The origin and nature of the state has been at the heart of political theory from the time of Plato and Aristotle. While speculations about man’s primal innocence in a state of nature cannot be taken seriously as science, they continue to influence political propaganda. Liberal philosophers like Rawls and Nozick continue to write about man’s natural equality or our natural rights as if they could actually see them lying on the dewy earth of Eden, waiting to be picked up by our “general mother” (and father). And some Marxists of more than ordinary credulity still write about the origin of private property and the oppressive state in language that would have warmed the heart of Friedrich Engels. Despite certain differences, Eli Sagan clearly fits the Engels mold.

In Sagan’s view, the state is by its very nature oppressive. In what purports to be a study in comparative ethnology, he surveys the rise of the state among the Baganda of Africa and on the islands of Tonga, Tahiti, and the Hawaiian chain. His central thesis, derived from lucid books of Elman Service, is unimpeachable: the state represents a break from the most primitive level of social organization in which kinship and politics are almost synonymous. Along the way, he makes a number of useful observations—none of them particularly original: architects of the state are often concerned with breaking up family unity and tend to behave like the tyrants described by Herodotus: they make themselves rich and commit sexual outrages. In addition, the narratives of native politicians make for interesting reading. On balance, however, the work does more harm than good.

Many of the sins are of omission. Sagan thinks, for example, that kinship is natural but the urge for power is not. In neither case does he display the least familiarity with the swelling literature on the biological basis for kinship—no mention of the contributions of Trivers, Hamilton, Fox, et al. Worse, his assumption that man is by nature a friendly, egalitarian creature needs at least some proof in an age when books are written describing the human species as innately aggressive, territorial, and hierarchical.

Sagan’s indifference to evidence extends to his discussion of native cultures. It is clear that the Hawaiian state is a secondary formation, made possible by the arrival of Europeans and European firearms. In Buganda the situation is less clear-cut, but the very fact that there were European witnesses gives at least some indication that the rapid growth of the Bugandan state was not entirely a homegrown affair. What he does find time to discuss, however, are the entirely irrelevant speculations of Sigmund and Anna Freud. Throw in a plea for the innocence of Sacco and Vanzetti, diatribes against capitalism, a subjective narrative style that would be out of place even in a novel (the text is peppered with “we may assume” and “surely” and “probably”), and the result is a stellar piece of political pornography with no redeeming social value. (TF)


[At the Dawn of Tyranny: The Origins of Individualism, Political Oppression, and the State, by Eli Sagan; New York: Alfred A. Knopf]