Basic Premises

Marxism is essentially an economic interpretation of history based primarily on the works of Karl Marx and Frederich Engels. Marx was a revolutionary who focused his efforts on understanding capitalism to overthrow it. As far an anthropology is concerned, however, the seminal work is Engels' The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State (1884). Both of these men were influenced by Louis Henry Morgan and his model of social evolution. Morgan proposed that societies moved from more primitive to more civilized stages of development. The Marxist version of this resulted in transitions of stage from primitive communism, through feudalism and capitalism, to communism; stages are judged in terms of the modes of production which dominate each stage. The modes of production form the base or infrastructure of a society. This base determines the superstructure (laws, governemts, and other legal and political apparati), and both determine the ideology (including philosophies, religions, and the ideals which prevail in a society at any one time). Class struggle is the prime mover for such a system to advance stages. It is inevitable that change will occur and that the classes will realign themselves, but the ruling class have a vested interest in maintaining their power and will seek to resist such change, though futilely in the long run, by whatever means they can, especially through elaboration of mystification in the ideology, which results in the false conciousness of the lower class. Social evolution can be slowed, but not stopped.

Points of Reaction

Marxist anthropology came about through the works of Marx and Engels and their followers. It developed as a critique and alternative to the domination of Euro-American capitolism and Eurocentric views in the social sciences. 

Leading Figures

Marx, Karl-- Marx is the most successful social scientist of all time. Much of his earlier works were deeply affected by the works of Hegel, who believed that man's existence was centered in his capacity for reason, and thus, ideas are the moving force of behind cultural evolution, spurring us on to build our reality. However, after 1844, Marx turned away form such notions and towards ideas similar to Fuhrboch, who said that man made his own reality, and that the way we are shapes our reason. Marx said that thinking follows behavior/being, a materialist view. Marx sought to produce an overview of human history in these terms and to explain why history took the course it did. History is marked by the growth of human prodctive capacity, and the forms that history produced for each seperate society is a fucntion of what was needed to maximize productive capactiy. 

Engels, Friedrich: Marx's colleague and friend who aided Marx in the establishment of his theories on society and continued to work on Marxist ideas after Marx's death.

BLoch, Maurice : a well-known defender of Marxism and Marxist anthropology.

Wolf, Eric: Marxist who, among other works, proposed three modes of production: capitalist, tributary, and kin-ordered.

Gramsci, Antonio: One of the leading figures in Marxism prior to World War II and an Italian communist who formulated the idea of hegemony. 

Althusser, Louis: the neo-Marxists major source of inspiration in the 1960's, who took a structuralist approach to Marxism. 

Godelier, Maurice: a French Marxist and proponent of economic anthropology.

Key Works

The seminal works of Marxist anthropology.

Capital (1867)-- One of Marx's most complete and mature works, the aim of Capitol is to show how the capitalist system is expoitative in that it "transfers the fruit of the work of the a minority" and questions why this condition continues (3). Marx's solution to this problem is ideology, which blinds the workers to the truth of their plight.

The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884)-- Engels most influential work in anthropology, it presents the evolution of humankind from primitive communism, to slavery, feudalism, capitalism, and finally, industrial communism which would transcend the classes of the prior three stages.

The Communist Manifesto (1848)-- The best known of Marx and Engels' works and one of the most eloquent calls to action ever published. The Communist Manifesto lays out Marxism's basic economic theories, shows the basic struggle between classes, and recommends action against the 'spectre' of capitalism.

Principal Concepts

Infrastructure-- One of the problems Marxism has had to face is the issue of infrastructural determinism. 

Mode of Production-- the means and relations of production. Marx is inconsistent with his discussions of these modes, often referring to specific technologies (2). One of the primary concerns with modes of production has to do with the classifications of this scheme; scale and homogeneity (especially between the core and the periphery) being a primary question in the determination of classes. Marx does not focus on pre-capitalist modes in general, and his statements about them are often questionable.

Forces of Production-- the things we use to produce what we need, including the means of production and labor power (including both physical and mental capacities).

Means of Production-- natural resources, raw materials and instruments of production/tools.

Immediate Producer-- those who produce what they themselves consume and more/surplus. The surplus production is that which is in excess of the immediate producer's consumption.

Labor-- necessary and surplus labor, that work which is needed to sustain production and go beyond the level of the immediate producer, respectively.

Relations of Production-- The relations of power and control between people and productive forces; all socities have different forms of these relations.

Class-- group consisting of those individuals who have similar relations of production to the forces of production; generally class is divided into the capitolists/bourgeois and the workers/proletariat. Class divides societies because some possess the means of produiction and some do not. The rise of private property and the state is the source of class distinctions. Some have changed the definition through time, modifiying class as a collective relation to the means of production, rather than an individual one (4).

Communism-- a classless society in which individuals control their own labor, there is no private property (beyond personal affects), and all hold in common the means of production. A true communistic society has never existed in known history (and is doubtful to have existed in prehistory).


One of the basic methods of Marxist anthropology is to try to find classes in societies around the world, and examine the ways in which they interact (ethnographic research). When a political order based on class is found which seems to lack class conflict, special attention is paid. Attention has also been paid to the ways in which cultures resist the spread of capitolism. It has often been felt that Marxism is particulary suited to ferreting out the hidden resistance presnt in religion and ideology. Marxism is of course dedicated to examining the modes of production present in any society, and there may be more than one present. The dialectical method is also an important concept in Marxism, which is built on the examination of contradictions between classes, ideas, etc. (5). When well-applied, the Marxist framework can be used to examine the developments of some societies at various scales, However, there is no one unifying method or vision in Marxism; usually it boils down to one person claiming to be a better Marxist than another.


Marxism formed the basis for the anthropologies, and indeed, the governments, of both China and the Soviet Union/Russia. But in the Europe and North America, it was highly unpopular to be associated with Marxism until well after World War II. The works of other anthropologists, like Boas and Malinowski, made it further "unfashonable" to be associated with such ideas. 

Marxism in anthropology has served to raise a number of problems in anthropological reasoning, even in the questions it is unable to answer for itself. It has resulted in several other approaches in anthropology, especially cultural materialism and cultural ecology. It has also added to the efforts of feminist anthropology and has had a number of influences on archaeology, an essentially materialist endeavor.


One of the main criticisms of Marxism is that it isn't particularly anthropological in nature, not being interested in culture and ethnography. When anthropologists did apply it in a more anthropological framework, it looked less and less like Marxism. Marxism has been restricted by its inability "to deal with culture as a distinct and irreducible order of signs and meanings" (1). One criticism of Marxists themselves is that the have often "built their work on unacknowledged Marxist assumptions about the importance of class and inequality in social life without properly confronting either the strenghts or the weaknesses of Marxist theory" (1). A major criticism is that Marxism has no particular unified aim or method; many Marxists argue more among themselves than with other theorists. Marxism has also been criticised on its definition of ideology which puts it forth as a plot craeted by the ruling class to mytify the lower class; this is not likely since the rulers also subscribe to the ideology. Further, how the ideology spreads is also unclear, as its relation to other forms of knowledge (3). Another problem that Marxism has faced is in the evaluation of societies that do not possess any classes; how and why did 'primitive communism' change without a conflict of classes? Also, in many societies, kinship, religion, and ethnicity seem to have provided stronger connections than has class (4). Other terms in Marxism have also been criticised, such as the labor theory of value, which states that the of work is the cost of materials and labor involved, a definition which assumes voluntary cooperation of laborers and does not include management costs and responsibilities.

Sources and Bibliography

Bloch, Maurice. Marxism and Anthropology: The History of a Relationship. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983.

Borofsky, Robert, ed. Assessing Cultural Anthropology. New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc., 1994.

Donham, Donald L. History, Power, Ideology: Central Issues in Marxism and Anthropology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Fluehr-Lobban, Carolyn, ed. International Perspectives on Marxist Anthropology. Minneapolis: MEP Publications, 1989.

Godelier, Maurice. Perspectives in Marxist Anthropology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978.

Hakken, David and Lessinger, Hanna, eds. Perspectives in U.S. Marxist Anthropology. Boulder: Westview Press, 1987.

Harris, Marvin. Theoretical Principles of Cultural Materialism. In High Points in Anthropology. Bohannan, Paul and Glazer, Mark, eds. New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc., 1988. 

Hodder, Ian. Theory and Practice in Archaeology. London: Routledge, 1992.

Ingold, Tim, ed. Companion Encyclopedia of Anthropology. London: Routledge, 1994.

Kautsky, John H., ed. Karl Kautsky and the Social Science of Classical Marxism. Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1989.

Mintz, Sidney, Godelier, Maurice, and Trigger, Bruce. On Marxian Perspectives in Anthropology: Essays in Honor of Harry Hoijer 1981. Malibu: Undena Publications, 1984.

Nelson, Cary and Grossberg, Lawrence, eds. Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988.

Ollman, Bertell, and Vernoff, Edward, eds. The Left Academy: Marxist Scholarship on American Campuses, vol. 1. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1982.

Ollman, Bertell, and Vernoff, Edward, eds. The Left Academy: Marxist Scholarship on American Campuses, vol. 2. New York: Praeger Publishers, 1984.

Terray, Emmanuel. Marxism and "Primitive" Societies. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1972.

Trigger, Bruce G. A History of Archaeological Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Vincent, Joan. Anthropology and Politics: Visions, Traditions, and Trends. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 1990.

Wenke, Robert J. Patterns in Prehistory. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

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