Sharing history

Issue: 127

Penny McCall Howard

Thomas C Patterson, Karl Marx, Anthropologist (Berg, 2009), £19.99

Karl Marx, Anthropologist is a fascinating and very wide ranging book, which draws on Patterson’s almost 50 years of study of both Marxism and anthropology. This book builds on his earlier work Marx’s Ghost: Conversations with Archaeologists, which the late Chris Harman described as “very important” when he reviewed it in issue 104 of this journal.1 While Marx’s Ghost focused on archaeology (especially Gordon Childe’s contribution and legacy), the scope of Patterson’s latest book is more ambitious, recapturing Marx’s vision of humanity from our earliest origins to our future potential—all in a slim and clearly-written volume of 222 pages (including 38 pages of references).

Patterson starts by setting Marx’s approach to the study of humanity in the context of the Enlightenment thinkers who influenced him. These included Rousseau, who developed a historical view of humanity that acknowledged our diversity, and Hegel and Herder, who argued that human nature itself was culturally (and historically) determined. These writers (and others) were attempting to grapple with and understand the emerging symptoms of capitalist society, including inequality, individualism, a lack of community and a tension between individual freedom and the state. Some, such as Rousseau, were also keenly aware these phenomena were not found in all human societies, and made various efforts to try to explain this.

The second chapter discusses Marx’s anthropology, which Patterson defines as his answers to the questions “who or what are human beings, and what has made them human?” (p40). Patterson is quick to point out that Marx did not approach these questions just by studying books, but drew on his own experience of living in a revolutionary period of history. He also made detailed and intensive studies of these historical events. Patterson not only describes Marx’s views, sometimes combining material from several texts to draw out themes which Marx did not develop systematically, but throughout the book also summarises and references the latest research on these issues (particularly paleoanthropology—the study of pre-historic human society and biology—and Marxist theory).

According to Marx, human beings are always both part of nature, and they distinguish themselves from nature through the historical process of their own labour. Our bodies are natural organisms that have evolved highly developed ways of perceiving the world around us and interacting with it. Not only has labour shaped the development of these faculties, it “is the condition for human existence and the self-realisation of human beings” . Humans are also social individuals who are “actualised in their relations with other individuals” (pp45-46). Human consciousness developed historically, through our experience of transforming the world we live in with our labour, but also through our relations with others. Thus the consciousness of an individual cannot be separated from the consciousness of the communities of which they form a part. This does not mean that all individuals in a society share the same consciousness, but that the social worlds that human beings inhabit provide “the real conditions for individualisation and human individuality” (p50). The integral relation between consciousness and human activity develops historically, and Patterson draws on Alex Callinicos, among others, to discuss the importance of structure, transformation, and directionality in this history.

“Human natural beings” are the subject of the third chapter. Patterson discusses the importance of Darwin, his relationship with Marx, and the development of modern evolutionary theory and genetics. One of the most significant sections of the book is Patterson’s account of the role of labour and social structure in human evolution. In “The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man”, Engels argued for the centrality of human labour in the evolution of our own bodies. Upright walking was a key development which allowed human hands to develop much greater sensitivity and manipulate new kinds of tools, which in turn spurred the development of the brain and other sensory organs as well as the development of new kinds of social relations, including language. These new social relations meant we could develop cooperative ways of working and develop our tools and techniques, and our bodily sensitivities, even further. Patterson provides a fascinating review of recent studies of the origins of humanity, which draws together environmental history, biological anthropology, paleoanthropology, linguistics, neuroanatomy, and the evolution of human birth and child development. He concludes that “with more than 130 years of hindsight, it appears that Engels got it right!” (p84).

Patterson challenges mainstream biological determinism in a discussion of new research into the effect of early human social organisation on our evolution. For example, the larger size of male bodies is typically understood in terms of men being aggressive and dominant hunters. But some researchers argue that rather than determining our behaviour, this sexual dimorphism is more of an evolutionary hangover. The larger size of male apes has to do with the fact that they spent much of their lives living on their own, or only temporarily in groups, and thus always had to feed themselves. In contrast, early humans always lived in groups and shared food and thus exhibited much smaller differences between sexes than other primates.

Despite the key innovations of food sharing and group living, the lifespan of early humans was so short that few, if any, mothers, lived to see their children reach puberty. Thus social groups were largely composed of pre-pubescent individuals, and only a limited amount of learning could take place across generations. Researchers argue that it was only in the past 50,000 years that humans developed the techniques and social organisation which extended their lives long enough to significantly change the ratio of adults to children in social groups. Such a demographic change had huge implications for the ability of early humans to develop new techniques, to pass them on, and to improve them. It was a development that had social, not biological, origins in human labour and social organisation.

At the same time as Marx was writing the second and third volumes of Capital, he also filled notebooks with his research on non-Western societies (he also conducted significant research on India, China and the Ottoman empire in the 1850s). He was interested not only in understanding how capitalism had developed, but how it was attempting to extend itself globally. Patterson’s fourth chapter discusses Marx’s concept of modes of production, and particularly the various pre-capitalist modes. This is another particularly interesting section in which Patterson draws on and analyses an impressive body of research in archaeology and primatology from an explicitly Marxist framework. He identifies the advent of systematic sharing as a key point in human evolution, and a key difference between humans and other primates. Subsequently, and for most of our history, humans lived in societies in which “there was no structural difference between producers and non-producers” (p109). This was because everyone contributed to production in different ways and at different times, and according to their individual capacities. The composition of such groups was flexible, and leaders had to persuade but could not command.

Patterson’s own archaeological research in Peru concerned a highly organised society that existed around 1000 BC with irrigation systems, large monuments, a division of labour, and links with other societies, but which also had minimal status differences. His research showed that class society and the state were not necessary to the development of highly organised societies.2 Patterson shows that throughout history, “the appearance of social class structures is always linked to the institutions, practices, and legal codes of the state” and goes on to discuss the various forms of transitions to class societies based on different forms of tributary relations that non-producers used to extract surplus from producers (p112). These transitions were fraught with contradictions, and could involve violent revolutions (Patterson cites one case in Mexico in 700 AD).

The transition to capitalism, its spread across the world and the global interconnections created in this process of combined and uneven development is the subject of the fifth chapter. Patterson extends his analysis into the present and concludes with a critique of Michael Hardt and Toni Negri. The final chapter is a manifesto for “Anthropology for the 21st Century”, which begins with a summary of Marx’s analysis of alienation, class exploitation, and the possibilities for (revolutionary) human self-actualisation. The remainder of the chapter traces seven themes that Marx examined which Patterson argues have retained their relevance to anthropologists today, drawing connections between aspects of Marx’s writing and contemporary anthropological research.

In the preface to the book, Patterson describes how he first properly learned about Marxism from active socialists while he was conducting archaeological research in Peru in the early 1960s. He found that these socialists had a “clearer and deeper understanding” of the poverty and social upheaval in contemporary Peru than mainstream commentators, and he subsequently threw himself into a more systematic study of Marxism and its implications for his own archaeological research. That combination of the urgency of understanding and changing humanity’s present situation, and an in-depth study of our history from its earliest origins, shines through in this fascinating book which deserves to be widely read.



2: In a session titled “Radical Archaeology as Critical Anthropology: Papers Honouring Thomas C Patterson” at the 2008 annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association, Richard Burger explained that for years archaeologists studying this ancient Peruvian society had been looking for evidence of kings or a ruling class to explain how such large and complex monuments were built. Patterson hypothesised that they were instead the result of cooperative labour, and subsequent research proved him right.