Great anthropologists who fought fascism

Some of you who — unlike me — have not had family members murdered by nazis or had every synagogue in their home town firebombed in the same night may now be learning about antifa for the first time. But although it’s making waves in the media now, antifascist action has a century-long history which includes many anthropologists, who have fought fascism not by writing letters to the New York Times or retweeting an animated .gif but by putting their lives on the line.

As histories of antifascist action document, antifa is a fundamentally illiberal political movement which seeks to oppose fascism by any means necessary — including violence. For this reason, I can’t stress enough that I am opposed to antifa in the United States at the moment because I am opposed to violence, which is both against my values and tactically and strategically against our interests at this point in time given the mood of the country. But in different times and different places the threat of fascism was so dire that violent resistance was necessary. And in those moments, anthropologists acted bravely and with honor.

A good example of one such moment was the Spanish Civil War of the late 1930s, which pitted Republicans (i.e. pro-democracy) against the dictator Franco. The conflict had its own internal politics, but many in the world saw it as a test of the power of democracy to withstand the power of fascism, which was spreading rapidly over Europe. Thousands of  Americans volunteered to ship over to Spain and formed the Abraham Lincoln Brigade to fight in the conflict — which the fascists eventually won. Two of the volunteers were Elman Service and John V. Murra.

Service grew up in the depression. He didn’t graduate from high school because his school closed for lack of funds during his senior year. After working part time to earn money he entered university, but dropped out to join the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. He fought and was wounded in battle, and then shipped back to the United States, where he continued to raise money for the Spanish Civil War. Then, after World War II broke out, he entered the military and returned to Europe to fight the Nazi threat. His country repaid his service with the G.I. Bill, which allowed him to get his Ph.D., and FBI surveillance to make sure he was not a communist. Apparently one reason he was never persecuted by our national security apparatus was because all of the guys in his unit told the FBI that he had their back.

Service is remembered today for his work on social evolution, and not remembered enough for classic articles like “Models for the Methodology of Mouthtalk”, which railed against the mindless use of jargon in anthropology. Service’s dislike of simple jargon and simplistic forms of explanation had deep roots in a depression-era childhood where inequality was not an abstract concept, and time on the battlefield where materialism was more than a theory. After a long and distinguished career he died at the age of 81.

John Murra’s life story is even more remarkable. A Jew from Eastern Europe, he was born Isaac Lipschitz, came to America to escape persecution, and attended college at the University of Chicago, where he studied anthropology under Robert Redfield. He finished his BA and then joined the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. “I did not graduate from the University of Chicago,” he later said, “I graduated from the Spanish Civil War.” He helped smuggle volunteers into Spain, and when the war was lost he was interned in a refugee camp. He returned to the US and volunteered three times to fight in WWII, but was denied because of the wounds suffered in his head and chest during the Spanish campaign. Instead, he worked with Ruth Benedict and John Dollard interviewing Spanish Civil War veterans, eventually producing the book Fear in Battle, a classic piece of WWII-era applied anthropology.

At the end of the war Murra was denied US citizenship, and had to sue the government in order to get it.  This was just one of the many indignities he faced as a radical living through the McCarthy period. I think his life experiences scarred him. He was a lifelong insomniac, and kept a foam mattress behind his office door so he could sleep on it when he needed. The acknowledgments section of his dissertation thanked his psychoanalysts, without whom “the writing of this dissertation could not have been completed”. His past as a communist haunted him and made getting grants, citizenship, and a visa very difficult. But despite these obstacles he became a world expert on the Andes and a professor at Cornell. He turned his passport difficulties into an advantage, writing a historical thesis and becoming a key player in the discipline of ethnohistory. He died in 2006 at the age of 90.

Murra and Service faced a fascist threat far more severe than what we face today. They lived through hardships that most anthropologists can only dream about. Today in the United States we must decide when the fascist threat is so great that we have no choice but to use violent resistance. I think we are very, very, very far away from that day. Very far away. Very. Far. Away. The turbulent years they lived through provides a valuable reality check about how serious the threat to our country is, even as their example demonstrates  what anthropologists have done when they saw a fight they could no longer ignore.


Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at

9 thoughts on “Great anthropologists who fought fascism

  1. Rex, thanks for this. I met John Murra at Cornell in the mid-1960s but never knew this about him. I did learn that John Roberts, who was also teaching at Cornell back then, won a Silver Star in WWII.

  2. I was very fortunate to have Elman Service as the chair of my PhD committee at UCSB in the late 70s. He was a great mentor and a real Mensch! As I came from a lumpenproleteriat background from Michigan and had an interest in Leslie White’s hidden Marxist orientation in my early introduction to anthropology in the 60s, Elman and I shared a lot of interests. (White was emeritus in the UCSB department and his office was next to Elman’s office). I took several of his courses and was his TA for his course on the Evolution of the State. One of his graduate courses was the History of Anthropology and he had known all the early pioneers in the field and was part of the Columbia-Michigan axis and he was able to share a lot of insights into the intellectual developments of those thinkers. After I earned my MA and was waiting to go to do fieldwork in Thailand, I became his research assistant and helped him produce some of his books, such as ‘Profiles in Ethnology,’ ‘A Century of Controversy: Ethnological Issues from 1860 to 1960,’ and ‘Origins of the State and Civilization: The Process of Cultural Evolution.’ After I began teaching both he and Eric Wolf helped me in my organization of my textbooks in anthropology; Cultural Anthropology: A Global Perspective now going into the 10th edition with Pearson. Although in the late 70s, Elman had turned away from his early Marxist inclinations and employed a more functional approach to cultural evolution–currently it would be labeled a type of cultural group selection approach— he was always devoted to clarity of thinking and encouraged solid ethnographic research. We remained steadfast friends and correspondents up until his death. His stories about his participation in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade demonstrated his personal courage and his devotion to a struggle against Fascism.

  3. Incredible, Ray! Do you remember any particular stories he told? I don’t think he ever did an oral history. At least iirc.

  4. Wolf fought in WWII but not in the Spanish Civil War, iirc. A whole generation of anthropologists were in WWII — Geertz, Goodenough, etc. — but far fewer volunteered to go to Spain.

  5. On the home front, there were also those like Ruth Benedict, who worked for the OSS, the precursor of the CIA. Some say that her book The Chrysanthemum and the Sword influenced U.S. policy during the occupation of Japan, in particular Douglas MacArthur’s decision to have Emperor Hirohito renounce his divinity but remain as head of state. I wonder, has anyone ever written a book about anthropologists in WWII?

  6. There is a pretty robust literature on Benedict’s wartime work. The most recent book on this topic is “Return from the Natives” by Peter Mandler. It is a joint biography of Mead, Bateson, and Gorer. Benedict is featured as well though.There’s also David Price’s “Anthropological Intelligence: The Deployment and Neglect of American Anthropology in the Second World War”

  7. John Murra’s personal and professional papers were donated to the National Anthropological Archives in 2003, with the support of a Wenner-Gren Historical Archives Program grant. “The collection includes materials relating to Murra‘s immigration to the United States and later lawsuit for naturalization, his undergraduate and graduate studies at the University of Chicago, his experiences in the Spanish Civil War and in Ecuador during the Second World War as Don Collier‘s assistant, his teaching career at a number of colleges and universities in the United States and abroad including the University of Puerto Rico, Vassar College, Yale University, and Cornell University, and his research interests such as the fieldwork projects he directed at Huánuco and Lake Titicaca.” The Murra papers also include more than 25 linear feet of correspondence and personal diaries, as well his “dream archives.” I understand that Murra’s Lewis Henry Morgan Lectures (1969), with an introduction by Heather Lechtman, will be published by HAU Press in September.,%20John%20Victor.pdf

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