Gordon Childe and Marxist archaeology

Issue: 116

Neil Faulkner

It may not be an accident that Vere Gordon Childe (1892-1957), perhaps the greatest archaeologist of the 20th century, committed suicide within a year of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956.1 For Childe was not just a leading academic, prehistorian and social theorist; he was also, throughout his adult life, an active and deeply committed socialist, but one who retained illusions in Stalinism to the end.

Childe, as both academic and activist, was heavily influenced by Marxism. The compelling interpretive sweep of his grand narratives of prehistory and antiquity are rooted in his materialist approach. That is what has made Man Makes Himself (1936) and What Happened in History (1942), Childe’s two popular syntheses that between them chart the history of Europe and the Near East from the Old Stone Age to the fall of the Roman Empire, probably the most widely read archaeology books ever written. On the other hand, the limitations and contradictions in Childe’s view of the past, though partly to be explained by the inadequacy of the data available to him, were largely a consequence of the rather desiccated version of Marxism to which he adhered.

The fiftieth anniversary of Childe’s death turns out to be a good time to assess and critique his work. Marxist interpretations of history are under sustained attack. Postmodernist “thinkers” are denying the capacity of human beings to understand, control and improve their world through the application of knowledge, science and reason. Revisionist historians are rediscovering the virtues of empires and imperialist wars. These are academic echoes of a new world order dominated by imperial warlords, corporate profiteers and neoliberal ideologues. Childe, by contrast, believed in science, progress and radical change. Returning to him today, we find rich sources of inspiration.

This is not the place to set out Childe’s grand narrative. Man Makes Himself and What Happened in History, though empirically and theoretically flawed, remain excellent and highly accessible introductions to prehistory and antiquity. A short summary, moreover, with some useful correctives drawing on more recent evidence, can be found in the first part of Chris Harman’s A People’s History of the World.2 The aim here is threefold: first, to identify the key themes in Childe’s interpretation of history and to explain their importance in our understanding of the past; second, to locate Childe’s ideas in the context of his own engagement in the struggle for socialism, and to explore the way in which his politics both advanced and limited his understanding; and third, to suggest ways in which an authentic revolutionary Marxism may allow us to move beyond Childe and develop a more comprehensive understanding of “what happened in history”.

An epoch of war and revolution

Childe held two successive academic posts in archaeology, first that of Abercromby Professor of Archaeology at Edinburgh University (1927-46), then that of Director of the Institute of Archaeology in London (1946-56). When appointed to the Edinburgh chair he was already 35, and it was only five years prior to this that he had finally committed himself to archaeology. Between 1917 and 1922, despite outstanding achievement at university, Childe had in fact been embarked on a career in labour politics. He had therefore lived his young adulthood immersed in the ferment of struggle and ideas that followed the First World War.

He had been born into a conservative middle class family in Sydney, Australia, but had come under radical influence while studying at Sydney University, from which he graduated in 1914 with first class honours in Latin, Greek and philosophy. He then won a scholarship to Oxford, where he studied classical archaeology from 1914 to 1917, becoming heavily involved in the anti-war movement there. By the time he returned to Australia, Childe was a committed “guild socialist”, having become politically close to G D H Cole.3

Australia was unique in 1917 in having had experience of elected Labour governments. The trade union movement was large, militant and heavily influenced by syndicalist ideas about workers’ control. On the one hand there was a strong organic link between the Labour Party and the unions; on the other the Industrial Workers of the World (“the Wobblies”) were agitating for “One Big Union” and direct action to effect change. The vibrant workers’ movement sustained a self-confident radical intelligentsia—Childe’s social milieu—that thought of Australia as a “social laboratory”.

The war had polarised society. A population of five million people had produced over 400,000 volunteers for the trenches, of whom half became casualties. Despite this, a Labour government had proposed conscription, only to face defeat in a referendum in October 1916. Labour prime minister Billy Hughes then split from his own party and joined with the Liberals to form the National Party, winning an election in May 1917 but losing a second conscription referendum that December.

The Hughes government reacted hysterically to all forms of dissent. In June 1916 Childe became assistant secretary of the newly formed Australian Union of Democratic Control for the Avoidance of War and was one of many radicals systematically spied on by Australian military intelligence.4 He was also blacklisted by “the fossilised gentry who compose the senate of the University of Sydney”.5 After participating in a radical peace conference in Easter 1918—one whose official report declared that “only by the abolition of the capitalist system can justice be secured and the fundamental causes of international friction be permanently removed”6—Childe was forced to resign from a new university post and then immediately afterwards had his application for a Workers’ Educational Association tutorship blocked. He was later hounded out of a grammar school post by pro-war protests orchestrated by the local press and ended up as a local government clerk. He paid a serious price for his politics.

He was rescued by his appointment in August 1919 to the first of a series of posts in the office of John Storey, at the time Labour opposition leader in New South Wales and, from April 1920, state premier. For almost three years Gordon Childe—anti-war activist, advocate of workers’ control and friend of the Wobblies—found himself at the centre of a reformist administration. The result was Childe’s first book, How Labour Governs: A Study of Workers’ Representation in Australia, published in 1923.

Childe’s politics at this time were a centrist mix of guild socialism, “One Big Unionism”, Labourism, and even Bolshevism (he described the Wobblies as “foreshadowing the Bolshevik dictatorship of the proletariat”).7 Centrists are activists moving from reformism to revolutionary socialism in a period of radicalisation, retaining elements of both in their outlook and activity. If the class struggle advances, many become revolutionaries. If it retreats, most relapse into reformism or inactivity. After 1921 working class militancy and revolutionary expectations were waning—both in Australia and across the globe—and Childe, moreover, had been drawn into high level government work, where the pressures to accommodate to the system were especially intense. But instead of retreating from radicalism Childe produced a devastating, and at the time highly original, critique of reformist practice.

Announcing at the outset that “the present organisation of society involves some sort of exploitation and enslavement of the workers”,8 Childe set out to describe the shabby record of “ratting” (Australian for “selling out”) that had characterised the previous 20 years of Australian Labour history. He attacked both reformist politicians and trade union officials with all the bitterness of a disillusioned activist. He focused especially on the way in which hostility to the Wobblies had exposed the hollowness of official Labour’s radicalism. But his analysis was limited—ratting was simply a matter of “selfish and cowardly opportunism” and a scramble for “political honours”—and the conclusions were pessimistic.9 He even ventured dismal predictions about the imminent political corruption of the Wobblies:

While One Big Union may be realised, it will have to sacrifice its revolutionary idealism, and will degenerate into that state of soulless mechanism which seems to come over all Labour activities in the hour of their apparent triumph. As the Labour Party, starting with a band of inspired socialists, degenerated into a vast machine for capturing political power, but did not know how to use that power when attained except for the profit of individuals; so the O B U will, in all likelihood, become just a gigantic apparatus for the glorification of a few bosses. Such is the history of all Labour organisations in Australia, and that not because they are Australian, but because they are Labour.10

Childe had remained a socialist but he had not become a revolutionary. He had not grasped the centrality of the working class and its potential to overthrow the existing capitalist state altogether and replace it with a system of democratic power based on workers’ councils forged in revolution: one of the basic lessons of the Bolshevik Revolution. Without this vision he could not see a way forward—nor even understand that ratting was not simply a matter of moral failure but something structured by the way in which labour parties and trade union bureaucracies under capitalism were mediators of conflict within the system rather than instruments of its revolutionary overthrow. Childe did not capitulate, but he was trapped in a political impasse by the contradictions of centrism.

He was in London when he learned that he had lost his job in April 1922 following a Labour election defeat at home. Childe decided to stay. Shortly afterwards, though still politically active, he committed himself to prehistory. The visions of the past he went on to create would be richly coloured by his experiences as a political combatant in the great epoch of war and revolution from 1914 to 1921.

Mapping prehistoric Europe

Childe set himself the conventional but ambitious task of explaining “the foundation of European civilisation as a peculiar and individual manifestation of the human spirit”.11 This involved creating a grand synthesis of current archaeological knowledge of prehistoric cultures in Europe. The term “culture” is used in a specific way in archaeology. It refers to the appearance in the archaeological record of uniform assemblages of material at specific points in time and space, or, as Childe put it, “certain types of remains—pots, implements, ornaments, burial rites, house forms—-constantly recurring together”.12 These material culture assemblages are commonly assumed to represent distinct social groups in the past—tribes, peoples and even, sometimes, “races”.

Childe was convinced that the roots of European civilisation lay in the Near Eastern civilisations of Mesopotamia and Egypt, and that ideas had been transmitted from there down the Danube Valley (rather than via the Mediterranean). He therefore travelled across south east Europe—taking advantage in his poverty of massive post-war inflation—studying museum collections, visiting sites, interviewing local archaeologists, reading specialist reports, and making notes and sketches. He was helped by a phenomenal visual memory, enabling him to make numerous links between widely dispersed material, and by the speed with which he acquired a reading knowledge of obscure European languages.

Five books followed in rapid succession,13 amounting together to a comprehensive overview of current knowledge of European prehistory and its integration with the chronological sequences already established for the Near Eastern civilisations. The impact was huge. The publication of the first book—The Dawn of European Civilisation—secured Childe his Edinburgh chair. It was later described by leading British archaeologist Glyn Daniel as “a new starting point for prehistoric archaeology”.14

But Childe had drifted into dangerous water. When he began work, archaeology was developing along two parallel lines: some scholars remained primarily interested in chronological sequences and what they saw as the progressive evolution of human society as a whole; others, influenced by the nationalism and racism prevalent in Europe in the heyday of empire, were busy searching for the cultural traces of putative master races. While Childe’s first book, The Dawn, had plotted the spread of material culture from Egypt and Mesopotamia to Europe, his second, The Aryans, conceived as a complementary study, aimed to show how the benefits of this process had been reaped by a distinctive group of “Aryan” settlers in Europe. The Aryans were defined linguistically as speakers of a primeval Indo-European language from which most modern European languages were derived. Much effort was expended on detecting them in the archaeological record, especially in Germany, where Gustav Kossinna was attempting to prove the Indo-European “purity”—and therefore “superiority”—of the Germans.15

Material assemblages (cultures in an archaeological sense) are often equated with past social groups (cultures in a sociological sense). There are many problems with such equations. Cultures are difficult to define, cultural identities overlap, and culture forms are dynamic and changeable. Important social divisions are often obscured by cultural uniformity and, conversely, important connections may cut across cultural differences. A relationship between material assemblages and past social groups is, nonetheless, a reasonable and necessary working hypothesis in archaeological research. Without it, given that archaeology is the study of the past through material remains, we could make very little progress of any kind. But to equate material assemblages with “races” is an altogether different matter.

Childe was ambiguous about race in The Aryans. On the one hand, “the lasting gift bequeathed by Aryans to the conquered peoples was neither a higher material culture nor a superior physique, but…a more excellent language and the mentality it generated”. On the other:

The fact that the first Aryans were Nordics was not without importance. The physical qualities of that stock did enable them by the bare fact of superior strength to conquer even more advanced peoples and so to impose their language on areas from which their bodily type has almost completely vanished. This is the truth underlying the panegyrics of the Germanists: the Nordics’ superiority in physique fitted them to be the vehicles of a superior language.16

In 1933 Adolf Hilter became chancellor of Germany. His mission was to act out anew the racial fantasy of Aryan superiority. Kossinna was the Nazis’ favourite archaeologist.

Childe recoiled in horror. He effectively disowned his own book: The Aryans was never updated, hardly ever referred to again, and its central thesis—that language and ethnic characteristics can explain cultural development—was completely abandoned.17 As committed to the struggle against fascism in the 1930s as he had been to that against imperialist war in 1914_18, Childe now dumped wholesale an explanatory paradigm that had become central to European archaeology. Henceforward cultural development would be explained not by the movement of peoples, but by the growth and sharing of knowledge.

Charting social development

In the second phase of his academic career, while not abandoning “culture history”, Childe focused on using material remains to chart the progressive evolution of human societies over time. He was heavily influenced by the evolutionary scheme first proposed by the 19th century American anthropologist Lewis Morgan, and then adopted and developed by Frederick Engels in his Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884). Engels had proposed an economically determined progression from hunter-gatherer “savagery”, through agricultural “barbarism”, to the urban_based “civilisation” of Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece and Rome. Childe built a hugely elaborated and much modified version of this scheme, presenting it in a series of landmark publications between 1934 and 1946, some of them grand syntheses, others detailed case studies reflecting his particular engagement with North British material during his tenure of the Edinburgh chair.18

The Morgan-Engels scheme had been adopted in the Soviet Union, which Childe visited for the first time in 1935, making contact with Soviet archaeologists, becoming familiar with their material and allowing himself to be influenced by the theoretical framework they were using to structure data. It was at this time too that Childe—reacting like many left wing activists to the misery of the great depression and the rise of fascism—became sympathetic to Stalinism. Though he never joined the British Communist Party, he was a regular reader of its paper, the Daily Worker, often spoke at party organised events, attended meetings of the Communist Party Historians’ Group, and was a high profile advocate of friendship and cultural contact with the Soviet Union. He was, in short, publicly and proudly, for the next two decades, what was typically described as “a fellow traveller”.

But the relationship was never straightforward. Childe introduced several important but “unorthodox” refinements to the Morgan-Engels scheme. First, firmly rejecting the idea of human social evolution as a smooth, gradual, upward progression, he posited two revolutionary breaks in the sequence, comparable in significance with the Industrial Revolution that had given rise to modern capitalism. These were the Neolithic Revolution, marking the transition from hunting and gathering to an existence based on cultivation and stock raising, and the Urban Revolution, marking the further transition to city based “civilisation”. The implication was that long periods of relative stagnation could be followed by sudden leaps forward. An accumulation of innovations—”metallurgy, the wheel, the ox-cart, the pack-ass, and the sailing ship” in the case of the Urban Revolution in Mesopotamia, for example—could provide the basis for a sudden “revolutionary” advance to a new, higher stage of society.19

Second, Childe denied that progressive evolution was inevitable, insisting that human societies were essentially conservative and required external shocks in order to innovate and advance. Climate change, desiccation and the decline of naturally occurring food supplies, for example, were used to explain the Neolithic Revolution, and it was not the most advanced hunters who were “the revolutionaries”, but “humbler groups who had created less specialised and less brilliant cultures further south”.20

Third, if social evolution was subject to marked ebbs and flows, Childe argued that this could be explained by “internal and external contradictions” that could block progress or even cause regression. Bronze Age societies, for example, had come up against the barrier that copper and tin, the essential raw materials in their metallurgy, were available only in limited supply (an external contradiction). On the other hand, Childe blamed the lack of technological innovation between 2600 BC and 600 BC on the conservatism, mysticism and waste of a ruling class of priests and their bureaucracy of scribes in the Mesopotamian cities (an internal contradiction).21

Finally, because of the complex interplay of environment, tradition, innovation and “contradiction”, there was no single uniform sequence of social development. In the long term it was possible to detect a pattern of accumulating knowledge, increased productivity and successively higher stages of social development. But within this framework each society had its own distinctive characteristics and trajectory: its own history. This insight, indeed, was essential to Childe’s primary project—understanding the rise of European civilisation—since Europe had adopted the innovations of the Near East and then leapt ahead. Because Europe was less priest-ridden and bureaucratic, he claimed, its workers had the freedom to realise the full potential of new technologies:

European societies were never the passive recipients of oriental contributions, but displayed more originality and inventiveness in developing oriental inventions than had the inventors’ more direct heirs in Egypt and Hither Asia. This is most obvious in the Bronze Age of temperate Europe. In the Near East many metal types persisted unchanged for two thousand years; in temperate Europe an extraordinarily brisk evolution of tools and weapons and multiplication of types occurred in a quarter of that time.22

Childe’s vision was of a global economy in which societies were meshed together in communication networks through which new ideas could be spread and generalised, such that if innovation was blocked in one place, it might advance in another, and humanity as a whole move forwards. In archaeological terms, Childe the “evolutionist” remained Childe the “diffusionist”.

The concept of diffusion had always been central to his vision of the past. His starting point had been the diffusion of ideas from the Near East to Europe along the Danube Valley. It now became the cutting edge of his response to the racist archaeology of the Nazis. But it also put him at odds with Stalinist orthodoxy.

The spread of culture

In 1933 Childe delivered a series of lectures and published two articles attacking Nazi abuse of the archaeological concept of culture:

In the prehistoric past as obviously today, culture was independent of physical race, was not a matter of biological heredity but of social tradition. Ignorance of this fact, or rather the careless use of the word race as coloured by biological theory for the prehistoric group distinguished by a peculiar culture, has naturally reinforced the false analogy between man and poultry in misleading “racial hygienists” and their political interpreters. If we replace the word “race” in this context by “people” we shall more easily avoid such confusions.23

But the decisive weapon in his anti-fascist armoury was the concept of diffusion in explaining cultural development.

Evolutionism and diffusionism are often sharply counterposed in archaeology. They need not be. Childe combined both: he believed that societies evolved in their own way, but that they were strongly influenced by the spread of ideas from elsewhere. This seems so obviously correct that it is difficult to fathom how serious scholars can argue otherwise. Neither extreme diffusionism (the idea that all innovations flow from a single centre of enlightenment to an otherwise benighted periphery) nor extreme evolutionism (the idea that each society constitutes a complete, integrated, self-contained unit that develops independently) carry conviction. Such straightforward observations, however, spell doom for the archaeological fantasies of imperialists, nationalists and racists. Childe had always been aware of this. The Aryans, despite some unfortunate passages, was not in general a racist text, as the historian of archaeological thought Bruce Trigger explains:

By universalising this concept [of cultural heterogeneity] he [Childe] sought to refute Kossinna’s argument that German greatness resulted from their racial and cultural purity. Childe expiated on the benefits that accrued from migration, trade and other forms of cultural contact. He maintained that the mingling of peoples with distinct cultures increased the stock of ideas available in a region, and encouraged progress by upsetting established ways of doing things.24

But this was not the view of Soviet archaeologists. As Childe deployed his “moderate diffusionism” with increasing confidence and vigour during the 1930s—consciously perceiving it to be an argument against fascism—Soviet archaeologists adhered to a form of extreme evolutionism:

Archaeologists were required to abandon the belief that material culture develops by virtue of some internal logic, and therefore independently of society. Instead it was assumed that technologies develop because of internal contradictions within societies. This required that in any explanation of cultural change the principal emphasis had to be on the development of society. The standard series of technological ages was replaced by a unilinear sequence of social stages, each of which was characterised by distinctive productive forces, relations of production, and ideology. These stages were labelled pre-clan society, clan or gentile society…and class society… Migration was ruled out as a mode of explaining changes in the archaeological record, and strong emphasis was placed on independent parallel development.25

This “stages theory”—of independent evolution through a series of socially determined developmental stages—was not derived from fieldwork and material evidence: it was imposed from above. At this point, a short digression is necessary. It is made necessary by the fact that Childe mistook the official Stalinist ideology of the Soviet Union in the 1930s for Marxism, and all discussion of Childe’s Marxism since seems to have shared this mistake. I have not encountered a single academic paper either by or about Childe that unequivocally rejects this basic equation between the theories of Marx and the ideology of Stalin. This constitutes a black hole of misunderstanding that has prevented any proper evaluation of Childe’s supposed Marxism.

Marxism can be defined as the theory and practice of international working class revolution.26 The proletariat is the first subject class in history with a universal interest in general human emancipation—a reflection of its distinctive character as the collective labour force of an integrated global economy, such that it can take control of the economy, transform society, and emancipate itself only by acting collectively and globally. The class struggle of the proletariat, pregnant with this revolutionary potential, is therefore the seedbed of Marxism and its attempt to comprehend human history as a whole through critical scientific analysis.27 The authentic Marxist tradition is inextricably connected to the class struggle of workers. It cannot be adopted and utilised by other social forces without ceasing to be Marxism.

The Bolshevik Party of 1917, rooted in a revolutionary working class, was a thoroughly Marxist organisation. That party and the workers’ democracy it had helped to create were destroyed during the 1920s.28 The process culminated in bloody counter-revolution as a new ruling class of state-party bureaucrats raised itself above society and, at massive cost to the people of the Soviet Union, engaged in great power competition with other states by constructing a state capitalist economy based on heavy industry and armaments. The new regime based its claim to legitimacy on the 1917 Revolution. Its propaganda was therefore packaged in pseudo-Marxist jargon. But Stalinist ideology had as little in common with the revolutionary Marxism of Lenin and Leon Trotsky as did the committees of apparatchiks and security goons who ran the Soviet Union in the 1930s with the workers’ councils of 1917. Forms were sometimes similar; content was always profoundly different.

The power of the 1917 Revolution was reflected in the forces that had to be mobilised to destroy it: only the most brutal, repressive and totalitarian of dictatorships was sufficient to obliterate the revolutionary democracy. This impacted on every aspect of Soviet society—including the academic discipline of archaeology. Having abandoned revolutionary internationalism, Stalin claimed to be building “socialism in one country”. With workers’ democracy suppressed, the task would be performed by an all powerful party machine. As a bureaucratic procedure, the (inevitable) progression to socialism would be orderly and predictable. Accordingly, Soviet archaeologists were ordered to interpret prehistory as a preordained succession of stages, and, moreover, as one which could proceed in one society independently of—indeed, in complete isolation from—the rest of the world. To advocate diffusion (the sharing of ideas between societies as a vital mechanism in social evolution) was considered reactionary; dissidents risked incarceration or worse (and it is to Childe’s lasting discredit that he never protested against the persecution of academic colleagues in the Soviet Union).

Stalinism interpreted the past as a mechanical succession of predetermined stages of independent social development. The moderate cultural diffusion that Childe advocated, with its implication of global cultural cross-fertilisation and distinctive political histories, was therefore anathema not only to fascists, who peopled the past with conquering master races, but also to the Stalinists whom Childe regarded as mentors. Childe’s vision was much closer in spirit to Trotsky’s theories of “combined and uneven development” and “permanent revolution” than it was to the rigid dogmas of “socialism in one country”. His public political allegiance and his brilliant academic insights were in sharp contradiction. That contradiction intensified through the rest of his life, and probably played its part in ending it.

The growth of knowledge

Culture-history, social evolution, the diffusion of ideas: these were the basic building blocks of Childe’s perception of the prehistoric past. In the third stage of his career, reflecting on bourgeois civilisation’s descent into the barbarism of fascism, world war and the atomic bomb, he became preoccupied with “progress”—what it was, how it happened, whether it was inevitable.29

Progress can be defined as the accumulation of effective knowledge that makes possible better control over nature, increases in labour productivity, and an enlarged store of economic resources available for the satisfaction of human need. Because Childe rejected the idea of a fixed human nature and universal laws of social development, such as might give rise to a permanent impetus to progress in the sense just defined, he was bound to deny that progress was inevitable. For hundreds of thousands of years, for example, the Old Stone Age inhabitants of Europe had made no discernible “progress” of any kind, using the same set of simple flint tools throughout. Even as late as the medieval period, continuity rather than change dominated human experience. A European peasant of the 15th century might live out her entire life without ever experiencing a significant innovation in either agricultural or domestic equipment. Only capitalism, as Marx famously observed in The Communist Manifesto, makes change the norm:

The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence of all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life and his relations with his kind.30

Progress in pre-capitalist society, then, was accidental, something contingent on exceptional events, and it was often impeded by “external and internal contradictions”. But it had happened, and this, for Childe, was a matter of supreme importance, both in explaining the rise of European civilisation, and more generally in assessing the history and prospects of humanity as a whole.

In his belief in the desirability, possibility and reality of progress, Childe was, of course, a man of the Enlightenment—as Marx had been. He was withering in his condemnation of ruling classes that blocked progress by wasting resources on war, religion, monuments and luxury. The great dynastic struggles at the end of the Bronze Age, of which Homer’s Trojan War is the legendary exemplar, squandered humanity’s accumulated resources. The ziggurat temples of Mesopotamia, the pyramid tombs of Egypt, and the megalithic monuments of Neolithic and Bronze Age Europe were examples of prodigious waste expenditure in the service of false ideologies, contributing nothing to social evolution. The filling of tombs with splendid treasures, like that of the Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamen, were displays of conspicuous and extravagant consumption that drained resources from productive activity.

Progress, by contrast, was contingent upon “true consciousness” or “knowledge”, which, because it corresponded with external reality, was an effective guide to human action. This, moreover, was the real subject of archaeology, because the results of knowledge were directly represented in the structures and artefacts in which it was embodied. Magic and religion, on the other hand, because they had no reality and were unconstrained by the exigencies of practice, constituted thought-worlds too obscure and variable to be readily reconstructed from material remains alone. They were, in any case, ephemeral, being cultural cul-de-sacs. It was knowledge that mattered; and it was this, as it happened, that archaeology was better able to study.

Childe’s argument that progress was the accumulation of knowledge, and that real knowledge was always practical, or at least potentially so, was linked with a third observation: that the separation of theory and practice, of mind and matter, of literacy and labour, was a barrier to progress. “Magic is a way of making people believe they are going to get what they want,” he declared, “whereas religion is a system for persuading them that they ought to want what they get”.31 More than that, they were concoctions of rulers and priests who were divorced from, and looked down upon, practical labour:

The relegation of craftsmen to the lower class excluded them from literacy and isolated the pure sciences of Egyptian and Sumerian clerks from the applied sciences of miners, smelters, smiths and potters. Craft lore could not be committed to writing but continued to be handed on by precept and example. Just for this reason it remained empirical and particular while learned science was not fertilised by experience gained in workshop practice.32

Quite different was the status of the worker in the looser social world of Bronze Age Europe. Here metal workers “were not tied to any one patron or even a single tribal society”. This meant that their services were in demand, they enjoyed high status, and they were free to share ideas and innovate:

A market of this kind offered every inducement to originality on the part of the producers. At the same time their very itineracy and far-flung commercial contacts should fertilise native genius. They met on the frontiers of their territories colleagues working to satisfy the divergent tastes of other societies and perhaps employing ores or metals of different composition. Among the wares they handled they would see products of more distant schools of metal work for comparison with more familiar types. Thus the peculiar structure of the European bronze industry induced an effective pooling of experiences, gained in different environments, and of traditions evoked by divergent popular tastes. As a result European bronze workers did display an inventiveness and ingenuity to an exceptional degree.33

Childe’s image of the inventive craftsmen, relatively free of the control of kings, priests and bureaucrats, as the bearers and builders of humanity’s store of accumulated knowledge is a powerful one. It had become central to his understanding of the rise of a distinctive European civilisation. He claimed a vital thread of continuity linking the itinerant metal smiths of the Bronze Age with the scientists of the Renaissance:

The metics at Athens, the wayfaring journeymen of the Middle Ages, and the migrant craft unionist of the 19th century are the lineal descendants of the itinerants just described. But so were the natural philosophers and sophists in classical Greece, the travelling scholars of medieval Europe, and natural scientists who from the days of Galileo and Newton to 1945 freely exchanged information and ideas by publication, correspondence, and visits regardless of political frontiers.34

Here is the idea of diffusion, the vital transmission belt of knowledge and progress, made flesh and blood. Here, too, is a Marxist vision which places the intelligence and skills of the worker at the centre of the human story. The 1917 guild socialist was still very much alive inside the Cold War “fellow-traveller”. Childe’s trajectory during the late 1940s and early 1950s, like that of other Marxist-influenced Western intellectuals, was undoubtedly away from the sterile dogmas of Stalinism. His work, like that of Christopher Hill, Edward Thompson and Geoffrey de Ste Croix, anticipated the “break” that was to come in the aftermath of 1956 with the formation of the New Left. Childe is known, in his dissatisfaction with Soviet orthodoxy, to have been rereading Marx at this time, and this seems to be reflected in the humanism and originality of his later research. Despite this, Childe’s understanding of Marxism remained one-sided, and his interpretations of prehistory and antiquity essentially mechanical. To build on Childe’s life’s work, we have to be clear about these limitations.

Marxism without class struggle?

Gordon Childe 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. His 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. Childe 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”. Childe buried their fantasies beneath a mountain of evidence that prehistoric societies had languished if isolated but blossomed when interacting and mixing with others.

Extreme evolutionists had imagined a world of separate societies, each evolving independently on similar lines, each moving through a succession of predetermined “stages” of social development. Childe’s vision, by contrast, was a richly historical one, in which each society had distinct characteristics, its development ebbing and flowing, sometimes forging ahead, sometimes stagnating, even regressing, but still part of a stream of human evolution that was broadly, in the long term, a progressive accumulation of knowledge and resources.

Childe’s theories also provide a powerful alternative to the currently fashionable “post-processualism” (the archaeological version of postmodernism). In post-processualist prehistory, humans seem to drift around in a socio-economic vacuum, wholly unconcerned with such prosaic matters as labour, production and the food supply, concentrating instead on such essentials as investing the landscape with “meanings”, constructing alternative “identities” and engaging in multiple “negotiations”.

All of this makes Childe probably the most important archaeologist in the history of the discipline. But it does not make him a Marxist. That he was a deeply committed socialist heavily influenced by Marxism is beyond doubt. But his work stands in need of substantial revision and development. This is obviously true in an empirical sense: 50 years of new data have undermined many of Childe’s conclusions. 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.

But we can easily separate changes in the archaeological data-set from the theories we deploy to organise data. Much of Childe’s theoretical framework—culture history, social evolution, materialism, diffusion, the accumulation of knowledge—still stands. It was this that he regarded as potentially of lasting value:

The most original and useful contributions that I may have made to prehistory are certainly not novel data rescued by brilliant excavation from the soil or by patient research from dusty museum cases, nor yet well-founded chronological schemes nor freshly defined cultures, but rather interpretative concepts and methods of explanation.35

The problem is that this framework does not add up to a comprehensive and coherent account of the prehistoric and ancient past. The framework is essentially static. The engines of history are missing.

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:

is deterministic in as much as it assumes that the historical process is not a mere succession of inexplicable or miraculous happenings, but that all the constituent events are interrelated and form an intelligible pattern. But the relations are not conceived mechanistically. The process is not repetitive or predetermined as are the operations of a machine which, however complicated, grinds out just that which it was built to make and nothing else. It produces a pattern nonetheless, and its uncompleted portions must harmonise with what is already there, though there may be various combinations to complete the pattern.

He then stressed “the obvious truth that men cannot live without eating”, such that “the way people get their living should be expected in the long run to ‘determine’ their beliefs and institutions”. Consequently:

Marxists have been at pains to show that in any given environment, with a given equipment of tools and knowledge, one form of organisation secures the smoothest and most efficient exploitation, while any other is likely to impede production or may even paralyse it. And in general just one kind of ideology—institutions, beliefs and ideals—will keep that organisation functioning most smoothly… It is not the individual human animal that has to be “adjusted to his environment” in order to “survive”, as each rabbit or rat must be. It is his society that must be adjusted, and the adjustment is…called culture.

He then explained that, because environments were changeable, and because knowledge has been accumulated and production techniques improved, “social organisation in turn must be adjusted to each advance, and the reorganisation must be supported and sanctified by appropriate innovations in institutional behaviour and beliefs”. The result was an evolutionary succession of economic, social and cultural stages:

Today archaeology can show that the logical series—savagery, barbarism, and civilisation—corresponds to a temporal succession, provided the criteria be made the ways in which the societies classified got a living. In fact at first, throughout the Old Stone Age, all societies lived entirely by collecting or catching the wild food nature offered. Then in the New Stone Age some societies began producing food by cultivating edible plants or breeding animals for food or combining both activities, but still without regular division of labour and without dependence on “foreign” trade for any necessities of life. Finally, a few farming communities began producing a surplus of food large enough to support full-time specialists who engaged in secondary industry, in trade or in organising social cooperation.

He stressed that this scheme was “very abstract” and that in relation to the archaeological evidence of actual prehistoric societies “the application of these principles is harder than it sounds”. But he was able to offer little in the way of theoretical help with the problem of analysing specific social formations in the context of the general evolutionary scheme. Even the vital concept of diffusion was simply tacked on to the end of the article as an afterthought (“no Marxist would deny the importance of diffusion”).

Most curious of all, for a would-be Marxist exposition, is the final sentence: “So prehistory may, after all, in a Marxist sense be the history of thought that Collingwood said all history must be.” Collingwood did indeed say this.37 Marx, on the other hand, had said that “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle”.38 Nowhere in Childe’s article is there any reference to class, class exploitation, or class struggle. 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. His Neolithic and Urban Revolutions were the prehistoric and ancient equivalents of the Industrial Revolution: rapid accumulations of knowledge and productivity that made possible a relatively sudden leap forward to a higher stage of social development. This use of the term is quite different from that implied when we talk of the English, French and Russian Revolutions, which were climactic class struggles.

There is precious little in Childe’s evolutionary scheme that is different from the “functionalism” that was prevalent in 1950s British and American sociology, and later, as “processualism”, in 1960s archaeology. These theories depicted human societies as logical and socially integrated adaptations to specific environments, technologies and productive systems. They amounted to a view of history every bit as dehumanised and deterministic as that of Stalinist ideology. What are missing—in functionalism, in Stalinism, in Childe’s work—are the twin motors of history: competition within ruling classes, and the struggle between dominant and subject classes. Let us consider some examples.

Towards a Marxist archaeology

The building of proto-states, kingdoms and empires was not simply the result of accumulating knowledge and surplus, as Childe’s conception of the Urban Revolution rather implies. The very fact of accumulation has to be explained in terms of competition between rival elites. The protection of land, labour and resources, in a world divided into separate communities and polities, demands military organisation, leads to military clashes and stimulates specifically military accumulation. This has been called “political accumulation”, in contrast to the “capital accumulation” characteristic of capitalist societies.

This dynamic, once operational, is self-sustaining. Each political elite is forced to continue military accumulation in order to prevent its defeat by rival elites. One result was the clash of east Mediterranean empires in the Late Bronze Age, in which a competitive, slow motion arms race and a series of large scale wars exhausted society and led directly to the collapse of Mycenaean Greece, the Hittite Empire and New Kingdom Egypt in the 12th century BC.

New evidence is allowing us to trace the origins of this process, and to observe the rise of military elites in the context of clashes over land and resources between neolithic farming communities emerging from the “primitive communism” of hunting and gathering. Communal control over cultivated land and domesticated animals, and over the surpluses that they yield at certain points in the agrarian cycle, necessitated military preparation and the privileging of military specialists. We now know that in the middle of the 4th millennium BC, in parts of early neolithic Britain, there was large scale organised warfare (numerous skeletons with evidence of death by arrow shot and blows to the head), the use of hilltop enclosures for meetings, ceremonies and defence (causewayed camps), and the construction of monumental tombs for high status burial (long barrows): a package that seems to represent the simultaneous development of warfare, communal organisation and some sort of elite.

As elites emerged from the social mass, tensions developed, and the proto-states which the elites controlled were used not only in competition with rival elites, but also to mediate internal tensions, to legitimise the social order and, when necessary, to suppress opposition from below. Childe 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. Childe was right to regard megaliths and pyramids as monuments to mumbo-jumbo. But his analytical treatment of them was shallow, because the class struggle of which they were an expression was almost entirely missing from his conception. 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. His 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. Prehistoric and ancient peoples defined themselves—as family groups, as kinship clans, as tribes, as citizens of Athens, as soldiers of Rome, as followers of Christ, as whatever—in contrast to others, from whom they were separated by gulfs of class and polity, and with whom they would sometimes be in conflict. People created cultural identities to define and legitimise difference, to create social organisation and solidarities, and to articulate grievances and oppositions.

There is a similar problem with diffusion, another vital concept in Childe’s vision, but also largely untheorised. He charts the movement of ideas, and describes their impact and further development. But he fails to explain why some ideas were adopted and others not, or to discuss who made such decisions and why, or to explore whether such decisions were contested and a focus of struggle. Without an understanding of the internal dynamics of different social formations—that is, of the class struggle within them—we cannot truly understand diffusion.

Consider for a moment all of these issues in relation to the history of the Roman Empire. It was class struggle between patricians and plebeians in the 5th and 4th centuries BC—the so called “Struggle of the Orders”—that produced Rome’s distinctive constitution. The class compromise enshrined in this constitution was the basis of the power of the Roman legions and the dynamic of Roman imperialism in the years that followed. The wars between the Romans and their enemies—Samnites, Carthaginians, Greeks, Celts and others—strengthened the military character of the state and fuelled further expansion. Rome evolved into a system of robbery with violence, in which war and conquest enriched the state, the ruling class and, to a degree, the free citizen masses that formed the legions. The aristocratic culture of Rome—its almost exclusive focus on military achievement, its worship of menacing war gods, its bloodthirsty pageants and entertainments, its bragging sense of racial superiority—reflected the city’s character as a system of military imperialism. And Rome absorbed such foreign influences as were useful to this project while rejecting others as superfluous, if not subversive. Greek art objects were prized as symbols of civilisation, culture and “good taste” by Rome’s thuggish elite; Greek democracy was bloodily suppressed.

Childe had no illusions about Rome. He hated empires and wars. He 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. But he failed to construct a theory of history that could account for the rise and fall of empires.

Though Childe’s work on prehistory is thoroughly materialist and provides an excellent foundation on which to build understanding of the historical process, it never throbs with the living reality of the class struggle in the manner of Geoffrey de Ste Croix’s work on the Greek city-states, Christopher Hill’s on the English Revolution or Edward Thompson’s on the making of the English working class.

A political suicide?

There seems to be no record of any contact between Childe and the tiny forces of Trotskyism in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. He struggled alone to get beyond the banality of Stalinist ideology. His 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.

Childe 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. He claimed it would have given too much satisfaction to lifelong enemies. But he 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. Childe, because he rejected Stalinist orthodoxy, had long been the target of patronising little homilies from the Soviet Union. In 1951 Soviet archaeologist Alexander Mongait had written an article entitled “The Crisis of Bourgeois Archaeology”, which included the following:

Among bourgeois scholars there are not only our ideological enemies. There are also progressive scholars, friends of our country, who understand very well the worldwide significance of Soviet scholarship. Among such English scholars is Gordon Childe. Childe has not yet succeeded in overcoming many of the errors of bourgeois scholarship. But he 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. He 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. He never returned, having thrown himself over a cliff to his death at a spot just a few miles from the place of his birth.

Gordon Childe had never married and had no children. Though he had many friends, he had always seemed rather detached and distant, and probably suffered greatly from loneliness. He feared old age and declining powers. His eyesight may have been failing. No doubt there were personal reasons for him to end his life. 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. He felt that his life’s work was over and, this being so, that nothing remained that might fill his old age.

But I think there was something more. Vere Gordon Childe had been a socialist all his adult life. The struggle against imperialism, fascism and war, against oppression, injustice and lies, had sustained him for half a century. Once before, his political illusions had been shattered—by the experience of reformist government in Australia before and immediately after the First World War. The young activist’s response had been the bitter critique represented by How Labour Governs. Now, once again, political illusions had been shattered, this time by the realities of Stalinist rule in Eastern Europe. But the retired professor lacked the contact with the revolutionary socialist traditions that were giving birth to the New Left that might have sustained him in the crisis. He found himself adrift. Perhaps the most significant line he wrote in the last letter of his life was this one: “I have lost all my old ideals”.44 Perhaps, in this sense, he was another of Stalinism’s many victims.


1: Thanks are due to Peter Gatercole, David Harris and Steve Roskams, all of whom read this article in draft and made useful critical comments.

2: Harman, 1999, pp3-100.

3: Guild socialism was a form of utopian libertarian socialism especially associated with the Oxford political theorist, economist and historian G D H Cole. It envisaged a -decentralised participatory democracy based on workplaces and communities, but it lacked any real theory of either the capitalist state or revolutionary processes. Cole was a leading member of the Fabian Society and a strong advocate of the Cooperative Movement.

4: Mulvaney, 1994, p58.

5: Evans, 1995, p2.

6: Green, 1981, pp27-31.

7: Maddock, 1995, p111.

8: Childe, 1964, p xi.

9: Childe, 1964, pp55, 169.

10: Childe, 1964, pp180-181.

11: Childe, 1957, pxiii.

12: Childe, 1929, ppv-vi.

13: These were The Dawn of European Civilisation (1925), The Aryans (1926), The Most Ancient East: The Oriental Prelude to European Prehistory (1928), The Danube in Prehistory (1929), and The Bronze Age (1930).

14: Daniel, 1975, p247.

15: Trigger, 1980, pp25-26.

16: Childe, 1926, pp211-212.

17: Trigger, 1980, p52.

18: These were New Light on the Most Ancient East: The Oriental Prelude to European Prehistory (1934), The Prehistory of Scotland (1935), Man Makes Himself (1936), Prehistoric Communities of the British Isles (1940), What Happened in History (1942) and Scotland Before the Scots (1946). The volumes on British -prehistory were primarily detailed culture-historical studies, but they also reflected Childe’s new concern with social evolution.

19: Childe, 1942, p89.

20: Childe, 1942, p48.

21: Trigger, 1980, pp108-109.

22: Childe, 1957, pp342-343.

23: Childe, 1933, p417.

24: Trigger, 1980, p47.

25: Trigger, 1980, p93.

26: For a brilliant summary of the arguments, see Molyneux, 1985.

27: The contrast is with political ideologies and academic theories that reflect the particular interests of other, non-proletarian, non-universal classes, both past and present.

28: For an excellent detailed analysis of the degeneration and eventual destruction of the Russian Revolution, see Haynes, 2002.

29: Important works of this period include History (1947), Social Evolution (1951) and The Prehistory of European Society (1958).

30: Marx, 1973, pp70-71, my emphasis.

31: Childe, 1947, p37.

32: Childe, 1958a, p96.

33: Childe, 1958a, 169-170.

34: Childe, 1958a, 173.

35: Childe, 1958b, p69.

36: It was not published until 1979 (in Antiquity, volume 53, number 208). The article had been written in reply to another article in the same journal, which, in Childe’s view, -misrepresented his approach. But the editor of Antiquity “could not find room to publish”. Antiquity was (and is) a weighty journal. Childe was an internationally famous professor. His article was three pages long. It was not only in the Soviet Union that the work of dissidents was censored.

37: Collingwood’s main work on the philosophy of history is The Idea of History (1946).

38: Marx, 1973, p67.

39: McNairn, 1980, p125.

40: Green, 1981, pxvii.

41: Green, 1981, p122.

42: Klejn, 1994, pp94-99.

43: Klejn, 1994, p80.

44: Green, 1981, p154.


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