The Gift Revisited: Marcel Mauss on War, Debt, and the Politics of Reparations


  • Address correspondence to: Grégoire Mallard, Department of Sociology, Northwestern University, 1810 Chicago Avenue, Evanston, IL 60208-1330. Tel.: 312-789-5607; E-mail: I would like to thank the following individuals for their helpful remarks Reut Paz, Marcel Fournier, Bruce Carruthers, Kim Lane Scheppele, Alain Chenu, Charles Camic, Augustin Simard, Frédéric Merand, and the participants of a workshop at Sciencespo where I presented this article in April 2011


This article offers a new interpretation of Marcel Mauss's The Gift. It situates Mauss's argument within his broader thinking on the politics of sovereign debt cancellation and the question of German reparations paid to the Allies after World War I. Mauss applauded the policies of reparation and debt cancellation proposed by the French “solidarist” activists who were responsible for inclusion of reparations provisions in the Versailles Treaty. But Mauss was also aware that their legal mobilization could not by itself restore a sense of solidarity among European peoples. Broader systems of political alliance and anthropological norms of gift-making were also necessary. In Mauss's writings on war reparations, as in The Gift, he described the legal, political, and macrostructural dynamics at work in the settlement of reparations and sovereign debts, which he differentiated from the dynamics at work in the speculative logics of financial capitalism. In doing so, Mauss provided insights into the settlement of sovereign debt crises, which still agitate the international community today.