Practising Marxist archaeology

Issue: 120
Posted: 6 October 08

Neil Faulkner

Randall H McGuire, Archaeology as Political Action (University of California Press, 2008), £17.95

Archaeology is political. It can even provoke bloody confrontation. Over 3,000 people died during communal riots in India and Bangladesh after a Hindu nationalist mob destroyed the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya. The attack had been triggered by archaeological claims that in 1528 the first Mogul emperor had demolished an earlier Hindu temple on the site in order to build the mosque.

Archaeology is “at once trivial and significant”: nothing that we find out about the dead can make any difference to them, but the claims we make about the past can be ideologically charged for the living. Nazi archaeologists claimed to have discovered an Aryan “master race” in the mists of German prehistory. Israeli archaeologists bulldoze Islamic levels to find substantiation of Zionist myths beneath. Ulster Unionists see a series of linear earthworks known as “Black Pig’s Dyke” as an original Iron Age partition of Ireland.

Randall McGuire’s book is a Marxist intervention in political archaeology. The author is one of a group of American archaeologists who consciously locate themselves on the side of the oppressed and seek to develop an archaeological theory and practice appropriate to their stance. This is to be welcomed. McGuire has no truck with the intellectually lazy and morally irresponsible argument that the archaeologist’s job is to be “objective”, “unbiased” and “apolitical”. This is an exercise in self-deception, he argues, fraught with the dangers of triviality, complicity and unexamined prejudice.

A good recent example is provided by forensic archaeologists working on atrocity sites in Iraq. They deploy strong arguments: their work exposes human rights abuses, and it offers the solace of closure to the bereaved by recovering bodies and facilitating proper burial. What they ignore at their moral peril is the politico-military context in which they operate. They work sheltering under the guns of an imperialist army. The atrocities of the fallen regime are investigated; those of the invaders and their puppets are not. The crimes of the past are exposed; those of the present remain hidden—and archaeology becomes a purveyor of war propaganda.

A second example is the Battle of the Bean Field. The Stonehenge Free Festival had been established in 1974 to celebrate the summer solstice. Over the years it attracted growing numbers of hippies, travellers and young people. The Tories hated it and in 1985, claiming that archaeological sites around Stonehenge were being damaged, they decided to shut it down. The site was fortified with barbed wire, a trench was dug across the entrance and there was a full-scale police attack on the travellers. Scores were injured, hundreds arrested, and numerous vans, buses and cars were vandalised. There were archaeologists on both sides of the line: some backed the state and some faced the truncheons. There were occasional clashes in later years. Then in 1994 the Thatcher government passed a criminal justice act that greatly restricted travellers’ mobility and rights. We learn that there is no such thing as “neutral” archaeology, but there is blinkered archaeology that cannot see beyond the end of an excavation trench. The great strength of this book is to say this loud and clear.

McGuire argues that archaeologists have to recognise that archaeology is inherently political, primarily through being “a powerful weapon in ideological struggles”. We have to know this in order to be fully conscious of the potential impact of our work. Our aim should be radical practice—based on knowledge, critique and action—in which archaeology intervenes in the class struggle to advance the interests of the oppressed against the dominant, making its contribution to the struggle for human emancipation.

A good example from McGuire’s own work is the Coalfield War Project, set up to study the site of the infamous Ludlow Massacre of April 1914, in which state militia and hired guns killed 19 men, women and children during an attack on a striking miners’ encampment in Colorado. The material culture of the workers and their families, as revealed by excavation, has shed new light on how labour solidarity was forged in struggle among an ethnically diverse immigrant community. More widely, the project has involved archaeologists recovering “hidden history”, building links with organised workers (the United Mine Workers of America have been key supporters of the project) and challenging some of the myths of classlessness that are so deeply embedded in popular perceptions of US history.

In standing with the oppressed, McGuire is clear that we can distinguish between good and bad ideas. He is insistent that some uses of evidence are illegitimate and some theories plain wrong, as, for instance, when archaeological data is hijacked in the service of nationalism and oppression. But his break with postmodernism—-currently so fashionable in contemporary Anglo_American archaeology in the form of “post-processualism”—is only partial. Eager to be inclusive, McGuire embraces “alternative voices” and “multivocality”.

“We also need to avoid totalitarian theories,” he writes. “Social theories become totalitarian when they claim that their perspective identifies the determinants of social forms and thus serves as the way to engineer change in those forms. The feminist idea of entry point gives us a way to break this linkage by treating social theories as entry points to study social relations, with the recognition that, in any given case, multiple entry points will be possible and may give compatible interpretations that reinforce one another. A pluralistic praxis of alliance and common struggle can be built from these intersectionalities.”

Here two quite distinct matters have become conflated. Let us proceed by example. We wish to understand women’s oppression—past and present—and, armed with that understanding, to engage effectively in the struggle against it. There is a Marxist understanding of women’s oppression as something rooted in class society and a socialist-feminist tradition arising from this that sees the struggle against oppression as an integral part of the wider class struggle. There is also a bourgeois feminist tradition, which explains the oppression of women in terms of “patriarchy”, the implication being that all men benefit from women’s oppression and therefore cannot be effectively enlisted as allies in the struggle against it. These two theories are incompatible, and they lead to very different political practice—and very different results. McGuire has failed to distinguish between the struggles of the oppressed, which as Marxists we seek to explain and support, and the non-Marxist theories that these struggles sometimes spawn—including theories which are false, politically disabling, and barriers to emancipation.

Underlying this “soft” post-modernism is an obsession with “the dangers of social engineering and the vanguard party”, an obsession rooted, it seems, in an inability to distinguish between Bolshevism and Stalinism. Indeed McGuire appears to have no interest in trying to understand either the defeat of the Russian Revolution or the relationship between party and class: two issues absolutely fundamental to serious Marxist politics. Thus, all varieties of radical (and not so radical) “voices” are welcomed to the progressive alliance. But you cannot deal with differences of analysis and strategy—such as those between socialists and bourgeois feminists, or those between socialists and Third World nationalists—by blandly announcing that these are simply so many “entry points”. McGuire wants us all to be nice to each other. But if the aim is to change the world, we have to base practice on clear understanding, and that means not fudging arguments with the people alongside whom we find ourselves fighting.