Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 6, 2017

An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States

Filed under: Counterpunch,indigenous,Kevin Coogan — louisproyect @ 12:43 pm

On September 30thNew York Times reporter Simon Romero profiled the thief who had severed the bronze right foot from a statue of Don Juan de Oñate twenty years ago as a protest against the genocide of American Indians. Even the normally sedate “gray lady” could not help but refer to Oñate as the “despotic conquistador” of New Mexico. Indeed, the theft of the foot was highly symbolic since Oñate had once ordered the chopping off of the right foot of 24 Indigenous captives.

Romero got a chance to interview the foot thief through a rendezvous set up by Cheyenne-Arapaho filmmaker Chris Eyre who made “Skins,” a 2002 film that climaxes with red paint tossed in George Washington’s face on Mount Rushmore.

Romero analogized these protests with those against the statues of Confederate heroes such as Robert E. Lee. Eyre referred to the president’s complaint about these disrespectful acts: “Trump asked if all this stops with Washington or Jefferson. For me, that’s actually where it starts because we need to go back a whole lot further to examine the crimes upon which these lands were claimed.”

Trump is well-qualified to defend Washington and Jefferson since he harbors the same sort of racist attitudes that these Indian-killers embodied as early architects of Manifest Destiny. When he was building up his gambling casino empire in the early 90s, he claimed that Indian reservations were run by the Mafia. He secretly paid for more than $1 million in ads that depicted the St. Regis Mohawks in upstate New York as cocaine traffickers and career criminals around the time that they were seeking to build a casino in the county where I grew up. He even told the notoriously racist shock jock Don Imus that they were probably not real Indians, stating that he might have more Indian blood than them.

Besides the St. Regis Mohawks, there was another Indigenous group seeking permission to build a casino–the Munsee Lenapes. They were ethnically cleansed from Sullivan County, where I grew up, in the 1800s. Monsey, New York (now a predominately orthodox Jewish enclave) was named after the people who lived in the area while the city of Muncie, Indiana was where they were forced to go. Frankly, I would welcome a return of all the Munsees to their original homeland. They certainly would have more respect for a beautiful part of New York state that is being sacrificed at the altar of capitalist development and its consequent environmental despoliation.

When some on the left seek to contextualize Washington and Jefferson, it usually follows the line of reasoning that despite being slave-owners, they were also founding fathers of a democratic republic that was the envy of the world. While this might not sit well with the descendants of the slaves they owned, it also carries the burden of sweeping Indigenous peoples under the rug.

After reading Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, you will conclude that all these great White leaders should be condemned to the ashbin of history. Published as part of the Beacon Press’s Revisioning American History series (there are also books about gays, the disabled and Blacks/Latinos in American history), it is very much in the vein of Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States”. While the term “revisionist” is often applied to works such as these, I am persuaded that “revisioning” is a far more appropriate term since it points to both past and future. If we do not have a vision of how the United States should be governed, our future is bleak.

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  1. Before throwing Walt Whitman totally under the bus, keep in mind that he wasn’t the only one who backed Manifest Destiny when it came to Mexico. So did Engels in a February 1849 article in the NRZ:

    “Just a word about “universal fraternal union of peoples” and the drawing of “boundaries established by the sovereign will of the peoples themselves on the basis of their national characteristics”. The United States and Mexico are two republics, in both of which the people is sovereign.

    How did it happen that over Texas a war broke out between these two republics, which, according to the moral theory, ought to have been “fraternally united” and “federated”, and that, owing to “geographical, commercial and strategical necessities”, the “sovereign will” of the American people, supported by the bravery of the American volunteers, shifted the boundaries drawn by nature some hundreds of miles further south? And will Bakunin accuse the Americans of a “war of conquest”, which, although it deals with a severe blow to his theory based on “justice and humanity”, was nevertheless waged wholly and solely in the interest of civilization? Or is it perhaps unfortunate that splendid California has been taken away from the lazy Mexicans, who could not do anything with it? That the energetic Yankees by rapid exploitation of the California gold mines will increase the means of circulation, in a few years will concentrate a dense population and extensive trade at the most suitable places on the coast of the Pacific Ocean, create large cities, open up communications by steamship, construct a railway from New York to San Francisco, for the first time really open the Pacific Ocean to civilization, and for the third time in history give the world trade a new direction? The “independence” of a few Spanish Californians and Texans may suffer because of it, in some places “justice” and other moral principles may be violated; but what does that matter to such facts of world-historic significance?”


    This sentiment was in keeping with M-E belief in the cultural inferiority of “backward peoples” of Europe as well. Roman Rosdolsky wrote an entire book on the topic that was finally published in 1986 entitled “Engels and the ‘Non-historic Peoples: The National Question in the Revolution of 1848.”

    It makes for grim reading.

    M-E backed Kossuth and the Hungarian aristocracy in the 1848-49 revolt against the Hapsburgs and they hated the Croats and other minority ethnic groups for fighting on the Austrian side. But the Hungarian aristocracy was just brutal to its peasants. But at no point do they bother to discuss any of this.

    In short, they very much had a Hegelian notion of advanced versus backward societies of “cattle rustlers” if I remember one Engels’ jibe. Whether they fundamentally changed their views later in life is open to debate but (following in part Franklin Rosemont’s lead), Kevin Anderson forcefully argues for this point of view. I’d like to think he’s right.

    What makes Mexico especially egregious is that Engels made his living helping to run his family’s textile plant in Manchester, a plant dependent on Southern cotton. At one point in the early 1850s, Engels even planned a trip to (I think) New Orleans to visit the Southern cotton market, although the trip never came off.

    As far as I can tell, neither Marx nor Engels ever bothered to mention the extermination of the native peoples of North America although both became fascinated in the late 1870s by Morgan’s writings on the Iroquois from an anthropological point of view. Neither of them seems to have bothered to mention Frederick Douglass either although Douglass made extensive tours of Ireland and England before the Civil War to organize resistance against slavery. Also note not one mention of the extension of black chattel slavery (Texas was formed as a slave republic) in Engels’ remarks against Bakunin.

    Comment by Hylozoic Hedgehog — October 6, 2017 @ 7:56 pm

  2. Comrade, I am well aware of how Marx and Engels failed to grasp the National Question until the Irish struggle began to clarify things. Here is what I wrote about 15 years ago:

    Every once in a while I run into a book with such a combination of scholarship and Marxist insight that it really blows me away. It is a happy coincidence that the book I am reading now, Ephraim Nimni’s “Marxism and Nationalism”, dovetails perfectly with the cyberseminar. I owe thanks to Scott McLemee who tugged my lapel to this book. I am going to recapitulate material from the first three chapters of the book and conclude with some thoughts on what relevance it has for the ongoing discussion on nationalism.


    Most of what Marx and Engels were concerned about on the national question has to do with the task of the bourgeois revolution. Feudal social and economic relations were an obstacle to capitalist development, which in turn created the preconditions for proletarian revolution. Hence the urgency was to unite a nation having in common the following criteria:

    –It must hold a population large enough to allow for an internal division of labor which characterises a capitalist system with its competing classes; and

    –occupy a cohesive and sufficiently large territorial space to provide for the existence of a viable state.

    The French revolution was a model for this form of national development. Just as the Russian revolution was a model for 20th century revolutions, so was the revolution of 1789 a model for bourgeois democrats in places like Italy, Germany and Ireland that had remnants of the old order.

    The Jacobins believed that the only way to consolidate a modern, bourgeois state was to follow a path of tight centralization and *linguistic standardization*. We should not neglect the importance of the second task. Before the revolution, France had a patchwork of linguistic communities that spoke either Romance languages (Langue d’Oc, Langue d’Oil, Catalan), other Celtic languages (Breton), and other ancient pre-Latin languages (Euzkera). In the period before the revolution, only 3 million inhabitants of Paris and the surrounding areas spoke “French” as their mother tongue and a smaller number could read and write in this language.

    The reason it became an urgent political task for the Jacobins to enforce French as a national language was that feudal counter-revolution tended to be strongest in areas where the language was not spoken, such as Brittainy where Breton was the native tongue.

    In the context of the bourgeois revolution, the *crushing* of culture and language of the non-Parisian French national communities was progressive. Marx and Engels agreed completely that such action was necessary not only for 18th century France, but contemporary Europe as well. State centralization and national unification, with the consequent *assimilation* of small national communities was the only viable path to social progress.

    However, what role do stateless or numerically small national communities such as the Bretons play? Are they all grist for the mill of bourgeois revolution? The answer from Marx and Engels is not encouraging. If the number one priority is to create strong national states, how else can they view cultural and ethnic obstructionists. If doctrinaire Marxism of the twentieth century puts forward the slogan that nationalism divides the working-class, there is some antecedent for this since Marx and Engels put forward slogans 150 years ago that the nationalism of the lesser nationalities divides the bourgeoisie.

    They pinned their hopes above all on the national unification of the German peoples, who they contrasted as a “more energetic race” to the smaller national communities on the eastern outskirts of the German national territory, who could only be an obstacle to unification:

    “Bohemia and Croatia (another disjected member of the Slavonic family, acted upon by the Hungarian, as Bohemia by the German) were the homes of what is now called on the European continent ‘Panslavism’. Neither Bohemia nor Croatia was strong enough to exist as a nation by herself. Their respective nationalities, gradually undermined by the action of historical causes that inevitably absorbs into a more energetic stock, could only hope to be restored to anything like independence by an alliance with other Slavonic nations.” (“Panslavism–the Schleswig Holstein War”).

    Who would be the leader of such a federation of Slavonic nations? The only such leader waiting in the wings is the Russian czar, according to Marx. There is one consolation. The democratic movement in the Austro-Hungarian monarchy will assimilate these “relics of people”, transforming their culture and national identity into the ‘superior’ German and Magyar culture.

    Here is the clearest theoretical statement on the attitude of Marx and Engels on the national question:

    “There is no country in Europe which does not have in some corner or another one or several fragments of peoples, the remnant of a former population that was suppressed and held in bondage by the nation of which later became the main vehicle for historical development. These relics of a nation, mercilessly trampled under the course of history, as Hegel says ‘these residual fragments of peoples’ always become standard bearers of counter revolution and remain so until their complete extirpation or loss of their national character, just as their whole existence in general is itself a protest against a great historical revolution.

    Such in Scotland are the Gaels, the supporters of the Stuarts from 1640 to 1745.

    Such in France are the Bretons, the supporters of the Bourbons from 1742 to 1800.

    Such in Spain are the Basques, the supporters of Don Carlos.

    Such in Austria are the panslavist Southern Slavs, who are nothing but residual fragments of peoples, resulting from an extremely confused thousand years development. This residual fragment, which is likewise extremely confused sees its salvation only in the reversal of the whole European movement, which in its view ought not to go from west to east, but from east to west.” (“The Magyar Struggle”)

    full: http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/race/black_nationalism.htm

    Comment by louisproyect — October 6, 2017 @ 8:10 pm

  3. I think that the break up of Yugoslavia was a mistake. Yougoslavia should have become part of the EU not Slovenia, Croatia and so on. I do not care to defend my position that Yugoslavia should not have broken up. If a person disagrees he or she is just labeling themselves as a person with poor artistic taste. The same position about a larger central government should apply to Spain and the UK. But these countries are not republics they are monarchies. Some would say that for all practical purposes Spain and the UK are republics because they are constitutional monarchies.
    Well were the political differences between Yugoslavia on one hand and the UK and Spain (or the republics of France and Italy) on the other great enough to say that these latter countries should be judged by a different standard than Yugoslavia? Are all positions on the subject of succesion just the subjective opinions of people with differing degrees of artistic talent?

    Comment by Curt Kastens — October 6, 2017 @ 10:55 pm

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