THE “CRISIS OF MARXISM” is more a journalistic catch-phrase than a theoretical concept. In certain advanced capitalist countries, much of the left intelligentsia with origins in Stalinism and/or Maoism (with a few isolated exceptions, like Castoriadis) has been deeply affected by the simultaneous unfolding of dissidence in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe (particularly the revelations in Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago) and the crisis of Maoism in China.
They have undergone a severe demoralization and disorientation, whose main form, especially since the 1970s, is a rejection of Marxism as a “totalitarian doctrine.” In many cases, this sudden revulsion has gone even further and has led former leftists into the ranks of the old right, the new right, or the very new, modern right.
It is not accidental that this crisis has been most profound in those countries where Stalinism and/or Maoism exercised pervasive influence among intellectuals — France and Italy. (By contrast, in the past fifteen years British Marxism has known an astonishing development on the social, cultural and scientific levels.)
Exploited ad nauseam by the mass media in their most superficial form, “new” philosophy and the “new” ideologues of anti-Marxism are basically the opposite side of the Stalinist coin. Incapable in the past of distinguishing Marxism from its lamentable bureaucratic caricature, these doctrinairists are now simply serving up their old positions with a negative sign lazily attached.
Nevertheless, the anxiety and confusion exhibited by large numbers of these former left intellectuals is a manifestation of a deeper problem: the challenge to Marxism posed by the paradox of its transformation in post-capitalist societies into a state ideology serving an oppressive and exploitative order.
Stalinism in all its varieties is not a “theoretical deviation” (Althusser), but is one of the most decisive political phenomena in the history of the twentieth century. It is the formation, in societies that have abolished capitalism (in some cases through genuine social revolutions — the USSR and China), of authoritarian, totalitarian states through the use of terrorism.
In these societies, power is monopolized by a social layer — the bureaucracy — with its own interests distinct from and opposed to those of the workers. Rather than a class or a caste, this layer resembles an “estate” (the Stand of Marx and Max Weber), a clerical and parasitic social order structured through an institution of the politico-ideological type. In the post-capitalist societies, the ideology of this dominant layer originating in the workers’ movement is a caricature of Marxism.
The bureaucracy empties Marxism of its critico-revolutionary content and reduces it to a petrified and hollow shell which it then fills with its own conservative, mystifying and self-serving content.
To explain this bureaucratic degeneration of the post-capitalist states as the product of Marx’s theoretical conceptions is about as useful and enlightening as saying that the Inquisition was the result of the Gospel, that the Vietnam war (fought in the name of democracy) was the fruit of the ideas of Thomas Jefferson, or that the German Third Reich was the application of the nationalism of Fichte (or the irrationalism of Schelling or the statism of Hegel).
A serious and respectable critique of Marxist authoritarianism does exist. But the capitalist mass media, which has praised the insignificant “new” philosophers to the skies, has never paid any attention to it. It is the critique which anarchists, anarcho-syndicalists and libertarian communists have been presenting for the past one hundred years. We can reject these arguments because they are wrong (which I do), but they are genuine arguments and not publicity stunts.
In my opinion, one of the main contributions brought by Marx to the domain of political thought is precisely the perspective of an anti-authoritarian revolution.
In the first half of the nineteenth century, an authoritarian and substitutionist conception of the revolution predominated among the revolutionary currents of the nascent communist movement (Jacobino-Babeuvism, Blanquism). The revolution was conceived as the action of a tiny group, revolutionary elite, which took upon itself the mission of saving the people from slavery and oppression.
These currents based themselves on the essential premise of the metaphysical materialism of the eighteenth century: people were the product of circumstance and, if their circumstance was oppression and obscurantism, the mass of people were condemned to ignorance. The proletariat was thus considered incapable of assuring its own emancipation. Liberation would have to come to it from the outside, from above, at the hands of a small minority which, as the exception, had succeeded in attaining enlightenment.
This group would now play the role that eighteenth century materialist philosophers had attributed to the enlightened despot: to destroy from above the circular and self-perpetuating mechanisms of the social conditions and thereby enable the majority of people to have access to knowledge, reason and freedom.
In his Theses on Feuerbach and in The German Ideology, Marx broke with the premises of mechanical materialism and formulated the seed of a new vision of the world. Within this vision were the methodological bases for a new theory of revolution drawn from the most advanced experiences of the workers’ movement of his epoch (English Chartism, the revolt of the Silesian weavers in 1844, etc.)
By rejecting both the old materialism of the philosophy of Enlightenment (change the circumstances to liberate the people) and nee-Hegelian idealism (liberate human consciousness to change society), Marx cut the Gordian knot of the philosophy of his time. His third thesis on Feuerbach asserts that in revolutionary praxis altering conditions and transforming consciousness go hand in hand. His new conception of revolution (presented for the first time in The German Ideology) flows from this basic premise with rigor and logical coherence. It is only through their own experience in the course of their own revolutionary praxis that the exploited and oppressed masses can overcome both the external circumstances that chain them (capital, the state) and their previous mystified consciousness.
In other words, the only genuine form of emancipation is self-emancipation. As Marx would later write in the founding declaration of the First International: “the emancipation of the workers is the task of the workers themselves.” The revolution has to be self-liberation. It is defined at one and the same time by radical changes in economic, political and social structures and the achieving of consciousness by the laboring masses about their real interests, their discovery of new, radical and emancipatory aspirations, values and ideas.
The framework for a vision of the revolution obviously relates not only to the “seizure of power,” but also to an entire historical period of uninterrupted social transformation. In Marx’s vision there is no room for any kind of enlightened despot, whether individual or collective, no Caesar or Tribune of the People.
The doctrine (enshrined in the Polish constitution) which substitutes the party for the proletariat and imposes its “leading role” from on high, as well as the ideology of the infallible leader, omniscient and benevolent, are a complete rupture with the most profound elements of the philosophy and revolutionary theory of Marx. To find the historical origins of Stalin’s, Mao’s, Kim II Sung’s or Ceausescu’s “personality cult” you have to search through religious history or through the customs of oriental despotism (Asiatic or Byzantine). They cannot be found in the thought of the author of The Communist Manifesto.
Events of the 1980s in Poland constitute a decisive stage in the divorce unfolding between the workers in self-styled “actually existing socialism” and the bureaucratic Caesarism that has usurped power in their name. These events have also confirmed two basic theses of Marxism:
1) Contrary to those who rushed to write off the proletariat, the working class has once again shown itself to be the revolutionary class par excellence, the universal class which unites all the oppressed and exploited around its struggle. It appears again as the class that can emancipate itself only by tearing down the entire existing system of domination, the class whose goals can only be attained through democracy, freedom and socialist self-management. This was instinctively understood by the intellectuals, peasants, progressive Christians, students, dissident communists and other social layers who fell in behind the leadership of Solidarnosc to fight against the bureaucratic system.
While it’s true that there were clashes inside the movement around very divergent and often confused ideas on what sort of alternative to pose to the established regime, the dominant tendency went in the direction of workers’ self-management.
2) The Polish events demonstrated that reform of the bureaucratic state is an impossibility. They showed the structural incapability of that state with any degree of workers’ democracy and any independent social movement that threatens the foundations of its domination. These events prove the necessity of the anti-bureaucratic revolution, which alone is capable of abolishing the political, social and economic structures of the system and replacing them with genuine socialist self management. Such self-management means that the workers themselves would determine the priorities and goals of production through a process of free discussion and democratic decision-making. These decisions would no longer be made by a non-elected and all-powerful Bureau of Planning, much less the blind laws of the capitalist market.
Against the hollow and “normative” pseudo-Marxism of the bureaucracy, it is more than ever necessary to reassert the utopian revolutionary vision of genuine Marxism. This Marxism has nothing in common with repetitious incantation of a few quotes from Marx or Engels in the style of a typical Buddhist prayer wheel. It consists of a method of critical thought about the social reality with the aim its revolutionary change.
If, as we believe, Marxism is the “intellectual horizon of our epoch” (Sartre), all attempts to “go beyond” it only end up in regression to inferior levels of thought, not beyond but behind Marx. Within this “crisis of Marxism,” bourgeoisnee-liberalism, positivism, metaphysical idealism or vulgar materialism, social biology and reactionary obscurantism are flourishing. Only the actualization of Marxism can open the way for a new critique with genuine powers of emancipation.
In our opinion, this process must begin from Marx’s own point of departure in 1843 when, in a letter to Ruge, he defined his approach as the ruthless criticism of all that exists. It is a question of utilizing the Marxist method, which he defined in his prologue to Capital as “a rational dialectic … critical and revolutionary,” his radical humanist historicism and his philosophy of praxis in order to understand, interpret and change the world in which we live.
This method should be used to understand new phenomena that did not exist in Marx’s time, to correct and dialectically overcome his many errors, limitations and weaknesses. In particular, it should be employed to criticize both the regimes and societies under capitalist domination and also the post-revolutionary states which illegitimately lay claim to his thought-all with the perspective of their revolutionary abolition.
This renovation necessarily includes the enrichment of Marxism with the contributions of the new social movements, above all the feminist movement (but also the movements around ecology, pacifism, etc). The integration of feminism as an essential and permanent dimension of the Marxist program — and not a separate chapter tacked on from “the outside” — is a decisive condition for Marxism to achieve a universal and radically emancipating character whose purpose is the abolition of not one but all forms of social oppression.
The actualization of Marxism also requires its enrichment through the most advanced and most productive forms of non-Marxist theoretical thought-from Max Weber to Freud, from Mannheim to Piaget-as well as the integration of the limited but useful output of the various branches of academic social science. Inspiration for this should be drawn from Marx himself, who knew how to make good use of the work of philosophy and science in his day-not only Hegel, Feuerbach and Ricardo, but also Quesnay, Ferguson, Sismondi, ). Steuart, Hodgskin, Maurer, Morgan, Lorenz von Stein, Flora Tristan, Saint-Simon, Fourier, etc.
Marx’s use of these sources did not diminish in the slightest the unity and theoretical coherence of his work, The claim that Marxism holds an exclusive monopoly on science, condemning all other currents of thought and investigation, has nothing to do with Marx’s concept of the conflictive articulation of his theory with contemporary scientific production.
Finally, the creative development of Marxism and the overcoming of its current “crisis” demands there-establishment of its utopian dimension. An irreconcilable and thorough-going critique of the present forms of late capitalism and post-capitalist bureaucratic societies is necessary but insufficient. The credibility of the project of a revolutionary transformation of the world requires the existence of models of an alternative society, visions of a radically different future and horizons of a humanity that is truly free.
Scientific socialism must once again become utopian by drawing its inspiration from the “Principle of Hope” (Bloch) that resides in the struggles, dreams and aspirations of millions of oppressed and exploited, “the defeated of history,” from Jan Hus and Thomas Munzer up to the soviets of 1917-19 in Europe and the 1936-37 collectives in Barcelona. On this level it is even more indispensable to open the door of Marxist thought wide to the gamut of intuitions about the future, from the utopian socialists of yesterday to the romantic _critics of industrial civilization and from the dreams of Fourier to the libertarian ideals of anarchism.
Marx deliberately set severe limits on himself when it came to a utopian vision. He was convinced that preoccupation with the problems associated with the realization of socialism should be left to future generations. But our generation cannot adopt this posture. We are confronted with post-capitalist bureaucratic societies which claim to be the concretization of “socialism” and even “communism.” We have an imperative need for alternative models of a genuine free association of producers (Marx).
We need a Marxist utopia — a heretical concept, but without heresy how could Marxism have developed? A utopia presents in the most concrete way possible an imaginary liberated enclave not yet in existence (utopos, nowhere) in which the exploitation of workers, the oppression of women, alienation, reification, the state and capital are all abolished. Without abandoning for an instant the realistic preoccupation with revolutionary strategy and tactics and the very material problems of the transition to socialism, at the same time free rein must be given to creative imagination, to daydreams, active hope and the red visionary spirit.
i>Socialism does not exist in the present reality; it must be reinvented as the final outcome of the struggle for the future. This means encouraging far-ranging discussion without limits or taboos on the possibilities· for democratic socialism based on self-management, real democratic planning (in which use·values once again predominate over exchange values), non-alienated relations between the sexes, the re-establishment of the balance between humanity and nature and the ecological equilibrium of the planet.
The goal is not to turn out abstract or arbitrary speculation. It is to conceptualize an humane Gemeinschaft that qualitatively differs from the existing state of affairs, beginning with the objective possibilities created by the contradictions inherent in industrial civilization, by the simultaneous crisis of contemporary capitalism and of so-called “really existing socialism.”
Among the utopian elements that should be further explored one could mention for instance:
• A new productive and technological system, exploring the development and reliance on renewable energy sources, especially those which do not endanger human life or harm the natural environment. The rule under which socialism cannot first take possession of the bourgeois state apparatus and use it for its own purposes, but has to destroy the old structure and build a new one, applies also, although in a different form, to the existing technical and productive apparatus. The present form of industrial machinism is not the only possible one. It can and should be radically transformed — replaced by more advanced and less destructive methods of production.
• The emancipation of labor, not only by the expropriation of the private owners and the control over the process of production by the producers themselves, but also by thorough change in the very nature of labor. This means the abolition of the sexual division of labor and of the traditional separation between manual and intellectual activity, as well as the re-establishment of the qualitative, artistic dimension of labor. Marx criticized industrial capitalism (in the Grundrisse) for its degradation of work: “labor loses all the characteristics of art … [and] becomes more and more a purely abstract activity, a purely mechanical activity.” A socialist reorganization of the work process would require, therefore, the restitution to human labor of its “characteristics of art.”
• The free distribution of an increasing number of goods and services, corresponding to the basic material and cultural needs, and the parallel decline in the role of the market, commodity production and money.
• Truly equal, non-hierarchical and non-oppressive gender relations, and the universalization to the whole of society human values so far restricted to (and imposed on) women: peacefulness, nurturance, altruism, etc.
• A democratic and decentralized organization of economic, social and political life, where self administration and direct control by the workers and the population gradually replace the kind of repressive and bureaucratic structure known as the “state.” Even the proletarian, revolutionary state should eventually “wither away” (Engels), its indispensable functions being
Independent of polemics with the utopian socialists of his age, Marx’s works contain, even if in a fragmentary way, a utopian-revolutionary dimension for which he has always been denounced in the name of “realism” by his academic and reformist critics. One of the characteristics of the social democratic, Stalinist and post-Stalinist impoverishment of twentieth-century Marxism was precisely the abandonment of its “messianic” dimension in favor of a restricted and narrow conception of social change. To paraphrase an old formulation of Lenin’s, today we could say that without revolutionary utopia there will be no revolutionary practice.
In the struggle to recover the explosive charge of Marxist utopia, we must rely on the underground currents, the heretical and subversive tradition hidden or disowned by the bureaucracy: Rosa Luxemburg, Trotsky, Lenin of State and Revolution and Philosophical Notebooks, the young Lukacs, Gramsci, Walter Benjamin.
Lukacs’ History and Class Consciousness (1923) was the most advanced philosophical expression of the principles of the October Revolution. The ideas of Benjamin may well be a source of inspiration for the revolts and revolutions to come.
The starting point and the final conclusion of Benjamin’s work-inspired by German romanticism’s cultural critique of bourgeois industrial civilization, but going beyond it from a revolutionary viewpoint — is a critical reflection on progress. His Theses on the Philosophy of History, one of the most important contributions to Marxist thought and revolutionary theory since the Theses on Feuerbach in 1845, stresses that historical materialism must understand progress in a different way. The technical and industrial development of capitalism, the increasing domination over nature, the blind development of production is not a stream flowing in a naturally inevitable direction (in which we can swim) toward socialism. It is instead a road that can lead to catastrophe, to the destruction of human culture.
A few years after Benjamin wrote his theses (1940), Auschwitz and Hiroshima provided confirmation of the correctness of his warning beyond anything he could have imagined. In 1986 in a world unceasingly threatened by an irreversible breaking of the balance of nature and by nuclear holocaust, Benjamin’s ideas have lost none of their pertinence.
For Benjamin, the revolution is not “progress,” improving the established order, perfecting the existing economic and social mechanisms, it is a “messianic” interruption of the course of history, of its continuum. Rather than the locomotive of history, the socialist revolution is the emergency brake that brings to a stop the headlong rush of the train toward the abyss.
The agent of this revolutionary interruption, the proletariat, carries in its collective consciousness, as an historical memory and as a motivation for its revolt, the ageless struggle of the oppressed and defeated. The proletariat is their inheritor and the executor of their estate.
The German Marxist thinker Karl Kautsky uncovered the radical history of Christianity, from the early years of the Church to the Reformation and the German Peasant War. His pioneering work in Marxist historiography deserves to be remembered today.
German Marxist theorist Karl Kautsky (second from left) walking with contemporaries in Germany, 1922. (Ullstein bild via Getty Images)
Karl Kautsky’s works of history have been unjustly forgotten by the Left. In the wake of Vladimir Lenin’s fierce polemic, The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky, the intellectual who had once been described as the “Pope of Marxism” very quickly became yesterday’s man.
This was a regrettable turn of events. Not because Lenin was wrong in what he said about Kautsky, but rather because he was right. In order to defend his political actions during and after World War I, Kautsky retreated from the strongest elements of the version of Marxism he had helped develop in the decade or so following the death of Friedrich Engels.
At the turn of the last century, Kautsky made an important contribution to historical materialism that had a positive influence on the works of Rosa Luxemburg, Leon Trotsky, and Lenin himself. Alongside his seminal study of the agrarian question and his key essays on American and Russian social development, the best works of Kautsky include his books on the history of Christianity, from the early Church of the Roman Empire to the radical proto-communist sects of the Reformation. It is those writings I will discuss in this article.
From Pope to Pariah
Unfortunately, Kautsky’s critics have tended to dismiss him as the author of a sterile theory of history that reduced Marxism to a blend of mechanical materialism and political fatalism. According to this caricature, in the decades leading up to World War I, Kautsky used his position of authority within the international socialist movement to propagate a one-dimensional understanding of Marxism that did great harm to the Left.
While Kautsky did later develop a mechanical and fatalistic interpretation of Marxism, this critique applies most strongly to writings toward the end of his career that were an attempt to justify the bad decisions that had led him into the political wilderness. Kautsky’s earlier works displayed a far more subtle and sophisticated approach to Marxism. Without forgetting the limits set by material conditions, Kautsky stressed in these writings the importance of ideas and human agency in making history.
In the decade after the death of Engels, Kautsky occupied a preeminent position amongst Marxists. He was initially one of the most important voices to challenge the burgeoning reformism of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD)’s bureaucracy. However, he subsequently retreated from this position to perfect the skill of talking left while leaving the movement’s real leadership in the hands of the increasingly right-wing party and union officials.
Without forgetting the limits set by material conditions, Kautsky stressed the importance of ideas and human agency in making history.
Kautsky’s first breach with the Left occurred around 1910 when he aligned himself with the SPD’s right in a debate over the question of the mass strike. When Europe subsequently plunged into war, he contended that the SPD’s parliamentary group should abstain rather than vote against war credits. After losing this argument to the SPD’s increasingly belligerent right, he decided to justify the decision of the SPD’s Reichstag fraction to support the war.
This act proved fatal for his reputation on the Marxist left in Germany and elsewhere. Later, he hammered nails into the coffin of his earlier radicalism when he stood against both the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and the revolutionary movement in Germany.
After the collapse of the German monarchy in 1918, right-wing SPD leaders formed a new government. Despite its own provenance in a revolution, this administration was profoundly hostile to revolutionary change and did everything it could to ensure that the old German ruling class retained control of the state apparatus. To this end, the SPD even organized the proto-Nazi Freikorps paramilitaries to crush the revolutionary left.
Kautsky’s Marxism wasn’t equipped to cope with the challenges of this period. His politics had been forged at an earlier historical moment, after the defeat of the Paris Commune and before the polarization caused by war. In the eyes of many, social democracy seemed to have embarked on a gradual, peaceful, and inexorable path to power.
In the new, bitterly polarized context, Kautsky’s attempt to foster unity between the right-wing bureaucratic layer and the revolutionary left was doomed to failure. Indeed, he ended up a figure of contempt for both sides: the Marxists came to hate him for giving a left cover to the Right, while the Right despised him because he still used the language of the Marxist left.
Kautsky as Historian
Nonetheless, despite these political failings, Kautsky’s studies of history continue to be a valuable resource. In his best work, published when he was closest to the left wing of international social democracy, Kautsky helped make sense of the dialectical relationship between revolutionary agency and the material conditions of its existence. In effect, his historical writings extend Marx and Engels’s critique of left-wing moralism.
Marx and Engels had learned from Charles Fourier that, for all its sound and fury, moralism is best understood as a form of “impotence in action.” Historical materialism was intended to extricate the Left from this hopeless position through a conception of real revolutionary agency that transcended the dichotomy between impotent moralism on the one hand and passive materialism on the other.
David McLellan has describedFoundations of Christianity as “one of the most important Marxist contributions to the history of religion,” while Roland Boer highlighted Kautsky’s attempt to understand the Bible as “a cultural product of a distinct socio-economic context and history.” A diverse range of Marxist scholars, from Chris Harman and Neil Davidson to Victor Kiernan and Michael Löwy, have also urged us to look again at his work as a historian.
Kautsky argued that communist movements of the past had often taken religious forms, and that Marxism, in spite of its secular character, is the theoretical system best able to make sense of the rise and fall of these movements. In so doing, Marxism could challenge the idea that alternatives to the capitalist status quo were necessarily authoritarian and utopian.
In his writings on Christianity, Kautsky set out to show that communism was not an abstract moral theory to be imposed upon people from above.
In Foundations of Christianity, Kautsky argued that academic analyses of movements of the oppressed were compromised by the contemplative and “objective” approach that mainstream historians favored. In contrast to this method, he followed Jean-Jacques Rousseau in affirming that social practices inform our interpretations of the past.
Kautsky suggested that because early Christianity was a movement of ancient proletarians, a historian closely acquainted with “the modern movement of the proletariat” should be able “to penetrate into the beginnings of Christianity more easily, in many respects, than men of learning that see the proletariat only from afar.”
That said, Kautsky avoided the error of imposing contemporary categories onto the past. He insisted that historians should be careful to emphasize the “peculiar characteristics” of past actions and events, since human history exhibited a continual process of development. For Kautsky, Marxism itself was a safeguard against such anachronism: “The Marxist conception of history guards us against the danger of measuring the past with the yardstick of the present.”
According to Kautsky, the history of the Christian churches showed that communism, far from being merely a nineteenth-century utopian dream, had been a recurrent rallying cry of the oppressed throughout history. In Foundations of Christianity, he cited a famous line from the Gospel of Luke, which stated that it was “easier for a camel to go through a needle’s eye, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” This, Kautsky argued, reflected “a fierce class hatred” on the part of the early Christians towards the rich.
Kautsky also discusses the spread of Christianity after the death of Jesus. Acts of the Apostles informs us that “what a man needed was then taken from the treasure of the community.” For Kautsky, this statement symbolized the tendency “towards a communistic form of organization” on the part of the early Church.
Kautsky stressed that the communism of the early Christian communities was based on consumption rather than production.
Although this early Christian communism had some features in common with modern communism, there were in Kautsky’s view qualitative differences between these two forms. In particular, he stressed that the communism of the early Christian communities was based on consumption rather than production. Goods were still produced individually but consumed collectively.
This form of communism appealed strongly to ancient proletarians who could not be sure of their “daily bread.” Yet it was less attractive to slaves who were normally guaranteed some sustenance from their master’s table. In opposition to the view of Engels, Kautsky argued that slaves did not constitute the original social basis of Christianity, and that early Christians themselves did not reject slavery.
Christianity and Class
While the earliest Christian communities may have exhibited communist characteristics, so long as these communities had to reproduce themselves within the framework of the Roman Empire, they tended to replicate its class divisions. This tendency was reinforced when, after the defeat of the Jewish uprising and the sack of Jerusalem in 70 CE, Christians increasingly began to moderate the communist nature of their community.
Consequently, as Christians worked — or employed others to work for them — with the aim of fulfilling their duties toward the community, some would flourish while others would fail, as Kautsky argued: “It was precisely out of the performance of these mutual aids that a motive would arise that weakened and broke up the original communistic drive.”
The Christian Church came to adopt an ever more conciliatory approach to the rich, which led eventually to qualitative changes in the community itself.
To maintain the community once it ceased to be a “fighting organization,” it became increasingly important for the Christians to “attract prosperous comrades” into their fold. To win such people to the community, it was necessary to tone down the original denunciations of the rich. The Church thus came to adopt an ever more conciliatory approach to the rich, which led eventually to qualitative changes in the community itself.
For example, the common meal, which had played a central role in the early Church, was markedly less important to the richer than it was to the poorer members of the community. As the richer members of the congregation came to exercise increasing hegemony within the Church, the significance of this meal gradually declined:
In the second century the actual common meals for the poorer members were separated from the merely symbolical meals for the whole community, and in the fourth century, after the church had become the dominant power in the state, the first kind of meals were crowded out of the assembly houses of the community, the churches. The common meals decayed further and in the next century were abolished completely.
The hegemony of wealthy Christians within the community also took institutional form through the transformation of the Church hierarchy into a new “ruling class” of bishops. One recent product of that class, the late Pope Benedict XVI, cynically attempted in his writings to reimagine biblical comments on poverty and the poor as referring to spiritual rather than material deprivation.
Foundations of Christianity identified a process of regression in the social structure of the early Christian communities. This shows us that it is a mistake to assume that Kautsky’s best works are based upon a linear model of historical progress. His account of proto-communist radical movements during the Reformation also explained an experience of decline.
After a general overview of the communist character of radical thought in the Middle Ages, Communism in Central Europe in the Time of the Reformation went on to examine the Taborite movement of fifteenth-century Bohemia that emerged as part of the Hussite revolt against the Holy Roman Empire and the Catholic Church. The Taborites, who called for property to be held in common, developed a formidable military force that inflicted several major defeats on the Catholic armies before the Battle of Lipany in 1434 broke the back of the Taborite army.
It is a mistake to assume that Kautsky’s best works are based upon a linear model of historical progress.
After the elimination of the Taborites, religious radicalism flared up again during the sixteenth-century German Reformation when it became most associated with the Anabaptists and their leaders such as the preacher Thomas Müntzer. Discussing Müntzer’s ideas, Kautsky insisted that his preaching showed that “nothing can be more erroneous than the widespread idea that communism is antagonistic to the existence of man — antagonistic to human nature itself.” Not only did the communism of the Anabaptists reflect the real needs of those German peasants who rose against the princes in 1525 — the communist idea could itself be traced back to the Gospels.
Kautsky thus stressed the importance both of the history of ideas and of ideas in history in a way that contradicts attempts to dismiss him as a mechanical materialist. He explicitly stated that the ideas available to people in different historical periods could help shape the course of events:
The transmission by tradition of ideas originating in earlier conditions of society has an important influence on the march of events. It often retards the progress of new social tendencies, by increasing the difficulty of arriving at an apprehension of their true nature and requirements. At the close of the Middle Ages, on the contrary, it favored their development.
According to Kautsky, the emerging bourgeoisie of early modern Europe drew upon the tradition of Roman law “because it appeared to them well adapted to the needs of simple production, trade, and the despotic power of the State.” The laboring class, on the other hand, had to look elsewhere for inspiration:
Neither the Roman law nor classic literature could please the proletariat and its sympathizers; they found what they were seeking in another product of Roman society — the Gospels. The traditional communism of primitive Christianity was well suited to their own necessities. As the foundations of a higher order of communistic production were not yet laid, theirs could only be an equalizing communism; which meant the division and distribution of the rich man’s superfluity among the poor who were destitute of the necessaries of life. The communistic doctrines of the Gospels and Acts of the Apostles did not create the analogous tendencies of the Middle Ages, but they favoured the growth and dissemination of the latter quite as much as the Roman law aided the development of absolutism and the bourgeoisie.
Structure and Agency
Of course, Kautsky did not ignore the role of material forces in his history of sixteenth-century communism. He put forward an analysis of the development of the productive forces in early modern Europe and the way in which those forces clashed with the existing relations of production. For Kautsky, this could explain the broad timing of the peasant wars, the emergence of sixteenth-century communism, and its eventual defeat.
However, placing the movement in its historical context was not the same as reducing it to that context. Kautsky sought the roots of Reformation-era popular radicalism in the growth of capital and a decline in the economic position of the peasantry in Germany and Bohemia:
The period of the Hussite Wars may be fairly considered as approximately the line of demarcation at which the decline of the peasantry began, not only at different periods and in isolated localities, but universally.
While these economic conditions set the scene in which the peasant wars were played out, Kautsky insisted that it was real human beings who picked up the idea of communism from the Gospels to spread the seeds of revolt.
In another book, Thomas More and His Utopia (1888), Kautsky argued that More’s vision of a communist society could be understood as a sympathetic response from a member of the ruling class to the deteriorating status of English peasants in this period. However, although economic conditions in England were similar to those that had existed in Germany at the time of the 1525 revolt, More’s book “frightened nobody” because “no communist party existed” to embody those ideas as a real challenge to the status quo.
Kautsky sought the roots of Reformation-era popular radicalism in the growth of capital and a decline in the economic position of the peasantry in Germany and Bohemia.
In other words, ideas had to become a material force if they were to affect the course of history. The idea of communism had become such a force in the early Church and amongst the Taborites, Anabaptists, and other religious and nonreligious groups at various moments in history. This was a concrete application of a remark by Marx and Engels, who insisted that communism was not an abstract ideal in the style of More’s Utopia, but rather the real movement that tends to abolish the present state of things.
Nevertheless, Kautsky was convinced that defeat for these early-modern revolutionaries was inevitable in one form or another, because the development of the productive forces meant that communism was unfeasible as a mode of production in this period:
It now became evident . . . how little military victories avail, if the aims of the conquerors are in contradiction to those of economic development.
From this perspective, the level of economic development is best understood as setting limits to what is politically possible at particular moments in history without mechanically imposing a strict logic on events.
The Better Side of Kautsky
Kautsky’s works on the early Church and the Anabaptists show that, at his best, he was neither a political fatalist nor a vulgar materialist, and he certainly didn’t believe in a simple, unilinear model of historical progress. In fact, these works repay rereading by anyone interested in understanding the material, ideological, and political context for revolutionary agency.
Kautsky may ultimately have been a political failure, but we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. His historical works are now obviously dated, with more than a century of new scholarship having been published on the events he discussed. Yet they deserve to be read and reread by anyone interested in understanding both the historical process and the reality of communism as a recurring, and increasingly practical, alternative to the present state of things.
The International Institute for Research and Education has recently published Marxists Against Stalinism, which contains articles from an important debate between Ernest Mandel and Chris Harman that took place in the pages of International Socialism. The articles were produced in the eighties against the backdrop of major political struggles in the Soviet Union and Eastern European socialist regimes. They were an attempt to make sense of the USSR of the late eighties, during which Gorbachov was carrying out political and economic reforms (i.e. Glasnost and Perestroika). This involved changes to the socialist planning system, political liberalizations, and increased worker activism. Some of the questions that they address are: is the Soviet bureaucracy a new class? Does the law of value rule the USSR? Has capitalism been restored in the Soviet Union?
The roots of the debate lie in a split within the Trotskyist movement, which occurred when Tony Cliff and his followers left the Fourth International to form the International Socialist tendency in 1962. One of the major reasons for the split was that Cliff and the IS disagreed with the Fourth International (FI) on how to view the Soviet Union and Eastern European socialist regimes, which was highly influenced by Trotsky’s Revolution Betrayed. Trotsky argued that the failure of revolutions in Germany, Hungary and China isolated the USSR and gave rise to a bureaucratic stratum led by Stalin. The Stalinist bureaucracy destroyed the autonomous organizations of the working class, such as workers councils (Soviets) and opposition forces, murdering their leaders and establishing a position of hegemony within the Soviet state. This strengthened the bureaucratic layer and significantly weakened the Soviet proletariat’s ability to participate in decision making, socialist planning, and management of production. As a result, the progressive socialist institutions of the October Revolution came into contradiction with the regressive Stalinist faction that was in command of these institutions, so that the USSR became a ‘deformed workers state’. Trotsky drew the conclusion that the new socialist institutions must be defended because they express the rule of the working class, but that the bureaucratic layer must be removed through a political revolution. It was this foundational thesis that Cliff, Harman and the International Socialists disagreed with, resulting in a major debate within the Trotskyist movement.
In his 1990 article ‘From Trotsky to state capitalism’ Harman argues that the Stalinist bureaucracy restored capitalism in the USSR after changing its strategy in 1929. What drove the industrialisation campaign in the thirties was a need of the Soviet bureaucracy to accumulate capital so that it could compete with international capital. In this process, the Soviet bureaucracy outgrew itself and became a new bourgeois class rooted within the Soviet state. He notes that since the bureaucracy controls the social surplus, it is involved in ‘exploiting the direct producers’ and that ‘a group which exploits the direct producers is, by definition an exploiting class’ (34). Harman points out that the Soviet state has a monopoly on the means of production, thereby ruling out competition between Soviet enterprises. He acknowledges that the state allocates resources to firms and that labor-power in the USSR was not a commodity. Soviet workers did not sell their labor-power, for they were assigned to jobs by the state. Although there was no labor-market, workers received a wage that was tied to productivity and plan fulfillment. Yet, the Soviet bureaucracy was a capitalist class that competed against the bourgeoisies of the imperialist countries, exploiting the labor-power of the working class, and deriving surplus-value from this process. Economic plans were made by bureaucrats, who had profit in mind when they made political decisions. Harman notes that the primary sector for capital accumulation in the USSR was arms production, which transformed the Soviet Union ‘into a massive arms economy, dominated by the drive to accumulate the economic basis of military power above all heavy industry’ (48). In this process, the Soviet working class became separated from the means of production and had no participation in decision making. Harman concludes that the Soviet Union was ‘on the side of “bourgeois society” and not on the side of socialism’ (48). He thus argues that the end of the Soviet Union in 1991 was not a shift from a non-capitalist workers state to a capitalist one, but rather from a state capitalist to a ‘normal’ capitalist regime dominated by private property.
In his articles ‘A theory which has not withstood the test of facts’ (1990) and ‘the impasse of schematism dogmatism’(1991) Mandel goes to great lengths to show why Harman is wrong. Following Trotsky, Mandel argues that the USSR is a non-capitalist society dominated by a bureaucratic layer that gains material privileges from its position in the state. The bureaucracy derived its power from ‘the usurpation of power from the working class, its de facto disenfranchisement and elimination from all exercise of power, in the state as well as the economy’ (126). Mandel argues that the Soviet bureaucracy is not a class, but a social layer. The way that Mandel describes the Soviet bureaucracy often makes it look like a class, for it holds a monopoly on state-power and is defined in opposition to the working class. By establishing an opposition between bureaucrats and workers, it makes the bureaucracy appear like a class that exploits the workers in order to appropriate the products of their labor. Mandel would probably respond that the proletariat in the USSR was the ruling class, but its ability to rule was significantly limited due to bureaucratic deformation.
Despite being undemocratic, the Soviet bureaucracy was able to industrialize the USSR and maintain a high level of growth for an extended period. Since it was not capitalist, Mandel argues that the Soviet Union was never dominated by crises of overproduction, but rather ‘a combined crisis of disproportionate allocation of resources and of underproduction of use-values, especially of consumer goods’ (118). Mandel points out that this is not because of Marxist ideology or central planning, but the wasteful use of resources by the Soviet bureaucracy. This resulted in lower-quality goods for the Soviet working class, despite having the potential to drastically improve quality. The international capitalist market did influence what went on in the Soviet Union, but this does not mean the USSR had thereby become capitalist. First, the Soviet bureaucracy was able to import luxury goods, such as expensive wine, cars and electronics, which the bureaucratic planning system was unable to meet. This enabled the bureaucrats to gain access to these goods through special shops that were inaccessible to the majority of the Soviet population. Second, the stagnation resulting from the bureaucratic planning system forced the USSR to seek funds from capitalist banks, resulting in national debt. This put pressure on the Soviet bureaucracy to accept forms of structural readjustment and the privatization of public enterprises (i.e. Perestroika) that led to the restoration of capitalism in 1991.
One recurring problem in Mandel’s writing is that the concept of ‘bureaucracy’ lacks conceptual clarity. While Mandel has a clear understanding of how the bureaucracy operates in the Soviet Union, neither he nor Trotsky provide a precise definition of the bureaucracy. He ends up defining ‘bureaucratic elements’ through their occupational activities in the Soviet Union. In his 1991 book Beyond Perestroika, Mandel lists seven components of the Soviet bureaucracy: the state, enterprises, the army, the KGB, cultural organizations, mass organizations and the Party. Although the leaders of these components derived material privileges from their position, grouping them all under the concept of the bureaucracy ignores the specificity of each. It is an oversimplification to imagine that the leaders of these derive the same privileges and have identical motivations. An official of the KGB or military commander is going to have a very different attitude to Soviet society than a cultural worker or leader of a Soviet women’s organization.
The concept of ‘bureaucracy’ therefore groups together many different social forces without examining their differences or their unity. In the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), there were different currents that expressed different approaches to Soviet policy, political and economic reform, and Marxist theory. Although Mandel makes distinctions such as ‘the conservative wing of the bureaucracy’ and ‘progressive sections of the bureaucracy’, he often treats them as if they all had the same interests. Why would a hardline Stalinist party leader and a left opposition figure in the CPSU have the same motivations and interests? If Mandel provided a clearer definition and a theoretical elaboration of the concept of ‘bureaucracy’, it would enable the concept to gain more explanatory potential. Instead, the term is used so liberally and applied to so many different social forces that it loses its strength and unity as a theoretical concept for Marxist analysis and empirical research.
Mandel is correct to point out that Harman projects capitalist economic relations onto the USSR. Even if Soviet leaders often acted in a bureaucratic manner that limited worker participation, the priorities of the USSR remained the non-capitalist goals of the October Revolution. Harman is more sensitive than Mandel to the detrimental effects of capitalist influences on the Soviet working class. Some of Harman’s analysis is particularly helpful for thinking through the issues of actual capitalist restoration in Russia in 1991 and the process by which the Russian bourgeoisie established its hegemonic position. Without the highly bureaucratic layer in the USSR and the authoritarian system of governance, it would have been much harder to restore capitalism in Russia. Harman captures the effects of disenfranchisement on the working class and the way that this opened the way to capitalist restoration.
The debate contained in Marxists Against Stalinism is thoughtful and a good model of how revolutionary socialists can conduct democratic debate. While the Soviet Union and Eastern European socialist states may no longer exist, the debate is helpful insofar as it helps us to think about the challenges that any future socialist state will face.
Why are so many essays entitled “politico-theological treatise”? The answer is that a theory becomes theology when it is part of a full subjective political engagement. As Kierkegaard pointed out, I do not acquire faith in Christ after comparing different religions and deciding the best reasons speak for Christianity. There are reasons to choose Christianity, but they only appear after I’ve already chosen it, i.e., to see the reasons for belief one already has to believe. And the same holds for Marxism: it is not that, after objectively analyzing history, I became a Marxist. My decision to be a Marxist (the experience of a proletarian position) makes me see the reasons for it, i.e., Marxism is the paradox of an objective “true” knowledge accessible only through a subjective partial position. This is why Robespierre was right when he distrusted materialism as the philosophy of decadent-hedonist nobility and tried to impose a new religion of the supreme Being of Reason. The old reproach to Marxism that its commitment to a bright future is a secularization of religious salvation should be proudly assumed.
This practical nature of a theory is totally different from the way modern science relates to experiments: science forecloses subjectivity; it aims at grasping “objective reality,” while a revolutionary theory is immanently practical, grounded in subjective engagement. The religious dimension of a radical political act is founded on a very precise fact: the triumph of a revolution is the moment when we step out of the existing economic and social order by way of suspending its main written and unwritten rules. We (try to) do what, within this order, appears impossible. So, what would have been a true political act today?
In the beginning of 2023 Israel was shaken by demonstrations against the new Rightist government and its brutal politics which, among other things, subordinated an independent judiciary to political power. However, the liberal freedom-loving hundreds of thousands of protesters more or less totally ignored the plight of the Palestinians (20% of Israel’s population and millions more in the occupied territories) who will obviously suffer most from the new government and its laws. Their protests do not really pose a threat to the Israeli apartheid; they act as if they are an internal Jewish affair. In these conditions, a true act would be to propose a large democratic coalition that would include Palestinians. Such an act would be very risky because it would break an unwritten rule of Israeli politics; however, only such a coalition, such a change in the coordinates of what appears as possible in Israel, can prevent Israel from becoming another religious-fundamentalist racist state.
In a true act, we do things to which the hegemonic ideology reacts with “But you can’t just do this!!!” We do what Brecht, in his praise of Communism, called “simple things that are hard to do” – nationalizing banks and large corporations, expanding free education and health service, providing housing for the poor, legalizing gay and LGBT+ rights, etc.
Remember the first year of the Allende government in Chile in 1970. They provided free meals at schools, nationalized copper mines, engaged in the construction of workers’ housings, “simple things” like that… And, we have to go to the end, in the specific conditions of that time, with the brutal resistance from the local bourgeoisie supported by the US, they HAD to fail: inflation soared, etc. They had to fail not only because of the resistance of the forces of the established order but due to immanent reason: their failure (exemplified by the violent death of the leader) provides the point of excremental identification which gives a new force to the movement. It is meaningless to deplore the fact that revolutionaries were not pragmatic enough. This, precisely, was the point of their acts once they took over, namely to violate the existing “pragmatic rules.” Whatever the new problems, the Allende government changed Chile into a “liberated territory” where, in some sense, even the air the people were breathing was different, and the problems it faced just prove the fact that, within the existing order, even doing “simple things” like providing free meals and housing for workers is impossible. Later, revolutionaries should become pragmatic, of course, but they HAVE to begin with crazy simple acts. This is why Robespierre was again fully right when, in his final speech on 8 Thermidor, he pointed out that, observing a revolution just as a series of actual events, without taking note of the sublime Idea that sustains it (or, as Badiou would have put it, of its dimension of an Event), this revolution is just a “noisy crime” that destroys another crime:
“But there do exist, I can assure you, souls that are feeling and pure; it exists, that tender, imperious and irresistible passion, the torment and delight of magnanimous hearts; that deep horror of tyranny, that compassionate zeal for the oppressed, that sacred love for the homeland, that even more sublime and holy love for humanity, without which a great revolution is just a noisy crime that destroys another crime; it does exist, that generous ambition to establish here on earth the world’s first Republic.”[i]
Here I am ready to use Lorenzo Chiesa’s notion of an irreducible oscillation[ii]: radical emancipatory politics is condemned to oscillate between moments of ecstatic religious commitment where we suspend “the reality principle” and try to actualize the impossible, and the long and hard “pragmatic” process of transforming revolutionary goals into moments of ordinary social reality of the majority. The point is not that moments of ecstatic commitment are simply utopian/destructive and have to be “normalized”: they are essential since they clear the ground and prepare a new base for pragmatic solutions. They are also not illusory since we, the engaged agents, are fully aware that our “impossible” striving will eventually subside, and this awareness only strengthens our commitment. So, we don’t oscillate between the One of full engagement and the cynical acceptance of not-One, of the messy reality. A true believer can be (and mostly is) ruthlessly cynical about his/her predicament, but this awareness only strengthens his/her commitment. This is the political version of Tertullian’s credo qua absurdum est.
The key to the unity of a fanatical principled stance and ruthless pragmatism is the ability to analyze a concrete situation in such a way that we simplify it to the abstract choice, neglecting the wealth of inessential features. A math problem went viral on the web towards the end of 2022 when it became known that Chinese 5th graders were asked the question: “If a ship has 26 sheep and 10 goats onboard, how old is the ship’s captain?” The Chinese authorities explained that the question was used in exams in order to instigate critical thinking. Obviously, the correct answer is: “There are not enough data available to provide an answer.” Some individuals provided a vague reply based on their knowledge of the Chinese law which stipulates that to be a captain of a boat which carries more than 5 tons of carriage (26 sheep and 10 goats weigh around 7 tons), one has to work as a captain of a smaller boat for at least 5 years, plus that the earliest age to become the captain of a boat is 23 years, so in this case, the captain should be at least 28 years old. But it was soon discovered that, for the same reason, exactly the same question was asked of pupils in France and some other neighboring countries. The surprise was that in many cases, the answer was produced by way of desperately trying to read some meaning into the numbers – the most obvious reply was that, since 26+10=36, this must be the captain’s age… The lesson is thus that we must not succumb to the temptation of reading the true meaning of numbers, especially in our age obsessed with the precision of numbers, or, at a more general level, that, when we are solving a precise problem, one has to learn to ignore irrelevant data. Thinking does not involve taking into account the infinite complexity of every situation; on the contrary, thinking begins by learning to abstract, to ignore the irrelevant data.
This holds from ideology to quantum physics. Is not one of the ideological procedures to explain a phenomenon like unexpected economic success through personal features of the individual who got rich (“he worked really hard; he is really bright…”)? When we read about a link between particles that is instantaneous (i.e., faster than light), most of us as a rule continue to refer to our ordinary notion of space and then try to imagine the almost-infinite speed of the information that links the particles in question. And this holds especially for radical emancipatory politics: its core is the art of combining fidelity to a Cause with the most ruthless pragmatic shifts in pursuing this Cause. The unsurpassable model here is still Lenin:
“On 14 May /1918/ Lenin proposed that the German imperialism should be offered a comprehensive plan of economic cooperation. By way of justification, he offered what was surely the weirdest of his many modifications of orthodox Marxism. The need for a close alliance between the Russian revolution and the Imperial Germany, he argued, arouse out of the twisted logic of history itself. History had by 1918 ‘taken such a peculiarcourse that it has given birth … to two unconnected halves of socialism existing side by side, like two future chickens in the single shell of international imperialism.”
For Lenin, “Germany’s legendary wartime economic organization /…/ was ‘the most striking embodiment of the material realization of the economic, the productive and the socio-economic conditions for socialism’.”[iii] One should notice here than Lenin does not speak about the high development of German productive forces but about “economic organization,” about the concrete way relations between people are organized in big industrial companies in a wartime economy. What this means is that Socialism should take over this organization, just putting it under the control of the state. Another detail demonstrates how serious Lenin was with his idea of cooperation with Germany: after the British established an anti-Bolshevik front at Murmansk, the Bolshevik government officially asked Germany to intervene with military force to stabilize the Murmansk front, i.e., to keep the British army from advancing south. Even Rosa Luxembourg was shocked at this idea, but nothing came from it because of the German wavering.[iv]
The Need for an Enemy
The lesson of such paradoxes is a very clear one: what characterizes an authentic emancipatory thought is not a vision of conflict-free harmonious future but the properly dialectical notion of antagonism which is totally incompatible with the Rightist topic of the need for an enemy to assert our self-identity. Here is Heidegger’s concise articulation of the need for an enemy from his course of 1933-34:
“An enemy is each and every person who poses an essential threat to the Dasein of the people and its individual members. The enemy does not have to be external, and the external enemy is not even always the most dangerous one. And it can seem as if there were no enemy. Then it is a fundamental requirement to find the enemy, to expose the enemy to the light, or even first to make the enemy, so that this standing against the enemy may happen and so that Dasein may not lose its edge.… [The challenge is] to bring the enemy into the open, to harbor no illusions about the enemy, to keep oneself ready for attack, to cultivate and intensify a constant readiness and to prepare the attack looking far ahead with the goal of total annihilation.”[v]
The most obvious passage is “to expose the enemy to the light, or even first to make the enemy, so that this standing against the enemy may happen.” In short, it doesn’t even matter if the enemy is a real enemy, if there is no enemy, it has to be invented so that a people “may not lose its edge” and can prepare the (invented) enemy’s “total annihilation”… What we find here is the logic of anti-Semitism at its most elementary: what Heidegger ignores is the possibility that an enemy is invented to create the false unity of the people and thus cover up its immanent antagonisms.
It is sad to see how this logic of the need for an enemy is brought to extreme in today’s Russia where the role of the enemy to be annihilated is played not by Jews but by the decadent Western culture of trans-sexuality. The specifically Russian version of religious fundamentalism, which celebrates death, re-emerged as a justification of the attack on Ukraine: some religious preachers assured their audience that Russians can “become themselves” only by killing, and that “all God’s creation” is at stake in Ukraine. Following this line, Vladimir Solovyov, one of Putin’s chief propagandists, said in a New Year message on Russian television:
“Life is highly overrated. Why fear what is inevitable? Especially when we’re going to heaven. Death is the end of one earthly path and the beginning of another. Don’t let fear of death influence decisions. It’s only worth living for something you can die for, that’s the way it should be. /…/ We are fighting against Satanists. This is a holy war and we have to win.”
And Magomed Kitanaev went to the end in this direction: “We’re asking: Oh, Ukrainians, why did you permit gay parades in Kyiv, Kharkiv and Odesa? Why did you permit it? Why didn’t you come out against them, against your government that was overtaken by fascists? Without shame before God and the people, they are openly, manifestly spreading their filth.”
We cannot really understand today’s proliferation of ideologists like Dugin or Solovyov without analyzing their roots in the Russian tradition of Cosmism. Cosmism began with Nikolai Fedorov who “was nick-named the ‘Socrates of Moscow’, because of his ascetic habits and his radical philosophy. He had one all-encompassing goal: the achievement of immortality and the resurrection of the dead.” Among his Communist followers there are Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (who theorized about space travel) and Alexander Bogdanov (the target of Lenin’s critique of “empiriocriticism” who practiced blood transfusion as a means to prolong one’s life). There is an incredible irony in the fact that there is another Vladimir Solovyov, the Russian religious thinker from the second half of the 19th century, who
“called for a universal theocracy under a Russian Tsar, to hasten humanity’s ‘long and difficult passage from beast-mankind to God-mankind’. The next stage in evolution is to become immortal spiritual beings – only Christ has reached this stage so far, but all humanity will soon follow. However, Solovyov thought this spiritual evolution would happen through magical-spiritual means while Fedorov insisted on scientific resurrection. But both agreed that humanity would be saved by Russian theocracy.”[vi]
For a detailed exploration of the link between the two Solovyovs, you may consult Denys Sultanhaliiev, “Russian Nuclear Eschatology: Pathologies on the Ruins of Modernity.” Sultanhaliiev establishes a lineage between the two strands of Russian “Cosmism” (belief in resurrection and eternal life), scientific (Fedorov in 19th century and Cosmism in the first decade of the USSR which also deeply influenced Soviet cosmonautic program) and religious-spiritual (Solovyov), up to the nihilistic approach to the prospect of nuclear destruction in the USSR and under Putin. Cosmism could only emerge within the Russian Orthodox version of Christianity, whose basic formula is “god became man so that man will become god.” This is how the Cosmists interpret the appearance of Christ, the god-man: as a model for what all of humanity should approach.
Repressed out of the public sight in the central period of the Soviet state, Cosmism was openly propagated only in the first and in the last two decades of the Soviet rule. Its main theses are: the goals of religion (collective paradise, overcoming of all suffering, full individual immortality, resurrection of the dead, victory over time and death, conquest of space far beyond the solar system) can be realized in terrestrial life through the development of modern science and technology. In the future, not only will sexual difference be abolished with the rise of chaste post-humans reproducing themselves through direct bio-technical reproduction or no longer reproducing at all; it will also be possible to resurrect all the dead of the past (establishing their biological formula through their remains and then re-engendering them – at that time, DNA was not yet known…), thus even erasing all past injustices, “undoing” past suffering and destruction. In this bright bio-political Communist future, not only humans, but also animals, all living being, will participate in a directly collectivized Reason of the cosmos… Whatever one can hold against Lenin’s ruthless critique of Maxim Gorky’s “construction of God (bogostroitel’stvo),” or, the direct deification of man, one should bear in mind that Gorky himself collaborated with the Cosmists. One should, of course, contrast this to Martin Luther’s idea that man is an excrement of God, something that fell out of God’s anus… So, when we laugh with consternation at today’s ideological madness in Russia, we should always bear in mind its roots in the Russian Orthodoxy admired by many in the West who see in it a cure for Western Protestantism, which opened up the path to liberal decadence.
From Athings to Apersons
This, of course, in no way implies that, in rejecting religious fundamentalism, we should put our bets on Western liberalism. Liberalism clearly shows its fateful limitation, especially with today’s emergence of the third space of “free” digital exchanges. The new technology to manipulate and create public opinion demonstrates how non-free the third space of public-private media is: it’s not just a space of chaotic exchanges where conspiracy theories are allowed to thrive, it is also a space in which control and manipulation thrive even more.
“claim to have manipulated more than 30 elections around the world using hacking, sabotage, and automated misinformation on social media. ‘Team Jorge’ is led by 50-year-old Tal Hanan, a former Israeli special forces operative. The methods and techniques described by ‘Team Jorge’ raise new challenges for big tech platforms, which have for years struggled to prevent nefarious actors spreading falsehoods or breaching the security on their platforms. Evidence of a global private market in disinformation aimed at elections will also ring alarm bells for democracies around the world.”
All this is now more or less common knowledge, at least since the time of the Cambridge Analytica scandal (its involvement in the 2016 US elections significantly helped Trump to win). However, to make things worse, one should include into the series of new algorithms also the explosion of programs that make face-swapping and other “deep fake” procedures easily accessible. Most popular are, of course, algorithms that paste celebrity faces to porn actresses’ bodies in adult films: “the tools needed to create this ‘homemade’ porn videos including your favorite Hollywood actresses and pop stars are readily available and easy to use. This means that even those without a computer science background and limited knowledge of technology can still make the films.” The faces of hardcore actresses can be swapped not only with those of pop stars but also with those nearest you. The procedure is “eye-catching for its simplicity”: “turn anyone into a porn star by using deepfake technology to swap the person’s face into an adult video. All it requires is the picture and the push of a button.”
Unfortunately, deepfakes are mostly used to create pornography with women for whom this has a devastating effect: “between 90% and 95% of all online deepfake videos are nonconsensual porn, and around 90% of those feature women.” And if you want also the voices to fit the swapped faces, you use the Voice AI to create “hyper-realistic replicas that sound exactly like the real person.” The ultimate incestuous short-cut would be here, of course, to swap my own and my wife’s or partner’s face for those in an adult video, plus to accompany the shots with our voice clones, so that we would just sit comfortably, have a drink and observe our passionate sex… But why limit ourselves to sex? What about embarrassing our enemies with face-swapped videos of them doing something disgusting or criminal?
“While grading essays for his world religions course last month, Antony Aumann, a professor of philosophy at Northern Michigan University, read what he said was easily ‘the best paper in the class.’ It explored the morality of burqa bans with clean paragraphs, fitting examples and rigorous arguments. Aumann asked his student whether he had written the essay himself; the student confessed to using ChatGPT, a chatbot that delivers information, explains concepts and generates ideas in simple sentences – and, in this case, had written the paper. The moves are part of a real-time grappling with a new technological wave known as generative artificial intelligence. ChatGPT, which was released in November 2022 by the artificial intelligence lab OpenAI, is at the forefront of the shift. The chatbot generates eerily articulate and nuanced text in response to short prompts, with people using it to write love letters, poetry, fan fiction – and their schoolwork.”
No wonder universities and high schools are reacting in panic, some of them allowing only oral exams. Among other problems, there is one that deserves attention: how should a chatbot react when the human partner in a dialogue engages in aggressive sexist and racist remarks, presents troubling sexual fantasies and regularly uses foul language? “Microsoft acknowledged that some extended chat sessions with its new Bing chat tool can provide answers not ‘in line with our designed tone.’ Microsoft also said the chat function in some instances ‘tries to respond or reflect in the tone in which it is being asked to provide responses.’” In short, the problem arises when the human exchanging messages with a chatbot uses dirty language or makes violent racist and sexist remarks, and the chatbot, programmed to answer at the same level as the questions addressed to it, replies in the same tone. The obvious answer is some kind of regulation which sets clear limits, i.e., censorship, but who will determine how far this censorship should go? Should political positions deemed “offensive” by some people also be prohibited? Will solidarity with West Bank Palestinians or the claim that Israel is an apartheid state (as Jimmy Carter put it in the title of his book) be blocked as “anti-Semitic”?
So, let us imagine a combined version of all these inventions: they allow me to construct my alter ego (or a purely invented person) as an aperson, a virtual person who doesn’t exist in reality but can interact digitally as a real person. To go to the end, this is possible because / myself am already an aperson: I don’t exist as a “real” person, in my interactions with others (and even with myself); I am never directly “myself”; I refer to myself as a symbolic and imaginary construction, which never directly coincides with the real of my subjectivity. It is because of this minimal split constitutive of the subject that, for Lacan, subject is divided or “barred.” So, I (or, rather, my double as aperson) present a seminar paper written by a chatbot to a professor via Zoom, but the professor is also there only as an aperson, its voice is artificially generated, plus my seminar is graded by an algorithm.
A decade or so ago I was asked by The Guardian if romance was dead today. Here is my reply:
“Romance is maybe not yet totally dead, but its forthcoming death is signaled by object-gadgets which promise to deliver excessive pleasure but which effectively reproduce only the lack itself. The latest fashion is the Stamina Training Unit, a counterpart to the vibrator: a masturbatory device that resembles a battery-powered light (so we’re not embarrassed when carrying it around). You put the erect penis into the opening at the top, push the button, and the object vibrates till satisfaction… How are we to cope with this brave new world which undermines the basic premises of our intimate life? The ultimate solution would be, of course, to push a vibrator into the Stamina Training Unit, turn them both on and leave all the fun to this ideal couple, with us, the two real human partners, sitting at a nearby table, drinking tea and calmly enjoying the fact that, without great effort, we have fulfilled our duty to enjoy.”
We can now imagine the same outsourcing of other activities like university seminars and exams. In an ideal scene, the entire process of writing my seminar and the professor examining is done through digital interaction, so that, at the end, without doing anything, we just confirm the results. Meanwhile, I am having sex with my lover… but, again, an outsourced sex through her vibrator penetrating my Stamina Training Unit, with the two of us just sitting at a nearby table and, to amuse ourselves even more, watching on a TV screen a deep fake with the two of us having sex… plus, of course, all of it controlled and regulated by Team Jorge. What remains of the two of us is just an empty cogito (“I think”) dominated by multiple versions of what Descartes called malin genie.
This, perhaps, is our predicament today: we are not able to take the next step described by Descartes and rely on a truthful and stable form of some divine big Other. We are “children of a lesser god” (the title of a play and a movie) forever caught in the inconsistent multiplicity of evil and cheating spirits. Since such a situation is experienced as unbearable, a pseudo-solution emerged in our Western liberal societies to control the chaos of what can be said and done: the complex set of notions and practices associated with terms like Wokeism, Political Correctness, and Cancel Culture in a perfect Hegelian example of how, today also, absolute freedom turns into terror.
[i] Maximilien Robespierre, Virtue and Terror, London: Verso Books 2007, p. 129.
[ii] See Lorenzo Chiesa in Chiesa and Johnston, God Is Undead (quoted from the manuscript).
[iii] Adam Tooze, TheDeluge, London: Penguin Books 2014, p. 151-2.
Nodrada explores the resonances and tensions between Marxism and Indigenous thought, putting the writings of Native theorists such as Vine Deloria Jr., Luther Standing Bear, Winona LaDuke, and many others in dialogue with those of Marx.
Alcatraz Proclamation, January 1970 (‘The Movement’ 5, no. 12)
Karl Marx has something of a reputation for being a Promethean. From various standpoints, he is pelted with accusations of thinking in terms of ends-justify-the-means, millenarianism, and an eternal march of history towards “Progress.” Marx was simply a naive, narcissistic idiot with his head in the clouds, forever dreaming of a utopian future.
“Indigenous” and “thought” are considered as antithetical — how can complex thought, much less advanced critiques of Western modernity, come out of “primitive” peoples? In essence, the “modern” world looks upon Indigenous peoples and their thought as dinosaurs or museum exhibits, even where they pretend to sympathize with them. Indigenous peoples are in the past, while the world moves forever in the present and towards the future.
Each are considered as irreconcilable with the other, whether by denouncers or advocators of either. Russell Means (Oglála Lakhóta Oyáte), for instance, once said: “Marxism is as alien to my culture as capitalism and Christianity.”1
There is Marx and there are Indigenous peoples, and never the twain shall meet.
And yet, neither of these are true to their distorted mis-representations. Nor are they fundamental, antagonistic opposites. What we will trace here is the confluence of their critiques of the modern, Euro-bourgeois world.
Let it be clear that we do not aim at a forced, homogenous identity of the two into one thing. Just as Marxists and Indigenous peoples are not identical in real life, so the two lines of inquiry and critique should not be forced into one. Those Marxists who aim to entirely subordinate Indigenous worldviews to Marxism become exactly what Means once said they were — another variant on the same old colonizer.
Indigenous Grounded Normativity
In order to understand Indigenous critiques of our modern world, with Western capital at its center, it is important to understand Indigenous standpoints themselves. Glen Sean Coulthard (Yellowknives Dene) described Indigenous ways of life as critiquing from a:
…place-based foundation[…] [called]grounded normativity, by which I mean the modalities of Indigenous land-connected practices and longstanding experiential knowledge that inform and structure our ethical engagements with the world and our relationships with human and nonhuman others over time.2
This standpoint is one deeply rooted in a relation to space, specifically a space sedimented with people-place-specific relations. In a word, relation of and to land is key for all social relations in Indigenous ways of life. Indigenous peoples live and think from the particularity of ancestral homelands.
Vine Deloria Jr. (Íŋyaŋ Woslál Háŋ) strongly emphasized this importance of space to Indigenous peoples in his critique of the ways of thinking and being brought to the Americas by European colonizers.3 For him, the problem of space and time is fundamental to the distinction between Indigenous and Western approaches, such that “the very essence of Western European identity involves the assumption that time proceeds in a linear fashion; further it assumes that at a particular point in the unraveling of this sequence, the peoples of Western Europe became the guardians of the world[…]”4
The French Situationist Guy Debord wrote of this way of living as one of irreversible time, wherein “those for whom irreversible time truly exists discover in it both the memorable and the threat of oblivion[…]”5 This irreversible time, in a sense, represents the domination of the living by the dead, and in some ways by a dead or static concept of the future. In bourgeois society, we live a life dominated by flat quantities in time and elsewhere. Time is interchangeable — as on the intervals of a clock or a metronome — and of a single, homogeneous substance. It operates by measure, and thus limitation.
Karl Marx identified this situation in the domination of living labor — the working class — by dead labor — capital — in the production process of capitalism.6 The core of the capital relation for Marx is one in which “past labour confronts living labour as independent and superior.”7 The past is the fundamental dead weight on the present in capitalist society, it is embodied in a very literal way in the sedimentation of capital.
Capital is not a sedimentation of the past as in the soil of an ancestral homeland, but is in a temporal domination, as Deloria Jr. speaks of such a space-time relation. This past dominates the future as well, as in the form of fictitious capital and credit money which are in truth claims on future production of values.8 The dependency of our modern global capitalist society on this fictitious or speculative capital is essentially on a foreclosed, predictable future which is subordinated to the demands of dead labor (capital) to grow, “vampire-like.”9
In this capitalist way of life, the past is not a relative. It is a threat, a prison, a ball and chain, a supernatural power. The figure of the phantom, often invoked by Marx, is an important expression of this. Compare this phantom, haunting and feeding off of the living, to Indigenous relationality with sedimented history in ancestral homelands. In their emphasis on the specificity of people-places, and on reciprocity with ancestors (as in the Wyandot Feast of the Dead), they maintain a “living” relation to the dead rather than a parasitic and haunting relation.
This is not to suggest an idyllic, homogenous — static — situation whatsoever. In Indigenous traditions, there are certainly instances of what we might call “haunting.” Rather than this being a fundamental state of being in the world, this is usually a sign of disharmony or a disruption to the rhythm of existence.10 In capitalist society, we are living in a permanent state of disharmony and sickness.
Leanne Betasamosake Simpson (Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg) noted that her people traditionally:
[…]have no such thing as capital. We have relatives. We have clans. We have treaty partners[…] Resources and capital, in fact, are fundamental mistakes within Nishnaabeg thought, as Glenna Beaucage points out, and ones that come with serious consequences — not in a colonial superstitious way but in the way we have already seen: the collapse of local ecosystems, the loss of prairies and wild rice, the loss of salmon, eels, caribou, the loss of our weather.11
This is of course not to say that exchange was or is alien to Indigenous traditionalism — the pre-colonial continental Americas thrived with networks of exchange such that the Mississippian Mound Building peoples had items from coastal Mesoamerica.12 Rather, exchange of equivalent values was not the heart of their societies. Marx spoke of this distinction of communal ways of life from capitalism as one where the former puts humanity as the aim of production, while the latter makes production and the accumulation of capital as the aim of humanity.13
This humanist, or perhaps more accurately life-affirming, ethic remains at the heart of Indigenous communities and their identities as specifically distinct from the mainstream of Western bourgeois society. They are not apart from it, as after all colonization was and is itself a capitalist encroachment and domination. The global system of our world is capitalism, this is a fact.
Insofar as they are not assimilated — that is, insofar as they are Indigenous, as long as they remain in continuous ties with their ancestral relations and as distinct peoples, capital has not penetrated into and reconstructed their very hearts in its image. Indigenous identities are community identity, and their coherence depends on principles alien to that of capitalist identities. Indigenous peoples have successfully resisted the debilitating capitalization of their subjectivities for 500 years and counting. Simpson and other Indigenous critics of capital recognize that it represents a quasi-autonomous, impersonal power which corrodes all community-based ways of life in the name of its vampiric drives.
Indigenous relations to global capital today can be characterized through Marx’s own distinction between formal and real subsumption to capital. Indigenous communities, by their life-affirming modes of existence and resistant autonomy against capitalist instrumental reason, have not been thoroughly penetrated by the real subsumption of capital. The real penetration means total transformation of a way of living and laboring with capital at its center, and thus far from Indigenous ethics or ways of thinking and being. Marx discussed this distinction thusly:
‘Production for production’s sake’ — production as an end in itself — does indeed come on the scene with the formal subsumption of labour under capital. It makes its appearance as soon as the immediate purpose of production is to produce as much surplus-value as possible, as soon as the exchange-value of the product becomes the deciding factor. But this inherent tendency of capitalist production does not become adequately realized — it does not become indispensable, and that also means technologically indispensable — until the specific mode of capitalist production and hence the real subsumption of labour under capital has become a reality.14
For Marx, the real subsumption of labor had to take the form of “free labor.” He meant this in a dual sense. On the one hand, in the sense of workers owning their labor-power as their own commodity to sell. On the other hand, in the sense of completely untethered by any relations which might impede their circulation as a commodity rather than a relational person.15
This is why he specifically identified wage labor as the natural or “true” form of labor for the capitalist mode of production, although it can be argued that the real subsumption to capital can take other forms which represent a “deep” or thorough penetration of capital. One, for example, is chattel slavery as it existed in the Atlantic world. Marx recognized this as a capitalist form of labor, but not distinguished it from the capitalist form of labor.16
The point in capitalist labor, ultimately, is that “production [is] an end in itself” — capital is the subject of capitalism, not living relations. The heart, the center, of capitalism is capital. This is what people are expressing, on the level of immediate appearance, when they say that money is the god of this world, and that we are all living to work instead of working to live.
Taiaiake Alfred (Kanienʼkehá꞉ka), like Simpson, recognized this in his critique of those who advocate “red capitalism” as a strategy of liberation for Indigenous peoples. He warned that any strategy premised on capital accumulation threatens to undermine Indigenous sovereignty, even if initially deployed in its name. Against this bourgeois, elitist strategy, he advocated for a traditionalist economy premised on relationality rather than disintegrative exploitation.17
Both Alfred and Simpson, as well as many other traditionalist Indigenous radicals, recognize in capital what Marx did — an impersonal power, a spell which overtakes the subjective intentions of human beings who conjure it. It cannot be used merely as an instrument — the instrumental reason of capital, where living ends are irrelevant, overcomes any use of it as an instrument with our ends.
The subjects who summoned it through their specific relations, which birthed capital, become dominated by a power produced by their own subjectivity. Alfred and Simpson note that this phantom-like objectivity, this power from us yet outside of and above us, pushes us almost like a spell to disharmonic ways of thinking and being. It becomes a gravitational pull, like a black hole, forever destroying the world which creates it. Capital is a spell, it is a sickness, it is human subjectivity turned back in on itself.
Although Marx had a powerful critique of capital which overlaps in many ways with Indigenous critiques of capitalist society, it is important to recognize his limitations in his own engagement with Indigenous grounded normativity as a standpoint of critique. Coulthard, for instance, argues that his primary focus on temporal domination of capital leads to a failure to understand the domination of Indigenous communities by capital spatially — through colonization of land, genocide, and the severing of relations to ancestral homelands and inheritances.18
I would condition this by noting that Marx partially emphasized temporality because of how capital quite literally dominates space by time. It represents the form of temporal experience identified by Deloria Jr. and others in their critiques of colonial Christianity and other forms of Western thought brought by settlers. Of course, it can certainly be said that in his critique of temporality as a domination, he went too far within temporality himself.
Further, his concept of living (though formally subsumed) ways of life tended to be disparaging or dismissing. Although he was speaking of pre-capitalist societies in this context, his evaluation of “animism” in general leaves much to be desired. He considered it to reflect a limited development of productive powers, with humans worshiping a nature which they did yet not have the capacity to dominate.19
Marx essentially dismisses “animism” as a philosophy of an underdeveloped society. He implies that this way of thinking is more or less one of the past, and not something which can play a role in the future of communism — “production by freely associated men.” In his eyes, at least upon the publication of Capital in 1867, these “animistic” ways of thinking and being were primarily one of subordination to “given” natural conditions.
Gregory Cajete (Khaʼpʼoe Ówîngeh), on the other hand, described this “animistic” way of thinking and being as one of harmony with the rhythm of spatially and relationally specific life. While Marx sees this as an early dependency on nature (almost like Freud’s concept of infantile narcissism or the desire for oneness with nature as a desire to return to the womb), Cajete characterizes it as a science. Cajete describes Native science as:
[…]a metaphor for a wide range of tribal processes of perceiving, thinking, acting, and “coming to know” that have evolved through human experience with the natural world. Native science is born of a lived and storied participation with the natural landscape. To gain a sense of Native science one must participate with the natural world. To understand the foundations of Native science one must become open to the roles of sensation, perception, imagination, emotion, symbols, and spirit as well as that of concept, logic, and rational empiricism.20
These philosophies are not pre-rational — they are not a superstitious submission to a despotic nature. They are rational expressions of a people-place-specific rational way of thinking and being.
Had Marx, in this period, had greater familiar with the worldviews of Indigenous peoples, rather than speaking entirely out of turn, he ought to have had a different evaluation. This was certainly one of his moments of a certain Eurocentric hubris. At the time of writing Capital and living in London, he could have potentially learned through the literature by and about people like William Apess (Pequot), George Copway (Mississauga Ojibwa), or Handsome Lake (Onödowáʼga꞉).
In his later life, Marx did study Indigenous ways of thinking and being, particularly that of the Haudenosaunee. From this experience, he changed his evaluation of these living alternatives to capitalism as sources of resistance.21 Famously, this led to his re-evaluation of the mir, or traditional peasant communes, in the Russian Empire as an organic form of an alternative to capitalism.22 Marx’s view on the resistance of these communities to the formal subsumption of capital represent an attempt “to remain traditional which makes him revolutionary,” in the words of Eric R. Wolf.23
Of course, he still lacked a complete evaluation of communal ways of life as independently valuable or vigorous alternatives. Thus, Marxism cannot be considered as sufficient unto itself, even in its original expression by Marx. Indigenous critiques are not merely valuable as additions to Marx’s critical theory of capitalism — they are independently valuable. A forced assimilation is undesirable and means the degeneration of Marxism itself.
Criticism of Heaven and Criticism of Earth
Indigenous critics of bourgeois modernity consistently identify Christianity as an essential target, contrasting it directly to Indigenous “animist” philosophies. This is true of authors including Vine Deloria Jr. (Íŋyaŋ Woslál Háŋ), Ohiyesa (Isáŋyathi), Luther Standing Bear (Sičhą́ǧu Oyáte and Oglála Lakhóta Oyáte), Viola Cordova (Jicarilla Dindéi), and many others.24 Much of this is because the most immediate encounter with colonial power and the encroachment of bourgeois society for Indigenous peoples has historically been through their encounters with Christian missionaries. The Christians are the vanguard of “civilizing” efforts, and thus Indigenous critics of “civilization” tend to aim their sights first and foremost at Christianity.
Karl Marx, like many young German students in his generation, began his career in the criticism of religion. His father was a German Jew who had converted to Lutheranism in order that he and his son could have the rights of Prussian citizens and pursue a middle class, professional career in law. Lutheranism was the state religion of Prussia, and so critics of the Prussian social order tended to begin with criticism of religion. Marx noted that: “Thus the criticism of heaven turns into the criticism of earth, the criticism of religion into the criticism of law and the criticism of theology into the criticism of politics.”25
He, of course, went much further than this. He famously spoke of religion as “the opium of the people.” This phrase is often misrepresented, whether in characterizing religion as a pure delusion or as an acceptable medicine.
Marx is here speaking primarily of “otherworldly” religions — those which posit a distinction between the heaven and earth, namely — or those which otherwise emphasize some form of escape from or sanctified meaning for everyday, miserable life.
For him, insofar as real human society is disharmonic — as long as that world is riven between thinking and being, man and nature, individual and society, and so on — it cannot be transparent to itself. Instead, it appears to its participants in a mystified form — for historical necessity, not merely due to a collective delusion. Religious appearance is a necessary appearance given certain conditions.
By “opium of the people,” Marx means that religion both helps the religious cope with the suffering of the real world and is a source of suffering and dependency. Religion for him, although fundamentally an expression of a wrong or “inverted” world, is multifaceted. It can be a force of cohesion in a bad unity (a class society), a sanctification of the existing order, a refuge from worldly suffering and oppression, or a body of resistance.
Marx, coming from a Prussian Lutheran background and closely familiar with Hegel’s own religious framework, likely had in mind the history of Christianity in Germany — the Roman Catholic Church, the Protestant Reformation, the Peasant Wars… That is, his understanding of religion was of something which is displaced from “secular” everyday life, something which projects and abstracts from. It can either express a peace with the world on this basis, or declare in Manichaean terms that “all that comes to be/Deserves to perish wretchedly[…]”26
Either way, Marx considered atheism to be a more natural vehicle for modern social revolution.
Because of his unrepentant atheism and identification of the abolition of religion with the struggle for communism, Marx’s relation to Indigenous traditions is controversial. Many have argued that Marx was a typical colonial adherent of the Enlightenment and considered European scientific atheism to be the peak of human development — such as Russell Means (Oglála Lakhóta Oyáte):
Europeans may see [Marxism] as revolutionary, but American Indians see it simply as still more of that same old European conflict between being and gaining. The intellectual roots for a new Marxist form of European imperialism lies in Marx’s-and his followers’-links to the tradition of Newton, Hegel, etc[…]
Revolutionary Marxism, as with industrial society in other forms, seeks to ‘rationalize’ all people in relation to industry, maximum industry, maximum production. It is a materialist doctrine which despises the American Indian spiritual tradition. our cultures, our lifeways. Marx himself called us ‘precapitalists’ and ‘primitive.’27
Immediately, there is one issue with this: Despite many of his followers certainly making it appear so, Marx’s philosophy did not translate to a pure mechanical, Newtonian materialism. In fact, one of the aspects of Hegel which he admired the most was his critique of bourgeois Enlightenment materialism.28
As early as in his 1844 manuscripts, Marx critiqued such mechanical materialists as practicing an abstract materialism in antithesis to abstract spiritualism.29 Rather than advocating for one over the other, he already saw communism as uniting both.30 In doing so, he emphasized a concern echoed in Indigenous discourses about Western bourgeois technology as a potential source for autonomous development insofar as it is integrated into Indigenous grounded normativity.
Another issue — Do traditionalist Indigenous peoples practice “religion” in Marx’s sense, as explained above? Or should we consider this primarily as a Native mode of life, following from Coulthard?
Religion and philosophy are typically identified in Marx as abstracting from real life, due to a disjuncture or disharmony in that life. Key to both is an antithesis of thinking and being, particularly as manifested out of the growing division between intellectual and manual labor (or head and hand).
Viola Cordova, Luther Standing Bear, and Gregory Cajete (Khaʼpʼoe Ówîngeh)all emphasize the unity of thinking and being in Indigenous traditions, expressed in the context of a monist or holistic way of thinking about the world as opposed to Christian dualisms of heaven and earth.31 In their elaboration of their traditional worldviews, they do not express an otherworldliness or projection as Marx identified in German Christianity.
In fact, they quite strongly echo Marx’s own critique of Western Christianity as otherworldly, as lacking a practical meaning for Indigenous peoples. This otherworldliness is directly related to its abstractions from everyday life — the soul abstracted from the worldly, specific qualities of the body, the Cartesian Subject from his dubitable existence as an Object, the Holy from the Worldly.
Marx continued his critique of Christianity later into his career, stating even more damningly that Christianity, especially Protestantism or Deism, is the natural religion for capitalist society.32 Like capital, it regards humanity in basically abstract terms, with the churches seeing humans as abstractly equivalent in their souls and the capitalists seeing humans as abstractly equivalent in their values.
This expression is a close relative to the critique Ohiyesa (Isáŋyathi) made of the missionaries he came into contact with and worked for:
A new point of view came to me then and there. This latter [missionary Christianity] was a machine-made religion. It was supported by money, and more money could only be asked for on the showing made; therefore too many of the workers were after quantity rather than quality of religious experience.33
Both critics emphasize abstraction as the quality yielded by the absolute domination of quantity. For Marx, the abstract equality of all human beings on the level of a homogeneous substance —tending towards the destruction of all difference — is the qualitative basis and expression of the domination of value in society. Ohiyesa recognizes this exactly when he identifies missionary Christianity with capitalist ethics — for his people and for others, the missionaries were a force of capitalist penetration. They were the smiling, condescending face of encroaching bourgeois society.
For Marx and Indigenous traditionalists alike, the standpoint from which they critique capitalist antagonisms is one of a renewed harmony of thinking and being, subjects and objects, humanity and the rest of nature. Their dissections of dead, abstract bourgeois Christianity identify it as the heart of a heartless world — a heart stricken with the very same sickness as the diseased social body itself. The disharmony, the wrongness of that world births the need for this “religion,” in Marx’s sense. Both move from a criticism of heaven to a criticism of earth.
In our descent from the lofty abode of Gods to the everyday life of mortals, it is important that we recognize the potential for a “religiosity” even in that which is not typically considered religious. There is a reason that Marx and Indigenous traditionalists alike consistently identify a near identity between religion and philosophy in the bourgeois West.
Philosophy, even where it claims not to be philosophy (as in the ridiculous conceptual opposition to conceptual thinking among scientific positivists), retains the character of a disharmonic ideology expressing its disharmonic world. This holds even where it expresses moments of truth. All thinking is mediated. Marx’s followers forget that, despite or rather because of his deep interest in natural sciences, Marx himself approached the (often hidden) philosophical claims even of secular scientific knowledge with skepticism. Of Charles Darwin, for instance, he noted sarcastically:
It is remarkable how Darwin rediscovers, among the beasts and plants, the society of England with its division of labour, competition, opening up of new markets, ‘inventions’ and Malthusian ‘struggle for existence’. It is Hobbes’ bellum omnium contra omnes[war of all against all] and is reminiscent of Hegel’s Phenomenology, in which civil society figures as an ‘intellectual animal kingdom’, whereas, in Darwin, the animal kingdom figures as civil society.34
Marx’s criticisms of Darwin, although not coming from a scientist, have been vindicated by the Marxist biologists Richard Lewontin and Richard Levins (among others).35 Marx would not smugly critique Indigenous “animism” from a secure evaluation of atheism — as many of his more naive followers do. Most of his lifetime was not spent on criticism of the heaven-peddlers, but on secular or even atheistic ideologies — namely, political economy.
If what he called “religion” was an expression of disharmony, then there are many ideologies of this disharmony. Not the least that scientism or positivism which is born out of the antithesis of intellectual and manual labor, and which expresses bourgeois rationality even among moments of truth.36 In short, atheism, too, can be a superstition or simply another form of religion — whether expressed by Ludwig Feuerbach or Richard Dawkins.
Against this narrow, naive form of empiricism — which assumes “immediacy” is not mediated, that one can observe the world of objects beyond one’s subjectivity, that one can think of the non-conceptual without the use of concepts even while thought is fundamentally mediated by language — Marx thought in terms of a “new materialism.”
The bourgeois materialism of the Enlightenment expressed a certain antithesis of ideas and reality in its discourse of “superstition” versus “facts.” Superstitions are mere delusions, existing only by the fantasies of the human brain, and the truth of objective reality must be reached by cutting out the subject’s influence as much as possible. On the other hand, Marx expressed a theory wherein conceptual categories, even those which might be considered “superstitious,” exist in a very tangible sense. This is what is called real abstraction — abstract concepts or categories which, even from their birth out of social relations, have a thing-like or object-like quality.
Marx, quite far from positivism, explained this in developing his concept of commodity fetishism:
The objectivity of commodities as values differs from Dame Quickly in the sense that ‘a man knows not where to have it’. Not an atom of matter enters into the objectivity of commodities as values; in this it is the direct opposite of the coarsely sensuous objectivity of commodities as physical objects. We may twist and turn a single commodity as we wish; it remains impossible to grasp it as a thing possessing value. However, let us remember that commodities possess an objective character as values only in so far as they are all expressions of an identical social substance, human labour, that their objective character as values is therefore purely social.37
Is this notion of commodity fetishism closer to naive positivism, which thinks of the world through the eyes of a “machine-made religion,” or to Indigenous thought about human creations taking on a power of their own when they become disharmonic? He was not mincing worlds — religion is directly related to the domination of human beings by their own creations as in the form of capital.38 Marx went as far as to say that the capitalist commodity literally has metaphysical or theological qualities in the real world — created by social relations, yes, but still exerting themselves on human beings as real.39
Having made a detour into the issue of Marx’s atheistic materialism, let us return to the relation of philosophy and religion. These two standpoints of critique we have been speaking of identify the transcendence of “religion” as we know it in this bourgeois society with the restoration of harmony in the world.
Marx, as a young man, stated famously: “In a word: You cannot transcend [aufheben] philosophy without realizing [verwirklichen] it.”40
The kind of philosophy he means here is different to the philosophy that someone like Viola Cordova speaks of. It is the philosophies within the antitheses of intellectual and manual labor, of contemplative and practical knowledge, and of the concrete and abstract. That is, it is of a type wherein it is merely an extension of religion, representative of the same basic alienation.41
Here we have come to what Marx meant when he said that the abolition of religion must mean the abolition of real misery, by means of his critique of contemplative philosophy. The realization of philosophy does not mean the total identity of subject and object, or of thought and reality. The identity of thought and reality is classically idealist thinking, which assumes that the Subject is the core of the world. This realization instead means the restoration of the transparency of society — the abolition of the veil rendered upon it by those class societies which necessitated philosophy. This is an abolition of the disharmony which leads to bifurcation and dualistic otherworldliness (either of heaven, inwardness, or a false oneness).
Luther Standing Bear identified this disharmony as at the heart of the settler’s alienation from nature. The Promethean element in Christianity, which calls on humanity to dominate nature as its own God-given instrument, comes to the fore as a target of attack. In analyzing the settlers who expropriated him and his people, he said:
“The white man does not understand the Indian for the reason that he does not understand America. He is too far removed from its formative processes. The roots of his tree of life have not yet grasped the rock and soil. The white man is still troubled with primitive fears; he still has in his consciousness the perils of this frontier continent, some of its vastness not yet having yielded to his questing footsteps and inquiring eyes. He shudders still with the memory of the loss of his forefathers upon its scorching deserts and forbidding mountain-tops. The man from Europe is still a foreigner and an alien. And he still hates the man who questioned his path across the continent.
“But in the Indian the spirit of the land is still vested; it will be until other men are able to divine and meet its rhythm. Men must be born and reborn to belong. Their bodies must be formed of the dust of their forefathers’ bones.”42
Standing Bear identifies the consistent dualism and tension experienced by settlers in America as something which appears rational from an alienated context. It is a false way of living, but it certainly appears true based on a certain kind of experience. In this way of thinking and being, one does not look upon this earth as an ancestral homeland — a people-place deeply vested with significance, with sedimented history.
Settlers do not experience that sedimented history as one of relationality — a continuing connection to ancestors and non-human relatives in a holistic, mutual interconnection. They experience this land as an enemy, as a “wilderness” to struggle against.
The past of bourgeois society is not one of relatives, but one of phantom despots and bloodthirsty vampires — dead labor. The dead are dead, and when they live, they live only by a dominating and parasitic relationship to the living. In the capitalist mode of production, relations become things, things with a spellbinding power that dominates us. In Indigenous communalist ways of life, what in capitalism we consider dead, inanimate things are relatives — the entire world is relational.
Humanity and Nature
Viola Cordova (Jicarilla Dindéi) expressed Indigenous conceptions of nature as essentially forms of monism: “[…]everything that exists is perceived as being the manifestation of one particular thing. In effect, everything that is, is one thing. The oneness is ascribed to the fact that everything is, essentially, Usen, the life force.”43
Interestingly, she identified a sibling of this monism in that of the Dutch Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza.44 Cordova and Spinoza’s emphasis on the oneness of nature relate closely to their concept of humanity’s position in it as natural beings.
Of the relation between humanity and nature, Cordova said:
“The ethical system of the Native American extends beyond man’s relationship with others and the institutions that men create. The Native American includes the earth and everything in it in his ethical system[…]”
“Humans sustain their being by acting in a manner that is balanced with the rest of the environment. They exist best in harmony with the land. Their ethical principles are drawn from the universe at large: balance, harmony, beauty, rightness.”44
While Cordova considers Indigenous thinking to be “humanist” to a certain extent, this is far from anthropocentrism or bourgeois Prometheanism. Rather, humanity’s relation to the rest of nature must be from their standpoint as humans. They are subjects who must work in everyday life, in the mundane, to maintain a subjective and objective rhythm with nature.
Of Marx’s view of nature, Russell Means (Oglála Lakhóta Oyáte) characterized him in pure Promethean terms: “Revolutionary Marxism is committed to even further perpetuation and perfection of the very industrial process which is destroying us all. It is offering only to ‘redistribute’ the results, the money maybe, of this industrialization to a wider section of the population.”45
As an aside, Means’ comment on communism being a redistribution of money shows a blatant lack of familiarity with Marx even in claiming to definitively dismiss him. His definition of Marx’s goal would fit in better with Franklin D. Roosevelt and other social democrats than any revolutionary communist, who wish to abolish the exchange society entirely. Howard Adams (Métis) said it best: “Means describes Marxism as an evil industrial movement that crushes indigenous tribal Peoples. His discussion is an extremely unsophisticated and superficial analysis of Marxism. He fails to develop even the most rudimentary principles.”47
In his philosophy itself, he expressed the very centrality of the concept of nature in a holistic way directly echoing Cordova. As early as 1844, he wrote of humans as fundamentally natural beings related to other natural beings experienced as both interconnected and separate from themselves.48 This relational, naturalist conception of human beings is very close to that of Cordova. This is an early expression of his naturalism. It is still in a period where he held to a notion of an anthropological essence — species-being — of humans. Yet already, the relationality between subject and object without their homogeneous identity is in his heart.
Humanity for Marx is distinct from the rest of nature because humanity labors. Labor represents a potential of transcendence, a potential for conscious and speculative thinking being realized through labor. The human subject is distinct from itself as an object, but it can only be a subject through its objectivity. Labor is a natural, objective process, but it is also a conscious, subjective engagement with the world of objects through that objective process. Labor can represent a harmony or disharmony with the rest of nature, but it is basically fundamental for the human relation to the world.
As an old man, Marx would defend the non-identity of nature with humanity or with the human subject against the Promethean thinking and labor-fetishism of his Lassallean rivals.49 Such thinking, to Marx, represented an internalization of capitalist ideology. Capital is a subject, and it seeks to subordinate whatever it can to its subjectivity — to render out of nature real abstractions and continue reproducing and gorging itself off off its flesh.
Marx acknowledged where this Promethean approach to nature leads us:
At the same pace that mankind masters nature, man seems to become enslaved to other men or to his own infamy. Even the pure light of science seems unable to shine but on the dark background of ignorance. All our invention and progress seem to result in endowing material forces with intellectual life, and in stultifying human life into a material force.50
The domination of nature leads directly to the domination of natural human beings. The reduction of the natural world into mere mechanical abstractions, potential capital to be realized, means the reduction of human beings into mechanical abstractions. Humans and nature alike become appendages to capital as if it were an automatic subject — although it is in truth a spell. Is it not ironic that this is exactly what Means accused Marx of aiming to do?51
In his emphasis of the continued autonomy of nature from human subjects, Marx did not engage in a strict dichotomy of human beings and nature. In the Grundrisse (1857–1861), he said that:
[…]for, just as the working subject appears naturally as an individual, as natural being — so does the first objective condition of his labour appear as nature, earth, as his inorganic body; he himself is not only the organic body, but also the subject of this inorganic nature. This condition is not his product but something he finds to hand — pre-supposed to him as a natural being apart from him.52
By nature as the working subject’s “inorganic body,” Marx meant that it is their body apart from their bodies as an organism — their body beyond the periphery of their skin (to borrow a phrase from Silvia Federici). This expression, of course, still appears tinged with a certain anthropocentrism. It is nature that is the body of humans in this formulation.
In the very next sentence, however, he turns this around in saying that humanity is “the subject of this inorganic nature.” What this means is that human beings are the coming-to-consciousness of nature. They are a part of nature which has the potential to become a rational mediator of the whole in the interests of the whole.
This is not human beings becoming identical to the rest of nature, but a collaboration through metabolism. This is embracing a conscious and natural-rational rhythm on a world scale.53 Marx was thinking in terms of a universal form of living in harmony, even while working through the distinction of humans and the rest of nature by labor.54
In Marx’s identification of labor as what distinguishes human beings from the rest of nature, we come to the relation of this to Indigenous thinking on human beings.
Viola Cordova spoke of the concept of humanity as one wherein:
The Native American view of human beings and their role in the world is very different from that of the Western/Christian view. It could be said that human beings have an instinct that draws them to others. It is this instinct that provides the basis for cooperative behavior. Cooperative behavior is ‘right’ or ‘normal’ behavior. Persons act ethically because they want to maintain their membership in the group.
In order to maintain membership in a group, the survival of the group is as important as is the survival of the individual, perhaps more so. The individual is dependent on the group for his survival, and the group is dependent on its individuals for survival. The group, in turn, as well as the individual, is dependent on the particular conditions of the area that it occupies for its continued survival. Other areas contain people equally dependent on the conditions of their area for their survival.
One very important fact here, a fact that is missing from the Western/Christian perspective, is that human beings are seen as groups occupying specific niches. The existential and geographical circumstances of the group will provide the basis for the ethical considerations of the group. Since each group occupies a specific area, each group will have its own ‘code of conduct.’55
Here, we have a direct confluence with Marx in the importance given to cooperative labor and the metabolism of laboring activity and nature. Cordova considers human individuals as context-specific and relational — they are inseparable from what she calls their “matrix.”56
For Cordova, humans are simply what they are — the ensemble of their relations. They are not defined by any abstract, anthropological species-essence.57 Their definition varies by matrices, depending purely on reference to other beings and the life of the people-place.
Cordova speaks of Jicarilla Dindéi communities holding a concept of a person humanizing from infancy to adulthood.58 This means coming into relation and becoming an autonomous being among other autonomous beings — distinct, but still a part of One. In Cordova’s elaboration of Indigenous thought, humans are distinct from the rest of nature — distinguished in a network of references or relations in their matrix — but they are not superior.59
She does not have a foundationalist definition of human beings — contingency is very important rather than seeking to pin down a metaphysical truth. What she does identify as key to humanizing or becoming-human is a continuous ethical commitment to rhythm with the world, varying by the specific “world,” or people-place, of communities.60 This implies a related concept to Marx’s concept of labor as a metabolism, albeit in a less anthropocentric form.
Although he remained anthropocentric, he did not retain his youthful anthropological or “human essence”-thinking. As an older man, he expressed a concept of humanity in a form closely related to Cordova’s description of humanity as an endless becoming in a contingent, holistic world. In the Grundrisse (1857-1861),for instance, he said:
In fact, however, when the limited bourgeois form is stripped away, what is wealth other than the universality of individual needs, capacities, pleasures, productive forces etc., created through universal exchange? The full development of human mastery over the forces of nature, those of so-called nature as well as of humanity’s own nature? The absolute working out of his creative potentialities, with no presupposition other than the previous historic development, which makes this totality of development, i.e. the development of all human powers as such the end in itself, not as measured on a predetermined yardstick? Where he does not reproduce himself in one specificity, but produces his totality? Strives not to remain something he has become, but is in the absolute movement of becoming?61
In Capital, Marx spoke of “animism” and a conception of the sacredness of nature — an immediate oneness with nature — as representing a backwardness in the development of labor. Ironically, it is this “animism” which offers a related and deeply insightful expression of holism and “the absolute movement of becoming[.]” This rejection of measure, of boxing in, and of alienated potentialities is not irreconcilable whatsoever with “animist” holism, which sees the whole of nature as sacred.
Marx himself recognized that our “civilized” way of living, opposed to “animism,” wherein “man” and “nature” are antithetical comes about with capitalist instrumental reason:
For the first time, nature becomes purely an object for humankind, purely a matter of utility; ceases to be recognized as a power for itself; and the theoretical discovery of its autonomous laws appears merely as a ruse so as to subjugate it under human needs, whether as an object of consumption or as a means of production.62
Marx recognizes this as originating in socially specific activity and social relations of life activity of humans — although still acting as natural beings. That is, this is not the only way humanity can relate to nature. Other ways of thinking and being are possible, as is critique and transcendence from within.
Luther Standing Bear (Sičhą́ǧu Oyáte and Oglála Lakhóta Oyáte) also identified this human-nature antithesis as expressed in the difference between capitalist settlers and communalist Indigenous peoples:
We did not think of the great open plains, the beautiful rolling hills, and winding streams with tangled growth, as ‘wild.’ Only to the white man was nature a ‘wilderness,’ and only to him was the land ‘infested’ with ‘wild’ animals and ‘savage’ people. To us it was tame. Earth was bountiful and we were surrounded with the blessings of the Great Mystery. Not until the hairy man from the east came and with brutal frenzy heaped injustices upon us and the families we loved was it ‘wild’ for us. When the very animals of the forest began fleeing from his approach, then it was that for us the ‘Wild West’ began.63
In the concept of “wilderness,” the human subject condemns a non-conformity of nature with the process of its own externalization of its subjectivity. The subject wishes to transform nature into an instrument, and insofar as nature does not revolve around them as its absolute center, they consider it something to be “struggled” against and “tamed.” The concept of “wilderness” is a disharmony of subject and object — in this case, wrought by the drive of capitalization.
Winona LaDuke (Mississippi Band Anishinaabeg) thus characterizes capitalism as an all-devouring, nature-destroying subject:
Now, I’m an economist by training, and I refer to our current economic system as Wiindigoo Economics. In our Anishinaabe stories, the Wiindigoo is a giant murderous monster that used to rampage through the north woods, fueled by an insatiable greed and a relentless desire for human flesh. Fossil fuel era capitalism is like the Wiindigoo: a predator economics, the economics of a cannibal. It is a system based on colonization, wastefulness and ravenous greed, a system that destroys the very source of its own wealth and well-being, Mother Earth.64
This Wiindigoo metaphor is extremely insightful, and shows the deep independent creative value of Indigenous knowledge. This metaphor of ravenous cannibalism expresses the manifold moments of capital: capital emerges from a specific way of living among natural human beings, it becomes like a spell or disease compelling them towards destructive behavior, regardless of any opposing subjective desires, and it ultimately transforms into a domination and destruction of those very same natural beings.
Wiindigoo Economics is nature turned in on itself. It is a historical rather than a fundamental destiny. It is a disease which is a consequence of a certain way of life — devouring another human being, or what’s all the same, exploitation of human by human.
For LaDuke and other Indigenous traditionalists, an ethic of human commitment in relation to the rest of nature is a medicine against this disease. This is an alternative way of life with a different logic to that which capital is born out of and reinforces.
The idea of oneness with nature is not entirely missing from settler critiques of capitalism. It does not, however, take an identical form to Indigenous holist ethics. In the figure of someone like John Muir and the American ideology of preservationism, we see continued thinking in terms of human vs. nature. Settler “oneness with nature” is still abstract — it is merely making a natural reserve, subjectively and objectively. It remains contemplative and lacking practical relationality.
Indigenous concepts of oneness take another form by the fact of their concreteness and practical character. This oneness is mundane or everyday, it is not an antithesis of everyday life. Oneness with the rhythm of nature is not a clearing away, but is measured by the rhythm of the everyday. Gregory Cajete (Khaʼpʼoe Ówîngeh) explains this through the example of Indigenous botanical knowledge. Indigenous peoples developed deep experiential knowledge of their local plants, coming to know the essences of botanical characteristics, mechanisms, and needs from their own human perspectives.65
This is labor that understands itself as a metabolism between humans and the rest of nature, a oneness which is participatory. This does not seek to force nature to conform with instrumental mechanical principles or try to cleave apart humanity and nature, but collaborates with nature. This is in many ways embodies Marx’s theorization of humans as the consciousness or subjectivity of nature.
Marx dismissed the capacity of “animism” for scientific knowledge — and yet this is very much in the same realm as his own explication of science: “Only when it proceeds from sense-perception in the twofold form both of sensuous consciousness and of sensuous need that is, only when science proceeds from nature — is it true science.”66
In both Cajete and Marx, the philosophical importance of lived experience — in particular to scientific knowledge — cannot be overstated. Immediate, individual lived experience is mediated through the inheritances of history (through language, symbolism, memories etc), but is still deeply important as the way we exist and perceive.
This experience of immediacy is at the heart of the human relation to the world in the everyday. To emphasize the truth of the whole and individual immediacy is not irreconcilable. To recognize the mediated perspective, or the necessity of immediacy in relation to the whole doesn’t negate the reality of lived experience for human subjects.67
Marx and Indigenous traditionalists both stand against any kind of philosophy of nature which attacks the everyday oneness represented by the metabolism of man and nature. They oppose any notion of a foundational Being or ontology — a concern with a fundamental or abstract question of what it is “To Be,” any concern to find a metaphysical truth of the “Is” beneath the debris of the things that are.
Instead, they speak and act in favor of contingency as the site of oneness. There is oneness in abstraction, there is Being which is Nothing, and there is oneness in manyness, in rhythm, in Becoming. The “ontological difference” of the Nazi philosopher Martin Heidegger — between merely incidental and dependent beings and foundational Being — is alien to Indigenous thought. Indigenous thought concerns the being of beings rather than the Being of beings. As Cajete says:
The Native American paradigm is comprised of and includes ideas of constant motion and flux, existence consisting of energy waves, interrelationships, all things being animate, space/place, renewal, and all things being imbued with spirit[…] The constant flux notion results in a ‘spider web’ network of relationships. In other words, everything is interrelated. If everything is interrelated, then all of creation is related. If human beings are animate and have spirit, then ‘all my relations’ must also be animate and must also have spirit. What Native Americans refer to as ‘spirit’ and energy waves are the same thing.68
Traditional Indigenous ways of thought are thinking and living in Becoming, not searching for any fundamental experience of Being.69 This informs Indigenous critiques of abstraction or otherworldliness brought by Westerners. That includes otherworldliness which claims to be being-in-the-world but shrinks away in disgust from the mundane — in Heidegger the inauthentic being of das Man — and excludes it from authentic Being.
With Heidegger, we see a Romantic, or even proto-fascist, concept of Being that also informed much of the American settler naturalist movement. This thinking drives one to abstractly become one with nature instead of becoming one through contingency — through forms of labor. It is a fear of engaging with the world as a subject and an object, becoming merely a negative mirror image of the typical bourgeois war of the subject against objects.70
Marx also did not strive towards any such “Being of beings,” and instead concerned himself with the being of beings. Clearly echoing Heraclitus, he spoke of the relation of labor to Becoming—Its transformation of both objective materials and the laborer themselves undermines any appearance of fundamental solidity to either.71 Labor transforms and reproduces the contingency of nature in its metabolism with it. Labor challenges all static, all contemplative certainty of static existence. Labor here is mediation of a oneness with nature, but a contingent and rhythmic oneness.
This desire for a static, abstract oneness that we see in settlers and expressed by reactionary critics of bourgeois society must be understood as part of the psychology of the white, Western man spoken of by Luther Standing Bear. Theodor W. Adorno hazarded a diagnosis on the historical basis of this ontological need:
What I mean is that this peculiar allergy [in the face of beings] which pervades philosophy, but which has probably never been as acute as it is in these ontological philosophies, arises from the memory that our existence depends upon bodily labour and actually lives from such labour. But, in spite of this, up until very recent developments, bodily labour was itself looked down upon as something demeaning or even base. And anything that might recall this distinctive involvement on the part of labour with the level of mere being, with the merely natural, is repressed in the medium of thought. And the priority of what we call mind or spirit over the material world on which it lives and depends is once again consolidated and transfigured through this allergy, which now effectively decrees the absolute purity of all that is mental or spiritual as the domain of true being in contrast with the mere domain of beings.72
The purification of beings out of Being is a pathology at play, for instance, in the expropriation of Indigenous peoples by National Parks in the name of “protecting nature.” This concept of nature is one of a marble garden instead of a living, breathing, bleeding, eating, laboring dying, birthing oneness.
We should emphasize once again that Marx’s concept of nature, despite confluences, is still not identical to Indigenous concepts of nature. He retained a certain anthropocentrism in his implication that human beings are the “end” of nature, while someone like Viola Cordova refuses such teleological reasoning and sees humans as related to all nature, which are also beings.73 Thus, the importance to Marxism of learning from independent Indigenous traditions if it wishes to be living instead of dead.
Within and Against Capital?
Inka Garcilaso de la Vega, in his histories of his ancestors, wrote an interesting observation of the role of gold in their world—They did not treat it as state currency, or as money at all. Gold did not function as a tribute, but as a gift valued for its aesthetic and symbolic weight alone.74
For the Inka, gold did not appear as a power unto itself — the quality which incentivizes the demand of tribute in gold. Gold was valued for its “beauty and brilliance” — its use-values — rather than taking on a form and power as value. It was not money, but ornamentation. This is not a situation where money, or more accurately production, stands as the point of life. Human beings remain at the center of labor — albeit with the Sapa Inka at the center of human beings. This society is quite transparent, easy to understand as a member of it, compared to that of capitalism.
Gold, or more accurately, money, holds a thing-like spell for those in bourgeois society. Gold is “superfluous” and “[can] not be eaten,” and considerations of its beauty are secondary to its power in exchange. Money for us is not only a thing that mediates relations between people — it emerges beyond that and becomes something that mediates between enchanted objects. It becomes like a living thing we have a relationship with, a supernatural being that digs its claws into us and feeds off of us. Our world is one of living commodities before it is a world of living beings.
Marx observed of the difference between non-capitalist and capitalist forms of class society:
The antagonism between the power of landed property, based on personal relations of domination and servitude, and the power of money, which is impersonal, is clearly expressed by the two French proverbs, ‘Nulle terre sans seigneur’, [‘No land without its lord’]and ‘L’argent n’apasde maltre’ [‘Money has no master’].75
Capital is an impersonal power — it is a power indifferent to who holds it. Thus, a commoner can rob a bank and use that money as purchasing power while a commoner cannot so easily rob the personal titles or ranks of aristocrats and hold that as their own.
Capital is indifferent to particular personality, except as it serves the overall ends of valorization. Capital is also a power over the human beings who create it. It is human, yet inhuman. It appears as having these qualities completely autonomously from the human beings whose activities create it and grant it this power. To an outsider from this fundamentally sick mode of production, its participants appear stricken with a disease of the mind and stomach.
Here we come back to the concept of Wiindigoo Economics introduced by Winona LaDuke (Mississippi Band Anishinaabeg). This fundamental, insatiable drive to subordinate and devour is that of capital. Its influence on human beings creates personalities in its image, even in the agency and choices of those beings. Even if their conscience cries out, even if they are nagged by a strong sense that what they are doing is wrong, they turn from the face of their God and continue their bloody feast. This is the sickness which drove the barbaric Spanish conquistadores to build the first death camps in history to squeeze as much gold (yellow or white in the form of sugar) from the living beings of the “New World” as they could.
This is the power of an instrumental reason.76 It is society made in the image of a machine, something where on a social level there are no living ends but endless means. The end of capital is not an end at all — it is compelled to feed itself with renewal in order to survive, exactly like the Wiindigoo. It is sickness embodied. This is disharmony as a “phantom-like objectivity.”77
Contrast this to the characterization of Taiaiake Alfred (Kanienʼkehá꞉ka) on Indigenous conceptions of the world as one of living ends-unto-themselves rather than instrumental means:
Nowhere is the contrast between indigenous and (dominant) Western traditions sharper than in their philosophical approaches to the fundamental issues of power and nature. In indigenous philosophies, power flows from respect for nature and the natural order. In the dominant Western philosophy, power derives from coercion and artifice — in effect, alienation from nature.78
As Marx already recognized, this qualitative alienation from nature and from human beings as natural beings leads to the “stultifi[cation]” of humans into mere “material force.”79 As qualitatively mere material force, humans and nature alike figure to capital first and foremost as quantities. This rule of abstraction, of quantity, means the domination and extraction from living things in a fundamentally imbalanced and unsustainable way.80 The “natural order,” the many-sided matrixes of the relations of all things, appears in capitalist thinking as so many values to extract. This quantification is a consistent theme of critique in Indigenous traditionalism
Ohiyesa (Isáŋyathi) expressed such critique in the context of the quantified religion of Christian missionaries in his book From the Deep Woods to Civilization (1916). Another Indigenous critic of Euro-bourgeois society, Laura Cornelius Kellogg (Onʌyoteˀa·ká), expressed a direct critique of industrial capitalism. Her influences from both Onʌyoteˀa·ká traditions and the contemporary social-democratic labor movement are very evident:
Some of the gravest problems in this country today are to be found in the industrial world of the white man. With all his acumen, with all his advantages, with all his training, the great masses of labor (who make the things he wears and the things he eats, and who serve the money despots) are by no means rewarded for their toil or taken care of when they need care, much less have they the leisure or the means or the energy for higher education[…]
The factory system is then at once responsible for some of the biggest problems for the Caucasian mind. Here are some of the evils to which it has given birth: child labor, employed in place of adult employment, with light-running machinery because it is cheaper; industrial accidents, due to large machines without protective appliances, because protection is an item of expense to the employer and the laborer himself is still too ignorant to demand protection before he takes the work that at any moment may take his limb and life; factory regulation and unemployment; unsanitary conditions and long hours — though the last two have been improved by legislation in the past few years, they are by no means above reproach today. Unemployment is the result of the invention of labor-saving machines and the unsettled condition created by differences between labor and capital.81
Here, Kellogg directly critiques the wage labor indoctrination that many Indigenous peoples were forced through at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School. For her, wage labor and “the factory system” are at the heart of the extremely different values and ethics identified by Alfred. Kellogg then goes as far as to identify “communistic” cooperativism and autonomous community economies on such a basis as a means of survival for her nation and others against the real subsumption of capital.82 In this she preceded Glen Sean Coulthard (Yellowknives Dene), who today discusses Indigenous ethics as a “mode of life” apart from Euro-capitalist society, and points to the example of the Dene Declaration program as also aiming at cooperative societies for autonomy.83 Kellogg and Coulthard both take influence from the non-Native working class movement in the form of socialist critique from within the very heart of capitalist society, while retaining their distinct Indigenous standpoints.
Marx in Capital (1867) also identified capitalist and the “factory system” as representing the, real subsumption of capital, and thus its “heart.” The rise of automation does away with handicrafts and disintegrates specialization, realizing the new principle of the specifically capitalist mode of production in its place.84
Marx also distinguished between absolute and relative surplus-value as a means of explaining this distinction. In absolute surplus-value extraction, the theft is primarily in terms of quantitative time — the separation between what is the worker’s and what is capital’s is relatively clear. He saw this as the primary form of exploitation taken in formal subsumption of capital, echoing or often taking the form of tribute demand.85
Relative surplus-value extraction, on the other hand, represents a deeper penetration of capital into the production process, a deeper transformation of the worker and of labor. It increases the productivity (for capital, measured by value-quantity) of labor by changing the character of labor — most importantly, through the power of machines in such practices as the “factory system.” It means the quantification of life begins to infect the “root” of the labor-process itself, and thus we reach what he considers a specifically capitalist way of life.86
Thus, Marx considered his project as one critiquing the capitalist mode of production from within. He was primarily concerned with how proletarians, especially industrial proletarians, can transcend capital from within the real subsumption of capital. Generally, he considered the real subsumption to capital — in his eyes taking the form of universal wage-labor — to be the main tendency and drive of capital and labor. In his focus on wage-labor, Marx critiqued first and foremost from a Euro-proletarian perspective — he focused on the industrial factory as the core image of capitalist class struggle, despite his historical multilinearism.
Yet, Marx was also influenced by the traditions of Indigenous peoples — albeit largely mediated by non-Indigenous authors.87 Although he focused on Western Europe and more specifically England as the form real subsumption to capital (and thus the capitalist mode of production) takes, he did not really consider this the only path taken by either capitalism or its transcendence.88 His elder life’s theory of revolution, disalienation, and communism was influenced by the society and ethics of the Haudenosaunee.89 His later critiques of bureaucracy, of the “first negation” of capitalism being its negative mirror image or still referring to “bourgeois right,” and his characterization of capital as an impersonal power were thus all influenced in some way by his engagements with the Indigenous. He died before he could coalesce these threads more deeply, and so the task for Marxists is to continue that work. In terms of real social movements, that means to learn by listening and leading by obeying.
Marx’s critique of the “factory system” was not intended to exhaust all the ways capital, as an impersonal power, comes to penetrate the world in the capitalist mode of production. His focus was not the “factory system” unto itself. He was first and foremost appreciative of the ways that bourgeois society is haunted. It profanes all of the sacred, and yet is itself still plagued by the figures and characteristics of spirits, phantoms, vampires… In such terms, he famously spoke of it in a famous line of the Communist Manifesto (1848) as akin to the sorcerer’s apprentice.90
This is a society of disharmony, spiritual sickness. The spell cast conjured by human beings now haunts the entire world. It is not merely a spell that has escaped our control — it is a spell which now puts us to work and controls us. For Marx this is the Subject coming to dominate itself, it is not the same as a “primitive” relation to nature as “dominating” the Subject. As a young man in 1842, he in fact connected two forms of fetishism:
The savages of Cuba regarded gold as a fetish of the Spaniards. They celebrated a feast in its honour, sang in a circle around it and then threw it into the sea. If the Cuban savages had been present at the sitting of the Rhine Province Assembly, would they not have regarded wood as the Rhinelanders’ fetish? But a subsequent sitting would have taught them that the worship of animals is connected with this fetishism, and they would have thrown the hares into the sea in order to save the human beings.91
Marx’s critique of bourgeois society as having a “second fetishism” is interesting, but limited in his assumption that this “first fetishism” is also an abasement or submission in the same way that submission to the fetish of gold is. This is, once again, a disparaging and unfair concept of “animism” and its relation to nature. For him, the rational engagement of collective humanity — as natural beings — and the rest of nature in a communist society must be very different to this “fetishism.”
Yet, this is where Indigenous “animist” views of the hauntedness of bourgeois society are enriching in a way that is lacking in Marx. In language of motion and morphology, Black Elk (Oglála Lakhóta Oyáte) stated of his people’s engagement with bourgeois society:
You realize that in the sacred hoop we will multiply. You will notice that everything the Indian does is in a circle[…]
Everything now is too square. The sacred hoop is vanishing among the people[…]
Even the birds and their nests are round. You take the bird’s egg and put them in a square nest and the mother bird just won’t stay there. We Indians are relative-like to the birds. Everything tries to be round — the world is round. We Indians have been put here [to be] like the wilds and we cooperate with them[…]
Now the white man has taken away our nest and put us in a box and here they ask us to hatch our children, but we cannot do it. We are vanishing in the box.92
Black Elk’s morphological thought refers to the rhythms and flows of everyday life. There are those that are harmonic with the way of all living things, and there are those that are disharmonic. A square is machine-like, is rigid and without a smooth, rhythmic flow. It is riven in different directions, it is centrifugal. A circle is a oneness which encompasses all directions in a centripetal force, a harmony. Marx came somewhat close to this in speaking of capital’s disharmonic metabolism with nature, and of the need for human beings to rationally regulate their engagement with nature as natural beings. This, however, is a fuller expression from within an “animistic” standpoint.
To become harmonic with the rhythm of all living things does not mean returning to a static natural order, but a rational and balanced intercourse with other beings.93 To become disharmonic harms all living beings in the webs or networks of life, including human beings.94 Marx’s concept of the human subject as the subjectivity of nature is on the way to this Indigenous knowledge — but he lacked a full expression of the independent liveliness of other living beings. Nevertheless, that he recognized and began to follow this thread is important.95
It is important not to fall into a one-sided concept of Marx and to dismiss him purely as Western, colonial, and useless for the tasks of decolonization. Indigenous critics like Viola Cordova, Gregory Cajete, Glen Sean Coulthard, Taiaiake Alfred, and Vine Deloria Jr. (Íŋyaŋ Woslál Háŋ) have all expressed the need for dialogue and mutual learning between non-Native and Native ways of thinking and critiquing.96
To aspire to a form of universalism like Marx does not inherently mean a homogenizing universalism. Capital is already a worldwide system aspiring to become a closed totality — it is already a bad unity or bad universal. We cannot escape the fact that the globe exists as a global society in capitalist society. We can, however, aspire to a good or harmonic unity which does not demand a flat homogenization and is premised on free association.
As a critic of capitalism, Marx also holds value insofar as his thought is an alternative to fatalism or despair of those deeply infected by the capital-relation. From the European working class, he learned and taught ways within and against capital and pointed the way out and beyond it. Importantly, he spoke of moral indignation against capital as both coming from pre-capitalist sources and from a rational transcendence of capitalism.97 That is, a disharmony against disharmony itself.
He also left us lessons which remind us to stay vigilant of how, even within and against capital, proletarians are still themselves of capitalist society and risk projecting this character into visions of communism. He gave very important and insightful warnings on the ways capital can infect our attempts to reach ways of living beyond capitalism — such as through the “factory system” and unchanged capitalist methods of production, through merely “equalizing” a commodity producing system, or by demanding a communism of universal sameness.98 The second is particularly significant insofar as it is something Laura Cornelius Kellogg advocated and something that many traditionalists like Taiaiake Alfred warn against.99
While there is a danger of critiquing too much from within and losing the character of transcendence, there is also a danger of the same consequence coming from an attempt to critique entirely from outside. György Lukács said of Ludwig Feuerbach, for instance:
However, if this genesis, this demonstration of the real roots of the concepts, is only the appearance of a genesis, the two basic principles of his world-view, ‘alienated’ man and the dissolution of this ‘alienation’, solidify into rigidly opposed essences. He does not dissolve the one into the other, but rejects the one and affirms (morally) the other. He opposes one ready made reality to another ready-made reality, instead of showing how the one must arise — in the dialectical process — out of the other. His ‘love’ allows the ‘alienated’ reality of man to survive unaltered, just as Kant’s Ought was incapable of changing anything in the structure of his world of being.100
This total apartness, this total concern with something uninfected, in truth implies a pessimism and complacency with the world as it exists. It is not medicine to treat the sickness — it is hallucinating from its symptoms. This view encourages fatalism among those who are penetrated to their hearts by the heart of capital, it tells them that if they are not totally of an Ought, then they are doomed to remain what Is.
This dichotomy of Is and Ought is also what is evident in many settler attempts to critique settler ways of life. They try to critique from an ought, and end up purely within the capitalist settler society they disdain the infection of. This Romanticism can take the form of naturalism, false claims by settlers to Indigeneity, and attempts to establish utopian societies apart from capitalist society itself. They are criticizing from an impotent standpoint of Ought in their absolute, abstract condemnation of Is.
Indigenous critiques which are just as radically against the bourgeois Is don’t repeat the same patterns of an Is and Ought dichotomy. They come from the perspective of real, existing concrete communities and alternative ways of life. Indigenous traditionalist critiques come from the perspective of grounded normativity in living non- and anti-capitalist alternatives. This is a longstanding, deeply internalized ethic from which they critique, where the workers Marx learned from largely critiqued with an eye to possibilities beyond their Is. Though, of course, as an old man he began to re-evaluate living alternatives in their relation to the revolution from within capital.
Fausto Reinaga (Quechua) spoke of this Indigenous alternative as already representing an Indigenous socialism to re-capture the spirit of and avoid the risk of reproducing the capitalist Is:
If in the future of humanity — as the greatest thinkers, politicians and philosophers point out — the commune awaits us (it is the indigenous community!) and its moral forms of government, it is foolish to look for it in that future, still unknown, if we have it as an exhausted experience in our pre-American past. As the duty of every alienated revolutionary is to shorten paths of pain and sadness, in reciprocity to the pain that torments our peoples, that path is shortened by the task of reunion. What happens in the USSR and People’s China, or within the so-called socialist world, serves as an experience and orientation; but we are better served by the experience and orientation of a socialism with more than eight thousand years of validity in our past.
This is sparing paths, it is categorically asserting that it’s true: the future of humanity is to be communitarian, communal, ideally identical to that of our ancient indigenous communities. Socialism is very much ours for being a patient product and elaboration of our stubborn and admirable continental reality. Socialism that was a luminous concrete reality, thousands of years before Marx, Engels and Lenin had been born or even dreamed of. Which is better, to see it in reality or to continue looking for it in the dreams of the Marxist-Leninists? Let us go, then, towards the reunion with our true history!101
Reinaga then spoke of the relation of this living alternative to the modern, Euro-bourgeois world, arguing that “the racial struggle precedes the struggle of classes.”102 She continued:
Marx, it was not only that he had not studied pre-capitalist society. The slave who ‘is of a different essence than the gentleman’ Westerner, did not deserve his attention. The brilliant “Moor” had not imagined the racial ravages to which capital led in its imperialist stage. Marx had studied in society nothing more than two irreconcilable classes: the exploiting and the exploited. He did not suspect the extremes that white Western civilization would go, with respect to men of another skin color and another color of conscience[…]103
To some degree, we can agree with Reinaga’s critique — Marx certainly expressed a certain haughty Eurocentrism towards “animism” and other Indigenous ways of living and thinking in multiple instances. He, further, certainly dedicated most of his focus to the “exploiting and exploited” of the capitalist mode of production rather than the “slave.”
However, Marx did not understand class struggle as dichotomous. He recognized many classes, even in capitalist society, and in his talk of the famous duality primarily emphasizing the forms of struggle between rulers and producers.104 His dualism of ‘bourgeois and proletarian” was explicitly meant to refer to capitalist tendencies wrought by capital remaking world.105 Both the bourgeoisie and proletariat are capitalist — capital, in fact, is labor.
Reinaga’s struggle of races, rather than an antithesis to class struggle entirely unfamiliar to Marx, can also be understood as a struggle between modes of life. There are two “glues” or forms of coherences, thus morphologies, of society at struggle. This is something of what Marx was getting at in his concept of formal and real subsumption to capital. It is a civilizational struggle, if you like.
In the Bolivia of Reinaga, there was certainly a real antithesis of metropolitan or “cholista” official Marxism and Indigenous forms of anti-colonial anti-capitalism. Thus, such an absolute dichotomy was a valid and true expression. In North America, we also have a historical situation which echoes this. Our official Marxism has a history of often being relatively conservative compared to many other countries, in particular in relation to Indigenous traditionalism.
For a large part, this is because settler factions have dominated official Marxism. They live in a world, or “civilization,” apart from Indigenous peoples, and bring the baggage of settler subjectivity when they do engage with them. Here, there has been no equivalent for Marxism and Indigenous peoples to the concrete investigations and learning-by-listening represented by Marx’s worker’s inquiries.
When American Marxists even bother to theorize Indigenous issues, they tend to fall flat. They engage from within a separation of Is and Ought, lacking meaningful knowledge about the everyday lives of Indigenous peoples. Thus, their knowledge is contemplative and distorting rather than the practical, participatory knowledge spoken of by Gregory Cajete (Khaʼpʼoe Ówîngeh).
In the “golden ages” of American Marxism, in the Haymarket generation and that of American Bolshevism, the proletariat was often directly antagonistic to Indigenous peoples because they represented the encroaching capitalist society. As capitalist labor and capital alike, settler labor acted as a force colonizing and scarring ancestral homelands and Indigenous peoples themselves. This is not to express an anti-proletarian position, but to say that the fact that the proletarian is within capitalism has a practical and historical meaning.
Even with the mass proletarianization of Indigenous peoples and the rise of radical Pan-Indigenism from these urban Natives in the 1960s and 1970s, Marxists still tend to express a direct or indirect repetition of the “virgin soil” myth, or claim that settler-colonialism is irrelevant today. The weakness of this official Marxism should be a warning against treating Marxism as a closed system or a closed totality. Marxism becomes conservative when it loses the character of participatory science, a principle with a similar heart to Cajete’s description of Native science.
The North American trope that Marxism is fundamentally incompatible with Indigenous ways of thinking and living, and vice versa, is an infection of the fundamental possibilities of critical theory itself by the current state of things. It is a consequence which must be appreciated as present, but should not limit all possible futures. A practical and theoretical dialogue of Indigenous traditionalism and Marxism is very much possible, and holds fruit for both as distinct bodies.
There is a possible alternative approach to the relation of Marxism and Indigenous tradition in the theory and practice of the Partido Liberal Mexicano and Ricardo Flores Magón. They worked significantly with Indigenous communities seeking to reclaim their homelands, and Magón was himself from a Mazatec community. Of the relation between these two forms of critique, Magón pointed out the long tradition of self-governing communalism among both Indigenous Mexicans and mestizos. On the basis of this historical inheritance, which he describes as having become almost an instinct, these working masses whom the PLM worked with had a natural proclivity to what we think of as communist sentiments.106
We can agree here strongly with what Magón traces in the relation of communalism and communism. The two can, and should, recognize similar hearts in each other. Magón worked to trace a relation between the practical critique of capital from within and the struggle against the real subsumption of capital which this activity is within. Both of these movements are at the heart of a revolution in everyday life and the need to transform our way of life entirely.
Had Marx followed this thread further, he would have also explicitly recognized the living ethics of a communist society beyond the dead quantification and instrumental reason of bourgeois society. The deep insight Marxists gain by listening to Indigenous peoples cannot be exaggerated — it leads us to think more deeply about how we go outside of and beyond capital from within and against it.
Eric R. Wolf, although influential to Marxists coming to appreciate rural revolutions, warned of the inward, community focus of peasant or traditional revolutions. He saw them as, on this basis, limited.107 Some Marxists may use this argument to dismiss the revolutionary potential of Indigenous nations confined to rural reservations. This can be responded to by an opposing argument by Howard Adams (Métis), who emphasized especially that the link between town and country made by the relation of urban and reservation Natives makes for a revolutionary potential:
Realistically, our decolonization has to be developed through our role as revolutionary people in the present colonial system. No longer are we needed as a labor force to meet the needs of economic development Indians and Metis, particularly the young, are a potential revolutionary force inside Canada, yet we have not acknowledged the need for the revolutionary organization, ideology, and action that must be developed if we are ever to be free. We are reluctant to tackle the responsibility of revolutionary politics.108
Even when they are “no longer needed as a labor force to meet the needs of economic development,” or are not primarily labor-as-capital, they are a revolutionary force by their exclusion, by their desire to defend their homelands against capitalist encroachment, and by the fundamental bondage of colonialism to capitalism. A true preservation of traditional, communalist ways of life means an ultimate confrontation with capital. As Glen Sean Coulthard (Yellowknives Dene) said, “For Indigenous nations to live, capitalism must die. And for capitalism to die, we must actively participate in the construction of Indigenous alternatives to it.”109 He and Adams alike recognize the need to actively struggle against capital to live Indigenous ethics.
Rather than continuing to operate in the dichotomy of the urban working class movement and that of Indigenous autonomy, this points to a need for a coalition of movements, a unity-in-difference including where there are personal overlaps between the two. There are lessons for an approach to this in the traditionalist emphasis on many forms of Indigeneity coexisting even within Pan-Indigenous movements, as by Taiaiake Alfred.110 This means an interdependence and cooperation of many projects against capital, not a total homogeneity.
Of his own political time, Vine Deloria Jr. (Íŋyaŋ Woslál Háŋ) observed:
The meaninglessness and alienation discernible in our generation results partially from our allowing time to consume space.The shift in thinking from temporal considerations to spatial considerations may be seen in a number of minimovements by which we are struggling to define American society. Ecology, the new left politics, self-determination of goals by local communities, and citizenship participation all seem to be efforts to recapture a sense of place and a rejection of the traditional American dependence on progress–a temporal concept — as the measure ofAmerican identity.111
In his identification of a need for a restoration of a sense of space rather than the quantitative and bourgeois concept of time, Deloria Jr. pointed towards something which Marxists can learn from. He opposed claiming fake Indigeneity, or Pretendians, and deeply resented hippies who treated Indigenous peoples as a Museum of Authenticity. He did, however, advocate that settlers learn from Indigenous ways of thinking and being as a means to realize a new world.112 The universal society, or free engagement of many different peoples, which he sought leads ultimately to Marx’s own concept of communism.
In one of his famous, explicit descriptions of communism, Marx described it as a way of life wherein: “In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.”113
This is not a homogenous unity, but a unity premised on the right to difference. The bad unity of bourgeois society means homogenization, even genocidal homogenization. We should think of communism as a universal communalism — the ethic of communal societies realized on a universal scale. It is a community of communities, a Gemeinschaft of Gemeinschaften. It is a universal of many particulars, an open and contingent “humanity” rather than a false universal of “humanity” which marks some as inhuman.
Theodor W. Adorno described the very potential for this laying within society in the sense of Gesselschaft: “The very concept of society requires the relations between human beings to be grounded in freedom, even though such freedom has not been realized to this day, which implies that this society, for all its rigidity and predominance, is a kind of deformation.”114
This is the demand for a Gesselschaft which is of the heart of Gemeinschaft. A society of communities, a free association. A society of rhythm and harmony instead of one which lives and moves like a violent, thrashing machine.
For this reason, and seeking this transcendence, we ought to oppose those Marxisms which seek totalization. This leads to degeneration, and mere abstract Gesselschaft at best. Marx refused this method of work and thought time and time again, and instead learned by listening as through his worker’s inquiries.
After all, on the relation of Communists to all workers, he famously refused to coalesce independent movements to the Party or to engage in sectarianism within the working class movement. This means opposition to any homogenous assimilation, any attempt to preclude anything in a single “objective” plan which despotically forgets its source from a subject. While Marx here speaks only of the working class struggling within capital, we must account for and work with resistances other than just industrial proletariat or the smallholder peasants, independent workers, and petit-bourgeoisie whom Marx called for a democratic coalition with. This popular democratic character must be extended and renewed, and this is done through his own principle of “leading by obeying.”
Re-Enchanting the World
The opportunity for dialogue and relation between the two critiques, that of Marx and that of Indigenous peoples, is a rich one. In following it, we can learn from the many radical Indigenous radicals who have picked up this thread before us—Laura Cornelius Kellogg (Onʌyoteˀa·ká·), Ricardo Flores Magón (Mazatec), Howard Adams (Métis), Nick Estes (Sičhą́ǧu Oyáte), Glenn Coulthard (Yellowknives Dene), Viola Cordova (Jicarilla Dindéi), Leanne Betasamosake Simpson (Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg), Melanie K. Yazzie (Bilagáana/Diné), and many others.
Both of these critiques have related hearts, even if their regional and social-historical origins are quite different. Both denounce the modern bourgeois world, but not from the standpoint of any bad, alienated unities. They denounce it from the real potential for disalienation and a way of living which is life-affirming.
Viola Cordova (Jicarilla Dindéi) spoke of the sacredness of everyday life and everyday people in Indigenous cosmologies:
Everything that is becomes a part of a whole that we deem ‘sacred.’ We live in other words, in a Sacred Universe[…]115
The Native American is admonished to maintain the sacredness of the entire whole. It is difficult to explain that the mundane is actually the sacred. But it is even more difficult to explain how it is that Native Americans, despite the many and continuing attempts to eradicate their belief and value systems, persist in thinking, knowing, that their descriptions are the right ones — for this ‘world.’116
What this represents is a vision of everyday life which respects its everydayness instead of trying to mythologize it or subordinate it to something it isn’t. It isn’t taking things as they are, passively submitting to them, but working with their rhythm. It is a free association.
Karl Marx, for all of those criticisms which disparage him as de-spiritualizing life, said as a young man:
An animal produces only itself, while man reproduces the whole of nature. An animal’s product belongs immediately to its physical body, while man freely confronts his product. An animal forms things in accordance with the standard and the need of the species to which it belongs, while man knows how to produce in accordance with the standard of every species, and knows how to apply everywhere the inherent standard to the object. Man therefore also forms things in accordance with the laws of beauty.117
Here we are reminded both of the differences between Marxist and Indigenous traditions and their confluence. Marx here speaks in an anthropocentric tone, but expresses a vision of humanity as returning to the heart of natural rhythms. Both consider humans — and life as a whole — as an open, harmonic totality. Both express a life-affirming and universal relationality against the spell of the impersonal, vampiric power of capital.
The brutal murder of Tyre Nichols by five Black Memphis police officers should be enough to implode the fantasy that identity politics and diversity will solve the social, economic and political decay that besets the United States. Not only are the former officers Black, but the city’s police department is headed by Cerelyn Davis, a Black woman. None of this helped Nichols, another victim of a modern-day police lynching.
The militarists, corporatists, oligarchs, politicians, academics and media conglomerates champion identity politics and diversity because it does nothing to address the systemic injustices or the scourge of permanent war that plague the U.S. It is an advertising gimmick, a brand, used to mask mounting social inequality and imperial folly. It busies liberals and the educated with a boutique activism, which is not only ineffectual but exacerbates the divide between the privileged and a working class in deep economic distress. The haves scold the have-nots for their bad manners, racism, linguistic insensitivity and garishness, while ignoring the root causes of their economic distress. The oligarchs could not be happier.
Did the lives of Native Americans improve as a result of the legislation mandating assimilation and the revoking of tribal land titles pushed through by Charles Curtis, the first Native American Vice President? Are we better off with Clarence Thomas, who opposes affirmative action, on the Supreme Court, or Victoria Nuland, a war hawk in the State Department? Is our perpetuation of permanent war more palatable because Lloyd Austin, an African American, is the Secretary of Defense? Is the military more humane because it accepts transgender soldiers? Is social inequality, and the surveillance state that controls it, ameliorated because Sundar Pichai — who was born in India — is the CEO of Google and Alphabet? Has the weapons industry improved because Kathy J. Warden, a woman, is the CEO of Northop Grumman, and another woman, Phebe Novakovic, is the CEO of General Dynamics? Are working families better off with Janet Yellen, who promotes increasing unemployment and “job insecurity” to lower inflation, as Secretary of the Treasury? Is the movie industry enhanced when a female director, Kathryn Bigelow, makes “Zero Dark Thirty,” which is agitprop for the CIA? Take a look at this recruitment ad put out by the CIA. It sums up the absurdity of where we have ended up.
Colonial regimes find compliant indigenous leaders — “Papa Doc” François Duvalier in Haiti, Anastasio Somoza in Nicaragua, Mobutu Sese Seko in the Congo, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in Iran — willing to do their dirty work while they exploit and loot the countries they control. To thwart popular aspirations for justice, colonial police forces routinely carried out atrocities on behalf of the oppressors. The indigenous freedom fighters who fight in support of the poor and the marginalized are usually forced out of power or assassinated, as was the case with Congolese independence leader Patrice Lumumba and Chilean president Salvador Allende. Lakota chief Sitting Bull was gunned down by members of his own tribe, who served in the reservation’s police force at Standing Rock. If you stand with the oppressed, you will almost always end up being treated like the oppressed. This is why the FBI, along with Chicago police, murdered Fred Hampton and was almost certainly involved in the murder of Malcolm X, who referred to impoverished urban neighborhoods as “internal colonies.” Militarized police forces in the U.S. function as armies of occupation. The police officers who killed Tyre Nichols are no different from those in reservation and colonial police forces.
We live under a species of corporate colonialism. The engines of white supremacy, which constructed the forms of institutional and economic racism that keep the poor poor, are obscured behind attractive political personalities such as Barack Obama, whom Cornel West called “a Black mascot for Wall Street.” These faces of diversity are vetted and selected by the ruling class. Obama was groomed and promoted by the Chicago political machine, one of the dirtiest and most corrupt in the country.
“It’s an insult to the organized movements of people these institutions claim to want to include,” Glen Ford, the late editor of The Black Agenda Report told me in 2018. “These institutions write the script. It’s their drama. They choose the actors, whatever black, brown, yellow, red faces they want.”
Ford called those who promote identity politics “representationalists” who “want to see some Black people represented in all sectors of leadership, in all sectors of society. They want Black scientists. They want Black movie stars. They want Black scholars at Harvard. They want Blacks on Wall Street. But it’s just representation. That’s it.”
The toll taken by corporate capitalism on the people these “representationalists” claim to represent exposes the con. African-Americans have lost 40 percent of their wealth since the financial collapse of 2008 from the disproportionate impact of the drop in home equity, predatory loans, foreclosures and job loss. They have the second highest rate of poverty at 21.7 percent, after Native Americans at 25.9 percent, followed by Hispanics at 17.6 percent and whites at 9.5 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau and the Department for Health and Human Services. As of 2021, Black and Native American children lived in poverty at 28 and 25 percent respectively, followed by Hispanic children at 25 percent and white children at 10 percent. Nearly 40 percent of the nation’s homeless are African-Americans although Black people make up about 14 percent of our population. This figure does not include people living in dilapidated, overcrowded dwellings or with family or friends due to financial difficulties. African-Americans are incarcerated at nearly five times the rate of white people.
Identity politics and diversity allow liberals to wallow in a cloying moral superiority as they castigate, censor and deplatform those who do not linguistically conform to politically correct speech. They are the new Jacobins. This game disguises their passivity in the face of corporate abuse, neoliberalism, permanent war and the curtailment of civil liberties. They do not confront the institutions that orchestrate social and economic injustice. They seek to make the ruling class more palatable. With the support of the Democratic Party, the liberal media, academia and social media platforms in Silicon Valley, demonize the victims of the corporate coup d’etat and deindustrialization. They make their primary political alliances with those who embrace identity politics, whether they are on Wall Street or in the Pentagon. They are the useful idiots of the billionaire class, moral crusaders who widen the divisions within society that the ruling oligarchs foster to maintain control.
Diversity is important. But diversity, when devoid of a political agenda that fights the oppressor on behalf of the oppressed, is window dressing. It is about incorporating a tiny segment of those marginalized by society into unjust structures to perpetuate them.
Aclass I taught in a maximum security prison in New Jersey wrote “Caged,” a play about their lives. The play ran for nearly a month at The Passage Theatre in Trenton, New Jersey, where it was sold out nearly every night. It was subsequently published by Haymarket Books. The 28 students in the class insisted that the corrections officer in the story not be white. That was too easy, they said. That was a feign that allows people to simplify and mask the oppressive apparatus of banks, corporations, police, courts and the prison system, all of which make diversity hires. These systems of internal exploitation and oppression must be targeted and dismantled, no matter whom they employ.
My book, “Our Class: Trauma and Transformation in an American Prison,” uses the experience of writing the play to tell the stories of my students and impart their profound understanding of the repressive forces and institutions arrayed against them, their families and their communities. You can see my two-part interview with Hugh Hamilton about “Our Class” here and here.
August Wilson’s last play, “Radio Golf,” foretold where diversity and identity politics devoid of class consciousness were headed. In the play, Harmond Wilks, an Ivy League-educated real estate developer, is about to launch his campaign to become Pittsburgh’s first Black mayor. His wife, Meme, is angling to become the governor’s press secretary. Wilks, navigating the white man’s universe of privilege, business deals, status seeking and the country club game of golf, must sanitize and deny his identity. Roosevelt Hicks, who had been Wilk’s college roommate at Cornell and is a vice president at Mellon Bank, is his business partner. Sterling Johnson, whose neighborhood Wilks and Hicks are lobbying to get the city to declare blighted so they can raze it for their multimillion dollar development project, tells Hicks:
You know what you are? It took me a while to figure it out. You a Negro. White people will get confused and call you a nigger but they don’t know like I know. I know the truth of it. I’m a nigger. Negroes are the worst thing in God’s creation. Niggers got style. Negroes got . A dog knows it’s a dog. A cat knows it’s a cat. But a Negro don’t know he’s a Negro. He thinks he’s a white man.
Terrible predatory forces are eating away at the country. The corporatists, militarists and political mandarins that serve them are the enemy. It is not our job to make them more appealing, but to destroy them. There are amongst us genuine freedom fighters of all ethnicities and backgrounds whose integrity does not permit them to serve the system of inverted totalitarianism that has destroyed our democracy, impoverished the nation and perpetuated endless wars. Diversity when it serves the oppressed is an asset, but a con when it serves the oppressors.
New evidence and understandings about the structure of successful early societies across Asia, Africa, and the Western Hemisphere are sweeping away the popular assumption that early societies tended toward autocracy and despotism.
This article was produced by Human Bridges, a project of the Independent Media Institute.
Archaeology has a more valuable story to tell: Collective action and localized economic production are a recipe for sustainability and broader well-being. The Mesoamerican city of Monte Albán, which was a major regional urban center for 1,300 years, is a shining example. It is a powerful case study that early investments in public infrastructure and goods foster longer-term sustainability.
There is a rich vein of insight here for some of the most pressing challenges faced by humanity: billions of people living in poverty, and collapsing social structures in the developing world. And in the wealthy industrialized world, many are increasingly disillusioned by the flaws in our political and economic models.
But if we’re going to use the models from the ancient past, can we be confident about how early societies really operated?
Researchers have begun to identify archaeological evidence that works as indicators for political and social behaviors and institutions:
Is there evidence of extreme wealth disparity or equality in lifestyle or burial?
Does monumental architecture foster exclusivity (elite tombs, aggrandizing monuments, evidence of dynastic legitimation) or access (e.g., open plazas, wide access ways, community temples)?
Are palaces prominent or is it not clear where the leader resided?
Does art emphasize lineal descent, divine kingship, and royal patron deities or does it feature more abstract themes such as fertility or integrative cosmological principles?
There is a lot we can determine from a society’s tendency toward the first or second option in each of these questions about whether it was more autocratic or associated with collective/good governance.
In a study of 26 early urban centers in Mesoamerica, Monte Albán was one of 12 that was characterized as a collectively organized city based on a series of indicators. Prior to the city’s abandonment, Monte Albán was not highly unequal: there were few, if any, lavish tombs, no great caches of household riches or other evidence of extreme wealth differences, and no large, ornate palace that was unequivocally the ruler’s residence.
From early in the site’s history, the city’s core was centered on a large plaza that could have accommodated a signiﬁcant proportion of the site’s population. Flattening the hill’s rocky top and then deﬁning and creating this large open space entailed planning, coordination, and cooperation. Until very late in the city’s history, material representations of rulers were relatively rare, and there is an overall lack of ruler aggrandizement. During the city’s ﬁrst four centuries (500–100 BCE), there were few depictions of seemingly important individuals or leaders. Rule was largely faceless.
How did it happen?
In this light, let’s travel to the early sedentary villages (c. 1500–500 BCE) in the Valley of Oaxaca—the largest expanse of ﬂat land in Mexico’s Southern Highlands. They were situated on or near well-watered land.
Around 500 BCE, however, a new hilltop center, Monte Albán, was established at the nexus of the valley’s three arms, where agriculture was far riskier due to unreliable rainfall and a dearth of permanent water sources. During the era of its establishment, not only was Monte Albán larger than any earlier community in the region, but many other settlers moved into the rural area around Monte Albán.
This marked shift in settlement patterns and the underlying processes associated with the foundation of Monte Albán have long been debated. How can we account for the immigration of people, some likely from beyond the region itself, to an area where they faced greater risks of crop failure?
One perspective, reliant on uniform models of premodern states as despotic, viewed the process from a basically top-down lens; leaders coerced their subjects to move near the capital to provide sustenance for the new center.
Yet more recent research has found that governance at Monte Albán was generally more collective than autocratic, and in its growth period, productive activities were collective, centered in domestic units and not managed from above.
By the time Monte Albán was established in the Valley of Oaxaca, more than a thousand years had passed since foragers transitioned from mobile lifeways to sedentary communities. Maize, beans, and squash, which had been domesticated prior to village formation, were key elements of an agricultural economy, with maize providing the bulk of calories. Early villagers also exploited a mosaic of other natural resources including clay for making ceramic vessels and ﬁgurines, stone for making tools and ornaments, and plant materials for processing into a range of woven products.
The shift to sedentary life was a long social process through which formerly dispersed populations not only adjusted but committed to living in larger communities and interacting with more people on a daily basis.
The Valley of Oaxaca has a climate that is semiarid, rainfall is unpredictable and spatially patchy across the region, and not all sectors of the valley ﬂoor receive the minimum annual precipitation necessary for reliable rainfall farming of maize, the region’s staple and culturally most important crop.
The prime factor that determines the productivity of maize is the availability of water, and a diversity of water management practices have been used since prehispanic times. These manipulations, which increase agricultural yields, include wells and pot irrigation, check dams, and small-scale canals, all of which were easily managed or implemented at the household level.
The Valley of Oaxaca was a core politico-economic region. Prior to Monte Albán’s founding, most of the populace resided in one of three clusters of settlements that were separated from the others by largely unoccupied areas, including the center of the valley where Monte Albán was later situated. In each arm, a cluster of smaller communities surrounded one larger settlement that had special functions and served as the “head towns” of small competing polities.
This millennial pattern was broken when Monte Albán was built on a steep hilltop in the center of the valley. The settlement’s establishment and rapid growth in size and monumentality set off a dynamic episode of innovation and change that included demographic, dietary, and other economic shifts. Populations grew rapidly not only at the new center, which became the largest and most monumental city in the valley’s early history, but also in the surrounding countryside. The center and rural communities were integrated through an emergent market network that provisioned the city.
This dramatic episode of change required the coordination of labor to build the new city. The rocky hilltop was ﬂattened into a large main plaza with monumental buildings constructed along its edges. The scale and orientation of this central plaza represent a key transition from prior community plans in the region. Residences for the city’s burgeoning population were constructed on the steep slopes of the hill by creating ﬂattened spaces, or terraces, shored up by stone and earthen retaining walls, each of which sustained a domestic unit.
The allocation of the hill’s apex for civic-ceremonial space and the lower slopes for commoner residences was a blueprint for a broad social accord. Built environments are not neutral, but political, and Monte Albán’s footprint with a large, relatively open central space and little display of hierarchical leaders points to a collective arrangement.
The city’s concentrated residential precincts comprised strings of artiﬁcially ﬂattened terraces that shared long retaining walls. Construction of the terraces required allotments of domestic labor to clear trees, ﬂatten steep inclinations, erect stone walls to retain ﬂat spaces where houses would be built, and construct drainage channels to divert rainwater from living spaces. The construction, sharing, and maintenance of front retaining walls involved high degrees of interhousehold cooperation between neighbors.
Additionally, commoners adopted construction techniques and basic ceramic wares that previously were the domain of high-status families. In the early city, most houses included contiguous rooms with plaster ﬂoors, often constructed around a patio; they were built with adobe bricks on stone foundations instead of the mud and thatch typical of earlier commoner houses. The pottery wares that previously were largely used by higher-status families or as ceremonial vessels became more broadly distributed in the centuries after Monte Albán was established. This level of cooperation and coordination is evidence of a social charter or norms, in which a wider array of residents had access to what previously had been higher-status materials and goods.
No large-scale production has been uncovered, and there is no indication of central-governmental food storage at Monte Albán, as one might expect with top-down economic control or redistribution.
Economic production at Monte Albán was situated in domestic contexts. Instead of being coerced to move to Monte Albán, people were attracted to the city. Monte Albán was settled by a sizable group, possibly as large as 1,000 people, and rapidly grew to about 5,000 people within a few hundred years. Populations also increased in the rural areas around Monte Albán, and the annual rate of population growth in the valley exceeded what could have been maintained by natural increase alone. Populations expanded again in and around Monte Albán after c. 300 BCE. The threefold growth was too large to be accounted for by local, “natural growth,” so that people must have been drawn to Monte Albán and the valley from more distant, extra-regional locations.
Evidence indicates that the agricultural catchment for feeding Monte Albán likely extended 20 kilometers from the city. The market and exchange networks that moved food to the city created a high degree of interconnection among small settlements and Monte Albán. This interdependence required cooperation, infrastructure, and institutions that together provided the means of moving food and distributing seasonal surpluses.
Prior to Monte Albán, early “head towns” were generally positioned adjacent to good farmland. But the new city was located in an area of the valley where agriculture was riskier and largely dependent on unpredictable rainfall. Why would people move to a place where they faced a high risk of crop failure, where they could have been taxed more highly, and where, if governance were coercive, they had little voice? Such a scenario seems improbable, and it is far more likely that people moved to Monte Albán to take advantage of economic opportunities, a parallel to most migrants in the world today.
There is an international political economy of knowledge production, as ideas and theoretical debates are in many ways determined by material reality. Why is it that some concepts circulate so widely while others are a priori dismissed? Why is it that some seemingly radical frameworks find so much support in U.S. universities, while others are More
This issue’s Review of the Month discusses Marx’s role as the foremost revolutionary critic of bourgeois Enlightenment humanism. To this day, his conception of “the universal metabolism of nature” remains a powerful antidote to the phantasmagoric “dark ecology” posited by today’s posthumanism. | more…