Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 11, 2005

The Tragedy of Progress: Marxism, Modernity and the Aboriginal Question

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 12:21 pm

posted to www.marxmail.org on August 11, 2005

About eight years ago, I began writing about the contradictions between Marxism and indigenous movements with an eye toward resolving them on a higher level. These investigations were provoked by articles that had appeared in Living Marxism (LM), the magazine of the Revolutionary Communist Party in England. They were also fueled by a long-running debate with James Heartfield, an RCP member who was their public face on the Internet and who continues to profess Marxist beliefs long after the people associated with the RCP began identifying themselves as libertarians.

I found one LM article particularly provocative. It argued that human rights groups defending the Yanomami Indians in the Amazon rainforest were hindering their social and economic development by seeking to keep them preserved as if in amber, like museum displays. This attack was related to their attacks on an environmental movement also seen as hindering “progress.” For the RCP, progress meant widespread adoption of nuclear energy, DDT, genetically modified foods, etc. Nowadays, this group–with the exception of Heartfield–has dropped all pretenses to socialism, but still pushes heavily for its “modernization” agenda through its latest public face, http://www.spiked-online.com/>.

For example, this snippet from an article on the Bolivian struggle encapsulates their attitude toward indigenous forms of struggle:

However, some of those lining up with today’s Bolivian protests are not just disillusioned with politics at home – they’ve never really tried it. People who might skirt around their local estate because it’s too rough will nonetheless happily march alongside Bolivian peasants in opposition to US policy. Theirs is a middle-class anti-Westernism, a suspicion of big business and big development. It’s a fantasy of return to a simpler, cleaner life, away from the mess of burgers and MTV. The call to ‘restore the Inca nation’ strikes a chord.

full: http://www.spiked-online.com/Articles/0000000CABEC.htm>

There is so much that is wrong with this that I wouldn’t know where to start. So I will just say that it is indistinguishable from the garbage you get from Thomas Friedman columns and leave it at that.

Until recently, I found very few people on the left who were trying to reconcile Marxism and indigenous struggles. Three of them, all Indian, became members of the Marxism list: Hunter Gray (nee John Salter, a contributor to the Cochranite American Socialist magazine in the 1950s whose article I had stumbled across in the course of archiving the magazine), Roland Chrisjohn and my good friend Jim Craven.

Very recently, I discovered another voice in the wilderness, namely David Bedford, a Canadian professor whose “The Tragedy of Progress: Marxism, Modernity and the Aboriginal Question” (co-authored with York graduate student Danielle Irving) I have just completed and which can be ordered at: http://www.fernwoodbooks.ca/pages/fern_intro.html>

In an email from David, I learned about how he was led down this road. He was a member of the Canadian affiliate of the Spartacist League whose experiences in the class struggle forced him to question many of his previous assumptions:

My own interest in Aboriginal struggle came from my wife’s experiences. She is a doctor who in 1990 was practicing on the Mohawk reserve on Khanawake. This was the year of the Mohawk resistance to the Canadian state and she had incredible experiences every day trying to get into the blockaded community to see her patients… regularly running the gauntlet of city police, provincial police, regular army units and racist crowds. The article and book stemmed from discussions with comrades on the issues of the future of aboriginal communities, their role in socialist transformation and more theoretical issues of stages, progress, nationalism, and development. Needless to say I did not always agree with my comrades.

The introduction of “The Tragedy of Progress” is titled “Aboriginal Crisis and the Silence of the Left.” It documents the indifference of the organized labor movement and socialist groups to the assault on native struggles over fishing, hunting and land claims, including the one at Khanawake that involved preventing the extension of a golf course. Developers sought to cut down a pine forest that was sacred to the Mohawks. This had followed years of encroachment on Indian land. All across this hemisphere, such struggles are taking place continuously, including Chile where the Socialist government has done little to defend Mapuche land claims. With the failure of the organized left to come to the defense of indigenous peoples, Bedford can understand why people such as Ward Churchill have expressed hostility toward Marxism. But the purpose of the book, as has been mine, is to show that Marxism can be a powerful weapon on behalf of indigenous struggles, particularly if seen in terms of the national question.

Chapter one is titled “The Continuing Conquest.” It identifies the mode of production that prevailed in pre-conquest American Indian society and draws upon the work of anthropologist Eleanor Leacock. I can’t recommend Leacock highly enough. Here is some background on her from the woman anthropologist pages at the University of Indiana:

After graduating from college in 1944, Leacock sought to work with Ruth Benedict in Washington D.C. at the Office of War Information to act on her opposition to fascism. However, she failed to pass an FBI background check due to “un-American” activities dating back to her times as a radical at Radcliffe and chose instead to attend graduate school at Columbia University. With her experience of being persecuted for her political beliefs behind her and the intense focus of the field on historical particularism, she chose to keep her Marxist leanings to herself…

For her dissertation, Leacock asserted that family hunting territories, individually owned and inherited tracts of land, were not aboriginal among the Innu (Montagnais-Naskapi), the subarctic Indian people of Labrador. “Her path-breaking work exploded the prevailing antievolutionary and explicitly anti-Marxist theses (promoted by Frank Speck) that ‘communism in living’ had never existed and that private property existed even in gather-hunter societies. She found that subsistence resources were not privately owned, even after centuries of commodity production; although the rights to trap in given places were privatized, the rights to gather, fish, hunt for food, and so on were still communal.

full: http://www.indiana.edu/~wanthro/leacock.htm>

In chapter two, titled “Aboriginal Genocide and the Left,” the authors conduct a survey of the Canadian left including the NDP, the CP and various Trotskyist groups. All are found lacking to one extent or another. Basically, they are all plagued by “stagist” conceptions which posit a kind of Hegelian necessity for precapitalist societies to be replaced by capitalism. Capitalism then creates the material basis for socialism, whose arrival will remedy past injustices against the Indian. No wonder people like Ward Churchill are hostile to Marxism with such a point of view prevailing. I was particularly pleased to see a sharp criticism of George Novack’s 1992 pamphlet “Genocide Against the Indian” there. I too find this work replete with stagist conceptions that would be repugnant to American Indians, whose traditional ways are seen as a kind of obstacle to capitalist progress. I commented on a defense of Novack’s schema that had appeared in the Militant newspaper last year:

“Novack explains the historically progressive spread of capitalist social relations from coast to coast in the United States, while at the same time condemning the brutal extermination of the Native American population by which this was accomplished. There is a difference between sweeping away precapitalist encumbrances such as tribalism, and a genocidal war, which is what the capitalists ended up carrying out for reasons described by Novack. Similarly, explaining that slavery needed to be swept away does not mean one is calling for killing all the slaves.” [Quoting from the Militant]

There is so much confusion in this reply that one hardly knows where to begin. First of all, the American capitalists were not interested in wiping out “tribalism”, whatever that is. Their goal was removing Indians from the land they legally owned. To somehow conflate this with the historic goals of the bourgeois-democratic revolution is a stretch at best. One of the most brutal attacks on the Indian people took place in the Southeast, where small and free Cherokee landowners were driven from their land in order to exploit it for cotton production based on a latifundia model. If this is supposed to have something in common with Tom Paine or the Enlightenment, I cannot discern what it is.

More to the point, there is an implicit notion in Novack’s schema that capitalism is more productive than previous systems. “Encumbrances” such as tribalism had to be removed in order for civilization to move forward. This kind of undialectical view characterizes the Kautskyism of the Second International. In truth, the American Indian made far more productive use of nature than the capitalist ranchers and farmers who replaced them. The capitalist mode of production could certainly produce more goods with less labor, but at a terrible cost to the long-term viability of the land. If anything, the socialist world of the future will have to re-institute many of the ways that indigenous peoples related to the environment.

full: http://lists.econ.utah.edu/pipermail/marxism/2004-January/003199.html>

Chapter three is titled “Aboriginal Apprehensions of Marxism.” It is a survey of critiques of the kind of stagism found in Novack from both Marxists influenced by postmodernist thought or the Frankfurt school, and from indigenous thinkers.

“Post-Marxist” thought will tend to have more of an affinity for indigenous issues as it tends to question “grand historical narratives” of the sort found in schemas such as Kautsky’s writings. As one example, the authors cite David Barsh, whose 1988 article “Contemporary Marxist Theory and Native American Reality” argues that Marxism and liberalism share certain assumptions about “progress”:

Marxism itself [like liberalism] is a logical development from the rise of scientific and technological rationalism at the end of the 18th century. People used science to conquer nature, and Marxism now proposes to use science to overcome the constraints in human society that (in theory) hold back the further progress of conquering nature.

This leads him to conclude:

In the final analysis, the problem of industrialism dwarfs the Left-Right debate as Indian leaders have long maintained. Large-scale technocratic industry concentrates power, alienates workers, unleashes ecological irresponsibility, and increases States’ capacity for suicidal warfare without regard to whether production is controlled by corporate or State bureaucracies.

This obviously has an affinity for ideas put forward by Russell Means, a close ally of Ward Churchill, in an article titled “The Same Old Song” presented at a Black Hills Survival Gathering at Rapid City, South Dakota in 1980 when both Indian and Marxist organizations submitted papers. The Maoist Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) presented a paper titled “Searching for a Second Harvest” that reeked of dogmatism and racism, just as the sort found in the similarly named British group. Means argues:

Now let’s suppose that in our resistance to extermination we begin to seek allies (we have). Let’s suppose further that were to take revolutionary Marxism at its word: that it intends nothing less than the complete overthrow of the European capitalist order which has presented this threat to our very existence. This would seem to be a natural alliance for American Indian people to make. After all, as the Marxists say, it is the capitalists who set us up to be a national sacrifice. This is true as far as it goes.

But, as I’ve tried to point out, this ‘truth’ is very deceptive. Look beneath the surface of revolutionary Marxism and what do you find? A commitment to reversing the industrial system which created the need of white society for uranium? No. A commitment to guaranteeing the Lakota and other American Indian peoples real control over the land and resources they have left? No, not unless the industrial process is to be reversed as part of their doctrine. A commitment to our rights, as peoples, to maintaining our values and traditions? No, as long as they need the uranium within our land to feed the industrial system of the society, the culture of which the Marxists are still a part.

The parallels with Barsh are striking. For both the post-Marxist and the indigenous activist, the primary contradiction is between “the industrial system” and Indian traditional ways.

In the final chapter titled “Marxism and the Aboriginal Question” and a postscript titled “Prospects for the Future,” the authors put forward some tentative suggestions on how Marxism and native struggles can be reconciled. They are rooted in a critical reading of works such as Marx’s Ethnological Notebooks and Engels’s “Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State.” These works are imbued with a “tragic sense” of how a democratic and egalitarian society was superseded by private property and “civilization”. Although Marx and Engels saw the rise of capitalism as being based on iron historical laws, they did not worship at its altar as the British RCP did.

Referring to the Iroquois constitution, Engels writes:

And a wonderful constitution it is, this gentile constitution, in all its childlike simplicity! No soldiers, no gendarmes or police, no nobles, kings, regents, prefects, or judges, no prisons, no lawsuits – and everything takes its orderly course. All quarrels and disputes are settled by the whole of the community affected, by the gens or the tribe, or by the gentes among themselves; only as an extreme and exceptional measure is blood revenge threatened-and our capital punishment is nothing but blood revenge in a civilized form, with all the advantages and drawbacks of civilization…And what men and women such a society breeds is proved by the admiration inspired in all white people who have come into contact with unspoiled Indians, by the personal dignity, uprightness, strength of character, and courage of these barbarians.

full: http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1884/origin-family/ch03.htm>

But despite the noble character of these people, they were inevitably to fall victim to the relentless march of history. As Engels puts it in the same passage, “Let us not forget that this organization was doomed to extinction.”

Moving forward in the history of Marxist thought, Bedford and Irving seek to resolve the contradictions between Marxism and the indigenous through a fresh reading of Lenin’s writings on the national question. They believe that the following citation lends itself to a defense of struggles such as the kind that the Mohawk nation fought:

Insofar as the bourgeoisie of the oppressed nation fights the oppressor, we are always, in every case, and more strongly than anyone else, in favour, for we are the staunchest and the most consistent enemies of oppression. But insofar as the bourgeoisie of the oppressed nation stands for its own bourgeois nationalism, we stand against. We fight against the privileges and violence of the oppressor nation, and do not in any way condone strivings for privileges on the part of the oppressed nation.

full: http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1914/self-det/ch04.htm>

I just want to conclude with a couple of suggestions to David and Danielle for further research.

First, I would strongly recommend Teodor Shanin’s “Late Marx”, which is published by Monthly Review press. It is a study of his relationship to the Russian populist movement that demonstrates a clear move away from earlier writings, especially on India, that betray a certain weakness on the question of the inevitability of capitalist progress. Marx specifically tells the Russians that his economic writings were not meant as some kind of prescription for how society must evolve. By taking his stand with the precapitalist rural commune, Marx showed that he was not a captive of Hegelian type schemas about progress.

I would also strongly recommend the writings of José Carlos Mariátegui, the father of Peruvian communism. My analysis of the importance of Mariátegui in resolving the contradictions between Marxism and indigenous struggles can be found at:


You can also find an online archive some of his writings at:


This page contains a link to his 1928 article, “The Problem of the Indian” at:


I will conclude with an excerpt from this article:

The assumption that the Indian problem is ethnic is sustained by the most outmoded repertory of imperialist ideas. The concept of inferior races was useful to the white man’s West for purposes of expansion and conquest. To expect that the Indian will be emancipated through a steady crossing of the aboriginal race with white immigrants is an anti-sociological naiveté that could only occur to the primitive mentality of an importer of merino sheep. The people of Asia, who are in no way superior to the Indians, have not needed any transfusion of European blood in order to assimilate the most dynamic and creative aspects of Western culture. The degeneration of the Peruvian Indian is a cheap invention of sophists who serve feudal interests.

1 Comment »

  1. […] The Tragedy of Progress: Marxism, Modernity and the Aboriginal Question […]

    Pingback by Oskorei » Karl Marx och irokeserna — November 15, 2007 @ 7:19 pm

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