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A Reappraisal of Marx's Ethnological Notebooks: Family, Gender, Individual vs. State, and Colonialism

A Reappraisal of Marx's Ethnological Notebooks: Family, Gender, Individual vs. State, and Colonialism

Marcello Musto Canada//6:15pm, Jun 9th '23

For a long time, the difficulty of examining Marx’s research in the final years of his life, especially the early 1880s, hampered our knowledge of the important gains he achieved. This is why all the biographers of Marx devoted so few pages to his activity after the winding up of the International Working Men’s Association[1]. Not by chance, they nearly always used the generic title “the last decade” for this part of their work. Wrongly thinking that Marx had given up the idea of completing his work, they failed to look more deeply into what he actually did during that period. But if there was some justification for this in the past, it is hard to understand why the new materials available in the Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe (MEGA²) – the historical-critical edition of the complete works of Marx and Friedrich Engels – and the volume of research on the “late Marx” since the 1970s have not led to a more significant change in this tendency[2].

Contrary to those who claimed that his intellectual curiosity and theoretical acumen faded in his final years, the recent scholarship on Marx has demonstrated that he continued to work whenever circumstances allowed it. He not only pursued his research but extended it to new areas (see Anderson 2010, and Musto 2020a). Marx went deeply into many other issues which, though often underestimated, or even ignored, by scholars of his work, are acquiring crucial importance for the political agenda of our times. Among these are individual freedom in the economic and political sphere, gender emancipation, the critique of nationalism, the emancipatory potential of technology, and forms of collective ownership not controlled by the state.

Furthermore, Marx undertook thorough investigations of societies outside Europe and expressed himself unambiguously against the ravages of colonialism. It is a mistake to suggest otherwise. Marx criticized thinkers who, while highlighting the destructive consequences of colonialism, used categories peculiar to the European context in their analysis of peripheral areas of the globe. He warned a number of times against those who failed to observe the necessary distinctions between phenomena, and especially after his theoretical advances in the 1870s he was highly wary of transferring interpretive categories across completely different historical or geographical fields. All this is now clear, despite the scepticism still fashionable in certain academic quarters.

In 1881 and 1882, Marx made remarkable progress in relation to anthropology, pre-capitalist modes of production, non-Western societies, socialist revolution and the materialist conception of history. He also closely observed the main events in international politics, as we can see from his letters expressing resolute support for the Irish liberation struggle and the Populist movement in Russia, and firm opposition to British colonial oppression in India and Egypt and to French colonialism in Algeria. He was anything but eurocentric, economistic, or fixated only on class conflict. Marx thought the study of new political conflicts, new themes and geographical areas to be fundamental for his ongoing critique of the capitalist system. It enabled him to open up to national specificities and to consider the possibility of an approach to communism different from the one he had previously developed.

Anthropology, Family and Gender: The Revolution of Morgan’s Ancient Society

Between December 1880 and June 1881, Marx’s research interests focused on a new discipline: anthropology. He began with Ancient Society (1877), a work by the U.S. anthropologist Lewis Morgan (1818-1881), which the Russian ethnologist Maksim Kovalevsky (1851-1916) had brought back from a trip to North America and sent to Marx two years after its publication.

What struck Marx most was the way in which Morgan treated production and technological factors as preconditions of social progress, and he felt moved to assemble a compilation of a hundred densely packed pages.[3] These make up the bulk of what are known as the The Ethnological Notebooks (1880-81).[4] They also contain excerpts from other works: Java, or How to Manage a Colony (1861) by James Money (1818-1890), a lawyer and Indonesia expert; The Aryan Village in India and Ceylon (1880) by John Phear (1825-1905), president of the supreme court of Ceylon; and Lectures on the Early History of Institutions (1875) by the historian Henry Maine (1822-1888), amounting to a total of another hundred sheets.[5] Marx’s comparative assessments of these authors lead one to suppose that he compiled all this material in a fairly short period in an effort to get really on top of it.

In his previous research, Marx had already examined and extensively commented on past social-economic forms – in the first part of The German Ideology, in the long section of the Grundrisse entitled “Forms Which Precede Capitalist Production,” and in Capital, Volume One. In 1879, his reading of Kovalevsky’s Common Land Ownership directed him once more to the subject. But it was only with the The Ethnological Notebooks that he engaged in more comprehensive and up to date study.

The aim of Marx’s new research was to widen his knowledge of the historical periods, geographical areas and thematic topics that he considered essential for his continuing critique of political economy. It also enabled him to acquire specific information about the social characteristics and institutions of the remote past, acquainting him with material that was not in his possession when he had written the manuscripts of the 1850s and 1860s. Finally, it acquainted him with the latest theories advanced by the most eminent contemporary scholars.

Marx devoted himself to these often time-consuming anthropological studies during the same period in which he aimed to complete Capital, Volume Two (see Musto 2018; 2019). The precise theoretical-political purpose behind them was to reconstruct the most likely sequence in which the different modes of production had succeeded one another over time, with a particular focus on the birth of capitalism. He believed that this would give his theory of the possible communist transformation of society stronger historical foundations.[6]

In The Ethnological Notebooks, Marx therefore put together compilations and interesting notes on prehistory, on the development of family bonds, on the condition of women, on the origins of property relations, on community practices in precapitalist societies, on the formation and nature of state power, on the role of the individual, and on more modern aspects such as the racist connotations of certain anthropological approaches and the effects of colonialism.

On the particular theme of prehistory and the development of family ties, Marx drew a number of priceless indications from the work of Morgan. As Hyndman recalled: “when Lewis H. Morgan proved to Marx’s satisfaction in his Ancient Society that the gens[7] and not the family was the social unit of the old tribal system and ancient society generally, Marx at once abandoned his previous opinions” (Hyndman 1911, 253-254).

It was Morgan’s research on the social structure of primitive peoples that allowed him to overcome the limits of traditional interpretations of kinship, including the one advanced by the German historian Barthold Niebuhr (1786-1831) in Roman History (1811-12). In contrast to all previous hypotheses, Morgan showed that it had been a grave error to suggest that the gens “postdated the monogamous family” and was the result of “an aggregate of families” (Morgan 1877, 515). His studies of prehistoric and ancient society led him to the conclusion that the patriarchal family should be seen not as the original basic unit of society but as a form of social organization more recent than was generally believed. It was an organization “too weak to face alone the hardships of life” (472). It was much more plausible to assume the existence of a form like that of the American native peoples, the sindiasmic family, which practised a “communism in living” (Marx 1972, 115).

On the other hand, Marx constantly polemicized against Maine, who in his Lectures on the Early History of Institutions (1875) had visualized “the private family” as “the basis out of which the sept and clan developed.” Marx’s scorn for this attempt to reverse time’s arrow by transposing the Victorian era into prehistory led him to assert that this “blockheaded Englishman started not from the gens but from the Patriarch, who later became the chief – what inanities!” (292) His mockery gradually reaches a crescendo: “Maine after all cannot get the English private family out of his head” (309); he “transports the Roman ‘patriarchal’ family into the very beginning of things” (324). Nor did Marx spare Phear, of whom he said: “The ass bases everything on private families!” (281).

Morgan gave Marx further food for thought with his remarks on the concept of the family, since in its “original meaning” the word family – which has the same root as famulus or servant – “had no relation to the married pair or their children, but to the body of slaves and servants who laboured for its maintenance, and were under the power of the pater familias” (Morgan 1877, 469). On this, Marx noted:

The modern family contains the germ not only of servitus (slavery) but also serfdom, since it contains from the beginning a relation to services for agriculture. It contains in miniature all the antagonisms within itself, which are later broadly develop in society and its State. (…) The monogamous family presupposed, in order to have an existence separate from others, a domestic class that was everywhere directly constituted by slaves. (Marx 1972, 120)

Developing his own thoughts elsewhere in the compendium, Marx wrote that “property in houses, lands and herds” was bound up with “the monogamous family” (210). In fact, as the Manifesto of the Communist Party suggested, this was the starting point of history as “the history of class struggle” (Marx and Engels 1976, 482).[8]

In The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884) – a book that the author described as “the fulfilment of a behest” and no more than a “meagre substitute” for what his “dear friend” had not lived to write (Engels 1990, 131) – Engels completed Marx’s analysis in The Ethnological Notebooks. Monogamy, he argued, represented the subjection of one sex by the other, as the proclamation of a conflict between the sexes hitherto unknown throughout preceding history. In an old unpublished manuscript, the work of Marx and myself in 1846, I find the following: “The first division of labour is that between man and woman for child breeding” (173). And today I can add: The first class antithesis which appears in history coincides with the development of the antagonism between man and woman in monogamian marriage, and the first class oppression with that of the female sex by the male. Monogamy [… is] the cellular form of civilized society, in which we can already study the nature of the antitheses and contradictions, which develop fully in the latter. (173-174)[9]

Engels’s thesis posited an overly schematic relationship between economic conflict and gender oppression that was absent from Marx’s – fragmentary and highly intricate – notes.[10]

Marx too paid close attention to Morgan’s considerations on parity between the sexes, which argued that pre-Greek ancient societies were more progressive in respect of the treatment and behaviour of women. Marx copied the parts of Morgan’s book that showed how, among the Greeks, “the change of descent from the female line to the male was damaging for the position and rights of the wife and woman.” Indeed, Morgan had a very negative assessment of the Greek social model. “Greeks remained barbarians in their treatment of women at the height of their civilization; their education superficial, (…) their inferiority inculcated as a principle upon them, until it came to be accepted as a fact by the women themselves.” Moreover, there was “a principle of studied selfishness among the males, tending to lessen the appreciation of women, scarcely found among savages.” Thinking of the contrast with the myths of the classical world, Marx added an acute observation: “the condition of the goddesses on Olympus is a reminder of the position of women, once freer and more influential. Juno greedy for power, the goddess of wisdom springs from the head of Zeus” (Marx, 1972, 121). For Marx, memory of the free divinities of the past provided an example for possible emancipation in the present.[11]

From the various authors he studied, Marx recorded many important observations on the role of women in ancient society. For example, referring to the work Matriarchy (1861) by the Swiss anthropologist Johann Bachofen (1815-1887), he noted: “The women were the great power among the gens and everywhere else. They did not hesitate, when occasion required, ‘to knock off the horns’, as it was technically called, from the head of a chief, and send him back to the ranks of warriors. The original nomination of the chiefs also always rested with them” (Marx, 1972, 116).[12]

Property Relations, the Individual and the Function of the State

Marx’s reading of Morgan also gave him an angle on another important question: the origin of property relations. For the celebrated anthropologist established a causal relation between the various types of kinship structure and social-economic forms. In his view, the factors in western history that accounted for the affirmation of the descriptive system – which described blood relatives and specified everyone’s kinship (for example, “brother’s son for nephew, father’s brother for uncle, father’s brother’s son for cousin”) – and the decline of the classificatory system – which grouped blood relatives into categories without specifying proximity or distance in relation to Ego (“e.g., my own brother and my father’s brother’s sons are in equal degree my brothers”) – had to do with the development of property and the state (Brown 2012, 123, 104; 164, 136; see also Godelier 1977, 67-8, 101-2).

Morgan’s book is divided into four parts: (1) Growth of Intelligence through Inventions and Discoveries, (2) Growth of the Idea of Government, (3) Growth of the Idea of the Family and (4) Growth of the Idea of Property. Marx changed the order to (1) inventions, (2) family, (3) property and (4) government, in order to bring out more clearly the nexus between the last two.

Morgan’s book argued that, although “the rights of wealth, of rank and of official position” had prevailed for thousands of years over “justice and intelligence,” there was ample evidence that “the privileged classes” were a “burdensome” (Morgan 1877, 551) influence on society. Marx copied out almost in full one of the final pages of Ancient Society on the distortions that property could generate; it operated with concepts that made a deep impression on him:

Since the advent of civilization, the outgrowth of property has been so immense, its forms so diversified, its uses so expanding and its management so intelligent in the interests of its owners, that it has become, on the part of the people, an unmanageable power. The human mind stands bewildered in the presence of its own creation. The time will come, nevertheless, when human intelligence will rise to the mastery over property, and define the relations of the state to the property it protects, as well as the obligations and the limits of the rights of its owners. The interests of society are paramount to individual interests, and the two must be brought into just and harmonious relations. (551-2)

Morgan refused to believe that the “final destiny of mankind” was the mere pursuit of riches. He issued a stark warning:

The dissolution of society bids fair to become the termination of a career of which property is the end and aim; because such a career contains the elements of self-destruction. Democracy in government, brotherhood in society, equality in rights and privileges, and universal education, foreshadow the next higher plane of society to which experience, intelligence and knowledge are steadily tending. It (a higher plan of society)[13] will be a revival, in a higher form (of society), of the liberty, equality and fraternity of the ancient gentes. (551-2)

Bourgeois “civilization,” then, was itself a transitory stage. It had arisen at the end of two long epochs, the “savage state” and the “barbaric state” (the terms current at the time), which followed the abolition of communal forms of social organization. These forms imploded following the accumulation of property and wealth and the emergence of social classes and the state. But sooner or later prehistory and history were destined to join up once again (see Godelier 1977, 124).[14]

Morgan considered ancient societies to have been very democratic and solidaristic. As for the present, he limited himself to a declaration of optimism about the progress of humanity, without invoking the necessity of political struggle.[15] Marx, however, did not envisage a socialist revival of “the myth of the noble savage.” He never hoped for a return to the past, but – as he made clear when copying Morgan’s book – looked to the advent of a “higher form of society” (Marx 1972, 139)[16] based on a new mode of production and consumption. This would come about not through mechanical evolution, but only through conscious working-class struggle.

All of Marx’s anthropological reading had a bearing on the origins and functions of the state. The excerpts from Morgan summarized its role in the transition from barbarism to civilization, while his notes on Maine concentrated on analysis of the relations between the individual and the state (see Krader 1972, 19). Consistent with his most significant theoretical texts on the subject, from the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law[17] (1843) to The Civil War in France (1871),[18] The Ethnological Notebooks also present the state as a power subjugating society, a force preventing the full emancipation of the individual.

In the notes he wrote in 1881, Marx stressed the parasitic and transitory character of the state:

Maine ignores the much deeper point: that the seeming supreme independent existence of the state is only seeming and that it is in all its forms an excrescence of society; just as its appearance itself arises only at a certain stage of social development, it disappears again as soon as society has reached a stage not yet attained.

Marx followed this up with a critique of the human condition under the given historical circumstances. The formation of civilized society, with its transition from a regime of common to individual property, generated a “still one-sided (…) individuality” (Marx, 1972, 329; cf also Krader 1972, 59). If the “true nature [… of the state] appears only when we analyse its content,” that is, its “interests,” then this shows that these interests “are common to certain social groups” and therefore “class interests.” For Marx, “the state is built on and presupposes classes.” Hence the individuality that exists in this type of society is “a class individuality,” which in the last analysis is “based on economic presuppositions” (329).

Against Racism and Colonialism

In The Ethnological Notebooks, Marx also made a number of observations on the racist connotations of many of the anthropological reports he was studying (see Krader 1972, 37; Ward Gailey, 2006, 36). His rejection of such ideology was categorical, and he commented caustically on the authors who expressed it in this way. Thus, when Maine used discriminatory epithets, he firmly interjected: “again this nonsense!” Moreover, expressions such as “the devil take this ‘Aryan’ jargon!” (Marx, 1972, 324) keep recurring.

Referring to Money’s Java, or How to Manage a Colony and Phear’s The Aryan Village in India and Ceylon, Marx studied the negative effects of the European presence in Asia. He was not at all interested in Money’s views on colonial policy, but he found his book useful for the detail it gave about commerce (see Tichelman 1983, 18).[19] He adopted a similar approach to Phear’s book, focusing mainly on what he reported about the state in Bengal and ignoring his weak theoretical constructions.

The authors whom Marx read and summarized in The Ethnological Notebooks had all been influenced – with various nuances – by the evolutionary conceptions of the age, and some had also become firm proponents of the superiority of bourgeois civilization. But an examination of The Ethnological Notebooks clearly shows that their ideological assertions had no influence on Marx.

Marx strongly opposed to colonialism anytime he could. In 1879 he had taken an interest in the land question in French-ruled Algeria. Based on the considerations written by Kovalevsky in the book Common Landownership: The Causes, Course and Consequences of Its Decline (1879), Marx was able to better criticize the negative changes introduced by French settlers in relation to the common landownership that existed in Algeria. From Kovalevsky, he copied down: “Formation of private landownership (in eyes of French bourgeois) is a necessary condition for all progress in the political and social sphere. Further maintenance of communal property ‘as a form which supports communist tendencies in the minds is dangerous both for the colony and for the homeland” (Marx 1975b, 405)[20]. He also extracted the following points from Communal Landownership:

the distribution of clan holdings is encouraged, even prescribed, first, as means of weakening subjugated tribes which are ever standing under impulsion to revolt; second, as the only way to a further transfer of landownership from the hands of the natives into those of the colonists. The same policy has been pursued by the French under all regimes. (…) The aim is ever the same: destruction of the indigenous collective property and its transformation into an object of free purchase and sale, and by this means the final passage made easier into the hands of the French colonists (Marx 1975b, 405).

As for the legislation on Algeria proposed by the Left Republican Jules Warnier (1826-1899) and passed in 1873, Marx (1975b, 411) endorsed Kovalevsky’s claim that its only purpose was “expropriation of the soil of the native population by the European colonists and speculators”. The effrontery of the French went as far as ‘direct robbery’, or conversion into “government property” (1975b, 412), of all uncultivated land remaining in common for native use. This process was designed to produce another important result: elimination of the danger of resistance by the local population. Again through Kovalevsky’s words, Marx (1975b, 408 and 412) noted:

the foundation of private property and the settlement of European colonists among the Arab clans [would] become the most powerful means to accelerate the process of dissolution of the clan unions. (…) The expropriation of the Arabs intended by the law had two purposes: 1) to provide the French as much land as possible; and (2) to tear away the Arabs from their natural bonds to the soil to break the last strength of the clan unions thus being dissolved, and thereby any danger of rebellion.

Marx (1975b, 412) commented that this type of “individualization of landownership” had not only secured huge economic benefits for the invaders but also achieved a “political aim (…): to destroy the foundation of this society”.

The same happened with India. Having examined forms of landownership in that country in the Notebooks on Indian History (664-1858), that he compiled in 1879-80, Marx described the invaders with such terms as “British dogs” (2001, 165, 176, 180), “usurpers” (155-56, 163), “English hypocrites” or “English intruders” (81). By contrast, the Indian resistance struggles were always accompanied with expressions of solidarity[21]. It was no accident that Marx always replaced Sewell’s term ‘mutineers’ with “insurgents” (Marx 2001 163-4, 184). His forthright condemnation of European colonialism was quite unmistakable.

In 1881, after profound theoretical research and careful observation of changes in international politics, not to speak of his massive synopses on India included in the Ethnological Notebooks, referring to the “East Indies,” Marx (1989, 365) noted: “Everyone except Sir Henry Maine and others of his ilk realizes that the suppression of communal landownership out there was nothing but an act of English vandalism, pushing the native people not forwards but backwards”. All the British “managed to do was to ruin native agriculture and double the number and severity of the famines” (368).

A similar example can also be found with relation to Egypt. When Joseph Cowen (1829-1900), an MP and president of the Cooperative Congress – Marx considered him “the best of the English parliamentarians” – justified the British invasion of Egypt[22], Marx expressed his total disapproval to his daughter Eleanor on January 9, 1883. Above all, he railed at the British government: “Very nice! In fact, there could be no more blatant example of Christian hypocrisy than the ‘conquest’ of Egypt – conquest in the midst of peace!” But Cowen, in a speech on 8 January 1883 in Newcastle, expressed his admiration for the “heroic exploit” of the British’ and the “dazzle of our military parade;” nor could he “help smirking over the entrancing little prospect of all those fortified offensive positions between the Atlantic and the Indian Ocean and, into the bargain, an ‘African-British Empire’ from the Delta to the Cape”. It was the “English style”, characterized by “responsibility” for the “home interest”. In foreign policy, Marx concluded, Cowen was a typical example of “those poor British bourgeois, who groan as they assume more and more ‘responsibilities’ in the service of their historic mission, while vainly protesting against it” (Marx and Engels 1992, 422-3).

Marx also took a close interest in the economic side of what was happening in Egypt, as we can see from his eight pages of excerpts from “Egyptian Finance” (1882), an article by Michael George Mulhall (1836-1900) that appeared in the October issue of the London Contemporary Review. His own notes concentrated on two aspects. He reconstructed the financial blackmail operated by Anglo-German creditors after the Ottoman viceroy of Egypt, Ismail Pasha (1830-1895), had dramatically plunged the country into debt. Moreover, he sketched the oppressive taxation system devised by Ismail Pasha that extracted a terrible price from the population, showing particular attention to, and solidarity with, the forced dislocation of many Egyptian peasants[23].

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Theories of progress, hegemonic in the nineteenth century and widely shared by anthropologists and ethnologists, postulated that events would follow a pregiven course because of factors external to human action; a rigid sequence of stages had the capitalist world as its sole and uniform destination.

Within the space of a few years, a naïve belief in the automatic advance of history also took root in the Second International. The only difference with the bourgeois version was the prediction that a final stage would follow the inevitable “collapse” of the capitalist system: namely, the advent of socialism (itself subsequently defined as “Marxist!”) (Cf. Musto 2007, 479-480).

Not only was this analysis cognitively unsound; it produced a kind of fatalistic passivity, which became a stabilizing factor for the existing order and weakened the social and political action of the proletariat. Opposing this approach that so many regarded as “scientific,” and which was common to the bourgeois and socialist visions of progress, Marx rejected the siren calls of a one-way historicism and preserved his own complex, flexible and variegated conception.

Whereas, in comparison with the Darwinist oracles, Marx’s voice might seem uncertain and hesitant, he actually escaped the trap of economic determinism into which many of his followers and ostensible continuators tended to fall – a position, light years from the theories they claimed to have inspired them, which would lead many into one of the worst characterizations of “Marxism.”

In his manuscripts, notebooks and letters to comrades and activists, as well as in the few public interventions he could still make against declining physical capacities, Marx persevered with his efforts to reconstruct the complex history of the passage from antiquity to capitalism. From the anthropological studies that he read and summarized, he drew confirmation that human progress had proceeded more quickly in epochs when the sources of subsistence were expanding, from the birth of agriculture on. He treasured the historical information and data, but did not share the rigid schemas suggesting an inescapable sequence of stages in human history.

Marx spurned any rigid linking of social changes to economic transformations alone. Instead, he highlighted the specificity of historical conditions, the multiple possibilities that the passing of time offered, and the centrality of human intervention in the shaping of reality and the achievement of change (see Gailey 2006, 35, 44). These were the salient features of Marx’s theoretical elaboration in The Ethnological Notebooks and, more in general, in the final years of his life.

There is still so much to learn from Marx. Today it is possible to do this by studying not only what he wrote in his published works but also the questions and doubts contained in his unfinished manuscripts. This consideration is all the more valid for the complex, but very rich, notes that we call The Ethnological Notebooks.


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Webb, Daren. 2000. Marx, Marxism and Utopia. Aldershot: Ashgate.


1. See, for example, Mehring (2003, 501-32), Rühle (2011, 359-70), Vorländer (1929, 248-78), Nicolaevsky and Maenchen-Helfen (1976, 392-407), and McLellan (1973, 412-51). Even Maximilien Rubel (1957, 416-34), justly famed for his close textual studies, did not go beyond the limits of his predecessors in Karl Marx. Essai de biographie intellectuelle. In Marx: Life and Works, the French scholar wrote that “the last ten years of Marx’s life were like a slow agony” during which “his activity [was] limited to correspondence and a few articles”. But he added: “Nevertheless – even in a period so poor in published work – Marx filled about 50 notebooks, almost exclusively devoted to extracts from his reading. His ‘literary bulimia’ yielded nearly 3,000 pages of microscopic writing. To this should be added, finally, “tons” of statistical material which, at his death, left Engels dumbfounded” (1980, 100).

2. Biographies published in recent years exemplify how, even since the resumption of the MEGA² project, the work of the ‘late Marx’ has been overlooked by the vast majority of scholars. Jonathan Sperber’s (2013) insignificant Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life simply ignored Marx’s late writings. Gareth Stedman Jones’s (2016) lengthy Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion examined the whole period from 1872 to 1883 only in a short epilogue, while devoting five chapters (170 pages) to Marx’s early life (1818-1844), when he published only two journal articles and had just initiated the study of political economy, and three chapters (150 pages) to the time frame 1845-1849. In Sven-Eric Liedman’s (2018) 750-page A World to Win: The Life and Works of Karl Marx, there are only two very short sections dedicated to what Marx did after the Critique of the Gotha Programme. One of them – a superficial analysis of Morgan’s Ancient Society (Liedman, A World to Win, 507-13) – is strangely located before the consideration of writings like Herr Vogt (published in 1860) and Marx’s participation in the International Working Men’s Association (1864-1872). The choice of a non-chronological order impedes a clear understanding of Marx’s theoretical evolution during the final phase of his life. Common to all three of these biographies is a scant attention to the secondary literature.

3. To learn about the way Marx used to work and take notes from the books he used to read see Musto (2020c).

4. This title was given posthumously by Lawrence Krader (1919-1998), the editor of these manuscripts. However, the content of these studies is more accurately related to anthropology, hence the title of the section in the present article.

5. The parts from Phear and Maine were included in Karl Marx (1972, 243-336); Marx did not leave a precise dating of his work. Krader, the main researcher of these texts, argued that Marx first familiarized himself with Morgan’s book and then compiled the excerpts – see “Addenda” (87). See also Kautsky’s testimony from his trip to London in March-June 1881 that “prehistory and ethnology were then intensively preoccupying Marx” (Enzensberger 1973, 552).

6. According to Maurice Bloch (1983), Marx wanted first of all “to reconstruct a general history and theory of society in order to explain the coming to be of capitalism.” But he also had a “rhetorical” interest linked to the need for “examples and cases to show that the institutions of capitalism are historically specific and therefore changeable.” However, this second “rhetorical use of anthropological material was never completely separate from the historical use, and the mixture of the two became (…) the source of many problems” (10). Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval (2012), have written that “Marx’s main effort in his final years was to give a new historical foundation to the perspective of communism, at the risk of seriously endangering a theoretical edifice constructed on the basis of the nineteenth-century evolutionist and progressivist episteme” (667). Polemicizing against those who underrate the importance of Marx’s last notebooks, Heather Brown (2012, 147) argued that they “contain some of his most creative attempts at working through the development of human society.” On Marx’s conception of post-capitalist society see Musto (2020b).

7. The gens was a unit “consisting of blood relatives with a common descent,” see Henry Morgan (1877, 35).

8. In a note to the 1888 English edition of the Manifesto of the Communist Party, Engels wrote: “The inner organization of this primitive communistic society was laid bare, in its typical form, by Lewis Henry Morgan’s crowning discovery of the true nature of the gens and its relation to the tribe. With the dissolution of the primeval communities, society begins to be differentiated into separate and finally antagonistic classes” (Marx and Engels 1976, 482).

9. In this work, Engels actually published some of Marx’s comments on Morgan’s book.

10. Cf. Raya Dunayevskaya (1991, 173): “Marx (…) showed that the elements of oppression in general, and of women in particular, arose from within primitive communism, and not only related to change from ‘matriarchy.’”

11. Cf. Brown (2012, 172): “in ancient Greece (…) women were clearly oppressed, but, for Marx, their mythology had the potential to illustrate to them (…) how much freer they could be.”

12. Brown (2012, 160ff), has diligently compiled many other considerations that attracted Marx’s attention.

13. The words in brackets were added by Marx (1972, 139).

14. For a critique of any possible “return to an original state of unity,” see Daren Webb (2000, 113ff).

15. Engels wrongly believed that Morgan’s political positions were very progressive. See, for example, Friedrich Engels to Friedrich Adolph Sorge, March 7, 1884, where he wrote that Ancient Society was “a masterly exposé of primitive times and their communism. [Morgan had] rediscovered Marx’s theory of history all on his own, (…) drawing communist inferences in regard to the present day,” (Marx and Engels 1995, 115-116). Marx never expressed himself in such terms. On the thought of the American anthropologist, see Daniel Moses (2009).

16. According to Krader (1972, 14): “Marx made it clear, as Morgan did not, that this process of reconstitution will take place on another level than the old, that it is a human effort, of man for and by himself, that the antagonisms of civilization are not static or passive, but are comprised of social interests which are ranged for and against the outcome of the reconstitution, and this will be determined in an active and dynamic way.” As Maurice Godelier (2012, 78) pointed out, in Marx there was never any “idea of a primitive ‘El Dorado.’” He never forgot that in primitive “classless societies” there were “at least three forms of inequality: between men and women, between senior and junior generations, and between autochthons and foreigners.”

17. In this work, Marx analysed the “opposition” between “civil society” and “the state;” the state does not lie “within” society but stands “over against it.” “In democracy the state as particular is merely particular. (…) The French have recently interpreted this as meaning that in true democracy the political state is annihilated. This is correct insofar as the political state (…) no longer passes for the whole” (Marx 1975a, 30).

18. Thirty years later, the critique is more sharply focused: “At the same pace at which the progress of modern industry developed, widened, intensified the class antagonism between capital and labour, the State power assumed more and more the character of the national power of capital over labour, of a public force organized for social enslavement, of an engine of class despotism” (Marx 1986, 329).

19. See also Engels’s view of Money, as he wrote in his letter to Kautsky dated February 16, 1884: “It would be a good thing if someone were to take the trouble to throw light on the proliferation of state socialism, drawing for the purpose on an exceedingly flourishing example of the practice in Java. All the material is to be found in Java, How to Manage a Colony (…). Here one sees how the Dutch have, on the basis of the communities’ age-old communism, organized production for the benefit of the state and ensured that the people enjoy what is, in their own estimation, a quite comfortable existence; the consequence is that the people are kept in a state of primitive stupidity and the Dutch exchequer rakes in 70 million marks a year” (Marx and Engels 1995, 102-103).

20. The words in brackets are Marx’s, while those between quotation marks are from the Annales de Assemblée Nationale, 1873, VIII, Paris 1873, included in Kovalevsky’s book.

21. According to Anderson “these passages indicate a shift from [Marx’s] 1853 view of Indian passivity in the face of conquest;” he “often ridicules or excises (…) passages from Sewell portraying the British conquest of India as a heroic fight against Asiatic barbarism”. Since the articles on the Sepoy revolt, which Marx published in the New-York Tribune in 1857, his “sympathy” for the Indian resistance had “only increased” (Anderson 2010, 216, and 218).

22. Marx was referring to the war of 1882, which opposed Egyptian forces under Ahmad Urabi (1841-1911) and troops from the United Kingdom. It concluded with the battle of Tell al-Kebir (13 September 1882), which ended the so-called Urabi revolt that had begun in 1879 and enabled the British to establish a protectorate over Egypt.

23. Karl Marx, IISH Amsterdam, Marx-Engels Papers, B 168, 11-18. See David Smith (2021), whose comments on these notes bring out their relevance for us today.

First Published in

Inter-Asia Cultural Studies,

Vol. 24 (2023), n. 1, 117-128

Editor's Note:

The views and informations expressed in the article are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect the views of The International. We believe in providing a platform for a range of viewpoints from the left.

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