French Marxist

French Perspectives on Political Economy

French Marxist, notably Meillassoux, have interpreted Marx’s approach to ideology, exploitation, and power as being used to understand nonindustrial societies. Specifically, those that have no elaborate political hierarchy. Their main argument was that kinship is part of the political economy and that household groups and egalitarian communities exploit each other. That even the ideology and symbolism that many anthropologist  relish can in fact serve to hide exploitation. For the French, kinship was seen as a system of power set to control labor and its products (Wilk and Cliggett 2007).

Notable Proponent

Claude Meillassoux

A French economic anthropology and the pioneer of French neo-Marxsium anthropology. Meillassoux did fieldwork among the Ivory Coast Guro, particularly on subsistence economy and the role of women.French Anthropologists became so influenced by his work ,  that economic anthropology would govern  French Academia, particularly with regard to Structural Anthropology (Schlemmer 2005).

As for political economy, he defined “domestic modes of production”. Where older men exploited younger men and women though labor control. They accomplish this through kinship systems by controlling marriage, bridewealth, and lineages. In contrast, the capitalist system’s mode of production based wealth control through property. In the “domestic” mode, the control of wealth is through their people. Therefore, instead of owning the farm or land, elders controlled the labor of their wife’s, relatives, and children through their access (i.e., property and spouse). They decide who marries whom, what family children’s lineages will be and which piece  of land people receive. If we apply the Marxian concept of surplus then economic surplus is controlled through family connections and customs, not wages and tribute (Wilk and Cliggett 2007).

Meillassoux also spent time studying control of reproduction of women among hunter-gather and agriculturist (Meillassoux 1974), and was a notable critic of social injustice for many years (Schlemmer 2005).

Maurice Godelier

Like Meillassoux, he was a French economic anthropology and the pioneer of French neo-Marxsium anthropology. His particular form of anthropology incorporated Marxist theory with a Structuralist twist. His particular interest in Marxist theory was influenced by Lévi-Strauss. He studied  modes of production, superstructure, and infrastructure to understand what it would look like in non-Western societies (Besnier 1997).

As for political anthropology, one of the most major contribution was through his book The Making of Great Man (1986). His major point in the book was that there is no relationship between economic and political power in a society without classes. That in these societies political power comes through the form of successful warfare, control of magic and ritual, and the manipulation of kinship. This observation came from his study of kinship power differences in Baruya society. In Baruya, power is exercised through the domination of men over women by way of lineage rules and marriage exchange. This idea was rooted in Baruya’s religion, the power of fertility belong to men. If we apply the Marxian concept of power and exploitation, then the society is bound together and granted meaning by ritual and sacred ideas that create social unity to overcome differences.  Baruya defined a type of society where economy was controlled by kinship (Wilk and Cliggett 2007).


Lecture by Maurice Godelier called “In Today’s World, Anthropology is more important than ever!”

References Cited

Besnier, Niko and Alan Howard
1997       Maurice Godelier Biography. Electronic document,, accessed April 5, 2012
Meillassoux, Claude
1974       From Reproduction to Production: A Marxist Approach to Economic Anthropology.                                         Economy and Society 1(1), 1974
Schlemmer, Bernard
2005       A Tribute to Claude Meillassoux. Electronic document,, accessed April 10, 2012.
Wilk, Richard R. and Lisa C. Cliggett
2007       Economies and Cultures: Foundations of Economic Anthropology. Second Ed. Westview Press, Boulder, Colorado.


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