A new history of humanity

Submitted by martin on 2 November, 2021 - 1:27 Author: Clive Bradley
The Dawn of Everything

Clive Bradley reviews The Dawn of Everything: a new history of humanity, by David Graeber and David Wengrow (Allen and Lane).


Potentially, this book changes everything. It is certainly what the authors intend. For Marxists, it poses some profound challenges. Broadly speaking, Marxists have accepted what these authors call the ‘evolutionary’ perspective on human history, namely that there are certain stages through which human culture has passed: pre-agricultural societies, which have no classes; agriculture, which gives birth to classes (because it facilitates the accumulation of a surplus, which gives rise to class domination); slave society; feudalism; maybe - in parallel - the ‘Asiatic’ mode of production, or the tributary mode, or something else; capitalism (and then of course a dispute about whether some post-capitalist or exceptional-capitalist mode of production is possible - state capitalism/bureaucratic collectivism, etc - aside from a transition to socialism).

Of course some Marxists are more rigid or dogmatic than others; there have been innumerable debates about, for instance, the transition from slavery to feudalism, and the transition from feudalism to capitalism; about whether or not systems contemporary to feudalism are best described as something else; and so forth.

This book argues that all of this is nonsense. The historical evidence (mainly they are speaking of archaeological and anthropological evidence) refutes the whole thing. The ‘evolutionary’ scheme is not only false, its origins lie in a conscious reaction to what they call the ‘indigenous critique’ of (what we now call) Western society. Human history is immensely more complex, more varied, and more interesting, than the ‘evolutionary’ scheme suggests.

It’s very hard to summarise the argument of this extraordinary book. So what follows is inevitably informed by my own concerns or obsessions.

Aside from the argument about human history itself, there is a prior claim, which seems to me incredibly important. It’s what the book calls the ‘indigenous critique’ of European society which, they argue, is central to Enlightenment thought. From the sixteenth century into the eighteenth, Europeans were exposed to the views, philosophies, general attitudes and so forth of Native peoples in the ‘New World’ - directly, and - which would be true of most of the philosophes back in Europe - through written reports. Accounts of Native peoples were very common - including detailed accounts of their views on the Europeans they encountered. These views have tended to be regarded by Western scholars as mere projections of the Europeans themselves. Graeber and Wengrow argue trenchantly that these really were the views of Native peoples, and they proved enormously influential. One of these Native thinkers even has a name which has come down to us: Kandiaronk, a Wendet (Huron) chief who was pretty scathing about European values.

In particular, what Enlightenment thinkers took from indigenous American peoples was a conception of individual freedom (the right to disobey, not be ruled by anyone, etc); a sense of collective responsibility for all members of the society (what Graeber and Wengrow call ‘communism’ in the widest and simplest sense - caring for the weak, and so on); and along with that a distrust for ‘revealed’ (ie Christian) thought - though actually the book doesn’t say so much about this latter issue. It is absurd, they argue, to imagine that these foundational elements of liberal democratic thought were brought by the Europeans to the Americas, since all of them were common to many indigenous American cultures and pretty much alien to sixteenth-through-eighteenth century Europe (prior to the American and French revolutions).

This assertion of Native influence on European thought seems to me important and true. Of course Enlightenment philosophers, American and French revolutionaries, etc, melded these influences with European (Greek and Roman) sources, but the influence remains.

The foundations of the ‘evolutionary’ view - which then became the starting point for most Western thought on the matter, including Marxism - were in conscious reaction to this indigenous critique. That is to say it was an attempt to refute it, to portray Native people as ‘savages’ entirely incapable of such sophistication because the precondition for any kind of sophistication is ‘social complexity’ which begins with agriculture. In fact there are rich traditions of philosophical and political thought among Native peoples - and so, we can reasonably assume, there would have been similar traditions stretching back through time.

And there is archaeological evidence that there were. Our ancestors were a much cleverer bunch than we usually imagine.

The experience of Native Americans helped feed the European image of the ‘noble savage’, which is one of two stereotypes about pre-agricultural society Graeber and Wengrow argue has plagued anthropology ever since: it’s Rousseau’s notion that early humanity lived in a ‘state of Nature’ which was egalitarian and Eden-like, but was corrupted by land ownership and the formation of states. The other, opposite view, is Hobbes’ - that the state of Nature was relentlessly violent and ghastly, and the state was necessary to keep people from each other’s throats.

Graeber and Wengrow argue both of these views are false.

So what are the central claims? They include:

1. Pre-agricultural, i.e. hunter-gatherer (or hunter-forager) societies are not all alike; their means of subsistence does not by any means dictate particular cultural forms. They include hierarchical, warrior-driven cultures and much more ‘egalitarian’ societies. More, they are not mainly small ‘bands’, whether extended kin groups or otherwise. Our prehistoric ancestors wandered very widely (more widely than latter peoples), and formed complex, far-ranging networks. They included cultures which established ‘monumental architecture’ (huge mounds; standing stones, etc).

2. The ‘invention’ of agriculture did not automatically lead to inequality, kings, the state, war, and so forth. For one thing the ‘transition’ to agriculture took a very long time, as cultures experimented with different types of crop cultivation, and then sometimes abandoned them (in all of which women surely played a dominant role). As with hunter-foragers, the economic form proved compatible with multiple cultural systems.

There are many instances of cultures which vary seasonally: farmers for some of the year, hunter-foragers for the rest, adopting different political systems in each - for example swinging between an egalitarian arrangement while farming, and a more commandist, hierarchical one for the purposes of the hunt.

Stonehenge can serve as an illustration of elements of the argument. The people involved in constructing the stone circle came from all over the British isles: it seems it was a collective effort, presumably for the purpose of festivals, by different groups. These people were not farmers. More: they had been farmers, but had - it seems - chosen to abandon farming for an economy based on harvesting nuts. (It seems this was a choice, not the result of conquest or whatever).

This point goes to another central argument of the book: that pre-historic people consciously and deliberately chose different social arrangements. They were, of course, just as intelligent as we are, just as capable of talking about the world and how it works and trying out different things. Graeber and Wengrow regard this as a basic human freedom, the freedom to imagine different kinds of social organisation. Prehistoric humanity was no less imaginative in this regard than we are.

They go on to describe in some detail how neighbouring cultures can then develop, self-consciously, into opposites, defining themselves in opposition to one another, a process called schismogenesis. The most obvious example for many Western readers would be ancient Athens and Sparta; but the book details many such phenomena.

Returning to the emergence of agriculture: one of the most exciting features of the book is their account of the different roads societies have taken which confound the stereotypes of evolution by stages. For instance, many cities in ancient Sumer (which saw the invention of writing, for instance) seem to have been run by councils of some sort, city ‘parliaments’, only later falling under the sway of warrior kings. The same is true of the ancient Mexican site of Teotihuacan - where indeed there is evidence of the abandonment of a priestly, temple-building culture, replacing it with one concerned to build a city with, basically, social housing - a culture will lasted for centuries. This is quite different to our image of pre-Columbian human-sacrificing monarchical empires. Indeed, the Tlaxcala, the Aztecs’ neighbours with whom the conquistadors formed an alliance - which is what enabled them to defeat the Aztecs - were themselves ruled by a council, not a king, as is clear from the writings of the Spanish themselves.

These are by no means isolated or exceptional cases. The image of ‘egalitarian’ hunter-gatherer groups superseded by agricultural societies which gave rise to inequality, the state, monarchies, and war, is false.

Or another vivid example on a different tack: it is clear from the art of the ancient Cretan ‘Minoan’ society that women were very powerful in it. For some reason archaeologists have tended to assume nevertheless it must really have been a kingdom, even though there is no evidence for this and the evidence points to the contrary. Again, this suggests a different road human history could have taken.

All this points to several conclusions. Graeber and Wengrow are anarchists, and of course this informs a good deal of what they describe. Central points are:

1. The assumption of much writing on human history is that inequality is inescapable because real equality is only possible in small hunter-gatherer groups; the moment you get anything more ‘complex’ you get a surplus which generates a ruling class, the state, and so forth (war, poverty, etc). Thus there have been a lot of debates over the years about the ‘origins of inequality’ and the ‘origins of the state’, which they think ask the wrong questions. Instead, given that it seems for millennia certain freedoms were basic to the human condition (the freedom to move around, the freedom to disobey, and the freedom to imagine how the world could be), the real question is why we ‘got stuck’ in various social arrangements where we lost those freedoms.

2. There is no ‘evolution’ from hunter-gatherer to peasant (or slave) to worker, etc. It’s an illusion. Overwhelmingly, what the book concentrates on in this regard is the interaction between hunter-forager societies and farmers in the Neolithic - and it’s hard to extrapolate clearly the implications for later history. But certainly they show that this ‘transition’ was anything but sudden (contrary to a notion of the ‘Agricultural Revolution’ popular since the nineteenth century). It took thousands of years (and only happened successfully in certain places - the first farming communities in central Europe were a disaster); some hunter-gatherer societies were far more militaristic than some (women-led?) Neolithic towns (though, once again, this is not to say this was always true, only that the variety confounds the stereotype); and agriculture was not obviously preferable to most people. (An analogous point is how common it was for Europeans who found themselves, for whatever reason, living with Native Americans to decide to stay there because life was far preferable, especially in terms of personal autonomy).

3. The state is not inevitable. Clearly, this depends on exactly what is meant by ‘the state’. Here they are concerned to show especially that with the emergence of settled urban communities linked to agricultural production, the rise of warlike hierarchical systems was by no means either inevitable nor universal.

How radical a challenge does all this pose to Marxist theory?

The general point that human beings throughout history have been more inventive, less tied to particularly social structures, and more ‘free’ than is often supposed, is refreshing and inspiring. Any politics aiming at human liberation needs to start with such a sense of human capacity. To learn that archaeology and anthropology increasingly endorse it is exciting.

Does it follow that any theory of historical ‘stages’ is thus refuted? If what is meant is that an account of the last ten thousand years which supposes that what actually happened is all that could have happened, then yes. The transition to agriculture, then urban, class-based and increasingly militarised societies, then mass slavery (for instance imperial Rome); then feudalism or other systems; then capitalism - these were not the only routes human history could have taken.

Embedded in this, implicitly, is another question, which is whether it’s possible to imagine some kind of advanced industrial society, with the kinds of technology we currently possess, emerging other than through capitalism, which presupposes the particular pre-capitalist structures which existed in Europe.

Or to put this another way: if socialism/communism is the answer to many of the problems humanity currently faces, was capitalism the necessary and irreplaceable basis for it? Did we have to endure capitalism for socialism to be possible? Marxist theory suggests that for sure, sadly, we did. But could history have taken a different course and still produced the kind of advanced, technological society we now take for granted? I mean here the broad shape of social evolution, not any specific events. And I mean the question of whether the preconditions for a socialist society - with potential abundance but without poisoning the earth itself - could be, in principle, present without the prior experience of exploitation and misery.

Of course on one level it’s a pointless, even meaningless question to ask. This is the course history took; what’s the point of speculating? But Graeber and Wengrow’s reminder that we all too often take a teleological view - it was always bound to go where it went - is worth reflecting on.

Perhaps the most challenging set of questions arises from the encounter between rising capitalism and the indigenous American cultures which Graeber and Wengrow so persuasively argue were ideologically crucial to the Enlightenment. I think there’s an underlying assumption, when considering this encounter from a Marxist point of view, that the Native cultures were ‘backward’ in some profound sense in relation to the economic and social motors being imported from Europe. Of course it’s tragic that so many died - from disease, massacres, and so forth. But there was a kind of inevitability to that which, from a certain lofty historical perspective, was progressive. The white colonists - even the slave-owners - represented the rising wave of capitalism; their victory over the ‘Natives’ was more or less inevitable, and however you might sympathise with Native people facing genocide, events had History on their side.

To make the issues more concrete (and here I am stepping completely outside anything covered in the book):

The Haudenosaunee, commonly known as the Iroquois, were a key player in the American revolution - in the end torn apart by divided loyalties: the majority supported the British, a minority the proto-Americans. The result was the collapse of this vital Native political power. Had it been otherwise, the Haudenosaunee might have checked American advance westward, and the whole of history would have played out differently. This was not in any meaningful sense a less ‘advanced’ culture than the settler-colonists around them. They were not hunter-foragers for the most part - to a significant degree this was an agricultural society (which was one reason why their land was considered so desirable by the colonists). Their political culture was extremely sophisticated, and probably influenced the drafters of the American constitution. Further on the political/ideological front, it is often argued that the prominent position of Iroquois women was an influence on early American (white) feminism. You can argue that in the longer term the settler-colonists, as the bearers of capitalism, represented a more dynamic social system; but as it presented itself in the 1770s, I think would be hard to say this later evolution was clear. So in what meaningful sense was this a conflict between progressive and reactionary (or simply outmoded) historical forms?

There was much in the conflict between the European settlers and the Haudenosaunee which was about bourgeois conceptions of land ownership (vs indigenous attitudes to the land) - that is, crudely, about capitalism. Of course Native culture wasn’t ‘anti-capitalist’ in the sense that Marxists mean it - in the sense that the modern working class is anti-capitalist, potentially at least. But it’s surely not a reactionary anti-capitalism, either (as Marx discusses, for instance, in the Communist Manifesto). Different worldviews were in (sometimes sharp, and conscious) conflict. It’s not obvious that if Native peoples had prevailed in this conflict the world would not have turned out better.

Capitalism has entailed, from its inception, appalling, horrifying atrocities. This has been contested - of course by working-class movements around the world; but also by indigenous people who have often had a very different conception of how human beings should interact with each other and their environment. This critique of Western/European society goes back to the origins of capitalism; and it turns out that the ‘indigenous critique’ informs how all of us, now, view the world. The socialist critique of capitalism draws, of course, on this tradition.

There’s something in here, which seems, to me, to be a big deal.

This is not to romanticise pre-capitalist cultures (or contemporary indigenous ones). Graeber and Wengrow don’t romanticise them: their emphasis is on variety, on what’s surprising given what we usually expect.

Their political conclusions for the modern world, beyond a general suspicion of the need for the state, are pretty elusive. Whether their challenge to orthodoxy - including, in this context, Marxism - is as profound as they think, or if in fact it’s possible to integrate their findings into a ‘historical materialist’ account, preserving a general picture of historical evolution, will I’m sure be hotly debated in the years to come.

This is a very important intervention into the literature about the broad shape of human history. It is also, by the way, very well-written - very accessible to the general reader and occasionally laugh-out-loud funny.

Add new comment

This website uses cookies, you can find out more and set your preferences here.
By continuing to use this website, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms & Conditions.