Politics

The Hidden Past of Claude Lévi-Strauss

Claude Lévi-Straus. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss died eight years ago, leaving behind a treasure trove of correspondence and unpublished writings. We can now trace where his ideas came from and how they evolved.I admired Lévi-Strauss during my time as an anthropology student because he asked questions that Marxist anthropologists would never ask. That’s why I preferred to call myself a Marxisant, and not a full-blown Marxist. I especially admired him for addressing the issue of nature versus nurture, which had once been a leading issue in anthropology but was now studiously ignored. Only he, it seemed, could defy this omertà and not suffer any ill effects, perhaps because of his age and status.

In his best known tome, The Elementary Structures of Kinship, this issue dominated the first chapter:

Man is both a biological being and a social individual. Among his responses to external or internal stimuli, some are wholly dependent upon his nature, others upon his social environment.

Lévi-Strauss admitted that the two were not always easy to separate:

Culture is not merely juxtaposed to [biological] life nor superimposed upon it, but in one way serves as a substitute for life, and in the other, uses and transforms it, to bring about the synthesis of a new order.

He reviewed the different ways of disentangling one from the other:

The simplest method would be to isolate a new-born child and to observe its reactions to various stimuli during the first hours or days after birth. Responses made under such conditions could then be supposed to be of a psycho-biological origin, and to be independent of ulterior cultural syntheses.

[Nonetheless,] the question always remains open whether a certain reaction is absent because its origin is cultural, or because, with the earliness of the observation, the physiological mechanisms governing its appearances are not yet developed. Because a very young child does not walk, it cannot be concluded that training is necessary, since it is known that a child spontaneously begins to walk as soon as it is organically capable of doing so. (Lévi-Strauss,1969, pp. 3-4)

His interest in the interactions between culture and biology went further. The gene pool of a population will influence its culture, which in turn will alter the gene pool:

The selection pressure of culture—the fact that it favors certain types of individuals rather than others through its forms of organization, its ideas of morality, and its aesthetic values—can do infinitely more to alter a gene pool than the gene pool can do to shape a culture, all the more so because a culture’s rate of change can certainly be much faster than the phenomena of genetic drift.(Lévi-Strauss, 1979, p. 24-25)

This is of course gene-culture co-evolution. He may have given the idea to L.L. Cavalli-Sforza, who first began to propound it while teaching a cultural evolution class in 1978-1979. Two of his students, Robert Boyd and Peter Richerson, went on to popularize the idea in their book Culture and the Evolutionary Process (1985) (Stone and Lurquin 2005, p. 108). Lévi-Strauss had in fact mentioned the same idea long before in a UNESCO lecture:

When cultures specialize, they consolidate and favor other traits, like resistance to cold or heat for societies that have willingly or unwillingly had to adapt to extreme climates, like dispositions to aggressiveness or contemplation, like technical ingenuity, and so on. In the form these traits appear to us on the cultural level, none can be clearly linked to a genetic basis, but we cannot exclude that they are sometimes linked partially and distantly via intermediate linkages. In this case, it would be true to say that each culture selects for genetic aptitudes that, via a feedback loop, influence the culture that had initially helped to strengthen them. (Lévi-Strauss, 1971)

In the same lecture, he made another point:

[Humanity] will have to relearn that all true creation implies some deafness to the call of other values, which may go so far as to reject or even negate them. One cannot at the same time melt away in the enjoyment of the Other, identify oneself with the Other, and keep oneself different. If fully successful, complete communication with the Other will doom its creative originality and my own in more or less short time. The great creative ages were those when communication had increased to the point that distant partners stimulated each other but not so often and rapidly that the indispensable obstacles between individuals, and likewise between groups, dwindled to the point that excessively easy exchanges would equalize and blend away their diversity. (Lévi-Strauss, 1971)

His audience was taken aback, according to fellow anthropologist Wiktor Stoczkowski:

These words shocked the listeners. One can easily imagine how disconcerted UNESCO employees were, who, meeting Lévi-Strauss in the corridor after the lecture, expressed their disappointment at hearing the institutional articles of faith to which they thought they had the merit of adhering called into question. René Maheu, the Director General of UNESCO, who had invited Lévi-Strauss to give this lecture, seemed upset. (Stoczkowski, 2008)

Where his ideas came from

Since his death in 2009, we have gained a clearer picture of his intellectual evolution. His published writings had already provided an answer:

When I was about sixteen, I was introduced to Marxism by a young Belgian socialist, whom I had got to know on holiday, and who is now one of his country’s ambassadors abroad. I was all the more delighted by Marx in that the reading of the works of the great thinker brought me into contact for the first time with the line of philosophical development running from Kant to Hegel; a whole new world was opened up to me. Since then, my admiration for Marx has remained constant […] (Lévi-Strauss, 2012 [1973])

Looking through Lévi-Strauss’ published and unpublished writings, Wiktor Stoczkowski tried to learn more about this episode but found nothing:

It suffices however to look closely at the milieus that Lévi-Strauss frequented in the 1920s and 1930s, or to reread the articles he published during that period to realize that his references to Marx were at that time astonishingly rare, in flagrant contradiction with his declarations […] In contrast, another name often came up during that time in the writings of the young Lévi-Strauss: that of Henri De Man. And that name, curiously, Lévi-Strauss would never mention after the war. (Stoczkowski, 2013)

As a young leftist disenchanted with Marxism, Lévi-Strauss was especially fascinated by De Man’s book Au-delà du marxisme(Beyond Marxism), published in 1927. One of his friends invited De Man to Paris to present his ideas to French socialists. Lévi-Strauss was given the job of organizing the lecture and wrote to De Man about the difficulties encountered:

We have run into many difficulties, which we scarcely suspected and which have sadly shed light on the conservative and sectarian spirit of a good part of French socialism […]. We thought that the best means to give this [lecture] all of the desirable magnitude would be to make it public […] [but] to obtain the key support of the Socialist Students, we have agreed to make your lecture non-public, and to reserve admission to members of socialist organizations. Thus, we have learned that Marxism is a sacrosanct doctrine in our party, and that to study theories that stray from it, we have to shut ourselves in very strongly, so that no one on the outside will know (Stoczkowski, 2013)

The lecture was held the next year. Stoczkowski describes the letter that Lévi-Strauss wrote to the invitee afterwards:

“Thanks to you,” he wrote, “socialist doctrines have finally emerged from their long sleep; the Party is undergoing, thanks to you, a revival of intellectual activity ….” But there is more. Speaking on his behalf and on behalf of his young comrades, Lévi-Strauss informed De Man that his book Au-delà du marxisme had been for them “a genuine revelation…” Speaking personally, Lévi-Strauss added that he was “profoundly grateful” to De Man’s teachings for having “helped me get out of an impasse I believed to have no way out.” (Stoczkowski, 2013)

Nothing indicates that Lévi-Strauss had ever been a Marxist in his youth. Both he and his friends saw it as a pseudo-religion that stunted the development of socialism.

But who was Henri De Man?

He was a Belgian Marxist who had lived in Leipzig, Germany, where he became the editor of a radical socialist journal, Leipziger Volkszeitung, that ran contributions by Rosa Luxembourg, Pannekoek, Radek, Trotsky, Karl Liebknecht, and others. In 1907, he helped found the Socialist Youth International. He later returned to Belgium and enrolled when war broke out, seeing the Allied side as a progressive alternative to German authoritarianism.

His views changed during the 1920s, while teaching at the University of Frankfurt. He came to feel that Marxists erred in seeing themselves as an antithesis to the current system; such a perspective made them oppose all traditional values, particularly Christianity and national identity. He now argued that laws, morality, and religion are not bourgeois prejudices, but rather things that are necessary to make any society work. Marxists also erred, he felt, in their narrow focus on economic determinism and their disregard for psychology and the will to act. Although De Man acknowledged the self-destructive tendencies of capitalism, these tendencies do not inevitably lead to revolution. Rather, revolution will happen only when enough people realize that current conditions are neither tolerable nor inevitable. Above all, revolution cannot happen unless it respects existing cultural, religious, and national traditions:

If one sees in socialism something other than and more than an antithesis to modern capitalism, and if one relates it to its moral and intellectual roots, one will find that these roots are the same as those of our entire Western civilization. Christianity, democracy, and socialism are now, even historically, merely three forms of one idea. Au-delà du marxisme (1927)

De Man returned to Belgium during the 1930s, becoming vice-president and then president of the Belgian Labour Party. In 1935, with the formation of a government of national unity to fight the Great Depression, he was made minister of public works and job creation. In this role, he pushed for State planning and looked to Germany and Italy as examples to be followed. He became increasingly disillusioned with parliamentary democracy and began to call for an “authoritarian democracy” where decisions would be made primarily through the legislature and referendums, rather than through the executive and party politics (Tremblay, 2006).

When Germany overran Belgium in 1940, De Man issued a manifesto to Labour Party members and advised them to collaborate: “For the working classes and for socialism, this collapse of a decrepit world, far from being a disaster, is a deliverance” (Wikipedia, 2015). Over the next year, he served as de facto prime minister before falling into disfavor with the German authorities. He spent the rest of the war in Paris and then fled to Switzerland where he lived his final years. Meanwhile, a Belgian court convicted him in absentia of treason.

Conclusion

Like many people after the war, Claude Lévi-Strauss had to invent a new past. It didn’t matter that he had admired Henri de Man at a time when the Belgian socialist was not yet a fascist or a collaborator. As Stoczkowski notes, guilt by association would have been enough to ruin his academic career. Ironically, if he had really been a loyal Marxist during the late 1920s and early 1930s, he would also have denied back then the crimes being committed in the name of Marxism: the Ukrainian famine, Stalin’s purges … Yet, for that, he never faced any criticism.

Close