Pierre Clastres

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Pierre Clastres
Born (1934-05-11)11 May 1934
Paris, France
Died 29 July 1977(1977-07-29) (aged 43)
Gabriac, Lozère, France
School Political anthropology
Main interests
State  · Power  · War
Notable ideas
Society against the State  · Powerless chief  · Logic of prestige  · Centripetal and centrifugal force

Pierre Clastres (French pronunciation: ​[klastʁ]; 17 May 1934 – 29 July 1977) was a French anthropologist and ethnographer. He is best known for his fieldwork among the Guayaki, now better known as Aché, in Paraguay and his theory of stateless societies.

Life and career[edit]

Clastres was born on 17 May 1934, in Paris, France.[1] He started his academic trajectory as a Philosophy student,[2] and went into working with Anthropology in 1956 as student of Claude Lévi-Strauss.[3] Clastres's first published article was released in 1962,[4] a year before Clastres went into an eight-month trip to a Guayaki community in Paraguay.[5] The Guayaki's study served as base to an article for Journal de la Société des Américanistes, to his 1965 thesis (La vie social d'une tribu nomade: les Indiens Guayaki du Paraguay), to "The Bow and the Basket",[a] as well as to his first book, Chronicle of the Guayaki Indians (1972).[8]

In 1965 Clastres returned to Paraguay and, through Paraguayan ethnologist León Cadogan, he met the Guaraní—this rencontre led him to write Le Grand Parler (1974).[8] In 1966 and 1968 Clastres went into expeditions to Paraguayan groups of Chulupi people in the Gran Chaco region.[8] This experience was used to produce the essays "What Makes Indians Laugh"[b] and "Sorrows of the Savage Warrior."[c][8] In his fourth mission Clastres observed the Venezuelan Yanomami from 1970 to 1971 and wrote "The Last Frontier".[d][10] In 1974 he briefly visited the Guaraní which migrated from Paraguay to Brazil.[10]

In 1977 he took in part in the establishment of the journal Libre alongside the former members of Socialisme ou Barbarie Miguel Abensour, Cornelius Castoriadis, Marcel Gauchet, Claude Lefort and Maurice Luciani.[11] In this period Clastres, Abensour, Gauchet and Lefort founded a study-group that reedited Étienne de La Boétie's Discourse on Voluntary Servitude.[12] It was a scolary edition which included original texts by them;[13] Clastres contributed with "Liberté, malencontre, innommable dans".[14] Later that year, Clastres, aged 43, died in Gabriac, Lozère, on 29 July, in a car accident.[1][11]


Disenchanted with Communism after the raising of Stalinism, Clastres abandoned the French Communist Party in 1956,[15] seeking for a new point of view;[2] in François Dosse's words, for Clastres and other adherents of Lévi-Strauss's Structural anthropology, "it was a matter of locating societies that had been sheltered from the unitary map of Hegelian Marxist thinking, societies that were not classified in Stalinist handbooks."[2] Although initially adept of Structuralism, Abensour wrote that "Clastres is neither Structuralist, nor Marxist."[10] Similarly, Eduardo Viveiros de Castro declared Society Against the State and Archeology of Violence can be considered "the chapters of a virtual book that could be named Neither Marxism nor Structuralism."[16] For Clastres, in Viveiros de Castro's words, "both privileged economic rationality and suppressed political intentionality."[16]

According to Samuel Moyn, Clastres's first article, "Exchange and Power: Philosophy of the Indian Chieftainship",[e] "exhibited a vestigial structuralism" that he would abandon on subsequent essays.[17] On "Marxists and Their Anthropology"[f] Clastres criticised structuralist perspective on myth and kinship because it ignores their place of production—the society.[19] He said that, for structuralism, kinship only has the function to prohibite incest. "This function of kinship explains that men are not animals, [but] does not explain how primitive man is a particular man." It neglects that "kinship ties fulfill a determined function, inherent in primitive society as such, that is, an undivided society made up of equals: kinship, society, equality, even combat."[20] On myths, Clastres said, "The rite is the religious mediation between myth and society: but, for structuralist analysis, the difficulty stems from the fact that rites do not reflect upon each other. It is impossible to reflect upon them. Thus, exit the rite, and with it, society."[21]

With the Structuralism's crisis in the later 1960s, Marxist anthropology became an alternative to it.[18] Clastres, however, was critical of it because Marxism was developed on the context of capitalist societies and anthropologists were using it to analise non-capitalist societies.[22] On Clastres's perspective, according to Viveiros de Castro, "historical materialism was ethnocentric: it considered production the truth of society and labor the essence of the human condition."[16] However, it is not true for primitive societies since they live in a subsistence economy, in which not only they do not have to produce an economic excess but they refuse to do it.[23] In opposition to Marxist's economic determinism, Clastres wrote:

When, in primitive society, the economic dynamic lends itself to definition as a distinct and autonomous domain, when the activity of production becomes alienated, accountable labor, levied by men who will enjoy the fruits of that labor, what has come to pass is that society has been divided into rulers and ruled [...] Society's major division [...] is the new vertical ordering of things between a base and a summit; it is the great political cleavage between those who hold the force [...] and those subject to that force. The political relation of power precedes and founds the economic relation of exploration. Alienation is political before it is economic; power precedes labor; the economic derives from the political; the emergence of the State determines the advent of classes.

—Clastres, "Society Against the State"[24]

On the power[edit]

In refusing both Structuralism and Marxism, Clastres, in Moyn's words, "presented his own 'political anthropology' as the more plausible sequel or complement to structuralist analysis."[18] In his 1969 article "Copernicus and the Savages"[g] Clastres reviewed J. W. Lapierre's Essai sur le fondement du pouvoir politique, in which he said primitive societies were societies without power based on Max Weber's "conception of power as monopoly of State".[25] Clastres, however, argued that power does not imply coercion nor violence, and proposed a "Copernican revolution"[25] on political anthropology: "In order to escape the attraction of its native earth and attain real freedom of thought, in order to pull itself away from the facts of natural history in which it continues to flounder, reflection on power must effect a 'heliocentric' conversion."[26]

In another essay, "Exchange and Power", he argued that South American Indian chieftains were powerless chiefs; they were chosen on the basis of their oratorical talent.[27] And while they have the exclusive right to be polygamous, they have to be generous and offer gifts to their people.[27] However, it was not an exchange: they give and receive each independently; Clastres wrote, "this relationship, by denying these elements an exchange value at the group level, institutes the political sphere not only as external to the structure of the group, but further still, as negating that structure: power is contrary to the group, and the rejection of reciprocity, as the ontological dimension of society, is the rejection of society itself."[28] Thus, Clastres concluded that "the advent of power, such as it is, presents itself to these societies as the very means for nullifying that power."[28]

In Moyn's words, "[primitive societies] possessed a sense of the dialectic's catastrophic ending, and, out of their 'sense of democracy and taste for equality,' took steps, intentional if perhapsunconscious, to avoid its beginning."[28] And that is why this societies are not merely characterized as societies without a State, but societies against the State.[28] Viveiros de Castro explains its meaning as "referr[ing] to a modality of collective life based on the symbolic neutralization of political authority and the structural inhibition of ever-present tendencies to convert power, wealth and prestige into coercion, inequality and exploitation."[16] Clastres himself wrote:

what the Savages exhibit is the continual effort to prevent chiefs from being chiefs, the refusal of unification, the endeavor to exorcise the One, the State. It is said that the history of peoples who have a history is the history of class struggle. It might be said [...] that the history of peoples without history is the story of their struggle against the State.

—Clastres, "Society Against the State"[29]

On torture and war[edit]

On their struggle against the State, on keeping their society an egalitarian one, however, they use violent methods: torture and war.[30] Moyn said that Clastres "reinterpret[ed] the violence in primitive society as internal and essential to its selfimmunization against the rise of the state" and "compare[d] it favorably to the grandiose horrors of the statist, modern world."[31] To the first topic, he dedicated "Of Torture in Primitive Societies",[h] in which he argued torture in rites of passage had the function of prohibiting inequality:

The law they come to know in pain is the law of primitive society, which says to everyone: You are worth no more than anyone else; you are worth no less than anyone else. The law, inscribed on bodies, expresses primitive society's refusal to run the risk of division, the risk of a power separate from society itself, a power that would escape its control. Primitive law, cruelly taught, is a prohibition of inequality that each person will remember.

— Clastres, "Of Torture in Primitive Societies"[31]

As such, Clastres did not think on it as cruel; using Soviet Union penal tatoos on Anatoly Marchenko as example, Clastres affirmed: "It is proof of their admirable depth of mind that the Savages knew all that ahead of time, and took care, at the cost of a terrible cruelty, to prevent the advent of a more terrifying cruelty."[32]

On a similar fashion, Clastres argued that war could not be seen as problem but that it had a political reason.[33] He pointed it was not a constantly state of war like the Hobbesian proposition but that it occurred only between different groups.[34] He argued that internal war was purposeful and kept the group segmented, non-hierarchized;[34] according to Viveiros de Castro: "perpetual war was a mode of controlling both the temptation to control and the risk of being controlled. War keeps opposing the State, but the crucial difference for Clastres is that sociality is on the side of war, not of the sovereign."[35] Clastres stated:

For [Hobbes], the social link institutes itself between men due to "a common Power to keep them all in awe:" the State is against the war. What does primitive society as a sociological space of permanent war tell us in counter-point? It repeats Hobbes's discourse by reversing it; it proclaims that the machine of dispersion functions against the machine of unification; it tells us that war is against the State.

— Clastres, "Archeology of Violence: War in Primitive Societies"[36]

Selected works[edit]

  • Chronicle of the Guayaki Indians (Chronique des indiens Guayaki), 1972
  • Society Against the State (La Société contre l'État. Recherches d'anthropologie politique), 1974
  • Le Grand Parler. Mythes et chants sacrés des Indiens Guaraní, 1974
  • "Liberté, malencontre, innommable" In Étienne de La Boétie, Le Discours de la servitude volontaire ou le Contr'un, 1977
  • Archéologie de la violence. La guerre dans les sociétés primitives., 1977
  • Archeology of Violence (Recherches d'anthropologie politique), 1980

See also[edit]



  1. ^ The title used is the translation by Hurley and Stein in Zone Books's edition of Society Against the State.[6] It was originally published on L'Homme as "L'arc et le panier" in 1966.[7]
  2. ^ The title used is the translation by Hurley and Stein in Zone Books's edition of Society Against the State.[6] It was originally published on Les Temps modernes as "De quoi rient les Indiens?" in 1967.[8]
  3. ^ The title used is the translation by Herman in Semiotext(e)'s edition of Archeology of Violence.[9] It was originally published on Libre as "Malheur du guerrier sauvage" in 1977.[8]
  4. ^ The title used is the translation by Herman in Semiotext(e)'s edition of Archeology of Violence.[9] It was originally published on Les Temps modernes as "Le dernier cercle" in 1971.[10]
  5. ^ The title used is the translation by Hurley and Stein in Zone Books's edition of Society Against the State.[6] It was originally published on journal L'Homme as "Échange et pouvoir: philosophie de la chefferie indienne".[4]
  6. ^ The title used is the translation by Herman in Semiotext(e)'s edition of Archeology of Violence.[9] It was originally published on Libre as "Les Marxistes et leur anthropologie" in 1978.[18]
  7. ^ The title used is the translation by Hurley and Stein in Zone Books's edition of Society Against the State.[6] It was originally published as "Copernic et les sauvages" in 1969.[25]
  8. ^ The title used is the translation by Hurley and Stein in Zone Books's edition of Society Against the State.[6] It was originally published on L'Homme as "De la torture dans les soci´et´es primitives".[31]


  1. ^ a b BnF.
  2. ^ a b c Moyn 2004, p. 57.
  3. ^ Moyn 2004, p. 57-58.
  4. ^ a b Moyn 2004, p. 58.
  5. ^ Moyn 2004, p. 61.
  6. ^ a b c d e Clastres 1989, "Contents".
  7. ^ Abensour 2007, p. 90.
  8. ^ a b c d e f Abensour 2007, p. 52.
  9. ^ a b c Clastres 2010, "Contents".
  10. ^ a b c d Abensour 2007, p. 53.
  11. ^ a b Delacampagne 1997, p. 103.
  12. ^ Howard 2013, p. 22.
  13. ^ Curtis 2000, p. XV.
  14. ^ Curtis 2000, p. XXXII.
  15. ^ Viveiros de Castro 2010, p. 10.
  16. ^ a b c d Viveiros de Castro 2010, p. 12.
  17. ^ Moyn 2004, p. 62.
  18. ^ a b c Moyn 2004, p. 63.
  19. ^ Abensour 2007, p. 54.
  20. ^ Clastres 2010, p. 223.
  21. ^ Clastres 2010, p. 224.
  22. ^ Abensour 2007, p. 54-56.
  23. ^ Clastres 1989, p. 195.
  24. ^ Clastres 1989, p. 198.
  25. ^ a b c Moyn 2004, p. 64.
  26. ^ Moyn 2004, p. 65.
  27. ^ a b Moyn 2004, p. 59.
  28. ^ a b c d Moyn 2004, p. 60.
  29. ^ Clastres 1989, p. 218.
  30. ^ Moyn 2004, p. 66-67.
  31. ^ a b c Moyn 2004, p. 67.
  32. ^ Moyn 2004, p. 68.
  33. ^ Moyn 2004, p. 69-70.
  34. ^ a b Moyn 2004, p. 70.
  35. ^ Viveiros de Castro 2010, p. 13.
  36. ^ Clastres 2010, p. 277.


Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]