Marxism and economic anthropology
from The Memory Bank by keith
An ‘anthropology’ is any systematic study of humanity as a whole. The modern academic discipline has its origins in the democratic revolutions and rationalist philosophy of the eighteenth century...
French Marxist anthropology
French Marxist anthropology enjoyed cult status in the Anglophone world during the 1970s. The crucial text was Althusser and Balibar’s (1965) reading of Capital that brought Marxist political economy into line with Lévi-Strauss’s structuralist methodology and American systems theory. The human subject, dialectical reason and indeed history itself were in effect dropped from their scheme. A deep structure of the ideal mode of production was outlined, having three elements – producers, non-producers and means of production – whose variable combinations were realized as concrete modes of production. Much attention was paid to the relationship between economic, political and ideological levels of the mode of production and to the question of which was dominant and/or determinant in any given case. Althusser abandoned the ideological notion of ‘society’ in favour of ‘social formations’ where, it was recognized, several modes of production were normally combined.
A handful of French anthropologists made substantial contributions to Marxism around this time. Maurice Godelier’s Rationality and Irrationality in Economics (1966) was the first to cross the Channel. It offered a rather conventional treatment of the formalist-substantivist debate launched by Polanyi, while claiming to synthesize Marx and Lévi-Strauss. Godelier applied the notion of rationality not only to persons but to systems, thereby setting up a contradiction between structure and agency that he could not resolve. Marxism, said Godelier, can add a specific kind of function to Lévi-Strauss’s structures, thereby allowing a complete anthropological analysis of social systems. The result, however, resembles an ecological version of structural-functionalism more than Marxism.
Claude Meillassoux, Emmanuel Terray and Pierre-Philippe Rey all acknowledged their debt to Althusser, while debating ethnographic interpretations of their shared area, West/Central Africa. Meillassoux’s The Economic Anthropology of the Guro of Ivory Coast (1964) became the main point of common reference. His later synthetic study, Maidens, Meal and Money (1981), was an ambitious attempt to compare the main means of accumulation (women, food and capital) in tribal, peasant and capitalist societies. In an essay reinterpreting the Guro ethnography, Terray argued that Marxist analysis is often too crude, labeling all primitive societies in much the same way, leaving non-Marxist ethnographers free to explain their specificity by reference to kinship structures and the like. Instead, emulating the approach of the British structural-functionalists, he laid out a method for classifying the material base of a society in great detail, so that its modes of production may be inferred empirically and concrete particulars incorporated into a materialist analysis. There is little history in this version of historical materialism, even though Terray went on to produce meticulous histories of a West African kingdom. Pierre-Philippe Rey’s Colonialism, Neo-colonialism and the Transition to Capitalism (1971) was an original contribution to the literature on matrilineal kinship, slavery and European penetration of the Congo, in contrast with the prevailing Marxist norm of merely restating what was already known in a new jargon. He outlined here his famous idea of a ‘lineage mode of production’. Moreover, he spelled out the ‘articulation of modes of production in a structure of dominance’, showing concretely how colonial capitalism restructured the lineage and petty commodity modes of production in the interest of accumulation.
We are left with a mystery: how to account for the disproportionate influence of this small band of French Marxists on Anglophone anthropology in the 1970s? It cannot be that they clarified a number of concepts and wrote a few untranslated monographs. Their success may have had something to do with the explicitly synthetic position French structuralism occupied between German philosophy, including Marxism, and Anglophone scientific empiricism. The modernization of Marx, by incorporating systems theory and dumping the dialectic, produced a version of structural-functionalism at once sufficiently different from the original to persuade English-speakers that they were learning Marxism and similar enough to allow them to retain their customary way of thinking, which had been temporarily discredited by the end of empire.
Meillassoux’s Guro book became a mine of parables allowing rival political positions in France around 1968 to be expressed as interpretations of West African ethnography. Thus one issue was whether elders’ disposal of young men’s labour should be attributed to control of distribution through marriage exchange (Rey) or rather to the organization of production (Terray). This was in effect a replay of the argument between communist and ultra-left factions in Paris. There the question was whether the Soviet Union, in emphasizing state ownership of the means of production, was a genuine instance of socialism or rather a state capitalist society. Whereas the Stalinists held that it was indeed socialist, their opponents such as Bettelheim (1963) claimed that property relations operated only at the level of distribution and a more thoroughgoing Marxist analysis would be based on the organization of production. Seen from the perspective of managerial control of the work process, Russian factories were no different from capitalist firms. It is hardly surprising that these aspects of the debate within French Marxism were missed by their imitators.
French Marxism disappeared by the end of the 1970s, as suddenly as it had burst on the Anglophone scene. It did not survive the great watershed of post-war history, when welfare-state democracy gave way to ‘neo-liberalism’. With its demise went the last vestige of a central focus for debates within economic anthropology. In the period since then, Marxist anthropology has found isolated protagonists, but their voices have not added up to an intellectual movement. One beneficiary of this relative decline has been Karl Polanyi, whose institutionalist critique of liberal economics has become more prominent of late. The economic crisis of 2008-9 should stimulate a revival of Marxist economic anthropology, hopefully paying more attention to Marx’s own vision of the economy in human history than was the case the last time around.