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Wim van Binsbergen

Can anthropology become the theory of peripheral class struggle?


Reflections on the work of Pierre-Philippe Rey


? 1984-2002 Wim M.J. van Binsbergen


Among Marxist-inspired anthropologists, Pierre Philippe Rey is primarily known as the theoretician of the articulation of modes of production. His work offers the most penetrating analyses to date of the conditions and mechanisms by means of which an encroaching capitalist mode of production manages, or fails, to impose itself upon the non-capitalist societies of the Third World, foremost Africa. However, underlying these specific theoretical contributions is a more general conception, of the nature and project of anthropology and of the political role of the anthropological researcher in the class struggle of Third-World peasants and proletarians. It is this overall orientation that I shall examine in the present paper. A discussion of Rey’s view of anthropology as the theory of class struggle in the periphery of the contemporary capitalist world system, will lead us to consider the ideological nature of anthropology, the specific constraints and potentialities of modern anthropological fieldwork, the ways in which relations of intellectual production in anthropology itself influence, reflexively, our understanding of such relations of production as we study in our capacity of anthropologists, and finally Rey’s own contributions to the empirical study of ideology. Thus the strength as well as the limitations of Rey’s proposals will be brought out, as an incentive to further develop the inspiration his work is offering us.


Pierre Philippe Rey’s work (1971, 1973, 1976, 1978, and numerous articles) makes immensely inspiring reading. Few anthropologists are similarly capable of presenting an analysis of African local societies in such terms as to make them directly relevant to the pressing problems of sociological theory and praxis in our own society. The way Rey depicts the African people he studies, they unmistakably inhabit the same world as the author and his readers, albeit at different parts of the globe and under significantly different conditions; and they face basically the same problem as we do: how to cope with a world whose productive, political and ideological processes are increasingly shaped by the capitalist mode of production.

          ?Rey’s work is unprecedented in that it provides original solutions for a number of dilemmas pervading debates among Africanists and left-wing intellectuals in general during the last decade and a half. Whilst demonstrating the impact of colonialism and capitalism, he does not turn a blind eye to such forms of exploitation as defined ante-capitalist[2] modes of production in Africa, and in fact his main theoretical contribution concerns the linking-up between these various forms of exploitation, both local and imported. While offering adequate (if somewhat too generalised) monographic descriptions of African societies (in Congo-Brazzaville and Northern Togo), he insists on an explicitly theoretical treatment on every page of his published work ? rather than simply polishing up his ethnography with eclectic theoretical footnotes as is so often done in anthropology. Further, it is admirable how little entrenched Rey is as an Africanist. Not only do his actors produce, interact and think as people rather than as Africans; his African societies turn out to be located in an analytical universe that encompasses, among many other things, intercontinental migrant labour in modern France, the history of capitalism in the North Atlantic region, Nambikwara kinship structures from South America, oriental despotism, and the history of historical materialist thought from pre-Marxism right through to Althusser. Most importantly, against the political paralysis and guilt feelings of so many left-wing anthropologists (who are aware of poverty and oppression among their Third-World informants but cannot think of anything more meaningful to offer the latter than their obscure academic writings), Rey sees his work as the production of an anti-capitalist, anti-bourgeois ideology, developing a theory of the class struggle of African peasants and proletarians, and thus providing the insights by which their struggle may be strengthened, may learn from earlier struggles, and may ultimately be successful. Implied in all his writings is the hope that his analytical work will enlighten those fighting against peasant oppression, against exploitation and discrimination of migrant workers, and against the arrogance of the exploitative state bureaucracy that has emerged in African societies. His brand of Marxist anthropology seeks to render these struggles better informed, better focused and more effective. Thus Rey (along with some of his colleagues) joined the cause of African migrants in France (cf. Rey 1976, especially the political presentation, pp. 937). A more inspiring solution for the dilemma of intellectual embourgeoisement and the sense of inefficacy so widespread among left-wing intellectuals could hardly be proposed.

          ?Rey’s stance on anthropology as ideology is clearly located within the intellectual climate of France not too long after May 1968, and as far as Africa is concerned still echoes ?in his belief in a viable and ultimately successful class struggle by African peasants and proletarians ?something of the hope that characterised North Atlantic intellectual thinking about that continent in the 1960s and early 1970s. The changes in intellectual climate ever since combine with Rey’s own intellectual and career development. However, he still considers the class struggle of African peasants and proletarians as both the source and the aim of Africanist research; and he still tries to emulate this view in his current societal practice as an intellectual worker.

          ?Rey has been extremely fortunate in that his first fieldwork, in the Mossendjo area, Congo-Brazzaville, could be conducted in close association with practical Marxist revolutionaries in the area. He tells me he did not enter the field as a Marxist theoretician[3] but he certainly emerged from it as one. When, in the postface of Les Alliances de classes (1973), he claims that Marxist theory literally has to grow from a theorist’s personal association with the class struggle, this view certainly applies to his own Congo field research ?if not to his later experience in the authoritarian state of Togo.

          ?Along with what he calls bourgeois ideology, and the ‘reactionary?ideologies of African marabouts, griots, diviner-priests, not to mention Christianity (1976: 12f), Rey admits that historical materialism, too, is an ideology, but one with unique characteristics: it alone has the power to render the struggle of the oppressed classes victorious, laying bare the true conditions of their oppression (Rey 1973: 174f, espec. 176). If anthropology is to become a theory of class struggle, this theory not only has to be substantiated by our usual type of intellectual scrutiny and criticism, but also has be shown to be effective when put into actual revolutionary practice.

          ?In these respects ideology is a fundamental issue in Rey’s work (1971: 11f). Rey is deliberately, passionately, ideological in his anthropological theorising. Yet his approach remains very sophisticated. He is well aware that, even if the ultimate test of such theorising may lie in its utility for the class struggle (Rey 1976: 10), its intellectual critique lies in a Marxist sociology of knowledge, which shows us the theorising intellectual as working within the objective historical conditions of his time and class. Rey goes to considerable length to show that historical materialism does not represent some timeless, ultimate truth, but could only emerge under the specific conditions of high capitalism (Rey 1973: 194), in general, and of Engels?and Marx’s personal association with the oppressed classes, in particular (Rey 1973:172f).

          ?Rey’s work is of very great importance both for its theoretical depth, and as an attempt to solve the problem of the relation between theory and praxis in the social sciences. It is therefore with great respect, and while affirming my intellectual and political affinity vis-a-vis his work, that I shall now raise a number of questions relating to his approach to ideology.


There is an obvious, intended parallel between historical materialist theorists associating with the oppressed, and anthropological field-workers associating with the peasants and proletarians (known to be oppressed) in Africa. One would assume that anthropological field-workers, participating in the conditions that prevail in the periphery of the capitalist world system, are in an ideal position to ‘learn from the masses? in other words to pick up, in the field, essential elements towards a theory of peripheral class oppression and class struggle.[4] However, is it possible to specify the conditions under which such association in fieldwork does, or does not, yield insights that could be termed ‘correct?in terms of such a theory?

          ?Few field-workers happen to be as fortunate as Rey was in the Mossendjo area. E.g., in the various settings where I conducted extensive fieldwork over the past fifteen years (rural Tunisia, urban Zambia, rural Zambia, rural Guinea-Bissau), revolutionaries were either absent, or were socially so isolated that close association with them would have jeopardised my more general productive contact with the community. The local people’s consciousness of their oppression (both under ante-capitalist relations and under conditions of peripheral capitalism, i.e. cash-crop production and migrant labour) were diffuse, mystified, and took the form of witchcraft accusations, divination rites, prophetic movements, ethnic rivalry, male/female conflicts, inter-generational conflicts, etc. A bourgeois anthropologist might be loath to analyse any of these forms as expressions of class conflict; a Marxist-inspired field-worker would be inclined to analyse all of them in such terms, but in doing so might be accused of jumping to conclusions, since many of these expressions are, on the surface, so totally encapsulated in the local status quo that only by analytical sleight-of-hand they could be said to protest against, negate and counteract, rather than to reinforce, a structure of domination (cf. van Binsbergen 1981a: 57f). Could we develop a method that would allow us to interpret these expressions correctly, in ways that are both reliable (i.e. other researchers would arrive at the same conclusions), and valid (i.e. we really find what we claim to find)?

          ?If anthropological theorising has to be grounded in our revolutionary association with the oppressed members of the societies we study, does that mean that our theory is less valid if such association does not succeed? How does Rey appreciate, in this connection, the difference between his Mossendjo and Togo fieldwork? The obvious answer (hinted by Rey in the discussion that followed the presentation of an earlier version of this paper) is that the international nature of capital and of the capitalist mode of production allows us to join the peripheral class struggle also outside the immediate geographical area of our research, e.g. right in the metropolitan centres where we may not have done fieldwork but where migrants hailing from areas similar to our research area are employed. Anything else would have been impossible in the Togo case, as well as in most other fieldwork settings.

          ?Perhaps it is true to say that only rarely has the anthropologist a totally unlimited, totally unbiased access to peasants and proletarians; and seldom can he or she afford to report on them as freely as would be required for an adequate, revolutionary theory of their class struggle. The constraints involved exist both in the field and at home. As Wyatt MacGaffey writes (1981:253), ‘ethnographic reporting involves a kind of collusion between dominant groups? The ethnographer himself or herself is not necessarily a member of any such group, but it would not seem unrealistic to see much of ethnographic reporting as a compromise, informed by the secret and unconscious class alliance between North Atlantic senior academicians (who selectively allocate research funds for anthropologists in the field), and chiefs and politicians in the Third World, who selectively admit the researchers into their sphere of influence, and try to control the flow of information from the local people to the researcher. Anthropologists?field activities and field reports also undergo censure and self-censure to this effect. Especially at the beginning of his or her career (when personal revolutionary inclinations may be at the highest) can the anthropologist seldom afford to associate closely with local revolutionaries, or worse still from a career point of view, present a field report whose revolutionary overtones run counter to the (normally bourgeois) political outlook of academic supervisors and funding agencies. I shall come back to this when discussing, below, the production of anthropology.

          ?If the ultimate test of Marxist anthropology is its utility for the peripheral class struggle, one wonders whether Rey has had his insights in the Mossendjo area actually be brought to the test. Did the revolutionaries of Congo-Brazzaville put Colonialisme, neocolonialisme et transition au capitalisme within reach at their commando posts, as Rey claims they did Marx’s work (Rey 1971:7); and if so, what happened?[5] More in general, should all our fieldwork be ‘action research? in order to be acceptable as intellectual practice? (Even if this means that most regimes in present-day Africa would no longer welcome our research, and would not allow us to enter their territories a second time!)

          ?Will our theories remain untested if they deal with situations in which the link with revolutionary struggle is less easily made? E.g. it is very unlikely that the Nkoya, inhabitants of Kaoma district in Western Zambia, will ever put to some revolutionary practice my rather devastating materialist analysis of their attempts at ethnic mobilisation (van Binsbergen 1981b, and in press); but if they do not, what practical ‘real-life?possibilities remain of testing my insights (in addition to textual, theoretical criticism)? And, more important for the Nkoya (and they are not atypical of African peasants in general): how could their class struggle be furthered by our analyses and theories, if their class consciousness is still at an inchoate and mystified level? What the Nkoya wanted out of my project was not an understanding and remedy of their economic and political predicament, but mainly, texts that would show the world the glory of their chieftainship, and their rightful existence as a distinct people with it own history. In other words, they gave their full co-operation only towards the production of yet another mystification of their situation, and particularly one that was clad in the trappings of a tributary mode of production now eroded and encapsulated.

          ?Does it amount to a betrayal of one’s revolutionary inspiration if the researcher, in such a situation, goes ahead and actually, as part of his or her research output, produces such texts as requested by the hosts (e.g. Sangambo 1979; Shimunika in press; and numerous other similar locally-generated texts edited by field researchers). The situation becomes even more complicated once one realises the class component in the hosts?expectations. For a ‘naive? account of an ethnic group’s self-perceived past or identity is likely to render academic legitimacy to ideological claims perpetrating ante-capitalist modes of production encapsulated by the capitalist mode; but these ante-capitalist modes, too, are structures of domination, furthering the interest of a local surviving aristocracy, gerontocracy, priestly class etc. at the expense of the local peasantry. In principle, one could hope that my Marxist attempt at a demystifying ideological critique of Nkoya ethnicity might persuade young Nkoya to adopt a more straightforward and militant class consciousness; but there are, as yet, no indications to this effect.

          ?Here again, such revolutionary lessons as the Nkoya situation may have to offer could only be taken to some other part of the world system and applied there, but the tests offered by such practical revolutionary application, if any, would then be difficult to feed back into our specific analysis of the Nkoya situation.

          ?In short, as anthropologists involved in participatory field research we may be in a position to ‘learn from the masses? but this learning process remains extremely problematic; and the theory of the peripheral class struggle we may end up with, would be hard to test in the specific field situation it derives from. At best we could hope to generalise and internationalise it.[6]


Having examined how anthropological fieldwork may or may not contribute to the development of a theory of peripheral class struggle, we shall now follow the anthropologist on his or her return journey home. For it is there, at universities, research institutes and private writing desks, that Marxist anthropology is made ?more than in the field. In addition to ‘learning from the masses?in the African periphery, what are the specific requirements for anthropology to become rightly and effectively a theory of peripheral class struggle?

          ?It does not seem to be enough if one were merely to locate one’s theorising in the mainstream of the historical materialist Ideeengeschichte, as Rey himself does so often in his works. For whatever one’s explicit ideological and intellectual orientation, as an intellectual producer one remains subjected to the largely invisible objective forces of a sociology of knowledge which obtains at a given place and time. The emergence of Marxism itself, as Rey shows, was no historical accident but a more or less systematic result of the ideological and economic orientation of European society under high capitalism. It could not have developed earlier. Similarly, the emergence of e.g. nuclear physics, sociology, anthropology, were systematic intellectual responses to the development taking place within the social formation ?much in the same way as royal cults, High God cults and healing movements emerged in southern Central Africa at a rhythm dictated by the emergence and decline of successive modes of production (van Binsbergen 1981a). As regards the emergence of anthropology: its link with the intercontinental expansion of the capitalist mode of production, as mediated by the colonial state, is only too obvious, and I shall come back to this point below.

          ?Therefore, if we are to produce, as anthropologists, a theory of the peripheral class struggle, we should not only examine the relations of production to which the peasants and proletarians in the periphery are subjected ?we should also, self-reflexively, analyse the relations of production to which we ourselves, as intellectual producers, are subjected. Such a self-reflexive exercise should be conducted at two levels at least.

          ?On a general level, we ought to realise that all contemporary anthropology, even the Marxist or revolutionary versions, is being produced by intellectual producers whose class position in the world system is based on a dependence (perhaps innocent, but certainly unavoidable) from capital. This dependence is mediated by the modern state or by large private funding agencies in collusion with the state. Individuals cannot generate, nor sustain, the immense resources (libraries, computers, the publication of learned journals, salaries, research equipment) necessary for academic production today. The vast majority of productive academics today are salaried employees, or aspiring to become just that. Their intellectual production is commoditised, sold in an academic market of salaries, honours, opportunities for publication, and institutional power. Their class position would be similar to that of industrial proletarians, were it not for the theoretical difficulties involved in assessing the surplus value produced and ?presumably ?exploited in academic work. At any rate, today’s intellectual production in the West is realised in a context which is wholly capitalist, and the patterns of remuneration, expenditure, consumption and career planning of intellectual producers corroborate this. Now it would be sociologically impossible for this capitalist context of our intellectual production not to determine the nature and contents of our intellectual products. This determination may not be total. That it allows for a certain leeway is clear from the fact that the great revolutionaries of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries often came from bourgeois backgrounds. One could very well imagine a situation where the very contradictions inherent in today’s late capitalism would allow for (or rather, would be reflected in) some limited degree of anti-capitalist intellectual production within an overall capitalist context. But these are likely to be exceptions, the more so since radical intellectuals themselves have been largely unaware of the bourgeois conditions within which their revolutionary intellectual production is set. In whatever dialectical or transformed way, our intellectual products (including our theories of class struggle) cannot fail to partly reflect the capitalist mode of production within which they are generated. Nor does this capitalist encapsulation of intellectual production in the North Atlantic region seem to be a constant: there are massive indications (in the field of state control, the growth of central planning and formal procedures for the organization, evaluation and funding of scholarly production, the growth of national and international scholarly and governmental bodies to control these activities, the introduction of high technology equipment etc.) to show that such encapsulation has dramatically increased in the 1970s and 1980s, at the expense of academic freedom. More than ever a revolutionary intellectual practice is to be realised in the hidden folds of capitalist domination over academic production.

          ?Secondly, within the general field of contemporary intellectual production there is the more specific level of the production of anthropology itself. Here we should take into account such relations of production, and forms of exploitation, as are typical of the craft of anthropology. What are the relations between the anthropological producer, and, e.g., his or her unpaid informants; paid research assistants; domestic assistants in the field; wife or husband who takes care of the daily reproduction of anthropological labour power; what is the relation with the home institute and with research directors, advisory boards etc.; we might look at colleagues and students whose intellectual products are borrowed, sometimes even stolen; typists and computer personnel whose essential work may be expropriated in a field report published exclusively under the researcher’s name, etc. An analysis of anthropological production along these lines has rarely been made.

          ?At this juncture, let us return to our original point of departure, Rey’s view of anthropology as the production of a theory of the peripheral class struggle. It now appears that, in addition to ‘learning from the masses?about the specific forms of domination and exploitation to which they are subjected, we have two other fields of domination determining our theorising: the general capitalist context of all our intellectual production, and the specific relations of production prevailing in, or rather constituting, modern anthropology. Given the virtual absence of sophisticated theory on these crucial points, we may resort to caricatures to bring out what is meant here. Within the general capitalist context of my intellectual production as a more or less senior academician, I can derive a considerable money income from contributing to the theory of the peripheral class struggle; this income derives from state resources which partly are realised by exploitative relations between the rich and the poor countries ?the preconditions for the predicament of the very same poor peasant and proletarians in the periphery. In other words, however well-intended my intellectual production may be, it is contaminated from a methodological point of view. Another caricature: as an anthropologist I realise my intellectual production partly through a form of brokerage, where I buy my information very cheaply from paid assistants somewhere in the African periphery,[7] but after intellectually processing it I sell basically the same information at the metropole at a very attractive prize: my academic salary.

          ?These are, I repeat, caricatures, and I would still disagree with an argument like Bleek’s (cf. Bleek 1979; van Binsbergen 1979) who inclines to take them as true images of anthropological relations of production. It is not the moral or economic argument I am interested in here. I am glad that Professor Rey’s class position in the world system is very much like my own. The point I am trying to make has solely to do with the logic of intersecting relations of production. The point is this: if the relations of production that determine our intellectual products as anthropologists (both at a general level, as members of a capitalist society, and at a specific level, as members of a profession) remain unanalysed, subconscious, hidden as part of some false consciousness, then we do not stand the slightest chance of arriving at an adequate and effective theory of the peripheral class struggle, i.e. a theory illuminating the very different relations of production to which other people at the other end of the globe may be subjected ?but under overall conditions of a capitalist world system from which we as intellectual producers benefit more than we are prepared to admit. Our would-be liberating theory would continue to carry too much of our own class position, and therefore would remain mystifying, naive, ineffective, and (from a Third-World perspective) perhaps even arrogant.

          ?These philosophical problems are further exacerbated by the fact that anthropology, as Rey rightly claims, is a form of ideological production. Marxist anthropology may have its roots in mainstream historical materialism, but at the same time it springs, with all anthropology, from North Atlantic imperialism. It is now fairly accepted to look at early anthropology as an ideological expression, among North Atlantic participants, of an imperialism seeking to create conditions (including ideological and intellectual ones) for the world-wide penetration of the capitalist mode of production (Leclerc 1972; Asad 1973; Copans 1974, 1975). In a way, the early anthropologist was the intellectual agent of the articulation of ante-capitalist modes of production, and capitalism. This imperialist heritage is likely to have some continued, if hidden, impact on whatever topic modern anthropology undertakes in that part of the world where conditions of peripheral capitalism prevail. Considering how long it took anthropology to take up the study of incorporation processes, capitalist penetration etc. (a very small trickle up to the 1960s, such studies only became a major topic in the 1970s), one begins to suspect that anthropology is genetically conditioned to turn a blind eye to the very processes of articulation of modes of production to which it owes its existence. Indulging in a Freudian analogy, one might say that there is here a Primal Scene which anthropology could not, until quite recently, afford to face, for the sake of its own sanity. Since anthropology is primarily a matter of intellectual, i.e. ideological, production, this problematic might have a less devastating effect on anthropological studies of economic and political effects of articulation ?studies that do no concentrate on the ideology of the people studied. But when anthropologists turn to the ideological dimensions of the articulation process, and for instance begin to study religious or ethnic responses under conditions of capitalist encroachment, then the ideological complexity of this research undertaking is raised to the power 2 ?although we would need additional conceptual refinement in order to distinguish between spontaneous, ‘folk?ideologies on the one hand, and engineered, ‘reflexive? ideologies as produced by social scientists.

          ?Is it sufficient to be a Marxist scholar, and to take the struggle of the oppressed to heart, in order to escape from these contingencies? Or does one succumb to them, just as the built-in exploitative aspects of the relations of anthropological production can hardly be escaped, for risk of losing one’s intellectual and material resources as an anthropologist?[8] Rey is very much aware of the process by which bourgeois science has appropriated historical materialism, and adulterated it (Rey 1973: 178ff). To what extent does the Marxist anthropologist escape such embourgeoisement, not only in the form of radical theorising fed back into the class struggle, but also in the form of resistance against such bourgeois incentives as a salary, job security, academic esteem, academic power etc.? An important contradiction in this respect seems to be that access to essential resources for the Marxist anthropologist (funds for fieldwork, libraries, computers etc.) is partly determined by positive integration within the academic world, i.e. embourgeoisement.

          ?While, for the time being, we cannot do anything about the general capitalist context of our intellectual production (or may not consider it opportune to do so, for personal reasons of security and comfort), we do have the opportunity and the duty to consider the relations of production prevailing at the specific level of our anthropological profession. Our work should be subjected to a critique based on an analysis of the forms of exploitation and domination implied in the process of anthropological production itself. A first requirement in this respect would be full information on the process and organization of fieldwork and subsequent writing-up; this information is largely lacking in Rey’s work, as in that of other present-day French Marxist anthropologists (cf. van Binsbergen & Geschiere, in press).

          ?Finally, it is useful to realise what Rey’s redefinition of anthropology means for the survival of anthropology as a distinct disciple. For Rey, anthropology has to become the theory of class struggle under conditions of peripheral capitalism. Are all other possible topics in modern anthropology related to this (e.g. as necessary conceptual or methodological steppingstones, which need not explicitly follow a Marxist idiom ?after all, even Meillassoux and Rey are building upon bourgeois kinship theory), and if some are not, should those then be abandoned? Should we become historical materialists tout court, or remain Marxist anthropologists ?and if the latter, what would be our specific contribution and our specific institutional basis within the organization of academic life?[9]


It has to be admitted that ideology is more of a central and explicit concern in Rey’s self-perception as an intellectual producer, than in his analysis of African societies. The student of African ideological systems and processes will find, in Rey’s work, little that is of immediate relevance to his or her specific theoretical interests, in so far as Rey does not seem to have an elaborate theory of the ideology of the peoples he studies. This does not exclude that underlying e.g. his analysis of kinship in some Congolese societies one can detect a summary theory of kinship as an ideology, which is both basically sound, and capable of confronting bourgeois kinship theory, from Levi-Strauss to Leach (Rey 1971: 207f). However, ideology is relegated to the third place of importance in the structural blueprint of lineage societies, after circulation and after politics (Rey 1971: 200). The importance of these other two principles is well argued, but the unimportance of ideology is not, and the relevant passage appears to be too sketchy. Any non-Marxist specialist in African symbolic systems would likewise be critical of Rey’s all too brief account of Congolese sorcery notions as a perfect, if inverted, mirror image of real relations between ego, father and mother’s brother (Rey 1971: 202f). What seems to be lacking is an explicit method in the light of which the reader can be persuaded that the ethnographic evidence is both sufficiently rich, and properly analysed. Rey’s analysis in terms of compensation and reflection lacks theoretical foundation, and within the whole of contemporary African religious studies would be considered somewhat superficial. Many more levels of discourse are likely to be involved; these levels are likely to be situationally intertwined and dialectically opposed to each other; sorcery notions are not likely to be limited to cases involving father and mother’s brother; perfect fit is extremely unlikely in the analysis of African symbolic configurations; the symbolic order is likely to be more autonomous vis-a-vis other levels in society than is suggested by Rey’s claim of perfect fit; etc. (cf. van Binsbergen 1981a: 56-60, 77-88; Werbner 1977: introduction).

          ?However, this is a matter of lack of specialised attention on Rey’s part, rather than of theoretical lack of potential. That his approach, based as it is in the mainstream of historical materialism, has all the potential of arriving at a fascinating understanding of ideological processes, is clear for instance from his pages on the European Bauernkrieg (1973: 196-203). I have elsewhere shown at great length that it is possible to develop an approach to African ideological transformations on the basis of Rey’s central idea, that of the articulation of modes of production (van Binsbergen 1981a). Here the importance of religious ideological forms should be stressed, not only those of the world religions of Islam and Christianity, but also, and perhaps primarily, such transformations of indigenous religious forms as have emerged under conditions of capitalist encroachment and which, as idioms of healing and prophetism, constitute dominant forms of popular religion throughout Africa today.

          ?An important question with regard to these ideological forms is: to what extent do they serve as expressions of divisiveness or mobilisation in a context where the state aims at increasing control of the reproduction of capitalist dominance? An even more crucial one would seem to be: to what extent can these mystifying ideologies be supplanted by historical materialism in the minds of African people, thus vindicating Rey’s central effort? While we can forgive Rey for not analysing adequately the ideological dimensions of ante-capitalist modes of production in Africa, it becomes rather more difficult to understand why he does not describe in detail, let alone analyse theoretically, the ideological transformations in Africa during and after the colonial period. For it is here that one would have expected some form of revolutionary class consciousness to emerge among African people, and as an anthropologist trying to enhance and enlighten, with his theoretical work, such forms of local consciousness, Rey ought to have been deeply interested in these ideological developments. The point is, however, that also his approach towards contemporary African ideological forms is unsophisticated.


The crucial question remains: will the adoption of historical materialism as a dominant ideology in Africa really mean the end (Rey 1973: 176) of the exploitation to which the African peasants and urban poor are subjected?

          ?The answer would appear to be negative; one need only think of the Ethiopian experience under Mengistu after the overthrow of imperial rule. On the surface such a negative answer would render the whole of Rey’s approach meaningless. A different form of liberating ideology seems to be needed, and we should have far greater insight in the conditions under which such an ideology is being produced, transmitted, implemented, and adulterated or vindicated in the hands of the peasants, proletarians, leaders and politicians. In a more optimistic vein one would, however, take this as an invitation to continue our intellectual work at the point where Rey has left it: to develop, not only a scientifically-based ideology for the peripheral class struggle, but also, and primarily, a reflexive Marxist anthropology of ideology. In the process, our anthropology might become a much more powerful tool, capable of self-analysis, ready perhaps to throw off the incentives of embourgeoisement within the capitalist overall society ?and thus the true partisan of the distant people to whom we have pledged both our minds, and our hearts.


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1973                          ? Anthropology and the colonial encounter, London: Ithaca Press.

Bleek, W.,

1979                          ? ‘Inequality and envy in fieldwork? Human Organization, 38, 2: 200-205.

Buijtenhuijs, R.

1975                          ? ‘L’Anthropologie revolutionnaire, comment faire?? in: Copans 1975: 457-62.

1980                          ? ‘Revolutionaire informants en "revolutionaire" anthropologie? Sociologische Gids 28, 5.

forthcoming                ? ‘Op zoek naar de Afrikaanse revolutie? in: M.R. Doornbos & W.M.J. van Binsbergen (eds) Afrika in spiegelbeeld, Haarlem: In de Knipscheer (published 1988)..

Copans, J.

1974                          ? Critiques et politiques de l’anthropologie, Paris: Maspero.

1975                          ? (ed.) Anthropologie et imperialisme, Paris: Maspero.Leclerc, G.

1972                          ? Anthropologie et colonialisme, Paris: Fayard.

MacGaffey, W.

1981                          ? ‘African ideology and belief: A survey? African Studies Review, 24, 23: 227-74.

Nash, J.

1975                          ? ‘Nationalism and fieldwork?in: Siegel et al. 1975: 225-45.

O’Laughlin, B.

1975                          ? ‘Marxist approaches in anthropology? in: Siegel et al. 1975: 34170.

Rey, P.P.

1971                          ? Colonialisme, neocolonialisme et transition au capitalisme, Paris: Maspero.

1973                          ? Les alliances de classes, Paris: Maspero.

1976                          ? (ed.) Capitalisme negrier, Paris: Maspero.

1978                          ? ‘Les concepts de l’anthropologie economique marxiste: Critique et mise a l’epreuve? these d’Etat, Universite de Paris V.

Sangambo, M.K.

1979                          ? The history of the Luvale people and their chieftainship, edited by A. Hansen and R.J. Papstein, Los Angeles: Africa Institute for Applied Research.

Siegel, B.J., A.R. Beals & S. A. Tyler (eds)

1975                          ? Annual Review of Anthropology, 4, Palo Alto: Annual Reviews Inc.

Shimunika, J.M.

in press                         Likota lya Bankoya/The History of the Nkoya, translated by M.M. Malapa & W.M.J. van Binsbergen, Leiden: African Studies Centre, published 1988

van Binsbergen, W.M.J.

1979                          ? ‘Anthropological fieldwork: "There and back again"? Human Organization, 38, 2: 205-209.

1981a                        ? Religious change in Zambia, London/Boston: Kegan Paul International.

1981b                        ? ‘The unit of study and the interpretation of ethnicity? Journal of Southern African Studies, 8: 54-84

in press = 1985 ‘From tribe to ethnicity in western Zambia: The unit of study as an ideological problem? in: W.M.J. van Binsbergen & P. Geschiere, eds., Old modes of production and capitalist encroachment: Anthropological explorations in Africa, London: Kegan Paul International, 1985, pp. 181-234.

van Binsbergen, W.M.J. & P.L. Geschiere

in press (a) = 1985 Old modes of production and capitalist encroachment, London/ Boston: Kegan Paul International, 1985.

in press (b) = 1985 ‘Marxist theory and anthropological practice: The application of French Marxist anthropology in fieldwork? in: Van Binsbergen, W.M.J., & P. Geschiere, eds, Old modes of production and capitalist encroachment: Anthropological explorations in Africa, London/Boston: Kegan Paul International, pp. 235-89

Werbner, R.P. (ed.)

1977                          ? Regional cults, New York: Academic Press.


[1]            ? Published as chapter vii in: W.M.J. van Binsbergen & G.S.C.M. Hesseling (eds.), Aspecten van staat en maatschappij in Afrika: Recent Dutch and Belgian research on the African state, Leiden: African Studies Centre, pp. 163-80. An earlier version of this paper was presented at a seminar of the Dutch Association of African Studies, Leiden, 4th November 1983. I am indebted to M. Doornbos, P.L. Geschiere and P.P. Rey for their stimulating remarks, and to Ria van Hal, Adrienne van Wijngaarden and Mieke Zwart for typing successive drafts of this paper.

[2]              ? Antecapitalist simply means preceding capitalist forms in time, without claiming the evolutionist implications inherent in the term precapitalist. Antecapitalist should not, of course, be confused with anticapitalist, the latter denoting an ideology which opposes the forms of domination inherent in the capitalist mode of production.

[3]            ? By the late 1960s, his theoretical inclinations were rather towards Sartre, and the critique of Levi-Straussian structuralism. Rey’s political practice however has had a strong Marxist inspiration ever since the Algerian liberation war.

[4]            ? The term ‘peripheral class struggle?merely locates such class struggle in the periphery of a worldwide capitalist system: in such relations of production as display both capitalist and antecapitalist characte ristics. Geographically, such a periphery would encompass much of today’s Third World, but also metropolitan contexts where ThirdWorld migrants come to work (e.g. industrial centres in Western Europe). Least of all does the term intend to imply that such a ‘peripheral?class struggle is only ‘marginal? ‘unimportant?

[5]            ? Rey tells me that they were, in fact, eager readers of his magnum opus (Rey 1971); but an account of the impact of this theoretical feedback remains to be written.

[6]            ?Some of the research dilemmas discussed here come out clearly, and have been discussed in a subtle way, in the work of my colleague Robert Buijtenhuijs; cf. Buijtenhuijs 1975, 1980, forthcoming, and his contribution to the present book (ch. XI).


[7]            ? Most information in the field, of course, derives not from paid assis tants but from unpaid informants on the basis of the anthropologist adopting or mimicking forms of exchange peculiar to domestic, ante capitalist modes of production, such as putative kinship, friendship, joking relations, neighbourly relations etc. Here the broker’s role of the anthropologist in the field is even more pronounced. But let us not forget that we are sketching a caricature.

[8]            ? It is important to appreciate the fact that Rey’s point of view cuts across, rather than converges with, the now familiar debate on anthro pology and nationalism, as usefully summarized in Nash 1975. Rey’s proposals are based not on a political analysis in terms of ThirdWorld nationalism, but on a class analysis in terms of exploitation.

[9]            ? This section of my paper takes up and develops points cursorily indicated in O’Laughlin (1975: 368-69).



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