An Anthropology of Marxism: Review

Fouad Mami reviews An Anthropology of Marxism by Cedric Robinson.


An Anthropology of Marxism was published first in 2001 and reappeared in 2019 with a preface by the feminist scholar, Avery F. Gordon and a foreword by the film-maker and academic, H.L.T. Quan. The new edition, understandably, pays a tribute to the author who recently passed away. Robinson’s legacy, though, remains lasting, mainly among African American scholars and leftists alike.


An Anthropology of Marxism reads more generally as anthropology of radicalism, or better still, of Socialism. Robinson argues that Marxism is too Eurocentric and as such reductive of the uninterrupted universal struggle for communism, communes and forms of communion. That is why he digs into the genesis of Marxism, saving socialism from the over-domineering but equally false presupposition that it is a recent social movement invented specifically to fight capitalism.

Robinson concludes that Marxism has its roots in socialism and that socialism more generally through the ages has galvanized the oppressed: slaves, peasants, women, workers and the unemployed against manifold oppressions beginning with the Greek and Roman aristocracies, feudal lords, and the medieval papacy up to the contemporary super-rich of global capitalists.

Given its evolution in space and time, Robinson traces Marxism to the socialist impulse of Christianity, hence the eschatological and teleological lexicon. Still, he argues, that the socialist component is not culture specific. And while it is historical and materialist, it remains free from being completely determined by Christianity. Overall, only socialism, not Marxism as such, he argues, is capable of providing humanist tools for bringing about universal freedom.


In order to clarify such methodological misconceptions, Robinson’s book comprises five chapters. The first, ‘Coming to Terms with Marxian Taxonomy’ teases out the meaning of the term ‘lumpen-proletariat’ to claim that the presuppositions of Marxism actually predate historical materialism. For Marxism is a ferment of Western civilization itself, not a product of a particular event such as the French Revolution, or a specific era, such as industrial capitalism or even a select cohort of theorists like the Hegelians. Robinson highlights Lenin’s three antecedents of Marxism which are: English political economy, German philosophy and French socialism.

The second chapter ‘Coming to Terms with Marxian Taxonomy’ zooms in on the author’s ‘real’ antecedents of his materialist understanding of history other than the ones Lenin himself highlights. Here, readers are told that materialism is infused with atomism and that this atomism – the breaking up of matter into the smallest particles – can be traced to the Presocratics, to their categories of cosmos, arche, phusis and logos.

In consequence of famines during medieval times, a series of mass movements such as peasants’ revolts, crusades, and urban uprisings each galvanized a class consciousness, precipitating a Manichean worldview, one in which there is a strict division between good and evil. Robinson’s readers encounter several well-off medieval Europeans who chose a life of vita communis, renouncing property, class, and privilege, including pious women, and who remained committed to militant egalitarianism.

The third chapter, ‘German Critical Philosophy and Marx’, explains how the eighteenth and nineteenth-century varieties of bourgeoisie differ from the medieval bourgeoisie. The difference, according to Robinson, can be tracked through the philosophies of mainly Kant and Hegel. In addition, it is these two philosophies, of Kant and Hegel, that provide a context from where Engels and Marx started their brand of socialism.

The protracted wars between several European powers in the thirty-years war, which in practice it lasted more than a century and took place mostly in and around German territories, had been the force behind Kant’s craving for a ‘lasting peace’, hence his proposal for ‘obedience’ as a key part of any effective social contract. Agreeing with both Kant and Hegel, Robinson notes the reductive equation of materialism with social degeneracy, thus explaining why some turned instead to idealism. One can note Hegel’s impact on Marx in the former’s project of transcending orthodox Christian eschatology with a science of history.

Economics and philosophy

The fourth chapter, ‘The Discourse on Economics’, showcases continuities and discontinuities of Marx with ancient Greek and medieval radicals, with revolutionaries such as Marsilius of Padua (1275-1342). Marsilius was an early revolutionary whose reference to the common good as well as over sixty years leadership experience of the commune inform his fiery attacks on the church. Marsilius remains, along with several other radicals, a predecessor for Marx.

Even so, Robinson specifies that Marx’s socialism had never been a kind of social evolutionary project. Analyzing the explanatory tropes deployed in Capital and The German Ideology, Robinson decides that Marx had not been driven to simply disagree with, and certainly never to rectify, to improve upon classical bourgeois political economy.

The fifth and final chapter, ‘Reality and Its Representation’, simply pleads for another historiography of socialism, one that is free from canonical classifications put by proponents of European Marxism. In its attack on capitalism, Robinson claims that Marxism has confused the Christian roots of socialism. Indeed, contrary to clichéd understanding, socialism is much older (and understandably, spatially, much wider) than Marxism, and that the socialist impulse will survive Marxist Eurocentric conceits, lending the oppressed everywhere an authentical instrument for liberation.

Thinking of the predominance of culturalist interpretations, in which the developmental lag between the advanced ‘First World’ and the ‘Third’ is taken for granted, Robinson’s tracing of the origins of Marx’s subversive body of thought becomes necessary. Robinson leads readers into that journey less to cultivate knowledge and more to crack open space, no matter how small, for radical consciousness among Third World activists who aim to stand up to capitalism but may feel alienated by Marxism’s Eurocentric biases.

Against Eurocentrism

Like Frantz Fanon, Thomas Sankara and others, and unlike Marx, Robinson believes that capitalism can be effectively defeated from the periphery and that the incendiary spirit of revolt is equally shared among populations all over the world. Chapter Two provides a thrilling account regarding the social movements that resisted oppression in blood and fire during medieval and early modern times.

The examples the author provides in this chapter echo similar social movements both in Africa and the Americas which he himself accounts for in his book Black Marxism (1983). In abstract terms and provided that class consciousness stays pronounced, Robinson’s pledge is valid. Experience has shown that often ideologies of ‘us-versus-them’ have been used to rob the oppressed worldwide of their chance in beating their real oppressors.

Still, reducing Marx’s missile warhead (section four, chapter one in Capital) to a discourse on economics stipulates that Robinson had not seized the depth of the subversive clarity in Marx’s thinking. Nowhere does An Anthropology of Marxism mentions that Marx eventually seeks a moneyless and stateless world order.

Any serious reader of Marx notes that economics cannot be discussed as an independent realm because in itself it never constitutes a totality. Likewise, to claim that Marx qualifies the bourgeoisie of embodying all that is evil in the world remains an oversight. Quite the contrary, Marx is adamantly clear that there had been moments where the bourgeoisie had played a progressive force, while there were indeed other times where they themselves practiced oppression.

Overall, the book is an exercise in a top-down reading of key texts while aiming to lift its readers from a simple misleading ‘democratic’ realm of shared stupidity. Even when readers do not necessarily share some of the author’s convictions, his efforts in shedding several disfigurements of socialism still indicate a path towards Marxism, towards probably the only school of thought that can overcome capitalism.

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Fouad Mami is in the Department of English at Université Ahmed Draia, Adrar in Algeria

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