I am not a marxist-leninist, nor a marxist-leninist-maoist, nor a trotskyist. For people who have followed me for a while, across previous iterations of this blog (this being somewhere between the 3rd and 6th depending on how you count) or who have had the joy of working with me in real life, this is no real secret. I use marxism, or probably more correctly marxist concepts, everyday but, somewhat to my own horror my interests in marxism have decidedly shifted in the direction of what I might call more “esoteric” interests (though, sadly, not he Fortean marxism of the Intergalactic Workers’ League).
This is has been the path for the last few years. Maybe academia has finally beaten me down enough, much to what I know is my better judgement. While I still maintain, as I have outlined elsewhere, essentially a Third Worldist understanding of the relationship of core and periphery, nowadays my uses of marxism are more Fisherian in orientation, what I have taken up jokingly calling postmodern neo-marxism; because fuck that Kermit the Frog sounding Jungian-Supremacist Jordan Peterson. I recognize also however, due to my rampant antieurocentrism, that I am someone who the late Mark Fisher would have likely recognized as a resident of the ‘vampire castle.’
Recently I was asked on social media (where I have collected my fair share of marxist followers) if I thought there was compatibility between a broadly communist political project and a broadly decolonial one. I did give an answer on CuriousCat, but as I think about it a lot, and because of certain trends I (and a few other Native comrades I speak with semi-regularly) have been witnessing, I took it as an opportunity to expound upon some of my thoughts on this topic. This is essentially the answer to that question with a fair amount of elaboration and expansion.
And this raises this raises an important point, which I feel I should raise as a prolegomenon of sorts: the extent to which I retain loyalty to a marxian theoretical project it is, as I have also talked about elsewhere, subsumed within a broader decolonial theory and praxis.
From where I stand now, and quite honestly where I have stood for many years at this point (long before my turn to the esoteric), my primary issue with most of marxism is that it can be, and quite often is, profoundly eurocentric. Despite the relatively heroic efforts of somebody like Robert Biel in his book Eurocentrism and the Communist Movement (2015), there really hasn’t been a meaningful shift in this regard. Most of the marxist left, at least in the northern bloc, seems to on the regular respond to criticisms of eurocentrism on the part of marxism with an assumption that that means that we (as it is quite often coming from the mouths and keyboards of Natives, leading to as times some really nasty anti-Indian social media witch-hunts by the paragons of the vanguard) are saying that it is a white thing. While that is quite obviously not the case, based purely on the historical record, and nor do I think it is what anyone putting out a real analysis of the issue means that, that doesn’t stop marxists, in particular marxist-leninists from parading out images of their favorite Revolutionaries of Colour: Hồ Chí Minh, Thomas Sankara, José María Sison, Huey P. Newton, Mao Zedong, Kim Il Sung etc. This, because no one who is really thinking through these issues is calling marxism a white thing, does not actually do anything to diffuse the critique of eurocentrism.
However, even with the best case examples, such as Biel’s work, I have issues with their accounting of the problem. Biel is absolutely correct when he says, speaking of marxism, or what he thinks should be its “more neutral name” historical materialism, that:
The reality of 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 (2015: 4).
However, while Biel’s is an important work, he largely boils the endemic issue of eurocentrism in marxism down to a question of its political economy. While in a sense I do agree that the political economy of most marxists is somewhere between one hundred and one hundred fifty years out of date, the question of eurocentrism is not simply one that can be solved by the correct reading and application of dependency theory or world-systems analysis. While certainly taking up that line, updated as it should be for the early 21st century, is important, and especially when paired with a serious concern for the question of imperialist parasitism, it obscures the other, often deeper ways that marxism has been marked by a profound eurocentrism since its original formulations.
Furthermore, probably because of his own allegiance to a variant of so-called anti-revisionism, Biel towards the end of the work proposes that maoism today represents the anti-eurocentric current within broader marxism. Odd because, outside of the much derided Third Worldist tendencies of maoism (MIM, RAIM, LLCO etc.), no major maoist actor or organization of actors takes up what Biel otherwise argues throughout the book should be the solution to eurocentrism, which is to fix their political economy. This has has had an affect of causing an otherwise unjustifiable inflation of the egos of some maoists within the northern bloc, and there are some outstanding example of this effect out there. For instance, the maoist author of the u.s.-based blog Necessity and Freedom, writes, in their review of Biel’s book, that:
Maoism, although a development of Marxism-Leninism, serves as a negation to the Eurocentric project in totality, whether it be “Left Eurocentrism” or the Eurocentrism of the bourgeoisie. Primarily, because Maoism as Maoism, that is as a summation of the Chinese experience and the anti-revisionist struggle of the ’70s into a qualitatively new development, was forged outside of the centers of global capitalism. … What makes Maoism anti-Eurocentric is its assault on the misapplication of historical materialism by the revisionist parties to justify or cozy up to imperialism, its concrete analysis of capitalism as a world system that produces stunted and uneven development, its support for national liberation struggles, and its rejection of conceptions of a universal and linear path of societal development (2016).
While the author does warn that we “shouldn’t fall into the trap of tokenization that assumes because Maoism was developed on the peripheries that it is a priori anti-Eurocentric,” because “Leninism was developed on the periphery too, yet it was unable to shed completely all of its Eurocentric garb” (2016) this seems to actually be what is happening, here and elsewhere, to the extent that at times it seems to cross a line into a kind of Orientalizing territory. For the author, the question of the essence of maoism’s status as the “fullest development of the anti-Eurocentric trend within Marxism” (2016) rests precisely on the supposed universality of it. As the author argues:
Maoism is the only universalized development of Marxism, and therefore the only development capable of understanding and opposing Eurocentrism. Maoism, as a re-contextualizing and universalizing of Marxism-Leninism, repeated the process that came before it, but on a qualitatively higher level (2016).
However, a significant question here, and which I thoroughly believe most of marxism misses, not just one maoist blog author reading through one book by another maoist, is precisely that of universalism itself. Abstract universals as they are, with the global designs that they proffer, especially when rooted in something birthed at the heart of the modern/colonial/capitalist world-system, are inherently epistemically western and colonial. It does not matter if one shifts the centre of development after its initial creation from europe to a supposedly backwater and feudal Russian Empire, and then from there to China and Peru. This is a problem that marxism does not really have the foresight or tools to grapple with, because at the heart of things, marxism, or at least orthodox marxism, deeply holds to the abstractly “progressive” powers and qualities of modernity.
But I do not want to dwell on the Clique of Cliques that is often northern bloc maoism. However, the preceding paragraphs do give us an entry way into the broader problem, lets return to my original point. The reason that simply taking seriously parasitism and understanding core-periphery models of international political economy and their impact on the global division of labour is not enough in dealing with marxist eurocentrism is because it doesn’t get to the heart of what marxism really is. It is not a white thing, but it is a thing of modernity, and modernity has a inherent relationship to coloniality in the compound concept modernity/coloniality. This is where those of us suffering to make a decolonial corrective to marxism make our point of departure.
But to get there, you have to understand a little bit about what we are talking about when we speak of modernity/coloniality. So time again for another detour. Condensing a pretty long history into a short blurb, the concept of decoloniality emerges from the context of Latin American interactions with world-systems analysis and dependency theory. Out of this context the late Peruvian theorist Aníbal Quijano, who only passed away last May, coined the concept of the coloniality of power, often shortened to just coloniality, sometimes also referred to as the colonial matrix of power, and linked it to the compound concept of modernity/coloniality (2010; 2008).
Coloniality is different from colonialism. Colonialism, in a broad sense (so not getting into the specifics of settler colonialism) denotes the political and economic relationship wherein the sovereignty of a nation or a people rests on the power of another nation. Coloniality, rather, refers to long-standing patterns of power that emerged as a result of colonialism, and thus, coloniality survives colonialism, being maintained alive in books, in the criteria for academic performance, in cultural patterns, in common sense, in the self-image of peoples, in aspirations of self etc. Coloniality is constitutive of modernity, which is those pillars and interrelated spheres that define culture, labour, intersubjective relations, and knowledge production/epistemology and ontological questions and concepts such as the nature of the Human and the naturalization of life and the permanent regeneration of the living (e.g. the invention of the concept of “nature” etc) well beyond the strict limits of colonial administrations (Maldonado-Torres 2008; Mignolo & Walsh 2018).
This is also why some decolonial theorists have deep issues with marxism, because marxism is, within this kind of understanding, a thoroughly modernist analytic and political project, and is thus tied up with many of the epistemological and ontological dimensions of coloniality. This is why many Natives activists and theorists (which is a significant base for contemporary decolonial theory, along with many Black and Latinx theorists) have a problem with the supposed universality of any variant of marxism, and will point at marxism and call it eurocentric. This is why the presence of non-white and non-european marxists within the marxist canon, even as the majority, does not actually act as much of a détournement of this kind of critique as its detractors quite often wish to believe.
For myself, one of the more important of these critiques comes from the work of the late Black radical scholar and activist Cedric J. Robinson, and has to do with the way in which the historical dialectic is itself constructed within dogmatic and orthodox variants of marxism. In particular, he links it to shifts in seeing time as cyclical (as traditional Indigenous epistemologies and cosmologies often do) to linear, and the christian religious and prophetic dimensions of this shift, which marxism and its dialectical method have inherited in a secularized form. In his work An Anthropology of Marxism he says:
This peculiarity is barely disguised in the Western eschatological ordering of history. Modern Western civilization derives from its cultural predecessor, Judeo-Christianity, a notion of secular history which is not merely linear but encompasses moral drama as well. The narratives of providential history are sufficiently familiar to most of us as to not require repeating … [e]ven secular historical conceptions like historical materialism reflect the ‘good news’ presumption of the Judeo-Christian gospel: the end of human history fulfills a promise of deliverance, the messianic myth. When Marx and Engels maintained in The Communist Manifesto that human history has been the record of class struggle and then proffer the socialist society as one without classes, it is implied that history will then come to an end. Socialist society—a social orer which displays no classes, no class struggle and therefore no history—reflects a kind of apocalyptic messianism (6-7).
In the linear historical dialectic of orthodox marxism the coming socialist/communist society takes the place of the new heaven and new earth promised in the christian book of revelation, and the mythologically borderless proletariat the place of the return of Christ. Indeed, given how this is linked to the shift in western thought (long before the rise of euromodernity) from cyclical temporality to linear readings of time and history, it should lead us to question what Biel has to say about historical materialism in the sentences preceding the quote from him above, when he says:
In that sense [historical materialism as the application of dialectics to the development of history], although the approach was discovered by Marx, we could say it had an existence independent of its origins in time and place and could well have been worked out under a different set of circumstances (2015: 4)
While perhaps in a sense correct, especially as Marx, and Hegel before him, was far from the first person in history to develop and deploy a dialectical perception of the world, one has to seriously wonder whether historical materialism as it is broadly understood by most marxists would have actually arisen in such circumstances which may have evinced a profoundly different perception of time, such as those embedded within the epistemological and cosmological conceptions of many of our diverse Native nations in the northern bloc. There is also a sense here, within mainstream marxism, of a universal or general time at work within the historical dialectic, even within the linear sense, which is something that has been deeply troubled recently by theorists as diverse as Mark Rifkin (2017), José Rabasa (2010) and Kyle Powyss Whyte (2019).
Beyond these issues, and getting back more towards the original question of communist and decolonial politics being compatible, what a lot of marxists, at least within my admittedly limited frame of reference, have a deep trouble grasping is the decoloniality/decolonization distinction. One thing that I have been particularly curious about (not hostile really, just curious) has been the rise that I, and a few others Natives I regularly interact with, have noticed of individual marxists and a handful of collective marxist organizations appending the term “decolonial” to their social media blurbs and 140 character biographies without engaging what could be recognized as an actual decolonial theory and praxis. Even more curious is the seeming proliferation of the term decolonialism amongst the same online milieu.
I have about 15 years of interaction, sometimes comradely, sometimes not, under my belt with anarchists, marxist-leninists, maoists, trotskyists and just about everything in between, and the best I, and the same few Natives I speak with, can come up with is that decolonial is taken to be a new synonym for anti-colonial. This is perhaps because well meaning marxists want to support Native struggles and see more and more of use speaking in that kind register, and because anti-colonial becomes anti-colonialism then decolonial must have an -ism, decolonialism. However I have never encountered such a concept, which as far as I can tell is a total void, from actual Native thinkers and activists.
Anyway, decolonization is what I believe that most marxists think that we (Natives) are talking about when we call our politics decolonial. While we are for that, the distinction between that and a more thoroughly decolonial theory and praxis is that decolonization is and always has been tied to the question of land and power. As Glen Coulthard notes in Red Skin White Masks (2014) both Native oppression and resistance to that oppression is informed by, and through, the question of land. Decoloniality on the other hand, while inherently tied to the materiality of decolonization is about those patterns of power and epistemological/ontological elements that originated from colonialism and modernity but which can and very much so have persisted beyond colonialism. In short decoloniality is the end of coloniality, which implies the end of modernity as well, or, to be more correct, and following Lewis Gordon’s corrective of Enrique Dussel, the end of euromodernity as modernity is not something strictly owned by europeans (2013).
Thinking through the decolonization/decoloniality distinction in this way it becomes possible to see that a nation or a people can decolonize in the first respect, that is land and power, without actually uprooting the patterns of power that form modernity/coloniality. Many decolonial theorists would argue that this has actually been the general pattern with previous decolonization movements. While it is perhaps possible to recapitulate this within a more traditionally marxist theorization of the base-suprestructure relationship within a society, because of the deeply rooted epistemological, ontological and cosmological commitments within marxism to a european geopolitics and body-politics of knowledge, there are elements of modernity/coloniality that escape the sight of marxism often when considering the ideological dimensions of capitalism that will be struggled against both before and after the formal end of the capitalist world-economy, on the march towards communism.
Indeed, in many ways because of these deeply held, and often unquestioned conceptions within at least mainstream and orthodox conceptions of marxism, such as the conception of Human-as-Man, of nature and of the human-nature relationship, it is possible for marxism to actually deepen the modernity/coloniality within a given situation, even as it may work to struggle against others (such as the gender binary, which is an essential component of the eurocentric worldview) because of the perceived universality of marxism. In fact because of at least orthodox marxism’s open and enthusiastic commitment to many of the core tenants of euromodernity, and hence its lurching fear of ‘postmodernism’ (itself a eurocentric critique of euromodernity), a more cynical reading would see this kind of deeper westernization to be an almost inevitable.
Another issue, especially in light of the particular status of settler colonialism in the northern bloc (so-called “north america”) is that a communist project is also actually thoroughly compatible with the continuance of the settler project. Indeed this why I do not trust probably fully 95% of the marxist (and anarchist) left, because I see their political project as basically seeking a new dispensation of settler power. Marxist, anarchist and socialist movements on this land have to contend with what the queer Chickasaw theorist Jodi Byrd refers to as a colonial foundational pathology the fundamentally shapes the horizons of liberation within their eurocentric worldviews. She notes that:
[E]ven within the fierce urgency of post-Fordist economic production and capitalist consumption, the hoped-for-narratives of liberation depend upon the Americas as an already emptied, infinitely exploitable new territory and new site of a transfigured commons (2015: 123).
You can expropriate the bourgeoisie and assume worker control of the means of production without actually upending a settler colonial relationship based on genocide, dispossession and the a priori removal of not only the fact of Native sovereignty, but all temporal possibility of the Native ever having been sovereign. In short, it is entirely possible to make a socialism of the invader nation, a kind of national socialism if you will. My more jaded tendencies see this as the overall programme of the left insofar as most sectors of it are unwilling to deal with settler colonialism, and the native demand for the return of land. As the always amazing Black feminist scholar Tiffany Lethabo King put it recently on Twitter:
The white left also needs to just say upfront that even acknowledging reparations for black folks and land rematriation for indigenous folks would undo “their America” as they know it and they can’t fathom that.
However I do think an essentially decolonial and communist/communizing project are able to be brought together. But my reading of traditional Native politics and economics, at least of the culturally and linguistic Algonkian speaking peoples of the northeastern woodlands (Anishinaabeg, Menominee, Shawnee, the Lenni-Lenape, Wabanaki etc.) as well as the Rotinonshón:ni as imminently communistic. Indeed that was recognized by the settler early on and is one of the reasons they spend 125 years kidnapping our children and abusing our cultures out of them in residential and boarding schools. At the very least it is possible to give an answer in the negative by saying that there is no system probably more alien and opposed to ours than that of capital.
To echo the Nishnaabe writer Leanne Simpson, I think the opposite is very true. She says in book As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom Through Radical Resurgence that:
[W]atching hunters and ricers harvest and live is the epitome of not just anticapitalism, but societies where consent, empathy, caring, sharing, and individual self-determination were centred (2017: 76-77).
She continues, by saying that our ancestors:
[D]idn’t accumulate capital, they accumulated networks of meaningful, deep, fluid, intimate collective and individual relationships of trust. In times of hardship, we did not rely to any great degree on accumulated capital or individualism but on the strength of our relationships with others (2017: 77).
Beyond that our societies and traditions also had embedded within them the requirement of the redistribution of wealth, with harvests, for example, were redistributed to the community, with priority given to the most vulnerable, those who could not harvest themselves, and indeed our traditional Algonquian worldviews compel us to assist our neighbours, what in more modern socialist and communist language you might call a practice of mutual-aid or serving the people. Even within ceremony itself, often there was, and is, a give-away component that redistributed wealth to participants.
A major element of our traditional worldviews is that greed and accumulation is not a positive, but rather an assault on our collective because it offends and disrupts our other-than-human kin, which an outsider might recognize as the plants and animals, but also the waters and soil, that make up our cosmological landscape. And that is one of the central differences between a traditional Native worldview, as much as I can generalize one within just the northeastern woodlands: our relations of kinship and even treaty extend far beyond just the realm of the human, which is the privileged site of concern within most western worldviews, marxism included, and thus to speak of “capital” in the way that it is understood in the modern/colonial/capitalist system is a profound mistake, and one that actually endangers us. We do not have capital, we have relatives. The consequences in seeing our other-than-human relatives, and of individual accumulation of them, as capital are deep, manifesting, as Simpson notes, in the collapse of local ecosystems, the loss of prairies and wild rice, the loss of salmon, eels, caribou, the loss of our weather (Simpson, 2017: 77).
So I would describe my political project as communistic, but it is more like that, or like the Rebel Zapatista Autonomous Municipalities than the resurrection of the USSR that I think most of the left is seeking on this continent. This is probably not the futurism of a Fully Automated Luxury Gay Space Communism that so many marxists want, techno-accelerationists or otherwise, but as I have said quite recently, I more interested in a Fully Accessible Black & Native Decolonial Queer Eco-Communism anyway. I think if marxists want to start taking Native liberation and decolonial movements seriously they have to start considering that kind of view point seriously.
Biel, Robert. 2015. Eurocentrism and the Communist Movement. Montreal, QC: Kersplebedeb.
Byrd, Jodi. 2015. “Mind the Gap: Indigenous Sovereignty and the Antinomies of Empire.” In The Anomie of the Earth: Philosophy, Politics, and Autonomy in Europe and the Americas, edited by Frederico Luisetti, John Pickles and Wilson Kaiser, 119–136. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Coulthard, Glen. 2014. Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
Gordon, Lewis R. 2013. “Thoughts on Dussel’s ‘Anti-Cartesian Meditation’.” Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge 11(1): 67-88.
Maldonado-Torres, Nelson. 2007. “On the Coloniality of Being.” Cultural Studies 21 (2-3): 240–70.
Mignolo, Walter D. & Catherine E. Walsh. 2018. On Decoloniality: Concepts, Analytics, Praxis. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Quijano, Aníbal. 2010. “Coloniality and Modernity/Rationality.” In Globalization and the Decolonial Option, edited by Walter Mignolo & Árturo Escobar, 22–32. London, UK: Routledge.
—. 2008. “Coloniality of Power, Eurocentrism and Social Classification.” In Coloniality at Large: Latin America and the Postcolonial Debate, edited by Mabel Moraña, Enrique Dussel and Carlos A Jáuregui, 181-224. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Rabasa, José. 2010. Without History: Subaltern Studies, the Zapatista Insurgency, and the Specter of History. Pittsburgh, PN: University of Pittsburgh Press.
RedZeal. 2016. “Maoism as Anti-Eurocentrism.” Necessity and Freedom.
Rifkin, Mark. 2017. Beyond Settler Time: Temporal Sovereignty and Indigenous Self-Determination. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Robinson, Cedric J. 1999. An Anthropology of Marxism. London, UK: Ashgate Publishing.
Simpson, Leanne Betasamosake. 2017. As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom through Radical Resistance. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
Whyte, Kyle Powyss. 2019. “Disrupting Crisis, Unsettling Urgency: An Indigenous Criticism of Assumptions about Time in Environmental Advocacy.” Presentation at the Balsillie School of International Affairs, Waterloo, ON, March 11, 2019.