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Colin Barker

African Rebels

(Autumn 1963)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.14, Autumn 1963, p.39.
Thanks to Ted Crawford & the late Will Fancy.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Order and Rebellion in Tribal Africa
Max Gluckman
Cohen & West. 32s.

Impossible to review this book adequately. It is a collection of essays on various anthropological themes, lineage systems, rituals of rebellion, primitive law, Mau Mau, etc., prefaced by a long introduction where Professor Gluckman describes how his own ideas on processes of change in African societies and on wider issues of sociological explanation have developed. What comes out of these essays very strongly is a sense of the difficulty of good social analysis, something that not only Marxists but also contemporary sociologists too easily forget. This is not an easy book to read, because of its very subtlety and complexity, but fresh ideas and approaches spring out from the pages, often as brilliant asides left for the reader to develop. Gluckman suggests (pp.81-2) that comparison between different societies is not possible: ‘they are too overladen with reality’. Even classification is difficult, so ‘interwoven into incommensurable complexities’ is people’s social life. But comparison may be possible between ‘social processes’ – e.g. cycles of civil war, or indeed the trade cycle.

In his discussion of Mau Mau and its obscene rituals he underplays, I think, the straightforward political side. There was more political direction to Mau Mau than Gluckman seems to allow, though magical elements were clearly of profound importance. But throughout the book concrete detail and theory are meshed together beautifully; on the showing of this volume it seems that socialists may have more to learn from anthropology than from the sad wastes of much contemporary sociology.

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Last updated: 24 March 2010