Marx, Karl Heinrich (18181883)
Dictionary Home
AnthroBase Home
Bookmark, cite or print this page

German-Jewish social philosopher and revolutionary. Marx is known simultaneously as the first, and perhaps the greatest, modern sociologist, and as one of the most influential social activists of all time. His writings were destined to become baseline texts of all social theory, and ideological baselines of mass social movements, from political parties and labor unions to liberation armies and an entire "socialist" world order. More people have died in Marx's name than in any other name except Jesus's and Mohammed's. Marx is thus a gigantic historical figure, on a par with Napoleon, Hitler or Genghis Khan; but also an extremely innovative and perceptive social theorist. It is symptomatic that the works of the two other "classical sociologists" - Durkheim and Weber - are often viewed as reactions to Marx.

In his sociological theory Marx is inspired by such thinkers as Vico, Rousseau, Saint-Simon, and - particularly - Hegel, as well as by the general evolutionist trend of the 19th century. There is an unusual blend of romanticism and materialism in all of his work: Marx thus describes world history and social evolution as a steadily growing accumulation of power, which, at a given historical instant, would release itself in Communist utopia. As Marshall Berman (1982) so clearly has stated, Marx was as much an artist as a scientist and a politician. His influence is - precisely for this reason - profound throughout the social sciences.

Marx was the first to see society as a system, an identifiable creature, with its own dynamics, its own logic, its own inherent development. Later, others would describe this system differently, but they would still describe it as a system, and Marx was the first to do this in a systematic way.

As regards Marx's own idea of what constituted the internal "glue" of the system, it was clearly biased toward what is often called "the material". This we may understand, roughly, as the physical "stuff" without which we would not even exist. It follows that social control of access to such physical "stuff" (food, fuel) is the key to social power. Marx refers to this as the infrastructure of society. On this level society is produced as such, and the basis for this production is most fundamentally, material. Through material production we create the fields and houses, roads and machines that make it possible to live in our society. On top of this production of the material base (infrastructure, basis) of existence, there exists an Überbau - a superstructure - an organization and ideology, that reflects over the infrastructure and legitimates the power relations that obtain in relation to it. Between the infrastructure and the superstructure, and between the component parts of each, there pertains a constant tension, a dialectic, which drives forth social change - towards greater and greater concentrations of power. (Except of course that suddenly, this entire dynamic would be broken and Communist egalitarianism would prevail.)

Marx's legacy is complex, and cannot be summarized meaningfully here, but there are certain themes in his work that have, in time, become central to anthropology. Anthropologists were not, at the outset, particularly interested in Marxian thought. Marx was explicitly concerned with modern society, and his essays about "pre-capitalist" social formations, were often (though perceptive) quite speculative. The explicit evolutionism in Marx's writings discredited him both in the Boasian, American tradition, and in the British tradition from Malinowski. Marx was first "discovered" in anthropology by American materialist anthropologists such as Julian Steward, who could not, however, refer to his writings directly during the McCarthy era. From Steward, and from the economic historian Karl Polanyi, the interest in Marx was passed on to Steward's students (e.g. Fried, Wolf, Mintz, Sahlins), who expressed their Marxian leanings explicitly after the 1960's. Marx was also "discovered" by French anthropologists (e.g. Godelier and Meillassoux) brought up on Lévi-Straussian structuralism, who, starting in the 1960's, elaborated a major theoretical revision of Marxian thinking: The infrastructure, which produces the basis of social existence, also produces the symbolic basis of society. To produce is to produce meaning as well as material commodities and resources. This might be considered the central insight produced by neo-Marxist anthropology.

It is possible that Marx himself may have thought along these same lines. His work is large and complex, and not always consistent with itself. In his early work, and in his magnum opus, Das Kapital (Vol. 1: 1867), he seems to state ideas similar to Godelier's. But at the same time, there is an "orthodox" Marx, an ideological construct that was created in the Soviet Union that states a simpler creed: a belief in the absolute primacy of the material (i.e. heavy industrial production). To understand the depth of Marx's sociology, it is necessary to forget the ideological constructs derived from his thought, and focus on the thoughts themselves.

Among the most important aspects of Marxian thought that have impacted on anthropology, are:

The neo-Marxian wave of the 1960's and 70's was superceded, during the 80's, by a movement toward what has been refered to as "practice theory". This movement is, as a whole, heavily influenced by Marx, and his influence is very evident in its prime theoretician, Pierre Bourdieu, as well. Among other things, Bourdieu follows up Marx's insistence on seeing actors as concrete, physical human beings in a concrete, physical world.


Sample quote.


To see texts on AnthroBase dealing with Karl Marx, see:
http://www.anthrobase.com/Browse/Cit/M/karl_marx.htm

To explore links concerned with Karl Marx at the AnthroBase Annotated Link Collection, see:
http://www.anthrobase.com/Browse/home/hoj/antropologi.htm#marx