Return of the Natives

Europe and the People Without History

by Eric R. Wolf
University of California Press, 503 pp., $8.95 (paper)

Macro-history,” so long discredited, is back in favor, but not the sort we used to associate with the name of Arnold Toynbee. Today it takes the form of long, sophisticated books, frequently with a distinctly Marxist flavor, tracing the story of the transformation of Europe from a marginal frontier of the Old World into a hub of wealth and power, and its impact on the non-Western world. “The Rise of the West,” W.H. McNeill called it many years ago;

Eric Wolf’s new book follows the same general line, and it is fair to ask straightaway what he has to contribute that is new. The answer, in brief, is the insights of anthropology. Earlier accounts of the development of the modern world relied heavily on a synthesis of history, economics, and sociology. As Wolf sees it, they are inadequate because historians have largely ignored anthropology, and anthropologists have largely ignored history. They work in separate compartments, instead of treating the world as “a totality of interconnected processes,” and the result is to “falsify reality.”

This is the defect Wolf sets out to remedy. It involves him, paradoxically, in controversy with other anthropologists, whom he accuses of treating the societies and cultures of the non-European world as self-contained and self-sufficient repositories of “a corpus of unchanged traditions.” Wolf’s argument is that, on the contrary, they are “the outcome of a multitude of interrelated and antagonistic processes set in motion by capitalist development.” But historians are equally at fault, the reason in their case being their tendency to view the process of development from the point of view of the European metropolis. Their aim is to discover “how the core subjected the periphery,” and the peoples on the periphery are treated as an inert mass—or, in Wolf’s words, a single “homogenous field”—which only enters their picture when it is stirred into life by Europe.

I do not propose to discuss these criticisms, but it is necessary to be aware of them because they set the parameters of Wolf’s book. Wolf is evidently passionately convinced that he has found a clue to understanding which others have missed. My own impression, in the few subjects about which I can venture an opinion, is that a good deal of what he says is less original than he appears to think. It is certainly not true, for example, that any reputable historian today regards Africa before the coming of the Europeans as an “isolated, backward area,” inhabited by “people without history.” And though I am not competent to discuss his strictures on anthropologists, I can at least say that his view of their current attitudes is very different from …

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