Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 22, 2012


Filed under: Africa,anthropology,Film,indigenous — louisproyect @ 6:38 pm

Watch Trailer here

When documentary filmmaker Cevin Soling was in seventh grade, his social studies teacher passed out a copy of an essay by Lewis Thomas titled “The Iks“. It referred to a small tribe in northern Uganda that might have been called “the Ickies” based on what Thomas wrote:

The message of the book [anthropologist Colin Turnbull’s “The Mountain People”] is that the Iks have transformed themselves into an irreversibly disagreeable collection of unattached, brutish creatures, totally selfish and loveless, in response to the dismantling of their traditional culture. Moreover, this is what the rest of us are like in our inner selves, and we will all turn into Iks when the structure of our society comes all unhinged.

They breed without love or even casual regard. They defecate on each other’s doorsteps. They watch their neighbors for signs of misfortune, and only then do they laugh. In the book they do a lot of laughing, having so much bad luck. Several times they even laughed at the anthropologist, who found this especially repellent (one senses, between the lines, that the scholar is not himself the world’s luckiest man). Worse, they took him into the family, snatched his food, defecated on his doorstep, and hooted dislike at him. They gave him two bad years.

Three decades later, Soling decided to travel to Ik territory and meet the people who were either maligned by Turnbull or lived up (or down) to the portrait. The chronicle of that voyage is in the marvelous documentary “Ikland” that closed yesterday at the Quad Cinema in New York City but can be ordered from the film’s website. As someone who has followed controversies in academic anthropology for the better part of two decades, I can say that this film should be required viewing in anthropology classes everywhere. It is a singular lesson in how the social scientist can impose their own worldview on an innocent people in a manner that reminds one of  colonial domination. After all, Turnbull’s Britain once ruled all of Uganda so why shouldn’t he have his way with a mere tribe?

While it was within the realm of possibility that the Ik were as bad as Thomas portrayed them (he did blame their obnoxious traits on circumstances forced on them rather than any genetic predisposition), Soling must have sensed that another reality lurked beneath the surface as he said in a statement on the Ikland website:

I also had guiding principles of what not to do. I did not want to take an objective detached approach of treating people as experimental subjects, where comparisons to the viewer become implicit. At the same time, I did not want to take the other extreme of idealizing their society. When people were interviewed, I designed a conversational tone to overcome inherent distance, which focused on their daily concerns and enabled their dignity to emerge.

On my own website, I include these words from Frankfurt School luminary Max Horkheimer: “a revolutionary career does not lead to banquets and honorary titles, interesting research and professorial wages. It leads to misery, disgrace, ingratitude, prison and a voyage into the unknown, illuminated by only an almost superhuman belief.”

After watching “Ikland”, one cannot help but think that Soling’s trek into Ik territory was also a “voyage into the unknown, illuminated by only an almost superhuman belief” that the intended subjects of the film were so deserving of having their story told that any sacrifice made on their behalf would be worth it. In Soling’s case, and that of the tiny production staff that accompanied him, that sacrifice might have been their lives.

As documented in the film with surprising casualness and even a comic tone, the trip into northern Uganda involved numerous threats to health and safety. Soling and his comrades sleep in an infirmary in a tiny village, the nearest thing to a hostel in the Ugandan countryside en route to their destination. In nearby beds, there are people suffering from Dengue fever and anthrax. As they continue north, they pitch tents on a dirt road (more like a trail) and are awoken in the middle of the night by growling lions just outside the flaps. In a phone interview conducted with the director last night, he revealed that the only thought that came to him was this is where I am going to die. Continuing further, they run into a herd of elephants and once again escape with their lives. (African elephants—unlike their Indian brethren—are not only untrainable, they are violently hostile to people.) But the biggest threat of all was bandits and the feral combatants of The Lord’s Resistance Army, a group prone to wanton amputations and executions. While on the road in the middle of the night, the tiny convoy is attacked by small arms fire and only survives by driving ahead on punctured tires.

When they finally arrive in Ik territory, they are greeted warily. Few whites venture that far north and the Ik people tend to view all outsiders with some degree of suspicion since they have been preyed upon by hostile tribes in Uganda and the Turkana from Kenya to the north. The Turkana are warlike pastoralists who raid in order to steal food and cattle or goats reminding me in some ways of the Comanche who used to launch raids into Mexico in the 1850s. Despite having lost a number of their tribe to Turkana raiders in recent days, an Ik leader tells Soling that the Turkana can be generous when times are good. Given the desertification impacting almost all of northern Africa today and the exploitation of fertile land for agri-exports like coffee or cotton, it is understandable why the Turkana would be on the warpath much of the time.

Once the film crew settles into a daily routine with their hosts, we learn that Colin Turnbull’s analysis was not to be trusted. Like most people living communally, the Ik share their goods. When asked if some of the tribe hoards during a famine, they reply that in such times nobody has anything so there is nothing to hoard. Soling’s goal in enabling the Ik “dignity to emerge” is met with flying colors. As survivors of terrible privations, the Ik remain stoic and generous with each other and accepting and good-natured toward their guests. Perhaps the only defecation left on a doorstep was Colin Turnbull’s misbegotten book.

One of Turnbull’s sharpest critics within the profession is Bernd Heine, whose “The Mountain People: Some Notes on the Ik of North-Eastern Uganda” (African: Journal of the International Institute, Vol. 55, No. 1, 1985) sets the record straight.

To start with, Turnbull visited the village of Pirre, an Ik center, but he came at a time when war forced non-Ik peoples to seek temporary refuge since it was the only village in the area that was policed and hence safe from banditry or terror. At times, therefore, the Ik were a minority there. Some of his main informants were not Ik at all but members of the Diding’a tribe.

Another of Turnbull’s errors was to view the Ik as hunter-gatherers like the pygmies he had also researched. He theorized that their anti-social behavior had something to do with being deprived of their livelihood since the state had banned hunting in Kidepo National Park, something that Lewis Thomas repeated:

The small tribe of Iks, formerly nomadic hunters and gatherers in the mountain valleys of northern Uganda, have become celebrities, literary symbols for the ultimate fate of disheartened, heartless mankind at large. Two disastrously conclusive things happened to them: the government decided to have a national park, so they were compelled by law to give up hunting in the valleys and become farmers on poor hillside soil, and then they were visited for two years by an anthropologist who detested them and wrote a book about them.

Thomas got the business about an anthropologist detesting them right, but they were never nomadic hunters. Instead they were farmers for at least 3000 years according to Heine, and as such quite good at it. Turnbull never figured out that they were farmers and kept looking for evidence of hunters being deprived of their way of life, almost one supposes like members of the NRA having their worst nightmare come true.

One of the most amusing and revealing passages in Heine’s critique deals with Turnbull’s flawed understanding of the Ik language:

Usually one of the first things an anthropologist in the field learns is the greetings. Turnbull made an effort, but with limited success. He notes, for example, that ‘the common, everyday greeting’ is ida piaji (Turnbull, 1974: 246). The Ik have a wide range of greeting forms, depending in particular on the time of the day. One of them is i-ida? (‘Are you [all right]?’), to which one replies, i-ida ‘bia ‘j? (‘Are you [all right] as well?’). It is probably the latter which he calls the ‘traditional’ or ‘common, everyday greeting’. It would seem that for all the two years he lived among the Ik he was not aware that he was greeting them with a reply to a greeting, furthermore with one which is used neither during the morning (ep-ida) nor during the afternoon hours (iria-ida).

I got a laugh out of this since my Turkish professor once read me the riot act when I told him “güle güle”, as a way of saying goodbye. Don’t you know, he said, the person staying behind says this, not the person leaving? Of course, I never claimed to be an expert on Turkish culture so I might be excused. Turnbull is another story altogether apparently.

I will conclude with Heine’s own restrained but devastating conclusion:

At first it was difficult to understand how Turnbull came to treat the Ik in his writings the way he did. The longer I was able to talk to the Ik about his work the more I got the impression that he tended to project his own feelings on to his research subjects. There are in fact some indications that what he claims to be typical Ik behaviour is rather an indication of his own mentality. For example, although dealing with a people he suspected to be hunter-gatherers his writings suggest that he was entirely ignorant of the plant and animal life of Ik country. Yet, as I have shown above, he concludes that it is not he himself but rather the Ik who are unfamiliar with their fauna and flora (Turnbull, 1967: 63).

When he observes that for the Ik ‘Misfortune of others was their greatest joy’ one is reminded of passages like the following, his descriptions of his own feelings and behaviour, which seem to point to his own frustrations:

It was one of the few real pleasure’s I had, listening to his shrieking and yelling when they caught him and did whatever they did … and then watching him come flying out of the odok holding his head and streaming with tears… [Turnbull, 1974, 102]

it was a pleasure to move rapidly ahead and leave Atum gasping behind so that we could be sitting at the di when he finally appeared and laugh at his discomfort. [Ibid., 178]

The unpleasantness of returning was somewhat alleviated by Atum’s suffering on the way up the stony trail. Several times he slipped, which made Lojieri and me laugh … [Ibid.]

The frustrations he encountered among the Ik are described in great detail, but he goes on to note: ‘For want of something to do, I used to measure the amount of rain that fell … The exactness of detail was no measure of my academic zeal, simply of my own frustration and boredom’ (Turnbull, 1974: 212). He describes the lack of mutual trust that he finds characteristic of the Ik, but he himself is not prepared to trust anybody, as sentences like the following suggest: ‘I disbelieved every word of this on principle…’ (Turnbull, 1974: 228).

The Ik are portrayed as a people lacking social integration, but if there is anyone who shows no interest in social integration it is Turnbull himself. He isolates himself behind a stockade ‘even bigger and stronger than that of my neighbours’ (Turnbull, 1974: 63), and ‘I used to shut myself up in the Land-Rover again to cook my meals and to eat them there’ (Turnbull, 1974: 79). It is not surprising, therefore, that my Ik informants frequently told me, ‘He made his observations in the bush, not where people were.’ To conclude, my observations have confirmed the claim made by Beidelman (1973: 171) in his review of The Mountain People: This book cannot be discussed in any proper sociological terms, for we are provided with only snatches of data. Rather than being a study of the Ik, this is an autobiographical portrait of the author utilizing the Ik as counters for expressing his personal feelings and experiences in the field.


  1. This raises a deep problem with anthopology for me in general. I am deeply interested in the subject, because when I read about people whose existence isn’t defined by capital, I’m reminded of my birthright as a human being. On the other hand, most of what I find in a library here in the states–San Diego–is unreliable because it’s written by anthropologists like Turnbull, whose ultimate goal is to impress other anthropologists.

    I read a lot of Vine Deloria, but it does not seem that the Ik have a Vine Deloria of their own. Certainly not in my library.

    The documentary certainly sounds good and the documentarians seem to have made an effort to take the right approach.

    Your blog is one of the best.

    Comment by Bill — June 23, 2012 @ 1:22 am

  2. Whatever else may have been wrong with his viewpoint–and the accuracy of his account, framed to contrast with the idealized account of Pygmies in The Forest People–any accusation of old-line colonial racism is probably unfair to Turnbull.

    His point was to show the apparently “inhuman” Ik behaviors as the result of a devastating famine, which he saw as originating in colonialism and the nationalism that followed it, and not of some “genetic inferiority.” The Ik, per Turnbull, had been removed from their land to make way for a national park, and were prevented from going elsewhere by the post-colonial Uganda/Kenya border. He treats what he describes explicitly as a portrait of a society in transition amid intolerable historical restrictions over a period of decades.

    There are accounts of interviews with older Ik in The Mountain People that describe ways in which the older Ik society was superior to the immiserated society that Turnbull purported to have found. I seem to recall that he actually describes a group of contemporary Ik who live this allegedly older, communal lifestyle, which Turnbull represents with approval.

    Turnbull’s focus was moralistic: he wanted to refute the idea of innate human goodness but champion the moral ideal of goodness anyway. This leads to a lot of personal stuff in the narrative, including the infamous expressions of disgust. This certainly weakens–some would say destroys–Turnbull’s claim to scientific objectivity.

    But as I understand it the disgust is meant to be disgust at the human potential for evil (and/or the famous banality of same) under bad material conditions, not at some inborn nastiness of the Ik themselves that went beyond the alleged potential for evil in human character generally. This perspective, independent of the conclusions it leads to, is justly rebuked in strong terms by Marxists, but is quintessentially liberal and not only is not colonialist or racist, but actually intended as an attack on both.

    Turnbull, who spend the latter part of his career and life in the United States, was or became very much an American left liberal of the post-Vietnam variety. He was gay, had an acknowledged gay partner and championed the cause of gay rights. He also agitated for the rights of Death Row prisoners.

    His greatest fault is the fault of liberal moralism not of British colonialism–perhaps combined with the weakness for distortion of a writer seduced by his own narrative.

    Comment by Joe Vaughan — June 23, 2012 @ 3:11 pm

  3. “His greatest fault is the fault of liberal moralism not of British colonialism”

    Joe raises some good points however if it weren’t for “liberal moralism” then “British colonialism” would be unthinkable since the ethical foundation for the historical materialism of British Colonialism was precisely Liberal Moralism as Trotsky so eloquently & convincingly demonstrated in his 1938 classic: “Their Morals & Ours”.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — June 23, 2012 @ 5:20 pm

  4. Karl: Fair enough! As you may know, I am not shy myself in unleashing the cry of “liberal moralist” against contemporaries, especially on the so-called Left in the United States, so I will take your medicine without flinching.

    I continue to think, however, that there’s a significant difference between a left-liberal bourgeois moralist of a very nearly contemporary stamp, which in a general sense is what I take Turnbull to have been, and a British colonialist like, for example, General Dyer–who I’m sure would have loathed Turnbull, and might well have shot him dead if he had had the chance. The latter–and a knowing, hypocritical acquiescence in his crimes–epitomizes what I had in mind when I perhaps erroneously referred to British colonialismas opposed to bourgeois moralism. There is no doubt that analogues of the General Dyer type abound everywhere today, especially in the United States and its military. Most of them are “liberal” only in a very tenuous classical sense (as in “neoliberal”) if they can be called liberal at all.

    I see Turnbull’s “disgust” with the evil he claimed to find among the Ik as being in the same family with Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil” line on the Nazis. Both see a great and shocking–deviation from everything they have believed to be moral or to constitute the inherent “niceness” or “goodness” of everyday people, and this causes them to place the notion of evil versus good in the foreground of every picture they draw of human society, even at the risk of scientific or historical “objectivity.” After this horror, they are saying in their different ways, personal engagement with the problem of evil has to override everything else in one’s outlook on life–even, in Turnbull’s case, scientific detachment and objectivity.

    For Turnbull, I think, the immediate cause of the evil is the dislocation created by colonialism and the kind of nationalism that followed it in Uganda, not intrinsic inferiority or “primitivism” on the part of the Ik.

    My impression of “Their Morality”–which I know, but not as well as I might–is that Trotsky’s point of departure is the false equivalence certain liberals adore to make between Marxism and Fascism, and so forth, leading to the conclusion that b. moralism can only mask class struggle no matter how sincere the moralist, often with disastrous political consequences.

    I certainly agree with that. I’m not sure where that leaves Turnbull. But I do think it’s important to make some distinction, as I believe Trotsky does, between sincere and intelligent liberal moralists who ought to know better and the outright hypocrites who rely on the Kornilovs and Dyers of this world to do their dirty work. I think Turnbull belongs more in the former category–as unfortunately IMO do the vast majority of U.S. citizens who think of themselves as “left” and who must somehow turn around if social justice is ever to prevail here.

    Comment by Joe Vaughan — June 23, 2012 @ 11:21 pm

  5. […] discuss it all that much and I’m not sure how reliable primary source Colin Turnbull was (supposedly they hadn’t been hunter-gatherers for centuries when their supposed “livelihood” […]

    Pingback by The Collapse of Complex Societies « Entitled to an Opinion — December 30, 2012 @ 4:11 am

  6. […] 8. Ikland – A courageous attempt to redeem the Ik, a Ugandan tribe described by anthropologist Colin Turnbull in 1972 as the “worst people in the world,” sadistic and unloving even toward their children. (reviewed at https://louisproyect.wordpress.com/2012/06/22/ikland/) […]

    Pingback by Best films of 2012 « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — January 12, 2013 @ 2:45 pm

  7. […] By Louis Proyect, published in The Unrepentant Marxist […]

    Pingback by Overcoming Cultural Colonialism: Journey to "Ikland" | WilderUtopia.com — January 12, 2013 @ 7:08 pm

  8. […] and loveless.” Remembering Thomas’s essay from high school, filmmaker Cevin Soling traveled to Ikland to find out for himself whether this was true. Suffice it to say that Thomas’s essay was a bogus […]

    Pingback by Cancer, Politics and Capitalism » CounterPunch: Tells the Facts, Names the Names — August 29, 2014 @ 8:58 am

  9. […] and loveless.” Remembering Thomas’s essay from high school, filmmaker Cevin Soling traveled to Ikland to find out for himself whether this was true. Suffice it to say that Thomas’s essay was a bogus […]

    Pingback by Cancer, Politics and Capitalism « WORDVIRUS — August 30, 2014 @ 10:03 pm

  10. […] and loveless.” Remembering Thomas’s essay from high school, filmmaker Cevin Soling traveled to Ikland to find out for himself whether this was true. Suffice it to say that Thomas’s essay was a bogus […]

    Pingback by Cancer, Politics and Capitalism | The Greanville Net — August 31, 2014 @ 4:27 pm

  11. […] and loveless.” Remembering Thomas’s essay from high school, filmmaker Cevin Soling traveled to Ikland to find out for himself whether this was true. Suffice it to say that Thomas’s essay was a bogus […]

    Pingback by Cyrano's Journal Today » Cancer, Politics and Capitalism — August 31, 2014 @ 4:48 pm

  12. […] recordar el ensayo de Thomas que había leído en el instituto, el cineasta Cevin Soling viajó a Ikland para descubrir por sí mismo si esto era cierto. Basta decir que el ensayo de Thomas era tan falaz […]

    Pingback by Cáncer, política y capitalismo - Iniciativa Debate — September 18, 2014 @ 9:05 am

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