Past talks

A Reappraisal of Marx’s Ethnological Notebooks

Between December 1880 and June 1881, Marx’s research interests focused on a new discipline: anthropology. He began with the study of Ancient Society (1877), a work by the U.S. anthropologist Lewis Morgan. 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 of excerpts from this book. These make up the bulk of what are known as the The Ethnological Notebooks.

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. Marx’s comparative assessments of these authors is fundamental to have a clear idea of the main theoretical preoccupations of the “late Marx” and suggests an innovative reassessment of some of his key concepts.