driven to suicide when their honesty is questioned, Lepchas are “honest to the point of triviality,” Santals are “the most truthful of people,” and so on. It is clear that among such people, serious crimes cannot and do not exist — crimes such as infanticide, cannibalism, torture of wives, cruel public spectacles, corporal punishment, torture, executions, the persecution of non-Christians...

From all this, the opinions of serious researchers make sense: “people with a good heart” (R. Virchow about the Veddahs); “absolutely charming people” (Lepchas according to J. Hooker); “they [Bodo and Dhimál people] have absolutely no unsympathetic qualities”...

In a word, the three main qualities of civilized people — rapacity, vindictiveness, and love of power — and the full variety of properties that arise from this fundamental reality — are unknown to primitive humanity.