This article was posted in 2008 by Rowland Keshena on a blog which is no longer active. Though there are some very pronounced ideological problems with this essay (particularly its references to “Stalinism,” as well as the “anthropocentrism” of Marxism and the idea that the concept of domination of nature by man is somehow “Judeo-Christian,” it remains a thorough criticism of the anti-communism of leading figures of the Native community. Thus, I have posted it here to aid in struggling against this anti-Marxist line put forward by several Native scholars and figures.
I have come out and stated a couple of times that I feel that the critiques of Marxism offered by many in the Indian radical movement seem to come across as either having been born from extreme ignorance and/or extreme sect baiting. It has also been my tendency not to really address the claims of people like Russell Means, as I find him a hypocrite and a not so closeted libertarian (despite claims to being anti-capitalist), Vine Deloria Jr., given his absurd beliefs that equate to American Indian creationism, complete with white people being made by aliens and dinosaurs surviving until the 19th century, or Frank Black Elk as they tend to demonstrate an utter lack knowledge about Marxism. The one who I have reserved space for criticism though is Ward Churchill, given my otherwise great respect for him and his scholarship on American history, his place of greater acceptance (relative to the other I mentioned) in leftist circles and his somewhat more intellectual, but still hallow I find, criticisms of Marxism.
His single greatest attempt to present an Indian/Indigenist critique of Marxism was the book of essays he edited in 1983 called Marxism and Native Americans (on a side note, I have often wondered why the term Native Americans here, given his later use of American Indian, and the wider rejection by that time of Native American by the Indian radicals, and Indian country in general). I will admit that the book does make some good criticisms of Stalinism, particularly its anthropocentrism and its continuation of the Judeo-Christian notion of the domination of the earth by man, leading to a continuation of the ecocidal capitalist notion of “grow or die.” However the book also contained a number of problems for me, one being the gross misrepresentation of Marxism contained within, in that both the criticisms given by Churchill, Means, Black Elk, Deloria Jr and Larson and the arguments for Marxism are largely geared towards and presented from the Soviet Marxist-Leninist (read. Stalinist) model of savagely mutilated and intellectually robbed Marxism.
However the goal of this essay is not to attack this book as many good critiques of it already exist, in particular there is one by Canadian Indian nationalist and dedicated Marxist Howard Adams (which for the life of me I cannot find online), which I find of particular interest as it comes from an Indigenous person instead of a white. With that said, my goal here is take a specific look at an essay from Churchill called False Promises: An Indigenist Examination of Marxist Theory and Practice. In this essay Churchill lays out his primary issues with Marxist theory, in particular the Marxist positions on dialectics, nature, Dialectical and Historical Materialism and the labour theory of value. I will not address his problems with Marxism on the national question as I have already given my thoughts on it many times in the past, including on the problems with Marx and Engels’ original formulation of it. In order to try and have an ordered approach to this critique, I have attempted to keep the are sections of my critique the same as his.
Dialectics and Nature:
To open up the essay Churchill begins with a description of dialectical, or relational, thinking, in particular as he finds it in the European traditions and the American Indian ones, which he sums up in the Lakota phrase Metakuyeayasi (my relatives/relations). He also traces the history of dialectical thinking in Europe, having come into Europe via the the Greeks, who Churchill identifies as having gotten it in turn from the Egyptian civilization, who also apparently in turn borrowed it from the Ethiopians. Next he jumps to Hegel, who he states revived the tradition of dialectical thinking in Europe, and from whom the idea was introduced to Marx and the other Young Hegelians.
He also at this point correctly states that the Hegelian/Marxist concept of thinking in terms of relationships stands solidly opposed to the history of European thought, exemplified in linear rationality. It is here that Churchill’s critique of Marxist dialectics begins, as he sees the primary problem with Marx being that he has a presumption of the supremacy of human agency in determining historical reality. This of course, for Churchill, is a supremely Eurocentric presumption. Churchill sums it up in his essay by saying:
“His (Marx) impetus in this regard appears to have been his desire to see his theoretical endeavors used, not simply as a tool of understanding, but as a proactive agent for societal transformation, a matter bound up in his famous dictum that “the purpose of philosophy is not merely to understand history, but to change it.” (sic) Thus Marx, a priori and with no apparent questioning in the doing, proceeded to anchor the totality of his elaboration in the presumed primacy of a given relation—that sole entity which can be said to hold the capability of active and conscious pursuit of change, i.e.: humanity—over any and all relations, the Marxian “dialectic” was thus unbalanced from the outset, skewed as a matter of faith in favor of humans. Such disequilibrium is, of course, not dialectical at all. It is, however, quite specifically Eurocentric in its attributes, springing as it does from the late-Roman interpretation of the Judeo-Christian assertion of “man’s” supposed responsibility to “exercise dominion over nature,” a tradition which Marx (ironically) claimed oft and loudly to have “voided” in his rush to materialism.”
As Marx quite truly stated in his Theses on Feuerbach, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.” Indeed this has come to form the core of much of Marxist theory and practice, however for Churchill to take a quotation like this and make a jump into presuming that Marx was ascribing some kind of transcendental and transhistorical superpower to human agency is inaccurate at best. I also find this critique a little strange in that it comes a completely different direction than many other critics of Marx who felt that he was far to deterministic and actually tended towards undermining the power of human agency.
Marx was quite clear though that what he was looking at was the conditions in which humans can act, and he is clear that these conditions are independent of the will of the actors, a position that is best summed up in these two quotes:
“Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.” – “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon.”
“In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.” – “A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy.”
We must also take into account that these conditions that Marx speaks of are eminently historical. In other words they had come from somewhere, and they will go somewhere. It also follows on from this that they are eminently social. To sum it up, when Marx speaks on the range of action and the range of inaction available to humans in a particular place and time, he is talking about the constrictions of the social reality; this involves the economics, the politics, the religious, the cultural, so on, so forth. All of these factors for Marx are social.
The next contention by Churchill is that Marx failed to see the human existence as being one relation among several, with Marx most conspicuously leaving out the relation of nature. However for Marx even the concept of nature itself is social. This is because Marx feels that nature is not a given, but rather something that exists only in relation to human being. However, if we take the idea that nature is a relation, and not a deified and transhistorical category, it exists because some humans define it as such, it does not mean that we feel natural events like hurricanes or blizzards will bend to the will of humans, rather we see that the categories we as humans use to define and describe the world around us are also historical and relational, which is to say that they are dialectical.
We also must realize that humanity exists within geography and territory, and hence is effected by the various effects that nature has, such as temperature and landscape. However we must also recognize that we have managed to alter these effects, namely temperature and landscape. In other words, we have been able to alter nature. It’s still relational, still dialectical. Even if we describe nature as being something separate from humanity, Engels is right to point out that whatever we define as nature is going to be historical, continuously coming into being and changing.
Churchill is also quite correct to state that Marx is a humanist and anthropocentric, however I feel his incorrect to conflate this with a continuation of the Judeo-Christian drive to dominate nature. Again I feel this is misleading on Churchill’s part, because while it certainly does very well sum up the history of Stalinism, it conflates this with all of Marxism, and certainly ignores the development of ecosocialism. However, if we go back to Marx himself we can see that even his supposed anthropocentrism is dialectical and does not ignore the myriad relations in which humans exist, certainly not that of nature. Marx’s writings are also not speaking of a Judeo-Christian drive to dominate nature. An excellent rejonder to this often brought up criticism of Marx is the book Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature by John Bellamy Foster. In the book Foster shatters the notion that Marx cared only about industrial growth and the development of economic forces. By covering not just Marx, but also other thinkers like Epicurus, Charles Darwin, Thomas Malthus, Ludwig Feuerbach, P. J. Proudhon, and William Paley he is able to construct a materialist conception of nature and society, and thereby also challenge the mysticism and spiritualism prevalent in the modern Green movement, pointing toward a method that offers more lasting and sustainable solutions to the ecological crisis.
I could say more about that book and the other works of Foster, and indeed I highly suggest that anyone even thinking of calling themselves Marxist or radical read his works, however, summing up his work is not the point of this essay, so instead I will a quote from Engels’ The Part played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man that find to be particularly devastating to Churchill’s argument:
“Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human victories over nature. For each such victory nature takes its revenge on us. Each victory, it is true, in the first place brings about the results we expected, but in the second and third places it has quite different, unforeseen effects which only too often cancel the first. […] Thus at every step we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing outside nature – but that we, with flesh, blood and brain, belong to nature, and exist in its midst, and that all our mastery of it consists in the fact that we have the advantage over all other creatures of being able to learn its laws and apply them correctly.”
The quote speaks for itself, the simple fact is that Marx and Engels were in no way ignorant of humanity’s position as being one relation existing dialectically among many, most certainly not separate from nature, but in nature. This also means that nature is eminently social. To that we can add that Marx and Engels were also both concerned with what we now often refer to as “sustainable development.” Simply, they didn’t think humans fucking up the environment was a good idea. They were actually highly critical of ecological destruction and degradation. As for Churchill’s assertion of Marx continuing the Judeo-Christian of human dominion over nature goes, let us consider Marx’s own words:
“Even a whole society, a nation, or even all simultaneously existing societies taken together, are not the owners of the globe. They are only its possessors, its usufructuaries, and, like boni patres familias, they must hand it down to succeeding generations in an improved condition.” – “Capital Vol. III Part VI: Transformation of Surplus-Profit into Ground-Rent.”
The simple fact is that Churchill’s assertion that Marx and Engels support the domination of nature of man is just plain wrong. It goes to show that Churchill, like many other critics of Marx, whether Marxist, non-Marxist, Indigenist, religious or whatever has failed to actually read Marx in anyway but a superficial manner before attempting to present a coherent argument against Marxism.
Historical and Dialectical Materialism:
After attacking Marx’s notions of dialectics and nature Churchill moves on to attempting to examine the heart of Marxist theory, historical materialism. To begin Churchill makes the assertion that historical materialism examining human society as a mass of contradictions rather than as a unified whole, that all of human history is simply the history of contradictions reconciling themselves to production. Churchill then tells us that “‘Productive relations,’ in [the Marxist] schema, determine all and everything.” The so-called orthodox Marxists, according to Albert and Hahnel (whom Churchill cites), assert that Marxism downgrades the “importance of the creative aspect of the human consciousness” and that consciousness rests primarily on objective production relations.
I will admit that there is a grain of truth in Churchill’s assertions here, however he launches into a full scale attack on historical and dialectical materialism before providing a coherent account of them, with his attacks relying on wildly out of context quotations from Althusser and Baudrillard. Because of this it is very difficult to actually provide a defence of them against Churchill’s assertions. Perhaps in this case the best way to present a critique of Churchill is to actually provide a brief summary of historical and dialectical materialism, and in this way hopefully provide an answer to some of his problems.
The primary concept behind Marx’s theory of historical materialism is that all of history is based on, and driven by, material realities rather than mysterious forces. Another way of putting this is that it is not so much the ideas we have that determine our existence as much as it is the factors of our material existence that determine our ideas. This does not mean that ideas have absolutely no effect on the course of history, rather just that they only have effect when put into material action.
The Marxist model of historical materialism looks for the various causes of developments and changes in human societies in the way in which humans collectively make the means to live, thus giving an emphasis, through economic analysis, to everything that co-exists with the economic base of society. But what is meant by economics in this context? We often hear the term “mode of production” get thrown around alot, e.g., capitalism is a mode of production. If we break down, humans need to eat, drink, sleep, etc and in order to do these things they have to produce things, in one fashion or another, and the “mode” is how the production is organized and carried out. Like all other factors, this organization to is intrinsically social and its impact and been seen and felt on all other aspects of society, including: culture, politics, the state, and law. To put it simply, our social relations of production play a major role in how our social relations are organized in general.
However, any given mode of production that a society utilizes does not appear out of thin air and and neither do things like culture and ideas. The fact is that these develop together, and develop because of the course of human actions and interactions. However, importantly, the behaviours and courses of action taken by people are determined by the possibilities, limits, and imperatives of historical conditions.
Additionally it must be noted that economics is not the sole factor in driving the course of human history, as other factors can, and do, play roles in this. The point here is that they can not be separated from one another, and one cannot ignore the foundational aspect of the material social realities. Also, different modes of production can and do exist at the same time, over the same spaces, but it also the case that there is one that is clearly more dominant and determining than others.
So now let us return to Churchill’s original critiques. By now I would hope that a few things have become apparent. Firstly, the mass of human society is a set of contradictions. However these contradictions are parts of a whole and they are determined by the logic of that whole. However the whole is not necessarily “unified,” however Churchill does not really explain what he means by that term anyway. Also, the contradictions do not actually have to reconcile themselves to production. Production is itself upheld by its own set of contradictions. The productive relations are fundamental, but they do not determine “all and everything.” Finally, it is true that human consciousness is determined by their material existence. Existence precedes essence, and not the other way around. However, the whole point of revolution is that the productive relations people enter into are independent of their wills doesn’t mean it has to remain that way.
Labour Theory of Value:
The final area of Churchill’s critique of Marxism that I will examine is Marx’s labour theory of value.
Churchill is partially correct in saying that the LTV forms the core of Marxist thought, as it actually forms the bedrock of the Marxist economic theory of capitalism as a mode of production. In the essay, Churchill describes the LTV as meaning that:
“value can be assigned to anything by virtue of the quantity and quality of human labor—i.e.: productive, transformative effort—put into it. This idea carries with it several interesting sub properties, most strikingly that the natural world holds no intrinsic value of its own.”
Again, this is partially true.
For us to really be able to understand the rationale behind Marx’s ideas on the LTV we examine what Marx is actually attempting to do with it. Marx’s drive behind formulating the LTV was to try and discover “the laws of motion” of the capitalist mode of production. What this means for us, and it is central in our attempt here to refute Churchill, is that Marx’s analysis is entirely specific to capitalism as an economic system.
So what is Marx speaking of when talks about value? Well, he is specifically speaking of the value of commodities. Now by this he means that a commodity is a thing that has some kind of use, though it does not matter how one defines that use. In Capital, Vol. 1 Marx states that the “utility of a thing makes it a use-value.” What he is saying is that things can and do have intrinsic value of their own, though only when they are viewed from the perspective of humans. We also need to be crystal clear about what Marx meant by “use.” If a person derives aesthetic, spiritual, or some kind of non-physical use from a thing it is still a use. It may be a different kind of use-value, but still a use-value none the less. This means that use-value is subjective. However Marx did not mean this when he spoke of “value”.
In order for a commodity to be one it has to have some sort of exchange-value. So how do two disparate use-values find themselves being equated for exchange? There is a medium, money in the case of capitalism, which facilitates this exchange. However, what determines the particular exchange-value of a thing? For Marx, exchange-value is created by the labour required to actually produce the thing. This means that exchange-value is determined by the labour required for its production in a capitalist economy. This is what Marx means when he is talking about the LTV. This means that in the capitalist market-economy value is expressed as, and through, exchange-value, and exchange-value has nothing to do with a given thing’s use-value.
It is also entirely possible for something to have a use-value while having no exchange-value, meaning that it is not a commodity. Marx put it like this:
“A thing can be a use value, without having value. This is the case whenever its utility to man is not due to labour. Such are air, virgin soil, natural meadows, &c. A thing can be useful, and the product of human labour, without being a commodity.” – “Capital, Vol. 1.”
With this in mind it is now possible for us to fully understand what Marx meant in Capital when he said, “nothing can have value, without being an object of utility. If the thing is useless, so is the labour contained in it; the labour does not count as labour, and therefore creates no value.” Here he is is quite specifically talking of exchange-value. If a thing is not useful to someone else, it will not be exchanged, and hence has no value in the capitalist economy.
What Churchill says is right on in terms of how a capitalist economy views value and Marx would have no problem in sharing Churchill’s critique, though it’s not actually the critique of Marx or Marxism the Churchill tries to present it as. Churchill says:
“A mountain is worth nothing as a mountain; it only accrues value by being ‘developed’ into its raw productive materials such as ores, or even gravel. It can hold a certain speculative value, and thus be bought and sold, but only with such developmental ends in view. Similarly, a forest holds value only in the sense that it can be converted into a product known as lumber; otherwise, it is mere an obstacle to valuable, productive use of land through agriculture or stock-raising, etc. (an interesting commentary on the Marxian view of the land itself). Again, other species hold value only in terms their utility to productive processes (e.g.: meat, fur, leather, various body oils, eggs, milk, transportation in some instances, even fertilizer); otherwise they may, indeed must be preempted and supplanted by the more productive use of the habitat by humans.”
As for what Churchill refers to as the “Marxian view of the land itself,” I would refer you back to the earlier quotes from Marx and Engels. I should also point out that Marx is very clear that nature is as much a source of wealth as labour, and was quite vociferous in his criticism of those who thought that labour alone was a source of wealth:
“Labor is not the source of all wealth. Nature is just as much the source of use values (and it is surely of such that material wealth consists!) as labor, which itself is only the manifestation of a force of nature, human labor power.” – “Critique of the Gotha Programme.”
Getting back to my earlier point about Churchill’s critique of Marxist ideas on dialectics and nature, it would seem that his critiques of the labour theory of value have little, if any, detailed analysis behind it. Again, it appears that Churchill has attempted nothing but the most superficial reading of Marx and Engels. Hence he comes off as little more than ignorant of what he trying to speak about.
However, the point behind this “anti-critique” of sorts is that what Churchill is presenting in his essay might go on to form the basis of further mistaken critiques of Marxism. I also feel that it is important the truth of Marxist thought is certainly not the kind of Soviet Marxism that Churchill and others repeatedly conflate with Marxism on the whole.
On a final note, I disagree with Churchill that Marxism and Indigenism are mutually exclusive. This perhaps because, rather than use his definition of Indigenism as being a mix of deep-ecology, soft-path technology and anarchism (more like minarchism), I prefer the definition given by Guillermo Bonfil Batalla. His definition of Indigenism boiled down to six basic demands:
* Right to ancestral lands including complete control of land and subsoil, the defence of land and recuperation of land lost.
* Recognition of the ethnic and cultural identity of indigenous people- all indigenous peoples and organizations reaffirm the right to be distinct in culture, language and institutions, and to increase the value of their own technological, social and ideological practices.
* Equal political rights in relation to the state.
* The end of repression and violence, particularly that against the leaders, activists and followers of indigenous political organizations.
* The end of family planning programmes which have brought widespread sterilization of indigenous women and men.
* The rejection of tourism and folklore, meaning the end of commercialization of Indian music, dance and other art forms as well as other forms of cultural appropriation. Instead, respect for true indigenous cultural expressions.
These original six demands, as well as many others such as the rejection of capitalism and neoliberalism, have framed many of the Indian liberation struggles in the Americas over the last century, from sections of the Red Power movement (especially in Canada), to the Zapatistas in Mexico, to the work of Hugo Blanco and others in the Andean region of South America, to the election of Evo Morales in Bolivia, to the current struggles in Canada. There is also absolutely no reason that this form of Indigenism cannot be compatible with Marxism and struggles for socialism, and I am proud to call myself both a Marxist and an Indigenist.
However, the indigenism that Ward Churchill propagates has become, in certain circles, a curse word on the left implying that someone seeks a return to a primitivist life-style, or at least a certain level of deindustrialization. This is also not far off of what Churchill, Means and others seek. However, the simple fact is that true Indigenism, not the vaguely disguised primitivism of Means and Churchill, it is not something people on the revolutionary left should be afraid of, indeed it should embraced alongside the struggles against capitalism, racial/national oppression of blacks and latinos, patriarchy and homophobia/heterosexism, only then can a truly emancipatory struggle be waged.