Chris Harman

Thinking it through

Back to our roots

(June 1991)

From Socialist Worker Review, No.143, June 1991, p.14.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Bruce G. Trigger
Gordon Childe: revolutions in archaeology

P.B. Hammond
Physical anthropology and archaeology, introductory readings

MARXISTS ARE accustomed to finding trite attacks on our ideas in the great majority of books which purport to explain social processes.

One of the biggest areas of attack on us is about the origins of the family, class society and the state. Mainstream social anthropology – the academic discipline which studies different societies – has long claimed that all we can do is examine how the institutions of each society served the ‘function’ of keeping that society going.

This means rejecting the idea of Marx and Engels that there had once been something called ‘primitive communism’ in which life was quite different from that of the class based, hierarchical and sexist societies that dominate the world today.

So influential have such views been that most people who study the area accept that male domination of women has always existed.

But while social anthropology was rejecting Marxist ideas out of hand in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, things were very different when it came to the academic discipline of archaeology. Here the dominating figure in academic life in Britain for some thirty years was Vere Gordon Childe.

Gordon Childe was always a left winger. In his twenties he had been an opponent of the First World War and an enthusiastic supporter of the Australian Labour Party.

But he was not always a Marxist, as the very interesting intellectual biography of him by Bruce Trigger brings out. It tells how his early archaeological works were concerned mainly with classifying the different artefacts found by archaeological digs into different ‘cultures’, seeing change as taking place only through ‘diffusion’ – the spread of the traits of one culture to another.

But the victory of Nazism in Germany in 1933 forced him to worry about what led societies to move forwards or backwards. He increasingly used Marxist ideas to give some pattern to his enormous archaeological knowledge.

In works like Man Makes Himself and What Happened in History he argued that societies changed because in developing new ways to produce their livelihood, human beings established new social relations with each other. This did not mean social change was automatic. Often the new social relations clashed with those that existed before. Whether society moved forward or backward depended upon the outcome of huge social confrontations – wars and revolutions.

Gordon Childe did not always find developing a coherent Marxist approach easy. The only ‘Marxism’ readily available at the time was Stalinism. He was half attracted to it, while aware of some of its faults (despairing, for instance, at the arrest of prominent Russian archaeologists).

He was, however, able to bring together an enormous mass of archaeological data into an account of pre-history powerful enough to influence non-Marxist archaeologists long after his own death in 1957.

It was not just Gordon Childe’s own considerable intellect that led to acceptance of his notions. Archaeologists look at the remains of different societies that have grown up one on top of the other, and so are likely to ask questions about the relation of each society to its successor that anthropologists can happily ignore if they are ideologically embarrassing.

American archaeology has not been as directly influenced by Gordon Childe as British archaeology. But its main local data for archaeological research has been of the remains of American Indian villages, often sited in the same localities where groups of Indians still try to eke out an existence. This has led some archaeologists to ask how past societies have changed into present day ones.

The more liberal of them have been faced with a double ideological challenge – from the propagators of racist myths like Jensen and Shockley, and from rightwing biologists who want to claim that human societies reflect biological imperatives in the same way as insect societies.

These different pressures have led to the emergence of an academic current that draws upon the findings of genetics, physical anthropology (the study of human remains) and social anthropology as well as archaeology in order to understand the evolution of human societies – that is, to an academic current which raises some at least of the questions which Marxists have often been denounced for discussing.

P.B. Hammond’s reader, Physical Anthropology and Archaeology, contains a good selection of this material which provides fascinating insights.

In attempting to explain the development from our ape like ancestors to modern man, many of the writers focus on the role of cooperative labour – something which Engels stressed more than a century ago.

The picture most of them provide of the hunter-gatherer societies that account for ninety per cent of human existence is of small more or less egalitarian bands lacking in the hierarchies of class and gender which most people take for granted today.

They also see two great transitions as necessary to produce the sort of society we take for granted today – that which led from hunter-gatherer societies to food producing societies, and that which led in turn to urban societies characterised by a division into classes and a separate state.

These accounts are not Marxist. They leave out many things which Childe did attempt to deal with – for instance, the question of the rise of male dominance in the family. They refer only in passing to some of the great cultural differences between hunter-gatherer societies, early agricultural societies based on horticulture, and later agricultural societies.

Yet what is clear from them is that, even if some of the material Gordon Childe used – let alone Marx and Engels – is out of date, the Marxist approach to such questions is far from being antiquated nonsense.

Last updated on 11 June 2010