Historical materialism is a term that Friedrich Engels used often to describe Marx's theory of history, but it is also employed by many non-Marxists.
Historical materialists often use an architectural metaphor
to explain their theory. They believe that the ‘superstructure’ of a society – that is, its ideas, culture, and legal and political institutions – are ultimately determined by and explicable in terms of the ‘base’ of that society, which Marx and Engels define as the forces and relations of production ( the economy, and the way we work together to make things). When the base of a society changes, then the superstructure changes too. Marx thought that a society's base could change in two important ways – through technological innovations, and through struggles between classes.
Non-Marxist historical materialists employ the base-superstructure model, but define the base differently. Hence Jared Diamond in his book Guns Germs and Steel focuses on the geographical, botanical, zoological bases of different societies to explain why they changed or didn’t change over time, and to explain their unique cultural traits. Diamond explains the persistence of the hunter gatherer mode of production in Aboriginal Australia, for example, by arguing that the botany and climate and isolation of that continent made the development of agriculture very difficult, and then goes on to understand Aboriginal culture in relation to the unique conditions of Australia.
I used to consider myself an historical materialist, but I don’t see how the base-superstructure framework can explain many of the Pacific societies I’ve been trying
in recent years.
Consider, for example, the Kingdom of Tonga. Multinational now have claws in that country and cash flows continually around its islands but, much to the displeasure of visiting officials of the International Monetary Fund and palangi owners of restaurants and resorts, the Tongan people refuse to give up their pre-capitalist ways of life and work. They share money rather than save it and turn up to work when they feel like it, rather than when the boss wants.
I think that in Tonga the remnant of what I call the kainga mode of production is stronger than the capitalist mode of production, despite the almost infinitely greater resources of the capitalist mode, and that this strength comes from the idea of fatonia (duty) that pervades Tongan life. According to orthodox historical materialist theory, the culture of Tongans should have changed when the economic base of their society was substantially altered by the arrival of capitalism. Instead, attitudes and behaviours inimical to capitalism have been strengthened, and have acted as blocks to the final victory of capitalism in the kingdom. The same phenomenon can be found in numerous Pacific societies, where patterns of distribution rooted in pre-capitalist life take care of wealth generated in the capitalist economy, frustrating efforts to promote saving and investment and capital accumulation.
And I used to agree, broadly at least, with Diamond’s geographically flavoured historical determinism, but I don’t know to reconcile it with the revelation that the peoples of the New Guinea highlands had developed agriculture as long ago as the Sumerians and Egyptians, yet never created the sort of centralised, hierarchical, surplus-producing societies as the ancient peoples of the Middle East. I don’t see how we can explain the different paths that New Guinea and Sumer took except with reference to the determining influence of ideas and culture.
Sumer and ancient Egypt created massive surpluses of food and used them to support kings and armies and scribes. Papuan agriculture remained a small-scale affair. Diamond has attempted to explain the 'failure' of the Papuans to centralise and expand their society by pointing to the vertiginous terrain of New Guinea. I don't find his explanation convincing, though, because the Sumerians and Egyptians had their own environmental handicaps - they were raising crops on strips of irrigated land surrounded by desert - and because New Guinea's highlands are full of large, deep, fertile valleys.
There’s no need to go to the Middle East or Europe, of course, to find a centralised and complex society developing out of the discovery of agriculture: we could look to the Americas, but also to our own region, where the Tongans, Hawai’ians, and Tahitians created complicated societies. Cook was astonished by the agricultural achievement of the Tongans, and likened the island of Tongatapu to Holland. He also described the amazingly ornate culture of the Tongans, with its dances and intricately painted barkcloth, and the endless ranks into which people were divided. But I would have preferred to be an ordinary person on a small and relatively egalitarian Polynesian atoll rather than a commoner in the great Tongan empire, just as I would have preferred to be a free farmer in New Guinea than a serf in Sumer or Egypt.
I think the great work of historical materialism from our region is Patrick Vinton Kirch’s The Evolution of the Polynesian Chiefdoms
, which attempts to explain why Polynesian societies like Tonga became so hierarchical while others remained relatively egalitarian. Kirch is essentially an environmental determinist: he argues that as the relatively small islands of the Polynesian Pacific filled with people and plantations conflicts appeared and armies grew. Relatively poor societies adjacent to rich ones invaded and ‘swallowed’ them, creating state-like structures. Isolated and resource-poor islands, like the Chathams, Pukapuka, and Takuu, remained egalitarian (the Chathams actually got more egalitarian over time, as Moriori culture developed).
I very much admire the sweep and panache of Kirch’s book, but I think that its argument has been undermined by recent data that suggests East Polynesia was settled later and faster than previously thought. If the Polynesians spread right through extensive island groups like the Marquesas and the Cooks in only a few hundred years, as now seems possible, then the kind of environmental overloading Kirch talks about seems less likely to have prompted the settlement and establishment of centralised societies on island after island. We might have to turn to cultural, and therefore superstructural, factors for explanations. But I'm rambling...
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]