The 'Communist Manifesto,' 150 Years Later

By Gilman, Antonio | Antiquity, December 1998 | Go to article overview

The 'Communist Manifesto,' 150 Years Later


Gilman, Antonio, Antiquity


The Communist manifesto does not have much to say about the pre-capitalist societies most archaeologists deal with, and still less about the primitive societies that interest most prohistorians. (Nothing from the Manifesto makes its way, for example, into the useful compendium brought together by Godelier (1973).) Much of what Marx and Engels had to say directly about antiquity consists of unpublished sketches and passing references, and even the systematic treatment of The origins of the family, private property and the state (1884) must be considered provisional: the changes that reading Morgan (1877) had on the discussions of the Formen (1857-58) and the Anti-Duhring (1878) can only suggest that the accumulation of positive evidence in the course of a century and a half of archaeological research would have caused Marx and Engels to revise substantially every one of their specific claims. We are left, then, with the general theoretical thrust of Marxism, a thrust clearly set forth in the Manifesto and briefly summarized by Engels 1888 (1998): 85-6) as follows:

. . . In every historical epoch, the prevailing mode of economic production and exchange, and the social organization necessarily following from it, form the basis upon which is built up, and from which alone can be explained, the political and intellectual history of that epoch; . . . consequently the whole history of mankind (since the dissolution of primitive tribal society, holding land in common ownership) has been a history of class struggles, contests between exploiting and exploited, ruling and oppressed classes; . . . the history of these class struggles forms a series of evolutions in which, nowadays, a stage has been reached where the exploited and oppressed class - the proletariat - cannot obtain its emancipation from the sway of the exploiting and ruling class - the bourgeoisie - without, at the same time, and once and for all, emancipating society at large from all exploitation, oppression, class distinctions and class struggles. This proposition . . . is destined to do for history what Darwin's theory has done for biology . . .

What is the relevance of these propositions to our current understanding of ancient societies?

The importance of class analysis

'The history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggles'

MARX & ENGELS 1848 (1998): 34).(1)

The pertinence of this declaration to the precapitalist, agrarian states of antiquity is evident. The written records by which we know them are largely devoted to accounting for the possessions or celebrating the power of the exploiting and ruling class. Their archaeologies most visibly consist of the materializations (De Marrats et al. 1996) - the sumptuary, architectural and other arrangements - by which those rulers made their domination manifest. The annals of the exploited and oppressed are shorter and simpler, but the archaeological record, appropriately developed, can supply this deficiency. The profession has, perhaps, been slow to take up this opportunity, but the leading students of the emergence of the state, from Childe (1951) and Adams (1966) to Haas (1982) and Earle (1997), have implicitly or explicitly acknowledged their intellectual debt to Marx and Engels.

Class distinctions are overt in agrarian states because of the exigencies of tribute exaction. The mass of the population maintains direct access to land, water and most other critical resources and controls the technology required for their exploitation. A social stratum that proposes, ultimately by force, to

extract a surplus for its own use from potentially independent primary producers must necessarily organize itself as a class for itself by means of ceremonies, objects and facilities - objects of conspicuous consumption (Veblen 1934) - that make it clear who is in command. In less clear-cut cases of 'complexity' the archaeological interpretation of the class significance of inequalities in household consumption will be correspondingly more difficult. …

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