Capitalism always is and always will be an enemy of Native people. – Vern Harper, Following the Red Path: The Native People’s Caravan, 1974 (p. 92)
Climate catastrophes have increased support for Indigenous land and water defenders, whose mutually beneficial relationship with the environment makes a lot more sense than the slash, poison, and burn disaster of capitalism.
How can non-native people best support Indigenous struggles? What is the relationship between workers’ struggles for socialism and Indigenous struggles for sovereignty? Does marxism have anything useful to contribute?
Much has been written about the presumed antagonism between marxism and Native struggles. This conflict is the result of two factors: capitalist efforts to drive a racist wedge between Indigenous and workers’ struggles; and the destructive role of ‘managerial marxists’* who promote a ‘socialism’ that promises freedom and delivers the opposite.
This article addresses the contribution of Indigenous struggles to marxist theory, why ‘managerial marxism’ cannot end Native oppression, and how the revolutionary marxist principle of self-determination links the struggles of Indigenous peoples with those of the global working class.
Marxism is typically dismissed as ‘Eurocentric’ theory that has nothing to offer the colonized. The opposite is true.
Marx and Engels intensively studied Indigenous cultures to uncover how a capitalist system that developed in Europe could spread throughout the world. They concluded that imperial powers are compelled to destroy Indigenous societies, not only to acquire their lands but also to establish wealth accumulation as the sole purpose of human activity. Marx wrote,
The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the Indigenous population of that continent, the beginnings of the conquest and plunder of India, and the conversion of Africa into a preserve for the commercial hunting of Black skins, are all things which characterize the dawn of the era of capitalist production.
While capitalist productivity enabled a major increase in the human population, Marx and Engels were horrified at the barbarism of dispossession, genocide, slavery, and engineered famine, concluding, “Capital comes into the world dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt.”
Dispossession and displacement
Marx showed that capitalism cannot exist unless the ordinary person is dispossessed of any means of surviving other than working for the capitalist. This is achieved by transforming ‘common land’ (used by all) into private property (exclusively ‘owned’), forcing the dispossessed into servitude to the propertied classes. This practice originated inside emerging capitalist nations and became central to colonial policy.
In Europe, peasant farmers were forcibly displaced from ‘the commons,’ which were claimed by the lords as their private property. Landless peasants could then be exploited by the landlord or forced into factory work.
In North America, Indigenous peoples were dispossessed of their lands by European immigrants/settlers who, in turn, were displaced by the railroad and oil barons and later by capitalist ‘developers.’
The modern State can use expropriation or ‘eminent domain’ laws to claim anyone’s land, displace the inhabitants, and transfer land rights to the capitalist class for ‘development.’ To prevent private property from reverting to common use, the State enshrines the ‘right to private property’ in law and directs police and military to defend that ‘right.’
Marx concluded that land expropriation is a permanent feature of capitalism that cannot be stopped without dismantling the system that requires it. We see this in the continued expropriation and invasion of Native lands, the razing and obliteration of Black communities, and the gentrification that erases working-class neighborhoods.
Peaceful coexistence is impossible between societies based on sharing and those based on exploitation.
Two Row Wampum is one of the oldest treaty relationships between the original inhabitants of North America and European immigrants. Based on the Indigenous principle of mutual respect and non-interference in others’ affairs, this agreement visualized Native and settler relations as two separate vessels travelling down the same river, with neither party trying to steer the other’s vessel.
Imperial powers had no intention of honoring this or any subsequent agreement. Determined to possess Native lands, they set out to destroy Native economies, reduce their numbers, ban their languages, outlaw their cultural practices, and shred their communal bonds. Indigenous genocide was excused with the racist argument that ‘savages’ are no more entitled to the land, or compensation for its loss, than animals in the forest. Today, many Native communities are kept in abject poverty, while their lands and their numbers are systematically whittled away.
What is progress?
Capitalists insist that their system is the inevitable result of the ‘march of human progress’ and that human beings are superior to all creatures. Such arrogant fantasies are used to justify exploiting the human world, destroying the non-human world, and obliterating those labeled less-than-human.
In contrast, Indigenous traditions treat all existence as an indivisible family of beings, captured in the phrase, ‘all my relations:’
“All my relations” reminds us of the extended relationship we share with all human beings and the web of kinship extending to all the animate and inanimate forms that can be seen or imagined. More than that, “all my relations” is an encouragement for us to accept the responsibility we have within this universal family by living our lives in a harmonious and moral manner.
Science supports the Indigenous world view. In his book Wonderful Life (2006), paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould explains that nature is not organized hierarchically. Life does not evolve in a straight line but is random, ever-branching, and precarious, with many dead-ends and periodic mass extinctions that create space for the rise of new life forms. If we could go back in history and begin again, it is highly unlikely that the world would look anything like it does today, and equally unlikely that it would be inhabited by human beings. In short, we are here by accident, and our continuation is by no means assured.
For the vast majority of human history, there were no class divisions, and ‘progress’ was defined as whatever improved the quality of life. About 10,000 years ago, the rise of ruling classes changed the definition of progress to mean whatever increased the wealth of the rulers. Marx explained,
The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it.
While imperialism claims to bring ‘progress’ to ‘backward’ peoples, the colonized do not experience domination as the kind of progress that makes life better.
Marx condemned British imperialism in India for clear-cutting forests, which caused more flooding, and for failing to maintain irrigation systems and grain storage units, causing widespread famine. He concluded, “The suppression of communal land ownership was nothing but an act of English vandalism that drove the indigenous population backward rather than forward.” Colonized peoples all over the world would agree.
Making wealth accumulation the definition of progress is a recipe for disaster. The world’s richest, most ‘advanced’ nation was felled by a virus because there is no profit in preserving the environment or preventing disease.
While capitalism makes it possible to improve everyone’s life, defining ‘progress’ as capital accumulation is a death sentence for humanity.
Marxism and Native Americans
Marxism and Native Americans (1983) is an important collection of essays exploring the relationship between marxism and the Native American struggle for self-rule.
Deep conflicts are revealed because the ‘marxists’ participating in this anthology could offer no alternative to capitalist oppression. The ‘socialist’ nations they defend also oppress Native people.
This raises the question: Are the so-called socialist countries oppressive because socialism is no better than capitalism, or are they oppressive because they are not really socialist at all? The second explanation makes more sense; however, most people believe the first, so an explanation is necessary.
‘Managerial marxists’ will admit that workers do not hold power in the so-called socialist states, yet still insist these states are socialist because they claim to hold power on behalf of the working class. Imperialists make a similar claim: that Indigenous people are ‘not ready’ to rule themselves and need colonial masters.
The mistaken reverence for so-called socialist States can be traced to the triumph of a workers’ revolution in Russia, and the refusal to accept its complete and utter defeat a few years later.
During the short time workers held power in Russia, Indigenous people had a taste of self-determination. The 1918 Constitution granted “equal rights to all the citizens, irrespective of their racial or ethnic affiliation.” Indigenous languages were encouraged, and books were produced in hundreds of ethnic languages.
Capitalists respond to every working-class rebellion as a threat to their existence, which it is. Combining forces, they moved to crush workers’ uprisings in Germany and elsewhere, leaving Russian workers isolated and without vital support.
The Russian revolution had transferred social power to the working-class. When workers could no longer hold onto power, it reverted to the elite. During the 1930s, a bloody counter-revolution in Russia installed a new state capitalist regime that revived all the old forms of oppression.
Acting as one giant capitalist, the State forced a rapid accumulation of capital in order to re-arm the Russian Empire. Exploitation was so intense that millions of workers and peasants starved to death. The Russian army invaded and occupied Eastern Europe. Indigenous peoples in the North were forcibly removed from their traditional lands, their languages outlawed, and their children incarcerated in ‘residential schools.’
All was justified in the name of ‘socialist progress’ and the insistence that such measures were necessary for a ‘socialist’ nation to survive in a capitalist world. It was a massive betrayal of the working class and the greatest swindle of the 20th century.
Why did so many ‘marxists’ defend Russia as ‘somehow socialist,’ even after the working class were defeated?
Many were unaware of the depth and viciousness of the counter-revolution. The Russian State continued to call itself Communist. The Cold War reinforced belief in a global conflict between capitalism and communism. And many feared that accepting the defeat of the Russian Revolution would imply that socialism is not possible.
With most of the Left convinced that socialism can exist without workers in power, other States could also claim to be socialist or communist while continuing to exploit and oppress their working classes. This led to two serious errors: The original meaning of socialism as worker self-rule was lost, and ‘socialism’ became associated with authoritarian rule or ‘Left authoritarianism.’ There is no such thing. In any form, authoritarianism is always right-wing because it opposes the right to self-determination.
‘Managerial marxists’ support continued class rule when they argue that the oppressed are not ready for self-rule. In contrast, revolutionary marxists strive to abolish class rule. We support the oppressed to organize their own liberation and collectively manage society from the bottom up.
‘Managerial marxists’ who promote socialism in theory and capitalism in practice cannot answer the challenges posed by the Native activists in this book. Worse, the chapter contributed by the Revolutionary Communist Party reeks with racist contempt, rejects Native sovereignty, and delivers empty promises. Calling this “the same old song” of the oppressors, which it is, one Native contributor concluded, “Marxism is as alien to my culture as capitalism.”
We should reject a ‘managerial marxism’ that has been stripped of its revolutionary core and made useless as a means for liberation. The alternative is not to reject marxism, but to revive the revolutionary marxist tradition of self-determination.
To justify why workers do not hold power in so-called socialist nations, ‘managerial marxists’ adopted capitalist ‘stages theory.’
Capitalist economists insist that societies inevitably ‘progress’ through stages: first foraging, then agriculture, then capitalism as the peak and final stage of human civilization. This self-serving theory is used to justify imperial conquest by treating Indigenous societies as historically backward and in need of assimilation ‘for their own good.’
Russia’s new capitalist rulers adopted stages theory with an add-on and a condition. The add-on is that socialism follows capitalism, and the condition is that capitalist economies must be fully developed before workers can be ‘ready’ for socialism. This condition justifies continued capital extraction and the conquest of societies labeled ‘less-developed.’ It also postpones the workers’ revolution to some vague and distant future.
Communist parties around the world embraced this version of stages theory with disastrous results: In China and Cuba, workers’ revolutions were deflected. After apartheid was defeated in South Africa, the new Black ruling class (advised by the South African Communist Party) insisted that African capitalism must develop further before socialism could be put on the agenda.
‘Managerial marxists’ use stages theory to argue that ‘historically backward’ Indigenous societies must be assimilated into the capitalist economy before Native people can win their liberation, as workers, through socialist revolution. This is similar to the capitalist promise of Native liberation through assimilation. Either way, Indigenous societies are erased as distinct societies, which is no liberation at all.
Revolutionary marxists reject stages theory because it prolongs the capitalist order. We oppose any measure that increases the power of the capitalist class; our goal is to end their rule. That is why Marx and Engels railed against colonialism, defended Algerian rebellions against French imperialism, and supported Irish, Indian, and African revolts against the British Empire.
Revolutionary marxists insist that socialist revolution has been on the global agenda for over 100 years. The reason we have not achieved it yet is the continued sabotage of the managerial class, including ‘managerial marxists.’
The emancipation of the working class must be achieved by the working class themselves. – The International Workingmen’s Association, 1864
Revolutionary marxism was founded on the principle of self-determination, that human beings are not problems to be managed but problem-solvers who can manage their own lives. Just as human societies flourished for thousands of years without police or prisons to ‘maintain order,’ revolutionary marxists support the majority to rule themselves and collectively manage society.
The demand to abolish class rule in favor of self-determination was the mobilizing principle of the Russian Revolution. Having liberated themselves, the workers of Russia moved to end all discrimination and oppression, including in the colonies of the Russian Empire. The 1917 Declaration of Rights of the Peoples of Russia proclaimed:
The free development of national minorities and ethnographic groups inhabiting the territory of Russia. [and] The right of the peoples of Russia to free self-determination, even to the point of separation and the formation of an independent state.
These were not empty words. As soon as Russian workers took power, Finland petitioned for independence, and this was granted the following month. Lenin insisted that solidarity across borders cannot be forced; it must be freely chosen. He argued that, in time, Finnish and Russian workers would recognize their common interest and choose to dismantle the walls between them.
The demand for self-determination links marxism and Indigenous liberation at the core. For workers, it means control over their bodies, their lives, and their work. For Native people, it means self-rule.
Under capitalism, Native self-rule means national sovereignty – the right to control what happens on their current lands and in their communities. A socialist revolution is necessary to achieve the ultimate goal of replacing private land ownership with common land stewardship.
Indigenous oppression is commonly blamed on industrialization, in and of itself. ‘Managerial marxists’ lend credibility to this belief because industry in the so-called socialist regimes is just as destructive as it is in capitalist nations. However, Native oppression did not begin with industrialization.
Before industrialization, the drive to extract wealth from the land was being imposed on Indigenous people by force and by incentive. As Natives were drawn into the fur trade, the traditional practice of taking only what you need gave way to killing animals for the commercial value of their skins, and the communal practice of sharing gave way to individual competition and economic dependence on the merchants. Industrialization accelerated these changes.
If industry is the primary problem, then Indigenous oppression can be ended only by returning to pre-industrial forms of production. However, a pre-industrial economy cannot support a global population of more than 7 billion people. Who would decide who survives and who is culled?
Revolutionary marxists argue that the root problem is not industry, but industry shaped by capitalist rule. On the one hand, it creates a global working class and the means to provide everyone with a decent life. On the other hand, making wealth extraction the sole purpose of industry degrades human labor, corrupts social relationships, and destroys the environment.
To solve the problems of capitalist industry, workers must take collective control, stop producing for profit, and start producing for need. Doing this would radically transform the structure, function, and meaning of industry.
Production for profit is insatiable because there is no limit to the capital that can be accumulated. Production for need is limited by what people can use and their willingness to work to produce it.
No one wants to waste their time making useless goods, such as weapons, or shoddy appliances that must continually be replaced. No one wants to suffer the toxic chemicals and dehumanizing, health-destroying practices that are built into capitalist industry.
Workers’ control means decisions about what to produce and how to produce it are made by those who will experience the outcome of those decisions: those doing the work, those living near the workplace, and those using what is produced. Unlike capitalists who care only for profit, workers who have freed themselves from capitalist control can only benefit by caring for their environment.
Imperial powers use an outside-inside strategy to dominate Indigenous societies. The outside strategy is the use of external force to reduce Native numbers, destroy their economic base, and disrupt their social bonds. The inside strategy consists of cultivating a Native managerial class to serve as agents for colonial oppression.
The 1960s rebellions included the Native demand for sovereignty, meaning the right to live in traditional ways, free of capitalist control. To neutralize this movement, governments framed Native self-rule to mean the opposite, the right to own or manage private property as a means to produce wealth. This was encouraged through treaty-related payments and payments in exchange for Native lands and resources.
The 1975 James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement paid $225-million in compensation for flooding traditional Indigenous lands in order to construct a massive hydro-electric project. The funds are administered by the Cree Regional Authority on behalf of the James Bay Cree, and by the Makivik Corporation on behalf of the Inuit of Northern Quebec.
Makivik has more than tripled its wealth by creating “profitable subsidiary companies, each with its own corporate leadership and board of directors, and each with a mandate to operate profitable, professional companies.” These companies include airlines, construction, shipping, logistics, and resource extraction. While some funds are used to service Inuit communities, most are reinvested in capital accumulation.
As Chief of the Westbank First Nation (WFN) in British Columbia, Ron Derrickson helped negotiate a deal with the Canadian government to allow Native communities to acquire property rights. According to the right-wing Fraser Institute,
The members of WFN have embraced private property in the forms of allotments (CPs) and supporting mechanisms such as leases, mortgages, contracts, and property tax. The result is a thriving real-estate economy that provides benefits both for WFN members and the far more numerous non-members who now live on WFN lands.
By 2007, Derrickson’s corporation was valued at over $100 million and included
20 companies with properties including mobile home parks, a family theme park, a marina, apartments, dozens of leased industrial and commercial properties, substantial tracts of prime undeveloped land, and other residential and recreational developments including a brand-new executive golf course.
Derrickson’s autobiography, Westbank Millionaire (2019), describes
one man’s story of how he turned oppression and racism on its head and won prosperity for himself and his community by playing “the white man’s game.”
Native elites who promote such ‘success stories’ imply that any Native can do the same through hard work, education, and small business ownership. The capitalist class beat the same drum. According to Forbes, Native people on reservations are desperately poor, not because of racist oppression but because they lack ‘property rights’ that would enable them to use their land as capital.
Equating Native self-rule with property rights has given rise to ‘neotribal capitalism,’ where the tribe functions as a corporation that owns or controls the land; however, it does not do so communally. The ‘corporation’ is managed by an elite class of Native bureaucrats who use tribal resources to accumulate capital, build personal wealth, and consolidate political power by dispensing jobs and favors.
To accumulate capital, you must exploit workers. Blocked by virulent racism from participating in the dominant economy, Native workers are a captive labor force. They have no other job options, and appeals for tribal unity discourage them from unionizing. Chided for her efforts to form a union, one Native worker replied,
We are an emerging government. We provide government services. Other governments have labour unions. I see no reason ours shouldn’t.
Self-organization and demands for self-rule strike at the core of capitalist control. To prevent both, capitalists employ a managerial class. Union bureaucrats manage workers, and Native bureaucrats manage Natives. Gord Hill notes,
We have our own band council chiefs telling us the solution is more capitalism and throwing more money at the problem. But of course that’s one of the major causes of the problem. It’s the capitalist system that is breaking down communities and destroying traditional territories and rendering people unable to understand themselves in a traditional way.
It is a mistake to oppose sovereignty for Native peoples on the basis that it would give more power to Native capitalists. The right of nations to self-determination must be unconditional, meaning, regardless of the kind of regime that results. When Finland petitioned for independence from Russia, no conditions were placed on its succession.
Native capitalism has given rise to a Native working class, some who live on reserves and more who live in cities. Solidarity means unconditional support for the right of others to choose their own path, whether we approve of their choices or not. We must trust Native people to deal with their own capitalist class, in their own way.
An injury to one is an injury to all.
Broad support for Indigenous self-rule can be mobilized on the basis that the capitalist State denies most of us the right to self-determination. Women are denied control over reproduction, workers are denied control over their work, and the majority are denied any control over the direction of society.
Challenging anti-native racism must not be reduced to an act of charity for the sole benefit of Native people. Any reduction in the power of the State to oppress Native people reduces its power to oppress anyone else.
Supporting others people’s choices without conditions does NOT mean forfeiting the right to offer criticisms or suggestions that you think will be helpful. Nor does it mean subordinating your own struggle against oppression to the struggles of others. Solidarity means finding creative ways to connect and strengthen all our struggles. It means fighting shoulder-to-shoulder against a common enemy.
Those who place themselves ‘under the leadership’ of Native people mistakenly assume that they speak with one voice on all things. As with any group of people, political views among Native peoples span the spectrum from traditionalists to Trump supporters.
A heated land dispute in Caledonia, Ontario revealed “a wide and conflicting range of opinions and perspectives” concerning the way forward. As one non-native participant observed,
The community is not monolithic, and it is divided along lines of religion, occupation, and class, as well as by family networks and business interests. There are divisions between an older generation of traditionalists who have little interaction with non-native society and younger activists who use the internet to share their opinions and perspectives. On top of that, there are different and conflicting interpretations of the Great Law, or guiding constitution, of the Six Nations; tensions between the different nations that make up the Confederacy; political differences between warrior society-inspired groupings and some traditional Confederacy leaders; and differences based on people’s positions at the reclamation site and the length of time they have spent there.
Despite their good intentions, those who put themselves ‘at the service’ of Native people avoid the more challenging task of organizing against racism in their own communities. Two Native activists explained,
A huge issue that kept coming up from the non-native activists was their “place” in this predominantly Indigenous struggle. They were scared that they would overstep their boundaries as “privileged” non-natives on an issue that, in their minds, should be Native-led. This fear led them to suggest that they should only work in a supportive role. This view fails to acknowledge the power, privilege and responsibility non-native “Canadian” activists have in organizing within their own country and against their own governments.
Back in the 1960s, a section of the Black Power movement expressed a similar concern,
White people who desire change in this country should go where that problem [of racism] is most manifest. That problem is not in the Black community.
In Caledonia, solidarity activists gravitated to the Native encampment, leaving racists in the town free to organize against Native rights, with business leaders arguing that White people’s standard of living would suffer if Native people won. This led to declining support for Native rights as the conflict intensified.
By failing to organize within the predominantly white communities surrounding Six Nations, the white left has effectively ceded this terrain to racist demagogues and allowed [them] to speak unopposed on behalf of the “average hard-working, taxpaying, middle-class Canadian” of the area.
Solidarity between non-native workers and Native activists was possible. The town of Caledonia was well unionized, and many workers had suffered police brutality on picket lines and as people of color.
Anti-Native racism can be countered by connecting Native oppression to the many forms of oppression that workers experience, and by demanding that any monetary reparations be paid by the same corporations that grew wealthy stealing Native lands and exploiting workers.
Seeds for our future
A mere property career is not the final destiny of mankind because such a career contains the elements of self-destruction. The time that has passed away since civilization began is but a fragment of the past duration of man’s existence; and but a fragment of the ages yet to come. The next society will be a revival, in a higher form, of the liberty, equality and fraternity of the ancient tribes. – Marx, Ethnological Notebooks (p. 139)
Marx argued that Indigenous societies play an important role in human development because of their enduring struggle against class rule, and because they retain the memory of humanity’s egalitarian past and the possibility of a future free of oppression. In Prison of Grass: Canada from a Native Point of View (1975), Howard Adams explains,
Before the Europeans arrived, Indian society was governed without police, without kings and governors, without judges, and without a ruling class. Disputes were settled by the council, among the people concerned. Indian government was neither extensive nor complicated, and positions were created only to ensure effective administration for a given period of time. There were no poor and needy by comparison with other members, and likewise no wealthy and privileged; as a result, on the prairies there were no classes and no class antagonisms among the people. Members of the community were bound to give each other assistance, protection, and support, not only as part of their economics, but as part of their religion as well. Sharing was a natural characteristic of their way of life. Each member recognized his or her responsibility for contributing to the tribe’s welfare when required, and individual profit-making was unknown. Everyone was equal in rights and benefits. (p.18)
It is our challenge to rebuild these egalitarian social relationships in a global industrial society under workers’ control where, as Marx noted about the Iroquois, “All members are personally free and bound to defend each other’s freedom.”
(*For more on the managerial class, see Rebel Minds)