Marxism and anthropology

The relationship between Marxism and anthropology has been both fruitful and often antagonistic. There are several distinct phases which can be described. First of all, there are Marx and Engels’s own writings on anthropological topics which formed the basis for much self-consciously orthodox research in official Russian and Chinese anthropology. Second, there is anthropological work inspired by later Marxist theorists: most of this has been carried out since the early 1970s and can be divided into two broad streams, structural Marxism and what I shall call cultural Marxism. Finally, we can also point to important areas of work which could be characterized as ‘post-Marxist’, in the sense that they have been deeply influenced by the authors’ encounter with Marxist ideas, but with little or no trace of dogmatic attachment to Marxist principles.

Marx, Engels and the official line

Marx himself was a revolutionary whose theoretical efforts were above all directed to the understanding, and eventual overthrow, of industrial capitalism. A strong case can be made for starting any appreciation of Marx with his most complete and mature statement of his position in the first volume of Capital. This is above all a work of political economy, and its empirical content is derived from the secondary literature on British industrial capitalism in the mid-nineteenth century. As such it seems to have relatively little to say about classic anthropological problems and anthropological topics. The more theologically inclined Marxists have managed to glean a more complete anthropological programme from Marx’s notebooks and early writings, but the key source for official Marxist anthropology has been Engels’s The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1972 [1884]).


Marx and Engels’s writings on anthropological topics, heavily influenced by the work of L.H. Morgan, provide one possible research agenda for a Marxist anthropology. In particular, they provide a typically nineteenth-century model of social evolution in which contemporary ethnographic evidence could be fitted into appropriate positions in the movement from the primitive, through the ancient and feudal, to the capitalist and eventually the communist mode of production. The argument for the primacy of the economic base, or infrastructure (forces and relations of production), over the superstructure (religion, law, ideology) provides a wonderfully clear heuristic, even as it opens up an empirical nightmare (for superstructures vary with scant regard for infrastructural similarities). And the central role accorded to class antagonisms in the movement from one stage to another provides further opportunity for empirical research, either by locating ‘classes’ in widely different socio-historical contexts, or — as in the lengthy arguments about the Asiatic mode of production — analysing the implications of a political order based on class but apparently lacking class conflict.

This, broadly, was the research agenda pursued — often with great ingenuity and considerable scholarship — by the official anthropology of the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China for much of the twentieth century (see Gellner 1980 for a survey of this work). Not surprisingly, though, it had much less impact in

Europe and North America (except in archaeology, where all kinds of materialism have their obvious attractions). The combined influence of Malinowski and Boas rendered schematic views of social evolution deeply unfashionable, while the cruder versions of the base/superstructure distinction seemed inadequate to cope with the empirical richness produced by the fieldwork boom of the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s.


Individual anthropologists, such as Leslie White in the USA and Max Gluckman in Britain, shared certain political and intellectual affiliations with Marxism, but these appeared in oddly muted form in their own anthropological work. The political climate of the 1950s was hardly conducive to Marxist scholarship in Britain and the USA — known Marxists were barred from access to British colonial research sites as well as university employment in the USA. Individual scholars like Peter Worsley and Ronald Fran-kenberg in Britain, "Eric Wolf and "Stanley Diamond in the USA, did begin to use Marxist theory in their work from the late 1950s onward, but there is little sense in which we can talk of a distinctive Marxist anthropology outside the former communist states before the late 1960s.

Structural Marxism

What has come to be called, in retrospect, structural Marxism was a product of a very specific historical and intellectual conjuncture. Intellectually, structural Marxism was based on two major French influences: the revisionist interpretations of Marx provided by the philosopher, Louis Althusser, and applied to ethnographic problems by "Claude Meillassoux and Emmanuel Terray; and the more pervasive linguistic turn occasioned by Levi-Strauss’s structuralism, and rendered into appropriate Marxist form by his protege "Maurice Godelier. Historically, structural Marxism was taken up by graduate students and young university teachers, especially in Britain, the Netherlands and Scandinavia in the 1970s (Melhuus 1993), but also in many post-colonial contexts — the 1970s debates on the articulation of modes of production, for example, were probably most vigorously pursued in India (Guha 1994).

Structural Marxism was characterized by a number of concerns. The issue of infrastructural determinism was a source of recurring anxiety — often resolved by recourse to the phrase ‘determination in the last instance, but also met by fairly radical revision of the very idea of the infrastructure itself. Godelier, for example, argued that in non-capitalist societies (or ‘social formations’) religion or kinship could ‘function’ as the infrastructure, a point which owed much to Karl Polanyi’s earlier arguments about the embedd-edness of the economy in pre-capitalist societies. Althusser’s writings on ideology encouraged the study of language, symbols and ritual as sources of both domination and integration. Subsidiary debates emerged about the relationship between kinship, other sources of social classification (age, gender), and socio-economic class.

Most energy, however, was expended on the question of modes of production. On the one hand, this raised issues of classification: is Indian agriculture usefully characterizable as ‘feudal’; are peasants components of a specific mode of production, or are they more usefully viewed as petty commodity producers? It also raised important issues of scale and integration, not least as dependency theory and world-systems theory both seemed to suggest that the politically and economically crucial relations in the modern world were not between classes within a society, but between societies of the core and societies of the periphery. These were important issues for any understanding of the modern world (Wolf [1982] provides a skilful and judicious synthesis of this work), yet the results were oddly unimpressive. Too often, empirical analysis was subsumed under the typological demands of the theory, while there was little evidence of what made particular places particular in the modern world order. In short, structural Marxism was threatened by two opposing possibilities: as Marxism it was relatively indifferent to issues of ethnography and culture, and thus was not particularly anthropological; or, in the hands of ethnographers like Godelier and "Maurice Bloch, it did become more obviously cultural, but looked less and less convincingly Marxist.

Cultural Marxism

"Marshall Sahlins renounced his own earlier ‘Marxish’ tendencies, arguing that while Marxism was revealing as a portrait of industrial, capitalist society it was ultimately restricted by its inability to deal with culture as a distinct and irreducible order of signs and meanings. Sahlins’s argument was directed against the francophone theories which dominated structural Marxism, but was oddly silent on the impressive theoretical work done by other Western Marxists on issues of culture and consciousness throughout the twentieth century. The key figures before World War II were the Italian communist "Antonio Gramsci, and the German cultural critics of the Frankfurt School, especially Adorno and Walter Benjamin. After World War II, literary critics and historians in Britain, like "Raymond Williams and E.P. Thompson, developed their own analyses of the relationship between culture and Marxist theory, and their work was especially important in the emergence of that melange of Marxism, sociology, ethnography and "poststructural theory which came to be known as cultural studies.

Interestingly, 1970s structural Marxists showed remarkably little interest in this work. Instead it was taken up by younger, historically inclined anthropologists like "Michael Taussig and Jean Comaroff in the USA. Taussig’s Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America (1980) and Comaroff s Body of Power, Spirit of Resistance (1985) both drew on work by Marxist historians and social theorists in a much more open and creative way than the Althusserians of the 1970s. Both examined the ways in which local cultural resources might be deployed in acts of resistance to the spread of capitalist work practices. Marxism here was used in an interpretive spirit, as the writers sought to explicate the hidden moments of resistance in people’s religious and symbolic life (a theme anticipated thirty years earlier in Peter Worsley’s writing on cargo cults). At the same time, Pierre Bourdieu’s immensely influential Outline of a Theory of Practice (1977) mixed influences from Marx, Weber, Levi-Strauss and Wittgenstein in the creation of a practice-based theory of social life, with particular emphasis on the reproduction of structures of domination.

All of these writers, and the many that followed them in work on power and resistance, were strongly influenced by earlier Marxist writers (few of them anthropologists). Yet none could be straightforwardly classified as ‘Marxist’ themselves. This has now become the pattern as young radical anthropologists, especially in North America, often build their work on unacknowledged Marxist assumptions about the importance of class and inequality in social life, without properly confronting either the strengths or the weaknesses of Marxist theory proper. That is only one legacy of the impact of Marxism on anthropology. Another, possibly more profound one, comes from the experience of reading Marx himself. Marx’s own writing — for example, on the commodity-form in Capital I — introduced a whole generation of anglophone anthropologists to the subtleties of German dialectical argument. Althusser’s influence in the 1970s may seem difficult to explain from the perspective of the 1990s, yet his work inspired an important reaction against the empiricism of so much British and American anthropology. In the 1970s it was possible for young anthropologists to claim that a correct reading of Marx would provide the answer to the discipline’s many problems. If we can now speak of a ‘post-Marxist’ anthropology, it is because so many anthropologists have now undertaken that reading, to the extent that they have learned that the greatest value of Marx’s work is in the problems it raises and the questions it fails to answer, rather more than in the ready-made analytic solutions it provides.

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