The Gift is in a direct line of descent from Durkheim’s The Division of Labor in Society, published over three decades before. If Durkheim referred somewhat vaguely to the non-contractual element in the contract, this essay is focused explicitly on that issue. Mauss summarily eliminates the two utilitarian ideologies that purport to account for the evolution of contracts: “natural economy,” Smith’s idea that individual barter was aboriginal; and the notion that primitive communities were altruistic, giving way eventually to our own regrettably selfish, but more efficient individualism. Against the contemporary move to replace markets with communist states, he insists that the complex interplay between individual freedom and social obligation is synonymous with the human condition and that markets and money are universal, if not in their current impersonal form. In this way he fleshes out his uncle’s social agenda, but also questions the accuracy of his model of mechanical solidarity for stateless societies.
Mauss married his secretary in 1934 and she was soon bed-ridden after an incident involving poisonous gas. He suffered a prolonged sequence of personal bereavements throughout the second half of his life; and was forced out of his job and spacious apartment by the German occupation of Paris (but escaped being sent to Buchenwald). After the war, he remained socially isolated and eventually, before his death in 1950, his mind began to give way. A new school of French ethnographers was happy to claim him as their inspiration; and his international reputation, which was already considerable, has continued to grow ever since. In the same year as his death, Claude Lévi-Strauss edited and introduced a collection of his principal essays (Marcel Mauss: Sociologie et anthropologie), Mauss’s first and only book-length publication. Despite ongoing evidence that these essays have not been closely read by the bulk of anthropologists, Mauss’s reputation as a founder of the modern discipline appears to be secure; and every undergraduate student of anthropology in the world at least pays lip service to having read The Gift.
Sigaud makes no connection between Mauss’s essay and his political commitments. The trajectory she describes is a purely academic one. As a result, when trying to account for the remarkable discontinuity between what Mauss wrote and what he is now thought to have written, she relies for explanation on the cult of personality and the power of gossip in small-scale oral communities such as academic anthropology. In fact, Chris Gregory launched the modern trend with his book, Gifts and Commodities, even though, as he states in Savage Money,
Since the early 1970s, Marcel Mauss’s Essai sur le Don (1923), translated into English as The Gift in 1954, has been a standard reference in the social science and bioethical literature on the use of human body parts and substances for medical and research purposes. At that time, three social scientists—political scientist Richard Titmuss in the United Kingdom and sociologist Renée C. Fox working with historian Judith Swazey in the United States—had the idea of using this concept to highlight the fundamental structure of the biomedical practices they were studying, respectively, blood donation, and hemodialysis and organ transplantation. The fact that these first applications of Mauss’s essay should emerge in English- rather than in French-speaking countries raises the question of what the translation of the essay, and notably of the word don as gift, may have to do with this fact. Reading Mauss in translation undoubtedly inspired a seminal approach to interpreting medical and research practices based on bodily giving. This article posits that something may have also been lost: a much broader concept of giving with unquestionable links to the Durkheimian concept of solidarity, which Mauss conceptualizes not only as an obligation but also as a liberty to give.