Marshall Sahlins (1930–2021)

The radical anthropologist Marshall Sahlins died earlier this month. Throughout his long career, he refused to divorce his academic work from his political commitments. He was an exemplar of a radical intellectual working within the university to change the world.

Marshall Sahlins in 1999 in Paris, France. (Photo by Ulf Andersen/Getty Images)

Marshall Sahlins, who passed away at ninety on April 5, was not only the most notable anthropological writer of his generation; he was also a profoundly radical — and influential — thinker with a genuine commitment to political action.

There are many in the academy who fear that political engagement dilutes or undermines the purity of theoretical reflection. Sahlins’s life and work stands as a clear corrective to that position. Throughout his career, he was motivated by his opposition to oppression wherever he saw it, be it toward marginalized populations targeted by economic and military expansionism or toward academic communities threatened with the curtailment of their intellectual expression.

It is this commitment that underpinned so much of his pioneering theoretical work, such as his critique of the universal application of neoclassical economics in Stone Age Economics. That collection of essays marks one of the most powerful challenges on record to the assumed natural universality of the allegedly rational economic actor that haunts economic textbooks.

Sahlins was prolific. Apart from many articles, he authored some nineteen books, some of which have profoundly influenced the way we think anthropologically, and also more generally in the social sciences. His analysis inspired a wide range of radical thinkers, including left and post-left anarchists. The ecological neo-primitivist John Zerzan owed much to Sahlins (“my single most important influence”), while Hakim Bey has repeatedly cited “The Original Affluent Society” as the major inspiration for his thinking.

His impact on radical thought inside the academy was profound as well. He was a PhD adviser and mentor to David Graeber at the University of Chicago. Graeber’s anarchist leaning, political commitment, and ability to speak clearly to large audiences owe much to Sahlins, whom he held in the highest regard.

An Activist in the Academy

As someone whose intellectual contribution was fired by a commitment to speak truth to power, Sahlins was not willing to be confined to the academy. He was the founder of the teach-in during the anti–Vietnam War demonstrations at US campuses in the late 1960s. Unlike so many of his generation who gradually retreated into a liberal accommodation with the status quo as their careers progressed, Sahlins was determined to use his growing influence to continue to push back against authority.

He was at the forefront of attempts to resist the co-option of anthropologists into the US-led assault on the Middle East in the early 2000s. In this regard, Sahlins continued the tradition established by the main founding figure of US cultural anthropology, Franz Boas, who was expelled from the American Anthropological Association that he had founded for his opposition to anthropologists aiding the US military in the First World War. Intellectually, Sahlins can be seen as the last great proponent of the tradition of cultural relativism established by Boas a century earlier.

Sahlins was also willing to take a stand against academic trends that he considered politically harmful. In 2013, he resigned from his highly prestigious position as a member of the US National Academy of Sciences, partly in protest of the institution’s collaboration with the US military, but predominantly as a result of its 2012 election of Napoleon Chagnon.

Chagnon’s work with the Yanomamö people in Venezuela had caricatured them as “fierce people,” violent savages obsessed with death and killing. As Sahlins had explained in an earlier essay, Chagnon’s theories were an extension of the damaging sociobiological myths of innate aggression at the heart of human nature — an attempt, as Sahlins put it, to “support the theory that violence has been progressively inscribed in our genes.”

For Sahlins, such theories acted as legitimation for those — like the US military — who wished to naturalize structural violence. It was to be opposed on those grounds as well as its spurious pseudoscientific basis in cherry-picked details designed to titillate and entertain.

Sahlins was well aware of the personal blowback he would receive for his protest, but he proceeded nonetheless. In his later years, he continued the fight for academic freedom, protesting the Chinese government–backed Confucius Institute’s attempt to use its financial muscle to influence and limit expression in US universities.

Sahlins was a man who always put his money where his mouth was. Former colleagues at Michigan tell how at the height of the student and antiwar struggles of the early 1970s, he proposed a system whereby faculty would pool their wages and then distribute them equally — at a stroke eliminating a massive part of the power differential between junior and senior faculty.

The politics of egalitarianism were not simply something to be studied in other societies but something to be strived for in everyday life. It was a profoundly political suggestion and one in keeping with the temperament of a man who maintained a healthy skepticism of academic hierarchy, despite his rise to the very top of the profession.

A few minutes in his company was enough to be made aware that this was a man who took great pleasure in puncturing pomposity and pretension wherever he found it. Some of the positions that he took placed him at odds with others on the Left. His defense of cultural relativism was critiqued by some, most notably the Sri Lankan anthropologist Gananath Obeyesekere, as a kind of exoticism that placed non-Western people outside of history in an Orientalist manner. At times, most notably in his landmark book Culture and Practical Reason, he was keen to argue that forms of radical political economy, such as Marxism, were in their own way based on a Western assumption of a kind of economic rationality, not so dissimilar as that posed by neoclassical economics.

Given the breadth and extent of his writing, no one would ever agree with every dot and comma of his thought, except for Sahlins himself. One suspects that someone as keen on the cut and thrust of intellectual debate as Sahlins would not have had it any other way. His voice is an important one that will be sorely missed, while his work will remain an inspiration for genuinely radical thought for many years to come.