Marx, Sahlins, and Ethnocentrism

Document Type


Publication Date

Fall 1993


Taylor & Francis


Marx's historical-materialist philosophy of history has often been criticized for being ethnocentric. Jon Elster (1985, 490), for example, suggests that it has become a "conceptual straight-jacket for the study of much non-western history." Marshall Sahlins, in his book, Culture and Practical Reason (1976), as well as critics like Baudrillard (1975, 59, 65-67) Balbus (1982, 33-36), and Aronowitz (1981, 67-68), have argued that Marx develops a single, necessary historical pattern, worked up on the basis of the historical development of Western societies, which is then conceptually imposed on all societies, including non-Western ones. Also, that this pattern of historical development proceeds from "lower," more "primitive" stages to "higher," more "civilized" ones and culminates in modern Western capitalist societies as the highest stage before socialism. Marx's productivism, escpecially, has been criticized along these lines. The term productivism is shorthand for the claim that material conditions, economic conditions, or the forces and relations of production are the factors that predominate in determining all aspects of a sociocultural world. These critics argue that the productivist claim is true, at best, only for modern societies. It is certainly not true, as some of these critics think Marx holds it is, for earlier or "primitive" societies. In the latter societies, as Sahlins (1976, vii-viii) puts it, cultural modes of symbolization predominate and no symbolic scheme is the only one possible given a specific set of material conditions.