A little over a year ago I linked to a few pieces which explored Durkheim’s vision of “communism.” I’d like to follow that up with two pieces I found recently which touch on the socialist leanings of his nephew, Mauss . Both are by professors at Goldsmiths, in London. The first, published in In These Times, is by David Graeber, and deals directly with Mauss’ politics:
By all accounts, though, Mauss was never taken completely seriously in his role of heir apparent; a man of extraordinary erudition (he knew at least a dozen languages, including Sanskrit, Maori and classical Arabic), he still, somehow, lacked the gravity expected of a grand professeur. A former amateur boxer, he was a burly man with a playful, rather silly manner, the sort of person always juggling a dozen brilliant ideas rather than building great philosophical systems. He spent his life working on at least five different books (on prayer, on nationalism, on the origins of money, etc.), none of which he ever finished. Still, he succeeded in training a new generation of sociologists and inventing French anthropology more or less single-handedly, as well as in publishing a series of extraordinarily innovative essays, just about each one of which has generated an entirely new body of social theory all by itself.
Mauss was also a revolutionary socialist. From his student days on he was a regular contributor to the left press, and remained most of his life an active member of the French cooperative movement. He founded and for many years helped run a consumer co-op in Paris; and was often sent on missions to make contact with the movement in other countries (for which purpose he spent time in Russia after the revolution). Mauss was not a Marxist, though. His socialism was more in the tradition of Robert Owen or Pierre-Joseph Proudhon: He considered Communists and Social Democrats to be equally misguided in believing that society could be transformed primarily through government action. Rather, the role of government, he felt, was to provide the legal framework for a socialism that had to be built from the ground up, by creating alternative institutions.
I had never thought of The Gift in light of the Russian revolution, but Graeber says that “Mauss’ essay on ‘the gift’ was, more than anything, his response to events in Russia”:
particularly Lenin’s New Economic Policy of 1921, which abandoned earlier attempts to abolish commerce. If the market could not simply be legislated away, even in Russia, probably the least monetarized European society, then clearly, Mauss concluded, revolutionaries were going to have to start thinking a lot more seriously about what this “market” actually was, where it came from, and what a viable alternative to it might actually be like. It was time to bring the results of historical and ethnographic research to bear.
Even more interesting, and news to me (but, I’m sure, not to many of our readers) is the revival of of Mauss’ ideas in France since the mid-90s, led by the Mouvement Anti-Utilitariste dans les Sciences Sociales, or MAUSS, whose journal is called: La Revue du M.A.U.S.S.. Graeber ponders whether they are merely social democrats in a new disguise or something more radical “than anything else now on the intellectual horizon,” strongly suggesting the latter. Since I’ve let my French slide over the years (it was never very good to begin with) I’ll leave that question open to our readers. Instead, I’d like to move on to the second article, by Keith Hart….
Hart (who is more active on Twitter than many younger anthropologists) discusses Marcel Fournier’s biography of Mauss and Lygia Sigaud’s essay “The vicissitudes of The Gift” which traces the history of how “The Gift” has been used by other anthropologists. Hart summarizes the central arguments of both works quite well, so I won’t do it here. Instead, I will just share a couple of choice quotes, such as this one about Fournier’s biography:
readers of this book would be excused for wondering what Mauss’s methods actually were. Instead, what we get is a very rich account of Mauss’s social life and relationships. This balance is appropriate, since the protagonist occasionally expressed doubts about the intellectual life and his uncle for one sometimes wondered if he was more suited to café society than to hard academic work.
And this one in regard’s to Sigaud’s essay:
She argues that the essay became famous only in the second half of the last century and then in a distorted version that privileged economic exchange to the detriment of Mauss’s other concerns. The chief culprit is Lévi-Strauss whose introduction to the collected essays was designed to harness Mauss’s reputation to his own theory of reciprocity as previously published in The Elementary Structures of Kinship. But The Gift really took off as a staple of Anglophone anthropological discourse following Sahlins article, “The spirit of the gift”, which entrenched Lévi-Strauss’s claim that Mauss’s essay hinged on a faulty understanding of the Maori concept of hau. She notes that the opposition between “commodity economy” (the West) and “gift economy” (the Rest) began to take root after 1980; and she identifies this trend with Carrier (1995) who sought to subvert it, while characterizing the dichotomy as “Maussian Occidentalism.” We could add that this is the period of neo-liberalism.
Having first been exposed to Mauss’ ideas in a high school anthropology course, for which I still remember interviewing my family members about their gift-giving practices, I think I never took him as seriously as I should have (although he seems not to have taken things very seriously himself). Having come across these two pieces I feel inspired to give Mauss another look.
UPDATE: I had forgotten the link to the second article. Fixed.