Book Review: Marvin Harris- The Rise of Anthropological Theory: A History of Theories of Culture (2001). Reviewed By: Thomas RigginsRead Now
This is an indispensable book for all those on the left interested in understanding how the science of cultural (social) anthropology developed over the last three centuries and how it is used to understand (and sometimes control) non-Western societies, especially those that have not developed complex state structures.
Harris’ updated edition was published a few months before his death in October 2001.The Rise of Anthropological Theory [TRAT] was first published in 1968 and is still marked by some of the ideological concerns of that era. Harris states that his goal was “to extricate the materialist position from the hegemony of dialectical Marxian orthodoxy with its anti-positivist dogmas while simultaneously exposing the theoretical failure of biological reductionism, eclecticism, historical particularism and various forms of cultural idealism.”
What we have here is another shamefaced Marxist inspired work that, due to the political realities of American capitalism, recognizes the validity of Marx’s scientific accomplishments yet halts at drawing the social and political conclusions those accomplishments reveal with respect to the society in which Harris himself lived and worked.
Harris called the type of anthropological theory he developed “cultural materialism” in contrast to “historical” or “dialectical” materialism, two forms he thought contaminated by Hegel’s dialectic.
Maxinel L. Margolis, in the 2001 introduction to TRAT describes it thusly: “In its simplest terms, cultural materialism rejects the time worn adage that ‘ideas change the world.’ Instead, it holds that over time and in most cases, changes in a society’s material base will lead to functionally compatible changes in its social and political structures along with modifications in its secular and religious ideologies, all of which enhance the continuity and stability of the system as a whole.”
This is basically the Marxism of the ‘Preface’ to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy shorn of its revolutionary implications. Gone from this formulation is Marx’s recognition that, “At a certain stage of their development” the productive forces in the material base come into conflict with the relations of production-- those relations turning into their “fetters” which results in “an epoch of social revolution.”
The Harris version, tempered by the necessity of academic survival (he was a professor at Columbia) in the 60s, a time when the U.S. government was involved in a world wide anti-Communist crusade [which was actually a crusade against human rights and democratic representation for the world’s poor] stretching from Latin America through Europe, Africa and Asia, has replaced these Marxist revolutionary bugaboos with more acceptable bourgeois formulations: “functionally compatible changes” which “enhance the continuity of the system.”
Cultural Materialism will not explain the French Revolution. But it was not designed to. Harris’ revision of Marx is more in line with British Functionalism (different cultural elements function together to promote stability). The main difference being that Harris tries to provide for evolutionary change while the functionalists (Bronisław Malinowski, A. R. Radliffe-Brown) were opposed to ideas of evolutionary (let alone revolutionary) change.
Harris’ book is important because it discusses in great detail all the major anthropological theories of culture developed in the West from the Enlightenment to the present. He thinks Marx’s views are vital and he defends them (at least some of them) against all comers, while at the same time giving credit to the discoveries and contributions of other schools of thought.
He credits the Boas school (founded at Columbia towards the end of the Nineteenth Century) for its contributions to the scientific fight against racism and racist ideologies, while at the same time rejecting its anti-evolutionary theories of “historical particularism.”
His chapter on “Dialectical Materialism” is of particular interest. In this chapter he discusses Marx’s methods of social analysis, including the limitations imposed on it by its Nineteenth Century milieu, and concludes that, “It is Marx’s more general materialist formulation that deserves our closest scrutiny.” What he wants to scrutinize away is the influence of Hegel and, to Harris, the unscientific and outmoded principles of dialectic. [ It is that nasty dialectic that is responsible for contradiction which might not “promote stability”].
After pulling Marx and Engels’ teeth, so they can’t bite the bourgeois hand that feeds him, Harris allows them to become major forerunners of his so-called Cultural Materialism.
Harris gives good critiques of both French Structuralism (Levi-Strauss) and British Social Anthropology and concludes with two chapters (22 and 23) which thoroughly explain his own theories. These are the chapters “Cultural Materialism: General Evolution” and “Cultural Evolution: Cultural Ecology.”
In these chapters not only are Marx and Engels lauded, but so is Lewis Henry Morgan (Ancient Society, 1877) whose work was the basis of Engels’ The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. Morgan, the founder of American anthropology, was an upstate New York Republican legislator from Buffalo credited by Marx and Engels with independently discovering historical materialism.
Harris also discusses Leslie White’s The Evolution of Culture (1943, 1959)--”the modern equivalent of Morgan’s Ancient Society”) [although White may seem a little too mechanical: “Other factors remaining constant, culture evolves as the amount of energy harnessed per capita per year is increased, or as the efficiency of the means of putting the energy to work is increased.”]
The important contributions of the Australian Marxist archeologist Vere Gordon Childe (The Dawn of Western Civilization, 1958; What Happened in History, 1946; Man Makes Himself, 1936 and Social Evolution, 1951) are presented as well.
All in all, Harris packs into his 806 pages a more or less complete survey of every major school and theory in the history of anthropology. His view, subject to the restrictions and ideological conditions noted earlier, is basically progressive and anyone with a modicum of Marxist theory can easily substitute a more “orthodox”, that is, more consistently Marxist, analysis to replace those areas where Harris’ “Cultural Materialism” fails in its appreciation of the Hegelian-Marxist dialectic.
Thomas Riggins is a retired philosophy teacher (NYU, The New School of Social Research, among others) who received a PhD from the CUNY Graduate Center (1983). He has been active in the civil rights and peace movements since the 1960s when he was chairman of the Young People's Socialist League at Florida State University and also worked for CORE in voter registration in north Florida (Leon County). He has written for many online publications such as People's World and Political Affairs where he was an associate editor. He also served on the board of the Bertrand Russell Society and was president of the Corliss Lamont chapter in New York City of the American Humanist Association.