The anti-communist basis of the anthropological counterrevolution
We’ve made reference in this series to the ideological counterrevolution of the early 20th century that sought to banish from bourgeois academia and popular capitalist culture the materialist and evolutionary perspective introduced by Lewis Henry Morgan and Frederick Engels in their anthropological writings.
This fierce attack on an important scientific discovery and, actually, on the science of anthropology itself, has a class basis in the historic struggle between the world’s working class and the imperialist ruling class.
The essential nature of this struggle is capsulized in this often-quoted passage by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels: “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e., the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force.” (“The German Ideology,” New York: International Publishers, 1970, p. 64)
In a groundbreaking 1971 pamphlet, Workers World Party founder and leader Dorothy Ballan elaborated on this important point, as it applied to the struggle over the direction that anthropology should take in the 20th century.
“More than anything else,” wrote Ballan, “the ruling class hates a consistent and irreconcilable view of social evolution. The reason for this lies precisely in the fact that social evolution shows that capitalism, too, is merely a transitional stage of evolution of humanity from lower to higher stages — which incidentally includes the doom of their own dear free enterprise (capitalist) system.” (“Feminism and Marxism,” p. 40)
Marxist anthropologist Chris Knight has presented a carefully researched, comprehensive and provocative work on early human societies (“Blood Relations,” New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1991). It includes a detailed description of the origins of the historical materialist school of anthropology and the subsequent wholesale assault on it by academic defenders of capitalist ruling-class interests.
Knight wrote: “The first anthropologists were social philosophers. Hobbes, Rousseau and Comte presented what would nowadays be called ‘anthropological’ theories of human nature — as did [Karl] Marx, whose ‘Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts’ … and ‘The German Ideology’ … covered such topics as the nature of labor, the emergence of human language and the origins of the family.
“It was a range of interests shared by Lewis Henry Morgan, the American radical business lawyer who is often regarded as the principal founder of kinship studies and of anthropology in its modern sense. In the mid-nineteenth century, Morgan discovered the ‘classificatory’ system of kinship terminology among the Iroquois Indians, and from this and much other evidence concluded that human society had everywhere evolved from communistic beginnings.” (p. 56)
Ruling class rallies academics against social evolution
Knight characterized the attacks on the social evolutionist founders of anthropology as “the culturalist reaction”:
“The war years from 1914 to 1918 were the great intellectual buffers into which the idea of ‘progress’ ran. … Almost simultaneously, in England, France, Germany and the United States, there arose schools of anthropology which … ‘in one way or another rejected the scientific mandate.’ It came to be widely believed that anthropology could never discover the origins of institutions or explain their causes. In Britain, ‘evolutionism’ became not merely unfashionable but effectively outlawed. In the United States, the dominant school flatly asserted that there were no historical laws and that there could not be a science of history.” (p. 58)
Knight didn’t comment on the fact, but it is hardly a coincidence that this very period witnessed the appearance on the world stage of a fundamentally new social and political formation: the Soviet Union. “Ten Days that Shook the World,” the title of John Reed’s magnificent account of the October 1917 Bolshevik revolution in Russia, accurately characterized the impact of that profound event on the world, both on its workers and on its capitalist rulers.
Workers on every populated continent initiated plans to imitate the historic achievement of the Russian workers and peasants. The world’s rich rulers, on the other hand, “shook,” or perhaps more accurately, trembled. Their immediate response at the ideological level was to redouble their efforts to denigrate the great victory of the Russian workers and, more generally, to tighten their ideological control over the intellectual leaders of the day, many of whom were initially taken with the power and moral authority of the growing worldwide communist movement that the Bolshevik victory inspired.
Academics profess allegiance to imperialism
Lest anyone question whether the leading anthropologists of the great capitalist institutions of higher learning “got the message,” Knight’s exposition clearly reveals the openly reactionary political leanings expressed by some of the best-known of these very well remunerated academicians:
“When Franz Boas [German-American anthropologist (1858-1942), sometimes called “the father of American anthropology”] attacked the search for laws of history, he linked Social Darwinism in this respect with the view that ‘social structure is determined by economic forms’ — an obvious reference to Marxism.” (p. 61)
Knight also quotes Robert Lowie, an Austrian-born American anthropologist (1883-1957). Lowie, says Knight, “was politically aware enough to note how Morgan had become identified with Marxism in the eyes of anthropologists of his generation. ‘By a freak of fortune,’ Lowie observed, Morgan ‘has achieved the widest international celebrity of all anthropologists.’ This was ‘naturally’ not due to Morgan’s solid achievements ‘but to a historical accident’: his ‘Ancient Society’ (1877) attracted the notice of Marx and Engels, who accepted and popularized its evolutionary doctrines as being in harmony with their own philosophy.”
Knight shows how Lowie found it surprising that “German workingmen would sometimes reveal an uncanny familiarity with the Hawaiian and Iroquois mode of designating kin [subjects about which Morgan had written], matters not obviously connected with a proletarian revolution. … Lowie went on to note that Morgan ‘has been officially canonized by the present Russian regime,’ whose spokesmen declare his work ‘of paramount importance for the materialistic analysis of primitive communism.’” (pp. 61-62)
The prolific French anthropologist and ethnologist, Claude Levi-Strauss (1908-2009), was not to be left out of this counterrevolutionary chorus: “[He] earnestly assured his readers that … ‘we have been careful to eliminate all historical speculation, all research into origins, and all attempts to reconstruct a hypothetical order in which institutions succeeded one another … We do not know … and never shall know, anything about the first origins of beliefs and customs the roots of which plunge into a distant past.’” (p. 68)
Knight summarizes: “The main and overriding aim was to root out Morgan’s notion of ‘primitive communism’ and to discredit Engels’ ‘The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State.’ So much was this the priority, that on both sides of the Atlantic [anthropologists of the dominant schools] were quite capable of resorting to arguments about ‘origins’ themselves — usually in throw-away remarks or casual asides — whenever it served their polemical purposes. It was as if they were warning their students and readers not to investigate such questions too closely, yet claiming to be unafraid of the consequences should such warnings be defied — after all, even if research into origins were to be carried out, Marx, Morgan and Engels would surely be found to be wrong!” (p. 69)
Anthropological accomplices to colonial enslavers
Of related interest are the revealing words of several British anthropologists with regard to their attempts to help their nation’s imperialists resist their declining colonial fortunes following World War I:
“As [Alfred] Radcliffe-Brown [an English social anthropologist (1881-1955)] put it, anthropology ‘has an immediate practical value in connection with the administration and education of backward peoples.’” (p. 64)
“[Bronislaw] Malinowski frequently warned that educated African ‘agitators’ and nationalists should be understood and if possible won over to European aims lest ‘by ignoring them and treating them with contempt we drive them into the open arms of world-wide Bolshevism.’” (p. 67)
To complete this section on the nauseatingly class-collaborationist and racist subservience of some of the best-known anthropologists of the 20th century, let’s return briefly to the 1931 debate between Malinowski and Briffault that was featured in the first installment of this series.
In full hearing of a BBC radio audience, Malinowski was at least as anxious to exhibit his anti-communist credentials as he was to assert the eternal verity of patriarchal, one-man/one-woman marriage. Malinowski wasted no time setting the political tone of his presentation:
“Let us have a look at the facts all around us. Most startling of all, we have, in Soviet Russia, revolutionary experiments on a vast scale. Here a number of remarkable enactments have modified the juridical character of marriage almost out of recognition. Marriage, in the eyes of the law, has completely ceased to be a religious institution. It has almost ceased to be a legal contract. It is regarded as a sociological fact. Marriage comes into being when two people of opposite sex decide to live together, to share a household, to co-operate economically. …
“Communist marriage is thus, in the eyes of the law, a perfectly free and voluntary arrangement. Adultery is not a legal offence. Bigamy is not punishable by law. In juridical theory it is, therefore, possible in Soviet Russia to establish what the sociologist calls ‘group marriages’ or communal unions. That is to say, several men and several women may run a communal household, and indiscriminately share as much of their lives as they like. …
“If I were to add that Soviet law fully allows, not to say encourages, all practices of family limitation, that is, has made abortion legal, that there are no punishments for incest, some of you might be disgusted and scandalized, others, perhaps very enthusiastic.” (“Marriage, Past and Present: A Debate Between Robert Briffault and Bronislaw Malinowski,” pp. 21-23)
This is a rather unenlightened and unobjective characterization of what was then occurring in the Soviet Union with regard to women’s rights, family life and marriage. Between the choices of “scandal” and “enthusiasm,” Malinowski was clearly counting on the former response on the part of most of his listeners as he sought to undermine Briffault’s defense of what was considered the Marxist view of marriage and the family.
He might have added, in a final flourish in his effort to besmirch Briffault — by association — as devoid of any “moral” convictions, that one of the first acts of the Bolshevik government was to decriminalize homosexual behavior. (For the background and details of this historic act, see Leslie Feinberg’s “Lavender and Red” series, parts 8-10, at workers.org.)
In the next installment in this series, we’ll consider in detail the important distinction between the concepts of “classificatory” and biological kinship, a puzzle whose unraveling reveals the essential nature of hominin social/sexual relations.