Chris Harman


When east meets west

(October 1997)

Reviews, Socialist Review, No.212, October 1997.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive at
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Guns, Germs and Steel
Jared Diamond
Cape £18.99

In Guns, Germs and Steel Diamond sets out to demolish some of the myths about the development of human societies put about by white supremacists.

His starting point is to ask why people from western Europe were able to develop the attributes of modern ‘civilisation’ and to use them to conquer the rest of the world. He rejects any idea that this was because Europeans were more intellectually able. Partly this is on the grounds that his own experience working in New Guinea proved to him decisively that the indigenous population were easily as intelligent as the average westerner. Partly it is because it is only in the last few hundreds years that societies originating in north western Europe have come to dominate the world.

Instead he bases his account on the way in which in some parts of the world people began, some 13,000 or so years ago, to turn to new ways of obtaining a livelihood from nature. Foraging – ‘hunting and gathering’ – gave way to the earliest agriculture using the hoe or digging stick.

Over a period of several thousand years some societies made further changes, to more intensive agriculture, reliant on irrigation or draught animals and the plough. They were then able to produce a surplus over and above what was necessary simply to keep the population fed and clothed. The surplus could then be used to sustain a growing population of specialised craft workers, to build up professional armies to wage war and to provide a comfortable existence for a ruling class ‘kleptocracy’. It could also provide for full time priests and administrators who, by using markings to symbolise words, embarked on the path of literacy.

He shows how the whole of social life was transformed with these changes in production. The foragers lived in stateless, egalitarian ‘band’ societies. Non-intensive agriculture was carried out by small village communities where material egalitarianism continued to prevail, although certain individuals enjoyed high prestige. Intensive agriculture was accompanied by a growing stratification into ‘chieftainships’, with some family lines enjoying hereditary advantages over others. From this it was not that great a step to the emergence of a full grown ruling class, complete with formal state machines that concentrated the surplus into their hands as they exploited the local population and carved out empires over other peoples.

Once this stage had been reached, any society which had not made the transition from the egalitarian foraging band or the village community to the state ran the risk of suffering at the hands of those which had.

It was this process which enabled rulers from Sargon to Alexander and Caesar to incorporate vast swathes of the ancient world into their empires. It was this process too which enabled those late comers, the north west European ruling classes, to conquer two thirds of the world by the beginning of the 20th century.

But Diamond shows that the changes in production which made such conquests possible were not the result of any innate differences in intellectual ability between human groups. The requisite changes only occurred when two conditions were met. Firstly, people had to be motivated to make them, for getting a livelihood through agriculture was often more arduous than hunting and gathering. And so the changes only occurred when climatic or environmental conditions made it more difficult than previously to get a livelihood in the old ways. Otherwise it was simply not rational to adopt agriculture.

Secondly, the geographic environment had to provide the means for beginning to make the move. There had to be local plant and animal species that humans found relatively easy to cultivate and domesticate. But they were only to be found, Diamond argues, in a few areas of the world – the fertile crescent, China, highland New Guinea, West Africa, Sahel Africa, the Mexico-Guatemala area of Central America, the Peru-Ecuador area of South America. Only the diffusion of the new techniques from these areas could allow other peoples to make the transition. But, Diamond argues, geographic obstacles could prevent or delay such diffusion to very large regions of the globe: until the modern period Australia, southern Africa and eastern North America remained without cultivatable crop species, and all of the Americas, Australia and southern Africa without domesticable animals.

Hence, argues Diamond, the ease with which their peoples were conquered by the invaders from Eurasia. It was here that societies emerged with the iron, the cavalry, the gunpowder, the guns and the battle fleets to conquer the rest of the world.

On one issue, however, Diamond’s arguments are weak. He does not provide any adequate explanation as to why it was one of the last developing areas of Eurasia, north west Europe, which undertook such conquest. The fault lies with the very approach of geographic and ecological determinism which is so useful in explaining where agriculture took off.

Geography alone cannot explain what happens once class societies emerge. Then something else plays an increasingly significant role – the interacting between newly developing ways of creating wealth and old established ruling class institutions. Or, as Marx used to put it, between ‘base’ and ‘superstructure’.

Diamond fails to see this, and his account of later history suffers as a result. Nevertheless, his book is a useful addition to our knowledge of some of the most important changes society has undergone.

Last updated on 21 December 2009