Duncan Hallas

Absent Friends

(July 1987)

From Socialist Worker Review, No. 100, July/August 1987.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Black Athena: the Afro-Asiatic Roots of Classical Civilisation
Martin Bernal
Free Association Books, £15 paperback

A LARGE, and most instructive and entertaining part of this book is concerned to show the racist, Euro-centric and (I will add) bourgeois assumptions of the scholars who reconstructed for us something of the history of classical Greek civilisation – and hence of Roman, European medieval and early modern history. It is done brilliantly.

Unfortunately, the method of Bernal is not very different from that of the (mainly) nineteenth century European bourgeois scholars he criticises.

He wishes to show that the roots of Greek civilisation were Afro-Asiatic or (mainly) African. Specifically, that Greece was “civilised” by invaders from Egypt. Now, right or wrong, this approach is not different in kind from the approach he wishes to refute.

Not Indo-European speakers from the north, he argues, but rather Egyptians (with some Asiatics) from the south laid the foundations of “the glory that was Greece”.

The matter can be argued – hard knowledge of the period he chooses to discuss, “the thousand years from 2100 to 1100 BC” is not abundant and is full of large gaps.

Yet this is hardly the point. Two fundamental developments since the 1840s have made this whole approach obsolete. The first is the elaboration of the basic ideas of historical materialism by Marx and Engels and their successors. The second, the growth of scientific, or at least semi-scientific, archaeology from De Perthes on.

On the first matter, it is significant that the terms “class”, “class struggle”, “mode of production” and so on are entirely absent from Bernal’s book.

Astonishing omission! Because exactly the period he chooses was, the archaeological evidence we have at present suggests, the period in which the first class societies developed in parts of what was later the Hellenic world.

What was their specific character? To what extent did they replicate, in terms of class relations, the much older Asiatic and Egyptian class societies? What was their internal dynamic?

The questions are not asked, let alone attempts at answers advanced. Perhaps, at present, only very tentative answers can be given. But let us be clear. These are the questions for anyone who has any pretentions to a scientific, materialist world outlook, not fantasies about Egypt.

Those in the bourgeois academic world whose professional subject matter forces them to devote attention to the material conditions of the life in the past – the archaeologists – have much to tell us.

Thus, of Bernal’s notion of large scale Egyptian (and/or Syrian) settlement/conquest in the Aegean in the second millennium BC, the friendliest critic amongst archaeologists he can find to cite says:

“If settlement on any large scale from the Orient had occurred in Mycenean Greece, one would expect either more specific traces of it in the archaeological record, or some record of it in the Oriental documents. But evidence of this sort is lacking ...”

And this is far too kind. I have carefully re-read the (English language) secondary source generally regarded as authoritative – the latest edition of Grahame Clark’s World Prehistory. I find no scrap of evidence for Bernal’s thesis there. Nor can I find in Clark any racist prejudice against Egyptians.

The arguments Bernal himself advances are (with one exception) such as to convince one that he is an unbalanced enthusiast, not least his view that many Pharaohs were black – hence Black Athena. A pity, because his heart is undoubtedly in the right place.

The exception in the argument, his starting point he tells us, is that “one could find plausible etymologies for … 20–25 percent of the Greek vocabulary from Egyptian”. I am entirely incompetent to comment on this, since I know neither ancient Egyptian nor classical Greek. If true, and I will be astonished if it turns out so, it would require serious explanation.

But not, even then, the Black Athena explanation. Because it is quite certain that the unique characteristics of classical Greek civilisation (i.e., the Iron Age Aegean civilisation from 800 to 600 BC on were the products of a new and distinct mode of production – the slave mode, which never existed in Egypt or, for that matter, in Syria either. Its origins and growth have to be sought in the Aegean itself. Anyone who any doubts about this should consult de Ste Croix’s The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World.

Last updated on 8.3.2012