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A Marxist Archaeology.

'Marxist' archaeology should base itself on the theories or doctrines of Karl Marx. Marx had little notion of prehistory or archaeology. He apparently never once used the word 'culture', despite his interest in ethnology (Klejn in Taylor 1993), and was never in a position to absorb the ideas of his great contemporary, Darwin. The communist manifesto (Marx & Engels 1847-8) opens with the claim, 'The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.' This remark, which seems to cover prehistory, was in effect almost irrelevant to it because Marx & Engels considered classes to have formed only at the higher population densities characteristic of state-level society. In The German ideology, they wrote that the division of labour at the 'stage' of the hunter-fishers and early agriculturalists was 'still very elementary' (Marx & Engels 1845-6 |1970: 43~). A few pages later there is a rare, en passant reference to prehistory that betrays a healthy scepticism about archaeologists' claims to know the past (|1970: 48~):

'In their historical speculation |the Germans~ seize upon this 'prehistory' with especial eagerness because they imagine themselves safe there from interference on the part of "crude facts", and, at the same time, because there they can give full rein to their speculative impulse and set up and knock down hypotheses by the thousand.'

This Engels was to later do himself in The origin of the family, private property and the state (1st edition 1884).

More generally, a Marxist archaeology should relate to the body of social, economic and historical thought labelled Marx ism, which the Oxford English Dictionary (1989) calls:

'political and economic theories of Marx, esp. that, as labour is basic to wealth, historical development, following scientific laws determined by dialectical materialism, must lead to the violent overthrow of the capitalist class and the taking over of the means of production by the proletariat'

where dialectical materialism is

'the theory . . . according to which political events or social phenomena are to be interpreted as a conflict of social forces (the "class struggle") produced by the operation of economic forces, and history is to be interpreted as a series of contradictions and their solutions (the thesis, antithesis, and synthesis of Hegelian philosophy).'

Marx's theories have clear importance for archaeology and anthropology, whether or not one fully accepts them. Raymond Firth (quoted in de Ste Croix 1975) remarked:

'Marx's insights -- about the basic significance of economic factors, especially production relations; their relations to structures of power; the formation of classes and the opposition of their interests; the socially relative character of ideologies; the conditioning force of the system upon individual members of it -- embody propositions which must be taken for critical scrutiny into the body of our science.'

Yet for Randall McGuire, 'Marxism is not a single, coherent theory of society' (A marxist archaeology: p. 9); 'There can never be one marxism, only different readings of Marx'; 'The tradition of marxism that I draw on, the archaeology that I wish to address, and my own intellect are constantly changing phenomena'. Such Heraclitan sentiments seem alien to the Aristotelianism of Marx; archaeologically, they mark out a 'marxism' (small 'to' throughout) that seems almost the opposite of Gordon Childe's.

Much of Childe's work was motivated by the promised certainties of the Marxist-Leninist theory of historical materialism (see especially 1947, where Childe compared Hegel with Marx and Engels). By contrast McGuire's work represents 'a dialectical reading of Marx arrived at in the context of modern western Hegelian marxism and in the social world of the twilight of the twentieth century'. McGuire takes an explicitly pluralist position: Marx's 'dialectical approach to theory and practice leads to a self-reflexive praxis. It allows us to examine how archaeologists make pasts and how those pasts derive both from the reality of the past and the social context of the researcher. Such knowledge is intricately made and not reducible to either the subjectivities of the researcher or the realities we study'. In Whither a Marxist archaeology, McGuire says, 'current crisis of marxism clearly shows the limits of marxism as a totalizing theory and the need for a pluralism of views (both marxist and non-marxist) and for critical debate'. Marx -- as far as I understand him -- was emphatically universalist.

This book is expensive, but full of mis-spellings and other typos; on p. 262 we learn that 'The goal of my arguments is not to win coverts' (sic); p. 125 finds Marx (1906) anachronistically quoting Ollman (1976). It does contain discrete passages of interest and value, but its aim is unclear. In the preface and the introductory Chapter 1 it is proposed variously as (i) 'a comprehensive summary of marxism in archaeology'; (ii) an intellectual 'history of the dialogue between marxism and archaeology'; (iii) a 'plan for a marxist archaeology' (p. 12; though not 'the only possible one'); (iv) a personal odyssey in which the author's aim was to 'force' himself 'to come to a comprehensive understanding of marxism'. Chapter 2 provides 'a brief history of marxism', with sections on 'Comintern marxism', 'Gramsci', 'Existential marxism', etc; but although the book 'assumes that the reader has . . . little or no knowledge of marxism', there is no clear statement either of Marx's own theories or of Marxism's perceived relevance for archaeology. Chapter 3, 'Archaeology and marxism', represents the attempt at (i), discussed further below. Chapter 4 is mostly an outline of the dialectics of Bertel Ollman (1976), which disavows the familiar 'thesis-antithesis-synthesis' formula in favour of 'a dialectics of internal relations' which McGuire says 'is hard to express . . . in words' and that I found as opaque and eschatalogical as Hegel's phenomenology. Chapters 5 and 6 look at various issues of history, culture and evolution. Chapter 7, in part fulfillment of aim (iii), is a case-study; Chapter 8 is mainly about the political issues surrounding native American archaeology; Chapter 9, 'The praxis of archaeology', sums it all up, appealing to dialectical, shifting and ambiguous 'understandings of the past'.

The big claim to be 'a comprehensive summary' is clearly unfulfilled. A footnote to Chapter 3 contains the caveat, 'Not included in these discussions are regional traditions in China, Eastern Europe, non-English-speaking Western Europe, and Japan'. Six pages are given to Marxist approaches in Latin-American archaeology and about twice that to 'Anglo-American Archaeology', with 'Childe' dealt with in just three paragraphs. But it is the cursory nature of the discussion of Marxist theory in the former Soviet Union and the omission of Eastern Europe that are the most telling weaknesses here. It is of course true that there has been a lack of synthetic information on Soviet Marxist archaeology, but this does not excuse the absence of any clear discussion of the Marxist-Leninist conception of history and its disciplinary implications: the replacement of institutes of 'Archaeology' by institutes for the 'Study of the History of Material Culture'; the close theoretical connexions between prehistory, ancient history and classical archaeology; and so on. Nor is what is included sure-footed: N.Ya. Mart and his theoretical school are covered in a few ill-judged lines: he 'had great power' and 'discouraged the study of the ethnic movements and boundaries in both linguistics and archaelogy. All developments were seen as having been in place, and evolutionary in nature'. In fact Marr viewed change as revolutionary in nature; and a significant effect of his theory was, paradoxically, to help create a covertly Russocentric prehistory for the steppe-lands, by making prehistoric Iranian and Turkic speakers lineal ancestors of the Slavs. (Having the correct genealogy is ever important for revolutionaries: McGuire's 'own roots lie in the rural working class of northern Colorado that my father attempted to escape by joining the military |presumably he succeeded~ . . . my uncle . . . worked on my grandparents' ranch and in a cement plant all his life.' Both? Clearly a true Stakhanovite!) The Soviet concept of ethnogenesis is wrongly described as the 'origin of societies'. It is in fact the 'origin of peoples'. Further, Marxist-Leninism usually considers 'society' in the singular, because of its universalist, evolutionary-stadial conception of history (thus 'Andronovo cultures', but 'Bronze Age society'). McGuire's book is hardly a 'plan for a marxist archaeology' either. There is very little actual archaeology in it. The slim case-study based on the Hohokam site of La Ciudad draws on his own and others' work, but makes no systematic distinction between Marxist and non-Marxist methods or interpretations; I could find very little that was distinctively 'Marxist' in it, aside from a rather convoluted terminology. The standing architecture at the site is perceived as having been relatively homogeneous ('egalitarian') and burials heterogeneous, thus 'the egalitarian ideology of everyday life was reproduced and legitimated in a seemingly contradictory mortuary ritual' which 'would have linked the living to the dead in a 'purposeful, discursive way' and 'resolved the crises to the social order caused by death'.

Most of all the book seems to be an attempt to square the author's moral understanding of and commitment to Marx's political message with the practice of archaeology and the political uses to which its results may be put. McGuire would like archaeology to be able to change the world, to make it a better place. In espousing pluralism, however, his position becomes ironically similar to that of the far-right. If I read McGuire correctly, he values an ever-running dialogue or dialectic between Marxist and non-Marxist approaches above a resolution in favour of either; and he believes in writing 'pasts' rather than 'the past'. His basic view is that there are infinitely many experiences of the world:

'the process of perceiving the world is necessarily mystifying since it allows us some knowledge of the world only by denying us other knowledge . . . For example, a color wheel is a continuum of hues. People order that continuum into colors so that we can conceptualize and speak of the natural phenomenon. The colors that are created, however, deny us a different subdivision of the whole, which would yield other colors.'

Such a thoroughly culturally contingent idea of sense-perception has little support. Even Wittgenstein (1977: especially III.39f)) appears to argue that cultural conventions are based on underlying universals -- in this case the truth about colour (on which basis he thinks that there are four prime colours -- green must be added to red, yellow and blue).

I think McGuire's fundamental confusion lies in the fact that he abhors the imperialism inherent in Marxism -- its attempt to use economic analysis to uncover what people in another country or culture are 'really' up to, rather than accept the 'false consciousness' of their own beliefs. He wants to help those groups he identifies as disenfranchised by an establishment past that glosses over particularity. This is an honest dilemma, but it leads him to go a step too far, and to believe that for different cultures historical truth will be different. He thus falls into the same boat as the new historicists, ending one of his best chapters (Chapter 8 'Critical archaeology -- archaeology and the vanishing American') inveighing against the Enlightenment view of progressively rational humanity and calling for 'a diversity of archaeologies'. Furedi -- a Marxist of a very different hue -- writes (1992: 228ff), 'whatever the intentions, the conservative consequences of a particularist doctrine cannot be evaded', and argues that 'difference' is a concept, borrowed from the right, which has 'enormous potential for confirming the status quo. . . . Once history becomes "histories" the fragmentation of human experience follows. There is no longer any point of reference or commensurability of human experience'. If Marxism for McGuire 'is not a single, coherent theory of society', then what is it? The strength I see in much Marxist analysis in archaeology, as in ancient history (e.g. de Ste Croix 1981), is a methodical attempt to get at what really happened, to get at 'the truth' about the past and to promulgate it (something that Glyn Daniel also thought important from a Whig perspective). Perhaps it doesn't get at the whole truth and one may disagree with its formulations, but one can respect its rigorous endeavour and find its analyses constructively provocative. Perhaps McGuire would consider that a dialectical benefit, but his exposition is too confused for comfort. Ultimately McGuire doesn't explain why Marxist theory should have exerted such a strong influence on archaeology; he doesn't clearly say what Marxist theory is; and it is unclear whether his own approach is Marxist in any specific sense. References

CHILDE, V.G. 1947. History. London: Cobbett.

DE STE CROIX, G.E.M. 1975. Karl Marx and the history of Classical Antiquity, Arethusa 8(1): 7-41.

1981. The class struggle in the Ancient Greek world from the Archaic Age to the Arab conquests. London: Duckworth.

FUREDI, F. 1992. Mythical past, elusive future: history and society in an anxious age. London: Pluto.

MARX, K. & F. ENGELS. 1845-6. The German ideology. |Page references to the 1970 edition, C.J. Arthur (ed.). London: Lawrence & Wishart.~

1847-8. The communist manifesto.

OLLMAN, B. 1976. Alienation. 2nd edition. Cambridge (MA): Cambridge University Press.

TAYLOR, T.F. 1993. Conversations with Leo Klejn, Current Anthropology 34(5) (December).

WITTGENSTEIN, L. 1977. Remarks on colour. G.E.M. Anscombe (ed.), Linda L. McAlister & Margaret Schattle (trs.). Oxford: Blackwell.
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Author:Taylor, Timothy
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 1993
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