Marx's Ghost: Conversations with Archaeologists

By Denham, Tim | Oceania, September 2004 | Go to article overview

Marx's Ghost: Conversations with Archaeologists


Denham, Tim, Oceania


Marx's Ghost: conversations with archaeologists By Thomas C. Patterson Oxford and New York: Berg. 2003. Pp: xvi + 204 Price: US $****

In this book, Thomas C. Patterson seeks to 'explore the myriad dimensions' (p. 1) of the ongoing conversations between archaeologists and Marx's ghost. Patterson uses 'Marx' as a conflate term to refer to the writings of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, and his convention is thus followed in this review. In the preface he traces his own discovery and engagement with Marx's writings. In the remainder of the book

Patterson attempts to place a host of twentieth century archaeologists and their ideas in a dialogue with Marx.

The first substantive chapter provides an accessible review of many of Marx's key ideas. The chapter is a valuable starting point for students of archaeology and other disciplines trying to understand Marx's method, theory of society and history, and ecology. There are two interesting points of departure from many other standard reviews of Marx's work. Firstly, Patterson does not read Marx's writings rigidly, namely he does not take each text at face value and get drawn into debates on how the analytical tendencies changed from earlier to later writings. Rather, be presents an overview of Marx's project in which each text is a different vantage point that 'opened up a distinctive line of inquiry' (p. 12). Although Patterson's perspective may be too seamless for some, I think it provides a refreshingly open and accessible introduction to Marx for students.

Secondly, Patterson draws out several interesting and oft-overlooked observations on Marx's ecology. Of particular significance is the 'metabolic rift' (p. 28) that capitalist production created between human society and nature. The idea of metabolic rift, namely how changes in productive forces are associated with changes in social relations among people, as well as changing relationships between people and their environment, has been implicitly or explicitly adopted by many archaeologists in debates on origins of civilisation, societal development, the advent of agriculture, and so on.

Subsequent chapters chronicle the contribution of Marx's ideas to the development of archaeology during the twentieth century. In Chapter 2, Patterson takes Vere Gordon Childe as the starting point because from the 1930s he was 'the pivotal figure in the formation of the discourse that linked Marxist social thought and archaeology' (p.33, emphasis in original). Patterson interprets the contribution of Marx, along with the writings of Emile Durkheim, Karl Kautsky and Herbert Spencer, to the development of Childe's thought.

The following chapter charts the influence (or lack thereof) of Marx's ideas, directly and mediated through Childe's work, on archaeology in the decades following the Second World War. Most of the chapter deals with conceptual developments in North American archaeology. …

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