Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 10, 2006

Marxism and primitive communism

Filed under: Ecology,indigenous — louisproyect @ 2:03 pm

I want to thank Scott Hamilton for calling my attention to a Jack Contrad article that appeared in the Weekly Worker. Titled “No Future in the Past,” it presents an argument that basically recapitulates what Frank Furedi’s RCP used to argue while it was still a nominally Marxist organization, namely that “primitive communism” was just as evil in its own way as capitalism, particularly with respect to the environment.

I have run into various expressions of this idea over the years both within and without Marxism. The most notable recent example is Shephard Krech’s “The Ecological Indian” that holds North American Indians responsible for hunting the wooly mammoth to extinction, etc. The bourgeois media embraced Krech’s findings eagerly since it was ammunition against land claims by native peoples in Canada and the USA. Any scholarly findings that could be used to make an amalgam between the conquered and the conqueror would help to undercut sympathy for indigenous peoples, as this review of Krech’s book from the January 23, 2000 Toronto Sun would indicate:

“What political relevance in Canada is there in jettisoning the myth of the ecological Indian?

“First, it means Canadian Indians should not be accorded the superior sanction of high-minded environmentalism in negotiations of land settlements and their claims to the right to take game and fish where and when they choose. It should also mean much more balance in responding to native demands and needs simply because discussion of them no longer should be burdened with the guilt piled on the whites for devastating a noble people whose societies once lived – and might do so again – in perfect harmony with nature. Indians are neither more noble nor ignoble than other people – in their blood, or in their history.”

Conrad’s efforts are directed toward “Krechizing” the Australian aboriginals who come across as precursors to the modern-day Republican party:

“In this continent of ghosts the aborigines cleverly learnt to survive by keeping what remained as it was. Hence their extreme conservatism. Aborigines religiously copied the ways of their ancestors. Consequently there was little by way of technological innovation. In fact the aborigines discarded and forgot about the bow and arrow and replaced it with the boomerang and the spear. But to all intents and purposes that was about it. Life was circular and repetitive, not innovative and linear. An impoverished but stable situation encountered by 19th century British migrants.”

Of course, this obsession with innovation is the hallmark of Living Marxism and Spiked Online that followed in its sorry trail. My interest in indigenous peoples was actually initially sparked by a Living Marxism article that said that capitalist encroachment into Yanomami territory in the Amazon rainforest would be a good thing since it would make labor-saving devices like shotguns and electrical generators available to them. The article did not dwell on the other benefits such as venereal disease and water pollution.

My take on this line of reasoning is that it unconsciously replicates the social Darwinist impulse that was prevalent in 19th century Marxism. In an article titled “David Harvey and the American Indian“, I deal with these questions in some depth. All I can say is that if you are going to make concessions to social Darwinism, you might as well do it the way that Harvey does with his customary elegance of thought, no matter how mistaken.

Paul Lafargue, Marx’s son-in-law, wrote two books that he intended to be situate in the Origins tradition, but erred on the social Darwinist side. For example, Lafargue argues that women occupied superior places in primitive society and supplies totally fallacious evidence about the relative brain sizes of men and women. Of greater significance is Karl Kautsky, whom the socialist movement regarded as the outstanding Marxist of the age, and intellectual and political heir to Engels. According to Bloch, Kautsky was an enthusiastic follower of Darwin and Spencer before he ever came across Marx. In 1881, Kautsky wrote an article for Die Neue Zeit titled “The Indian Question.” The reason the Europeans defeated the Indians, he explains, is that they had not gone far enough in the development of technology. In other words, they lacked Darwinian fitness, or quite possibly they lost the “competition and . . . struggle for existence,” in Harvey‘s words.

Plekhanov’s Fundamental Problems of Marxism also exhibits much of the same mechanistic concept of historical change. In the chapter “Productive Forces and Geography,” Plekhanov makes the case that the Indians of North America remained at a low stage of development because they lacked domesticated animals (Plekhanov 1975: 48-51). He also claims that the Masai killed all their captives because they had no “technical possibility” of making use of slave labor. Bloch points out that the crude economic determinism of this work was intended to strengthen the polemical stance of the revolutionary Marxist current in Russia. Plekhanov and Lenin were in conflict with a variety of reformism that believed that consciousness was independent of material conditions. What is lost in this undialectical approach is the reality of precapitalist society, which did not really fit into this schema.


  1. Native American culture, in my opinion, expressed pure communism perfectly. All supported the tribe and in return the tribe provided food, shelter and security. Those who violated this sacred trust were banished into the wilderness to fend for themselves. No need for prisons or the death penalty. When the tribe suffered drought or famine, the chief suffered with them as well. In my opinion, after “peak oil” has come and passed we will once again return to the Native American way of life…to pure communism. It’s the only way.

    Forward to Revolution,

    Comrade Doug

    Comment by Doug — September 11, 2006 @ 2:53 am

  2. Another article/book well worth a read is the “Tragedy of Progress” Bedford.(google)
    Native Americans have been long relegated to the sidelines,within the “left”.I believe aboriginal culture has much to teach,while also providing an example of how a communist/socialist society might look.Of course one must see all this in light of the present reality.
    I see marxism and aboriginal cultures as natural allies.
    In North and South America some kind of alliance between the two will be of vital importance if ever the revolution to a more human world is to suceed.
    The Zapatista movement and event’s in Boliva seem to verify this idea.
    One can go back to the relation between the Sandinista’s and the Miskto Indians,as an example of,the why and the importance of this alliance.

    Comment by dirk buchholz — September 11, 2006 @ 5:33 am

  3. Dirk, I actually reviewed Bedford’s book last year:


    I was somewhat put off by the fact that he did not respond to my review. Perhaps the fact that it was only 90 percent positive rather than 100 percent bothered him. Oh well.

    Comment by Louis Proyect — September 11, 2006 @ 1:14 pm

  4. I hope you are not implying that I was put out by your review. I found it positive and insightful and I was flattered that you took the time to read the book (not many have!!) and to respond to it. Being committed to revolutionary Marxism and being critical of some of the main currents in its thought does not leave you with lots of friends. I cannot affors to put off the few who are sympathetic.

    Comment by david bedford — February 19, 2007 @ 3:15 am

  5. […] egalitarian societies may have appeared tens of thousands of years before the French Revolution, Marx, and […]

    Pingback by Dear Kitty. Some blog :: Egalitarianism in human prehistory :: October :: 2008 — October 7, 2008 @ 4:06 pm

  6. I fully support a resource based economy as advocated by Jacque Fresco. Some would say it’s the Star Trek equivalent of what the Native Americans had. Sounds great to me!

    Comment by Sebastian — September 25, 2009 @ 9:34 pm

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