ABORIGINES - TRADITIONAL MODES OF PRODUCTION
Traditional Mode of Production of the Australian Aborigines
Reviewed on ABC Science
Bookshop, broadcast 17 October 1987
How many people who
read What Happened in History?
or Man Makes Himself knew that
their author, V. Gordon Childe, was an Australian? Childe left his
country of birth partly because his radical opinions prevented his
securing an academic position here. In Britain, he founded the new
discipline of Pre-History.
For a moment, let’s
play the game of “What if …?” What if Childe had got the chair he
deserved at the University of Sydney? What if his Pre-Historical work
had been on Australian Aborigines? What if the fount of Australian
anthropology had been Childe’s Marxism instead of the Anglicanism of
the Rev. Professor A. P. Elkin?
These questions appear
less fanciful once they are refashioned to apply to Professor Frederick
Rose. Fred Rose had been born in England in 1915 and educated at
Cambridge. After immigrating to Australia, his anthropological field
work with the peoples of the Northern Territory continued from 1937 till
1942. His field trips resumed with the 1948 American Australian
Expedition to Arnhem Land after which Rose became an advisor to the
Then came the Petrov
Commission. Rose had become a communist. His professional prospects in
Australia appeared to be over. For a while, he farmed on King Island
with a clutch of Red refugees. Then he went into exile, taking a job at
the Humbolt University in the German Democratic Republic in 1956. Before
his retirement, Rose had become head of that University’s Department
His publications were
primarily based on his Australian research which he was not able to
renew until the early 1960s. Today, he’s working in retirement from
Leipzig. Rose’s publications extended over 50 years, some available
only in German, others remain in manuscript, including a 700-page study
of “The Australian Aborigines and the Palaeanthropus-Neanthropus
Here too, we are
entitled to ask “what if …?” What if Fred Rose had got his chair
at the Australian National University in 1955? Part of the answer is
found in Rose’s most recent book, The
Traditional Mode of Production of the Australian Aborigines.
Rose’s active presence inside Australian academe would not have
converted all the other practitioners to Marxism. Rather his Materialist
approach would have been a corrective to the philosophical Idealism that
has detached beliefs and marriage customs from economic necessities and
productive strategies. Rose’s book is grounded in his own early field
notes, supplemented by earlier commentaries.
One aspect of his
writing is sure to upset contemporary students. Rose is adamant that the
traditional mode of production has not existed since 1942. What looks
like a traditional mode today is some adaptation to market forces.
Another feature likely
to put off some readers is the repeated assertion of the author’s
Marxism. This mannerism is little more than a tone of voice, acquired
perhaps to protect himself against the East German thought police.
Although Rose is a thorough-going Materialist, he is heretical in his
attitude towards some of the revered texts, such as those by Lewis
Morgan upon whom Engels relied for much of his detail when discussing
the origins of human society.
Indeed, Rose’s standard for excellence in anthropology is not Marx but Malinowski. Time and again, Rose quotes Malinowski’s rule for rejecting date:
To some Marxists, this
rule might sound like the Empiricist illusion of allowing the facts to
speak for themselves.
framework preserves him from that naiveté. On the other hand, many
non-Marxists will see Rose’s political philosophy as making him a
prime candidate for violating Malinowski’s rule. Against such
accusations, Rose has his field notes. Moreover, by making his
theoretical assumptions explicit, he reduces the possibility of a
hypothesis slipping by as irrebutable evidence.
Rose is in no danger of
confusing the need for empirical research with an Empiricist mishandling
of the evidence thus obtained. Rose recognizes that by concentrating on
the mode of production he has not explored how these practices were
linked to Aboriginal cosmologies, nor how both the material conditions
and the spiritual systems were remade during more than 40,000 years.
These questions are taken up in other writings.
What can he tell us
about the traditional mode of production? Bear in mind that “mode”
combines physical means with social relationships. His most
controversial claims deal with the nature of kinship, land ownership and
usage, marriage, and the mode’s uniformity across the continent.
On kinship, Rose
rejects the notion that marriage exchange rules were determined by
religious beliefs or by the need to avoid in-breeding. Rather, kinship
classification represented the totality of production relations, and not
just those linked to the bearing and raising of children.
Aboriginal property in
land was not based upon one group’s links to a designated domain.
Instead, property relations existed between groups through the uses to
which the land could be put. For Rose, land rights depend on relations
between groups, not upon one group’s exclusive possession of a natural
Thirdly, marriage of
pre-pubescent girls to old men was not sexual but economic. The girls
were exchanged as part of a system of responsibilities linked to
expectations about land use by more than one group across several
generations. Moreover, women were the main productive and sole
reproductive force. Their early move into their first husband’s family
was to ensure their expertise as foragers, not to stimulate waning
sexual appetites among the elders.
Violent disputes broke
out between groups when wives were stolen or eloped. Such disputes were
rare when the women moved house within a group. From that contrasting
response, Rose concludes that the violence resulted from an economic
loss more than from a broken heart or wounded honour. Throughout this
study, Rose affirms that
He finds that male
chauvinists and feminists share an inability to rid themselves of this
Kinship, land rights
and marriage are only three of the topics that Rose takes up in a book
which distils a lifetime of thinking and investigation.
As a would-be Marxist
myself, I would like to discuss several points with Rose. For instance,
I suspect that his view of a basic uniformity of the mode of production
across the continent would fail the Malinowski test. Rose uses this
unproven assumption as a pretext to ask why such uniformity existed. He
comes up with an answer about the failure of Australian Aborigines to
produce an economic surplus. The absence of that surplus, he argues,
precluded the generation of differing systems of social relationships.
Here, I suspect that he had the answer before he learned how to
formulate the question, or arrange the available evidence which he
elsewhere stresses is sparse.
Such disputes among
Marxists are not foreign to Rose who is severe on the hypotheses of some
Eastern Bloc colleagues. Rose’s sharpest criticisms are made against
his own earlier views.
One of the many excitements from this book is to share in its author’s curiosity. Regrets remain that for 30 years, Rose has not been resident here to add his voice to debates about Aboriginal policy. If any views in his book appear strange, that eccentricity is a measure of what we lost by excluding Peter Worsley and Max Glucksman from researching in Papua New Guinea, and by exiling scholars such as Gordon Childe and Frederick Rose.