[Marxism] Marx’s ghost: Conversations with archaeologists

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Aug 11 13:57:27 MDT 2011


Anthropological Forum 15(1): 92-9

Marx’s ghost: Conversations with archaeologists, by Thomas C. 
Patterson. Berg, Oxford, 2003, xvi+204pp., notes, bibliography, 
index. ISBN 1–85973–706–4 (paperback).


Centre for Archaeology The University of Western Australia

The aim of this slender but concentrated volume is to explore ‘the 
myriad dimensions’ of the conversations that archaeologists have 
been having with Marx’s ghost over the last 70 years (p. 1). The 
focus is on archaeological literature concerned with the rise of 
civilisations and state-level forms of sociopolitical 
organisation. This is an area of particular interest for 
Patterson, whose previous work has focused on archaeological 
theory and the emergence of prehistoric social complexity in the 
Andes. The metaphor of conversation is extended in the 
organisation of the chapters, which include subheadings such as 
‘dialogue’, ‘discussion’, ‘critique’, ‘disengagement’ and ‘crosstalk’.

Chapter 1 describes Marx’s legacy to archaeology, the most 
important elements of which Patterson identifies as Marx’s method 
(the dialectical method), Marx’s theory of society and history 
(people make their own history under conditions not of their own 
choice) and Marx’s ecology (the emergence of capitalism involved a 
rift in the metabolic relation between people and the land, which 
estranged people within capitalist society from the ecosystem that 
formed the basis for their existence). This chapter is well 
informed by primary sources of Marx, Engels and their 
contemporaries as well as authoritative recent commentators. The 
following four chapters provide a historical review of Marx’s 
influence on archaeological discourse from the 1920s to the early 
2000s. The review is exclusively Anglo-American, with no 
discussion of the distinctively Marxist social evolutionary theory 
that influenced archaeologists working in socialist countries such 
as China and the former Soviet bloc during the middle of the 
twentieth century. This is justifiable, because Marxist 
archaeology in socialist countries has had negligible impact on 
Anglophone archaeology.

In Chapter 2, Patterson rightly emphasises V. Gordon Childe’s 
1920s pioneering synthesis, not only of European prehistory but 
also of Marx’s theory of history and society and the functionalist 
sociology of Durkheim and Spencer. The strength of this chapter is 
the explanation of how Childe located the motor for 
sociohistorical change ‘in the forces and relations of production 
and how they manifested themselves in the superstructural elements 
(law, politics, ideology and associated forms of social 
consciousness) of the mode of production’ (pp. 44–45). The most 
enduring concepts from Childe’s work are those of the Neolithic 
Revolution (the development of domestication and labour 
specialisation and division) and the later Urban Revolution (the 
development of states and crystallisation of social classes). 
Archaeologists responding to Childe, such as Charles Redfield and 
Robert Braidwood, were interested in cultural evolution and 
relations of production, but argued that changes were gradual 
rather than revolutionary and ignored the oppressive character of 
class and state formation. These interests reflect the post-war 
economic growth and the anticommunist cold war culture that 
existed in the USA between the world wars.

Chapter 3 discusses the influence of Marx and Childe on 
archaeologists working, from 1945 to 1980, on the origins of 
civilisation. Their influence is most apparent in the recognition 
of the social and economic differences between pre-agricultural 
and agricultural periods, and pre-state and state periods, but the 
influence of Childe’s emphasis on class and contradiction is 
undetectable until the works of Robert Adams and Eric Wolf were 
published in the late 1950s. A stark disengagement with Marxist 
traditions occurred in the 1960s with the development of 
processual archaeology by Lewis Binford and Kent Flannery in the 
USA and Colin Renfrew in the UK, and their focus on adaptation and 
the method of logical positivism. Processual approaches to the 
rise of civilisation variously identified the motors of change as 
environmental change, warfare and population growth. Patterson is 
critical of the naive conceptualisations of power and exchange in 
these approaches. Only limited and indirect use of Marxist 
concepts appears in processual writings from this period.

The critique of processual approaches is developed in Chapter 4, 
where Patterson discusses some of the explicitly Marxist 
archaeological literature produced from 1975 to 1990. For example, 
Carole Crumley, Philip Kohl and Antonio Gilman criticised the 
utilitarian individualism, determinism and beneficent 
functionalism of processualism, focusing instead on evolutionary 
discontinuities, class, internal contradictions, exploitation and 
division of labour. This coincided with the ‘crosstalk’ (p. 102) 
of processualists (such as Renfrew and Flannery) and cultural 
materialists (such as Marvin Harris and William Sanders) who stood 
on the shoulders of Spencer and Durkheim in their reliance on 
models drawn from ecology and biology (notably the systems theory 
of Flannery and Henry Wright) to explain cultural change.

In Chapter 5, Patterson discusses three dominant themes in the 
literature of the 1990s. First, he describes a focus on the 
historical specificity of state formation processes and 
structures. Marxist and processual archaeologists, such as 
Trigger, Adams, Yoffee, Brumfiel and Flannery, focused less on the 
evolution of civilisation and more on the particularities and 
specific instances of state formation. One of the more important 
developments here was the new extension of Marxist analysis into 
the archaeology of capitalism and its global spread (for example, 
in the works of Leone, McGuire, Paynter and Orser). The second 
theme includes a focus on the dialectics of heterarchy, which 
describes structures such as coalitions, federations or 
democracies that are counterpoised against one another rather than 
hierarchically ranked. The third theme concerns the appropriation 
of Wallerstein’s world system approach and its emphasis on 
exploitation in core–periphery relations.

Most readers will probably detect some interesting future 
directions for Marx and archaeology implicit in Patterson’s book. 
I noted two potential themes that have received little attention 
in recent work. First, although Patterson devotes six pages to an 
exposition of Marx’s ecology, it is not a theme pursued by the 
authors he reviews, perhaps because it has only been in the last 
few years that Marx’s writing on ecology has received any serious 
attention at all (e.g., see Foster 2000). Marxist ecology has the 
potential to act as a foil to current ecological approaches to 
huntergatherers that emphasise an equilibrating or beneficent 
functionalism, with little consideration of historical trajectory 
and internal social dynamics. Second, Patterson’s synthesis 
foreshadows a reunion of the ideas of Darwin and Marx. A potential 
future lies in a synthesis of Marx’s theory of the history of 
society with the recently developed non-biological Darwinian 
approaches to cultural change, such as Cullen’s (1995) cultural 
selectionist model and Shennan’s (2000) Darwinian modelling of the 
effects of population dynamics on cultural transmission.

Marx’s ghost successfully explains Marx’s varied influences on the 
archaeology of the formation of class and state structures. Many 
insightful observations are made throughout and the endnotes 
contain many interesting details and critiques. Although there are 
some weaknesses in organisation that make the book a little more 
challenging to read than it probably should be, the prose is 
mostly direct, clear and readily accessible to undergraduate 


Cullen, B. 1995. Living artefact, personal ecosystem, biocultural 
schizophrenia: A novel synthesis. Proceedings of the Prehistoric 
Society 61: 69–90.

Foster, J. 2000. Marx’s ecology: Materialism and nature. New York: 
Monthly Review Press.

Shennan, S. 2000. Population, culture history and the dynamics of 
culture change. Current Anthropology 41 (5): 81–135.

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