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.

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