Richard Blanton

One of the most frequently repeated claims in the social history literature is that good government and democracy were radical Western departures from traditional forms of premodern governance mired in autocracy. The prevailing Western theory of human social evolution has been one source validating this kind of Eurocentric and progressivistic thinking. Yet, recent empirical investigations and a turn to new theoretical frameworks challenge the prevailing social evolutionary theory. Data on pre-Colonial state formation in sub-Saharan Africa, that had been largely ignored or misinterpreted by social evolutionists, has been one stimulating source for this rethinking. Good government, thought to be the essence of contemporary democracy, has been understood as a recent contribution of the Western world to humanity (as Charles Tilly expressed it (1975: 608), democracy “moved from the West to the rest of the world”). Western theories of human social evolution have validated this Eurocentric and progressivistic thinking, based on the assumption that premodern states remained mired in autocracy until the advent of Westerninspired political enlightenment. I describe recent challenges to progressivistic social evolutionary theory, but my main objective is to argue that data from pre-Colonial sub-Saharan African state formation, that had been relegated to a “primitive” and unimportant stage of social evolution, has been and will continue to be a valuable source for new theory?

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