marxism, anthropology

Lisa Rogers eqwq.lrogers at
Wed Nov 1 13:17:49 MST 1995

This is one of the reasons I'm here, remember that one of the
list-purposes is relating aspects of marxism with other fields?

Thanks for asking, Alex, I'm not sure I can give satisfactory
answers, but here's my shot at it.

I think we've come a long way since Morgan, over what, 100+ years
ago?  I don't think I've even heard of Bachofen.  I have very
intensely trained in specific and difficult new things, in a "cutting
edge" area, but I have studied very little of the history of
anthropology at large.

Many "cultural anthropologists" are openly marxists and have been in
the past, esp. before the great demonization of the cold war.  This
is one of the right-wing gripes about anthropology, I think.  I know
that marxism is considered to be very influential from day one within
much of anthropology, and even now seems to be resurging anew in some
subfields, but it doesn't get any mention in the program I'm in.
(I'm in Evolutionary Ecology, esp of foragers.)

I did get some bits about Morgan and Kroeber when I was starting off,
but those memories are pretty fuzzy now.  Morgan I think of as a
cataloger of cultures, I don't know his theory.  Kroeber was "the
father" of much American anthropology.  He had a long career and a
slew of grad students, and had them documenting the disappearing
cultures of indigenous north-ams, interviewing the last survivors and
such, aging and near death in the 30's.

For theory, I think he is known for thinking that cultures are shaped
by people responding to problems posed by the environment [this was
considered controversial at the time].  So, the allegedly universal
patriarchal clan structure of foragers and their small group size was
a sensible response to high mobility and alliance formation, etc.
This could be considered a progressive thought, compared to the
alternative, previous and still common view of essentialist "human
nature" producing human behavior with little or no reference to the
material circumstances [which surely affect the consequences of any

This is a kind of theoretical divide in anthropology at large, one
side of which I identify with marxian "materialism" since I started
studying Marx.  To what extent can history/culture be reasonably
viewed as autonomous, self-creating, self-perpetuating things, a
result of specific events, people, inventions, traditions without
reference to material circumstances and in-your-face consequences for
the people involved?  Perhaps nobody really holds to either extreme
on this, and probably it is not even a good question, but there is
quite a lot of angry ink published about it.

If you'd like to offer up a statement or position attributed to
Morgan or whoever, I'd be happy to give my response or assessment of
that point.

A general point to be made by all non-racist anthropology is called
"cultural relativism", so basic an assumption that it generally goes
without saying.  This could be considered subversive, often is
considered so by cultural supremacists.  It is simply the belief that
no culture is innately "better" than others.  Other cultures make
just as much sense as one does, to the insiders.  Every culture is
one way to live, which is "working".  The implication is that "the
American way" is not the best way for everyone everywhere.  Most
cataloged cultures of the world don't look much like this one, in
economy, mores, etc, but that doesn't make them wrong, bad or in need
of conversion.

"Cultural supremacy" may be a thin cover or just another label for
racism, religionism, colonialism, oppression, exploitation, etc. of
another "culture"/ people. Whenever anthropology is opposed to these
things, and opposed to the non- or psuedo-scientific claims to
justification of these things, it is "subversive."

Do marxist categories apply to foraging people?  The way I read Marx,
I think it is clear that he did not intend so.  Some people emphasize
that they only apply to fully developed capitalism.  On my own, I
think that some of them _do_ make sense for foragers as well.  Of
course labor is required to live [for all other species as well].
And there is no exchange possible unless labor has been incorporated
into something and some private property rights are recognized, and
both of these occur in variable, patterned and complex ways.

But claims I've seen about "primitive communism" are usually full of
wrong ideas about what foraging societies are really like.  For
instance, not everything goes to everybody in a giant free-for-all.
Some resource types, acquired by some people, in some circumstances
are "shared" with everyone, while others are consumed privately by
immediate relatives of the acquirer.  This patterned variability is
one of my major subjects of study.  Why one pattern rather than
another?  How does this food-supplying really work?  I even think we
are making important advances on the subject of why men hunt and
women gather, when they do.

A materialist view of human behavior combined with proper
neo-darwinism I consider the theoretical basis of my graduate work.
Some of this has come up on the list before, and I can dredge up some
previous posts on private property and such, as I always wanted more
discussion.  I'd like to see if my views on the origins of private
property, FI, are compatible with marxism, or could be a friendly
revision/addition to marxism.  We certainly don't want to treat Marx
like a perfect bible, in spite of all subsequent learning, do we?

Also, I have available a readable draft of a paper that reviews the
way I see relations between certain aspects of environment/material
circumstances and behavior.  It is eventually intended for a mostly
non-anthro but evolutionary ecology audience/journal, and I think the
jargon is not bad.  It doesn't cover property, because the review
paper is limited to the last three years of published books and
papers only.  It is only a "review" paper, with "nothing new"
allowed, but I wrote it to be a theoretically oriented summary,
hopefully much more synthetic and emphasizing relations than some
review articles I've seen.   Anybody interested in having a look?
Alex?  Others?

Lisa Rogers

From: Alex Trotter <uburoi at>
Subject: Marx, marxism, anthropology

Lisa Rogers made a comment on the inadequacy of M & E's concept of
anthropology. That implies shortcomings in the work of Morgan and
Bachofen ...[snip]... questions of "primitive  communism," origins of
property, sexual mores, the state, and so on.
[snip] I would be interested in seeing more of what she has to say on
 the subject. Some questions I have are 1) what is the status of
Lewis H.  Morgan's work among anthropologists today? 2) do marxist
categories apply  to 'primitive' societies (i.e., modes of
production, labor as the  fundamental condition of humans)? Some
anthropologists, such as Sahlins  and Clastres, think not. Finally,
getting back to the query I threw out a  few days ago concerning
Ursula LeGuin's father, A.L. Kroeber: What school  did he belong to,
and was he politically radical in some way that  influenced his

- --AT

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