Communist Party of Australia

We acknowledge the Sovereignty of the First Nations’ Peoples.


Journal of the Communist Party of Australia


Marxist Anthropology

by Dr Hannah Middleton

This is an edited version of a paper given in August 2000 to a public forum organised by the Marxist Club at the University of Sydney.

I acknowledge the traditional owners of this land whose rights extend from the distant past unbroken to this day and into the future, and I renew my commitment to act in support of Aboriginal land rights.

As a Marxist I approach a topic with Marx’s 11th Thesis on Feuerbach in mind: that the philosophers have interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.

Today, we will examine what anthropology is. Then we will look briefly at how a Marxist anthropologist approaches interpreting the world. Finally, we will look at changing the world.

There is a key question which guides Marxist investigation in the social sciences: What is the condition for social life of any kind to take place? There is an obvious initial answer: people must associate together to produce their material means of life if they are to survive.

This is our starting point. The resources, tools, and human skill and the relationships formed to produce and sustain people and society are the foundation of all the complexities and contradictions, the similarities and differences, the change and potential in human societies across time and space. It is in these material variables, and not in the realm of ideas, thoughts or human will that our analyses must be grounded.

Dialectics is a science of the development of nature, society and ideas which recognises the universal interconnectedness of all phenomena and the fact that they are in a constant state of motion and change/development.

Every Marxist scientist must — if we are to live up to the title — attempt to reveal the truth as a reflection of the objective world in all its contradictory aspects, its inter-relatedness of phenomena and its constant state of change. But we must also use that knowledge to act effectively and to encourage others to act, to take sides, to be partisan for progress.

We will have no truck with the bourgeois notion that demands we be uncommitted and neutral in order to be scientifically “objective”, that if we are advocates and activists we are therefore subjective and not scientific in our approach.

The truth of many bourgeois scientists, who claim to be neutral and objective, is that they are biassed, dishonest, blinkered and worse. They are the economists who leave ordinary people out of their models, the tobacco company scientists who denied the ravages of their product for so many decades, the asbestos company scientists who are still insisting that white asbestos does not kill, the scientists in the USA who fed plutonium to ordinary people, the so called scientific theories linking race and intelligence ... and the list goes on.

The reality of this “objectivity” is that it is intended to conceal the truth, the reality of colonialism, exploitation, racism and imperialism; it is intended to prevent scientists from taking effective action by pretending that partisanship contradicts scientific endeavour, it is intended to make us “neutral” when to do so commits us — consciously or not — to the status quo, to the side of the existing structure of domination.

A Marxist scientist is objective and partisan. Our objectivity consists in revealing the world as it really is and using that knowledge as the basis to act effectively to change it.

What is anthropology?

An Aboriginal activist in Adelaide once told me: “Dogs have fleas and we have anthropologists.”

There has long been a deep ambivalence about anthropology.

One of the founding fathers of anthropology, Boas, described it as dealing with the general problem of the evolution of humanity (coming from earlier times, he actually called it “mankind”).

And at its best the concern of the anthropological tradition has been with both common humanity and diverse cultures, to explain both the similarities and the differences in the condition of humankind, to get at what is common through the differences that have arisen through the interaction of people with nature and each other in different settings.

Anna Louise Strong pointed out that if Lenin himself came to your town, he would have to know what you know about it before he could plan a revolution there.

Any science, any body of knowledge, is historically embedded — it has a past in which it was developed, tested and used. That historical past had a particular material base, a particular social organisation of production, which gave rise to and was influenced by a particular ideas, values, a specific world view which influenced the direction and character of the science and its development.

At the same time, our society with its world view, its taken for granted knowledge derived from the capitalist mode of production, influences the people who practice a particular science and the further development of that field.

Marxists recognise that our consciousness is determined by our social being — that we are ultimately — dialectically and not in a simplistic, determinist manner — the product of the society in which we grow and learn.

We must use these insights to analyse what anthropology is, what role it has played and what it might become.

In 1969, the Radical Caucus of the American Anthropological Association presented a resolution to the Association's annual meeting which began:

“Anthropology since its inception has contained a dual but contradictory heritage. On the one hand it derives from a humanistic tradition of concern with people. On the other hand, anthropology is a discipline developed alongside and within the growth of the colonial and imperial powers. By what they have studied (and what they have not studied) anthropologists have assisted in, or at least acquiesced to, the goals of imperialist policy. It is becoming increasingly apparent to many that these two traditions are in contradiction.”

How do we assess the claims of a discipline which writes accounts of “cultures” abstracted from the contexts of capitalism and imperialism, racism and domination, war and revolution?

How do we assess the claims of a discipline which describes national liberation movements and other forms of resistance to oppression and exploitation in terms of release mechanisms from the stress of acculturation?

How do we assess a discipline in which relativism has emerged as a dominant theme — perhaps a liberal response, but at its worst popular because it fits neatly into an imperialism confident of its power. Every culture, regardless of its economic and political context, is conceived as a human possibility that can be tasted.

Relativism has been called the ideology of a conqueror who has become secure enough to become a tourist.

We might add secure enough to establish an Aboriginal arts centre at the Olympics and to fund the reconciliation process while never yielding an inch on the fundamentals by returning land or saying “sorry”.

Anthropology cannot escape its own history.

The reality is that anthropology is the offspring of colonialism, and reflects a state of affairs in which one part of humanity treats the other as an object and in which the anthropologist is her/himself a victim and her/his power of decision is a fiction, embedded as it is in the exploitative foundations of our society.

William Willis insists:

“White rule with its color inequality is the context in which anthropology originated and flourished, and this context has shaped the development of anthropology. The formalisation of anthropology in the nineteenth century coincided with the shift from ‘booty’ colonialism to imperialism, which stressed profit from the control, exploitation and preservation of cheap colored workers and consumers. The persistent distinction between ‘primitive’ and ‘civilized’ has been made falsely to coincide with the pervasive color bar ...

“The context of white rule provides a conception of anthropology that emphasizes what it actually has been. To a considerable extent, anthropology has been the social science that studies dominated colored peoples — and their ancestors — living outside the boundaries of modern white societies.1

Galtung has described scientific colonialism, a process whereby the centre of gravity for acquisition of knowledge about a people is located elsewhere.

“There are many ways in which this can happen. One is to...export data about the country to one's own home country for processing into ‘manufactured goods’, such as books and articles...This is essentially similar to what happens when raw materials are exported at a low price and re-imported as manufactured goods at a very high cost.”2

In the 18th Century writers discussed the “Noble Savage” in relation to the questions they were asking about themselves, their humanity and their society. In the bourgeois colonialist epoch we find a conception of the primitive which presents them as inferior.

While clearly capitalist colonialism was the source of the idea of the inferior savage, it is also true that in the 19th Century, a period of bourgeois political and class consolidation, the image of humanity itself was downgraded and this was reflected in the shift in conceptions of the primitive.

In the 20th Century, the study of human society lends itself to the manipulation of people in the very course of observing them.

In this period, the “study of man” (illuminatingly the term “man” subsuming women) becomes rationalised as an academic discipline and a way of life for anthropologists. Anthropology, defined as the “study of man”, commands the attention of an increasingly “popular” audience in search of novelty.

The image of anthropologists as exclusively students of “distinctive others” remains deeply ingrained and anthropology, in perception as well as much of its practice still reflects Levi-Strauss’ comment that “when an object comes to Paris whose code is known, it goes to the Louvre; when the code is not known, it goes to the Musee de l’Homme.”

There has been a “pre-occupation with purity”. Peoples influenced by “Western civilisation” are less interesting for many anthropologists — and this focus also allows the anthropologist to avoid some of the difficulties of imposed change, the destruction wrought by colonialism and exploitation, the abuse and degradation inflicted on so many of these “distinctive others”.

Sidney Mintz commented:

“Houses constructed of old Coca-Cola signs, a cuisine littered with canned corned beef and imported Spanish olives, ritual shot through with the cross and the palm leaf, ... all observed within the reach of radio and television — these are not the things anthropologists’ dreams are made of ...

“We have begun to learn that it is the carriers of these cultures, both as victims and aggressors, who are asking today’s questions, and providing irresistible answers. It becomes no longer a matter of what we shall do for them, but of what they must know, and have, in order to do for themselves.”3

Interpreting the world ...

We will turn now to look at how a Marxist anthropologist “interprets” the world. I will use three examples from traditional Aboriginal society since those of you who are not studying anthropology are likely to have some knowledge in this area.


If we want to comprehend the role and significance of the classificatory kinship of the Aboriginal people we need to look at the socio-economic basis of their society — the means of production and the relations of production, distribution and exchange.

In other words, as I mentioned earlier, we start from concrete data on how the people of a particular society, at a particular point in time associate in order to produce their material means of life.

The main means of production was the land — and it is interesting that in the Aboriginal understanding of creation, the land already existed, was eternal, only its features and inhabitants were created in what has come to be called “the Dreamtime”.

To use the resources the land offered to sustain their society, the Aboriginal people developed a relatively low level of productive forces, extensive knowledge of the land and its resources, and a system of reciprocal relationships.

With this they produced no surplus, but, apart from times of flood, famine or other natural disasters, they had what has been called “the original affluent society”. Hunter-gatherer societies generally spent a much shorter part of each day obtaining food and other necessities than has been necessary in pastoral, agricultural and industrial societies.

There was a biological division of labour in the production of the foods and other goods needed for society to survive. This was based on gender and age and expressed in kinship terms. By this I mean that the relationships, mutual obligations, patterns of behaviour, responsibilities and so forth were expressed in kinship terms.

I know how I should behave towards someone I call “jauwiji”, what he can ask of me, what I can expect from him.

The classificatory kinship system was a major matrix and metaphor. It represented or reflected the totality of the relations of production, distribution and exchange in traditional Aboriginal society.


Young boys from about 9 years on were subjected to an extremely sophisticated method of instruction, within the framework of initiation, to fit them for their future adult economic and social roles.

With simple productive forces, survival of the community demanded extensive knowledge of the land and its resources over seasons and a wide network of social relationships upon which to draw in time of economic hardship.

Such knowledge and relationships took years to establish. They were the content of the initiation process. The form in which initiation was expressed was predominantly religious.

For example, within the creation myths we see not just a philosophy reflecting the eternal aspect of nature, not just an understanding and appreciation of the place of humanity as part of the natural world, but also instruction in the ways of the natural world, where water is to be found, how animals and birds behave and so forth, and the rules of social behaviour and adult responsibilities.

If we recognise the objective need for this highly developed training in order to create productive members of society (you might consider that as university students you are going through the same process) and if we distinguish between the form and the content of initiation, then our understanding of this unsatisfactorily researched aspect of Aboriginal traditional society will be vastly improved. We will gain a materialist understanding of the process. And with understanding should come respect.


Polygyny, the practice in traditional Aboriginal society of older men having more than one wife and typically much younger wives, has been criticised as the sexual and economic exploitation of women by older men who forced the productive young men to remain unmarried. Explanations have also been couched in terms of the exchange of women between groups, often again with the emphasis on the exchange of their sexual services.

[* To get our terms clear:

Polygamy: custom of having more than one spouse

Polyandy: customs of having more than one husband.

Polygyny: custom of having more than one wife.]

Such analyses are ethnocentric; they ignore the practical advantages of polygyny and they ignore the reality of women’s position in Aboriginal society.

Women were not passive sexual objects used as units of exchange.

There was exchange of women between groups for marriage — but there was also reciprocal exchange of boys and young men between groups for initiation.

Women were highly valued by the group as active producers and reproducers. The removal of a woman from her land owning and managing group was sanctioned by punishment up to and including killing because it meant the loss of an important economic and social subject.

Polygyny had objective advantages for women as well as for the society as a whole.

One of its roles was to provide a collective for co-wives, particularly for young women in the critical 20 to 27 years, when they had their greatest burden to bear in looking after an infant or a young child or both. These burdens were shared with their co-wives.

A second role was to allow the older woman or women in the co- wives collective to teach and support the youngest wives in the economic role they had to play in society. The knowledge of older women, for example in the distribution of plant foodstuffs, was passed on to help younger women effectively fulfill their adult economic roles.

Marriage with considerably older men was an economic necessity because it was these men who were the most experienced and effective organisers of production and distribution. It was these men, not the young men still completing their initiate training, who could support a collective of co- wives economically and socially.4

Changing the world ...

Anthropology deals in knowledge of others. Such knowledge implies ethical and political responsibilities, and today the “others” whom anthropologists have studied make those responsibilities explicit and unavoidable.

The “others”, who anthropologists have so consistently treated as objects instead of real people, ask:

“What has been the effect of your work among us? Have you contributed to the solution of the problems you have witnessed? Have you even mentioned those problems? If not, then you are part of those problems and hence must be changed, excluded, or eradicated along with their other manifestations. If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.”

Anthropologists cannot claim immunity from responsibility in the name of science. If we involve ourselves in activities fateful to the lives of others, we can claim no immunity from responsibility for the consequences of those activities.

Instead we must question the kinds of knowledge sought and the uses to which it is to be put. Truth for its own sake is not enough.

Who receives and uses our research? It has become generally — but by no means universally — recognised that information directly injurious should not be provided but there is another profound obligation as well.

It is to work towards ways in which the knowledge one obtains can be helpful to those from whom it comes and that those from whom the knowledge comes control the uses of that knowledge.

Not to do so is to be “neutral” on the side of the existing structure of domination.

Neutrality on human issues is not an option open to anthropologists. To value truth over falsity in dealing with matters of social existence has political and moral consequences.

To be uncommitted is not to be neutral but to be committed — consciously or not — to the status quo. We have a responsibility not simply to the truth but to acting upon the implications of that truth. Action is the logical and necessary concomitant of our knowledge.

Another kind of anthropology

In the 1960s there was a revolt against anthropological tradition. It arose along with the civil rights movement, the protest against the Vietnam War, the growth of the women’s movement and the other features of those turbulent times.

These movements had a profound impact in Australia too — here perhaps the most remembered and most enduring example was the split at this university within the Economics Department and the establishment of political economy as an organisationally separate discipline.

I have the impression that the radical critique of this period, with its passionate commitment to the powerless and to change and its embrace of practice as an integral and inescapable adjunct to theory, has been largely lost today as economic rationalism generally and utilitarianism in education have taken power.

We should not forget that universities are class institutions with complacent and self-indulgent faculties that conveniently avoid or forget to ask fundamental questions.

The 1960s vision of an anthropology for and with the people is important today as part of the resistance to the domination of the transnational corporations of all aspects of our lives — economic, political, social, environmental...and intellectual.

Speaking from the 1960s radical anthropology, Kathleen Gough believed her science should and could mature “into an interconnected body of empirical knowledge and theory, continually being revised, about the total process and main directions of the evolution of human societies and cultures, geared ultimately, although not at every point directly and immediately, to a search for the enhancement of human happiness and dignity.”5

Dell Hymes went further:

“There are many varied roles for work in the anthropological tradition. With regard to dominated cultures, there is work to help them survive, to preserve identity and dignity as part of a larger sphere; there is work to help social transformation and the emergence of new cultural forms. With regard to the cultures of power, there is work to expose them to scrutiny as careful as that which the powerless receive, to clarify the form and sources of their dominance, and again to help in social transformation and the emergence of new cultural forms. For humanity as a whole, there is the role of keeper of our secular origin myth, as discerned through prehistory and biological evolution, and as keeper in part of many truths, whose power appears only when one considers the shapes of the ignorance that would replace them. Most important of these are perhaps the evidence of humanity as maker of its own history and the evidence of human worth and value to be found in so many diverse conditions of life.”6

I will end with a quotation, from Berreman, again speaking from and for the revolt in anthropology in the 1960s:

“What so many yearn for in our profession as in academia, then, a redefinition of our aims. And we not only yearn for it, we are committed to working for it. That redefinition entails first of all a return to the Enlightenment vision of a social science whose aim is the enhancement of the freedom of the human spirit, the enhancement of the quality of human life, whose practitioners and students take as a positive responsibility the necessity to take action toward that noble end. We ask that individual scholars be held accountable for their activities as scientists, for only thus will a humane science of man emerge rather than one which is simply adjunct to the inhumane, socially uninformed, and irresponsible goals of politicians, militarists, and entrepreneurs. We ask that anthropological work be relevant in the sense that it addresses the issues facing people in their social existence as it seeks to provide foundations and practical recommendations for improving it.”7

To that we must add a call for anthropologists:

  • to become active participants (instead of just participant observers) in the process of social and economic transformation.
  • to work to transform the ethos of the most progressive anthropology that we have from a liberal humanism, defending the powerless, to a socialist humanism, confronting the powerful and actively seeking to transform the structures of power.


  1. William Willis, Skeletons in the Anthropological Closet, in Dell Hymes (ed), Reinventing Anthropology, Vintage Books, New York, 1974.
  2. Johann Galtung, After Camelot, in Irving Horowitz, ed., The Rise and Fall of Project Camelot: Studies in the Relationship Between Social Science and Practical Politics, MIT Press, Cambridge Mass., 1967.
  3. Sidney Mintz, Foreword, in Whitten and Szwed, Afro-American Anthropology: Contemporary Perspectives, Free Press, New York, 1970.
  4. For further reading on these issues, see Frederick Rose, The Traditional Mode of Production of the Australian Aborigines, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1987.
  5. Kathleen Gough, World Revolution and the Science of Man, in Theodore Roszak, ed., The Dissenting Academy, Pantheon Books, New York, 1967.
  6. Dell Hymes, The Use of Anthropology: Critical, Political, Personal, in Dell Hymes (ed), 1974.
  7. Gerald Berreman, "Bringing It All Back Home": Malaise in Anthropology, in Dell Hymes (ed), 1974.

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