Tuesday, June 23, 2009


Marvin Harris, The Rise of Anthropological Theory: A History of Theories of Culture (Updated Edition), Alta Mira Press, 2001

Reviewed by Thomas Riggins

This is an indispensable book for all those on the left interested in understanding how the science of cultural (social) anthropology developed over the last three centuries and how it is used to understand (and sometimes control) non-Western societies, especially those that have not developed complex state structures.

Harris’ updated edition was published a few months before his death in October 2001.The Rise of Anthropological Theory [TRAT] was first published in 1968 and is still marked by some of the ideological concerns of that era. Harris states that his goal was “to extricate the materialist position from the hegemony of dialectical Marxian orthodoxy with its anti-
positivist dogmas while simultaneously exposing the theoretical failure of biological reductionism, eclecticism, historical particularism and various forms of cultural idealism.”

What we have here is another shamefaced Marxist inspired work that, due to the political realities of American capitalism, recognizes the validity of Marx’s scientific accomplishments yet halts at drawing the social and political conclusions those accomplishments reveal with respect to the society in which Harris himself lived and worked.

Harris called the type of anthropological theory he developed “cultural materialism” in contrast to “historical” or “dialectical” materialism two forms he thought contaminated by Hegel’s dialectic.

Maxinel L. Margolis, in the 2001 introduction to TRAT describes it thusly: “In its simplest terms, cultural materialism rejects the time worn adage that ‘ideas change the world.’ Instead, it holds that over time and in most cases, changes in a society’s material base will lead to functionally compatible changes in its social and political structures along with modifications in its secular and religious ideologies, all of which enhance the continuity and stability of the system as a whole.”

This is basically the Marxism of the ‘Preface’ to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy shorn of its revolutionary implications. Gone from this formulation is Marx’s recognition that, “At a certain stage of their development” the productive forces in the material base come into conflict with the relations of production-- those relations turning into their “fetters” which results in “an epoch of social revolution.”

The Harris version, tempered by the necessity of academic survival (he was a professor at Columbia) in the 60s, a time when the U.S. government was involved in a world wide anti-Communist crusade [which was actually a crusade against human rights and democratic representation for the world’s poor] stretching from Latin America through Europe, Africa and Asia, has replaced these Marxist revolutionary bugaboos with more acceptable bourgeois formulations: “functionally compatible changes” which “enhance the continuity of the system.”

Cultural Materialism will not explain the French Revolution. But it was not designed to. Harris’ revision of Marx is more in line with British Functionalism (different cultural elements function together to promote stability). The main difference being that Harris tries to provide for evolutionary change while the functionalists (Bronislaw Malinowski, A. R. Radliffe-Brown) were opposed to ideas of evolutionary (let alone revolutionary) change.

Harris’ book is important because it discusses in great detail all the major anthropological theories of culture developed in the West from the Enlightenment to the present. He thinks Marx’s views are vital and he defends them (at least some of them) against all comers, while at the same time giving credit to the discoveries and contributions of other schools of

He credits the Boas school (founded at Columbia towards the end of the Nineteenth Century) for its contributions to the scientific fight against racism and racist ideologies, while at the same time rejecting its anti-evolutionary theories of “historical particularism.”

His chapter on “Dialectical Materialism” is of particular interest. In this chapter he discusses Marx’s methods of social analysis, including the limitations imposed on it by its Nineteenth Century milieu, and concludes that, “It is Marx’s more general materialist formulation that deserves our closest scrutiny.” What he wants to scrutinize away is the influence of Hegel and, to Harris, the unscientific and outmoded principles of dialectic. [ It is that nasty dialectic that is responsible for contradiction which might not “promote stability”].

After pulling Marx and Engels’ teeth, so they can’t bite the bourgeois hand that feeds him, Harris allows them to become major forerunners of his so-called Cultural Materialism.

Harris gives good critiques of both French Structuralism (Levi-Strauss) and British Social Anthropology and concludes with two chapters (22 and 23) which thoroughly explain his own theories. These are the chapters “Cultural Materialism: General Evolution” and “Cultural Evolution: Cultural Ecology.”

In these chapters not only are Marx and Engels lauded, but so is Lewis Henry Morgan(Ancient Society, 1877) whose work was the basis of Engels’ The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. Morgan, the founder of American anthropology, was an upstate New York Republican legislator from Buffalo credited by Marx and Engels with independently discovering historical materialism.

Harris also discusses Leslie White’s The Evolution of Culture (1943, 1959)--”the modern equivalent of Morgan’s Ancient Society”) [although White may seem a little too mechanical: “Other factors remaining constant, culture evolves as the amount of energy harnessed per capita per year is increased, or as the efficiency of the means of putting the energy to work is increased.”]

The important contributions of the Australian Marxist archeologist Vere Gordon Childe (The Dawn of Western Civilization, 1958; What Happened in History, 1946; Man Makes Himself and Social Evolution 1951) are presented as well.

All in all, Harris packs into his 806 pages a more or less complete survey of every major school and theory in the history of anthropology. His view, subject to the restrictions and ideological conditions noted earlier, is basically progressive and anyone with a modicum of Marxist theory can easily substitute a more “orthodox”, that is, more consistently Marxist, analysis to replace those areas where Harris’ “Cultural Materialism” fails in its appreciation of the Hegelian-Marxist dialectic.

Thomas Riggins is the book review editor of Political Affairs and can be reached at pabooks@politicalaffairs.net.

Monday, June 1, 2009


Marxism and Islamophobia
By Thomas Riggins

Last Thursday’s Arts section of The New York Times (2-8-07) has an interesting article about a rift within the world of book awards. This is admittedly an arcane world that most people are unaware of, yet it reflects the reality of the everyday world in which we all live.

This article, "In Books, A Clash of Europe and Islam" by Patricia Cohen, is about a controversy regarding nominations for the National Book Critics Circle award. The brouhaha in this relatively small world can tell us something about the larger world about us and, I maintain, can only be understood from a Marxist perspective.

The controversy is over one of the books nominated for the award, namely "While Europe Slept" by Bruce Bawer. Eliot Weinberger, one of the board members of the Circle, when he presented the list of nominations for the award, stated that Bawer’s book was an example of "racism as criticism."

Following that, the president of the Circle, John Freeman, announced that "I have never been more embarrassed by a choice than I have been with Bruce Bawer’s ‘While Europe Slept.’ Its hyperventilated rhetoric tips from actual critique into Islamophobia."

If what is said is true it reveals that reactionary and racist views are now openly being embraced by many in so called intellectually enlightened elite. After all, the 24 board members of the Book Critics Circle no doubt consider it slanderous to suggest that they could be tainted with racist or ethnic insensibility.

Here, for example, is the reaction of J. Peder Zane of "The News & Observer" published in Raleigh, N.C., and member of the committee that selected the book. It "was not a contentious selection," he said. He was also very putout with Mr. Weinberger’s comments. "He was not only completely unfair to Bruce Bawer [we shall see about that] he’s also saying that those of us who put the book on the finalist list are racist or to stupid to know we’re racist." I think we will see that the latter is the case but then the former characterization would also follow.

So what are Mr. Bawer’s views? He calls himself a "liberal" cultural critic but his views are anything but liberal, and he is much in vogue with the ultraconservative National Review types as well as the ethno-nationalist "intellectuals" in Europe where he lives. He is an American but lives in Norway.

Bawer's views are highly critical of radical, fundamentalist Islam, but there seems to be some blurring of the distinction between Islam as a religion in general and those who are fundamentalists. There is also a spill over involving immigrants to Europe from Islamic countries. Bawer rejects the characterization of "racism" because he says he is actually criticizing religious views. This is a red herring as he also attacks people who are ethnically distinct from Europeans (many in the Muslim community), advocates mass deportations, and appears sympathetic to neo-Nazi fringe political parties.

Here is what he says about his critics: "One of the most disgraceful developments of our time is that many Western authors and intellectuals who pride themselves on being liberals have effectively aligned themselves with an outrageously illiberal movement that rejects equal rights for women, that believes that gays and Jews should be executed, that supports the coldblooded murder of one's own children in the name of honor, etc., etc."

Here the distinction between radical extremist Islam and Islam in general is blurred. Liberal intellectuals defend the civil rights of immigrants, including Islamic immigrants, and the freedom of religious practice within the confines of the civil law. Liberal intellectuals do not support radical Islamists and none of the practices Bawer mentioned in his quote are practices any educated person, Western intellectual or otherwise, would condone.

Marxists see religious beliefs as an alienated reflection of the social environment in which people live. What appear to be backward beliefs caused by religion are really caused by backward social and economic conditions. Blaming these beliefs on religion per se is simply a way of ignoring the real causes and avoiding having to deal with social and economic relations resulting from human exploitation and class differentiations under feudalism and capitalism.

The extreme religious practices we find unacceptable in some sections of immigrant communities usually disappear as immigrants integrate into the host community. Progressives want to encourage such integration while ethno-nationalists such as Bawer want to prevent it, and thus actually reinforce the practices that they say they condemn.

Let me quote, from the Times' article, Imam Fatith Alev of the Islamic-Christian Study Center in Copenhagen. He says, "I think there is of course a legitimate concern with regard to the differences of culture. The real problem is that the ones who ought to know better, who are well educated and well informed on the diversity of culture" are using these problems for their own purposes.

Rushy Rashid, a Muslim author who grew up in Denmark where she lives, said, according to the Times, the real problem is not between Islamic and European values so much as it is a difference between the generations within the immigrant groups. She says, "the clash between the first, the second and third generations is huge. If you can digest that kind of a clash, then you can overcome and integrate into the society you are living in."

Bawer has his own solution to the "immigrant question." He tells us his views are unfairly attacked by people who call him names "instead of trying to respond to irrefutable facts and arguments." If Mr. Bawer's arguments are indeed "irrefutable" what would be the point of trying to respond to them? People who believe their opinions and arguments are "irrefutable" are manifesting that very same fundamentalist mentality they claim to be opposing.

Here is Bawer's solution. "European officials," he writes, "have a clear route out of this nightmare. They have armies. They have police. They have prisons. They're in a position to deport planeloads of people everyday. They could start rescuing Europe tomorrow."

Clearly, when you are calling out the army and advocating deportation of planeloads of people daily, there is more to it than a crackdown on violent militant Islamists. This looks like a call to a general assault on Muslim immigrants in general.

This may also explain his sympathetic defense of the Sweden Democrats in an opinion piece he wrote for the December 8, 2006 New York Sun. This article, "While Sweden Slept" is an incontinent attack on Swedish Social Democracy. The Sweden Democrats he champions in this article are a small radical right-wing party of ethno-nationalists. It grew out of the racist "Keep Sweden Swedish" movement of the 1980s. Their basic ideology is of the ein Volk, ein Reich variety. One of their own leaders resigned saying the party was infested with neo-Nazis, racists and holocaust deniers. The party is opposed to immigration and if it ever got into power would no doubt take Bawer's views on how to "rescue Europe" (or at least Sweden) seriously.

Zane, of the The News and Observer, and others who voted to nominate Bawer for the Book Critics Circle award, might want to reconsider the implication they are not aware of their own racism.

--Thomas Riggins is the book review editor of Political Affairs and can be reached at pabooks@politicalaffairs.net