Gordon Childe and Marxist archaeology
International Socialism: Gordon Childe and Marxist archaeology
Gordon Childe and Marxist archaeology
had mapped the cultures of prehistoric Europe, integrated them into a sequence of social evolution, charted the lines of communication and interaction that had shaped them, and seen in the longue durée of the Neolithic, Bronze and Iron Ages the progressive accumulation of knowledge and productivity which underpinned the rise of civilisation.
vision of the past amounted to a thoroughgoing critique of several narrower, more partial and sometimes ideologically twisted conceptions.
Extreme diffusionists had maintained that all ancient innovations had flowed from the cities of the East, just as they believed that all that was progressive in their own world was a gift to humanity of modern European empires.
exposed the conservatism and stagnation of the ancient empires, and contrasted this with the leapfrog progress possible in the freer conditions of prehistoric Europe.
Extreme nationalists had searched for archaeological evidence of master races whose "purity" had guaranteed "superiority".
buried their fantasies beneath a mountain of evidence that prehistoric societies had languished if isolated but blossomed when interacting and mixing with others.
The most important example is the development of radiocarbon dating-just beginning at the end of Childe
's career-which has provided a chronology for prehistoric Europe independent of the king-lists of Egypt and Mesopotamia, demonstrating, among much else, that the east-to-west flow of ideas posited by Childe was often incorrect.
The megalithic monuments of north west Europe, for example, are now known to pre-date those of the eastern Mediterranean.
In 1949 Childe
submitted a short article entitled "A Defence of Prehistory" to the journal Antiquity, offering a summary explanation of his
Marxist approach.36 He
began by explaining that the Marxist account:
And this absence-as Christopher Hill among others noted-is true of Childe's
work generally.39 Even when Childe
used the term revolution, it was not class struggle that he had in mind.
seems to have regarded magic, religion and ideology as aberrations, a form of social pathology that blocked the "normal" process of progressive social evolution.
But the class struggle pervades all aspects of the life of class societies, and magic, religion and ideology, as systems of mystification and control, are therefore essential features of elite power.
was right to regard megaliths and pyramids as monuments to mumbo-jumbo.
analytical treatment of them was shallow, because the class struggle of which they were an expression was almost entirely missing from his
Nor, in relation to such things, did he
grasp the potential explanatory power of Marx's use of the concepts of reification and alienation.
Megaliths and pyramids are triumphs of social organisation, cultural sophistication, and engineering skill; simultaneously they turn these things into monstrous caricatures of themselves, where human labour, instead of being productive and useful, is wasted in the construction of temples of the sun and tombs for god-kings.
Even culture, a concept so vital to Childe's
archaeology, turns out to be essentially untheorised.
attempts to define it amounted to little more than lists of archaeological features and artefacts.
We are left wondering about more than the relationship between culture in an archaeological sense (material assemblages) and culture in a sociological sense (past social groups).
In so far as there is correspondence, such that archaeological remains can be read as "culture history", we want to understand the dynamics of the culture formation implied.
Contradiction and conflict, almost entirely missing from Childe
in this context, are essential to understanding.
had no illusions about Rome.
hated empires and wars.
understood that Roman domination meant ignorance and waste, and even suggested that the fall of Rome unshackled humanity and prepared the ground for fresh advances.
failed to construct a theory of history that could account for the rise and fall of empires.
There seems to be no record of any contact between Childe
and the tiny forces of Trotskyism in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s.
struggled alone to get beyond the banality of Stalinist ideology.
reservations grew, but he
kept them private, clinging to his
political allegiance as a life-raft of hope in a world scarred by unemployment, fascism and world war.
But in 1956 the prism of wishful thinking through which he
had viewed the Soviet Union was finally shattered, first by Nikita Khrushchev's "secret" speech admitting the crimes of Stalin, then by the crushing of working class revolution in Hungary.
did not sign the letter of protest against the Soviet invasion of Hungary published in the New Statesman by some leading British Communists and pro-Communists.
claimed it would have given too much satisfaction to lifelong enemies.
was deeply disconcerted.
Jack Lindsay, a close friend from the early days in Australia, described him as "very hard hit by the Khrushchev revelations of 1956".40 Childe
himself wrote to another friend that he
could not "regard events in Hungary with equanimity".41 Most telling, though, is the embittered letter he
sent to his
Soviet archaeological colleagues, in which he
condemns them for their shoddy methodology.42 Though Childe did not say so, this was a product of the isolationism, dogmatism and arrogance of Soviet archaeology under Stalin.
A principled academic who always worked from the material evidence, Childe
, now that his
political allegiance had been thrown into crisis, allowed his
accumulated irritation and contempt to spill out.
It was well deserved.
, because he
rejected Stalinist orthodoxy, had long been the target of patronising little homilies from the Soviet Union.
Among such English scholars is Gordon Childe
has not yet succeeded in overcoming many of the errors of bourgeois scholarship.
understands that the scientific truth is in the Socialist camp and is not ashamed to call himself a pupil of Soviet archaeologists.43
Those "errors of bourgeois scholarship" were, of course, precisely the ideas that had brought Childe closer to the revolutionary Marxist tradition.
Childe retired as director of the London Institute of Archaeology in the summer of 1956.
arrived back in Sydney in April the following year.
After a few months spent visiting family, friends and colleagues, he
set out walking in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales early on the morning of 19 October 1957.
never returned, having thrown himself over a cliff to his
death at a spot just a few miles from the place of his
had never married and had no children.
had many friends, he
had always seemed rather detached and distant, and probably suffered greatly from loneliness.
feared old age and declining powers.
eyesight may have been failing.
No doubt there were personal reasons for him to end his
But they were not the only ones.
Many of his
perspectives were under attack, yet he
seems to have lacked the will to embrace new approaches such as radiocarbon dating and quantification techniques, and to use them to resolve contradictions, create new insights, and answer the critics.
felt that his
life's work was over and, this being so, that nothing remained that might fill his
Trigger, Bruce, 1980, Gordon Childe: Revolutions in Archaeology (Thames and Hudson).