Monday, 22 December 2008

Paleolithic art, part 3: The flowering of culture

The artistic achievements of Homo sapiens are unambiguous and magnificent. This was the first true art to be created by a human species, and it seems to have emerged fully-formed. Paleolithic artists had to practice their skills like anyone else, but the works they produced are the equals of those of subsequent ages. Art, as we shall explain elsewhere, does not ‘progress’ in the way science does; it simply takes different forms depending upon its historical context. What it has in common is that it is the affirmation of human creative and intellectual powers, and in Paleolithic people those powers were the same as our own. This was the first great period of art, and it was also the longest.

The richest source of Paleolithic art has been Western Europe, not because Europe was ‘superior’ but because it has been most extensively explored. This emphasis is due to resources and racism, not to differing ability amongst various peoples, as prehistoric art of comparable quality has also been discovered in Eastern Europe, Africa, Australia and the Americas. Outside Western Europe many important sites exist, of which the following are the merest handful — in Eastern Europe, Dolní Věstonice in the Czech Republic, Kostienki and Borshevo in the Don Valley in Russia, and Sungir; in Africa, Apollo 11 in Namibia and the Drakensberg mountains in South Africa; in Australasia, the Niah Cave in Borneo, and Arnhem Land and Kimberley in Australia; in the Americas, Pedra Furada in Brazil.[1]

The Upper Paleolithic has been divided by art historians into periods, each representing a technical advance upon its predecessor. Of course, these exist only as labels used to try and make sense of stages of development. They vary from region to region: in Western Europe, the best documented region, they are the Aurignacian (beginning 40,000 years ago), the Gravettian (28,000 years ago), the Solutrian (21,000 years ago) and the Magdalenian (18,000 years ago) — the Magdalenian saw a particularly rich blossoming of symbolic artifacts. In other parts of the world, these labels must be either applied differently or discarded altogether. On our current evidence, there was no generalised flowering at the same time across all human communities.

Most Paleolithic art is now lost. Story-telling, music or dance take no concrete form that may survive into subsequent epochs, and many objects would have been made of perishable materials such as bark, feathers, mud, wood or hide. Many images would have been painted upon open-air surfaces and have simply worn away. The anthropologist Olga Soffer found imprints left on ceramics 25,000 years ago by textiles, but these textiles have long ago disappeared.

There are two sets of exceptions, surviving examples of which number many thousands. One of them is known as ‘mobiliary’ art, which consists of portable objects such as sculptures.

Mobiliary art of the Paleolithic

These sculptures portray humans, animals, and even mixtures of the two. In the Aurignacian there appear sculpted female figures, like the figurines found at Willendorf and Lespugue — there are few such sculptures of males. Their exaggerated sexual characteristics have led some archaeologists to suggest they were symbols of fertility (more on that topic in a dedicated article).

The Gravettian site of Dolní Věstonice in the Czech Republic has been particularly rich in these finds, and the remains of little clay figurines, baked in kilns, provides evidence that around 26,000 years ago ceramics had been invented; the site gave us a female statuette which is the oldest known ceramic in the world. It also revealed a male statuette or marionette made of ivory, of which all that remains are the head, torso and left arm.

Dame à la Capuche from BrassempouyThe so-called Dame à la Capuche (‘lady with the hood’), discovered at Brassempouy in France in 1892. About 25,000 years old, it is the oldest known depiction of a human head. Very probably female, it is carved from ivory and is just 3.6cm high.

Interestingly, such figurines are not found outside of Europe and Russia, even though our species was distributed over most of the world by the end of the Pleistocene.

In the Hohlenstein-Stadel cave in Germany, a statue was found made of carved mammoth tusk, representing a half-human, half-lion figure; its purpose may have been shamanistic. Another beautiful example is a tiny horse carved from mammoth ivory found in the Vogelherd caves in Germany, which had been perforated to be worn as a pendant. A cave site at Mas d’Azil in the French Pyrenees has yielded some of the finest carvings of the Stone Age: among them a horse’s head and an ibex beautifully captured in a moment of tension.

Other mobiliary art includes small objects of bone, stone or ivory engraved with markings of uncertain meaning: they have been described as tallies or astronomical records. We also have personal adornments such as beads and perforated shells and animal teeth. There were even musical instruments, such as the 36,000-year old flute found at the cave at Geissenklösterle in Germany — and if they made music, Paleolithic people must have sung and danced too. You can read my article on Paleolithic music here.

Parietal art

The other set of surviving Paleolithic art works is known as ‘parietal’ art — paintings and engravings in caves and on rocks. The most famous are the magnificent paintings of European sites like Lascaux, Altamira and Chauvet, but there are thousands of rock art sites in Africa and Australia too, and new sites are being discovered every year. In Europe parietal art appeared 32,000 years ago at French sites like the cave at Chauvet, home to the oldest known paintings in the world, but the great majority of European parietal art was created by the Magdalenians, with those of Lascaux dating to around 15,000 years ago.

Paintings from LascauxPaintings from Lascaux. Photo: Jack Versloot.

The artists painted with the materials available to their technology: ochre (a pigment made of tinted clay), manganese oxide (a source of black), hematite (an iron oxide that leaves reddish marks) and charcoal. Their techniques showed sophistication from the beginning, such as ‘pointillist’ dot paintings, using the natural contours of the cave to give form to the representations, and scraping the rock surface to indicate negative space by revealing lighter rock beneath.

There are also images that have been engraved or pecked into the rock, and even bas-relief sculptures. Two sculptures of bison modelled in clay, found in the Tuc d’Audoubert cave in France in 1912, show a skill equal to that of subsequent eras.

There is an extremely rich tradition of rock art in Africa, but dating the sites is more problematic. Cave painting there seems in general to date to about 12,000 years ago, after the Pleistocene, which poses something of a puzzle for archaeologists — given that Homo sapiens originated in Africa, why does parietal art appear there so much later than in Europe, which our species only colonised some 40,000 years ago? Why was the flowering of cave art in what is now France and Spain such a localised phenomenon? As yet, we cannot say.

The subject matter of cave art is extremely limited, and is striking for what it does not show or tell. There is little evidence of composition or of narrative. There are no structures, no objects, no suns or landscapes or horizons. The art tells us little directly about everyday life, social structure, family life, the role or status of the artist, etc. The images predominantly depict animals such as bison, horses, mammoths and bears. People are relatively rare, although they become more common later.

In addition to representational paintings there is a wide variety of symbolic markings. These include handprints, both as silhouettes and as direct impresses of a hand marked with paint, or finger-markings like those of Koonalda Cave in Australia. Other, geometrical, symbols have been described in various ways, for example as vulvas. Such descriptions may owe more to modern observers’ striving to make sense of them than to the evidence. The markings’ indisputable point of interest is that they are repeated in the same form over and over again, that is they are not necessarily random acts of mark-making or doodling — although these do exist — but seem to have symbolic consistency. Just as the symbols of modern hunter-gatherers, and of modern urban society, have a broad and rich variety of meanings, we can expect that Paleolithic people invested their symbols with meanings of similar complexity.

The earliest architecture

Although we think of the Paleolithic hunter-gatherers as living a nomadic lifestyle, there is evidence that they built shelters. The very first glimmerings of this would have been campsites or hearths bearing evidence of controlled fire use. Our first examples of this date to the Middle Paleolithic.[2]

The earliest proposed evidence for actual buildings dates as long ago as 380,000 years ago: at the Terra Amata site near Nice, alongside Acheulian flint tools, archaeologists found arrangements of stones which have been interpreted as being the foundations for temporary shelters. This evidence is, however, very inconclusive.

During the Upper Paleolithic, the existence of buildings becomes indisputable. The most striking are huts found in the Czech Republic, Poland and the Ukraine, where the open plain offered less protection via natural features like caves. These shelters were built from the bones of woolly mammoths, and are sometimes a handful are clustered together, like a prototypical village. A structure at Mezhirich in the Ukraine required the bones of 95 mammoths and was made about 15,000 years ago. (You can find images here.)

Further west, such structures were less necessary, but there is still evidence that Paleolithic people altered the interiors of caves with hearths and partitions.


Prehistory spans an immense period of time, most of it falling in the Paleolithic. If we consider humans to have begun creating art 40,000 years ago, and that the period ends 10,000 years ago with the Neolithic, this gives us a very approximate span of 30,000 years. By the end of this period, art can be found on all the continents save human-free Antarctica. So all we can do here is skim across the surface of a vast topic.

In addition, we must remember that the surviving examples are just the tip of the iceberg. Paleolithic societies probably produced an immense amount of painting, textiles, music, dancing body-painting, figurines and so on, the vast majority of which would have been created using perishable materials and are irretrievably lost. Absence of proof for such objects is of course not proof of absence. If our knowledge of surviving hunter-gatherer societies were to be limited to objects that fossilised, we would have only the barest impression of their culture, and some might even conclude that they were less intelligent or had no art.

Not only is the Paleolithic the longest artistic ‘period’, it is also the first. We can spend thousands of words speculating on the origins of symbolic communication in our species, but these images and objects represent the first unequivocal evidence of information being stored symbolically outside of the human mind, being externalised through human labour. This is why exploring it is important — it will help explain human evolution and the origin and nature of art. This process of exploration can never be straightforward, as Colin Renfrew observed: “The image of the past that we see is one that we ourselves have constructed. It is one that is continually changing.”[3] We shall consider the interpretation of Paleolithic art in the next article.

Read also my article on Women in Paleolithic Art.

[1] In Asia, the record for Paleolithic art is very scanty, despite the presence of Homo erectus in China and Java half a million years ago. The only reliably dated rock art in China to my knowledge is the rock face at Huashan, which is just over 2000 years old and thus not of Paleolithic origin.
[2] There is a difference between being able to control fire and deliberately building fireplaces. Humans may have begun to control fire as early as Homo erectus, but exactly how and when remains moot. The earliest known evidence of fire use comes from Swartkrans in South Africa and dates to 1.5 million years ago, but is disputed by many scientists. A probable date for the widespread controlled use of fire is about 125,000 years ago.
[3] Colin Renfrew, Prehistory: The Making of the Human Mind (2007).

Further reading
It is not my intention in this blog to provide a comprehensive survey of Paleolithic art, which would be impossible anyway. To readers who want to know more, here’s a handful of recommendations:
• The Prehistory section of the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History (starts 20,000 BCE).
Parietal and mobiliary art at the Palanth forum (International Journal of Palaeoanthropology).
A virtual tour of Lascaux (click ‘Discover’).
• Paul Bahn, The Cambridge Illustrated History of Prehistoric Art (Cambridge University Press, 1997)
• Randall White, Prehistoric Art: The Symbolic Journey of Humankind (Harry N. Abrams, 2003)
• Denis Vialou, Prehistoric Art and Civilisation (Harry N. Abrams, 1998)


Saturday, 13 December 2008

Paleolithic art, part 2: The Human Revolution

There seem to have been two main spurts of growth in the human brain, the first associated with Homo habilis 2–1.5 million years ago, and the second 500,000–200,000 years ago. Another major change in humankind is traditionally dated at around 40,000 years ago during the transition from Middle to Upper Paleolithic: it was then that unequivocal works of art appeared for the first time, along with the technological impetus that would take us towards agriculture and civilisation. It is a matter of dispute how far biological change was involved in what was clearly an extraordinary cultural phenomenon.

Some prehistorians argue the existence of a ‘Human Revolution’ because of the flowering of culture at this time — it has been described as an ‘explosion’ or ‘big bang’. Instead of the laborious creep of evolutionary change, the main dynamic in human development became one of rapid cultural innovation. In the words of the anthropologist Randall White, “It is not an exaggeration to state that just a few square metres at certain Aurignacian sites have yielded more representational objects than are known for the entire planet in the period before 40,000 years ago.” [1] Besides unambiguous representational art, the archaeological record provides us with many new features: tools made of bone and ivory, tools made of multiple parts, abstract symbolism, body decoration such as beads and pendants, sculpture, musical instruments and ritual burial (itself in turn implying religious beliefs). Not only did tools become more complex and specialised — giving us the bow and harpoon — but so did hunting, with fish and bird bones appearing at prehistoric sites for the first time. There was more regional diversification, and humans emigrated from Africa, including crossing the seas to new territories like Australia. All this is hugely exciting, because such behaviour shows these humans were just like ourselves.

The achievement was the greater for taking place at the end of the Pleistocene era, when the last glacial period or Ice Age made the environment particularly harsh. In addition, the Toba catastrophe theory suggests that the human population, following a massive volcanic explosion around 77,000 years ago, may have been on the brink of extinction. The almost identical DNA shared by all living humans has prompted some scientists to suggest we are all related to a single African population of a few thousand — perhaps, at that time, the only surviving humans on earth.

Was there a revolution?

The idea of a ‘Human Revolution’ is not accepted by all prehistorians. The innovations of Homo sapiens, the critics contend, were not a sudden ‘revolution’ but developed incrementally since our emergence around 200,000 years ago in Africa; the appearance of advanced tools and art only seemed sudden because of the inconsistency of the evidence and a huge emphasis upon European sites such as Lascaux. As we discussed in the previous article, finds in Africa — such as those in the Blombos cave — imply that modern human behaviour appeared thousands of years before the more celebrated European cave paintings, making art twice as old as previously thought.

These are very strong arguments, but do not prove wrong the theory that a kind of revolution took place.

Firstly, although there is no doubt that our species originated in Africa, the current material record is relatively small and inconsistent. We have already mentioned the finds at Blombos Cave in South Africa. The Klasies River Mouth Cave produced evidence of occupation by Homo sapiens possibly 125,000 years ago, including notched bones and pieces of red ochre, a soft stone that can be used to make paint; archaeologists believe it was used for body painting, which is suggestive of the use of symbolism. Although evidence of the use of symbolism does exist, these are isolated finds and we should be careful not to construe them as evidence of fully-developed artistic activity. It is one thing to say that humans were capable of notching, incising and piercing objects before 40,000 years ago — there must have been some period of development before the appearance of fully-formed, sophisticated works of art. It is quite another to say that they had developed an artistic culture. What we seem to be looking at is sporadic flarings of a new kind of behaviour: at Blombos, for example, the two blocks of ochre that had symbolic incisions lay among 8000 other pieces. Of course, this may simply be a matter of what has been preserved and found. But the scraps of evidence that we have do not remotely compare to the many thousands of artifacts that appear later and provide clear evidence of highly-developed symbolic, cultural systems.

Another problem is the speed and scale of the change. Out of a species history spanning 3 million years, civilisation has existed for just 5000, yet in that time we have travelled from handaxes to personal computers, from the wheel to international space stations. By contrast, the Acheulian technology lasted a million years with barely any changes at all. It is obvious that something extraordinary had happened to Homo sapiens which we have seen in no other species, human or otherwise. At what rate this developed over the course of existence of Homo sapiens is still open for debate, but there is still no denying a dramatic qualitative change in the behaviour and skills of our species.

It is instructive, as always, to enlist dialectics. Art could only be produced by the new consciousness unique to Homo sapiens, which was an innovation. But recall the image of the spiral: all new forms contain within them the old forms that created them. The new form is a return, upon a higher level. The modern mind grew out of intelligences that had already existed for many thousands of years, giving us technical, social and linguistic powers (whether or not one believes that each forms a separate ‘module’ in the brain). It was both a continuation of those powers and a qualitative step beyond them: the final evolutionary leap to modern humans. If this was more gradual than the ‘big bang’ that has sometimes been claimed, it is still relatively fast by the sluggish standards of evolution.

So I would argue that from a Marxist viewpoint the ‘Human Revolution’ is still valid, provided it is redefined as a general human development (containing contradictions and complexities that are still poorly understood) rather than a sudden cultural explosion in Europe 40,000 years ago.

What happened?

The idea of the ‘Human Revolution’ of course begs the question of what precisely happened to turn Homo sapiens into modern, self-aware and cultured humans. Anatomically-modern Homo sapiens seems to have appeared about 200,000 years ago, according to DNA estimates and to fossil evidence from the Omo river in Ethiopia. Yet stone tools created by members of this species in the Levant are the same as those of Neanderthals in the same region. How do we explain the gap between our species’ first appearance and the flowering of our consciousness and art — a delay of many thousands of years? The gap up until the agricultural or Neolithic revolution, which inaugurates a wave of technical and cultural innovations that have shaped human society ever since, adds another 10,000 years again. We cannot explain art, religion and symbolism by a change in our genes. There were no changes in body morphology or brain capacity in that time, and humans alive today share essentially the same genotype as those who dispersed from Africa 60,000 years ago. The potential for our fully developed humanity must be already present in the genome.

This is the problem that Colin Renfrew has termed the ‘sapient paradox’: or ‘the time gap between genotype and take-off’ [2]. Solving it is one of the great tasks of modern archaeology, for it is in this transformation, and with it the rise of art, that the real Human Revolution lies.

At the moment, we don’t know for sure what happened. But there are of course a few theories.

Firstly let us return to Steven Mithen, who argues that what differentiated modern humans from Neanderthals was their acquisition of ‘cognitive fluidity’ — that is, that the barriers came down between the various areas of intelligence. A key result of this was that we started to think in very new and creative ways. For example we could think of nature, including landscapes and animals, as if it were a social being.

Give a child a kitten and she will believe it has a mind like her own: anthropomorphising appears to be compulsive. Give a child a doll and she will start talking to it, feeding it and changing its nappy. That inert lump of moulded plastic never smiles at her, but she seems to use the same mental process for interacting with it as she uses for interacting with real people.[3]

Homo sapiens can mix areas of knowledge at will using the imagination. We can invest rocks and trees with sentience, conceive of people flying (like birds), walking on water (like pondskaters), living forever (like stones). Such fluidity made possible works like the half-human, half-lion figurine from Hohlenstein-Stadel in Germany, or the horned human image from the cave at Trois-Frères. Mithen argues that Neanderthals could never have anthropomorphised animals in this way — they would not have understood stories that required us to believe, say, in talking animals, because they could not get past the fact that animals cannot talk. He speculates that at some point, the different chapels in the metaphorical ‘cathedral’ of our minds connected not just to a general intelligence but also to each other, possibly through a kind of ‘superchapel’ or clearing house:

Now in this clearing house all kinds of mischief can occur. Ideas from different modules, and those which have no home to go to, can get together in some peculiar ways. For instance, knowledge about dogs can get mixed up with knowledge about physical objects and with knowledge about beliefs and desires, so that when a child is given a toy dog — an inert lump of stuffed material — he or she makes it behave like a dog, while also giving it human-like beliefs, desires and intentions.[4]

In Mithen’s opinion, the motor for the creation of cognitive fluidity was language. Once language had appeared, it could draw upon not just social intelligence but every kind, creating connections in the mind between the different chapels of the cathedral. Links from each area of intelligence to every other area would be the final step to modern human consciousness, producing a cultural explosion.

Language could be seen as the ultimate human tool. Language assisted the expansion both of our society and of our consciousness: it may be that certain forms of thought are simply not possible until words and images have been created through which to imagine them. Abstractions, named and ordered, helped us to assimilate and integrate the mass of our social and material knowledge.

A cultural explosion would not have been the ‘intended’ outcome of this evolutionary change. Art, like religion, was in this view made possible by it, and appeared as a side effect — what the scientists Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin described as ‘spandrels’.[5]

Although Mithen’s conception of human consciousness is interesting, the problem with the ‘modular’ view of the mind is that there is no neuroscientific evidence that such modularity exists. It is also unclear what genetic process would be able to pull down the barriers between modules.

An alternative and more recent view to Mithen’s comes from Randall White (cited earlier), who has proposed that humans may have had “the neurological hardware for representational thought” long before they learned to practise it:

There is a distinction to be drawn here, between the neurological capacity for a particular kind of action and the actual performance of it. For example, no one doubts the capacity of the Cro-Magnons of late Ice Age Europe to plant and harvest crops. The fact that they did not do so requires explanations that are purely ecological and cultural in nature. Likewise, the frequently noted inability (until taught) of non-Western peoples to read photographs shown to them by Western anthropologists is not to be understood as a lack of neurological capacity. Rather, it is based on the absence of a social, cultural, technological, and historical context for understanding and applying the visual logic of photography.[6]

White argues that the emergence of art must have had some adaptive value in the context of 40,000 years ago. “There is little room in an evolutionary view for art as a divinely inspired struggle to create beautiful or novel forms.” Rather than being caused by a biological change, it arose out of the encounter between Homo sapiens and Neanderthals in Eurasia [7]. Long established in the region and very well adapted to its cold climate, the Neanderthals must have been difficult competition, and cultural skills such as symbolic representation may have given Homo sapiens the adaptive advantage they needed. It allowed brand new ways of thinking and of organising; it made possible highly complex social structures and identities (communicated for example through body painting or adornment); and it coincided with a revolutionary period of technological innovation that must have been connected with new, creative ways of thinking.

Once humans gave themselves the power to manipulate form in transposing it from its original context into stone, paint, or ivory, the cultural capacity for human creativity mushroomed. The transfer of qualities from one context to another is an essential part of the construction of metaphors. It is perhaps not surprising then... that among the earliest known images are imaginary creatures, part human, part animal, that reconfigure nature in human terms.

White’s solution may simply offer us a different route to cognitive fluidity, with competition with the Neanderthals, rather than language, as the driving force.

White shares common ground with probably the most important contemporary framework, set out by, amongst others, Colin Renfrew in Prehistory: The Making of the Human Mind. Renfrew argues that the ‘speciation’ phase of Homo sapiens, i.e. the period in which the genotype was established, must have effectively ended by 60,000 years ago, when we spread from Africa. All our subsequent developments in consciousness, with the emergence of art, religion, symbolism etc, must then belong to a ‘tectonic’ phase that is culturally determined.

What I shall suggest is that it was most certainly the shared ideas, concepts and conventions that developed in [human] groups, and which became specific to each trajectory of development, that guided and conditioned further innovations. These shared conventions, the ‘institutional facts’... shaped the way that these groups, and the individuals who comprised them, interacted with each other and the world. This interaction with the world, this material engagement, involves not only those people themselves but also their encounter with the physical properties of the material world. It is in this process of material engagement that the origins of growth and change are to be understood.[8]

We shall return to some of Renfrew’s ideas when we examine the origins of symbolism. He offers a materialist framework for the study of human creativity which, with its emphasis on humans’ material engagement with the physical world, offers no contradiction with Marxism. His view that it was culture that led to our species’ ‘take-off’, rather than any genetic process, is my view the most compelling, and it is one we will return to again (see for example our discussion of human nature).

Other theories exist, of course. One contends that the small population of Homo sapiens from which all modern humans are descended was living in perilous conditions, and only the most ingenious survived. Another (proposed by Richard Klein) contends that the leap was down to a genetic mutation. The fact is that the causes and course of the Human Revolution remain uncertain. In my view, however, it is evident that some kind of ‘revolution’ did occur.


Anatomically and cognitively modern humanity has existed for a very short time — perhaps 60,000 years — during which the species has barely changed. The study of our evolution, however, never stands still. The origins of modern human beings remain the subject of an immense amount of research and discussion. One of the most important fields of inquiry today is the development of a cognitive archaeology — to combine what we know from the material remains of previous ages with empirical study of the modern brain to reconstruct the evolution of the human mind. This process has to draw upon sociology, anthropology, neuroscience and other disciplines, and how these different processes interact.

Cognitive archaeology therefore must be both materialist and dialectical. The relevance of Marxism to contemporary science is clear.

It is not my intention to claim a particular position for Marxism as a whole on the Human Revolution, nor to try and give its stamp of approval to the theories of Steven Mithen, Randall White or others (even if I had the authority to do so). Archaeology has come far enough for us to know that what seems obvious today may be thrown into doubt by a new find tomorrow, or that long-standing controversies sometimes are solved. There is no Marxist magic wand that can conjure up a correct answer through theory alone. Our interest is in seeking materialist explanations of the origins of art and culture, and Marxism will continue to embrace the latest scientific thought upon what makes us human beings.


[1] Randall White, Prehistoric Art: The Symbolic Journey of Humankind (2003).
[2] Colin Renfrew, Prehistory: The Making of the Human Mind (2007). In the same book, Renfrew opposes the idea of a ‘Human Revolution’ arguing with some justification that the evidence is partial and localised. I would respond that the Human Revolution can only be understood in very broad terms.
[3] Mithen, The Prehistory of the Mind (1996).
[4] ibid. The theory that language is responsible for triggering our creativity is also supported by, for example, Jared Diamond in his book The Third Chimpanzee (2006).
[5] See Gould and Lewontin’s paper, The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm (1979).
[6] Randall White, op. cit.
[7] White supports the theory of a ‘human revolution’, and is sceptical about the existence of significant symbolic activity prior to modern humans’ arrival in Eurasia.
[8] Renfrew, op. cit.

Paleolithic art, part 1: The road towards art

Art is one of humanity’s most fundamental activities — the earliest works of art predate some of our most basic skills, such as pottery and weaving — and there is good reason to suppose that it was only created in full-blown form, with some possible exceptions, by behaviourally modern Homo sapiens.

When we discuss prehistoric art, we need to be clear what we mean. ‘Prehistory’ does not have fixed dates. It refers to the vast body of human experience that predates the keeping of records, which depend upon written language and are acquired at different times in different cultures, if at all — for some societies ‘prehistory’ in the literal sense extends well into the industrial era. It is worth noting that until very recently, religious notions of where humans came from obscured our awareness of our ancient past. As Colin Renfrew put it, “Two centuries ago, prehistory did not exist... the very notion of ‘prehistory’, in the sense of a broad stretch of time going back before the dawn of written history, had not been formulated.”[1]

The era populated by our early human ancestors and ourselves up until the agricultural revolution about 10,000 years ago is known as the Old Stone Age or Paleolithic (from the Greek paleos ‘old’ and lithos ‘stone’). No precise dividing line exists between true art and the activities that preceded it, but the first unequivocal works of art appear somewhere in the transition from Middle to Upper Paleolithic, the latter dating roughly from 40,000 to 10,000 years ago. Writing, and with it history, arose in the wake of the agricultural revolution, which I will discuss in later articles. We should not let such labels disguise how real trends overlap and develop unevenly. But the labels are useful because, based upon our current knowledge, they refer to distinct stages in social development.

Around 50,000 years ago, there was a migration of modern humans out of Africa. By 30,000 years ago they had replaced every other human species, and by 20,000 years ago they had spread to every continent except Antarctica. This period coincides with an explosion of cultural activity, which included all the principal creative skills — painting, engraving, sculpture, jewellery, music, even ceramics and textiles. This flowering was accompanied by important technological innovations too, suggesting that these advances were connected.

The earliest alleged art objects and Neanderthal culture

The oldest ever object relevant to our topic is the three million year-old Makapansgat pebble from South Africa, a stone whose natural wearing has given it the resemblance of a crude human face — it was found far from any natural source, which has suggested to some that it may have been carried off by an australopithecine who appreciated its symbolic force. An alleged sculpture found near Tan-Tan in Morocco, made of quartzite and painted with red ochre, has been dated as between 300,000 to 500,000 years old. A similar artifact made of volcanic tuff was found at the Golan Heights in Syria. Both bear a very vague resemblance to female figures, and marks left by carving mean they have been claimed to be art objects. If it were true, they would be the oldest known works of art in the world.

The artifact found at the Berekhat RamThe artifact found at the Berekhat Ram site on the Golan Heights, claimed by some to be a crude female figurine

A fragment of elephant tibia found at Bilzingsleben in Germany, and dated to around 350–400,000 years ago, bears two sets of incised parallel lines, which have been alleged to be symbolic in purpose. In 1999 a team excavating in a cave in South Africa found a piece of ochre, carved with a criss-cross pattern, and some beads that seem to have been pierced to be worn as jewellery. These finds date to about 77,000 years ago.

To investigate further, let us take an example from relatively recent history.

From our first appearance to 28,000 years ago, Homo sapiens shared the world with Homo neanderthalensis, or the Neanderthals, who occupied an area from northern Europe to Iran. (There were also populations of Homo erectus in Asia.) Despite their apeish popular image, Neanderthals were an accomplished people who made tools and even buried their dead. Their brain was slightly larger than ours, and their use of the Levallois method to create stone flakes — which even modern archaeology students find hard to master — proves that they were able tool-makers. They were very well adapted to the brutal environment of ice age Europe.

Some prehistorians, for example Desmond Collins in his 1976 book The Human Revolution, suggested that Neanderthals simply evolved into modern humans, through interbreeding or neoteny. Only from 1997 did the study of mitochondrial DNA prove that we were separate species that had diverged around 5–600,000 years ago. Rather than representing a new evolutionary future, the arrival of Homo sapiens in Europe about 40,000 years ago — the last time different human species shared the Earth — meant the Neanderthals’ doom. This was probably not down to violence: the two species seem to have co-existed for 10,000 years. Nor was it due to the Neanderthals’ lack of success as a species, given that their span of existence of at least 200,000 years exceeds our own so far. A popular traditional view is that they were less well adapted than the competition, who could think, communicate and organise better than they could.[2] This may be mere self-flattery by our species — diseases introduced to the isolated Neanderthal groups by extensive new Homo sapiens populations might be all the explanation we need.

Neanderthals were less developed than ourselves in key respects (the successful extraction of their DNA locates them somewhere between chimps and Homo sapiens). There is no evidence of ritual attached to their burials, such as the placing of items with the bodies, which calls into question their capacity for symbolism; they seem only to have used stone and wood for their tools, although bone was abundantly available and their tool-making skill is beyond question; and there is no unequivocal evidence that they used body ornamentation. For many years it was assumed they were completely without art.

The latter issue was complicated in 2003 with the discovery of an apparent piece of sculpture. Known as the Mask of la Roche-Cotard, it is an estimated 35,000 years old. Other possible art objects include a flute, carved from the bone of a cave bear, and items of jewellery, not to mention other items that seem to have been collected because of unusual colour or form. Was this another instance of the traditional barrier between Homo sapiens and other species being torn down?

Alleged Neanderthal fluteAlleged Neanderthal flute, found at the Divje Babe site in Slovenia

There is no reason in principle why Neanderthals should not have developed some degree of aesthetic consciousness. It is possible that Neanderthals had language, which like art requires the grasp of symbolic communication. Even chimpanzees show graphical intelligence, and Neanderthals were much more advanced than chimpanzees. But as we have seen with our study of ape painting, there is a difference between this and true artistic sensibility. The ‘Mask’ is a highly contentious object. It is a 10cm piece of flint with a second piece of flint pushed through it, with signs of carving that seems to create a very crude impression of a face. Some very extravagant claims have been made for this object. Paul Bahn was probably premature when he declared that the Mask “should finally nail the lie that Neanderthals had no art”. Created when Homo sapiens was already co-existing in Europe, the Mask might have been created by them, and acquired by a curious Neanderthal. The item may have had some other purpose, or be part of another object, or be a piece of experimentation that did not resemble a face at all in its maker’s eyes. The facial resemblance may be entirely in our minds — another example of our irrepressible anthropomorphising. We don’t know, and for that reason should err on the side of caution. Likewise, the existence of a ‘flute’ is disputed — the holes in the bone may just be tooth marks; the ornaments seem only to have been made after contact with the culture of Homo sapiens.

Even if Neanderthals did produce symbolic, aesthetic objects without the intervention of their more cognitively advanced cousins, such objects are rare at Neanderthal sites. This is probably down to various causes. One of the most significant may be that Neanderthals lived in lower population densities and had much less communication between groups, depriving them of the social networks that made symbolic communication advantageous. At best, Neanderthal art was sporadic, never as widespread and consistent as our own. “The great problem with all the Neanderthal art,” said archaeologist Clive Gamble, “is that they are one-offs.”[3]

In his book The Prehistory of the Mind, the archaeologist Steven Mithen draws upon evolutionary psychology [4] to propose that the mind is divided into several broad areas of intelligence: social, natural history, technological, and linguistic. Each is a specialised domain handling a particular aspect of behaviour. There is little reason to doubt that Neanderthals had social behaviours comparable to our own, and they clearly did not lack technological skills. This makes their paucity of art more puzzling:

We have seen that Early Humans were regularly imposing form on to their stone artifacts. Handaxes and Levallois flakes required the extraction of objects of a preconceived form from nodules of stone. In view of such technical intelligence, the failure to make three-dimensional objects of art cannot reflect difficulties in conceiving of objects ‘within’ a block of stone or ivory, or the mental planning and dexterity to ‘extract’ them. The cognitive processes located in the domain of technical intelligence used for making stone artifacts appear to have been sufficient to produce a figurine from an ivory tusk. But they were not used for such ends.[5]

Mithen argues that the difference in Neanderthals’ achievements and ours lies in the architecture of the mind. Drawing an analogy with a cathedral, he suggests that for Neanderthals, as for all early humans, each area of intelligence was a separate chapel. A nave of general intelligence connected to each, but the individual chapels were barred from the others (we shall return to this idea in the next post). Mithen’s theory could explain why Neanderthals seem to have lacked the imaginative thinking required for works of true art. Over 200,000 years of existence, their technology, known as the Mousterian, showed no advances whatsoever.

An exception came about 35–30,000 years ago in the period known as the Châtelperronian, which sees an overlap between Neanderthal objects and those of Homo sapiens in the form of jewellery and more advanced tools. Such finds may be seen as the emergence of a more advanced sensibility in the Neanderthals, right at the end of their existence. But that this new technology should appear at the same time as the Cro-Magnons (early Homo sapiens) [6] are spreading into the same habitat is perhaps no coincidence. It is possible that Neanderthals’ alleged aesthetic objects were copied or acquired through their contacts with Homo sapiens and that they did not fully understand the symbolic nature of these objects. There is no escaping the poverty of claimed Neanderthal art objects compared to the magnificence of modern humans’ painting and sculpture: on current evidence, even if we accept objects like the Mask as authentic pieces of art, the Neanderthals became extinct without having developed a culture remotely comparable to Homo sapiens’. Well-preserved Neanderthal sites have been excavated which offer thousands of artifacts and yet nothing in the way of art.

Fresh evidence may one day prove that early humans did in fact produce true art. I should point out that this would pose no problem to Marxist theory. There is no ‘official’ Marxist position upon whether they did so (my own scepticism is based upon the inadequacy of the evidence, not upon the demands of a dogma). It would simply mean that another human species had succeeded, to whatever extent, in following the same path as ourselves. The early humans’ extinction implies however that they were at some disadvantage compared to their competitors. It is very likely they had not made the same leap to full imaginative intelligence (‘cognitive fluidity’, in Mithen’s language) that enabled Homo sapiens to colonise the world.

It is not unreasonable to believe that early human minds were significantly different to, and less advanced than, our own: the gaps in their production suggest they did not have our imagination or inventiveness. The Makapansgat pebble is clearly just a found object, and the Bilzingsleben markings might not be aesthetic or symbolic in intent. There is not enough contextual evidence that these objects are more than just anomalies whose resemblance to art is coincidental. The supposed figurines of Berekhat Ram and Tan-Tan are pieces of rock with evidence of having been modified by tools — to claim them as pieces of sculpture is extremely questionable. The most we can say of these or or the Mask of La Roche-Cotard is that they are proto-art — crude, early strivings at art, which their makers perhaps barely understood themselves — and true art remains the preserve of Homo sapiens.

Engraved piece of ochre found in Blombos caveThe engraved piece of ochre found in Blombos cave. Photo: Henning

The Blombos ochre is an intriguing find because, although we can only speculate on the meaning of its engraved pattern, it is clearly a pattern and thus a symbolic object — beads, and other forms of bodily adornment, are also signs of symbolic behaviour. Bone tools and pierced shells from other African sites (e.g. Ethiopia and the Congo) date back to a similar time. What this evidence implies is that modern human beings may have developed earlier than was previously believed. The Cro-Magnons for example, who occupied Europe around 40,000 years ago, may have already formed their modern human skills — hut-building, cave painting, weaving — before they arrived in Europe. This timescale does not seem inconsistent with the date of migration to Australia 50,000 years ago, which itself will have required skills beyond the ability of early humans.

This brings us to the dawn of art — and to the possibility of a ‘human revolution’.

[1] Colin Renfrew, Prehistory: The Making of the Human Mind (2007). The study of prehistory experienced two great forward leaps in the 20th century: radiometric dating, of which radiocarbon dating is the best-known method, and the analysis of DNA.
[2] There are various theories to explain Neanderthals’ demise, including the effect of climate change.
[3] Cited in Jonathan Amos, ‘Neanderthal “face” found in Loire’, BBC website (December 2003).
[4] Mithen draws for example upon the work of Jerry Fodor, Leda Cosmides and John Tooby, who propose ‘modules’ for specific areas of intelligence. Evolutionary psychology contends that the mind must have evolved through adaptation, just like other species characteristics. It is sometimes accused of genetic determinism and has been used to justify reactionary ideas, but whether or not it is taken down this path depends, like many fields of inquiry, upon its practitioners — any theory, including Marxism, may be made reductive. As Stephen Jay Gould, who has been critical of evolutionary psychology, noted: “Humans are animals and the mind evolved; therefore, all curious people must support the quest for an evolutionary psychology” (from his article ‘Darwinian Fundamentalism’, 1997).
[5] Mithen, The Prehistory of the Mind (1996).
[6] The term ‘Cro-Magnon’ is a general term used to describe the earliest modern Homo sapiens population in Europe. The name derives from the Cro-Magnon rock shelter site at Les Eyzies in France, where the first fossil remains were found in 1868.

Sunday, 30 November 2008

Dialectical materialism, part 2

As we have said, Marxism sees the universe as governed by material processes. These do not work in a mechanical fashion, as in the ‘clockwork’ model proposed in the seventeenth century, but is propelled by relationships and contradictions. Dialectics is, in Engels’ words, “nothing more than the science of the general laws of motion and development of nature, human society and thought... Motion is the mode of existence of matter. Never anywhere has there been matter without motion, nor can there be.”[1]

For it [dialectics], nothing is final, absolute, sacred. It reveals the transitory character of everything and in everything; nothing can endure before it except the uninterrupted process of becoming and of passing away, of endless ascendancy from the lower to the higher.[2]

Dialectics can seem contrary to ‘common sense’ or even irrational, especially when set against formal logic. Yet the concept is confirmed both by our everyday experience and by scientific investigation. After all, no real piece of clockwork is created, set in motion, and simply ticks forever: in the real world, it will gradually wear down, rust and disintegrate into a new form.

We know the universe is in constant motion. Edward Hubble observed in 1929 that galaxies were moving away from us in every direction; every object in our solar system is in orbit around the sun. On Earth, the tectonic plates are constantly changing the shapes of the continents, pulling them apart, pushing them together, creating and removing land bridges, etc. Species appear, thrive for sometimes millions of years, then die out leaving only a few bones behind. We ourselves are not static but come into existence, develop and then pass away; while we live, our cells are regularly renewed, meaning that the physical stuff we are made of is not the same stuff we were made of ten years ago. Even concerning life and death, which seem to us such clear opposites, it is very difficult to find a clear line between the two states. As for the “ascendancy from the lower to the higher”, the perfect illustration is the evolution of species, in which species give way to new ones better adapted to their environment. (We should however avoid interpreting ‘higher’ as a value judgement, inappropriately imposing a notion of progress on an evolutionary process of best fit.) Dialectics shows that matter is not just in motion but is impelled by contradictions. Instead of a smooth progression of states, we have gradual accumulations of quantitative changes that occasionally undergo qualitative leaps into new forms. It is these changes of quality (again, quality in the sense of attributes or properties, not necessarily of being ‘better’) that distinguish chimps and archaic humans from their common ancestor, Homo sapiens from earlier human species, etc.

To take an example from anthropology, the faces of Homo sapiens are not prognathous like other human species but under the braincase. This trait, which allowed the expansion of key parts of the brain, required only a few genetic changes, suggesting a fairly sudden leap from one form to a crucially different one.[3]

Eastern thought has produced theories of dialectics, as in the Hindu, Jain and Buddhist traditions. In ancient Greece, dialectics was first formulated in the 6th century BCE by Heraclitus, who believed all things to be in flux. Everything was composed of opposites, and the only reality was that of change: hence his famous metaphor, “no one steps into the same river twice”[4]. The influence of Heraclitus was enduring. Hegel, the most significant influence on Marx, said “there is no sentence of Heraclitus’ that I have not taken into my Logic.”[5]

Hegel and Marx

Enthused by the French Revolution, Hegel developed a system that saw humanity advancing through historical stages, each of which took us closer towards realisation of the Idea. Hegel found the motor for these successive stages by reviving Greek dialectics.

Although Hegel’s system was a huge advance on its ‘mechanical’ predecessors, it still conceived the world from an idealist perspective, which (as we saw in part 1) put it in contradiction with itself. Marx adopted Hegel’s dialectics while adapting them to materialism. He explained it thus:

My dialectic method is not only different from the Hegelian, but is its direct opposite. To Hegel, the life-process of the human brain, i.e., the process of thinking, which, under the name of ‘the Idea,’ he even transforms into an independent subject, is the demiurgos of the real world, and the real world is only the external, phenomenal form of ‘the Idea’. With me, on the contrary, the ideal is nothing else than the material world reflected by the human mind, and translated into forms of thought.[6]

For Marx the driving force of both natural processes and history was not contradictions between ideas but between material and social processes. This is the basis of what Marx called ‘the materialist conception of history’, which holds that social change is brought about by human actions rather than absolute and external forces.

We are not saying that Marxism does not recognise abstractions. Any item, considered in isolation, is an abstraction — abstraction is a necessary part of human thought. An actual object however is always concrete, and exists in relation to other concrete things. And all things that actually exist are in some state of motion. The variations in that motion are relative, but the existence of motion is absolute. Engels wrote:

Truth, the cognition of which is the business of philosophy, was in the hands of Hegel no longer an aggregate of finished dogmatic statements, which, once discovered, had merely to be learned by heart. Truth lay now in the process of cognition itself, in the long historical development of science, which mounts from lower to ever higher levels of knowledge without ever reaching, by discovering so-called absolute truth, a point at which it can proceed no further, where it would have nothing more to do than to fold its hands and gaze with wonder at the absolute truth to which it had attained.[7]

In this way the human search for knowledge never rests. It advances through a vast number of quantitative additions to the sum of knowledge, and occasionally — as with Newton’s theory of gravity, Einstein’s theory of relativity, etc — makes dramatic leaps into new conceptions of the universe. These conceptions are themselves succeeded, and so on, without end.

Formal logic vs dialectics

Dialectics may be termed the logic of change. Traditional logic — from the Greek logos, meaning ‘word’ or ‘reason’ — was originally formulated by Aristotle, and seeks to define laws for rational thought. Aristotelian logic contends that there are three laws of logic:

1. A equals A (a thing is equal to itself);
2. A does not equal not-A (a thing is not equal to something other than itself);
3. There is no thing which is not either A or not-A (i.e. there is no indeterminate middle ground).

These are the assumptions underlying syllogisms, which run like this:

Cleopatra is a human being.
Human beings are mortal.
Therefore Cleopatra is mortal.

The last statement seems a consistent and obvious conclusion, and formal logic does have its uses. Basic mathematics depends upon it. These laws seem self-evidently sensible, because a clock, say, is either a clock or it isn’t. And Marxism does not dispute that a clock is a clock. But fixed logic is limited because it deals only with fixed states, and does not allow for change, when in fact no thing is perfectly self-contained — every thing lives in a relationship with other things. The piece of clockwork we mentioned earlier will wear down more quickly if left outside in the rain than if it is kept indoors at an even temperature. It does not exist in glorious isolation but in a context with other things and processes.

These processes involve not a rigid ‘either/or’ but an infinite number of interdependent stages. At what precise point in time may we say, for example, that an ape has evolved into a human? On what day, at what minute or second, can the French Revolution be said to begin?

Three principles of dialectics

Hegel, and later Engels, outlined three main principles for dialectical motion:

1. The law of the transformation of quantity into quality and vice versa;
2. The law of the interpenetration of opposites;
3. The law of the negation of the negation.

1. The transformation of quantity into quality

Processes of change are not smooth and even. Some change is immensely slow, other change very fast. Dialectical materialism sees change as resulting from a series of quantitative changes, which accumulate until a qualitative change is brought about. This new quality is not a peaceful outgrowth of what existed before, but a radical break with it. A good example is the boiling of water. As the water gets hotter, it bubbles more and more but it is still water. When it reaches 100 degrees Celsius, however, it turns to steam, i.e. it is no longer water — quantitative change has passed into qualitative change.

Human DNA is separated from that of chimpanzees by just 2%, but this 2% is decisive; in it is encapsulated the leap of quality that makes us human beings.

2. The unity and conflict of opposites

“Contradiction is the root of all movement and vitality,” wrote Hegel, “and it is only insofar as it contains a contradiction that anything moves and has impulse and activity.”[8] Every thing is a balance between the forces that created it, and contains forces that will break it up or transform it. These contradictions are what create change. One of the most famous examples of this in Marxist theory is the class struggle:

It is common knowledge that, in any given society, the strivings of some of its members conflict with the strivings of others, that social life is full of contradictions, and that history reveals a struggle between nations and societies, as well as within nations and societies, and, besides, an alternation of periods of revolution and reaction, peace and war, stagnation and rapid progress or decline.[9]

The ultimate contradiction within capitalism is that it creates a proletariat that can destroy it.

Countless things in the universe exist in opposition to one another: rich and poor, capitalism and socialism, positive and negative, light and dark, thought and matter and so on. To understand a thing one must seek out the contradictory forces that combine within it. An atom is constructed around a nucleus containing positively-charged protons and neutral neutrons; negatively-charged electrons surround the nucleus, bound to it by electromagnetic force. The atom as a whole is electrically neutral, because the protons and electrons cancel one another out.

3. The negation of the negation

During a process of change, the ‘negative’ quality that caused the change is itself ‘negated’ or transformed into something new. As one thing comes into being, its predecessor passes away. As the steam comes out of the kettle, it represents the negation of the water. The steam itself won’t last forever — for example it might change into condensation on a window. As the steam is the negation of the water, so the condensation is the negation of the steam. This is the negation (in turn) of the negation (that caused the original change).

Whereas metaphysics moves in circles, this movement is best described in terms of a spiral: the thing returns to where it was, but at a higher level, and the thing it used to be is not entirely replaced. Thus elements of feudalism live on in bourgeois society — the British monarchy being an obvious example — and elements of older species survive in newer ones. When a human gets goose pimples, it is because in apes and early humans this raised the hairs to trap a layer of warm air. We have evolved into a new form for which the response is ineffective because we are a relatively naked ape. However, the goose pimples remain — they are vestigial, which means that they have lost their original function. Or Engels offered this illustration:

Butterflies, for example, spring from the egg through a negation of the egg, they pass through certain transformations until they reach sexual maturity, they pair and are in turn negated, dying as soon as the pairing process has been completed and the female has laid its numerous eggs.[10]

Marx and Engels did not ‘invent’ socialism. It had already been put forward by a number of earlier groups and thinkers, from the Diggers in the English Civil War period who wanted communal property rights to utopian [11] socialists such as Owen or Saint-Simon. What Marx and Engels did was build upon existing socialist thought and, by putting it upon a scientific basis, take it to a higher stage.

Dialectics and the ruling class

Dialectics is a problem for any ruling class because it wants the period of its rule to last for ever, and to present its values as being eternal. If one accepts that change is fundamental to everything, one must accept that this includes systems of government and modes of production, whereas the bourgeoisie wishes it to be taken for granted that there will always be inequality, war, and so on. It often justifies them on the grounds that they are caused by the selfishness of ‘human nature’: an absolute which it is futile to try and change. Marx wrote in Capital,

In its rational form [dialectics] is a scandal and abomination to the bourgeoisie and its doctrinaire spokesmen... because it includes in its positive understanding of what exists a simultaneous recognition of its negation, its inevitable destruction; because it regards every historically developed form as being in a fluid state, in motion, and therefore grasps its transient aspect as well; and because it does not let itself be impressed by anything, being in its very essence critical and revolutionary.[12]

The debate between dialectics and what we might term metaphysics is then one of two opposing philosophical systems. They have consequences in politics, just as politics has consequences for them. The most superficial understanding of history shows that forms of society come into existence, develop and interact with others, and then pass away to be succeeded by new forms. The non-dialectical model tolerates rigid classifications, erects walls between disciplines. It considers societies (or other subjects) abstractly, unhistorically. In an early article, for example, I noted a shortcoming in Gombrich’s The Story of Art: it has no conception of the historical forces that conditioned stylistic change in the arts.

I am not claiming that bourgeois science cannot be excellent and offer profound insights into how things work. But as well as the good work we must wade through reductionism, mystification and confusions. There is no mystery to the bourgeoisie’s resistance to a scientific approach: it is impossible to study society scientifically without being struck by the pressing need to change it.


Although these processes can be analysed in retrospect, predicting them is difficult. The reason is that so many different processes are at work that it is practically impossible to know quite how their interactions will resolve themselves. We may speculate about future events, based upon the most accurate information we have, but there is no such thing as fortune-telling. Nor is dialectical materialism a magic wand that can explain all problems. Here is Trotsky:

The dialectic... does not replace concrete scientific analysis. But it directs this analysis along the correct road, securing it against sterile wanderings in the desert of subjectivism and scholasticism.[13]

Readers may wonder what the relevance is of ‘the unity of opposites’ or ‘the negation of the negation’ to the real world or to art. In fact they are evident everywhere, not just in Marx and Engels’ own writings but in the processes of the natural world. “Nature,” said Engels, “is the proof of dialectics.”

Max Raphael described art as “the active dialogue between spirit and matter” [14] — two aspects both in contradiction and in unity. The motor of a novel’s plot is often described by critics as a conflict between the protagonist and his or her environment: what is this if not a contradiction? What is the clashing of lines, shapes and colours upon a canvas, or the contrast in tone between strings and woodwind in a symphony, but a contradiction?

In this blog, we will explore the direct relevance of dialectical materialism to art in more detail. As we explore the origins of the aesthetic sense, the history of artistic styles, etc, it will become more and more clear that without a scientific perspective, those “sterile wanderings in the desert of subjectivism and scholasticism” will only confuse the study of art.

Reading on dialectical materialism

Engels, Dialectics of Nature
Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German PhilosophyMarx and Engels, The German Ideology
Engels, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific
Engels, Anti-Dühring
Trotsky, The ABC of Materialist Dialectics
Plekhanov, The Development of the Monist View of History

[1] Engels, part 1 chapter 6 of Anti-Dühring (1877).
[2] Engels, Part 1 of Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy (1886).
[3] See Michael Balter, ‘What Made Humans Modern?’, Science (February 2002).
[4] Fragment 91 of Heraclitus’ ‘book’, known as On Nature, which only survives through citations by other writers.
[5] Hegel, Volume I of Lectures on the History of Philosophy.
[6] Marx, Afterword (1873) to the second German edition of vol. 1 of Capital (1867).
[7] Engels, op. cit.
[8] Hegel, Science of Logic (1812–1832).
[9] Lenin, The Three Sources and Component Parts of Marxism (1913).
[10] Engels, chapter 13 of Anti-Dühring (1877).
[11] ‘Utopian’ because their goals cannot be achieved.
[12] Marx, op. cit.
[13] Trotsky, The ABC of Materialist Dialectics (1939).
[14] Max Raphael, The Demands of Art (1968).

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Dialectical materialism, part 1

This blog has referred several times to dialectics and materialism. There is a huge literature on this topic by some of the finest Marxist writers, and I will list key texts at the end of part 2. These writings come highly recommended. I here offer a summary, as it will be hard to get far with the Marxist theory of art without some understanding of this concept.

“The great basic question of all philosophy,” wrote Engels, “especially of more recent philosophy, is that concerning the relation of thinking and being”.[1] Dialectical materialism is the ‘philosophy’ of Marxism — although Marx himself never used the term [2] — and its theoretical method. It provides the scientific basis for studying not just art but every process in the universe.


In Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, his great defence of materialism, Lenin explained how the study of epistemology “invariably discerned two principal alignments, two fundamental trends in the solution of philosophical problems”:

Whether nature, matter, the physical, the external world be taken as primary, and mind, spirit, sensation (experience — as the widespread terminology of our time has it), the physical, etc, be regarded as secondary — that is the root question which in fact continues to divide the philosophers into two great camps.[3]

The two great camps are idealism and materialism. Idealism is sometimes taken to mean commitment to a great cause, but in philosophy it is an outlook contending that nature and human history is ultimately based not on matter but on the mind — on ideas.

Engels located the origins of idealism in early humanity’s struggle to understand its experience:

From the very early times when men, still completely ignorant of the structure of their own bodies, under the stimulus of dream apparitions came to believe that their thinking and sensation were not activities of their bodies, but of a distinct soul which inhabits the body and leaves it at death — from this time men have been driven to reflect about the relation between this soul and the outside world...

The quandary arising from the common universal ignorance of what to do with this soul... led in a general way to the tedious notion of personal immortality. In an exactly similar manner, the first gods arose through the personification of natural forces. And these gods in the further development of religions assumed more and more extramundane form, until finally by a process of abstraction... there arose in the minds of men the idea of the one exclusive God of the monotheistic religions.[4]

The debate over whether the spirit or nature is primary has its origins not simply in perceptual confusion but in the division of labour. As society became more wealthy, it could support people who performed only mental work, such as priests and philosophers. These thinkers gave an exaggerated significance to thought, assuming that the mind and the body were separate. This led them to erect abstract theories which related only inadequately, if at all, to observed experience.

The neo-Platonist Plotinus declared for example in The Enneads (compiled 270 CE) that “there is for this universe no other place than the soul or mind”. His hierarchy was crowned by an Idea so general that it was called simply The One. Platonist idealism proposes an ideal or perfect state that is more real than things as they appear. Plato famously illustrated this with his image of the cave. Light came in the mouth of the cave and threw the shadows of objects inside it against the back wall. Human beings could observe only the shadows — the real objects were beyond our perception. Somewhere — no one has ever been able to say where — there is an ideal concept of, say, a book, but in the books around us we can see only its imperfect manifestations. The idea of a book has common properties that cannot be reduced to any particular book in a particular place and time. Ideas therefore were eternal and existed separately from the material world.

Idealist philosophy takes many forms, but we can agree with Lenin that it “always, in one way or another, amounts to the defence or support of religion.”[5] The eighteenth-century subjective idealist George Berkeley claimed that our knowledge was based on our perceptions. His highly individualistic theory could not explain why we have so many perceptions in common, and he found his answer by recourse to God — the last resort of many a theory in trouble.

However much the material world may change, the ‘real’ world becomes that of reason, whose eternity and immutability demands some form of eternal intelligence. For some idealists this is God, for Hegel it was the Absolute Idea or Spirit. Whereas a materialist believes the natural world can be studied, analysed and eventually understood, the idealist ultimately finds it unknowable and mysterious, as no human mind can compare to God’s, apprehend the ideal state of things, etc. This discourages attempts to command nature and promote change, and tends to conservatism. As Engels put it with reference to Hegel:

No philosophical proposition has earned more gratitude from narrow-minded governments and wrath from equally narrow-minded liberals than Hegel’s famous statement: “All that is real is rational; and all that is rational is real.” That was tangibly a sanctification of things that be, a philosophical benediction bestowed upon despotism, police government, Star Chamber proceedings and censorship.[6]

This conservatism is assisted by the position of religion in the social structures of class society. Many thousands of priests, preachers and others draw their living and social influence from religious institutions that would cease to exist in an atheist society; religion also serves to demobilise the working class. It thus becomes a vested material and ideological interest, zealous in promoting its false ideas.


The most significant alternative to idealism was empiricism, a philosophy with origins in ancient Greece that re-emerged in Britain in the 17th century, particularly through the thought of Locke, Berkeley and Hume. It contended that we could only have knowledge of the world through our sensory perception. There were no general ideal concepts, only particular objects.

The drawback of this theory is that if we reject the possibility of objects of having general characteristics in common, it becomes impossible to understand relationships between them. Hume’s argument required him to deny phenomena such as cause and effect: if we are holding a book at a height and let go, there is merely a very high probability that it will fall to the ground. Even if there is no known example of somebody letting go of a book from a height and it not falling to the ground, for Hume there must remain the possibility that the book will instead float off into space, turn a somersault, or do something equally unpredictable. Our beliefs were merely habits accumulated from experience — scientific certainty was impossible.

Empiricism may have either an idealist or materialist character. If empiricism decides that it is impossible to trust our senses as to whether anything exists, it becomes idealist. If it decides that material objects do exist, but that it is impossible to generalise about them, then it turns to materialism. Either way, empiricism is highly problematic. With its emphasis on testing hypotheses through observation of nature, rather than a priori reasoning (knowledge attainable by reason prior to experience), it has an obvious role in scientific inquiry. But its scepticism about our subjective sensations, and therefore about our ability to gain knowledge, is ultimately anti-scientific. There are also profound problems of method. Every time empiricists talk about a book, or other object, they are using an abstract, universal category. They do not mean one particular book, but books in general. Simply by discussing such objects, empiricists contradict their philosophy.


Whereas idealism tries to explain things through abstract philosophising, materialism draws conclusions from what is empirically observable. It is opposed to superstition and religion.

Materialism contends that everything in existence, including living beings, is made of matter and evolved from material processes. Human consciousness is inseparable from the body whose processes create it, and matter exists independently of our awareness of it. Because of these processes, matter is in a constant state of change — only the existence of matter is eternal. It existed long before minds evolved capable of perceiving and analysing it, and human consciousness can be aware of only the tiniest fraction of the things happening in the universe. We can only draw conclusions about the world as subjective human beings, using our senses and intellect to observe and assess external phenomena. To understand reality and human society, Marx wrote, means not

setting out from what men say, imagine, conceive... in order to arrive at men in the flesh; but setting out from real, active men, and on the basis of their real life-process demonstrating the development of the ideological reflexes and echoes of this life-process. The phantoms formed in the human brain are also, necessarily, images of their material life-process, which is empirically verifiable and bound to material premises. Morality, religion, metaphysics, all the rest of ideology and their corresponding forms of consciousness, thus no longer retain the semblance of independence. They have no history, no development; but men, developing their material production and their material intercourse, alter, along with their real existence, their thinking and the products of their thinking. Life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life.[7]

Our consciousness is the product of matter and our ideas are reflections of material processes. This does not mean we are a passive part of our environment. We are able to change it: this is what made possible human evolution through labour.

The materialist conception of the world had its beginnings in the ancient world. In India the Hindu thinker Kanada developed an atomist theory around 600 BCE, which in subsequent centuries was developed by Buddhist atomism. China too developed materialist theories, for example that of Yang Xiong in the 1st century BCE. In ancient Greece, materialism came to maturity in the 4th century BCE with the atomist theories of Democritus and Epicurus. The Roman poet Lucretius wrote a philosophical poem entitled De Rerum Natura, designed to explain Epicurean theory to a Roman audience: everything in the universe was made of atoms moving in an infinite void, ruled by chance. Gods existed, but played no part in human lives. Forms were made of changing combinations of atoms, rising then losing out to new forms.

Materialism lost currency during the Christian era, which could only conceive of philosophy through religion. It was when the rising bourgeoisie resurrected natural philosophy and scientific inquiry that materialism won a new lease of life, particularly in capitalism’s leading power: as Marx observed, “Materialism is the natural-born son of Great Britain.”[8] This was the period of Bacon, Hobbes and Locke. The bourgeoisie’s materialism and emphasis on reason was the ideological aspect of its struggle against the feudal system and the superstition and absolutism upon which it was built. It was also expressive of the bourgeois need to measure and understand nature so as to exploit it more effectively.

We get a taste of this new materialism from Marx’s précis of Francis Bacon:

To him, natural philosophy is the only true philosophy, and physics based upon the experience of the senses is the chiefest part of natural philosophy... According to him, the senses are infallible and the source of all knowledge. All science is based on experience, and consists in subjecting the data furnished by the senses to a rational method of investigation. Induction, analysis, comparison, observation, experiment, are the principal forms of such a rational method. Among the qualities inherent in matter, motion is the first and foremost, not only in the form of mechanical and mathematical motion, but chiefly in the form of an impulse, a vital spirit, a tension — or a ‘qual’, to use a term of Jakob Böhme’s — of matter.[9]

Materialism in Britain was conditioned by the historical experience of its bourgeoisie, which had merged with a bourgeoisified landowning class and identified to some extent with its institutions. Thus Hobbes called for a strong monarchy to keep down the unruly masses. In eighteenth century France, however, the contest between the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy was much starker, and bourgeois materialism could fully assert its revolutionary character. Enlightenment thinkers such as Voltaire, Diderot and Helvétius insisted in carrying the torch of reason into natural history, religion, social institutions and other dark and dusty corners of human assumptions. France became in Lenin’s words “the scene of the decisive battle against every kind of medieval rubbish.”[10] When Baron d’Holbach’s atheist The System of Nature was published in 1770, it was too radical even for Voltaire, and it offended King Louis XVI so much that he demanded that copies were hunted down and destroyed.

French materialism culminated in Germany in the thought of G. W. F. Hegel. A great enthusiast for the French Revolution, Hegel was a towering philosophical figure of his age, and greatly respected by Marx and Engels. He surpassed the metaphysicians by reviving Greek dialectics and restoring motion to history (we will explore dialectics in detail in part 2), but the great contradiction in his philosophy was that although his dialectics ruled out absolutes, he was unable to let go of the idealist notion of a governing Idea. Thus, as Engels explains in Ludwig Feuerbach, “the revolutionary side is smothered beneath the overgrowth of the conservative side.”

Problems of bourgeois materialism

The materialism of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was often contradictory. It sought a rational theory of reality, and a scientific method, but even a great thinker like Newton opened a door to idealism by enlisting God as the ultimate cause and motor of natural processes. This was a metaphysical materialism that envisaged an eternal clockwork universe: matter was in motion, but that motion was mechanical and did the same thing over and over again. Engels explained the problem:

To the metaphysician things and their mental reflexes, ideas, are isolated, are to be considered one after the other and apart from each other, are objects of investigation fixed, rigid, given once and for all. He thinks in absolutely irreconcilable antitheses. ‘His communication is “yea, yea; nay, nay”; for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.’ For him a thing either exists or does not exist; a thing cannot at the same time be itself and something else. Positive and negative absolutely exclude one another; cause and effect stand in rigid antithesis one to another.

At first sight this mode of thinking seems to us very luminous, because it is that of so-called sound common sense. Only sound common sense, respectable fellow that he is, in the homely realm of his own four walls, has very wonderful adventures directly he ventures out into the wide world of research. And the metaphysical mode of thought, justifiable and necessary as it is in a number of domains whose extent varies according to the nature of the particular object of investigation, sooner or later reaches a limit beyond which it becomes one-sided, restricted, abstract, lost in insoluble contradictions. In the contemplation of individual things it forgets the connection between them; in the contemplation of their existence it forgets the beginning and the end of that existence; of their repose, it forgets their motion. It cannot see the wood for the trees.[11]

The eighteenth-century materialists cannot be reproached for their limitations, as these limitations were rooted in the immature state of science at the time. Although the bourgeoisie initiated a tremendous blossoming of inquiry into the natural world, it necessarily began as what Engels called “a collecting science”, an accumulation of knowledge. While their data was still inadequate, it was not possible for them to draw the most profound conclusions from it. For example, they did not have the benefit of three key nineteenth-century discoveries which Engels believed unlocked dialectics for subsequent science: the discovery of cells as the structural units of all living organisms, the transformation of energy, and the Darwinian theory of the evolution of species.

Bourgeois materialism also faced an ideological problem. The capitalist class was a great champion of reason and materialism. In its fight to overthrow the feudal system, it was necessary to break down superstition, the divine right of monarchs, and the monopolies of religious institutions. But once it had become a ruling class, the bourgeoisie found that it, too, was exposed by the searchlight of reason. Thus its rational materialist outlook had to compromise with idealism, because the bourgeoisie does not like to accept that capitalism is not eternal. If capitalism is just one more mode of production, then it can, like slavery and feudalism, be overthrown by a more advanced form.

For these two reasons — scientific limitations and political necessity — idealism persisted in bourgeois theory. We see it in Kant, who claimed that we may perceive the qualities of a thing, but are unable to perceive the “thing-in-itself”. Spinoza too, although describing the universe as material, saw a need for God in the unification of thinking and being. In the early twentieth century, Lenin had to confront the positivism of Mach, Bogdanov, etc. In our own time, the compromise can be seen in the fashionable nonsense of post-modernism, which contends that there is no objective reality at all.

The lesson is that the light of dialectical materialism — one might simply say the light of truth — is rather too penetrating for anyone who wishes to support the capitalist status quo. To argue against the proletariat demands arguing against its philosophy.

The inheritors of Hegel

Hegel’s dialectics were a step forward from metaphysical materialism, but his system remained an idealist one. Subsequent thinkers took from Hegel what they would. The Young Hegelians, who briefly counted Marx among their adherents, preferred a left radical interpretation, emphasising Hegel’s dialectics over his idealism. It fell to Ludwig Feuerbach to make the decisive philosophical break. His book Essence of Christianity (1841) reaffirmed materialism, describing God as merely a projection of human needs and seeking to replace religion with love. Nothing existed outside of nature, which had produced humanity. Engels gives a taste of how exciting Feuerbach’s book was “after long years of abstract and abstruse Hegelianising”:

The spell was broken; the “system” was exploded and cast aside, and the contradiction, shown to exist only in our imagination, was dissolved. One must himself have experienced the liberating effect of this book to get an idea of it. Enthusiasm was general; we all became at once Feuerbachians.[12]

Hegel and Feuerbach had prepared the way for a richer and more rigorous understanding of how things worked. For Marx, the Hegelian system had turned reality on its head by putting thinking before being — someone needed to turn it the right way round. Marx’s philosophical achievement was to bring maturity to materialism by incorporating Hegel’s dialectics. In this way materialism becomes not just a philosophy of nature but a science of development and of human history. Marxism extends material processes into human society, seeing it as a succession of stages of development, wherein ideas and culture are ultimately based upon the forces of production.

The best case for materialism is that there is evidence for it. Its hypotheses about nature can be tested, and every new scientific discovery confirms it. Atoms were first conceived in ancient India around the 6th century BCE, and a century later appeared in Europe through Leucippus and Democritus (the latter giving us the word átomos which implies the smallest possible division of matter). In the last couple of hundred years, science has caught up with speculation after a series of discoveries: Brownian motion (1827), the electron (1897), that atoms have nuclei (1909), the proton (1919), the neutron (1932) and so on in a constant process whose latest achievement is CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, a particle accelerator designed to explore the smallest components of all known things.

By contrast, idealism creates a theory in the abstract and then demands that reality conform to it. The existence of God or other supernatural agencies has never, in all of human history, been proved, nor is any test conceivable which could do so. It is senseless to base one’s attitude to life upon a thesis which is riddled with absurdities and for which there is no objective evidence. The Christian Bible tells us “God created Man [sic] in his own image” (Genesis 1:27) — in fact the reverse is true. Marxism opposes every kind of attempt to explain the world through eternal, unchanging absolute values, be it in the form of gods, Fate, the Immanent Will, or anything else. It is humanity, and human needs, with which it is concerned.

Materialism, however, is only a part of the Marxist philosophy. As we have already mentioned, a passive, lifeless materialism is still a poor model. To really understand the richness of how everything works, our materialism must also be dialectical.

[1] Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy (1886). Asked to write a review of a book on Feuerbach, Engels took the opportunity to write this ‘short, coherent account’ of how he and Marx formulated their philosophy from the work of their predecessors, Hegel and Feuerbach. Part 4 is a concentrated exposition of dialectical materialism.
[2] Like most Marxist ideas, various attempts have been made to undermine it from mistaken positions. One case is Zbigniew Jordan’s book The Evolution of Dialectical Materialism (1967), which seizes upon the fact that the major statements of dialectical materialism as such — Anti-Dühring, Ludwig Feuerbach, Dialectics of Nature — were written by Engels and not Marx. He concludes from this that dialectical materialism was Engels’ invention and that Marxist was not even a materialist but a ‘naturalist’. In fact, Marx was too busy writing Capital to produce treatises on his philosophy, just as he had no time to fully formulate his aesthetics. The attempt to drive a wedge between Marx and Engels contradicts Marx’s own work and praxis, in which both dialectics and materialism are so obviously essential as to make a nonsense of Jordan’s argument.
[3] Lenin, from Chapter 6, section 4 of Materialism and Empirio-Criticism (1908).
[4] Engels, op. cit.
[5] Lenin, The Three Sources and Component Parts of Marxism (1913). Lenin’s extremely concise introduction to Marxism via its three ‘component parts’: German philosophy, English political economy and French socialism.
[6] Engels, op. cit.
[7] Marx, The German Ideology (1846, pub. 1932).
[8] Marx, chapter 6, section 3d of The Holy Family (1844). This work was Marx and Engels’ critique of the Young Hegelians — the title is a sarcastic reference to Bruno Bauer and his supporters.
[9] ibid.
[10] Lenin, op. cit..
[11] Engels, Anti-Dühring (1877). This work has long been ranked with Capital and the Communist Manifesto as one of the most important works of Marxist theory, and is the most authoritative text on dialectical materialism from Marxism’s founders. It contains a great deal of polemic against a now-forgotten theorist, so the first three chapters were later extracted to form the pamphlet Socialism: Utopian and Scientific.
[12] Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy (1886).