A brief explanation of how the humanities engage with Marxism.
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)
Explore the below topics to better understand how social scientists examine culture and society through a Marxist lens:
“Anthropology for the 21st Century.” Essentials of Cultural Anthropology: a Toolkit for a Global Age, by Kenneth J. Guest, W. W. Norton and Company, 2020.
Beverley, James A. Religions A-Z. Thomas Nelson, 2005.
Bloch, Maurice. Marxism and Anthropology The History of a Relationship. Taylor and Francis, 2013.
Durkheim, Emile. The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. Oxford University Press, 2008.
Kuper, Adam. Anthropology and Anthropologists: the Modern British School. Routledge, 2014.
Mascia-Lees, Frances E. Gender & Difference in a Globalizing World: Twenty-First Century Anthropology. Waveland Press, 2010.
McCurdy, David W., et al. Conformity and Conflict: Readings in Cultural Anthropology. Pearson, 2016.
Moore, Jerry D. Visions of Culture: an Introduction to Anthropological Theories and Theorists. Rowman & Littlefield, 2019.
Roseberry, William (1988). “Political Economy”. Annual Review of Anthropology.
Stein, Rebecca, and Stein, Phillip. Anthropology of Religion, Magic, and Witchcraft. 3rd Ed.
Stocking, George W. Race, Culture, and Evolution.
Wallerstein, Immanuel (2004). World-systems analysis: an introduction (5. print. ed.). Durham: Duke University Press.
Winick, Charles. Dictionary of Anthropology. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2014.
This text is part of “Beliefs” an open-source textbook on “The Anthropology of Magic, Witchcraft, and Religion.” Written and recorded on Soundcloud by Amanda Zunner-Keating and edited by Ben Shepard for Los Angeles Valley College. Published under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License