Marxist Anthropology

Kathleen Nadeau. 21st Century Anthropology: A Reference Handbook. Editor: H James Birx. Volume 1. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Reference, 2010.

This chapter looks at the contribution of French Marxist anthropology and modes of production theory to the development of economic anthropology. Mode of production theory represents an alternative approach to earlier substantivist and formalist frameworks for the study of economy and society. By the late 1970s, most economic anthropologists agreed that the expanding world’s capitalist system had a deteriorating effect on pre-capitalist societies and cultures. What they did not agree on was the question as to how these societies were transformed and changed. Substantivists argued that spread of capitalism disrupted traditional values, agricultural practices, and the social relations of production by forming both new classes and outside alliances that undermined the preexisting system at the expense of the commonweal. In contrast, formalists contended that the capitalist market improved individual well-being by rewarding farmers who adopted new behaviors and farming techniques to maximize yields and profits. This chapter is arranged accordingly. The mode of production concept is introduced. This is followed by a discussion on the substantivist and formalist controversy in the development of economic anthropology. The mode of production concept that countered this debate is then elaborated upon.

Mode of production (MP) as a theoretical framework for the study of socioeconomic systems was never fully developed by Karl Marx, who alluded to the concept here and there in his works. He introduced the idea in Capital, A Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy, and Pre-Capitalist Economic Formations. It was from these texts that later scholars, especially Althusser and Balibar in their Reading Capital (1979), derived and developed the term for use in social analysis. Marx’s work continues to be inspirational for the study of globalization and socioeconomic and cultural change in the 21st century. Earlier scholars, like Maurice Godelier (1972) and Eric Wolf (1982), to take two of the better-known examples, referred back to him in constructing their MP concept. This chapter concerns the work of those scholars whose interpretations of Marx’s theory are deemed most congenial to current anthropology.

Definition of the Mode of Production Concept


The concept of mode of production has never been definitively defined in Marxist social anthropology from which it derives. During the late 20th century, there were heated debates over this very issue, such as occurred between world system theorists (e.g., Wallerstein, 1974) and MP scholars (such as the French Marxists Godelier, 1972; Meillassoux, 1979; and Terray, 1972). World system theorists contended that global capitalism would inevitably eclipse traditional societies and cultures. MP theorists countered that, while capitalism could lead to the greater polarization between classes, it also could encourage more divisiveness and stratification within a preexisting class society, as insiders hedged and shifted between capitalist and precapitalist relations in a transitional economy. Marx used the concept of MP interchangeably to refer to both a social formation and an economic system. For example, MP has been used to categorize the evolution of different societies and cultures, from primitive communist to ancient, Asiatic, feudal, capitalist, socialist, and advanced societies, even though a society and MP are two very different concepts.

A society-and-culture is a particular social formation that is made up of several particular and overlapping modes of production. This confusing of the concepts of a society versus an MP formed the basis of an archaic, now defunct, evolutionary scheme through which world history was viewed by Marxists as a kind of evolutionary ladder upon which each historical epoch was marked as being dominated by a particular MP that evolved into a new type through revolution. Yet, Marx (1982) clearly stated, “Events that are strikingly analogous, but taking place in different historical milieu, lead to totally disparate results” (p. 110). Eric Hobsbawn (1964) also defended Marx from those who would use his theory as if it existed outside of history at some superstructural level: “The general theory of historical materialism requires only that there should be a succession of modes of production, though not necessarily any particular modes, and not in any particular predetermined order” (p. 19).

Evolutionary theories of MP have been well criticized by the French Marxist anthropologists and other scholars (e.g., Bloch, 1984; Lukacs, 1968) for being dogmatic and nonscientific. Peter Worsley (1984) argued that they lacked a concept of culture. Louis Althusser and Etieene Balibar (1979) stressed that the MP concept had to be looked at as coming out of a particular MP. They explained, “To think the concept of production is to think the concept of the unity of its material and social conditions” (p. 101). Marx’s concept was taken to a new level, by creative and nondogmatic Marxists anthropologists in the late 20th century, to refer to societies, past and present, where several different types of MP could be going on at the same time, usually with one being dominant. The concept of MP came to be used as a tool for social analysis, rather than as a way of delineating certain evolutionary stages. The MP concept came to be contingently defined as that complex of social relations that link human beings together in any production process, and the means of production (tools, technology, knowledge, and skills) around which work is organized to ensure the material survival and reproduction of a particular group.

The MP is constructed of two main components: the means of production and social relations of production. Marx theorized that the MP gave rise to social relations. In other words, the economic base of a society gave rise to its superstructure (political, cultural, and ideological aspects). But, cultural Marxist anthropologists of the late 20th century argued that Marx’s MP theory was too deterministic and dogmatic in regards to the relationship of the economic base to the superstructure. They argued for an open-minded and bottom-up approach for the study of other societies and cultures. Godelier (1972), among other cultural materialists, substantially illustrated that, in pre-capitalist and semicapitalist societies, the economy is frequently embedded in kinship, religion, and politics. While this MP controversy has yet to be settled, most scholars of this school agree that the general logic of social life is grounded in material conditions. That is, the analysis of consumption and distribution begins, as Althusser and Balibar (1979) explained, “at the true site of the determination of the economic: production” (p. 265). The MP approach takes production as its logical starting point; although, in an ongoing economy, all three processes are occurring simultaneously.

The Substantivist and Formalist Debate


The substantivist and formalist debate arose in the early 1960s in response to the question of the place of the economy in society. Economic anthropology, by then, had only recently come into its own as a subfield of sociocultural anthropology. Anthropologists were interested in finding an appropriate methodology for the study of nonindustrialized societies. Their interest came to the forefront after World War II, when there was a widespread interest among nations in theories of economic development. This interest in modernization led to numerous “development” projects in the non-Western world. However, these projects usually failed, because they were implemented without consulting the findings of anthropologists and, perhaps even more importantly, the local people themselves. This debacle advanced a disagreement over the applicability of formal neoclassical economic theory for the study of noncapitalist societies and cultures. The dispute climaxed into what has become known as the substantivist-formalist controversy.

The formalist school (e.g., Eder, 1982; Herskovits, 1968; Schneider, 1989) proposed that neoclassical economic theory was appropriate for the study of human economic behavior cross-culturally. Implicit in this theory was the idea that all humans sought to maximize their individual behavior for their own self-profit. Formalists held that theories of human rationalism, developed for the study of human behavior in Western capitalist societies, could be modified and applied for the study of human behavior elsewhere. In contrast, the substantivists (e.g., Dalton, 1968, 1969; Polanyi, 1957; Sahlins, 1972) argued that “Homo-economus” or the idea that humans “naturally” strove to maximize their behavior for personal profit was a product of a particular society being dominated by the capitalist MP. They defined the economy as the way people make their living from nature and the relationships between them; and contended that economic systems were not operating in the same way in different societies and cultures and therefore required new methods in order to study them. The substantivists realized that formal economic theory could be useful for the study of some societies. However, it was not a universal theory applicable for the study of all societies and cultures everywhere across the historical horizons.

Contemporary anthropologists still use both formalist and substantivist methods for the study of economic phenomena. However, the substantivist-formalist debate has subsided. From the perspective of MP theorists, both views are incomplete theoretically because they offer only partial explanations for human behavior. On the one hand, formalists attempt to make “institutional rationalism” derived from capitalist societies fit precapitalist societies while neglecting to consider their moral fabrics. Methodological individualism can be criticized for overlooking the dialectical relationship between human beings and their society. In other words, the formalists overlook the idea that people make their decisions in relation to outside social influences. On the other hand, substantivists seek to universalize an alternate theory for the study of tribal and peasant economies while dodging the issue that each society has its own unique culture, which eludes generalization.

Substantivist theory also is problematic because it separates out and sets apart the economy for analysis but then falls back on functionalism to explain it. Both formal and substantivist theories have something to offer, for example, that humans usually act rationally in accordance with their particular social and cultural circumstances, and formal economic theory can be employed to measure economic data in varied settings. The two approaches, whether used separately or in combination, will result in only a partial understanding of a society, because they focus mainly on the acquisition, distribution, and exchange of goods, rather than the entire production process that includes the way goods are produced, utilized, and exchanged, so argue the MP scholars.

Advantage of Mode of Production


The study of the economy includes more than the study of the circulation of goods. The economic field encompasses four related processes: production, distribution, exchange, and consumption. It makes good economic sense to begin from the point of view of production, because production precedes distribution and distribution comes before exchange. As Althusser and Balibar (1979) stated, “It is production that governs consumption and distribution, not the reverses” (p. 168). Prior to the rise of the MP school, most economic anthropologists attended, almost exclusively, to the study of the distribution and exchange of goods. In contrast, the MP perspective offered an advantage because it began from the point of origin where goods were being produced, and then looked at the entire production process. The MP approach lessened the importance of the substantivist-formalist controversy, because it considered the economy as a whole by looking first at production, and then at how goods were being used and transferred. The MP approach, because it was a tool for social analysis rather than a theory, appeared to be more promising than the substantivist or formalist theories.

Anthropologists and the Mode of Production School


By the 1980s, there were a number of anthropologists (e.g., the French Marxists mentioned earlier and Joel Kahn, 1981; June Nash, 1979; Carol Smith, 1984; Anne Laura Stoler, 1985; Eric Wolf, 1982) who constructively used the concept of MP for the study of different cultures and societies. Firth (1984) and Roseberry (1988) divided these scholars into two different schools of thought, according to whether they were interested in theoretical issues or classic issues of revolutionary change. However, this categorization gave the impression that the French Marxists were armchair anthropologists above matters of class and social change. However, many of them had built their academic careers around their political beliefs. They were interested in matters of causality in MPs, which included considerations of culture, human agency, and class. The French Marxists used real-world examples to illustrate that, in pre-capitalist societies, relations of production were enacted through kinship, religion, or politics, rather than through the economic sphere, as is the case in capitalist societies.

The MP school of anthropology was given great impetus by the French Marxist anthropologists (e.g., Godelier, 1972; Meillassoux, 1972; Terray, 1972) who used the concept to go beyond the prevailing substantivist and formalist paradigms to study the economy. They were influenced more by the substantivists than the formalists, since the substantivists contended that the economy was a product of history. However, they considered the substantivist framework to be inadequate, because it overlooked the production process. Initially, the French Marxists were concerned to distinguish themselves from other Marxists who adhered to mechanistic models of MP. Godelier (1972) explained that they were developing a theory “as distinct from the Marxism normally practiced, a Marxism which can very quickly become vulgar materialism” (p. 62). Like Lévi-Strauss, they were interested in issues of structural causality in modes of production.

According to Godelier (1972), when Marx proposed that the economic infrastructure of a society determined the superstructure, he did not mean by this that all societies are divided into separate functioning parts, wherein the economy becomes visible as it does in a capitalist society like the United States or the European Union. In the United States, for example, the unity of society and economy is achieved through bureaucratic means, which allows the society to become differentiated into discrete and functional institutions (the economy, education, family, politics, and religion, etc.). In this way, relations of production are enacted through the economy, and one can see how the economic instance becomes the basis upon which all other domains of social life are made possible. However, in precapitalist, semicapitalist, or noncapitalist societies, relations of production, and the corresponding forces of production that govern distribution and exchange, are carried out through interpersonal relationships embedded in noneconomic social organizations. In precapitalist societies, the economic instance is not apparent. It becomes, then, the work of the anthropologist to uncover the MP in precapitalist societies, even as they may be in articulation with and under the influence of capitalism.

In hunting and gathering societies (e.g., Australian Aborigines or Kalahari bushmen), the infrastructure and superstructure are enacted simultaneously through kinship relations. In these societies, it is infeasible to study the economy apart from kinship, as if it were a separate domain. Hunters and gatherers in primitive communist societies often control human access to the production process by regulating marriages, which provide a social framework for political and ritual activities. Godelier (1972) explained that kinship relations also function as a symbolic code for expressing relations between humans and nature. It is the kinsmen and women who perform the relations of production in correspondence to the level of development of the related forces of production. However, the notion of kinship in these societies does not stop at the level of the family; rather, it extends through a whole constellation of bands that form a single tribe organized into a system of subsections in relation to the natural environment, in order to ensure their survival.

Transition Debates


During the 1980s, MP theorists (e.g., Carmen Deere, Sidney Mintz, James Scott, and Eric Wolf) entered into another hotly contested dispute over the direction of social change in peasant societies. They argued over whether or not precapitalist traditions would inevitably be transformed into capitalist class relations once capitalism set in, or if peasant MPs were the effects of capitalism itself. This controversy stems back to the Lenin-Luxemburg dispute and the Lenin-Chayanov disagreement. They disagreed concerning whether the peasantry became stratified through its relation with capitalism, or if it was already a class as a whole in relation to other classes in a wider social formation. Ledesma (1982) explained that, from this perspective, the peasantry might be better off if it were a class unto itself, because stratification can lead to the marginalization of some segments of the peasantry. Marginalization gives rise to unemployment, which probably did not exist in precapitalist societies prior to their being dominated by the capitalist MP. Marginalization also begins a process of the incomplete reproduction of peasant family households through semi-proletarianization, indebtedness, and outmigration. These conditions in the peasantry gave rise to another serious contestation over whether peasant households can still be measured in terms of farm output, rather than in terms of total input from a multiplicity of sources both on and off the farm.

The transition debates, much like the earlier substantivist formalist controversy, were long and contracted. World-system theorists (e.g., Braudel, 1984; Frank, 1967; Wallerstein, 1974) contended that the precapitalist MP was subsumed into the capitalist mode; hence, relations between them are capitalistic. But the French Marxist anthropologists, especially Meillassoux (1979), argued that Marx studied precapitalist societies only in so far as they pertained to capitalist societies. Elsewhere in his works, notably his reference to the Asiatic MP, Marx suggested a tendency in precapitalist MPs to resist capitalism. Furthermore, contended Meillassoux, the world-system view reduces the relationship between capitalism and precapitalist MP to a one-way process that pays little attention to local interactions. The French Marxist anthropologists agreed that the relationship between global capitalism and precapitalist MP can lead to capitalist relations of production, but that this is not always necessarily so. There is widespread resistance to capitalism, and some rebellions challenge capitalism by calling for its replacement by a completely different MP altogether. Also, the capitalist mode has sometimes encouraged the continuation of precapitalist modes when it is profitable to do so.

Articulation of Mode of Production Debates


MP theorists (e.g., the French Marxists anthropologists Joel Kahn, Eric Wolf, and Harold Wolpe) held that precapitalist MPs are not underdeveloped forms of the capitalist MP, as liberal economic theorists portended. They are completely different economic systems that require different concepts and theories to study them. Precapitalist societies have to be differentiated and set apart from capitalist societies because, even if they are changed as a result of capitalism, they can only be understood in terms of the characteristics internal to the MP dominant before capitalism arrived. Meillassoux (1979) argued that capitalism both undermines and perpetuates preexisting MPs in order to ensure itself a labor supply. Wolpe (1980) explained, “The capitalist sector benefits from the means of subsistence produced in the non-capitalist MP to the extent that it is relieved of paying a portion of the necessary means of subsistence by way of indirect wages” (p. 248).

MP theorists, from the 1970s to the early 1990s, critiqued world-system theory, the development of underdevelopment theory, and modernization theory on the basis that there is not only one capitalist system through which, logically, all the others can be explained, but there are also various coexisting MP with laws internal to themselves. In other words, Mandel (1976) explained that the world capitalist system often gets embedded and transformed through preestablished cultural constructions of inequality. That is, an MP often gets transformed through the formation of class alliances between the dominant classes in each production mode. With the influx of capitalism, the bourgeoisie frequently becomes interested in bonding with the precapitalist, dominant class because it has the power to exact labor. Capitalism, far from replacing other MPs, often dominates and exists side by side with them. As Wolpe (1980) explained, “It is one thing to argue that pre-capitalist relations of production may be transformed into capitalist relations quite another to assume that this is a necessary and inevitable effect of the capitalist mode” (p. 41).

Another debate arose over the question of whether simple commodity production (SCP) is an MP. Carol Smith (1984) and Jacques Chevalier (1983) view petty commodity production as an incipient form of capitalist production, rather than an MP. From their perspective, SCP exists within the logic of capitalism, although they are contentious as to whether or not it is bound to be fully subsumed by capitalism. In contrast, Kahn (1981) analyzed SCP as a separate MP in terms of its own logic articulated together with a few other modes, usually the capitalist MP and subsistence MP. Chevalier (1983) found this way of looking at SCP problematic, because it took a one-sided view of the capitalist MP as being more progressive and dominant, with all other modes being variable. Smith (1984) explained that simple commodity producers might subsume their labor under capital, even in the absence of monetization, because they have to commodify their goods for exchange in a market in order to reproduce their means of subsistence. However, the French Marxist anthropologists interjected that this is not always necessarily so. MP scholars, who analyze SCP as a separate mode, do not necessarily view the influx of capitalism as an overarching structure. They look at it as a subject for investigation, one to be constructed out of the particular social and historical societies in which it is situated.

Concept of Class in Precapitalist Mode of Production


Under capitalism, classes are economic groups that account for economic distinctions, but in precapitalist MPs, the relationships between classes are determined by means other than economic bonds. In precapitalist societies, for example, surplus is not extracted from the direct producers by economic means. Mandel (1976) explained that Marx was not seeking universal laws of economic organization in his study of class formation under the emergent capitalist MP of his time: “Indeed, one of his essential themes is that no such laws exist” (p. 12). Marx did not try, as he did for capitalism, to find out the internal laws governing precapitalist societies and cultures. Instead, he dealt with other societies and cultures only in so far as they bore a relation to the development and origins of capitalism. More generally, however, Marx (1974) intended his concept of class for the study of other societies: “The specific economic form, in which unpaid surplus labor is pumped out of direct producers, determines the relationship of rulers and ruled, as it grows directly out of production, itself, and, in turn, reacts upon its determining element” (p. 791).

The French Marxist anthropologists explained that a concept of class is integral to a concept of an MP, but one must begin a definition of class, not from an MP but in the context of the society and a larger world in which it is situated. This is because, within any society, more than one MP occurs together and one of these modes is usually more dominant. Terray (1972) stipulated that whether an MP is in a dominant or subordinate position is different than what it would be in a pure state. In other words, stated Althusser and Balibar (1979), “The relations of production cannot be thought in their concept, while abstracting them from their superstructural conditions of existence” (p. 177). That is, the classes cannot be divorced from the societies and histories in which they are grounded.

According to Terray (1972), a concept of class can be defined as a “totalizing entity”: In it economic, political, and ideological forces of society converge to determine an MP. One needs to account for both the superstructure and infrastructure, because class is a product of these combined structures. The French Marxist anthropologists contended that for each MP, it is essential to construct the concept of class that is contingent upon it. Therefore, a concept of class applicable for the study of all societies and cultures at some universal level does not exist. But, a more basic definition can be given as follows: Classes are social entities formed on the basis of their differing relationship to the means of production, where ownership relations are focally instrumental but not the exclusive determinants of social position.

To grasp the difference between MP, cross-culturally, and the relations of production, contextually, one should proceed by way of class analysis. The concept of class is the motive force undergirding Marx’s MP theory. For Marx (1974), usually but not always, there is a discrepancy between two opposing classes: master-servant, aristocrat-serf, and the wealthy-poor. This inequality between classes causes them to struggle for their elevation, thereby causing their own transformation into new social relations that sometimes cause a new MP to emerge. Hence, a discussion of two or more MPs concerns a discussion of classes or groups that need to be accounted for in any theory of articulation. So, late 20th-century MP theorists also reflected and wrote on the totality of classes, their connected class-consciousness, and the relations between classes in particular societies and cultures around the world.

Concept of Ideology and Mode of Production


Kahn (1981) provided a framework for a general theory of the formation of ideology in order to look at class alliances and the struggles between classes as they articulate to develop MPs. His model is worth discussing here, because it provides an example for dealing with the complex issue of classes as they are articulated within different MPs in particular societies. He proposed that, in the past, researchers have used concepts, such as vertical alliances, ethnicity, and patronage politics as models for the study of economic systems in peasant societies that were actually concepts of ideology. He defined peasant ideology as anti-modern or antiquarian systems of meaning that existed in relation to capitalist rationality. These aspects of ideology articulate with the capitalist ideology when the peasant modes of subsistence and SCP enter into relation with the capitalist MP. From this perspective, a general approach to the study of ideology is a first step to the study of peasant economic behavior. That is, peasant behavior is not determined mechanically by the infrastructure of the society, because ideological systems are a product of their own internal properties and are outside socioeconomic and political constraints.

Patron-client relationships, vertical alliances, and ethnicity are kinds of “folk models” based on the appearance of social reality experienced through social interactions. Patron clientage is developed through the perception of structural relations of exploitation and political dominance. Kahn (1981) explained that patron clientage becomes a model for human behavior but, at the same time, the social structure is being built up by all the interactions between inferiors and superiors based on their differential access to valuable resources that define their place in the class structure. He stressed that, where patron clientage has become part of the local ideology, it is based on an assumed coincidence between interaction and both economic and political relationships. However, it is important to remember that social and economic structure need not coincide with the folk models or with appearances. Social change moves by way of its own internal ideological volition, not from external structural changes.

Finally, Kahn’s (1981) model for the incorporation of ideological aspects in the study of the articulation of MPs met the challenge of disentangling the relationship between changing class relations and the persistence or disappearance of traditional relations in precapitalist societies, because it considered visible social structure and perceived empirical models of behavior. It began from the premise that a concept of class and contingent class-consciousness is integral to an MP approach. It is a significant rendition of the MP concept that provided a way to avoid some of the pitfalls of generalizing from preconceived models that do not fully account for the ongoing processes of continuity and change.

Future Directions


Research trends in the study of economy and society since the 1970s and 1980s have moved the discipline forward. Evolutionary frameworks, made to measure the level of development of precapitalist societies against the backdrop of development taking place in advanced capitalist societies, have been largely discredited. Early anthropologists looked at MP in terms of a techno-economic base upon which all other aspects of the superstructure of a society are derived. Cultures could then be categorized based on their level of technological development. Post–World War II development specialists used this model, and made theories of world economic change consist of the transfer of technology from richer to poorer countries. These schemes usually did not work, because they failed to account for the social relations of production.

Later anthropologists examined the distribution and exchange of goods from the point where they were produced. Production assumed a key role because, through it, all other aspects of the economy were actualized. Prior to the introduction of the Marxian concepts in economic anthropology, analysis of the economy in noncapitalist-oriented societies was made in terms of substantivist or formalist theories. These theories provided an inadequate definition of the economy. The formalist theory, by focusing only on the formal aspects of the economy, excluded those characteristics of the society that may be more important to the local people; by omitting such characteristics, they could project concepts from their own social-economic system onto those who held no such views. On the other hand, the substantivist theory, by largely limiting itself to the study of the circulation of goods, is only able to obtain an incomplete understanding of a given society.

Marxist analysis became most useful in the late 20th century for the study of the articulation of MPs as they interacted with capitalism. Although this approach went down with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991—which gave rise to a new school of postmodern scholars influenced by the work of Marcus and Fisher (1986), who critiqued Marxist theory for being outdated—it has since come back into ascendance. Marxist studies are being revisited for the light they bring to bear on contemporary issues of global and local change. Kahn (1981), in his earlier study of SCP in West Sumatra, was able to show how blacksmiths organized their productive relations indigenously and how these were influenced by the market economy, which determined the price range of local goods, since these goods could not complete with factory goods. Meillassoux (1979) looked at how peasant villages often act as a social security system for capitalist enterprises established in less wealthy countries, where underpaid laborers with no social security benefits go home to retire or work on family farms during the off-seasons. The concept of MP in such cases helps to illuminate the nature of globalization and development, and raises the question of who benefits from such economic development. It could be used to find problematic areas in the articulation of two or more MP in places undergoing transition (e.g., 21st-century China, or, in the future, postwar Iraq) that could be targeted for change beneficial to the direct producers.

Finally, MP studies have paved the way for a hybrid cultural perspective that has contributed significantly to ethnographic practice, because it avoids some of the pitfalls of generalizing from preconceived models that do not fully account for ongoing processes of continuity and change. Studies of MP are equal to the task of looking at social, cultural, ideological, and economic changes occurring in real-life communities, with their own unique cultural configurations resulting from interactions taking place both locally and beyond. What they argue for is the importance of looking at social relationships against the backdrop of the MPs that oriented them.