Monday, August 22, 2022

V. Gordon Childe - Man Makes Himself

Gordon Childe was one of the foremost popular left intellectuals of the 20th century. He was a prolific author, and his books aimed at a popular audience sold in their millions. He is perhaps best known for his archaeological work, excavating Skara Brae in Orkney and his television appearances helped cement him as a public intellectual. But Childe was also a radical. As Terry Irving has recently shown, Childe's politics were fundamental to his life, and never far from the surface. He has been described as the first Marxist archaeologist, and in Man Makes Himself, perhaps his finest popular work, he applies his understanding of Marxism to prehistoric history. First published in 1936 it was enormously, and deservedly, popular. 

Today the book is, of course, dated. Even with the changes made for later editions there have been enormous strides taken in science that have shown some of Childe's ideas to be incomplete or incorrect. In particular the advent of carbon-dating and genetic science have transformed our understanding of humanity's early past as well as helping to fix dates on events and objects that Childe could not have imagined. Why then read this book? The first reason is that Childe tries to great a grand historical narrative that shows how the history of different regions fitted into a wider development of technology and ideas in prehistoric times. As Nature wrote when Man Makes Himself was first published:
Childe has a sense of perspective in time, which has been developed to a degree exceptional even among archaeologists, who juggle with millennia; and he is little more restricted in space, for he ranges from the north of Scotland to the Valley of the Indus with a familiarity which few may emulate. He is, therefore, in a position to recommend with confidence the study of archaeology as an antidote to those modern pessimists, who are disposed to doubt the soundness of the foundations upon which the belief in ‘progress', inherited from the late nineteenth century, takes its stand. Neither ‘age’, nor century, he argues, and equally no single area marked out by geographical or national limitations, can afford material adequate for such a judgment. The impartial inquirer must survey all time, and take the whole world as his province, before he ventures to pronounce upon the trend of events in present-day civilization.
This brief comment in Nature does not mention the central ideological theme to Childe's book. He argues that humanity "progresses" through a process of revolution. Two particular revolutions form the core of prehistory - the Neolithic, agricultural revolution and the urban revolution. Childe argues that such revolutions manifest themselves as "an upward kink in the population curve" whereby economic and social revolution transforms the human economy is such away that population growth can dramatically expand. Thus dialectical change, a qualitative change leading to a quantitative change, is central to Childe's theory of history. In turn, such economic changes allow for the development of new ideas, technology and social organisation. 

The second reason that it is worthwhile reading Man Makes Himself today is Childe's approach to historical change. Here he relies on a Marxist approach that places humanity within a wider natural world. Humanity acts on the world, changes it, and is in turn changed itself. However dated the book might be on occasion, Childe's approach remains useful and instructive. Here Childe demonstrates his approach in commenting on the discovery of fire:
But in mastery of fire man was controlling a mighty physical force and a conspicuous chemical change. For the first time in history a creature of Nature was directing one of the great forces of Nature. And the exercise of power must react upon the controller. The sight of the bright flame bursting forth when a dry bough was thrust into glowing embers, the transformation of the bough into fine ashes and smoke, must have stimulated man's rudimentary brain. What these phenomena suggested to him is unknowable. But in feeding and damping down the fire, in transporting and using it, an made a revolutionary departure from the behaviours of other animals. He was asserting his humanity and making himself.
Here it is perhaps worth digressing and noting the use of gendered language. It is very notable in this quote, and the very title of the book, that Childe substituted "man" for the whole of humanity. Childe however makes it clear that he does refer to men and women when writing. Unusually for popular writers of the time, Childe is concerned with the different economic roles of women. Though, on occasion, he does make comments that are somewhat dated. For instance, in discussing the development of pottery, he writes, that "pots were generally made by women and for women, and women are particularly suspicious of radical innovations". But contrast this misogynist comment with Childe's later point:
In our hypothetical Neolithic stage there would be no specialisation of labour - at most a division of work between the sexes. And that system can still be seen at work today. Among hoe-cultivators the women generally till the fields, build up and fire the pots, spin and weave; men look after animals, hunt and fish, clear the plots for cultivation and act as carpenters, preparing their own tools and weapons. But, of course, to such a generalisation there are many exceptions: among the Yoruba, for instance, weaving is in the hands of men.
Childe is notably sympathetic to indigenous communities and women, in a way that many writings of the 1930s were not. While describing some contemporary societies as "savages" he is using language of his time, but is actually remarkably clear that their societies are not backward, but ones that have taken particular historical paths. He is extremely wary of readers seeing such societies as being modern day examples of the "stone age". Rather, he argues, they have taken a path of development that works for them.

However its the question of change itself that I wanted to draw out here. Childe's book is excellent at demonstrating how economic changes can lead to social changes. He explains how agriculture allows the creation of a food surplus which in turn allows groups of non-food producers (priests, soldiers, artists, magicians) to function. It also allows for the stratification of society into classes. This is, of course, a complex process. Childe suggests that hierarchical society arises first because a group of people (priests, magicians) exist who appear to be able to ensure that food is bountiful - their magic means the Nile floods, or crops don't fail etc. 

Childe then argues that societies become resistant to change because these superstitions make innovation difficult. He writes:
When a group are enjoying a sufficiency of food in simple comfort with spells of rest, why should they change their behaviour? They have painfully learned the tricks and dodges, the arts and crafts necessary to coax this modicum of prosperity out of Nature; why do more? Indeed, change may be dangerous... the established economy is reinforced by an appropriate ideology.
There is certainly some truth to this. Not all societies do develop - famously some hunter-gatherer communities refused to make the transition to agriculture because they understood it might mean harder, and more, work. Richard B. Lee's work with the !Kung San in the Kalahari desert has demonstrated this very well. But Childe doesn't also show how the ruling class society can itself be a barrier to development. What I mean by this, is that economic innovation and change can, because it alters the structure of society, can threaten the ruling order. Which in turn means that ruling classes will resist changes - social, political, economic and even technological - if they find that their wealth or existence is threatened.

Thus, the barriers to development are not simply because of superstitions, though the ruling class may well use religious or magical justifications, but they are also because the development of class society leads to entrenched economic interests. This is why the Marxist theory of the state remains so important, but unfortunately Childe doesn't treat it here. It also leads to another problem with Childe's book - the resultant class struggle is absent. Exploitation is mentioned as a source of surplus, and Childe points out that social development often did not benefit the mass of the producers who "formerly so fertile in invention, were reduced to the position of 'lower classes.'

Despite Childe's emphasis on material roots to society he ends up being remarkably idealistic in his understanding of historical change. Of the Egyptian ruling class, he comments, the pharaoh "may have started as a magician.. it is hardly to be expected that ruling classes with such affiliations should be patrons of rational science; they were too deeply implicated in the encouragement of hopes which experience was repeatedly showing to be illusory, but which still deterred men from pursuing the harder road of sustained and intense thinking."

Later he writes:
The superstitions man devised and the fictitious entities he imagined were presumably necessary to make him feel at home in his environment and to make life bearable. Nevertheless the pursuit of the vain hopes and illusory short-cuts suggested by magic and religious repeatedly deterred man from the harder road to the control of Nature by understanding. Magic seemed easier than science, just as torture is less trouble than the collection of evidence.
Why does this matter? Firstly it matters because there is a danger the reader will transpose such arguments to modern times. The reason that capitalism is a fetter on the further development of human society is not because of superstitions and backward ideas, but because the capitalist state and the ruling class block the transformative change we need. Secondly it is problematic because it removes human agency from the equation - people can, and did, challenge ideas and come up with new ones. And latter revolutions - the development of feudal society, or the transition from feudalism to bourgeois society, are closely linked with a development of new ideas about the world and the tensions in the economic base. Reading Irving's book recently I was struck that Childe didn't really grasp the Marxist concept of the state, and that was not just a problem in terms of his contemporary left politics (and practice) but also in his understanding of historical change.

I have dwelt here on some of the problems with Childe's book. So I want to reemphasise at the end that this is a remarkably interesting read. It is remarkably rare to find a contemporary work about prehistory that has the global span that Childe aims for. Even rarer is it for such a book to really have any sense of how historical change takes place. I have, for instance, noted that Francis Pryor's books often suffer from a complete misunderstanding of "revolution" as a process. Childe's work is exemplary on what such economic and social transformation meant. 

Childe's book also covers much ground - from developments in pottery, to the way that mathematics evolved out of the economic needs of different societies. Though some readers might find Childe's explanations of how the Egyptians and Babylonians multiplied a bit opaque!

But the greatest strength of Man Makes Himself is the authors' sense that humanity deserves to progress and that the masses will make that happen. In the conclusion he writes that the word "race" has hardly appeared. This is, he explains, because you cannot explain global developments in terms of race, otherwise you end up with preposterous arguments such as Sumerians were genetically inclined towards mathematics. Instead,
we have tried to show how certain societies in the process of adjusting themselves to their environments were led to create States and mathematical sciences by applying distinctively human faculties, common to all men... at the same time, the achievements we have sought to explain were not automatic responses to an environment, not adjustments imposed indiscriminately on all societies by forces outside of them. All the adjustments we have considered in detail were made by specific societies, each with its own distinctive history.
Such an approach is a profoundly human one, and because it is at the heart of V Gordon Childe's Man Makes Himself, it makes the book remarkably insightful and enjoyable.

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