Evelyn Reed 1957

Anthropology Today: The Flight from Materialism and Evolutionism

Source: International Socialist Review, Vol. 18, No. 2, Spring 1957, pp. 54-60;
Public Domain: this text is free of copyright;
Transcribed: by Daniel Gaido;
Proofed: and corrected by Chris Clayton.

What is the state of anthropology and the main direction of its development in the English-speaking world? How and why have the predominant contemporary schools diverged from the methods used by such pioneers as Lewis Morgan in the United States and Edward B. Tylor in England who were instrumental in establishing the science of anthropology in the second half of the nineteenth century and inspired its first brilliant achievements? Have the modern academic anthropologists advanced beyond the Morgan-Tylor school, as they claim, rendering the earlier procedures and findings obsolete? Have the Marxist analyses and conclusions regarding ancient society, which relied upon materials provided by these nineteenth century originators of scientific anthropology, thereby become invalidated? These questions have been posed with special force in a volume of about 1,000 pages called Anthropology Today. This “encyclopedic inventory,” published in 1953 by the University of Chicago Press and already in its third printing, resulted from a conference sponsored by the Wenner-Gren Foundation of Anthropological Research, Inc. Prepared under the supervision of A. L. Kroeber, dean of the modern American, school, it contains 50 inventory papers by “eminent scholars from every continent in the world” and represents “the first great stocktaking of the whole of our knowledge of man as it is embodied in the work of modern anthropologists.” It has been supplemented by a second volume, An Appraisal of Anthropology Today, which contains critical comments by 80 scholars on the problems posed in these papers and by the state of their science.

The compilation surveys and summarizes such diverse yet related branches of social science as biology, archaeology, anthropology, genetics, linguistics, art, folklore, psychology, and includes techniques of field study and applied anthropology in medicine, government, etc. It is undeniably a useful source and reference book. But it is most instructive and important as the current methodological guide of the professional anthropologists, disclosing in detail how these scholars systematically approach the basic problems in the study of ancient society and primitive life.

These contributors display a wide variety of nuances in their specific procedures and have many unresolved differences among themselves on this or that aspect of their specialties. This is normal and fruitful. But, with rare exceptions, they resist any consistently evolutionary method of thought or materialist interpretation of history. This throws them into opposition not only to Marxist historical materialism but to the founders of their own science, the classical school of the nineteenth century.

This represents a profound theoretical reversal in the historical development of anthropology and therefore merits serious examination. One virtue of the Wenner-Gren compilation is that it provides in a single volume abundant materials for such a study.

It makes clear how sharp is the break between the nineteenth century and twentieth century schools of anthropology, in that the second stage stands today in avowed opposition to the premises of the first. It further illustrates the specific nature of the differences separating them.

Since we are dealing with the history of this branch of science over the past 100 years, it is necessary to go back to its beginnings to get at the roots and reasons for this sharp division and reversal.

Birth Pangs

Anthropology, like everything else in this world, was born in and through struggle. It emerged as a branch of science about 100 years ago through a series of colossal battles fought to a finish against religious dogmas and petrified ideas.

The first major dispute centered on the antiquity of mankind. Theologians had established the duration of humanity in accord with the Bible at some 6,000 years. Even the great French biologist Cuvier adhered to this orthodox view and argued that fossilized bones of men antedating this time did not exist. However, another Frenchman, Boucher de Perthes, exploded this prejudice by his discoveries of ancient stone axes in French deposits which paleontological evidence proved to be much older. His book, however, published in 1846, demonstrating that fossil men and their tools dated back tens of thousands of years, was greeted with skepticism and scorn.

Continued discoveries of ancient human fossils and tools soon settled this question beyond dispute. Today, through the findings of paleontology and archaeology, such relics of ancient humanity have been chronologically arranged in time sequences which thrust back the age of mankind to a million years or more. Mysticism in this field was figuratively crushed by the material weight of the bones and stones of ancient humanity.

The second great battle was waged around the animal origin of mankind. It began with the publication in 1859 of Darwin’s Origin of Species, followed in 1871 by his Descent of Man. Darwin’s proof that humanity arose out of the animal world, more specifically out of the anthropoid species, was a direct blow to the Adam and Eve myth. This was a more serious challenge to the divine origin of humanity than simply pushing the birth of mankind farther back in time. Yet, despite the hostility it encountered, Darwin’s view became the point of departure for the first scientific study of the formation of humanity. A biologist, applying materialist methods, had cleared the road for linking anthropology to natural science.

Darwin confined his studies primarily to the biological preconditions for the emergence of mankind. The study of human-kind, however, is predominantly a social study. The science of anthropology therefore began at a much higher rung in the ladder of evolution, with the investigation of primitive peoples in areas remote from civilized centers. Through examinations of these living survivals of primitive society, early anthropologists sought to single out the distinctive features which marked off ancient society from our own and came up with some very surprising conclusions.

The third major struggle unfolded over two interrelated basic distinctions between the institutions of modern and primitive society: the question of the matriarchy versus the patriarchy, and the question of the clan versus the family. In his book Das Mutterecht, published in 1861, Bachofen, using literary sources as evidence, set forth the proposition that an epoch of matriarchy had preceded the patriarchal form with which we are so familiar. Bachofen noted that one of the most striking features of primitive life was the high social status and exceptional authority enjoyed by primitive women in contrast to their inferior status in the subsequent patriarchal epoch. He believed that this epoch of “mother-right” which preceded “father-right” resulted from the fact that fathers were unknown and the primitive group identified themselves exclusively through the maternal line.

The question of matriarchy was inextricably linked with the clan group of primitive times as contrasted with the individual family of modern times. Lewis Morgan, in his book Ancient Society, published in 1877, disclosed that the unit of primitive society was not the individual family but the gens or clan.

Engels equated Morgan’s discovery in importance with the discovery of the cell in biology and the concept of surplus value by Marx in economics. Given the unit of the gens or clan, the road was opened for anthropologists to investigate and reconstruct the formation and organization of tribal life. As a result of his pioneer work, Morgan is hailed as the founder of American anthropology.

Morgan believed that the family, as it is constituted today, did not exist in ancient society and is essentially a product of civilized conditions. Before the family came the clan, which was composed not of fathers and mothers but of kinsmen and kinswomen, or clan “brothers and sisters.” Morgan also indicated that the clan structure was matriarchal. Thus the dispute around, the historical priority of the matriarchy over the patriarchy became inseparable from the correlative controversy around the historical priority of the clan over the individual family.

The fourth and most persistent struggle unfolded around the sharp contrast between the basic economic and social relations of primitive and civilized society. Morgan demonstrated that modern society, founded upon the private ownership of the means of production and divided by class antagonisms, between the propertied and propertyless, is totally different from and even opposite to primitive society. In the primitive community, the means of production were communally owned and the fruits of their labor equally shared. The clan was a genuine collective in which every individual was provided for and protected by the entire community from the cradle to the grave.

It was unavoidable that this most basic feature of primitive life should become known for what it was - primitive communism - and it was thus characterized by Morgan and Engels. But it was equally unavoidable that the communistic as well as the matriarchal aspects of primitive society should be discounted by those who wished to perpetuate the dogma that the modern system of private property and class distinctions have persisted without essential change throughout the whole history of mankind.

The struggles around these four major issues, which brought the science of anthropology to birth, arose through the researches of the nineteenth century pioneer thinkers. Although many questions remained unanswered, the classical school of anthropologists provided the keys for opening a series of hitherto closed doors into the recesses of ancient society. They were founders of the scientific investigation into prehistory.

The Classical School

The twin stars of anthropology in the English-speaking world in the latter part of the nineteenth century were Morgan in the United States and Tylor in England. Alongside these and around them was a galaxy of brilliant scholars and field workers who made noteworthy contributions to various aspects of this science. Their work was, of course, supplemented by equally able workers on the European continent and other countries.

The work of this pioneer school was marked by the following traits. It was, first of all, evolutionary in its approach to the problems of pre-civilized humanity. These anthropologists extended Darwinism into the social world. They proceeded on the premise that in its march from animality to civilization, mankind had passed through a sequence of distinct, materially conditioned stages. They believed that it was both possible and necessary to distinguish the lower stages from the higher ones which grew out of them and to trace the interconnections between them.

Secondly, this school was substantially materialist. Its members laid great stress upon the activities of human beings in procuring the necessities of life as the foundation for explaining all other social phenomena, institutions and culture. They sought to correlate natural conditions, technology and economies with the beliefs, practices, ideas and institutions of primitive peoples. They probed for the material factors at work within society to explain the succession and connection of different levels of social organization. The most successful exponent of this evolutionary and materialist method was Morgan, who used it to delineate the three main epochs of human advancement from savagery through barbarism to civilization.

Although these scholars applied the materialist method to the extent of their ability, their materialism was in many instances crude, inconsistent and incomplete. This was true even of Morgan who, as Engels wrote, had rediscovered in his own way the materialist interpretation of history that Engels and Marx had elaborated 40 years previously. For example, while Morgan classified the main epochs of social development according to the progress made in producing the means of subsistence, in certain places he ascribes the development of institutions and culture to the unfolding of mental seeds: “... social and civil institutions, in view of their connection with perpetual human wants, have been developed from a few primary germs of thought.” (Ancient Society, preface vi.).

Despite their deficiencies, however, the aims and methods of the classical nineteenth century school were fundamentally correct and bore rich fruit. Their weaknesses have been picked out and exaggerated by their opponents today, not in order to correct them and then probe deeper into, the evolution of mankind, but to exploit them as a means for discrediting the positive achievements as well as the essentially correct method of the classical anthropologists.

The Reaction

Around the turn of the century new tendencies began to assert themselves in the field of anthropology. These were marked by a growing aversion to the main ideas and methods of the classical school and by a consequent regression in the theoretical level of the science itself. In the past 50 years the representatives of these reactionary tendencies have acquired an almost undisputed ascendancy in academic circles, crowding out the doctrines of their predecessors.

Two of the principal currents of thought in this sweeping reaction are the “diffusionist” and the “descriptionist” or “functional” schools. Disciples and students of these two tendencies, or combinations of them, furnish the bulk of the contributors to the Wenner-Gren compilation.

The diffusionists focus their attention upon the beginnings of civilization. Sir G. Elliot Smith, anatomist and leading figure of this school, asserts that “Egypt was the cradle, not only of agriculture, metallurgy, architecture, shipbuilding, weaving and clothing, alcoholic drinks and religious ritual, the kingship and statecraft, but of civilization in its widest sense.” (In the Beginning, p. 26.) From that innovating center the fundamental institutions of civilization spread, with minor accretions and modifications, throughout the world.

Whether or not Egypt was the sole source of all the inventions, as claimed by Smith, the transmission or diffusion of achievements from one people to another is an undeniable factor in the historical process. However, the study of diffusion is no substitute for the analysis of the entire range of social evolution, which covers a far broader field in time and space than this school is willing to survey. Anthropology is, in fact, primarily concerned not with civilized, but with savage or pre-civilized society before agriculture, metallurgy, etc., were born. The diffusionists skip over the most decisive epoch of social evolution, that period from the origin of human society to the threshold of civilization. They shrink from examining the evolution of pre-civilized life or arranging these stages in any definite historical order.

The pure descriptionists, who dignify their position with the name of “functionalism,” proceed without any unified theory of the historical process whatsoever. Their writings have little more theoretical foundation or historical framework than a Boy Scout manual on how to make Indian objects and imitate their dances. Many of them deny that it is necessary, useful or possible to arrive at any over-all view of the course of social development.

This descriptionist school is best represented by the Franz Boas school in the United States and the Radcliffe-Brown school in England. Having rejected any general view of social evolution, they limit themselves to the study of the cultures and customs of separate peoples and groups. They describe their characteristics, and occasionally compare or contrast them with one another or with civilized society.

A number of these twentieth century field investigators have, it is true, brought forth additional important findings which have contributed to the stockpile of materials regarding primitive life. But they view this material in a disconnected way and leave it in an uncoordinated condition. They restrict their views to the framework of each given fragment, and the farthest they go in theoretical interpretation is to try to classify these diverse segments of society into different categories.

Their sole aim is to demonstrate that a variety or diversity of cultures exists and has always existed. They do not even approach the problem - much less answer it - of the specific place these diverse developments occupy and have occupied in the march of human history. They deny that any institution or feature of society is inherently more primitive or advanced than any others. They provide no unifying thread, no guiding line, no definitive acquisitions and advances from one stage to the next in a progressive process of evolution. Nor do they investigate what forces brought about the particular characteristics of each successive level of social development.

By casting aside the theoretical heritage of the classical school, these anthropologists have reduced their science to a patchwork of unrelated facts and data. In place of the genetic-historical method and dynamic view of the whole compass of social development, they have substituted a static and purely descriptive approach. This has not only retarded the growth of the science but thrown it back to an infantile theoretical level.

Scientific knowledge progresses from the elementary stage of description and classification of separated phenomena to the more advanced stage of uncovering their organic affiliations and historical interconnections. To the measure of their ability, the pioneer school of anthropologists, employing the evolutionary method, had already proceeded to this higher theoretical stage. But the academic schools which arose in reaction against them, reversed this progressive course and slid back to a more primitive level.

Materialism Abandoned

This retrogression arose directly out of the abandonment of the materialist outlook and aims of the classical school. The twentieth century academicians are unwilling and unable to relate the social and cultural institutions of primitive peoples with the economic base upon which they are founded. They deny that the productive forces and activities are decisive in shaping these cultural features. They proceed as though the cultural superstructure developed apart from, and even in opposition to, the technological and productive foundations.

In thus divorcing culture from its economic roots, some of these anthropologists come to the most absurd conclusions. Elliot Smith, for example, locates the key to human progress not in the advancements made in producing the means of life, but in a particular mode of preserving corpses:

“It is no exaggeration to claim that the ideas associated with the practice of the embalmer’s art have been the most potent influence in building up both the material and spiritual elements of civilization.” (Op. cit., p. 51.)

The end product of this retrogressive movement is the fashionable psychological and psychiatric approach - latest offspring of the functional school. Margaret Mead, E. Sapir, Ruth Benedict and other students of Boas are the principal representatives of this new current. In place of the objective material forces and factors which determine the structure and evolution of society, they put forward superficial and arbitrary observations on the different psychological reactions and behaviors of primitive groups. In place of the historical interactions between the developing productive forces and the cultural institutions which spring from them, they substitute the peculiarities of the individual personality.

Margaret Mead, who is given an honored place in the Wenner-Gren compilation, locates the key to the differences among cultures not in their different productive and social forces, but in the different kinds of weaning and toilet training given to children. Why and how these secondary cultural features arose and evolved she does not explain. The whole functionalist school, including its psychological branch, regards “culture” as something disembodied and dematerialized, plucked at will by men out of thin air through inexplicable impulse or caprice.

Leslie A. White, chairman of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Michigan, one of the few contemporary scholars who have stubbornly refused to abandon the materialist procedures of the Morgan-Tylor school, is the most vigorous American critic of the Boas-Brown tendencies. He describes their anti-materialism as follows:

“A few decades ago culture was very real, tangible and observable to anthropologists. They went out to preliterate peoples, saw and collected tools, clothing, ceremonial paraphernalia, utensils and ornaments; they observed people doing things-grinding seeds, practicing circumcision, burying prayer-sticks, chewing betel; they observed expressions of conventional sentiments - a loathing for milk, respect for the mother’s brother, a fear of ghosts; they discovered the knowledge and belief of the people. All of this was once as real and tangible to the ethnologist as to the native himself. In recent years, however. . . culture has become an abstraction, intangible, imperceptible and all but unreal to many anthropologists ... What was once a distinct class of real, observable, tangible phenomena, the subject matter of a special science, has now been conjured almost out of existence!” (Philosophy for the Future, edited by Sellars, McGill and Farber, pp. 359-360.)

Flight from Evolutionism

The anti-materialism of the reactionary school is accompanied by their anti-evolutionism. It is so obvious that stone tools preceded metal tools and food-gathering preceded agriculture and stock-breeding that it is difficult to disclaim evolution altogether. The anti-evolutionists are obliged to admit that there has been some evolution in technology. But this is as far as they will go in admitting the reality of historical evolution.

Above all they deny that social institutions and culture are progressively transformed along with the economic bases of society. They expressly or implicitly deny that the successive social epochs can be delineated through the growth and development of the material forces of production. As a result they not only divorce the cultural superstructure from its material base but flee altogether from any unified and comprehensive conception of historical evolution.

Their chief target for attack is Morgan’s projection of the three main ethnic periods of social evolution: from savagery through barbarism to civilization. Morgan had derived from the changing productive forces at each successive level the changes in the social institutions which flowed from them. He had demonstrated that such fundamental features of civilization as private property and the state did not exist in savagery and only emerged in undeveloped form in barbarism. By the same token, the modern cultural institutions of marriage, the individual family and the subjugation of women, are also less developed the farther back we probe into history. In the epoch of savagery they virtually vanish into nonexistence.

The reactionary anthropologists today ridicule and reject these findings of Morgan together with his materialist and evolutionist method. In the Wenner-Gren compilation, Morgan’s sequence of ethnic stages in social advancement is relegated to the scrap heap as “out of date,” and “mid-Victorian.” According to J. Grahame D. Clark, the English archaeologist, Morgan’s scheme of determinate ethnic stages is no longer even “respectable.” He writes:

“Now it would be ridiculous at this time of day to apportion praise or blame to Morgan, Tylor and the rest; the mid-Victorian anthropologists were confronted by an immense void. . . they merely did what any other scientists would have done under similar circumstances - they plugged the gap with hypotheses... their stages were hypothetical. . . One may legitimately insist, though, that hypothetical prehistory, useful as it may have been 70 or 80 years ago, has long ceased to be respectable.” (Anthropology Today, p. 345.)

It is significant, however, that although the “immense void” has been filled to the brim with further data and documentation during the past 70-80 years, Morgan’s opponents have never presented any replacement for his discarded theory of ethnic evolution. Having annihilated the positive framework of social evolution developed by the nineteenth-century school, and unable to provide any alternative of their own, the modern schools are manifestly bankrupt in theory and in method. Leslie White has aptly summarized them as follows:

“In addition to being anti-materialist, they are anti-intellectualistic or anti-philosophic - regarding theorizing with contempt - and anti-evolutionist. It has been their mission to demonstrate that there are no laws or significance in ethnology, that there is no rhyme or reason in cultural phenomena, that civilization is - in the words of R. H. Lowie, the foremost exponent of this philosophy - merely a ‘planless hodgepodge,’ a ‘chaotic jumble.’” (Philosophy for the Future, pp. 367-368.)

In truth, the hodge-podge and jumble exist not in the social and cultural phenomena but in the minds and methods of Lowie and his school. Whereas the pioneer anthropologists had sought, and succeeded to a large degree, in making order out of chaos, the modern academicians have introduced chaos into the historical order previously established. The more materials they accumulate, the more narrow their views have become. The study of anthropology has today become disjointed and jumbled in their hands - and in their students’ heads.

Piecemeal Evolutionists

Some contributors to the Wenner-Gren symposium display considerable uneasiness about the absence of any general line of development in primitive history and try to find one. Julian H. Steward, who was assigned the theme of “Evolution and Process,” speaks for this group which seeks some middle ground between the classical evolutionists and the modern unabashed anti-evolutionists. In a subsequent publication which fully develops the ideas in his contribution to the Wenner-Gren book, Steward exposes the unscientific procedures of the “particularists”:

“Reaction to evolutionism and scientific functionalism has very nearly amounted to a denial that regularities exist. . . It is considered somewhat rash to mention causality, let alone ‘law,’ in specific cases. Attention is centered on cultural differences, particulars, and peculiarities, and culture is often treated as if it developed quixotically, without determinable causes, or else appeared full-blown.” (Theory of Culture Change, p. 179.)

At the same time Steward ranges himself with the particularists against the advocates of universal evolution, on the specious ground that their generalizations fail to explain particular phenomena:

“Universal evolution has yet to provide any very new formulations that will explain any and all cultures. The most fruitful course of investigation would seem to be the search for laws which formulate particular phenomena with reference to particular circumstances.” (Anthropology Today, p. 325.)

What Steward is saying in effect is:

“To be sure, the world is not flat. However, neither is it quite as round as most people think. Therefore, let us regard it as a flat world with some rounded portions.”

According to his own statement, Steward restricts his historical search to “parallels of limited occurrence instead of universals.” For example, he and some other American anthropologists sketch out a series of stages in the development of societies on the threshold of civilization, such as Egypt, Mesopotamia, China, Middle America and the Central Andes. But these parallel lines are never brought together as aspects of a continuous process of social evolution from the lowest stage of savagery up to the threshold of civilization. The particular segments remain disconnected fragments without essential relationship to a general historical framework. Leslie White describes this as piecemeal evolution:

“Dr. Steward wants his evolution piecemeal. He wants evolution in restricted areas and in restricted segments. If, however, evolutionist processes and evolutionist generalizations can be made in a number of independent situations and regions, why cannot generalizations be made for evolution as a whole? ... I notice a rather curious conflict or contradiction of motives in Dr. Steward’s scientific work. On the one hand, he seems to be very much interested in generalizations and strives to reach them. On the other hand, he anchors himself to the particular, to the local, or to the restricted, which, of course, tends to inhibit the formulation of broad generalizations.” (Op. cit., p. 71.)

Steward accepts the epoch of civilization as involving “a less sweeping generalization,” but rejects the two earlier epochs of social development because “they fail to recognize the many varieties of local trends.” He then pinpoints the issue upon which he bases his rejection: the proposition that the matriarchy preceded the patriarchy represents a definite stage in social evolution:

“The inadequacy of unilinear evolution lies largely in the postulated priority of matriarchal patterns over other kinship patterns and in the indiscriminate effort to force the data of all pre-civilized groups of mankind, which included most of the primitive world, into the categories of ‘savagery’ and ‘barbarism.’” (Anthropology Today, p. 316.)

But the issue goes even deeper than the historical priority of the matriarchy. Morgan and others of the classical school observed that wherever matriarchal vestiges were found, there also were found clear evidence of primitive communism in productive and social relations. It is this which lies at the bottom of the stampede from evolutionism and the reason why the piecemeal evolutionists, who try to draw back from this flight are, in the final analysis dragged along with it.

Fear of Marxism

In the field of anthropology, as in other fields, a consistently evolutionist and materialist method of thought has revolutionary implications. Unwittingly, the classical anthropologists had brought verification and support to Marxism as the most scientific system of thought. The science of anthropology did not originate with the historical materialists, but the creators of Marxism drew upon the materials provided by the nineteenth century anthropologists to extend their own historical reach and substantiate their materialist interpretation of history. They drew out to their logical conclusions the sharp contrasts between capitalism, highest form of class society, and primitive or pre-class society. These conclusions are set forth in the renowned work by Engels, Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, which appeared in 1884.

The reactionary flight from materialism and evolutionism arose out of the effort to counter this challenge of Marxism. But in the process of disowning the views of the Marxists, they were obliged to also turn against the pioneers in their own field of science.

The repudiation by these modern anthropologists of the principles and methods of their pioneer predecessors had its precedent and parallel in the rejection by academic economists of their classical bourgeois predecessors from Smith to Ricardo. The labor theory of value, which was taken over from the classical economists and systematically developed by the Marxists, produced the revolutionary conclusions of Capital. Subsequent bourgeois economists, recoiling from these conclusions, found it expedient to dump, along with them, the positive achievements of their own predecessors.

The same thing has happened in anthropology. The Marxists connected Morgan’s findings with the conclusion that just as primitive communism had been destroyed by class society, so, in turn, would class society be replaced by the new higher stage of socialism. The modern reactionary school, in flight from this conclusion, was obliged not only to oppose the Marxists, but to reject their own predecessors whose findings substantiated this view.

There is no ambiguity on this score in the Wenner-Gren compilation. Grahame Clark explains why the Morgan-Tylor school must be cast out, along with the Marxists:

“... Marxists find in archaeology a means of recovering what they hold to be tangible evidence for the validity of the dogma of the materialist interpretation of history... What is quite sure is that Marxist dogma is no more valid as a substitute for archaeological research than were the speculations of Victorian ethnologists. Both are equally out of date.” (Anthropology Today, p. 346.)

Julian Steward likewise explains why a consistently evolutionary position is intolerable:

“The Marxist and Communist adoption of the 19th century evolutionism, especially of L. H. Morgan’s scheme, as official dogma (Tolstoy 1952) has certainly not favored the acceptability of scientists of the Western nations of anything labeled ‘evolution.’” (Ibid, p. 315.)

Here is the real reason for the anti-materialism and anti-evolutionism of contemporary anthropologists. The reactionary school has become predominant because it has accommodated itself to ruling class prejudices and dogmas and assumed the obligation of stamping out the spread of revolutionary conclusions.

The Road Ahead

Darwin, provided a solid foundation for biology and directed it along correct lines by explaining how animal species originated, and evolved from one order to another. Until the science of anthropology likewise discovers the secrets of the social cradle of humanity, it lacks such a solid foundation. The road ahead for anthropology today lies precisely in this deeper penetration into our most remote past, above all at that critical juncture where the first social horde emerged from the animal world.

This central problem was not neglected by the nineteenth-century pioneer school. On the contrary, their serious and systematic research provided a sound point of departure. Morgan had detested that, while the gens or clan system arose as the universal and fundamental form of primitive organization, it had been preceded by a cruder, unfinished form based upon “male and female classes.” This “classificatory system” was subsequently subsumed into the gens system. The Scotsman J. L. McLennan called attention to the importance of strange code of social and sexual rules which have been voluminously discussed under the various headings of totemism, taboo and exogamy. W. H. R. Rivers understood that decisive clues were contained in that peculiarity of the gens system called “dual organization.” Sir James Frazer and others assembled monumental researches on these and other bewildering phenomena, but their meaning in the formation and rise of the primitive gens system remained enigmatic. The principal merit of these pioneers did not consist in the answers they could provide, but rather in the materials they assembled, in their penetrating observations, and in the questions they posed. Their work was and still remains the precondition for the solution today of the problem of social origins.

Despite this wealth of material and the crucial importance of the subject, the question of social origins is completely neglected in the Wenner-Gren inventory. Not only have they ceased to follow the trail begun by the 19th century investigators but they ignore the key theoretical contributions to this study already available.

In the nineteenth century Engels sought for the decisive social factor which had lifted humanity out of the animal world. The Marxists had already established that all society from lower to higher stages moved forward with the advances made in labor techniques and production. From this Engels called attention to the fact that labor was the key to human beginnings and the birth of labor was simultaneously the birth of humanity. This labor theory of social origins is set forth in Engels’ essay, The Part Played by Labor in the Transition from Ape to Man.

Some 50 years later in 1927, with the publication of his work The Mothers, Robert Briffault provided the biological link to this proposition. He demonstrated that maternal functions and relations were the indispensable biological basis for the first laboring activities and social cooperation. Earlier investigators had established that the matriarchy represented a definite stage in social evolution. Briffault went a step further than this and showed why the matriarchal form was the necessary and unavoidable first form of society. He called this the matriarchal theory of social origins.

The theories of Engels and Briffault dovetail. If, as Engels explained, labor was the central factor in transforming our branch of the anthropoid species into humanity, and if, as Briffault has shown, the females were the pioneers and leaders in labor, it follows that women-as-laborers provided the main living force in developing the first social horde.

At all stages, Marxists have pointed out, society is founded upon the twin pillars of production and reproduction. In civilized society these two functions have been divided between the sexes. The production of new life remains the sphere of the women, while the production of the means of life is primarily in the hands of the men. But at the beginning of human time, and for more than ninety percent of subsequent history, women were not only the procreators but also the principal producers of the means of subsistence. What Briffault brought forward was the fact that because of their production and care of new life, women became the first producers of the means of life.

Thus the historical primacy of the matriarchy, which is rejected by the academic school today, is actually the key to solving the basic question of social origins. There are still many unanswered questions: among them the question of why the first society was not only matriarchal, but communistic in productive and social relations. But the solution to all the problems connected with social beginnings must have as their starting point the indispensable guiding lines provided by Engels and Briffault. Equally decisive, the materialist and evolutionist methods of the nineteenth century classical school must be restored. Anthropology today, enriched by the more extensive data available and aided by Marxist historical materialism, can not only be brought out of its stagnation and sterility but elevated to a new and far higher level.


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