Monday, 14 May 2012

The History of V Gordon Childe

This will be not so much a review as a collection of observations and thoughts of mine inspired by reading V Gordon Childe`s book `History`.

I should probably make clear that, while I am interested in history and philosophy, most of my reading on these subjects has been from old and usually second-hand books and I can hardly claim to be at the cutting edge in these matters. I could not make any useful contribution to a debate on string theory or post-modernism and, indeed, I don`t want to. Anyone with a greater knowledge of history/philosophy will no doubt find my humble efforts laughable, but if it gives them a few moments  of  innocent amusement I do not particularly mind.

V Gordon Childe was a historian with a particular interest in archaeology and pre-history and is still well-respected today. He held Marxist views and it may be as well if I give a simplified explanation of the Marxist view of history. I am not myself a Marxist and anyone looking to discuss Marx`s politics would probably be better served elsewhere, but I will add a brief footnote on Childe`s approach to Marxism in case it is of interest (see below).

Karl Marx believed, rather grandly, that he had "solved the riddle of history". As I understand it, Marxism is quite a complex belief system incorporating aspects of politics, history, economics and philosophy. For our purposes there are two important aspects I want to mention at this point.

Firstly, Marx  argued that the history of western nations could be understood as a series of incidents in which power was taken from one class by another (in English terms, e.g. the transfer of power between the King on the one hand and the Barons on the other at Runnymede, which was formalised in the Magna Carta).

Secondly, he further stipulated that these changes only came about when prior advances in economic and other forms of development meant that the circumstances for change were fortuitous, i.e. if an old aristocracy were superseded by if a growing and newly assertive middle class of merchants.

Another view, one which I personally find more convincing, would be that the same incidents were all events in which power was diffused more widely as societies evolved new forms of organisation.

Many Marxists have queried how fully Vere Gordon Childe had assimilated Marxist politics into his work. My own feeling is that they had a point. Whether that`s necessarily a bad thing depends on your point of view !

As I understand it, Childe`s thought evolved as he went through life.

Like many Marxists,  for a time he apparently subscribed to a clumsy, mechanistic understanding of Marx - probably believing in a world in which man`s destiny is determined by vast, impersonal forces of history.

Subsequently he developed a more rounded view, arguing that overall patterns of human development could be discerned but allowing for considerable variation at the level of the individual. That seems to be where he was at the time of this book, presenting quite a rounded view of human existence. For instance, although he rejects the old-fashioned view that history is made by  `Great Men` ,  the view championed by Thomas Carlyle, Sir Charles Oman and others, he is careful to acknowledge it`s positive aspects ; "To reject the Great Man interpretation of history, is not to belittle the significance of great men...Men have lived, and do live, greatly, and it is one of history`s functions to preserve this greatness and keep these personalities alive." 

Ultimately,  I gather he went on to reconsider even some of the positions expounded in this book, although he continued to be a staunch believer in human progress. As far as I know, he continued to subscribe to some semblance of a Marxist worldview throughout his life, though clearly within that framework he developed his ideas and understanding as he went along. 

At this point in his life, he had rejected a deterministic view of human development, i.e., he did not believe, as many Marxists have,  that mankind was making it`s way to a pre-ordained outcome. "If history be not following a prescribed route but is making a path as it proceeds, the search for a terminus is naturally vain", he comments. Although he was a member of the original, now defunct, Communist Party of Great Britain, this book does not expound the virtues of  a  socialist utopia in which a classless society has been achieved and which therefore remains static, but looks  more towards "a society in which men consciously and voluntarily co-operate in a collective effort to extend further the productive forces and the creative activities these liberate. Such an order would not be static but consciously and intentionally creative. It might then be regarded as the true beginning of rational history."

In general, Childe`s History is an accessible and thought-provoking overview of human history. It is largely free from Marxist jargon and for the most part his views are not presented obtrusively. Some of the points he makes regarding human history and development have been  shared by non-Marxist thinkers such as Winwood Reade and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Indeed, he makes the point that on one, relatively analytical, matter Karl Marx, right-wing economist Adam Smith and constitutionalist Walter Bagehot were all in agreement !

The last  chapter is rather heavy on the Marxist sources, though as we`ve seen he seems capable of transcending his influences. Some Marxists will find this book disappointing, but I think it should be approached with an open mind. More to the point, you can pick up second-hand copies fairly cheaply (mine cost 99p !) and it does not take long to read !


I don`t particularly feel the need to defend Childe`s political views in every respect, but it may not hurt to give some context.

I`ve  stated that he was a member of the original CPGB (another, quite distinct, body uses that name today). In his day there was no Eurocommunism, no New Left. The party he knew too often supported the Soviet line, even during the Stalin period. For sure, there were periodic internal rebellions but there were no John Pecks or Ray Suttons in those days, no-one (as far as I know) making a sustained and determined effort for change from within. Normally, CPGB members either rebelled over key issues whilst remaining loyal at other times, or left the Party altogether.

Turning to Wikipedia, we learn that Childe`s biographer Sally Green believed his views "were never dogmatic, always idiosyncratic and were continually changing throughout his life" and that "Childe`s Marxism frequently differed from contemporary `orthodox` Marxism."

Marxist Neil Faulkner is quoted in the same piece as describing Childes as someone "heavily influenced by Marxism"  but not a true Marxist as he (Childes)  did not think in terms of class struggle as an agent of social change. For what it`s worth, that`s the impression I formed from my reading of History.

I don`t know if this footnote really clarifies things much but  hope it`s of interest anyway.

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