The thesis of the present volume was first aired in The Oriental, the Ancient and the Primitive (1990) and the violence done to Asian societies by Euro-centric historiography received a comprehensive rebuttal in The East in the West (1996). Since then Goody has tackled Islam in Europe (2003) and Capitalism and Modernity (2004). Reflecting a general trend in anthropology, Africa has dropped out of focus in favour of a critical attempt to get western scholars to re-examine themselves and to acknowledge that the grounds for asserting a long-term superiority to Asia are non-existent.
So what are the specific arguments of this book? Perhaps the most significant result of the West’s global hegemony has been to impose a universal system of time-space on the rest of the world. The Theft of History kicks off with a brief sketch of how this came about, emphasizing the distortions of world history that have accompanied this development. Europe’s claim to having diverged from a Bronze Age civilization whose heartland was in Asia through the ancient Greeks and Romans goes back to the Renaissance, but it took on particular salience in the age of western imperialism. Goody sifts patiently through the arguments for their unique achievements in culture, economy, politics and law, showing that writers like Moses Finley (1973) and Karl Polanyi (1957) rely on the invocation of notions like ‘genius’ or arbitrary categories to shore up inconsistent and erroneous propositions. He refuses, however, to go as far as Martin Bernal in Black Athena (1987) who derived much of Greek culture from Egypt and claimed that the separation of ancient Greece from the rest of the Eastern Mediterranean was an invention of racist imperialism in the nineteenth century. Goody’s reasons for maintaining distance from Bernal, apart from feeling that his linguistic evidence is shaky, are that Europeans have no more of a monopoly on ethnocentrism than of other cultural traits and that they adopted racist attitudes to their Mediterranean neighbours long before they were in a position to conquer the world...
To return to the empirical fact of Western imperial domination in 1900 with which I began, this can now be seen as the midpoint in an unparalleled transformation of world society over the last two centuries. In 1800, the world’s population was around 1 billion, having grown slowly over ten millennia of agricultural production; only 1 in 40 human beings then lived in an urban settlement; almost all the energy people used came from animals and plants; as Goody points out, China was still the world’s economic powerhouse and Europeans had only a toehold on most of the planet. By 2000, the world’s population had grown to 6 billions, doubling in the previous forty years, while Europe’s indigenous population went into reverse; almost half of humanity lived in cities; and this was made possible by increased use of machines as converters of inanimate energy, once coal and now oil. The latest stage of mechanization was a digital revolution in communications whose symbol is the internet. Before that, the most powerful social movement for a century had been the anti-colonial revolution — the drive of peoples forced into world society by western imperialism to establish their own direct relationship to it. It seems quite plausible today that America and Europe will soon be replaced as the engines of world society by countries like India, China, Brazil and Russia whose peoples were not long ago subject to the kind of cultural condescension whose premises Goody undercuts so comprehensively in this book.
Jack Goody is right to point out that, among his anthropological contemporaries, only Eric Wolf has attempted world history on a similar scale, especially in Europe and the Peoples without History (1982). He acknowledges with approval Wolf’s decision to coin the term ‘tributary states’ for a range of pre-industrial societies that might otherwise be named ‘feudal’, ‘Asiatic’ or something else. Between them they have kept alive the anthropology of unequal society that Lewis H. Morgan (1877) and Friedrich Engels (1884) took from Rousseau (1754) and passed on to twentieth-century Marxists like Gordon Childe (1942). Modern ethnographers have been highly critical of western complacency, but their examples have generally been taken out of the context of world history as a consequence of rejecting methods that were tainted by association with Victorian imperialism and racism. Whatever the limitations of his approach, Goody has excavated a new anthropological vision of our world that is bound to become even more salient as the present century unfolds.