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?

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No, I do not assume that ‘inequality’ is unnatural but I firm in this view that it is injustice and antisocial. Well, your illustration is not new as I have read in the Buddhist texts. In Buddhist texts, there many reasons are given for this phenomenon of inequality. One of them is karma: past karma and present karma. I think, Marx was no less creative than you and me, but he always suffered from poverty and lost his beloveds. Today, in the third world, farmers are suffering much more than an industrialist! Why? Do you think that all are lazy, less creative, blah blah….. How do you see Marx’s and Farmers’ suffering? Is it fatalistic? Don’t you think that Marx and farmers were/are one part of the exploiter economic system? Neither Marx nor Buddha were talking about natural inequality, they were talking about the inequality which were created by human beings themselves!

Yes, every one has right to choose one’s lifestyle. It is misunderstanding that Buddha and Marx were intended to shape human beings in the same model, size, weight, trademark of a product. It is never possible, and they knew this truth. I am much more concerned to the theoretical paradigm, than practical aspect. If you count, the disaster which brought by communist parties, then I must suggest you to count the disaster before and after the communists! I am totally against violence! I am not a Marxist even! Would you like to suggest me the best theoretical paradigm to understand the poverty among the Tharus in Nepal?
This is my quick answer. I think Charles A. Valentine has already discussed about the issues of misuse of offered chances in his book "Culture and Poverty: Critique and Counter-Proposals. The University of Chicago Press" 1968. In the case of Nepal, the chances never reached the poor people, that is why, 'bottom up' and 'putting the people first' was developed by Robert Chambers. Dor Bahadur Bista gives good account how fatalistic culture beomes tools to expolite the poorin "Fatalism and Development" . Herbert J. Gans has identified a number of functions that make poverty “useful” to capitalists. (1) Temporary, dead-end, dirty, dangerous and menial jobs are undertaken by the poor. (2) Poverty creates jobs and careers for middle-class people. Gans writes, “Poverty creates jobs for a number of occupations and professionals that serve the poor, or shield the rest of the population from them.” These include the policy, probation officers, social workers, psychiatrists, doctors and civil servants. There is a “poverty industry”. These workers may be idealists, but they have a vested interest in the continuing existence of poverty. (3) Poor people make everyone else feel better. “Poverty helps to guarantee the status of those who are not poor.” He also says, “The defenders of the desirability of hard work, thrift, honesty and monogamy need people who can be accused of being lazy, spendthrift, dishonest and promiscuous to justify these norms.”
Sir,
I am reading 'Marx, anthropologist'. I would like to put here some interesting facts given by Marx which are quoted here in this book.

"Marx rejected the notion of a fixed human nature or essense in the singular and adopted instead a historicized notion of human natures in the plural. That is, there is a dialectical interplay between the bioloigcal subsrate, which endows all members of the species with certain potentials, and the ensemble of social relations that shape everyday life in the worlds in which they live and which they themselves produce. reproduce, and on occasion, change." p 41

"...The social individuals are shaped by their history and plot the course of their actions within the constraints imposed by their bodies and their social relations with others. "(p.145)

"Dependent belonging to the greater whole" and 'can individuate [themseleves] only in the midst of society" p.145

Marx was indeed a great anthropologist !


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.
Philip Carl SALZMAN on October 13, 2009:

"But I am still a bit in the dark about political ecology. Presumably it gives more attention to environmental factors than did classical Marxist anthropology. (Didn't Marvin Harris add environment as well as demography to his Marxist inspired "cultural materialism"?)"


It seems to me that there is a rather significant difference to Harris’ concepts and to what political ecology entails today. My understanding is limited, but here’s what I see.

The materialist anthropology approach seems to have hinged on the base/superstructure distinction. The basic idea was that, through understanding the formation of the cultural core (base) within a given society, one would then be better able to illuminate the superstructural elements that make that society unique.

Political ecology, as far as I can see, is an attempt to illuminate the lateral ties between various forms of capital (perhaps I’m adding Bourdieu myself here?) in order to comment on how different cultures interface with the land. The key point here is that the materialists were working in a time when they still had the luxury of casting cultures as discrete entities from each other. The formation of political ecology seems to be a development of the 80’s and onward, where global capitalism has meant the interpenetration of cultures in ways not seen before. The thrust that seems to make political economy different, in my eyes, is that use of the land and its resources has become a lynchpin in exploitation and inequality on various different scalars. I'm reminded of a story I once read of a young indigenous woman who committed suicide after a German company had logged the tree that was supposed to be her wedding canoe. For that company, it was just another tree to be harvested for timber.

See Anna Tsing’s Friction for a good example, maybe. Maybe Rosaldo's Ilongot Headhunting also has elements of political ecology?

I have political geography among my own interests. Political economy (as it is today), as well as its subsets of political ecology and political geography are cast as part of the New Left, as far as I can tell. Though I’m not 100% on what this new appellation means, my understanding is that it is an attempt to go beyond traditional Marxist conception in order to elaborate on social inequalities from a larger repertoire of concepts. However, I think saying that the New Left goes beyond Marxist theory and saying that the New Left is a refutation of Marxist theory are two different beasts.

John McCreery on October 10, 2009:

“It may be, of course, that new generations of thinkers simply put these ideas to work, without recalling their links to Marx.”


In light of the above, I’m in agreement with John McCreery. The latest iterations of critical theories are great. However, I don’t think that my generation should criticize the original theories put out by Marx solely by relying on the criticisms of their mentors. Rather, we should take time to go back to the original. Doing so will enrich our understanding (it’s not like Marx’ ideas are foolish or silly), as well as flesh out our understanding of what today’s theories are really trying to accomplish.
I don’t think that my generation should criticize the original theories put out by Marx solely by relying on the criticisms of their mentors. Rather, we should take time to go back to the original. Doing so will enrich our understanding (it’s not like Marx’ ideas are foolish or silly), as well as flesh out our understanding of what today’s theories are really trying to accomplish.

Agree. Absolutely. I wonder, though, if we couldn't say a bit more about what going back to the original entails. Do we, for example,

1. Consider the historical moment in which the ancestor (here Marx) is writing, taking into account the issues of the day that the ancestor was attempting to address?

2. Treat what the ancestor says as an early attempt to address our current issues, which we can then use as the basis for further development?

3. Avoid or counter criticism that offers judgments in terms of our current preoccupations without first undertaking steps 1 and 2?

Serendipitously, I am reading Maurice Godelier (1999) The Enigma of the Gift, in which Godelier addresses what he sees as flawed criticism of Marcel Mauss's The Gift before going on to offer his own critique of Mauss and, then, of Lévi-Strauss, painstakingly undertaking 1 and 2 before moving on to build an argument that both incorporates ideas from both authors and adds to them. Seems to me to be constructive criticism in the best sense of the term.
@John McCreery:

First, just a thought: we haven't escaped the relevancy of use-value and exchange-value, species-being, alienation, or the underlying mechanisms linking species-being and alienation, nor have we escaped the relevancy of Marx' very specific concepts of class formation, just because we think they are passe issues. Today, we produce more wealth than in any point in human history, yet that just means that there is a wider gap, in terms of life chances, than ever before.

Marx may have bitten off more than he could chew in positing the evolutionary development of society into the future, and he definitely focused solely on European cultures. However, with the spread of global economic systems that originated in Europe, can we really say that his theories are not germane? After all, European-style wage labor and culture of consumption has been a vital part of almost all cultural transformations in the present world.

1. Consider the historical moment in which the ancestor (here Marx) is writing, taking into account the issues of the day that the ancestor was attempting to address?

I was taught that theory must always be placed in its proper historical context in order to be fully understood. On top of that, I've come to realize that theory is a kind of running commentary that perpetuates through generations. So, Compte did his stuff in reaction to the intellectual climate of his day, and he was successful. Even the unilineal evolutionists were criticizing a racist tendency to insist that people who looked different from Europeans were actually different species altogether.

Marx formed his theories in contrast to the Hegelian idealism popular during his time. In doing so, he incorporated dialecticism into his framework, but pointed away from the realm of intellect to ground his theories (excuse the lax use of the term "ground") in material conditions. This change signifies a debate that is still alive today.

It should also be realized that he was theorizing in a different kind of capitalism than that which we face today.

2. Treat what the ancestor says as an early attempt to address our current issues, which we can then use as the basis for further development?

I'm sort of confused, as issue 2 seems to conflict with issue 1 (at least for me). I'm thinking that the question could be better framed in terms of the historical connections between our society in Marx' time and our society now. Obviously, there is continuity between our time and Marx'.

I'm not fond of the saying that "history repeats itself." Rather that each occurrence in the present it situated in its own "environment" of causes, many (most) of which are mediated by time (that is, they are historical). The value of history, to me, is not that studying history can illuminate an occurrence that can possibly happen again (because of the specificity of context, no phenomenon really happens twice), but rather that it provides us with the actualities by which our current conditions were formed.

Just a thought: should it be that Marx' original works should be read first as an historical document, then as a source of theory? For what it's worth, though, I've found what I've read directly from Marx to be powerfully enlightening for my current theoretical and political understandings.

3. Avoid or counter criticism that offers judgments in terms of our current preoccupations without first undertaking steps 1 and 2?

"Without undertaking 1 and 2" should be the key. Boy, that's a chunk, really if you think about it. I suspect that the practical reason why the forbearers of current theory are not read much is simply due to the avalanche of literature that is produced. Even in a fairly specialized field, such as anthropology, there is a whole world of literature to explore!

I do think that we should approach the classic works critically. However, we should also understand what it was that they were designed to do, and how they did them. Then, we can understand better what claims there are to their limitations today. For what its worth, understanding what Marx said will help us to understand criticisms coming from the contemporary left.

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