Of Savagery and Civil Society: Pierre Clastres and the Transformation of French Political Thought

Moyn, Samuel

This essay examines the thought of the French anthropologist Pierre Clastres (1938-1977). It situates his once-famous depiction of savage politics as a premonitory rejection of the state at the crossroads of several traditions, long- and short-term. First, Clastres's thought resonates with the primitivistic appeal by French "moralists" since the early modern period to the lifestyle of prehistoric societies; second, it casts light on the history of French anthropology in the crisis years of structuralism; and third, it reflects the revival of Friedrich Nietzsche in French thought of the era. Above all, however, the essay explains Clastres's thought as an attempt to resist and to overcome the well-known communist allegiances of postwar French intellectuals. Early in rejecting communism, Clastres owed his prominence to the 1970s popularization of the critique of "totalitarianism." The so-called "passing of an illusion" of communism, one version of which Clastres pioneered, is often interpreted as the replacement of confusion with truth. It is more interesting, the essay suggests, to situate it in its time, as a complex achievement as defective as it was creative, if Clastres's thought is taken as an example. In closing, the essay suggests some legacies, often unintentional, Clastres left behind in French political thought of the years since his death.



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Modern Intellectual History

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April 27, 2010