Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 12, 2005

Genocide and intentionality

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 9:09 pm

Posted to www.marxmail.org on February 12, 2005

Apparently there’s a professor named Ralph Luker who is kind of upset because I have not given the proper respect to Henry Farrell and Timothy Burke at the Crooked Timber and Cliopatria blogs. These are group blogs run by left-leaning academics, with at least one non-academic on Crooked Timber.

Luker himself is the author of “The Social Gospel in Black and White: American Racial Reform, 1885-1912,” which is ranked #694,883 at amazon.com. I am not sure whether he reaches a bigger audience through book sales or though visits to the Cliopatria blog, but we are not talking public intellectual in the Edmund Wilson or Manning Marable sense.

In any case, I wasn’t aware that Luker was aware of my existence until I noticed a bunch of referrals to my blog from the Cliopatria website. Usually the referrals are from Ken McLeod or Lenin’s Tomb, so I was curious to see why people would be going to Unrepentant Marxist via Cliopatria. It’s not as disconcerting as the referrals I get from http://www.navy.mil, etc., but I had to wonder what was up.

After strolling over to Cliopatria, I discovered that Luker was raking me over the coals, which I really don’t mind. I rake people like him over the coals nearly every day, but at least I have the common courtesy to cc them when I do.

Luker wrote this:

But there are Lefty trolls, too, of course. David Salmanson and I ran into one – Louis Proyect – at Crooked Timber the other day. Proyect is an obscure former Troskyite, a computer technician at Columbia University, and the manager of a Marxist listserv. When Henry Farrell criticized Tim Burke’s critique of Ward Churchill’s work and cited Burke’s response to that criticism and Thomas Brown’s essay criticizing Churchill’s claims about the Mandan Indians and the smallpox epidemic of 1837, Proyect trolled. Farrell and Burke were “mediocrities” and Farrell a “useful idiot.”

full: http://hnn.us/blogs/2.html

Luker feels that he and his co-thinkers are vindicated because I became persuaded that Ward Churchill had failed to back up his charge that smallpox blankets were used as biological weapons against the Mandan Indian in 1837. He is not happy, however, that I was far more disturbed by a kind of holocaust denial that is implicit in Thomas Brown’s attack rather than Churchill’s faulty scholarship.

He writes:

What interests me about the way Churchill, Malkin, and some of Churchill’s apologists use history is that if you can find a precedent for an action in the past (Malkin’s Japanese internment; Churchill on Lord Amherst’s use of smallpox) it becomes, on the one hand, a convenient excuse for similar action in the present; or, on the other hand, justification for blatant distortion of history because we know that there was holocaust intent anyway. Proyect makes his support of Churchill’s holocaust argument quite explicit here. If you doubt it, you are a “holocaust denier” and, yet, Proyect is finally persuaded that, in this case, the evidence denies it. Think about it. If past precedent justifies present action or blatant distortion of the historical record, we can repeat the 19th and 20th century’s horrors; and we have, indeed, bought the post-modern notion that all the world’s merely a text, to be construed as we will.

Trying to decipher such clumsy prose is a daunting task.

To start with, the opening sentence is typical overloaded academic prose that one scratches one’s head to make sense of: “What interests me about the way Churchill, Malkin, and some of Churchill’s apologists use history is that if you can find a precedent for an action in the past (Malkin’s Japanese internment; Churchill on Lord Amherst’s use of smallpox) it becomes, on the one hand, a convenient excuse for similar action in the present; or, on the other hand, justification for blatant distortion of history because we know that there was holocaust intent anyway.”

Whenever you see a 74 word sentence that tries to make a number of divergent points, you can only conclude that the author is struggling to make a point but lacks the command of the English language to accomplish. Or, you can also conclude that the author’s ideas are just half-baked. Finally, it may be the case that the author wants to conceal his true meaning. Luker seems guilty on all counts, but I would not recommend a jail sentence. I am really quite liberal on the topic of free speech.

For Luker, the criterion of intent is critical to people like Ward Churchill and me. But I specifically said that I come at the question differently from both Brown and Churchill, who both believe that intentionality is key. For me, it is not so important. As a Marxist, the question of what is in the mind of a particular colonist is not so important. I am far more interested in the objective, structural effect of certain virulent strains of colonialism than I am in what is in the mind of the colonizer.

For example, Gerald Colby and Charlotte Dennet’s “Thy Will Be Done: the Conquest of the Amazon: Nelson Rockefeller and Evangelism in the Age of Oil” makes clear that the genocidal attack on indigenous peoples who stood in the way of oil exploitation was based at least partially on liberal ideology. The Standard Oil family was liberal, but they made common cause with Wycliff missionaries. In other words, you had the same lethal combination of the dollar and the bible that was visited on people like the Mandan.

Now it doesn’t really matter what was in the mind of Rockefeller or the Wycliff missionaries. When you systematically destroy the means of reproduction of an entire people in the pursuit of profit, it is no excuse that you meant them no harm. Capitalism’s course among hunting and gathering peoples has been genocidal worldwide. In distinction to primitive accumulation among more advanced peoples (speaking strictly in terms of the means of production) like the Chinese or the Indians, the effect on the North American Indian, the South Pacific islanders, the native Australian, etc. has been genocidal. Among anthropologists on the left like the late Stanley Diamond, this is not controversial.

Among people who appear to have a commitment to denying that there was a genocide against American Indians, it is controversial. To repeat myself, I feel that 90 percent of the hatred directed toward Churchill is a function of this rather than a failure to adequately document events that took place in the Dakotas 168 years ago.

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