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  • Alexander Goldenweiser's Politics
  • Sergei Kan (bio)


When one hears the name Alexander Goldenweiser, the first thing that comes to mind is his pioneering work on totemism. In addition one might recall such seminal papers of his as "The Principle of Limited Possibilities in the Development of Culture" (1913) or "Loose Ends of Theory on the Individual, Pattern, and Involution in Primitive Society" (1937a). In addition one might consider the fact that he was one of Boas's favorite students and that Robert Lowie once placed him into a small elite group of American anthropology's "super-intelligentsia." Unfortunately "Goldie" did not leave behind as rich a corpus of either ethnographic materials or theoretical works as the other members of this small cohort. As Boas wrote to Ruth Benedict in July 1940 upon hearing about Goldenweiser's death at age sixty, "Isn't it sad to think of the life of a gifted man wasted on account of self indulgence? He was never able to meet the hard facts of life or science when they ran counter to his mental comfort" (Mead 1959:418).

While one could take issue with Boas's harsh verdict, this is not the purpose of my essay. Instead I would like to explore Goldenweiser's political views—particularly his attitude towards the Soviet Union, which set him apart from so many liberal and leftist American intellectuals, including quite a few anthropologists. This attitude is especially puzzling, given his generally left-wing orientation and a critical view of many aspects of American economy, society, and culture. Drawing on published and unpublished materials (in English and Russian), I will argue that his negative view of Bolshevik Russia as well as Marxist theory had a lot to do with his own Russian background and specific facts of his biography.

Goldenweiser's Background

Alexander Alexandrovich ("Shoora") Goldenweiser was born in Kiev in 1880 to the family of a very prominent Russian-Jewish lawyer.1 This was [End Page 182] a family of highly educated, cultivated, and assimilated Russian Jews who looked toward the West for progressive ideas and valued high culture a great deal. Shoora's father was a liberal who devoted much of his practice to helping the poor and the underprivileged, including the Jews victimized by the tsarist regime. A follower of Tolstoy's philosophy, he was a dedicated defender of the rights of every criminal. In addition to Tolstoy, he was a great admirer of Herbert Spencer; in fact his colleagues described him as a lawyer–social scientist. This combination of an interest in the social sciences and a passion for social justice was passed on to each of his three sons—Alexander (1880–1940), Emmanuel (1883– 1953; a prominent American economist and one of the founders of the Federal Reserve), and Alexei (1890–1979; a lawyer and a legal scholar who worked on behalf of the stateless refugees).

Eager to protect his sons from the anti-Semitic atmosphere of early– 1900s Russia and give them an opportunity to live in a democratic country, Goldenweiser Sr. took his oldest son to America in 1900.2 There Shoora enrolled at Harvard as a special student and studied English and philosophy for a year.3 However, in 1901 he transferred to Columbia where he obtained all of his degrees, including a PhD in anthropology under Boas in 1910. From 1910 to 1919 he taught at Columbia as an instructor and eventually a lecturer.4 Although Goldenweiser earned himself a reputation of a fine teacher, his personal conduct was not beyond reproach. Because of that and other reasons that will not be discussed here, Boas was unable to secure a permanent position for him at Columbia.5

When in 1919 a prominent group of progressive New York–area intellectuals organized the New School for Social Research, Goldenweiser was among them. It is here that this outstanding teacher introduced such future luminaries of American anthropology as Benedict, Leslie White, Melville Herskovits, and several others to the discipline and then directed them to Columbia to pursue graduate work under Boas.6 Once again Goldenweiser's serious personal indiscretion undermined his job security and forced him to stop teaching at the...


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