|“So what do you want to be when you grow up?” Pressure to find an occupation begins early in our own enculturation. In the small societies in which all people lived until around then thousand years ago, such a question made no sense; all people grew up to engage in pretty much the same range of activities (except for differing sex roles).The young Karl Marx hoped–and believed–that society was evolving toward a way of life that would be far more fulfilling than either the modern or ancient situation. As he put it,
. . . as soon as the distribution of labour comes into being, each man has a particular, exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape. He is a hunter, a fisherman, a shepherd, or a critical critic, and must remain so if he does not want to lose his means of livelihood; while in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic. [Marx, in Tucker 1972:124]
Marx and his collaborator Friedrich Engels believed that conflict between haves and have-nots was the prime mover of cultural evolution; and it was class struggle, they thought, that soon would usher in a very different kind of society. The productive powers of industrialization, harnessed to a centrally planned economy, would ensure that the merely animal needs of all people were efficiently met. People then would work not out of “mere animal necessity,” but in order to fulfill their essential nature. Marx and Engels despised Malthus for his pessimism about improving society; in their view, ideas like his hindered positive social change by making excuses for the status quo.In one of the great ironies of intellectual history, the radicals Marx and Engels found some inspiration in the work of a prosperous American attorney, Lewis Henry Morgan. They particularly liked his emphasis on the importance of technological changes in the human past; they too constructed a set of stages, though it differed somewhat from Morgan’s.
When moralists condemn modern society for its “materialism,” they usually are referring to love of physical things–cars, clothes, boats, or condominiums. In intellectual history, however, the word “materialism” has a rather different meaning. The materialist perspective is well suggested by a declaration of the ancient Greek philosopher Democritus: “Nothing exists but atoms and the void.”
Marx and Engels believed that materialism had both political and scientific implications. Though they considered these deeply intertwined, their subordination of the scientific to the political is clear. “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it” (Marx, in Tucker 1972:109). It remained for the Russian leader V.I. Lenin to reach the extreme conclusion that the scientific search for truth must not be allowed to stand in the way of political revolution. In anthropological theory the main political and scientific developments of materialism sometimes are distinguished respectively as dialectical materialism and cultural materialism. Cultural materialism refuses to subordinate scientific analysis to political agendas (Harris 1979:157-158). Cultural evolutionism has been invigorated by the cultural-materialist attempt to understand culture, and culture change, as reflecting the actual conditions–demographic, environmental, and technological–in which people, as creatures, struggle to survive and reproduce:
Cultural materialism holds that innovations are unlikely to be propagated and amplified if they are functionally incompatible with the existing modes of production and reproduction–more unlikely than in the reverse situation (that is, when there is an initial political and ideological resistance but none in the modes of production and reproduction). [Harris 1979:73]
Or, as Marx wrote in 1859, “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness” (Marx, in Tucker 1972:4).