Indigenous Communism: Notes Towards an Investigation

It’s generally no secret to folks within the Indigenous decolonial and socialist/communist/anarchist (“left-wing”) movements in Occupied Maehkaenah-Menaehsaeh that Indigenous Pan-Nationalism (Indigenism) and historical materialism (“Marxism”) are often considered to be schools of thought at deep and significant odds with one another. This is despite the fact that they both claim to stand opposed to capitalism, colonialism and imperialism. This is far from new, and there have been polemics produced from both sides of the issue.

Perhaps the most well known collection of back-n-forths to be produced in this relationship was the Ward Churchill edited volume Marxism & Native Americans. Within its pages such prominent movers and thinkers of the Indigenous Liberation Movement as Russell Means, Vine Deloria Jr., Winona LaDuke, Frank Black Elk and, of course, Churchill himself, leveled significant critiques towards the historical materialist worldview. Another of Churchill’s essays, False Promises: An Indigenist Critique of Marxist Theory and Practice, also lays out what seems to be a serious critique of historical materialism, in particular its Marxist-Leninist variant, and has seen continuous circulation in the years since its publication.

While some of the critiques miss the mark, or are simply factually incorrect (one thinks here for example of Churchill’s very poor understanding of the form and function of the so-called “labour theory of value” in his aforementioned False Promises article), when one cuts to the core of it all of these critiques of historical materialist/communist theory and practice from an Indigenous rooted worldview, one finds that they all contain the same radical truth: historical materialism (“Marxism”), as it has been historically constituted, is profoundly eurocentric. This truth is a serious issue that the Marxist movement has failed to address over the last 150 years, but which is readily visible to Indigenists.

Indeed, the deep Eurocentrism of some Marxist thinkers is on full display with their very own contributions to Marxism & Native Americans. For example the Maoist-identified Revolutionary Communist Party, USA’s offering in the volume is the infamous, blitheringly racist, arch-settlerist polemic against late Lakotah activist Russell Means, Searching for a Second Harvest. Additionally, it is worth pointing out this is also not something that afflicts only the myriad of “Leninist” incarnations of historical materialism (Trotskyism, Marxism-Leninism, Maoism etc). Indeed, one could make a strong argument that the Eurocentrism of historical materialism is even more pronounced within the so-called “left-communist” or “libertarian communist” stream: Luxemburgism, council communism and the like. Witness for example the general left-communist disdain for anti-colonial & anti-imperial movements. For a particular example we can look no further than the racist, colonialist and Eurocentric “anti-imperialism” on display in A Commune In Chiapas?, a widely read pamphlet produced by Aufheben, a self-identified “liberation communist” journal, on the subject of the revolutionary struggle lead by the predominantly Maya Zapatatisa Army of National Liberation.

The fact is that Eurocentrism has infected the development of not only historical materialism, but indeed all nominally revolutionary streams of thought to have emerged from the European context (it applies just as strongly to anarchism, especially “class-struggle anarchism”: anarchist communism & anarcho-syndicalism).

The Original State of Indigenous Communism

So, if communism is so Eurocentric, why even bother to then talk then about formulating an “Indigenous Communism”, as the name of this article sets out? The question is not without merit, and as a leaping off point I can think of no better place to turn than to the late Owusu Yaki Yakubu (James Yaki Sayles), who dug into similar issues in explaining his description of he and his comrads’ work to give shape to “New Afrikan Communism.” This is what they had to say:

We look back as far and as accurately and We can, into the social thought and practice of people on the planet, and We say that We can see an “original” socio-economic formation that We call “primitive communism” or “communalism”: there was collective use of means and instruments of social production, prior to the development of huge surpluses, commodities and their exchange (value), and division of labor based on the exploitation of one group of people by another group of people; no concept of “ownership” or “private property” as We now know it; group interests were valued over individual ones, even while the individual was respected as an end in her or himself – yet always within the context of collective work and responsibility, for no individual survived alone. The Bambara have a saying: “who am i without the others: In coming to life i was in their hands, and in leaving it i will be in their hands.” [Note: many, if not most, Indigenous Nations have similar sayings and sentiments] We outline the primary characteristics of that type of formation – those kinds of social relations – and, together with a critique of the way We now live, We shape a vision of “modern communalism” – only these days We call it “communism.”

Meditations on Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth

We can find sentiments similar to Sayles’ about uncovering the original communist/communalist point-of-origin of our Peoples in the writings of revolutionary Indigenous theorists and activists. Summing up the thought of radical Mexicano anthropologist Guillermo Bonfil Batalla, Ward Churchill notes that he “contends that the nature of the indigenist impulse is essentially socialist, insofar as socialism, or what Karl Marx described as ‘primitive communism,’ was and remains the primary mode of indigenous social organization in the Americas” (I Am Indigenist: Notes on the Ideology of the Fourth World). Likewise Ani’yunwi’ya (Cherokee) artist and cultural theorist Jimmie Durham writes that:

We have always defined our struggle not only as a struggle for land but also as a struggle to retain our cultural values. Those values are “communistic” values. Our societies were and are “communistic” societies. The U.S. government has always understood that very well. It has not branded us all these years as communists because we tried to form labor unions or because we hung out with the IWW or the Communist Party but because the U.S. government correctly identified our political system. It did not make that a public issue because that would have been dangerous, and because it has been far more efficient to say that we are savages and primitives.

American Indian Culture: Traditionalism and Spiritualism in a Revolutionary Struggle

Traditional Indigenous society was, and in many ways remains, essentially a communist/communalist one, along the lines of Sayles description. Indeed, as Indigenous People, and as hinted to by Bonfil Batalla, we do not even need to peer all that far into our Peoples’ collective past in order to find examples of a living, breathing, communist/communalist system. In fact, as we can see by again turning to Durham, the existence of a living, dynamic, Indigenous Communism was a significant impulse behind the u.s. and kanadian state wars and assimilate efforts waged against not just against Indigenous People’s possession of the land, but also against our cultures and traditional ways of being in the world as well. Again, Durham notes:

The Founding Fathers of the United States equated capitalism with civilization. They had to, given their mentality; to them civilization meant their society, which was a capitalist society. Therefore, from the earliest times the wars against Indians were not only to take over land but also to squash the threatening example of Indian communism. Jefferson was not the only man of his time to advocate imposing a capitalist and possessive society on Indians as a way to civilize them. The “bad example” was a real threat; the reason the Eastern Indian nations from Florida to New York State and from the Atlantic to Ohio and Louisiana are today so racially mixed is because indentured servants, landless poor whites and escaped black slaves chose our societies over the white societies that oppressed them.

American Indian Culture: Traditionalism and Spiritualism in a Revolutionary Struggle

Indigenous society, with its communist/communalist value-system, economics and social relations was a deeply enticing counter-example to those locked inside of the horrors of the early capitalist metropole. This example of a different way of being in the world could not be allowed to exist, and thus necessitated the bureaucratic, state-sponsored and church-assisted assault on our traditional cultures in order to destroy our communist/communalist ways of being and impose new, alien worldviews and systems of economic, political and social relations rooted in concepts of liberal individualism, private property and free market economics

There is deeper point here for Sayles, Durham and Bonfil Batalla, which is that no collection of severed floating heads of European thinkers has ever “owned”, or “created” communism/communalism, and never will. On this Sayles says:

Marx called it “scientific communism” or “scientific socialism,” and he made particular contributions to that body of thought. However, We must remember that neither Marx nor anyone else singlehandedly “created” what We now regard as the theory of communism. From the communalism of the past, unto today, untold numbers of individuals and peoples have made and are making contributions to that body of thought. As they practice/struggle(d) to approximate the ideal in their actual social situations.

Meditations on Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth

This is why We can speak at a most basic level of a “Indigenous Communism.”

The Trap of Cultural Nationalism

However, when We speak of Indigenous Communism it should not begin and end simply with an appeal to “primitive” communism/communalism. While our traditional communist/communalist values and traditions can, indeed i would argue should, provide a vision of the kind of society We wish to (re)create here on Turtle Island, the fact is that this on its own is insufficient to win for our people our freedom.An appeal to our traditions devoid of a revolutionary analysis and theory situated in the modern material circumstances of our Peoples runs the strong possibility of rapidly degenerating into cultural nationalism.

Cultural nationalism tells us that if We drum enough, dance enough, sing enough, and smudge enough that We can make ourselves free. This is ultimately a reactionary path that takes us away from revolutionary struggle and turns the battle for the overturning of our oppressive conditions into one that is purely about individualistic and spiritual self-change. It also often becomes linked to purely reformist modes of political theory and practice. Either way, the original revolutionary content that needs to be developed becomes lost, or at the very least extremely muddied.

Rather, following the thought of the late Métis nationalist/socialist Howard Adams, We need to recognize that we must go farther than simply drawing on the past for visions of the future. In the final analysis We will not win by cobbling together the fragments of the past. We must understand it, learn from the past, be profoundly inspired by it, but We must do more than that.

Our historical task that We have been called to, that of seeking to regain our freedom calls on us to produce an analysis that will help us understand the world in which We now live. Such an analysis and theory must answer the fundamental question “who are our friends and who are our enemies?” and thus will help lay down the correct path to liberation and self-determination.

Looking for an Anti-Eurocentric Historical Materialism

It is as this juncture that We can begin to talk about what perhaps may be salvaged from the historical materialist tradition for use by an emergent Indigenous Communist project. As We noted from Sayles above, there have been important contributions made to communist theory by Marx and other european thinkers. Chief among these is the distillation of historical & dialectical materialism as a form of analysis and understanding of social contradictions. The significance of the historical materialist method is summed up by Robert Biel when he notes:

Since the dialectical method passes continuously between the general and the particular, it can easily adapt to encompass forms of capitalist relations which have emerged since Marx’s time, or which may arise in the future. Equally important, because it passes continuously between theory and practice, it is the repository of the immensely important experience, positive and negative, of the real movement for social change.

Eurocentrism and the Communist Movement

However, as we also noted above, Eurocentrism infected the core of European radical thought while still in the womb. Biel gives us some much needed context on this birth defect of European thought:

[T]he reality is that it is embodied in a particular movement which originated and developed in a definite set of geographical and historical conditions. These inevitably influenced, and imposed limitations upon, the concrete form in which the theory was first put forward…Over the larger span of history, Europe’s role has been marginal, both in the development of technology, and of ideas. Europe found a way of reversing this, and becoming the centre (in the sense of setting the agenda and imposing its rules, norms and culture), through the development of capitalism. But the way it did this was not simply by “building” itself, but by actively depleting the dynamism of the non-European world, using the latter’s human and material resources, its technologies and ideas, as fuel for this building. In this way the former hubs of human social organization became its colonies and periphery; what was “manufactured” was not just the wonders of capitalist industry, but a phoney history in which the historicity of other societies disappeared, and European supremacy seemed natural and eternal.

The ideological fall-out of this supremacism was bound to infiltrate to some extent all ideologies evolving within the core, including those which challenge, or claim to challenge, capitalism.

Eurocentrism and the Communist Movement

Thus the deformations within historical materialism are not a fault of the theory itself, but rather an unavoidable condition of its particular geographic and temporal spot of origin. Additionally, We must say that while it may be a fun, and perhaps at times even useful, project to speculate at what might have been if capitalism and the consequent anti-capitalist trend had emerged in some other part of the world, the fact remains that our primary focus must be the actually-existing world in which we live.

If we are going to take up and use the contributions that of the historical materialist method that Biel notes, instead of tossing them out, as the proverbial baby is with the bath water, than we must take them on with these infections of time and place and deal with them. If they are to be useful to our purposes than they must be scoured clean of residual Eurocentrism that might otherwise render the entire project pointless.

However, i have long been convinced that it is possible to make use of historical materialism without a blind acceptance of the Eurocentric worldview of so many of its claimants. This is because historical materialism, at its core, is a tool that transcends those limitations. In that sense it is possible to take up genuine historical materialism in order to wield it against the pseudo-radical theory and practice of the Eurocentric stream!

This is a task that is a tall one, but is by no means insurmountable. Luckily We stand on the shoulders of many who have come before, and we have these thinkers and actors in the real movement for revolutionary anti-colonial and anti-capitalist social change from whom to build upon. Not just those we have already mentioned such as Biel, Durham, Sayles either, but also the likes of Sultan Galiev, Lamine Senghor, Lin Biao, R.P. Dutt and Samir Amin. All of these thinkers at one time or another have worked to combat colonialist, racist and social-chauvinist mentalities and phenomenon within the communist movement. Even Marx, Lenin and Mao at times made extremely important contributions to our cause, even as none of them were ever able to fully pull themselves up out of the muck and mire.

Thus, while a Eurocentric, colonialist, racist and revisionist historical materialism has been dominant for much of the development of the theory, there has run simultaneously, and much of the time subterraneanly, an anti-Eurocentrist, anti-revisionist stream. It from the former that We draw as We look to give form to our own Indigenous Communism.

A historical materialist understanding of political economy, both of our own situation of domestic/internal colonialism as well as the workings of the parasitic capitalist world-system within which everything thing is ultimately embedded is essential to us being able to correctly analyze our situation and drawing up a plan of action for liberation. With these We can answer Mao’s all important question: “who are our friends, who are our enemies?” Drawing from the anti-eurocentric historical materialist trend, when we answer this question we move immediately, instinctually almost, to centre the revolutionary project on the perspective of the slave, the colonized, as the revolutionary subject rather than the metropolitan white “proletarian” that is the favorite of mainstream leftist discourse (whether anarchist or marxist).

With this understanding We can build a basis of Indigenous Communism on an anti-eurocentric historical materialist trend, to which We will add our own analysis and our own thought that speaks to our circumstances as Indigenous People striving for liberation here on Turtle Island.


5 thoughts on “Indigenous Communism: Notes Towards an Investigation”

  1. Deeply appreciated this post. Your point that there has always been this subterranean anti-colonial current in historical materialism is brilliant and very valuable to me.

    Just wanted to write also to double-check on something. You write,

    “While our traditional communist/communalist values and traditions can, indeed i would argue should, provide a vision of the kind of society We wish to (re)create here on Turtle Island, the fact is that that on its own its sufficient to win for our people our freedom.”

    Should that say “is insufficient”?

  2. Yes, you are right. It should read “insufficient”. I noticed the typo myself a few days ago but i normally do not have ready access to a computer during the work day so i had not gotten around to changing it. I will change it now, lest it give the exact opposite idea of what i mean.

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