The Third International after Lenin

Monday, November 23, 2009

Claude Levi-Strauss: A Marxist view

by Louis Proyect
Claude Levi-Strauss’s death on October 30 at the age of 100 led me to look a little bit into his thought. I was interested to see if his ideas had any bearing on my research into the Napoleon Chagnon controversy. Levi-Strauss’s initial foray into ethnology took place in the Brazilian rainforest among Indian tribes not that much different from the Yanomami. Indeed, Jacques Lizot, the gay anthropologist who became Chagnon’s adversary after their initial collaborations, was a student of Levi-Strauss. I also wanted to get a handle on his basic approach since Althusser’s Marxism is supposedly based on Levi-Strauss’s structuralism. What was that all about? Granted, it no longer has the urgency it once had. In my early days on the left and Marxist oriented mailing lists, structuralism still had some traction, owing to a large extent to the hegemony it enjoyed at the U. of Massachusetts under Richard Wolff and Stephen Resnick. That seems like a lifetime ago now.

On the asset side of the balance sheet, it must be acknowledged that Levi-Strauss was—like Franz Boas—a major voice against social Darwinism. Along with Franz Boas, he rejected the idea that primitive peoples were doomed to become extinct in the “survival of the fittest” competition. Indeed, the connection between the two men was more than ideological. On December 22, 1942, Franz Boas and Claude Lévi-Strauss were having lunch at the Faculty Club of Columbia University, a place that I have dined at frequently, when Boas suffered a heart attack, falling into Levi-Strauss’s arms. At the age of 34, Levi-Strauss was destined to assume the mantle of the dying 92 year old. In 1995, at the age of 87, Levi-Strauss wrote an article titled Saudades Do Brasil that took note of the cultural and physical genocidal tendencies brought on by “development”:

The Bororo, whose good health and robustness I had admired in 1935, are today being consumed by alcoholism and disease and are progressively losing their language. It is in missionary schools (which, by a curious reversal, have become the conservators of a culture they had in the first place worked at suppressing, and not without success) that Bororo youths are being taught about their myths and their ceremonies. But, for fear that they might damage the feather diadems, masterpieces of traditional art, the missionaries are keeping these objects locked up, entrusting the Indians with them only on strictly necessary occasions. They would be increasingly difficult to replace since the macaws, parrots, and other brightly colored birds are also disappearing…

I could not help but be reminded of
Rosa Luxemburg’s 1917 letter to Sophie Liebknecht:

Yesterday I was reading about the reasons for the disappearance of song birds in Germany. The spread of scientific forestry, horticulture, and agriculture, have cut them off from their nesting places and their food supply. More and more, with modern methods, we are doing away with hollow trees, waste lands, brushwood, fallen leaves. I felt sore at heart. I was not thinking so much about the loss of pleasure for human beings, but I was so much distressed at the idea of the stealthy and inexorable destruction of these defenceless little creatures, that the tears came into my eyes. I was reminded of a book I read in Zurich, in which Professor Sieber describes the dying-out of the Redskins in North America. Just like the birds, they have been gradually driven from their hunting grounds by civilised men.

Despite his open affiliation with Marxism, Levi-Strauss was going against the grain of much of what had been written in its name when it came to primitive peoples. Unfortunately, social Darwinism had seeped into the thinking of some of the most important foundational figures, including Karl Kautsky and Georgi Plekhanov. Through most of the 20th century, this kind of thinking has tended to drive a wedge between socialists and indigenous peoples who still existed in communal societies. The Sandinista missteps with the Miskito Indians are just one example.

Levi-Strauss’s earliest academic training, like Marx’s (and mine!) was in philosophy. Reacting to the social and economic crisis of the 1930s, he became alienated from mainstream French philosophy that was shaped largely by Henri Bergson’s ideas. Bergson was strongly influenced by Charles Darwin and evolved a philosophy that stressed a kind of teleological and ameliorist vision of history, something that was obviously at odds with the economic misery and fascist movements that the young Levi-Strauss saw all around him.

In chapter six of “
Tristes Tropiques”, widely considered Levi-Strauss’s masterpiece, he discusses “How I became an Anthropologist”. He describes his growing disenchantment with facile notions of “progress” taught in philosophy classes:

We watched self-consciousness in its progress through the ages elaborating constructions ever lighter and more audacious, resolving problems of balance and implication, inventing refinements of logic; and the more absolute the technical perfection, the more complete the internal coherence, the greater was the system in question. It was as if the student of art-history had been taught that Gothic was necessarily better than Romanesque, and flamboyant Gothic better than primitive Gothic, without stopping to wonder what was beautiful and what was not.

From Freud, Levi-Strauss learned that static antinomies such as rational and irrational were “no more than meaningless games”. And, in his typically eclectic fashion, he next found himself inspired by geology, a science that displays nature demonstrating “the living diversity” that “juxtaposes one age and the other and perpetuates them.” But it was Marxism that helped to finish the intellectual journey that began when he decided to travel to Brazil to study native peoples.

When I was about seventeen I was initiated into Marxism by a young Belgian socialist whom I had met on holiday. (He is today one of his country s Ambassadors abroad.) Reading Marx was for me all the more enthralling in that I was making my first contact, by way of that great thinker, with the philosophical current that runs from Kant to Hegel. A whole world was opened to me. My excitement has never cooled: and rarely do I tackle a problem in sociology or ethnology without having first set my mind in motion by reperusal of a page or two from the 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte or the Critique of Political Economy. Whether Marx accurately foretold this or that historical development is not the point. Marx followed Rousseau in saying and saying once and for all, as far as I can see that social science is no more based upon events than physics is based upon sense-perceptions. Our object is to construct a model, examine its properties and the way in which it reacts to laboratory tests, and then apply our observations to the interpretation of empirical happenings: these may turn out very differently from what we had expected.

At a different level of reality, Marxism seemed to me to proceed in the same way as geology and psycho-analysis (in the sense in which its founder understood it). All three showed that understanding consists in the reduction of one type of reality to another; that true reality is never the most obvious of realities, and that its nature is already apparent in the care which it takes to evade our detection. In all these cases the problem is the same: the relation, that is to say, between reason and sense-perception; and the goal we are looking for is also the same: a sort of super-rationalism in which sense-perceptions will be integrated into reasoning and yet lose none of their properties.

Despite his best of intentions, we must conclude that Levi-Strauss simply did not understand Marxism if he can describe it thusly: “Marx followed Rousseau in saying and saying once and for all, as far as I can see that social science is no more based upon events than physics is based upon sense-perceptions. Our object is to construct a model, examine its properties and the way in which it reacts to laboratory tests, and then apply our observations to the interpretation of empirical happenings: these may turn out very differently from what we had expected.”

Indeed, there is so much confusion packed into these two sentences that I despair of reading Levi-Strauss’s mind in order to figure out what he was trying to say. This much we know. He obviously saw Marx as some kind of precursor to structuralism since the idea that social science must not be based on “events” is surely another way of saying that history has little interest to the French philosophy current that operated in the name of Marxism for several decades and that led to all sorts of ideological confusion.

In closing the door on Bergson’s evolutionism, Levi-Strauss bent the stick too far in the opposite direction and ultimately decided that history was bunk, to use Henry Ford’s pithy formulation. The structuralist school became largely defined by its hostility to historical interpretations. In the case of Althusser, this meant breaking with the early Marx, who was befuddled apparently by both “humanism” and a Hegelian framework, and adopting a more “scientific” approach that conceived of Marxism in terms of Levi-Strauss’s “laboratory tests”.

When Levi-Strauss was at the pinnacle of his prestige, Susan Sontag wrote a article in the NY Review of Books titled “
A Hero of Our Time” that would be included in “Against Interpretation”, a collection that made her own reputation. It was a review of his “Structural Anthropology”, snippets of which can be read on MIA. She writes:

Lévi-Strauss sees man with a Lucretian pessimism, and a Lucretian feeling for knowledge as both consolation and necessary disenchantment. But for him the demon is history—not the body or the appetites. The past, with its mysteriously harmonious structures, is broken and crumbling before our eyes. Hence, the tropics are tristes. There were nearly twenty thousand of the naked, indigent, nomadic, handsome Nambikwaras in 1915, when they were first visited by white missionaries; when Lévi-Strauss arrived in 1938 there were no more than two thousand of them; today they are miserable, ugly, syphilitic, and almost extinct. Hopefully, anthropology brings a reduction of historical anxiety. It is interesting that many of Lévi-Strauss’s students are reported to be former Marxists, come as it were to lay their piety at the altar of the past since it cannot be offered to the future. Anthropology is necrology. “Let’s go and study the primitives,” say Lévi-Strauss and his pupils, “before they disappear.”

It is strange to think of these ex-Marxists—philosophical optimists if ever such have existed—submitting to the melancholy spectacle of the crumbling pre-historic past. They have moved not only from optimism to pessimism, but from certainty to systematic doubt. For, according to Lévi-Strauss, research in the field, “where every ethnological career begins, is the mother and nursemaid of doubt, the philosophical attitude par excellence.” In Lévi-Strauss’s program for the practicing anthropologist in Structural Anthropology, the Cartesian method of doubt is installed as a permanent agnosticism. “This ‘anthropological doubt’ consists not merely in knowing that one knows nothing but in resolutely exposing what one knows, even one’s own ignorance, to the insults and denials inflicted on one’s dearest ideas and habits by those ideas and habits which may contradict them to the highest degree.”

Whether or not Sontag was being totally accurate, it is distressing to think that this self-avowed if confused Marxist cum geologist/Freudian was attracting such “former Marxists” who dwell in “systematic doubt”. If Marxism has been accused in the past for having a messianic certainty about its goals, I for one would continue to remain a Marxist than to remain paralyzed like Hamlet in “anthropological doubt”.