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Karl Marx: Anthropologist

Text of a talk given by guest speaker Brian Morris at a Socialist Party meeting in London on 21 April this year

The Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski began his well-known history of Marxism with the words ‘Karl Marx was a German philosopher’. True: Marx studied philosophy at the University of Berlin in his early twenties, and had a passion for German philosophy, particularly that of Hegel, but it hardly needs saying that Marx cannot be understood simply as a philosophical thinker. Better known, perhaps, as a political journalist, an erudite economist, and a revolutionary socialist, Marx was also, in an important sense, an anthropologist, for he always repudiated scholastic metaphysics. He can indeed be described as one of the founding ancestors of anthropology.

But what also has to be recognized is that Marx was an absolutely voracious reader, endlessly taking notes on everything that he read. He was therefore well versed not only in philosophy, economics, history and the natural sciences, but also in literature, being particularly fond of the poetry of Aeschylus, Shakespeare and Goethe. Marx had a truly encyclopaedic mind, a restless and inquiring intellect, and was interested, as an anthropologist, in understanding all aspects of life.

The German Enlightenment scholar Immanuel Kant – like Marx Kant was more than simply a philosopher – famously defined anthropology as the study of what it means to be human. Marx's anthropology, as Thomas Patterson affirmed, was largely derived from the Enlightenment. It was a kind of anthropology, however, that was critical, dialectical and historical, and it involved the embrace of some of the key tenets of the Enlightenment legacy: the importance of rationality, and the use of reason, along with that of empirical knowledge; the acknowledgement of the existence of the natural world independent of human cognition and representation; the fundamental importance of human freedom; the denial of all knowledge claims based on authority or mystical intuition; and a recognition of the historicity not only of nature but of human beings and human social life and culture.

Scholars within the Enlightenment tradition, scholars as different as Erich Fromm and Bruce Trigger, have long recognized that there is an essential ‘paradox’, or basic contradiction at the heart of human life, an inherent duality in social existence. On the one hand humans are fundamental organic beings, and intrinsically a part of nature. On the other hand, through their self-consciousness, sociality and symbolic culture they are in a sense unique and separate from nature. They have what Cicero called a ‘second nature’. The social ecologist Lewis Mumford suggested that humans have a ‘twofold’ life. Anthropology, as Marx envisaged it, firmly embraced this paradox, putting an equal emphasis on our organic life and our shared humanity (as with Kant) and on the social and cultural diversity of human life (as with Herder). As Marx expressed it in his definition of communism, anthropology entailed a combination of naturalism and humanism.

Drawing on the Enlightenment legacy, Marx's anthropology, as a study of what it means to be human, is focussed around four key concepts – namely, nature, society, history and science - concepts which some contemporary anthropologists treat with unwarranted scepticism, if not with derision. We may explore Marx's own conception of anthropology and the human subject in relation to these four fundamental concepts.


Although Marx was an ontological realist, affirming the existence of a physical world independent of humans, this, of course, did not imply a dualistic metaphysic (as Karl Popper implied), or the idea that humans were independent of nature. To the contrary, Marx, in contrast to most sociologists and contemporary postmodernist anthropologists, strongly emphasized that humans were natural beings, and intrinsically a part of nature. As he put it: ‘nature is man's inorganic body’. For Marx, humans were natural beings. They were active, living beings, embodied, sensuous, conscious, with feelings and emotions, and with inherent dispositions and capacities, as well as being, like other animals, limited, conditioned and suffering beings. The relationship between humans and nature was thus essentially dialectical, not simply relational.

This meant, of course, for Marx, that any understanding of human social life (or history) must begin with one basic premise: namely, the existence of human individuals, and the fact of their inter-relationship with the rest of nature. It was through their productive relations, their creative interactions with nature to meet then-basic needs, that humans produced their material life, or what Marx described as their ‘modes of life’. Forms of consciousness, specifically culture or ideology, emerged, he felt, from within these ‘real-life processes’. As Marx famously put it: ‘life is not determined by consciousness but consciousness by life’.

Whether or not this implies a form of economic determinism has long been debated by scholars from right across the political spectrum. Given that Marx was essentially a dialectical thinker, the material aspects of human life must be seen as the basis or anchorage for cultural configurations, or what Ernst Cassirer described as symbolic forms (art, religion, philosophy, science) rather than involving any direct causal relationship.

Yet it is important to recognize that Marx fervently rejected the idea of a fixed human nature or essence, for in being a part of nature, rather than the creation of some divine agent, humans had evolved historically. Marx saw no antithesis between nature and human history, and like Darwin, stressed the historicity of human nature. His lifelong associate and friend, Friedrich Engels, wrote a famous essay entitled The Part Played by Labour in the Transition From Ape to Man, stressing the importance of labour – human productive inter-actions with nature – in the emergence of ‘modern’ humans. Along with erect posture, the expansion and re-organisation of the human brain, the dexterity of the human hand, tool-making, language and symbolic culture, and the emergence of a more complex society, labour is seen by Engels (and Marx) as the key factor in the emergence of Homo sapiens.


The important point, of course, is that humans are not only natural beings, but also, Marx insisted, human natural beings, species-beings, with sociality and self-consciousness. Humans, therefore, as Marx continually stressed, are social beings, always enmeshed in a complex web of social relations. Our relationship with nature is therefore always intrinsically social, and even our perceptions of nature are socially and culturally mediated, though not wholly determined by our culture.

Importantly, as with later sociologists, Marx emphasized that human perceptions, thoughts and actions, are shaped to an important degree by the patterns of social relations, and the cultures into which humans are born, and which they help to actualize, maintain or transform. Marx famously remarked that humans make their own history but they do not make it just as they please, for past traditions always influence living humans. Marx was, therefore, one of the first social scientists to explore what later became known as the ‘duality’ between social structures (relations) and human agency, and, for Marx, this relationship between social forms and the human individual was always interdependent and dialectical.

Marx was therefore always critical of the two extremes in approaching this ‘duality’. The first extreme, as reflected later in Durkheimian sociology and culture theory (in its various guises) virtually oblates human agency, viewing human thought and action as largely determined or an ‘effect’ of either symbolic culture (as with Leslie White and many postmodernists) or ideology (Althusser) or power (Foucault). Marx was critical of such sociological determinism, and (again) famously remarked:

‘History (that is, social life) does nothing, it does not possess immense riches, it does not fight battles! It is real living men who do all this .. .History is nothing but the activity of men in pursuit of their ends’.

On the other hand, Marx was equally critical of the other extreme, which tended to put a fundamental emphasis on the individual, and to downplay or ignore the importance of history, and of social relations and culture. He was therefore always critical of the ‘abstract’ individual of the classical philosophers, who seemingly posited the human individual as outside nature and society. He thus made some trenchant criticisms of Feuerbach's humanism, Stirner's radical individualism, which in its emphasis on the unique ‘ego’ dismissed humanity as a ‘spook’, and the asocial possessive individualism of Hobbes and the bourgeois political economists. The political economists (Ricardo and Adam Smith) Marx famously dismissed as ‘Robinsonades’ (after Robinson Crusoe), for they began their analysis with the notion of a rational isolated individual, detached from social bonds, and assumed that this was a reflection of human nature.

In terms of contemporary social theory, Marx rejected both ‘sociological collectivism’ (or holism, mystical or otherwise) and methodological individualism (Popper and rational choice theorists).


Many scholars have stressed that Marx viewed the human subject as a dialectical unity, as intrinsically and simultaneously both a natural and a social being. But as a revolutionary socialist Marx also emphasised that all humans have a unique personal identity – a sense of self with moral and social agency. And he was centrally concerned not with autonomy, but rather with social freedom, and the self-expression of the human individual. Marx thus expressed an understanding of the human subject in terms of a triadic ontology.

To illustrate this we may turn to the American anthropologist Clyde Kluckhohn, the engaging ethnographer of the Navaho. Kluckhohn once suggested that there were three distinctive ways of conceiving the human person; firstly that in some respects every person is like every other human being – as a species-being; secondly that they are like no other human being in having a unique personality (or self); and, finally, that they have affinities with some other humans in being social and cultural beings. These three aspects of the human subject are an essential expression of the fact that humans are always embedded in three historical processes, namely, the phylogenetic, pertaining to the evolution of humans as a species-being (humanity); the ontogenetic, which relates to the individual as a unique, embodied and psychological being (self); and, finally, the socio-historical, which situates the human individual as a person, in a specific historical and ecological context.

Like Kant and Marcel Mauss, Marx therefore always recognized that the human being had, always and simultaneously, three distinct ‘natures’; a) as a species-being, a human nature (or identity) with essential needs, powers, capacities, and a history; b) as a ‘communal being’ or ‘an ensemble of social relations’ (as Marx put it), a person who enacted specific social roles and expressed certain social identities; and c) as an individual being, a self with a unique personality and subjective and moral agency. Marx was a humanist, in that he always emphasised the ‘individuality’ of the human person, and the fundamental importance of human freedom, viewed in terms of the self-determination and the self-expression of the individual. But like the social anarchists, Marx recognized and stressed that such freedom could only be achieved by the creation, through collective practice and struggle, of a truly socialist society, for humans were fundamentally social beings. Freedom, for Marx, was social not metaphysical.


Within the Marxist tradition there has long been an on-going debate, and at times harsh polemical exchanges, between two contrasting interpretations of Marx.

On the one hand, there are those who are usually described as critical theorists or Hegelian Marxists, who stress the continuity between Marx and German philosophy, particularly that of Hegel. They focus on Marx's early writings on philosophical anthropology, situate themselves in the more literary and philosophical traditions of European culture, and adopt a more ‘historicist’ and ‘humanistic’ interpretation of Marx. The emphasis is on ‘dialectics’, ‘humanism’ and history, and they often express an aversion to science. A classic example is Erich Fromm, who described Marx as an existentialist humanist, centrally concerned with human dignity and freedom.

On the other hand, there are those Marxists who focus on Marx's later writings, particularly his profound analysis of modern capitalism Das Kapital (1867), which is essentially a work of empirical anthropology, replete with a welter of ethnographic data on industrial production and human life under capitalism. Such Marxists suggest that Marx made a clean break with Hegel's historicist philosophy, along with dialectics, and had pioneered a new scientific way of understanding human history. Louis Althusser is a key exemplar of the tendency to interpret Marx's anthropology as a ‘science of history’. But in being stridently ‘anti-humanist’ and derisory towards history, Althusser tended to express a rather abstract and synchronic form of scientific understanding.

What many scholars have suggested, however, is that Marx's anthropology is best understood as a unique attempt to establish a dialectical social science. Marx thus envisaged anthropology as a historical science, one that would combine dialectics and science, historicism (humanism) and materialism (naturalism). It involved a rejection of both cultural idealism and positivism and all forms of reductive materialism. As Marx put it: ‘the abstract materialism of a natural science that excludes the historical process is defective’, for the only viable approach to the understanding of social life is one that is both materialist and historical. Such scientific understanding, therefore, involves going beyond phenomenological description by exploring – explaining – how social and cultural phenomena ‘came into being’. The anthropologist Franz Boas put this succinctly ‘To understand a phenomenon we have to know not only what it is, but also how it came into being. Our problem is historical’.

Marx's anthropology can therefore be described in summary as at once dialectical, historical, materialist and scientific, as well as reflecting the ‘critical spirit’ of the Enlightenment.

Marx, of course, was primarily interested in economics and political theory, and is mainly known for writing the famous Communist Manifesto (1848) (along with Engels), and for his substantial economic treatise Das Kapital. But it has to be recognized that Marx was a world-historical thinker. As a political journalist he wrote extensively on India and colonialism. Always fascinated by the diversity of human societies, both in the past and in his own time, Marx became deeply involved in studying pre- capitalist modes of production - communal (tribal societies), ancient (the classical civilisations of Greece and Rome), Germanic, Asiatic, Slavonic (specifically Russian serfdom) and European feudalism. These formed the socio-historical context with regard to the emergence and the expansion of the capitalist world economy. While in his last years Marx filled several notebooks – the ethnological notebooks -with observations and reflections on diverse anthropological topics, ranging from ‘primitive communism’ to the family and gender in the Roman Empire – notes derived from extensive reading. Marx was particularly interested in the work of the pioneer American anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan who wrote ground-breaking studies on the Iroquois, on kinship systems, and on socio-cultural evolution. Morgan's Ancient Society (1877) was a landmark text in the development of anthropology. Significantly, Engel's seminal study The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884) is largely based on Morgan's work and on Marx's own notebooks.

Although Marx is invariably interpreted as a social evolutionist, who, like Morgan and Edward Tylor, viewed human history in terms of rigid unilinear ‘stages’, it is evident, as Patterson contends, that Marx had a much more complex conception of human history, one that implied multilineal ‘pathways’.

Though an exemplary and pioneer anthropologist, Marx continues to be dismissed by contemporary liberal scholars as an intellectual ‘relic’, and held responsible for the authoritarian politics and tyranny of the Soviet Union under Stalin, and the Chinese state under Mao Zedong. Both, of course, were forms of state capitalism under a party dictatorship, and far removed from Marx's own embrace of democratic politics and his conception of a communist society. Perhaps, as a last word, we can quote from the pragmatist philosopher Sidney Hook, before he became an apologist for the American empire:

‘Marx was a democratic socialist, a secular humanist, and a fighter for human freedom. His words and actions breathe a commitment to a way of life and a critical independence completely at odds with the absolute rule of the one-party dictatorship of the Soviet Union’– or that of any other political dictatorship’.

Marx was also an anthropologist and the advocate of anthropology as a humanistic science.



Boas, F. (1940) Race, Language and Culture (1982 edition). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Hook, S. (1971) From Hegel to Marx (original 1962). Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Marx, K. (1967) Capital. Vol One. Introd : G.D.H. Cole. London: Dent.

Marx, K. (1975) Early Writings. Introd: : L. Colletti. London: Penguin Books .

Marx, K. and F .Engels (1956) The Holy Family (original 1845). London: Lawrence and Wishart

Marx, K. and F. Engels (1965) The German Ideology. London: Lawrence and Wishart

Patterson, T. C. (2009) Karl Marx : Anthropologist. Oxford: Berg.