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“Europe and the People Without History” by Eric Wolf


The book “Europe and the People without History” proposes a unique understanding of history and historical development of the world. The author claims that Europe had a great impact on other parts ft he world which adopted its economic, political and cultural patterns. Due to the tumults and intensity of the struggle, social, political, and ideological cleavages become polarized, each faction or camp more determined not only to survive in the hostile atmosphere but also to legitimize itself as the rightful heir of the change.

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Thesis Europe and its history should be seen as a driver of social, political and economic change borrowed and adopted by other parts of the world.

Main body

Eric Wolf states that there are two major considerations to bear in mind here. The first is that many key figures in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries vigorously expressed their view that they were proposing some very new and very important changes in knowledge of natural reality and in the practices by which legitimate knowledge was to be secured, assessed, and communicated. They identified themselves as “moderns” set against “ancient” modes of thought and practice. Our sense of radical change afoot comes substantially from them (and those who were the object of their attacks), and is not simply the creation of mid-twentieth-century historians. So people can say that the seventeenth century witnessed some self-conscious and large-scale attempts to change belief, and ways of securing belief, about the natural world. The discussion about the Scientific Revolution can legitimately tell a story about those attempts, whether or not they succeeded, whether or not they were contested in the local culture, whether or not they were wholly coherent.

Eric Wolf argues that before the scientific and Industrial revolution, societies were characterized by a lack of social control, a product both of the political incapacitation of the regime, and magnified and intense revolutionary social change. Political activity took place within a context of changing social and political symbols, the very perceptions that society had of the state having greatly changed. Increased political participation aimed at capturing state institutions in turn polarizes diverging social and political tendencies, while at the same time enhancing the power of independent conceptualization. Efforts aimed at wresting political power away from the regime, meanwhile, result in the development of a host of norms and values supporting political struggle. Specifically, a heightened sense of nationalism and a symbolic upholding of the value of martyrdom become strikingly prevalent, particularly among those social groups who were at the forefront of the political struggle. The society, in essence, becomes just as revolutionized as the state. “European expansion everywhere encountered human societies and cultures characterized by long and complex histories” (Wolf x).

The past is not transformed into the “modern world” at any single moment: people should never be surprised to find that seventeenth century scientific practitioners often had about them as much of the ancient as the modern; their notions had to be successively transformed and redefined by generations of thinkers to become “ours.” And finally, the people, the thoughts, and the practices historians tell stories about as “ancestors,” or as the beginnings of our lineage, always reflect some present-day interest. That historians tell stories about Galileo, Boyle, Descartes, and Newton reflects something about our late twentieth-century scientific beliefs and what historians value about those beliefs. For different purposes researchers could trace aspects of the modern world back to philosophers “vanquished” by Galileo, Boyle, Descartes, and Newton, and to views of nature and knowledge very different from those elaborated by our officially sanctioned scientific ancestors. For still other purposes historians could make much of the fact that most seventeenth-century people had never heard of our scientific ancestors and probably entertained beliefs about the natural world very different from those of our chosen forebears. Indeed, the overwhelming majority of seventeenth-century people did not live in Europe, did not know that they lived in “the seventeenth century,” and were not aware that a Scientific Revolution was happening. The half of the European population that was female was in a position to participate in scientific culture scarcely at all, as was that overwhelming majority–of men and women–who were illiterate or otherwise disqualified from entering the venues of formal learning. ““Since much of this history involved the rise and spread of capitalism, the term ‘Europe’ can also be read as shorthand for the growth of that mode of production” (Wolf x).

Eric Wolf underlines that new production methods and scientific discoveries changed the world. Structural change does not happen overnight. There is an inherent danger of imagining that important transformations never occurred, simply because these transformations occurred only gradually over time. Yet the main purpose of economic history must be to determine why some economies perform differently from others over long periods of time. And England from about 1750 began to undergo changes that did not occur elsewhere for decades. The English Industrial Revolution ushered in the modern world of technological change, factories, new products, and industrial concentration. “The concept of mode of production aims…at revealing the political-economic relationships that underlie, orient, and constrain interactions in a society” (Wolf 76). It happened, it was important, and there are reasons why it happened when and where it did. The fact that per-capita income grew slowly, or that labor was only gradually transferred from one sector to another changes this not at all.

A work such as this, while shedding light on a number of important questions, also raises some new ones. There are two approaches to economic history: one is to select one’s favorite analytical tools and hunt around for a place to apply them; the other is to look at interesting historical questions and then choose the most suitable tools for analyzing them. Both, perhaps, have their place. A related question is why western Europe as a whole was so far ahead of the rest of the world in terms of transport development. Not only is this issue important in its own right for shedding light on Europe’s eventual rise to world dominance, but it could also provide insight into the role of imperialism in European economic development. The coincidental occurrence of colonialism and industrialism has led many scholars to imagine that there must be some line of causation from one to the other. However, it would seem that both could be traced back to an early time when growth encouraged the expansion of both internal and external transport links. Agricultural produce generally has a low value/bulk ratio and therefore the effective market available to individual farmers is greatly dependent on the availability of low-cost transport, by road or water.

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Yet despite the appearance of the mutual desire of both state and society for popular political input has the potential of engendering conflict. For while the exclusionary state aims at encouraging controlled forms of participation, not all social actors desire to partake in guided displays of political expression. The internal conflicts among competing heirs to the revolution which characterize European states in their initial phases of establishment in turn resonate to a conflict of the same nature between social actors and the state. Since economic changes lead to a temporary collapse of the repressive capacities of the government, they invariably result in a period of non-existent or at best minimal social control. Society has become liberated, not just politically but culturally as well. It is embroiled in a process of formulating new values and symbols, new patterns of conduct and new expectations. But the eventual victors of the struggle, those who can subdue their previous colleagues and hegemonize the state, are willing to support such new cultural symbols and values only insofar as they suit their immediate political ends.

The impact of capitalism on the world was achieved through integration processes and trade relations. With a zeal and determination uncharacteristic of past regimes, new elites seek to inculcate among the populace those values and norms which they consider to be the correct ones. These new values form the basis of their legitimacy, and their popular acceptance is central to the success of the new regime. The tensions which accompany the inculcation of a new cultural frame of reference are compounded by characteristics which societies themselves assume as a result of the political and social experience. Specifically, the divisions which invariably characterize all societies become polarized as a result of the new social experience.

As the economic and social change progresses, the stakes become higher. What were once faint and muted differences–be they ethnic, social, cultural, political, or religious in origin–become increasingly cohesive, mutually exclusive tendencies, each being hardened as it undergoes (and to a certain extent carries forward) the process. Unspoken pacts and implicit arrangements which previously kept disparate social, ethnic, and economic groups in seeming harmony break up and often degenerate into open warfare, the political glue which once kept them together having come apart. Frictions and subtle maneuvers, carried out with a sense of gentility for the sake of a semblance of unity, soon give way to conflicts which increasingly assume something of a sectarian character. Polarization occurs at two particular levels. On a general level, the advent and course of the movement politicizes the population and, even after a state has been firmly established, intensifies political beliefs and orientations. But polarization occurs on a more fundamental level also, involving the various tendencies which differentiate the various cultural orientations of new societies. Often after much disquiet, the ensuing political chaos is finally subdued as the New Order consolidates itself. But because social and cultural values are deeply held and concern people’s private attitudes and thoughts, it takes longer for new, dominant cultural forms to emerge, and even longer for them to take hold. Social mosaics break apart, not to be reconstructed until well after new leaders can enforce their own cultural hegemony. People with differing orientations vie for greater cultural hegemony, attempting to mold the emerging norms of the New Society according to their own orientations and perceptions.


In sum, the economic, political and cultural changes in Europe can be seen as a stating point of all global transformations and changes formed in Europe. Apart from the new political direction which states try to lead their societies in, there is an attempt from within societies to rethink cultural priorities, reformulate dominant values, and redirect social energies.

Works Cited

Wolf, E. Europe and the People without History. University of California Press; 1 edition, 1982.

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StudyCorgi. (2021, October 21). “Europe and the People Without History” by Eric Wolf.

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"“Europe and the People Without History” by Eric Wolf." StudyCorgi, 21 Oct. 2021,

1. StudyCorgi. "“Europe and the People Without History” by Eric Wolf." October 21, 2021.


StudyCorgi. "“Europe and the People Without History” by Eric Wolf." October 21, 2021.


StudyCorgi. 2021. "“Europe and the People Without History” by Eric Wolf." October 21, 2021.


StudyCorgi. (2021) '“Europe and the People Without History” by Eric Wolf'. 21 October.

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