1990s >> 1998 >> no-1128-august-1998

What happened in history

Socialists have long argued that an appreciation of history is a key to understanding the present and making the future.

The materialist conception of history is the essential tool for explaining social development, on the basis of society’s economic foundations. People have to live before they can make history, so the way in which production is organised—how food, clothing and so on are produced—must be of crucial importance. Implicit in these ideas is the view that the environment in which people live itself affects production and hence the economic bases of society, as Karl Marx once wrote:

“Men make their own history but not of their own free will; not under circumstances they themselves have chosen but under the given and inherited circumstances with which they are directly confronted.”

The circumstances that confront people include the geographical and ecological situation in which they live.

The important role that geography, climate and so on play in human history has recently been emphasised by Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs and Steel (Vintage £8.99), which bears the intriguing subtitle “A short history of everybody for the last I3,000 years”. Diamond is an interesting writer, and his previous book, The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee, was discussed in the Socialist Standard of May 1993. His aim here is to address the question of why different continents developed in such different ways. Why, for instance, did people from Europe conquer the Americas, rather than vice versa? Why did agriculture and industry not emerge among the Aborigines in Australia prior to Western occupation? His own one-sentence of his book is:

“History followed different courses for different peoples because of difference among peoples’ environments, not because of biological difference among peoples themselves.”

Racist explanations, along the lies that (say) Australian Aborigines or Native Americans were too unintelligent or uninventive to achieve any kind of social progress, are excluded. The solution lies rather in the different circumstances that confronted people in different locations.

According to Diamond, one very important factor in determining the manner and rate of historical development has been the availability of wild animals and plants that could be domesticated. Most wild plants are of no use to humans, and in fact only a relative handful of plants have been domesticated to become staples of human diet.The Fertile Crescent in the Near East had a number of suitable wild plants and a favourable climate, and so was able to lead the way in the development of food production. Australia, in contrast, had few usable plants and much drier climate. Equally, domesticable animals were not distributed evenly throughout the world, being far rarer in Australia, the Americas and sub-saharan Africa, so that Eurasia had much greater opportunity to domesticate horses for riding and oxen to pull ploughs.

Geographical reasons also made diffusion of crops easier in some areas than others. Australia and New Guinea were too isolated to benefit from discoveries made elsewhere. Africa and North and South America have a north-south axis, with vastly different climates in different areas, so it is hard for a crop grown in one region to spread to another part of the same continent. But Eurasia has a basically east-west axis which, despite many climatic contrasts, does make it possible for crops to diffuse, and with them many other aspects of social organisation. Plant domestication and the use of writing, for instance, were not invented or re-invented in Britain but imported after spreading gradually across Western Europe.

The development of agriculture enables higher and denser populations, and leads eventually to villages, cities, chiefs, states and technology. When a Spanish army conquered the Inca empire of Peru in 1532, it was the Spanish who had the guns, armour and horses that gave them an overwhelming military superiority, and also had the writing-system that made them far more knowledgeable. Another, perhaps less obvious, “advantage” of agriculture society is the boost it gives to infectious disease. The domestication of animals increases the likelihood of diseases spreading from animals to humans (as happened with smallpox, plague and cholera, among others). These diseases need a sizeable and dense population in order to sustain themselves, and so flourish best in cities. One result is that infected communities develop immunity, as people with resistant genes survive and pass them on to their descendants. But other continents developed neither the diseases nor the immunity, which explains the devastating consequences of Eurasian diseases in conquered parts of the world. According to Diamond, “Far more Native Americans died in bed from Eurasian germs than on the battlefield from European guns and swords.”

In very broad terms, the last few paragraphs give an idea of Diamond’s arguments, and also of the enormous scope of his book. As he says, most historians do not even ask the kinds of questions that he is attempting to answer. He does provide an invaluable complement to the account given by historical materialism of class society and how the class struggle impels society forward.

But it is disappointing that Diamond only mentions Marx only once, in passing, and more so that the role of class in history is consistently played down. He has a chapter on the origin of government and religion, in which appearance of a tribal chief is viewed as a means of limiting conflict as communities grew too large for everyone to know everyone else:

“With the rise of chiefdoms around 7,500 years ago, people had to learn, for the first time in history, how to encounter strangers regularly without attempting to kill them.”

The chief had a monopoly on the use of force, and could therefore prevent violence on the part of others. This harks back to the argument of his previous book, that people began living in groups as a means of defence against other humans. And it is just as unsatisfactory, since there is no reason to think that, left to themselves, people will go around murdering each other.

Economics and the development of capitalism play very little role in Diamond’s explanations: he discusses the technical progress that enabled the Spanish army to be in Peru, but does not examine why European powers wanted to expand into the New World in the first place. Economic factors such as trade rivalry and the expense of overland routes to the East are crucial here. The impact of the conquest of Americas on the rise of capitalism in Europe also needs to be told in socio-economic terms. Without such a perspective, Diamond’s work, impressive though it is, is telling only part of the story.


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