Marxism and Structuralism

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Marxism is a socio-economic theory and a method of socio-political analysis based on the work of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. It is mainly critical of capitalism and aims to replace it with communism, a classless society. Marxism asserts that all societies progress through class struggle, a confrontation between the ruling class and the oppressed classes. On the other hand, structuralism is a theoretical approach mainly used in the social sciences, the humanities, psychology, anthropology and linguistics. It focuses on understanding the underlying structures that determine or shape human behaviour, perception and meaning. Structuralists argue that reality can only be understood by examining the wider systems that shape individuals and events. Structuralo-Marxism is a school of thought that attempts to fuse the ideas of Marxism and structuralism. The aim is to understand how social and economic structures determine the behaviour and perceptions of individuals while keeping in mind the class struggle and the role of capitalism in structuring these systems. Structural Marxists argue that capitalism is a structure in itself that shapes people's behaviour and perceptions.

To structure our discussion, we will examine Marxism, focusing on the contributions of its founder, Karl Marx. We then turn to structuralism, exploring in depth the work of the celebrated anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss. Finally, we conclude by assessing the lasting influence of Marxist thought on the political sphere.

Marxism[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

Karl Marx : 1818 - 1883[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

Karl Marx in 1875.

Marx was a key figure in the 19th century. He lived through it, confronting the exceptional transformation of this century marked by the industrial revolution, which transcended all the old regime's social, political and cultural frameworks. We were thrown into an upheaval that Marx wanted to echo.

Born into a family of Jewish lawyers who had converted to Protestantism, he grew up in an affluent and favourable environment that was not revolutionary but conducive to intellectual development. He combined three subjects: law, which enabled him to understand that it is a science of the structuring of societies through its normative dimension, which influences society through its mode of functioning and regulation; and history, which offers a long-term field for interpreting events and phenomena. Early socialist writings soon influenced him. He went on to complete his education by studying philosophy at the great universities of the time, Bonn and Berlin.

In 1841, Marx defended a doctoral thesis on Epicurus[1]. Between 1841 and 1845, he began to imbibe the first revolutionary doctrines that were appearing and already based on a revolutionary socialism that considered a world that was very hard on labour combined with a rise in capitalism called "first capitalism". It was a capitalism of exploitation with no social consideration for labour.

He lived in an environment that quickly made him aware of political protest. As early as 1840, he became a pre-revolutionary, and was expelled from Prussia and France. In Germany, he became editor of the Rhenish Gazette, an opposition newspaper with democratic and revolutionary tendencies, and as editor-in-chief, he took part in the German revolutionary effervescence.

Marx's story is the constitution of the revolutionary international. The emergence of capitalist society saw the emergence of a diaspora of intellectuals and thinkers scattered across the great capitals who organised themselves, allowing revolutionary thought to develop.

In Paris, he met Engels, an activist who was thinking about several reforms to be introduced. Marx was to develop a theory of revolutionary proletarian socialism that legitimised violence; violence was part of the struggle; the question of social violence was legitimate. The only way to transform society was to propose a revolution. He was taken to court and sent to Belgium, where he was also expelled.

From 1867 onwards, based on the Communist Manifesto, he began to question one of the major components of capitalism, as Weber had understood in his work on Protestant Ethics and the Spirit of Capitalism, that to understand capitalism, the question of capital had to be included.

Marx spent many years writing "Capital", culminating in its publication in 1867. It revolved around a specific new vocabulary, the concept of political economy. Economics is not external to politics; it conforms to and describes a political system. In other words, the economy is not outside society, but it is the elementary postulate that the economy is an integral part of society. Political economy establishes a link between economic issues and the systems that regulate them.

Marx was delighted by the revolution of 1848 in France and the social conflicts that arose, which were signs that the revolution was transforming society. From 1864 onwards, he was a leading member of the International Socialist Workers' Movement. This movement organised the pre-revolutionary socialist movements. After "Capital", he turned his attention to the commune. Finally, he examined the relationship between social classes and capital, and the need for a collective struggle among the peoples of Europe.

Classes and class struggles[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

« Pyramid of Capitalist System », début du XXème.

Marx was a very versatile thinker. His work spanned many fields, including philosophy, sociology, economics and politics. His critique of capitalism, as set out in works such as "Capital", is still influential and relevant today. We need to start with an apriori statement from the Manifesto: "The history of every society up to the present day has been the history of class struggles". This quote comes from the "Manifesto of the Communist Party", co-written by Marx and Friedrich Engels. It is one of Marx's most famous statements summarising his vision of history as a series of class conflicts. In his view, every society is structured around relations of production - the relationship between those who own the means of production (the bourgeoisie) and those who sell their labour power (the proletariat). This dynamic creates an inherent conflict, a class struggle, which drives social and historical change.

Marxism, as a theory, is therefore deeply concerned with questions of power, control and conflict in the economic context. For Marx, the economy is not a separate sphere from social and political life but is intrinsically linked to it. As an economic system, capitalism shapes and is shaped by social and political structures. This understanding of the interconnection between economics, politics, and society makes Marx not only an economist or political philosopher but also a revolutionary social theorist.

For Marx, a class is defined not only by its relationship to the means of production but also by its class consciousness - a shared understanding of its position in the capitalist system of production and of its interests in opposition to those of other classes. This class consciousness is not automatic or natural but is the product of lived experience and struggle. In "Capital", Marx speaks of the process by which workers, who are initially in competition with each other on the labour market, begin to recognise that they share a common position and common interests in opposition to those of the bourgeoisie. This process of awareness and solidarity enables the formation of a class as a political force. However, Marx also pointed out that the bourgeoisie uses various strategies to prevent working-class consciousness, such as dividing workers along racial, ethnic or gender lines, or disseminating ideologies that justify and naturalise class inequality. This idea was later developed by Marxist theorists such as Antonio Gramsci, who spoke of the cultural hegemony of the bourgeoisie. So, for Marx, the class struggle is not just an economic struggle, but also an ideological and cultural struggle. It is a struggle for class consciousness, for the recognition of common interests and for collective organisation for social change.

Marx argued that different classes have fundamentally divergent economic interests in a capitalist society that lead to antagonistic goals. For example, the bourgeoisie, which owns the means of production, seeks to maximise its profits. This can be achieved by reducing production costs, which often includes reducing wages or extending working hours for the working class. On the other hand, the proletariat, which sells its labour power, is directly interested in raising wages and improving working conditions. These divergent interests are intrinsic to the capitalist system and lead to a constant struggle between the classes. These class antagonisms limit the possible actions of each class. For example, the working class is limited in its actions by the need to sell its labour power to survive. In contrast, the bourgeoisie is limited by the need to maximise profits in order to remain competitive in the capitalist market. These class antagonisms also shape the political field. According to Marx, the state under capitalism generally acts in the interests of the bourgeoisie and seeks to maintain the existing class order. This means that attempts by the working class to change the system are often met with resistance from the state and the ruling class. For Marx, class struggle is a characteristic of capitalism and a barrier to action, since it reflects divergent and antagonistic interests between different social classes.

For Marx, the class struggle is the driving force of history and social evolution. Society is not a harmonious collection of individuals with convergent interests but rather is marked by fundamental conflicts and class antagonisms. The class struggle is not just an economic reality, but also a social and political one. It shapes people's consciousness, identity and understanding of the world. By confronting class exploitation and oppression, individuals develop class consciousness - an understanding of their common position and common interests as a class. This class consciousness can lead to collective organisation and resistance, and ultimately to the transformation of society. However, class society does not simply disappear with the announcement of formal freedom or equal rights. On the contrary, class society persists and continues to structure social, economic and political life, even in modern societies that present themselves as free and egalitarian. For Marx, class struggle is both the product of class society and how that society can be transformed. It is a profoundly conflictual and dynamic worldview, which emphasises the role of struggle, resistance and change in human history.

"Modern bourgeois society (...) has not abolished class antagonisms. It has merely substituted new classes, new conditions of oppression, new forms of struggle for those of the past". This quote comes from Marx and Engels' "Manifesto of the Communist Party", and sums up an important part of their analysis. According to them, the bourgeois revolution - the transition from feudalism to capitalism that took place in Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries - did not abolish class antagonisms, but rather transformed their nature. In feudal society, the main classes were the nobility and the serfs. With the advent of capitalism, these classes were replaced by the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. The bourgeoisie, as the class owning the means of production, became the new ruling class, while the proletariat, selling its labour power to the bourgeoisie, became the new oppressed class. However, even though the precise nature of class oppression and domination had changed, Marx and Engels argued that the fundamental antagonism between classes remained. Capitalism, like feudalism, is based on the exploitation of the working class by the ruling class. Moreover, Marx and Engels argued that capitalism actually exacerbated class antagonisms. Capitalism is characterised by extreme class inequality and inherent instability, with recurrent economic crises exacerbating the class struggle. This is why they argued that capitalism would eventually be replaced by communism, a classless society in which the means of production would be collectively controlled.

Capital and salaried labour[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

The movement of capital[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

For Marx, the bourgeoisie is defined by its relationship to the means of production - it owns and controls the factories, machines, land and other means of production that are needed to produce goods and services. On the other hand, the working class does not own these means of production and must therefore sell its labour power to the bourgeoisie in exchange for wages. According to Marx, the main aim of the bourgeoisie is accumulating capital. This means that it constantly seeks to increase its wealth by maximising profits and minimising costs. One of the main ways of achieving this is by exploiting the labour-power of the working class. Workers are paid less than the full value of what they produce, and the difference (what Marx calls "surplus value") is retained by the bourgeoisie in the form of profits. From this perspective, the bourgeoisie has no particular interest in the welfare of the working class, except insofar as it affects its ability to produce surplus-value. Consequently, there can be a constant tension between the bourgeoisie and the working class, as the former seeks to maximise profits while the latter seeks to improve wages and working conditions. This tension, this class struggle, lies at the heart of Marx's vision of capitalism. For him, capitalism is a system of exploitation that creates inequalities and inherent class conflicts. And it was this class struggle that, in his view, would ultimately drive social transformation and the transition to a classless society.

For Marx, capital is not simply a sum of money or a stock of goods. Instead, he defined it as "value in process" or "self-increasing value". In the capitalist system, capital is invested in purchasing means of production (machinery, raw materials, etc.) and labour power. These elements are then used to produce goods or services which are sold on the market. The value of these goods or services is greater than the sum of the value of the means of production and labour power initially purchased. This difference is what Marx calls "surplus value" and is the source of capitalist profit. In this process, there is a clear division between those who own capital (the bourgeoisie) and those who sell their labour power (the proletariat). The bourgeoisie uses its capital to generate more value, while the proletariat is paid a value (in the form of wages) that is less than the value it produces. It is this extraction of surplus value from the working class that, according to Marx, constitutes the exploitation at the heart of capitalism. So, for Marx, the ultimate goal of capital and its owners is not simply the production of goods or services but the accumulation of more value. This is what motivates the capitalist system and is also at the root of its contradictions and crises.

The origin of the surplus value[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

For Marx, the capitalist's objective is not simply to produce goods or services but to generate surplus value. This surplus value is the difference between the total value of the goods or services produced and the value of the inputs used in their production, including labour power. This surplus value is constantly reinvested in the capitalist system to generate even more value. This is what Marx calls capital accumulation. It is a never-ending process in which money is invested to generate more money. This dynamic of perpetual accumulation is at the heart of the capitalist system. It leads to constant economic growth and ever greater inequality because surplus value is appropriated by capitalists rather than by the workers who produce it. Moreover, this dynamic of perpetual accumulation can also lead to economic crises because the constant search for surplus value can lead to overproduction and economic instability. For Marx, capital is not simply a sum of money or a stock of goods. It is a social relationship based on exploitation, where surplus value is extracted from workers' labour and reinvested to produce even more value.

In the capitalist system, surplus value - i.e. the value created by labour beyond what is necessary to maintain the worker - is appropriated by the capitalist rather than being redistributed to the workers. The capitalist then reinvests this surplus value to generate even more capital, which Marx calls "capitalist accumulation". This accumulation of capital leads to an increasing concentration of wealth in the hands of a small elite of capitalists, while the majority of workers remain relatively poor. This creates ever greater inequality within society. What's more, this capital accumulation does not necessarily benefit society as a whole. For example, it can lead to overproduction of goods, economic crises and increased exploitation of workers. For Marx, the capitalist system is intrinsically unequal and unstable. He argued that the only way to solve these problems would be to replace capitalism with communism, a system in which the workers collectively control the means of production.

Work and overwork[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

It is possible to highlight two key concepts in Marxist economics: constant capital and variable capital, as well as the two forms of surplus value - absolute surplus value and relative surplus value.

Constant capital comprises the non-human means of production, such as machines, factories and raw materials. This capital does not create new value in itself, but transfers its own value to the finished products.

Variable capital, on the other hand, is the part of capital used to pay for labour. This capital is called "variable" because it can produce new value beyond its own value. In other words, workers can produce more value than they receive in the form of wages.

Absolute surplus value is generated by extending the working day. If a worker can produce enough to cover his wage in five hours, but works ten hours, then the extra five hours of unpaid work generate absolute surplus-value for the capitalist.

Relative surplus-value, conversely, is generated by reducing the labour time needed to produce a commodity, usually through technological innovation or improved efficiency. If a worker can produce a commodity in two hours rather than four, then the value of that commodity falls and the capitalist's relative surplus-value rises.

Finally, Marx sees these processes as having limits. There is a limit to the length of the working day and to a worker's capacity to work. Similarly, there is a limit to the amount of relative surplus-value that can be generated by improving efficiency. According to Marx, these limits are sources of tension and conflict in the capitalist system.

Accumulation[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

According to Marx, there are two major results of capital accumulation: the concentration of capital and the creation of an overpopulation of workers.

  1. Concentration of capital: According to Marx, the process of capital accumulation inevitably leads to an increasing concentration of wealth and economic power. In other words, more and more capital ends up in the hands of fewer and fewer capitalists. This creates a fundamental contradiction in the capitalist system, because although capitalism is founded on the idea of competition, the way it works tends to destroy this competition by favouring the formation of monopolies.
  2. The creation of an overpopulation of workers: Marx also argued that the process of capital accumulation leads to the creation of an "industrial reserve army" of unemployed workers. This is due to the constant improvement in technology and efficiency, which allows capitalists to produce more with fewer workers. This overpopulation of workers keeps wages down, as there is always a reserve of workers ready to replace those demanding higher wages.

Ultimately, Marx sees these tendencies as leading to an intensification of class conflict and, ultimately, to revolution. He argues that the proletariat, which is both oppressed by capitalism and vital to its functioning, has both the interest and the power to overthrow the capitalist system and replace it with communism.

The contradictions of capitalism[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

Marx argued that capitalism contains inherent contradictions, which, he argued, would eventually lead to its own deconstruction. These contradictions are primarily the result of the dichotomy between capital and labour in a capitalist economy. Here is how he sees these contradictions:

  1. Contradiction between capital and labour: Capitalism is based on the relationship between capitalists, who own the means of production, and workers, who sell their labour power in exchange for a wage. According to Marx, this relationship is fundamentally conflictual because the interests of capitalists and workers are diametrically opposed. Capitalists seek to maximise profits by minimising wages and maximising working time, while workers seek to maximise their wages and minimise their working time.
  2. Contradiction between capital accumulation and relative overpopulation: Capital accumulation leads to a concentration of wealth and a relative overpopulation of workers. This creates tension as there is an excess labour supply relative to demand, which can lead to lower wages and more precarious working conditions for workers.
  3. Contradiction between production for accumulation and production to satisfy needs: Capitalism is motivated by profit rather than the satisfaction of human needs. This can lead to the overproduction of some goods and the underproduction of others, creating economic imbalances.

Marx believed that these contradictions would eventually lead to economic and social crises that would expose capitalism's flaws and stimulate the proletariat's class consciousness, leading to revolution and the establishment of socialism.

Class struggles and communism[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

Marx believed that revolution had to be led by the workers themselves, once they had acquired class consciousness. This involved recognising their common status and interests as an exploited class. In his view, this awareness would be stimulated by the contradictions inherent in capitalism, which would make this system's oppressive and exploitative nature increasingly obvious. This class consciousness is fundamental to Marxism, as it is seen as the driving force behind class struggle and revolution. Marx maintained that only a conscious and united proletarian class could overthrow capitalism and establish communism. Communism, as envisaged by Marx, is a classless society in which the means of production are held in common and goods are distributed according to the principle "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need". In other words, he foresaw a society where exploitation and class oppression are eliminated, labour is freed from its capitalist constraints, and the needs of all are satisfied.

For Marx, the transition from capitalism to communism would pass through an intermediate phase of the dictatorship of the proletariat, in which the workers would take control of the state and use it to eliminate the vestiges of capitalism and build the foundations of communism. This phase would be characterised by a continuous struggle against the residues of the old social order and would be necessary to ensure the transition to a classless society.

For Marx, revolution was not simply a matter of changing rulers or redistributing existing wealth but rather a process of radical transformation of the economic and social structure itself. He saw the state under capitalism as an instrument of the ruling class, used to maintain and perpetuate its power and control over economic resources. Consequently, he argued that workers could not simply take control of the existing state and use it for their own ends. Instead, they had to destroy this 'state machine' and replace it with a new form of social organisation. In Marx's ideal, this new form would be a "dictatorship of the proletariat", a transitional period during which the workers would use the state's power to eliminate the remnants of the capitalist class and rebuild society on socialist foundations. Ultimately, this dictatorship of the proletariat would lead to the establishment of communism, a classless, stateless society in which the means of production are common. It is important to note that, for Marx, the ultimate goal was a classless, stateless society. The 'dictatorship of the proletariat' was a necessary step towards this goal, but it was not an end in itself. In other words, the aim was not simply to replace one ruling class with another, but to eliminate the class system.

The "Manifesto" Thesis[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

Facsimile of the cover of the original edition.

Marx envisaged a revolution in several stages, in which the proletariat, the working class, would take control of the state and use this power to transform society: "The first stage in the workers' revolution is the constitution of the proletariat as the ruling class, the conquest of democracy. The proletariat will use its political domination to gradually wrest all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralise all the instruments of production in the hands of the state".

In his view, the first step would be for the proletariat to organise and constitute itself as a ruling class. This means that the workers must unite, become aware of their common status and interests as an exploited class, and overthrow the bourgeoisie through revolution. Marx believed that this seizure of power could be achieved democratically, although he recognised that the bourgeoisie might not surrender without a struggle. Once in power, the proletariat would use its political domination to dismantle the capitalist system. This would involve gradually wresting all capital from the bourgeoisie and centralising all the instruments of production in the hands of the state. In other words, the means of production would be taken out of the hands of the private capitalists and placed under the control of the state, which would then be under the control of the proletariat.

These measures would aim to eliminate capitalist exploitation and create a planned economy where production is directed to meet the needs of all rather than the profit of a few. This is a step towards establishing communism, where, according to Marx, the state itself would eventually wither away to make way for a classless, stateless society.

Marx and Engels set out in the Communist Manifesto a list of measures that the proletariat, once in power, should implement to transform capitalist society into a communist society. These included:

  1. Expropriation of land ownership and application of land rent to state expenditure: This means the end of private ownership of land and the use of the income from it to finance the state.
  2. A highly progressive tax is a tax whose rate increases with income or wealth, which would hit the richest hardest.
  3. Abolition of inheritance: This would prevent wealth being passed on from generation to generation and concentrated in a few families.
  4. Confiscation of the property of all emigrants and rebels: This would make it possible to eliminate opposition to the new regime.
  5. Centralisation of credit in the hands of the state: This means that the state would control all financial institutions and financial resources.
  6. Centralization of transport and means of communication in the hands of the State: This means that the State would control all means of transport and communication.
  7. Multiplication of state-owned factories and production instruments: This means expanding production under public control.
  8. Compulsory work for all: This means that everyone would be required to work and contribute to production.
  9. Combination of agricultural and industrial labour: This means abolishing the division between urban and rural labour.
  10. Free public education for all children: This means that education would be a right for all, not a privilege for a few.

According to Marx and Engels, these measures would end capitalist exploitation and create a society where production is controlled by the working class and used for the benefit of all.

The ultimate goal of Marxism is to achieve a classless society, where resources are owned and controlled by the community as a whole and where there is no exploitation. It is a vision that has been criticised in many ways. Some argue that the Marxist vision overlooks human nature and individual differences. They argue that people have different ambitions, talents and desires, and that these differences will always result in inequalities of power and wealth. They also argue that people are naturally inclined to own and control private property. Secondly, some argue that the Marxist vision is too idealised and lacks realism. They argue that a classless society is a utopian goal that cannot be achieved in the real world. They argue that even in societies attempting to implement Marxism, new classes and forms of exploitation have emerged. Thirdly, some critics argue that the Marxist vision neglects the need for structures of power and authority. They argue that certain forms of hierarchy and power are necessary to organise a society and maintain order. They also suggest that without these structures there could be chaos and anarchy.

Marxist thought accepts that all class struggle is intrinsically a political struggle. It recognises that a revolution, necessary to overthrow the existing class structure, may involve a certain amount of destruction and violence. This perspective is in line with certain aspects of Machiavelli's political thought. Machiavelli, an Italian political philosopher of the Renaissance, wrote about the dynamics of power and the means necessary to acquire and retain it. He argued that politics is essentially a domain of conflict and struggle, and that rulers must be prepared to use any means necessary, including violence, to maintain their power. Similarly, Marx saw class struggle as a struggle for political power, where the proletariat must overthrow the bourgeoisie through revolution to establish a new social structure. This may involve a certain amount of destruction, particularly of the existing economic infrastructure, and violence. However, unlike Machiavelli, Marx's ultimate goal is not the retention of power for an individual or group, but rather the creation of a classless society where power is shared equitably.

Whether there can be an 'administration of things' without politics is at the heart of the debate about the nature and role of politics in society. In the Marxist vision, the final phase of communism is a classless society in which the state, as a tool of class domination, would fade away to make way for a more egalitarian form of social organisation. Marx and Engels used the expression "administration of things" to describe this society. In this vision, social and economic affairs are managed rationally in the interests of all, without the need for political struggle for resources and power. However, this vision has been criticised. Some argue that politics is inevitable because societies are always faced with decisions about the distribution of resources and social priorities. These decisions inevitably involve conflicts of interest and disagreement, requiring some form of politics to resolve them. Moreover, some point out that even if a society can eliminate economic classes, other forms of hierarchy and social differentiation may remain, creating new forms of political conflict. Finally, others question the idea that the administration of things can be totally neutral or rational, arguing that all decisions involve values and choices that are inherently political.

In Marxist theory, the structure of society is defined by the relations of production and the conflicts that arise from them. Marx argued that the economic system (the mode of production) determines the social structure, including class relations. Inherent conflicts and power struggles mark these relations. Marx argued that every society is structured around its economic system. For example, a feudal society is structured around the relations between lords and serfs. In contrast, a capitalist society is structured around the relations between the bourgeoisie (those who own the means of production) and the proletariat (those who sell their labour). The concept of 'conflict' is central to this perspective. Marx argued that conflict between classes is a driving force of social and historical change. These conflicts are inherent in the economic structure of society. They can ultimately lead to radical changes in the structure of society - for example, through a revolution in which the working class overthrows the bourgeoisie and establishes a new form of society.

Marx postulated that class conflict is a universal feature of human societies, even though the specific forms of this conflict may vary according to historical and cultural circumstances. In primitive societies, Marx and Engels suggested that there was a 'primitive' form of communism, where resources were shared and there were no distinct classes. However, they also suggested that the development of private property and agriculture led to the emergence of social classes and the domination of one class over another, leading to class conflict. Marx's central point is that these class structures are often hidden or 'naturalised' in society, so that they appear to be natural and inevitable features of human life rather than social constructs that can be changed. This is where the link with structuralism becomes apparent: like the structuralists, Marx sought to reveal the underlying structures that shape social life, even if they are not immediately apparent or recognised by those who live within those structures.

Structuralism[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

Claude Lévi-Strauss: 1908 - 2009[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

Claude Lévi-Strauss en 2005.

Claude Lévi-Strauss brought a unique perspective to sociology and anthropology with his structuralist approach. Structuralism, as a theory, proposes that human phenomena can only be understood as parts of a larger system, or structures. According to Lévi-Strauss, these structures are universal and can be revealed by analysing myths, rites, customs and other cultural aspects. His work on the indigenous tribes of Amazonia provided an important basis for developing his theories. Lévi-Strauss argued that, even in these apparently simple and remote societies, complex structures of thought inform their behaviour and culture. Far from being 'primitive', these societies possess a complexity and intellectual sophistication that the West has often overlooked or misunderstood. Lévi-Strauss adopted a comparative and intercultural approach to research, looking for similarities and differences between different cultures to understand the universal structures underlying human thought and behaviour. By going 'deeper', he could analyse the deepest elements of human culture and thought, which are often hidden or ignored in modern Western societies.

Claude Lévi-Strauss is famous for his studies of the Indian tribes of Amazonia conducted between 1935 and 1938. He used an ethnographic approach to understand these cultures, living among them and observing their daily practices and beliefs. His famous quote, "the further I go, the more I can analyse what I experience", sums up his research philosophy: he believed that to really understand a culture, you had to immerse yourself completely in it, live like its members and observe from the inside. Through this approach, Lévi-Strauss was able to explore and document in depth the customs, beliefs and social practices of these tribes, providing invaluable insight into their ways of life. He also used these experiences to develop his structuralist theories, arguing that all cultures share certain underlying structures, despite their superficial differences. These experiences in Brazil influenced his later work and helped establish his reputation as one of the most influential thinkers in 20th-century anthropology. His work had a profound influence on anthropology and sociology, philosophy, history, psychology and other disciplines related to the human sciences.

During the war, he left for the United States and began work on his thesis, which he presented in 1949. In this thesis, entitled "Les Structures élémentaires de la parenté", Lévi-Strauss approached the study of kinship systems in primitive and advanced societies from a structuralist angle. In his view, kinship is not simply a matter of biology or blood relations but is also determined by cultural norms and rules. These rules govern not only who is considered a relative but also the expected behaviours and obligations of these relationships. Lévi-Strauss developed the idea that these kinship systems are structures in the sense that they are made up of fixed, organised relationships that are maintained over time. He maintains that these structures are universal in the sense that they are present in all societies, even though the specific details of these structures may vary from one culture to another. According to Lévi-Strauss, these kinship structures are fundamental to the way societies function. They determine important aspects of social life, such as who can marry whom, how property is passed on from one generation to the next, and what obligations and responsibilities everyone has in society. Understanding these kinship structures is, therefore, essential to understanding society itself.

Claude Lévi-Strauss pioneered the structuralist approach in anthropology, applying the method to various social and cultural subjects. This approach assumes that each element of a society (e.g. rituals, customs, institutions, rules of kinship, etc.) only makes sense in the context of the wider structure in which it is embedded. In the case of kinship systems, for example, Lévi-Strauss argued that specific rules and individual relationships can only be fully understood by situating them within the wider framework of the kinship structure of society. This structure, he argued, was based on exchange and reciprocity and aimed to promote cooperation and social harmony. So, for Lévi-Strauss, structure is fundamental at all social and cultural organisation levels. It is what gives form and meaning to social relationships and activities. It also enables anthropologists to understand and explain the similarities and differences between different cultures. He acquired considerable influence and became the theorist of structuralism. When he returned to France, he brought together researchers from different fields, and in 1949 he became director of the Ecole Pratique des Etudes en Sciences Sociales with a chair in comparative religions. He was placed in a position where he could work on constructing structures.

For Claude Lévi-Strauss, myths are a form of symbolic communication deeply rooted in the human mental structure. They are fundamental elements of culture that provide models for thought and action, enabling people to make sense of the world and their place in it. Lévi-Strauss developed a distinctive approach to analysing myths, known as 'mythological structuralism'. According to this approach, all myths can be broken down into a set of smaller myths, or 'mythemes', which are the basic units of myth. These myths are organised in pairs of binary oppositions, reflecting social and cultural life's fundamental tensions and contradictions. By collecting and comparing myths from different cultures, Lévi-Strauss sought to reveal the universal structures of human thought. He argued that, although the specific details of myths may vary from culture to culture, the underlying structures are remarkably similar, reflecting universal thought patterns. In other words, for Lévi-Strauss, myths are not simply stories that people tell for entertainment or to explain the world. They are essential tools that enable people to understand, navigate and make sense of their social and cultural reality.

Lévi-Strauss' Structural Anthropology[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

In his 1958 book Structural Anthropology, Claude Lévi-Strauss proposed a revolutionary approach to anthropology based on the idea that all societies, regardless of their level of technology or specific cultural history, share common underlying structures of thought. He uses this approach to examine a range of cultural phenomena, from kinship systems to myths and rituals, and argues that these phenomena can be better understood by analysing them in terms of their underlying structures rather than focusing on their manifest content. For Lévi-Strauss, myths are particularly important because they express symbolically the fundamental mental structures of a culture. Myths are not simply invented stories, but symbolic representations of a society's fundamental problems and concerns. In "Anthropologie structurale", Lévi-Strauss illustrates his approach with a detailed analysis of various myths from worldwide cultures. He demonstrates that, despite their apparent diversity, these myths share common thought structures, revealing the existence of universal patterns of human thought. This approach had a profound impact on anthropology and other social science disciplines, and led to the emergence of the structuralist movement, which dominated much of social and cultural theory in the 1960s and 1970s.

Claude Lévi-Strauss emphasised the importance of structure over particularity in studying human societies. He criticised how ethnology and ethnography traditionally focused on different societies' cultural and historical specificities, and argued that this approach neglected the common underlying structures that shape all human societies.

According to Lévi-Strauss, ethnography focuses on documenting and analysing the specific characteristics of different human groups. It is a discipline that gathers information about different groups' customs, traditions and social practices and descriptively presents them. On the other hand, ethnography is a research method involving direct, participatory observation of cultural practices within a specific society.

Lévi-Strauss argued that both disciplines, while important, were limited by their emphasis on particularity. Instead, he advocated a structuralist approach, which sought to identify and analyse the universal structures of human thought that underlie all societies. In his view, it is by understanding these universal structures that we can truly understand the nature of human culture and society.

Linguistics and sociology are two disciplines that strongly influenced Claude Lévi-Strauss's thinking and the development of structuralism. According to Lévi-Strauss, these disciplines can work together to provide a deeper understanding of the structure of human societies.

  1. Linguistics: Lévi-Strauss was strongly influenced by structural linguistics, in particular the work of Ferdinand de Saussure. For Saussure, language was not a collection of words corresponding to things, but a system of signs in which each sign derived its meaning from its relationship with other signs. Lévi-Strauss applied this concept to anthropology, suggesting that elements of culture (e.g. rules of kinship, myths, rituals) can be understood as signs in a structured cultural system.
  2. Sociology: Lévi-Strauss was also influenced by Emile Durkheim and Marcel Mauss, who emphasised the importance of social structures in forming culture and society. Lévi-Strauss used sociological concepts to analyse kinship structures, marriage rules and taboos in different societies, demonstrating how these social structures shape cultural life.

For Lévi-Strauss, linguistics and sociology are two complementary tools for studying the structures underlying human culture and society.

Role of structural linguistics in Lévi-Strauss' structural anthropology[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

Claude Lévi-Strauss drew heavily on structural linguistics, particularly the work of Ferdinand de Saussure, to develop his approach to structural anthropology. According to Saussure, the meaning of a linguistic sign (a word, for example) depends on its system of relations with other signs within the overall structure of the language, and not on its direct correspondence with an external reality. Lévi-Strauss applied this approach to anthropology. For him, the elements of a culture - be they myths, rituals, rules of kinship, etc. - are like linguistic signs. - are like linguistic signs. Their meaning depends on how they relate to each other within the culture's overall system, and not on their direct correspondence with an external reality. In this sense, Lévi-Strauss sees language as a kind of "structure of structures". It serves as a model for understanding how the other elements of culture are structured and interconnected. For example, just as language sounds are organised into words, words into sentences, and sentences into discourse, the elements of culture are organised into increasingly complex structures. This is why Lévi-Strauss sees linguistics as a key discipline for anthropology. The methods of structural linguistics - the analysis of systems of relationships between signs - can be used to analyse the structures of culture.

Claude Lévi-Strauss challenged the idea that there is a linear hierarchy of cultures, from the 'primitive' to the 'advanced'. For him, all cultures are complex systems of meaning, and each must be understood in terms of its own internal logic, and not by comparison with others. This perspective marked a major break with previous anthropological approaches, which tended to judge non-Western cultures according to Western criteria. Lévi-Strauss emphasised that what are commonly referred to as 'primitive peoples' possess complex and structured social and political systems. He rejected the idea that these societies are "without history" simply because they have no written tradition. Instead, he argued that their history can be decoded from their myths, rituals and kinship systems, all of which carry historical meaning. Lévi-Strauss also criticised the Eurocentric view that development and progress are a one-way street leading to Western modernity. He emphasised that each culture has its own development trajectory, shaped by its particular conditions and its own internal logics. This perspective helped to challenge ethnocentrism in anthropological studies and to promote a more equitable and respectful appreciation of cultural diversity.

Claude Lévi-Strauss was sceptical of the notion of archaism, as it implies a linear and progressive view of history, where 'archaic' societies are seen as lagging behind 'modern' ones. He criticised this perspective as Eurocentric and distorting. Instead, Lévi-Strauss proposed a structuralist approach, which seeks to understand each culture in terms of its own internal structures of meaning. Rather than judging societies according to a linear scale of development, he sought to identify the underlying systems of thought and meaning that shape social and cultural life. As a result, Lévi-Strauss emphasised the importance of developing new theoretical and methodological tools for understanding the complexity and diversity of human cultures. He argued that we must be able to recognise and respect the different internal logics that structure different societies, rather than judging them by our own cultural standards.

The importance of magic, myth and ritual in societies[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

In his work, Claude Lévi-Strauss has emphasised the importance of magic, myth and ritual in all societies, including modern ones. Far from regarding them as irrational or primitive forms of thought, he argued that they play a crucial role in structuring social and cultural life.

Lévi-Strauss studied myths and rituals as forms of symbolic language. For him, these forms of communication are similar to language in that they are based on systems of signs that are used to express ideas and feelings. Like language, they are structured by rules and conventions that allow individuals to share common meanings.

In his analysis of magic, Lévi-Strauss argued that magic, like science, is a form of knowledge that is based on logical systems of thought. He argued that magic is effective not because it involves supernatural forces, but because it enables individuals to structure their understanding of the world and act accordingly. In this sense, magic plays a crucial role in social and cultural life, helping individuals to make sense of their experience and navigate the world around them.

Lévi-Strauss's approach dovetails with René Girard's in that both see the figure of the sorcerer as a structuring element of society. For Lévi-Strauss, the sorcerer, like myth and ritual, helps to build social structure by providing a framework for understanding and interpreting the world. The rites and beliefs associated with the figure of the sorcerer provide a kind of symbolic language through which individuals can give meaning to their experience and navigate the world. René Girard has developed a theory of mimetic desire to explain human behaviour and how societies function. According to Girard, the sorcerer plays a key role in managing the tensions and conflicts that can arise within society due to this mimetic desire. As an authority figure, the sorcerer can help to channel these tensions and maintain social order. So, as with Lévi-Strauss, for Girard the sorcerer is an essential structural element in the functioning of society.

Myth and politics[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

For Claude Lévi-Strauss, myths are narratives that offer a symbolic and structured interpretation of the world. They are the building blocks of cultures and societies, and serve to explain origins, values, beliefs, social structures and natural phenomena. Lévi-Strauss argued that all myths, whether from traditional or modern societies, share a common structure. He used an approach called structuralism to analyse myths. According to this approach, myths are built around pairs of binary oppositions (for example, life/death, culture/nature), which help organise and give meaning to the human experience. Furthermore, Lévi-Strauss argued that myths are timeless: they are constantly reinterpreted and adapted to meet the current concerns of a society, but their basic structure remains the same. So while the specific details of a myth may change over time, its structural framework and its role as a means of interpreting the world remain constant.

The idea that the political requires a certain dimension of the sacred can be understood in several ways.

  1. The political as sacred: Here, "sacred" can be interpreted as something that is of utmost importance, worthy of respect and veneration. From this point of view, political institutions, laws and values (such as democracy, justice, equality, etc.) can be considered sacred. They are essential to the functioning of society and the promotion of common well-being.
  2. Politics requiring the sacred: On the other hand, some might argue that politics needs a dimension of the sacred to legitimise its power and inspire allegiance and obedience from citizens. This could be symbols, rituals and traditions that reinforce the authority of the state and national identity.
  3. The disappearance of the sacred and its impact on politics: In the absence of a sense of the sacred, some argue that politics can become purely technocratic, focused on effectiveness and efficiency rather than values and principles. This could lead to political disillusionment and disaffection, and eventually to the disintegration of the social fabric.

Claude Lévi-Strauss, as one of the founders of the structuralist approach in anthropology and the social sciences, emphasised the importance of underlying structures in understanding human societies. He used the idea of structures to analyse various aspects of human cultures, from kinship systems to myths, rituals and customs.

According to Lévi-Strauss, structures are not always immediately visible or obvious. They are often hidden beneath the surface, but can be revealed through careful and rigorous analysis. In this sense, the work of a structuralist anthropologist is much like that of a cryptographer decoding a secret message: he or she seeks to decipher the hidden structures that govern the way human societies function and develop.

Lévi-Strauss's structuralist approach has been influential and has led to new ways of thinking about human societies. However, like any theory, it has also been criticised. Some have questioned the idea that structures are so omnipresent and all-powerful and have emphasised the role of individual agency and historical change. Others have criticised structuralism for its insistence on duality and opposition and for its sometimes too abstract and decontextualised approach to human cultures.

Marxist structuralism in the field of politics: Nicos Poulantzas (1936 - 1979)[modifier | modifier le wikicode]


Nicos Poulantzas was a Greek sociologist and political theorist who tried to reconcile structuralism and Marxism in his work. He is best known for his theory of the state, which had a major influence on Western Marxism.

Poulantzas sought to integrate structuralism, in particular the ideas of Louis Althusser, into a Marxist analysis of society. Like Althusser, he emphasised the importance of overlying structures that shape and determine human actions and relations. However, he also insisted on needing a materialist and class analysis of these structures.

In his book Political Power and Social Classes, Poulantzas proposed a structural analysis of the capitalist state. According to him, the state is not simply an instrument of the ruling class, but an entity with its own structure and its own role to play in maintaining the capitalist system.

Poulantzas also argued that class struggle must be understood structurally. Classes are not only defined by their position in the economy, but also by their position in other social structures, such as the political system. This approach has enabled Poulantzas to develop a sophisticated analysis of power and domination in capitalist societies.

Nicos Poulantzas is credited with making a significant contribution to Marxist theory, particularly with regard to the role of the state in capitalist societies. In his work, he sought to understand how political and social structures interact with economic forces to maintain and reproduce systems of power and oppression. Poulantzas argued that the state is a relatively autonomous entity within the social structure, which has its own interests and plays an active role in maintaining the capitalist system. He rejected the idea that the state is simply an instrument of the ruling class, and argued instead that it is a "material condensation of a relation of forces between classes and class fractions".

In "Political Power and Social Classes" (1968), Poulantzas attempted to develop a Marxist theory of the state which took account of its complexity and relative autonomy. He argued that the state, as a component of the social superstructure, is both the product and the producer of social relations of production. It plays an active role in reproducing the conditions of capitalist production. Poulantzas also wrote about fascisms and dictatorships, trying to understand their origins and development in the context of capitalist political economy. He sought to develop an analysis that considered both structural forces and the actions of individuals and groups.

Poulantzas was a leading figure in Western Marxism in the 1960s and 1970s, and his work significantly influenced the development of Marxist theory. However, his ideas have also been criticised, particularly for their emphasis on structure at the expense of human agency.

Marxism was a major influence on the development of structuralism in Europe in the 1950s and 1960s. Marxist thought, emphasising class structures and relations of production as the drivers of history and society, was perfectly attuned to the structuralist perspective, which sought to identify the underlying structures that organise and give meaning to social life. In this historical context, structuralism and Marxism were often used together to analyse social and political phenomena. For example, in the field of sociology, thinkers such as Louis Althusser sought to integrate Marxist and structuralist ideas into a coherent theory of society. Decolonisation was also a major subject of study for Marxist and structuralist thinkers. Struggles for independence in colonised countries were interpreted through the prism of class relations and class struggle, while considering each society's specific cultural and political structures. Nicos Poulantzas is an example of a thinker who openly claimed adherence to Marxism while using the tools of structuralist analysis. His work on the state's role in capitalist societies reflects this combination of influences.

Nicos Poulantzas proposed a structuralist analysis of capitalism and the state, focusing on class relations and institutional structures. In his view, the state is not simply an instrument of the ruling class, but rather a 'material condensation' of the power relations between the different classes. It is a field of struggle where different social, economic and political forces confront and negotiate. From this perspective, the state is not only an actor in the reproduction of class relations, but also plays an active role in their formation and transformation. It is both the product and the producer of social, economic and political relations. For Poulantzas, the capitalist state is not simply a reflection of the economic interests of the bourgeoisie, but is also an institution that contributes to the formation and reproduction of class domination. It structures social relations in such a way as to favour the dominant class and reproduce the conditions of capitalist domination. In this sense, Poulantzas's approach can be described as 'structuro-marxist', combining the analytical tools of Marxism and structuralism to analyse the state and capitalism. He was one of the main contributors to Marxist theory of the state, emphasising the state's role as a site of class struggles and as an actor in the reproduction of class relations.

Nicos Poulantzas has put forward an interesting vision of the crisis of the state. According to him, the crisis of the state is an intrinsic characteristic of the capitalist state, because it is always engaged in a class struggle and the management of the contradictions inherent in the capitalist system. Crisis is not an anomaly, but a normal and necessary aspect of the functioning of the capitalist state. According to Poulantzas, the state is not simply a neutral regulator that arbitrates conflicts between different social classes. On the contrary, it plays an active role in creating and managing these conflicts. It is a central actor in the reproduction of class relations and actively contributes to the formation of the class structure of society. From this perspective, the state is both the product of class conflicts and an actor who actively shapes these conflicts. It is both the theatre and the actor of class struggles. Consequently, the crisis of the state is not simply a consequence of class conflicts, but also a factor that contributes to their exacerbation. This vision of the state has important implications for our understanding of political and social dynamics. It invites us to rethink the state's role in capitalism and recognise its active participation in the reproduction and transformation of class relations.

For Nicos Poulantzas, the state embodies the dominant forces in society and actively reproduces existing power relations. The state is not simply a neutral instrument but an actor shaping these power relations. The state, in its Marxist-structuralist conception, is a central actor in constructing and reproducing class relations. It is not merely a tool at the service of the ruling class but an actor that actively contributes to constructing the conditions that enable the ruling class to maintain its position. Poulantzas was also convinced that social and political change could only occur through the struggle of the subaltern classes. For him, it was through popular mobilisation and class struggle that existing power structures could be challenged and transformed. This implies a vision of politics as a process of constant struggle, where popular forces must organise and mobilise to challenge existing power structures and work to transform them. It implies a vision of politics that emphasises collective action and popular mobilisation as the engines of social and political change.

Nicos Poulantzas was aware of the complexities and contradictions inherent in structuralist theory. As a structuralist, he recognised that social structures carry considerable weight and tend to perpetuate themselves. However, as a Marxist, he also believed in the possibility of social and political change through collective action and class struggle. Poulantzas also recognised the potential of the state to exercise violence against the forces of change. He used the term 'preventive counter-revolution' to describe the measures taken by the state to prevent or thwart revolutionary movements. This idea reflects his understanding of the state not as a neutral actor but as an entity that plays an active role in defending and reproducing existing power structures. These ideas may indeed seem contradictory. On the one hand, Poulantzas recognises the weight of social structures and the state's tendency to defend the existing order. On the other, he believes in the possibility of revolution and social change. However, these contradictions reflect the complexity of the social and political reality that Poulantzas sought to understand.

Annexes[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

References[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

  1. Differenz der demokritischen und epikureischen Naturphilosophie.