Date: Monday 27th July
Time: 13:00 - 16:30 (London time)
Bourgeois, liberal and postmodern historians alike tend to reject the Marxist view that history is driven by material laws and processes. Some also reject the idea of progress, saying this is merely a point of view. They say that history is basically random, punctuated by exceptional individuals on whom the fate of human society turns. But why is it that similar conditions result in similar events, outcomes and characters reoccurring across history? And has there really been no progress between stone tools and spacecraft? This talk will demonstrate and defend the method of Marxist historical materialism. Our speaker, Josh Holroyd, is a leading activist of Socialist Appeal, British section of the IMT.
- What is historical materialism?
- Civilization, Barbarism and the Marxist view of History
- Historical Materialism, in Engels’ Socialism: Utopian and Scientific
- Buy at Wellred: The Classics of Marxism: Volume One
Josh: When Marx and Engels first developed the basic principles of historical materialism they changed history, and in more ways than one. First, they revolutionised the study of history by for the first time placing it on a real, scientific basis. But in doing this they also created a powerful instrument for the revolutionary transformation of society by the working class.
But what we have to understand from the beginning is that this has not been a welcome development from the standpoint of the ruling class. So it shouldn’t surprise you to hear that there is not a single one of Marx’s ideas that has not been declared “out of date” and refuted by the ruling class and its lackey professors in the universities.
And sadly, there is not a single bourgeois attack on Marxism that has not also been taken up and incorporated into so-called Marxist academia. This is not simply of academic interest. As we saw recently with David Harvey’s statements about revolution, revisionism in theory goes hand in hand with opportunism in practice.
So this imposes a duty upon us as Marxists to study and defend the real method and ideas of Marxism like a master craftsman cares for his tools. Or a soldier cares for his weapons. Because they are ultimately the only weapons we have, and we cannot afford for them to be taken from us.
So in the limited time available to me I intend to look at some of the most important attacks on historical materialism, and hopefully offer a defence and explanation of the most fundamental principles of the Marxist approach to history.
The most basic premise of scientific socialism is that historical development is determined by objective laws that can be understood, however imperfectly, by human beings. But even this idea is dismissed by the dominant trend in historical academia today.
Perhaps the most concise explanation of this trend was given by the 20th century by the monopolist, Henry Ford, who famously said “history is bunk”, meaning nonsense. But today, you can see this idea, that it is impossible to explain rather than simply describe events, you can see this everywhere. It is of course a major feature of postmodernism, which has been dealt with already in another session, so I won’t take up any more time with that.
But there is another, perhaps more subtle version of this argument: that while it may be possible to understand history in some sense, it cannot be understood scientifically. For example, in his very popular book, Sapiens – here it is, so you can see what it looks like, borrowed! – the Liberal writer Yuval Noah Harari argues that history cannot be a science, we can only explain how and not why things happened as they did, because you cannot make specific predictions, to which he contrasts the natural sciences and, bizarrely, economics.
For this reason, Marxism is apparently a religion in which Marx’s predictions about the development of capitalism and the necessity of revolution play the same role as the prophecies of the book of Revelation, for example. The fact that almost all of Marx’s so-called prophecies have been completely confirmed since his death is of course, not mentioned.
One might immediately ask, if something can’t be understood scientifically then can it be understood at all? And we can see that every attempt to understand history that does not take a scientific approach inevitably just takes the ruling prejudices of the time and smears them across history in order to justify their existence – this goes doubly for Harari’s book.
But even allowing for this, if the sole criterion for science is that it can make precise predictions then this would rule out most of even the natural sciences: Weather, earthquakes, all manner of things cannot be predicted with mathematical precision. Even in physics, at the quantum level scientists deal with probability. By this logic we should abandon trying to explain anything. In fact it is an argument against science as a whole.
But another argument he makes is that because society is made up of conscious human beings, our predictions affect the outcome, making history too chaotic to predict. The example he gives is if someone had been able to create an algorithm that could predict events with 100% accuracy, and used it to show Hosni Muburak in 2010 that there would be a revolution in Egypt in a year’s time, the predicted revolution would not have happened, because Mubarak would have spent billions on state handouts and added security, thus falsifying the prediction.
But let’s look at this a little closer. First of all, upon receiving this prophecy, where was Mubarak supposed to find the billions of dollars to dish out to the population? One of the driving factors in the Arab revolution was austerity policies and cuts to state subsidies for fuel and other necessities. These cuts were the product of the very real, deterministic, and knowable limits of Egyptian capitalism in a period of global crisis. In the short term, he could have reversed the cuts and borrowed billions more to stave off the 2011 revolution – the Tory government in Britain is doing the same thing right now – and then what? Exactly the same demands would be raised by the masses, the state would become increasingly bankrupt, and Mubarak’s policies would likely just pave the way for an even greater explosion further down the line. So the only way the prediction could be completely falsified is if in response the Egyptian dictator either suspended the laws of capitalism by magic, that would work, or abolished capitalism in order to provide the people with necessities, which would itself be a revolution!
In every revolution in history there has been a section of the ruling class that knows what is coming, and pushes for reforms from above to prevent revolution from below. Quite often, those very reforms have roused the masses further, making revolution inevitable. The reason for this is not because revolutions are totally random, but because their causes lie much deeper than individual rulers are able to go. And it is the task of history, any serious study of history, to discover precisely these causes, and understand them.
The argument that objective historical laws are unknowable is simply an admission by the writer that he has no idea what they are. As Trotsky said: “Theory is the victory of foresight over astonishment.” Well, this is astonishment elevated to a theory. But if we accept that there are objective laws to historical development, and that these laws can be understood. Then how do we discover and grasp those laws?
Before Marx, the dominant theory of history was that since history is made by humans, and humans are conscious beings, then the study of history is simply the study of the various ideas that have guided people across the ages. In short, history was determined by the mind. But this idealist conception of history was brilliantly overthrown by Marx. For the first time, it became possible to genuinely understand history, and not just describe it. In the words of Engels:
“Just as Darwin discovered the law of development of organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of development of human history.”
What was this law?
Marx discovered the driving force in history not in the head, in the ideas and deeds of great men etc. but in the hand – in labour, which he described as “an eternal natural necessity which mediates the metabolism between man and nature, and therefore human life itself.”
In his Preface to a Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, published in 1859 – the same year as Darwin’s Origin of Species, by the way, Marx wrote these famous lines:
“In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.”
Ever since he wrote those lines, the entire intellectual establishment has been on a quest to refute them. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the last 150 years of social science has been little more than a relentless attack on this idea, this paragraph even.
Harari again, expresses the dominant prejudice with typical crudeness when he says:
“Since large-scale human cooperation is based on myths, the way people cooperate can be altered by changing the myths – by telling different stories.”
But aside from this openly reactionary idealism, there are actually plenty of self-proclaimed socialists who have found more subtle and pernicious ways to challenge the basic ideas of historical materialism.
Take Anthony Giddens, now Lord Giddens, who is well known in Britain as the main theorist of Blairism. In 1989, Giddens wrote a critique of historical materialism, in which he described himself as a “libertarian socialist” and claimed to salvage the good bits of Marx’s ideas from what he considered to be his more out of date ideas. So which of Marx’s ideas are now out of date?
First, according to Giddens, “Marx was wrong to regard human beings as above all tool-making and using animals… Human social life neither begins nor ends in production.” Instead he says the “search for meaning” is “closer to supplying the basis for a philosophical anthropology of human culture than Marx was”. So we return to classic idealism. It is consciousness that separates us from the animals and therefore forms the basis for human history.
But when and how did this separation take place? Presumably at some point one of our ape-like ancestors woke up one morning and decided to begin his search for meaning, and along the way he developed fire and tools in order to sustain his mortal body during his quest for the immortal soul. Even the most incorrigible idealist would accept that this great leap did not take place before the evolution of the human brain. But the study of the evolution of the human brain challenges that theory.
Our earliest known hominin ancestor, called Lucy, lived and died over 3 million years ago. Her brain is no bigger than that of a chimpanzee. And yet she was more human than chimpanzee. Why? Because what she did have was an early form of the human hand, specifically, the precision grip, which allowed among other things the production of tools to help her satisfy her needs.
This is where human evolution begins. Not in the head, but in the hand. The first stone tools yet discovered are over 2,500,000 years old, much older than homo sapiens as a species. As labour became more complex, so did our brains, which not only became larger but also had expanded areas for things like language and abstract thought. In changing its natural surroundings humanity changed itself. So it turns out that humanity’s “search for meaning”, whatever that actually means, I must admit I’m still searching for the meaning of that expression, regardless, this is itself a product of labour.
What is especially significant is that the most modern studies of our earliest ancestors confirm not the idealism of Giddens from 1989 but the materialism of Friedrich Engels, who put forward this theory of human evolution years before it was conclusively confirmed by research. By the way, if you’re interested the pamphlet in which Engels makes this step forward is called ‘The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man’.
But having redefined humanity for us Giddens takes a look at society:
“'Modes of the production of material life’ are not, in tribal or class-divided societies, the chief motor of social change, neither is class struggle.”
According to Giddens, it is the possession of “authoritative resources”, in other words political control, that has determined the course of history up to capitalism. As evidence for this he points to the origin of the state:
“the Neolithic Revolution... did not mechanically bring about an overturning of the social order ... it is the political break that is decisive, and not the economic transformation.”
The idea that economic development automatically and mechanically brings about changes in social relations is a very common straw man used to accuse Marxism of technological or economic determinism. But it has nothing to do with Marxism. Ironically if Marx genuinely believed that social relations passively and mechanically followed technological developments he would not have been a revolutionary. Revolution would be unnecessary and impossible, because every technological innovation would bring about some small change in social relations until society gradually evolved into a future of greater and greater prosperity. This is the mythology of the Liberals, not Marxism.
But let us take Giddens’ example at face value. He argues that the advent of agriculture did not change social relations but politics, force, in the form of the state, did. The first thing that must be pointed out here is the neolithic revolution quite obviously did transform society. Before agriculture, all human societies lived a nomadic life, moving from place to place. The transition to permanent settlements and a new division of labour completely changed the way people lived their lives, including not only production but the family and religion.
But for lack of time let’s go straight to the state. Giddens states that writing was instrumental in the formation of the state, and this rather than agriculture changed social relations permanently. How?
Giddens mentions that writing was first used to make lists. Yes, but lists of what? For roughly a thousand years before the first King lists, Mesopotamian priests were writing lists of the goods contained in their temple stores. This gives us a clue to the real origin of the state in Mesopotamia. The first ever forms of agriculture did not immediately ensure the level of surplus to maintain a state. That should not surprise anybody. But agriculture continued to develop.
And to use the example of Mesopotamia, the production of a surplus capable of maintaining a state did not arise until the introduction of irrigation farming to the marshes of what is now southern Iraq. In settlements from this place and time, roughly 6,000 years ago, we see for the first time communal temple areas where surplus product was taken as offerings.
What does this mean? In these settlements we see the physical evidence of a qualitatively new division of labour in society. That between the hand and the head, if you like, with the majority working the fields and a minority who could devote their time to mental work, like measurement, mathematics, writing. This work was done by the priests. Writing, therefore, was developed as a result of the production and distribution of this surplus, not simply for the sake of “power”, in the abstract, or for ideology on its own. Sadly for Giddens, historically speaking, the poet and the accountant have the same mother, the same origin.
But still we see no state, only a temple at this stage. Over time we see larger temples, more and more inequality. Eventually, about 5000 years ago, all of these early cities entered into crisis at roughly the same time. All of the contradictions building up come to the surface, and quantity was transformed into quality. Perhaps some external crisis like a drought or overfarming reduced the level of surplus available. But crucially, the privileged layer at the top could no longer ensure the surplus it required.
Later, within a couple of hundred years really, we see the same cities re-emerging in the same place, but this time with a temple and a palace, which in Sumerian is “é.gal”, if I’m pronouncing it right, which literally translates as “big house”. And in the big house lived the “lugal” which literally translates as “the big man”. The dawn of the state had finally come. And only then did scribes start writing lists of kings and stories about superhuman kings like the Epic of Gilgamesh. In this sense writing executed the functions of the state – it did not create them, and actually a few states have existed without writing, such as the Incan empire for example.
But how can we explain this?
Engels, in Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State, explained the state is an admission by society that it has become divided into irreconcilable class interests, between those who produce and those who appropriate the surplus. And in his words, “in order that these antagonisms and classes with conflicting economic interests might not consume themselves and society in fruitless struggle, it became necessary to have a power seemingly standing above society that would alleviate the conflict, and keep it within the bounds of "order" ; and this power… is the state.” From this point does the whole of history become “the history of class struggles” as Marx put it.
But of course, Giddens still doesn’t agree, and he explains:
“Class relations do not govern the basic character of production in either the Ancient world or in feudalism. The slave or serf are not 'workers’, nor is their 'labour' separated from their relation to nature and to the community”.
If he’s saying the slave is not the same as a wage worker under capitalism then we’re in agreement. But I think the idea that the slave is not a worker because he doesn’t work in a factory for a wage would not be taken seriously by the slaves. This is another classic example of the method of Liberalism, Giddens takes capitalist production as his starting point, looks for it throughout history, and having not found it prior to capitalism he declares there were no workers and no class struggle either.
Bizarrely though, we even have self-styled Marxists putting forward this same idea. Samir Amin for example states that prior to capitalism, “ideology is the dominant instance”. This idea, that the political determines the economic in ancient and medieval society, whereas the economic determines the political under capitalism, because it’s a market economy, this is actually very common in Marxist academia. And I have to ask, what good is a historical materialism which only applies to capitalism?
But worse, in correcting Marx, these people take us further back even than the ancient historians. Thucydides was not a Marxist but he saw that beneath the political struggle of Athenian democracy there were material class interests, and it was this struggle, between the oligarchy and the mob, as he saw it, that drove the Peloponnesian war to its unhappy conclusion (for Athens).
Likewise, you could characterise the history of the Middle Ages (in Europe, at least) as the struggle of different religious sects, such as that between Protestantism and Catholicism. But it is easy to see that beneath all of these religious ideas lay the interests of the various classes in feudal society, such as the bourgeoisie in the towns, bourgeois means town dweller, someone who lives in a town, who played an essential role in the reformation.
Marx even answered this argument himself in the first volume of Capital, where he writes:
“This much, however, is clear, that the Middle Ages could not live on Catholicism, nor the ancient world on politics. On the contrary, it is the mode in which they gained a livelihood that explains why here politics, and there Catholicism, played the chief part.”
Marxism has never denied the important role of consciousness, of force and of the state. To attempt to explain history without the intervention of political struggles and ideas would give us a false and one-sided view, but to take the political ideas of the time as an independent factor, outside of the economic and class context gives us only form without content and ultimately explains nothing.
But now we come to a major point of controversy with Marx’s work: that of progress. Marxist philosophy sees the whole course of development of matter, life and human society as part of a never-ending process of evolution. But this has nothing in common with so-called social Darwinism, which presents a false picture of evolution in order to justify the domination of society by the rich.
What Darwin showed, to the horror of respectable bourgeois society, was that all species, including our own, have not always existed, are not the product of some special plan, but are the result of millions of years of evolution by natural selection, a product of history if you like. Darwin put us in our place biologically. Marx put us in our place socially. He demonstrated that every form of society in existence was not the natural and permanent expression of human nature, or the result of some pre-ordained plan, but the product of thousands of years of evolution. He showed that in society as in nature, all that exists deserves to perish.
This social evolution is not determined by biology or human nature but by the development of the productive forces, which mediates our interaction with nature and with it the foundations of human society. But contrary to the Liberal conception of progress, which sees history as a gradual and linear process of moral and economic enlightenment, culminating in modern liberal democratic capitalism, Marxism sees progress as inherently contradictory and made up of revolutionary leaps. Crucially, forms of society that had at one stage furthered development will at a certain stage turn into their opposite.
In his famous preface Marx writes:
“At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure.”
Now I’ve already explained how this took form in the state, in the origin of the state, but we also see this in the transition from one form of class society, to another, higher form, and we see it right before our eyes today in the crisis of capitalism. But this idea is indignantly rejected by many academics, including of course Giddens, who proudly puts forward a “non-evolutionary” theory of history.
He says that if we take an evolutionary view of history, and think of societal change in terms of 'stages', then this is wrong because “the emergence of class-divided societies, did not eliminate tribal societies from the world.” All we learn from this is that Giddens, and others who indignantly reject an evolutionary approach to history, understand neither evolution nor history.
Is it the case in nature, that when great evolutionary leaps take place, such as the first creatures to live on land, all other species on Earth have either followed suit or died out? Do we live in a world populated only by vertebrates? It’s necessary only to pose the question to see the absurdity of what is being argued here.
Contrary to the crude caricature of Marxism presented by the Stalinist two-stage theory, Marxism does not insist that every single society must pass through the same course of development. That is not how evolution works. Rather, each individual society comes into being in a certain geographic and historical environment, including crucially the level of development of the productive forces already attained. This has a determining effect on its social relations, classes and further development.
In fact, the constant presence of and interaction between societies at differing stages of development, which Trotsky calls combined and uneven development, is itself a powerful factor in the progress of society as a whole. More backward societies rapidly appropriate the achievements of others without necessarily needing to go through the same process of development. This creates giant leaps in development.
Taking Greece as an example, Engels pointed out that class society and the state in Athens arose when there was already iron technology and tools, which allowed for rainfed agriculture to be much more productive than before, there was the extensive trading of commodities with other civilisations, and even money at this point. All of these thing contributed to the nature of Athenian class society, with its chattel slavery and high level of private property relations.
What is the picture in ancient Egypt, which the Greeks considered the original civilisation? Totally different. Egyptian class society arose on the basis of Bronze Age technology, and a surplus produced by irrigation farming along the Nile, carried out by village communities and overseen by the temple and state bureaucracy, and money did not arise in any form until after the birth of the state. Its relations were qualitatively different because they had evolved at a much earlier stage in the development of the productive forces. But without the development that took place in Egypt and other Bronze Age Empires like Assyria and Babylon, and Mycenaean Greece, Bronze Age Greece, it is very unlikely that the great achievements of Athenian civilization would have ever come about. That new form of Greek slave society represented a new stage in the development of class society and opened up further development.
Look at the development of capitalism, for example. It took England roughly 300 years to develop mature, industrialised capitalism from feudalism. Japan went from an agrarian, feudal society to an industrial, capitalist economy in the space of a single generation, pretty much. But could we really say that this leap did not constitute a leap forward in any sense? Which is what the postmodernists argue, and some so-called Marxists.
Ultimately the denial of progress is nothing more than the reflection of the irreversible decline of capitalism, under which further progress is impossible. It is essentially the reactionary demand that the working class cannot and must not fight for progress now.
Harari, again, argues that economic development does not necessarily lead to greater happiness or better lives for everyone. That’s true enough. But as long as we live under class society – the collective power of the human race will never mean greater freedom and prosperity for all. On this contradiction rests the entirety of the class struggle, a struggle over the surplus produced by the development of the productive forces.
Today, no amount of further technological or economic development brings further progress for the vast majority of the population. What development has taken place only serves to exacerbate the crisis of capitalism and the oppression of the masses. This does not refute progress, what this proves is that under class society there is no progress without class struggle, and ultimately without revolution.
Sometimes the denial of progress is dressed up as standing up for non-capitalist societies. To spare the feelings of societies that have been brutally destroyed by capitalism, even many so-called Marxists refuse to speak of progress at all, as if it is only a liberal idea. One self-styled “critical Marxist”, Ellen Meiksins Wood only uses the term “process”. But what is this supposed to mean? Where is this process taking us?
Today billions of people sense one way or another the impossibility of moving forward under the present system, and want desperately to find a way out. What is this other than a semi-conscious striving for progress?
But if there is no such thing then we must conclude that the overthrow of capitalism, the eradication of poverty, or the end of the oppression of women would not constitute genuine progress for humanity. And if you believe that, you’ll believe anything. The only society this view defends is capitalism.
Today, to believe that a higher stage in the evolution of society is even possible, but more importantly, is inevitable, and necessary, is a revolutionary act, whereas the denial of progress for all time is just as false and reactionary as the claims of people like Steven Pinker and Bill Gates who constantly praise the silent miracle of poverty reduction under capitalism at the same time the world’s poor face catastrophe. They are two sides of the same coin. Both rule out the struggle of the working class for its emancipation, which today constitutes the motor force of progress.
Now this brings us to the final straw man, which is regularly used on the right and the left, the idea that Marxism considers everything, every event inevitable, that it is fatalistic and therefore denies human agency in history. Instead, we are told, history is all about “possibilities”.
To quote Harari one last time, “We study history not to know the future but to widen our horizons, to understand that our present situation is neither natural nor inevitable, and that we consequently have many more possibilities before us than we might imagine.”
How inspiring, but he’s not the only one. Let’s take the “socialist” Giddens again for the last time:
“The relation between capitalism and socialism in the modern world has a double implication, as an existing series of phenomena and as an open series of possibilities.”
Such as the possibility of a third way between capitalism and socialism, which is what Blairism tried to do. And finally let’s take the “Marxist”, Ellen Meiksins Wood. She says: “The relevant category in characterizing the socialist project is not inevitably... but precisely possibility.”
Now this is very comforting, but it offers no concrete way of realising any of these abstract possibilities. This kind of “possibility” is empty, and I couldn’t help but recall a quote from Hegel in relation to this. He said:
“In philosophy in particular, there should never be a word said of showing that "It is possible", or "It is conceivable". The same consideration should warn the writer of history… but the subtlety of the empty understanding finds its chief pleasure in the fantastic ingenuity of suggesting possibilities and lots of possibilities.”
Ultimately, whether a thing is possible or impossible does not depend on whether you can imagine it happening, but on the real existing elements and dynamics of the thing in the question – in society, the objective laws that determine the general direction of society, in this case capitalism.
What possibilities do these correctors of Marx offer us? Despite saying we cannot predict the future, Harari tells us liberal capitalism will produce AI, which will solve climate change and make us immortal by 2050. Where does human agency come into that? Giddens’ philosophy gave us the political project of Blairism, which as we know from experience requires that the masses are as little involved in politics as possible, and simply leave a bureaucratic clique of careerists to manage society on their behalf, and not very well. It basically tells the workers “wait”, and vote Labour in the next election. That’s their agency. The “Marxist” Wood says nothing at all. “Democracy, we should have democracy,” with no concrete answer of how we are supposed to have this socialist democracy. Now who gains from this? The capitalists! The status quo. This method defends the continuation of their failed system.
The concrete possibility of socialism is nothing other than the inevitable development and centralisation of global production under capitalism, the inevitable growth and continued oppression of the working class, which is forced into struggle, and the deeper and deeper crisis of the capitalist system, which is the inevitable product of the contradiction between the immense social production and narrow private appropriation of the capitalists.
In reality, history is not a question of mere possibility, but of necessity – what is the necessary outcome of the fundamental processes taking place, and what is necessary for the emancipation of the working class and for the further development and liberation of humanity as a whole.
Marxists have never denied agency. Marx himself said that men make their own history, but they do not do so in circumstances of their own choosing. Marxism is the conscious expression of the movement of history, and our consciousness of this movement demands that we too must move. This is why Marxism, for all its determinism, is a philosophy of action. By grasping the objective laws of history, it becomes possible to consciously intervene and change society, and it is necessary to do so as well. Only then is real human agency possible. We fight to end the capitalist system, which is in inevitable decay. To bring into being a new world, free of exploitation, free of poverty, and in control of its destiny. That is real freedom. It is not enough to think, it is not even enough to know. Historical materialism demands that we act. As Marx said so long ago, the philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways, the point is to change it.
Guy: Comrades, I’m going to give a brief example of how bourgeois academics interpret the findings of ongoing excavations within the so-called “fertile crescent” area of the Middle East, as opposed to the method of historical materialism.
This area is known as the cradle of civilisation, because it’s where, evidence shows us, agricultural technique was qualitatively advanced by local human populations. As Josh mentioned this gave rise to a food surplus, then a greater division of labour and increasingly complex settlements involving large numbers of people, and eventually class divisions and the birth of the state.
Archaeological records are continually being updated with new discoveries in the region, shedding more light on human history during the Neolithic period.
One particular excavation site has produced extraordinary findings. Göbekli Tepe (“Guh-behk-lee Teh-Peh”) is a tell (a human-made hill) in Southeast Turkey in which over 20 circles containing 200 pillars and incredible carvings and sculptures of people and animals have been found. Some of these seem to pre-date known settlements in Low Mesopotamia by around 2,500 years. There is little sign of inhabitation at the site or nearby, although much of it is still to be excavated. The bones of what are assumed to have been wild animals have been found alongside human bones.
Bourgeois academics, including the chief archaeologists working at the site, take these findings to mean that hunter-gatherers inhabiting a hundred-mile radius of it produced the artefacts found there. Conveniently, this hypothesis turns the theories of Engels, and of the archaeologist V. Gordon Childe, who based himself on Marxism, completely on their heads. In a 2011 article for the National Geographic, academic historian Charles C. Mann was delighted to point this out. He ended his piece by quoting lead archaeologist at the site Klaus Schmidt, who concluded: “Civilisation is a product of the human mind”.
Apparently, groups of hunter-gatherers would take breaks from their hunting and foraging to attend the site, travelling enormous distances to come and pay their respects, and marvel at the sculptures and carvings of vicious beasts simple foragers like themselves had created, as a kind of religious tourism. There would even be food provided especially for the occasion – that’s where agriculture suddenly makes an appearance – it was needed to ensure there was enough food for the tourists! According to Mann, this was “Like the Neolithic version of Disneyland.”
There are just a few problems with Neolithic Disneyland: people who build religious monuments also need food, as well as the people who come to see them. Archaeologists estimate it would have taken 500 people to extract the stone for the pillars, some weighing 10 tonnes each, from a nearby quarry and move them several hundred metres to the site by hand. Let alone the craftsmanship that went in the carvings and sculptures. It seems like that would involve a lot of time, work, planning, organisation and cooperation between different groups, for people spending their days hunting in small numbers to survive. There is already clear evidence that settlements in the Euphrates valley within 100 miles of Göbekli Tepe which predate it by thousands of years cultivated cereal crops
Even if the timeline and map for the development of the Neolithic Revolution are revised – as new excavations with new technology lead to new archaeological discoveries – the overall picture provided by the method of Marxism, historical materialism, remains intact.
There was a brief and limited return of glacial climates around the time that the first known evidence of grain cultivation is dated, which actually suggests it was conditions of greater hardship that forced the development of new farming techniques – something only a dialectical approach could make sense of.
In his work Man Makes Himself, V Gordon Childe points out that much of the land in what today is the Middle East was becoming “increasingly arid” at the time certain human populations in the fertile crescent became sedentary – so they chose to stay put and dig water drainage and irrigation systems rather than moving to somewhere that could be barren. And he explains that likely there were still many nomadic peoples around the region even when permanent settlements became more commonplace – the many forms of extant social group interacted and even traded, in things such as wild animal kill. This was not a mechanical, one-size-fits-all, social transformation.
Meanwhile the bourgeois theorists look to abandon a rigorous, scientific materialist method / and retreat to the comfort of idealism at the first opportunity. The theory that “religion created agriculture” wouldn’t have been out of place in the dark ages, and yet here we find it today in one of the world’s most widely-read science journals.
One more reason why the capitalist system along with its intellectual representatives should be consigned to the dustbin of history.
Fredrik: For the bourgeois, capitalism is the natural state of society. To them it’s natural that this year alone 265 million people risk starvation. At the same time, the eight biggest food corporations across the world have handed out 18 billion dollars in dividends. That’s ten times the amount the UN claims is needed to eradicate world hunger. To the bourgeois, this barbarism is the natural state of humanity.
But historical materialism explains that capitalism is neither the first nor the last word in human evolution. We say that capitalism paves the way for socialist revolution. Therefore the bourgeoisie cannot accept historical materialism. But the problem for them is – we have the empirical evidence on our side.
I thought I would go into some evidence on how humanity developed. Around 7 million years ago, the path of our ancestors deviated from that of the chimpanzees. Our ancestors were forced onto the savanna. The bourgeois used to believe that the first difference between humanoids and the others was the size of the brain. But by now that has proven to be completely false.
Instead, something Engels argued 144 years ago has proven to be correct. Josh mentioned Lucy, who lived 3.2 million years ago. What differentiates her from earlier apes is first of all her completely upright posture. Engels explained that this upright walking freed the hands to use tools. That's exactly what you see with Lucy. More human-like hands – and the neck and shoulders are adapting for greater control over the hands – using the tools to survive, requires greater and greater dexterity. And it’s during the epoch after Lucy lived that you encounter the first humanoids where hands are complemented with a larger brain.
Interestingly, before Lucy’s species, our human ancestors had sharp canine teeth. Chimpanzees also has this type of teeth, and they use it for fighting between the men to become leaders of the group. But with Lucy’s species, these teeth are disappearing. And in later species of humanoids they’re gone.
Two million years ago a species develops that looks quite similar to us – Homo erectus. By now they’re so good at walking that they can run. And they lost their fur, to get better endurance. They develop a hunting method called “persistence hunting”. Basically, they make their prey panic time and time again until it runs out of energy and can easily be killed. This requires very good teamwork.
People like the reactionary Jordan Peterson claim that these early societies were dominated by alpha males. This is to prove that human nature is competitive and selfish, and therefore that class society is natural. But reality is very different. You can see it in archaeology, for example with these canine teeth. You can see it with the hunting methods. If these early humans were to survive, there was no room for jealousy or infighting. Nor for privileges or strict hierarchies. It would have destroyed the fabric of the group that they needed to survive.
While earlier hominids would have been able to grip certain tools and use them – with Homo Erectus this is now developed into conscious production of tools. They produce hand-axes, with a distinct shape of the stone – the shape is like a drop of water. They take such care producing these drip shapes that this is actually considered one of the first manifestations of human art.
And then 600,000 years ago one of our closest ancestors develops – the Neanderthals. By now tool-making is at a whole different level. Their brain is now as big, or even bigger, than ours. And rather than the popular idea of Neanderthal brutal cavemen – the archaeological evidence points to a very caring society. They’ve started to carefully bury their dead. There’s archaeological proof that Neanderthals who were injured and crippled when they were very young – they even managed to survive into old age. This means that the Neanderthals took care of those who couldn’t support themselves. That’s more than you can say about capitalist society.
Around 300 000 years ago homo sapiens developed – the modern day humans. Just like every other species we’ve been shaped by our manner of surviving, which is using and producing tools, by working. You can see that over millions of years this has shaped us biologically, and at every stage, it has also shaped our mode of production, which in turn has shaped our relations to each other and our society.
All the way up until 10,000 years ago – human society is equal. But this equality is created out of hunger, where there’s no surplus in society. Marx and Engels therefore called it primitive communism. Of course, what we are fighting for is not for everybody to go hungry. We fight for communism now because the surplus is now sufficient to free everybody from even the fear of hunger. Now this is the only way to take humanity forward. All the means are there. It’s up to us to make it happen.
Rob: The way most of us are taught history in school makes it very difficult to actually understand history. It is either taught as a series of random dates and facts to be memorized for an exam. Or solely as the history of the actions of the great men and women of history, with no real teaching of the progression of events or why history unfolded the way it did.
According to bourgeois history, Napoleon became the Emperor of France solely because of his strength of will and military genius. The rise of fascism, the course of World War II in Germany and the Holocaust were due solely to the individual monstrosity of Adolf Hitler. Or the United States has become so polarized and entered a severe crisis solely because of the personality traits of Donald Trump.
Marxism does not deny the role of the individual in history. In fact, in certain circumstances, the role played by individuals in history can be absolutely vital. But individuals, including the great people of history, can only act within the limits set by the conditions of their specific time and place. These individuals are a product of the conditions of their time and place. This was what Marx meant when he said the following:
“Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.”
The personal qualities of political figures can determine the outcome in a given situation. And there are critical moments in human history when the quality of leadership can be the decisive factor that tips the balance one way or another.
Plekhanov, the father of Russian Marxism once said:
“A great man is great not because his personal qualities give individual features to great historical events, but because he possesses qualities which make him most capable of serving the great social needs of his time, needs which arose as a result of general and particular causes.”
Political leadership in the crucial moments of history can be just as decisive a factor as is the role of the general staff during the critical moments of war. If Lenin and Trotsky had not been present in 1917, the October Revolution would have unfolded in a completely different manner, and in all likelihood would not have been victorious.
However, individuals can only play such a role under certain circumstances. The specific circumstances of the First World War, and the specific conditions of the class struggle in Russia and internationally in 1917 allowed Lenin and Trotsky to play the decisive role they played. But these same two men had been active politically for more than two decades before 1917 and were not able to play the same role then. They could not conjure the Russian Revolution at will or by magic.
In the same way, when the Revolution ebbed, despite their personal abilities, and the role they had played in the Revolution, Lenin and Trotsky were not able to prevent the bureaucratic degeneration of the Soviet Union, which was caused by objective forces against which even the greatest leaders of the Revolution were powerless as individuals. The degeneration of the Soviet Union was the result of a struggle between living social forces, in the Soviet Union and internationally, and was not solely the outcome of the struggle between the individual personalities of Trotsky and Stalin.
Personality traits, Marxist theory, and political will alone were not enough for Lenin and Trotsky to prevent the degeneration of the Russian Revolution. In rejecting this idea that history is driven solely by the personality and will of great individuals in history, we have to be careful not to fall into the trap of economic determinism, which is one of the straw man arguments used against Marxism that Josh explained.
It is important to point out that we are not economic determinists, and that history does not unfold in a schematic way due to economic factors alone. Marx and Engels explained repeatedly that the economic element is not the only determining factor in the unfolding of history. And that politics too influences historical development and can influence the economic base of society.
For example, the defeat of the revolutionary wave after the Second World War was one of the political preconditions for the 30-year economic upswing that followed. Likewise, the defeat of the revolutionary wave in the 1970s and the capitulation of the leadership of the labour movement was one of the preconditions that allowed the capitalists to get out of the crisis and then administer austerity for the next several decades.
And so if one looks at history one can see that economics drives politics, and politics can impact and drive economics as well. So it is only in the final analysis that the economic developments, economic necessity, expresses itself. There is not an automatic and immediate relationship between developments in the economic base of society and the social superstructure of society.
An economic slump, for example, does not automatically mean an intensification of class struggle, strikes, and revolutions, just as an economic boom does not automatically mean a pacification of the class struggle and a decrease in strikes and revolutions.
Rather, what is important is the transition between boom and slump, and between upswing and depression, and how this impacts the working class, where the specific circumstances and consciousness of the working class in response to the economic developments will determine the course of the class struggle. And the outcome of the class struggle can impact both economic and political developments.
There is a complex, dialectical relationship between developments in the economy and developments in the class struggle, with many factors playing a role. Thus, depending on the circumstances both booms and slumps can lead to a pacification or intensification of the class struggle. Trotsky explained that history is not an automatic process. Otherwise, why are there political leaders? Why are there political parties? Why political programs? Why the class struggle?
A mode of production, for example slave society, feudalism, or capitalism, once it has been established, can last much longer than the relationship of forces that produced it, or allowed it to advance. It is out of this historical contradiction that revolutions, coup d’états, and counter revolutions, etc. take place.
Josh mentioned a quote by Marx from the Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy.
I’ll paraphrase, where Marx explained that at a certain point the forces of society come into conflict with the framework, the social superstructure of that society. And this is where the era of social revolution begins.
Now this is a central idea of historical materialism, but this does not mean that as soon as the old social order becomes reactionary in the economic sense, when it begins to impede the development of the productive forces, that it unfailingly collapses or that the old ruling class steps aside to allow for a new class to lead the development of the productive forces.
Social transformation, that is social revolution, requires the conscious intervention of human beings. The productive forces are the basic driving force of historical development. The productive forces develop according to their own laws, that is independently of the will of human beings.
But this process takes place through human beings, through the actions of human beings. So when we look at history, and we see the productive forces becoming restricted within a society,
And when a social revolution is necessary for the continued development of the productive forces, this is not accomplished automatically or immediately like the rising and setting of the sun. History is also the history of class struggle, as Josh said. The history of the antagonism between the exploited and the exploiters, the oppressed and the oppressors in any given class society.
Laurie: Some bourgeois anthropologists say that they have found evidence of women's oppression in pre-class societies. Evolutionary psychologists like Stephen Pinker argue that male jealousy and greed is simply natural. But others say that oppression arrives by accident.
And every culture is completely different. Does this then disprove historical materialism? Marxists explain that before agriculture there is much less evidence for women's oppression. In 1846, Lewis Henry Morgan, discovered to his great surprise that an Iroquois child had several different ‘mothers’. This reflects the fact that in non-class societies, the monogamous family did not exist. Where parentage was important, it was traced through the mother rather than the father.
Present day anthropology is not a perfect mirror of the past, but there is now even more significant evidence for this. In many hunter-gatherer societies in lowland South America, such as the Xokleng, paternity of one woman’s child can still be divided among several fathers today.
In many pre-class societies, women and men would have done exactly the same job, hunting and gathering as well as making clothes and tools. In others there would have been a gendered division of labour, due to the biological requirements of motherhood. But women were not just cooking and cleaning, they were also making tools, and their work was considered equally important.
After the Neolithic revolution, a surplus product could be produced and the question needed to be asked ‘who owns that surplus?’ This had important implications for relations between men and women.
We can tell that the division of labour in these Neolithic societies was intensified: we can see its scars in the skeletons of women from the first agricultural societies, who spent hours every day kneeling to grind grain, to the extent that their toe joints were often worn away. The work that men did became connected to the production of a surplus. Even if they were using the tools and eating the food prepared by women, they were able to claim the origin of that surplus.
With the origins of private property and the male ownership over that property, women also lost the right of lineage as men wished to pass down their property to their children. This was strictly enforced by the monogamous family. In Ancient Greek society women were considered the property of their husbands. They were no longer their own people.
This marked the real origins of womens’ oppression, the oldest form of oppression. It had gained a material basis in the struggle to appropriate and pass on private property.
Bourgeois anthropologists point to a small number of tribes where women are oppressed, and to scarce evidence of patrilineality in prehistory, in order to debunk historical materialism. Is this fair?
We do not argue that all pre-class societies were identical to one another. Just as different capitalist, feudal or Asiatic societies have very different superstructures and cultures, so too we don’t treat primitive communism as a single block.
We have already explained that some of these societies have a division of labour. It isn’t inconceivable that in some of these pre-class societies, there might even be a certain level of prejudice. But even if there are some exceptions, it is clearly very different to the oppression of class society. Far from disproving historical materialism, these societies indicate an exception that proves the rule. In a similar way the sale of a Picasso does not undermine the basis of the labour theory of value.
But what I think this shows more than anything else is the methodology used by bourgeois academics. They think that if they can point to a single hunter gatherer society where there is prejudice, they have overthrown the whole Marxist view of history. When Franz Boas set out to study the Kwakiutl indigenous people, he explicitly said that his intention was to find a single exception to Morgan's model of mother right, which would disprove the whole thing. This reflects an empirical outlook, based on the classification of societies only by their external features.
However, Marxists understand that state and class societies are not simply made up of a shopping list of features, such as monumental art and writing. Similarly the emergence of women’s oppression is not just a question of categorizing societies empirically by whether or not prejudice exists. Rather, it is a question of analysing what is behind that prejudice, the underlying forces which shape the development of the family, and grant men economic power over women.
Human societies cannot be analysed empirically. They are not static, nor can they be understood through simple taxonomic categorization. They are living things, made up of the social relations formed in the process of class struggle. A Marxist analysis of history must look at these processes building up under the surface of society, in particular that of the class struggle and the development of the productive forces.
This is what distinguishes the dialectical materialist approach to history to the empirical approach of the bourgeoisie. Like with all aspects of Marxist philosophy, this historical understanding is not just a curiosity. It is by understanding the world that we can begin to change it. As Josh said, historical materialism is a tool.
By doing away with class society we can undermine the basis of this oppression and begin to sweep it away. If women’s oppression has not always existed then it can be overthrown.
If class society has not always existed then it can also be overthrown.
Josh: I think it's been a wonderful discussion and I think all the comrades who spoke, spoke excellently and raised some really fascinating points. In fact, they spoke so well I don’t think I have much to add. But they did spark some thought which I will offer to sum up.
The first thing that really struck me listening to Guy and I think Laurie also was the complete crisis of anything approaching a scientific approach to the history of humanity. This is not accidental, it's not because the specific archaeologists or anthropologists happen to be silly individuals. We should understand this from a historical materialist point of view.
It is a sad fact that under capitalism that the closest the sciences get to society, the less scientific they become. And this is not because you can't form laboratory experiments to make precise predictions, it is because we live in a class divided society. And if you’re dealing with society, economics, history, anthropology, whatever, your analysis and conclusions inevitably touch on the interests of the contending classes in society.
And Marx said that in every epoch the ruling ideas are the ideas of the ruling class. This is not necessarily the result of a conspiracy, but it can be. There is a constant social pressure emanating from the ruling class, to produce theories that justify in one form or another the present state of affairs.
And this pressure completely dominates the world of academia, which by its class nature is the least capable of providing an independent, scientific understanding of the world. It is true that academics are becoming increasingly proletarianized in their conditions, and we support their struggle as part of the class struggle, but in the production of ideas, the pressures of academic life actually assist in maintaining and defending the status quo.
If you are going to be praised and published, it is unwise to rock the boat. And at the same time there is a constant drive for new theories, you’re hardly going to get tenure if you simply repeat that Marx was right about everything. And so you effectively have the constant repetition of the same old ideas with new forms and sometimes some new words invented as well.
And this brings me to the example that Guy raised of Göbekli Tepe. It almost makes me weep to think of the hundreds of years and the money spent developing the field of archaeology, for some of the most foremost representatives of archaeology to work for years on one of the most fascinating and important sites on earth, and then to proudly discover and announce that people have ideas, and that further this disproves Marxism.
Where does historical materialism argue that people don't have ideas? Every act that has ever been carried out in history has been carried out because someone has had the notion of doing it. When I went and made a sandwich before this session I thought of doing it before doing it. So from that point of view everything is the history of ideas, everything has been done because of ideas. Civilization, class society, socialism, it's all products of the mind.
The problem with this is that what it does not tell us is why people had the idea when they had it, and not 50,000 years earlier, and why that idea rather than the thousands and millions of other ideas circulating at that time went out and had the effect that it did. Or more commonly, actually, why that idea did not work and why it had effects completely contrary to the intentions of the people carrying it out. That is the entire point of historical materialism. Actually it's the entire point of studying history. To anyone who tells you “Ah! This was the product of an idea!”, tells us nothing at all.
In the English revolution, the “hardcore” if you like of the parliamentary forces, who carried out the revolutionary transformation of the English state, and opened up a whole new period, and opened up the way for the development of industrial capitalism in that country, they had some kind of idea of what they were doing. They thought they were restoring the kingdom of God on earth. We know they weren't, or at least I don't think so. And yet in carrying out those false ideas they still transformed society.
It is precisely when you try to take your ideas and shape nature in accordance with them, that is exactly the moment where you discover the objective, deterministic laws of society. Because it is when your choices and your actions conform to the objective processes that are independent of your will that they have intended effect. And when they don't conform to reality, that's what we're talking about, you'll break your head against that reality. And how many political organizations and phenomena in history have we seen do precisely that? Look at the sects who try to dictate the course of the revolution to the masses themselves, and take shortcuts.
I was fascinated by Fredrik’s intervention, the only comment I have time to make on that is how earlier I mentioned how our species is the product of millions of years of evolution, of history, and capitalism is the product of thousands of years if not more of social evolution, well what Fredrik showed is that those two are actually dialectically intertwined, through the development of the productive forces, which Marx explained lies at the basis of all human life, what it is to be human. But this is not the same as a crude conception of human nature. The beauty of this idea is that this basis of humanity constantly changes. And so do we.
And finally, I wanted to touch on Rob’s intervention, which I found very interesting. Rob’s absolutely right, we are not economic determinists. Do we not say that class consciousness, the consciousness of the working class of its historical role, is the essential ingredient if you like in the socialist revolution? Are we not fighting, right now, presently, for the dictatorship of the proletariat? Which is not a technological innovation, it's not AI like Harrari would like, it's a workers’ state taking control of the economy and transforming it along socialist lines.
Is the consciousness of the working class, of the workers’ state, an independent factor in history? Clearly not. The form in which the consciousness of the working class takes is forged through struggle. Struggle against the real, objective relations of capitalism. The dictatorship of the proletariat is impossible without the development of the productive forces which has been carried out under capitalism already. Otherwise, we'd have to conclude that the Levellers or the Sansculottes would have succeeded in building a communist society.
And likewise we do not reject the role of the individual. We're the only ones who understand it. And specifically, the role of leadership. In every revolution and every war in history, leadership, including the leadership of an individual, has been decisive.
Take the American civil war, for example. It began the war larger, more powerful and with a larger army, and yet it suffered defeat after defeat in the first years of the war, because its generals weren’t prepared to fight, which incidentally increased the bloodshed of that war, made it worse. The same can be seen in the beginning of the English revolution, and yet as the revolution continues, there is a powerful, almost natural force, like a wave, which pushes to the side all the compromising, vacillating elements, and pushes to the fore the more determined, militant, revolutionary elements that express the fundamental needs of the revolutionary process.
The understanding of that process and the conscious preparation to take part in that process is the essence of Bolshevism. And the success of that method in the seizure of power in the October revolution was the proof of historical materialism. Not as an analytic exercise but as a guide to action.
We have the correct ideas, comrades, I believe that. But ideas only have material force if they grip the minds of the masses. That is where we must go. Historical materialism shows us the way forward, let us advance. Forward to socialism, thank you.