Cultural Materialism, Born in Africa: Cultural Materialism Attempts to Explain Why throughout History, from Slavery to Colonial Rule, Exploitation Involved Co-Operation and Partnership with Local Ruling Classes, or Why after Independence the African Middle Classes Adapted to Whatever New Order Was, and Still Is, Imposed from Outside

By de Figueiredo, Antonio | New African, October 2003 | Go to article overview

Cultural Materialism, Born in Africa: Cultural Materialism Attempts to Explain Why throughout History, from Slavery to Colonial Rule, Exploitation Involved Co-Operation and Partnership with Local Ruling Classes, or Why after Independence the African Middle Classes Adapted to Whatever New Order Was, and Still Is, Imposed from Outside


de Figueiredo, Antonio, New African


Study visits to Mozambique and South Africa in the 1950s might have been the starting point for "Cultural Materialism", a new social science developed by the American professor, Marvin Harris, who rose to become one of the distinguished social anthropologists in the world.

After a year-long visit to Mozambique in the 1950s, cut short by the colonial authorities, Harris wrote a famous indictment of Portuguese colonialism, Portugal's African Wards (1958) and other critical writings. He became a close friend of Eduardo Mondlane, the leader of FRELIMO, who was assassinated by a postal bomb in Dares Salam, Tanzania, in 1969.

Harris was to write 17 books, including treatises of social anthropology as well as studies on the myths and riddles of culture in Brazil, Mexico, India, the Middle East and the US.

In his book, Cultural Materialism--The Struggle for a Cultural Science, he based the definition on the simple premise that human social life is a response to the practical problems of earthly existence. In short, it is the social science that better explains why black people, once enslaved by European imperialism, are now the favourite TV spokesmen for the American army, and Condoleezza Rice used as an icon of US-style "multi-racialism" and "liberation".

As such, it has worldwide application, applying to tribalism, the caste system in India, colonial or post-colonial racism, as well as to everyday life in the US. It accepts the critical perspective of Marxism, essentially a Western-based exposure of capitalism, but can also explain the collapse of Soviet communism. Now that the belief in historical determinism is shaken by the US hyperpower, which expands by destruction and corruption in the name of new super-myths, Cultural Materialism is even more pertinent.

The ideals of old style liberty, democracy and multi-racialism have been turned into the slogans of a new crusade for the control of oil--the fuel that has become as important for industrial civilisation as blood is for biological survival.

I met and assisted Marvin Harris for nearly a year, between June 1956 and May 1957, in Lourenco Marques (now Maputo), when Mozambique was part of the old Portuguese empire, then ruled by the Salazar regime. As such, it was secluded from the outside world by a unique combination of linguistic isolation and dictatorship. Harris, then 27, and since 1953 a professor at Columbia University in New York, had come on a special study visit to update a famous ethnographic study by a Swiss missionary, Henry Jonoud, made 50 years before.

I was about Marvin's age and despite my career as an economic reporter in Barclays Bank, had no formal qualifications, having learnt English by hearing and reading. After a hard childhood in Portugal, my settler-relatives had sent for me to seek a better future in colonial Africa. Being street-wise, I soon realised that I was supposed to benefit from the oppression of Africans, to make a living.

Soon after my arrival, first in Beira, and then Lourenco Marques, I joined the Portuguese clandestine resistance against Salazar's regime. Upon meeting Harris, who was born in Brooklyn, the son of a car salesman, our encounter was to change the course of our lives.

He had already been to Brazil and was an expert on race relations, but I had to persuade him to change the original purpose or his stay in Mozambique and tell the world about the plight of its people. The situation in the country then had not changed much since slavery.

I showed him a contemporary book of 1840 (Sa da Bandeira's Trafego de Escravatura) where the author acknowledges that slavery is no longer needed in the African colonies. "We can produce in abundance all tropical goods at less the cost than in America, since plantation owners in Africa will not need to buy or transport labourers from one side of the Atlantic to the other."

Colonial rule in Africa, despite the cultural myths of "civilising missions", liberty, equality and fraternity and parliamentary rule in Britain, France, Belgium or Germany, dictatorship in Portugal, or apartheid in South Africa, was just an adaptation of slavery, and in slow motion at that. …

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Cultural Materialism, Born in Africa: Cultural Materialism Attempts to Explain Why throughout History, from Slavery to Colonial Rule, Exploitation Involved Co-Operation and Partnership with Local Ruling Classes, or Why after Independence the African Middle Classes Adapted to Whatever New Order Was, and Still Is, Imposed from Outside
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