“The great economic revolutions are monetary in nature” (Mauss) – Keith Hart

By | November 15, 2009

From the ASA blog, by Keith Hart: For Marcel Mauss, the years 1920-25 were packed and fruitful. His political party and the Left in general had a real shot at winning power in France and did so in 1924. Two-thirds of his occasional political pieces (Écrits politiques) were written in this period. He was able to relaunch his group’s journal, Année sociologique, by the period’s end, contributing to it his most famous essay, on The Gift. He suffered some reverses at this time, including a serious illness, but remained optimistic for both political and intellectual regeneration on a social scale that was increasingly international in scope.

He began serious work on a book dealing with the main political currents of the day, nationalism and socialism. His interest in the American “potlatch” was expanded by the publication of Malinowski’s Argonauts of the Western Pacific in 1922, confirming his belief that competitive gift-exchange was endemic in Melanesia and Polynesia, as well as elsewhere. And the Institut d’ethnologie was formed in 1925 with Rivet, Lévy-Bruhl and Mauss himself in charge.

In the late 1920s, things began to unravel on all fronts. Mauss’s personal standing as a savant grew inexorably; but his party suffered political reverses, its newspaper and journal folded, the cooperative movement foundered and the Année sociologique could not continue. Mussolini’s appropriation of the “nationalization of socialism” must have raised doubts about Mauss’s own political programme. His closest friend, Henri Hubert, died in 1927, compounding Mauss’s loss of family and colleagues during the war.

The years 1920-25 stand apart for the energy and fulfillment they brought. Mauss himself kept a sort of Chinese wall between his academic and political interests; so it is not so surprising that the two have been kept apart, especially in the Anglophone world, where his political writings are virtually unknown. He allowed himself one public attempt to bridge them, the concluding chapter of The Gift. Even so, the essay itself does not provide an effective intellectual link between the two compartments of Mauss’s life. Read in full.

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