Marx, Karl: Impact on Anthropology

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Marx, Karl: Impact on Anthropology






Karl Marx was born in the Trier of the German Rhineland in 1818. He studied law and philosophy in Bonn and Berlin, completing a doctorate at the University of Jena in 1841. His thesis, The Difference between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature, explored the earliest materialist philosophies of the two Greek atomists, and demonstrates the inception of a nascent scholarly interest in crafting a sophisticated materialist critique of German idealism. Not surprisingly, his earliest writings, The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts (1844), as well as the unpublished Theses on Feuerbach (1845) and The German Ideology (1845), all represent attempts to conceptualize a practice-oriented methodology for analyzing history and society. This historical materialist approach evidences the first engagements between Marx and the work of nineteenth-century anthropology, particularly the writings of Lewis Henry Morgan (18181881), Sir Henry Maine (18221888), and Johann Jakob Bachofen (18151887). Within archaeology, Marx and his frequent coauthor Friedrich Engels (18201895) had a profound impact on the cultural historical approach of V. Gordon Childe (18921957) in the early twentieth century. And Marx continues to have an important influence on a range of archaeological approaches today, including new structuralist approaches to class analysis (e.g., Saitta 1994). But within sociocultu-ral anthropology, overt reference to Marx did not reemerge until the 1960s. Although much of the reluctance to engage Marx through the first part of the twentieth century can be attributed to a disciplinary reaction against evolutionary theoretical models (especially in U.S. and Canadian anthropology), by the 1940s and 1950s the omission was clearly the product of outright political and scholarly censorship during the red scares and McCarthyism of that period. This had the effect of suppressing and ideologically orienting the contributions of U.S. anthropology, which were becoming increasingly dominant globally. As David Price (2004) has shown convincingly, the FBIs intrusions into anthropology during this period were extensive, frustrating and dismantling careers of anyone with activist interests, particularly anthropologists concerned with racial equity and desegregation. Anthropologists with obvious Marxist influence (e.g., Julian Steward and his students, Leslie White, and many others) were not able to claim that influence until the civil rights movement of the 1960s, when broad populist concern with social justice and widespread public disapproval over U.S. actions in Southeast Asia ushered in a new era of social activism.

When Marx did reemerge as a prominent influence in anthropology in the 1960s, he did so in three social theoretical manifestations: through a discussion of the relationship or articulation between capitalist and precapitalist social forms (particularly within the French Marxist tradition); through an investigation of the mechanics and practice of politics and ideological and class formation; and finally through an interrogation of capitalist influence on non-Western settings (laudably within the cultural ecological and political economic traditions, especially in the United States).


A common rejection of Marx stems from the critique that his historical approach was evolutionary and ethnocentrically focused on the socioeconomic experiences of Europe. As a result, many believe his method to be inapplicable to contemporary non-Western societies. Indeed, this explains why in the early twentieth century Marx had a more relevant impact on archaeology than on sociocultural anthropology, which had become frustrated with the unilinear evolutionary claims of nineteenth-century anthropology. In answering this charge, the French Marxist tradition has been particularly interested in the relationship between global and local socioeconomic systems, questioning the relevance of Marx to the study of non-Western societies, particularly in Marxs later works such as the first French editions of Capital, volume 1 ([1867] 1990a) and Grundrisse ([1857] 1978), as well as a long list of unpublished papers and notes. The 1964 publication of Pre-Capitalist Economic Formations, with historian Eric Hobsbawms insightful introduction, provided Marxs notes from 1857 to 1858, framing his conceptualization of the development of economic forms in human history. French Marxist anthropologists drew upon Marxs observations and their own studies of non-Western (principally African and Papuan) societies to query the analysis of societies without centralized political systems. In discussing such societies, where political relationships were based more on kinship or other traditional nonstate forms, they sought to develop a theory of materialism and structural analysis of modes of production that adequately explained transitions between various historical stages (instead of the transitions from feudalism to capitalism and capitalism to socialism and communism that Marx had primarily focused on). French Marxist anthropology is commonly seen as having followed two paths: one influenced by the philosopher Louis Althusser (19181990) and his reinterpretation of Capital, which attempted to apply Marxian analysis to all societies in an overdeter-mined fashion; and the other associated with Maurice Godelier (b. 1934), himself a student of the French structuralist Claude Lévi-Strauss (b. 1908), who advocated a more tempered incorporation of Marxs work that in fact rejected many of Marxs arguments about noncapitalist societies and economic determinism.


Marxs struggle to make sense of the mechanics of class and state formation through dialectics has been influential in the anthropology of politics. Marxs writing on the state were mostly confined to a series of case studies of France, including The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte ([1852] 1964c) and Class Struggles in France ([1850] 1964b). Unlike his widely read but hastily composed populist pamphlet The Communist Manifesto, penned with Engels during the height of the European revolutionary events of 1848 (see Marx 1998), these political analyses were written retrospectively because he was forced from France, where he had been an active organizer and journalist, into exile in England. His other notable political analysis, The Civil War in France ([1871] 1933a), a rumination on the Paris Commune of 1871, was produced late in his life, along with his Critique of the Gotha Programme ([1875] 1933b), Marxs sole, if very vague, attempt to discuss the organization of communist society. Marxs Theses on Feuerbach, in particular his famous eleventh thesis, the philosophers have only explained the world, the point is to change it, is widely referenced for its emphasis on the importance of revolutionary practice. Beginning with the civil rights and other social movements in the 1960s, an increasing number of anthropologists became interested in social activism, prompting a thorough investigation of revolutionary politics and interrogation of the work of Marx and his intellectual progeny.

Marxs writings on politics and the state became influential in the early twentieth century among contemporaries concerned with developing strategies for revolutionary change, notably Antonio Gramsci (18911937) and Georg Lukács (18851971). Along with some members of the Frankfurt school, including Walter Benjamin (18921940), these scholars attempted to make sense of the role ideology and culture played in constraining or driving revolutionary change. Though decisively divergent from Marxs sociological emphasis on materialist philosophy and historical investigation of the category of labor, they do reflect Marxs lifelong preoccupation and frustration with the mechanics of socialist transition. The emphasis on culture and ideology has found currency, especially since the 1960s, with many anthropologists uncomfortable with the materialism of Marxian political economy, and often in reaction to the heavy-handed technological or environmental determinism of cultural materialists such as Marvin Harris. Michael Taussig and Jean and John Comaroff, with their concerns with investigating the symbolic organization of capitalist relations embedded in the politics of the state, fetishization, and cultural and religious institutions, are well-known for this kind of Marxian political tradition.


Beginning in the 1940s and 1950s a group of scholars based in New York (including Elman Service, Stanley Diamond, and Julian Steward and his students, such as Eric Wolf and Sidney Mintz) spearheaded a new theoretical and methodological movement against a U.S. anthropology that for several decades had emphasized a more isolated approach to the study of individual cultures. Beginning with emphases on environment, ecology, and materiality, their approaches gradually evolved toward a sophisticated political economic analysis intent on assessing the impact of capitalism in non-Western societies, particularly in areas with a long history of entrenchment global processes, such as Latin America and the Caribbean. At the same time, anthropologists were influenced by numerous interdisciplinary studies of capitalism and development, including those by Andre Gunder Frank, Immanuel Wallerstein, Samir Amin, Walter Rodney, David Harvey, and others. There is a long list of anthropologists interested in the effects of capitalism on their subjects of study, some of whom have a more direct connection to materialist and cultural ecological approach than others. But regardless of their intellectual kinship, studies of political economy in anthropology from the early 1980s to the present can be divided, more or less, into two groups: one set of studies analyzing primarily the agency of subjects reacting to capitalist labor processes; and the other focused on material objects (commodities) as entry points for understanding socioeconomic organization.

The first, subject-centered, track includes the many discussions of discipline, power, and alienation developed through the capitalist labor process, and typically they rely on Marxs more subject-oriented discussions of capitalism, such as his four-tiered typology of alienation in Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts ([1844] 1959). Since the 1980s anthropologists have produced a number of ethnographies analyzing capitalist power and discipline in global contexts, especially in the areas of industrial production and the exploitation of women and peasants, as well as rich analyses of flexibility in response to changing capitalist strategies of production. Aihwa Ongs 1987 discussion of Malaysian women factory workers and June Nashs 1979 study of Bolivian tin miners stand out as exceptional ethnographies that describe the structuring of and responses to labor transformation and alienation.

The second, object-oriented, variant of this political economic tradition relies more methodically on Marxs analysis of the commodity in Capital (1990a; 1990b). Sidney Mintzs groundbreaking study of the history of sugar production in Caribbean slave economies and its influence on the development of capitalism in Europe provides a model for this kind of political economic study (Mintz 1985). Focused on particular commodity objects and the global ordering of social relations that follows their cycles of production, exchange, distribution, and consumption, this commodity biography approach has proliferated not only in anthropology, but indeed across the social sciences (for summary, see Mantz and Smith 2006, pp. 7880).


Since the 1980s fewer anthropologists have been willing to claim identification with Marxism. The reasons are threefold. First, a disciplinary preoccupation with anthropologys colonial legacy has resulted in a reluctance to assert generalizable or lawlike claims about the cultural concept. Marxist approaches, as with other purportedly grand narrative approaches, have been decried in some circles as overly functionalist and even ethnocentric in their obsession with the global role of capital. Second, there was a general apathy toward the work of Marx following the end of the cold war. It is worth noting that the recent electoral victories by Marxist politicians throughout Latin America have no doubt contributed to a reenergizing of interest in Marxian scholarship in this area. Lastly, anthropologists appear to have embraced the more comfortable category of globalization as a way of understanding the wider net of capitalist influences around the world. Despite these ominous postscripts, this last point should be taken to demonstrate the indelibility of Marxian influence in spirit, if not in practice, throughout a discipline that can no longer see its subjects as removed from an increasingly relevant and pervasive global capitalist organization.

SEE ALSO Marxism; Mintz, Sidney W.; Wolf, Eric


Marx, Karl. [1844] 1959. Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844. Trans. Martin Milligan. Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing.

Marx, Karl. [1848] 1998. The Communist Manifesto: A Modern Edition. New York: Verso.

Marx, Karl. [1850] 1964b. Class Struggles in France. New York: International Publishers.

Marx, Karl. [1852] 1964c. Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. New York: International Publishers.

Marx, Karl. [1857] 1978. Grundrisse. Ed. and trans. David McClellan. New York: Harper and Row.

Marx, Karl. [1867] 1990a. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, vol. 1, trans. Ben Fowkes. New York: Penguin Books in association with New Left Review.

Marx, Karl. [1871] 1933a. The Civil War in France. New York: International Publishers.

Marx, Karl. [1875] 1933b. Critique of the Gotha Programme. New York: International Publishers.

Marx, Karl. [1894] 1990b. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, vol. 3, trans. Ben Fowkes. New York: Penguin.

Marx, Karl. 1964a. Pre-Capitalist Economic Formations. Ed. Eric Hobsbawm, trans. Jack Cohen. New York: International Publishers.

Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. 1978. The Marx-Engels Reader. Ed. Robert C. Tucker. New York: Norton.

Mantz, Jeff W., and Jim H. Smith. 2006. Do Cellular Phones Dream of Civil War? The Mystification of Production and the Consequences of Technology Fetishism in the Eastern Congo. In Inclusion and Exclusion in the Global Arena, ed. Max Kirsch, 7193. New York: Routledge.

Mintz, Sidney W. 1985. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penguin.

Nash, June. 1979. We Eat the Mines and the Mines Eat Us: Dependency and Exploitation in Bolivian Tin Mines. New York: Columbia University Press.

Ong, Aihwa. 1987. Spirits of Resistance and Capitalist Discipline: Factory Women in Malaysia. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Price, David H. 2004. Threatening Anthropology: McCarthyism and the FBIs Surveillance of Activist Anthropologists. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Saitta, Dean J. 1994. Agency, Class, and Archaeological Interpretation. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 13: 201227.

Jeffrey Mantz