In Part 9 of A Marxist History of the World, we paused to discuss ‘how history works’. It would be useful to pause again to review some general lessons of the history of the ancient and medieval civilisations we have looked at since.
History is formed of cycles and arrows. History’s cycles reflect Nature’s character, a repeating sequence of life, growth, death, and new life. The production cycles of farmers and the reproduction cycles of families are examples.
History’s arrows are the linear progressions of innovation, evolution, and sometimes revolution, by which the social world is periodically transformed.
History necessarily consists of both. Nature, society, and humankind must at all times be reproducing themselves; the only alternative is extinction. Much of what we do is unavoidably repetitive and predictable.
But history never repeats itself exactly. Each historical conjuncture is unique. By ‘conjuncture’ - or ‘state of affairs’ - I mean a specific moment in historical time and geographical space in which related economic, social, and political events take place.
What accounts for the uniqueness of each conjuncture is the combination of continuity (history’s cycle) and change (history’s arrow). But there are critical differences of degree from one conjuncture to another. When history’s cycle is dominant, change is only quantitative and limited. When the arrow is dominant, it is qualitative and transforming.
Let us recall history’s three motors (discussed in ‘How history works’): the accumulation of knowledge, technique, and productivity; the struggle between rival ruling classes for control of surplus; and the struggle between classes over the size and distribution of surplus.
It is the interaction of these three motors that drives the historical process. Iron tools transformed ancient agriculture, bringing new areas into cultivation, increasing the productivity of field labour, and massively enlarging the size of the social surplus. Technology was the prime mover. Human labour, after all, has its own dynamic. No worker chooses a blunt tool when there is a sharp one to hand.
The rise of the Roman Empire, on the other hand, though based on iron technology, was powered by the military struggle between rival ruling classes and rival factions within the Roman ruling class. Here, struggle at the top for control of surplus was prime mover.
The flowering of Classical Greek civilisation in the 5th century BCE - another Iron Age culture - is an instance of where the struggle between classes was decisive. It was the ‘hoplite revolution’ of the 6th century BCE that created city-state democracies and spawned naturalistic art, classical architecture, western drama, and the academic disciplines of natural science, philosophy, and history.
The motors always operate in specific natural and social frameworks. Geography both provides opportunities and imposes constraints, and the tradition of social institutions, practices, and customs inherited the past constitutes the context for further historical development.
Here are some examples. The geography of Eurasia spread people, resources, tools, and ideas much more effectively than did that of Africa. The strength of the centralised state prevented the development of an independent urban bourgeoisie in medieval China. The weakness of the feudal states of Europe allowed one to develop.
Sometimes the interaction of history’s three motors produces only a repeating cycle. Sometimes it produces more or less rapid change, and sometimes revolutionary crisis and radical social transformation.
Among the Arabs, Indians, Chinese, Africans, and Americans, history’s cycle was dominant through the long centuries from antiquity to modernity. There was change, but it was slow. Change was quantitative rather than qualitative.
The lives of peasant-farmers, who made up the overwhelming bulk of the population in ancient and medieval times, were dominated by history’s cycle. Even when they rebelled against their rulers, as they sometimes did when exploitation became intolerable, they merely installed new ones and then went back to their farms.
The lives of merchants were more changeable. Some were lucky and became rich. Some chugged along. Others messed up and went broke. But their individual fates did not affect how society as a whole worked, and generally, what merchants did could not alter this. Merchants oiled the wheels of the production process, they did not power it. They occupied the interstices of society, not its commanding heights.
The lives of rulers were more changeable still, with the rise and fall of dynasties, empires, and civilisations. But this historical ‘froth’ made little difference to the lives of those they ruled. The identities of rulers - personifications of the competitive logic of military imperialism - was a secondary matter. One king was pretty much like another.
Only in one part of the world did there arise a unique combination of circumstances and forces sufficiently powerful to generate a dynamic of change capable of producing radical social transformation.
In a sense, it has happened only twice in human history. The first transformation was the agricultural revolution which occurred in different parts of the world between about 7500 BCE and as late as the 20th century CE. All ancient and medieval civilisations were essentially the result of this revolution. The great majority of the population worked on the land, and the great bulk of the social surplus took the form of agricultural produce.
But in the last 250 years, the social world has been transformed a second time with the development of industrial capitalism.
This second transformation has created the social world we inhabit today. Because it began in Europe, and from there was spread to the rest of the world, we must henceforward focus disproportionate attention on events in this relatively small region of the globe.
We have analysed great civilisations in Asia, Africa, and America, where history’s cycle was dominant. We must now turn to the region where, for more than 500 years, the arrow has been dominant.
Neil Faulkner is a freelance archaeologist and historian. He works as a writer, lecturer, excavator, and occasional broadcaster. His books include ‘A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics‘ and ‘A Marxist History of the World: from Neanderthals to Neoliberals‘.
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