Lewis Henry Morgan’s Posthumous Socialist Legacy

Courtesy of Rare Books, Special Collection and Preservation, University of Rochester.

Authored by: Edwin Reik.

Bernhard Stern (1894 – 1956) was a sociologist and anthropolgist who suffered under McCarthyism for his radical political views. His interest in Morgan began as an interest in the history of American social sciences. Stern studied Morgan while on the faculty at the University of Washington (1927 – 1930), and published the first book length biography of Morgan in 1931, Lewis Henry Morgan: Social Evolutionist. Stern was a member of he Communist Party who took a great interest in the Soviet Union. Unlike Leslie White, anthropologist and member of the Socialist Labor Party, who would also write about Morgan, Stern was critical of Morgan’s capitalist lifestyle. Like Stern, the Soviets would have to reconcile themselves with Morgan’s bourgeois lifestyle before using his work as the cornerstone for Soviet Ethnography.

Mark Osipovich Kosven, a Soviet academic and anthropological researcher began studying Morgan in the 1920s, and published a number of articles regarding Morgan by the start of the 1930s. During the 1920s the Soviets restructured their entire society, including their academic institutions. Everything had to be reset so that it could be approached from a Marxist perspective.  Morgan’s work had already been recognized as socialist in spirit by Russian scholars, partly due to the influence of Friedrich Engels’s The Origin of Family, Private Property and the State (1884). Morgan’s Ancient Society (1877), describes the evolution of society in materialist terms. Specific technological innovations such the bow and arrow or metal tools marked different stages in the progress of human societies. The idea that societies evolve in relation to material development was very appealing to Soviets, and was adaptable from their Marxist vantage point.

Through Kosven’s correspondence with the University of Rochester, Stern became aware that Soviet scholars were interested in Morgan’s work. Elated and eager to make contact with socialists of the East, Stern wrote to Kosven immediately, and eventually became Leningrad University’s  main contact for the Morgan archives. During the 1930s Stern corresponded with a number of Soviet anthropologists and social scientists regarding the Morgan archive, and mailed them copies of nearly every piece of work Morgan had ever produced, both published and unpublished. The copies were produced by Eastman Kodak Company.