Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 6, 2019

Is Tucker Carlson becoming woke?

Filed under: National Bolshevism,Red-Brown alliance — louisproyect @ 5:53 pm

On May 1, Grayzone reporter Anya Parampil appeared on Tucker Carlson’s show to denounce American intervention in Venezuela. Since Fox News is widely considered to have the same relationship to the Trump regime that RT.com has to the Kremlin, this appeared to be an astonishing anomaly.

Earlier in the same show, he sounded like he could have become an honorary member of Grayzone himself: “We’ve heard it before. But before the bombers take off, let’s just answer a few quick questions starting with the most obvious, when was the last time we successfully meddled in the political life of another country? Has it ever worked? How are the democracies we set up in Iraq, in Libya, in Syria, and Afghanistan tonight? How would Venezuela be different? Please explain and take your time.”

Another example of Carlson’s leftist tilt is this commentary on student debt:

A search for “Tucker Carlson” and “capitalism” on Nexis-Uni turns up 294 articles. On November 15, 2018, he interviewed Eric Schiffer, the CEO of the private equity Patriarch Group and a typical rightwing entrepreneur, about Amazon’s backing out of a deal to build a HQ in New York.

Carlson told Schiffer he had big problems with tax breaks for Amazon:

Why is New York, which is crumbling, I’m there a lot, you may be there now, the city’s falling apart. It smells. The subways break. It’s disgusting. Why would the city be spending $3 billion to the richest man in the world?

Why wouldn’t that money go to, I don’t know, fixing the subways, just throwing out there, cleaning up the streets or plowing the snow or helping the people who already live there? I’m just confused.

I am not the only person who has taken note of Carlson’s lurch to the left. Blogger Captain Kudzu, who describes himself as a “common-sense conservative” posted What Do Tucker Carlson, Elizabeth Warren and Alexandra Ocasio Cortez Have In Common? on January 29th:

Elizabeth Warren and Alexandra Ocasio Cortez have made the news recently with their attacks on billionaires and capitalism. As proof that politics makes strange bedfellows, however, Tucker Carlson, the conservative, Trump-supporting Fox News commentator is sounding more and more like the two Democratic congresswomen.

To make the point, look at the three quotes below and try to determine which came from Carlson and which came from Warren and Ocasio Cortez:

“I’m definitely against a system where really the only success stories are like 27 billionaires who hate America, which is where we are now.”

“Our leaders don’t care. We are ruled by mercenaries who feel no long-term obligation to the people they rule.”

Uber is “not a sustainable business model. The only reason it continues is because of your generosity. Because you’re paying the welfare benefits for Uber’s impoverished drivers.”

If you suspected that this was a trick, you’re right. All three quotes are from Tucker Carlson. The first was from the 2018 Student Action Summit, the second from Carlson’s January 3, 2019 monologue in response to a Mitt Romney op-ed, and the third from an August 30, 2018 segment on his Fox News show. Without context, the lines could just as easily have come from Alexandra Ocasio Cortez or Elizabeth Warren, however.

In an attempt once again to build bridges to the left, Carlson invited Dutch economist Rutger Bregman to talk about his challenge to the billionaires gathered at the World Economic Forum. Fully expecting Bregman to allow himself to be stroked on the neck like the Grayzone guests, he was mortified to discover that his guest viewed him as a total hypocrite:

It is pretty obvious that Carlson is staking out a position close to that held by others advocating a Red-Brown alliance. One of the more striking commentaries on his left turn appeared on UNZ.com, a website that features both Patrick Cockburn articles (against the permission of the newspaper he writes for) and those of open neo-Nazis. Titled “Tucker Carlson Takes On Venezuela Intervention” and written by Brad Griffin, it has a graphic that affirms Carlson’s wokeness:

Griffin writes:

Venezuela illustrates why a 3.0 movement is necessary.

The funny thing is, the Alt-Right or the 2.0 movement is united to a man on opposing the Trump administration’s military interventions in Syria, Iran and Venezuela, but has failed at articulating its own ardent opposition to imperialism and its commitment to humanity and international peace. No one in American politics is more opposed to destructive regime change wars.

The Trump administration’s interventions in Syria and Venezuela are victimizing mainly poor brown people in Third World countries. And yet, the Alt-Right or the 2.0 movement is extremely animated and stirred up in a rage at the neocons who are currently running Blompf’s foreign policy. Similarly, it has cheered on the peace talks between North Korea and South Korea.

Isn’t it the supreme irony that the “racists” in American politics are the real humanitarians while the so-called “humanitarians” like Sen. Marco Rubio and Bill Kristol are less adverse to bloodshed and destructive wars in which hundreds of thousands of people die than the “racists”?

So, who is this Brad Griffin anyhow? He blogs at Occidental Dissent that describes itself in favor of “Peace, Populism, Progress, and Prosperity”. In addition to articles like Tulsi Gabbard Slams Regime Change in Venezuela, you’ll find Griffin commenting on another contributor’s article: “Personally, I want to create a Jew-free, White ethnostate in North America. That’s why I call myself a White Nationalist.”

Griffin offers a hat tip to Daily Stormer at the top of his article. I won’t provide a link for fear that it will get me banned from FB but can tell you that the Daily Stormer’s article is titled “Venezuela is What’s Going to Get Tucker Fired” and concludes “When the US invades, they can’t have him [Carlson] on there speaking out against it. Especially not when they’ve done such a great job since the Iraq War of cleansing any and all media of anyone who questions the foreign policy agenda from the left.” The article was written by Andrew Anglin, who is probably the best-known neo-Nazi in the USA along with Richard Spencer.

So what is going on here?

To get straight to the point, you are dealing with a revival of National Bolshevism. In Weimar Germany, there was a section of the Communist Party that sought to build ties with the nationalist right before it became clear that the Nazi Party was not interested in such an alliance.

The German party was then thrown into a new crisis over the Treaty of Rapallo, a peace agreement between Germany and the Soviet Union concluded at the end of April in 1922. This treaty raised the same sort of contradictions as the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact of 1939. How could Communists call for the overthrow of a regime that the Russian party had just pledged to maintain peaceful relations with? Stalin resolved this contradiction in a straightforward manner. He declared that anti-fascist agitation should immediate stop. The Communist Parties of 1922 had not become degenerated and still tried to maintain a revolutionary outlook, no matter the difficulties.

Karl Radek interpreted the Treaty of Rapallo as a go-ahead to support the German bourgeoisie against the dominant European capitalisms, especially France. Germany was forced to sign a punitive reparations agreement after WWI and was not able to satisfy the Entente powers. France then marched into the Ruhr in order to seize control of the mines and steel mills. The German capitalist class screamed bloody murder and proto-fascist armed detachments marched into the Ruhr to confront the French troops.

Radek interpreted these German right-wing counter-measures as a sign of progressive nationalism and argued that a bloc of all classes was necessary to confront Anglo-French imperialism. At the height of the anti-French armed struggle in the Ruhr, the German Communist Party took Radek’s cue and began to issue feelers to the right-wing nationalists.

On June 20, 1922 Radek went completely overboard and made a speech proposing a de facto alliance between the Communists and the Fascists. This, needless to say, was in his capacity as official Comintern representative to the German party. It was at a time when Trotsky was still in good graces in the Soviet Union. Nobody seemed to raise an eyebrow when Radek urged that the Communists commemorate the death of Albert Schlageter, a freecorps figher who died in the Ruhr and was regarded as a martyr of the right-wing, a German Timothy McVeigh so to speak. Radek’s stated that “…we believe that the great majority of nationalist minded masses belong not to the camp of the capitalists but to the camp of the Workers.”

Radek’s lunacy struck a chord with the German Communist ultraleftists who went even further in their enthusiasm for the right-wing fighters. Ruth Fischer gave a speech at a gathering of right-wing students where she echoed fascist themes:

Whoever cries out against Jewish capital…is already a fighter for his class, even though he may not know it. You are against the stock market jobbers. Fine. Trample the Jewish capitalists down, hang them from the lampposts…But…how do you feel about the big capitalists, the Stinnes, Klockner?…Only in alliance with Russia, Gentlemen of the “folkish” side, can the German people expel French capitalism from the Ruhr region.

I don’t think that there is any imminent danger of a fascist takeover in the USA but in the event of a stock market crash like 2007, a major terrorist attack on the scale of 9/11, and finally a rapid growth and radicalization of the DSA that leads to it reaching 200,000 members or so and breaking from the Democratic Party (the most unlikely event of all three), all bets are off.


May 3, 2019

Decade of Fire

Filed under: housing,New York,Puerto Rico — louisproyect @ 4:35 pm

Opening today at the Metrograph theater in New York, the documentary “Decade of Fire” tells both the personal story of Vivian Vázquez Irizarry, who grew up in the South Bronx, and the South Bronx itself, which in the 1960s became a virtual synonym for urban decay. The fire in the title refers to the vast number that took place over a decade, reducing the housing stock of a once vibrant, working-class area. This is not just the story of the South Bronx. It is also about the malign neglect that befell many neighborhoods outside the privileged Manhattan island that was the site of Woody Allen movies, including a film of that title, which was so indifferent to the lives of others.

Irizarry produced, directed and served as narrator for “Decade of Fire”. Like many other people in the South Bronx, her grandparents came to the USA from Puerto Rico because of jobs disappearing as a result of Operation Bootstrap, a version of primitive accumulation that was intended to build up the island’s industrial base. As was the case of mechanizing the cotton fields in the South, farmers and those not lucky enough to find a job were forced to relocate.

When I worked for the Welfare Department in Harlem in 1967, I saw the same kind of destruction. When I visited families on the side streets between 8th Avenue (now called Frederick Douglass Boulevard) and Manhattan Avenue, it seemed like at least one out of four buildings were either totally or partially destroyed by fire. But it was the South Bronx that loomed the largest as a symbol of urban ruin, with both politicians and comedians using it as shorthand for “the ghetto”.

In one of the more eye-opening scenes in the film, we see the people of South Bronx literally trying to drive the film crew of “Fort Apache, the Bronx” from their neighborhood. Like “The Warriors”, another lurid and racist film set in the Bronx that is excerpted in the documentary, it dehumanized the largely Latino and Black residents as “thugs”. Not having seen “The Warriors”, I do wonder how much it distorted the Sol Yurick novel it was based on. Sol, a deeply anti-racist and Marxist author whose class on world literature as an expression of the ruling class I took at the Brecht Forum, wrote “The Warriors” as an adaptation of “Anabasis”, the history of the Greco-Persian wars written about Xenophon. Like everything else Hollywood touches, it turned Sol’s story into trash.

Although the housing stock in the South Bronx was deteriorating by the 1960s, it was by no means uninhabitable. Essentially, the banks and the capitalist state decided not to help keep it afloat, a pattern that keeps being repeated in the USA, with the latest iteration Obama’s cozy arrangement with Wall Street that bailed out the bankers, who avoided criminal prosecution. In the case of the South Bronx, a tightly-enforced red-line policy made investments in the upkeep of the buildings there next to impossible.

Once the deterioration began to quicken, landlords decided to bail out. To get the most they could out of their abandonment, they hired locals to set fire to the buildings in exchange for a paltry payment. In every instance, they were paid for their efforts by the insurance companies. The role of the fire department in all this was key to the wholesale destruction. It failed to sustain the arson investigation unit and went along with drastic cuts in firehouses in the South Bronx, all under the watch of John O’Hagan, a racist who we see explaining the fires as the result of people being crowded into apartments and not understanding the norms of urban life. He might as well have called the people of the South Bronx apes.

One after another we see politicians like the iconic liberal Republican mayor John Lindsay to the execrable Ed Koch justifying the neglect of the South Bronx. Worst of all is Patrick Moynihan, the life-long Democrat who was Assistant to President Nixon on Domestic Policy and notorious for his theory of “benign neglect”. Watching him defend his ideas is enough to turn your stomach.

What finally began to stanch the bleeding was community activism that the director became part of. In the 1980s a series of co-operatives began to clean out the burned buildings and renovate them. These efforts were actually closely tied to the emergence of Puerto Rican nationalism that viewed the South Bronx as a kind of “liberated” territory. In the decades that followed, money began to be funneled into the area but often as part of a gentrification project that is ongoing. Community activists have insisted on the right of residents to determine the future of housing in the South Bronx, not banks or real estate developers.

Angels and Demons

Filed under: art,Counterpunch,literature — louisproyect @ 3:15 pm


Newly released by Zero Books, Tony McKenna’s aptly titled “Angels and Demons” is a collection of profiles of some very good and some very bad people in the past and present. It is the kind of book that is hard to find nowadays and a throwback in some ways to Lytton Strachey’s “Eminent Victorians” or Edmund Wilson’s “Axel’s Castle”. Like Strachey and Wilson, he evaluates prominent individuals against their social backdrop and from a decidedly radical perspective. It is a book that has the author’s customary psychological insight and literary grace. As we shall see, it demonstrates a remarkable breadth of knowledge about disparate cultural, political and intellectual strands that is seldom seen today in an age of specialization.

Your natural tendency is to think of human nature when people are categorized as either angels like Jeremy Corbyn or demons like Donald Trump. However, it is instead powerful historical forces that act on individuals and bring out their worst and their best, especially during periods of acute class tensions. In today’s polarized world, it is easy to understand why we end up with either a Corbyn or a Trump. As William Butler Yeats put it, the center cannot hold.

Continue reading

May 1, 2019

Ecosocialist debates

Filed under: Ecology — louisproyect @ 11:25 pm

Edward Hicks, A Peaceable Kingdom

This is a report on debates within ecosocialism about the feasibility of a Green New Deal and other growth oriented perspectives that I obviously can’t pretend to be neutral about. As should be obvious from the articles I cite, there is a growing polarity between those who advocate policies identified with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the DSA and those who are far more pessimistic about the possibility of resolving the environmental crisis even within the context of a “democratic socialist” framework.


Recently Commune Magazine published an article titled “Between the Devil and the Green New Deal” by its managing editor Jasper Bernes that begins by identifying the “rare metals” that would be essential to the manufacturing of “alternative energy” generators that are critical to the Green New Deal. A mine in Inner Mongolia, China is the primary source of such ore that has contaminating the surrounding area. Bernes refers to “death villages” surrounding the mine that display “Chernobylesque” cancer rates.

Over on FB, Leigh Phillips, the Jacobin contributor who believes that the Green New Deal should include nuclear power, took exception to Bernes’s article, claiming that it “exaggerated” the environmental costs. When I asked him for a citation to back that up, he cited an article by a couple of Chinese scientists who concluded that there was only “a moderate potential ecological risk”. However, if you read their article, it only mentions soil samples and not the lake close to the mine that is clogged with toxic waste. Furthermore, it is focused on the presence of heavy metals in the soil near the mine when the bigger problem is the by-products of refining ore that uses huge amounts of carcinogenic chemicals.

Citing Vaclav Smil, Bernes states that replacing current US energy consumption with renewables would require at least 25-50 percent of the US landmass being devoted to solar, wind, and biofuels. Considering the encroachments on land by ranchers, farmers, timber companies, home developers, et al, it appears that capitalist growth—even made kosher by renewables—will hit a brick wall before long.

At the heart of the Green New Deal, there is a Sisyphean contradiction:

The problem is that growth and emissions are, by almost every measure, profoundly correlated. The Green New Deal thus risks becoming a sort of Sisyphean reform, rolling the rock of emissions reductions up the hill each day only to have a growing, energy-hungry economy knock it back down to the bottom each night.

My only quibble with Bernes’s article is the amalgam it makes between the Green New Deal and Leon Trotsky’s transitional demands:

Many socialists will recognize that mitigation of climate change within a system of production for profit is impossible, but they think a project like the Green New Deal is what Leon Trotsky called a “transitional program,” hinged upon a “transitional demand.” Unlike the minimal demand, which capitalism can easily meet, and the maximal demand which it clearly can’t, the transitional demand is something that capitalism could potentially meet if it were a rational and humane system, but in actuality can’t.

I wish that he had named the socialists that think the GND is something like a transitional demand. I suppose he is referring to an article by the anarchist Wayne Price whose critique of the Marxist Richard Smith’s article in defense of a Green New Deal hinges on its impossibility of being realized under capitalism. Since Smith doesn’t mention Trotsky in his article, it makes Bernes’s claim questionable. Between Bernes, Wayne Price and Richard Smith, the connection to Trotsky sounds like something that might have sprung from Telephone, the children’s game. In my view, Smith is a bit of an outlier on the GND. Most of its advocates are pretty settled on it being a policy not much different than those that have largely been accomplished in Western Europe and even in China, if you believe Dean Baker.

Without using the term “de-growth”, Bernes’s conclusion certainly is consistent with what Jason Hickel and others have written. I find it to be eminently reasonable:

We cannot keep things the same and change everything. We need a revolution, a break with capital and its killing compulsions, though what that looks like in the twenty-first century is very much an open question. A revolution that had as its aim the flourishing of all human life would certainly mean immediate decarbonization, a rapid decrease in energy use for those in the industrialized global north, no more cement, very little steel, almost no air travel, walkable human settlements, passive heating and cooling, a total transformation of agriculture, and a diminishment of animal pasture by an order of magnitude at least.


Thea Riofrancos, who co-authored an article for Jacobin titled “The Green New Deal’s Five Freedoms”, responded to Bernes in a “comradely” fashion on Facebook. (Since some of my readers are not on FB, I include her entire reply at the bottom of this post.)

Riofrancos does not get into the details of rare earth mining but does mention that she has “spent the past three months in Chile researching lithium.” I, for one, am looking forward to her insights from this excursion but in the meantime still wonder whether a trip to Chile would provide any overarching answer to the problem of the environmental costs of extracting the ore.

She also is not bothered by a Rorschach-like character that some might impute to the GND:

The central ambivalence running through the essay is whether the Green New Deal is too radical to be implemented (given the exigencies of capitalist growth, capital’s capture of our political system, and the balance of class forces) or, on the contrary, it is not radical enough, a mere ornamental reform that allows pretty much all of the aforementioned to continue uninterrupted. On the one hand, the Green New Deal “leaves growth intact”; on the other hand, in order to achieve the economy-wide decarbonization it proposes, it would elicit a ruthless response of the ruling class (“you should expect the owners of that wealth to fight you with everything they have, which is more or less everything”). But is the Green New Deal win-win green growth or all-out class warfare? Is it too reformist to meet the scale of the climate catastrophe or too radical to be thinkable let alone realizable in the current conjuncture?

This is a question for Bernes to answer but I would only venture my own. The GND is akin to the projection of a Swedish-style social democracy in the USA that the DSA/Jacobin milieu advocates. It is both not radical enough and too radical to achieve in the USA. In 2017, the Guardian reported that almost 90% of new power in Europe came from renewable sources in the previous year. This is happening because these nations have operated on a social democratic basis for decades and have powerful trade union movements. However, all of them are dependent on imperialist extraction of natural resources from Africa, Asia and Latin America that make such a relatively progressive system to function. If China had imposed the same kinds of regulations on mining that are typical of Sweden, for example, the transition to alternative energy might have been too costly. We are talking about capitalism, after all.

Even if the Western European GND standards were adopted by a majority of politicians in the USA, there would be overwhelming forces opposed to their adoption by energy, transportation, petrochemical, and banking interests. In fact, the same array of reactionary forces would block the evolution of the USA into a Swedish-style social democracy. Unlike Western Europe, the USA is an imperialist hegemon that would resist all attempts at a New Deal of any sort, either Green or FDR-redux. Those are the realities we are dealing with and the naïve hopes of the DSA/Jacobin left will crash up against them on day one of a Bernie Sanders presidency. And those who hope in neo-Kautskyist fashion that this will precipitate a general strike and other revolutionary measures are just kidding themselves.


In the DSA magazine for Winter 2019, Huber’s article “Ecosocialism: Dystopian and Scientific” took aim at the “de-growth” current within the ecosocialist movement that he described as a dire threat “to scare us into action.”

Our dystopian future is seen as a product of industrial civilization. For many ecosocialists or left green thinkers, the science is so dire the only option is a wholesale rejection of industrialism This, I would argue, leads to some fanciful (even utopian) ideas of what comes next. Degrowth theorists imagine a “decentralized” future society, “where resources were managed by bio-region—a participatory, low-tech, low-consumption economy, where everyone has to do some farming…”  Richard Smith argues for a socialist program of “managed deindustrialization” without fully explaining what that would actually mean. Last year in the New Left Review, Troy Vettese argued for austerity (or what he called “egalitarian eco-austerity”): the program includes energy rationing, compulsory veganism and turning over half the planet to wild nature (a proposal he takes from reactionary sociobiologist, E.O. Wilson).

The Richard Smith mention above is, of course, the same Richard Smith that was described above as a crypto-Trotskyist. As for what he means by “managed deindustrialization”, I found his explanation fairly clear (it is too bad that Huber does not provide a link to what Smith wrote. It is something like this:

Take just one: Cruise ships are the fastest growing sector of mass tourism on the planet. But they are by far the most polluting tourist indulgence ever invented: Large ships can burn more than 150 tons of the filthiest diesel bunker fuel per day, spewing out more fumes—and far more toxic fumes—than 5 million cars, polluting entire regions, the whole of southern Europe – and all this to ferry a few thousand boozy passengers about bashing coral reefs. There is just no way this industry can be made sustainable.

Oh, don’t let me forget. Here’s the first cruise ship to be shut down after a socialist revolution:

As for Troy Vettese, his article is not behind a paywall at NLR and I urge you to read it. His take on E.O. Wilson does not provoke the same reaction in me that it does in Huber:

The principal cause of extinction is habitat loss, as underlined by the recent work of E. O. Wilson. Though notorious in the Reagan era as the genetic-determinist author of Sociobiology, Wilson is first and foremost a naturalist and conservationist. He estimates that, with a decrease of habitat, the sustainable number of species in it drops by roughly the fourth root of the habitable area. If half the habitat is lost, approximately a tenth of species will disappear, but if 85 per cent is destroyed, then half the species would be extinguished. Humanity is closely tracking this equation’s deadly curve: half of all species are expected to disappear by 2100. The only way to prevent this is to leave enough land for other living beings to flourish, which has led Wilson to call for a utopian programme of creating a ‘half Earth’, where 50 per cent of the world would be left as nature’s domain. Even though much has been lost, he argues that thirty especially rich biomes, ranging from the Brazilian cerrado to the Polish-Belarussian Białowieża Forest, could provide the core of a biodiverse, interconnected mosaic extending over half the globe. Yet, at present only 15 per cent of the world’s land-area has some measure of legal protection, while the fraction of protected areas in the oceans is even smaller—less than 4 per cent.

I happen to hate sociobiology but this has nothing to do with it. Instead, it is an urgent call to action against a looming extinction of wildlife that implicitly threatens us as well. After all, the incursion of mining and ranching companies into the Amazon rainforest will hasten climate change as well as destroy thousands of animals that are native to the region.

There’s not much else to say about Huber’s article except that it reads like Living Marxism circa 1985. He believes that nuclear power can be a part of the GND, just like Leigh Phillips who he quotes favorably: “Let’s take over the machine, not turn it off!” As if such a technocratic formula has anything to do with socialism. Worst of all, he has a poor understanding of what John Bellamy Foster has referred to as “the metabolic rift”:

Today, virtually every “input” into industrialized agriculture is one that saves labor. Tractors plow and plant and chemicals do the “work” of weeding, killing bugs, and fertilizing the soil.


Although Huber does not mention de-growth advocates Jason Hickel and Giorgios Kallis, who have written an important article titled “Is Green Growth Possible?”, Kallis took the trouble of answering him on the Uneven Earth website.

Kallis, like Bernes, has an entirely different notion of a feasible socialism than the Swedish-style socialism that has seduced so many of the Jacobin intellectuals. At the extreme pole, you have someone like Leigh Phillips writing a book about Walmart that makes the case that its mastery of information technology can help us achieve a growth-oriented socialism of the future. It is not computer control of inventory, however, that accounts for its success. It is it control, both automated and by threat of firing, that accounts for its vast economic empire.

For Kallis, the vision of a more carefree and human world is what socialists should help spread:

I live in Barcelona, and our mayor Ada Colau won the municipal elections with the support of a substantial fraction of the working class. Her program emphasized dignity and equality, not growth and material affluence. Colau wanted to stop evictions and secure decent housing for everyone, she did not have to promise air-conditions and cheap charter flights for all (I am not saying that Huber advocates these, but Leigh Phillips, a provocateur who Huber for some reason enthusiastically cites twice, does).

Third, Huber implicitly assumes that what workers want is fixed, and that desires cannot be shaped through reflection and dialogue. This leaves no space for new ideas or new desires and makes one wonder, how is it that workers come to want what they want, and how does this ever change in time? If we follow Huber’s logic then we can only cater to what exists, never shape the possible – this to me seems a quite restricted view of the political.

Let me conclude with a few words about the possible outcome of this debate in the future as economic reality will bring things to a head. In my view, there is an element of truth in Huber’s claim that workers will resist a ceiling on consumption. After all, with television ads 20 times an hour urging you to buy a car or a trip on Norwegian Cruise ship, it becomes a form of brainwashing. I suspect that a combination of ecological ruin, war, and deepening alienation of the kind that has produced an opioid crisis will eventually turn quantity into quality. Human beings are susceptible to baser temptations that an advanced capitalist economy can produce but the promise of a more peaceful life that offers leisure time and spiritual fulfillment will convince workers that giving up 5,000 square foot homes, SUV’s and meat every night of the week is worth it. A Peaceable Kingdom, so to speak.

Tia Riofrancos’s FB post:

A comradely critique of Jasper Bernes‘ “Between the Devil and the Green New Deal” in Commune Magazine.


First, let me start with where I agree with Jasper, beginning with the politically parochial and ascending to the systemic and global scales. First, “legislation,” narrowly conceived, is, on its own, insufficient as a response to the climate crisis. So is a “transition” that replaces hydrocarbons with low to zero carbon energy, without touching how much energy is used, what it is used for, and who controls the energy system. Second, the root causes of climate crisis can’t also be the solution to climate crisis. As I’ve written elsewhere, these causes are “profit-seeking, competition, endless growth, exploitation of humans and nature, and imperial expansion.” Third, and relatedly, the already occurring energy transition, unfolding under the logics of green capitalism and the enormous “clean tech” industry, reproduces and expands the extractive frontiers of capitalism. Carbon accounting that begins and ends at the electricity grid, or at the point of final consumption, is an ideological mode of profound mystification, a fetish akin to that of the commodity form. For precisely this reason, I’ve spent the past three months in Chile researching lithium.

It is from these broadly shared points of departure that our analyses of the political terrain–its contours, stakes, opportunities and limits–diverge quite sharply.

1/ Too Radical or Not Radical Enough?
The central ambivalence running through the essay is whether the Green New Deal is too radical to be implemented (given the exigencies of capitalist growth, capital’s capture of our political system, and the balance of class forces) or, on the contrary, it is not radical enough, a mere ornamental reform that allows pretty much all of the aforementioned to continue uninterrupted. On the one hand, the Green New Deal “leaves growth intact”; on the other hand, in order to achieve the economy-wide decarbonization it proposes, it would elicit a ruthless response of the ruling class (“you should expect the owners of that wealth to fight you with everything they have, which is more or less everything”). But is the Green New Deal win-win green growth or all-out class warfare? Is it too reformist to meet the scale of the climate catastrophe or too radical to be thinkable let alone realizable in the current conjuncture?

Now, one could of course argue, as I think Jasper does, that this ambivalence inheres not in his critique of the Green New Deal, but in the policy vision itself, a vision that contains something for everyone, a mirror in which both the anti-capitalist and the venture capitalist can see their own desired future reflected. Jasper seems to argue that this form-shifting quality is the unique cunning of the Green New Deal, its ability to seduce us into (cruel) optimism. But I would argue that it is precisely this indeterminacy that provides a historic opening for the left. Perhaps inadvertently, Jasper alludes to this potential: as he writes, for supporters of the Green New Deal, “its value is primarily rhetorical; it’s about shifting the discussion, gathering political will, and underscoring the urgency of the climate crisis. It’s more big mood more than grand plan.” I’ll have a bit more to say on the contrast between a “mood” and a “plan” below, but for now I want to pause and reiterate: “shifting the discussion, gathering political will, and underscoring the urgency of the climate crisis.” If, through the vehicle of the amorphous Green New Deal, left forces might achieve these three tasks, that strikes me as an exceedingly important development; not an end in and of itself, of course, but it’s unclear to me how a pathway to radical transformation wouldn’t pass through these three crucial tests of political capacity.

2/ Vagueness and Deception
In keeping with the charge of ambivalence is the charge of vagueness (“The Green New Deal proposes to decarbonize most of the economy in ten years—great, but no one is talking about how.”). This is, on the face of it, not true. From green capitalist policy wonks to agroecology enthusiasts to proponents of public banking, there is, in fact, currently an effloresce of proposals for how to decarbonize the economy. I have never had so many conversations about the architecture of our electric grids, the relative contribution of distinct sectors to overall emissions, or the dilemmas of carbon taxes as I have had in the past few months. This is not to suggest that these myriad proposals will get the job done, nor to downplay the sharp contrasts between a proposal to expropriate the fossil fuel industry and a carbon price based on a high discount rate, but rather that (1) many people are, in fact, talking about how to decarbonize and, (2) the battle over these distinct pathways will emerge as a key political, and class, conflict of our moment.

Jasper’s charge of vagueness, however, soon slides into a more serious accusation: deception. Socialists, like myself, that mobilize around the Green New Deal know full well that “the mitigation of climate change within a system of production and profit is impossible, but they think a project like the Green New Deal is what Leon Trotsky called a ‘transitional program,’ hinged upon a ‘transitional demand.’” For such socialists, Jasper argues, it is precisely the combination of technological feasibility and systemic impossibility that makes the Green New Deal a radicalizing demand: if capitalism could, but won’t, save humanity and the planet, then the masses will rise up against the true obstacle to progress. Not only is this strategy fundamentally patronizing and deceptive, as he points out, but it is self-defeating: “the transitional demand encourages you to build institutions and organizations around one set of goals” and then convert them to another. In this case, organizations designed to “[solve] climate change within capitalism” and, when that fails, are expected to “expropriate the capitalist class and reorganize the state along socialist lines.” Institutions, however, “are tremendously inertial structures” — once designed for one purpose, they can’t be transformed. This strikes me as a very odd statement. In the social sciences, “path dependency” is more or less the mantra of mainstream institutional theory. A historically-grounded, critical view of institutions sees them always as live, provisional, crystallizations or resolutions to class conflict, in need of ongoing reproduction and legitimation. They are the social arrangements through which violent domination is transmogrified into hegemony. This is a lesson the right knows very well, displayed in its maneuvers into every nook and cranny of institutional life; it would behoove the left to learn it, too.

3/ This World, But Better
It turns out, however, that advocates of the Green New Deal are not just deceptive but themselves duped. In their fever dreams of rosy futures, “The world of the Green New Deal is this world but better—this world but with zero emissions, universal health care, and free college.” For these green dreamers, reality will be a rude awakening: “The appeal is obvious but the combination impossible. We can’t remain in this world.” Nothing short of “completely reorganiz[ing] society” will do the trick.

It’s not only the green new dealers who have dreams. Jasper too conjures “an emancipated society, in which no one can force another into work for reasons of property, could offer joy, meaning, freedom, satisfaction, and even a sort of abundance.” I have to be honest, this sounded pretty familiar; it is quite close to my own radical horizon. Okay — how do we get there? For Jasper, “We need a revolution.” But seriousness swiftly returns: “a revolution is not on the horizon.” This sober appraisal accords with the overall tone of the essay. He is merely stating the facts; telling the truth instead of lying (“Let’s instead say what we know to be true”; “But let’s not lie to each other”). These exhortations figure the author as above the fray, cool, and objective and his targets as confused, deceptive, duped, and, to return to the aforementioned quote, seduced by the Big Mood of the green dream. But isn’t the “ambient despair” that Jasper describes as the inevitable affective register of his reality check a mood, too?

How the new world is born out of the old is of course the vexed question of any project of radical transformation. What kinds of programmatic demands, organizational forms, and institutional designs can be proposed, mobilized, and assembled under present conditions but that would, once set into motion, violate the sanctity of growth, property or profit? What tactics of disruption are available to us? What nascent coalitions might weave solidarities across the dispersed supply chains of the energy transition? What financial crises might be on the horizon? What fractions of capital ascendent or descendent? Where are the cracks in hegemony? We are living in a moment of profound turbulence; predicting or foreclosing the future seems less analytically rigorous than actively intervening to shape it. Ruling out the possibility by fiat is avowedly realist but functionally conservative.

April 29, 2019

Left Strategy for the 2020 Elections and Beyond: a critique

Filed under: parliamentary cretinism — louisproyect @ 6:56 pm

Bill Fletcher Jr.

Carl Davidson

Long-time supporters of an “inside-outside” approach to the electoral shell-game that veers sharply to the inside, Bill Fletcher Jr. and Carl Davidson promote a “A Left Strategy for the 2020 Elections and Beyond” that has shown up on various websites including Truthout. While generally overlapping politically with the DSA/Jacobin wing of the left that has virtual hegemony today largely because of the fawning attention it receives from the capitalist press, the two are for the Democratic Party more on the basis of “lesser evilism” than their counterparts who believe rather incredibly that a Sandernista presidency would be the first step toward a socialist revolution in the USA.

They write:

The defeat of Donald Trump and the ejection of his right-wing and white supremacist populist bloc from the centers of political power is a tactical goal of some urgency not only for Democrats but also for leftists. The outcome of the upcoming election will have a direct effect on thwarting right-wing populism and the clear and present danger of incipient fascism and war.

Ever since I began voting in 1961, I have heard something like this from the Communist Party or the social democracy. Unless we elect LBJ, Hubert Humphrey, George McGovern et al, the Republicans will take over and establish a fascist state. When Democrats are elected, however, they tend to create a backlash among voters suffering the ill-effects of neoliberalism that enables a Ronald Reagan or a Donald Trump victory. Then, the cycle begins all over again with each Republican victory ratcheting up the depravity.

Showing that they can invoke classical Marxism as effectively as Eric Blanc does with his ritual incantations of Kautsky’s pre-1910 writings, they base themselves on Gramsci’s distinction between “wars of position” and “wars of movement”. The first is understood as “mass campaigns” such as organizing the unorganized, or unionizing the South while the second means lining up votes for whoever the Democrats nominate.

Gramsci deals with these terms at length in the pages between 481 and 497 in Prison Notebooks that you can find here. Good luck in trying to apply this to the 2020 elections unless your imagination is as vivid as Fletcher and Davidson’s. For example, what in the world does this have to do with their article?

The war of position demands enormous sacrifices by infinite masses of people. So an unprecedented concentration of hegemony is necessary, and hence a more “interventionist” government, which will take the offensive more openly against the oppositionists and organise permanently the “impossibility” of internal disintegration—with controls of every kind, political, administrative, etc., reinforcement of the hegemonic “positions” of the dominant group, etc. All this indicates that we have entered a culminating phase in the political-historical situation, since in politics the “war of position”, once won, is decisive definitively. In politics, in other words, the war of manoeuvre subsists so long as it is a question of winning positions which are not decisive, so that all the resources of the State’s hegemony cannot be mobilised.

Suffice it to say that Gramsci’s articles have little to do with electoral opportunism even though Alexis Tsipras and his cohorts did their best to bend theories about “hegemony”, etc. to their will. While American capitalism is much more powerful than Greece’s, the likelihood of turning the state into a “democratic socialist” instrument is just about as precluded here. I suspect that Gramsci’s writings are being exploited as propaganda to transform the Democratic Party into something like Syriza, which is setting the political bar pretty low. Keep in mind that Davidson is a long-time leader of the Committees of Correspondence, a split from the CPUSA that sought to adapt Eurocommunism to the American landscape. You might even wonder if the Jacobin intellectuals are on the same wavelength. Two pinches of Gramsci and another two from Kautsky make for a tangy stew, just as long as you don’t put any of those bitter Leon Trotsky or V.I. Lenin spices into the pot.

Showing that they are not advocating robotic tasks like ringing doorbells for Sanders or whoever the Democrats nominate, they think big. Nothing less than targeting the heights of power in the longest, continuously-functioning bourgeois party on the planet:

Socialists shouldn’t work “within the Democratic party,” but with one of its clusters, the Congressional Progressive Caucus, especially its DSA/WFP/PDA left wing and its mass allies. The Progressive Caucus is by far the largest of the Democratic Caucuses, with numbers above 100 members (compared with the smaller New Democrats and Blue Dogs).

The goal would be to develop and expand the CPC, win over as many of the New Democrats as possible, and isolate the Blue Dogs if they can’t be budged. How could people on the left do so? By simply fighting for what people need, defined as those redistributionist and structural reforms that can unite a progressive majority of voters. Medicare for All is now a case in point, and the Green New Deal is becoming one. When connected with the base communities in the local congressional districts, the left could elect progressives until it becomes a solid majority among Democrats in the House.

I wonder what working with the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) really means. Right now, the only Senate member is Bernie Sanders. There are lots more in the House but very few of them are of the A O-C, Ilhan Omar variety. Most are run-of-the-mill Democrats like my representative Carolyn Maloney who referred to Comrade Omar as follows: “It is deeply disturbing to hear a colleague give credence to anti-Semitic tropes, especially from someone who means to stand for equality and acceptance for all peoples.” Then, there’s Pete DeFazio from Oregon who has called for massive increases in logging on public forests—not surprising given the power of the timber corporations in his home state. No matter how good a DeFazio is on questions of Medicare for all or LGBT rights, he can’t keep getting re-elected if he neglects to fill the pork barrel. In the same spirit, Bernie Sanders gave his blessing to keep the F-35s in Vermont. It was all about jobs, after all.

Even a diehard supporter of the Democratic Party like Norman Solomon could point out how unreliable an ally of the left the CPC was. In a CounterPunch article from 2013 titled “Progressive Caucus Folds”, he scolded the 75 percent of its members who refused to sign a letter that stated “we will vote against any and every cut to Medicare, Medicaid, or Social Security benefits — including raising the retirement age or cutting the cost of living adjustments that our constituents earned and need.”

Speaking from the left side of their mouth, the authors hold out the possibility of a radical third party emerging in the future but only out of the bowels of the Democratic Party:

Some on the left have asked: Why doesn’t DSA just start a new party? The answer: because DSA and its close allies, objectively, are already helping to do so by growing the social-democratic bloc and giving it an organized and independent grassroots base in the working class and communities of the oppressed. But the work begins under the Democratic tent as a largely inside job. Once you get over 100,000 or even 200,000 new DSA members from the organizing and base-building of backing Sanders on the Democratic line, you’ve created at least one key component of the large bloc needed for a new First Party.

What happens to these wonderful plans if people like Joe Biden and Steny Hoyer move against those boring away from within the Democratic Party? Here’s what: “The Third Way types may try to throw us (and our close allies) out. Then the Dems will face the dilemma of transform or die, much as the imperiled Whig Party of 1860 was replaced by a new political formation — the only example of such a change in our history.” This is an analogy I’ve heard over the years from Carl Davidson that I gave up on debunking long ago. Lincoln’s Republican Party was product of profound class conflict between two wings of the capitalist class. By the time the USA was on the precipice of a Civil War, you had in effect a “dual power” situation with the North based in Washington, DC and the South based in the Confederate capital in Montgomery at first and then in Richmond. If you are trying to draw an analogy between the bourgeois revolution against slavery and the future socialist revolution, you must see it in class terms. The mounting assaults against working-class interests will inevitably lead to neighborhoods or entire cities forming their own self-sustaining institutions and defending them by force of arms. By then, parliamentary style elections will have outlived their usefulness. It will be the hour of the American socialist revolution. I understand that for most people used to the meaningless bourgeois election circus this will sound like science-fiction. Maybe so but history has a way of sharpening the contradictions that make all this very real.




April 27, 2019

Joseph Brant: the Mohawk who fought with the British against George Washington

Filed under: Film,indigenous — louisproyect @ 9:00 pm

I was astounded to learn in Allen Young’s memoir that Sullivan County, which was the heart of the Borscht Belt where we both grew up, was named after General John Sullivan who was directed by George Washington to annihilate Mohawk villages for supporting the British. The Mohawk were led by Joseph Brant, whose birthname was Thayendanegea.

The Mohawk were part of the Iroquois confederation that included the Onondaga, the Seneca, the Tuscarora, the Oneida and Cayuga. The failure of the six nations to reach an agreement about supporting the British led to strife and the eventual collapse of a confederation that Benjamin Franklin lauded as a model that the colonists could emulate after becoming independent. Despite the use of the term “Ignorant Savages” that was meant more as a dig at his colleagues, it was clear that Franklin considered the Iroquois to have achieved a model state, even if on a small scale:

It would be a very strange Thing, if six Nations of Ignorant Savages should be capable of forming a Scheme for such an Union, and be able to execute it in such a Manner, as that it has subsisted Ages, and appears indissoluble; and yet that a like Union should be impracticable for ten or a Dozen English Colonies, to whom it is more necessary, and must be more advantageous; and who cannot be supposed to want an equal Understanding of their Interests.

Lewis Henry Morgan wrote a book in 1877 titled “Ancient Society” that also viewed the Iroquois confederation positively. His work had a major influence on Frederick Engels who cited it at length in “Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State”. Although he did not use the term, he was describing what is commonly known as “primitive communism” and taken as proof by Marxists that humanity can live in a classless society:

No soldiers, no gendarmes or police, no nobles, kings, regents, prefects, or judges, no prisons, no lawsuits – and everything takes its orderly course. All quarrels and disputes are settled by the whole of the community affected, by the gens or the tribe, or by the gentes among themselves; only as an extreme and exceptional measure is blood revenge threatened-and our capital punishment is nothing but blood revenge in a civilized form, with all the advantages and drawbacks of civilization. Although there were many more matters to be settled in common than today – the household is maintained by a number of families in common, and is communistic, the land belongs to the tribe, only the small gardens are allotted provisionally to the households – yet there is no need for even a trace of our complicated administrative apparatus with all its ramifications. The decisions are taken by those concerned, and in most cases everything has been already settled by the custom of centuries. There cannot be any poor or needy – the communal household and the gens know their responsibilities towards the old, the sick, and those disabled in war. All are equal and free – the women included.

My interest in the indigenous peoples of New York State was kindled initially by learning that the Munsee Indians were dominant all through the Catskills. Since I have begun a film titled “Utopia in the Catskills”, I was committed to telling their story. After I learned that my home county was named after a military officer who ethnically cleansed the state of Mohawks, I decided to look more deeply into their story as well, even if technically speaking they were to the north of the Catskills.

Since my film is both a series of interviews and a collage of pre-existing films, including “Last of the Mohicans” that did feature a tribe native to the Catskills, I decided to track down any films about Joseph Brant. I was able to discover the two above and was not surprised to discover that both are deeply flawed but worth watching.

“Divided Loyalties” is by far more grounded in Joseph Brant’s real history and the internecine divisions within the Indians, the British and the colonists. Essentially, Brant threw in his lot with the British because the colonists were far more of an immediate threat to Mohawk interests. As occurred throughout the New World, settlers impinged on native lands, even when a treaty should have protected their claims. In 1768, the Iroquois and the British signed a treaty at Fort Stanwix that would protect the Six Nations territory. Sir William Johnson, an Irish official of the Crown assigned to Indian affairs, was instrumental in drafting the treaty that met the expectations of the Indians—at least based on the wording. Johnson was the common-law husband of Joseph Brant’s sister Molly and sympathetic to Iroquois interests, even to the point of learning the Mohawk language and customs. In both films, he is a major character and the relationship between Brant and Johnson drives the narrative forward.

The British exploitation of the Mohawks as a military asset is reminiscent of Lord Dunmore and the Ethiopian Regiment. Dunmore promised to free any slave who fought for the Crown. In a 2013 post, I cited Gary B. Nash, a “revisionist” whose take on the American war of independence is decidedly devoid of the patriotic junk we all learned in high school and that the Communist Party sadly dispensed when Earl Browder was the CPUSA’s chairman and infamous for declaring that Communism was 20th century Americanism:

Within several months, between eight hundred and one thousand slaves had flocked to Dunmore, and many hundreds more were captured while trying. Many of them, perhaps one-third, were women and children. Mustered into what Dunmore named the Ethiopian Regiment, some of the men were uniformed with sashes bearing the inscription LIBERTY TO SLAVES. The slaves of many of Virginia’s leading white revolutionary figures now became black revolutionary Virginians themselves. They soon formed the majority of Dunmore’s Loyalist troops. Commanding the Ethiopian Regiment was the British officer Thomas Byrd, the son of patriot William Byrd III, one of Virginia’s wealthiest land and slave owners.

It is clear from both films that the British were unreliable allies. They did little to protect the Six Nations from settler encroachment and likely would have allowed it to continue if they had defeated George Washington. That being said, the Mohawk had every reason to ally with the British who never were as open about killing indigenous people as the Founding Fathers.

Don’t ever forget what Thomas Jefferson, whose name adorned the CPUSA’s school for many years in New York, said: “This unfortunate race, whom we had been taking so much pains to save and to civilize, have by their unexpected desertion and ferocious barbarities justified extermination and now await our decision on their fate.”

Meanwhile, George Washington’s orders to General Sullivan included this: “The immediate objectives are the total destruction and devastation of their settlements and the capture of as many prisoners of every age and sex as possible. It will be essential to ruin their crops in the ground and prevent their planting more.”

And even Ben Franklin, who extolled the democratic character of the Iroquois confederacy, came up with this in his autobiography: “If it be the design of Providence to extirpate these Savages in order to make room for cultivators of the Earth, it seems not improbable that rum may be the appointed means.”

April 26, 2019

The Biggest Little Farm; Lobster War

Filed under: Counterpunch,Ecology,farming,Film,water — louisproyect @ 12:50 pm


Two new documentaries tackle the all-important question of our age, namely how humanity and nature can co-exist in a period of insurmountable capitalist contradiction, especially when humanity takes the form of small businesspeople hoping to exploit natural resources under duress.

Opening at The Landmark at 57 West on May 10th, “The Biggest Little Farm” is a stunningly dramatic portrait of a husband and wife trying to create an ecotopian Garden of Eden forty miles north of Los Angeles. (Nationwide screening info is here.)

Idealist to a fault but utterly inexperienced as farmers, they encounter one obstacle after another in the hope of doing well by doing good. Essentially, they discover that by creating a bounteous yield of edibles destined for the organic foods market, they also attract a plague of gophers, coyotes, starlings and snails that see their farm as a dinner plate. Trying to balance their ecotopian values with the appetites of the animal kingdom becomes an ordeal they never anticipated.

Utterly indifferent to ecological values, the lobster fishermen depicted in Bullfrog Film’s “Lobster War: The Fight Over the World’s Richest Fishing Grounds” are family and village-oriented. As long as they can haul in the valuable crustaceans and keep themselves and their respective towns in Maine and Canada prosperous, nothing much else matters. Not being able to see outside the box, they symbolize the short-term mindset of the ruling class. If lobsters become extinct because of unsustainable practices, the fishermen might turn to other profitable marine life. But when all animals become extinct except for rodents, pigeons and cockroaches, homo sapiens will be next in line.

Continue reading

April 24, 2019

Appreciating F. Scott Fitzgerald

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 12:05 pm

via Appreciating F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Blackfoot and the Barbarians

Filed under: indigenous — louisproyect @ 12:12 am

(Liberated from behind a JSTOR paywall.)

Bear Bull, a Blackfoot Indian

Organization & Environment; Mar 1999
The Blackfoot and the Barbarians
By Louis Proyect

Five books discussing the Blackfoot Indian people are reviewed.

  • Chrisjohn Roland and Sherri Lynn Young. The Circle Game: Shadows and Substance in the Indian Residence School Experience in Canada. Penticon, British Columbia, Canada: Theytus, 1995, 327 pp.
  • Timothy Egan. Lasso the Wind: Away to the New West. New York: Knopf, 1998, 266 pp.
  • Margaret A. Kennedy. The Whiskey Trade of the Northwestern Plains. New York: Peter Lang, 1997, 181 pp.
  • R. Miller. Shingwauk’s Vision. Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto, 1996, 582 pp.
  • Donald Worster. An Unsettled Country: Changing Landscapes of the American West. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico, 1994, 151 pp.

Reporter (to Mahatma Gandhi): “Mr. Gandhi, what do you think of Western civilization?”

Gandhi: “I think it would be a good idea.”

Beginning in the mid-1800s and coming to a climax in the post-Civil War period, rapacious gold prospectors, fur trading companies, and ranchers invaded Blackfoot territory. They came in the same fashion that profit-oriented barbarians have come to the Amazon rainforest in recent decades, with plunder in their hearts and a willingness to exterminate anybody who got in the way.

It should come as no surprise that the U.S. Army defended the invaders on the basis of protecting private property and “civilization.” In the summer of 1865, the Pikuni (Southern Blackfoot) signed a treaty in Fort Benton, Montana, that pushed their southern boundary north to the Teton River. They received annuities of $50,000 a year for a period of 20 years. If the United States did not have the benefit of a superior armed force, the Blackfoot never would have signed such a treaty because it amounted to theft. As Woodie Guthrie once said, some men will steal your valuables with a gun while some will do it with a fountain pen. The United States used both gun and fountain pen.

Clashes with gold prospectors continued because they refused to respect Blackfoot rights within the newly redefined territory. When some prospectors under the leadership of the racist thug John Morgan killed four Pikuni men just for sport, Chief Bull’s Head organized a large revenge party and the prospectors got their comeuppance.

In 1868, when a Pikuni elder and a small boy were in Fort Benton on an errand, White racists shot them down in the street. Alfred Sully, who had responsibility for upholding the law in the tense area, said that because of tensions between the two groups he could not convict the killers in any court. This gave other White settlers a license to continue killing. When the Pikuni resorted to self-defense, the authorities decided that some kind of state of emergency existed and called in outside help.

Having decided that the Indians rather than the rapacious invaders were at fault, the army ordered Colonel E. M. Baker to put down a rebellion led by Mountain Chief. “Strike them hard” were his instructions. He pulled together four companies of cavalry, augmented by 55 mounted infantrymen and a company of infantry, and marched on the Indians. On daybreak of January 23, 1870, the U.S. army under Baker’s command attacked a village on the Marias river. They killed 173 Indians, seized 300 horses, and took 140 women and children into custody. There was only one problem. This was not Mountain Chief’s village but one that was friendly to the United States. Many of the villagers were sickly victims of a recent smallpox epidemic. To add to their misery, the troops burned the lodges and camp equipment.

The eternally sanctimonious New York Times editorialized on February 24, 1870, “The question is whether a wholesale slaughter of women and children was needed for the vindication of our aims.” The editorial is cited in John C. Ewers’s (1958) flawed but essential history The Blackfeet: Raiders of the Northwestern Plains (p. 251). One wonders if The New York Times keeps a file of such sentiments recyclable for suitable occasions, such as the recent bombing of a medicine factory in Sudan.

The consequences of this mass murder were as would be expected. It panicked the Pikuni into signing another compromised treaty. The whole purpose of military repression was not to restore “law and order” but to push Pikuni into the marginal portions of the state of Montana. All of these treaties from the 1860s and 1870s lack legitimacy and should be reviewed, just as the annexation of Hawaii is being reviewed by the United Nations today.

Its flaw is visible in its very title, which depicts the Blackfoot as “raiders.” Ewers draws a picture of “Blackfeet” (the Blackfoot people prefer not to use this term because it refers to feet rather than people) as warriors who enjoyed stealing horses from Indians and White settlers alike. In the very chapter where he decries the massacre at Marias river, he refers to the problems involved in “the pacification and civilization of western Indian tribes” (p. 236). This is said without irony.


More recent scholarship steps back from the warlike image fostered by Ewers on the Blackfoot and other Indian tribes. Margaret A. Kennedy (1997), in The Whiskey Trade of the Northwestern Plains roots the conflicts in the fur and whiskey trade.

The whiskey trade was far more than the exchange of buffalo robes and other furs for whiskey and trade goods. This exchange was conducted within a diverse and often hostile social and ethnic context. The interactions between native and nonnative were heightened by the existence of intense rivalries within each of these groups, band against band, Americans against British, trader against trader. The origin of some of the intense intergroup hostilities that characterized the whiskey trade can be traced back throughout the fur trade, but much of it was deeply accentuated in this late period by the pressures wrought through fear of loss of the buffalo, tribal territorial infringement, American and British competition and of course, the deleterious effect of liquor. (p. 13)

To put it more bluntly, the British and American fur traders lured the Indians into the cash trade by offering them whiskey, the one thing that was not available on the open range. They used whiskey in the same way that the British used opium in China. It was a way of breaking down the doors of a local economy that had little use for the lure of imported goods. One of the most notable things about opium and alcohol is that they are addictive. This is exactly what the East Indian Company or the Hudson Bay Company could use to best effect: a substance that hooked the unfortunate native into becoming unwilling accomplices to his own destruction. As the fur trade began to decrease the number of available buffalo, the various tribes fought with each other for control over the scarce resource. They stole horses from one another because the horse was necessary for the wholesale collection of hides. Pressures from fur and whiskey traders go much further in explaining the Indian wars than any lack of “civilized” values. Who needed civilizing were the entrepreneurs who used such poisons to make the Indian dependent.

While in one sense we have become inured to the idea of alcohol being a symptom of American Indian despair, it is important to understand how this substance entered their society. Today, there are all sorts of investigative journalists reporting on how the contras introduced crack cocaine into the United States in order to fund the war in Nicaragua. An investigation of the introduction of whiskey into the northwestern Plains states would also be a good idea. This is clearly the purpose of Margaret A. Kennedy’s (1997) scholarly treatment.

She points out that prior to the 1830s, buffalo robes had been a minor commodity in the fur trade. Beavers were the preferred good. When the avaricious trading companies caused the near-extinction of the beaver, the buffalo became a substitute. So whiskey lured the Indians to the trading post, where they surrendered the highly desired bison robes for alcohol, the most toxic drug. Kennedy (1997) explains,

The business was fairly simple. Fort Benton merchants were willing to commission individuals and supply them with an outfit. In return, the trader and clerks would remove to Indian Country and exchange goods as cheaply as possible for buffalo robes, wolf, antelope, elk and other animal pelts. The quiet inclusion of alcohol in the trader’s outfit, seldom accurately recorded on the manifests, was the magnet guaranteed to draw native clientele. In 1867, the selling price of buffalo robes was $8.00, the highest amount it had yet reached. The trader′s cost was only $8.00, the highest amount it had yet reached. The trader′s cost was only 3.00, thereby guaranteeing a healthy profit even after commissions, inventory, and transportation costs were considered, (p. 22)

Just as British capitalism used rum, sugar, and slaves to drive its commercial expansion into the Caribbean and the American south, so did the fur trading companies use a combination of whiskey, furs, and alcohol-addicted Indian hunters to increase their wealth. Wealthy and jaded Europeans’ taste had shifted from fur to buffalo, just as people today decide to use one cologne rather than another. Image back then was as important as it is today. It was of course no consequence that the very source of Blackfoot and other Indians’ survival was being destroyed in the process. The buffalo was no longer a source of clothing, shelter, and food. It was instead a luxury item to generate profits for the seller and alcohol addiction for the unfortunate hunters.

Unfortunately, not only could the Indian become addicted to alcohol, he or she could also suffer the consequences of “bad” drugs, just as occurs on the streets of New York City today when the occasional bag of heroin contains poisonous adulterants. Margaret Kennedy (1997) describes the horrors that took place frequently,

The movement of American traders into the last stronghold of Blackfoot territory could only have been accomplished through the extensive availability of alcohol. The Blackfoot north of the border had fervently and successfully protected their hunting territory from intruders-native and non-native alike-until 1869. Now the destructive results of the whiskey trade began to make themselves evident, as the people traded anything they owned for alcohol, which left them destitute and defenceless against winter temperatures. This was not quality alcohol. The so-called whiskey given out by traders for buffalo robes and other furs was a lethal concoction of alcohol mixed with anything that would give it colour and substance-bluestone, burnt sugar, castile soap, Jamaica Ginger, Perry Davis Painkiller, tea, ink, and sometimes, horrifically, strychnine. George McDougall, the Methodist missionary who was so outspoken against the whiskey trade, reported the same traumatic death for the native drinker as was experienced by the wolf consuming strychnine: foaming at the mouth, followed by convulsions and the body turning black after death. If people managed to survive the concoction, their faces were later horribly disfigured by blotches. Untold numbers of native people, well into the hundreds, died from the drink itself, exposure to winter conditions during intoxication, or violently at the hands of traders or each other. (p. 31)


While the Southern Blackfoot were suffering the combined effects of military repression and alcohol addiction, a more subtle form of genocide was being carried out against their Canadian brothers and sisters of the Bloods and the Northern Blackfoot tribes. They became the victims of a vast conspiracy by the Canadian government and the church to rob them of their cultural identity through residential schooling. Residential schooling, as J. R. Miller (1996) points out in Shingwauk’s Vision, was a tool used to rob the Indian of his birthright. The blackboard and the rod joined the fountain pen and gun as instruments of genocide.

Writing about the “Basic Concepts and Objectives” of Canada’s Indian policy in 1945, an official of the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs put his finger squarely on the motivation behind residential schools. Noting Ottawa’s desire to promote self-sufficiency among the indigenous population, and rightly zeroing in on Canada’s systematic attack on traditional Indian religion and cultural practices, the observer concluded that the dominion’s purpose was assimilation. As important as the push for self-support and Christianization among the Indians was in its own right, it was “also means to another end: full citizenship and absorption into the body politic.” Clearly, Canada chose to eliminate Indians by assimilating them, unlike the Americans, who had long sought to exterminate them physically. “In other words, the extinction of the Indians as Indians is the ultimate end” of Canadian Indian policy, noted the American official. The peaceful elimination of Indians’ sense of identity as Aboriginal people and their integration into the general citizenry would eventually end any need for Indian agents, farm instructors, financial assistance, residential schools, and other programs. By the cultural assimilation it would bring about, education residential schools would prove “the means of wiping out the whole Indian establishment.” (pp. 184-185)

As bad as this sounds, it does not do justice to the actual physical aspect of extermination that took place in the residential schools. Because most of the physical abuses took place in the classroom or in children’s dormitories, it was not visible to the outside world. For more than 100 years, Indian children were prevented from speaking their own language, sexually abused, and made ill from substandard housing and lack of adequate food. They were forced to do slave labor, such as cleaning the buildings and grounds, picking crops, and washing dishes. J. R. Miller (1996) details the sort of hell that Indian children faced.

A Sister of Charity at Shubenacadie school ordered a boy who had accidentally spilled the salt from the shaker while seasoning his porridge to eat the ruined food. He declined, she struck him, and told him to eat it. When he downed a spoonful and then vomited into his bowl, the sister hit him on the head and said, I told you to eat it!” A second attempt produced the same result. On his third try, the student fainted. The sister then “picked him up by the neck and threw him out to the centre aisle” in the dining hall. On one occasion at St. Michael’s school at Duck Lake, Saskatchewan, the boys’ supervisor ordered two boys who had broken rules to kneel in front of him and then he began “kicking the boys as they knelt in penance before him.” A Mohawk man remembered with bitterness a senseless incident that occurred at the Jesuit school at Spanish in the 1930s. The fifteen year old was taking some time to clean up after coming in from working in the shoe shop before proceeding to the study hall. The supervisor came to where he was washing and “without a word, he let me have the back of his hand, squarely in the front of my face.” Fifty-five years after the event the former student concluded that the supervisor had struck him because he knew he could get away with demonstrating his authority in this manner. (pp. 325-326)

While J. R. Miller’s (1996) book is strong on such details, it is weak on the general political conclusions that flow from these details. For this, we have to be grateful for The Circle Game, coauthored by Roland Chrisjohn and Sherri Lynn Young (1995). The thrust of The Circle Game is to situate the residential schools in the general context of genocide. There are mounting scholarly and activist campaigns to establish Canada’s guilt in the cultural genocide of the native peoples. It is a genocide that is just as real as the one unleashed by the Turks against the Armenians. Although the body count might be less, the overall effects are just as damaging. They effectively erase a people from the face of the earth. When you destroy a people’s language and spiritual and cultural identity, the consequential forced assimilation is tantamount to genocide. Chrisjohn and Young state,

We are unwilling to treat “cultural genocide” as a species of action divorced (or divorceable) from its universally recognised relatives. The machinations and intrigues that have surrounded the debate about the concept of cultural genocide have all the savoir faire of a schoolyard bully; powerful groups, in obvious double-faced violation of their own publicly stated human rights poses, have used their power to compel the rest of the world into going along with them. Consequently, we maintain, and will henceforth assume, that assimilation is genocide. Even the phrase “cultural genocide” is an unnecessary ellipsis: cultural genocide is genocide. Finally, in any intellectually honest appraisal, Indian Residential Schools were genocide. If there are any serious arguments against this position, we are ready to hear them. (p. 44)

A tribunal under the auspices of the International Human Rights Association of American Minorities (IHRAAM), a United Nations-affiliated nongovernmental organization, occurred in June 1998 to hear testimony from Canadian Indians who had been victims of residential schooling. Although the tribunal did not have the ability to impose penalties on the Canadian government or the church, it could have been an effective moral force at the United Nations, where Canada often criticizes other countries over human rights. Although the first tribunal suffered from poor organization and questionable selection of judges, it was an important first step.

One of the people who was to testify was Harriet Nahanee (Pacheedaht), who was abused at the Alberni school. She pushed for the hearings and said that the government was giving money for healing to everyone but the victims. “They are giving money to the band offices, to the treaty commissions, but not one cent has gone to the men who were sexually abused,” she told the Toronto Globe and Mail (June 9, 1998). She told the reporter that she remembered seeing a girl killed at the school more than 50 years ago and that the death was covered up. She intended to raise the allegation at the hearings.

The Canadian government is attempting to conclude a $326 million settlement with the Indian nations. Much of this money would be earmarked for psychotherapy, which would be a slap in the face to the victims. Not only is the sum paltry, the notion that the “talking cure” is appropriate for restoring the dignity of the Indian is absurd. The people who need sessions with the psychiatrists are the top officials of the Church and government who saw fit to brutalize Indian children. What would be appropriate is restoration of all the land claims that peoples such as the Blackfoot, Cree, and Ojibway are pressing. This would do more for mental health than any 50minute psychotherapy session.


In Donald Worster’s (1994) An Unsettled Country, Black Elk, a Lakota, is quoted as saying in 1930 that “Once we were happy in our own country and we were seldom hungry, for then the two-leggeds and the four-leggeds lived together like relatives, and there was plenty for them and for us” (p. 55). He added that when the Wasichu, the White men, came, they “made little islands for us and other little islands for the four-leggeds, and always these islands are becoming smaller, for around them surges the gnawing flood of the Wasichu; and it is dirty with lies and greed” (p. 55). What is critical to understand is that by creating such islands, the organic unity between man and nature breaks down. This is key to understanding the ecological crisis of the 20th century. In restoring human rights and economic justice to the American Indian, we will also begin the process of restoring ecological health to our nation. Without one, you cannot have the other.

Black Elks’s remarks begin the chapter in Worster’s book titled “Other People, Other Lives:’ that details the transformation of Plains wildlife, with particular emphasis on the wanton slaughter of the bison.

In accounting for the terrible loss of the bison, Worster raises the possibility that the same sort of undercounting that goes into the loss of American Indian lives has affected the fauna as well. The goal of the undercounters is to minimize the depths of the slaughter. Ernest Seton, a pioneering naturalist, estimates the number of bison at 75 million when the barbarian fur trading companies and ranchers arrived. By 1895, there were only 800 animals left, all within the Yellowstone National Park. Nature writer Barry Lopez has tried to estimate the total number of local fauna that were destroyed through the uncivilized recklessness of the invaders: “If you count the buffalo for hides and the antelope for backstraps and the passenger pigeons for target practice and the Indian ponies [killed] by whites to keep the Indian poor, it is conceivable that 500 million creatures died” (Worster, 1994, pp. 69-70). Worster calls this a virtual holocaust.

As the bison were wiped out from Blackfoot territory, a new ungulate took its place: the cow. Most champions of progress assumed that the slaughter of the bison and the banishment of the Indian into reservations was a regrettable evil. If these cruel acts did not take place, then it would have never been possible to create the modern beef industry. This notion requires demythologizing.

One of the latest books to take a look at this myth, as well as a number of others, is Timothy Egan’s (1998) Lasso the Wind: Away to the New West. Egan is a third-generation Westerner and the Pacific Northwest correspondent for The New York Times. It bodes well for the “gray lady” that such a critical-minded reporter can find his way on the payroll of such an establishment paper. Comparing the bison to cow, Egan writes,

With the bison gone, the government had to come up with some way to the people who had once relied on free buffalo herds. Thus were born first major government subsidies of cattle. Significant numbers of people began to kill one another over cows as well. Indians were starving to death on the barren, bisonless reservations they had been moved to, in Oklahoma and eastern Arizona. Wards of the state, they were promised rations of beef by federal Indian agents. By 1880, the government was purchasing fifty thousand animals a year to feed the tribes. Providing those rations, through huge contracts, was a source of graft and ultimately folklore–of Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett, for example.

At first, the dominant cattle were hybrids from Texas. These longhorns were scrawny and ornery. And they had two other major problems: they carried a tick, which infected Herefords, the popular cattle brought to the West from Britain, and their meat was tough and gristly. As one cowboy put it, a Longhorn was “eight pounds of hamburger and 800 pounds of bone horn.” Longhorns were quarantined, banned from most rail-shipment towns. The smaller, more docile, white-faced dogies became the dominant animal of the latter half of the cowboy era. The contrast between Herefords and bison was the difference between a redwood and a potted plant. Conditioned to a wet climate, cows bunch up along rivers and streams and will kill their water source with poop and poison unless moved. Bison spend most of time on and higher ground, going to a water source only for short periods. In the winter, bison use their shaggy heads to plow through snow for forage; cattle whimper and bawl for human help. Bison can survive droughts; cattle need the equivalent of forty-plus inches of rain a year.

Moving beeves, as cattle were called, over open ground was said to be one of the easiest routes to riches in the 1870s and 1880s. The grass cost nothing, or so the owners and the government agents initially thought. Cattle chewed up all that feed on the public domain over which buffalo used to roam and then were herded to rail depots for transport and slaughter. Establishing a tradition that, today, allows foreign-owned companies to extract billions of dollars in minerals from American public land without a dime in royalties, the United States opened the former bison lands to anyone with a head of beef. The point was to bring people west, for any reason, and to use the land, also for any reason. The Marquis of Tweeddale had 1.7 million acres. Large British investment houses bought enormous herds, and by the early 1880s more than 100 million pounds of frozen beef was being sent annually to England. The XIT Ranch in Montana, owned by a British conglomerate, counted fifteen thousand square miles of rangeland as its cattle domain-an area bigger than any of a half dozen states in the former British colonies. Inside wood-paneled clubs in Cheyenne and Denver, the owners read the Sunday Times from London, sipped gin-and-tonics and purchased local sheriffs. In Wyoming, the stockmen-owned legislature passed a law making it a felony to possess a cow that was not branded by the owners association. Basically, that meant any cow not owned by the monopoly was illegal. Rebellion by small homesteaders against this law prompted the Johnson County War, the biggest violent clash over red meat in the West. An army of hired guns owned by Wyoming stockmen started hanging, burning, and shooting people on a death list drawn up by the stockmen. A story of calculated violence and feudal power at a time when the homesteader was supposed to be king, the Johnson County War inspired one of the worst movies ever done on the West, Michael Cimino’s bloated and interminable Heaven’s Gate. (pp. 139-140)

The “progress” of cattle-ranching in Montana and other Indian territories has actually represented retrogression because water sources are either exhausted to feed the animals or polluted from their waste. Native grasses that helped to preserve the fertility of the soil have been replaced by grains that serve only one purpose: cattle feed. Meanwhile, the collapse of the cattle industry has driven many ranchers to desperation, prompting then to hook up with the fascist-like militias. Wyoming and Montana have strong militia movements, and unless a strong progressive movement takes shape in the United States, the militias can easily form the basis for a violent and racist mass movement.

I want to conclude this review essay with an examination of an obscure moment in American history that involves the Blackfoot and the environmentalist movement. It is, as far as I know, one of the first instances of eco-imperialism on record and evokes more recent clashes between outfits like Sea-Shepherd and the Makah or Greenpeace and the Innuit. The facts on this appear in Mark David Spence’s (1996) “Crown of the Continent, Backbone of the World: The American Wilderness Ideal and Blackfeet Exclusion from Glacier National Park,” an article in the July 1996 issue of Environmental History.

The eastern half of Glacier National Park was once part of the Blackfoot reservation and the tribe insists that an 1895 treaty allowed them certain ownership privileges. These lands are of utmost importance to the Blackfoot because they contain certain plants, animals, and religious sites that are of key importance to the cultural identity. The federal government considered the land to be one of its “crown jewels” and thought that the Blackfoot would tarnish it through their intrusions. This separation between man and nature of course goes against Indian wisdom. The park founders’ idea of “wilderness” owed more to European romanticism than it did to the reality of American history. The indigenous peoples and the forests, rivers, and grasslands lived in coexistence and codetermined each other’s existence thousands of years before Columbus-the first invader-arrived.

The mountains within Glacier National Park contained powerful spirits such as Wind Maker, Cold Maker, thunder, and Snow Shrinker. One of the most important figures in Blackfoot religion, a trickster named Napi or Old Man, disappeared into these mountains when he left the Blackfoot. The park is also the source of the Beaver Pipe bundle, one of the most venerated and powerful spiritual possessions of the tribe. Chief Mountain, standing at the border of the reservation and the national park, is by far the most distinct and spiritually charged land feature within the Blackfoot universe.

While pre-reservation life was centered on the plains and bison hunting, the resources of the mountains and foothills contained within the park were also important to their livelihood. Women and youngsters dug for roots and other foodstuffs in the parklands at the beginning of the spring hunting cycle. At the conclusion of the bison hunting season, which was marked by the Sun Dance ceremony, the various bands would retreat to the mountains and hunt for elk, deer, big horn sheep, and mountain goats. They would also cut lodge poles from the forests and gather berries through the autumn months. All of these activities were as important to them spiritually as economically. By denying them this, the park administrators were cutting them off from something as sacred as the whale is to the Makah.

What gives the banning of the Blackfoot from Glacier National Park a special poignancy and sadness was that it was motivated by beliefs identical to those held by George Bird Grinnell, a park administrator and well-known friend of the Blackfoot. He won the trust of Blackfoot storytellers and this allowed him to put into print the Blackfoot Lodge Tales (Grinnell, 1962). Although Grinnell said in the preface to the collection that “the most shameful chapter of American history is that in which is recorded the account of our dealings with the Indians” (p. xi), he saw no particular reason to preserve Glacier National Park as Blackfoot territory. Of course, without any self-consciousness, he also states in this preface that “the Indian is a man, not very different from his white brother, except that he is undeveloped.” Also, “the Indian has the mind and feelings of a child with the stature of a man” (p. xiv). When you stop and consider that Grinnell was a leading supporter of American Indian rights, it is truly frightening to consider the depths of racism that must have existed during the late 1800s when he was collecting his tales from the Blackfoot while accepting their banishment from the park.

Spence (1996) has an astute interpretation of Grinnell’s contradictory attitudes. He says that for Grinnell, the parks represented a living resource for American civilization. It would be a place for tourists to come and take photographs of the natural splendors. As for the Blackfoot, they were an important part of America’s past. They would live on through the Blackfoot Lodge Tales and dioramas at places like the Museum of Natural History.

Spence (1996) concludes his article with a description of how the clash between park administrators and the Blackfoot never really went away.

By 1935, relations between the Blackfeet and the National Park Service had reached an impasse that remains in place to this day. On one side, the park service, tourists, preservationists largely made Glacier into the uninhabited wilderness that continues to inform potent ideas about nature and national identity. Blackfeet use of park undermined this idealized notion of wilderness and the tribe’s resistance to Glacier’s eastward expansion limited its physical expression. Tension between Indians and the park service subsided over the next few decades, but the issue of Blackfeet in the eastern half of Glacier never disappeared.

By the 1960s, few Blackfeet actually hunted near the park, and fewer still went to the mountains to gather traditional plant foods and medicines. But the continuing importance of the Backbone of the World never depended on how many people went to the mountains. Although the Glacier region provided the tribe with a large portion of its physical sustenance in the 1890s, the issue of Blackfeet rights in the area always reflected concerns about cultural persistence and tribal sovereignty. In conjunction with the “Red Power” movement of the 1970s, these concerns arose again as Blackfeet leaders pushed for recognition of tribal rights in the park. Their efforts met strong opposition from both park officials and environmentalists, who resisted the Blackfeet “threat” as fervently as they did plans to mine coal and explore for oil in the park. The state of near-war that once characterized relations between the Blackfeet and park officials resurfaced in the early 1980s; the two sides only narrowly armed conflict on several occasions. Ultimately, continued Indian protests, ongoing risk of violence, and Blackfeet proposals for joint management of the eastern half of Glacier forced the National Park Service to revisit issues its leaders had buried in the 1930s. (p. 41)

A program for sweeping social and economic change in the United States has to put indigenous rights in the forefront. If the Indian is the canary in the mine, whose survival represents survival for everybody, then no other group deserves greater solidarity. Part of the enormous job in allying all the diverse sectors of the American population against an increasingly reactionary and violent government is explaining that the Indian comes first. This means that Sea-Shepherd and Greenpeace activists must understand that preservation of the wilderness makes no sense if the Indian is excluded.

The best way to restore the United States to ecological, economic, and spiritual health is to reconsider ways in which the precapitalist past can be approximated in a modern setting. Just as it makes sense for the Makah to use whatever weapons they deem necessary in pursuit of the whale, it might make sense for the entire northwestern plains states to be returned to the bison under the stewardship of the Blackfoot Indian. They have a much better track record on taking care of resources than do the agribusiness corporations who despoil the land for profit. Timothy Egan thinks that this makes sense, as does Ernest Callenbach, the author of Bring Back the Buffalo: A Sustainable Future for America’s Great Plains. Callenbach (1996) writes,

The basic Indian goal … is the reestablishment on the reservations of the natural ecological balance or reciprocity among humans, plants, and animals that existed before Euro-American occupation. On the Plains, a restored population of bison would be a sign that things had been put back together again on a sustainable basis. (pp. 77-78)




Callenbach, E. (1996). Bring back the buffalo: A sustainable future for America’s great plains. Washington, DC: Island Press.

Ewers, J. (1958). The Blackfeet: Raiders of the northwestern plains. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Grinnell, 0. (1962). Blackfoot lodge tales. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Spence, M. D. (1996, July). Crown of the continent, backbone of the world: The American wilderness ideal and Blackfeet exclusion from Glacier National Park. Environmental History, 1(3), 29-49.



Columbia University


LOUIS PROYECT is a scholar-activist, employed by Columbia University, whose articles have appeared in Canadian Dimensions, Sozialismus, Review of Radical Political Economy, and New Politics. During the 1980s, he was the president of Tecnica, a volunteer program that placed skilled professionals and tradespeople in government agencies in Sandinista Nicaragua. The article is part of a work in progress that will attempt to synthesize Marxism and indigenism.


April 22, 2019

Anti-Imperialism in the Age of Great Power Rivalry

Filed under: imperialism/globalization — louisproyect @ 10:23 pm

In early February Michael Pröbsting, a leader of the Revolutionary Communist International Tendency, invited me to read and review his “Anti-Imperialism in the Age of Great Power Rivalry: The Factors behind the Accelerating Rivalry between the U.S., China, Russia, EU and Japan. A Critique of the Left’s Analysis and an Outline of the Marxist Perspective”, which I have finally gotten around to. The subject of the book is of keen interest to me since I have written a couple of articles that concur with Pröbsting. To be honest, I don’t make the question of whether Russia (or China, for that matter) a Trotsky vs. Shachtman/Burnham litmus test like he does but the research he uses to support his conclusions is impressive and worth considering as a serious attempt to apply Lenin’s theories to the contemporary period that stand on their own.

“Anti-Imperialism in the Age of Great Power Rivalry” contains 27 tables and 31 figures that detail capital flows, etc., all of which are relevant to the questions at hand. In order to apply Lenin’s theories to today’s world, it is necessary to continue in the same vein as “Imperialism: the Highest Stage of Capitalism” that is replete with the same kind of data. I found this one particularly compelling:

Except for some hold-outs by otherwise sensible people like Michael Roberts, most Marxists concur that China is not only capitalist but a direct challenge to American hegemony as indicated by the chart above. Keeping in mind that Lenin defined imperialism as a system characterized by the export of excess capital, Pröbsting was careful to document China’s growing presence globally. Some on the left hail the new Silk Road project as a progressive alternative to Western multinationals but the growing resentment in both Latin America and Africa casts a shadow over such optimism.

Referring to the table above, he notes: “When we look at the accumulated stock of FDI’s outflows (by 2017) it is interesting to see the rapid catch-up process particularly of China. Despite the fact that China only became an imperialist power about a decade ago, its FDI Outward stock already equals the figures of all other Great Powers (except the U.S.)”

While some might be persuaded that China is becoming an imperialist power, there remain skeptics over whether Russia is as well, especially by those on the left like Roger Annis who have a strong ideological commitment to the Kremlin. For example, Annis wrote:

But while its per capita GDP may be well above that of Ukraine and other former Soviet republics, it’s not in the same league, by a long shot, of the imperialist countries. It is roughly one fourth, or less, that of North American and West European countries. It is higher than Brazil’s, but a lot lower than Portugal’s and just over half of South Korea’s.

What about Russia’s capital exports, another key indicator of whether a country sits in the ranks of imperialist countries? In 2012, the stock of direct foreign investment in Russia was $498 billion while the stock of investment abroad was $387 billion. Compare this to Canada, with about one quarter the population of Russia: $992 billion (domestic), $992 billion (abroad). Or Britain, with less than half of Russia’s population: $1.3 trillion and $1.8 trillion, respectively (all figures are 2012, from the CIA Factbook).

Pröbsting acknowledges that Russia is weaker than China or the traditional imperialist powers but stresses its military and political weight. Furthermore, if Russia is far behind England or Germany in terms of financial capital—the traditional criterion for judging whether a country is imperialist or not—it is still in second place behind the USA when it comes to the global share of weapons exports (33 versus 23 percent).

While I have not paid the closest of attention to the debates on the left about “sub-imperialism”, I did read Pröbsting’s discussion with some interest since I am close to Patrick Bond as a friend and a comrade. Patrick is probably the highest-profile advocate of the usefulness of this analytical category. Ever the resourceful scholar, Pröbsting argues that the first instance of its being advanced within Marxism was not by Patrick but by Takahashi Kamekichi in the 1920s who theorized Japan as an example of “petty imperialism”. Since Japan lagged behind the European and American nations in terms of financial capital and capital export, he concluded it “had not yet attained the stage of imperialism”. As such, Japanese socialists should not see the main enemy as being the domestic bourgeoisie, but rather the Western powers. Doesn’t this have a ring? This is essentially the argument of the pro-BRICS left, those who defend Russian imperialism in Syria because it helps the “axis of resistance” to NATO, Western banks, and the whole nine yards. However, Patrick is at the same time one of the sharpest critics of the BRICS as well as a “sub-imperialism” theorist.

These are important questions and Pröbsting has done a good job in trying to provide Marxist solutions. My only friendly criticism is to drop the terms “pseudo-Marxist” or “pseudo-Trotskyist”. Such terms are redolent of the Socialist Equality Party and should be retired from our vocabulary.

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