The theft of history

By | August 10, 2008

In 1900, about four-fifths of the planet’s land was controlled by people of European origin. Although European expansion was by then four centuries old, this land grab had largely taken place in the previous half-century and for most of Africa in the last two decades. It was manned by the world’s first population explosion, when European death rates fell faster than birth rates from the 1830s, and was enabled by rapid improvements in technologies for inflicting death on others. It is hardly surprising that the Europeans asked themselves how they came to enjoy what sometimes seemed like an effortless superiority over all-comers. This was also the time when modern anthropology was born with the aim of finding answers. The means seem obviously enough now to have been industrial capitalism, that combination of big money and machine production that took off around 1800 in Britain and a few other places. But where did this come from? It had to be something in the culture of Europeans that accounted for their successful application of scientific rationality to the task of world domination. Soon enough this cultural perception was given a biological foundation as a racial hierarchy with whites at the top, blacks at the bottom and brown and yellow people in between. So, when world society was launched by western imperialism in the course of the nineteenth century, it took the highly unequal form of a racial order which most people had been coerced into joining. Not only the anthropologists, but western historians, philosophers and social theorists set out to explain this European triumph in self-congratulatory terms. And most of them are still content to do so.

Jack Goody, in his latest book The Theft of History (see below for details), does not seek to account for Euro-centrism as such, but rather to demolish its pretensions to intellectual respectability. This attack was implicit in a series of large-scale historical comparisons going back three decades, but it is here made his principal focus for the first time. Goody sets out to show that, in order to turn a temporary success into an origin myth without end, even the most serious Western writers have unjustifiably traced Europe’s global ascendancy back to the civilization of the Renaissance or to that of Ancient Greece. In separating Europe from Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, they have systematically downgraded Asian societies, while ignoring Eurasia’s common foundation in a Bronze Age civilization that started in Mesopotamia 5,000 years ago. Above all, as the first owners of a newly formed world society, they have rewritten history with themselves in the driving seat and have usurped the legitimate claims of others to have shared in humanity’s greatest achievements. In other words, having stolen their land, the Europeans proceeded to steal their history also.

The book’s structure is pleasing. Inevitably Goody has had to be selective when approaching such a diverse topic and what we have here is a set of related essays. These are organized in three groups of three, framed by an introduction, a short essay on how Europeans made the world’s time and space in their own self-image and an afterword. The first of these groups examines the historical categories that allegedly account for Europe’s divergence from Asia before the early modern period: Antiquity, Feudalism and Asiatic Despotism. The second discusses three authors who have done much to shore up European assertions of their own uniqueness: Needham, Elias and Braudel. The third deals with institutions, values and even emotions for which Europeans have claimed a monopoly: towns and universities; humanism, democracy and individualism; and love. If, by the end of all this, believers may not yet be convinced that these bulwarks of Euro-centrism have been demolished, it is in part because Goody leans over backwards to be fair to his opponents, some of whom he clearly admires. But before entering into the substance of his arguments and methods, we should place this work in the context of his extraordinary writing programme over the last three decades – by my count at least fifteen books, two-thirds of them written after his official retirement (Hart 2006).

It began with the publication of Production and Reproduction: a comparative study of the domestic domain (1976). In the terse Preface, Goody explains how his motives were rooted in the Second World War and subsequent experience as a fieldworker in West Africa.

What I knew about the medieval literature and history of Europe whetted my appetite to learn more about pre-industrial societies, their beliefs as well as their economic and productive systems. A period in the eastern Mediterranean had extended these interests in time and in space…Events were moving fast in Ghana during the period I was first there and the Convention People’s Party, to the Birifu branch of which I was inscribed, were well on their way to power. However it was not only the links between local ‘tribe’ and national politics that concerned me, but the earlier links, with long-distance trade, with Islam, with neighbouring states. It was on these historical subjects that I wrote when I first returned, and it was these subjects, in a wider context, that I pursued when trying to ask what it was that writers meant when they used terms like feudal to describe African states. How did the states and local communities in Ghana resemble and differ from those of Europe, Asia and the Middle East with which they were so often compared and contrasted? How could we best understand the differences between a village in the Italian Abruzzi and a settlement in Northern Ghana? What made people think the adjectives ‘tribal’, ‘primitive’, ‘savage’ appropriate to one set of cultures and not to the other? Were there no better ways of assessing similarity and difference than by means of a pair of crude binary oppositions?…How could one bring a wider range of knowledge about these other societies to bear on an understanding of our own situation? How could we provide historical, sociological and humanistic studies generally with a more universalistic base, with a less European-centred framework?…It is time we tried to fit together the numerous detailed investigations of social life in different parts of the world with the larger speculations on the development of human culture. (Goody 1976: ix-x)

He had already, in what is still his masterwork, Death, Property and the Ancestors (1962), brought an impressive range of ethnography and literature to bear on a comparative study of the domestic relations through which people manage their own reproduction and participate in the wider society, for which he considered the transmission of property held the key. In Production and Reproduction, the empirical source is an ethnographic atlas and the argument is framed in world historical terms. Goody proposes here that, when contrasted with sub-Saharan Africa, Europe and Asia have more in common than proponents of the West’s uniqueness would imagine. This reflects their shared origin in Mesopotamia’s ‘urban revolution’ — as defined by the Marxist pre-historian, Gordon Childe (1942) — a transformation that never occurred in Africa South of the Sahara. Intensification of agricultural production in Eurasia (the plough, irrigation) resulted in class divisions based on the devolution of unequal property through both sexes in ways that isolated the nuclear family from wider kin groups.

Soon afterwards, Goody extended his analysis to cultural questions, particularly to the issue of writing. The Domestication of the Savage Mind (1977) took aim at Lévi-Strauss for confusing oral and written technologies of communications with mentalities constructed according to the imperial binary of primitive and civilized. This thesis, pursued in several subsequent volumes, has made a significant impact on the humanities and social sciences (Olson and Cole 2006). He has approached food and cooking, then flowers and representation through a materialist comparative sociology that often emphasized class differences rooted in conditions of production and again drew on the regional contrast between Africa and Eurasia. His excursion into the history of the European family (1983) showed that western forms could not be distinguished from those of their Mediterranean neighbours. The thesis of the present volume was first aired in The Oriental, the Ancient and the Primitive (1990) and the violence done to Asian societies by Euro-centric historiography received a comprehensive rebuttal in The East in the West (1996). Since then Goody has tackled Islam in Europe (2003) and Capitalism and Modernity (2004). Reflecting a general trend in anthropology, Africa has dropped out of focus in favour of a critical attempt to get western scholars to re-examine themselves and to acknowledge that the grounds for asserting a long-term superiority to Asia are non-existent.

So what are the specific arguments of this book? Perhaps the most significant result of the West’s global hegemony has been to impose a universal system of time-space on the rest of the world. The Theft of History kicks off with a brief sketch of how this came about, emphasizing the distortions of world history that have accompanied this development. Europe’s claim to having diverged from a Bronze Age civilization whose heartland was in Asia through the ancient Greeks and Romans goes back to the Renaissance, but it took on particular salience in the age of western imperialism. Goody sifts patiently through the arguments for their unique achievements in culture, economy, politics and law, showing that writers like Moses Finley (1973) and Karl Polanyi (1957) rely on the invocation of notions like ‘genius’ or arbitrary categories to shore up inconsistent and erroneous propositions. He refuses, however, to go as far as Martin Bernal in Black Athena (1987) who derived much of Greek culture from Egypt and claimed that the separation of ancient Greece from the rest of the Eastern Mediterranean was an invention of racist imperialism in the nineteenth century. Goody’s reasons for maintaining distance from Bernal, apart from feeling that his linguistic evidence is shaky, are that Europeans have no more of a monopoly on ethnocentrism than of other cultural traits and that they adopted racist attitudes to their Mediterranean neighbours long before they were in a position to conquer the world.

Perhaps the most bare-faced invention of Western philosophers and historians was to name the collapse of civilization after the fall of Rome ‘feudalism’ and then to suggest that it provided a unique launching pad for capitalism. Goody, who long ago (1971) resisted the export of the ‘feudal’ label to African polities, now convincingly undermines any such claim to distinctive progress, emphasizing rather medieval Europe’s massive loss of standing when measured against the Asian societies of the period. Taking Perry Anderson (1974) to task, he also rejects the notion that Japan’s early capitalist success had its roots in a similarly distinctive ‘feudal’ past. The whole sorry attempt to create a single exceptional sequence for the West culminating in the triumph of ‘freedom’ from the Renaissance onwards just does not add up. Its corollary is the notion that Asian societies as a whole were in all this time merely static, being hidebound by subservience to rulers unconstrained by law (‘Oriental despotism’). Goody does not have much trouble disposing of that one.

Goody chooses three individuals as exemplary of the trend he wishes to subvert and holds them in varying degrees of respect. Joseph Needham appears at first sight to be an unusual choice, since his multi-volume Science and Civilization in China (1954-2004) showed that Chinese technology was the equal of or better than Europe’s up to 1600. But Goody takes issue with Needham’s idea that the West took off on a trajectory uniquely its own since then. He has long been critical of Norbert Elias (1939), ostensibly as the leading advocate of Europe’s claim to have invented ‘civilization’ starting with the Renaissance. Goody’s arguments against the historical veracity of this claim echo earlier chapters, but an added note of asperity comes from the fact that they overlapped in Ghana soon after independence. Elias’ comments then about an imagined ‘primitive’ Africa provide Goody with further proof of his Euro-centrism. Who could deny Fernand Braudel’s excellence as a historian? Jack Goody does not try to. Nevertheless, the trilogy Civilization and Capitalism, 15th to 18th Century (1981-84) tries to establish that Europe was and is the original home of ‘true capitalism’. Goody, with more support from Marx (1867) and Weber (1922) than he appears to realize, rejects the claim that this mercantile variant of capitalism was any different from many Asian examples going back to the Phoenicians. His suggestion elsewhere in the book that we might all be better off without Werner Sombart’s (1902) neologism could be right.

Much of the argument concerning the West’s claim to being the unique author of the modern world rests on a series of keywords, obviously western in origin, whose universal aspirations and exclusivity Goody disputes. These include the occidental city and the bourgeoisie it nurtured (Weber 1978); associated institutions like the western university and the forms of knowledge it generated; democracy and the idea of freedom; humanism, individualism and romantic love. Goody provides an erudite, if scattershot critique of all of them, demonstrating that these concepts are not only vague beliefs, but their institutional core is widely shared, especially by Islamic civilization, but also as far afield as Northern Ghana.

His ‘Last words’ offer a recapitulation of all this. The main pre-industrial civilizations of the Eurasian land mass have a common origin in the rise of cities, the state and class society five millennia ago; and they grew side by side for most of that time, with first one area taking the lead and then the other, but without significant institutional divergence, certainly when contrasted with Africa. Goody’s method has always been comparative sociology. He prefers to break down abstract cultural concepts into analytical frameworks that permit empirical investigation across a wide historical range of societies. He has chosen to restrict himself to the Old World and has largely by-passed the last two centuries of world history. His vision is one of durable continuities rather than of decisive breaks, at least since the ‘urban revolution’. Above all, he has tried to deconstruct the ideology of inevitable and eternal Western hegemony over the peoples of the world, nowhere more powerfully than in this book.

The cracks in this strategy become more evident when, in his conclusions, Goody evokes the issue of industrialization. Under one heading or the other, this raises the question of the material foundations of our world. Identifying the process with its early phase, he shows that manufactures on a substantial scale can be found in Asia too at various times in the past, as well as in the present. But this is a misleading interpretation of the problem. It has not escaped Goody’s notice that his thesis is more popular today, even among western scholars, than when he started out; and that this may be related to China’s recent rise to economic prominence. The West’s grip on the world economy is slipping, if it is not yet actually over. But his attempt to extend his thesis concerning agrarian civilization to the last two centuries is not convincing. Thus he says in passing, of China’s leading role in world economy today, “This latest shift has been carried out by a communist government, without much deliberate help from the west” (p. 286). This is simply untrue. Unlike India, which pursued a path of technological and financial self-sufficiency after independence, China’s transition to capitalism has been fuelled by massive technology transfers and capital investment from the West. Goody’s revisions of received opinion on western pretensions to global leadership are invaluable; but they do not throw much light on the dynamics of modern world history. Here then are enough unanswered questions for a few more books in the series.

To return to the empirical fact of Western imperial domination in 1900 with which I began, this can now be seen as the midpoint in an unparalleled transformation of world society over the last two centuries. In 1800, the world’s population was around 1 billion, having grown slowly over ten millennia of agricultural production; only 1 in 40 human beings then lived in an urban settlement; almost all the energy people used came from animals and plants; as Goody points out, China was still the world’s economic powerhouse and Europeans had only a toehold on most of the planet. By 2000, the world’s population had grown to 6 billions, doubling in the previous forty years, while Europe’s indigenous population went into reverse; almost half of humanity lived in cities; and this was made possible by increased use of machines as converters of inanimate energy, once coal and now oil. The latest stage of mechanization was a digital revolution in communications whose symbol is the internet. Before that, the most powerful social movement for a century had been the anti-colonial revolution — the drive of peoples forced into world society by western imperialism to establish their own direct relationship to it. It seems quite plausible today that America and Europe will soon be replaced as the engines of world society by countries like India, China, Brazil and Russia whose peoples were not long ago subject to the kind of cultural condescension whose premises Goody undercuts so comprehensively in this book.

Jack Goody is right to point out that, among his anthropological contemporaries, only Eric Wolf has attempted world history on a similar scale, especially in Europe and the Peoples without History (1982). He acknowledges with approval Wolf’s decision to coin the term ‘tributary states’ for a range of pre-industrial societies that might otherwise be named ‘feudal’, ‘Asiatic’ or something else. Between them they have kept alive the anthropology of unequal society that Lewis H. Morgan (1877) and Friedrich Engels (1884) took from Rousseau (1754) and passed on to twentieth-century Marxists like Gordon Childe (1942). Modern ethnographers have been highly critical of western complacency, but their examples have generally been taken out of the context of world history as a consequence of rejecting methods that were tainted by association with Victorian imperialism and racism. Whatever the limitations of his approach, Goody has excavated a new anthropological vision of our world that is bound to become even more salient as the present century unfolds.


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Review article for Archives Européennes de Sociologie
Jack Goody The Theft of History, Cambridge University Press, 2006.


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