This quarter’s selection

Issue: 123

The most interesting easily accessible article this quarter is “From Çayönü to Çatalhöyük” on the English version of the website Urkommunismus (“Early Communism”).1 It is an analytical account by Bernhard Brosius of the results of archaeological excavations of one of the world’s oldest cities—Çatalhöyük, in central Anatolia, Turkey. The excavations have revealed that in the Neolithic period, 8,000 to 10,000 years ago, 5,000 or more people lived there in houses packed right up against each other, growing grains, herding sheep and hunting wild animals.

It seems to have been an egalitarian society with no evidence of class distinctions. All the dwellings are more of less the same size; they all show signs of being sites of manual work; the “grave goods” buried alongside bodies reveal no distinction between rich and poor. Nor are there any signs of the superior status males usually have in urban societies; there were “no significant differences concerning nutrition, body height and lifestyle between men and women. Men and women performed very similar tasks. Both sexes stayed in and outside the house equally long and were equally active in the kitchen as in tool production.” This was, in fact, a society before the development of private property, the state and the patriarchal subordination of women.

Brosius contrasts Çatalhöyük with another, older, Anatolian Neolithic city, Çayönü, which was much more typical of early cities across the globe. Here there was “a destructive, patriarchal and hierarchical society of enormous cruelty”. A few houses show signs of wealth, but the others were half the size and contained nothing but “the few tools needed for daily living”. The big houses contained all the resources for making tools but only the poor ones showed any signs of labour with such tools. In other words, “There was a small group of people who possessed without working and a large group of people who worked without possessing—in other words, there were classes.” Alongside all this there were “gloomy temples” filled with bloody signs of human sacrifice, with skeletons of more than 400 different individuals “neatly stacked up to the ceiling”.

But here the excavations reveal class struggle as well as class. “On a certain day 9,200 years ago the manorial houses were burnt down… The temple was torn down and burnt, and converted into a municipal waste dump. The slums in the west disappeared for good… The new Çayönü was erected. There were no more houses or shacks built to an inferior standard… All hints to social differences were erased.” In short, there was a revolutionary overthrow of the ruling class.

Brosius argues, “Not only did the revolutionaries of those remote times succeed in overthrowing a regime thousands of years old, bloody and exploitive—-moreover, they also succeeded in developing their own alternative society, devising and realising it. The social revolution of the year 7200 BC is the hour of the birth of Neolithic communism.” He sees this as having spread across Anatolia to produce societies of the Çatalhöyük type. These then lasted until “around 4000 BC” when an exploiting class began to establish itself, finally getting into power by 3000 BC using “the most effective mechanisms of oppression available to an exploitative ruling class”—”metal weapons, a writing system and a ruling authority”.

The author leaves unexplored an important area of inquiry: the processes that led people to permit a class society to arise in the first place. But his account suggests that the initial transition to the agriculture that characterised Neolithic societies was associated in the region with the crystallising out of an exploiting class—only for people then to find that they could continue to use the new methods and enjoy better lives by overthrowing it. Egalitarian societies could then flourish for thousands of years until new techniques associated with the transition from the Neolithic period to the Bronze Age encouraged the formation of new social relations between people and eventually renewed polarisation into classes. There have been theories about revolutionary uprising overthrowing class societies similar to Çayönü, for instance among the Maya people of Central America about a thousand years ago, but if Brosius is right people did not in this case then abandon city dwelling.

The April issue of Anthropology Today contains a fascinating article on the US military’s attempts to use anthropology in its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The author, Roberto Gonzalez, writes that most anthropologists today are wary of using the term “tribe” but that it suits the military to focus on it as a cover for their “divide and rule” approach—financing and arming powerful figures in each locality to control the population for them. “Tribalism” then becomes both an excuse for their presence and a means of maintaining it, even though the effect is to encourage the tearing apart of society.

In our previous issue we recommended Henry Heller’s article on the French bourgeoisie before the revolution in Historical Materialism (volume 16, number 1). In the same issue is a piece by Marcus Green and Peter Ives providing a rare examination of Antonio Gramsci’s ideas on language, class and common sense.

The year’s first issue of the Cambridge Review of International Affairs will be a treat for many readers of this journal, crammed with articles by some of our contributers. Sam Ashman, Alex Callinicos, Jamie Allinson and Neil Davidson are all there, as well as Gonzalo Pozo-Martin, Alex Anievas, Justin Rosenberg, Adam Morton and others. It is a pity it is one of the many academic journals to which access is only widely available via university libraries, either directly or via the Athens system. Let’s hope some of the arguments appear elsewhere in a more accessible form.

Also for those with such access is a piece on the argument among Egyptian revolutionaries on how to relate to the Muslim Brotherhood, “’With the Islamists?—Sometimes. With the State?—Never!’ Cooperation between the Left and Islamists in Egypt”, in the British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies.

One place where ideas are freely available is the Marxist Internet Archive. It has just added pieces by the Peruvian Marxist of the 1920s Mariategui,2 as well as Hal Draper’s article on Marx’s often abused encyclopedia entry on Simón Bolívar.3

JC and CH