American Marxist

The American Marxist’s have their intellectual roots within the physical environment. This was established by Julian Steward’s version of Cultural ecology (Moore 2009) that placed productive economy within the “cultural core”. Cultural ecology focused on interactions between humans and their natural environments, and the resulting process of cultural change. It was a revival of ideas about anthropological regularities in long-term cultural change. It can also be seen as functionalist, in that it assumes that culture took a shape because it improved survival. Here we see some similarities to Marxism notions of mode of production, but without any of the other Marxists drives of social change (i.e., conflict and/or inequality). This framework was of particular interest to American anthropologist Eric Wolf and Sidney Mintz. They Applied the elements of conflict and politics into the cultural ecology framework with more regard for the individual’s role creating social change. Like the French, they were interested in the dynamics and conflicts happening when a society was meshed with an expanding Western capitalism machine over the long-term( Wilk and Cliggett 2007; and Roseberry 1988).

This generation of American Marxists founded and studied issues of slavery, warfare and rebellions; while other neo-Marxists  looked at nontraditional societies. The American school, unlike the French, allows for multiple outcomes like resistance and domination. They viewed local cultures as able to fight back, as opposed to just encapsulated and exploited. In Attwood’s Rasing Cane (1992) , they were able to show how peasants took control of large sugar production in India. People have the ability to resist and are strategic in various ways (Wilk and Cliggett 2007).

Then came Eric Wolf and he takes American historical neo-Marxism to a global scale. Just like the French, many in American anthropology found traditional dependency and world systems theory too mechanical. Capitalism seemed unstoppable with everything else being precapitalism and Wolf  was able to demonstrate that Capitalism had many forms over its life time. He defines it has an continuing encounter between different kinds of economic systems with outcomes of political struggle defining the winners and are reflected as cultural consequences in peoples experiences (Wilk and Cliggett 2007). Through the efforts of Wolf and Mintz they coined their approach as “cultural historical” (Roseberry 1988).

In the 1990, American practitioners begin to grapple with contemporary issues like trade, tourism, and factory production with multinational corporations moving capital across international lines and workers having to respond through their own mobility. However, Marxism is at the bottom line  asking question about: Who is in control of culture? or Who controls production and distribution (Wilk and Cliggett 2007)?

Intellectual Contributions

Eric Wolf

Wolf was a Marxist who proposed three modes of production: capitalist, tributary, and kin-ordered.  Wolf was exposed to Marxism early in his academic career,as a student of Julian Steward. Wolf would go on to critique Western history for over emphasizing  aristocratic figures and underplaying the history and dynamic nature of non Western  cultures. For Wolf, culture was always connected to its material world and never isolated but impacted by other groups. Wolf also saw power expressed in  four ways: Individual, power over, tactical, and structural. Wolf advanced Marxism in North American by compiling Mode of Production with parts of human agency and historical contingency (Moore 2009)


Interview with Sidney Mintz

Referenced Cited

Wilk, Richard R. and Lisa C. Cliggett
2007       Economies and Cultures: Foundations of Economic Anthropology. Second Ed. Westview Press, Boulder, Colorado.
Moore, Jerry D.
2009       Visions of Culture: An Introduction to Anthropological Theories and Theorist. Third Ed. AltaMira Press, Lanham
Roseberry, William
1988       Political Economy. Annual Review of Anthropology 17:161-185.
Ortner, Sherry B.
1984.     Theory in anthropology since the sixties. Comparative Studies in Science and History 26(1):126–166.


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