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.