The ideas of V. Gordon Childe: In defence of historical materialism

19 October marks 65 years since the death of Vere Gordon Childe – an archaeologist who, by applying the Marxist view of history, made enormous leaps forward in our understanding of early human societies and the Neolithic revolution.

Vere Gordon Childe was a lifelong Marxist, who dedicated himself to applying all the insights of Marx and Engels to the most cutting-edge research of his day. His ideas proved the enduring strength of the materialist conception of history, despite endless distortions and attacks.

Childe was born in Sydney in 1892, at a time when the class struggle in Australia was going from a spark to a blazing bushfire. As waves of strikes and lockouts went down to defeat, a layer of the trade union leadership and left intellectuals coalesced into the Australian Labour Party (ALP), which immediately headed into parliament. 

What should have been the political arm of the militant labour movement was, however, almost immediately characterised by parliamentary timidity and caution. Later in his life Childe would write a book, How Labour Governs (1923), describing the widening gulf between parliamentary reformism and the labour movement. 

This was a process that was being observed around the world. Only a few days after Childe sailed to England as a young graduate to continue his studies, the First World War broke out. Nearly all the major social democratic parties of Europe then betrayed the working class to vote for the war.

It was on this basis that Childe discovered Marxism. He became a member of Oxford University’s first ever socialist society, and was involved in the anti-war student movement – enough to gain himself a growing MI5 file.

Throughout his life Childe was constantly subject to state surveillance for his ‘extreme socialist views’. Because of his known Marxist ideas and his opposition to the war, he found it impossible to get a job in academia in Australia or the UK for several years after graduating, despite his obvious talent. 

Eventually, however, after many years out of the field (most notably working as a secretary for the ALP) he managed to get a job in Edinburgh University in 1927. This resuscitated what would be one of the most important archaeological careers of the 20th century. 

Because Childe approached archaeological research from a scientific Marxist perspective, he was able to make very significant discoveries about the past, such as that of the ‘Neolithic revolution’. This decisively proved the arguments made by Marx and Engels decades before, using information that they did not have access to in their day.

The Marxist view of history

As Engels explained in his speech at Marx’s graveside:

“Just as Darwin discovered the law of development of organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of development of human history: the simple fact, hitherto concealed by an overgrowth of ideology, that mankind must first of all eat, drink, have shelter and clothing, before it can pursue politics, science, art, religion, etc.”

History cannot be simply boiled down to the development of ideas, or the deeds of great men. What is ultimately decisive are economic factors – the production and reproduction of real life. 

This was a revolutionary idea that had yet to be introduced to archaeology in the early 20th century. When Childe was studying history, the study of the development of material culture, such as tools for example, was seen as secondary to the really important things: the palaces of kings, seats of government, cities from Roman and Greek poetry, and the like. 

But by studying history and prehistory on the basis of material economic changes – on a firm Marxist foundation – Childe was able to reveal the laws governing change in prehistory: in particular, the development of the earliest states and civilisations from ‘primitive communism’.

The story of tools

Childe agreed with Marx and Engels that first and foremost, it was the labour process that set humans aside from animals. We need tools to do many of the things that animals can do naturally, with their claws and our teeth. But using tools instead gives us a number of advantages.

Firstly, it is the reason why humans, unlike any other creature, are able to adapt themselves and live anywhere, from the hottest desert to the Arctic circle.

Secondly, and most importantly, by improving those tools, through improving our social knowledge and technique, human society can develop much faster than it could through purely biological evolution. 

In other words, we move from the realm of biological evolution, to the realm of social evolution.

“In the course of the long time over which archaeologists can follow the story of tools,” Childe wrote in a pamphlet in 1944, “men have changed not only their tools but also the whole way in which they got their living (their economy), and consequently the way in which society was organised for cooperation.”

Childe’s point of view, of man as a tool-making, labouring creature, or more accurately, human societies as tool-making societies, completely echoes the ideas of Marx and Engels. 

This is particularly important, because it is only through this materialist understanding of social evolution that we can explain how society develops and changes – and how it progresses. 

Revolutions in history

If it is through studying economic changes that we can distinguish different historical epochs, the next question has to be ‘how did these changes occur?’.

When we study written history, we can see that change rarely occurs gradually. There are moments in history where all the built up contradictions and developments of a previous period result in explosive, epoch making events. Take, for example, the bourgeois revolutions such as the English Civil War and the French Revolution. 

But Childe’s greatest discovery is that this was the case at the earliest stages of the development of human society, as well as today. 

In other words, he applied the logic of revolution to prehistory. 

In prehistoric times, humans lived in small groups of largely mobile hunter-gatherers, who eked out a living from the wilds. The vast majority of these societies have no evidence of private property, nor the exploitation of one section of society by another. 

In actual fact, they had little choice about whether or not to live in this way. The productivity of human labour was at a relatively very low level. What would be the point in enslaving someone to produce for you if they cannot produce both enough to sustain themselves and a surplus for you to live off?

In the Origin of The Family, Private Property and the State, Engels explains that this could only change with the emergence of “cattle-breeding, metalworking, weaving and, lastly, agriculture”, which laid the basis for the production of a surplus. But on the basis of information available in the 1880s, he was not able to demonstrate precisely how this happened. 

By the time Childe was writing, however, archaeologists in the Near East and Egypt had begun to closely study the transition to agriculture. They suggested that wheat and barley, two of the most important agricultural crops, were domesticated from wild grasses found in Palestine and Egypt. 

They found evidence that a totally new social formation – the agricultural neolithic village – had arisen on the basis of these developments as early as 7000 BC in what is now Egypt, Syria, and Iran. And that by 2000 BC, this agricultural way of life had spread across the whole of Europe.

The Neolithic revolution

Childe brought all this evidence together, pointing out that this epoch-making transformation was nothing short of revolutionary. He labelled this phase-shift in human society the ‘Neolithic revolution.’ 

Today, further research has placed the earliest known origins of agriculture up to 9,600 years ago, and has traced its adoption across the continent over only four or five thousand years. This entirely backs up Childe’s conclusions.  

In many ways, this was the greatest revolution in history. Not only did it completely transform our way of living, but it unleashed productive forces the likes of which had never been seen before. It was on this basis that all future class societies could be built.

Alongside the Neolithic revolution, Childe wrote about many other revolutions in his works. Another example is the theory of the urban revolution. Childe explained that, even after the Neolithic revolution, the vast majority of social relations were still communistic. Neolithic villages – like the one he studied at Skara Brae in Orkney – were small, with little specialisation and little inequality. 

A few thousand years later, however, cities emerged in Egypt and Mesopotamia. And with them the division of society into exploited and exploiting classes, a new and greater division and specialisation of labour, and – importantly – the first states. 

Engels had pointed out half a century before Childe that the state and class society were inextricably bound up with one another. He explained that the state emerges to defend the interests of the ruling class from conflict created by irreconcilable class antagonisms, which had not existed under primitive communism. 

But these ideas had not been introduced to archaeology. And in fact Engels was never able to write in depth about the earliest states for lack of evidence, focussing instead on the Greeks and the Romans. 

Childe’s contribution was to give an insight into the rise of class societies thousands of years before the ancient Greeks. In particular, he described how the great city-states in Sumer were based on the development of a class of priests. These priests understood the solar calendar, organised the irrigation canals necessary for large-scale agriculture, and planned what to do with the surplus product of society.

The simultaneous flowering of culture and scientific technique, such as the emergence of craft specialisation, writing, and mathematics was not random, but part of the same revolutionary process. 

This was connected fundamentally to the development of the productive forces: 

“Evidently the change in the archaeologists’ material reflects a transformation in the economy that produced the material…Priests, officials, merchants, artisans, and soldiers should represent new classes that, as classes, could find no livelihood in a self-sufficing [subsistence-only] food-producing community, still less in a band of hunters.” (Childe, Man Makes Himself)

We can draw an extremely important conclusion from these discoveries: as Engels first explained, just as the state arose with class society, so it can only be gotten rid of by the abolition of classes altogether.


Of course, this is not to say that Childe’s contributions are universally accepted. Childe hoped that by taking a historical approach, this work would avoid political attacks. As he wrote in his introduction to Man Makes Himself

“It is hoped that a consideration of revolutions, so remote that it is impossible to get angry or enthusiastic about them, may help to vindicate the idea of progress against sentimentalists and mystics.” (Childe, Man Makes Himself)

But the Bolsheviks proved just how dangerous these ideas really were in practice, and so an ideological campaign was begun in order to undermine them. 

Göbekli Tepe Image TeomancimitKlaus Schmidt, excavator of the famous site Gobekli-Tepe, ignored evidence to argue that ‘the world’s oldest temple’ was built by hunter-gatherers for purely religious purposes / Image: Teomancimit

Even up until this very day, Childe’s theories of the Neolithic and urban revolution are still subject to the most vicious caricatures and attacks, including from the so-called ‘left’. For example, in his most recent book, the Dawn of Everything, the only thing David Graeber had to say about Childe’s work was that the title of Man Makes Himself is sexist!

For bourgeois academics, the description of anything as a ‘revolution’ sounds far too Marxist. Instead, they argue that the development of agriculture should be referred to as the ‘Neolithic transition’, because these new technologies and crops were not ‘all adopted at the same time.’

Of course, this completely misses the point. These things are relative. In comparison to the hundreds of thousands of years in which anatomically modern humans lived under primitive communism, the few thousands of years in which it took for the Neolithic society to develop was extremely quick. 

These attacks do not come from nowhere. Really, they are not just attacks on Childe himself, but on Marxism. It was only because Childe took a scientific, materialist approach to history, basing himself on the ideas of Marx and Engels, that he was able to uncover these laws, which were clearly a great stride forward in archaeology. 

But Marxist ideas are dangerous to the academic establishment, and reviled by bourgeois scholarship. Those who want to present an idealist approach to history will ignore any and all evidence in order to do so. 

In recent years, Klaus Schmidt, excavator of the famous site Gobekli-Tepe in modern Turkey, has used it to argue that ‘the world’s oldest temple’ was built by hunter-gatherers for purely religious purposes, and so predated economic changes by thousands of years. Therefore, in his words, “sociocultural changes come first, agriculture comes later”. 

But the latest excavations at the same time have found evidence not only of permanent settlement, but also a huge pile of grinding stones, used to process wheat, which Schmidt had previously dismissed as a “rock garden”. 

That such high profile archaeologists have chosen to blind themselves, rather than acknowledge any evidence that would support Childe’s ideas, shows the terrible crisis of science under capitalism.

Progress and evolution

Ironically, Childe had the perfect response to his detractors. In Man Makes Himself, he attacked the mysticism and pessimism of academics of his time, who were content to resign themselves to the idea of the ‘fall of civilisation’; that there was ‘no such thing as progress’; or that the whole of history was simply the rise and fall of one ideology, religion, or political system after another, with no rhyme or reason to it. 

Roman slaves Image Jun Wikimedia CommonsThe example of the Roman Empire – which was characterised by violent expansion and enslavement, but developed the productive forces – shows that progress is contradictory / Image: Jun, Wikimedia Commons

These ideas reflected the experience of the brutality of the First World War and the chaos of capitalism, as well as the bourgeois prejudice against a scientific view of history. It is no accident that they are still very common in universities today.

But Childe pointed out how ridiculous it is to assert that there has been no progress from the tiny societies of nomadic hunter-gatherers using stone tools, to the industrial capitalism of today. He echoed Marx and Engels’ key assertion that the development of the productive forces is the measure of all progress in history. It must be judged scientifically on this basis. 

Progress is contradictory. Since the origin of class society, each successive mode of production is nothing more than a new, more efficient way for one class to exploit another. But this does not mean that the productive forces have not developed. 

Childe gives the example of the Romans. The rise of the Roman Empire was characterised by violent expansion and enslavement. And yet it was progressive in the sense that it represented a comparatively higher stage of development of the productive forces, which laid the basis for further economic, social, and cultural development. 

Progress in history is not linear or gradual, either. Eventually, relations that were able to develop the productive forces turn into giant fetters, holding back development. 

If a way forward cannot be found on the basis of a new mode of production developing within the old society, civilisations can even collapse and society can be thrown back into barbarism, as happened after the fall of the Roman Empire. 

But even then, the achievements of the past are not totally lost. As explained by Childe in his conclusion to What Happened In History:

“Progress is real, if discontinuous. The upward curve resolves itself into a series of troughs and crests. But in those domains that archaeology as well as written history can survey, no trough ever declines to the low level of the preceding one, each crest out-tops its last precursor.”

This defence of the Marxist view of progress is extremely important. Because, if this is true, we must ask ourselves what this means for capitalism today.

The socialist revolution

Childe never confined himself to the ivory tower of academia. He wrote his books for “the wider academic circles that I imagine buy sixpenny books”. He even rejected a publishing offer from Oxford University Press for a much cheaper publisher, specifically because he wanted more people to be able to buy his books.

LeninRussianRev Image public domainChilde understood that genuine progress is only possible through socialist revolution / Image: public domain

This is because Childe understood that the study of history that he stood for was not simply history for its own sake. It was a political and theoretical weapon. 

To prove historically that human progress can be summed up in the development of the productive forces – occurring, mind you, through revolutions! – naturally poses the question of where to go next. In Childe’s time, and even more so today, that meant socialism. 

Today, capitalism is a complete fetter to the development of the productive forces. Genuine progress, therefore, is only possible through socialist revolution. 

So long as capitalism persists, new machinery and technological developments – far from satisfying human needs – simply enrich the few at the expense of the many. The anarchy of the capitalist market plunges society into deeper and deeper crises. 

We leave the last word to Childe himself:

“Under the soviets, mechanisation means liberation from toil – not to work for a capitalist’s profits but for the community, in a co-operative effort to raise the standard of life for all.”

This article was originally published on 19 Oct at

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