Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 29, 2013

The Political Economy of Comanche Violence

Filed under: indigenous — louisproyect @ 5:53 pm

Comanche man, photo taken in 1892

I just got a copy of the latest Capitalism Nature Socialism journal (Volume 24, Number 3, September 2013) that should be available on JSTOR before long. I was somewhat dismayed to see that a single issue of CNS costs $121 and that a purchase of my article on “The Political Economy of Comanche Violence” is $37. I used to get upset over Historical Materialism’s price but was startled to see such an escalation. In any case, if you do have JSTOR access, I urge you to look at this special issue on “Bridging Indigenous and Socialist Perspectives” that includes a piece by Hugo Blanco as well. In the section on “Cleansing and Renewing”, you can find an article by David Bedford and Thomas Cheney on “Labor, Nature, and Spirituality”. I am not familiar with Cheney but I regard David Bedford as one of the sharpest scholars in the field of Marxism and indigenous society. You can read his Marxism and the Aboriginal Question: The Tragedy of Progress on the North Star website for free.

I will be including an excerpt from my article below but want to preface it with some background on how I came to write it.

In November 2007, after seeing the Coen brothers’ “No Country for Old Men”, I was left deeply unsatisfied by the movie’s ending. When I learned that it followed the plot of Cormac McCarthy’s novel, I decided to look further into his work, especially “Blood Meridian”, a work that some of his boosters in the academy compare to Melville. I wrote:

If I had more time on my hands, I might take a look at McCarthy’s novels to try to extract out the rotten core and examine it under a strong light, especially the 1985 “Blood Meridian” that is described on the official website of the Cormac McCarthy Society as a dismantling of “the politically correct myth of aboriginal victimization, so that victims and their antagonists become indistinguishable.” The write-up continues:

In one celebrated scene, a column of mercenaries the kid has joined encounters a Comanche war party herding stolen horses and cattle across the desert. The kid barely escapes as the Indians, still vividly dressed like eldritch clowns in the garments they have stripped from their last white victims, annihilate his companions.

Just what the world was waiting for, a Faulkneresque novel that depicts American Indians as wanton killers.

In early 2008 I got around to reading “Blood Meridian”. The best way to describe it was a marriage between McCarthy’s patented overwriting style and a portrayal of the Comanches that is a mixture of George Romero and early 50s cowboys and Indians cliché. You almost expect the Comanches to come lurching across the plains with their arms outstretched hungering for human flesh.

Then, a year after I read McCarthy, Pekka Hämäläinen’s “Comanche Empire” came out. As the title implied, the author argued that in the decades before the Mexican-American war of 1847, the Comanches ruled over what amounted to as a pre-state empire. Not only did whites live in fear, so did other Indian tribes including the Apaches who were driven out of Texas into the lands now coincident with the state of New Mexico.

So what was the truth about the Comanches? Were they part of the “myth of aboriginal victimization” or were they victimizers? I felt the need to get to the bottom of things.

I was moving closer to writing something but I needed a bit of a kick in the ass, something I received from Salvatore Engel-Di Mauro, the new editor of CNS who took over from Joel Kovel. Salvatore had sent me email early this year inviting me to write an article for the issue that finally came out. I told him that I was reluctant to write for any academic journal, particularly CNS since James O’Connor had decided not to publish an article that he too had invited me to write. My wife has to put up with refereed journals but as a public intellectual I enjoy the freedom to say what I want when I want.

Fortunately, Salvatore broke down my resistances and I spent a good three months writing a 7000 word article that in my not so humble opinion is one of the best things I have ever written on indigenous issues. I invite you to track it down on JSTOR as soon as it is available. Here’s how it starts:

The Political Economy of Comanche Violence

Louis Proyect

Despite Karl Marx and Frederick Engels’s affinity for Lewis Henry Morgan’s pro- indigenous studies, Marxism has had a troubled relationship to native peoples. As hunters and gatherers were they destined to be superseded, a tragic but ineluctable function of their economic backwardness? Despite Engels’ admiration for the Iroquois, he deemed them doomed because of “an extremely undeveloped state of production and therefore an extremely sparse population over a wide area” (Engels 1902, 119). Similarly, José Carlos Mariátegui’s later related attempts to reconcile Incan institutions with socialism are widely admired (Mariátegui 2011), but evidence of a lasting impact on revolutionary theory or organizing in Latin America is mixed. In the current context, despite Evo Morales’s commitment to indigenous rights, there have also been clashes between the revolutionary left and the Awa, the Maya, the Miskitos and other Indian nations in years past.

Meanwhile in North America the record is worse. The Maoist Revolutionary Communist Party submitted a paper to a conference organized by the American Indian Movement at the Pine Ridge Reservation in 1980 in which Russell Means was charged with adopting a “noble savage” stance geared to the “insipid fantasies” of the bourgeoisie (Churchill 1983, 39). They probably spoke for most of the left, which despite its sympathies for AIM’s struggles tended to view factories, cattle ranches and wheat farms as progressive in comparison to the Indian’s “extremely undeveloped state of production.” For example, in “America’s Revolutionary Heritage”, the Trotskyist philosopher George Novack wrote that the bourgeois revolution had to “rid American society of its precapitalist encumbrances (Indian tribalism, feudalism, slavery)” (Novak, 1976, 250). It probably never occurred to Novack that the Lakota resistance to General Custer was worthy of support, just as was in turn Custer’s to the rebel army. Cruder readings of the work of Engels (1902), based on the schema of social development proceeding through discrete linear stages like a larva being transformed into a butterfly, continue to haunt the movement. It probably never entered Novack’s mind that Trotsky’s theory of combined and uneven development could be applied to the United States with slavery and capitalism coexisting organically until the contradictions that heightened in the 1850s made that impossible. While Eric Williams (1994) drove home that point, it is safe to say that there is no counterpart to his study that pays attention to the role of the Indian in the earliest stages of American capitalism. Without indigenous peoples’ participation in the fur trade, the merchant capital of a Hudson Bay Company might not have led to the industrial capital of the 19th century.

Comanche Imperialism?

And perhaps even more importantly, the role of the American Indian in procuring horses for agriculture and commerce has never been fully understood until the publication of Pekka Hämäläinen’s Comanche Empire in 2008. The portrait of the Comanche that emerges in this study is no noble savage. If anything, it echoes sociobiology’s claim that the Indian was just another player in a Hobbesian drama pitting one vicious tribe against another, including the greater Anglo-Saxon tribe that ruled America.

If Hämäläinen errs on the side of perpetuating the myth of an “ignoble savage”, then at least he is more scrupulous than most scholarship or than the more egregious demonizing attempts by such novelists as Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian (1985). Acclaimed in the May 21, 2006 New York Times as one of the most important novels of the past 25 years, Blood Meridian was the product of the author’s extensive research into Texas history of the pre-Civil War period, when the Comanche Indians were still a force to be reckoned with. When the Comanche make their initial appearance, the effect is ghastly:

Already you could see through the dust on the ponies’ hides the painted chevrons and the hands and rising suns and birds and fish of every device like the shade of old work through sizing on a canvas and now too you could hear above the pounding of the unshod hooves the piping of the quena, flutes made from human bones … a company of mounted clowns, death hilarious, all howling in a barbarous tongue and riding down upon them like a horde from a hell more horrible yet than the brim-stone land of christian reckoning, screeching and yammering and clothed in smoke like those vaporous beings in regions beyond right knowing where the eye wanders and the lip jerks and drools. (McCarthy, 2008, 52)

This is a reference to the August 6, 1840 Linville Raid when 600 Comanche killed and kidnapped many settlers, including Daniel Boone’s granddaughter. What struck McCarthy’s literary fancy was the raiding party’s looting of the town’s general store, resulting in a sinister costume party: “one in a stovepipe hat and one with an umbrella and one in white stockings and a bloodstained wedding veil” (McCarthy, 1985, 52).

While McCarthy’s account of the raid is accurate if overwrought stylistically, it leaves out an important element. This was not an unprovoked attack but vengeance for the killing of 12 of the top Comanche leaders at a peace negotiations meeting in the San Antonio Council House on March 19th of that year. The Indians sought agreement on the boundaries of their territory—the Comancheria—and the Texans the return of some captives. When the Texans learned that only one captive was being returned at the meeting, they told the chiefs that they would be held hostage until the rest were returned. A pitched battle ensued leaving all the chiefs dead as well as a number of warriors, three of their wives, and two children.

As is so often the case with long-standing clashes, it is difficult to establish the initial casus belli. Yet it is far more important to understand the underlying social and economic contradictions that made armed conflict inevitable. Unfortunately, there has been a tendency in Comanche-related scholarship to practically reduce them to having warfare in their genes, thus rendering historical context superfluous. According to Barcley Owens (2000), the primary resource for Blood Meridian was T. R. Fehrenbach’s Comanches: the Destruction of a People. Despite the ostensibly pro-indigenous title, the study inspired the novel’s Walpurgisnacht scene. The chapter titled “The Blood Trail” begins with an epigraph by the famous anthropologist Alfred L. Kroeber: “War was a state of mind among the Indians, and therefore never terminated.” This connects to Fehrenbach’s observation: “The first drive of the Amerindians was a biological imperative, the hunt for food in the struggle to survive. Their one great social imperative, however, was war.” He adds, “…it is reasonably certain that warfare and killing between men is as old as the symbolic story of Cain and Abel, and that the Amerindian war ethic, like the scalp pole, came with the race from the Old War.”

12 Comments »

  1. I will look up your article.

    I have been working on analyzing the Comanche Empire in normal political-historical-geographical terms — state formation, control of trade routes, monopoly of violence, etc.

    In this view, the Comanche Empire (which actually governed an area claimed but not controlled by Spain / Mexico, Britain / the US / the Confederacy, and briefly France) is quite comparable to various border empires violently established at the edge of the sedentary world: the XiXia in preMongol China, the Hungarians when they first reached Hungary, etc. Under 19th c. circumstances they could not develop into a real state, but in earlier centuries they might well have, and while the valor of their founders would have been remembers, the bloody details would have been soft-pedaled.

    The Comanches seem to have controlled trade in much of the area between Pembina (now in ND), St. Louis, New Orleans, and Mexico City, with an indefinite extension to the NW. Per Hämäläinen, they were the first Native Americans to master horsemanship and were the main horsebreeders in the West, and remained widely influential all through the West.

    Under this analysis the “savage” motif disappears, or becomes a stage on the way to the monopoly of violence.

    Comment by John Emerson — August 29, 2013 @ 7:52 pm

  2. Fascinating work indeed John.

    Can you please post a few links detailing more of your analysis?

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — September 1, 2013 @ 1:48 am

  3. I have recently read your piece on the readings of the Comanche and I found it extremely interesting and valuable. It helps cut through much of the constructions of First Nation tradtional life and the way these understandings fit with contemporary political stances. I also appreciate your voice on the Northstar website where you add an astute sense to the on-going dialogue.

    Comment by david bedford — September 11, 2013 @ 2:36 pm

  4. […] Louis Proyect, “The Political Economy of Comanche Violence”, http://louisproyect.org/2013/08/29/the-political-economy-of-comanche-violence/ […]

    Pingback by Empire of the Comanche » CounterPunch: Tells the Facts, Names the Names — December 6, 2013 @ 9:27 am

  5. […] Louis Proyect, “The Political Economy of Comanche Violence”, http://louisproyect.org/2013/08/29/the-political-economy-of-comanche-violence/ […]

    Pingback by RINF Alternative News & Alternative Media Breaking Real News Empire of the Comanche — December 6, 2013 @ 4:45 pm

  6. […] BIBLIOGRAPHY Gwynn, S.C., Empire of the Summer Moon, Scribner, 2010. Pekka Hämäläinen, The Comanche Empire, Yale, 2008. Victoria Tin-bor Hui, War and State Formation in Early Modern Europe, Cambridge, 2005. Sechin Jagchid, Peace, War, and Trade along the Great Wall, Indiana, 1989. Frederick Lane, Venice and History, Johns Hopkins, 1966. Louis Proyect, “The Political Economy of Comanche Violence”, http://louisproyect.org/2013/08/29/the-political-economy-of-comanche-violence/ […]

    Pingback by Empire of the Comanche | Indigenous People — December 8, 2013 @ 4:02 am

  7. […] BIBLIOGRAPHY Gwynn, S.C., Empire of the Summer Moon, Scribner, 2010. Pekka Hämäläinen, The Comanche Empire, Yale, 2008. Victoria Tin-bor Hui, War and State Formation in Early Modern Europe, Cambridge, 2005. Sechin Jagchid, Peace, War, and Trade along the Great Wall, Indiana, 1989. Frederick Lane, Venice and History, Johns Hopkins, 1966. Louis Proyect, “The Political Economy of Comanche Violence”, http://louisproyect.org/2013/08/29/the-political-economy-of-comanche-violence/ […]

    Pingback by Empire of the Comanche | Quotables — December 8, 2013 @ 4:04 am

  8. […] BIBLIOGRAPHY Gwynn, S.C., Empire of the Summer Moon, Scribner, 2010. Pekka Hämäläinen, The Comanche Empire, Yale, 2008. Victoria Tin-bor Hui, War and State Formation in Early Modern Europe, Cambridge, 2005. Sechin Jagchid, Peace, War, and Trade along the Great Wall, Indiana, 1989. Frederick Lane, Venice and History, Johns Hopkins, 1966. Louis Proyect, “The Political Economy of Comanche Violence”, http://louisproyect.org/2013/08/29/the-political-economy-of-comanche-violence/ […]

    Pingback by Empire of the Comanche | History and Prehistory Stories — December 8, 2013 @ 4:18 am

  9. CNS available via JSTOR? Doesn’t seem to be the case.

    Comment by Louis Head — February 28, 2014 @ 6:35 pm

  10. Apparently not. I am surprised to have discovered that.

    Comment by louisproyect — February 28, 2014 @ 6:43 pm

  11. Any way to get a copy of your piece? Would be very interested in checking it out as I am now reading Blackhawk, Hamalainen and others.

    Comment by Louis Head — March 7, 2014 @ 2:23 am


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