Thursday, March 17, 2005

Gordon Childe - What happened in history

First published in 1942, Gordon Childe’s classic work “What happened in history” is an attempt to explain to the ordinary, non-academic person a history of the world. Concentrating on early history, Childe looks at how the ancient economies, their development and growth (as well as their decline) allowed civilisations to develop, flourish and in some cases, disappear.

Childe starts his work by looking at the study of history, but quickly moves on to how societies move from small bands of people, to forming small communities and then the development of a class based economy.

Alongside all this, he charts how the development of rudimentary science, tool making and the associated trade created the basis for a bigger society.

It would take a far better review (and reviewer) to do this book justice. I suspect that some of what Childe writes has now been dated by later archaeological evidence or new insights from more contemporary scientists and historians. What makes Childes work almost unique is that he was applying a basic understanding of Marx’s theories of economics to the development of human society.

Marx based his understanding on all of human history on one simple fact – that people must eat, drink and have shelter before they can do anything else. The way that people in different societies have got those basics (whether through individual farms, small collectives, slaves or modern factories) he called the “forces of production”. By looking at these forces, and how they combined with different political and ideological systems, Marx and Marxists believe that you can understand the driving forces behind every stage of human society. Of course this is a gross simplification. Deliberately so. But I wanted to point it out, because it’s at this point that I think Childe’s work is both brilliant and slightly flawed.

Childe can be contrasted with those historians, whose work concentrates entirely on kings and queens, and other “great” men and women. His understanding of how societies like that of Ancient Greece or Rome can grow, and then collapse is based on an understanding of the basic contradictions in their economies.

Marx explained how the developing forces of production – which can be crudely explained by things like invention of new tools or machines, or new ways of organising production, (factories over cottage industries say) – eventually clash with the existing methods and a ruling class wedded to the old methods. At this point society can either move forward, or fall back.

Childe for instance draws our attention to how both Greek and Roman societies had developed machines such as water pumps that could do the work of many slaves, but to get rid of slaves and replace them with machinery would start to undermine to basis of the whole economy.

Further he points out that “the institution [slavery] continued to obstruct the progress of science by making labour-saving machinery un-profitable and contributed to the impoverishment of all producer by keeping down the purchasing power of the internal market”

This could only continue for so long, before things start to collapse inwards, and the Roman empire gradually declined over decades, while successive leaders attempting to debase the currency or stimulate the economy by public building but couldn’t save the once mighty empire.

This brings me to my only problem with the work. Childe argues right at the end of his work that “Progress is real if discontinuous. The upward curve resolves itself into a series of troughs and crests. But in those domains that archaeology as well as written history can survey, no trough ever declines to the low level of the preceding one, each crest out-tops its last precursor”.

He backs this up by pointing out how after the collapse of the Roman empire, Europeans didn’t return to living in mud huts and much of the knowledge of the ancients remained alive, if in the minds of a few individuals and sacred libraries.

But Childe ignores the fact that there are many examples of societies that did expand and then contract, leaving their grand children to scrabble in the mud while looking at monuments of their forefathers former glory – the civilisation on Easter Island springs to mind.

This aside, this is a readable, if dated introduction to early history whose approach has much to teach us today. The work must have been an introduction to archaeology and history that has inspired generations since, and the errors that do occur can only be built upon to further our understanding of the past to illuminate the future.

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