Spartacist Canada No. 184
For the Materialist Conception of History
Marxism and the Fight Against Native Oppression in Canada
The federal government recently fêted the bicentennial of the birth of John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first prime minister. Macdonald once boasted of keeping the Native population on the Prairies on the “verge of actual starvation”: as his government deliberately withheld food from the aboriginal peoples, thousands died. In 1885, he suppressed the Northwest Rebellion and hanged its Métis leader Louis Riel. It is entirely fitting that today’s rulers of capitalist Canada, who continue to preside over the brutal oppression of Native people, would honour such a man.
We print below in edited form a presentation by comrade Nevin Morrison on Marxism and the fight against Native oppression in Canada. It was first delivered at a Trotskyist League/Ligue trotskyste Central Committee plenum and national educational gathering in July 2014.
We have frequently exposed in the pages of Spartacist Canada the misery and brutality that are daily life for Native peoples. Our article “Canada: Racist Hell for Native Peoples” (SC No. 176, Spring 2013), for example, dealt with the Idle No More protests that began about two years ago with a hunger strike by chief Theresa Spence of the Attawapiskat band in northern Ontario. These countrywide protests publicized the squalid poverty on reserves that lack even basic housing, clean water and sanitation. In the cities, Natives are ghettoized, disproportionately unemployed, subject to police violence and almost as likely to be imprisoned as to finish high school.
It’s not complicated to figure out how to improve conditions. There is a burning need for jobs, housing, education and infrastructure. An end to racist policies and redress for past mistreatment shouldn’t be controversial either (though they often are). But the capitalist class for whose benefit this society is organized cannot and will never provide these necessities.
To understand why, to address the roots of Native oppression and develop a program to defeat it, requires a Marxist worldview: historical materialism. At its core is the proposition that production of the means to support human life—food, clothing and shelter—and the exchange of things produced are the basis of all social systems. It is the struggle between those who own the means of production and those who don’t—the class struggle—that is the motor force of history.
For example, feudalism, based on the ownership of land and the exploitation of serfs, was replaced by capitalism, based on the ownership of manufactures and the exploitation of wage labour. A tiny minority, the bourgeoisie, owns the factories, mines and other industries, while the working class—the proletariat—owns essentially nothing and has to sell its ability to work to the capitalists in order to survive.
It is the historic task of today’s exploited class to sweep away the capitalist system and forge an egalitarian socialist society where production is based on human needs, and not on profit. The liberation of the working class is thus also necessarily the liberation of all of the oppressed. Only such a truly human society can guarantee Native rights and finally redress centuries of abuse and degradation at the hands of a truly venal ruling class.
Our political tendency has always emphasized the need to combat the special oppression of Natives, blacks, women and others. Such oppression is intimately connected with the “normal” capitalist exploitation of the workers and must be fought by means of the class struggle. The revolutionary party must, in the words of Bolshevik leader V.I. Lenin, act as a “tribune of the people,” educating and mobilizing workers against the racism and other backwardness instilled by their capitalist rulers which can only divide and weaken them.
Most of our opponents on the left these days reject historical materialism, just as they reject the perspective of working-class revolution and instead push variants of Native cultural nationalism and “ecosocialism.” An example of this trend is found in a short book by David Bedford and Danielle Irving entitled The Tragedy of Progress: Marxism, Modernity and the Aboriginal Question (2001), which criticizes various leftist organizations (including ours) for not having “embraced more enthusiastically the Aboriginal struggle.” The source of this supposed lack of enthusiasm is, they claim, a reading of Marxism as a “variant of modernity” that flows from “the enlightenment idea of unceasing progress through the application of an instrumental rationality.” They attack “those on the left who equate worker emancipation and technological progress,” and assert that such a perspective cannot address the “desire by many Aboriginal leaders to preserve a traditional material culture.”
Bedford and Irving try to strip Marxism of its materialist underpinnings and working-class centrality and twist it into a utopian worldview that can encompass Native “traditionalism.” This requires idealizing Native customs and cultures as somehow standing outside and apart from productive developments and immune to change. Having done this, they conclude that workers revolution cannot address the issues facing Native people.
“Human societies which exist without individual property ownership and without industrialization experience no alienation,” wrote Bedford in a 1994 article in the Canadian Journal of Native Studies, asking rhetorically: “what do we say to those people who have yet to experience the alienation for which socialism is the answer…?” By this logic, the Marxist program for the emancipation of the proletariat is inapplicable to indigenous peoples today because 500 years ago their cultures and pre-colonial development did not include alienated labour!
Naturally we have something to say about this caricature of Marxism. More broadly, Bedford’s polemic provides an opportunity to explore just what has changed in the last 500 years or so—the historical and anthropological roots of Native oppression and our Marxist program to address it. Of course the diversity of the pre-colonial cultures of North America cannot be captured in one presentation and I won’t try to do so, but I will discuss some specific examples in what is now the Canadian state. I will not talk at much length about some current issues impacting Natives—resource development and land claims, for example—which are dealt with in the pages of SC.
Bedford and Irving write of the “silence of the left” on Native oppression, asserting: “For parties on the left, the fate of Aboriginal peoples and the fate of a traditional culture confronted by a capitalist economy is of little interest.” Even a cursory look at our press gives the lie to this ridiculous assertion. Our very first issue, published in October1975, includes an article headlined “Defend the B.C. Native Militants!” What Bedford really objects to is our Marxist worldview. This is captured succinctly in a passage he quotes from our press that sharply denounces those whose concern for “traditional culture” is a mask for liberal anti-communism:
“The options for Native people are often presented as a choice between ‘traditional culture’ and racist capitalist society. But this is a false choice, not least because the vibrant pre-European culture is irreparably lost. The real choice is between the perpetuation of the crimes of the past—centuries of racist genocide and wholesale destruction of the Natives’ way of life—or the creation of a future in a society not based on brutal exploitation and all-sided racism.
“…[W]e reject the idealization of ‘traditional culture’ as liberal racism and a patronizing glorification of backwardness.”
—“Torture of Native Women in Canada,” Women and Revolution No. 42, Spring/Summer 1993
Morgan, Marx and Engels
Native oppression is a product of capitalist society that can only be finally defeated with its overthrow. It is rooted in history: in the rise of the Canadian state from its colonial origins and the consequent undermining and destruction of the indigenous societies and economies. Our Programmatic Theses, published in 1998, concisely summarized this process:
“Canadian capitalism was founded on the destruction of the pre-existing aboriginal societies, beginning under French and, later, English colonialism. The possibility of independent development of Indian nations was foreclosed by the expropriation of these peoples through fraud and military conquest, combined with the devastating impact of disease following European contact.”
One cannot understand the development of indigenous peoples by an idealized study of their culture and values. It is essential to understand what they did to survive and adapt their environments to their needs—the material basis for culture—as well as the material forces that were at play in the displacement of these societies.
Historical materialism holds that a superstructure of ideas, politics and culture and so on fundamentally derives from the ways in which humans work on nature to produce the means of subsistence. This method was applied independently by the American anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan to sketch the history and anthropology of the Iroquois people. Morgan’s 1877 book Ancient Society was the basis for Karl Marx’s ethnological notebooks, and these in turn were elaborated by Friedrich Engels in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884). Engels wrote in his introduction that Morgan “rediscovered in America, in his own way, the materialist conception of history that had been discovered by Marx forty years ago.”
Morgan was influenced by Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution to view human societies in the process of their development. He described the different technologies, i.e., tools and practices, associated with different levels of development. Morgan used the anthropological categories of savagery, barbarism and civilization to describe stages of social development. Given the pejorative use today of the terms “savagery” and “barbarism,” I should note that his writings contain no hint of any ethnocentric prejudice. To the contrary, he viewed social progress always from the point of view of the fundamental unity of our species.
In examining the different forms of social development, Morgan (like Marx, Engels and ourselves) placed value on the technologies associated with progressively higher forms of production. He wrote that humans “worked their way up from savagery to civilization through the slow accumulations of experimental knowledge.” The acquisition of agriculture, metal tools, domesticated animals, language and writing allowed human societies to live better with less labour, to settle in centres with larger populations, to grow stronger with a stable supply of protein. These advances in our mastery of nature made social and cultural developments possible.
Morgan’s survey of ancient societies began with the successive developments in technology that increased the means of subsistence. He then traced the impact of these developments on forms of social organization, systems of family and the establishment of political organizations based on territory and private property.
Marx and Engels used the phrase “primitive communism” to describe aboriginal societies which had relative equality between men and women and did not have private property, classes or a coercive state. The ability to produce more than the bare necessities, mainly through agriculture, would lead to a social division of labour and hierarchy as the surplus production came to be divided. Those who appropriated a greater share would eventually require the means to defend this property against the less privileged and to pass it down to their children. Private property, classes, the state and the monogamous family therefore emerged. This is also the origin of women’s oppression, what Engels called “the world historic defeat of the female sex.”
Early Aboriginal Societies
Before European settlement, the population of what is now Canada numbered perhaps two million, concentrated in regions where sedentary life was possible: Iroquois farmers in southern Ontario and fishermen on the Northwest coast. The continent then was fully populated. As historian Olive Dickason writes in Canada’s First Nations (2009): “The lands that appeared ‘vacant’ to the new arrivals were either hunting areas or else had been recently depopulated because of introduced epidemics.”
The tribal mode of life was based on what Marx called production for use. This appropriation of nature for the maintenance and reproduction of the community did not provide for the personal accumulation of capital through the private ownership and hired labour that drove the capitalist economies. The concept of private property in land was a foreign one. Where an economic surplus was produced, as in the rich fishing economies of the Northwest, goods were frequently redistributed in potlatch ceremonies to increase the prestige of a tribe and its leaders and perhaps to attract free labour.
Starting roughly 10,000 years ago in Central and South America, agriculture had slowly spread into the less hospitable climate of North America over several millennia. Morgan notes that grain cultivation allowed a more settled village existence, as in the Iroquois region, tending to supplant fish and game and making possible for the first time an abundance of food. Agriculture made permanent settlement both possible and necessary in such regions.
Morgan identified two plans of government: the ancient social organization based on kinship links; and the modern, political organization based on territory and property. “The plan of government of the American aborigines,” he wrote, “commenced with the gens [a group of families] and ended with the confederacy, the latter being the highest point to which their governmental institutions attained.” A confederacy was an alliance of tribes whose members spoke dialects of the same language. The social organization was essentially democratic. The tribes of the Iroquois confederacy were linked through common descent through the female line. In the Iroquois matriarchate, property remained within the clan, so mother-daughter ties were more important than spousal ties. Morgan noted that there was no political society, citizenship or state in this kinship-based society.
Like Morgan, who was adopted as an honorary member of the Seneca tribe after helping them retain land that had been taken by fraud, Marx admired the egalitarianism of many primitive societies based on pre-class communal property forms. At the same time, he would denounce as foolish utopianism all schemes of somehow returning to a romanticized traditional culture based on scarcity. He emphasized that the development of means of production was the engine of history, which allowed us to overcome scarcity but was also the basis for class divisions and the alienation of labour from its products. Given the uneven development of capitalism, it was inevitable that many pre-capitalist societies would be the victims of the ruthless expansion of the profit system.
Disease, Death and Devastation
The settlement of North America by Europeans is sometimes depicted as a simple slaughter and military conquest. This did occur in some areas but it is also an overgeneralization. One example is the Beothuk who encountered Europeans in Newfoundland. Early on, Basque fishermen who came to the island could leave gear and boats undisturbed in Beothuk areas over the winters. But no common interests developed between them and the indigenous population. As the fishermen began to interfere with the Beothuk seasonal hunting rounds by using their shore sites, the latter in turn began raiding European gear. When permanent European settlement began, conflicts escalated into bloody slaughter: the French and English attacked the Beothuk, driving them away from the coast and into the barren interior, where they faced isolation and starvation and were hunted down. After 300 years none were left.
By far the biggest killers of the aboriginal population were the diseases carried by European settlers that quickly spread to the furthest reaches of the continent. Natives did not share the acquired immunity of the Europeans and the vast majority of the population was decimated in epidemics that recurred for centuries.
Alongside bloody massacres and the plague of epidemic disease, when interests coincided there could be cohabitation. Fur traders, especially from France, lived interdependently with Native trappers, intermarrying and fighting alongside them against rival traders. As the fur trade dwindled over time, relationships changed. Fishermen contesting the best spots and farmers lusting after aboriginal land were more likely to be hostile. These eventually came to carry more economic weight and to vastly outnumber the Native population.
The French, English and Dutch established rival trading posts, seeking the allegiance of Native trappers in competition for furs. The result was a rapid depletion of fur-bearing animals and bloody competition among Native tribes for furs and trade routes. Peoples who left behind hunter-gatherer or agricultural modes that were incompatible with the fur trading economies would become dependent on Europeans, relying on the trading posts to fill many of their needs. Proximity to European trading posts and missionaries exacerbated the effects of epidemic diseases such as smallpox and the use of alcohol and indebtedness to manipulate Natives.
The Huron and Iroquois are a case study in the divisions created by the fur trade. As the French established themselves in Quebec in 1608 they secured an alliance with the Huron, fighting beside them against their Iroquois rivals. The French plugged into the Huron trade network and flotillas of canoes carrying thousands of furs came down the Ottawa River to Quebec annually for decades.
The Iroquois in turn opened up trade with the Dutch and English but soon exhausted their own beaver supplies. By the 1640s, with guns from the Dutch, the Iroquois Five Nations attacked Huron control of the rivers, routing them and annihilating their villages. The Huron scattered, starved, or were captured and adopted into Iroquois tribes. By 1700 the Five Nations expanded to become the dominant force in the Northeast, controlling trade routes from the English colonies into the interior.
By the mid-17th century, New France was being colonized as an agricultural colony organized on feudal principles. In England, meanwhile, the rising bourgeoisie began to multiply its fleet of ships and pursue an aggressive colonial policy. As the two powers went to war in Europe, they and their Native allies also fought in North America, combining trade competition with military objectives. As Marxist historian Stanley Ryerson observed, “The forces that impelled New England forward were those that brought on and carried through the English bourgeois revolution. The roadblocks in the way of New France were such as the Cromwellian revolution cleared away” (The Founding of Canada: Beginnings to 1815 ).
With the British victory in the Seven Years War, the 1763 Treaty of Paris transferred to the British Crown one of the largest territories covered by any treaty before or since. Native peoples naturally disputed the transfer of land they had never ceded, taking the position that it was not they but the French who had been defeated, so their lands were not at stake. On top of this, the vacuum left by the French spurred settlers to take land through “sharp dealing” or outright theft.
At the same time, decreased leverage for Natives to bargain between the feuding powers was reflected in the rising prices demanded by British traders. Seething discontent erupted in a Native uprising which took several British forts in the Old Northwest in 1763, killing hundreds of settlers. British commander-in-chief Jeffrey Amherst’s infamous reaction was to propose the distribution of smallpox-laden blankets. The rising was unsuccessful, failing to receive help from France as hoped, and tribes were played off against each other in negotiations which allowed the British to resume control of their forts in exchange for an empty promise that Native hunting grounds would remain undisturbed.
The American Revolution
The American war of independence began in 1775, a result of the growth of a colonial bourgeoisie which asserted itself in an historically progressive struggle against the imperial centre. The Americans gained the assistance of France and Spain to defeat their British rivals. The 1783 Peace of Paris ceded the Ohio Valley to the newly-fledged United States, and settlers and governments continued to press for and confiscate aboriginal lands. Attempted Native uprisings defeated Americans in two battles, but were ultimately put down as Britain refused assistance. Yet more aboriginal land was ceded.
Britain’s attempts to reverse the verdict of the American Revolution culminated in the War of 1812. The so-called United Empire Loyalists—wealthy counterrevolutionaries who took Britain’s side—flowed north to what is now Canada. These reactionaries were no friends of Native peoples, but for several reasons the British side posed fewer direct threats to tribes struggling to resist colonial expansion. Settlements were smaller, and agriculture and industry slower to develop in Canada than to the south. Moreover, the continued preoccupation with trade actually required a degree of Native participation. Thus there was less immediate pressure to expropriate land.
Britain’s military efforts rested heavily on aboriginal support. In particular they cultivated Tecumseh, a Shawnee-Creek leader who had sought to mobilize an inter-tribal movement to insist that no single tribe could cede land without the consent of others. Thousands of Natives of several tribes fought beside just 800 British soldiers in 1813 at Moraviantown, where Tecumseh died in battle while his British counterpart General Proctor turned tail and ran. Their support was rewarded with betrayal once again as the British dropped the demand for a neutral territory for Natives, leaving them no further ahead for their military efforts.
Dispossession of Land: Fraud and Conquest
The core of the conflict between tribal societies and the expansion of capitalism in the New World lay in the clash of productive systems of vastly different levels of development. The continued independent evolution of the Indian tribes, whose technology could not possibly compete with that of the colonizers, was a possibility bloodily cancelled by history. The development of capitalism first in England and later the colonies required what Marx called the “primitive accumulation of capital,” a brutal process which drove people off the land they had lived on and worked since time immemorial.
Britain used the Royal Proclamation of 1763 to codify its mercantile interests in the territory acquired with the defeat of the French. This document recognized some kind of aboriginal title—not out of any supposed generosity toward the aboriginal peoples, but as a way of securing peace so the fur trade would remain profitable. But this all changed with the triumph of industrial capitalism over the mercantile system in the decades following the American Revolution.
As trade turned to more intensive settlement, communal aboriginal hunting and gathering grounds became an obstacle to exploitation of the continent’s natural resources through agriculture, lumbering and mining. The colonial state moved to “extinguish” the Native title and squeeze them into paltry reserves. Over several decades, treaties took land covering most of Canada’s habitable area in return for trivial annuities and hunting and fishing rights that have since been eroded. As Stanley Ryerson wrote, “The fact of the matter is that the Indians were dispossessed of their lands by a colossal operation of fraud, misrepresentation and legalized theft.”
The much later settlement of British Columbia provides an example of capitalist so-called primitive accumulation at its rawest. In B.C. there had been as dense a pre-industrial, non-agrarian population as anywhere: perhaps 200,000 to 300,000 inhabitants, with sophisticated, wealthy, hierarchical societies, a rich economy focused on the salmon harvest and thriving trade networks. An underclass of slaves comprised up to a third of the population. Contact with Europeans brought disease which resulted in a radical depopulation of 90 to 95 percent, a blow from which the Natives did not recover. Indeed, B.C.’s aboriginal population continued to drop until it reached a low of about 20,000 in 1929.
The early colonial economy in B.C. had revolved around the maritime fur trade which did not bring extensive settlement, and Natives remained a majority through the 1880s. Europeans really began to establish themselves in the mid-19th century as the British formed a proprietary Hudson’s Bay Company colony and gold was discovered on the Fraser and Thompson rivers.
With the Douglas Treaties of the 1850s, the aboriginal people on the southern part of Vancouver Island were compelled to give up their land “entirely and forever” in exchange for some blankets and a pledge that they could continue to use certain areas. Things only got worse when Joseph Trutch became land commissioner in the 1860s. Trutch was a vile racist who declared that “The Indians really have no right to the lands they claim, nor are they of any actual value or utility to them.” Seeing B.C.’s future in large land grants to settlers to develop agriculture, he reduced Native reserves to ten acres or less per family—in contrast to 160 acres for settlers—and made it impossible for Natives to acquire land by pre-emption as settlers did (i.e., by fencing and putting labour into it).
In his book Landing Native Fisheries (2008), historian Douglas Harris documents how the government imposed tiny, often barren reserves on the basis that Natives were fishing peoples who didn’t need extensive land, while simultaneously devastating the Native fisheries by opening up the industry to all comers. He writes: “The reserve and the food fishery served the same purpose. Their intent and effect were to set aside fragments of traditional territories and fisheries for Native peoples, opening the remainder to immigrants.” Dispossession of land together with enforced isolation from the productive forces of capitalist society formed a general pattern of racist abuse, denying Natives both the old world of the tribe, which was destroyed, and the new world of capitalist society, whose doors were closed to them.
We support any attempt by aboriginal peoples to claw back some of the land which has been stolen from them, and to obtain whatever financial compensation they can from the ruling class. But the courts, like the glacial treaty process, will never provide a solution to the Native oppression under capitalism. While sometimes running ahead of governments in recognizing specific claims, the courts are bound to uphold capitalist private property and Canada’s British colonial constitutional heritage. The deck is necessarily stacked against Natives.
A small historical example: in 1921 the British Privy Council ruled that aboriginal title pre-existed and continued throughout the British Empire unless explicitly extinguished. The Canadian response? The Indian Act was amended, making it illegal for Natives to raise money or retain a lawyer to advance land claims. This continued until 1951, two years after the abolition of Canadian appeals to the Privy Council. Elementary justice demands the end of the entire private property system under a workers government, which alone can guarantee a just and egalitarian future for the Native peoples.
Marginalization and Racist Oppression
The colonial administrations—and, following Confederation in 1867, the Canadian government—came to regard the aboriginal population as a disappearing people whose remnants were to be forcibly assimilated, refashioned as farmers and Christians. This racist “civilization” program would be run by missionaries and funded by sale of Native land. Native cultural practices were outlawed and languages and culture suppressed, most notoriously through the infamous residential school system run by churches and religious orders, which stole children from their families. The purpose of this system was captured in 1892 by Richard Pratt, founder of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in the U.S.: “Kill the Indian in him and save the man.”
At the same time, the remnants of the traditional aboriginal material cultures were destroyed. Today, even in the shrinking areas of production where Natives have a role based on their traditional means of subsistence—the salmon fishery and seal hunt, for example—their products are necessarily largely directed to the capitalist market.
Contrary to Professor Bedford—who judges himself competent to state that indigenous North Americans “are not proletarians, nor do they want to become proletarians” (Canadian Journal of Native Studies, 1994)—Native people have historically often sought integration into the workforce. In B.C., Native workers were an important component in longshore, lumbering, commercial fishing and the canning industry during the late 19th and early 20th century. Bryan Palmer’s new book on the Trotskyist-led 1934 Minneapolis Teamsters strike, Revolutionary Teamsters, describes how Native workers joined one of the key strikes that built the American labour movement. A member of the Sioux Nation conducted target practice for the union defense guard, and some Indian militants joined the then-Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party.
Over the years, insofar as Native people have been able to find work, this has mostly been in the worst-paid, most insecure jobs. Today, urban Natives are largely either excluded from production altogether or relegated to the “reserve army of labour,” sacrificed to the structural unemployment that the capitalists need to attack wages and working conditions. They are also jailed in massive disproportion to their numbers. On the reserves, aboriginal people are treated as second-class citizens, with separate and unequal systems of education and health care. The integrated working class must stand at the head of all the oppressed: not only defending Native people against oppression and repression, but fighting for their integration into the workforce. We call for the unions to control hiring, with aggressive recruitment and training for those—Natives, women, immigrants—who have historically been discriminated against by the capitalist class.
The Dead End of Native “Nationalism”
Bedford and Irving devote a section of their book to the cultural nationalism of Native activists Ward Churchill and Russell Means, who openly denounce Marxism because it is inseparable from “the rest of the European intellectual tradition” in basing itself on industry and production (Ward Churchill [ed.], Marxism and Native Americans ).
Indigenous cultural nationalists like Churchill and Means came out of the radicalization of the 1960s and early ’70s. This saw the rise of a “new Indian” movement based on the view that the indigenous peoples of North America were nationalities that should pursue national independence. In Canada, parallel movements emerged in opposition to the Liberal government’s 1969 White Paper, which proposed to end any special status for Natives, convert reserves to private property which could be sold and gradually terminate existing treaties. This was rightly labelled cultural genocide by many Natives.
The Spartacus Youth League, our youth organization in the U.S. in the 1970s, wrote that:
“American Indian ‘nationalism’… represents an expression of the oppression and despair which Indians have experienced in urban centers [where they] have organized against particular manifestations of their special oppression beyond tribal lines into pan-Indian organizations. But Indian ‘nationalism’ has never succeeded in formulating a genuinely nationalist program and perspective for struggle, ultimately because the American Indian tribes were dismembered and destroyed by rising American capitalism before they could enter the historic process of national consolidation.”
—“Marxism and the American Indian Question,”
Young Spartacus No. 31, April 1975
Today, despair over mass unemployment, racism and social isolation leads many Natives to seek solace in spiritualism and traditional communal values said to be shared by diverse aboriginal cultures, dreaming of a refuge where the virtues of idealized traditional life can be pursued. The stark fact is that none of this can do anything to end their oppression.
Lacking any perspective of a proletarian overturn of the capitalist order, various reformist left organizations have embraced or given cover to such cultural nationalism. For example, a 1970 pamphlet, “Red Power in Canada,” issued by the League for Socialist Action acknowledged that Natives lacked a common territory, language and economic life to serve as the basis for a nation. Yet it concluded: “Regardless of this, or that formal criterion, the key question is how the Indians see themselves—their collective consciousness. In this sense, the Indians are evolving, from a race to a nationality…to a nation” (republished by socialisthistory.ca, 2005).
The flag of “self-determination” can be waved around by all manner of liberals and reformists because they obscure its concrete content: the right to national independence. The cohering of nations is fundamentally a material not an idealist process, based not on nationalist ideology or feelings but on political and economic development. This was forcibly halted for Native peoples when their pre-capitalist economic forms were conquered by colonial capitalism.
I would note by way of contrast that the Québécois, descendants of the French settlers, are a fully-fledged nation forcibly contained in the Canadian state with their own shared language and culture and a clear basis for an independent political economy. In contrast to his talk of self-determination for Natives, Bedford has nothing to say about this; indeed when he was briefly around our organization in Montreal in the late 1980s, he wanted nothing to do with our advocacy of Quebec’s right to self-determination.
Movements for Native “self-determination” encompass everything from armed protests to the official process of negotiating treaties and self-government agreements. The former, while often militant and courageous, can ultimately result only in deadly defeat at the hands of a capitalist state possessing far greater force of arms. The latter has produced few results, even as aboriginal peoples become indebted to the government for the costs of treaty negotiations. And any treaty arrangement between the rich, racist rulers and the impoverished aboriginal peoples can only be based on a wildly unequal balance of forces.
Indeed, we have warned against a conception of “self-government” that amounts to offloading the reserves or other settlements onto Native chiefs and bureaucrats so they can assume responsibility for the results of centuries of racist oppression and keep their people in line with their own cops and courts. Under capitalism, the result of such “self-government” will be the same old poverty and social degradation, under a camouflage of Native traditions. Nevertheless, we defend whatever measure of political autonomy Native peoples with a land base are able to attain, including the right to govern their land and control its resources.
Native Rights and “Ecosocialism”
I want to say a few words about environmentalism. Bedford has recently rebranded his arguments to take advantage of the popularity of “ecosocialism,” coauthoring with Thomas Cheney an article titled “Labor, Nature, and Spirituality: Human Ecology and a Left-First Nations Politics” (Capitalism Nature Socialism, 2013). They argue that aboriginal peoples do not seek to control nature; rather, their animism/spiritualism “engenders an attitude of respect and humility toward the ecology, rather than a will to dominate it.” If this were the case, Native people would be unlike every other group of humans that has ever existed.
It is interesting that Bedford and Cheney choose to develop their argument with reference to Northwest coastal peoples whose hierarchical societies traditionally captured slaves and traded them up and down the coast. One can imagine what kind of opinion those slaves might have had concerning their captors’ “will to dominate”!
Embracing a traditional lifestyle and culture is not a luxury available to most Natives, who face stark poverty on the reserves and a wall of racism and police brutality in the cities. In terms of the material culture existing before European settlement, which required large areas of land for hunting to support small populations, the continent was, as I noted, already pretty full. With vastly larger numbers today, a hunter-gatherer economy is far beyond fantasy. Intensive production and a social division of labour are essential not only to produce books, computers, motorized transportation and vaccines, but to adequately feed and house the population.
Environmentalists often see a superficial affinity between their reactionary “back to nature” utopias and the interests of Native peoples. Today, opposition to various pipeline proposals sees Natives and environmentalists conjuncturally on the same side, as the former seek to protect land claims while the latter oppose any oil development. But environmentalism often runs directly against Native interests. The success of “conservation” campaigns against logging, trapping and the seal hunt have reinforced the poverty of many, including Inuit and other aboriginal peoples who depended on these industries for their livelihood. Aboriginal rights to control their resources include the right to seek their development, a right which we defend.
As Marxists, we recognize that rational planning of the use of natural resources and the development of production requires the overturn of the irrational capitalist profit system. Production for use rather than the profit of a wealthy minority opens the possibility for society to plan the use of the earth’s resources for the benefit of all.
The best historical model for this is the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. Under Marxist leadership, the insurgent working class and the new workers state championed the cause of all those oppressed in the former tsarist empire. The experience of the Soviet Union before its Stalinist degeneration gives a taste of what is possible for indigenous tribal peoples under working-class rule. Despite great material poverty, the workers state promoted broad autonomy, language and cultural rights, literacy programs and integration into the economy as well as leading positions in the party and state administrations.
Only the destruction of capitalism can set the conditions for voluntary integration on the basis of full equality for those Native people who desire it, and the fullest possible regional autonomy for those who prefer a different way of life. And where Native rights to land and resources would be affected by socially useful industrial developments, only a workers government will guarantee that any development proceeds on the basis of full consent and generous compensation.
Yes, Marxism Means Social Progress!
Bedford and Cheney argue that the left must “shed long-held dogmas about religion and alienated consciousness, allowing it to take seriously indigenous spirituality.” To the contrary, Marxists defend the scientific progress associated with the Enlightenment of the 18th and 19th centuries, together with its conception of human freedom against all forms of mysticism, superstition, quackery and social reaction. The “liberty, equality and fraternity” of capitalism’s progressive epoch has long ceased to be the rallying cry for a bourgeois class firmly ensconced in power. The counterrevolutionary destruction of the Soviet Union two decades ago and the consequent retrogression of working-class consciousness worldwide provide fertile soil for all kinds of backward ideas. Bedford et al.’s idealist and reactionary promise of a return to a pre-modern economy and culture is one of them.
In idealizing societies of the past, Bedford has to distort them beyond any historical or anthropological understanding. Indeed, he takes aim at the Enlightenment itself, attributing the left’s supposed “silence” on the Native question to an analysis “grounded on an acceptance of the key concept associated with modernity—the fact and value of progress”:
“Modern cultures, the inheritors of the Enlightenment, see history as a development or progress from less advanced to more advanced forms. History is marked by continual improvements in science and technology…. This is especially visible as our capacity to produce and consume is directly linked to technological and scientific progress.”
“Acceptance of the Enlightenment project,” he concludes, “infuses the left’s political stands on the Aboriginal question, and it conditions their reading of Marx.”
Of course Marxism does value technological progress, and it is forward-looking, as (I would add) human societies have always been. Modern societies share a great deal with “traditional” ones, which also sought to better understand and master nature—and frequently other humans—in order to survive and thrive. Even spiritualism based on mythological beliefs was an early attempt to better understand the natural world in ways that could help to secure human survival.
Technological progress is necessary but not sufficient to human progress. Workers rule is needed to establish social equality—which today can be achieved only on the basis of material abundance—and lay the basis for the abolition of private property and the eventual withering away of the state. At the end of Ancient Society, Morgan paints a vista of the future which I find inspiring:
“The time will come, nevertheless, when human intelligence will rise to the mastery over property, and define the relations of the state to the property it protects, as well as the obligations and the limits of the rights of its owners. The interests of society are paramount to individual interests, and the two must be brought into just and harmonious relations. A mere property career is not the final destiny of mankind, if progress is to be the law of the future as it has been of the past…. Democracy in government, brotherhood in society, equality in rights and privileges and universal education, foreshadow the next higher plane of society to which experience, intelligence and knowledge are steadily tending. It will be a revival, in a higher form, of the liberty, equality and fraternity of the ancient gentes.”
Morgan’s vision of a renaissance of “primitive communist” egalitarianism combined with modern technology could easily be dismissed as idealist utopianism. But what Marxism provides is an understanding that the working class, by virtue of its relation to the means of production, can be the necessary instrumentality to make this vision a material reality.
Native people cannot have a decent future under capitalism. Only the destruction of the rulers’ profit system and construction of a socialist society can redress centuries of crimes against the aboriginal peoples of this country. The fight against Native oppression provides a litmus test for those aspiring to lead the working class. A party that does not champion the defense of the most oppressed will never succeed in leading the workers to victory over their class enemies. We seek to build a Marxist vanguard party that champions the cause of all the oppressed in the struggle for socialist revolution.