"Marxism from a Native Perspective" by John Mohawk

Akwesasne Notes newspaper, Early Spring 1981

There are distinct differences between what is widely accepted as Marist ideology and the ideologies which comprise the Native people's movements. While both movements are avowedly anti-colonialist, anti-imperialist, and anti-capitalist, it will be seen that the two traditions have entirely different roots. The Native American movement…emphasizes diversity…In fact, Marxist-Leninism thought and the ideologies of Native Peoples movements are so different that the question arises whether the two are in any way compatible at all.

Native Peoples' movements constitute a class of ideologies which have arisen, in recent centuries in response to imperialism and colonialism. Although highly complex and variable in nature, these movements tend to find their roots in the history of specific nations and peoples and their struggle to survive in the face of expanding imperialist (and more recently, industrial) cultures.

The ideologies of these movements tend to be pro-nationalist (with a cultural definition of nationalism), anti-colonialist, and anti-imperialist, anti-industrialist, pro-regionalist, anti-capitalist, and, not surprisingly, decentralist …There are also ideologies within or on the fringes of the Western tradition which propose very similar ideologies, especially the "back to the land" and neo-tribalist groups which promote human-scale societies and regionally appropriate economies [the bioregionalist movement and the early Green movement which Mohawk keynoted at the first national Green Gathering in 1987]. [bold-emphasis and examples added]

Marxism is an ideology which arose in response to the Industrial Revolution…The tradition of Marrxism consists basically of an analyses of capitalism and a vision of a post-capitalist society…According to classical Marxist prophesy, this imbalance of power and exploitation will cause the workers to eventually be oppressed to the point they will rise up and overthrow their exploiters, the ruling class.

The Native Peoples' movement has prophesies also. According to Native Peoples' prophesies (which are also different from the Native Peoples' analyses), the whole of industrial society is exploiting the physical world to the point that someday the Natural World will be unable to continue to provide the necessary materials for industrial society and the latter will experience some kind of collapse, often initiated by some form of natural disaster(s). Marxism is an ideology which developed as a critique to capitalism. Marxist critique is sometimes criticized because it views all political movements and definitions within the framework of the struggle between Marxist and capitalist ideologies as though no other ideologies exist or could exist…

Despite this sense of the world in terms of black and white, Marxism and capitalism, the two ideologies do have some striking things in common. Like capitalist ideologists, Marxists generally see nature as an object to be manipulated and exploited. Marxism has developed the almost automatic response that any subjective view of Nature must be a product of bourgeois romanticism… Marxism generally tends to view Industrial Technology as being almost universally benevolent, and their definition for "progress" sounds alarmingly similar to the definition which capitalist technocrats have for that word. The Marist tradition which has developed a simply marvelous methodology for the analysis of capitalism, has simply never been able to apply the same kind of methodology to industrial technologies. [underline-emphasis added]

Marxist thought also sees religion as a threat, a diversion from the work of organizing the proletariat against the ruling class, the oft-mentioned "opiate of the people."…

The Native movements, on the other hand, view spiritualism (which the Marxists would view as religion) in an entirely different light. Some Native peoples speak of "liberation theologies" and they base their spiritualism on a reverence for Nature…Spiritualism, then, is an important ingredient to Native peoples' movements, although it is a Natural World spiritualism which is in many ways a complete contradiction to the spiritualism or religion of the Industrialized West and which has a completely different history.

The Native movements assert that Native peoples compose small nations and peoples of the world, and that such nations and peoples have rights to continue to exist, to be self-governing, and to determine their own destinies. Since this ideology promotes local autonomy and the development of the integrity of local communities, and since the idealized Marxist industrial society (called socialism) requires that its members' needs be met by a huge and centralized nation-state apparatus, the two movements differ greatly in this area… [underline-emphasis added]

There are other areas in which Marxist ideology and practice are clearly contradictory to the objectives of Native Peoples' movements…The history of the Soviet Union under socialism is not a model which champions the rights of it "national minorities."… History has shown us that countries like the Soviet Union have chosen to go to world markets to purchase raw materials (such as rubber) from capitalist supplies which acquired those materials from the lands and labors of Native peoples. In that sense, MARXIST COUNTRIES ARE SUBJECT TO PARTICIPATING IN COLONIALISM BECAUSE THE NATURE OF INDUSTRIAL SOCIETIES IS THAT INDUSTRIES NEED RAW MATERIALS WHICH ARE TO BE FOUND IN THE LANDS OF PRE-INDUSTRIAL (OR POST-INDUSTRIAL) SOCIETIES. [pull-quote caps in original] Industrial societies depend on the mass market and are, by definition, colonialist in nature [underline-emphasis added]. Capitalist and socialist ideologies share the same view on this subject. Given uranium deposits on the lands of native peoples, there is nothing in Marxist ideology which would prevent the exploitation of that resource even if the result is the predictable destruction of whole cultures.

A student of Marxist ideology could easily conclude that the planet Earth is endowed with practically infinite material wealth which, given the proper social organization, could benefit all the masses of the earth in the form of material enrichment… Nuclear energy could be expanded indefinitely and, under socialism, that technology would automatically be improved and made safe. Marxist ideology is, to be kind, pretty idealist.

When Marxist theory was first formulated, the industrial age was fairly young, and people had not yet been faced with the horrible excesses of industrialization, nor did they have a full appreciation of the pitfalls of bureaucratic hierarchies. (This emphasis on hierarchical organization and the conscious creation of a privileged managerial class has caused critics of Marxism to assert that Marxism is, after all, a bourgeois ideology.) …

Modern Marxism is saddled with assumptions which were appropriate to the mid-nineteenth century. Marxist analysts generally ignore or deny that there will be such shortages [emphasis added]. They assert, in their role as prophets, that technologies will be developed which will solve any of the industrial world's problems-a prophecy which is much in agreement with prophecies of their capitalist counterparts. [Or as Wendell Berry has said: the religion of science claims that science can fix any problems its technologies may cause.]

The basic theoretical conflicts between Native peoples' movements and Marxist ideology lie in the disagreements between the prophets of the movements. The prophets of the Native movements seem to be saying that capitalism and all of industrial society must eventually come into crisis because the material base of their society is finite and has physical limits. When those material limits are reached and exceeded, the industrial society will come into crisis. The differences between these two movements can be seen as differences between a movement which originates within industrial society and one which originates outside of that society… The native movement's prophets offer a future world where humans are interdependent with the forces of Nature, where there is little State power but great local autonomy, and where workers (though they would not refer to the people as workers) are the consumers of the products of their own labor… [emphasis added] ASIDE FROM THE ASSERTION THAT MARXISM IS ULTIMATELY A BOURGEOIS IDEOLOGY, THE SINGLE MOST DAMNING ACCUSATION BROUGHT BY NATIVE PEOPLES AND OTHER CRITICS IS THAT MARXISM IS SIMPLY A DISTILLATION OF CAPITALIST INDUSTRIAL WESTERN SOCIETY. [pull-quote caps in original] …

There are some strong arguments in the defense of Marxism, and some weak ones. The argument that Marxism is the only kind of organized resistance to capitalism which has ever worked does not appear to stand the test of history. Most successful revolutions in this century [1900s] have been nationalist in nature [emphasis added]…It is probably more correct, however, that in some of the industrialized countries, especially western Europe, Marxist critiques of capitalism and the organization of the workers are necessary steps in the development of movements which may free peoples. It is also true that Marxism has many faces, and Native Peoples' movement can find many allies among workers' groups and organizations [emphasis added]…there are many Marxist tendencies which are truly anti-colonialist…The Native Peoples' movements are not and should not be engaged in an ideological war with all of these Marxist tendencies…

…The Native Peoples' movement will, hopefully, develop a well-articulated and published ideology at some point during the ensuing decades, and there could well develop an intellectual tradition which could be studied and shared among many peoples. Marxism has never been critiqued from a perspective which is truly external to the objectives of Western ideologies… There are also some strong arguments in criticism of the Native Peoples' movements. Foremost among those arguments is the observation that there presently exists no published tradition which really represents this ideology. This lack of a published ideology makes it very difficult for the movement to acquire adherents, since there seem to be no recognized philosophers whose work can be used as a teaching and study tool. In fact, this problem is so significant that even to speak of a "Native Peoples Movement" and its principles requires that one invent the term for the purpose. This lack of a recognized published ideology leaves the Native peoples open to unfair criticisms which are not based on any real intellectual history. For example, critics of the movement state that Native peoples tend to idealize the past, and that they are not sensitive to current realities. Some of those criticisms are indicative of the critics, especially those which see Native peoples as entirely historical beings. There is some resistance by contemporary European writers to accept the concept and reality that Native peoples and philosophers exist in the 20th Century, a bias which is shared by both conservatives and the modern Left. There is also a tendency on the part of critics to assume that a Native peoples' movement must be Romanticist in nature without any real effort to analyze and compare these movements…

There is also a tendency to on the part of modern critics to see Native movements as anti-scientific and anti-intellectual. Thus Native movements are stereotyped in ways that would be immediately challenged were they applied to other movements, but go unchallenged by a Native community which has no identifiable body of intellectual [published] thought. It is a weakness which Native Peoples' movements need to address. [The published work of Vine DeLoria, Jr.-from God Is Red to The World We Used to Live In, of John C. Mohawk-20-plus books, of Winona LaDuke and others has certainly now created this ideology.]

Finally, too often Native Peoples' movements try too hard to disassociate themselves from all other forms of political ideology. There is an effort on the part of some Native peoples to try to be absolutely unique, and to eschew any connection whatever with any other analysis or tool of analysis other than that developed by themselves. There appear to be substantial areas of Marxist thought in the critique of Capitalism which should be useful to the Native movement, and there is a kind of progressive humanism which surfaces in the writings of many current writers on the history and development of technology and political economy which can serve to move Native interests forward. There is nothing contradictory about Native people seeking and finding allies within the camps of the ideologies of other peoples, and there is little doubt that social change, were such to take place in the West, would produce ideologies and movements which could complement the objectives of Native peoples. There is nothing in the annals of history to prove that Marxists cannot acquire some kind of spiritual awareness (even if it is not religion) and that Native peoples cannot develop or adopt forms of acceptable technologies which meet their needs in the context of their current realities. In fact, these kinds of things must happen. [end of article]

Akwesasne Notes newspaper, Early Spring 1981