The Traditional Mode of Production of the Australian Aborigines
By Frederick G. G. Rose
Angus and Robertson, 1987, 292 pp., $39.95 

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 Commonwealth.

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 of Ethnography.

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 Question”.

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:

… there are reasons to mistrust general opinions laid down by professional ethnologists, for they are very often not simple generalisation, but theoretical inferences. Cases will be often met where a general remark, which could appear as a statement of fact – and often is given in such a form – appears after a more careful analysis to be quite a conjectural deduction from purely hypothetical premises.

To some Marxists, this rule might sound like the Empiricist illusion of allowing the facts to speak for themselves.

Rose’s theoretical 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 resource.

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

To understand the real situation one has first to free oneself of the concept that woman in traditional aboriginal society was a sexual object.

He finds that male chauvinists and feminists share an inability to rid themselves of this prejudice.

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.

Humphrey McQueen

See also: Marxism
Emily Kngwarreye