Franz Boas as Citizen-Scientist: Gramscian-Marxist Influence on American Anthropology

By Bullert, Gary | The Journal of Social, Political, and Economic Studies, Summer 2009 | Go to article overview

Franz Boas as Citizen-Scientist: Gramscian-Marxist Influence on American Anthropology


Bullert, Gary, The Journal of Social, Political, and Economic Studies


Franz Boas' role in shaping twentieth century American anthropology is well known, but less well known is his commitment to radical politics. His political biases have been less thoroughly investigated. While traditional Marxism sought to advance its goals by way of violent revolution ostensibly vitalized by the "proletariat," the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci (1897-1931) realized that a Marxist egalitarian goals could be more effectively advanced by infiltrating and taking control of the existing institutional structure of a society. In the course of a thorough study of Boas' correspondence, the author concludes that there is clear evidence that Boas was an effective convert to Gramscian Marxism and one of its most successful exponents.

Key Words: Franz Boas, anthropology, equalitarianism, race, Lysenkoism, Comintern, Communist Party, Popular Front, American Anthropological Association.

After consolidating a hegemonic position in the discipline of anthropology in the United States, Franz Boas (1858-1942) devoted his later years to deploying his "scientific" authority as a means to facilitate radical political-social transformation. During the 1930s, he functioned as perhaps the most effective movement Stalinist, arguably more useful than an overt party member. In the process, the search for truth was sacrificed for the exigencies of political power. Much information contained in this article is based on the Boas correspondence provided to the author by the American Philosophical Society and the University of British Columbia.

Franz Boas was bom in Minden, Germany, in 1852, into a family with radical socialist politics. Abraham Jacobi, his uncle by marriage, had been imprisoned for armed violence during the revolution of 1848; in addition, as Boas admitted, both his parents were sympathetic proponents of the 187071 revolutionary movement. As a young man, he himself studied geography and obtained a position as dozent at the University of Berlin. However, as a Jew he resented the anti-Semitism that was then widespread in Germany and migrated to the United States in 1886. He did not leave the revolutionary politics of his family behind him in the Old World

Boas had no formal training in anthropology, but made a name for himself in ethnology by studying the lnuit (then still known as Eskimaux), and producing an impressive treatise on the subject. He arrived fortuitously at the genesis moment for anthropology in the United States and won appointment at Clark University to the chair of the first named-department of anthropology in the U.S. Even more significantly, he was later awarded the chair of a department of anthropology at Columbia University, where he supervised the first doctoral degree programs officially designated as being in anthropology. Through a relentless quest for foundation money, the capture of prestigious leadership roles in academic organizations, and a tactful exercise of academic politics, Boas was able to place those to whom he awarded doctoral degrees in key positions in major universities around the country as these began to recognize anthropology as a separate discipline. In this way he was able to craft an academic network that dominated and largely continues to dominate the profession, leading him to be known as "the father of American Anthropology." Famous Boasian students included Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead, Ashley Montagu, Kenneth Clarke, and Alfred Kroeber (the rapporteur who drafted the academically absurd UNESCO 1950 Statement on Race). By awarding doctoral degrees to these and other students who absorbed his views, Boas was able to pursue a Gramscian strategy of infiltrating and capturing culture-forming institutions as a base for eventual political transformation.

After Boas' death, his disciple Melville J. Herskovits wrote in 1953 that "the four decades of the tenure of [Boas'] professorship at Columbia gave a continuity to his teaching that permitted him to develop students who eventually made up the greater part of the significant professional core of American anthropologists, and who came to man and direct most of the major departments of anthropology in the United States. …

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