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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;1 but the new mode was really inaugurated by Immanuel Wallerstein with his “world-system” analysis.2 It has been followed, to name only two outstanding examples, by Leften Stavrianos’s large-scale history of the third world3 and the recently published second volume of Braudel’s Civilization and Capitalism.4

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.”5 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 the one I gained from Evans-Pritchard.6

Evidently a great deal more could be said on this score, and doubtless will. Wolf’s handling of the historical evidence is not always above criticism. But it would be a pity if discussion of his book degenerated into still another academic debate. It is not as if his purpose were simply to take issue with earlier writers and to put the historical record straight. On the contrary, his aim, as he frequently insists, is “to search out the causes of the present in the past” and to cast new light on “issues demonstrably agitating the real world” today. At a time when the relations of the world and the West are of high international concern and full of explosive potential, this seems to me to be the aspect of Wolf’s book that deserves most attention, and it is the one that, leaving out much else, I shall try, as best I can, to address.

At the heart of Wolf’s book lies his rejection of the concept of an active “core” and a passive “periphery.” The development of the modern world, as he sees it, is a process to which all involved—rich and poor, backward and developed, the so-called primitive and the so-called civilized—made a contribution. The “people without history” were “as much agents in the historical process as they were its victims.” Already in 1400 the world was held together by “wide-ranging linkages”; virtually no group or people stood outside in isolation, and “if there were any isolated societies, they were but temporary phenomena.”

This interrelated, interconnected world is Wolf’s starting point. He takes us on a fascinating journey through it, from the Chibcha of present-day Colombia to the Shona of Zimbabwe and the Anasazi of the Colorado Plateau, as well as to the “red-haired barbarians” on the western fringe of the Old World. Everywhere he finds populations impinging on other populations, and the point he makes is that without these preexisting linkages European expansion would have been virtually unthinkable. The Portuguese in their scattered trading stations along the African coast were simply late-comers, who hitched on to the preexisting network of trade; they were “re-exporters of other peoples’ goods,” including slaves.

It was, of course, a two-way process. If European traders adapted their strategy to make the most of the linkages they found awaiting them, the native populations responded equally rapidly to the European presence. In Africa the slave and ivory trades favored the rise of predatory, militaristic states (Asante, for example, or Dahomey) and “reshaped the political economy of the entire continent.” The consequences of the fur trade in North America were similar. As the traders demanded furs from one Indian group after another, paying for them with European artifacts, each subgroup patterned its ways around the European manufactures.

Wolf cites the example of the Onondaga subgroup of the Iroquois. Already by 1670, he tells us, their sites “reveal almost no items of native manufacture except pipes”! More seriously, competition for new hunting grounds to meet the rising European demand led to the decimation of whole populations and the displacement of others. Here, as in Africa, there were beneficiaries and losers; but even the beneficiaries ended up as “specialized laborers in a putting-out system” of which the ultimate beneficiaries were the stockholders of the Hudson Bay Company, sitting in comfort in the coffeehouses of the City of London.

But if the world was tied in this way to the wagon wheels of Western commerce, the converse was also true. Without endorsing in full Eric Williams’s famous thesis that capital derived from the slave trade made possible the industrial revolution in England, Wolf still believes that European prosperity depended on the surplus it extracted from beyond its frontiers. It was African gold and American silver that enabled early modern Europe “to live beyond its means.” Contrary to common assumptions, China and India were “crucial,” not “peripheral,” factors in the international economy. Furthermore, the commodities traded for slaves in Africa or for furs in America had to be produced or paid for at home; they were an immense stimulus to manufacture, just as railroad building in India and Latin America was to be at a later stage.

This, if I understand him correctly, is what Wolf has in mind when he claims that the development of the modern world was a totality of interconnected processes to which all parties contributed. Down to 1800, it seems to me that he makes a very good case. So long as trade was the nexus between the rest of the world and the West, their relations were complementary and the former held its own pretty well. Of course, the styles of life of the native peoples were affected, but so were those of Europeans who drank Chinese tea, wore Indian muslins, and smoked American tobacco. The important fact is that the native peoples were still on the whole in control of their own lives and met the Europeans on terms of equality. Even if it seems to us in retrospect that they were victims of “unequal exchange,” we must assume that all parties were satisfied that they had struck a good bargain when African chiefs exchanged slaves for beads or North Americans exchanged pelts for firearms.

Certainly African traders were every bit a match for European traders at this stage, as K.O. Dike long ago pointed out,7 and Chinese traders probably more than a match. But with the advent of industrial capitalism the situation changed, and the question is whether Wolf’s picture of an evolutionary process to which all contributed accurately reflects the new situation.

Wolf is, of course, well aware of the difference capitalism made. One third of his book is devoted to its impact, and he rightly draws a sharp line between merchant capitalism based on trade and industrial capitalism, the essential characteristic of which is “buying labor power and setting it to work.” This is a crucial distinction. As capitalism progressed, the exchange of European manufactures for native products—Lancashire shirts for Chinese tea or Birmingham small arms for African ivory—became marginal. Instead, European capitalists stepped in and organized production on capitalist lines, and all they now wanted was a cheap and plentiful supply of hired labor.

The result was the disruption of native societies that had weathered the storm during the first three centuries of European expansion, particularly when the coercive power of colonial governments was used to second the pressure of capitalist entrepreneurs. Everywhere extensive regions of the world were reorganized to meet the demands of industry. To feed the cotton mills of Lancashire, slave plantations displaced native populations in the American South; to furnish raw material to the mills of Bombay millions of acres formerly producing food were given over to cotton in western India. No one asked, or cared, what happened to the people involved.

What happened to them was, as Wolf says, that “whole continents were turned into providers of coerced surplus labor.” Africans were swept up into shanty towns around the mines of Johannesburg; a great trade grew up in Chinese labor; over a million Indians were shipped overseas to Malaya, Fiji, and the West Indies, the “second slavery,” as it has been called. Many lost their identity, thrown together pell-mell into an anonymous horde of Negroes, coolies, Indians, in complete disregard of their different origins, backgrounds, languages, and ways of life, and were merged in “the reserve army of capitalism.” Is it any longer reasonable to say that they were not “victims” or “silent witnesses” of their own undoing?

Unless I am mistaken, Wolf nowhere answers this question. If you accept its basic Marxist premises, his account of the impact of capitalism is powerful and convincing. But it does not seem to me to fit very easily with his picture of a world shaped and created by “the conjoint participation of Western and non-Western peoples.”

Wolf appears to take an opposite view. Even under capitalism, he argues, “pre-existing noncapitalist modes” continued to exercise “a measure of influence” and “the way capitalism worked depended upon this influence.” I am bound to say that this seems to me to be stretching the meaning of words. When Wolf tells us that the Tzeltal and Tzotzil of Central America “participated actively since the nineteenth century in the commercial coffee and corn economy of the area,” it is surely not unreasonable to ask what in this context participation means. It is certainly very different from the participation, for example, of Chinese merchants selling spices to the Dutch in Malacca a couple of centuries earlier.

Wolf himself picks out the essential difference. Quite simply, it is that after the industrial revolution Europe did “reorganize” the world “to answer to requirements of its own” in a way it had simply been unable to do between the fifteenth and the eighteenth centuries. However one looks at it, the capitalist world was, and is, a wholly different world, and it is not much consolation—or so I would think—for the “people without history” to be told that they were “participants in the same historical trajectory” as “the people who claim history as their own,” if this was the outcome. “When money began to talk,” Wolf observes at one point, “it spoke Spanish rather than Nahuatl or Quechua.” Today it speaks English (with an American accent), but the implication is the same.

That is why, at the end, it is fair to ask what contribution Wolf makes to the issues agitating and dividing the world today. I don’t know what people in the third world will think about his book should they read it; but, I suppose, his argument that the modern world is the result of “the conjoint participation of Western and non-Western peoples” may provide ammunition for their leaders in their conflict with the West and support their accusation that the “people without history” have been cheated out of the fruits of their labors.

But this is not much more than propaganda, and the real issues Wolf raises cut deeper. I will only hint at two, and I will put both tentatively in the form of questions. The first arises directly from Wolf’s description of the modern world as the outcome of interaction between the historical peoples and the “people without history,” or, in current parlance, between the third world and the West. Is Wolf correct in arguing that this interaction is still continuing, or have the “people without history” been absorbed into the capitalist system? We are often told today that the revolt against the West, which seemed so threatening nine or ten years ago, has petered out. Is this true, or is it a temporary setback produced by recession? If Wolf’s general thesis is valid, we must expect the “people without history” to be active participants in shaping the future, just as they were active participants in shaping the past. But what possibilities are open to them in a world in which, on all scores of wealth and power, their possible lines of action are severely circumscribed?

A possible answer to this question is provided by Wolf’s analysis of the development of capitalism, and particularly of “capitalism’s tendency to drive incessantly beyond its own frontiers.” Does the outward spread of capitalism until it reaches the physical limits of expansion bring with it, as Rosa Luxemburg argued, its own nemesis? What happens when the limits have been reached? In devouring the world, is capitalism devouring itself?

These questions have been much debated, and Wolf reviews the arguments of Marx, Hobson, Lenin, and Luxemburg and their critics fairly enough, but it is not easy to discover his own position. Nevertheless, the questions I have picked out, which arise from Wolf’s analysis, perhaps provide a clue. If Luxemburg is right, it is capitalism over-reaching itself that will open up—and in fact already is opening up—possibilities for the “people without history” to resume their role as active participants in history. That is why the collapse, or apparent collapse, of the “new international economic order” should not be taken too seriously, either by those who rejoice in it or by those who deplore it. History has a long breath, and there are plenty of other possibilities.

What is evident, in this as in so many other respects, is that the era of “high capitalism,” for all its achievements, was an interlude in history, not its final consummation. For a time it looked as though it had submerged the “people without history,” reduced them to a reserve army of hewers of wood and drawers of water. Wolf has demonstrated, with force and conviction and copious untapped material, that they could never be taken for granted in the past. If his book has any practical lesson to teach, it is that they cannot be taken for granted today.

  1. 1

    William H. McNeill, The Rise of the West: A History of the Human Community (University of Chicago Press, 1963).

  2. 2

    Immanuel Wallerstein, The Modern World-System, vol. 1: Capitalist Agriculture and the Origins of the European World Economy in the Sixteenth Century (Academic Press, 1974), vol. 2: Mercantilism and the Consolidation of the European World Economy, 1600-1750 (Academic Press, 1980); also The Capitalist World Economy (Cambridge University Press, 1979).

  3. 3

    L.S. Stavrianos, Global Rift: The Third World Comes of Age (Morrow, 1981).

  4. 4

    Fernand Braudel, The Wheels of Commerce: Civilization and Capitalism, Fifteenth to Eighteenth Centuries (Harper and Row, 1983).

  5. 5

    If anyone has any doubts, it is sufficient, if I may do so, to refer them to the plates on pp. 44-45, 136-137, 166-167, and 238-239 in The Times Atlas of World History (Hammond, 1975).

  6. 6

    I am thinking particularly of his lecture, Anthropology and History (Humanities Press, 1961), reprinted in Essays in Social Anthropology (Free Press, 1963), and particularly his programmatic statement that social anthropology has to be history or nothing, and history has to be social anthropology or nothing. It is perhaps significant that Evans-Pritchard’s name is not mentioned by Wolf.

  7. 7

    K.O. Dike, Trade and Politics in the Niger Delta, 1830-1885 (Oxford University Press, 1956), in many ways a starting point for the reconsideration of the relations of Europeans and Africans in the early capitalist period.

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