Communism entered world history in a number of forms, of which we may distinguish the following: a vision of ideal human association, a multistranded political movement, a modular set of state systems run by nominally communist parties, a Cold War counter-idea (“the communist menace”), and a widespread human striving. At each of these levels, communism massively shaped the politics of the last 150-odd years. As a consequence, it also shaped the environment in which modern anthropology established itself. And at each level we can trace the intersection of communism and anthropology.
The Vision of Primitive Communism
Communism features neither in Aristotle’s famous typology of governmental forms (monarchy, aristocracy, and constitutional government) nor in his list of respective governmental perversions (tyranny, oligarchy, and democracy). It is not until around 1840 that the word finally appears in print. Like its slightly older cousin socialism, communism announced itself from the start as an antidote to the toxins coursing through the veins of early capitalist society: its pauperism, crime, landlessness, war, despotism, injustice, and moral corruption. The instability endemic to the new bourgeois mode of production, and the legacies of Enlightenment reason and the French Revolution, exposed these ancient poisons as not only intolerable but unnecessary. They could be abolished. A new humane and self-legislating social order was possible. And it belonged to humanity by right.
At the center of existing society, and the source of its ills, according to the communists, was the exploitation of one person by another. It was class society, with its pampered rich and its destitute working masses, which had to be overcome. If the source of the power of the bourgeoisie was private property, the manipulation of the state to enforce their alleged property rights, and the reduction of each laborer’s working life to an item to be sold to the highest bidder, then the communist antivenin, as it were, must eventually entail the abolition of money, the withering away of the state, and the holding of all productive property in common.
The mid-19th century also saw the emergence of modern anthropology, and it was in the work of some of the fathers of the new discipline that Marxist communists in particular looked for evidence that communism might be possible. This evidence was of two sorts. In anthropological accounts of the variety of human societies, they found confirmation that capitalism was not in fact the natural order of things. And in descriptions of the earliest forms of human society, they found confirmation that humanity had once organized itself into associations that could fairly be given the name “primitive communism.”
The cumulative picture arising from the researches of Johann Jakob Bachofen (1815-1887) and Lewis Henry Morgan (1818-1881), in particular, was one in which the early human societies were egalitarian, property was shared, classes were nonexistent, and sexual relations were unrestricted. Basing his arguments principally on investigations into the Iroquois, Morgan emphasized the matrilineal character of Iroquois kinship, seeing it as evidence for an original and universal matriarchal order. He also proposed an evolutionary schema that attempted to account for humankind’s departure from its egalitarian beginnings and its ascent to civilization (a journey he did not wholeheartedly applaud).
Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Friedrich Engel’s (1820-1895) interest in anthropological themes had already shown up in their early coauthored work The German Ideology. But so significant was the material evinced by Morgan and other anthropologists that it would claim much of Marx’s attention in his last years (his observations would eventually be published by Laurence Krader in 1974 as The Ethnological Notebooks of Karl Marx). Working up Marx’s notes, Engels wrote the first and still most influential “anthropological” book by a Marxist, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. Here, preliterate hunter-gatherer society was conceived as an early and rudimentary form of communism in which people lived without prohibitions or jealousies. In the light of this prehistory, the domination, exploitation, and inequality of subsequent social forms had to be seen not as human universals but as specific outcomes of the historical process.
The idea of primitive communism has received its share of criticism, whether for the quality of Morgan’s evidence, for his speculations about early promiscuity and matriarchy, his linear model of cultural evolution by stages, his view that goods were once shared and property held in common, his supposition that production was originally simply for “use,” or for his assumption that contemporary tribal and band societies could provide direct evidence about the earliest modes of human organization. For many communists, however, the idea has seemed worth arguing for. Certainly there was an empirical case to be made, and various anthropologists, most notably Eleanor Burke Leacock (1922-1987), made it well.
But quite apart from the facts of the matter, primitive communism functioned as an existential guarantee (what once was may come again) and as a germinal model for a future society. In a passage Engels does not fail to quote, Morgan spoke of the democratic era to come as “a revival, in a higher form, of the liberty, equality, and fraternity of the ancient gentes.” For the anthropologist Stanley Diamond (1922-1991), writing in the 1970s, any better future for humankind was inconceivable without reference to the primitive egalitarianism now interred under the foundations of civilization.
Communism, as ideology and as movement, spread rapidly beyond its West European birthplace. By the mid-20th century, regimes from Warsaw to Beijing and capitals farther south were headed by parties calling themselves communists. Meanwhile, the pressures and opportunities created by superpower rivalry, and frequently by the presence of domestic guerilla insurgencies, affected political, economic, and cultural life in what came to be known as the Third World.
Not the least of the consequences for ethnographers was that their fieldwork sites might be traversed by these struggles. This fact could of course be ignored: Robert Redfield (1897-1958), working within earshot of militant Mexican communists in Tepoztlan in the mid- to late 1920s, was undistracted by their struggles. But it could also provoke sympathy and political commitment: when Pierre-Philippe Rey did his initial fieldwork in Congo-Brazzaville, the exposure to local Marxist revolutionaries transformed his understanding of the significance of anthropology.
Although no methodological creed unites communist anthropologists, one common feature is a greater interest in contemporary political forces than is typical of many of their colleagues. Writing of Peru in the 1960s and 1970s, Orin Starn accuses most anthropologists of having missed the revolution that was brewing there. He contrasts the focus on the customs and rituals of Andean highland communities typical of ethnographic accounts with what can be revealed to an anthropologist with an eye for the economic linkages, labor migrations, poverty, brutalization, and protest endemic in the countryside. One such eye was that of Antonio Diaz Martinez. His book Ayacucho: Hunger and Hope clearly anticipated the insurgency to come. Unlike Starn himself, Diaz was a communist. Indeed, within a few years, he had crossed from interpretation to action, joining the leadership of the Maoist Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path).
Official Communist Anthropology
A continuous line of intellectual descent connects the writings of the later Engels to those of his student Karl Kautsky (1854-1938), from there to the father of Russian Marxism Georgi Valentinovich Plekhanov (1857-1918), and from Plekhanov to his younger colleague Vladimir Ilyich Lenin (1870-1924). In this manner, the enthusiastic Morganism of Engels was transmitted to the academic tradition of anthropology in Russia and subsequently to all the societies steering themselves by the twinkling star of Marxism-Leninism.
Outside of Central Europe, these societies went through more or less cataclysmic paroxysms associated with forced modernization. Like every other field of inquiry, anthropology in such conditions was compelled to be immediately useful, its analyses geared to the overriding task of building communism. This ought to have been a straightforward matter, as all these societies were governed, openly or in practice, by one-party states equipped with a scientific ideology capable of resolving every intellectual problem. As it turned out, the party line tended to describe a zigzag course, with yesterday’s “rightist deviation” making way for today’s “self-criticism” and tomorrow’s rejection of “vulgar egalitarianism.”
Not all of these “really existing socialist” countries had a preexisting tradition of anthropology but all had largely preindustrial economies and predominantly agrarian populations. Many contained ethnic minorities whose cultural trajectory intersected uncertainly or perhaps not at all with the communist future. In the Soviet Union, with its extensive “multinational” territory, Marxism proved a mercurial guide for ethnographers. Many ethnic cultures, for instance, showed few signs of having evolved according to Morgan’s developmental stages. And in any case, was it the task of communists to protect them from assimilation to the ways of the “imperial” Russian ethos or to find ways to expedite their escape from backward kin-based forms of authority and social organization?
As Yuri Slezkine has shown, these and many other questions became flash points for bitter disputes between anthropologists (or ethnologists, as they were more often known), particularly in the 1920s and 1930s. Later, in the post-Stalin era, the disputes became both less bitter and less dangerous, but all positions had to keep in touch with the prevailing doctrinal assessment of the country’s needs. All the same, as Ernest Gellner (1925-1995) reminded an English-speaking audience in 1980, even under these conditions important studies continued to be published throughout the Communist period.
No attempt will be made here to sum up the anthropological achievements of the countries run by communist parties over the better part of a century. Mention may be made, however, of one of the most interesting figures from the founding period of Soviet anthropology, the ethnographer Lev Shternberg (1861-1927). A political prisoner under the tsar, in the mid-1920s he would become the dean of the Ethnography Department within the Geography Division of Leningrad University. Despite having fairly moderate politics in the context of the times, Shternberg’s moral and intellectual authority was second to none among Soviet ethnologists. Not only had he been a revolutionary martyr, but during his exile on the island of Sakhalin he had contrived to conduct an ethnography of the native Gilyaks. These were a people who impressed Shternberg as simultaneously communistic, nonauthoritarian, and individualistic. His discovery, as he supposed, of “survivals of group marriage” among the Gilyak attracted great interest and was rapidly noticed by none other than Engels (who, like Marx, had troubled himself to learn Russian). As Sergei Kan has documented, Shternberg himself read Engels’s The Origin of the Familywhile in exile. Engels in turn paid Shternberg the ultimate compliment of translating a report of Shternberg’s findings as an addendum to the next edition of his own book. Shternberg, it seemed, had found living evidence of the group marriage and primitive communism posited by Morgan.
Anticommunist Views of Communism
Twentieth-century regimes run by communist parties were responsible for mass killings of their own populations on a scale to rival the worst horrors with which human history is replete. Yet these crimes were not the original cause of anticommunism. More basic was antipathy to the very idea of empowerment of the lower orders. When the socialist, anarchist, communist, and republican Communards took over the administration of Paris in 1871, some 30,000 were slaughtered in the street by the troops of the Third Republic. Before the Russian Revolution was a year old, 21 foreign powers had joined the White armies to ensure, as Winston Churchill put it, that Bolshevism was “strangled in its cradle.”
During most of the 20th century, Western officialdom, and a goodly slice of Western populations, saw in communism only the menacing visage of totalitarianism. With the end of World War II and the division of Europe into East and West, this anticommunist definition of communism once again became a presupposition of Anglo-American domestic and international politics (though less so on the Continent). As with many other intellectuals, anthropologists were sometimes drawn into the struggle, and here their detailed local knowledge could make their contributions much more than “academic.”
When the reformist government of Jacobo Arbenz Guzman (1913-1971) was overthrown with CIA help in 1954, it was an anthropologist with close knowledge of Guatemalan society who reported secretly to the U.S. State Department on the political leanings of those taken prisoner during the coup. As studies by David Price, Thomas Patterson, and Roberto Gonzalez establish, cooperation between anthropologists and the CIA has not been uncommon in Southeast Asia and other areas of intimate concern to the U.S. administration.
Erik Wakin provides a blow-by-blow description of the uproar in the American Anthropological Association in 1970-1971, when it was alleged that certain anthropologists might have been secretly helping the U.S. government’s counterinsurgency effort in Thailand. That such involvement was a scandal at all owed much to the ideological strength of the New Left at the time.
Twenty years earlier, when the Western left was still largely either social democratic or Soviet-aligned, McCarthyite anticommunism had set the tone. In this period American communist and socialist anthropologists felt the pressure to adopt Aesopian language. If their colleagues in the U.S.S.R. had to pepper their articles with obligatory references to Marx, in the United States Eleanor Leacock, Stanley Diamond, Leslie White (1900-1975), Gene Weltfish (1902-1980), and other distinguished anthropologists learned that although Marx was good to read, he was hazardous to cite.
Now that the sun of capitalism illumines every corner of the globe, it may be easy to underplay the geopolitical impact made by communism. In fact, this impact was tremendous and must remain inexplicable if account is not taken of a final dimension of the concept. As the urge to discover a “primitive communism” in the past might indicate, this modernizing and often avowedly “scientific” ideology drew much of its strength from the fact that it crystallized a series of perhaps immortal longings. These would include the wish to find that our ends will connect us back to our beginnings; the hope that human history, with all its dreadful and apparently senseless destruction, will not have been a tale told by an idiot; the dream of overcoming the antagonism between nature and culture; the pining for true mutual recognition and understanding; and the demand for a world where finally people will live as free and equal comrades and not as one or other species of predator and prey. All these are forms of the desire for social self-completion, and as such for the overcoming of the antagonistic splits that separate us from what somehow we are meant, as social and natural creatures, to be.
Communism, then, has been the name for a widespread set of human desires. That they are only widespread and not universal can be read off from the fact that many human societies never conceived of any opposition between “nature” and “culture,” did not conceive of themselves as “historical,” and never sought redemption for their “alienated” condition in an eschatological future.
Yet in societies where some of these elements were present, images of past golden ages have been common. In a letter to his friend Arnold Ruge (1802-1880), the young Marx commented that “the world has long been dreaming of something that it can acquire if only it becomes conscious of it.” That something was communism. Of course, from the perspective of modern ethnography, the “world” Marx knew had its limits. But perhaps it was not so limited as a world that thinks to have killed that dream.
- Diaz Martinez, A. (1969). Ayacucho: Hambrey Esperenza. [Ayacucho: Hunger and hope]. Ayacucho, Peru: Ediciones Waman Puma.
- Gellner, E. (Ed.). (1980). Soviet and Western anthropology. New York: Columbia University Press.
- Gonzalez, R. J. (2004). Anthropologists in the public sphere: Speaking out on war, peace and American power. Austin: University of Texas Press.
- Kan, S. (2001). The “Russian Bastian” and Boas or why Shternberg’s The social organization of the Gilyak never appeared among the Jesup Expedition publications. In I. Krupnik and W. W. Fitzhugh (Eds.), Gateways: Exploring the legacy of the Jesup North Pacific Expedition, 1897-1902 (pp. 217-251).Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution.
- Leacock, E. (1981). Myths of male dominance. New York: Monthly Review Press. Marx, K. (1974). The ethnological notebooks of Karl
- Marx: Studies of Morgan, Phear, Maine, Lubbock. (L. Krader, Transcriber and Ed.). Assen, Holland: Van Gorcum. (Original work published 1880-1882)
- Patterson, T. C. (2001). A social history of anthropology in the United States. Oxford, UK: Berg.
- Price, D. (2002). Interlopers and invited guests: On anthropology’s witting and unwitting links to intelligence agencies. Anthropology Today, 18(6),16-21.
- Redfield, R. (1930). Tepoztlan: A Mexican village: A study of folk life. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Starn, O. (1992). Missing the revolution: Anthropologists and the war in Peru. In G. E. Marcus (Ed.), Rereading cultural anthropology (pp. 152-180). Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
- Wakin, E. (1992). Anthropology goes to war: Professional ethics & the counterinsurgency in Thailand (Monograph No. 7). Madison: University of Wisconsin Center for Southeast Asian Studies.