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The Hidden Past of Claude Lévi-Strauss
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The anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss died six years ago, leaving behind a treasure trove of correspondence and unpublished writings. We can now trace where his ideas came from and how they evolved.

I admired Lévi-Strauss during my time as an anthropology student because he asked questions that Marxist anthropologists would never ask. That’s why I preferred to call myself a Marxisant, and not a full-blown Marxist. I especially admired him for addressing the issue of nature versus nurture, which had once been a leading issue in anthropology but was now studiously ignored. Only he, it seemed, could defy this omertà and not suffer any ill effects, perhaps because of his age and status.

In his best known tome, The Elementary Structures of Kinship, this issue dominated the first chapter:

Man is both a biological being and a social individual. Among his responses to external or internal stimuli, some are wholly dependent upon his nature, others upon his social environment.

Lévi-Strauss admitted that the two were not always easy to separate:

Culture is not merely juxtaposed to [biological] life nor superimposed upon it, but in one way serves as a substitute for life, and in the other, uses and transforms it, to bring about the synthesis of a new order.

He reviewed the different ways of disentangling one from the other:

The simplest method would be to isolate a new-born child and to observe its reactions to various stimuli during the first hours or days after birth. Responses made under such conditions could then be supposed to be of a psycho-biological origin, and to be independent of ulterior cultural syntheses.

[Nonetheless,] the question always remains open whether a certain reaction is absent because its origin is cultural, or because, with the earliness of the observation, the physiological mechanisms governing its appearances are not yet developed. Because a very young child does not walk, it cannot be concluded that training is necessary, since it is known that a child spontaneously begins to walk as soon as it is organically capable of doing so. (Lévi-Strauss,1969, pp. 3-4)

His interest in the interactions between culture and biology went further. The gene pool of a population will influence its culture, which in turn will alter the gene pool:

The selection pressure of culture—the fact that it favors certain types of individuals rather than others through its forms of organization, its ideas of morality, and its aesthetic values—can do infinitely more to alter a gene pool than the gene pool can do to shape a culture, all the more so because a culture’s rate of change can certainly be much faster than the phenomena of genetic drift.(Lévi-Strauss, 1979, p. 24-25)

This is of course gene-culture co-evolution. He may have given the idea to L.L. Cavalli-Sforza, who first began to propound it while teaching a cultural evolution class in 1978-1979. Two of his students, Robert Boyd and Peter Richerson, went on to popularize the idea in their book Culture and the Evolutionary Process (1985) (Stone and Lurquin 2005, p. 108). Lévi-Strauss had in fact mentioned the same idea long before in a UNESCO lecture:

When cultures specialize, they consolidate and favor other traits, like resistance to cold or heat for societies that have willingly or unwillingly had to adapt to extreme climates, like dispositions to aggressiveness or contemplation, like technical ingenuity, and so on. In the form these traits appear to us on the cultural level, none can be clearly linked to a genetic basis, but we cannot exclude that they are sometimes linked partially and distantly via intermediate linkages. In this case, it would be true to say that each culture selects for genetic aptitudes that, via a feedback loop, influence the culture that had initially helped to strengthen them. (Lévi-Strauss, 1971)

In the same lecture, he made another point:

[Humanity] will have to relearn that all true creation implies some deafness to the call of other values, which may go so far as to reject or even negate them. One cannot at the same time melt away in the enjoyment of the Other, identify oneself with the Other, and keep oneself different. If fully successful, complete communication with the Other will doom its creative originality and my own in more or less short time. The great creative ages were those when communication had increased to the point that distant partners stimulated each other but not so often and rapidly that the indispensable obstacles between individuals, and likewise between groups, dwindled to the point that excessively easy exchanges would equalize and blend away their diversity. (Lévi-Strauss, 1971)

His audience was taken aback, according to fellow anthropologist Wiktor Stoczkowski:

These words shocked the listeners. One can easily imagine how disconcerted UNESCO employees were, who, meeting Lévi-Strauss in the corridor after the lecture, expressed their disappointment at hearing the institutional articles of faith to which they thought they had the merit of adhering called into question. René Maheu, the Director General of UNESCO, who had invited Lévi-Strauss to give this lecture, seemed upset. (Stoczkowski, 2008; Frost, 2014)

Where his ideas came from

Since his death in 2009, we have gained a clearer picture of his intellectual evolution. His published writings had already provided an answer:

When I was about sixteen, I was introduced to Marxism by a young Belgian socialist, whom I had got to know on holiday, and who is now one of his country’s ambassadors abroad. I was all the more delighted by Marx in that the reading of the works of the great thinker brought me into contact for the first time with the line of philosophical development running from Kant to Hegel; a whole new world was opened up to me. Since then, my admiration for Marx has remained constant […] (Lévi-Strauss, 2012 [1973])

Looking through Lévi-Strauss’ published and unpublished writings, Wiktor Stoczkowski tried to learn more about this episode but found nothing:

It suffices however to look closely at the milieus that Lévi-Strauss frequented in the 1920s and 1930s, or to reread the articles he published during that period to realize that his references to Marx were at that time astonishingly rare, in flagrant contradiction with his declarations […] In contrast, another name often came up during that time in the writings of the young Lévi-Strauss: that of Henri De Man. And that name, curiously, Lévi-Strauss would never mention after the war. (Stoczkowski, 2013)

As a young leftist disenchanted with Marxism, Lévi-Strauss was especially fascinated by De Man’s book Au-delà du marxisme(Beyond Marxism), published in 1927. One of his friends invited De Man to Paris to present his ideas to French socialists. Lévi-Strauss was given the job of organizing the lecture and wrote to De Man about the difficulties encountered:

We have run into many difficulties, which we scarcely suspected and which have sadly shed light on the conservative and sectarian spirit of a good part of French socialism […]. We thought that the best means to give this [lecture] all of the desirable magnitude would be to make it public […] [but] to obtain the key support of the Socialist Students, we have agreed to make your lecture non-public, and to reserve admission to members of socialist organizations. Thus, we have learned that Marxism is a sacrosanct doctrine in our party, and that to study theories that stray from it, we have to shut ourselves in very strongly, so that no one on the outside will know(Stoczkowski, 2013)

The lecture was held the next year. Stoczkowski describes the letter that Lévi-Strauss wrote to the invitee afterwards:

“Thanks to you,” he wrote, “socialist doctrines have finally emerged from their long sleep; the Party is undergoing, thanks to you, a revival of intellectual activity ….” But there is more. Speaking on his behalf and on behalf of his young comrades, Lévi-Strauss informed De Man that his book Au-delà du marxisme had been for them “a genuine revelation…” Speaking personally, Lévi-Strauss added that he was “profoundly grateful” to De Man’s teachings for having “helped me get out of an impasse I believed to have no way out.” (Stoczkowski, 2013)

Nothing indicates that Lévi-Strauss had ever been a Marxist in his youth. Both he and his friends saw it as a pseudo-religion that stunted the development of socialism.

But who was Henri De Man?

He was a Belgian Marxist who had lived in Leipzig, Germany, where he became the editor of a radical socialist journal, Leipziger Volkszeitung, that ran contributions by Rosa Luxembourg, Pannekoek, Radek, Trotsky, Karl Liebknecht, and others. In 1907, he helped found the Socialist Youth International. He later returned to Belgium and enrolled when war broke out, seeing the Allied side as a progressive alternative to German authoritarianism.

His views changed during the 1920s, while teaching at the University of Frankfurt. He came to feel that Marxists erred in seeing themselves as an antithesis to the current system; such a perspective made them oppose all traditional values, particularly Christianity and national identity. He now argued that laws, morality, and religion are not bourgeois prejudices, but rather things that are necessary to make any society work. Marxists also erred, he felt, in their narrow focus on economic determinism and their disregard for psychology and the will to act. Although De Man acknowledged the self-destructive tendencies of capitalism, these tendencies do not inevitably lead to revolution. Rather, revolution will happen only when enough people realize that current conditions are neither tolerable nor inevitable. Above all, revolution cannot happen unless it respects existing cultural, religious, and national traditions:

If one sees in socialism something other than and more than an antithesis to modern capitalism, and if one relates it to its moral and intellectual roots, one will find that these roots are the same as those of our entire Western civilization. Christianity, democracy, and socialism are now, even historically, merely three forms of one idea. Au-delà du marxisme (1927)

De Man returned to Belgium during the 1930s, becoming vice-president and then president of the Belgian Labour Party. In 1935, with the formation of a government of national unity to fight the Great Depression, he was made minister of public works and job creation. In this role, he pushed for State planning and looked to Germany and Italy as examples to be followed. He became increasingly disillusioned with parliamentary democracy and began to call for an “authoritarian democracy” where decisions would be made primarily through the legislature and referendums, rather than through the executive and party politics (Tremblay, 2006).

When Germany overran Belgium in 1940, De Man issued a manifesto to Labour Party members and advised them to collaborate: “For the working classes and for socialism, this collapse of a decrepit world, far from being a disaster, is a deliverance” (Wikipedia, 2015). Over the next year, he served as de facto prime minister before falling into disfavor with the German authorities. He spent the rest of the war in Paris and then fled to Switzerland where he lived his final years. Meanwhile, a Belgian court convicted him in absentia of treason.


Like many people after the war, Claude Lévi-Strauss had to invent a new past. It didn’t matter that he had admired Henri de Man at a time when the Belgian socialist was not yet a fascist or a collaborator. As Stoczkowski notes, guilt by association would have been enough to ruin his academic career. Ironically, if he had really been a loyal Marxist during the late 1920s and early 1930s, he would also have denied back then the crimes being committed in the name of Marxism: the Ukrainian famine, Stalin’s purges … Yet, for that, he never faced any criticism.


De Man. (1927). Au-delà du marxisme, Brussels, L’Églantine.

Frost, P. (2014). Negotiating the gap. Four academics and the dilemma of human biodiversity, Open Behavioral Genetics, June 20.

Lévis-Strauss, C. (1969 [1949]). The Elementary Structures of Kinship, Beacon Press.

Lévi-Strauss, C. (1971). Race et culture, conférence de Lévi-Strauss à L’UNESCO le 22 mars 1971

Lévi-Strauss, C. (2012[1973]). Tristes Tropiques, New York: Penguin

Lévi-Strauss, C. (1985). Claude Lévi-Strauss à l’université Laval, Québec (septembre 1979), prepared by Yvan Simonis, Documents de recherche no. 4, Laboratoire de recherches anthropologiques, Département d’anthropologie, Faculté des Sciences sociales, Université Laval.

Stoczkowski, W. (2008). Claude Lévi-Strauss and UNESCO, The UNESCO Courrier, no. 5, pp. 5-8.

Stoczkowski, W. (2013). Un étrange socialisme de Claude-Lévi-Strauss / A weird socialism of Claude Lévi-Strauss, Europe, 91, n° 1005-1006, 37-53.étrange_socialisme_de_Claude-Lévi-Strauss_A_weird_socialism_of_Claude_Lévi-Strauss

Stone, L. and P.F. Lurquin. (2005). A Genetic and Cultural Odyssey. The Life and Work of L. Luca Cavalli-Sforza. New York: Columbia University Press.

Tremblay, J-M. (2006). Henri de Man, 1885-1953, Les classiques des sciences sociales, UQAC

Wikipedia. (2015). Henri de Man

(Republished from Evo and Proud by permission of author or representative)
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  1. benjaminl says:

    I haven’t googled it yet, but is Paul de Man related?

    • Replies: @Steve Sailer
  2. @benjaminl

    Wikipedia says Paul de Man was Henri de Man’s nephew.

    • Replies: @Steve Sailer
  3. Only Jews get to cover up their past. The rest of us have it flung in our faces at the whim of a media class mandarin.

  4. I’m confused by the ending. Did Levi-Strauss actually deny the crimes of Marxism?

    • Replies: @Cato
  5. Harry says:

    On the subject of gene-culture co-evolution: One could hypothesize that individuals leaving a long-standing endogamous community would show reduced fecundity compared to individuals still inside the community, having just lost half of a co-evolved survival kit.

    Perhaps this hypothesis could be tested against individuals that left the Amish or Jewish culture; or using gene frequency counts in the surrounding population, if historical rates of individuals leaving such communities were known.

  6. @Steve Sailer

    Uncle Henri was a like a father to his nephew Paul, the father of deconstructionism in American academia. Paul was also a white collar criminal back home in Belgium and maybe a bigamist too.

  7. Ad bominem attacks are not only logically fallacious but likely false. There is no evidence that any “beliefs” cause any kinds of behavior. All other animals behave just fine without beliefs or even language.

    So what is the, useful intellectual, point of this piece?

    Look none of the great thinkers/books of the past had the slightest idea what causes behavior. Since they had no knowledge of how the brain works to cause beahvior – they were all wrong. Freud was the closet to right.

    Levy Stauss’s idea about human behavior are “drive by” – at best. But at the time, there was nothing else to talk about. Let’s relegate them to the dumpster of obsolete social science ideas from human past – shall we.

  8. skep says:

    good morning Peter,

    you wrote: “nature versus nurture”; could it be rather “culture”, even if nurture car also be meaningful.

  9. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    Only a Jew could be so disingenuous as to abuse an infant in the interest of obscuring the obvious. Has the century’s worth of Africans transplanted into every (until now) prosperous Western society not demonstrated that a Negro will behave as a Negro no matter where he hangs his gov’t-subsidized hat?
    This old kosher two-step of accepting a smaller mistake for receipt of a larger concession is exactly what has put us in the spot we’re in.

  10. Sean says:

    If De Man had been a communist in the late 30’s he would have defended the pact between Germany and the Soviet Union that might have gave the Soviet Union a chance to occupy an exhausted Western Europe in the aftermath of the expected re-run of WW1, at the risk of giving Hitler a chance to defeat his enemies in detail and win WW2. Socialism in one country was the stain on Stalin. But if he had been a Marxist De Man probably would have begun to shift in the 30’s and been one of the many intellectuals who looked to Trotskyite theorising (not actual Trotsky while he was in power) for the authentic strain of Marxist thought. There is no doubt that almost any kind of public intellectual in the 30s was some kind of Marxist, it seemed to take root in a way that a scientific theory (which is what it purported to be) never could have.

    THE results were published in the Left Review, under the heading, “Authors take sides on the Spanish war”, and made riveting reading. Of 148 writers who replied, 127 were for the government

    THE seventeen monks from the Carmelite monastery were rounded up, herded on to the street and shot. Campbell discovered their murdered bodies, left lying where they fell. He also discovered the bodies of other priests lying in the narrow street where the priests had been murdered. Swarms of flies surrounded their bodies, and scrawled in their blood on the wall was written, ‘Thus strikes the CHEKA.’” […] For a British intellectual to oppose the Spanish Republic was virtually unheard of, as was Campbell’s glorification of military strength and masculine virtues. His reputation suffered considerably as a result.

    That makes more sense 8 decades later. Marxism was about the amalgamation all humanity without regards to ethnicity or nation, as is current globalising capitalism. Christianity/ pacification which advocated the same utopia as both the aforementioned modern ideologies must have been the taproot. Marx and his followers always insisted it was scientific, and in a way he was correct. The progressive pacification of Western civilisation meant entropy of culture rendered down until there is no function in national particularities of culture, apparent signs of biological difference, and national armed force. Enmity is actually the harder thing for Europeans. It would also be a plausible explanation for why counter-enlightenment reaction has never been popular, except in fluid situations created by national defeats that demoralised the whole political class. Civilisation’s central tenet is restraint in the use of force, but the absence of violence does not indicate any transcending of biological drives at all. Peace may reign because Europeans give in to their innermost feelings, rather than resisting them.

    If Christianity, democracy, and socialism are but three expressions of the ideals of Western Europe, then the current movement to in effect abolish nations by replacement immigration is not a self-serving fad by elites; it’s the authentic expression of a mode of thought so primordial it may stem from the genes particular to Europeans. The pacification process would be an obvious candidate for why the anti-traditional values of liberalism broke though in the Enlightenment era. A sociobiological explanation for the origin of liberalism would explain why those values appeared and took root in western Europeans.

    I would suggest that for west Europeans as currently constituted, liberalism (or something like Marxism) comes naturally in almost any conceivable situation. The indictment against movements for traditional community values accuses nationalists of failing to exercise self-control; being barbarians in thrall to infinitely inferior and primitive brain functions. But fascism never said it was that at all, it glorified human possibilities and transcendence of biological drives for self preservation through will. . The European Enlightenment’s great innovation was supposedly restraint in the use of force, but the absence of violence does not indicate any transcending of biological drives at all. Peace may reign because Europeans give in to their innermost feelings. Steven Pinker predicted that the Ukraine conflict would not spiral into a major war (which can only mean war between the US and Russia) “because of the changes documented in Better Angels… the worlds of 1914, 1939, or 1950 are really no different from the world of today, so that it is naïve to write about a decline in the likelihood of major violence? “. As I read Pinker he is saying progressice Enlightenment Humanism enabled the transcending of biology.

    Niccolò Machiavelli himself, for all his praise of the Borgia family’s machinations, says of the tyrant Agathocles that “it cannot be called talent to slay fellow-citizens, to deceive friends, to be without faith, without mercy, without religion; such methods may gain empire, but not glory.”⁵ That today’s world leaders are not just calculating realists can be seen from a simple thought experiment. If we were to replace each of these leaders instantly with a purely amoral double, it should be obvious that the world map would change its current form rather quickly, to the advantage of the most powerful states. ‘

    Yes, and the US spends more on armaments than the rest of the world put together . Stratfor’s George Friedman, predicts the breakup of Russia within a decade. If Putin had backed off completely over Ukraine, how could you tell if it was Pinker’s Enlightenment Humanism or simple fear of US power and self preservation?

    “Ukraine’s choice to join Europe will accelerate the demise of the ideology of Russian imperialism that Putin represents,” Gershman ([president of the megabucks-funded National Endowment for Democracy]wrote. “Russians, too, face a choice, and Putin may find himself on the losing end not just in the near abroad but within Russia itself.”

    Putin does not seem motivated by amoral power politics considerations seems and he is taking on superpower-America, which will likely mean his defeat.

    Rejecting liberalism or being even tangentially associated with someone who later used force against liberalism (or Marxism) is always assumed to have been chosen for base reasons, even if it is the last thing an amoral careerist would have done.

  11. Sean says:

    EVEN if we join those commentators who view Hobbes as the founder of liberalism, insofar as he seeks to depoliticize social life for the pursuit of happiness and economic gain, the basic pessimism of Hobbes’ vision is clear. Since even a brutally oppressive regime would be preferable to civil war, the key is that nothing should be regarded as transcending the sphere of the state. Not only religion, but even science must be blocked from claiming access to a superior truth beyond the power of the sovereign. Hobbes himself went so far as to denounce the chemist Robert Boyle to the English government for claiming direct access to the truth of the vacuum.

    Hobbes was the first liberal all right.

  12. joe webb says:

    Elmer Rich…”Freud was the closet to right.”

    Please defend this absurdity to me.

    I guess that most folks on this list accept the Darwinian evolution thesis as pretty much “right”.

    In what sense was Freud even close? Freud was in the tradition of Caballah, Jewish chauvinism, etc. Fuck your mother and kill your father about sums it up, besides your time is up and here’s your bill.

    Joe Webb

  13. Sean says:

    People who read HBD blogs are if anything less likely to have reproduced than average according to my recollection of data Razib gave on the readership of his old site. Few people seem to behave as if they are maximising their Darwinian fitness. So there is probably quite a lot of inner conflict. Freud had a point about that.

    • Replies: @Jim
  14. Sean says:

    I don’t know how much Lévi-Strauss continued to take from the thought of someone who he must have felt betrayed by. Lévi-Strauss must have had some opinions about Jewish identity, but like Boas he never said anything explicitly on the subject. I’m left wondering if what he said about not losing oneself in the other was somehow alluding to his own ethnic group.

  15. Cato says:

    The point is that any association with Nazism would turn someone into a pariah, but such is not the case with Marxism–a doctrine that has committed an equivalent amount of evil. A good example is Werner Sombart, who, in the early 20th century, was considered to be of the same calibre as Max Weber, but was tainted by his brief association with the Nazis, and is now seldom considered a canonical thinker by sociologists.

    • Replies: @Jim
  16. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    Mr. Frost, thank you for this interesting survey. Levi-Strauss remains one of the most insightful scholars I’ve had the pelasure of reading. He was among the first thinkers to scuttle linguistic/cultural duality.

  17. Jim says:

    The bodycount for Marxism is far greater.

  18. Jim says:

    The fact that people who read HBD blogs have low fitness is completely irrelevant to the truth or falsity of HBD propositions. Grigori Perelman has very low fitness but that doesn’t refute his proof of the Poincare Conjecture.

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