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End Games of Empire?

In response to:

Anthropology Upside Down from the April 4, 1974 issue

To the Editors:

Leach’s review of Reinventing Anthropology (NYR, April 4) is of interest only because of what it further reveals of the reviewer and the intellectual style he represents. It is an increasingly ineffectual style, as any reader of TLS (including last year’s unbelievably limited special edition on anthropology) will be in a position to judge. As we have come to expect of Leach’s reviews, it is substantively inconsequential. But the form is familiar: he nibbles around the edges of ideas, while he fakes an easy erudition. As he proceeds from one false analogy to another, with that lack of scruple which marks the tautological exchanges among the increasingly isolated British academic intelligentsia, he freely misquotes, quotes out of context, and belittles what he fails to understand.

He writes: “All (the contributors) concerned display an amazing ignorance of the European foundations of the doctrines they proclaim.” Since I am writing this letter from France, in between visiting semesters at the Institute of Ethnology at the Free University of Berlin, and I do not have the Hymes book in front of me, I shall have to refer primarily to my own essay. The latter deals primarily with the European development of the non-academic critical intellectual tradition (of which Leach displays only the sketchiest notion), rooting it in some detail in an examination of Rousseau and Marx. A critique of Lévi-Strauss, based on his responses in the presence of Ricoeur and others at the 1963 L’Esprit symposium in Paris, underscores the theme of the essay, which also refers to Lévi-Strauss’s Platonism. (For a comprehensive reflection on the sources of structuralism, I refer Leach to the chapter “The Myth of Structuralism” in my In Search of the Primitive.)

As Leach gets more specific, he makes it simpler to pin down his quite obviously deliberate distortions. He claims that I identify imperialism with the “nineteenth century bourgeois epoch.” Of course, that is true of classic nineteenth century imperialism to which I am addressing myself in the context of the quoted phrase of Jean Conilh about bourgeois colonialism, but Leach would have the reader believe that I confine imperialism to the nineteenth century, which is nowhere indicated. Since he is constantly assuming beyond the context and, in this case, evading the content of the work supposedly under review, I suggest again that he glance at my recent book, in this instance at the first page of the opening chapter which begins with an analysis of Egyptian imperialism. Nobody ever gave the British credit for being the first imperialists, only the most effective and casuistical in the modern period. Leach, in passing, also does Shakespeare a bad turn, by trying to turn him into a racist and an unambiguous exponent of civilized man. But there is more sympathy and understanding in the portrait of Caliban than Leach imagines. In the words of Yeats: “Shakespeare cared little for the State, the source of all our judgements, apart from its shows and splendours, its turmoils and battles, its flamings out of the uncivilized heart.”

Leach goes on, instructing us in the ancient character of the primitive-civilized dichotomy. I infer from this, and other references, that he has the inverted, if not uncommon habit, of plagiarizing from the very book he condemns. As I wrote in my essay (and have explored exhaustively elsewhere), “Although Rousseau established the primitive-civilized paradigm in modern anthropology, he did not invent it. Its history is rooted in the history of civilization.” But we have not yet reached the center of his discontent. Leach is upset that Franz Boas is mentioned more than fifty times in the book (informing the reader that this is an indication of the contributors’ ignorance of the European foundations of the discipline and the “doctrines they proclaim”). This is part of his amusing attempt, as a British social anthropologist, to instruct American scholars in the history of ethnology and in the ethnological uses of history. But it was, of course, British social anthropology, in its origins closely linked to the British colonial enterprise, which, abandoning Tylor, went on to negate intellectually and politically embarrassing historical perspectives. Some of the younger British anthropologists have, as Leach knows, been making that point.

But to return to the “provincialism” of American anthropology, and, presumably, of the anthropologists represented in this book in particular, one should note that Boas was born, and basically trained, in Germany, and, (as I mention in the Introduction to Anthropology: Ancestors and Heirs in which several of the present contributors are also represented) incorporated German Kulturwissenschaft, specifically cultural history, cultural geography, and cultural psychology, into the very foundations of American general anthropology. The latter, further incorporating the sub-disciplines of pre-history, linguistics, and human biology, serves as the basis for the training of most American anthropologists today. Moreover, most of the founders of American anthropology, following Boas, were unusually cultivated Europeans. Some, like Paul Radin, were born in Europe and/or received early ethnological training on the continent. And it was Boas, along with his immediate students, who drilled a whole generation of American anthropologists in the canon of field work, including participant observation, the conception of which goes back at least to Rousseau and the so-called romantic historians. Boas lived and treked with the Eskimos; and, living with Indians under Indian conditions, while learning to respect and pay the closest attention to the views of native informants, has been de rigueur among American anthropologists ever since.

It is fair enough to say that the whole so-called Boas school, whatever its inevitable shortcomings, was motivated by an appreciation of cultural variety and racial equality. They also pointed the way to an understanding of the relevance of anthropology as a comparative and critical tool. And they were not directly implicated in the American experience that crushed the Indians and enslaved the blacks. In these matters, they differ from their British counterparts in correlative situations. Although Malinowski spent a good deal of time at Yale and, as Meyer Fortes, among others, has pointed out, Morgan, who was not connected with American academic anthropology, had a certain technical effect upon British social anthropology, none of the academic ancestors of the American discipline reciprocated. They did not bother much with the more narrowly conceived, parochial, and a-historical British social anthropology. It now seems that Leach is rediscovering America in more ways than one.

It follows that he is annoyed by the omission of Mauss and Evans-Pritchard from the volume, and by the single citations of Durkheim and Raymond Firth. He would like the reader to believe that this is also the result of ignorance. But it so happens, to quote the most obvious example of his false inferences, that Kurt Wolff, the German-born refugee sociologist, whom Leach apparently mistakes, in his blanket condemnation, for a native American (as he does Bob Scholte and Eric Wolf) has devoted years to the widely appreciated translation, editing and interpretation of Durkheim’s work.

But Leach is not hearing clearly enough—or is he perhaps hearing too clearly?—just how loud the silence is on our part. Nobody would deny that Evans-Pritchard has done some very good if, in his later years, neo-Thomist ethnography, which several of the contributors have acknowledged in appropriate places, such as reviews, etc. And Raymond Firth is always worth reading, for a number of reasons (here and there his Fabian conscience brings him to the verge of a “Marxist” approach). But one understands that neither is exactly source material for an engaged and historically oriented discipline with a dialectic rather than an abstract academic or ultimately establishment focus. More to the point, I think, Edmund Leach is mentioned only incidentally, and this must be hard to swallow for a fading enfant terrible who published not so long ago a gimmicky work called Rethinking Anthropology, which is not mentioned at all. And that perhaps explains his silly attack on the editor of Reinventing Anthropology whom, he claims, is compensating for such omissions by mentioning Sir Grafton Elliot Smith!

Leach’s further attribution of motive moves from the absurd to the slanderous. He tries to deflect the attention of the reader by stating that he can only conclude that the “middle-aged” contributors are concerned with appeasing militant students. Anyone with any knowledge at all of the American anthropological landscape will recognize old, middle-aged, and young, male and female scholars among the contributors; he will also recognize, just to cite one example, that Eric Wolf was on the intellectual barricades long before student militancy became pronounced. Indeed, the anti-Vietnam-war protest movement, which helped catalyze the student protest movement in America, had, a decade ago, a very large proportion of American anthropologists in the vanguard, several of whom are represented in the book under review. (The Teach-in movement itself was launched by a senior American anthropologist.) The point is that the radical roots of the American anthropologists whom Leach is trying to discredit, including a number of those represented in Reinventing Anthropology, reach back to and, in certain instances, before the Second World War. And it was also a function of their training as anthropologists, both in the continuity of their training and in their reaction to it.

And now we reach Leach’s most serious distortion—here, he is betting very heavily on the naïveté of NYR readers—namely, his effort to rewrite the history and intention of British colonial anthropology. He hints mysteriously at the existence of many pupils of British anthropologists “who were to become the leaders of post-colonial independent governments.” One wonders what Leach means by independence. Perhaps one knows. But, more specifically, pursuing his point on his terms, whom does he have in mind? Reactionaries such as Busia of Ghana? Can he be referring to those British-trained Africans who have helped, as bureaucrats and lawyers, to cultivate the metropolitan connection? Certainly, he cannot be referring to people such as Nkrumah or Azikiwe (in his first incarnation) who explicitly traced aspects of their anti-colonial perspective to their long and instructive American experience which helped further to demystify British pretensions.

Leach does mention Kenyatta, who studied under Malinowski, but here he confuses a correlation with a cause. British social anthropologists are supposed to grasp the difference. Nonetheless, I am unaware of any attribution by Kenyatta to British social anthropology of that passion for freedom that led the British government to imprison him, as it did so many others in Africa, when they felt him slipping the hook. Who among them defended him, or told us anything important about the Mau-Mau and the grotesquely unbalanced colonial war that was involved? It is that informed passion for freedom which Leach tries to bury under the weight of false historical analogy (puritans=mystics=zealots=contributors to the book under review=American anthropologists=Marxists=communists). It is embarrassing to contemplate the revealing way in which Leach’s mind free-associates.

The conventional English failure to understand the structured inequities of civilization, the struggles for national liberation which are coming closer and closer to home, the historical depth and meaning of revolutionary thought, have been quintessentially reflected in the British academy, most ironically among the social anthropologists. Who among them has ever tried to analyze his position in his own society or of people oppressed in his own country or elsewhere? Where were they during the Nigerian civil war, the struggles in the Southern Sudan, and so on and so on, except, when all was said and done, by omission or commission, on the most respectable side, the side with the biggest battalions. But Leach and associates Ltd. go on cultivating their privileged objectivity, their positivist (not “vulgar materialist”) illusions about “scientific” objectivity which they identify with the accuracy of their reports. Trying to keep their academic balance, they play out their end-games of empire.

Stanley Diamond

Editor, Marxist Anthropology

Seillans, France

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