Gavin Smith: Intellectuals’ Contributions to Popular Mobilization and Strategic Action under Different Conditions of Possibility

The argument I make here is a fairly obvious one. It is that the spatially widespread insurrections in the global south during the ’60s, and especially their victories against France in Algeria, the United States in Southeast Asia, and Portugal in its various colonies, obliged anthropologists and historians on the Left to rethink the way they did anthropology: their methods, their research design, and the concepts they used. Though in many cases it may not have been explicit in their work, the fact is that they began to design their research questions in very much the same way as the issues of “What is to be done?” that insurgents themselves had laid out (or were laying out) in their various forms. Moreover, the work of this bridgehead of Left scholars had a knock-on effect on the discipline as a whole, reshaping the entire enterprise of what sociocultural anthropology was.

This was a quite striking move. We may think of Gluckman or Polanyi (both of whose wives were in their respective Communist Parties) as making important contributions to a left-ish—indeed, to use Alex Cockburn’s term, “Marx-ish”—kind of enquiry in an earlier period. But I think by the ’60s and into the ’70s it became possible to design a research project explicitly to aid in insurrectionary politics: to begin by addressing the question, “How can we advance the power of ordinary people in the making of their own history?” I am not saying that such an agenda was blazoned across the dust covers of such books, but if we think of the particular way Peter Worsley (1957) set out the questions he wanted to answer in his study of idiosyncratic uprisings in the Pacific; or of Georges Balandier’s similar work in central Africa (1988); or of Eric Hobsbawm’s Primitive Rebels (1957); and then of Eric Wolf’s Peasant Wars of the Twentieth Century (1969)—if we think of any of these works, we quickly realize that they were produced in a setting of what Edward Thompson called “dissident intellectuals,” and that this dissidence didn’t only mean criticizing the orthodoxy of a discipline, but also making an intellectual contribution to popular struggle in a fairly direct way.

And, as I say, the agendas they set for themselves, eventually and albeit unevenly and with a great deal of resistance from adversaries, strongly influenced the methods and concepts of their different academic guilds—an influence whose ruins and archaeological remains can just occasionally be seen still today in current anthropology but in such a fractured way that the relationship between research design and contribution to popular struggle has become either lost or romanticized. So here I want to try to recuperate some of the themes and ways of asking questions that these kinds of writers employed because I think such an exercise might be useful in the current conjuncture. I should stress, though, that the themes and questions each raised were not the same, that there were explicit or often less overt disagreements among them. And finally I should add that I am not arguing that their questions were the right ones either for when they were asked nor, and especially not, for our current situation.

Broadly, I will suggest that the Left generation of the ’60s and ’70s examined the conditions of possibility for radical praxis, the role of different agents of change that were revealed by this procedure, and the strengths and weaknesses of the different goals the different participants pursued. I will also suggest that on the edge of these questions was the primary issue of leverage: At what points in the social fabric and at what moments of on-going crises could praxis be achieved? Third, these writers were interested in the relative merits of autochthonous organization for struggle versus broader organizational fields. Again, I need to stress that the point of this exercise is not to make them appear exemplary in any way. Nonetheless, we find ourselves with three foci of study: the external prevailing conditions of possibility for subaltern intervention, the conjunctural touch points for effective leverage, and the features of political organization. The point is to see how starting with such questions actually shaped research agendas and the calling up of various theoretical concepts—the implication being, of course, that if we do not start with such a politicized research agenda, then we will not produce analogous questions, methods, and concepts for the benefit of today’s potential praxis.

Space constraints make it necessary to select key figures and then to point up a couple of important features of their work. I will take Wolf and Hobsbawm as exemplary. Two fairly well-known things can be said about their works, and I will add two perhaps less obvious points.

Wolf’s work came out at the end of the ’60s among quite an extensive flurry of works on the role of the peasantry—minimally in social change and more particularly in rebellion. For the non-anthropological literature, the hurdle to be overcome was the introduction of the peasantry as opposed to the proletariat as the key figures in revolutionary struggle. What did this mean for strategy, for indigenous as opposed to outside leadership, for forms of organization of a non-urban kind of resistance and—of course—for the kind of future society that a peasant-led revolution might produce? I should say that hesitations about the ability of peasants in and of themselves to shape and direct such a history remained pervasive, and a careful reading of Wolf will show that he shared those views.

But for anthropology itself, this new material meant something different. First, as Roseberry once noted (1989), we tend to forget that before Steward’s Puerto Rico project, anthropologists were not at all attracted to the category peasant, still less peasantry. Wolf and Mintz’s work put the peasantry center stage and thereby made it possible for the younger generation to develop methods and concepts that revolved around the peculiar features of peasants within a larger social formation. And hence a whole challenge to the isolation of ethnographic work hitherto. In other words, the shift to the peasantry forced anthropologists to take into account the fields of force of capitalism and the state because the position of peasants made it impossible to do otherwise.

But what Peasant Wars especially did was to take up the challenge thrown down by people like Worsley with respect to cargo cults. Wolf began by asking the praxis question. I have suggested elsewhere that I think he answered it “at a distance,” in a sense (Smith 2006). He was interested in finding categories of social actors and seeing what roles they played in different kinds of insurgency. Subsequently, a younger generation powerfully influenced by his and Mintz’s work used fieldwork ethnography to ask questions, as it were, “from within” such struggles—Roseberry (1983), Donham (1999), Carol Smith (1985), Sider (2003), and Portelli (1997), for example. But this is another story.

But, taken together, after Wolf’s 1969 work, a) peasants could no longer be seen as the subjects of interest of merely second-rate anthropologists; and b) all anthropologists could no longer, with any sense of responsibility, not ask the question about the people they studied as the subjects of their own history. To use Garfinkle’s well-known phrase, anthropological subjects could no longer be treated as passive dopes, nor—it should be said—as romantic alternatives to Western ways of life.

These are the obvious points. The less obvious and perhaps more controversial issue is to remark on Wolf’s emphasis on the role of different forms of power throughout a social formation in configuring what he would probably call “culture.” American anthropologists of the next generation have been especially attracted to these insights, and at various points throughout his work, Roseberry (1989) tended to contrast this with a negative view of the employment of the social formation understood in terms of the articulation of modes of production by French anthropologists (and to a lesser extent British social anthropologists). As he saw it, the work of structured kinds of articulation between different kinds of social relations was used to explain colonial and post-colonial societies to the exclusion of careful histories of power relations in each case.

The question arises as to whether Wolf’s elaborations of forms of power was a more precise tool and one more faithful to the particularities of historical ethnography. Many will argue that Wolf’s later use (1982) of the notion of modes of production makes such a question obsolete. But I don’t think that is so. It was a great relief to Wolf to be released from the strictures of American self-censorship made necessary by the paranoia that still prevails in this country, and he was quite open with his acknowledgement of what Marxist work had done for his own analyses. But in the end he felt that forms of power trumped forms of economy even in a broad interpretation of the latter term.

As we know, for him there were three forms of power, of which the first should provide the entry point for the social analyst—that is, structural power—followed by tactical power (the maneuvers agents perform to gain resources and advantages over others) and idea-dependent power. Rejecting an older view of cultures as homogeneous entities, he proposed the following:

Once heterogeneity and variation are recognized, along with the awareness that the [cultures] described in those terms are likely to intertwine in wider fields of involvement…immediately then we must ask who and what is organized, by what kinds of imperatives, on what level…I believe we answer these questions by bringing together a concept of culture with structural power. (1999: 289–90)

So the more controversial point I would make about Wolf’s influence is whether his understandings of power were sufficient for allowing anthropologists to grapple with the difficulties of understanding the dynamic features of capitalism as such—that is, as a highly complex but inherent feature of all social formations dominated by its albeit varied principles of social reproduction.

Turning now to Hobsbawm, first the obvious point (and here I will be much briefer). His work on what he called “primitive rebels” is generally understood as a slavishly teleological study in which he organized the chapters in terms of a progression toward the instrumental organization and points of leverage that would lead to long-term revolutionary success. So the first chapter began a long distance from such features, while in a final chapter rural dwellers stand on the edge of real political leverage. The hesitancy of the Left, vis-à-vis the peasantry I mentioned earlier, here seems to provide the whole shape of the work itself. And as a younger neophyte to anthropology and to radical left politics, it certainly irritated me enough to write what I thought at the time was a damning critique of the approach.

But I think in retrospect we should not be so quick to dismiss the work in this way. Hobsbawm after all is, in my view, the historian of labor as it pertains to the organization of struggle: the role of labor organization and embedded social institutions in providing the essential basis from which to acquire leverage and hence the potential for real praxis. So the question that arises is why, then, did he spend so much of his early career researching and writing about these others forms of struggle—lying beyond the working class conventionally understood? The answer lies in taking these two rather different projects together, juxtaposing them alongside one another—something surely especially possible for anthropologists. And this might be particularly fruitful for our own conjuncture today.

So we might argue that what Hobsbawm was trying to do was to generate insights by bringing together two problematic issues for the revolutionary Left: the inclination of the organized working class toward social democratic instrumentalist pressures confined within the hegemonic arena of capital, and the apparently entirely enchanted world (to use Weber’s term) of the millenarian politics of those historically and perhaps now perpetually excluded from formal integration into the logic of capital. To use Alberto Toscano’s insight here, perhaps:

[The] anachronism [of millenarian anarchism] is not gauged [in Hobsbawm’s work] by a fixed standard of development, but by the ability of the exploited to find suitable ways…to ”interrupt” the historical hegemony of capitalism…and ultimately to undermine it. (2010: 52)

In which case, the juxtaposition Hobsbawm’s work represents might be one we would do well to think about in the current conjuncture: not the dismissal of old labor, its organizations and institutions on the one hand, nor the dismissal of the politics that argues that other worlds are possible on the other, but rather the persistent traveling across the threshold between the two.

So to sum up, and leaving aside what I am calling the more generally accepted readings of Wolf and Hobsbawm, I am proposing that there are two things we can learn from them for a current philosophy of praxis. First, we need to turn away from an understanding of the current world in terms of neoliberalism, either as a form of governance or as a kind of capitalism, and instead turn to an understanding of current capitalism in terms of the forms of power it makes possible. A beginning here would be to do much more analysis of actual dominant power blocs than anthropologists have been doing recently. Helped by the language of intellectuals still besotted by cultural studies, and a pervasive research design from the perspective of governmentality, the vaunted heights of capital have become increasingly shrouded in the clouds either of phenomenological doublespeak or of a fixation on state effects.

Second, we need to think about the threshold arena between the negotiated politics of established institutions of the Left and the abstractions so attractive to a kind of anarchic counter-politics voiced in terms of ethics and morals. Such a threshold is navigated with the aid of the three foci I mentioned at the outset: a) assessments of the conditions of possibility; b) identification of the key points of systemic weakness and hence leverage; and c) the crucial role of organization and leadership which, I would add, includes Wolf’s notion of ideational power and hence a Gramscian rethinking of the politics of intellectuals.

Gavin Smith is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Toronto. He has widely published on South America and Western Europe with a focus on the connection between the ways in which people make a livelihood and their forms of political expression. His book Intellectuals and (Counter-) Politics: Essays in Historical Realism came out in May 2014.

Balandier, Georges. 1988. Le désordre: éloge du movement. Paris: Fayard.

Donham, Donald L. 1999. History, power, ideology: Central issues in Marxist anthropology. Oakland: University of California.

Hobsbawm, Eric J. 1959. Primitive rebels: Studies in archaic forms of social movement in the 19th and 20th centuries. 3rd ed. New York: W. W. Norton

Portelli, Alessandro. 1997. The battle of Valle Giulia: Oral history and the art of dialogue. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Roseberry, William. 1983. Coffee and capitalism in the Venezuelan highlands. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Roseberry, William. 1989: Anthropologies and histories: Essays in culture, history and political economy. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Sider, Gerald. 2003. Between history and tomorrow: Making and breaking everyday life in rural Newfoundland, rev. edToronto: University of Toronto Press.

Smith, Carol. 1985. Local history in global context: Social and economic transitions in western Guatemala. Comparative Studies in Society and History 26(2).

Smith, Gavin. 2006. “Versions of history: intellectuals and political resistance.” Paper presented at York University, Toronto, ON, November.

Wolf, Eric R. 1969a. Peasant wars of the twentieth century. New York: Harper & Row.

Wolf, Eric R. 1982. Europe and the people without history. Oakland: University of California Press.

Worsley, Peter. 1957. The trumpet shall sound: A study of “cargo” cults in Melanesia. London: McGibbon & Kee.

Cite as: Smith, Gavin. 2014. “Intellectuals’ contributions to popular mobilization and strategic action under different conditions of possibility,” FocaalBlog, July 17,