Marxism and Anthropology

Amanda Zunner-Keating
3 min readNov 21, 2020

A brief explanation of how the humanities engage with Marxism.

Photo by AJ Colores on Unsplash

Marxism within anthropology first emerged as part of anthropology’s critique of colonialism in the 1960’s and 1970’s (Wallerstein 2004; Roseberry 1998). Marx and Engels rejected the ethnocentric idea that Western cultural forms were superior to all other cultures which is compatible with the central anthropological idea of cultural relativism. Instead, Marx and Engels argued, the Western cultural form was a product of specific historical events and ideas that could be critiqued and re-examined.

If you engage with anthropological research, you can apply these arguments to any element of human society. Anthropologist Maurice Bloch is, arguably, the authority on anthropology and Marxism and reflects extensively on the two in his book title, “Marxism and Anthropology.” Some of his major points include:

  • Marx argued against the idea that capitalism was inevitable and eternal, so he studied the work of anthropologists to better understand pre-literate societies in order to better understand different forms of economic structures (2).
  • Marxist anthropology examines the historical events and ideas that produce the institutions of any given society (2)
  • Anthropology influenced Marx and helped develop his ideas (3)
  • Marx embraced the ideas of biological evolution as evidence that the human condition was determined by a need to survive (during a time when the supernatural had been used to explain human nature) (5)
  • Marx addressed the nature/nurture debate by arguing that human nature and society are inherently intertwined. He argued that our cultural structures reflect our nature and that there isn’t another nature that exists outside of our culture (6). As Bloch writes, “Marx concluded that the purely abstract philosophical debates which had characterized such discussions [of human nature] were fruitless. Rather, Marx argued, the nature of [humanity] could only be revealed by seeing [humanity] in society, in history, and in politics. There was no point in imagining [humanity] outside of [t]his context because out of this context [humanity] was not, in any useful sense, [human]. (6)