Sacred Crows

John Skorupski

  • Marxism and Anthropology by Maurice Bloch
    Oxford, 180 pp, £9.50, January 1983, ISBN 0 19 876091 4
  • Death and the Regeneration of Life edited by Maurice Bloch and Jonathan Parry
    Cambridge, 236 pp, £18.50, January 1983, ISBN 0 521 24875 2

The culture, of the first fifty years or so of this century – ‘Modernism’ – comes increasingly to be seen in historical perspective: as a period of the past with its own unifying themes. This is true of the visual arts, architecture, literature, music, and it is also true of philosophy and of social theory. One dominant strain in the ideology of Modernism was the idea of a clean break with 19th-century culture, which seemed to be dying under the weight of its own historicism. Now, however, there has been a return to 19th-century themes, and in particular, the 19th century’s preoccupation with historical consciousness.

As Renan said, ‘I’histoire, non pas curieuse mais théorique, de l’esprit humain, telle est la philosophie du XIXe siècle.’ Economies, societies, cultures, mentalities, all came to be seen in a historicist – a holistic and evolutionary – perspective. It was the heyday of great historical constructions, portraying the evolution and differentiation of Mind and Society on a forbiddingly massive and worked-over canvas, in which no clear-cut distinction was allowed to remain untranscended, and everything was connected with everything else.

Anthropology in the first half of the 20th century – even as practised in America – has been a characteristic expression of Modernist European culture, especially in its allergy to historical and comparative-evolutionary perspectives. (Similar things could be said about Modernist philosophy, whether analytic or phenomenological – but that is another story.) It treated primitive societies as organic wholes but their functional unity was now seen in a strictly synchronic way. When their relationship to modern societies was considered, it was their radical otherness that was stressed their supposedly clear-cut inversion of conventional modern categories and values. Questions of historical development and continuity, though too obviously unavoidable to be completely ignored, were set aside or downgraded. In Comte or in Hegel, by contrast, the essential problem was that of finding a way of grasping cultures and societies as synchronous wholes, while at the same time tracing the dynamic principles which must eventually transform one such organic unity into another.

One of various turning-points in this story was the resurgence of Marxism in the late 1960s. There were immediate causes for political radicalism at the time: but the receptivity to Marxism at the intellectual level owed a great deal to the fact that Marxism provided a much-needed formulation of the idea of a transformation of society brought about, not as a result of some inexplicable break or external shock, but by forces inherent in the previous social formation. Initially, Marxism attracted attention as an analysis of industrial society, and there was debate about whether and how it needed to be revised to apply to ‘late capitalism’. This could have left untouched the ‘Grand Dichotomy’ between industrial and pre-industrial societies implicitly postulated in Modernist social theory. But Marxism, in the guise of historical materialism, is also one of the great 19th-century evolutionary interpretations of human history as a whole. And it was this that led a substantial number of the younger generation of anthropologists in the 1960s to examine the possibility of applying Marxist ideas to pre-industrial societies.

Maurice Bloch’s Marxism and Anthropology is, among other things, an excellent survey of some of the results. Bloch, who teaches anthropology at the London School of Economics, is one of the leaders in the middle generation of anthropologists in this country. He also has strong connections with France. A collection of essays which he edited was entitled Marxist Analyses and Anthropology. His Malinowski Memorial Lecture, given some years ago, was distinguished by a refreshing irreverence towards some ‘Modernist’ anthropological dogmas about the significance of ritual communication and its supposed implication of cultural relativity, and by the common-sense assertion that social change occurs because people see their situation as it is and want to change it. The same qualities of clear-headedness and common sense characterise his new book. (But I must add that Bloch’s style, though mostly clear and down to earth, can also be irritatingly slipshod, and that the sub-editing, if any, is execrable.) Bloch surveys the use of anthropology made by Marx and Engels and their successors, and the use of Marxism made more recently by anthropologists. He argues that Marx and Engels used anthropological findings in two ways, ‘historical’ and ‘rhetorical’. The same can be said, as we shall see, about the use made of Marxism by anthropologists.

The main places in which Marx and Engels discuss pre-capitalist societies as such are a section of Marx’s Grundrisse, published, together with some other texts and an introduction by E.J. Hobsbawm, as Pre-capitalist Economic Formations; and Engels’s The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. The latter was based on notebooks which Marx made in the last three years of his life, years which he seems to have largely devoted to the study of sources in anthropology and ancient history, with the intention, according to Engels, of writing a book on pre-capitalist societies. They have been published as The Ethnological Notebooks of Karl Marx, edited by L. Krader.

Pre-Capitalist Economic Formations discusses tribal, Classical and Oriental societies. It postulates a tension in Classical Mediterranean society between older tribal forms of communal holding and the emergence of private property. It also introduces the notion of an Asiatic, or Oriental, mode of production. Here land is in practice held by local communities, but they see it as owned by the state, on which they consider themselves to be dependent. The centralised extraction of surplus by the state holds in check disruptive processes of class formation within the communities and thus, so Marx thought, gives societies organised in this way an enduring changelessness. The Asiatic mode of production has been an embarrassment, for obvious reasons, to official Soviet Marxism, and a controversial issue for Soviet anthropologists. It was the subject of an influential book by Wittfogel, Oriental Despotism, and in the 1960s was revived among Western Marxists by the French anthropologists Suret-Canale and Godelier.

Grundrisse dates from 1858. A number of anthropological works appeared in the subsequent period, influencing Marx’s and Engels’s ideas in various ways. By far the most important was Lewis Henry Morgan’s Ancient Society, published in 1877. Morgan’s general evolutionary conception was in some respects strikingly similar to the historical materialism of the German Ideology. And it contained one specific feature which attracted Marx’s and Engels’s warm enthusiasm: the idea, based on Morgan’s study of the Iroquois, of the gens: an exogamous matrilineal descent group in which property is communal and children and wives are pooled. The organisation of tribal society into communal, intermarrying gentes – the ‘gentile constitution’ – was presented by Morgan as a stage in the evolution from a postulated complete primitive promiscuity. For Marx and Engels it represented the absolute antithesis of the individualist institutions of private property, bourgeois family and capitalist state. Its historical existence established the mutability of those institutions. That was its ‘rhetorical’ significance, in Bloch’s term. ‘Historically’, it promised a further consolidation of the historical materialist scheme.

The key factor, according to Engels, in the dissolution of the gentile constitution was the domestication of animals. Within the gens there was an informal pairing-off of sexual partners: The shift from hunting and gathering to pastoralism gave men an interest in the ownership of herds and the paraphernalia of herding, in passing on their property to identifiable descendants – hence, in the exclusive ownership of the sexual services of women. Thus the pairing relationships of the gens developed into the patrilineal, monogamous and property-owning family. The emergence of property and exploitation necessitated the evolution of a state to control the conflict which exploitation produced.

Bloch gives a detailed critique of this picture in terms of contemporary anthropology. Sympathetically but comprehensively, he demolishes it. All that survives in his view is the general (and by now, one might add, commonplace) ‘rhetorical’ point that state, property and family are historically specific and hence changeable institutions. He also points out that if tribal societies are pictured as classless and free of exploitation, there can be no application of distinctively Marxist categories to their analysis. In consequence, he thinks, the Marxist tradition was left with nothing better for handling primitive societies than a ‘crude’, ‘vulgar’, ‘deterministic’ materialism, which had more to do with the evolutionist anthropology and social Darwinism of the later 19th century than with the classical materialism of Marx. This vulgar materialism, according to Bloch, is represented in the contemporary movement in American anthropology known as ‘cultural ecology’. A more promising direction, he thinks, is being taken by contemporary French Marxists, who are abandoning the idea of primitive society as free of exploitation and class, together with the idea of a ‘mechanical’, unilinear evolution, and are trying to rethink the Marxist notions of class, exploitation, mode of production and ideology in an anthropological context.

There are in fact two quite separate points here. There is the question of whether or not such Marxist categories are applicable to primitive societies. Even if they are, you don’t necessarily avoid ‘crude materialism’ by applying them unless you also avoid – and this is the second point – taking a simple-mindedly reductionist view of the historical and social importance of ideas. As to the first question, what one wants to know is how fruitful it is in practice to apply the notions of exploitation and class struggle to primitive societies: to what extent does it yield real explanation rather than tortured redescription? Only serious empirical studies in a Marxist perspective (something of the kind provided for Classical society by de Ste Croix’s monumental Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World) can settle that: a collision of grand abstractions in the French manner will not help. The point is made by Bloch, though he treats the opacities of Althusser with a great deal more respect than they deserve.

The other issue is more philosophical. How is the materialism of Marx distinguished from ‘vulgar materialism’? Here Bloch gives a distinctly misleading picture of the place of Marxism in 19th-century thought, a picture based too faithfully on Marx’s and Engels’s own angled and partial vision of their relationship to other intellectual currents of the time. In Bloch’s presentation, Marx rejected the philosophical idealism of the German counter-Enlightenment: he took it for granted, that is, that the mind is simply a part of the natural causal order rather than transcendentally constituting or mystically externalising it. But he kept, in his own words, the ‘rational kernel’ of Hegel’s dialectic: the historical and organic conception of society and its evolution. So far, so good. What is quite wrong is to suggest, as Bloch does, that the resulting position was unique in its time, or distinguished at this level from French ‘positivism’ or English ‘utilitarianism’ (as reworked in the 19th century – under French and German influence – by J.S. Mill). A historical and organic conception was the philosophy of the age. It was shared by a variety of thinkers who rejected idealism, and were ‘materialists’ also in the stronger sense of assuming that all mental states must in the end have material conditions – causes which are not themselves mental. Such a position is ‘historical’ and ‘materialist’, but it is, not historical materialism. It is simply the philosophic idea, or ‘rational kernel’, of a historical sociology, and it can be found in Comte without the need for turning anything on its head. It accommodates Weber as well as Marx, and indeed any theory which expresses a concrete sense of the historical shaping of societies in their material environment.

So what is distinctive about historical materialism? It is the thesis, in Bloch’s words, that ‘ideas and concepts (held at a given time) are the historical product of the need to organise society so that human beings in society can produce and reproduce.’ Or in Engels’s words: ‘According to the materialist conception, the determining factor in history is, in the last resort, the production and reproduction of immediate life.’ Now, however, it is plain that there can be a historical materialism without Marxism – and even a Marxism without historical materialism. A historical sociology which takes the notions of exploitation and class struggle as fundamental in understanding ideology and historical change does not imply, and is not implied by, the philosophic conception – which goes back to the Theses on Feuerbach – that all culture and mentality are generated in praxis: in the practical activity of dealing with the problems of ‘immediate life’. This conception has real power and glory. It appeals strongly to a down-to-earth, demystifying cast of mind: it has been an intellectual catalyst as well as a pair of intellectual blinkers. But the moment one tries to take it from the level of gripping philosophical rhetoric to that of concrete social theory one ends up with what is all too obviously ‘vulgar materialism’. Historical materialism is the acceptable philosophic face of technological determinism.

In practice, Bloch’s criticisms of other 20th-century traditions in anthropology are made from the more general standpoint of historical sociology. On one side, he makes effective criticisms of the kind of ‘Modernist’ anthropology which takes cultures as transcendentally constituting their own natural worlds. (One of the founders of the American wing of this movement, Franz Boas, had been influenced by the neo-Kantian revival in Germany in his youth. The picture of Boas taking Kant to read in the Arctic while studying the Eskimo is impressively earnest and romantically Nordic – I hope he took some light reading as well.) On the other side, he takes on Marvin Harris, one of the leading figures in cultural ecology. Bloch takes Harris to task for thinking that the Indians refuse to kill cows, ‘not because of the theological reasons they delude themselves with, but because this is the most efficient way of dealing with cows in a society where they are valuable as milk-givers, dung-givers (for fertiliser) and as draught animals’. He omits, however, to explain how a truly historical-materialist explanation would do better: how it would explain the belief in the sacredness of the cow as the ‘historical product of the need to organise society so that human beings in society can produce and reproduce.’

This is a convenient, if somewhat unfair, point at which to turn to Death and the Regeneration of Life, a collection of essays edited by Bloch and Jonathan Parry, who also teaches anthropology at the London School of Economics. The essays examine mortuary rituals in a variety of primitive and traditional societies throughout the world. This is an outstanding collection. The ethnography is both detailed and lucid (which is not always easy to achieve) and the issues which emerge are of real importance in the understanding of traditional thought-worlds. They are marshalled in a perceptive introduction by Bloch and Parry.

One thing that emerges (here as elsewhere) is the importance of a trichotomy of conceptions of a human being: as biological organism with a material identity, social person with a social identity, and individual self with a psychic identity. Another is the idea of a dialectic of matter and form. Matter in this conception is envisaged hylozoically. It is not inert but inherently amorphous, mutable, protean, ‘wild’. Form is given to it by a divinity which prescriptively imposes categories on it (yet perhaps is also, in another aspect, identical with it, as in the essay here by John Middleton on the Lugbara). What results is a well-tempered cosmos within the larger ‘wild’ reality. At the material level, a biological temporality characterised by generation and decay prevails. In contrast, the formal order is a stationary dance in which a cyclical sequence of prescribed acts unfolds, but in which there is no real, temporal process. Form cannot exist without matter, but matter is inherently degenerative. Hence there must be magical re-enactments of the original form-imposing act, in which biological process is annulled.

Death calls for a reconstitution of the formal order, and a regeneration of the matter which embodies that order. (A kind of principle of the conservation of matter seems to prevail.) These are the main features in cultures in which the biological organism and the social person are of prime importance. The social person is a form imposed on biological matter. The body, until recycled, is formless, outside category, hence dangerous and abominable. At the same time, the formal order is impaired until the social person is reconstituted in the form of a materially new office-holder. A ‘good death’ is one which occurs in circumstances which allow for a controlled, and theoretically immediate, recycling of matter and reconstitution of form. When the individual self assumes real importance, as in Hinduism, the funerary rite also becomes a rite de passage from an old order of existence to a new. Once again a controlled death is important if the self is not to be lost in the dangerous liminal phase between the two.

There are cultures in which neither the concept of the individual self nor the dialectic of form and matter seems important. This is so among the four groups of African hunter-gatherers studied by James Woodburn in his essay. Their orientation is to the present; they get on with the problems of ‘immediate life’. At the other extreme are the Aghori ascetics studied by Jonathan Parry. They live on cremation grounds in the holy city of Benares off everything that is polluted and foul. In doing so, they demonstrate their spiritual power. They have renounced the world. They are beyond social personhood and category. They are, in that sense, ‘dead’. Hence contact with ‘wild’, category-transgressing substances holds no peril for them. In going beyond moral/cosmic forms, they are united with the divine – form-imposers themselves.

What is good in historical materialism is the rejection of idealist fairy-tales, and the insistence on seeing the way in which thought is historically shaped by material life: what is cramping is the notion that ‘all’ ideas are ‘in the last resort’ a product of technical problems posed by material needs. There could be beings with the same material needs and technical problems as ourselves, but with very different cognitive and emotional interests. Consider, by contrast, the human intelligibility of the interests and thought-forms studied in this volume of essays. The given, in an anthropological perspective, is made up not only of material needs and technical problems but also of distinctively human interests and modes of thought. That might perhaps have been the import of Feuerbach’s Theses on Marx.