Is historical materialism like a condom?
The theory of historical materialism was developed by Marx and Engels. They believed that the forms of a society's ideological, cultural and legal 'superstructure' - its ideas, its art, its laws, and so on - are determined by that society's economic 'base' - by the ways that goods are produced and distributed. A feudal society, then, will have a different superstructure to a capitalist society, because its economy is different. Historical materialism explains changes in ideas and culture in terms of economic changes.
In my blog post I suggested that both the ancient and contemporary histories of Pacific societies like Tonga and Papua are hard to explain using the base-superstructure model supplied by historical materialism.
The ancient Papuans discovered agriculture, but did not use it to create the sort of hierarchical, materially wealthy societies found in ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt. The ancient Polynesians sailed from places like Tonga to the remote east of the Pacific long before they had overcrowded or depleted their homelands. And today in societies like Tonga and Papua New Guineas the development of capitalism is frustrated by cultural practices that hark back to pre-capitalist times. Businesses fail because owners distribute profits through extended families and clans, instead of reinvesting them; productivity lags because workers take time off for festivals and harvests.
Terry Coggan uses a memorable image when he insists on the universality of the theory of historical materialism. Like a condom, he says, the theory has to work anywhere and at any time, if it is to be credible. Coggan doesn't deny the anecdotes I offer from Pacific history, but argues that they do not really refute the theory of historical materialism, because that theory is looser, and more tolerant of anomalies, than I had supposed. Read Terry's comments and the rest of the discussion thread and decide for yourself.
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]