Monday, January 01, 2007


Extra note: Geography and historical materialism

Marx's classification of long-ago communal landownership into three species of system raises the question of what conditions might have determined the rise of different species in different areas (and, also, of course, whether there other species in other areas, unknown to or overlooked by Marx).
The question is at a tangent to Marx's immediate concerns in the Grundrisse, and he does not discuss it.
A recent book by Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel, and a TV series based on it, have addressed similar questions.
Diamond sets out to explain why it was Europe which conquered or colonised the other continents, rather than vice versa. He adduces two main factors:
1. A sector of Eurasia, the Fertile Crescent, had a climate which favoured annual plants (which tend to have large seeds) and a species mix which included critical, large-seeded, self-pollinating grasses. For those geographical reasons, it became the first site of settled agriculture, and of the cultivation of most of the basic crops used to this day.
2. Eurasia was also favoured with almost all the species of large mammals suitable for domestication: horses, cows, sheep, pigs, etc.
3. Even highly-developed modern farming has found very few other plants or animals suitable for domestication. Almost all the plants and animals used in farming today were first domesticated in pre-historic times; almost all originated in Eurasia and were introduced into other regions later.
4. The axis of Eurasia runs east-west, while the Americas run north-south. Agricultural and cultural innovations could therefore easily diffuse in Eurasia, moving along lines of similar latitude and therefore similar climate. They could diffuse much less easily along north-south lines.
5. Those innovations allowed for the creation of reliable food surpluses, and thus for large, dense, sedentary, and stratified societies. Those in turn could develop "guns, germs, and steel".
I have nowhere near enough knowledge to judge whether Diamond is right. I am certain, though, that his ideas cannot be rejected out of hand, without examining the factual evidence; and that they in no way imply exculpating capitalism and imperialism.
Capitalist imperialism, as a system, exacerbated inequalities. But that fact does not explain why it was Europe which colonised the Americas, rather than the Americas colonising Europe. To explain that, we must turn to some species of geographical argument. Diamond's arguments may or may not be correct, but they cannot be dismissed out of hand.
Marxists in the past have recognised that geographical considerations may be important. For example, in his essay On the 60th anniversary of Hegel's death, Plekhanov (as part of an argument that Hegel was not as "idealist" as he seemed) cites Hegel's ideas on the influence of geographical environment as essentially materialist and (so Plekhanov thought) confirmed by later research.
Diamond argues that Hegel and others were wrong in seeing the presence of large rivers as crucial to the emergence of agriculture. For sure, Plekhanov's argument looks old-fashioned today. It may have been completely wrong in detail. But the general idea of seeing an element of "geographical materialism" in human history seems not wrong at all.
According to [Hegel] there are three typical varieties of geographical environment: 1) a waterless high plateau, with great steppes and plains; 2) low lands intersected by great rivers; 3) coastal lands having direct communication with the sea.
Cattle-rearing is dominant in the first, agriculture in the second, trade and the crafts in the third. The social relations of the inhabitants assume various characters according to these basic differences. The people inhabiting the high plateaux, the Mongols, for instance, lead a patriarchal nomadic life and have no history in the proper sense of the word. Only occasionally, assembling in great numbers, they swoop like a storm on the civilised countries leaving desolation and destruction in their wake. Cultural life begins in the lowlands, which owe their fertility to the rivers.
“Such a lowland we find in China, India ... Babylon ... and Egypt. Great empires arise in these lands and great states are formed there. For agriculture, which is dominant here as the first source of subsistence for individuals, is bound by the regularity of the seasons, by the regular occupations corresponding to them; here landed property and the relationships of right corresponding to them have their beginning.” But the agricultural peoples who live in the lowlands are distinguished by greater sluggishness, immobility and segregation; they are unable to use for their mutual relationships the means that nature places at their disposal.
This defect does not exist in peoples in a coastal country. The sea does not separate peoples, it unites them. That is why precisely in the coastal countries culture, and with it the development of human consciousness, reaches its highest development. There is no need to look far for examples, it is sufficient to point to ancient Greece.
Perhaps the reader knows L. Mechnikov’s book La civilisation et les grands fleuves historiques, which appeared in 1889... This materialist’s view of the historical significance of the geographical environment agrees almost entirely with that of the idealist Hegel, although Mechnikov would probably be very surprised to hear of such a resemblance.
Hegel also explains, in part, the rise of inequality among the more or less primitive societies by the influence of geographical environment. Thus, he pointed out that in the Attica of before Solon’s time, the differences between estates (by estates he means the various more or less well-to-do sections of the population: the inhabitants of the plains, those of the mountains, and those of the coastal areas – G. P.) were based on differences in the localities.

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