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A Classic of Anthropology

Ancient Society

by Lewis Morgan, edited by Leslie A. White
Harvard, 596 pp., $9.95

In this beautifully printed and superbly edited book one of the great classics of anthropological literature is for the first time given the kind of presentation it deserves. Its previous publication history is curious. In 1877 the author thought of it as no more than a “summary and conclusions” to the vast documentation of his Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity of the Human Family, issued in 1870 under the auspices of the Smithsonian Institution. Ancient Society received favorable reviews from scholarly critics in America, but comment in England was rather cool, no doubt because the book included an appendix directly attacking the views of the respected English anthropologist, J. F. McLennan. Sales were slow, but among its early readers was Karl Marx, who resided at that time in London. Marx considered that Morgan’s speculations provided independent evidence for his own theories of social evolution and he made copious notes for a digest of Morgan’s work. These notes were posthumously worked up by Engels in The Origin of the Family, first published in German in Zurich (1884).

By this devious route Morgan’s Ancient Society became one of the canonical writings of Marxist orthodoxy. The English-language version was repeatedly re-issued by a socialist publisher in Chicago, each new impression being more illegible than the last. Morgan’s fame increased, but in American anthropological circles professional hostility to evolutionist doctrines became thoroughly confused with political prejudice and suspicion. Morgan’s defenders have always argued that he was treated unfairly by his critics. As early as 1891 Engels made the ludicrous suggestion that the English version had been systematically suppressed because of its dangerous political implications, and even in the present edition Professor Leslie White, who has made the vindication of Morgan his life work and who prints here a most judicious survey of Morgan’s work, still seems to believe that English support for McLennan, as against his hero, could only have arisen through unscholarly national prejudice; he ignores the fact that it was an Englishman, W. H. R. Rivers, who in 1907 first resuscitated Morgan from one period of anthropological, neglect. Indeed Morgan has always been more widely respected by English anthropologists than by their American colleagues. The modern un-prejudiced view is that on most of the issues around which Morgan and McLennan conducted their public debate both parties were equally at fault, but that even if there were some points where McLennan was right and Morgan wrong, Morgan now stands out as by far the more important figure. Yet the major contributions which he made were not those which Marx and Engels applauded, nor even. I think, those to which Professor White draws special attention.

But who was Morgan anyway, and why does he deserve our attention? Lewis Henry Morgan was born at Aurora, New York State, in 1818 and he spent most of his life in and around Rochester. While studying law in his early twenties he became interested in the Iroquois Indians who lived near his home. He came to understand the organization of Indian tribal life far better than any of his predecessors, and his The League of the Iroquois (1851) has very properly been described as “the first scientific account of an Indian tribe ever given to the world.” In the ten years prior to 1856 Morgan devoted most of his energies to his law practice, but he then reverted to anthropology. Although he never held an academic post, the last twenty-five years of his life were devoted almost entirely to ethnological investigation. He died in 1881.

In his work among the Iroquois Morgan had noticed that their classification of kinsfolk was quite different from that employed in English. For example, the father’s brother was called “father” and his children were “brother” and “sister”; the mother’s sister was “mother” and her children were “brother” and “sister”; a man called his brother’s children “son” and “daughter” but the children of his sister were “nephew” and “niece.” In 1858 Morgan was astonished to discover that the Ojibwa Indians, who belonged to an entirely different language family from the Iroquois, nevertheless classified their kin in substantially the same way. This eventually led to an extraordinary survey, conducted in part by questionnaire, in which Morgan assembled information about kin term systems from all over the world. His sample is not random, but when one considers the novelty of his investigation and the manner in which it was undertaken, the results he achieved are quite remarkable. The questionnaires, which he addressed to American Consular officials and missionaries in all parts of the world required the informant to fill in 270 separate answers for each language. By these procedures Morgan was able to satisfy himself that although there are thousands of different natural languages in the world, the kin term systems of all of them fall into less than half a dozen major types. Broadly speaking, this finding has been confirmed by later work. Morgan then postulated that these types of kin term classification must correspond to some major differences in the types of social organization with which they are associated.

The Marxist enthusiasm for Morgan arises from the fact that he postulated that each of his kin term system types was originally associated with a particular mode of economic production, which he labelled “natural subsistence,” “fish subsistence,” “farinacious subsistence,” “meat and milk subsistence,” and “limited subsistence through field agriculture.” This fitted well with the Marxist theme that if you change the mode of production you necessarily change the whole social order. Morgan claimed that his types of kin term systems were not only associated with particular modes of production, but also with particular types of family organization. For example, in the type of kinship terminology which Morgan calls Malayan, a child will treat all the senior members of his community as kinsfolk, all the males being classed by a term which Morgan said meant “father” and all the females by a term meaning “mother.” Morgan claimed that this usage reflected a mode of social organization in which there had formerly been complete promiscuity between the sexes so that the parentage of children was wholly uncertain. Moreover, he was extremely dogmatic in his opinions. “All the evidence points in this direction so decisively as to exclude any other hypothesis…it is impossible to explain the [system] upon any other hypothesis than the one named since this form of marriage alone can furnish a key to its interpretation.” His bitter polemical battle with McLennan turned on this issue. McLennan had sensibly argued that such usages denote status and not blood relationship. He was certainly correct.

Most of the issues about which these learned men conducted their disputes were so hypothetical as to have little relevance for modern anthropological thought, but it deserves note that Morgar could always score over his opponent because he had studied Indians in the flesh. It is because Morgan is sometimes talking about real facts directly observed that he remains interesting.

When Morgan started his researches into kinship terminology his purpose had been to demonstrate something about the Asiatic origins of the American Indian. But by the time he came to write Ancient Society, partly as a result of conversations with his friend Professor McIlvane of Princeton and partly as an outgrowth of his debate with McLennan, Morgan had come to believe that he could write the history of human civilization on the basis of a priori argument. Ancient Society, besides summarizing the findings of Systems of Consanguinity, makes a grandiose attempt to describe the characteristics of a whole set of stages of social development applicable to the entire history of mankind. Types of society are classified according to the economic, political, legal, and family institutions which prevail within them. It is assumed that within each of these classifications evolution proceeds in the same way, step by step, always in the same sequential order. However attractive this may seem to modern orthodox Marxists, it has very little relevance for modern anthropology. The real societies of the real world cannot be tidily boxed in this way. Indeed attempts to do so, like that of labelling pre-1947 China as “feudal,” can only lead to total confusion of sociological categories. Human society has certainly evolved, socially as well as economically, but it didn’t happen at all in the way that Morgan imagined. Nevertheless there are parts of Ancient Society which remain of fundamental importance.

In studying the Iroquois Morgan had discovered a society organized on a segmentary principle, in which the segmentary units were what we would now call matrilineages, that is to say, they were descent groups based on a matrilineal principle of descent. Morgan realized, because he had observed the system in operation, that this matrilineal principle which entails a succession from uncle to nephew rather than from father to son bears no resemblance to the system of matriarchy (rule by women) which European scholars had conjured from the classical fables of the Amazons.

Morgan described the Iroquois matrilineage as “the Iroquois gens” (Latin gens; Greek genos; Sanskrit genas). But the gens of classical antiquity had been a patrilineal group and to Morgan’s English critics it seemed unscholarly that he should thus appear to confuse the contrasted principles of “patriarchy” and “matriarchy.” It was nearly seventy years before the general body of orthodox academic anthropologists caught up with Morgan and realized what he was talking about. Morgan had realized that a society consisting of a segmentary structure of matrilineal groups may be from a structural point of view very similar to a society organized in patrilineal groups. It is true that he thought that patriliny was somehow “more advanced” than matriliny, but he also wrote (page 201) “when the gens of the Iroquois, as it appeared in the lower status of barbarism, is placed beside the gens of the Grecian tribes, as it appeared in the upper status, it is impossible not to perceive that they are the same organization.” This, in its time, was a profoundly original observation. The modern anthropologists who can most easily derive benefit from reading Morgan are those who conceive of the continuity of society as a continuity of structure rather than a continuity of cultural form. Most American anthropologists have taken their cue not from Morgan but from Boas who held that culture is a matter of outward appearances, of manifest behaviors. But Morgan, who saw that two kin term systems could be of the same kind, even when they belonged to totally different language systems, had been fundamentally concerned, not with appearances but with structures. Today, an interest in the underlying structure of cultural phenomena dominates both British and French anthropology (as in the work of Radeliffe-Brown, Evans-Pritchard, Lévi-Strauss), but structural interests are much less central to American anthropology. This may be one of the reasons why Professor White, as champion of Morgan’s cause, has often felt himself in academic isolation.

Like Maine before him and Tönnies after him, Morgan thought that if we classify societies on a scale of evolutionary development we must recognize a major discontinuity which is marked by the difference between the concepts “Societas” and “Civitas” (Society versus State; Gemeinschaft versus Gesellschaft). Morgan makes the illuminating suggestion that this fundamental break corresponds to the decay of the unilineal descent group as the fundamental organizing principle of society. Contemporary British anthropologists who have specialized in modern African conditions find a great deal that is relevant and significant in this idea.

Of course the different parts of Morgan’s book have not all had the same survival value. The curiously schematic evolutionary stages outlined in Chapter 1 of Part I, or the strange arguments about the evolution of sexual behavior from promiscuity through polygamy to monogamy which appear in Part III are now only historical curiosities. But Part II which has the general title “Growth of the Idea of Government” and which gives a detailed discussion of the nature of segmentary unilineal systems as exemplified by the matrilineal Iroquois, and then compares this to the organization of early Greek and Roman city states, still merits the anthropologist’s closest attention. Part IV, “Growth of the Idea of Property,” is likewise of lasting value.

In editing Morgan’s book, Professor White has gone to immense trouble to get all the details right, and we are much in his debt. He has checked all the footnotes, elucidating many which were formerly incomprehensible. He has added many footnotes of his own based on his unrivalled knowledge of Morgan’s diaries and miscellaneous papers. And he has incorporated in the text, with appropriate indication, a number of corrections and additions set down in Morgan’s own handwriting in the margins of his own personal copy of the book, which is now in the archives of the University of Rochester’s library. He has even gone to the trouble of trying to identify the often anonymous reviewers of the original edition of Morgan’s book. This is a model of what a new edition of a classical work should be.

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