Marxism and the Aboriginal Question: The Tragedy of Progress

by David Bedford on January 16, 2013

This article originally published in the Canadian Journal of Native Studies, 1994. It is republished with permission; formatted for the web by North Star.

Bird and Fish, Jackson Beardy
This paper will deal, in a preliminary way, with one of the least studied areas in Marxist thought, the “Aboriginal question.” It is becoming increasingly clear that the desire of Aboriginal peoples for self-determination, expressed in the agitation for self-government, will not disappear. It is unlikely that the desire to preserve culture, and to resist any further encroachment by industry or by the modern state, will be articulated in any other political form than self-government. The overwhelming rejection of the Charlottetown proposals for self-government by Aboriginal peoples,1 in the face of their acceptance by the leadership of four major Aboriginal organizations (the Assembly of First Nations, the Native Council of Canada, the Métis and the Inuit Tapirisat) indicates that there is little agreement over what self-government should entail. However, despite these powerful disagreements, few in the various Aboriginal communities located in the northern half of that land mass which many Aboriginal people call Turtle Island dispute the need for self-determination.

What the people said “no” to was not self-government but rather the political arrangements proposed by the Federal government. The Charlottetown Agreement would have given more power and resources to the Chief-in-Council in return for concessions on treaties.2 The rejection had two sources. First, many people feared a self-government arrangement that would put even more power in the hands of the Chief-in-Council, elected under the Federal Indian Act and ultimately answerable to the Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development. Second, many people worried that the proposed agreement would finalize and constitutionalize the process of transforming the relationship between Aboriginal nations and the Canadian state from a treaty-based, nation-to-nation relationship to a custodial relationship.3

Marxists, though, cannot use this rejection as an excuse not to theorize about their position on the struggle for self-determination. Historically, Aboriginal peoples have not seen much of value in Marxist thought. There are many reasons for this. Many Marxists have not paid sufficient attention to the various critiques from Aboriginal leaders and Elders, to the detriment of Marxist theory and revolutionary practice. I propose to take seriously these criticisms, to try to discover what Marxism may be able to learn from them and to see what, if anything, Marxism has to offer to Aboriginal people in their struggle.

The most immediate challenge that the Aboriginal liberation struggle presents to Marxist theorists is that the Indigenous peoples of Turtle Island are not proletarians, nor do they want to become proletarians. Unlike Black South Africans, their struggle does not take the form that Marx anticipated the overthrow of capitalism would take. Even if Aboriginal peoples share with Marxists a loathing for capitalism, they do so for different motives and with different expectations. Russell Means, a leader of the American Indian Movement, argued that the “only manner in which American Indian people could participate in a Marxist revolution would be to join the industrial system, to become factory workers or ‘proletarians’ as Marx called them”.4

The irony is not lost on Aboriginal leaders. To prevent the destruction of their cultures by the forces of capitalist economic activity, they must become modernized and industrialized, thus abandoning their cultures, Means continued, arguing that Marx was “very clear about the fact that his revolution could occur only through the struggle of the proletariat, that the existence of a massive industrial system is a precondition of a successful Marxist society”.

The question is more than one of revolutionary strategy. It involves a critique of the most profound and basic values motivating Marxist thought. Marxism, like all Western thinking, is committed to the values of consumption and production. Marxism may call for more equitable distribution of the social product, more democratic control over the processes of production, but at bottom, it — like the capitalist economic relationships it seeks to replace — is committed to a view of humans as producers and consumers. Nature is an object to be dominated and manipulated and humans overcome their alienation from nature by consuming it. Thus the relationship between modern, Western societies and nature is one of struggle. Progress, for bourgeois and for Marxist thinkers, is measured by the degree to which nature is pacified. The relationships in the West between humanity and nature, and between men and women, are modelled after the metaphor of rape. Nature and women are passive, inert, formless matter, to be shaped and dominated. Aboriginal critics of Marxism see in such an attitude a disrespect for nature, an erotic attachment to domination identical to that of bourgeois society.5 “Marxists,” writes Frank Black Elk, “are hung up on exactly the same idea of “progress” and “development” that are the guiding motives of those they seek to overthrow”.

The Aboriginal critique of the Marxist acceptance of the Western ideology of progress takes three forms: (1) progress as inevitable, (2) progress as homogenizing and universalizing all human cultures, and (3) progress as good. Marxism’s commitment to the idea of laws of historical development, and the progressive nature of this development, has been the basis for much of the most intelligent criticisms of Marxism by Western philosophers. Leo Strauss and Eric Voegelin, for example, saw Marxism as the apogee of modernity.5 The Aboriginal critique similarly links Marxism to trends in the history of Western thought.

George Tinker writes that:

[if] Marxist thinking and the notion of a historical dialectic were finally proven correct, then American Indian people and all [I]ndigenous peoples would be doomed. Our cultures and value systems, our spirituality, and even our social structures, would give way to an emergent socialist structure that would impose a notion of the good on all people regardless of ethnicity and culture.

Marxists have been insensitive to the demands for self-government and cultural survival made by Aboriginal peoples because they see Aboriginal culture as inevitably swept away by the tide of industrialism, regardless of whether this modernization is carried out by the historical epoch of capitalism or by its replacement, socialism. Aboriginals object to the Marxist vision because it sees all history unfolding after the fashion of the European model. The Marxist commitment to industrialization as the precondition of proletarian revolution means destruction for non-industrialized societies. Even the terminology of “primitive” “precapitalist” etc. is Euro-centric, failing to take seriously the differences between Western and Aboriginal cultures and the value of the latter.7 If Marxists are to make their ideas relevant to the Aboriginal liberation struggle then we are going to have to seriously address these arguments. It is not simply a matter of looking through the corpus of Marxist writings and pulling out his ideas on progress. Marx’s writings (and, by extension, Marxism) are not so much a coherent philosophy as a series of ideas and insights that are more or less systematic and consistent. There is no doubt that Marx can be read as proposing a historical law of development in which human societies evolve from more “primitive” modes of production to more advanced, and that there is little that can be done about it. In the remainder of the paper I will argue that this is not the only possible reading of Marx, nor is it one that should be adhered to by present day Marxists.

Genocide No. 1, Daphne Odjig
The revolutionary power of Marxism comes, in large measure, from its confidence that the evils of capitalism cannot last forever, that they will of historical necessity be replaced by a socialist society of justice and plenty. Capitalism will fall, despite the overwhelming power its supporters presently have at their disposal. The inevitable will only happen, however, when all of humanity has been incorporated into the capitalist world. Marx imagined that the revolution against capitalism would occur when all cultures had been submerged by a world culture.8 The laws of economic development thus spell the end for local, non-industrialized cultures. Capitalism destroys all national cultures and replaces them with a universal, homogeneous culture of industrial production. Thus the economic forces that make socialist revolution inevitable destroy local culture. In his famous articles in the New York Daily Tribune on the consequences of British domination in India, Marx wrote that the English, in introducing capitalist relations into India:

dissolved these small semi-barbarian, semi-civilized communities, by blowing up their economical basis, and thus produced the greatest, and to speak the truth, the only social revolution ever heard of in Asia.

Now, sickening as it must be to human feeling to witness those myriads of industrious patriarchal and inoffensive social organizations disorganized and dissolved into their units, thrown into a sea of woes, and their individual members losing at the same time their ancient form of civilization, and their hereditary means of subsistence, we must not forget that these idyllic village communities, inoffensive though they may appear, had always been the solid foundation of Oriental despotism, that they restrained the human mind within the smallest possible compass, making it the unresisting tool of superstition, enslaving it beneath traditional rules, depriving it of all grandeur and historical energies.

Not even the most isolated villages could retain their cultural integrity in the face of capitalist advancement.

Avineri wrote that although Marx was critical of the effects of capitalism on non-capitalist social formations he did not mistake such a condemnation “for a romantic search after the idyllic preindustrial times.” It is true that capitalism is the most brutalizing and dehumanizing economic system history has yet known. Yet to Marx, capitalism is still a necessary step toward the final solution, since only capitalism can create the economic and technological infrastructure that will enable the free development of every member of society according to his or her capacities. European expansion is necessary to create the conditions of the universalization of capitalist relations, in spite of its horrors. The writings of Marx and Engels are replete with examples of such an analysis. In his letter on “French Rule in Algeria” Engels wrote that “the modern bourgeois, with civilization, industry, order, and at least relative enlightenment following him, is preferable to the feudal lord or to the marauding noble, with the barbarian state of society to which they belong”.

Imperialism is a necessary fact of life in a bourgeois world economy, and is one of the stages economic history passes through. It is also a good thing insofar as it destroys an oppressive, local social order. India and Algeria were not free, egalitarian societies, and so Marx and Engels seemed to welcome European domination as the first step on the long road to liberation.

At times, however, Marx and Engels backed away, in part at least, from this evaluation of progress. Engels’ protests against a too literal reading of the economic determinism of historical materialism are well known. In his writings on Russia, Marx too argued that the predicted two-stage revolution (first the revolutionary overthrow of feudalism by capitalism, then its replacement by socialism) was not inevitable. Marx concluded that his theoretical categories were not intended to be absolute prescriptions or predictions. Different societies may follow different paths. The Russian commune system in the villages offered the opportunity to introduce socialism without passing through the destructive phases of capitalism. Nostalgia for such a historical phase is misplaced because it cannot stand up to the forces of capitalist development, but the peasant village can serve as the basis for socialism if: 1) collective cultivation is permitted; and 2) before the communal ownership is completely destroyed by capitalism,

a proletarian revolution is successfully carried out in Western Europe, creating for the Russian peasant the preconditions requisite for such a transition.

Marx is more ambivalent about the value of progress than his Aboriginal critics (or Strauss or Voegelin) would allow. Progress is tragic in the classical sense. It is our fate, which can only be avoided under exceptional circumstances and with exceptional effort.9 The most extensive theoretical discussions of non-capitalist social formations by Marx and Engels are found in the Grundrisse and in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. Their tragic view of progress is most clearly presented here. Marx had borrowed from Hegel the idea that history unfolds dialectically. That is, the original unity of experience is broken and history proper is the story, the adventure, of the return to unified experience. The adventure is often painful, however. Even when the journey ends (in the scientific attitude for Hegel and in communism for Marx), humanity never quite gets over the yearning it has for the era when the unity of experience was immediate and directly sensed. Marx interpreted this historical process of alienation and its overcoming as the separation of labour from the natural conditions of laboring and its eventual recovery. Human societies which exist without individual property ownership and without industrialization experience no alienation because each person labours directly on nature, without any mediating relations of hierarchy or domination. The labourer is not separated from the product of her or his labour.10

Thus the ancient conception, in which man always appears (in however narrowly national, religious or political a definition) as the aim of production, seems very much more exalted than the modern world, in which production is the aim of man and wealth the aim of production. In fact, however, when the narrow bourgeois form has been peeled away, what is wealth, if not the universality of needs, capacities, enjoyments, productive powers, etc. of individuals, produced in universal exchange? […] What is this, if not a situation where man does not reproduce himself in any determined form, but produces his totality? Where he does not seek to remain something formed by the past, but is in the absolute movement of becoming? A bourgeois political economy—and in the epoch of production to which it corresponds—this complete elaboration of what lies within man, appears as the total alienation, and the destruction of all fixed, one-sided purposes, as the sacrifice of the end in itself to a wholly external compulsion. Hence in one way the childlike world of the ancients appears to be superior; and this is so, in so far as we seek for closed shape, form and established limitation. The ancients provide a narrow satisfaction, whereas the modern world leaves us unsatisfied, or, where it appears to be satisfied with itself, is vulgar and mean.

Engels echoed similar sentiments in his anthropological work. He mixed together a belief in the inevitable destruction of Aboriginal social formations with a profound sense of loss.

The power of these primordial communities had to be broken and it was broken. But it was broken by influences which from the outset appear to us as a degradation, a fall from the simple moral grandeur of the ancient gentile society.

This sense of the tragedy of progress is an immediate sensing at the level of moral conscience of the ambiguity in the Marxian (and Hegelian) concept of history. Engels ended The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State quoting Lewis Henry Morgan’s apocalyptic belief that the integrity and justice of the gentile society would return from its diremption but in a “higher form”. As Marxists we believe in the moral and spiritual value of the overcoming of alienation, and so we believe in the final goodness of the progress of history. However, what do we say to those people who have yet to experience the alienation for which socialism is the answer, who see goodness as much in the non-dialectical solidity of the past as in the future?

Coming of the Opposite, Alex Janvier
There is within Marxism the possibility of building a practical relationship with, and a theoretical understanding of, Aboriginal peoples and their own unique revolutionary struggles. The starting point is “the national question.” The definitive position within Marxism on the national question was articulated by Lenin in the years just preceding the Russian Revolution. The Leninist position is made up of two intersecting tendencies: an internationalist outlook, and a support for the right of national self-determination. In his polemics against the Bund and against the various other ethnically based movements advocating cultural-nationalist autonomy, Lenin consistently combatted all nationalisms. “No one unobsessed by nationalist prejudices” wrote Lenin, “could fail to see that the breakdown of national and cultural isolation and identity was a positive step forward”. Further, he wrote that “our [i.e. The Bolsheviks] slogan is: the international culture of democracy and the world working class movement”. Lenin’s internationalist perspective was based on his belief: 1) that nationalism, at least as it currently was manifested, was a feature of bourgeois society, and was doomed to extinction when the essentially internationalist proletarian revolution occurred; and 2) that class loyalty must supersede any nationalism or ethnic loyalty which is transclass. Lenin assumed that, in broad outline, history was moving toward a more internationalist arrangement, that the future proletarian culture would be universally shared. Those who stood against the unity of the world proletariat were anti-revolutionary and were condemned. Witness the last days of the Second International.

Lenin’s opposition to cultural nationalisms, however, was based on more deeply held principles than a commitment to an abstract form of internationalism. He opposed certain nationalisms because they were regressive, tying together the local proletariat and “their” bourgeoisie. So that, at the same time as he polemicized against local chauvinisms he asserted the absolute, unconditional right of peoples to self-determination, including secession from a future socialist state. It is “beyond doubt that in order to eliminate all national oppression [in the Socialist Russia of the future] it is very important to create autonomous areas, however small, with entirely homogeneous populations”. This would provide a homeland for those who wished to preserve their culture, language etc. To prevent socialist Russia from becoming a “prison house of nationalities” the right to secede must be unequivocally supported and defended.

While some nationalist movements are regressive and may not be actively encouraged by Marxists, defense of the right to self-determination can help forge links between peoples that transcend cultural and ethnic tensions. Lenin cited the example of the Swedish proletariat’s support for the Norwegian secession movement. The working classes of the two groups were brought closer together because the Norwegian workers realized that the Swedish proletariat was not supporting their national oppression by the Swedish state. The decision to actively support a secession movement through encouragement or simply to support the principle of self-determination while arguing against secession in a particular case, depends upon the revolutionary consequences of the specific case. Whether support for the cultural aspirations of an ethnic group is in effect supporting the Indigenous bourgeoisie against the proletariat, or is serving to further the revolutionary struggle is the definitive question. In so far as Marxists will actively encourage ethnically based Aboriginal liberation struggles will depend upon whether such “nationalism” is reactionary or progressive. (This issue of the reactionary or progressive nature of Aboriginal liberation struggles that are based on ethnicity will be discussed at the end of the paper.)

Muga recently addressed the question of the possibility of forging a link between Marxists and Aboriginal movements for independence. The Aboriginal struggle is by definition ethnic; therefore the key to linking it to proletarian, class based movements is to combine ethnic and class struggles. Muga argues that the conjoining concept is imperialism. Both the proletariat and Aboriginal peoples are oppressed by trans-national capital in their efforts at achieving self-determination. The proletariat are oppressed through the control exercised over their labour time, the Aboriginal peoples by the control exercised over their land. In both cases capital prevents people from achieving any real autonomy. The nationalist struggle is not purely an ethnically based movement, that is, one in which one set of cultural values and customs, language etc. is replaced by another as proponents of the back-to-the Indian movements such as Russell Means argue. Rather, it is tied to the more general struggle against the power of capital. Ethnic nationalism is the form that such liberation movements take when the oppressed peoples are not oppressed as workers, but rather as possessors of resources who are being dispossessed and marginalized. The proletariat cannot succeed in overthrowing capitalism while supporting the imperialist destruction of Aboriginal communities. Traditionally, the idea of nation-building has been associated in Canada with the development policies of the federal government. Such things as Macdonald’s railway construction projects and the transformation of the Prairies into farm lands created the Canadian state. As such it has been applauded by all, across class lines. Progressive nationalists are critical of free trade because they want more such nation-building. To Aboriginal peoples, however, nation-building has meant dispossession, disease, starvation and cultural and political genocide. They cannot survive any more nation-building. In supporting more development, even in the name of national interest, the Canadian proletariat and its social democratic leaders are supporting more (imperialist) exploitation. This does not further the liberation struggle; it further strengthens and supports the Canadian bourgeoisie. Similarly, Aboriginal resistance to modernity must have as an ally the power of labour.

The interests of a popular alliance does not counterpoise a worker’s movement and ethnosocial formation as competitive organs for overall political leadership of emancipatory struggles. The fight against the imperialistic tendencies of a capitalist economic order requires political unity and an understanding of the ultimate link between self-determination of an ethnoformation and workers’ class emancipation. Neither are isolatable factors.

Even if both Aboriginal persons and workers are oppressed by a similar economic formation it does not follow that they are necessarily allies. This common trait does help relieve some of the sting from the criticisms of Russell Means that a Marxist-led working class is necessarily an enemy of Aboriginal peoples. However, it does not go far enough in answering the Means critique. Nothing short of real experience can ever answer the concerns of Aboriginal peoples that Marxism is committed to its own, but equally destructive, version of modernity. All that can be accomplished theoretically is to demonstrate the possibility of such an alliance.

An example of a relationship between a socialist society and Aboriginal peoples is the case of the Miskito people in Nicaragua. In 1979 the Sandinista’s founded an organization, Misurasata, which included representatives of the Sandinistas and the three main Aboriginal peoples residing within the territorial boundary of Nicaragua: the Miskitos, the Sumos and the Ramas. Its purpose was to revolutionize the Aboriginal peoples, to incorporate them into the Sandinista movement. By 1981, Philippie Bourgeois was led to write in classic overstatement that “the objective class interest of the Amerindian population coincides with the goals of the Sandinista Revolution”.

Bourgeois’ analysis, which was effusive with praise for the Sandinista regime, completely misread the real situation. Rather than supporting the Sandinista regime and its attempts to develop the region, the Miskitos in particular reacted angrily, many even joining the Contras. The important questions for us are, why did they reject the policies of the Sandinistas and how were the Sandinistas eventually able to win them back?

The Miskito people rebelled against plans by the Sandinistas to modernize their region. The Miskitos traditionally lived in the rain forest as hunters and gathers while cultivating staples. The Sandinistas attempted to introduce industrial and agricultural development into Miskito territory. This involved infrastructure construction, development of the timber and mining resources and the large scale introduction of cash crops such as coconuts. The Sandinistas tried to solve the problems that the Miskito faced after 200 years of colonial oppression by stimulating economic growth. This attempt was premised on the soon to be discovered false premise that the Miskito were essentially a proletarianized people. They had been forced into industrial labour first by British and then by American corporations and the Sandinistas assumed that this had created a proletarian ideology in the Miskito. The Miskito reaction, facilitated by the liberationist rhetoric of the Sandinistas, was to reject any attempts to further their proletarianization, even if it was socialistically inspired.

By 1984 the Sandinistas were beginning to realize their mistakes. In July 1985 the Natural Commission of Autonomy released its report which called for the self-determination of the Indigenous peoples within their traditional territory. They were provided with cultural and language rights and the right to use the land and its resources as they saw fit. Autonomous regions based on these rights would be established for each of the Aboriginal peoples. The limit, a crucial one given Lenin’s argument in favour of the right to secede, was that the territorial integrity of Nicaragua was inviolate.

Fisherman’s Dream, Saila Pitaloosie
The critical question for Marxists which is raised by the issue of a potential alliance between the left and Aboriginal people is how to maintain the struggle against capitalism, and, at the same time, retreat from a commitment to progress. The possibility of such an alliance for Marxists rests on the fact that a planned economy, one not driven by the iron laws of profit and the market, can make room for those who wish to preserve a self-contained economy and culture. The value of an alliance of Aboriginals and the left lies with the substantiality, the compact content, of Aboriginal spirituality which can help fill the void faced by a future proletarian culture as it tries to create a world on the moral and philosophical wreckage left by capitalism. Finally, this alliance can be made real by the left treating the rights asserted by Aboriginal Natives as transitional demands.11

Socialism offers at least the possibility of preventing the complete destruction of Aboriginal culture. The appetite of the capitalist market and drive for profit is insatiable. A capitalist economy cannot rest content with exploiting only a fixed amount of land, resources and people. It must grow and expand to prevent stagnation and collapse. James Bay I gives way to James Bay II until all of Turtle Island is subdued. There is no need for a socialist society to act differently. It, too, can stop at nothing until all of nature has been transformed into a reflection of its will. A planned economy geared to satisfying need and not to profit at least holds out the possibility of respecting Aboriginal culture and stopping the process of transforming nature. Writing of the abolition of national oppression, Lenin argued that by “transforming capitalism into socialism the proletariat creates the possibility of abolishing national oppression; the possibility becomes reality ‘only’ — ‘only’!—with the establishment of full democracy in all spheres”. Democracy is no guarantee of sympathy for Aboriginal peoples by the masses. In the absence of such feeling there is no hope. However, as things stand presently there is little even a sympathetic population can achieve. Furthermore, the drive for profit pits the immigrant society against Aboriginal peoples. All those, and they are currently the majority, who accept the idea of production for profit — including not only the owners but the workers in the pulp industry, the commercial fisheries etc. — must needs see Aboriginal people as an obstacle.

The left, therefore, can offer the Aboriginal liberation struggle the power of labour. Aboriginal people in North America are in a uniquely weak position. Their labour is not needed, and so they have no real weapon with which to fight. Aboriginal people tried using guns at Kahnawake and Kanesatake, but they were quickly overwhelmed although no other Aboriginal nation was as well positioned to fight as the Mohawks. In short, the Aboriginal struggle for survival cannot succeed without allies, and the only possible ally is organized labour. Presently, labour is the enemy of Aboriginal peoples because its leadership is tied to reformist policies. Labour sees its own advantage furthered by a flourishing capitalist economy. They are as opposed to Aboriginal treaty rights as the bourgeoisie — witness the confrontations between the Haida and loggers. With a more radical agenda, though, labour can provide the strength Aboriginals lack in their struggle to preserve their culture.

Aboriginal people can offer the left a concrete spiritual content, a value system beyond the purely abstract ideas of freedom and self-development. Proletarian culture and spirituality are based on a commitment to ideals which are by definition ideal and future directed only. Partly because of this, and partly because such values grow out of and extend the abstract rights of persons which the enlightenment posed for early liberal bourgeois societies, the Marxist vision of the future involves a destruction of the present and its replacement by a society in which each person creates themselves after their own will. The citizen of the future classless society will be stripped of all concrete content, and will be left with their own being as their existential project. Marx and Engels never ventured to speculate what this new way of being human would be like for the very reason that this new way would be based on the decisions taken by an ungrounded will. While we may not accept the dark analysis of a similar existential reality that Hegel offered in the Phenomenology when he described the link between freedom and terror, the need for meaning is great. Aboriginal classless societies can positively contribute to a future socialist society, and to revolutionary Marxist movements, as living examples of the political and economic and social arrangements possible in the absence of private property, and by giving us the spirituality needed to step back from the brink of unrestrained and limitless technological hubris. They can teach us that progress is not always good nor is it the aim of all cultures.

Finally, the way the left can forge an alliance with Aboriginal peoples is to treat their demand for cultural survival seriously. How this will be done will necessarily vary from region to region depending upon a number of factors: the degree of assimilation; the type of natural economy practiced and the degree to which it can still be practiced; the degree of national fragmentation etc. In New Brunswick, the Maliseet nation survived primarily on fishing salmon, on hunting deer and moose, on gathering berries, fiddleheads and so on, and on staple agriculture. A socialist society committed to the continued existence of Maliseet culture would have to make significant changes to the industrial development of the region. It is not enough simply to set aside some land and then pay out welfare. Cultural survival requires that the economic base of culture be preserved. This means saving old growth forests, stopping clear cutting close to stream beds and significantly reducing industrial activity on the major river arteries. Simple though these requirements seem, they would necessitate a significant retreat from the trends characteristic of modern western society. They involve a renunciation of the idea of progress as it is currently understood, and a vision of human existence in which producing and consuming no longer play a central role.

David Bedford is Professor and Chair in political science at the University of New Brunswick, and author of The Tragedy of Progress: Marxism Modernity and the Aboriginal Question (with Dan Irving)


  1. There were many reasons for the rejection of the proposals. They were seen by many to be bad proposals. Some felt that treaty rights would have to be given up in the process of negotiating self-government. This, coupled with the recognition of the supremacy of Federal and Provincial laws over Aboriginal governments, meant that the historic
    claim of Aboriginal people to nation status would be abandoned. Voting for the Charlottetown Accord was to tacitly accept status as Canadians. Many Aboriginal people simply never vote because they cannot easily accept the status of Canadian as opposed to status within an Aboriginal society.
  2. S.2a of the Draft legal text of the Charlottetown Accord, October 9, 1992.
  3. Those Aboriginal peoples who have most strongly preserved their status as nations, for example the Mohawk and the Blood, do not vote and will not allow federal or provincial enumerators on their territory. Only three people voted in the October Referendum from the Blood community of 7,000 persons.
  4. Not all Aboriginal people reject Marxism. Although Marxism has not been a factor in the liberation struggles in North America, it has in South America, where Marxists have been more concerned with Aboriginal questions. This is so for two main reasons:
    1) There are far more Aboriginal persons in Central and South America. Their support is more critical to a successful revolution.
    2) Unlike Aboriginal persons in North America who are marginalized, the labour power of Aboriginal people in South America, especially rural labour, is critical to the economies. See, for example, Mariatequi, 1971, especially Chapter 2: “The Problem of the Indian.”
  5. McFadden, quoted Lorraine Canoe:

    When Louis Henry Morgan wrote his anthropological book, Living With the Senecas, he put down the weave of our people, and described how we live. When his book was published it went into the library. Karl Marx came from Germany and lived in Brooklyn for one year, and he read Morgan’s book, and he went back to Germany and what did he do? He wrote the Communist Manifesto, and it was put into practice. But what was omitted was the spiritual part.

  6. Despite their many differences Strauss and Voegelin agree that Marxism, like modernity in general, is dedicated to the idea of progress. Both argue that Marx saw communism as the end goal of history, and that such an end is the historic destiny of humanity Anything that stands in the way, therefore, is reactionary and must be eliminated. Although neither Strauss nor Voegelin ever demonstrated the least concern with Aboriginal victims of modernity, their critiques of Marxism resemble those of Aboriginal commentators.
  7. It is not possible to explain adequately the differences between Aboriginal and European outlook in a short space. An example will have to serve to illustrate not only that Aboriginal culture was not primitive or on the road to capitalism, but also that it differed profoundly from European thinking. Wampum 7 of the Great Law of Peace, establishing the Iroquois Confederacy (and is thus a major Iroquois constitutional document) obligates the sachem of the league to offer thanks to the “earth where men dwell, to the streams of water, the pools and the lakes, to the maise and the fruits, to the medicinal herbs and trees” etc. before any discussion can occur.
  8. The Communist Manifesto. E.J. Hobsbawm describes the Marxist notion of progress as pointing to what is desirable. The strength of the Marxist belief in the triumph of the free development of all men depends not on the strength of Marx’s hope for it, but on the assumed correctness of the analysis that this is indeed where historical development eventually leads mankind. Hobsbawm goes on to argue that progress, defined as the increasing “emancipation of man from nature and his growing control over nature” is ultimately liberating as it culminates in communism. Yet in its course of development, ie. as we progress toward complete emancipation, the process is dehumanizing.
  9. George Lichtheim argues: But while his general scheme is linear, Marx does not altogether share the prevailing optimism in respect of “progress.” There are hints that every advance has to be paid for by the relinquishment of achievements possible only under more primitive conditions.
  10. Marx, Pre-Capitalist Economic Formations. Commentators on Hegel have long pointed to his fondness for Greek civilization. The immediate unity of self-consciousness that it displayed, while not as philosophically adequate as the modern scientific outlook, was immeasurably more satisfying.
  11. By a “transitional demand” Trotsky meant a claim put forward, the actualization of which leads to revolutionary changes, even though the demand itself appears reformist. For example, the demand for oneperson, one-vote seems less than revolutionary in North America. In South Africa, however, such a demand amounts to a call for revolution because it could only be implemented via a revolutionary transformation of South African society.

{ 149 comments… read them below or add one }

Louis Proyect January 16, 2013 at 9:41 am
Bill Kerr January 19, 2013 at 5:06 pm

I read your article Louis. I can’t see any practical proposal about what indigenous people should do now to advance their cause.


Arthur January 16, 2013 at 8:21 pm

Both this article and the review by Louis Proyect are clear expressions of the EXTREME reactionary romanticism that tries to pass itself off as left.

I don’t know the situation in Canada but the Aboriginal backlash against this stuff is running strong in Australia not just against pretend “Marxists” but also against center left parties that have allied to the greens in reactionary attempts to “preserve” Aboriginals as museum pieces instead of enabling their active participation in the modern economy, which has resulted in extreme degradation in Aboriginal communities. Recently in the Northern Territory the massive shift of Aboriginal voters (who are a large section of the population) from the center left party to Aboriginal candidates running for the center right party resulted in the election of several of those candidates and defeat of the previous government.

They want economic development, jobs and an end to living in degradation and squalor and they will take care of their own culture and “spirituality” without the patronising assistance of reactionary romantics.


Louis Proyect January 17, 2013 at 7:39 am

I have no idea why anybody wastes any time in a debate with Arthur. He is clearly some kind of liberal who has accidentally wandered into the wrong workshop.


Aaron Aarons January 19, 2013 at 1:56 am

How about linking to discussions of these issues among Australian aborigines, including objective reports of the opinions of those who don’t use the Internet?

I believe, BTW, that many or even most indigenous Australians are likely unsatisfied with the material conditions that they live in, and that they have been defeated in the same way that much of the working class of industrialized countries have been defeated, to the point that they believe that, in the world dominated by global capital and its armies, There Is No Alternative to allowing environmentally destructive development by and wage slavery under alien capitalist investors if one wants to avoid even further immiseration.


Brian S. January 20, 2013 at 10:21 am

@ Arthur. You insist on stereotyping views that conflict with your own. Bedford offers a substantial and nuanced critique of the penchant in classical marxist thought for unilinear models of social development, the lack of understanding of non-western societies, and a lack of appreciation of non-western (and indeed some western – e.g. Engels “people without history”) cultures; but he also acknowledges the existence of other currents in Marxist thought, especially that of Marx.
Where he fails in my view, is by not distinguisingh “modernity” (which implies such a unilinear process) with “progress” (which need not) And he remains vague about what sort of change he envisages as being positive in aboriginal societies. His conclusion that “they can teach us that progress is not always good nor is it the aim of all cultures” expresses this confustion – the first half of the sentence is right, and sums up a long history of aboriginal (and western popular) resistance; the second half is wrong – I cannot think of any culture that has not sought “progress” when it can develop it on its own terms, rather than have it imposed by alien forces for their own benefit. And that should be the objective of the left – to provide aboriginal cultures with the space necessary to develop and adopt their own forms of “progress”, drawing on and protecting the resources of their indigenous cultures.
A brief perusal suggests to me that in many respects that is the kind of model Pearson is trying to develop.


Arthur January 20, 2013 at 11:27 am

Certainly Pearson is seeking the space necessary for Aboriginals to progress on their own terms. That is why he insists on economic development instead of passive welfare, education (in both English and Aboriginal languages), and strong measures against the substance abuse epidemic that devastated their communities and has mounted such a vigorous backlash against people trying to keep them as museum pieces.

BTW the article is not merely “vague” about what sort of change is envisaged for Aboriginal societies. It simply has no interest in that topic and says nothing concrete about Aboriginal issues whatsoever (contrast with links and details offered by others in this thread). The point of the article is purely and simply to advocate that reactionary romanticism should be considered Marxist. Aboriginals are merely a prop.


jim sharp January 17, 2013 at 12:01 am

arfur lad!
as one of those reactionary romanticism who tries to pass himself off as “left!”
we informed prolies here in the land of oz know full well you’re one of those
“red bugger rats” whose tried to bugger up our class & as the song in this link sez
the time’s coming when we’ll expropriate your familial boozh-wah sinecure


Ben Campbell January 17, 2013 at 12:14 am

Jim, as much as you (or anyone else) might disagree with Arthur, please refrain from ad hominem attacks. See our commenting policy here:


jim sharp January 17, 2013 at 1:13 am

ben campbell
i’m sorry about bending the rules but arfur lad! did say
“Both this article and the review by Louis Proyect are clear
expressions of the EXTREME reactionary romanticism
that tries to pass itself off as left”.
now if that ain’t a precious puritanical ad hominem gem
coming from someone who ain’t a wage-slave prolerarian
but tells us how we shud think & feel & when we dismiss
‘is boozh-wah epistle he’s got the bloody impudence
to call us wage-slaves pseudo lefties which
even a peanut knows is but an oxymoron


anitah January 17, 2013 at 1:55 am

JS ‘comments’ are much worse than ad hominem. It is the equivalent of saying that class consciousness is hereditary and cannot be transcended. It is an insidious form of chauvenism.


Aaron Aarons January 19, 2013 at 2:38 am

I don’t think jim sharp is “saying that class consciousness is hereditary”. He is saying that it has something to do with the class one has grown up as part of. Apparently, Arthur Dent, as Albert Langer, is from a wealthy Melbourne family. Has he written anywhere about his development from that class position into a self-styled “red”.

Disclosure: I myself am from a lower-middle-class New York City family and am a declassé ‘intellectual’. I offer no claims to revolutionary merit beyond whatever value one assigns to the words I have spoken and written, and the many hundreds of mostly unremarkable actions I have participated in, over the past 56 years.


byork January 19, 2013 at 2:47 am

Well, so much for Marx and Engels, if class origins matter to the extent that they can be used against someone or to give them credibility. (Disclosure: I am from a low-income migrant workingclass background and grew up in one of Australia’s toughest neighbourhoods from 1954 to the early 1980s, when the suburb became gentrified. The view from my bedroom was a factory wall a metre away. My parents and I had nearly two years of homelessness after disembarking in 1954. We had hard times but like most working people back then certainly never went hungry – there was lots of overtime in the factories, But I could never do what Jim Sharp does – I’d find it too undignified).


Aaron Aarons January 19, 2013 at 11:51 am

“[…] most working people back then certainly never went hungry” was probably true for white Australians and for people of European ancestry in most imperialist countries and settler colonies. Moreover, when capitalists need more labor, even if it is for things like arms-making and other useless-or-worse kinds of production, fewer proletarians or semi-proletarians in those countries go hungry, although more proletarians and plebs might not only go hungry but be mass-murdered in other places, like Korea or Vietnam. It would be interesting to know how much of that “lots of overtime in the factories” was for production for imperialist war or for other production that mostly benefitted the rich and/or harmed the environment.

Only a working class that has been domesticated by capitalism will believe that production that is useless or worse becomes a good thing because they get paid for it.


Brian S. January 19, 2013 at 3:26 pm

This is a very silly discussion: on the British left, which gave it up long ago, it was known as “prolier than thou”.


byork January 19, 2013 at 3:50 pm

Brian, I agree.


Bill Kerr January 17, 2013 at 7:48 am

I had some email conversations with Frances Widdowson a while ago and we reached at least a tentative agreement that similar things were happening in both Canada and Australia. I haven’t read the book she has co-authored but can argue, if called upon to do so, the Australian case.

Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry: The Deception Behind Indigenous Cultural Preservation by Frances Widdowson , Albert Howard


Despite the billions of dollars devoted to aboriginal causes, Native people in Canada continue to suffer all the symptoms of a marginalized existence – high rates of substance abuse, violence, poverty. “Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry” argues that the policies proposed to address these problems – land claims and self government – are in fact contributing to their entrenchment. By examining the root causes of aboriginal problems, Frances Widdowson and Albert Howard expose the industry that has grown up around land claim settlements, showing that aboriginal policy development over the past thirty years has been manipulated by non-aboriginal lawyers and consultants.They analyse all the major aboriginal policies, examine issues that have received little critical attention – child care, health care, education, traditional knowledge – and propose the comprehensive government provision of health, education, and housing rather than deficient delivery through Native self-government. “Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry” presents a convincing argument that the ‘Aboriginal Industry’ has failed to address the fundamental economic and cultural basis of native problems, leading instead to policies that offer a financial benefit to the leadership while entrenching the misery of most aboriginal people.


patrickm January 17, 2013 at 8:30 am

Louis writes on his industrial keyboard and sends out across the interwebs;
‘More to the point, there is an implicit notion in Novack’s schema that capitalism is more productive than previous systems. “Encumbrances” such as tribalism had to be removed in order for civilization to move forward. This kind of undialectical view characterizes the Kautskyism of the Second International. In truth, the American Indian made far more productive use of nature than the capitalist ranchers and farmers who replaced them. The capitalist mode of production could certainly produce more goods with less labor, but at a terrible cost to the long-term viability of the land. If anything, the socialist world of the future will have to re-institute many of the ways that indigenous peoples related to the environment.’

Of course this is not a call for the re-adoption of smoke signals. What it is is the usual green mush that will be ‘nodded’ along to, on any site that has a ‘modern’ western-leftist flavor about it. It is the simple adoption of soothing mealy-mouth words in order to sound like there is actually a proposal underneath.

‘Many of the ways’ covers the entire green hole. Once you have fallen into this hole you will find a spade and can start digging. The proletarian methods of relating to the environment is not the answer either. The proletarian methods are the methods of the bourgeois owners, who are supposed not to care about ‘externalities’, and to just continue their quest for profits, and the proletarians in their quest for a wage income. It is similar to the Grapes of Wrath scene with the worker on the ‘tractor’ who stares down the gun wielding sharecropper and explains how he is not going to do anything because it would do no good whatever, so get out of the way and then he knocks over the hovel and drives on earning his days wage.

We do not want to be tied to a mule and live in a hovel, but we don’t want people thrown off the land like that either. Well the peoples’ in advanced western countries are mostly gone from the land and living longer, healthier, more creative and fulfilled lives; and they sometimes work in giant agri-businesses.

Proletarians shop in big supermarkets and avoid farmers markets where people with green views often run stalls selling crystals, and organically grown produce and complaining about the weather. In Australia the economy is not in the depth of trouble that Ireland, Greece and Spain etc., are, or even the U.S., but we can see that working people are losing their industrially powered living standards as they loose their jobs and homes and it is not any sort of progressive stance to turn hippie, even if plenty of people are turning to gardening just to feed themselves.

Marxists are not about conducting a retreat to the vegie gardens, or worse to the rural slumber of the past. This is the way the green poison was displayed over at Kasama by the utter reactionary parading as a Maoist revolutionary leftist no less, Mike Ely /Nando


Aaron Aarons January 19, 2013 at 3:03 am

Most of the world’s proletarians can’t afford enough to eat decently, partly because their low wages subsidize not only their own capitalists and landlords but the living standards of the global middle class, including what’s left of the labor aristocracy, in the imperialist countries.

And capitalist agriculture is responsible for a rapid depletion of the earth’s topsoil, the effects of which will show up more rapidly as the amount of topsoil remaining in larger and larger areas finally becomes too small to be productive. (One can compare the attitudes of industrial agriculturists regarding topsoil to the attitude of a man who has a bank account with an unknown balance and very low interest (regeneration), but who takes out more and more money each day, convinced that his ability to do so indicates that he has an unlimited amount in the bank.)


anitah January 17, 2013 at 6:55 pm

Louis Proyect; your proclamations about Arthur are laughable to anyone who even knows of him. Even Jim (a fair-dinkum cyber-stalker) would be laughing at an American calling Arthur a liberal. Your credibility as a fair-minded Marxmail moderator is taking a big hit Louis – why would you bother to debate Arthur? (A Marxist of over 40 year’s standing) You don’t. You run away and dodge and avoid. Not only that, you don’t engage well with others either. People such as Patrick and Bill who keep dropping pearls-before-swine (especially in the dialectics thread) are all ultimately avoided by most here not just Louis. I suggest you and others read ‘Red and Green Don’t mix’ by Dave McMullen. Romantic reaction is the perfect description of the position put by Louis.

The Aboriginal situation in Australia is abysmal and neither the genuine left nor the pseudo-left have had any impact on a deteriorating situation for many decades. The Aboriginal issues have liberal disaster stamped all over them and are marked right across the country with the headstones of generations buried long before their time. The so-called Green political agenda is directly competing against a political solution to their land use issues. Greenies want national parks, and wildlife ‘conservation’ areas etc., and end up with a fight amongst themselves about various issues while being responsible for thwarting the ascendancy of the Aboriginal political agenda.

Plenty of people on the other end of the government cash cow in the so-called ‘justice’ system etc.,are just interested in progressing along the career ladder feeling they are deserving of their place and blaming/harshly judging others as undeserving. As Eliza’s father, Mr. Doolittle said to Henry Higgins in Pygmalion “I mean to go on being undeserving”. I think this still shows the chauvinism of our time against the unemployed in its historical context quite well. None of these social workers etc., have a clue how to deal with chronic unemployment and ‘welfare dependency’. And the conditions that Aboriginals have had for years is now coming to countries like Greece and so on as the world wide capitalist crisis spreads.

Some years ago, a commission was established to serve as a representative body for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders (ATSIC-plenty of Aboriginals on the outside of that failed organisation said it stood for, Aboriginals Talking Shit In Canberra). There are a lot of failed experiments that people from all sides of politics are evaluating and attempting to assess. The failed thinking that was applied to the Aboriginal problems is now going to be applied to the broader community as welfare dependency spreads with the crisis.

Noel Pearson is an Aboriginal leader from Cape York who has much to contribute in solving some of the issues (that successive government’s have failed miserably to impact upon for decades – to the extent that the Aboriginal people have a shorter life expectancy now than they did in 1967) faced in developing nations and places like Canada and Australia etc.. It is clear that the problems are such that unless the communities take on responsibility themselves and take their youth in hand there will be no ‘culture’ left. So he has developed a program for educating youth based upon the American, Engelmann et al. Direct Instruction (DI) literacy program which seems to be progressing well despite its many critics.

I second Bill’s recommendation of Francis Widdowson as another person who has a most interesting Marxist perspective on this and I can recommend it to any non-partisan knowledge seekers out there.

P.S Jim I did love the song. Bugger the bankers.


Aaron Aarons January 20, 2013 at 3:59 am

You Australian fans of imperialist-led capitalist development keep making claims about the conditions of Australian aboriginal people and how environmentalists and opponents of generalized capitalist development are somehow responsible for those conditions. But you provide no specifics and references that would help a reader decide if your assertions have any merit. You seem to expect us to take your vague negative descriptions of what is happening to indigenous people and, even more absurdly, your assertions of why it is happening, as anything more than justifications for your own love of industrial capitalism.

They aren’t.


Ben Campbell January 18, 2013 at 1:12 am

Well thanks to David Bedford for allowing us to repost this article for discussion – it’s a shame that the comment thread so quickly deteriorated to insults. Arthur, perhaps in the future you will recognize that sweeping judgments (e.g. “EXTREME reactionary romanticism that tries to pass itself off as left”) accomplish little and actually derail the conversation from addressing whatever substantive points you may have.

Anita, whatever critiques you have of the environmental movement would be more effective if you engaged more substantively with the arguments of eco-socialists, instead of posting caricatures of them in a tract with the puerile title “Mix red and green and you get the colour of poo”.

This level of discourse is counter-productive to the spirit of this site. Please step it up a few notches and engage substantively.


byork January 18, 2013 at 2:30 am

Ben Campbell, you have clearly not read, let alone studied, the article in question on red and green not mixing.

Regarding the Aboriginal issue, I was once at an international history conference in Sydney and the keynote speaker (non-Aboriginal academic) gave an impassioned speech comparing Australia’s treatment of its indigenous population to that of Chile under Pinochet. During the talk – which was more akin to a sermon – he praised the homeland movement (or ‘going back to country’) advocated by some ‘leftists’ and some Aborigines. There was a delegation from South Africa – of indigenous African and Indian backgrounds. Over lunch, two of them – who had been active in the anti-apartheid struggle – expressed utter bewilderment to me that someone advocating separate development could have received such a thunderous round of applause. I did my best to explain…

It’s fascinating to see the avoidance of debate in this thread. Arthur presented a fairly orthodox Marxist view and there is substance in it that opponents could address. In Australia, Aboriginal people are fed up with the liberals and the Greens – and, yes, the pseudo-left – in thwarting their desires for empowerment and progress. Genuine self-determination includes the right and opportunity to integrate into the mainstream economy and society. This is happening against the obstacles imposed by successive failed government policies and the abovementioned. Conditions for Indigenous Australians in the remote parts of Australia are not so much ‘third world’ as ‘fourth world’. They are being trapped by lack of opportunity and welfare dependency, supported by supposed ‘leftists’ who believe in Aboriginal separate development. The reactionary diatribe in David Bedford’s article will not gain support from Aboriginal people – anywhere – in the C21st.


Ben Campbell January 18, 2013 at 4:02 am

Actually, I did read the article linked, and it was awful. The idea that I should have to “study” such unimaginative dreck is absurd. “Greens” are reactionary localists! “Reds” support science and production! This ridiculous dichotomy does not even attempt to understand the diversity of thought in the “green” movement – “greens” is seemingly meant to encompass everyone from deep ecologists to Barry Commoner, Ian Angus and John Bellamy Foster. If you want to talk about eco-socialism, how about you take a look at Foster, Clark, and York’s “The Ecological Rift” and get back to me with a thorough critique? Otherwise don’t waste my time asking me to “study” an unimaginative red v. green diatribe.

The topic at hand was “the aboriginal question”. (Note how in addition to conflating all “greens”, “greens” have been entirely conflated with that topic at hand!) Whatever one thinks of it (and I have my disagreements), Bedford’s piece is far from a “diatribe” – the same cannot be said of many of these comments.

“Genuine self-determination includes the right and opportunity to integrate into the mainstream economy and society.” This is obvious and nobody is disputing it. The question Bedford is trying to address is how Marxism deals with people who do not want to integrate into capitalist society. It is a theoretical discussion, and has little to nothing to do with your disdain for the Australian “pseudo-left”.

As far as “avoiding debate” is concerned, David Bedford provided a substantial piece, and Louis Proyect a substantial review. It is you and your co-thinkers who have avoided debate by simply dismissing all of their arguments as “reactionary”, introducing strawmen, and changing the subject to anecdotes about foolish Australian Greens. This is not how you have a productive discussion.


Aaron Aarons January 18, 2013 at 12:11 pm

Actually, the views of Patrick Muldowney, Albert “Arthur” Langer, et al., are very similar to those of a former member of the Socialist Workers Party (of Cannon, not Cliff!) in New York in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s who had a modest following that he had gained largely through entry into the Students for a Democratic Society, and the formation of a group called the SDS Labor Committee. Although the political label “Green” did not exist yet, or at least wasn’t in widespread use, this somewhat charismatic fellow’s diatribes against “anarchists” could be trivially modified to appear today as if they had been written by Patrick, Arthur, et al.

The man I’m referring to was then known as “Lyn Marcus”. Around 1975, when he decided that he could have more influence if he dropped his “Marxist” persona, he went back to using his birth name, Lyndon Larouche, and started blaming the politics he opposed on a conspiracy led by the Queen of England. But his militant positions for capitalist development and against environmentalism didn’t change much.


byork January 18, 2013 at 4:24 pm

Aaron Aarons, is that the same Lyndon Larouche who opposed the war in Iraq and opposes US support for the resistance in Syria?


Aaron Aarons January 19, 2013 at 1:29 am

While I haven’t actually seen anything from Larouche’s org in several years, I believe that he regards London-centered finance capital as the main obstacle to ‘progress’, while his idea of ‘progress’ is not much different from yours.

Oddly, he manages to denounce various manifestations of imperialism at the same time he denounces the armed, or even unarmed but militant, non-state opponents of such manifestations as “terrorists”, a label he applied, for example, to the Zapatistas at the same time that he was attacking the Mexican government for some of the same reasons that they were — for its economic policy but certainly not for its denial of indigenous rights. I should check up on him again sometime, but my guess is that he still denounces just about any kind of militant mass action anywhere as “terrorism”.

And how could he continue to pose as an enemy of finance capital, which he claims (with reason) dominates particularly the governments of the U.S. and the U.K., without verbally opposing their war against Iraq?


byork January 19, 2013 at 1:53 am

Ok, Aaron, you stood with Larouche, as well as with just about every autocrat/dictator in the region, in opposing the overthrow of fascism in Iraq. I pointed out that Larouche also opposes western support for the resistance in Syria – are you with him on that score too. Perhaps in future you’ll try to actually argue a case rather than ‘make connections’ – it can rebound against you, as on this occasion.


Aaron Aarons January 19, 2013 at 10:24 am

Ideologically, you

Yes, I was on the same side as almost every human being on the planet who had any opinion at all in opposing the invasion of Iraq by the U.S.-led imperialist bloc. And opposition to that bloc, though for very different reasons, is one thing I happen to share with the Larouchies.

You and your pals, OTOH, are close to Larouche in your basic value system, where the increase in production of material objects is the greatest good, and concern for the planetary ecosystem is regarded as not only mistaken but evil. Where you differ from Larouche is in your idea of who, among the powers-that-be in the world, is on the side of what you call “progress” and who isn’t.

I might reming you that, in the original ‘War for Democracy’, later called World War One, it was those who were most like the Kaiser who made war against his regime, while those who were most opposed to him and his kind opposed that war. The war against Iraq that included the invasion of 2003 was conducted by people who had no problems with autocrats and dictators who did their bidding in terms of economic policy and, not incidentally, in terms of relationship with the Zionist entity.


Aaron Aarons January 19, 2013 at 10:32 am

Oops! Those first two words were accidentally left in when I combined most of my first paragraph into what is now the second paragraph. Maybe one of the editors/moderators can delete them along with this note.

(Maybe this site can eventually be improved to include the ability to preview one’s comment and/or to edit it afterwards. Such abilities are quite common in many commenting systems.)


byork January 19, 2013 at 2:31 pm

Aaron, good that you amdit to being with Larouche and every dictator in the region in opposing the Iraq war. A pity you still can’t see that the US actually reversed its previous policy by overthrowing one of the worst dictators after years of supporting him. How does it feel to be to the right of Bush jr?! You also side with Larouche in opposing US and other western military support to the resistance in Syria. As for your cartoonish description of how ‘my pals’ and I see progress, it is too silly for words and reflects your – and others’ – inability to debate on the core question in this thread which relates to Marxism’s enthusiastic embrace of modernity and its desire to extend it further – out to the stars no less – and to ensure that all human beings have opportunity to own and engage in, and enjoy the fruits of, this process. It won’t happen under a redundant capitalism and that is one of the main reasons we support socialism. In other words, ‘we’ are with Marx in rejecting both ‘noble savage’ and nature worshipping romanticism. This is very challenging to people who think both are left-wing positions and, being unable to respond in terms of Marxism, they prefer to misrepresent and even engage in personal attacks about class backgrounds.


Aaron Aarons January 20, 2013 at 3:06 pm

I can’t think of any good explanation, other than questioning either your mental competence or your intellectual honesty, for why you continue asserting that my opposition to the U.S. war against Iraq was shared by “every dictator in the region” while ignoring the incontrovertible point that that opposition was shared by the overwhelming majority of those human beings on the planet who were in a position to express an opinion on the matter.

Also, there is plenty of evidence that the worst dictatorial regime in the region, the Saudi monarchy, and probably many other monarchies, covertly aided the U.S. against Iraq. The two reasons for most regimes at least publicly opposing that war were (1) their own populations were overwhelmingly against it and (2) they rightly feared that the removal of Saddam’s minority-Sunni-dominated regime would greatly strengthen the position of Iran, the country that they had paid Saddam to go to war against in the 1980’s.

Please explain how the rule of Iraq by the Bush Regime, which managed previously to steal an election that only its own, largely white-supremacist or at least national-chauvinist, population, and not a single Iraqi, was allowed to vote in, and massively attacked civil liberties inside its own territory, was less a dictatorship than Saddam’s regime was? And please explain how the Bremer Orders brought ‘democracy’ to Iraq? (Pinochet in Chile killed orders-of-magnitude fewer people in making that country safe for “democratic” neoliberal rule than the U.S. did to the same effect in Iraq.)

Brian S. January 20, 2013 at 6:24 am

Ah yes, Lyn Marcus, remember him well: found him quite interesting when he was the “National Caucus of SDS Labor Committees”, but I never was the best judge of character.


Aaron Aarons January 20, 2013 at 1:58 pm

Yes, he was certainly ‘interesting’. I knew him personally, though certainly not as a personal friend, from the time he made a somewhat ambivalent defense of me inside the SWP when I was being expelled in early 1964, through the time in 1965 or so when he was briefly a member of the Spartacist group (and edited one issue of its magazine!) and around 1968 when I was, for a few months, an attendee at meetings (and maybe even a “member”) of the Labor Committee of New York SDS. Marcus/Larouche managed to gain the leadership of that group (he may have initiated it) and later turn it into the National Caucus of Labor Committees. My last contact with Marcus/Larouche was in the hallway at some event in 1971, where I mentioned to him the Socialist Labor Committee, a recent split from his group that I had joined or was about to join, which he insisted on calling the “Socialist Orgasm Committee” because of its serious discussions of issues of sexuality in its paper.

‘Marcus’, in the time I knew him, was respected by many for his lectures and writings on economics, particularly on the topic of “fictitious capital”. I remember being favorably impressed by him in that respect, although I did not feel qualified to evaluate his arguments. Many people who broke with him after 1970 or so still admired his book, Dialectical Economics, which is now available on the Internet, although I haven’t found it in searchable text form yet. (Larouche tried, with great success, to make sure that copies could not be found. I was told that his people would, to that end, steal it from libraries.)


patrickm January 18, 2013 at 4:19 am

I don’t have any time for the green philosophy that is overwhelming in the milieu that Ben Campbell exists in. So I thought I would just step by patient step, make an argument to demonstrate how muddle-headed the thinking is that led to Ben’s comment above.

I really think that ‘Red and green don’t mix.’ I believe that political colors are widely understood even in the U.S.A. and that communists like me have always been referred to as reds. We reds are proud of our ‘flag’ and have been talking about the moribund ‘left’ for almost as long as I can recall. We reds in our turn, don’t like the flag being falsely flown.

We have often described insipid views that would rob reds of proven revolutionary understandings of how the world works, while still claiming to be of that revolutionary left as nothing but pink. So people like me might say something like;
“However, this has not stopped a section of the moribund ‘left’ from hopping on the green bandwagon. In their case it is more a mix of pink and green, which gives you an equally revolting blend.”
The reason that people wrote like this is because we reds think;

“Red and green don’t mix because they are polar opposites. Reds want to create a better society on the basis of the conditions created by modern industrial capitalism while greens want to retreat from those conditions. For reds, modern industrial society is creating the conditions for a future communist society, with bourgeois relations of production being the obstacle to its achievement. Greens on the other hand see modern industrial society as the problem and consider that the answer lies in retreating to some ‘simpler’ way of life.”

Now we understand there is more than that to green thinking so a communist could be expected to explain in more detail;

“According to the greenies, modern industry is too large and produces far too much. They think we need to go back to a way of living that is simpler both in terms of scale and complexity of activity and in terms of the range and quantities of goods that we produce.

Large scale industry is seen as inherently oppressive. The individual is just a small cog in a big machine. He or she can have no control in a large organisation because it requires hierarchical relations between people. With increasing scale’s of production workers lose all the old skills that made work to some extent fulfilling. In small organisations however the individual can retain control over their actions. Small is beautiful is their catch cry.”

After all reds are trying to make an argument against green views. So we would say things like.

“Greenies consider that production is excessive both in terms of people consuming goods they do not really need and in terms of environmental sustainability. According to this view we would be happier living more simply and it would be more environmentally viable. People engage in mindless consumerism because of advertising and to compensate for their otherwise empty lives. As for the level of production, resources are so scarce and the environmental impact of many of our production processes is so severe that we cannot sustain our present levels of economic activity.”

Now that is only a fair description of what greens serve up to the masses every day of the year so it can’t be objected to, even if it is not ‘saying enough’. We might also want to contrast that with what I would call in 2013 junk thinking and give a 99% v 1% perspective. As in;

“So large scale modern industry is seen as an obstacle to a better world, and one that we have to dismantle. However, this is the exact opposite of the red position. According to the red view, by creating modern large scale industry, capitalism is laying the basis for a more advanced social system. And it is doing this in a number of ways. Firstly, the concentration of economic activity into large industries means that ownership is concentrated in the hands of a few capitalists while the vast majority are dispossessed of the means of production. As a result the vast majority of people have no material interest in the continuation of the present capitalist system because they do not possess capital. On the other hand, if production is small scale and ownership is dispersed there would be a lot more capitalists and small business operators and therefore a lot more people with a stake in the system.
Secondly, modern industry is creating a level of material affluence that is absolutely necessary for a more advanced social system. It means freeing people from a life dominated by drudgery. And it means having the leisure time and resources to engage in creative and challenging activities. And this includes activities that have up until now been the exclusive domain of elites or ruling classes, in particular the political, cultural and intellectual life of society.”

Of course these are all the sort of issues that reds raise in response to greens as was no doubt discussed in circles of OWS without drawing much note. But reds have more to say than that! For example, we would always note that;

“Another way that modern industry is laying the basis for a new social system is by creating a work force that is better educated and more wide ranging in its capabilities than the ill-educated and narrowly trained workers of the past. This means a work force that has the potential to organise production without bosses, and without the narrow traditional division of labour that separates the conceptual and instrumental aspects of work, and turns it into something boring and alienating. It also means a work force that is less tolerant of the authoritarian nature of the present-day work environment and therefore more likely to rebel against it.”

Naturally that would surprise no one by itself, especially someone who has gone to University when that was a rare accomplishment for working class people when some of us were children. Naturally some of us do think that;

“From a red perspective the problem with the present day economy is not its bigness but rather the power relations between people that stems from the capitalist system of ownership. At the same time small scale production is associated with sweat shops and with slave and feudal societies of the past that were even more oppressive than the present system.”

AND what’s more we don’t consider it very contentious among people who fly a red flag.

Maybe the following is what interests, and or upsets Ben, as what has gone before is not very controversial to Socialists IMHO.

“Now let’s look at the green argument that current levels of production are unsustainable. [are you worried that they are Ben?]According to this view we are going to run out of resources and we will destroy the ecological systems that we need if we are to survive. [Is this your view? Because if it is some reds really think that] The fear of resource scarcity is mainly based on the failure to understand that resources are not just a given stock. They are created by new production methods. For example, the iron ore deposits in Western Australia did not become natural resources until the development of modern open-cut methods of mining in the 1960s. And oil was not a resource until the invention of the internal combustion engine; before that it was considered a nuisance.

The example of oil also highlights the role of substitution. Technologies employing either oil or coal developed at the end of the nineteenth century at a time when the main source of energy, fire wood, was being severely depleted. There had been a real concern at that time about the economy grinding to a halt because of a lack of fire wood.”

Now no one can deny that there are numerous examples of doom and gloom that pour out of the green movement, and reds are not about doom and gloom because many of us think that;

“To be gloomy about the future availability of natural resources you would need to show that this process of resource creation through technological change will fail us in the future. There is no sign of this occurring. On the contrary there are lots of new technologies on the horizon. For example, genetic engineering will create new ways of producing food and compensate for soil depletion. There is also the increasing efficiency with which we use resources.”

The thing I have noticed is that this is all quite well put and not reduced to even a slight diversion into insult. Even the next and last 2 paragraphs are well confirmed by the experience of many of us over the course of our lives;

“As for industry’s impact on the environment, one would need to be convinced that a shrinking economy would be better able to limit negative environmental impacts than a developing one. However, there is a far more compelling case to be made that a modern developing economy can better manage environmental impact. Firstly there are more resources available to do so, and secondly there are new technologies to clean up the environment and new ways of producing goods that have less environmental impact.

If these ideas on the environment and resource scarcity sound like conventional conservative views on the subject it is no coincidence. Reds agree with smug conservatives that there are no physical barriers to social progress. Where they differ is whether bourgeois property relations present social ones. Greenie’s and their brownie ‘left’ mates think they are being terribly radical when they claim there are physical barriers. In fact they are being even more conservative than the conservatives.”

All Ben has done is to comment about an old discarded title mentioned at the end of the article with no reference to the substance at all! Ben is obviously a slighted ‘eco-socialist’ who can recognize all of the greens views above that he can’t actually defend so he says they are caricatures;

“Anita, whatever critiques you have of the environmental movement would be more effective if you engaged more substantively with the arguments of eco-socialists, instead of posting caricatures of them in a tract with the puerile title “Mix red and green and you get the colour of poo”.
This level of discourse is counter-productive to the spirit of this site. Please step it up a few notches and engage substantively.”

That is truly bad politics typical of the sect behaviour that TNS is formally breaking from. There is plenty of substance in that article and no need to divert people with a irrelevant complaint as if the article was not substantive and was puerile.

Now, there has been a more substantial case put outlining the reactionary nature of the views – and the reflection on the title goes back to the romantic green views put under the title of ‘the tragedy of progress’ – I don’t think so! The tragedy is the lack of progress since

There is plenty more in that collection to ‘step it up a few notches and engage substantively’.
Perhaps Ben would like to do a critical review of after all people must have noticed it by now.



Ben Campbell January 18, 2013 at 5:10 am

Yes, you are right that this wretched greenthink is pervasive in the “milieu” that I inhabit – that “milieu” being the scientific community. Other than that, I’m curious how you think that you know so much about me.

I have no patience for the reactionary forms of green ideology, but what I will not let you do is to group all “eco-socialists” into a strawman that you can defeat in some ludicrous dichotomy without ever engaging what they have actually written. I will also not let you put arguments into my mouth that I have never actually made. There will be plenty of other opportunities for us to discuss issues of ecology and environment in future threads without your arrogance and ignorance further derailing this thread on the “aboriginal question”.

Subsequent off-topic “green” diatribes will removed.


byork January 18, 2013 at 4:29 pm

Okay Ben, so in keeping with this site’s positive role in promoting and allowing debate, how about publishing the original ‘red and green’ article for debate? It can then run its own thread. The article claims to be in the Marxist tradition. If it isn’t, then let people demolish its claim. And let those of us who think Marx supported the extension of modernity through the continued domination and exploitation of Nature by humans – and opposed capitlaism because it inevitably held back productive forces – argue our case, too.


admin January 18, 2013 at 4:35 pm
Ben Campbell January 18, 2013 at 5:50 pm

We will be publishing articles on this topic. However, I do not think that the article linked upthread is one that would be conducive to a quality discussion, for the reasons that I have already mentioned, which have nothing to do with me being some sort of “green”.


byork January 19, 2013 at 2:39 pm

Ben, I have forwarded the article to the editors with a proposal that it be published so that a thread can be started. Whether the discussion is of quality or not will be determined by the nature of the comments on it. You disagree with the article but it clearly is written within a Marxist framework. If this is not the case, then you and others who disagree with it should find it easy to refute it or at least point out how and why it is ‘liberal’. I don’t think anyone has as yet taken up the core question of Marxism’s opposition to romantic notions of the relationship between humans and nature and Marxism’s support for the unleashing of the productive forces as against stagnant ideals such as ‘sustainability’ and harmony with nature. The communist slogan ‘Abundance for all!’ means Aboriginal people too.


Brian S. January 19, 2013 at 3:38 pm

Ben, a serious discussion of the relationship between socialist and environmentalist politics would be a good idea. But there’s little point looking to these people to initiate it – they are basically afraid of green ideas and so constantly invent “green” straw-people to take their indignation out on instead. Pity we lost what could have been an interesting discussion in this thread.


byork January 19, 2013 at 4:09 pm

Brian, you might want to try arguing rather than appealing to agreement from the like-minded. If ‘we’ were afraid of green ideas we’d hardly be the ones challenging their assumptions and claims to be left-wing. The problem is that for more than a couple of decades green ideology has had an easy ride, basically assisted by the establishment and media. In the absence of a credible red left, green ideas have come to fill the void because they are often phrased in anti-capitalist terms. Yet because their anti-capitalism is more a yearning for simpler pre-industrial times, they give a free kick to the right and further alienate the workers from what is wrongly seen as ‘the left’. I have no problem with environmental politics that accept the Marxist notion of development over sustainability and that are practical and evidence-based rather than ideological (ie, as in the assumption that we have, or are about to, exceeded the natural limits). This means support for clean water against polluted water and it includes support for construction of dams to ensure that as much clean water can be used by people as possible. Marx marvelled at the ways in which industrial capitalism in his time was turning the old world upside down. A Marxist approach recognizes the vital role of technological innovation in creating resources out of nature where they previously did not exist. Under capitalism this process is retarded by the concentration of private ownership and the profit-motive. Under socialism, such innovation can flourish. The red left openly stands for unsustainable development. Ben, you need to do better than just asserting that this is not “serious” enough to debate. It comes across as though you’re fearful of Marxist notions of progress.


Ben Campbell January 19, 2013 at 4:24 pm

This is a much more reasonable comment than the previous comments upthread. Here you state “I have no problem with environmental politics that accept the Marxist notion of development over sustainability and that are practical and evidence-based rather than ideological.” While I may quibble with the formulation “development over sustainability”—it depends what you mean by ‘sustainability’, which is not the same as romantic conservation—I am glad to hear you have no problem with environmental politics when they are from a Marxist perspective.

The reason why I was so annoyed by the article linked—originally titled “Mix Red and Green and you get the Colour of Poo”—is that it showed no such appreciation or respect for the ecological work that has been done in the Marxist tradition, by the likes of John Bellamy Foster, Ian Angus, Paul Burkett and others—simply lumping all “Greens” together to condescendingly mock them as a joint strawman.

This is why we will not be publishing that article and will seek a more thoughtful article/interview on the subject. This conversation on environmental politics is off-topic, and is now over.


byork January 19, 2013 at 5:25 pm

‘Sustainability’ reflects the same romanticism and is just as reactionary – that is my argument and it’s why I regard ‘sustainable development’ as oxymoronic.


Aaron Aarons January 25, 2013 at 12:52 am

Sustainable capitalist development certainly is oxymoronic, and what you Aussie self-styled ‘reds’ argue for is capitalist development, the only difference between you and most partisans of capitalism being that you lament that the institution of wage labor, and certain other aspects of capitalism, are fetters on that very development.

Brian S. January 25, 2013 at 5:21 am

So does that mean you are in favour of “unsustainable development”? Sounds like a dead-end to me – both in semantic and real-world terms.

Arthur January 25, 2013 at 8:23 am

Not a dead end, but the absence of an end point.

Historically all actual development has been “unsustainable”. Development undermines existing conditions and makes it necessary, not just desirable to overcome them. eg Human populations could not sustain hunter gatherer societies. Their population density grew beyond what that life style could sustain.

“Sustainable” development implies constraining things so that they could go on as they are forever. The typical conservative/reactionary pipedream. We’ve never done that and never will.

Imagine if we had restricted ourselves to what could be sustained using firewood as the principle energy source.

Aaron Aarons January 26, 2013 at 1:46 am

The unsustainable development “using firewood as the principle energy source” led, at first, not to new sources of energy but to massive deforestation in Europe, Asia and Africa and to the invasion and devastation of the “new world”, including the killing of perhaps 100 million human beings — the great majority of the population at the time of what we now call ‘the Americas’.

Sustainable development is not static. Just looking at the energy-consumption aspect, that consumption can, probably within the next few decades, be greatly increased in a beneficial way based on the development of new technologies, including more efficient methods of capturing solar energy, and even the development of safe, efficient, forms of nuclear energy. The latter, though, requires something like a socialist revolution — and not one dominated by “socialists” who fetishize production for its own sake — for any claims of such safety to be believable.

In addition, the use of energy to satisfy human needs can be greatly increased in the short term by diverting energy use away from such harmful uses as the operation of imperialist militaries, as well as from production that provides luxuries for the richest 5% or so of the world’s population.

OTOH, just increasing energy use along the present lines will not only lead to catastrophic climate change (something the production fetishists here can’t acknowledge because it undermines their defense of unrestrained capitalist development), but will also accelerate the violent global struggle for existing energy sources.

Brian S. January 20, 2013 at 10:00 am

@patrick m. Your understanding of the modern world economy is very last century.Many western economies have “deindustrialised” as heavy industries have decamped to third world or other regions where the social conditions are more conducive to sustaining the harsh labour conditions that such production entails. Meanwhile, in developed countries new industrial models have been built around the networking of small productive enterprises with larger firms that are more concerned with development and marketing. In Germany – the country that has most effectively resisted the de-industrialisation process, the core of the industrial economy is the small and medium enterprise sector, which accounts for more than half of economic activity.


Arthur January 20, 2013 at 1:08 pm

Its called “globalized” not “deindustrialized”. The world is more industrialized than it has ever been and the global population is now more urbanised than England was when Marx wrote Capital (ie about half of the world’s population now live in cities)..

The concentration of finance capital is also greater than ever before – with a thousand billionaires owning more wealth than the total owned by half of the world’s entire adult population.

The “small productive enterprises” in Germany are parts of much larger coordinated supply chain networks with direct control as well as indirect financial ownership. Even the individual units with around 500 employees are much larger than what were considered big firms when Marx wrote Capital.


Aaron Aarons January 21, 2013 at 1:27 am

So how much more industrialized does the world have to be before the vulgar-Marxist notion of preconditions for socialism and/or for proletarian revolution are realized? Can any trees be left standing? Any marshlands left undrained? Any mountaintops not blasted to get at the coal underneath?

Have no doubt: capitalism will destroy the preconditions for life on Earth before it creates the “preconditions for socialism” in the sense that the vulgar Marxists picture them.


byork January 26, 2013 at 8:04 pm

Aaron Aarons, your argument is classically conservative. In order to argue against change, you posit an extreme hypothetical case. We’ve heard it all before and phrasing it in ‘left’ terms doesn’t conceal the essential position. Hey, we mustn’t decriminalize marijuana – if we do, then everyone will be stoned all day and all night. The existence of ALL the mountains, forests, etc is not under threat. Legislation exists in nearly all capitalist countries to protect the environment – in Australia, it is scandalously so.

The world needs to become more industrialised as a matter of urgency so that the couple of billion of us who do not have access to fresh water or enough food to eat will have it. ‘Green colonial’ attitudes can do nothing to stop this, in the long term, but they cause real harm in the intermediate. People in the vast regions of Africa with huge but largely undeveloped resources will do what the rest of humanity has done – develop the resources, to raise themselves from poverty and improve their opportunities in life. This will require such projects as the damming of rivers and extraction of mineral wealth. Capitalists will see opportunities for profit in this (just as the rise of ‘green capitalism’ shows that capitalists will see opportunities in ‘sustainability’) – but the process will be greatly faster and more efficient under socialism, when the workers run things. If you think green notions of sustainability and harmony with nature have much support among the working people, you are deluded. And such notions certainly have no basis in the philosophy of Marx and Engels who marvelled at the transformations in society brought about by ‘steam power’.

Under socialism – of the ‘red’ type – vastly more support and encouragement will be given to scientific endeavour and technological innovation. It will be liberated from the constraints of concentrated private ownership and the profit motive. Sustainability is not, and has never been, an objective of the left, and is best left to the advocacy of the princes and popes. The tackling of real issues such as air pollution is another matter, one that does not require reactionary ‘bigger picture’ green ideology.


Ross Wolfe January 18, 2013 at 1:32 am

This article may be slightly more dated than the 1994 David Bedford piece, but I think that’s worthwhile to examine a more classically Marxist piece on the subject. Here’s José Carlos Mariátegui writing in 1928:

“The Problem of the Indian” (1928)

A New Approach

Any treatment of the problem of the Indian — written or verbal — that fails or refuses to recognize it as a socio-economic problem is but a sterile, theoretical exercise destined to be completely discredited. Good faith is no justification. Almost all such treatments have served merely to mask or distort the reality of the problem. The socialist critic exposes and defines the problem because he looks for its causes in the country’s economy and not in its administrative, legal, or ecclesiastic machinery, its racial dualism or pluralism, or its cultural or moral conditions. The problem of the Indian is rooted in the land tenure system of our economy. Any attempt to solve it with administrative or police measures, through education or by a road building program, is superficial and secondary as long as the feudalism of the gamonales continues to exist.

Gamonalismo necessarily invalidates any law or regulation for the protection of the Indian. The hacienda owner, the latifundista, is a feudal lord. The written law is powerless against his authority, which is supported by custom and habit. Unpaid labor is illegal, yet unpaid and even forced labor survive in the latifundium. The judge, the subprefect, the commissary, the teacher, the tax collector, all are in bondage to the landed estate. The law cannot prevail against the gamonales. Any official who insisted on applying it would be abandoned and sacrificed by the central government; here, the influences of Gamonalismo are all-powerful, acting directly or through parliament with equal effectiveness.

A fresh approach to the problem of the Indian, therefore, ought to be much more concerned with the consequences of the land tenure system than with drawing up protective legislation. The new trend was started in 1918 by Dr. Jose A. Encinas in his Contribucion a una legislation tutelar indigena, and it has steadily gained strength. But by the very nature of his study, Dr. Encinas could not frame a socio-economic program. Since his proposals were designed to protect Indian property, they had to be limited to legal objectives. Outlining an indigenous homestead act, Dr. Encinas recommended the distribution of state and church lands. Although he did not mention expropriating the land of the latifundium gamonales, he repeatedly and conclusively denounced the effects of the latifundium system and, thereby, to some extent ushered in the present socio-economic approach to the Indian question.

This approach rejects and disqualifies any thesis that confines the question to one or another of the following unilateral criteria: administrative, legal, ethnic, moral, educational, ecclesiastic.

The oldest and most obvious mistake is, unquestionably, that of reducing the protection of the Indian to an ordinary administrative matter. From the days of Spanish colonial legislation, wise and detailed ordinances, worked out after conscientious study, have been quite useless. The republic, since independence, has been prodigal in its decrees, laws, and provisions intended to protect the Indian against exaction and abuse. The gamonal of today, like the encomendero of yesterday, however, has little to fear from administrative theory; he knows that its practice is altogether different.

The individualistic character of the republic’s legislation has favored the absorption of Indian property by the latifundium system. The situation of the Indian, in this respect, was viewed more realistically by Spanish legislation. But legal reform has no more practical value than administrative reform when, confronted by feudalism intact within the economic structure. The appropriation of most communal and individual Indian property is an accomplished fact.] The experience of all countries that have evolved from their feudal stage shows us, on the other hand, that liberal rights have not been able to operate without the dissolution of feudalism.

The assumption that the Indian problem is ethnic is sustained by the most outmoded repertory of imperialist ideas. The concept of inferior races was useful to the white man’s West for purposes of expansion and conquest. To expect that the Indian will be emancipated through a steady crossing of the aboriginal race with white immigrants is an anti-sociological naivete that could only occur to the primitive mentality of an importer of merino sheep. The people of Asia, who are in no way superior to the Indians, have not needed any transfusion of European blood in order to assimilate the most dynamic and creative aspects of Western culture. The degeneration of the Peruvian Indian is a cheap invention of sophists who serve feudal interests.

The tendency to consider the Indian problem as a moral one embodies a liberal, humanitarian, enlightened nineteenth-century attitude that in the political sphere of the Western world inspires and motivates the “leagues of human rights.” The anti-slavery conferences and societies in Europe that have denounced more or less futilely the crimes of the colonizing nations are born of this tendency, which always has trusted too much in its appeals to the conscience of civilization. Gonzalez Prada was not immune to this hope when he wrote that “the condition of the Indian can improve in two ways: either the heart of the oppressor will be moved to take pity and recognize the rights of the oppressed, or the spirit of the oppressed will find the valor needed to turn on the oppressors.” The Pro-Indian Association (1900-1917) represented the same hope, although it owed its real effectiveness to the concrete and immediate measures taken by its directors in defense of the Indian. This policy was due in large measure to the practical, typically Saxon idealism of Dora Mayer, and the work of the Association became well known in Peru and the rest of the world. Humanitarian teachings have not halted or hampered European imperialism, nor have they reformed its methods. The struggle against imperialism now relies only on the solidarity and strength of the liberation movement of the colonial masses. This concept governs anti-imperialist action in contemporary Europe, action that is supported by liberals like Albert Einstein and Romain Rolland and, therefore, cannot be considered exclusively Socialist.

On a moral and intellectual plane, the church took a more energetic or at least a more authoritative stand centuries ago. This crusade, however, achieved only very wise laws and provisions. The lot of the Indian remained substantially the same. Gonzalez Prada, whose point of view, as we know, was not strictly Socialist, looked for the explanation of its failure in the economic essentials: “It could not have happened otherwise; exploitation was the official order; it was pretended that evils were humanely perpetrated and injustices committed equitably. To wipe out abuses, it would have been necessary to abolish land appropriation and forced labor, in brief, to change the entire colonial regime. Without the toil of the American Indian, the coffers of the Spanish treasury would have been emptied.” In any event, religious tenets were more likely to succeed than liberal tenets. The former appealed to a noble and active Spanish Catholicism, whereas the latter tried to make itself heard by a weak and formalist criollo liberalism.

But today a religious solution is unquestionably the most outdated and antihistoric of all. Its representatives — unlike their distant, how very distant, teachers — are not concerned with obtaining a new declaration of the rights of Indians, with adequate authority and ordinances; the missionary is merely assigned the role of mediator between the Indian and the gamonal If the church could not accomplish its task in a medieval era, when its spiritual and intellectual capacity could be measured by friars like Las Casas, how can it succeed with the elements it commands today? The Seventh-Day Adventists, in that respect, have taken the lead from the Catholic clergy, whose cloisters attract fewer and fewer evangelists.

The belief that the Indian problem is one of education does not seem to be supported by even a strictly and independently pedagogical criterion. Education is now more than ever aware of social and economic factors. The modern pedagogue knows perfectly well that education is not just a question of school and teaching methods. Economic and social circumstances necessarily condition the work of the teacher. Gamonalismo is fundamentally opposed to the education of the Indian; it has the same interest in keeping the Indian ignorant as it has in encouraging him to depend on alcohol. The modern school — assuming that in the present situation it could be multiplied at the same rate as the rural school-age population — is incompatible with the feudal latifundium. The mechanics of the Indian’s servitude would altogether cancel the action of the school if the latter, by a miracle that is inconceivable within social reality, should manage to preserve its pedagogical mission under a feudal regime. The most efficient and grandiose teaching system could not perform these prodigies. School and teacher are doomed to be debased under the pressure of the feudal regime, which cannot be reconciled with the most elementary concept of progress and evolution. When this truth becomes partially understood, the saving formula is thought to be discovered in boarding schools for Indians. But the glaring inadequacy of this formula is self-evident in view of the tiny percentage of the indigenous school population that can be boarded in these schools.

The pedagogical solution, advocated by many in good faith, has been discarded officially. Educators, I repeat, can least afford to ignore economic and social reality. At present, it only exists as a vague and formless suggestion which no body or doctrine wants to adopt.

The new approach locates the problem of the Indian in the land tenure system.


Aaron Aarons January 18, 2013 at 3:06 pm

Mariátegui, as quoted by Ross Wolfe:

[…] the saving formula is thought to be discovered in boarding schools for Indians. But the glaring inadequacy of this formula is self-evident in view of the tiny percentage of the indigenous school population that can be boarded in these schools

I don’t know if it was the case in Peru in Mariátegui’s time, but the kidnapping of indigenous children and their placement in boarding schools was not an inadequate formula but one of the great disasters, perhaps second only to their mass killing, to afflict indigenous peoples in Australia and North America.

Also, while I believe that Mariátegui was well-intentioned, writing about “The Problem of the Indian” in those terms is a manifestation of the same objectification of indigenous people, and their subordination to the needs and desires of the settler and mestizo population, that is the real problem.


Pham Binh January 18, 2013 at 9:22 am

What is most disturbing and disappointing about this thread is the conflation of Aboriginal peoples in Australia and the Americas. I don’t know if the problem is intellectual laziness or willful ignorance. Either way, it does not advance the discussion of these issues.


Bill Kerr January 18, 2013 at 6:15 pm

(reply to Pham Binh, Jan 18 @ 9:22am):

… most disturbing and disappointing about this thread is the conflation of Aboriginal peoples in Australia and the Americas …

Many I would say most of the themes in the article are general or universal themes, such as:
– self determination / government of aboriginal peoples
– how to preserve aboriginal culture in the face of modernity
– aboriginal people are not proletarians or don’t want to become proletarians
– issues of production, consumption and distribution
– attitudes to Nature
– attitudes of “Marxists” to aboriginal struggles

The article refers at some length to the situation in Nicaragua with the Sandinistas, so the author, David Bedford, does see some relevance in aboriginal issues in other countries. Please explain why Nicaragua or the Americas in general are relevant and Australia isn’t? Is Lenin relevant? I don’t think he has much first hand knowledge of the current situation of Aboriginal struggles in the Americas.

[[Is Leninism a universalist ideology across space and time? Save that for another thread!]]

I did reference a book by Frances Widdowson and Albert Howard which is about the Canadian(sic) Aboriginal industry. As I said earlier I was struck in conversation with Frances by the similarities of the issues in Australia with Canada. I must admit that one of the reasons I didn’t buy that book previously (I did order it yesterday) is that I thought I understood the issues in Australia and a book about similar issues in Canada would not be all that relevant for me. However, reflection on the general / universal issues raised in the article did influence me to change my mind, hence I decided to buy that book. Every cloud (ugh, this thread has been a cloud) has a silver lining. So, yes, there was some “intellectual laziness” involved on my part there.

I think there has been a problem in the whole discussion of the issue. Something is wrong. I hope everyone would agree that the discussion is low level even despite the fact that what Lenin really said and meant is probably relevant.

The real problem with the discussion is that the aboriginal issue has moved on. It has gone through stages. I’d be fairly confident that the stages would be similar in different countries. The first stage was a racist assimilationist policy. That was opposed and it led into a policy of self determination. Note that this second stage has been supported by state capitalism. It’s called sit down money. Welfare. Poison. It would take some time to analyse this fully so forgive the shorthand. This has led to the (in retrospect) inevitable situation where separatism hasn’t worked either. Reality check: it has made things worse. Billions of dollars have been spent creating a social catastrophe. We are now into the next stage which is about how aboriginal people can orbit between both worlds: both the modern and their unique cultural world. Aboriginal leaders (and some white anthropologists) have been awake to this new stage for about 10-15 years now in Australia. I’m interested in hearing expert voices on this issue but I’m not hearing them on this thread. Or rather the noise to signal ratio is very high. That includes the original article, unfortunately.

Believe me Pham Binh there are some very interesting and expert thinkers and writers in Australia who have addressed most of these general or universal issues. One of them in particular, Noel Pearson, has thoroughly analysed all of these issues, found a practical solution and is in the process of implementing that solution comprehensively is Cape York, Australia. His leadership is nothing short of heroic. And you don’t see that as relevant? (“I don’t know if the problem is intellectual laziness or willful ignorance”)


Pham Binh January 18, 2013 at 7:10 pm

I never said the Australian experience was irrelevant, I said conflating it with the experience of the Americas was mistaken and unhelpful. I am more than happy to learn about both experiences from experts and those familiar with the relevant issues so that reasonable, factually grounded comparisons can be made.

Your point that this question has gone through stages of historical development seems to be correct and helps advance the discussion as far as I’m concerned.


patrickm January 18, 2013 at 7:38 pm

I draw peoples attention to the following thread from 2009 and recommend people read all the comments.

Here is a sample that I would hope that Ben and Binh could raise their standard towards.

Frances Widdowson
September 20, 2009 at 3:47 am

My concern about Pearson (with respect to some of the materials posted by the Cape York Institute website) is his apparent support for “developing” unviable communities. As I have mentioned before, this is often a more sophisticated variant of arguments put forward by the Aboriginal Industry. We have aboriginal politicians in Canada, for example, who are supposedly opposed to the status quo, who are arguing that government transfers should be provided in the form of monies for economic development instead of welfare and telling their communities to “get of their asses” (Clarence Louie, for example, and to some extent Calvin Helin and Jean Allard). This is an attempt to appeal to right-wing modernists while at the same time getting control over the distribution of glorified welfare.

Northern Canada is not very different from the situation in Australia. In Nunavut, for example, there are numerous remote communities, many of which can only be serviced by air (one possible difference is that many of these communities are “dry”, and so the people sniff gas instead of drinking grog). The people in these communities should not be forcibly transferred to other areas, as this, as I believe Arthur has pointed out, will just lead to urban ghettos and even more misery. What is needed is 1) to defund the Aboriginal Industry, so that corrupt aboriginal leaders are not being enabled by arguments about aboriginal “nationalism” that no one really believes; and 2) a comprehensive strategy to develop things like a culture of literacy and what Peter Sutton has called “emotional mobility”. This is not an easy task, as people like to be in control of their destiny and often resist outside interference (especially when they have been constantly screwed in the past). However, there have been some successful examples in countries like Cuba, where huge improvements have been made in backward populations (this concerned the peasantry, not tribal peoples). Successful examples should be studied and pilot projects tried, keeping in mind the specific needs of aboriginal peoples. However, currently there is a denial that there is a gap in development between aboriginal societies and modern civilization, and so no thought is being given to the question of how to address this gap. Opposing the pseudoleft will help this problem to be recognized.’

This 1994 stuff from David Bedford is shown up in the above thread for what Arthur has demonstrated it is.


Ben Campbell January 18, 2013 at 11:18 pm

If you think that The North Star should aspire to be, then I think you are mistaken about the purpose of this website. You mistake some critiques that have been made of the “pseudo-left” on The North Star for our agreement with your politics, which as far as I can tell is uncritical cheerleading of capitalism from above done in the name of Marx. Louis Proyect’s comparison to Spiked Online is apt. You are, of course, correct in many of your assessments of the degeneration of the left, but what you don’t seem to understand is that your own politics are a part of that degeneration – a reaction against the “pseudo-left” that leaves you espousing politics virtually identical to liberalism.

You are terribly concerned about “corrupt aboriginal leaders” who need to be “defunded”. By whom? The capitalist state? Where is your similar contempt for the corruption of the capitalist state? As far as I can tell it has been completely jettisoned in your embrace of liberalism and a whiggish view of progress.

Since The North Star is explicitly a place for disagreement and debate, your views are still welcome here – but don’t mistake our hospitality for agreement, and don’t come storming in calling everyone else “reactionaries” when your own politics bear an uncanny resemblance to the right.


Arthur January 19, 2013 at 7:03 am


I’m here because you appreciate the importance of debate, not under any illusion that this reflects agreement.

But in this thread you simply haven’t engaged in debate. Everyone who rejects the article has had something substantive to say about it. Both you and Pham Binh have contributed even less substantively than “the usual” from Aaron Aarons while Louis Proyect has simply announced his refusal to respond and pretended that is a response in much the same way as Mike Ely on Syria:

The thread referenced at lastsuperpower shows a serious discussion among people actually interested in Aboriginal issues:

You have NOT yet demonstrated any capacity to engage in such serious discussion here.


Ben Campbell January 19, 2013 at 12:29 pm

Arthur, that is because I have not attempted to “engage in debate” in this thread, as I have never pretended to be an expert on the topic at hand (Marxism and the Aboriginal Question). My postings in this thread have been limited to the attempt to moderate a civil discussion, which seems necessary since you and your co-thinkers are evidently unable to have such a discussion with those whom you disagree. You seem to think that your contributions here constitute a “serious discussion”, but they have not been serious. You do not respond to the points raised by others, instead preferring to pick and choose portions of which you can mock.

Thus, I will ask you again to clarify how your position on this issue differs from the mainstream liberal position. Among other points that you never responded to, you didn’t address Ross Wolfe’s claim that your views were “crudely stagist”.


jim sharp January 19, 2013 at 5:31 pm

it seems to me what we have here in this thread is
an intra non-antagonist class dialog in one corner &
in the other a mob of lay-say-faire neo-con liberals who
will slap a fundamentalist fatwa on dissenting wage-slaves


patrickm January 19, 2013 at 8:28 pm

A point of house keeping; could a mod tag and add this thread to

as the three are clearly part of a series and are important to link together for further / later research.


Arthur January 20, 2013 at 8:51 am

Re “mainstream liberal position”, certainly on the broad issue of being in favor of progress (including “producing and consuming” as denounced by this article) I am much closer to the mainstream (including the dominant “centre-left” and “centre-right” parties that may or may not be described as “liberal” or “Liberal” in different countries) than I am to openly reactionary opponents of progress as exemplified by this article and by views popular in the pseudoleft. I also think the central reason for the complete isolation of the pseudoleft is that it is generally understood as being more reactionary than the mainstream.

On the concrete issues of Aboriginal policy (taken up more by others in this thread) I broadly agree with Noel Pearson whose views are now becoming mainstream. Until quite recently the dominant “mainstream liberal” position in Australia was a much milder version of the reactionary romanticism in the article – which sought to preserve Aboriginals as museum pieces and basically ignored the extreme degradation and squalor that had resulted. That is still the default position of what I understand is usually meant by the term “liberal” in the USA (eg the audience of the Australian Broadcasting Commission which would be a similar milieu though a larger section of the population than the audience of NPR in the USA) but has lost a lot of ground recently – especially as a result of the strong Aboriginal backlash against it.


Arthur January 18, 2013 at 10:56 am

Marxism arose in direct opposition to other critiques of capitalism including reactionary romanticism. In Russia it defeated popularism or Narodnism. Both the article and Louis Proyect’s book review explicitly adopt the positions of reactionary romanticism and try to foist those positions on Marxism.

The article at least accurately quotes the direct repudiation of its position in Marxist classics and openly demands that these positions be abandoned. But instead of showing why they were wrong at the time or have become wrong now it simply demands that Marxists adapt their views to the currently far more popular reactionary romantic trends.

I’ll simply repeat some of the excerpts from the article:

“…Marxist acceptance of the Western ideology of progress takes three forms: (1) progress as inevitable, (2) progress as homogenizing and universalizing all human cultures, and (3) progress as good. Marxism’s commitment to the idea of laws of historical development, and the progressive nature of this development, has been the basis for much of the most intelligent criticisms of Marxism by Western philosophers. Leo Strauss and Eric Voegelin, for example, saw Marxism as the apogee of modernity….”

Instead of explaining why the reactionary romantic opponents of modernity and progress who bitterly hate Marxism as the apogee of modernity are right, the article simply prefixes and postfixes a claim that Aboriginals endorse their critique and demands that we genuflect.

As I mentioned “I don’t know the situation in Canada” but there is a strong Aboriginal backlash against being used this way in Australia. It would be surprising if Canadian Aboriginals took kindly to this patronising claim that Leo Strauss represents their world outlook (leaving aside the crass ignorance displayed in that claim).

“There is no doubt that Marx can be read as proposing a historical law of development in which human societies evolve from more “primitive” modes of production to more advanced, and that there is little that can be done about it. In the remainder of the paper I will argue that this is not the only possible reading of Marx, nor is it one that should be adhered to by present day Marxists.”

Marxism is not particularly popular at the moment. Why can’t the author simply denounce it as wrong instead of demanding that we “read it” as though it said what its opponents say?

Here’s how the author enlists Engels to his cause:

“The power of this primitive community had to be broken, and it was broken. But it was broken by influences which from the very start appear as a degradation, a fall from the simple moral greatness of the old gentile society.”

Here’s the immediately preceding paragraph:

“But we must not forget that this organization was doomed. It did not go beyond the tribe. The confederacy of tribes already marks the beginning of its collapse, as will soon be apparent, and was already apparent in the attempts at subjugation by the Iroquois. Outside the tribe was outside the law. Wherever there was not an explicit treaty of peace, tribe was at war with tribe, and wars were waged with the cruelty which distinguishes man from other animals, and which was only mitigated later by self-interest. The gentile constitution in its best days, as we saw it in America, presupposed an extremely undeveloped state of production and therefore an extremely sparse population over a wide area. Man’s attitude to nature was therefore one of almost complete subjection to a strange incomprehensible power, as is reflected in his childish religious conceptions. Man was bounded by his tribe, both in relation to strangers from outside the tribe and to himself; the tribe, the gens, and their institutions were sacred and inviolable, a higher power established by nature, to which the individual subjected himself unconditionally in feeling, thought, and action. However impressive the people of this epoch appear to us, they are completely undifferentiated from one another; as Marx says, they are still attached to the navel string of the primitive community. [5]”

The sheer dishonestly of enlisting Engels in a paen to nature worship and spirituality is evident.

The central theme is “…Aboriginal resistance to modernity must have as an ally the power of labour.”

Could anything be more alien to Marxism than resistance to modernity? Transparently this is a plea from a reactionary romantics to enlist Aboriginals in their hopeless project to retreat to their “golden age” before capitalism combined with a dishonest pretense to speak for Aboriginals in seeking to impose that absurd program on workers.

It gets worse:

“…Aboriginal people can offer the left a concrete spiritual content, a value system beyond the purely abstract ideas of freedom and self-development…. Aboriginal classless societies can positively contribute to a future socialist society, and to revolutionary Marxist movements, as living examples of the political and economic and social arrangements possible in the absence of private property, and by giving us the spirituality needed to step back from the brink of unrestrained and limitless technological hubris. They can teach us that progress is not always good nor is it the aim of all cultures.”

In an age where religion is in retreat the reactionaries offer us “spirituality” as the way to teach us that “progress is not always good”.

So when people openly say they regard progress as a “tragedy” how is it merely an “insult” to point out that this is “EXTREME reactionary romanticism”.

What is a reactionary if not a person who regards progress as a “tragedy”? Isn’t this specifically the “romantic” form of reaction which looks explicitly towards more primitive societies as more “spiritual”?

Compare with the reactionary romanticism Leninism fought:

Isn’t this a far more “EXTREME” form?

There is nothing substantive in the article to discuss. Accurately labelling it as an EXTREME form of reactionary romanticism was not a mere insult but a precise characterization which succinctly explained the essence.

Only the prevalence of this sort of overt hostility to progress and modernity among the reactionary green movement that has largely displaced the left as the most popular opposition to capitalism explains why it is not instantly recognized as such.

Taking the rejection and accurate characterization of such views as merely an “insult” merely expresses the fact that these virulently anti-Marxist views are so dominant that they are unused to any debate with people who hold the opposite views.

It doesn’t get any more pathetic than Louis Proyect’s refusal to engage with “liberal” views. The Narodniks also regarded their Marxist opponents as “liberals” (and both were indeed allied against the Narodniks). But they actually believed in what they were saying they would argue it against their Marxist and liberal (“legal Marxist”) opponents instead of just hoping to “workshop” it among themselves.

PS I don’t see the relevance of the analysis of “bossism” (“Gamonalismo”) in the semi-fuedal latifundia of latin america to any discussion of Aboriginal peoples in either North Ameica or Australia. No such social conditions were ever present in North America or Australia. But certainly the article Ross Wolfe quoted is relevant to Marxist analyses of the concrete conditions faced by certain Aboriginal peoples whereas the main article in this thread merely uses Aboriginals as a convenient prop for a direct demand to adopt reactionary romanticism instead of Marxism.


Aaron Aarons January 18, 2013 at 3:16 pm

Yes, there are a lot of problems with the original article, and it was a very bad choice to represent a critique of the weaknesses of Marxists in dealing with the situations of indigenous peoples. It’s a bit like choosing one of the more mystical speeches of Louis Farrakhan to present a critique of white supremacy. In both cases, you make it too easy for those being explicitly or implicitly criticized to discredit the critique, and you simultaneously promulgate other bad ideas that weren’t in the mix before.


Aaron Aarons January 18, 2013 at 4:00 pm

I want to qualify what I wrote here by saying that the article does indeed contain many valid and useful observations and references, and the sometimes-correct criticisms of some of its formulations should not detract from that.

BTW, I think it would have been better, if not as provocative, to subtitle the essay, “The Tragedy of the Fetishization of Progress” because, in reality, ‘progress’ is not a thing in itself, but motion toward an objective. The tragedy occurs when the goal is worthy but the presumed motion toward that objective is deceptive and/or does more harm than the benefits obtained by approaching that objective.


Brian S. January 21, 2013 at 8:46 am

@Arthur You don’t do nuances (or dialectics very much), do you Arthur. The fact that Engels in the last analysis opted for a unilinear path to capitalist modernity did not prevent him from recognising that something was lost in this process, and even from being quite romantic about that loss. The phrase “a fall from the simple moral greatness of the old gentile society” expresses that romantic attachment, no matter what final conclusion he may have drawn about its historial limitations.
Engels, for all his failings, always grasped the dialectical character of capitalist “progress”:
“Since civilization is founded on the exploitation of one class by another class, its whole development proceeds in a constant contradiction. Every step forward in production is at the same time a step backwards in the position of the oppressed class, that is, of the great majority. Whatever benefits some necessarily injures the others; every fresh emancipation of one class is necessarily a new oppression for another class. The most striking proof of this is provided by the introduction of machinery, the effects of which are now known to the whole world. And if among the barbarians, as we saw, the distinction between rights and duties could hardly be drawn, civilization makes the difference and antagonism between them clear even to the dullest intelligence by giving one class practically all the rights and the other class practically all the duties. “


Arthur January 21, 2013 at 10:40 am

Using Marxist critiques of capitalism to propose preservation or restoration of pre-modern modes of production is not “nuanced” or “dialectics” but pure sophistry.

At least the Nardodniks only wanted to promote medieval institutions rather than hunter-gatherer society. But here’s Lenin on romantic sophistry:

“We have seen that both romanticism and the modern theory [Marxism] indicate the same contradictions existing in contemporary social economy. The Narodniks take advantage of this when they point to the fact that modern theory recognises the contradictions which manifest themselves in crises, in the quest for a foreign market, in the growth of production simultaneously with a decline in consumption, in protective tariffs, in the harmful effects of machine industry, and so on, and so forth. And the Narodniks are quite right: modern theory does indeed recognise all these contradictions, which romanticism also recognised. But the question is: has a single Narodnik ever asked wherein lies the difference between the scientific analysis of these contradictions, which reduces them to the different interests that spring from the present system of economy, and the utilisation of these references to contradictions merely in order to utter good wishes? No, we do not find a single Narodnik who has examined this question of the difference between the modern theory and romanticism. The Narodniks likewise utilise their references to contradictions merely in order to utter good wishes.

The next question is: has a single Narodnik ever asked wherein lies the difference between the sentimental criticism of capitalism and the scientific, dialectical criticism of it? Not one of them has raised this question of the second major difference between modern theory and romanticism. Not one of them has considered it necessary to use the present development of social and economic relations as the criterion of his theories (yet it is the application of this criterion that constitutes the chief distinguishing feature of scientific criticism).

And the last question is: has a single Narodnik ever asked wherein lies the difference between the viewpoint of romanticism, which idealises small production and bewails the “break-up” of its foundations by “capitalism,” and the viewpoint of the modern theory, which takes large-scale capitalist machine production as its point of departure and proclaims this “break-up of foundations” to be progressive? (We employ this generally accepted Narodnik term. It vividly describes the process of change in social relations resulting from the influence of large-scale machine industry which everywhere, and not only in Russia, has taken place with an abruptness and sharpness that have astonished public opinion.) Again no. Not a single Narodnik has asked himself this question, not one of them has attempted to apply to the Russian “break-up” those yardsticks which made people acknowledge the West-European “break up” as progressive. They all weep about the foundations, advise that this break-up be stopped, and assure us through their tears that this is the “modern theory.”. . .

The comparison of Sismondi’s theory and their “theory,” which they have presented as a new and independent solution of the problem of capitalism based on the last word of West European science and life, clearly demonstrates to what a primitive stage of the development of capitalism and public thought the origin of that theory belongs. But the point is not that this theory is old. There are quite a few very old European theories that would be very new for Russia. The point is that even when that theory appeared, it was a petty-bourgeois and reactionary theory.”


Brian S. January 21, 2013 at 1:12 pm

@Arthur:”Using Marxist critiques of capitalism to propose preservation or restoration of pre-modern modes of production is not “nuanced” or “dialectics” but pure sophistry.”
Nor is stereotyping those you disagree with and refusing to see that despite some flawsin their argument they may contain some valuable points which you could learn from. Remember where the term “dialectic” came from.


Bill Kerr January 21, 2013 at 7:16 pm


I think what arthur did was present the conclusion of his argument before he presented his actual argument, which I agree is bad style.

My own preference is to try not to use labels (reactionary romanticism, pseudo left, blah, blah, blah) because I think quite rightly most people don’t like to be placed in boxes. If someone wants to place themselves in a box then that is their problem and a separate issue. There are too many people on this site striving to place their opponents in boxes IMO.

I’ve been reading a lot of Hilary Putnam lately and he came up with this wonderful phrase “respectable contempt”, which is the attitude he takes to people who know how to argue but with whom he disagrees with strongly. I’d like to see more respectable contempt here at North Star and less contemptible contempt.

With regard to the quoting contest b/w Engels and Lenin: Engels tends to be more soft line and Lenin hard line. So we just end up in a quoting match. Is that how marxist debate or any debate should happen? Isn’t that a form or religion? My god says it better than your god.

I’d suggest that the real issue here is what line should we take on cultural relativism. I linked to a video which is a discussion b/w Marcia Langton and Peter Sutton in which cultural relativism does come up (in part 2). Sutton’s book has a chapter on this, too and there are other good contemporary opinions.

Wouldn’t it be more productive to hear what contemporary thinkers are saying about these issues and thinking hard about that rather than focusing on what some very smart but now dead people said? (Yes, and thanks for taking the trouble to look at the Noel Pearson links)


Brian S. January 22, 2013 at 6:15 am

@Bill: Don’t know if this comment will reach you, given the length of the thread, but I agree with you that the issue of cultural relativism is important. But is suspect we may have a somewhat different take on it.
In my view cultural relativism is a partially valid framework – but,well, a relative one. There are many things that need to be looked at, understood and engaged with in their particular cultural framework. But I also think that there are values that transcend cultures (I hesitate to say “universal” but I think its close to that). And cultures are not the seamless holistic entities that they are sometime treated as- they always contain contradictory elements and contending forces. (I went through a period where I regarded the concept of “culture”, because of this over-integrated implication as conceptually useless. I’ve mellowed a bit but am still rather sceptical.)
The lack of any sense of cultural relativism has been very destructive in the history of colonialism (the attempt by many – but not all – mission societies to supress indigenous cultures); but so has the use of cultural relativism (the incorporation and freezing of indigenous social relations in systems of “indirect rule”).
Interested in your views.


Bill Kerr January 22, 2013 at 2:51 pm

Thanks Brian. Your views are in the same ball park as mine. I need to do some more reading on this issue, since I feel half baked about it, but will find a way to get back to you. I have this thread tagged so any comment here triggers an email to me.


Arthur January 22, 2013 at 6:44 am

Brian, the term dialectic comes from dialogue or argument and concerns resolving disagreement through struggle or strife. It stands in direct opposition to eclectics which tries to blend opposing viewpoints.

Bill, no doubt people find your style more congenial than mine. But I think a debate was successfully kicked off which gave the opportunity for you to introduce factual details that you are more familiar with than me.

BTW I’m not sure whether you missed this comment or whether yours was also intended to be in response to it:

Anyway, I think the point of the article was not to discuss Aboriginal issues but to defang Marxism. I don’t see it as a quoting contest and the efforts to counterpose Engels and Marx (and Lenin) were answered quite well by Helen Shehan.

People here naturally don’t want to be placed in a box labelled “reactionary” and would prefer to wear the label “Marxist”. If we accept articles claiming that progress is a tragedy as not being just contemptible it not only opens the way to the kind of real damage that has been done to Aborigines but also helps prevent any theoretical clarification and preserves the current situation that most people are not interested in anything “left” because they are more progressive than people they understand to be leftists.

PS I watched the two part video and found it interesting towards the end that Peter Sutton mentioned he started out with romantic delusions. It would be better if those ideas were clearly associated in peoples minds with a big label “reactionary” and people who advocate them (especially people claiming to be “Marxist”) were placed firmly in that box.


Bill Kerr January 22, 2013 at 3:41 pm


I’ll have another look at Chapter 1 of Sheehan. I do admit to a morbid interest in how the views of great thinkers are distorted by those who follow. On page 47 Sheehan summarises Engels relevance to modern philosophy and it is not a strong claim.

My reading is that Brian could and did find a softer quote from Engels and you could and did find a harder quote from Lenin. The relevance of all this to a real discussion of indigenous issues in 2013 remains very tangential as far as I can see.

For instance, Pearson in one of his essays (White Guilt, Victimhood and the Quest for a Radical Centre, one of my favourites) refers at length to his dialectical approach but he doesn’t source it to anyone in particular, although Amartya Sen does get a mention. I can’t see much influence of marxist thought on the people who are thinking hard on indigenous issues and coming up with solutions that are actually working – and I can’t see how reading marxism would improve their contribution.

There is the issue of historical theoretical continuity, aka himat and dimat. That’s a longer discussion but have to admit to strong doubts there after reading Sheehan and a lot of Putnam. Putnam builds his case around pragmatism stretching back to Peirce, James and Dewey and then moving onto still living writers such as Sen. As you can see I’m probably going to have another one of my notorious “deviations” :-)


Arthur January 22, 2013 at 7:30 pm



Louis Proyect January 18, 2013 at 7:38 pm

I generally don’t post long comments on North Star but some of the things I have seen here strike me as so wrongheaded that I am compelled to respond.

To start with, I want to say that I have a considerable amount of experience on indigenous issues having spent time on the Blackfoot reservations in Montana and Alberta meeting with local leaders. At one point we were considering the feasibility of launching a technical aid project for the American Indian but it never went beyond the planning stages.

I have also written a fair amount about indigenous issues from a Marxist perspective and invite people to check out the 52 articles I have archived at They deal with many of the questions being discussed here.

I would add that my original impetus for researching Marxism and the American Indian came out of disgust with articles that were appearing in Living Marxism in 1991, the journal of a Trotskyist sect that has morphed into the libertarian Spiked Online. They are coming from the same place as what I have seen here and amount to a productivist version of Marxism that LM was promoting at the time as well as the garbage that Bob Avakian’s Maoist sect was spreading at the time. Ward Churchill wrote an attack on Avakian’s RU that I discussed here:

Basically LM and Avakian defended an assimilationist perspective. There is a very bad tradition in Marxism that they were channeling and that has led to all sorts of problems in places like Colombia and Nicaragua. I deal with these specific cases as well.

Arthur writes, “I don’t know the situation in Canada but the Aboriginal backlash against this stuff is running strong in Australia not just against pretend ‘Marxists’ but also against center left parties that have allied to the greens in reactionary attempts to ‘preserve’ Aboriginals as museum pieces instead of enabling their active participation in the modern economy,”

This business about museum pieces is identical to what I read in LM in 1991 except they put it in terms of seeking to preserve indigenous peoples in amber. The article in question was about the Yanomami in the Amazon rainforest, taking exception to human rights organizations trying to prevent them from being slaughtered by gold miners. I could not believe that “Marxists” could be so wrong on such a key question.

I wonder what kind of “modern economy” Arthur has in mind. Bill Kerr urges us to check out Noel Pearson, someone whose “leadership” in Australia on indigenous issues is “nothing less than heroic”. Out of curiosity I went to Pearson’s website and discovered this:

“All people who have ever developed have pursued the Adam Smith road and it will be no different for our people. If there is to be indigenous development and we are to take a fair place in this, our own country, then we will have to travel the Adam Smith road.”

Is this what Marxists stand for? Urging aboriginal people to follow the road of Adam Smith? What utter nonsense.

Kerr also lauds Frances Widdowson, a Canadian academic who blogs at I found a couple of interesting items there. One is an article titled “Why is Koran Burning Being Opposed?”, an item whose title speaks for itself and is not worth a response. It could have been written for Harry’s Place. There is also an article defending the Shepherd Krech thesis that Indians were no more respectful of nature than BP or Koch Industries, another argument that I have heard from Living Marxism.

I get the impression that the people who defend these views have a Maoist background and who are obviously wedded to the LM/Bob Avakian nonsense. This will be the first and last time I respond to them since I consider them so beyond the pale that any other words would be superfluous. Once again I urge comrades to read what I have written on these matters since I have dealt with this in the past.


Bill Kerr January 18, 2013 at 10:29 pm

Kerr also lauds Frances Widdowson, a Canadian academic who blogs at I found a couple of interesting items there. One is an article titled “Why is Koran Burning Being Opposed?”, an item whose title speaks for itself and is not worth a response

No, Louis, the title of that article does not speak for itself. The article has to be read in full to be understood. I reread it then and think it is good. But given that in your opinion “it is not worth a response” I suppose that is the end of our discussion.


Bill Kerr January 18, 2013 at 10:32 pm

Here’s the direct link to the koran burning article:


Brian S. January 19, 2013 at 3:52 pm

Thanks. And what an appaling piece of Islamophobia it is.


Bill Kerr January 19, 2013 at 8:09 pm

I read it again. I think the main point is burning a book is qualitatively different from killing people who criticise that book. That point needs to be made. However, when I look more closely I think it does drift over the line into condemning all Muslims. Here are a few instances:

“While the threats are claimed to come from a minority of “radical Islamic” elements, no rational, peaceful Muslims in the majority, have condemned them”
Because the voices of the moderates were not heard does not mean they were not there

“Where was the wrath of the “moderate Muslims” in response to this cruelty?”
Well, it is hard for moderate Muslims to get their voices heard so that was unfair.

“There was no mention of shielding the boy from the heinous brutality advocated in the book being used for his brainwashing”.
Technically, that may be correct, but the vibe is not good.

I should read and think more carefully before commenting. So, thank you.


Bill Kerr January 18, 2013 at 9:34 pm

Louis Proyect:

I wonder what kind of “modern economy” Arthur has in mind. Bill Kerr urges us to check out Noel Pearson, someone whose “leadership” in Australia on indigenous issues is “nothing less than heroic”. Out of curiosity I went to Pearson’s website and discovered this:

“All people who have ever developed have pursued the Adam Smith road and it will be no different for our people. If there is to be indigenous development and we are to take a fair place in this, our own country, then we will have to travel the Adam Smith road.”

Is this what Marxists stand for? Urging aboriginal people to follow the road of Adam Smith? What utter nonsense.

I haven’t looked at you work in any detail Louis so apologies for that in advance.

You have credentials and you have informed us of them. I have proud, indigenous credentials too but I won’t document them because they are not particularly relevant. If you are trying to score a point with your credentials then that doesn’t work ultimately. All that it shows is that you care, you put your effort where your mouth is and you get off your arse and do something. It doesn’t mean you are right. I’m just an ageing white man Louis, trying to understand the situation of the most disadvantaged group in my country. Everyone, Louis, has credentials. Different anthropologists will go and observe the same tribe and come to different conclusions. They spend their working lives on these issues and disagree at the end of it. That is because our facts, our theories and our values come together in different ways. All we can do then is argue. Your credentials count for something but not much. On the scale of credentials you would be a 1 and Pearson would be a 100. But then there are other aboriginal activists who disagree with Pearson (eg. Chris Sarra). The only thing that is compelling is the full analysis – the facts, the theory, the values put together.

What you are doing here however seems similar to me to what you are complaining about. ie. having a quick look at Noel Pearson’s work, finding something you disagree with, and then presenting that as some sort of refutation. This is the very technique you have complained about. Call it quick search and destroy.

Noel Pearson doesn’t self describe as a marxist. Noel Pearson has written a few things in support of Adam Smith. Does that make his views on indigenous affairs nonsense from a perspective of those trying to grasp a marxist perspective on indigenous affairs? I would hope not. First up, Adam Smith can be interpreted in many different ways. eg. Amartya Sen, who is certainly relevant on these issues, interprets Adam Smith differently from the mainstream economists. Next up, marxist analyses are so diverse and contradictory that the label is practically useless.

aside: the only way I find the marxist label useful is in this sense: that marx said some things in Capital that are so deep and profound that hardly anyone understood them and have been arguing different interpretations every since. That is real depth: to originate an analysis so deep that when people have the luxury of reading it (and not having to think it up from scratch) then even then they don’t get it. But that doesn’t fit at all well with a label. Your labels in this case – that you are anti Smith and pro Marx are useless, they just strike a pose, they don’t say anything meaningful. You are playing a language game

If you think you have presented a refutation of Noel Pearson by spending 5 minutes at his site and finding something you disagree with then you are wrong. I won’t ask you to read 52 articles just one of his older speeches, which is a good first introduction to Pearson’s work:

If you read and respond to that then we can have a real discussion. You understand that quick search and destroy does not cut it, don’t you? Or is that just a complaint about people who quickly read and destroy your work?


Brian S. January 19, 2013 at 6:52 pm

@ Bill Kerr: Pearson’s lecture makes considerable sense – I can accept that the development of a welfare based culture for indigenous people may well be socially harmful, and has often been just a form of “quick fix” by the dominant culture so that they can forget about the issues. There are parallels in this respect between Australia and Canada (or at least western Canada as I knew it some years ago). Its not clear from the lecture what shape Pearson envisages for his solutions. The Cape York institute adds more flesh, and some of the stuff on welfare reform looks sensible to me, given what little I know about the situation. Other sections I am less clear about, although several also look sensible: ” self-management of Aboriginal communities by elected councils. … laws granting inalienable freehold title to the Aboriginal
reserves, to be held in trust by the councils. laws to enable private ownership of lands by families through perpetual leases for home ownership, and term leases for enterprise development.” Elsewhere there seems to be a bit of a neo-liberal bent to their ideas – e.g. the emphasis on property rights as a means to environmental protection.
I also note his paper “Taking our culture on the road of Adam Smith”. – but nowhere in this does he explain what he means by”the Adam Smith road”. But I note that he says “There’s another road we will travel at the same time and that is the road of cultural determination, our determination as a people to keep our identity and our traditions, our heritage, our languages.”
There’s one thing that I would add to that – indigenous cultural resources may also make it both possible and advisable to modify the “Adam Smith road” to economic advance, if by that is meant market capitalism. His example of a people who have followed these “two roads” is the Jews; but Jewish communities made extensive use of traditional institution and culture to pursue decidedly non-market based routes to advancement. (That of course might not contradict Smith if we mean Smith of the Theory of Moral Sentiments)


Bill Kerr January 19, 2013 at 7:35 pm

Brian S:

Its not clear from the lecture what shape Pearson envisages for his solutions

The main approach has been an education method that actually works (Direct Instruction) combined with a Family Responsibilities Commission for parents who aren’t sending their kids to school etc. I’ve been to Cape York and observed the education directly and was very impressed. I can supply more documentation if you want it. I’m currently implementing the same methods with indigenous kids that I teach from the APY Lands (remote) in South Australia.

Elsewhere there seems to be a bit of a neo-liberal bent to their ideas – e.g. the emphasis on property rights as a means to environmental protection

That did blow up into a major issue in Queensland / Cape York when the Labour government introduced wild rivers legislation which put severe restrictions on development. Pearson’s view was that aboriginal people had an excellent track record in looking after the environment and that this legislation was preventing development essential to aboriginal people obtaining jobs in the real economy. More recently the Labour government in Queensland has been replaced by the Liberal coalition which is committed to rescinding the wild rivers legislation. It’s been one of those issues that has fractured traditional progressivist politics that aboriginal and greens are natural allies (that has proved contentious here; I won’t comment further)

wrt the “Adam Smith road”: Unfortunately, I haven’t studied Adam Smith. (I’m only really familiar with Smith from reading Capital and clearly as Ross Wolfe pointed out Marx has a great deal of respect for him). However, I do know that Pearson has been influenced strongly by Amartya Sen and I came across this quote from Sen in a Hilary Putnam essay:

The support that believers in, and advocates of, self-interested behaviour have sought in Adam Smith is, in fact, hard to find on a wider and less biased reading of Smith. The professor of moral philosophy and the pioneer economist did not, in fact, lead a life of spectacular schitzophrenia. Indeed, it is precisely the narrowing of the broad Smithian view of human beings, in modern economics, that can be seen as one of the major deficiencies of modern economic theory. This impoverishment is closely related to the distancing of economics from ethics.
Fact and Value in the world of Amartya Sen by Hilary Putnam

Probably, that interpretation would fit with Smith of the Theory of Moral Sentiments as you suggest.


Ross Wolfe January 19, 2013 at 2:14 am

First, Adam Smith and Karl Marx ought not to be set up as arch-rivals, the way that libertarians make them out to be. Few self-proclaimed disciples of Adam Smith have even read The Wealth of Nations, and mistake Smith for some sort of warmed-over version of Mandeville. Marx regarded Smith (and William Petty, and David Ricardo, and Sismondi) as the most brilliant political economists that bourgeois society produced. He wasn’t “against” Smith any more than he was “against” Hegel or “against” Robespierre. Marx’s own thought developed out of an immanent critique of these various streams of political economy, the philosophy of history, and revolutionary politics, as Lenin (following an early piece by Kautsky) pointed out in his “Three Component Parts of Marxism.”

As for “resisting modernity,” I think it should be obvious to anyone who has studied historical Marxism in the least that figures like Marx, Engels, Lenin, Luxemburg, Trotsky, Mariátegui, etc. never for a moment countenanced the idea of supporting premodern traditional cultures against the modernizing influence of capitalism. Their main concern was to mitigate the unnecessary but concomitant cruelties that occurred as a result of racial prejudices, differences in language and convention, and other various aspects of modernization that were not essential

Though I must say I find Arthur’s conceptualization of “progress” here a bit thin, and even crudely stagist at times, in the vulgar Marxist sense that existed in certain sections of the Second International. Nevertheless, the broader point about romantic anti-capitalism is a sound one, worth defending. For whatever it’s worth, Louis, Bob Avakian and the RCP have since come around to anti-assimilationist ideal of multiculturalist Marxism, following the “cultural revolution” that took place within their organization around 2001. (It’s hard to keep track of these things, I know, but at least you can take consolation in the thought that brother Bob on your side now).

On the subject of Koran burnings and so on, I personally don’t see what the big deal is. The Bolsheviks burnt thousands of holy manuscripts from various faiths. I suppose that the scrapped materials, the paper, book-binding, etc., could have been put to better use, in the same way that churches, mosques, and synagogues were converted into lumber yards or Museums of Atheism, in which the rotting remains of saints would be dug up to disprove the people’s primitive belief that their bodies don’t decompose.

I mean, when it comes to anti-religious propaganda directed against Muslims, it doesn’t get much more offensive than the Bolsheviks’ publication Godless [Безбожник] (1922-1938). Images like that make the 2005 Danish cartoon look like child’s play. The Union of the Tatar Godless [Союз безбожников Татарии, later renamed the Union of the Tatar Militant Godless or Союз воинствующих безбожников Татарии in the 1930s] put out this incredibly offensive image of the Prophet Muhammed in 1927. While they weren’t Arabs, but rather Turko- or Mongol-Caucasian (from the Caucasus mountain region), the Tatar atheists came from a an Islamic background, and so I would suspect that such representations of the Prophet Muhammad were directed against the archetype of Muslim religiosity in general and not intended as a racist jab at Arab peoples.


Arthur January 19, 2013 at 6:52 am

Ross I can forgive your complaints about “stagist” in view of your providing the delightful news that delightful news that Bob Avakian and the RCP are now on the same side as Louis Proyect on these issues.

As you say:

” I think it should be obvious to anyone who has studied historical Marxism in the least that figures like Marx, Engels, Lenin, Luxemburg, Trotsky, Mariátegui, etc. never for a moment countenanced the idea of supporting premodern traditional cultures against the modernizing influence of capitalism.”

Yet for Louis Proyect the idea is not merely countenanced but so well established that there is simply no point even attempting to argue with people who disagree with it and have thereby placed themselves “beyond the pale”.

I am curious as to whether you think David Bedford and Louis Proyect have never studied hstorical materialism in the least?

My own impression is that they probably have studied it and it would indeed be quite obvious to both of them that their ideas would never be countenanced by Marx or Engels. David Bedford’s absence from the discussion may simply mean that he isn’t around. But Louis Proyect’s indignant refusal to engage strikes me as the only stance available for someone who still wishes to pose as an “Unrepetant Marxist” while fundamentally rejecting historical materialism.

What is your interpretation?


Ross Wolfe January 19, 2013 at 9:11 am

Arthur: Whatever my (or your) disagreements might be with Louis, I think it’s clear that he’s spent a great deal of time studying the Marxist tradition. Even a cursory overview of his website will reveal that he knows the history of the various Internationals and so on. Your question to me and your subsequent remarks about Louis’ “pose” as an “unrepentant Marxist” seem to be a deliberate attempt at provocation.

It may seem a kind of trivial point, but I wrote “historical Marxism” and not “historical materialism” for a reason. Louis probably wouldn’t try to argue that Marx, Engels, Lenin, etc. supported the resistance of traditional forms of society to the modernizing influence of capitalism. However, there are various post-1949 (or post-1959) offshoots of historical Marxism that would. My own feeling is that there’s a great deal of New Left-ism to these views, which seek to accommodate a regressed political reality by tailing after whatever popular anti-capitalist sentiment seems to arise.

What’s more interesting to me, though it’s a different discussion, is that both you and Louis or Binh have criticisms of mainstream anti-imperialist politics on the contemporary Left, but from very different angles.


Arthur January 20, 2013 at 8:23 am

Ross, Sorry I misquoted “historical Marxism” as “historical materialism” – combination of not carefully reading the word following historical that started with m and ended with ism and of not being familiar with usage of the concept “historical Marxism” myself (as I wouldn’t accept what you call the offshoots of “historical Marxism” as having much in common with Marxism).

Certainly there’s been a lot of tailing after whatever popular anti-capitalist sentiment seems to arise and the most popular anti-capitalist sentiments in recent decades have been been quite alien to Marxism.

But mostly people tailed after popular anti-capitalist sentiments that at least claimed to be in some broad sense “progressive”. Its gone a lot further when people start tailing anti-capitalist sentiments that are explicitly hostile to progress and regard it as a “tragedy”.

This particular article is quite extreme in its demand for a “renunciation of the idea of progress” and Louis Proyect’s endorsement of it is completely unqualified (indeed his review of the book contains, and perhaps originates the completely dishonest quotation from Engels that I pointed out above).

Its true that we both have criticisms of the “anti-imperialist” pseudo-left (who are certainly not “mainstream” or “left”) and that we do so from different angles.

(VERY different angles – Louis Proyect first denounced me as a troll when I disputed his claim that jihadists who fought in Iraq were “the core of the resistance to Qaddafi”: )

I would regard the issues of being for or against progress and for or against liberation from oppression as being of comparable importance in re-establishing a left and drawing a line against the pseudo-left. It is particularly important not to let people get away with claiming to be “Marxist” when they are in fact tailing after other more popular anti-capitalist sentiments as they arise.

Although historically the two issues belong together as part of what constitutes being “left”, at present they seem to be orthogonal with all 4 logically possible positions being occupied.

People associated with The North Star seem to be generally supportive of liberation from oppressive regimes by “whatever gets results”, and consequently also appreciate the importance of open debate. That is a key demarcation against the outright enemies of the left who don’t even support democratic revolution, let alone communism. At the same time they are inclined to support the popular “green” and reactionary romantic opposition to capitalism (including anti-globalization) that has largely filled the vacuum created by the absence of a Marxist left.

The other logically possible combinations are also around. Many of the supporters of the East European police states also held “traditional” attitudes in support of “progress” (including “producing and consuming” as denounced in this article). Likewise “Spiked” certainly does – while maintaining an “anti-imperialist” hostility to intervention against dictators (at the same time as mocking others with the same views).

Most of the pseudo-left are solidly in both the anti-progress and anti-liberation camps. I would hope that should make it easier for people involved in The North Star to make a break on both issues rather than just one.

PS Ben Campbell said above that I ought to address your suggestion that my conception of progress is “crudely stagist” at times. Frankly I took it as just you keeping your distance while in fundamental agreement and have no inclination to discuss it as I plainly did not say anything at all about stages. If you want it addressed, please elaborate. BTW in case it helps I have read Louis Proyect’s “Engels, Marxism and Stages” and would certainly reject his critique of Engels, but the subject hasn’t even come up as instead of honestly attacking Engels for his views both the article and Louis Proyect’s endorsement of it pretended to enlist Engels by dishonest quotation.


Ben Campbell January 20, 2013 at 9:05 am

Arthur, as Ross just said “you and Louis or Binh have criticisms of mainstream anti-imperialist politics on the contemporary Left, but from very different angles.” If you cannot recognize this, then perhaps you need to go back and read Louis and Binh’s articles, before trying to position everyone on some ridiculous quadrant with two axes, “progress” and “liberation”. As far as I know, nobody around here agrees with your support for the invasion of Iraq, so perhaps you should ask why that is before lumping everyone together with your “liberation” by “whatever gets results”.

Both you and the anti-“imperialists” you oppose claim to know what is best for seemingly all people everywhere, without much care at all for what the people themselves in the existing world actually think. Both you and the anti-“imperialists” justify this arrogance by referencing what you claim are doctrines of Marx, Engels, or Lenin. But, as the Bedford article above points out, the actual views of these thinkers were more nuanced. This is because Marxism is not a doctrine, but the application of a dialectical analysis to vastly changing circumstances. Your use of dichotomies, transhistorical principles, sweeping judgments, and a farcical “quadrant” makes a mockery of everything that Marxist analysis is supposed to be about.


Arthur January 20, 2013 at 9:52 am

Both Ross and I said we had very different angles and I emphasized it by capitalizing the word VERY (not to mention repeatedly highlighting my rejection of your views on Iraq).

Whatever Marxist analysis is supposed to be about it has historically ALWAYS stood on the side of progress and against tyranny. Like it or not articles that treat progress as a “tragedy” are as alien to Marxism as articles in praise of tyranny.

As for the “nuanced” views ascribed to Marxist thinkers in the article I have already documented the outright falsification.

Here again is the “nuanced” version as quoted in the article (and in the review by Louis Proyect):

“The power of this primitive community had to be broken, and it was broken. But it was broken by influences which from the very start appear as a degradation, a fall from the simple moral greatness of the old gentile society.”

Here again is what Engels actually said immediately before that.

““But we must not forget that this organization was doomed. It did not go beyond the tribe. The confederacy of tribes already marks the beginning of its collapse, as will soon be apparent, and was already apparent in the attempts at subjugation by the Iroquois. Outside the tribe was outside the law. Wherever there was not an explicit treaty of peace, tribe was at war with tribe, and wars were waged with the cruelty which distinguishes man from other animals, and which was only mitigated later by self-interest. The gentile constitution in its best days, as we saw it in America, presupposed an extremely undeveloped state of production and therefore an extremely sparse population over a wide area. Man’s attitude to nature was therefore one of almost complete subjection to a strange incomprehensible power, as is reflected in his childish religious conceptions. Man was bounded by his tribe, both in relation to strangers from outside the tribe and to himself; the tribe, the gens, and their institutions were sacred and inviolable, a higher power established by nature, to which the individual subjected himself unconditionally in feeling, thought, and action. However impressive the people of this epoch appear to us, they are completely undifferentiated from one another; as Marx says, they are still attached to the navel string of the primitive community. [5]”


Ben Campbell January 20, 2013 at 10:50 am

Arthur, I am glad you acknowledge the great differences that separate people here from your own views on “imperialism”. In the future, do not conflate us with silly “quadrants” and other binaries.

As for the question of “progress”, I do not recall Marx engaging in the uncritical cheerleading of capitalism that characterizes you and your comrades. While Marx certainly recognized the great potentialities unleashed by capitalism, he also recognized what David Bedford calls the “tragedy” of capitalist “progress” with respect to aboriginal peoples:

“My lady Countess resolved upon a radical economical reform, and determined upon transforming the whole tract of country into sheep-walks. From 1814 to 1820, these 15,000 inhabitants, about 3,000 families, were systematically expelled and exterminated. All their villages were demolished and burned down, and all their fields converted into pasturage. British soldiers were commanded for this execution, and came to blows with the natives. An old woman refusing to quit her hut was burned in the flames of it. Thus my lady Countess appropriated to herself 794,000 acres of land, which from time immemorial had belonged to the clan. In the exuberance of her generosity she allotted to the expelled natives about 6,000 acres — two acres per family. These 6,000 acres had been lying waste until then, and brought no revenue to the proprietors. The Countess was generous enough to sell the acre at 2s 6d on an average, to the clan-men who for centuries past had shed their blood for her family. The whole of the unrightfully appropriated clan-land she divided into 29 large sheep farms, each of them inhabited by one single family, mostly English farm-laborers; and in 1821 the 15,000 Gaels had already been superseded by 131,000 sheep.

A portion of the aborigines had been thrown upon the sea-shore, and attempted to live by fishing. They became amphibious, and, as an English author says, lived half on land and half on water, and after all did not live upon both.”

A tragedy, indeed.

I am glad that you at least acknowledge that your uncritical capitalist cheerleading has more in common with liberals than the self-identified “left” (regardless of whether you consider that a pseudo-left).


Arthur January 20, 2013 at 11:04 am

The four logically possible combinations are still there. Two of them are diametrically opposed and have their own stability. The other two are inherently incongruous and unstable. Your discomfort with this debate reflects the awkwardness of your position.


Ben Campbell January 20, 2013 at 11:53 am

Arthur you are a correct in one sense. Marxism, with its emphasis on dialectical critique, is an unstable position. If one is not careful, it can harden into a kneejerk anti-capitalism on one side (characteristic of most of the “pseudo-left”), or an uncritical embrace of bourgeois liberalism on the other (characteristic of many left apostates, of which you are only one fairly uninteresting example). Both of these positions are more “stable” than Marxism, but a dogmatism in the name of “stability” should be of little interest to thoughtful Marxists.


Louis Proyect January 20, 2013 at 11:11 am

I think people should read Teodor Shanin’s “The Late Marx and the Russian Road” at some point in their lives. It disavows the schematic stagist methodology that is most pronounced in a work like “Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State”. It is mostly about Marx’s letters to the Russian populists who had begun to embrace historical materialism. He stresses that a society does not have to go through a capitalist stage in preparation for socialism, like training wheels on a bicycle. He thought that the Russian peasant communes could be a springboard for socialist revolution. This is basically what Mariategui was proposing when he identified the Peruvian ayllu (a peasant commune with indigenous roots) as a possible building block for socialism in Peru. This obsession with the productive forces ripening, transforming everybody into a wage earner, etc. is very much the expression of taking the Engels stagism and pushing it over the edge into liberalism. Plekhanov, who opposed the populists who were corresponding with Marx, got the ball rolling and Kautsky took it in a fully reactionary direction (of course before he took this direction he was an outstanding Marxist.)


Arthur January 20, 2013 at 11:37 am

People interested in what actually happened to the Russian communes (which were historical epochs ahead of Aboriginal tribes) might like to read Lenin’s “Development of Capitalism in Russia” and his polemics with the Narodniks.

I previously referenced the most relevant one for this thread:

“A characterization of economic romanticism”


Brian S. January 19, 2013 at 7:22 pm

@Ross Wolfe:
“Marx, Engels, Lenin, Luxemburg, Trotsky, Mariátegui, etc. never for a moment countenanced the idea of supporting premodern traditional cultures against the modernizing influence of capitalism.”
As David Bedford points out, Marx partly departs from this line-up with his views on the Russian Commune: “If at the time of emancipation the rural communes had first been placed in conditions of normal prosperity; if the immense public debt, mostly paid for at the expense of the peasants, with the other enormous sums provided through the agency of the State (and still at the expense of the peasants) to the “new pillars of society”, transformed into capitalists, — if all this expenditure had been applied to further developing the rural commune, no one would today be envisaging the “historical inevitability” of the destruction of the commune: everyone would recognise in it the element of regeneration of Russian society and an element of superiority over the countries still enslaved by the capitalist regime.”
and there is even an element of flexibiity in Lenin, with his emphasis on Cooperative organisation as a route for bringing the the peasantry into socialism.
On the question of “Koran burning” we are not talking here about over-enthusiatic atheism but deliberate, anti-muslim racism. And the Bolsheviks were very flexible (perhaps too flexible) on the question of religion – as their adoption of the rhetoric of “holy war” in the “Manifesto to the Peoples of the East” demonstrates.


Bill Kerr January 19, 2013 at 4:01 am

I found a Noel Pearson article which is directly relevant to the themes in the original article by David Bedford. It’s an essay from his Selected Writings, Up From the Mission. I did find a version (pdf) of this article on line, although it’s not exactly the same as the one in his book.

Economic context is important. He makes some preliminary remarks that aboriginals in countries like Canada and Australia (he calls these First World) do receive significant welfare, unlike aboriginals in poorer countries like PNG (such as Papua New Guinea, which he calls Third World).

This changes everything because the connection between traditional economy and culture is ruptured in these “First World” countries, which have welfare states. He goes onto say:

In my view this distinction, between the indigenous peoples living in a First World welfare state context and those who do not – is decisive, and is not properly comprehended when people think about “the survival of indigenous cultures and societies in a globalised world”. It may not be properly comprehended by Indigenous leaders contemplating the prospects of their people being able to retain their cultures in a changed and changing world.

He then makes some remarks the “cultural vibrancy” he has observed in Third World countries such as PNG and contrasts this with the cultural disintegration he has observed in Australia. This latter aspect is not stressed in this essay but is a very strong theme in many of Pearson’s other essays, eg. the one I suggested that Louis read.

Pearson then outlines three choices for aboriginal people in welfare states. I would argue these choices are very relevant to the original theme of the essay in this thread. I’ll quote this section in full (from the online version):

One choice is “to remain where we are”: attempting to retain our traditions and cultures whilst dependent upon passive welfare for our predominant livelihood. For the reasons advanced earlier, I would say this is not a choice at all. If we do, the social and cultural pauperisation of Indigenous society in Australia will continue unabated, and we will not establish the foundations necessary for cultural vitality and transmission to future generations. We therefore need to confront and demolish the mistaken policy that passive welfare can subsidise the pursuit of traditional lifestyles in remote communities.

The second choice is to “go back”: to maintain our cultural and linguistic diversity in the same way as the peoples of PNG are able to, or other such indigenous peoples throughout the Third World. But this is hardly possible. Indigenous Australians are now engulfed by the Australian economy and society, and it is impossible to see how territories could be established where the welfare state no longer reached, and traditional economies could be revived (this is not to say we cannot reform the welfare state within Indigenous regions). For one thing, my people would simply refuse this course in practice.

The third choice is to “go forward” and find solutions to a bicultural and bi- and multilingual future. That is Indigenous Australians must face the challenge that comes with culture and traditions no longer being linked with our economy in a
relationship of coincidental necessity, but rather one of conscious choice. This is what I have in mind when I suggest a First World Indigenous people, rather than a Fourth World people. Some of the elements and requirements are as follows. Firstly, it is about being able to retain distinct cultures, traditions and identity, whilst engaging in the wider world. Secondly, Indigenous Australians will need to ensure that the economic structure underpinning my people’s society is “real”. This will require fundamental reform to the welfare system affecting my people so that we are rid of
passive welfare. It will also mean that our people gain their livelihood through a combination of all available forms of “real” economic activities – traditional, subsistence, modern – and this will include the need to be mobile through “orbits” into the wider world and perhaps back to home base again. Thirdly, education will be key to enable bicultural and multilingual facility and maintenance – as well as to enable economic mobility. Fourthly, we will need to deliberately and decisively shift our cultural knowledge from its oral foundations to written and digitised foundations.
We will need fundamental traditionalists to be learned in our languages and cultures to fight for cultural scholarship and maintenance that can withstand whatever social and economic changes we will confront.

This is a bare sketch of the kinds of policies we will need if we are to survive as an indigenous people within a First World nation.

The programme I outlined is obviously not a separatist programme. I advocate restoration of social order and a real economy, education and proficiency in English that make my people socially and economically completely integrated, national unity and geographic mobility. There should be much common ground for Indigenous people who agree with me and conservative and economically liberal people.

Would this be a good way to structure discussion? Do Pearson’s three choices represent the real options available? Which of the three choices do you support? Argue your case. Obviously I’m with Pearson – choice three.

I would add that Pearson’s practice has gone beyond outlining the choices to influence government in Australia to implement his option 3 in Cape York Peninsula. This I regard as a remarkable achievement of truly progressive practical politics starting from a reality so grim that people can’t imagine and seem to continually want to forget about once they have heard.


Aaron Aarons January 20, 2013 at 5:20 pm

I have no idea of how the ‘welfare’ referred to here is administered, but how is receiving some kind of welfare different from receiving an income from a family trust fund, or from dividends and interest on stocks and bonds?

In my experience in the USA, the main difference is that trust fund babies, and others who receive a portion of the social surplus by virtue of owning titles to property, aren’t required to justify their right to eat and have a place to sleep.


Bill Kerr January 20, 2013 at 5:38 pm

Aaron Aarons,

Perhaps you could read the Pearson article I recommended Dr Charles Perkins Memorial Oration, ON THE HUMAN RIGHT TO MISERY, MASS INCARCERATION AND EARLY DEATH Delivered By MR NOEL PEARSON, October 2001

Then we could discuss something real. I mean since you have “no idea” then why not read something by someone who has spent their life trying to solve this problem.


Louis Proyect January 19, 2013 at 8:54 am

Ross: “First, Adam Smith and Karl Marx ought not to be set up as arch-rivals, the way that libertarians make them out to be.”

That may be the case but Noel Pearson does view them as arch-rivals as this glowing review of Herman DeSoto’s “The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else” should make clear. It concludes:

“And there are many (more ephemeral) property rights and other capital potential embedded in native title law — which remain out of our reach because of our inability to represent these assets through a lack of legal and entrepreneurial imagination. For example, Indigenous Land Use Agreements (ILUAs) under the Native Title Act 1993-1998 (Cth) — rather than just being a post-negotiation tool to confirm agreements — could become representable assets that have capital value, if Aboriginal groups treated ILUAs as potential commercial assets.”

Noel Pearson is preaching “Aboriginal Capitalism”. The only puzzle is why some are preaching Noel Pearson to us.


Bill Kerr January 19, 2013 at 6:28 pm

Ah, Louis, you are continuing to debate those who you refuse to debate with because they are beyond the pale?

For anyone interested in the full argument in context, rather than a cherry picked quote without a link, see:
Building Indigenous Capital: Removing obstacles to participation in the real economy

The opening paragraph reads:

A key structural problem faced by many Indigenous people, particularly those living in remote communities, is the fact that they live in a welfare economy outside the mainstream Australian (real) economy. The passivity bred by this welfare economy, and the adversarialism which pervades the native title system, are in themselves damaging incidents of an isolation from the real economy. This isolation is cemented, however, by specifically Indigenous landholding structures. These structures prevent many Indigenous people from leveraging their asset base in order to build capital: in remote Indigenous communities, you can’t borrow against your own house because the land is either inalienable or the government owns it. Participation in the real economy is not, in practice, a choice available to many Indigenous people

He is advocating that aboriginal people have full rights within a capitalist society, including shock, horror, the right to be capitalists.

Pearson is a practical activist involved in improving the lot of his people. His early views and sentiments were clearly Left in the conventional sense. eg. at one stage early in his career he furiously labelled John Howard, then Australian PM, a racist. (Much later he built a practical alliance with the same PM). When I first heard him speak over 10 years ago now I was surprised at the extent to which he was trying to build alliances with mainstream politicians. Eventually, I realised that in order to progress the cause of his people in the NOW (rather than some imagined utopian future) such practical alliances were necessary. He has written about that transition in his own thinking, when challenged by Paul Keating (another former Australian PM). Having made that decision of course he understood how he would have to cop the ire of the conventional Left, the sort of taunts that Louis is now indulging himself in. I would argue simply that he has advanced the cause of indigenous people (from their Fourth World parlous state) in practical, real terms whilst many others who agonise about it all have not.

This thread has pushed me further in the Pearson direction myself. Of course, I was well and truly sold already so no surprise there. But I have bought some more books along the themes of justice and reform within capitalism. Amartya Sen: The Idea of Justice; Martha Nussbaum: Creating Capabilities: The Human Development Approach

Correct me if I am wrong but I can’t recall any comments on this thread apart from my own that has come up with any practical suggestion in the NOW about how to further the cause of indigenous people. I don’t count agonising over marxist theory as an immediate practical solution to urgent problems. People here don’t even seem to be aware of the extent of deterioration of indigenous communities in the context I have described where welfare money breaks the nexus between economics and culture. It was this deterioration that caused anthropologist Peter Sutton to speak out publicly:

in my time with the Wik people up to 2001, out of a population of less than 1000, eight people known to me had died by their own hand, two of them women, six of them men. Five of them were young people. From the same community in the same period, thirteen people known to me had been victims of homicide, eight of them women, five of them men. Twelve others had committed homicide, nine of them men and three of them women. Most of these, also, were young people, and most of the homicides occurred in the home settlement of both assailant and victim. Of the eight spousal murders in this list, seven involved a man killing his female partner, only one a woman killling her husband. In almost all cases, assailants and victims were relatives whose families had been linked to each other for generations. They were my relatives, too, in a non-biological ‘tribal’ sense …”
The Politics of Suffering (2009)

Now we have a situation where an indigenous leader confronts this reality with practical proposals that are turning it around. There is clear evidence for this. And all Louis can do is cherry pick quotes because he doesn’t like the idea that an aboriginal person might become a capitalist.


Aaron Aarons January 20, 2013 at 7:14 pm

Bill Kerr writes:

[Quoting Pearson:]

These structures prevent many Indigenous people from leveraging their asset base in order to build capital: in remote Indigenous communities, you can’t borrow against your own house because the land is either inalienable or the government owns it. Participation in the real [sic! — Aaron] economy is not, in practice, a choice available to many Indigenous people.

He is advocating that aboriginal people have full rights within a capitalist society, including shock, horror, the right to be capitalists.

Most people in the world, including the great majority of “indigenous” or other non-white people, can’t borrow against their own homes for one of the following reasons:
(1) They don’t have a home.
(2) They are squatters.
(3) They live in a rented house or apartment.
(4) They have title to their home but they owe more on it than its market value.
If the aboriginal/indigenous people Pearson is writing about actually have homes, they don’t have to pay rent on them, and the homes are of good enough quality so that they could receive meaningful loans on them if that were allowed, then they are better off in that respect than most people in the world. And they are lucky to have been protected from predatory lenders who have forced millions of people out of their homes in the U.S., Europe and elsewhere.

The question is not whether aboriginal people, or any people, should have “the right to be capitalists”, but what does that mean concretely? If they should have the right to gamble away their homes, which are also their children’s homes, for a business investment, should they also have the right to sign a binding contract to become an indentured servant if they cannot pay their loans? More generally, should imprisonment for debt be allowed, so that lenders will be less reticent to lend money to persons who might not be able to pay it back?

It is not the job of leftists to come up with solutions to the problems of oppressed peoples that do not challenge capitalist property relations or the domination of capitalist or pre-capitalist elites. Rather, it is our task to find ways to help them better their lives in the process of fighting the capitalists and other oppressors.


Bill Kerr January 20, 2013 at 7:53 pm

Aaron Aarons:

It is not the job of leftists to come up with solutions to the problems of oppressed peoples that do not challenge capitalist property relations or the domination of capitalist or pre-capitalist elites. Rather, it is our task to find ways to help them better their lives in the process of fighting the capitalists and other oppressors.

Many reforms movements – trade unions struggles, gay rights, womens rights etc. – which leftists support do not directly challenge capitalist property relations.

I don’t think you’ve grasped the First World – Fourth Word distinction. Ross Wolfe challenged that terminology. I’ll repeat part of the reply I gave him here, from an article by Nicolas Rothwell:

… the Fourth World: a deeply deprived space contained within the borders of a modern, prosperous First World state. Absolute poverty is not the limiting economic problem: a controlled, regular, yet inadequate supply of transferred money is, along with its inevitable outcome, relative poverty – a fate both grinding and comforting for those locked out of the productive economy. Capital formation is impossible under such circumstances, unless land use can be traded.

The inhabitants of this zone are welfare pensioners, who have subsisted for decades without strong incentives to acquire skills or seek jobs. In this Fourth World of the communities, there is a strong awareness of positional disadvantage: the men, women and children there know they are at the bottom of the social pyramid of Australian life, but they have no idea of how to change their status. The younger generation’s members are encouraged to share the expectations of the wider society but geography and the lack of educational pathways prevent them from taking part in the outside world on even terms.

If you watch the Marcia Langton – Peter Sutton interview you might begin to grasp the idea that people with land and property given to them by the capitalist state may end up worse off than those who have to fight for it. Kindness kills.

The issues of aboriginal housing are complex and I haven’t attempted to cover some other aspects I am aware of in this brief reply (and don’t fully understand them all myself). But don’t get the idea that most aboriginal people have their own houses, that is very far from the truth.


Aaron Aarons January 21, 2013 at 7:22 pm

(1) I wrote: “It is not the job of leftists to come up with solutions to the problems of oppressed peoples that do not challenge capitalist property relations or the domination of capitalist or pre-capitalist elites.” Bill Kerr responded: “Many reforms movements – trade unions struggles, gay rights, womens rights etc. – which leftists support do not directly challenge capitalist property relations.”

Trade union struggles don’t “directly challenge capitalist property relations”, but they do, when they are struggles and not capitulations, challenge the prerogatives of the owners of capital. (I did not, BTW, use the word ‘directly’ in the sentence you were responding to, Bill.) Moreover, all three examples represent challenges to the domination of elites, if you include relatively privileged strata, like males and heterosexuals, in the category of ‘elites’. I’ll admit that that use of the word ‘elite’ might be problematic, but I was writing a quick comment, not a theoretical essay.

(2) While I certainly knew, even before getting involved in this discussion, more about the situation of aborigines in Australia than most USians will ever know, that is only an assertion of slightly-less-than-total ignorance. I am most definitely very, very far from being an expert on it and don’t intend to make the effort to become one, though I do expect to pick up a bit more knowledge here and elsewhere. Rather, I am raising points of a general nature that do not require such expertise. In particular, I probably won’t view the video interview Bill refers to, especially because the information density of video interviews is far lower, time-wise, than the information density of printed interviews and articles, and it’s a lot harder to quote from them in a comment.

(3) Bill Kerr writes that I “might begin to grasp the idea that people with land and property given to them by the capitalist state may end up worse off than those who have to fight for it.”

Have to fight whom, and how? Wasn’t most of the land and property in the hands of white Australians given to them by their parents? Wasn’t all of it taken from indigenous Australians by force — but without much of a fight, given the unequal armaments? And the assertion that they “may end up worse off” only means that they are not assured of ending up better off. I certainly agree with that!

I don’t know much about the welfare system for indigenous Australians, but if it’s like most welfare systems for poor people in rich countries, it has several problems:
(a) It’s inadequate for little more than survival.
(b) Recipients aren’t allowed to gain other income (from waged work, petty trade, or whatever) without having a large chunk of their welfare income taken away, so that it is difficult, if not impossible, for such recipients to get out of poverty unless they can get enough other income to provide a decent living without welfare supplementation.
(c) Recipients are stigmatized in the larger society, unlike those whose unearned income comes from dividends, interest payments, rents, family support, etc.

(4) Bill writes: “But don’t get the idea that most aboriginal people have their own houses, that is very far from the truth.”

I made no assumptions about how many aboriginal people have their own houses. In fact, if few of them do, that makes the idea of putting those houses at risk in order to obtain capital irrelevant to most of them, even if it were a good idea. But if certain aborigines and their supporters really want to create aboriginal capitalists, why not demand government financing for such efforts? OTOH, why don’t socialists who want to get aboriginal people more integrated into an industrial economy organize to fight for government financing of the creation of state-owned, worker-controlled enterprises? Such enterprises, depending on their location, might involve not only aboriginal Australians but other sectors of the population, including asylum seekers.

(5) Something that hasn’t been brought up here but seems important to me is the question of how the environmental crisis hitting Australia, including the current record heat wave and the associated fires, is affecting all sections of the population. Any comments from the Aussies on this page?


Bill Kerr January 21, 2013 at 8:05 pm

wrt your point 2 I also suggested here that your read a Pearson paper

You are modest enough to admit that you don’t know much about these issues. I could spend time and energy responding to your points. But since Pearson explains it better than I can then I’d simply invite you again to read what he says.

The point you make about video information is correct. I posted the link to that video because it is a particularly good one and I thought it might encourage those who want to know more to buy Sutton’s book, which is the best study I know of about the indigenous issue in Australia.


Aaron Aarons January 25, 2013 at 12:41 am

Since the Australians who post here are also those who support unrestrained capitalist development, justifying it as supposedly laying the foundations for some sort of ‘socialism’ some time in the future, it is not surprising that they have diverted the discussion into a discussion of the real and/or imagined failings of indigenous culture in a society, Australia, that they know far better than the rest of us do.

If you, Bill, want to respond to a point I raise in response to assertions you Australians make here by quoting Pearson or anybody else, don’t expect me to read through Pearson’s or anybody else’s paper or book to find an answer to my point. Rather, since you quoted Pearson or whomever here in the first place, you can quote him again, if you like, to respond to my point.

In particular, what is the justification for the idea (promulgated for decades if not centuries by most ruling-class propagandists in almost every capitalist country) to the effect that incomes received by poor people without their having to work for them is harmful to them and to society, while similar (but usually much greater) incomes received from inherited family wealth is not?


Ross Wolfe January 19, 2013 at 9:46 am

I don’t know Noel Pearson’s work at all, but I find the concept of a “Fourth World” incoherent. Even the idea of the so-called “Third World” should have been attenuated by the end of the Cold War. Sauvy’s schematic makes even less sense now the that Soviet Union and its Eastern Bloc allies no longer exist.


Bill Kerr January 19, 2013 at 4:15 pm

Hello Ross,
I wasn’t clear about the meaning of “Fourth World” either but I found an article that explained it as follows:

But crafting a future for Aboriginal remote communities requires above all else a clear sight of what they are now. The communities are a welfare state and, thanks to Cape York activist Noel Pearson, the rotting effects of passive welfare provision in the Aboriginal realm are plain, and the virtues of work-for-welfare programs are accepted across the board. But the communities form a welfare zone with unusual, complicating characteristics. They have Third World living conditions but they are not in the Third World.

Rather, they are in a much stranger place: a place quite hard to see and understand. We might call it the Fourth World: a deeply deprived space contained within the borders of a modern, prosperous First World state. Absolute poverty is not the limiting economic problem: a controlled, regular, yet inadequate supply of transferred money is, along with its inevitable outcome, relative poverty – a fate both grinding and comforting for those locked out of the productive economy. Capital formation is impossible under such circumstances, unless land use can be traded.

The inhabitants of this zone are welfare pensioners, who have subsisted for decades without strong incentives to acquire skills or seek jobs. In this Fourth World of the communities, there is a strong awareness of positional disadvantage: the men, women and children there know they are at the bottom of the social pyramid of Australian life, but they have no idea of how to change their status. The younger generation’s members are encouraged to share the expectations of the wider society but geography and the lack of educational pathways prevent them from taking part in the outside world on even terms.
Our fourth world by Nicolas Rothwell


Louis Proyect January 19, 2013 at 10:44 am

Ross: “The Bolsheviks burnt thousands of holy manuscripts from various faiths.”

Really? Where did you read that? The Readers Digest?


Ross Wolfe January 19, 2013 at 2:30 pm

Nope, records and accounts from the winters of 1921-1923, which were unusually cold even by Russian standards. Nearly a third of the wooden houses in Moscow alone were gutted and ripped apart in order to provide firewood. It’s almost needless to point out, but books were also burnt for purely utilitarian reasons along with them (late Imperial Russian and early Soviet paper is notoriously flammable). Religious texts, being more or less worthless in terms of providing useful knowledge, as opposed to say, a scientific work, were readily sacrificed toward such ends. All sorts of religious materials were systematically confiscated and disassembled for usable parts, as evident from this early photo:

And surely you know of Lenin’s, Trotskii’s, and Iaroslavskii’s numerous calls for “militant atheist” propaganda and campaigns against ignorance, superstition, and religiosity amongst the masses (up to and including the primitive shamanistic faiths of the indigenous peoples of the East). Even the Buddha was not spared from their ire, and rightly not, as ascetic religions are generally miserable:

The Bolsheviks were consistently opposed to religious fantasy of every shape and size, as evident from this 1927 cover of Godless (an official Bolshevik organ, here celebrating its fifth anniversary) depicting the three-headed monster of monotheism:

And before one anachronistically tries to argue that this image is anti-Semitic or “Islamophobic” or racist in any way, it should be borne mind that almost half of Godless‘ editorial staff came from Jewish backgrounds, including its founder Iaroslavskii, that many of the most virulently anti-Islamic caricatures were contributed by members of Tatar (Turkic- or Mongol-Caucasian) descent raised in a predominantly Muslim religious environment, and that everyone rightly hated the Orthodox Church for its support of tsardom over the centuries.


Brian S. January 19, 2013 at 7:37 pm

@ Ross Wolfe There’s a considerable difference between” burning books” and “burning holy manuscripts” – I think the latter (certainly as a policy) would have met great resistance in at least some Bolshevik circles. As I’ve said above, Soviet attitudes to religion were quite flexible: another illustration – when the Irish workers leader Jim Larkin attended the fifth Comintern Congress they gladly arranged for him to attend mass every Sunday.


byork January 20, 2013 at 12:25 am

I read years ago that the Comintern told the communists in Spain not to have anything to do with the destruction of the churches. Stalin regarded it as playing into the hands of the fascists. The anarchists were largely responsible for such activity, but to this day communists are blamed for it. My source is a primary source document on-line but I’m having trouble finding it again. The left logic was that (a) people have a right to religious worship and (b) it was important to unite as many people as possible in Spain against the fascist enemy.


Brian S. January 20, 2013 at 6:17 am

@byork re Spain: almost certainly true – but then the Comintern also told anyone who would listen not to have anything to do with expropriating private property.


Aaron Aarons January 20, 2013 at 6:10 pm

There is probably no nominally Catholic country in the world where the Catholic Church was, and maybe still is, as widely hated by workers, peasants and intellectuals as in Spain. Churches were centers of reactionary organizing and were generally either burned during the Civil War or, in a few cases, like some of the architectural masterpieces designed by Gaudi, converted to social use. And priests were quite regularly executed when captured, although there were cases where the local priest was protected by the local population because they liked him as a person.

Moreover, the Comintern policy of “unit[ing] as many people as possible in Spain against the fascist enemy” was really a policy of suppressing the revolution in order to convince British and French imperialism that the USSR would be a trustworthy ally against Nazi Germany, and would not support revolution in the West, in the coming war. They not only didn’t unite people in Spain to fight the fascists, but divided and demoralized the working class with their anti-revolutionary terrorism.


Louis Proyect January 19, 2013 at 4:17 pm

All sorts of religious materials were systematically confiscated and disassembled for usable parts, as evident from this early photo:

I have no idea what this photo represents. Atheism does not equal book-burning.


Ross Wolfe January 19, 2013 at 6:35 pm

Those are Soviet workers from the early 1920s disassembling artifacts from a church they’d just torn down. You can see the “holy” icons and other materials being smashed for usable parts.


Louis Proyect January 19, 2013 at 7:15 pm

But you still haven’t shown me that this was Bolshevik policy. There were war crimes committed by the Red Army during the civil war as well, I imagine. But this was not on account of the Kremlin pursuing al-Assad type scorched earth policies.

The CP did not have a policy of looting churches, mosques or synagogues. And even more to the point, they did not burn bibles or Korans. Book-burning is a form of behavior that goes against the grain of Marxism, all the more so in the early days of the Soviet Union when a class-conscious, revolutionary leadership still existed.


Brian S. January 19, 2013 at 7:56 pm

@ Louis Project You are right about book burning : Krupskaya was in charge of libraries -and did instigate a purge of “obsolete” books in 1924 but the guidelines were:‘The section on religion in libraries that are not large should contain only anti-religious and anti-ecclesiastical literature. It is permissible to leave only basic books of doctrine: the Gospels, the Bible, the Koran …’
However they certainly did have a policy of looting (and in some cases demolishing) churches:” Thousands of churches and monasteries were taken over by the government and either destroyed or converted to secular use.” Wikipedia


Louis Proyect January 19, 2013 at 8:19 pm

Science and Society, Fall 1995
General Volkogonov’s Biography of Lenin
Paul N. Siegel

The separation of church and state effected by the October revolution not only abolished the Czarist government’s immense subsidy to the Orthodox Church, but also freed the Church from the state’s dictatorial control. Moreover, as Volkogonov does not tell us, it gave the unorthodox sects, which had been persecuted under the Czars, the freedom they had never had. The Bolsheviks declared that their separation of church and state went beyond that of the bourgeois democracies, abolishing religious oaths and prayers at state functions and denying the tax exemptions on church property and investments that are more advantageous to churches in the United States than the subsidies to state churches in Europe. Churches had the status of voluntary societies, which could accept money from their members for the purpose of their activities but, like other corporations, could not possess property (Siegel, 1986, 197-98).

This was the basis for the expropriation of the enormous accumulated wealth of the Church during the terrible famine of 1921-1922, an expropriation that Volkogonov finds cannot be justified (377). The confiscation of objects necessary in the Church ritual was, he says, sacrilege. But he lists among the confiscated valuables “1220 pounds of gold, 828,275 pounds of silver, 35,670 diamonds, 71,762 items of unspecified valuables, 536 pounds of gemstones, 3115 gold roubles, 19,155 silver roubles,” etc. It is exceedingly doubtful that most of this wealth was used in the service of the Eucharist.


jim sharp January 19, 2013 at 7:29 pm

a sensitively insightful lad! wud
by now have picked up that
old jim is blind in one eye
as been for 70 years &
can’t read across a line
so he writes short lines as
he beats his bread-poor
weary proletarian chest
all the while rejecting your
nonpareil varsity snobbing


Pham Binh January 19, 2013 at 8:41 pm

Moderator’s note: please no more comments about Qu’ran burning. The aboriginal peoples are not Muslim.


anitah January 20, 2013 at 5:31 pm

A poem by Kath Walker aka Oodgeroo Noonuccal
‘From The Dawn is at Hand’ Jacaranda Press 1966

Daisy Bindi
Slavery at Roy hill, to our shame profound,
Wages for the blacks nil all the year round,
Slavers given free hand by police consent,
Winked obligingly by Government,
But a woman warrior when aid there was none
Led her dark people till the fight was won.

Salute to the spirit fire,
Daisy of Nullagine,
Who unaided resolutely
Dared to challenge slavery.

Tall Daisy Bindi, she rode like a man,
Mustering and stockwork from when dawn began,
And long chores indoors that made life bleak
Year after weary year for nothing a week,
Till Daisy of the stout heart organized her clan
To strike for native justice and the plain rights of man.

High praise and honour to
Daisy of the Noongahs who
Fought and routed tyranny,
Dared to challenge slavery.

Oh, the boss men threatened and the boss man swore,
They called the police in to help break the law,
And dark men and women were forced and assailed,
For fighting degradation they were bashed and jailed,
But Daisy the militant no man subdued,
Who championed her people out of servitude.


anitah January 20, 2013 at 5:39 pm

A Poem written by Kath Walker aka Oodgeroo Noonuccal
First published 1966.

A Child Wife

They gave me to an old man,
Joyless and old,
Life’s smile of promise
So soon to frown.
Inside his gunya
My childhood over,
I must sit for ever,
And the tears fall down.

It was love I longed for,
Young love like mine,
It was Dunwa wanted me,
The gay and brown.
Oh, old laws that tether me!
Oh, long years awaiting me!
And the grief comes over me,
And the tears fall down.

Happy the small birds
Mating and nesting,
Shrilling their gladness
No grief may drown.
But an old man’s gunya
Is my life for ever,
And I think of Dunwa,
And the tears fall down.

The above poems are a little like a picture painting a thousand words.
The film ‘We of the Never Never’ also gives a picture of what Aboriginal culture and life in the Australian outback has been like…well forever really. I think these poems show a high level of political understanding including a class analysis. No romanticism here.


jim sharp January 23, 2013 at 8:20 am

i’m pleased you’ve given kath walker a u.s. audience
i knew kath well as a personal friend & can tell
you that at the time kath wrote her book
‘From The Dawn is at Hand’ kath was a rusted
on loyal CPA member


Bill Kerr January 20, 2013 at 6:26 pm

IMV any activist actually working in the area of indigenous affairs (as I do) would draw the conclusion from reading this thread that marxism has nothing to offer.

It is true that arthur has demonstrated the compatibility of Lenin with a real solution to the issue – and that is of some real value. But I’m not sure that it has much value apart from historical interest. I should read that Lenin link, sorry, but am busy on other stuff.

But things have moved on since Lenin. New issues have arisen such as welfare dependency and new thinkers have arisen (Noel Pearson, Peter Sutton, Marcia Langton anyone?) who have analysed these issues. Reality moves on while this marxist blog contemplates its navel.

Since this is a theoretical site I’d point out that the important issue that has been relegated to background hum has been cultural relativism. It would be good to see that brought more the foreground. Peter Sutton’s book: The Politics of Suffering is a very good start. Video here of the book launch: At the start they talk about Aurukun (which is in Cape York) and Marcia mentions her terrifying experiences there where she was lucky to get out alive. This is the same Aurukun which has been turned around in the last few years by Noel Pearson’s policies.


Arthur January 21, 2013 at 4:34 am

You miss the point. The article was not in any sense written in support of a claim that Marxism had something to offer on Aboriginal issues. The point of the article was that Marxism is an obstacle to reactionary romantic ideas and needs to be changed to clear away this obstacle.

This was partly concealed by the dishonest pretense that Engels had some sympathy for reactionary romantic ideas. However Louis Proyect has now admitted that he in fact blames Engels for opposing precisely the views he previously pretended that Engels supported (but brazenly, without any apology).

The material I recommended from Lenin may not be a high priority for your interest in Aboriginal issues (after all the Russian village communes were agricultural collectives – epochs away from hunter-gatherer societies). But there’s no possibility that people like David Bedford and Louis Proyect are unaware of how diametrically opposed their views are to Marxism-Leninism.

Also its worth understanding that people pushing this stuff are not in fact interested in Aboriginal issues. They simply don’t care about the death and homicide rates and other factual information you linked to. They have a reactionary critique of capitalism and Aboriginals are just a prop for their “spiritual” beliefs. This also accounts for the bitterness and hostility. They aren’t just losing a debate – their religion is being challenged.


jim sharp January 20, 2013 at 9:40 pm

IMV any activist actually working in the area of indigenous affairs
(as I do) would draw the conclusion from reading this thread
that marxism has nothing to offer.

Bill kerr
as a proclaimed
genuine lefty you’re
descending from heaven with
your boozh-wah world view
while we wage-slaves
are ascending as
we struggle for the
social continuum
wereby we’ll
appropriate th’ expropriators


Aaron Aarons January 21, 2013 at 2:09 am

In his last footnote, Bedford writes:

[…] the demand for oneperson, one-vote seems less than revolutionary in North America. In South Africa, however, such a demand amounts to a call for revolution because it could only be implemented via a revolutionary transformation of South African society.

Only the fact that this was written in 1994 (or before) can excuse the implication that “a revolutionary transformation of South African society” was either a precondition for, or the necessary consequence of, the establishment of a formal democracy with “oneperson, one-vote” in South Africa. By the late 1990’s, if not before, it was quite obvious to anybody who cared to see that there had been no “revolutionary transformation of South African society” and that, except for the incorporation of substantial numbers of Blacks into the machinery of capitalist domination, the same class was still in power and the same white strata were still privileged over Blacks, with both the relative and absolute economic conditions of Black workers and rural dwellers being worse than before.


Bill Kerr January 23, 2013 at 9:43 pm

This focuses on the legal aspect of *strong* cultural relativism. I hope to do another piece on the identity factors, based on an essay by Noel Pearson.

Summary of Peter Sutton’s Ch 6 Customs Not in Common. In: The Politics of Suffering (2009)

The strong form of cultural relativism fails because aboriginal law is not compatible with white law. The details, once known, offend our civilised sensibilities – sexual assaults on women, child mutilation and violent punishment for crimes

A robust cultural relativism requires overcoming feelings of repugnance of the practices of the other culture, or, acceptance of a sanitised or politically correct version. Sanitised versions are easily lampooned.

If you are an urban liberal living a comfortable distance from experiencing the repugnant reality of some aspects of remote indigenous lifestyle then it is possible to maintain a rose coloured idealism and see legal pluralism as an act of decolonisation. This is non indigenous self-redemptive feel-goodism.

Historically cultural relativism played a positive role in combatting ideas or ideologies such as social Darwinism, eugenics and racial / ethnic prejudice.

Today, the strong form of cultural relativism is in decline since those ideologies just listed are in decline.

Some people still promote aboriginal law as politically restorative but those views do not hold up well under close examination.

In the past some aspects of indigenous law were tolerated and supervised by police, eg. public leg spearings. But eventually other aspects such as carnal knowledge / sexual assault on underage promised wives by aboriginal men, or, subincision of males who were still legally children, were not tolerated. This led to charges of inconsistency by aboriginals.

As the intercultural / interethic shared social space increases between whites and aboriginals then tolerance of a dual legal system decreases.

Until the 1950s a blind eye was turned to black on black homicide provided traditional weapons were used (strangulation, clubbing, spearing). It was regarded as “blackfella business”. This broke down in the 1934 case of the killing of Kai-Umen because he was shot with a rifle and the bullet was still in his head.

Most modern people see some rights as universal rights and not just whitefella rights, eg. the equality of women

One aspect of the indigenous legal process is to restore equilibrium amongst the kinship group. For example, rather than hold a murderer responsible it may be blamed on a spirit inflicted by another tribe. This is different from our modern law with its focus on perpetrator and victim. There may be consequences of not allowing the indigenous process to happen, leading to further violence down the track.

However, the reasons for revisiting customary law as a political restorative are usually bad reasons or originate from ignorance:
– persistent idealism
– grasping at straws to solve high levels of disorder and crime in indigenous communities
– building the aboriginal industry
– legal cleanskins who are reinventing the wheel

As integration continues, which is irreversible in practice, then homogenisation increases and the hold of traditional law recedes. In modern times elders who have the knowledge of traditional law may not practice it themselves and so their advice is suspect.

The voice and language of strong cultural relativism is moralistic focusing on issues such as the evils of colonialism, Western power, racism of whites, police violence, the oppression of minorities. There is often little investigation of the on the ground realities. Also these critiques of western culture are not matched by critiques of indigenous culture.

Support for cultural relativism ebbs and flows with the NIMBY factor. When factors of repugnance, personal safety and destruction of the social fabric come to the fore then support for strong cultural relativism declines.


Hylozoic Hedgehog August 21, 2013 at 4:49 am

For those interested in the early history of the LaRouche group in SDS, please see How It All Began: The Origins and History of the National Caucus of Labor Committees in New York and Philadelphia (1966-1971) available at

After leaving the SWP in 1966, LaRouche first became a member of Tim Wohlforth’s American Committee for the Fourth International (the proto Workers League) and he then spent about two months in the Spartacist League before organizing the early network that would become the NCLC.


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Bryce October 6, 2017 at 2:10 pm

I agree with most of this. People should look at Marx’s Ethnological Notes, his last unwritten book. He takes a strong interest in anthropological studies of indigenous people particularly the Iroquois, he seems to see indigenous cultures as well as some peasant communities as potentially offering a model of society without private property, class stratification and patriarchy. He definitely does not consider “civilized” society superior. Marx would probably have sharp disagreements with many self described Marxists that proceeded him. Two things I disagree with though. Many indigenous people in modern society are in fact proletarian, it may not be their sociological identity but plenty of indigenous people work for a wage and participate in the capitalist economy. Also plenty of indigenous nations seek and need economic development, on their terms. Though there are a few pre contact tribes in Brazil or New Guinea Native people in North America are very much a part of modern society even as they resist some elements of it. You obviously don’t have to live capitalism to be a part of it. Marx of course mentions that capital degrades both labor and nature turning them into means for the ends of more capital. The environmental issues used to be a lower priority but now most self described Marxists would recognize the environmental crisis to be of great importance and in that regard Indigenous people are very much in a leading role in the struggle for a planet for us to actually live on “after the revolution”. As for Russell Means comments, sure Marxism is European, it’s a critique of capitalism that is also from Europe, it’s not clear he is offering a better way to contend with capitalism.


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