Marshall Sahlins (1930–2021)

(Photo by Ulf Andersen/Getty Images)

Keir Martin and Theo Rakopoulos in Jacobin:

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.

More here.