Tuesday, 17 March 2009

‘A Worker Reads History’

Who built the seven gates of Thebes?
The books are filled with names of kings.
Was it the kings who hauled the craggy blocks of stone?
And Babylon, so many times destroyed.
Who built the city up each time? In which of Lima’s houses,
That city glittering with gold, lived those who built it?
In the evening when the Chinese wall was finished
Where did the masons go? Imperial Rome
Is full of arcs of triumph. Who reared them up? Over whom
Did the Caesars triumph? Byzantium lives in song.
Were all her dwellings palaces? And even in Atlantis of the legend
The night the seas rushed in,
The drowning men still bellowed for their slaves.

Young Alexander conquered India.
He alone?
Caesar beat the Gauls.
Was there not even a cook in his army?
Phillip of Spain wept as his fleet
was sunk and destroyed. Were there no other tears?
Frederick the Greek triumphed in the Seven Years War.
Who triumphed with him?

Each page a victory
At whose expense the victory ball?
Every ten years a great man,
Who paid the piper?

So many particulars.
So many questions.

Bertolt Brecht




Originally entitled ‘Fragen eines lesenden Arbeiters’ — you can read the German original here.

Monday, 16 March 2009

Class society

With the Neolithic Revolution, humanity finally began to produce more food than was necessary to merely subsist. The existence of a surplus had many consequences, not the least a struggle over who would control it. Would these new riches be shared out equally, or would they be appropriated by some at the expense of others? The material basis had been laid for the division of society into classes, which would mean a profound change in the social role of art.

This pattern developed in various forms across history — slave and owner in the ancient world, serf and lord under feudalism, and proletarian and capitalist in the modern age. What each form of class society has in common is a ruling class that appropriates the majority of society’s wealth and a labouring majority that creates, but does not control, that wealth.

A class is a group of people who share the same relationship to the mode of production. Marx explained:

In the process of production, human beings work not only upon nature, but also upon one another. They produce only by working together in a specified manner and reciprocally exchanging their activities. In order to produce, they enter into definite connections and relations to one another, and only within these social connections and relations does their influence upon nature operate — i.e., does production take place.

These social relations between the producers, and the conditions under which they exchange their activities and share in the total act of production, will naturally vary according to the character of the means of production.[1]

The ‘character of the means of production’ in early civilisation was based upon the system of ancient communal ownership, accompanied to varying extents by slavery. Typically, the principal classes were a ruling aristocracy and priesthood, a mass of workers of varying kinds, and slaves. These formed a hierarchy of power ranging upwards from people who were literally the possessions of others to despots boasting kinship with the gods.

The transition to class society

As we have said before, prehistoric society was probably egalitarian. There wasn’t enough food for some members of the tribe to hoard any at others’ expense, and every person’s contribution will have been important. There was therefore little social basis for one group of people to exert power over another or for inequality in the distribution of resources. These observations receive some support by the prevalence of egalitarianism in surviving hunter-gatherer societies.

Although Paleolithic humans had the skills and technology to put our species on a secure footing, we did not yet have the social surplus necessary for society to be able to divide into classes. The only division was according to sex, where men hunted big game and women foraged and raised children; this was based upon the difficulty for women bearing children of participating in a hunt. But it seems unlikely that this brought with it conceptions of one sex’s work being more important than another’s, as happened later. Land and tools were held in common. Engels wrote that the gentile chief “stands in the midst of society” (The Origin of the Family). The hunter-gatherer mode of production therefore was a pre-class society.

This is not to say that no differentiation of rank or status existed — the bodies found at Sungir, with their burial objects and masses of beads, imply a certain special status. Archaeologists sometimes use the term ‘chiefdom’ in referring to such ranked societies. But the existence of a hierarchy of status is not the same as division into classes based upon unequal ownership of the means of production. A person in pre-class society could be highly respected without them claiming any disproportionate control over that society’s resources, and would have lived in the same relationship to the mode of production as the rest of the tribe.

Rock art by San bushmen, north of Mossel Bay in South Africa. Prehistoric art tends to depict humans as a collective, without special status being accorded to dominant individuals. Photo: Andrew Moir.

Early settlements like Çatalhöyük are often striking for the absence of large homes set apart from the rest, or of evidence for significant differentiation in how wealth was shared. Settlements were based upon households, often with shared kinship, in which all members had obligations to the others and in which neither sex was dominant over the other. This was not because of any innate moral goodness but a necessity — the group needed to support all its component parts if it was to succeed.

This changed when the Neolithic Revolution was succeeded by the Urban. The possibility of some people controlling more resources was not of course enough. It took a few thousand years before the innovations of the Neolithic could produce mature class society.

How then did the rise of classes occur?

Agricultural society, with its larger populations, introduced many new problems. There would be disputes over marriages, or land, which in settled society could no longer be resolved simply by one group moving away. Rising populations put pressure upon supplies of food and housing. Inequalities in wealth led to the novel problem of thieving. And there were military threats from other societies. Such considerations made it necessary to develop a new level of social organisation and leadership, with more formalised structures.

A new layer of specialists therefore arose to solve the new problems of cultivator society. These administrators settled disputes, exacted payments, approved public projects, distributed the surplus, and so on, and originally operated as a kind of council of elders. In Sumeria, during times of war a lugal or ‘big man’ would be appointed with special powers. In the beginning this was a useful social development that would help a more complex society to function, and the ‘chieftains’ were still not differentiated enough to form a privileged class.

Over time these specialists perfected their skills, taking centralised control of public finances and of the military; their successes in war won them particular prestige, and resources with which to reward followers. The ‘big men’ gradually extended their power to the point of appointing their own successors and thus creating dynasties. They had become kings.

The storehouses of the surplus, always the principal focus of the community, became centres of power, its administrators figures of prestige raised above the common people. This was the origin of the priesthood, whose temples were the largest buildings in early cities, and who stood to gain a great deal by providing the ‘big man’ with religious legimitisation. As the surplus product of society increased, so did the power of the ‘big men’ relative to other members of society. Jared Diamond wrote:

Once food can be stockpiled, a political elite can gain control of food produced by others, assert the right of taxation, escape the need to feed itself, and engage full-time in political activities. Hence moderate-sized agricultural societies are often organised in chiefdoms, and kingdoms are confined to large agricultural societies.[2]

Thus we see the creation of a ruling class.

In this way, after a few thousand years the seeds sown by the Neolithic Revolution grew to maturity, and class society made its first appearance — roughly coinciding with ‘history’. In ancient Sumer there was a word for ‘slave girl’ by 3000 BCE. In the Babylonian civilisation, society seems to have been divided into three classes: the amelu, or government officials, priests and soldiers at the top of the hierarchy; the mushkinu who were merchants, teachers, shopkeepers, artisans and labourers; and a bottom layer of slaves.[3]

As for the power of the priesthood, Gordon Childe cites a telling decree from the Sumerian city of Lagash:

Favoured priests practised various forms of extortion (overcharging for burials, for instance) and treated the god’s (i.e. the community’s) land equipment and servants as their own private property and personal slaves. Then ‘the high priest came into the garden of the poor... and took wood therefrom.’ ‘If a great man’s house adjoined that of an ordinary citizen,’ the former might annex the humble dwelling without paying any proper compensation to its owner… This text gives us an unmissable glimpse of a real conflict of classes.

The surplus produced by the new economy was, in fact, concentrated in the hands of a relatively small class.[4]

Needless to say, this meant a considerable gulf in living standards between the aristocracy and the common people. For example, Diamond observed:

Only in a farming population could a healthy, non-producing elite set itself above the disease-ridden masses. Skeletons from Greek tombs at Mycenae circa 1500 B.C. suggest that royals enjoyed a better diet than commoners, since the royal skeletons were two or three inches taller and had better teeth (on the average, one instead of six cavities or missing teeth). Among Chilean mummies from circa A.D. 1000, the elite were distinguished not only by ornaments and gold hair clips but also by a fourfold lower rate of bone lesions caused by disease.[5]

Class society was not an inevitable outcome of the Neolithic Revolution — Diamond cites the example of Papua Guinea, which discovered agriculture in around 7000 BCE but preserved an egalitarian social system until the arrival of Europeans. Every society proceeds according to its own conditions, resulting in a rich range of outcomes. This does not mean however that broad patterns are not clear.

Increasingly, society was based upon exploitation. A labouring majority produced a social surplus which was then appropriated by a minority. In order to protect this process, the ruling class had to introduce the novel concept that some members of a society had a right to accumulate wealth even if it meant hardship for others, and that some members of society ought to work for the benefit of a leisured few. This did not necessarily mean the institution of private property — in early civilisation it was sufficient to control the surplus extracted by the workers from communal property. Where the old chieftain system still obliged those with authority to use it for the common good, the aristocracies of the early civilisations preserved the illusion of acting in the common interest while enriching themselves. New rules had to be introduced to enshrine the right of an elite to control a disproportionate amount of society’s wealth, laying the basis for legal systems and requiring ‘special bodies of armed men’ to enforce them. The social order of prehistory was truly broken, and embarked upon an era of kings, pharaohs and emperors.

The evidence for the existence of class society is so strong that it is uncontroversial among anthropologists and archaeologists [6]. Renfrew and Bahn for example observe of early state societies: “Society no longer depends totally upon kin relationships: it is now stratified into different classes.”[7] Or Bruce Trigger: “‘Early civilisation’ may thus be summarily defined as the earliest and simplest form of class-based society... Power was based primarily on the control of agricultural surpluses, which the upper classes extracted in various ways from the rest of the population.”[8]

If it seems extraordinary that one section of the population would allow itself to be treated in this way, we must remember that these developments were gradual and grew out of the social conditions of the times. Labourers did not wake up one morning and suddenly find themselves the victims of exploitation: class society grew out of a genuine and necessary reorganisation of social relations that kept early communities functioning. The priests who governed the surplus were supposedly providing a service for the social good, and the more society prospered the more the labouring masses, already afraid of famine, flood and wars, felt awe and a sense of debt. The ruling class ‘guaranteed’ the population against both natural and human-made calamities, a point repeatedly struck home by elaborate religious rituals and grandiose works of art.

The Indus Valley civilisation: a classless society?

The civilisation that appeared around 2600 BCE in the Indus Valley in modern-day Pakistan, whose major cities were Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro, poses us with a historical puzzle. This sophisticated culture had high quality urban planning, and built public buildings, baths, city walls and advanced sanitation. Yet at the same time, the culture’s rulers are, in Colin Renfrew’s words, ‘self-effacing’ [9]: there is no evidence of elite burials or palaces, there are no large scale temples, and political and class divisions remain obscure. The Indus Valley culture achieved a high quality of art without the overt ‘iconography of power’ associated with other advanced societies of the time. This does not necessarily mean that class society did not exist, but we do not have the same material evidence as elsewhere.

Childe however noted:

Well-planned streets and a magnificent system of drains, regularly cleared out, reflect the vigilance of some municipal government. Its authority was strong enough to secure the observance of town-planning bye-laws and the maintenance of the approved lines for streets over several reconstructions rendered necessary by floods.[10]

Renfrew goes on, ‘Clearly, there are different kinds of power, and power is attained in different ways.’ It is extremely improbable that the Indus Valley culture had developed urban civilisation without also developing class society, but its precise social structure remains open until archaeology can provide us with new answers.

The contradictions of progress

The consequence of class society for artists was a change in their social role. Whereas Stone Age art served the entire community, artists now owed service to the god-king, and their work had to help immortalise him in paint and stone. The most astonishing artistic achievements of early civilisation — the pyramids and ziggurats, the colossal statues, the gorgeous palaces and temples — are dedicated to the kings who embodied the ruling class, and to gods whom those kings used for legitimisation.

Should we see these works as a grotesque waste of human resources? In one sense they certainly were: the Pyramids, for example, are burial mounds dedicated to an afterlife that simply does not exist. Nonetheless they provided a livelihood for probably several thousand workers, and left us with some of the most awe-inspiring wonders of human labour. It may indeed have been preferable for such wonders to have expressed the will of the common people, and been directed by them, but there is little point in condemning now-extinct conditions, or dreaming about a course of events that could never have taken place. It is better to admire the works that resulted from the definite social conditions of the era as remarkable human and social achievements — the Pharaohs would not personally have lifted a finger to construct the tombs that were to receive them — and concentrate upon changing one’s own time.

Civilisation proved to be a mixed blessing. While the benefits of a secure food surplus are self-evident, there was a price to pay in leaving primitive communism behind, as pointed out by Engels:

The power of this primitive community had to be broken, and it was broken. But it was broken by influences which from the very start appear as a degradation, a fall from the simple moral greatness of the old gentile society. The lowest interests — base greed, brutal appetites, sordid avarice, selfish robbery of the common wealth — inaugurate the new, civilised, class society. It is by the vilest means — theft, violence, fraud, treason — that the old classless gentile society is undermined and overthrown. And the new society itself, during all the two and a half thousand years of its existence, has never been anything else but the development of the small minority at the expense of the great exploited and oppressed majority; today it is so more than ever before.[11]

The concept of dividing resources unequally on the basis of birth seems to fair-minded people a repugnant invention. But the existence of specialists was hugely progressive. It enabled huge advances in production and in the accumulation of human knowledge. It is to class society that we owe the relative material luxury — in advanced countries, even the working class is vastly better off than our Neolithic predecessors — in which millions of people live today.

It is because productive forces have grown to the point where everyone in the world could lead a life of comfort and dignity, but is being hindered by private ownership of the means of production, that Marxists struggle to bring about the next great stage in human history that will eventually bring classes to an end. For there is nothing that even the most powerful potentate, ancient or modern, can do to escape from history: no culture, no class, no mode of production, is immune from the transitory nature of human society. However immense the tombs and images the ruling class ordered to be built in its name, the search for immortality would always be futile — an irony summed up by Shelley in his famous poem Ozymandias:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”




[1] Karl Marx, Wage Labour and Capital (1847).
[2] Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel (1998).
[3] According to the Code of Hammurabi.
[4] V. Gordon Childe, What Happened in History (1942).
[5] Jared Diamond, The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race (first published in Discover magazine, 1987).
[6] The existence of class society is uncontroversial — the existence of class struggle is less so. Marx’s materialist conception of history may in general co-exist peacefully with bourgeois science until it applies itself to capitalism, whereupon those who identify with the bourgeoisie find the logic of materialism suddenly disagreeable.
[7] Colin Renfrew and Paul Bahn, Archaeology: Theory, Method and Practice (5th ed., 2008).
[8] Bruce Trigger, Understanding Early Civilisations (2003).
[9] Colin Renfrew, Prehistory: The Making of the Human Mind (2007).
[10] V. Gordon Childe, What Happened in History (1942).
[11] Engels, close of Chapter 3, ‘The Iroquois Gens’, of The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884).

Friday, 13 March 2009

Early civilisation, part 2: Metallurgy

The discovery of how to work metal, by definition, brought human beings out of the Stone Age.

The importance of metal technology was evident when nineteenth century Europeans devised the ‘three age’ system, proposing that early human societies could be classified into successive stages of Stone, Bronze and Iron. A division of the Stone Age into Old and New was later added, and in some places a Copper Age.[1]

This was a step forward for developing archaeology into a science, but if the terms were useful for Europe and the Mediterranean, they were less so for southern Africa and South America where bronze and iron were not discovered, or only in some places [2]. What’s more, the great disparities in the timing of certain technologies make the Ages of limited use as chronological terms. The Classic Maya civilisation had astronomy that outstripped that of medieval Europe, while still using Stone Age technology. When confronted with the uneveness of development of human culture, science must bend itself to reality, not the other way around.

Some metals, such as gold, copper, silver and tin can be found native, or ‘free’ (without mining), in the form of nuggets, and small metal objects appear at early farming sites and even during the Paleolithic.

Nugget of native copperNugget of native copper. Photo: Jonathan Zander

But prehistoric peoples had invented kilns with which to fire ceramic pots and figures, and probably tested all kinds of earth and stone to find the best materials. By accident and experiment, they found that pieces of naturally-occurring metal became liquid at high temperatures, then became solid again as it cooled. While warm, it was soft enough to be beaten into shapes. The most important metal in the run-up to the Urban Revolution was copper. By the 4th millenium BCE, the plough, which had previously been little more than a crooked branch, was not only harnessed to oxen but given a copper blade. The opening of the Gilgamesh epic, quoted in the previous article, gives us a sense of admiration of this material in its praise of Uruk: “See how its ramparts gleam like copper in the sun.”[3]

All sorts of new inventions were required to take advantage of metals. Copper and tin are relatively rare, and required mining if they were to be retrieved from inaccessible places. Kilns, bellows, tongs, crucibles and moulds were all needed. This explains why metallurgy could not become widespread before the Urban Revolution — it was only when a surplus of foodstuffs was being produced that full-time specialists were able to make these technical advances. The search for copper led to the discovery of gold, silver and the iron brought by meteorites. A further step forward was the discovery of smelting, which applies the intense heat of a kiln to extract copper and tin ores from rock. By heating copper and tin, specialist smiths found both could be combined to make an alloy which was harder than either, easy to cast, and gave a sharp edge to tools and weapons — bronze.

Bronze production appeared in Mesopotamia and Egypt around 3000 BCE; although it used to be assumed that metalworking radiated out from the Near East, archaeologists now believe it rose in a few centres independently, including the Balkans and the southern Iberian peninsula. The production of copper and bronze was developed independently in the Americas around 2000 BCE in the Andes.

Bronze was to be the dominant metal until the production of iron around the 12th century BCE, and even then remained in widespread use until about 500 BCE.

Whereas lead and copper are respectively rather soft and brittle, bronze proved an exceptional material for tools and weapons. A tool of flint or stone, once broken or blunted, must be discarded, whereas metal can be resharpened or even melted down to make a brand new object — even a more advanced one than before. This did not make stone tools obsolete by any means. Gordon Childe suggests that “it needed the special geographical conditions of an alluvial plain, where suitable stones were rare, to drive home the value of the new and more permanent material.”[4]

Beside these strictly practical uses, metals inevitably also became materials for art. Not only were they hardwearing and strong, and could be polished to a shiny lustre, they were malleable enough to be given any form. In Childe’s words:

The real superiority of metal is that it is fusible and can be cast. Fusibility confers upon copper some of the merits of potter’s clay. In working it the intelligent artificer is freed from the restrictions of size and shape imposed by bone or stone. A stone axe-head, a flint spear-point, or a bone harpoon can only be made by grinding, chipping, or cutting bits off the original piece. Molten copper is completely plastic, and will adapt itself to fill any desired form; it can be run into a mould of any shape and will assume, and on cooling retain, precisely the form outlined by the mould.[5]

With this material, artisans had a new freedom where their skills were the only limitations — objects could become more precise, more refined, and more exactly representative of their cultural wishes.

Akkadian bronze headHead of an Akkadian ruler believed to be King Sargon, bronze, c. 23rd–22nd century BCE.

This had modest beginnings, of course: in Çatalhöyük, copper and lead were shaped into pendants, rings and beads. Later, metal was used to create sophisticated art works — jewellery, musical instruments, ritual images, tomb offerings and portraits of kings. Royal graves have been one of the richest sources of ancient artworks. Excavating the remains of Ur in 1927, archaeologists discovered Sumerian objects dating back to around 2600 BCE, including a silver head of a lion and a lyre with a bull’s head of beaten gold. The single richest tomb was that of Puabi, believed to have been a queen of Ur, which was unspoiled by looters: the tomb yielded a golden head-dress and other items of jewellery.

Works such as these show that ancient society brought metalworking to a high degree of perfection. Renfrew and Bahn note:

By the late Bronze Age of the Aegean, for example, around 1500 BC, as wide a range of techniques was available for working with non-ferrous metals as was used in the Classical or early medieval periods. For instance, the techniques of working sheet metal were well understood, as were those of stamping, engraving, and repoussée working (work in relief executed with hand-controlled punches from the back of sheet metal). Filigree work (open work using wires and soldering) was developed by the 3rd millenium BC in the Near East, and granulation (the soldering of grains of metal to a background usually of the same metal) was used to achieve remarkable effects, notably by the Etruscans.[6]

The fruits of these skills were not conferred equally upon all the people of early civilisation. Metals were expensive to obtain and expensive in labour, and thus became symbols of prestige dominated by the ruling class. Personal ornaments, cups, dishes, figurines and other fine objects not only embellished the rich while alive but even accompanied them in death.

Mask of TutankhamunThe mask of Tutankhamun, c. 1323 BCE.

One of the most famous examples of this is of course the funerary mask worn by the mummy of Tutankhamun. Discovered in Tomb KV62 in the Valley of Kings, this mask was found inside three other sarcophagi, the inside one made of pure gold. The mask itself was placed over the head and shoulders of the dead pharaoh. Inlaid with lapis lazuli and coloured glass and weighing twenty-four pounds, it was made from gold sheets joined by heating and hammering. The selection of gold for sending someone to eternal life was not arbitrary, as gold has the property of being chemically inert — unlike copper, it does not react to other chemicals, which means that it retains its beauty and colour permanently. It is also highly malleable, which allows smiths to create gold leaf and finely worked jewellery. Most of the Mask seems to have been hammered from the reverse side, using the repoussée technique, from a single sheet of gold.

As remarkable as the craftsmanship involved in a work like this was the fact that civilisation was prepared to spend so much labour and treasure on an object that, they supposed, would never be seen again (it was up to tomb robbers to put the gold back into circulation). Such a huge expenditure of resources, not only for one individual, but a dead individual, shows the profound changes wrought on society and the role of artists by high levels of production. Tutankhamun was a minor Pharaoh, who came to the throne aged about nine, reigned for ten years, and was buried in a tomb built for someone else; nonetheless, his relatively small tomb was filled with thousands of items, many of them of precious metals. By contrast, none of the labouring population could expect mummification and masks of beaten gold — there’s no sign here of the egalitarianism of the hunter-gatherers.

Part of our understanding of the art of civilisation, therefore, depends upon the concept of class society.



[1] We owe the Three Age system to the Dane, Christian Jürgensen Thomsen, and the division of the Stone Age into old and new to Sir John Lubbock. Further archaeologists have made additional refinements.
[2] Strictly, almost every contemporary society is still in the Iron Age, as iron remains in use. But there comes a point when it stops being useful as an archaeological term.
[3] The Epic of Gilgamesh, in the translation by Stephen Mitchell.
[4] V. Gordon Childe, Man Makes Himself (1936).
[5] Ibid.
[6] Colin Renfrew and Paul Bahn, Archaeology: Theory, Method and Practice (5th ed., 2008).

Thursday, 12 March 2009

Early civilisation, part 1: The birth of civilisation

As Aristotle commented in his Metaphysics, people begin to philosophise when the needs of life are provided.[1] After many thousands of years of minimal development, during which our existence was a war against hunger and need, history could begin, and culture could flower. By 3000 BCE, in the valley formed by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, great cities of brick and stone with palaces, walls and marketplaces had arisen alongside fields of wheat and orchards. In workshops, specialists produced pottery, jewellery, and sculptures; others studied astronomy and mathematics. Artists began to create achievements on a scale never before possible, in architecture, sculpture, drama, music and painting.

Abu SimbelThe temple of Ramesses II at Abu Simbel. 13th century BCE.

Shortly after the emergence of the Sumerian culture in Mesopotamia, other great civilisations were appearing in the world — in China along the Yellow River, in Pakistan along the Indus, and in Africa along the Nile. Human society had entered a radical new stage of development, and our thousands of years of existence were about to take a new turn. From being mostly nomadic hunter-gatherers, the vast majority of humans would become sedentary and increasingly urbanised.

The Urban Revolution

With the Neolithic Revolution, humanity began to consistently produce more food than was necessary to merely subsist. By around 5000 BCE, the surplus had become large enough to support complex city-states — the essence of what Gordon Childe termed the ‘Urban Revolution’. The very word ‘civilisation’ refers to living in cities (the Latin for a citizen or townsman is civis). Within a few generations, peoples that had once foraged and hunted for their food began to raise sprawling settlements with fortified walls, geometric street plans, palaces, and monumental sculpture. Childe defined the Urban Revolution thus:

On the large alluvial plains and riverside flatlands the need for extensive public works to drain and irrigate the land and to protect the settlement would tend to consolidate social organisation and centralise the economic system. At the same time, the inhabitants of Egypt, Sumer and the Indus basin were forced to organise some regular system of trade or barter to secure supplies of essential raw materials. The fertility of lands gave their inhabitants the means for satisfying their need of imports. But economic self-sufficiency had to be sacrificed and a complex new economic structure created. The surplus of home-grown products must not only suffice to exchange for exotic materials: it must support a body of merchants and transport workers engaged in obtaining these and a body of specialised craftsmen to work the precious imports to the best advantage. And soon soldiers would be needed to protect the convoys and back up the merchants by force, scribes to keep records of transactions growing ever more complex and state officials to reconcile conflicting interests.[2]

The first known civilisation was created by the Sumerians, in the Tigris and Euphrates valley on the tip of the Persian Gulf. But theirs were not the first towns. Irrigated crops were supporting settlements long before — in the 7th century BCE, the city of Jericho was trading salt and Çatalhöyük was trading obsidian, and both had populations of several thousand. By the Ubaid period in the late Neolithic (approx. 5300–4100 BCE), there had already been human settlement in Mesopotamia for thousands of years. Sumer’s advantage was that instead of depending upon one commodity, it practised intensive, year-round agriculture: the fertile soil in the valley was regularly refreshed by spring floods, and the Sumerians irrigated the alluvial desert to raise great fields of grain. The fruits of greater wealth, population growth, and division of labour are characteristic of true civilisation.

Further south in Africa, an Egyptian civilisation arose under the First Dynasty in around 3100 BCE and survived with varying fortunes for the next three thousand years until occupation by the Greeks and then the Romans. Another was established in the Indus Valley around 2500 BCE.

In the Near East, a culture based in the city of Babylon matured around 1700 BCE with the creation of an empire under Hammurabi, which conquered both Sumer and its rival Akkad. Around 1300 BCE the Assyrian empire, with its capital in Nineveh, became ascendant, conquering Babylon and remaining dominant until the Babylonians took Nineveh in 612 BCE. The next dominant culture was the Persians, whose empire under the Achaemenid dynasty was conquered by Alexander the Great (died 323 BCE).

Outside Mesopotamia, civilisation arose independently in several centres as a result of similar economic developments. In the Americas, the first was that of the Olmec in Central America around 1200 BCE, and in 1000 BCE we see the first signs of the Maya civilisation in the south of modern-day Mexico and the Yucatan peninsula. China’s first great dynasty, the Shang, was established around 1500 BCE.

Map of early civilisationsThe earliest civilisations. Map: Eugene Hirschfeld.

In short, something very significant happened across the world between 3000–1500 BCE. The magnificence of this new world was made vivid in the Epic of Gilgamesh with its description of the city of Uruk:

See how its ramparts gleam like copper in the sun.
Climb the stone staircase, more ancient than the mind can imagine,
approach the Eanna Temple, sacred to Ishtar,
a temple that no king has equalled in size or beauty,
walk on the wall of Uruk, follow its course
around the city, inspect its mighty foundations,
examine its brickwork, how masterfully it is built,
observe the land it encloses: the palm trees, the gardens,
the orchards, the glorious palaces and temples, the shops
and marketplaces, the houses, the public squares.[3]

Early agriculture had increased in productivity as people slowly discovered ways to selectively breed plants and animals. But food production had to keep pace with an increasing population, and the vulnerability of crops to famines, floods and other calamities demanded improvements in technique. Inventions like irrigation and the plough increased productivity. Growing new towns had storehouses whose enormous importance to the community helped their evolution into temples. The historian Georges Roux said of the blossoming of civilisation in Mesopotamia:

The decisive factor was no doubt the enormous common effort required by artificial irrigation, for it implies the existence of co-ordinating authorities at least on a regional scale and must have led to an early concentration of power and wealth in a few hands and on a few points. Some villages became more important and richer than the others. Around their temples — already, we assume, the centres regulating the whole economy — gathered that part of the population that lived for them and from them: priests of various ranks, of course, but also storekeepers, overseers, guards, foremen, architects, masons, carpenters, tinsmiths, potters, stone-cutters and so on, and these villages slowly grew into towns.[4]

The social surplus product could support hundreds or thousands of people who no longer needed to engage directly in food production, allowing a separation of town and country and a more advanced division of labour. Now, not all members of the community had to hunt or forage — some could be supported by cultivators while fulfilling specialist roles. Specialists such as priests, soldiers, merchants, scribes, artisans and bureaucrats were able to more intimately explore the objective world around them, which, along with the impetus given by the new conditions, was a huge step forward for society — it brought us trade, philosophy, writing, legal systems, astronomy, algebra, geometry, medicine, and new forms of art. There also came many technological innovations such as the wheel, the sailing ship and metallurgy. The arts have provided us with valuable evidence of such advances.

Sumerian war chariotSumerian war chariot. Detail from the Standard of Ur, c. 2500 BCE. The wheel was probably invented between 5500 and 3200 BCE in Mesopotamia.

It also meant considerable changes in how, and for whom, art was practised. One example is the invention of the potter’s wheel, which almost certainly predated the use of the wheel for transport. With a lump of clay set upon a turning wheel, a potter can make in a few minutes a form that would otherwise need to be painstakingly built up over a few days. Childe describes pot-making as “the first mechanised industry, the first to apply the wheel to manufacturing machinery.”[5] From being a domestic task performed by women, pottery became a specialist task performed by men.

Indeed, the advent of civilisation was accompanied by the rise to prominence of men. As men became increasingly responsible for food production, and the productivity of men’s labour drastically outgrew that of women’s, the egalitarianism of early society was broken apart. Engels explained the importance of matrilineality to early societies, and how the shift away from it represented one of the most fundamental changes in human society:

The overthrow of mother-right was the world historical defeat of the female sex. The man took command in the home also; the woman was degraded and reduced to servitude, she became the slave of his lust and a mere instrument for the production of children. This degraded position of the woman, especially conspicuous among the Greeks of the heroic and still more of the classical age, has gradually been palliated and glossed over, and sometimes clothed in a milder form; in no sense has it been abolished.[6]

The creation of a surplus, while it allowed a huge expansion of our intellectual and cultural development, also laid the material basis for the division of society into classes. A minority of the population came to exert a disproportionate control over a society’s wealth, a control that was later to turn into ownership. A caste of priests controlled the surplus and the keeping of written records, while another new specialist appeared: kings.

The combination of surpluses and centralised power meant that warfare now became a way of augmenting one’s wealth — by raiding other societies and stealing theirs. Whereas hunter gatherer bands rarely engage in anything more than skirmishes, the early civilisations were incessantly warring upon one another over territory and resources.

The advance in productivity and social organisation meant not only that large quantities of food and goods were being produced, they were also being stored, centrally distributed and traded with other cities. Organising this for a population of several thousand people demanded more than memory. The social layer responsible for managing the stores — usually the priesthood — needed an accounting system, and around 3000 BCE in Sumer in the Middle East, we see the appearance of a cuneiform [7] script which is considered the first true writing.

Sumerian cuneiformInscription in Sumerian cuneiform, 26th century BCE.

Such markings began as simplified pictures of particular items and in time became more and more abstract, coming to represent sounds instead of symbols, or a mixture of both.

The earliest Sumerian writing was little more than a tally used to record amounts of grain, etc. As this developed into a method of recording language, ancient stories like the Mesopotamian epic of Gilgamesh could now be preserved. This went hand in hand with the creation of a social layer of scribes and administrators — for centuries this wonderful invention was the guarded secret of a privileged class.

Comment

None of these changes were uniform. Some peoples, known as ‘pastoralists’, adopted the domestication of animals but not agriculture, and had their own variable sets of relations with urbanised peoples. Others came to civilisation without acquiring a system of writing. Still others never moved on from hunter-gathering at all. A complex totality of environmental, historical, social and cultural factors combined to create a general situation out of countless specific ones.

It is worth remembering how recent civilisation is. Taking it to be 5000 years old, and counting 25 years per generation, we find that just 200 generations separate us from ancient Mesopotamia — an extraordinarily small number. That compares, if we consider anatomically and behaviourally modern humans to go back 40,000 years, to 1600 generations of our existence.

This is an important point, because it means we must be careful how we judge the development of art. Art is far older than civilisation, which raises important questions about whether art can be said to ‘progress’. Was Ancient Egypt, with its huge feats in architecture and sculpture, its sophisticated metalworking, its complex script and paintings, creating ‘better’ art than the Pre-Estuarines or the Magdalenians? Surely it was more advanced? We shall address such questions in coming articles.

We have already pointed out that the dividing line between art and other forms of labour can be impossible to pin down. Art in the ancient world was seen very differently to how we see it today. The view of works of ‘art’ as the product of special, gifted individuals was a product of the Renaissance, and the concept of the ‘aesthetic’ was not created until the eighteenth-century. To see ancient art as museum pieces or insights into absolute beauty is to take away from them their human value as everyday and utilitarian objects. Here is Ellen Dissanayake:

Previously, the sorts of objects that in the post-eighteenth century West came to be called art — paintings, sculptures, ceramics, music, dance, poetry, and so forth — were made to embody or to reinforce religious or civic values, and rarely, if ever, for purely aesthetic purposes. Paintings and sculptures served as portraits, illustrations, interior or exterior decoration; ceramics were vessels for use; music and dance were part of a ceremonial or special social occasion; poetry was storytelling or praise or oratory to sway an audience. Even when beauty, skill or ostentation were important qualities of an object, they did not exist ‘for their own sake’, but as an enhancement of the object’s ostensible if not actual use.[8]

This is a point I made of Paleolithic art and I make it again here, for it is in this light that we must see the art of early civilisation. We shall explore these issues in more detail in the next few articles.



[1] Aristotle, Metaphysics, I.2.
[2] V. Gordon Childe, Man Makes Himself (1939).
[3] From Tablet 1 of the Epic of Gilgamesh. The quotation is from the translation by Stephen Mitchell.
[4] Georges Roux, Ancient Iraq (1964, revised edition 1992). One of the most important books on the history of Mesopotamia, covering the period from prehistory to the early centuries CE.
[5] V. Gordon Childe, Man Makes Himself (1936).
[6] Engels, Chapter 2 of The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884).
[7] Cuneiform script was written upon clay tablets using a stylus, leaving wedge-shaped impressions.
[8] Ellen Dissanayake, Homo Aestheticus (1992).

Sunday, 8 March 2009

Engels on the origin of civilisation

Until the work of Gordon Childe, the only significant Marxist writing on the development of early civilisation was Engels’ book The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. First published in 1884 and updated by Engels in 1891 to allow for new scholarship, this work was remarkable for its time, and a blog on Marxism cannot examine early society without reference to it. So before we take a look at the art of early civilisation, it is useful to pause for a brief assessment of whether Origin is still useful for us today.[1]

Marx and Engels made significant contributions to the theory of how the earliest human societies evolved. For Origin, Engels took as a starting point Marx’s critical notes on the work of the American anthropologist Lewis H. Morgan. Morgan was an American anthropologist, influenced by Darwinism, with a particular interest in the social forms of Native American societies. His great work of 1877, Ancient Society, finds the roots of social change in successive stages of material and technological change, and thus, in Engels’ view, stumbled upon the materialist conception of history. Morgan asserted, for example:

Mankind are the only beings who may be said to have gained an absolute control over the production of food… It is accordingly probable that the great epochs of human progress have been identified, more or less directly, with the enlargement of the sources of subsistence.[2]

Engels did considerable additional research into history and ethnography, drawing Morgan’s research into a clearer dialectical materialist framework to create what Lenin called “one of the fundamental works of modern socialism.”[3] In the same sentence, Lenin added: “every sentence of which can be accepted with confidence.” Whether he was right is a question we shall explore here.

The origins and character of early society

In Origin, Engels studies prehistoric society, its historical development, and the advent of class society. Borrowing directly from Morgan, he proposed a progression from hunter-gatherer ‘savagery’, to agricultural ‘barbarism’ and then to ‘civilisation’:

Savagery — the period in which man’s appropriation of products in their natural state predominates; the products of human art are chiefly instruments which assist this appropriation.

Barbarism — the period during which man learns to breed domestic animals and to practice agriculture, and acquires methods of increasing the supply of natural products by human activity.

Civilisation — the period in which man learns a more advanced application of work to the products of nature, the period of industry proper and of art.[4]

These stages of development broadly coincide with periods familiar to us under other names. ‘Savagery’ refers to the Paleolithic, from the origins of humans, through the creation of tools to the discovery of the bow and arrow and canoe. In its later stage we see the beginnings of Neolithic technology. The main feature of ‘Barbarism’ is agriculture and the domestication of animals, with the characteristic advances of the Neolithic such as the growth of towns; Engels anticipates Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel by a hundred years when he points out that the availability of domesticable animals and cultivable cereals was to determine the futures of continents. For Engels it is in the late stage of ‘Barbarism’, with the discovery of writing, iron, chariots, walled towns, etc, that human society begins the transition to ‘Civilisation’. Engels thus extended ‘Barbarism’ to include the archaic Greece of Homer, the pre-Roman Italian tribes and “the Normans in the days of the Vikings”.

Engels also describes the development of social organisation, beginning with a series of systems based on the gens, or “the form of kinship organisation which prides itself on its common descent... and is bound together by social and religious institutions into a distinct community.”[5] An early ‘consanguine’ family group which contained no sexual barriers between its members gave way to the ‘punaluan’ family that barred sex between siblings, and these group families in turn gave way to pair-bonding and monogamy. These early societies were egalitarian. Until the advent of class society, a ‘primitive communism’ was practised — Engels never actually uses the term, but does refer to ‘communistic’ organisation [6]. Women were valued as highly as men, and descent was matrilineal, i.e. because of the loose character of marriage, ancestry was traced through the female line, as only the mother’s parentage was certain. Disputes were settled by gatherings, land and goods were held in common, every privilege also carried a duty, and there were no classes and no state.

This (Marxist) view that Stone Age society was egalitarian, and that the creation of a surplus allowed specialists and the appearance of class society, is now widely accepted in the scientific community.[7] For example, in a bestselling textbook Colin Renfrew and Paul Bahn describe the first farming societies as “small, independent sedentary communities without any strongly centralised organisation. They seem in the main to have been relatively egalitarian communities.”[8]

In time, however, organisation according to family forms was superceded by new conditions that arose out of increases in productivity. Private property, the division of labour, the mingling of many different peoples in towns, division into classes and the advent of slavery led to the rise of a state with which the gens was incompatible, and kinship as a predominant form of social organisation came to an end. The rise in productivity also made the part of the economy for which men were responsible disproportionately important, leading to the overthrow of matrilineal descent and sexual equality, and to a domination by men that is still with us.

With this scheme, Engels clarifies and refines the one outlined in The German Ideology forty years earlier. In that work, Marx and Engels had written:

The first form of ownership is tribal ownership. It corresponds to the undeveloped stage of production, at which a people lives by hunting and fishing, by the rearing of beasts or, in the highest stage, agriculture. In the latter case it presupposes a great mass of uncultivated stretches of land. The division of labour is at this stage still very elementary and is confined to a further extension of the natural division of labour existing in the family. The social structure is, therefore, limited to an extension of the family; patriarchal family chieftains, below them the members of the tribe, finally slaves. The slavery latent in the family only develops gradually with the increase of population, the growth of wants, and with the extension of external relations, both of war and of barter.

The second form is the ancient communal and state ownership which proceeds especially from the union of several tribes into a city by agreement or by conquest, and which is still accompanied by slavery. Beside communal ownership we already find movable, and later also immovable, private property developing, but as an abnormal form subordinate to communal ownership. The citizens hold power over their labouring slaves only in their community, and on this account alone, therefore, they are bound to the form of communal ownership... The division of labour is already more developed. We already find the antagonism of town and country; later the antagonism between those states which represent town interests and those which represent country interests, and inside the towns themselves the antagonism between industry and maritime commerce. The class relation between citizens and slaves is now completely developed.[9]

Paleolithic and Neolithic society is here described as practising a system of ‘tribal ownership’, now better known as primitive communism, succeeded by an urbanised form of ownership, which unified peoples under a state that practised slavery. It is highly unlikely that slaves existed in ‘tribal ownership’, as Marx and Engels here claimed, and the role of slavery in ancient society has its own complexities. The second form of ‘communal and state ownership’ endured through the Greek and Roman empires until its collapse through external pressure and internal exhaustion led to its replacement with feudalism. The discussion of ‘tribal ownership’ in Marx’s work is very brief compared to the great detail with which, necessarily, he wrote about capitalism. Morgan’s research provided a wealth of information that enabled Engels to expand upon the Marxist analysis of that period.

The scheme set out by Engels in Origin, classifying the Neolithic era along with early civilisation including the Greeks, diverges from that of Childe, who suggested a break between the Neolithic and an ‘Urban Revolution’ connected with the rise of the first cities. But such schemes are, of course, an abstraction, and this disagreement is more about where one draws historical lines than about the course of history. The achievement of Morgan and Engels — and of course Marx — was to identify distinct stages of development in human society, from hunting and gathering to agriculture and then to urban, literate civilisation, and to recognise that these stages depended in the main upon the developing forces of production.

Shortcomings

Engels’ book does not survive unscathed from a hundred years of advance in anthropology and other social sciences.

Firstly his use of terms such as ‘savagery’ (Wildheit) and ‘barbarism’ (Barbarei) reflect the bourgeois prejudices of his time (prejudices also apparent in his phrase “the perversion of boy-love”). They have negative, even racist connotations, which is why they have died out. This is however a superficial flaw, in that it is merely a matter of Engels’ choice of words — his arguments are anti-racist because they argue that human development is governed by history, not racial characteristics. In the nineteenth century, ‘savagery’ was widely used as a label for describing the hunter-gatherer mode of production. Studies of surviving hunter-gatherer societies suggest his conception that prehistoric society had an egalitarian distribution of wealth and no formal leadership was probably correct, as such societies do not have the material basis for anyone to lord it over others.

Another problem comes when Engels assumes in his preface to the first edition that ‘the determining factor in history’ is ‘the production and reproduction of the immediate essentials of life’, which has a twofold character:

On the one side, the production of the means of existence...; on the other side, the production of human beings themselves, the propagation of the species. The social organisation under which the people of a particular historical epoch and a particular country live is determined by both kinds of production: by the stage of development of labour on the one hand and of the family on the other.

The family cannot be considered of equal importance to labour. Engels himself recognised the primacy of labour in the unfinished article The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man, as we have discussed. Also it is likely that the relationships within kinship groups were less important than Engels claimed, writing as he did with very little data about hunter-gatherer society. In that egalitarian stage of society, people had more freedom to move from one group to another, and a strong tendency to cooperation would make family distinctions relatively unimportant. Surviving hunter-gatherer peoples do not organise themselves into strict family units — although we must always remember that ethnographic parallels can be misleading. Morgan drew conclusions from the practice of hunter-gatherer societies removed by many generations from prehistory, and it would be wrong to suppose that such societies have been in stasis ever since.

In addition, the American anthropologist Eleanor Leacock commented:

The assumption upon which [Morgan’s] theory was based, that kin terms represent actual or possible biological relationships, has been superceded by the understanding that the literal biological meaning of terms are often secondary to their social implications.[10]

This is not to say that kinship, or ‘lineage’, is not important to prehistoric or surviving hunter-gatherer peoples. It is rather that Engels accepts a number of Morgan’s assumptions — such as the existence of the ‘consanguine’ family — that we simply cannot make about the social organisation of distant peoples for whom there is such an incomplete record.

We may make a similar point regarding Engels’ belief that matrilinearity was general among primitive peoples. In reality, the absence of written records means that we cannot say this for certain.

Another failing inherited from Morgan is the inadequate discussion of the states of non-European peoples. Engels’ only example of a transition from kinship organisation to the state is ancient Athens, making no reference to the history of class society between the rise of city states in Mesopotamia around 5000 BCE and Greece 4500 years later. By leaping over a few millennia of development, Engels makes the rise of the state appear a Greek creation and so gives a very incomplete picture.

The jump to Greece and Rome leads to an over-emphasis of the role of slavery. The importance of slavery in the earliest phase of class society is disputed. Although slavery existed already in Sumer, it probably wasn’t a decisive part of the mode of production until Greece and Rome. In earlier societies it would have existed side by side with various forms of state and communal ownership where the main class division was between the aristocracy and the peasantry, i.e. nearer to Marx’s so-called ‘Asiatic’ mode of production.

Where the pattern of development of class society is concerned, although wrong on several details — such as not recognising that domestication of plants and animals arose concurrently — Engels is broadly correct. Nonetheless it is essential to point out that the stages of development he describes are broad patterns and, in every time and place, will have worked through into their own specific, often divergent and contradictory, forms. Primitive communism will not have looked the same everywhere — there were as many versions as there were societies, displaying all the diversity of human life.

One of the serious charges laid against the Marxist theory of history is that it seeks to slot historical periods into stages, in an inevitable and unilinear sequence; Marxists then have to make evidence fit a pre-determined scheme. This was true in the case of Soviet archaeology from Stalin onwards, which looked to Origin in particular to justify a schematic approach. In an essay on dialectical materialism, Stalin listed the modes of production and concluded, “if the passing of slow quantitative changes into rapid and abrupt qualitative changes is a law of development, then it is clear that revolutions made by oppressed classes are a quite natural and inevitable phenomenon’ (my italics) [11].

It is important to point out that such ‘inevitablist’ and unilinear schemes are the simplistic product of a bureaucracy, and diverge greatly from the dialectical method of Marxism. Engels lays out a series of stages for the development of society, but it is common practice in archaeology and anthropology to recognise such stages. Engels does not apply them in a rigid fashion and nor should anyone else. Good Marxism is always scientific: evidence from the real world must come first, and theory is only valuable insofar as it is backed up by such evidence. Marx himself advised how to read the periodisation of history:

Viewed apart from real history, these abstractions have in themselves no value whatsoever. They can only serve to facilitate the arrangement of historical material, to indicate the sequence of its separate strata. But they by no means afford a recipe or schema, as does philosophy, for neatly trimming the epochs of history. On the contrary, our difficulties begin only when we set about the observation and the arrangement — the real depiction — of our historical material, whether of a past epoch or of the present. The removal of these difficulties is governed by premises which it is quite impossible to state here, but which only the study of the actual life-process and the activity of the individuals of each epoch will make evident.[12]

As always, when we return to Marx and Engels we find not a reductive system but a complex and highly mediated view of history that retains its power to this day.

Conclusion

The reality of development across so many prehistoric and ancient societies is hugely more complex than can be shown in Marx and Engels’ brief account in The German Ideology, or the still relatively brief Origin, especially on the basis of the limited data of the nineteenth century. We are today much better informed, but we too must struggle with incomplete evidence, and our picture of early society is continually being revised by new discoveries.

Certain lessons need to be learnt. The materialist conception of history disproves the idiocies of racism, which hold that certain peoples are superior to others and are destined to rule; it also kills the idealist myth that human society sprang into existence perfectly formed, or that the state has always existed. The great mass of archaeological and historical evidence shows that social forms — even those such as the family and sexual ‘couple’ that seem so innate to us — are based upon material development and are therefore ultimately transitory. The sex drive is innate, but the social forms through which it is expressed are not. This is why modern sociobiology is reductive — concepts such as Richard Dawkins’ ‘selfish gene’ attempt to explain by genetics alone a set of behaviours that cannot be divorced from their social context.

This reminds us that the sciences do not exist in a climate of perfect objectivity. As Leacock wrote:

Social science has always been vexed by the political implications of one or another theory, and evolutionary assumptions have always aroused subjective and ambivalent responses… Engels sharpened the implications of the comparison Morgan drew between primitive communal and class society, using it as an argument for socialism. Therefore, both Morgan’s and Engels’ work have had chequered careers.[13]

Leacock points out that many attempts were made to discredit their work by claiming, for example, that the state had always existed, or that primitive communism never happened. It is quite usual for Origin, which is one of the most important works of nineteenth-century anthropology, to be completely ignored by academics. The dangerous (for the bourgeoisie) political implications of dialectical materialism lead many to turn their backs on it and pursue a narrower, more reductive science.

Was Lenin right to say we could accept every word of Origin with confidence? As he turns out, he wasn’t, but then the anthropological research available to Engels was slim compared to today. As with his dialectical treatment of evolution in The Part Played by Labour, Engels was at the cutting edge of anthropology in his time, and remains more advanced in his views even than many contemporary writers. Few works of the 1880s and 1890s are still able to excite scientific debate, yet although some of Engels’ data has become superceded, it would be wrong to miss the wood because of concern about some of the trees. This work’s broad historical pattern and materialist method remain valid to this day.

 



[1] One of Engels’ most important achievements in the book is his explanation of the social inferiority of women to men. I will post a dedicated article on this topic and for that reason won’t deal with it here.
[2] Morgan, from Chapter 2 of Ancient Society (1877). Despite his materialist conception, Morgan was not a Marxist but a liberal with illusions about bourgeois democracy.
[3] Lenin, The State — A Lecture Delivered at the Sverdlov University (1919).
[4] Engels, from the end of Chapter 1 of The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884). Morgan, and therefore Engels, divided each of these into three further stages, which one can read about in detail in the original texts.
[5] See Engels, op. cit., Chapter 3 ‘The Iroquois Gens’.
[6] The term was however current in Engels’ own time. It was used for example by Paul Lafargue in The Evolution of Property from Savagery to Civilisation (1890).
[7] An exception to this is the view that complex societies may predate agriculture, as suggested for example by the temple complex at Göbekli Tepe in Turkey. Even if some hunter-gatherer societies proved able to build structures previously only associated with cultivators, it is unprofitable to isolate these examples from the general pattern of history.
[8] Colin Renfrew and Paul Bahn, Archaeology: Theories, Methods and Practice (5th ed 2008).
[9] Marx and Engels, Chapter 1 section A, ‘First Premises of the Materialist Method’ from The German Ideology (1845–6).
[10] Eleanor Leacock, introduction (1972) to Engels’ The Origin of the Family.
[11] Stalin, Dialectical and Historical Materialism (1938). I do not recommend Stalin’s writings to anyone interested in understanding Marxism.
[12] Marx and Engels, from Part One of The German Ideology (1845).
[13] Ibid.