"Time to rethink state origins?" Dayton Daily News (July 4, 1976)

Review of Origins of the State and Civilization, by Elman Service (W. W. Norton), 361 pages.

Reviewed by Gordon Welty
Wright State University
Dayton, OH 45435 USA

How did government begin? Today, when many Americans feel more bedeviled than blessed by government, the question arouses broad interest. Elman Service, professor of anthropology at the University of California at Santa Barbara, proposes an answer.

Service describes his as a non-Marxist book on the origins of the state. His theme is the role of the bureaucracy in the redistribution of gifts (the "potlatch" of the Pacific Northwest Amerindians) in the chiefdom, defined as state of the development of society coming between the primitive stateless band and institutionalized political systems. This stage appears to include the Homeric Greek gentile society. Thus Service holds that "political power organized the economy."

If true, this gives Service's book a crucial significance. Most of the current discussion of overcoming alienated social relations involves suppositions about the permanence of bureaucracy. Trotsky held that bureaucracy significantly shapes or distorts socialist society. Following Trotsky in some important respects, Service can be read to the effect that bureaucracy significantly shapes any society. As he acknowledges, his book will be controversial.

In fact, Service is responding to Frederick Engels' famous book on the Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, and especially to its recent restatement by the eminent British archaeologist, Gordon Childe.

There has lately been a revival of interest in Engels' book, due in part to the recognition by feminists that the oppression of women in the family might coincide with the emergence of individual proprietary interests, and the development of the state as an institution to formalize that oppression through marriage as well as to facilitate and defend other proprietary interests through titles, deeds, etc.

Unlike Service, who assumes that any and all societies have a hierarchial sex status, Engels argues that the primitive equality of all, men and women alike, was superseded by patriarchal tribes such as we read of in the Books of Moses. Tribal councils were themselves superseded in turn by the state.

This revival of interest has apparently only lightly touched Service as he shows only a limited or more charitably, perhaps, a distant acquaintance with Engels. For instance, he doesn't seem to know of the Ethnological Notebooks on which Engels based his work. But Service does refer to the earlier 1857-58 Notebooks, which were published in part as Pre-capitalist Economic Formations in 1965. This becomes one of the most bizarre aspects of Service's entire work.

Service criticizes those who suppose that "merchants profit making" created wealth which in turn created political power. But no competent historian (or, more properly, prehistorian), especially not Engels, ever supposed that commercial interests were anything but a late social development. Since Service cannot tag Engels with this ignorance, he identifies it instead as "common capitalist ideology," which is something else indeed!

While Engels emphasizes the significance of pre-capitalist economic formations for what were, after all, pre-capitalist societies, baldly stating for instance that the chief was not a "property owner in the modern sense of the term," Service continually refers to capitalists, ownership, profits and market economies.

So the book is indeed non-Marxist, but not in the sense Service supposes. Its solid portions are Parts Two and Three, where he summarizes the ethnography of the emergence of African and Polynesian kingdoms and the Cherokee state, and the archaeology of the six archaic hydraulic civilizations. In an interesting epilogue, he proposes that the nation best situated to solve industrialization without incurring ecological destruction and other undesirable side effects is China.