Keegan's Reviews > Marxism and Native Americans

Marxism and Native Americans by Ward Churchill
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Jun 01, 2009

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Read in January, 2009

Introduction, by Ward Churchill (1-16)
“The question I had to ask was: 'How, in the plan you describe, do you propose to continue guarantees to the various Native American tribes that their landbase and other treaty rights will be continued'” (1), Ward Churchill asked Karl Hess after listening to a lecture on dissolving the federal government and creating an anarchist state.
Hess was less than cool in responding, accusing Churchill of a backward defense of the State, and stating that Churchill better at least be Indian to raise such concerns.
This was proof enough for Churchill that the American left had not reconciled Native American concerns with their essentially European Marxist framework:
“The touted American Radical Vision was a failed promise: 'American' radicalism was fundamentally and completely an import. Conversely, there could be no American Vision, radical or otherwise, which did not begin with the original 'American,' the Native American. Unless and until this population is addressed on its own terms and in accordance with its own definition of its human needs, any conceivable revolutionary theory can only amount to a continuation of 'the invasion of American'” (5).
I completely agree that most radical visions for America are imports from Europe and thus do not address Native American concerns. That does not mean they cannot evolve to do so, but much to my frustration, they have not. This is not one of their primary concerns, probably because of the very small number of Native American's left. But ignoring Native concerns ties them more tightly with capitalists, in my mind, than any argument made in this book. I expect a radical vision for America to be more sensitive and inclusive, to deal with the concerns capitalism ignored, and right the wrongs capitalism rendered. There may not be many Natives left, but that is a testament to the fact that Natives were dealt one of the greatest wrongs in American history, and that they are among the most disenfranchised of groups in the world. One need not be Native to stand up for Native rights, as Karl Hess seemed to imply. Giving them justice should be primary to any radical American vision.

The Same Old Song, by Russel Means (19-33)
Russel Means is pissed. He hates all things Western, radical or not, and he takes them all to task in this essay. He begins with writing, which he wished he did not have to do, because it immediately creates a hierarchy of Western over not, literate versus not, great writers versus not, when he says interpersonal relationships should be valued over private activity. I agree but believe writing allows us sharpen our own ideas to share with others, and is thus another tool to improve interpersonal relationships. In additions, everyone creates something, and I am best at creating with my writing, so that is what I pursue.
Means then attacks the Western institutions of religion, science, education, etc. In each, he documents how things like Christianity and Newtonian physics were once revolutionary and dissolved an archaic, oppressive system, but eventually became archaic and oppressive themselves. In vehement terms, he essentially argues that American radicalism will suffer the same fate. A Marxist revolution may sound like it will lift oppression and spread justice, but it will eventually oppress and strip people's justice. He argues this in some specific terms (ie Marxism is insists on industrialization of indigenous groups, just like capitalism) but that is argued more fully by other authors in the book. Means' point is much more about the underlying way of thinking of all Western institutions. There is something inherently oppressive, racist, and caste at the root of Western thinking, and he has a point. There is obviously something fundamentally different about the way Native's envisioned, studied, and interacted with the world, and embracing that difference, and wholly abandoning Western institutions based on Western thinking is the only way to lift oppression and spread justice in a any sort of meaningful way, in any way that will last.

Searching for a Second Harvest, the RCP
Easily the most disturbing essay in the collection. The RCP confirms all of Churchill and Means' fears. They essentially argue that Native's have no wisdom to offer Marxism, that they were a starving lot of savages. The title comes from an archeological find of stockpiled feces that Natives may have saved in order to reuse the seeds. The RCP claims they were going to eat the seeds, that Means' diatribe to return to tribal life means he wants to eat his own shit, that his condemnation of Western thinking stands on the Western conception of Natives – the noble savage – and that only Marxism can truly set anyone free. They even argue that Native American's are not native at all, merely earlier immigrants.
The only acquiescence to Native people and Native rights comes at the end of the essay, as an excerpt from the New Programme and New Constitution of the RCP, in which they state they will give natives land as reparations. There is no talk of accepting their fundamentally different, more sustainable world view, or even synthesizing with it. They will only propagate the Native practices that have strong scientific merit – proof that Marxist will continue to judge Natives by Western standards.

The Same Old Song in Sad Refrain, Ward Churchill and Dora-Lee Larson
Churchill and Larson refute the RCP point by point, and show how their inflammatory rhetoric proves Means' argument. Searching for a Second Harvest was based on misconceptions of Natives. The seeds stored were most likely not for eating, but for planting in case of a draught or fungus that killed crops before they went to seed. Either way, it was an extremely isolated archeological find. The elders who passed down Means' vision of natives had never read or heard Western ideas about the noble savage, they were speaking from their inherited memories and myths. And the idea that all Native American's ended up on this continent via the Bering Land Bridge seems scientifically impossible, not to mention in direct opposition to Native creation myths, which are truer than facts.
Basically, the RCP cannot conceive of a fundamental alternative to Western thinking. They think that being industrialized is the only viable way to live. They fight for justice within that framework, but as long as their view of right and wrong is limited to that framework, they can never be wholly inclusive or revolutionary.

Marx's General Cultural Theoretics, Elisabeth Lloyd
Lloyd is more sensitive and nuanced than the RCP. She notes that Marx was not versed in multiculturalism, and thus did not account for it (this is not entirely true, as we will see). She argues that instead of criticizing him for this, we should look to his model and see if can possibly include multiculturalism. She finds that it can, primarily through the dialectic method, because this method insists that all society must be viewed as a whole, with all the interconnectedness considered when examining any specific. This will inevitably include cultural relationships, and necessitate of proper way of finding justice for all cultures. This is fine and good, but she does not theorize how this interplay of cultures will play out. We have seen how it plays out under capitalism, and while I agree and hope that it will play out differently with Marxism or any form of American Radicalism, she does refute the idea that all Western ideas share a fundamental way of thinking that will eventually result in the same injustices as Capitalism. A theme is developing.

Culture and Personhood, Robert B. Snipe
Snipe is pretty good. He is a very intelligent Marxist. Unfortunately, he has clearly not given enough thought or research to indigenous concerns or ideas. At the beginning of the essay, he states that Marxist and Native Americans have much to learn from each other, but then he spends most of the essay giving a very detailed, and albeit good, critique of capitalistm.
One point that stuck out to me was, “The values and world view of the capitalist class are successfully internalized in the psyches of the workers” (95). This is a comment on the proletariat versus the capitalists, who believe they can prosper in the capitalist framework, despite the evidence of Marx that being a capitalist requires wealth that is robbed from other people and other cultures. In the case of the proletariat, they do not recognize that they were once disadvantaged by the capitalists, and thus will never be able to elevate themselves to their level. Natives are all too aware that they have been disenfranchised by Western civilization, and put at a distinct disadvantage with Westerners in every day life. Unfortunately, many do not realize it is the capitalists, not the proletariat, that have put them in this situation, and neither the proletariat nor the Natives realize that they are fighting the same fight against the same enemy. The capitalists oppress the proletariat by convincing them they have a fair shot in the capitalist system to become capitalists themselves. Have capitalists also tricked non-westerners into believing that the whole of western civilization is their enemy, so that they can divide the proletariat and the indigenous struggle? The proletariat and the indigenous should support one another because they both need to overthrow the capitalists to equate justice for themselves, and once the capitalists are overthrown, neither the proletariat nor the indigenous can return to fundamentally capitalist (what we have come to see as fundamentally Western) ways of organizing the world. We must completely reorganize our way of thinking about social structure to avoid industrialization, the class system, etc. We must learn from the indigenous framework.
I also like the ideas he excerpts from Stanley Diamond.

Circling the Same old Rock by Vine Deloria Jr.
Vine Deloria Jr. is a genius, and the most fluid writer (both in terms of craft and ideas) in this collection. Though Deloria was not well versed in Marxism before, he takes the compiling of this book as a reason to become so. In Circling he takes us on his journey into Marxist literature, and focuses on Marx's assumptions about humanity based on his Western experiences, and points out how they are not true. His first point is on Marx's idea of alienation. He points out that Marx and Christianity take alienation as a human given that needs to be resolved, Christianity says only Christ can fill that void, and Marx says only socialism can. But Deloria argues that there is no void that needed to be filled in indigenous people – and thus no reason to adopt religion and no reason to industrialize.
Deloria argues that the alienation felt by Westerners was a result of their objectification of nature. He says they focused on exclusively human experiences, casting out those based on nature, even though they were channelled through humans. In short, Marx objectified nature in the way capitalism objectifies labor, and the objectification of anything will result in alienation. He shows how many western institutions take part in this, from religion to socialism to education:
Western knowledge, and its component parts, including education, produces alienation because it refuses to focus on the real knowledge that can be gained from particulars, in favor of universal categories of classification which purport to give a transcendent knowledge able to provide instant orientation to things know and unknown alike. (130)
Clearly Deloria is thinking primarily about the Western obsession with the scientific, objective mind. I would argue liberal arts education is trying to get back to teaching people how to think, not to memorize categories. But his point is important to both those who understand it and those who do not: the outliers, the flukes, the mysteries in life are what are important, are what we can learn the most from, not the repeated, every day, explained, boring experiences. The scientific mind is the stagnant mind, it tends to assume that every important mystery has been explained. Nothing could be further from the truth. The most important, interesting mysteries have yet to be explained and can only be explained with art and story telling, such as why do people fall in love? Why do people hate each other? Why do good friends drift apart? Why do casual acquaintances maintain fierce dialogue? To name a few.
There's also this one, “A better use of one's time than advocacy of capitalism or communism might be an examination of how Western peoples decided r when they first experiences this Alienation” (131).
Deloria points out that all these Western institutions share the desire to spread themselves across all lands, to all types of people. This desire can be seen as a feeble attempt to justify oneself – i.e. if Native Americans become Marxists, it proves that alienation is universal. “The Marxist message, therefore transcends local, tribal, and national boundaries and is and must be aggressively missionary-minded not simply to succeed but to realize itself in all its essentials” (132).

Observations on Marxism and Lakota Tradition, by Frank Black Elk
This essay is the strongest Native American attempt to connect with Marxism in this anthology. Again, the thing that seems to lack on both sides, is an understanding of the other. As the Marxist in this book have little to no understanding of Native American struggles, history, religions, or culture, the Natives are not well versed in Marxism. But like Vine Deloria, at least Frank Black Elk and the other Natives in this book, use the occasion to steep themselves in literature on conversations about Marxism. This itself is a classical example of the difference between the two groups, which testifies to what the Natives are saying: Natives will deal with each experiences as it arises and learn what is to be learned, where Westerners enter new experiences with vision clouded by pre-conceived ideas, work hard to find evidence that supports their ideas, and refuse to examine the rest.
What is this curious thing, Marxism? asks Frank Black Elk, and then searches for similarities between it and his traditional culture. First, he points out that the assumptions Marx makes about humanity based on his Western experience, do not prove true in Native cultures, particularly “Religion is the opiate of the people,” in regards to Native spirituality. He also describes two run-ins with bitterly racist Marxists, who describe his culture as “backward.” Despite these, he remains interested in Marxist ideals of liberation, etc, and the greatest fruit of his labor is the idea of the dialectical. Marxism and most Native cultures highly value the idea that everything is connected and examining the parts while ignoring their relationship to the whole will reveal unreliable, misleading data. He offers that this idea could expand Marxist thinking to include autonomous cultures that are advanced without being industrialized. His says this basis of Marxist thinking could be applied to nature as well as labor, to all cultures as well as his own, and points out that the emerging strand of Radical Therapy may be taking Marxism on that trajectory already.

Marx Versus Marxism, Bill Tabb
Bill Tabb is pretty good. He starts by stating that Marx clearly marginalized Native peoples, saying they must become civilized in order to become socialists. But he moves beyond this, and argues that Marxists have moved beyond this also. He says it is wise to take the best elements of Marxism even if you do not accept the ideology as a whole. The best elements, in his mind, are its expansive economic critique of capitalism, its didactic way of thinking about the system, etc. He points out Native struggles that could be aided by Marxists and Marxism and basically comes across as being all about any sort of revolution, “Whatever the criticism those in the struggle may have of others who oppose the system, that criticism must be given in the context of the desirability of unity and the needs of the overall struggle” (173).

Reds versus Redskins, Phil Heiple
Heiple basically says that Marxism is responsible for every successful resistance against Capitalism, and Native American's are accelerating their extinction if they do not accept the Marxist struggle as their own. Bullshit.

Marxism and the Native American, Ward Churchill
Churchill is fair to Marx and Marxists. He states that it is neither of their faults that Marx did not specifically address Native American concerns. He does say that it is unfortunate that some Marxists feel it is necessary to defend Marx's ideas even as new cultural information arises that proves not all indigenous people lived terrible lives and needed to industrialize to live comfortably. He then addresses their argument, that pushing for a return to such “pre-industrial” ways of life is romantic: “First, traditional Indian cultures – contrary to Euro mythology of the “vanishing redman” - continue to exist with an amazing vitality and continuity on a number of reservation” (188).
He also notes that traditional Native American culture never entered the trap of alienation that Marx only has a blueprint to escape from. For all the Marxist revolutionary activity, none of them succeeded in freeing workers from alienation for a very long period of time.
He criticizes many Marxist for claiming to support the struggles of indigenous or working class people, only to actually push their own agenda. “Does he or she come ultimately to join an extant and ongoing struggle conducted by local people, or do they come to transform that struggle into a reflection and validation of their own faith? Are they ultimately supporters or recruiters?”
Then he offers, for those actually interested in the Native American struggle, a list of important readings.
And finally, he makes a plea for true radicals to support the Native American cause:
If the treaty obligations of the Untied States to the various tribes which are on the books right now were met, the landbase of the 48 contiguous states would be diminished by approximately one third. Further, identified U.S. Energy resource reserves would be reduced by two thirds...By any definition, the mere potential of even a partial dissolution of the U.S. Landbase should be a high priority consideration for anyone concerned with destabilizing the status quo...The left in this country is in the process of missing a critical and unique opportunity to forge a truly American radicalism based first on those conditions which most peculiar to America, on with a chance of cutting the U.S. Power structure deeply.
It is interesting that he critiques Marxists for trying to recruit people to their cause and then attempts to recruit people to his own cause, but I think he sees that there is a need for all these revolutionary ideas and movements to support one another, he ends with a continuation of another contributors idea to, Let the debate continue, let the action begin.

Inspired thought: Every law, rule, taboo, etc. will be broken. Every law puts holes in a theory, every rule fractures a system. A situation or individual will emerge that contradicts or lies outside the measure. Some may cite, “Thou shall not kill” as an exception, but most of us believe in either abortion, the death penalty, or assisted suicide. Those who judgmentally oppose all three, let their daughter be raped, forced to carry the child of her rapist, and suffer from complications so she pleads for death every day.
To avoid falling into the societal equivalent of this tragedy, we must focus on those hinges, anomalies, outsiders, to continue to expand our order and understand more of reality.

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