Date: Sat, 28 Apr 2001 06:02:09 +0100
From: Chris Burford <cburford@GN.APC.ORG>
Subject: Peru Ruins as Old as Ancient Egypt

Defining civilization

By Haines Brown, 28 April 2001


One of the great difficulties is deciding how to define “civilization.” Traditionally people have spoken of the symptoms (urbanization, written language, social complexity, etc.) rather than what is essential.

The word civilization is highly ideological in origin, and so may or may not be useful. It originally expressed the notion of an ordered society—an order that by implication was associated with class rule. Well, of course, pre-civilized societies were ordered in their own way, and class rule does not so much impress me as ordered as contradictory.

While it might serve to convey the impression that a society has has made some progress, it seems the word remains biased, ideological and subjective.

For example, it has often been associated with urbanization, but today we can hardly claim that pastoral or prehistoric societies always lacked urban complexes or that all civilizations were marked by cities. The fixation on cities is simply a reflection of Eurocentrism. Or consider the bias that civilization is associated with agriculture because, frankly, of its original association with the idea of primitive accumulation. In fact, complex (state-level) societies could rest on a hunting-gathering economy (Calusa, perhaps the case in Peru under discussion), or pastoralism (incidentally, any contradiction between pastralism and agriculture is also rather ideological).

In fact, all the conventional periodization terminology (neolithic, iron age, etc.) is ideological in origin, and so I’ve always prefered a more neutral set of terms: Archaic, Ancient, Feudal… But I’d also argue (contrary to convention) that archaic/prehistoric societies were contradictory (but not in terms of social class).

Of course, such terms are not really so neutral, for they imply stages and probably progressive stages. But at least that can be defended. I don’t know any historical materialist who insists on any kind of rigid mechanical progress. All history is obviously probabilistic—of that there's no doubt.

There are several issues here I’ll not explore. One is that a probabilistic determinism implies that a situation determines the probability distribution of possible futures. But that is still rather linear in a sense. What Chris may be attacking is diffusion theory (one origin stimulated other centers to break through to civilization), and that is hardly associated with historical materialists, but rather bourgeois historians like McNeill, etc. A more challenging question is that of progress, and I believe a case can be made for it, but it is hard to get people to enter a discussion of it without dragging into it their old presumptions. All these issues are really ones that apply more to bourgeois historiography and manifest themselves crudely in simple texts. I don’t think they are really problems for historical materialism.

It is very hard to generalize about history or put things into neat cubyholes, and that become more and more obvious with the progress of research. I believe the proper focus needs to be on the mechanism of change rather than the forms that emerge in history: an historical materialist is no empiricist, and so should not reduce things to external forms.