Political Sociology: A Reader

By S. N. Eisenstadt | Go to book overview

A. PRIMITIVE POLITICAL SYSTEMS

CHAPTER II

The Embedment of the Political
in Social Structure in Primitive Societies:
Introduction

I

The fascination with primitive political systems is of long standing in the history of political and social thought and theory, and has its roots in the assumed equivalence between primitive and elementary. It was often believed, or tacitly assumed, that in a simple society, the simplest, most basic elements of social behavior and relations in general and of political behavior and relations in particular can be discerned and that it is there that the basic nature of pure politics has remained unadulterated by any additions derived from the accumulation of more complex superstructures. This assertion or assumption may seem rather paradoxical, as it has been quite obvious that primitive (or simple) societies are, by definition, the least differentiated or specialized. Hence, they lack also any highly developed and centralized political institution; or, to use a very widespread term, they are "stateless." 1

But in some ways it was indeed this simplicity or statelessness of primitive societies that seemed to justify their special importance for political and sociological analysis. In older evolutionary theories, it was believed that it is in the transition from the stateless to the first states, in situations of so-called "origin of the state," that this pure essence of politics could be found and fully analyzed. This view equated this pure essence of politics or of state with exploitation in general and with conquest in particular and with the possibility of accumulating some surplus which can then be exploited and monopolized by the rulers and used by them, in turn, to maintain their coercive powers. The fullest expression of this view could be found in Franz Oppenheimer's famous The State. 2 It was, however, also very widespread among many sociologists and anthropologists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

This assumption tended to persist, even if in a modified way, among modern approaches, too, such as those of Sahlins, Diamond, and Krader, 3 who do not fully accept such simple evolutionary or historical views. Among other scholars it was the very lack of full-fledged political institutions in primitive societies that indeed seemed to make possible the analysis of the pure nature of the political struggle or process, disembedded, as it were, from the "external" paraphernalia of formal political institutions.

In order to be able to evaluate the extent to which these assumptions and approaches contain an element of truth, and hence to evaluate the importance of the analysis of primitive political systems for political sociology, it is necessary to examine them from the point of view of the major problems and criteria of analysis which have been presented above.

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