It takes a village

C.A. Bayly

  • Alibis of Empire: Henry Maine and the Ends of Liberal Imperialism by Karuna Mantena
    Princeton, 269 pp, £27.95, March 2011, ISBN 978 0 691 12816 0

If, around 1880, an educated person in Britain had been asked to list the most important intellectuals of the previous generation, he or she might well have mentioned, alongside Darwin and John Stuart Mill, the name of Sir Henry Maine, the subject of Karuna Mantena’s valuable new study. His name isn’t heard much anymore, but in his own day Maine (1822-88) was regarded as a towering public intellectual. He became regius professor of civil law at Cambridge at the age of 25, then a writer for the Morning Chronicle, law member of the government of India in 1862, professor of historical and comparative jurisprudence at Oxford and finally, master of Trinity Hall, Cambridge. Maine appeared to have shown Victorians how Europe, and Britain in particular, had achieved social and political modernity through the evolution of law and political institutions. He charted this progress from the original village community, through the development of private property to the ‘Teutonic mark’ (a group of co-sharing villagers), the medieval manor and, ultimately, to representative government by educated and propertied elites. According to Maine, the persistence of Roman legal concepts played a critical part in this evolution in much of Europe. By contrast, the ‘Aryan outliers’, India in particular, and Ireland before the English settlement, remained immured in the primitive form of the village community dominated by patriarchy, caste or tribalism. Indeed, these primitive forms had widely persisted into the present. As Maine put it, ‘in the East aristocracies became religious, in the West civil or political.’ Thus India was an ‘assemblage’ of ‘fragments of ancient society’: fragments which were then in some cases locked in place by British rule.

Maine’s legal historicism was famous across Europe. He stood alongside the great continental historians of antiquity, such as Fustel de Coulanges and Barthold Niebuhr. He even came to the notice of an irritated Karl Marx, who derided the ‘blockhead Maine’. By the 1880s, Marx had come to believe that the Russian village community, the mir, could provide the basic unit of a future egalitarian Communist society. He deplored Maine’s portrayal of such communities as a ‘primitive patriarchal’ form; they were, Marx believed, free from relations of domination, even the domination of men over women and children. Maine, by contrast, believed that ‘freedom evolved’ and that the village community was merely the starting point, not a premonition of the imminent future.

The decline of Maine’s reputation can be put down partly to late Victorian political controversy. He opposed Gladstone’s Reform Bill of 1884, prophesying that it would lead to revolution. He also stridently denounced the policy of Lord Ripon, the liberal viceroy of India, who introduced limited forms of local representation to the subcontinent in the early 1880s. But the guillotine was not erected in Parliament Square, and India did not become the scene of a second mutiny, at least not a violent one. So Maine’s reputation as a political seer was tarnished, and his Whiggish politics came to be seen as somewhat archaic after his death in 1888. Increasingly, too, his writings appeared dated. English lawyers were suspicious of his call for legal codification to redress the muddle of the common law from which they so clearly benefited. In the universities and academic debate, his historicism succumbed, first to a more encompassing and allegedly scientific form of racism, then to Marxism and, much later, to postcolonialism’s distrust of grand historical narratives. More recently, historians of Greece and Rome have certainly been happy to discuss whether the classical economies were archaic or modern. But most of them have remained resolutely Eurocentric, avoiding any outlandish comparisons with ancient India. It is true that the generation of structuralist anthropologists writing in the 1950s and 1960s, notably Meyer Fortes and Evans-Pritchard, were influenced by Maine’s idea of the village community in their work on African political systems, as Mantena notes. Yet Maine’s broader comparative work on the evolution of law and political forms in Western Europe and India is today regarded as too teleological and positivist by most historians, anthropologists and other social scientists.

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