Eric R. Wolf, born in 1923, is a well-known Professor of Anthropology Emeritus, Herbert H. Lehman College and the Graduate School of the City University of New York. His book "Europe and the People without History" (1982) is a well-structured and elegant book having a powerful theoretical intelligence and giving a sense of social and economical realities. This book is a good addition in the long list of history books, having a concrete knowledge of political, economical and philosophical frameworks of that era. Wolf criticizes the atomization of the world in the study of the process of economic development. Wolf''s philosophy is to disclose nature of the chains of cause and consequence which linked populations in different regions of the World around the post-1400 World.
His book has a significant impact on anthropological thinking and the assertion that anthropology must pay more attention to history. What Wolf insists on is the necessity for anthropology to be genuinely historical by looking at actual sequences of events which link societies and communities in a political and economical framework rather than adopting a historical functionalism which divorces the social from the materialistic World.
He divides his study into three parts:
2. In search of Wealth and
This paper covers the Part 1, connections, in which Wolf criticizes the division of the world into East and West, and the pyramidal classification of developed, developing countries and the third world in the second half of the twentieth century. These classifications have become the mark of identification of nations’ development status and their placement (politically and economically) in World. Wolf begins studying the political geography of the Old World around 1400:
1. Trade throughout the water routes of the Mediterranean rounding the European peninsula,
2. The silk road to China, the Persian Gulf, India, South Asia; the Caravan routes which crossed the Sahara. Between 1300 and 1590, the Ottoman expansion blocked the direct access of Europe (Venice, Genoa, and Florence) to the East. Regions such as North and West Africa, East Africa, South and East Asia (India, China), Southeast Asia, South America, Mesoamerica and North America, each developed interconnected trade and cultural relations. [Eric R. Wolf, 1982]
Wolf understands mode of production as “the major way in which human beings organize their production”, which also implies the relation of nature and human being. [Eric R. Wolf, 1982] In 1400, the tributary "mode of production" was dominant in the rest of the World. His analysis uses principally Marxist categories such as production, social class and the state, although he warns that these categories are before Marx. The nature of production of the human being, the rise of social class in the process of production and the allocation of resources and the exercise of power by the state. He assumes also that in social sciences these elements are avoided, but in fact scholars are in constant dialogue with them. The last but not the least is the concept of modes of production dispersed throughout his book and can be regarded as main theme.
Civilizations on the other hand are defined as cultural interaction zones centered upon a hegemonic tributary society and replicated by other elites in a wider political-economic orbit of interactions. Among other modes of production he identifies the Kin-Ordered mode of production in which he states that kinship can “operate at two levels, that of the family or the domestic group and that of the political order”. [Eric R. Wolf, 1982] The combination of biological reproduction and cultural construction lead to an operational view: Kinship thus invoes
1. symbolic constructs ("filiations/marriage; consanguinity/affinity") that
2. continually place actors, born and recruited,
3. Into social relations with one another. These social relations
4. permit people in variable ways to call on the share of social labor carried by each, in order to
5. Effect the necessary transformations of nature.
Wolf''s intention is to counter the common perception that the colonized countries which formed the object of anthropologists’ studies lacked history in the grand European style. His perception can largely be criticized by many historians but in fact Wolf’s style of presentation is to see the history in economical way. Wolf uses as a vehicle for his approach the history of capitalist expansion, as exemplified through the distribution of major commodities, and his conceptual vocabulary, hinging on the concept of ‘modes of production’, is unashamedly Marxist. Marx could only have been deliberately illiterate in spinning his fables about the supposed "Asiatic Mode of Production" and its alleged "Oriental despotism," which logically and empirically are altogether incompatible with each other. [Eric R. Wolf, 1982]
A paradigm case is the contrast between Europe, which has had a growing economy since before the industrial revolution, China and India, which seemed trapped in backwardness until recent decades. Some theories have been developed to explain the divergence. The most possible causes include differences in modes of production (capitalist or Asiatic), the efficiency of property rights, world empire, religion, political fragmentation, foreign invasion or centralization, and the presence or absence of the well-planned scientific approach.
According to Wolf, mercantile wealth is extracted in three ways:
1. buying stocks of surplus from tributary overlords and providing goods in return,
2. open exchange with primary gatherers and producers, and
3. Trading slaves. In the process of European expansion, mercantile wealth pioneered routes of circulation and opened up channels of exchange. [Eric R. Wolf, 1982]
There is nothing un-continuous here but when the “mode of production” concept is analytically extended to ethnic groups, it seems it has been stretched just a little too far: “ethnic categories express the ways that particular populations come to relate themselves to given segments of the labor market”. [Eric R. Wolf, 1982] There is a danger here of reducing the political economy to the economy alone and ignoring other factors in the historical shaping of cultural groups.
Finally, the overall impression of this book is that this provides a historical view of economy of that era. This is an important book to understand the connections of different civilizations in trade, mode of production and its impacts and the ways how mercantile wealth is extracted and historical trajectory of non-European societies alongside their historical accounts of their societies before European intervention and their colonial age started. One will learn a great deal about many peoples but, no doubt, the central actors here are commodities - fur and textiles, tea and spices, tobacco and bananas, gold and opium. One will also find a history of the railroad, a history of slavery, a short history of India and another of Hispanic America. It is, in short, an extraordinary effort full of historical materials providing great stuff for historians and students as well.
1. Eric R. Wolf, "Europe and the People Without History", University of California Press, ISBN 0-520-04898-9, 1982