Karl Marx was an anthropologist. This may seem an unusual claim, since he is more frequently identified as a political radical, an economist, a journalist and, occasionally, even a philosopher. When Marx (1818–83) lived in the nineteenth century, knowledge had not yet been divided into the academic disciplines found on college and university campuses today. While anthropology as an academic discipline and a profession would not appear until the 1870s or 1880s, courses on anthropology had already been taught in some universities for more than a century by a variety of persons—physicians, historians, theologians, and philosophers, like Immanuel Kant who lectured annually on the subject for more than twenty years beginning in 1772. We know that Marx took an anthropology course taught by Henrik Steffens during his first year at the University of Berlin in 1837, and that he attended lectures by the anthropogeographer Carl Ritter (Finkelstein 2001; Kelley 1978, 1984; Ryding 1975: 7); however, we also know that taking a course in a subject is not a rite of passage that automatically or necessarily makes students into anthropologists or physicists at the end of the term. Thus, we need to look at the claim more carefully. Precisely what does it mean to assert that Marx was an anthropologist? What evidence and lines of argumentation support this contention?
Anthropology has a dual heritage. One strand, which we will call “empirical anthropology” for the moment, examines both the external characteristics of human beings and their cultural achievements, including how they communicate symbolically, the activities that define their social lives and relationships, and the material evidence for their history both social and as a species (Diamond 1980: 13). Over the centuries, various writers have contributed to this strand of anthropological thought; these include Herodotus's description of Egyptian society in the fifth century bc, Li Ssu's analysis of tributary relationships during the Ch'in Dynasty, Domingo de Santo Tomas's sixteenth-century grammar and dictionary of the Inca language, Heinrich Schliemann's excavations at Troy, or Mary Leakey's fossil and archaeological discoveries in East Africa, to name only a few. Empirical anthropology has had a very discontinuous distribution in time and space, and this fact has fueled a number of long-running debates concerned with whether anthropology originated in classical antiquity, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, or the late nineteenth century; whether it was quintessentially a European activity; and whether there might be non-European traditions of empirical anthropological practice. In my view, it is possible to talk about a number of distinct traditions of empirical anthropological inquiry, such as those fostered in classical antiquity, Renaissance . . .