Much has been written about socialism, for it and against it, from every conceivable political and academic vantage point. The contributions of social anthropology have hitherto been sparse, and for good reasons. The subject has long been associated with the study of the 'exotic' and the 'primitive', and with the persistence of small-scale 'traditional cultures' in the contemporary world. How could this discipline cast light on the large-scale upheavals brought about by the European intellectuals, radical social engineers and leaders of disciplined party organizations, who have been the principal agents of the most significant modernizing experiments of the industrial era? Many answers emerged in the papers and discussion during the three days of the ASA's 1991 conference, and the selection published in this volume bears testimony to the vitality and diversity of contemporary anthropology. 1 The papers should be accessible to a wide audience, both inside the discipline and outside it, and this introduction is an attempt to sketch a context which does not assume any prior familiarity with academic anthropology.
Readers should be aware that the conference was held in April 1991, after the collapse of socialist governments in Eastern Europe but before the disintegration of the Soviet Union. (At the time of writing in November 1991 it remains premature to speak of any collapse of socialist power in China.) The conference theme was in fact determined in spring 1989, before all the recent convulsions in Eurasia. The resulting papers consequently differ greatly in their emphases. Some of the papers on Eastern Europe offer analyses of apparently well-established socialist systems, with little direct reference to recent political developments (for example, the chapters by Pine and Stewart). Others present diachronic accounts from the perspective afforded by recent developments, though even then the author may place greater emphasis upon political and cultural continuities at the local level (for instance, Skalník). Ladislav Holy writes about the revolutionary moment itself in Czechoslovakia, whilst other authors address specific aspects of the transition to a post-socialist future, including