I wrote the chapter on “Anthropology” in the forthcoming Handbook of Marxism (Vol.1-3) edited by Sara Farris, Beverley Skeggs, Alberto Toscano and Svenja Bromberg (SAGE, 2022).
If I were to title it (beyond the “keyword” Anthropology) I would choose “Anthropology and Marxism: An Ethnography of Class and Identity”—come see me try my hand at the “identity” vs. “class” debate.
(I will make a PDF available when I get one—email me if you are very keen…)
Marx relied on anthropology in his logical and historical exposition, and anthropology has long existed in dialectic with Marxism. To study anthropology with Marxist categories or subject Marxism to ethnographic scrutiny, it makes sense to proceed chronologically—the importance of history is something anthropologists and Marxists often agree on. In the process, we consider how philosophical idealism continues to interfere in efforts to build grounded ethnographic theory, yet how ethnography remains a uniquely useful tool to unsettle idealist abstractions that limit Marxist debate itself.
I begin by discussing Marx’s treatment of anthropology in his project to historicize capitalism, then how Marxist theory influenced anthropology: By the middle of the 20th century, the anthropological notion of society was no longer the integrated whole imagined within functionalism, but rather a field characterized by conflict and struggle. Following experiments in material and ecological determinisms, it was feminist and postcolonial revisionings of the “class consciousness” concept that sparked an epistemological debate that informs the politics of ethnography to the present day—insights of the poststructuralist turn may transcend those of Marx, but they also contain them.
I then present my research of anarchist social movements in North America to illustrate the continued utility of anthropology within Marxist theory and practice: In my study of the ethnographic category “good politics”, it becomes clear that people concerned about oppressed identities are not necessarily looking for recognition—as opposed to engaging in “class struggle”, yet insofar as identities are mobilized as property, no amount of intersectionality makes things better for the working class. Insofar as this chapter is staged as an intervention, it is to remind 21st century anthropologists the material importance of knowing their (disciplinary) history, and to challenge the Marxist who still considers identity politics a conundrum to consider applying the materialist method of ethnography.