Eric R. Wolf, Scholar-Activist

Against the Current, No. 81, July/August 1999

Anthony Marcus

ANTHROPOLOGIST ERIC ROBERT Wolf died March 6, 1999 in his home in Westchester, New York after a nearly two-year bout with cancer. Wolf was an important scholar-activist, educator of the immigrant and minority working-class and anti-imperialist writer, whose death is a great loss to all who struggle to combine a Marxist commitment with a day job in academe.

After distinguishing himself in alpine ski combat against the Nazis in World War Two, Wolf attended graduate school under the GI Bill. Studying at Columbia University in the politically repressive 1950s, Wolf, along with fellow graduate students Sydney Mintz and Stanley Diamond, quietly studied Marxism while remaining, to all appearances, within bourgeois analytic paradigms.

Working in a discipline known for its rejection of history and distrust of theory Wolf wrote, in 1959, the definitive historical portrait of the birth of modern Mexico. Now a standard text in Mexico, Sons of the Shaking Earth was remarkable for its use of Trotsky’s theory of combined and uneven development to explain the rise of the Aztec state in pre-Hispanic Mexico, the creation of Spanish America and the cultural processes that led to the Mexican Revolution.

Though he never mentioned Marx in the bibliographies of Sons of the Shaking Earth or his 1969 study of social revolution, Peasant Wars of the Twentieth Century, since the mid-1950s Eric Wolf had been creating the foundations for a Marxist anthropology concerned with the growth of capitalism, the spread of imperialism and the struggle for human liberation.

In 1982 he published Europe and the People Without History, a broad ranging, theoretically powerful and openly Marxist study of the effects of European capitalism and imperialism on the cultural development of colonial peoples throughout the world. Finally the rest of the world knew what anthropologists had known for years, that Wolf was one of the most important university-based American Marxists of his generation.

Often reticent about his Marxist commitments, Wolf was outspoken about the importance of connecting scholarship and political action. While at the University of Michigan in the 1960s, Wolf helped originate the teach-in as an organizing technique to unite students, faculty, and staff against the war in Vietnam.

During this same period he risked expulsion from his profession for publically challenging colleagues who used confidential field data to aid the U.S. Air Force in the aerial bombing of hill tribes in South East Asia. The current American Anthropological Association code of professional ethics is partly the result of Wolf’s courageous and nearly career-ending struggle.

In the late 1970s Wolf, along with several co-thinkers and ex-students, moved to the City University of New York (CUNY), where he led an in-gathering of anthropology’s most important leftists. A center of student activism with one of the largest non-white student bodies in the world, CUNY in the 1980s came to be the U.S. and possibly world center for Marxist anthropology.

Attracting radical scholars of his generation—such as communist gender studies pioneer Eleanor Burke Leacock, anthropology of work theorist and chronicler of Bolivian Trotskyist trade unionism June Nash, as well as radicals and Marxists of the 1968 generation such as Leith Mullings, Gerald Sider, Shirley Lindenbaum and Jeremy Beckett—Wolf became the standard bearer for a prominent center of radical anthropology in New York City in the 1980s.

Throughout the 1980s and `90s the CUNY anthropology program was a mecca for Marxist graduate students with connections to U.S. organizations as diverse as Solidarity, International Socialist Organization, Communist Party U.S.A., Committees of Correspondence and the Revolutionary Communist Party, as well as active and former militants from foreign workers’ parties and political organizations.

From every region mentioned in Wolf’s Europe and the People Without History—from the Southern tip of Chile to Northern Canada and from Portugal to Korea—radical students came to CUNY to learn from Eric Wolf and help develop the Marxist anthropology he pioneered. They were sometimes disappointed by Wolf’s cautious approach to organized Marxism, but never by his intellectual rigor and commitment to a working-class university that included idealistic doctoral students and immigrant accounting majors.

His final book, Envisioning Power: Ideologies of Dominance and Crisis, published only months before his death, is a dark and disturbing portrait of the relationship between culture and power in an environment of crisis. Comparing Nazi Germany’s Judeocide, Aztec sacrificial brutality and the Kwakiutl potlach, Wolf presents a final message about the consequences of unchallenged power.

In his last warning about the way the culture concept has been used to divide the world working class he says, “if culture was conceived originally as an entity with fixed boundaries marking off insiders against outsiders, we need to ask who set these borders and who now guards the ramparts.”

Though apocalyptic in form, the content of this final work is filled with the hope, possibility and humanism of a half century working in the Marxist liberatory tradition. Those of us who knew Eric Wolf—or were influenced by his powerful use of Marxism to shape academic inquiry—have suffered the loss of an important comrade who committed a life to dissolving those “fixed boundaries.”

ATC 81, July-August 1999