1950s >> 1952 >> no-573-may-1952

About new books: V. Gordon Childe; B. Traven

Professor V. Gordon Childe is probably the foremost pre-historian of the day. By pre-history we mean the study of the development of human society prior to the time when written records were made. Professor Childe’s newest book is entitled “Social Evolution,” and is published by Watts & Co.

Professor Childe is an archaeologist, and, as he says:

” . . . archaeologists to-day have realised that they are dealing with the concrete remains of societies, and that these societies, albeit illiterate, have left concrete embodiments not only of their material equipment but also of their social institutions, superstitions and behaviour, fragmentary and ambiguous though these undoubtedly be.”

So he has taken the theories that Herbert Spencer and Lewis Henry Morgan deduced from their comparative studies of the pre-historic societies that were still in existence during the nineteenth century, and he has examined them in the light of recent archaeological discoveries, or, as he puts it, … “ in the light of the science which presents societies in a chronological sequence.”

The book is not easy reading. In fact Childe himself refers to it as a “ . . . rather tedious examination of archaeological data.” All the same, to the student of social evolution, it is a landmark in the study.

Lewis H. Morgan, in his book, “Ancient Society” (1877), divided human history into three main “ethnical periods’’–Savagery, Barbarism and Civilisation. He then made sub-divisions of the former two periods. Morgan made his divisions and sub-divisions on the basis of the technological development of society. The objects of archaeological study are, therefore, useful in an examination of Morgan’s theories, providing proof that Morgan was unable to obtain.

Prof. Childe warns us against a common error. We should not judge the rank of any technical device or process from a general principle. Each device and process must be considered in relation to the conditions in which it was used.

“Any superiority possessed by an automobile over, say, a bullock-cart cannot be inferred from comparing their respective efficiencies on English roads, but only from the historical fact that automobiles do supersede bullock-carts wherever conditions for their employment can be created.” (P.9.)

Prof. Childe shows that human needs change just as much as the “efficiency” of the instruments for their satisfaction.

“Did a reindeer hunter in 30,000 B.C., or an Ancient Egyptian in 3000, or an Ancient Briton in 30, really need or want to travel a couple of hundred miles at 60 m.p.h.? . . . . To a Magdalenian society in the last Ice Age a harpoon or antler was just as efficient as a steam trawler is to-day. With the former, tiny groups could get all the fish they needed; the load of a trawler would have been an embarrassing nuisance.” (P. 9.)

You cannot legitimately take some discovered object from one part of the world, give it a label, compare it with something similar from another part of the world, and so deduce its origin and the nature of the society to which it belonged. Professor Childe shows us how, in Ancient Egypt, when the habitable land was seldom as much as two miles away from the River Nile, which was a splendid highway, wheeled vehicles were less useful than they were in Syria which had no natural waterways. Wheeled vehicles were used in Syria fifteen hundred years before they were used in Egypt, but this does not prove that Egypt was more backward than Syria.

So, the professor marshals his evidence in the main part of his work, to show the successive steps through which different societies have actually passed on their way to civilisation in contrasted natural environments.

In his concluding chapter Prof. Childe examines the effects of intercourse between societies at different levels of development, even modern civilised societies, and he takes to task, very successfully, those who would claim an analogy between social evolution and organic evolution.

A very useful book.

Whilst we are dealing with Professor V. Gordon Childe we must mention another of his books that is well worth reading—”History” published by Cobbett Press, 1947. In this excellent little book the professor examines the various theories of history that have held the field at different times. One is astonished at the number of theories of “Historiography.”

Prof. Childe accepts the theory deduced by Karl Marx, the “materialist conception of history,” or, as Mr. Childe himself calls it, “Marxist historiography.” He uses this theory throughout this book. The professor has one misfortune. Like many others his eyes are turned towards Moscow and “the promised land” behind the iron curtain. But his vision does not appear to have become impaired—not yet.

B. Traven is claimed to be a mystery man. He lives somewhere in Mexico, operates through an agent in Mexico City and cannot be interviewed, photographed or “got at” in any way. He is one of the world’s best-selling story writers. His latest book is “The Rebellion of the Hanged,” translated by Charles Duff and published by Robert Hale, Ltd.

Capital must always have wage-labour and it has always been ruthless in the methods by which it has built up its armies of wage workers. B. Traven in this book shows the trickery, the callousness and the vile “legal” practices by which the Mexican Indians were dragged away from their small plots of land and poverty stricken farms in order to be made wage-slaves in the great lumber camps of Mexico.

The story of Candido Castro, Celso, Martin Trinadad and other Mexican Indians is set in the period just before the Mexican revolution which deposed President Porfirio Diaz in favour of Madero. It tells of the brutality and the abominable tortures inflicted upon these poor natives in order to make diem work ever harder and harder. The output of logs demanded from them is continuously stepped up by the lumber camp bosses and failure to satisfy the demand results in floggings, hanging naked by the feet in the tropical sun or being buried up to the nostrils in the sand with the uncovered head exposed to the sun and insects. The hanging is the favourite form of torture with the bosses and foremen and it is that which gives the book its title.

The Indians finally rebel and become more ruthless and cruel than their erstwhile employers. They torture, maim and kill, partly in revenge and partly because they know that they have no hope of clemency if their uprising is suppressed. Their adventures as they march through the tropical forests in the rainy season make stirring reading.

Mr. Traven has no illusions about rebellions. He sees their limitations and knows the difference between a rebel and a revolutionary. When Mexican peóns are killing the landowners their object is to claim the land for themselves, to share it out amongst them. Says Martin Trinadad towards the end of the story:

“. . . the instinct of possession and property are more anchored than before in this ranch. Only the name of the owner has changed, and I can predict to you, comrade, that to-morrow or the day after the new proprietors will fight like devils amongst themselves with machetes until only one is left, if even one, to enjoy the property. The man who gets possession of the revolver will be the new master, the one who has the shotgun will be overseer. And those who by chance survive will become peóns again.”
And again:
“Ease and speed are not worth anything to revolutionaries. These here have changed ownership of fields and pigs. What ought to have been changed are the ideas on which the whole system rests. Yesterday the master was called Don Churcho. He’ll be called Florencio tomorrow, after now being called Eusebio. There will always be a master; that is to say, nothing will have changed…. A revolution which is explained and needs motivation is no revolution. It’s merely a fight to get property and jobs. The true revolution, the one that is capable of changing systems, is deep in the character of all revolutionaries. The real revolutionary doesn’t think in terms of the personal benefit he may get from the revolution. He tears down the social system in which he suffers and sees other men suffer. He sacrifices himself and dies in order that he may destroy and bring about other ideas.”
Now that I have read “The Rebellion of the Hanged,” whenever I see the name of B. Traven on the cover of a book I shall be searching through my pockets to find if I have enough ready cash to buy it.


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