From the 1970s, Marxist anthropology became a major force in English speaking academia, whether under its own name, or as "critical anthropology," "political economy," or "cultural materialism." The citation of Marxist authors and literature in anthropological articles and books became common, and debates and concepts originating in Marxist political circles were widely rehersed and invoked.

Except for a small cadre of aged diehards and dead enders, this ceased abruptly with the fall of the Soviet Union. Rather surprisingly, the failure of the Soviet Union seemed to discredit Marxism in the eyes of previously dedicated anthropologists.

And yet it would be unrealistic to imagine that the ideas and sympathies that carried Marxism into English speaking anthropology would disappear with the Warsaw Pact. How have these been carried forward into the new milennium, and how are they manifested today? What neo-Marxist or post-Marxist concepts and ideas have arisen in anthropology to carry on in the anthropology of 2009 and beyond, the spirit that enlivened the 1970s & 1980s?

Views: 1626

Replies to This Discussion

An interesting question. Whenever anyone cites V. Turner, Bourdieu or Godelier, they are, of course, tapping traditions with strong roots in Marx. I don't know about anthropology; but there is certainly a strong Marxist background to what the sociologists writing in The SAGE Handbook of Case-Based Methods call "critical realism." The phrase "critical realism" has a wider, non-Marxist application; but the citations in the Handbook point to British Philosopher Roy Bhaskar, who is seen as attempting to reconcile the subjective idealism of Weber with the objective social facts of Durkheim via, at least in part, ideas borrowed from Marx. Bhaskar's project seems to me very similar to that undertaken by Bourdieu in The Logic of Practice, where "habitus" and "structuring structures" are offered as bridges between the subjective and objective perspectives.

Dialectically speaking, there has been a move from (1) naive empiricism to (2) recognition that all perceptions are shaped by the ideas through which observers filter their observations to (3) the assertion that while, yes, all observations are filtered through ideas, the ideas do not exhaust the realities they purport to describe, rendering the solipsism of pure subjectivism untenable. The question is then how to understand and act on a world whose reality transcends our ideas. The underlying premise is that by transcending our ideas, reality not only reveals our ignorance; it becomes a necessary condition for freeing ourselves from the traps our ideas become.
It is peculiar how suddenly and totally Marxism dropped out of anthropology. The date was quite precise, around 1979/80 when Thatcher and Reagan came to power and inaugurated neoconservative liberalism. The collapse of the Soviet bloc was related, but a decade later. Marxism got sidelined in much the same way that the unions lost power in national politics and Third World states were made to open up to capital in the 80s. Many former Marxists took up writers like Polanyi. But Marx is now once again a best seller in Germany, not because the Soviet empire has been reconstituted, but because neoliberalism's credit boom busted.

Tom Patterson's Karl Marx, Anthropologist (2009) is very timely and I have posted an entry on anthropology for a forthcoming Marx Companion.
Keith, I don't know who in Germany is once again buying Marx, but it certainly is not the electorate that just elected a fully capitalist government.

As for the credit bust, it was less a matter of neoliberalism than it was a welfare oriented Congress that mandated credit for those unable to carry it. The sentiment was sweet: every American should be the owner of a large, modern, luxurious house; all should share in the American dream, especially minorities. But the road to hell is paved with good, socialist intentions. Didn't we learn that all too well in the 20th century?

Keith Hart said:
It is peculiar how suddenly and totally Marxism dropped out of anthropology. The date was quite precise, around 1979/80 when Thatcher and Reagan came to power and inaugurated neoconservative liberalism. The collapse of the Soviet bloc was related, but a decade later. Marxism got sidelined in much the same way that the unions lost power in national politics and Third World states were made to open up to capital in the 80s. Many former Marxists took up writers like Polanyi. But Marx is now once again a best seller in Germany, not because the Soviet empire has been reconstituted, but because neoliberalism's credit boom busted.

Tom Patterson's Karl Marx, Anthropologist (2009) is very timely and I have posted an entry on anthropology for a forthcoming Marx Companion.
While there has been a general trend to avoid political dogma in scientific language the past few decades, marxism (and especially structural marxism) has continued to exert influence through the interest in conflict, cognitive dissonance, ideology etc. Whereas the Durkheimian sociology tended to view society as a mechanical or organic whole, Marxism pointed out the inconsistencies, multiple voices, competing agendas and use of ideology and religion to twist reality to fit a certain goal. A much more critical and indeed cynical approach to human culture and human interaction. And also a greater focus on the fact that there could be no One Truth, that certain people always benefited more than others.

I don't see how much of the present discussion of post-colonialism, multivocality and relative experience could have developed without the insights gained through the marxist scholars of the 60-70s. The whole strucutre-agency debate that still carries on in various forms owes a lot to marxism as well.

Nowadays even mainstream economists are accepting the fact that the human being is shaped though social and cultural background, and that there is no such thing as an inherently rational maximizing individual making free choices.
Asa, thanks for you intervention here. I agree that postcolonial theory is a descendant of Marxist anthropology, among other things. Perhaps the Leninist stream of Marxism.

I also agree that Marxism stressed contradictions in society and conflicts arising from that. Of course, there are non-Marxist conflict theorists, such as Ralf Dahrendorf, but it would probably be fair to say that they were influenced by Marxism.

I am less sure of your reading of Marxism as the father of multivocality and relativity, and of there being "no One Truth." Wasn't one of the main points of the postmodern critique that "Master Narratives," of which Marxism was a prime example, were highly dubious? Surely the concept of "false consciousness" strikes at the heart of relativism, and asserts a "One Truth." Those who preferred multivocality in Marxist regimes often ended up in gulags or mental hospitals.

To take up your last point, "that the human being is shaped though social and cultural background," surely this understanding is the main lesson of traditional anthropology--Durkheim, Radcliffe-Brown, Malinowski, Boas, Mead, Benedict, and Geertz--than to the Marxist anthropology that followed. What do you think?
As for the credit bust, it was less a matter of neoliberalism than it was a welfare oriented Congress that mandated credit for those unable to carry it.

Phil, with due respect you would be a lot more credible if you took the trouble to check readily available information on the net before asserting as fact this amazingly distorted view of the relation between Congressionally mandated policy and market behavior.

This is not to say that making it easier for unqualified people to obtain mortgages wasn't part of the problem. But bankers receiving freedom from what they perceived as onerous regulation and a bunch of "financial innovations" made possible by new technologies were equally if not more important elements. The link provided above provides an altogether more satisfactory explanation of the credit crisis, one IMHO much closer to that old anthropological ideal, a holistic analysis.
With respect, John, there would have been no toxic assets if there had not been a flood of subprime mortgages. For the part of the government in this, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Government_policies_and_the_subprime_m....
It is only because of your parochial view of political and economic history, Philip, that a discussion of Marxism and anthropology has degenerated into this amateur discussion of the causes of the credit crunch. Against Nikos, I would claim that the essence of Marxist method is to locate ideas in a specific version of economic history. So I suggested that your attempt to explain the marginalization of Marx by the failure of the Warsaw Pack (sic) was anachronistic and false to boot. So you came back with this reductionist line about sub-prime mortgages, as if the US Congress was the world. It is pointless to direct you to alternative sources (e.g. CDOs and CDSs and Gillian Tett's fine book on how the market for credit derivatives to which AIG, Merrill Lynch, Lehman Bros and a number of others succumbed), since you are only interested in making cheap jibes. You clearly have no interest in a serious discussion of Marxism and anthropology, which makes me wonder why you launched it. I left this group because I found your behaviour intolerable. I returned because of the topic, only to find that nothing has improved.

Philip Carl SALZMAN said:
With respect, John, there would have been no toxic assets if there had not been a flood of subprime mortgages. For the part of the government in this, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Government_policies_and_the_subprime_m....
Indeed. But to blame the Congress and people who succumbed to the blandishments of greedy bankers instead of the relations of production is not only very non-Marxist.As I was pointing out, to extract one shallow, politically biased proposition and assert it as THE CAUSE seems a bit more grossly ideological than I would suspect from a senior anthropologist and serious scholar.


Philip Carl SALZMAN said:
With respect, John, there would have been no toxic assets if there had not been a flood of subprime mortgages. For the part of the government in this, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Government_policies_and_the_subprime_m....
May I remind contributors to this thread of the question that opened it: "What neo-Marxist or post-Marxist concepts and ideas have arisen in anthropology to carry on in the anthropology of 2009 and beyond, the spirit that enlivened the 1970s & 1980s?"

Asa seemed to grasp the issue in her comment, helpfully nominating postcolonialism.

I wonder if we can pursue this question by (1) examining exacting what Marxist elements are present in postcolonialism, as well as what other, non-Marxist elements, and (2) identifying other contemporary orientations, "schools," or "isms" for which Marxism was an inspiration and/or has contributed certain substantive understandings.
Is the question of influence or still-useful ideas reducible to schools or isms? I am thinking of the process by which ideas emerge, catch on, for a while may seem panaceas, then are gradually, if they are, indeed, useful ideas, become part of the intellectual's everyday toolkit (borrowed from Susan Langer and described by Clifford Geertz in Understanding Cultures). In the case of Marx, it is hard, for example, to imagine a British social anthropology uninformed by concern with the ownership of the means of production, an issue that remains as lively today in the era of globalized capital as it was to creators of colonial empires worried about who would owe taxes. It is impossible to imagine Manchester anthropology without the assumption that structural contradiction and conflict are endemic in human societies. Also, of course, the whole structure-agency problem that spills over from sociology into anthropology is shaped by the Marxist insight that while human beings may make their own history, they do so under conditions not of their own making. It may be, of course, that new generations of thinkers simply put these ideas to work, without recalling their links to Marx.

Philip Carl SALZMAN said:
May I remind contributors to this thread of the question that opened it: "What neo-Marxist or post-Marxist concepts and ideas have arisen in anthropology to carry on in the anthropology of 2009 and beyond, the spirit that enlivened the 1970s & 1980s?"
Asa seemed to grasp the issue in her comment, helpfully nominating postcolonialism.
I wonder if we can pursue this question by (1) examining exacting what Marxist elements are present in postcolonialism, as well as what other, non-Marxist elements, and (2) identifying other contemporary orientations, "schools," or "isms" for which Marxism was an inspiration and/or has contributed certain substantive understandings.
Very good points, John. I suppose we can say the same about the idea of social facts from Durkheim, culture from Boas and Benedict, the emphasis on meaning from Parsons and Geertz, and so on. I wonder how many contemporary anthropologists realize that Geertz's emphasis on culture as meaning came pretty directly from Parsons, with whom Geertz studied in the Harvard Department of Social Relations. And, of course, that Parsons was drawing on Max Weber. As well, perhaps our appreciation of unintended consequences owes a lot to Weber.

But I do think some current approaches are more fully Marxist in content, one being postcolonialism. It appears to me that there are others that can be identified, but I want to hear what other people think.

By the way, I know that I published a book called Understanding Culture, but I did not know that Geertz published one called Understanding Cultures. Could it be that the reference is to Geertz's famous collection, The Interpretation of Cultures?

RSS

Translate

OAC Press

@OpenAnthCoop

Events

© 2019   Created by Keith Hart.   Powered by

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Terms of Service