Karl Marx has something of a reputation for being a Promethean. From various standpoints, he is pelted with accusations of thinking in terms of ends-justify-the-means, millenarianism, and an eternal march of history towards “Progress.” Marx was simply a naive, narcissistic idiot with his head in the clouds, forever dreaming of a utopian future.
“Indigenous” and “thought” are considered as antithetical — how can complex thought, much less advanced critiques of Western modernity, come out of “primitive” peoples? In essence, the “modern” world looks upon Indigenous peoples and their thought as dinosaurs or museum exhibits, even where they pretend to sympathize to them. Indigenous peoples are in the past, while the world moves forever in the present and towards the future.
Each are considered as irreconcilable with the other, whether by denouncers or advocators of either. Russell Means (Oglála Lakhóta Oyáte), for instance, once said:
“Marxism is as alien to my culture as capitalism and Christianity.”¹
There is Marx and there are Indigenous peoples, and never the twain shall meet.
And yet, neither of these are true to their distorted mis-representations. Nor are they fundamental, antagonistic opposites. What we will trace here is the confluence of their critiques of the modern, Euro-bourgeois world.
Let it be clear that we do not aim at a forced, homogenous identity of the two into one thing. Just as Marxists and Indigenous peoples are not identical in real life, so the two lines of inquiry and critique should not be forced into one. Those Marxists who aim to entirely subordinate Indigenous worldviews to Marxism become exactly what Means once said they were — another variant on the same old colonizer.
Indigenous Grounded Normativity
In order to understand Indigenous critiques of our modern world, with Western capital at its center, it is important to understand Indigenous standpoints themselves. Glen Sean Coulthard (Yellowknives Dene) described Indigenous ways of life as critiquing from a:
“place-based foundation[…] [called] grounded normativity, by which I mean the modalities of Indigenous land-connected practices and longstanding experiential knowledge that inform and structure our ethical engagements with the world and our relationships with human and nonhuman others over time.”²
This standpoint is one deeply rooted in a relation to space, specifically a space sedimented with people-place-specific relations. In a word, relation of and to land is key for all social relations in Indigenous ways of life. Indigenous peoples live and think from the particularity of ancestral homelands.
Vine Deloria Jr. (Íŋyaŋ Woslál Háŋ) strongly emphasized this importance of space to Indigenous peoples in his critique of the ways of thinking and being brought to the Americas by European colonizers.³ For him, the problem of space and time is fundamental to the distinction between Indigenous and Western approaches, such that:
“The very essence ofWestern European identity involves the assumption that time proceeds in a linear fashion; further it assumes that at a particular point in the unraveling of this sequence, the peoples of Western Europe became the guardians of the world[…]”⁴
The French Situationist Guy Debord wrote of this way of living as one of irreversible time, wherein “Those for whom irreversible time truly exists discover in it both the memorable and the threat of oblivion[…]”⁵ This irreversible time, in a sense, represents the domination of the living by the dead, and in some ways by a dead or static concept of the future. In bourgeois society, we live a life dominated by flat quantity in time and elsewhere. Time is interchangeable — as on the intervals of a clock or a metronome — and of a single, homogenous substance. It operates by measure, and thus limitation.
Karl Marx identified this situation in the domination of living labor — the working class — by dead labor — capital — in the production process of capitalism.⁶ The core of the capital relation for Marx is one in which “past labour confronts living labour as independent and superior.”⁷ The past is the fundamental dead weight on the present in capitalist society, it is embodied in a very literal way in the sedimentation of capital.
Capital is not a sedimentation of the past as in the soil of an ancestral homeland, but is in a temporal domination, as Deloria Jr. speaks of that. This past dominates the future as well, as in the form of fictitious capital and credit money which are in truth claims on future production of values.⁸ The dependency of our modern global capitalist society on this fictitious or speculative capital is essentially on a foreclosed, predictable future which is subordinated to the demands of dead labor (capital) to grow, “vampire-like.”⁹
In this capitalist way of life, the past is not a relative. It is a threat, a prison, a ball and chain, a supernatural power. The figure of the phantom, often invoked by Marx, is an important expression of this. Compare this phantom, haunting and feeding off of the living, to Indigenous relationality with sedimented history in ancestral homelands. In their emphasis on the specificity of people-places, and on reciprocity with ancestors (as in the Wyandot Feast of the Dead), they maintain a “living” relation to the dead rather than a parasitic and haunting relation.
This is not to suggest an idyllic, homogenous — static — situation whatsoever. In Indigenous traditions, there are certainly instances of what we might call “haunting.” Rather than this being a fundamental state of being in the world, this is usually a sign of disharmony or a disruption to the rhythm of existence.¹⁰ In capitalist society, we are living in a permanent state of disharmony and sickness.
Leanne Betasamosake Simpson (Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg) noted that her people traditionally:
“[…]have no such thing as capital. We have relatives. We have clans. We have treaty partners[…] Resources and capital, in fact, are fundamental mistakes within Nishnaabeg thought, as Glenna Beaucage points out, and ones that come with serious consequences — not in a colonial superstitious way but in the way we have already seen: the collapse of loccal ecosystems, the loss of prairies and wild rice, the loss of salmon, eels, caribou, the loss of our weather.”¹¹
This is of course not to say that exchange was or is alien to Indigenous traditionalism — the pre-colonial continental Americas thrived with networks of exchange such that the Mississipian Mound Building peoples had items from coastal Mesoamerica.¹² Rather, exchange of equivalent values was not the heart of their societies. Marx spoke of this distinction of communal ways of life from capitalism as one:
“[…]in which the human being appears as the aim of production, regardless of his limited national, religious, political character, seems to be very lofty when contrasted to the modern world, where production appears as the aim of mankind and wealth as the aim of production.”¹³
This humanist, or perhaps more accurately life-affirming, ethic remains at the heart of Indigenous communities and their identities as specifically distinct from the mainstream of Western bourgeois society. They are not apart from it, as after all colonization was and is itself a capitalist encroachment and domination. The global system of our world is capitalism, this is a fact.
Insofar as they are not assimilated — that is, insofar as they are Indigenous, as long as they remain in continuous ties with their ancestral relations and as distinct peoples, capital has not penetrated into and reconstructed their very hearts in its image. Indigenous identities are community identity, and their coherence depends on principles alien to that of capitalist identities. Indigenous peoples have successfully resisted the debilitating capitalization of their subjectivities for 500 years and counting. Simpson and other Indigenous critics of capital recognize that it represents a quasi-autonomous, impersonal power which corrodes all community-based ways of life in the name of its vampiric drives.
Indigenous relations to global capital today can be characterized through Marx’s own distinction between formal and real subsumption to capital. Indigenous communities, by their life-affirming modes of existence and resistant autonomy against capitalist instrumental reason, have not been thoroughly penetrated by the real subsumption of capital. The real penetration means total transformation of a way of living and laboring with capital at its center, and thus far from Indigenous ethics or ways of thinking and being. Marx discussed this distinction thusly:
“‘Production for production’s sake’ — production as an end in itself — does indeed come on the scene with the formal subsumption of labour under capital. It makes its appearance as soon as the immediate purpose of production is to produce as much surplus-value as possible, as soon as the exchange-value of the product becomes the deciding factor. But this inherent tendency of capitalist production does not become adequately realized — it does not become indispensable, and that also means technologically indispensable — until the specific mode of capitalist production and hence the real subsumption of labour under capital has become a reality.”¹⁴
For Marx, the real subsumption of labor had to take the form of “free labor” He meant this in a dual sense. On the one hand, in the sense of workers owning their labor-power as their own commodity to sell. On the other hand, in the sense of completely untethered by any relations which might impede their circulation as a commodity rather than a relational person.¹⁵
This is why he specifically identified wage labor as the natural or “true” form of labor for the capitalist mode of production, although it can be argued that the real subsumption to capital can take other forms which represent a “deep” or thorough penetration of capital. One, for example, is chattel slavery as it existed in the Atlantic world. Marx recognized this as a capitalist form of labor, but not distinguished it from the capitalist form of labor.¹⁶
The point in capitalist labor, ultimately, is that “production [is] an end in itself” — capital is the subject of capitalism, not living relations. The heart, the center, of capitalism is capital. This is what people are expressing, on the level of immediate appearance, when they say that money is the god of this world, and that we are all living to work instead of working to live.
Taiaiake Alfred (Kanienʼkehá꞉ka), like Simpson, recognized this in his critique of those who advocate “red capitalism” as a strategy of liberation for Indigenous peoples. Against this bourgeois, elitist strategy, he warned that:
“An ideology of accumulation, even if it’s collective rather than individual, plays right into the consumptive commercial mentality shaped by the state corporatism that has so damaged both the earth and human relationships around the globe. From an indigenous perspective, appropriate economic development consists in taking advantage of opportunities to build self-sufficiency in order to preserve the essence of indigenous cultures and accomplish the goals that emerge from the culture. This is quite different from tying a community to an exploitative economy promoting objectives that contravene traditional values.”¹⁷
Both Alfred and Simpson, as well as many other traditionalist Indigenous radicals, recognize in capital what Marx did — an impersonal power, a spell which overtakes the subjective intentions of human beings who conjure it. It cannot be used merely as an instrument — the instrumental reason of capital, where living ends are irrelevant, overcomes any use of it as an instrument with our ends.
The subjects who summoned it through their specific relations, which birthed capital, become dominated by a power produced by their own subjectivity. Alfred and Simpson note that this phantom-like objectivity, this power from us yet outside of and above us, pushes us almost like a spell to disharmonic ways of thinking and being. It becomes a gravitational pull, like a black hole, forever destroying the world which creates it. Capital is a spell, it is a sickness, it is human subjectivity turned back in on itself.
Although Marx had a powerful critique of capital which overlaps in many ways with Indigenous critiques of capitalist society, it is important to recognize his limitations in his own engagement with Indigenous grounded normativity as a standpoint of critique. Coulthard, for instance, argues that his primary focus on temporal domination of capital leads to a failure to understand the domination of Indigenous communities by capital spatially — through colonization of land, genocide, and the severing of relations to ancestral homelands and inheritances¹⁸
I would condition this by noting that Marx partially emphasized temporality because of how capital quite literally dominates space by time. It represents the form of temporal experience identified by Deloria Jr. and others in their critiques of colonial Christianity and other forms of Western thought brought by settlers. Of course, it can certainly be said that in his critique of temporality as a domination, he went too far within temporality himself.
Further, his concept of living (though formally subsumed) ways of life tended to be disparaging or dismissing. Although he was speaking of pre-capitalist societies in this context, his evaluation of “animism” in general leaves much to be desired:
“Those ancient social organisms of production are much more simple and transparent than those of bourgeois society. But they are founded either on the immaturity of man as an individual, when he has not yet torn himself loose from the umbilical cord of his natural species-connection with other men, or on direct relations of dominance and servitude.
“They are conditioned by a low stage of development of the productive powers of labour and correspondingly limited relations between men within the process of creating and reproducing their material life, hence also limited relations between man and nature.
“These real limitations are reflected in the ancient worship of nature, and in other elements of tribal religions. The religious reflections of the real world can, in any case, vanish only when the practical relations of everyday life between man and man, and man and nature, generally present themselves to him in a transparent and rational form.
“The veil is not removed from the countenance of the social life-process, i.e. the process of material production, until it becomes production by freely associated men, and stands under their conscious and planned control. This, however, requires that society possess a material foundation, or a series of material conditions of existence, which in their turn are the natural and spontaneous product of a long and tormented historical development.”¹⁹
Marx here essentially dismisses “animism” as a philosophy of an underdeveloped society. He implies that this way of thinking is more or less one of the past, and not something which can play a role in the future of communism — “production by freely associated men.” In his eyes, at least upon the publication of Capital in 1867, these “animistic” ways of thinking and being were primarily one of subordination to “given” natural conditions.
Gregory Cajete (Khaʼpʼoe Ówîngeh), on the other hand, described this “animistic” way of thinking and being as one of harmony with the rhythm of spatially and relationally specific life. While Marx sees this as an early dependency on nature (almost like Freud’s concept of infantile narcissism or the desire for oneness with nature as a desire to return to the womb), Cajete characterizes it as a science. Cajete describes Native science as:
“[…]a metaphor for a wide range of tribal processes of perceiving, thinking, acting, and “coming to know” that have evolved through human experience with the natural world. Native science is born of a lived and storied participation with the natural landscape. To gain a sense of Native science one must participate with the natural world. To understand the foundations of Native science one must become open to the roles of sensation, perception, imagination, emotion, symbols, and spirit as well as that of concept, logic, and rational empiricism.”²⁰
These philosophies are not pre-rational — they are not a superstitious submission to a despotic nature. They are rational expressions of a people-place-specific rational way of thinking and being.
Had Marx, in this period, had greater familiar with the worldviews of Indigenous peoples, rather than speaking entirely out of turn, he ought to have had a different evaluation. This was certainly one of his moments of a certain Eurocentric hubris. At the time of writing Capital and living in London, he could have potentially learned through the literature by and about people like William Apess (Pequot), George Copway (Mississauga Ojibwa), or Handsome Lake (Onödowáʼga꞉).
In his later life, Marx did study Indigenous ways of thinking and being, particularly that of the Haudenosaunee. From this experience, he changed his evaluation of these living alternatives to capitalism as sources of resistance.²⁰ Famously, this led to his re-evaluation of the mir, or traditional peasant communes, in the Russian Empire as an organic form of an alternative to capitalism.²¹ Marx’s view on the resistance of these communities to the formal subsumption of capital represent an attempt “to remain traditional which makes him revolutionary,” in the words of Eric R. Wolf.²²
Of course, he still lacked a complete evaluation of communal ways of life as independently valuable or vigorous alternatives. Thus, Marxism cannot be considered as sufficient unto itself, even in its original expression by Marx. Indigenous critiques are not merely valuable as additions to Marx’s critical theory of capitalism — they are independently valuable. A forced assimilation is undesirable and means the degeneration of Marxism itself.
Criticism of Heaven and Criticism of Earth
Indigenous critics of bourgeois modernity consistently identify Christianity as an essential target, contrasting it directly to Indigenous “animist” philosophies. This is true of authors including Vine Deloria Jr. (Íŋyaŋ Woslál Háŋ), Ohiyesa (Isáŋyathi), Luther Standing Bear (Sičhą́ǧu Oyáte and Oglála Lakhóta Oyáte), Viola Cordova (Jicarilla Dindéi), and many others.²³ Much of this is because the most immediate encounter with colonial power and the encroachment of bourgeois society for Indigenous peoples has historically been through their encounters with Christian missionaries. The Christians are the vanguard of “civilizing” efforts, and thus Indigenous critics of “civilization” tend to aim their sights first and foremost at Christianity.
Karl Marx, like many young German students in his generation, began his career in the criticism of religion. His father was a German Jew who had converted to Lutheranism in order that he and his son could have the rights of Prussian citizens and pursue middle class, professional careers in law. Lutheranism was the state religion of Prussia, and so critics of the Prussian social order tended to begin with criticism of religion. Marx noted that:
“Thus the criticism of heaven turns into the criticism of earth, the criticism of religion into the criticism of law and the criticism of theology into the criticism of politics.”²⁴
He, of course, went much further than this. He famously spoke of religion as “the opium of the people.” This phrase is often misrepresented in either direction, whether in characterizing religion as a pure delusion or as an acceptable medicine. It is worth quoting its textual context at length for the purposes of our elaboration:
“The foundation of irreligious criticism is: Man makes religion, religion does not make man. Religion is indeed the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet won through to himself or has already lost himself again. But man is no abstract being squatting outside the world. Man is the world of man, state, society. This state and this society produce religion, which is an inverted consciousness of the world, because they are an inverted world.
“Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d’hormeur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement and its universal basis of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality. The struggle against religion is therefore indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion.
“Religious suffering is at one and the same time the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.
“The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is there fore in embryo the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.
“Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers on the chain not in order that man shall continue to bear that chain without fantasy or consolation but so that he shall throw off the chain and pluck the living flower. The criticism of religion disillusions man, so that he will think, act and fashion his reality like a man who has discarded his illusions and regained his senses, so that he will move around himself as his own true sun. Religion is only the illusory sun which revolves around man as long as he does not revolve around himself.”²⁵
Marx is here speaking primarily of “otherworldly” religions — those which posit a distinction between the heaven and earth, namely — or those which otherwise emphasize some form of escape from or sanctified meaning for everyday, miserable life.
For him, insofar as real human society is disharmonic — as long as that world is riven between thinking and being, man and nature, individual and society, and so on — it cannot be transparent to itself. Instead, it appears to its participants in a mystified form — for historical necessity, not merely due to a collective delusion. The religious appearance is a necessary appearance given certain conditions.
By “opium of the people,” Marx means that religion both helps the religious cope with the suffering of the real world and is a source of suffering and dependency. Religion for him, although fundamentally an expression of a wrong or “inverted” world, is multifaceted. It can be a force of cohesion in a bad unity (a class society), a sanctification of the existing order, a refuge from worldly suffering and oppression, or a body of resistance.
As someone from a Prussian Lutheran background and someone closely familiar with Hegel’s, he likely had in mind the history of Christianity in Germany — the Roman Catholic Church, the Protestant Reformation, the Peasant Wars… That is, his understanding of religion was of something which is displaced from “secular” everyday life, something which projects and abstracts from. It can either express a peace with the world on this basis, or declare in Manichaean terms that “all that comes to be/Deserves to perish wretchedly[…]”²⁶ Either way, Marx considered atheism to be a more natural vehicle for modern social revolution.
Because of his unrepentant atheism and identification of the abolition of religion and the struggle for communism, Marx’s relation to Indigenous traditions is controversial. Many have argued that Marx was a typical colonial adherent of the Enlightenment and considered European scientific atheism to be the peak of human development — such as Russell Means (Oglála Lakhóta Oyáte):
“Europeans may see [Marxism] as revolutionary, but American Indians see it simply as still more of that same old European conflict between being and gaining. The intellectual roots for a new Marxist form of European imperialism lies in Marx’s-and his followers’-links to the tradition of Newton, Hegel, etc[…]
“Revolutionary Marxism, as with industrial society in other forms, seeks to ‘rationalize’ all people in relation to industry, maximum industry, maximum production. It is a materialist doctrine which despises the American Indian spiritual tradition. our cultures, our lifeways. Marx himself called us ‘precapitalists’ and ‘primitive.’”²⁷
Immediately, one issue with this: Despite many of his followers certainly making it appear so, Marx’s philosophy did not translate to a pure mechanical, Newtonian materialism. In fact, one of the aspects of Hegel which he admired the most was his critique of bourgeois Enlightenment materialism.²⁸
As early as in his 1844 manuscripts, Marx expressed a critique of such mechanical materialists as abstract materialism in antithesis to abstract spiritualism.²⁹ Rather than advocating for one over the other, he already sees communism as uniting both.³⁰ In doing so, he emphasized a concern echoed in Indigenous discourses about Western bourgeois technology as a potential source for autonomous development insofar as it is integrated into Indigenous grounded normativity.
Another issue — Do traditionalist Indigenous peoples practice “religion” in Marx’s sense, as explained above? Or should we consider this primarily as a Native mode of life, following from Coulthard?
Religion and philosophy are typically identified in Marx as abstracting from real life, due to a disjuncture or disharmony in that life. Key to both is an antithesis of thinking and being, particularly as manifested out of the growing division between intellectual and manual labor (or head and hand).³¹
Viola Cordova, Luther Standing Bear, and Gregory Cajete (Khaʼpʼoe Ówîngeh) all emphasize the unity of thinking and being in Indigenous traditions, expressed in the context of a monist or holistic way of thinking about the world as opposed to Christian dualisms of heaven and earth.³² In their elaboration of their traditional worldviews, they do not express an otherworldliness or projection as Marx identified in German Christianity.
In matter of fact, they quite strongly echo Marx’s own critique of Western Christianity as otherworldly, as lacking a practical meaning for Indigenous peoples. This otherworldliness is directly related to its abstractions from everyday life — The soul abstracted from the worldly, specific qualities of the body, the Cartesian Subject from his dubitable existence as an Object, the Holy from the Worldly.
Marx continued his critique of Christianity later into his career, stating even more damningly that:
“For a society of commodity producers, whose general social relation of production consists in the fact that they treat their products as commodities, hence as values, and in this material [sachlich] form bring their individual, private labours into relation with each other as homogeneous human labour, Christianity with its religious cult of man in the abstract, more particularly in its bourgeois development, i.e. in Protestantism, Deism, etc., is the most fitting form of religion.”³³
This expression is a close relative to the critique Ohiyesa (Isáŋyathi) made of the missionaries he came into contact with and worked for:
“A new point of view came to me then and there. This latter [missionary Christianity] was a machine-made religion. It was supported by money, and more money could only be asked for on the showing made; therefore too many of the workers were after quantity rather than quality of religious experience.”³⁴
Both critics emphasize abstraction as the quality yielded by the absolute domination of quantity. For Marx, the abstract equality of all human beings on the level of a homogenous substance —tending towards the destruction of all difference — is the qualitative basis and expression of the domination of value in society. Ohiyesa recognizes this exactly when he identifies missionary Christianity with capitalist ethics — for his people and for others, the missionaries were a force of capitalist penetration. They were the smiling, condescending face of encroaching bourgeois society.
For Marx and Indigenous traditionalists alike, the standpoint they critique capitalist antagonisms from is one of a renewed harmony of thinking and being, subjects and objects, humanity and the rest of nature. Their dissections of dead, abstract bourgeois Christianity identify it as the heart of a heartless world — a heart stricken with the very same sickness as the diseased social body itself. The disharmony, the wrongness of that world births the need for this “religion,” in Marx’s sense. Both move from a criticism of heaven to a criticism of earth.
In our descent from the lofty abode of Gods to the everyday life of mortals, it is important that we recognize the potential for a “religiosity” even in that which is not typically considered religious. There is a reason that Marx and Indigenous traditionalists alike consistently identify a near identity between religion and philosophy in the bourgeois West.
Philosophy, even where it claims not to be philosophy (as in the ridiculous conceptual opposition to conceptual thinking among scientific positivists), retains the character of a disharmonic ideology expressing its disharmonic world. This holds even where it expresses moments of truth. All thinking is mediated. Marx’s followers forget that, despite or rather because of his deep interest in natural sciences, Marx himself approached the (often hidden) philosophical claims even of secular scientific knowledge with skepticism. Of Charles Darwin, for instance, he noted sarcastically:
“It is remarkable how Darwin rediscovers, among the beasts and plants, the society of England with its division of labour, competition, opening up of new markets, ‘inventions’ and Malthusian ‘struggle for existence’. It is Hobbes’ bellum omnium contra omnes [war of all against all] and is reminiscent of Hegel’s Phenomenology, in which civil society figures as an ‘intellectual animal kingdom’, whereas, in Darwin, the animal kingdom figures as civil society.”³⁵
Marx’s criticisms of Darwin, although not coming from a scientist, have been vindicated by the Marxist biologists Richard Lewontin and Richard Levins (among others).³⁶ Marx would not smugly critique Indigenous “animism” from a secure evaluation of atheism — as many of his more naive followers do. Most of his lifetime was not spent on criticism of the heaven-peddlers, but on secular or even atheistic ideologies — namely, political economy.
If what he called “religion” was an expression of disharmony, then there are many ideologies of this disharmony. Not the least that scientism or positivism which is born out of the antithesis of intellectual and manual labor, and which expresses bourgeois rationality even among moments of truth.³⁷ In short, atheism, too, can be a superstition or simply another form of religion — whether expressed by Ludwig Feuerbach or Richard Dawkins.
Against this narrow, naive form of empiricism — which assumes “immediacy” is not mediated, that one can observe the world of objects beyond one’s subjectivity, that one can think of the non-conceptual without the use of concepts even while thought is fundamentally mediated by language — Marx thought in terms of a “new materialism.”
The bourgeois materialism of the Enlightenment expressed a certain antithesis of ideas and reality in its discourse of “superstition” versus “facts.” Superstitions are mere delusions, existing only by the fantasies of the human brain, and the truth of objective reality must be reached by cutting out the subject’s influence as much as possible. On the other hand, Marx expressed a theory wherein conceptual categories, even those which might be considered “superstitious,” exist in a very tangible sense. This is what is called real abstraction — abstract concepts or categories which, even from their birth out of social relations, have a thing-like or object-like quality.
Marx, quite far from positivism, explained this in developing his concept of commodity fetishism:
“The objectivity of commodities as values differs from Dame Quickly in the sense that ‘a man knows not where to have it’. Not an atom of matter enters into the objectivity of commodities as values; in this it is the direct opposite of the coarsely sensuous objectivity of commodities as physical objects. We may twist and turn a single commodity as we wish; it remains impossible to grasp it as a thing possessing value. However, let us remember that commodities possess an objective character as values only in so far as they are all expressions of an identical social substance, human labour, that their objective character as values is therefore purely social.”³⁸
Is this notion of commodity fetishism closer to naive positivism, which thinks of the world through the eyes of a “machine-made religion,” or to Indigenous thought about human creations taking on a power of their own when they become disharmonic? He was not mincing worlds — religion is directly related to the domination of human beings by their own creations as in the form of capital.³⁹ Marx went as far as to say that the capitalist commodity literally has metaphysical or theological qualities in the real world — created by social relations, yes, but still exerting themselves on human beings as real.⁴⁰
Having made a detour into the issue of Marx’s atheistic materialism, let us return to the relation of philosophy and religion. These two standpoints of critique we have been speaking of identify the transcendence of “religion” as we know it in this bourgeois society with the restoration of harmony in the world.
Marx, as a young man, stated famously:
“In a word: You cannot transcend [aufheben] philosophy without realizing [verwirklichen] it.”⁴¹
The kind of philosophy he means here is different to the philosophy that someone like Viola Cordova speaks of. It is the philosophies within the antitheses of intellectual and manual labor, of contemplative and practical knowledge, and of the concrete and abstract. That is, it is of a type wherein:
“[…]philosophy is nothing else but religion rendered into thoughts and thinkingly expounded, and that it has therefore likewise to be condemned as another form and manner of existence of the estrangement of the essence of man[…]”⁴²
Here we have come to what Marx meant when he said that the abolition of religion must mean the abolition of real misery, by means of his critique of contemplative philosophy. The realization of philosophy does not mean the total identity of subject and object, or of thought and reality. The identity of thought and reality is classically idealist thinking, which assumes that the Subject is the core of the world. This realization instead means the restoration of the transparency of society — the abolition of the veil rendered upon it by those class societies which necessitated philosophy. This is an abolition of the disharmony which leads to bifurcation and dualistic otherworldliness (either of heaven, inwardness, or a false oneness).
Luther Standing Bear identified this disharmony as at the heart of the settler’s alienation from nature. The Promethean element in Christianity, which calls on humanity to dominate nature as its own God-given instrument, comes to the fore as a target of attack. In analyzing the settlers who expropriated him and his people, he said:
“The white man does not understand the Indian for the reason that he does not understand America. He is too far removed from its formative processes. The roots of his tree of life have not yet grasped the rock and soil. The white man is still troubled with primitive fears; he still has in his consciousness the perils of this frontier continent, some of is fastness not yet having yielded to his questing footsteps and inquiring eyes. He shudders still with the memory of the loss of his forefathers upon its scorching deserts and forbidding mountain-tops. The man from Europe is still a foreigner and an alien. And he still hates the man who questioned his path across the continent.
“But in the Indian the spirit of the land is still vested; it will be until other men are able to divine and meet its rhythm. Men must be born and reborn to belong. Their bodies must be formed of the dust of their forefathers’ bones.”⁴³
Standing Bear identifies the consistent dualism and tension experienced by settlers in America as something which appears rational from an alienated context. It is a false way of living, but it certainly appears true based in a certain kind of experience. In this way of thinking and being, one does not look upon this earth as an ancestral homeland — a people-place deeply vested with significance, with sedimented history.
Settlers do not experience that sedimented history as one of relationality — a continuing connection to ancestors and non-human relatives in a holistic, mutual interconnection. They experience this land as an enemy, as a “wilderness” to struggle against.
The past of bourgeois society is not one of relatives, but one of phantom despots and bloodthirsty vampires — dead labor. The dead are dead, and when they live, they live only by a dominating and parasitic relationship to the living. In the capitalist mode of production, relations become things, things with a spellbinding power that dominates us. In Indigenous communalist ways of life, what in capitalism we consider dead, inanimate things are relatives — the entire world is relational.
Humanity and Nature
Viola Cordova (Jicarilla Dindéi) expressed Indigenous conceptions of nature as essentially forms of monism:
“[…]everything that exists is perceived as being the manifestation of one particular thing. In effect, everything that is, is one thing. The oneness is ascribed to the fact that everything is, essentially, Usen, the life force.”⁴⁴
Interestingly, she identified a sibling of this monism in that of the Dutch Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza.⁴⁵ Cordova and Spinoza’s emphasis on the oneness of nature relate closely to their concept of humanity’s position in it as natural beings.
Of the relation between humanity and nature, Cordova said:
“The ethical system of the Native American extends beyond man’s relationship with others and the institutions that men create. The Native American includes the earth and everything in it in his ethical system[…]”⁴⁶
“Humans sustain their being by acting in a manner that is balanced with the rest of the environment. They exist best in harmony with the land. Their ethical principles are drawn from the universe at large: balance, harmony, beauty, rightness.”⁴⁷
While Cordova considers Indigenous thinking to be “humanist” to a certain extent, this is far from anthropocentrism or bourgeois Prometheanism. Rather, humanity’s relation to the rest of nature must be from their standpoint as humans. They are subjects who must work in everyday life, in the mundane, to maintain a subjective and objective rhythm with nature.
Of Marx’s view of nature, Russell Means (Oglála Lakhóta Oyáte) characterized him in pure Promethean terms:
“Revolutionary Marxism is committed to even further perpetuation and perfection of the very industrial process which is destroying us all. It is offering only to ‘redistribute’ the results, the money maybe, of this industrialization to a wider section of the population.”⁴⁸
As an aside, Means’ comment on communism being a redistribution of money shows a blatant lack of familiarity with Marx even in claiming to definitively dismiss him. His definition of Marx’s goal would fit in better with Franklin D. Roosevelt and other social democrats than any revolutionary communist, who wish to abolish the exchange society entirely. Howard Adams (Métis) said it best: “Means describes Marxism as an evil industrial movement that crushes indigenous tribal Peoples. His discussion is an extremely unsophisticated and superficial analysis of Marxism. He fails to develop even the most rudimentary principles.”⁴⁹
This nature-be-damned, industrialization-at-all-costs characterization of Marx is far from hitting the mark. Marx was deeply concerned with humanity’s relation to nature as natural beings throughout his entire life — from dawn, with his studies in Epicurean philosophy of nature, to dusk, with his theorizations in ecology.⁵⁰
In his philosophy itself, he expressed the very centrality of the concept of nature in a holistic way directly echoing Cordova. As early as 1844, he wrote thusly:
“Man is directly a natural being. As a natural being and as a living natural being he is on the one hand furnished with natural powers of life — he is an active natural being. These forces exist in him as tendencies and abilities — as impulses. On the other hand, as a natural, corporeal, sensuous, objective being he is a suffering, conditioned and limited creature, like animals and plants. That is to say, the objects of his impulses exist outside him, as objects independent of him; yet these objects are objects of his need — essential objects, indispensable to the manifestation and confirmation of his essential powers.
“To say that man is a corporeal, living, real, sensuous, objective being full of natural vigor is to say that he has real, sensuous, objects as the objects of his being or of his life, or that he can only express his life in real, sensuous objects. To be objective, natural and sensuous, and at the same time to have object, nature and sense outside oneself, or oneself to be object, nature and sense for a third party, is one and the same thing.
“Hunger is a natural need; it therefore needs a nature outside itself, an object outside itself, in order to satisfy itself, to be stilled. Hunger is an acknowledged need of my body for an object existing outside it, indispensable to its integration and to the expression of its essential being. The sun is the object of the plant an indispensable object to it, confirming its life — just as the plant is an object of the sun, being an expression of the life-awakening power of the sun, of the sun’s objective essential power.
“A being which does not have its nature outside itself is not a natural being, and plays no part in the system of nature. A being which has no object outside itself is not an objective being. A being which is not itself an object for some third being has no being for its object, i.e., it is not objectively related. Its be-ing is not objective.”⁵¹
This relational, naturalist conception of human beings is very close to that of Cordova. This is an early expression of his naturalism. It is still in a period where he held to a notion of an anthropological essence — species-being — of humans. Yet already, the relationality between subject and object without their homogeneous identity is in his heart.
Humanity for Marx is distinct from the rest of nature because humanity labors. Labor represents a potential of transcendence, a potential for conscious and speculative thinking being realized through labor. The human subject is distinct from itself as an object, but it can only be a subject through its objectivity. Labor is a natural, an objective process but it is also a conscious, subjective engagement with the world of objects through that objective process. Labor can represent a harmony or disharmony with the rest of nature, but it is basically fundamental for the human relation to the world.
As an old man, Marx would defend the non-identity of nature with humanity or with the human subject against the Promethean thinking and labor-fetishism of his Lassallean rivals:
“Labour is not the source of all wealth. Nature is just as much the source of use-values (and what else is material wealth?) as labour, which is itself only the expression of a natural power, human labour power.”⁵²
Such thinking, to Marx, represented an internalization of capitalist ideology. Capital is a subject, and it seeks to subordinate whatever it can to its subjectivity — to render out of nature real abstractions and continue reproducing and gorging itself off off its flesh.
Marx acknowledged where this Promethean approach to nature leads us:
“At the same pace that mankind masters nature, man seems to become enslaved to other men or to his own infamy. Even the pure light of science seems unable to shine but on the dark background of ignorance. All our invention and progress seem to result in endowing material forces with intellectual life, and in stultifying human life into a material force.”⁵³
The domination of nature leads directly to the domination of natural human beings. The reduction of the natural world into mere mechanical abstractions, potential capital to be realized, means the reduction of human beings into mechanical abstractions. Humans and nature alike become appendages to capital as if it were an automatic subject — although it is in truth a spell. Is it not ironic that this is exactly what Means accused Marx of aiming to do?⁵⁴
In his emphasis of the continued autonomy of nature from human subjects, Marx did not engage in a strict dichotomy of human beings and nature. In the Grundrisse (1857–1861), he said that:
“[…]for, just as the working subject appears naturally as an individual, as natural being — so does the first objective condition of his labour appear as nature, earth, as his inorganic body; he himself is not only the organic body, but also the subject of this inorganic nature. This condition is not his product but something he finds to hand — pre-supposed to him as a natural being apart from him.”⁵⁵
By nature as the working subject’s “inorganic body,” Marx meant that it is their body apart from their bodies as an organism — their body beyond the periphery of their skin (to borrow a phrase from Silvia Federici). This expression, of course, still appears tinged with a certain anthropocentrism. It is nature that is the body of humans in this formulation.
In the very next sentence, however, he turns this back around in saying that humanity is “the subject of this inorganic nature.” What this means is that human beings are the coming-to-consciousness of nature. They are a part of nature which has the potential to become a rational mediator of the whole in the interests of the whole.
This is not human beings becoming identical to the rest of nature, but a collaboration through metabolism. This is embracing a conscious and natural-rational rhythm on a world scale.⁵⁶ Marx was thinking in terms of a universal form of living in harmony, even while working through the distinction of humans and the rest of nature by labor.⁵⁷
In Marx’s identification of labor as what distinguishes human beings from the rest of nature, we come to the relation of this to Indigenous thinking on human beings.
Viola Cordova spoke of the concept of humanity as one wherein:
“The Native American view of human beings and their role in the world is very different from that of the Western/Christian view. It could be said that human beings have an instinct that draws them to others. It is this instinct that provides the basis for cooperative behavior. Cooperative behavior is ‘right’ or ‘normal’ behavior. Persons act ethically because they want to maintain their membership in the group.
“In order to maintain membership in a group, the survival of the group is as important as is the survival of the individual, perhaps more so. The individual is dependent on the group for his survival, and the group is dependent on its individuals for survival. The group, in turn, as well as the individual, is dependent on the particular conditions of the area that it occupies for its continued survival. Other areas contain people equally dependent on the conditions of their area for their survival.
“One very important fact here, a fact that is missing from the Western/Christian perspective, is that human beings are seen as groups occupying specific niches. The existential and geographical circumstances of the group will provide the basis for the ethical considerations of the group. Since each group occupies a specific area, each group will have its own ‘code of conduct.’”⁵⁸
Here, we have a direct confluence with Marx in the importance given to cooperative labor and the metabolism of laboring activity and nature. Cordova considers human individuals as context-specific and relational — they are inseparable from what she calls their “matrix”⁵⁹
For Cordova, humans are simply what they are — the ensemble of their relations. They are not defined by any abstract, anthropological species-essence.⁶⁰ Their definition varies by matrices, depending purely on reference to other beings and the life of the people-place.
Cordova speaks of Jicarilla Dindéi communities holding a concept of a person humanizing from infancy to adulthood.⁶¹ This means coming into relation and becoming an autonomous being among other autonomous beings — distinct, but still a part of One. In Cordova’s elaboration of Indigenous thought, humans are distinct from the rest of nature — distinguished in a network of references or relations in their matrix — but they are not superior.⁶²
She does not have a foundationalist definition of human beings — contingency is very important rather than seeking to pin down a metaphysical truth. What she does identify as key to humanizing or becoming-human is a continuous ethical commitment to rhythm with the world, varying by the specific “world,” or people-place, of communities.⁶³ This implies a related concept to Marx’s concept of labor as a metabolism, albeit in a less anthropocentric form.
Although he remained anthropocentric, he did not retain his youthful anthropological or “human essence”-thinking. As an older man, he expressed a concept of humanity in a form closely related o Cordova’s description of humanity as an endless becoming in a contingent, holistic world. In the Grundrisse (1857-1861), for instance, he said:
“In fact, however, when the limited bourgeois form is stripped away, what is wealth other than the universality of individual needs, capacities, pleasures, productive forces etc., created through universal exchange? The full development of human mastery over the forces of nature, those of so-called nature as well as of humanity’s own nature? The absolute working out of his creative potentialities, with no presupposition other than the previous historic development, which makes this totality of development, i.e. the development of all human powers as such the end in itself, not as measured on a predetermined yardstick? Where he does not reproduce himself in one specificity, but produces his totality? Strives not to remain something he has become, but is in the absolute movement of becoming?”⁶⁴
In Capital, Marx spoke of “animism” and a conception of the sacredness of nature — an immediate oneness with nature — as representing a backwardness in the development of labor. Ironically, it is this “animism” which offers a related and deeply insightful expression of holism and “the absolute movement of becoming[.]” This rejection of measure, of boxing in, and of alienated potentialities is not irreconcilable whatsoever with “animist” holism, which sees the whole of nature as sacred.
Marx himself recognized that our “civilized” way of living, opposed to “animism,” wherein “man” and “nature” are antithetical comes about with capitalist instrumental reason:
“For the first time, nature becomes purely an object for humankind, purely a matter of utility; ceases to be recognized as a power for itself; and the theoretical discovery of its autonomous laws appears merely as a ruse so as to subjugate it under human needs, whether as an object of consumption or as a means of production.”⁶⁵
As he said even as a young man, Marx recognizes this as originating in socially specific activity and social relations of life activity of humans — although still acting as natural beings. That is, this is not the only way humanity can relate to nature. Other ways of thinking and being are possible, as is critique and transcendence from within.
Luther Standing Bear (Sičhą́ǧu Oyáte and Oglála Lakhóta Oyáte) recognized this human-nature antithesis as expressed in the difference between capitalist settlers and communalist Indigenous peoples:
“We did not think of the great open plains, the beautiful rolling hills, and winding streams with tangled growth, as ‘wild.’ Only to the white man was nature a ‘wilderness,’ and only to him was the land ‘infested’ with ‘wild’ animals and ‘savage’ people. To us it was tame. Earth was bountiful and we were surrounded with the blessings of the Great Mystery. Not until the hairy man from the east came and with brutal frenzy heaped injustices upon us and the families we loved was it ‘wild’ for us. When the very animals of the forest began fleeing from his approach, then it was that for us the ‘Wild West’ began.”⁶⁶
In the concept of “wilderness,” the human subject condemns a non-conformity of nature with the process of its own externalization of its subjectivity. The subject wishes to transform nature into an instrument, and insofar as nature does not revolve around them as its absolute center, they consider it something to be “struggled” against and “tamed.” The concept of “wilderness” is a disharmony of subject and object — in this case, wrought by the drive of capitalization.
Winona LaDuke (Mississippi Band Anishinaabeg) thus characterizes capitalism as an all-devouring, nature-destroying subject:
“Now, I’m an economist by training, and I refer to our current economic system as Wiindigoo Economics. In our Anishinaabe stories, the Wiindigoo is a giant murderous monster that used to rampage through the north woods, fueled by an insatiable greed and a relentless desire for human flesh. Fossil fuel era capitalism is like the Wiindigoo: a predator economics, the economics of a cannibal. It is a system based on colonization, wastefulness and ravenous greed, a system that destroys the very source of its own wealth and well-being, Mother Earth.”⁶⁷
This Wiindigoo metaphor is extremely insightful, and shows the deep independent creative value of Indigenous knowledge. This metaphor of ravenous cannibalism expresses the manifold moments of capital: capital emerges from a specific way of living among natural human beings, it becomes like a spell or disease compelling them towards destructive behavior, regardless of any opposing subjective desires, and it ultimately transforms into a domination and destruction of those very same natural beings.
Wiindigoo Economics is nature turned in on itself. It is historical rather than a fundamental destiny. It is a disease which is a consequence of a certain way of life — devouring another human being, or what’s all the same, exploitation of human by human.
For LaDuke and other Indigenous traditionalists, an ethic of human commitment in relation to the rest of nature is a medicine against this disease. This is an alternative way of life with a different logic to that which capital is born out of and reinforces.
The idea of oneness with nature is not entirely missing from settler critiques of capitalism. It does not, however, take an identical form to Indigenous holist ethics. In the figure of someone like John Muir and the American ideology of preservationism, we see continued thinking in terms of human vs. nature. Settler “oneness with nature” is still abstract — it is merely making a natural reserve, subjectively and objectively. It remains contemplative and lacking practical relationality.
Indigenous concepts of oneness take another form by the fact of their concreteness and practical character. This oneness is mundane or everyday, it is not an antithesis of everyday life. Oneness with the rhythm of nature is not a clearing away, but is measured by the rhythm of everyday. Gregory Cajete (Khaʼpʼoe Ówîngeh) explains this through the example of Indigenous botanical knowledge:
“Because plants are rooted in the Earth and are intrinsically important to the life of humans, they are prime symbols for the life focus of Native science. Direct experience is the cornerstone of plant knowledge. Through experience, careful observation, and participation with plants, Native people came to possess a deep understanding of plant uses and relationship to humans, animals, and the landscape[…]”⁶⁸
“In the intimate relationships with their plants, Native people became sensitive to the fact that each has its own energy. “Coming to know,” or understanding the essence of a plant, derives from intuition, feeling, and relationship, and evolves over extensive experience and participation with green nature. This close relationship also leads to the realization that plants have their own destinies separate from humans, that is, Native people traditionally believed that plants have their own volition. Therefore, Native use of plants for food, medicine, clothing, shelter, art, and transportation, and as ‘spiritual partners,’ was predicated upon establishing both a personal and communal covenant with plants in general and with certain plants in particular[…]”⁶⁹
“Through the application of keen intellect, imagination, and a mythological sense of the diverse forms and functions of the plant world, Native cultures have evolved sophisticated ways of plant gathering, gardening, food preparation, and cooking that embody the essence of the participatory nature of Native science.”⁷⁰
This is labor that understands itself as a metabolism between humans and the rest of nature, a oneness which is participatory. This does not seek to force nature to conform with instrumental mechanical principles or try to cleave apart humanity and nature, but collaborates with nature. This is in a manner in many ways embodying Marx’s theorization of humans as the consciousness or subjectivity of nature.
Marx dismissed the capacity of “animism” for scientific knowledge — and yet this is very much in the same realm as his own explication of science:
“Only when it proceeds from sense-perception in the twofold form both of sensuous consciousness and of sensuous need that is, only when science proceeds from nature — is it true science.”⁷¹
In both Cajete and Marx, the philosophical importance of lived experience — in particular to scientific knowledge — cannot be overstated. Immediate, individual lived experience is mediated through the inheritances of history (through language, symbolism, memories etc), but is still deeply important as the way we exist and perceive.
This experience of immediacy is at the heart of the human relation to the world in the everyday. To emphasize the truth of the whole and individual immediacy is not irreconcilable. To recognize the mediated perspective, or the necessity of immediacy in relation to the whole doesn’t negate the reality of lived experience for human subjects.⁷²
Marx and Indigenous traditionalists both stand against any kind of philosophy of nature which attacks the everyday oneness represented by the metabolism of man and nature. They oppose any notion of a foundational Being or ontology — a concern with a fundamental or abstract question of what it is “To Be,” any concern to find a metaphysical truth of the “Is” beneath the debris of the things that are.
Instead, they speak and act in favor of contingency as the site of oneness. There is oneness in abstraction, there is Being which is Nothing, and there is oneness in manyness, in rhythm, in Becoming. The “ontological difference” of the Nazi philosopher Martin Heidegger — between merely incidental and dependent beings and foundational Being — is alien to Indigenous thought. Indigenous thought concerns the being of beings rather than the Being of beings. As Cajete says:
“The Native American paradigm is comprised of and includes ideas of constant motion and flux, existence consisting of energy waves, interrelationships, all things being animate, space/place, renewal, and all things being imbued with spirit[…] The constant flux notion results in a ‘spider web’ network of relationships. In other words, everything is interrelated. If everything is interrelated, then all of creation is related. If human beings are animate and have spirit, then ‘all my relations’ must also be animate and must also have spirit. What Native Americans refer to as ‘spirit’ and energy waves are the same thing.”⁷³
Traditional Indigenous ways of thought are thinking and living in Becoming, not searching for any fundamental experience of Being.⁷⁴ This informs Indigenous critiques of abstraction or otherworldliness brought by Westerners. That includes otherworldliness which claims to be being-in-the-world but shrinks away in disgust from the mundane — in Heidegger the inauthentic being of das Man — and excludes it from authentic Being.
With Heidegger, we see a Romantic, or even proto-fascist, concept of Being that also informed much of the American settler naturalist movement. This thinking drives one to abstractly become one with nature instead of becoming one through contingency — through forms of labor. It is a fear of engaging with the world as a subject and an object, becoming merely a negative mirror image of the typical bourgeois war of the subject against objects.⁷⁵
Marx also did not strive towards any such “Being of beings,” and instead concerned himself with the being of beings. Clearly echoing Heraclitus, he spoke of the relation of labor to Becoming:
“Objectified labour ceases to exist in a dead state as an external, indifferent form on the substance, because it is itself again posited as a moment of living labour ; as a relation of living labour to itself in an objective material, as the objectivity of living labour (as means and end [Objekt]) (the objective conditions of living labour).
“The transformation of the material by living labour, by the realization of living labour in the material — a transformation which, as purpose, determines labour and is its purposeful activation (a transformation which does not only posit the form as external to the inanimate object, as a mere vanishing image of its material consistency) — thus preserves the material in a definite form, and subjugates the transformation of the material to the purpose of labour. Labour is the living, form-giving fire; it is the transitoriness of things, their temporality, as their formation by living time.”⁷⁶
Labor transforms and reproduces the contingency of nature in its metabolism with it. Labor challenges all static, all contemplative certainty of static existence. Labor here is mediation of a oneness with nature, but a contingent and rhythmic oneness.
This desire for a static, abstract oneness that we see in settlers and expressed by reactionary critics of bourgeois society must be understood as part of the psychology of the white, Western man spoken of by Luther Standing Bear. Theodor W. Adorno hazarded a diagnosis on the historical basis of this ontological need:
“Now we could certainly engage in lengthy speculation about what has produced this allergy in the face of beings. I am assuming some- thing here — though I wouldn’t want you to write this straight down, for otherwise you will reproach me with showing my hand too early and with rushing all too precipitately into the midst of beings myself, whereas the actual transition to the domain of beings, or the demonstration of the necessity for such a transition, still lies before us.
“What I mean is that this peculiar allergy which pervades philosophy, but which has probably never been as acute as it is in these ontological philosophies, arises from the memory that our existence depends upon bodily labour and actually lives from such labour. But, in spite of this, up until very recent developments, bodily labour was itself looked down upon as something demeaning or even base. And anything that might recall this distinctive involvement on the part of labour with the level of mere being, with the merely natural, is repressed in the medium of thought. And the priority of what we call mind or spirit over the material world on which it lives and depends is once again consolidated and transfigured through this allergy, which now effectively decrees the absolute purity of all that is mental or spiritual as the domain of true being in contrast with the mere domain of beings.”⁷⁷
The purification of beings out of Being is a pathology at play, for instance, in the expropriation of Indigenous peoples by National Parks in the name of “protecting nature.” This concept of nature is one of a marble garden instead of a living, breathing, bleeding, eating, laboring dying, birthing oneness.
We should emphasize once again that Marx’s concept of nature, despite confluences, is still not identical to Indigenous concepts of nature. He retained a certain anthropocentrism in his implication that human beings are the “end” of nature, while someone like Viola Cordova refuses such teleological reasoning and sees humans as related to all nature, which are also beings.⁷⁸ Thus, the importance to Marxism of learning from independent Indigenous traditions if it wishes to be living instead of dead.
Within and Against Capital?
Inka Garcilaso de la Vega, in his histories of his ancestors, wrote an interesting observation of the role of gold in their world:
“Since, as everyone knows, the Incas possessed great quantities of gold, silver, and precious stones, it might be thought that it all came to them through compulsory tribute, which was not at all the case.
“Nothing could be bought or sold in their kingdom, where there was neither gold nor silver coin, and these metals could not be considered otherwise than as superfluous, since they could not be eaten, nor could one buy anything to eat with them. Indeed, they were esteemed only for their beauty and brilliance, as being suitable for enhancing that of royal palaces, Sun temples and convents for virgins.
“The result was that when the Indians brought gold and silver to the Inca, it was not at all by way of tribute, but as a gift, for it would not have occurred to them to pay a visit to a superior without bringing him a present, even if it were only a little basket of fruit, as was often the case.”⁷⁹
For the Inka, gold did not appear as a power unto itself — the quality which incentivizes the demand of tribute in gold. Gold was valued for its “beauty and brilliance” — its use-values — rather than taking on a form and power as value. It was not money, but ornamentation. This is not a situation where money, or more accurately production, stands as the point of life. Human beings remain at the center of labor — albeit with the Sapa Inka at the center of human beings. This society is quite transparent, easy to understand as a member of it, compared to that of capitalism.
Gold, or more accurately, money, holds a thing-like spell for those in bourgeois society. Gold is “superfluous” and “[can] not be eaten,” and considerations of its beauty are secondary to its power in exchange. Money for us is not only a thing that mediates relations between people — it emerges beyond that and becomes something that mediates between enchanted objects. It becomes like a living thing we have a relationship with, a supernatural being that digs its claws into us and feeds off of us. Our world is one of living commodities before it is a world of living beings.
Marx observed of the difference between non-capitalist and capitalist forms of class society:
“The antagonism between the power of landed property, based on personal relations of domination and servitude, and the power of money, which is impersonal, is clearly expressed by the two French proverbs, ‘Nulle terre sans seigneur’, [‘No land without its lord’] and ‘L’argent n’apasde maltre’ [‘Money has no master’].”⁸⁰
Capital is an impersonal power — it is a power indifferent to who holds it. Thus, a commoner can rob a bank and use that money as purchasing power while a commoner cannot so easily rob the personal titles or ranks of aristocrats and hold that as their own.
Capital is indifferent to particular personality, except as it serves the overall ends of valorization. Capital is also a power over the human beings who create it. It is human, yet inhuman. It appears as having these qualities completely autonomously from the human beings whose activities create it and grant it this power.⁸¹ To an outsider from this fundamentally sick mode of production, its participants appear stricken with a disease of the mind and stomach.
Here we come back to the concept of Wiindigoo Economics introduced by Winona LaDuke (Mississippi Band Anishinaabeg). This fundamental, insatiable drive to subordinate and devour is that of capital. Its influence on human beings creates personalities in its image, even in the agency and choices of those beings. Even if their conscience cries out, even if they are nagged by a strong sense that what they are doing is wrong, they turn from the face of their God and continue their bloody feast. This is the sickness which drove the barbaric Spanish conquistadores to build the first death camps in history to squeeze as much gold (yellow or white in the form of sugar) from the living beings of the “New World” as they could.
This is the power of an instrumental reason.⁸² It is society made in the image of a machine, something where on a social level there are no living ends but endless means. The end of capital is not an end at all — it is compelled to feed itself with renewal in order to survive, exactly like the Wiindigoo. It is sickness embodied. This is disharmony as a “phantom-like objectivity.”⁸³
Contrast this to the characterization of Taiaiake Alfred (Kanienʼkehá꞉ka) on Indigenous conceptions of the world as one of living ends-unto-themselves rather than instrumental means:
“Nowhere is the contrast between indigenous and (dominant) Western traditions sharper than in their philosophical approaches to the fundamental issues of power and nature. In indigenous philosophies, power flows from respect for nature and the natural order. In the dominant Western philosophy, power derives from coercion and artifice — in effect, alienation from nature.”⁸⁴
As Marx already recognized, this qualitative alienation from nature and from human beings as natural beings leads to the “stultifi[cation]” of humans into mere “material force.”⁸⁵ As qualitatively mere material force, humans and nature alike figure to capital first and foremost as quantities. This rule of abstraction, of quantity, means the domination and extraction from living things in a fundamentally imbalanced and unsustainable way.⁸⁶ The “natural order,” the many-sided matrixes of the relations of all things, appears in capitalist thinking as so many values to extract. This quantification is a consistent theme of critique in Indigenous traditionalism
Ohiyesa (Isáŋyathi) expressed such critique in the context of the quantified religion of Christian missionaries in his book From the Deep Woods to Civilization (1916). Another Indigenous critic of Euro-bourgeois society, Laura Cornelius Kellogg (Onʌyoteˀa·ká), expressed a direct critique of industrial capitalism. Her influences from both Onʌyoteˀa·ká traditions and the contemporary social-democratic labor movement are very evident:
“Some of the gravest problems in this country today are to be found in the industrial world of the white man. With all his acumen, with all his advantages, with all his training, the great masses of labor (who make the things he wears and the things he eats, and who serve the money despots) are by no means rewarded for their toil or taken care of when they need care, much less have they the leisure or the means or the energy for higher education[…]
“The factory system is then at once responsible for some of the biggest problems for the Caucasian mind. Here are some of the evils to which it has given birth: child labor, employed in place of adult employment, with light-running machinery because it is cheaper; industrial accidents, due to large machines without protective appliances, because protection is an item of expense to the employer and the laborer himself is still too ignorant to demand protection before he takes the work that at any moment may take his limb and life; factory regulation and unemployment; unsanitary conditions and long hours — though the last two have been improved by legislation in the past few years, they are by no means above reproach today. Unemployment is the result of the invention of labor-saving machines and the unsettled condition created by differences between labor and capital.”⁸⁷
Here, Kellogg directly critiques the wage labor indoctrination that many Indigenous peoples were forced through at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School. For her, wage labor and “the factory system” are at the heart of the extremely different values and ethics identified by Alfred. Kellogg then goes as far as to identify “communistic” cooperativism and autonomous community economies on such a basis as a means of survival for her nation and others against the real subsumption of capital.⁸⁸ In this she preceded Glen Sean Coulthard (Yellowknives Dene), who today discusses Indigenous ethics as a “mode of life” apart from Euro-capitalist society, and points to the example of the Dene Declaration program as also aiming at cooperative societies for autonomy.⁸⁹ Kellogg and Coulthard both take influence from the non-Native working class movement in the form of socialist critique from within the very heart of capitalist society, while retaining their distinct Indigenous standpoints.
Marx in Capital (1867) also identified capitalist and the “factory system” as representing the, real subsumption of capital, and thus its “heart”:
“It is machines that abolish the role of the handicrafts man as the regulating principle of social production. Thus, on the one hand, the technical reason for the lifelong attachment of the worker to a partial function is swept away. On the other hand, the barriers placed in the way of the domination of capital by this same regulating principle now also fall.”⁹⁰
Marx also distinguished between absolute and relative surplus-value as a means of explaining this distinction. In absolute surplus-value extraction, the theft is primarily in terms of quantitative time — the separation between what is the worker’s and what is capital’s is relatively clear. He saw this as the primary form of exploitation taken in formal subsumption of capital, echoing or often taking the form of tribute demand.⁹¹
Relative surplus-value extraction, on the other hand, represents a deeper penetration of capital into the production process, a deeper transformation of the worker and of labor. It increases the productivity (for capital, measured by value-quantity) of labor by changing the character of labor — most importantly, through the power of machines in such practices as the “factory system.” It means the quantification of life begins to infect the “root” of the labor-process itself, and thus we reach what he considers a specifically capitalist way of life.⁹²
Thus, Marx considered his project as one critiquing the capitalist mode of production from within. He was primarily concerned with how proletarians, especially industrial proletarians, can transcend capital from within the real subsumption of capital. Generally, he considered the real subsumption to capital — in his eyes taking the form of universal wage-labor — to be the main tendency and drive of capital and labor. In his focus on wage-labor, Marx critiqued first and foremost from a Euro-proletarian perspective — he focused on the industrial factory as the core image of capitalist class struggle, despite his historical multilinearism.
Yet, Marx was also influenced by the traditions of Indigenous peoples — albeit largely mediated by non-Indigenous authors.⁹³ Although he focused on Western Europe and more specifically England as the form real subsumption to capital (and thus the capitalist mode of production) takes, he did not really consider this the only path taken by either capitalism or its transcendence.⁹⁴ His elder life’s theory of revolution, disalienation, and communism was influenced by the society and ethics of the Haudenosaunee.⁹⁵ His later critiques of bureaucracy, of the “first negation” of capitalism being its negative mirror image or still referring to “bourgeois right,” and his characterization of capital as an impersonal power were thus all influenced in some way by his engagements with the Indigenous. He died before he could coalesce these threads more deeply, and so the task for Marxists is to continue that work. In terms of real social movements, that means to learn by listening and leading by obeying.
Marx’s critique of the “factory system” was not intended to exhaust all the ways capital, as an impersonal power, comes to penetrate the world in the capitalist mode of production. His focus was not the “factory system” unto itself. He was first and foremost appreciative of the ways that bourgeois society is haunted. It profanes all of the sacred, and yet is itself still plagued by the figures and characteristrics of spirits, phantoms, vampires… In such terms, he spoke of it in a famous line of the Communist Manifesto (1848):
“Modern bourgeois society with its relations of production, of exchange, and of property, a society that has conjured up such gigantic means of production and of exchange, is like the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells.”⁹⁶
This is a society of disharmony, spiritual sickness. The spell cast conjured by human beings now haunts the entire world. It is not merely a spell that has escaped our control — it is a spell which now puts us to work and controls us. For Marx this is the Subject coming to dominate itself, it is not the same as a “primitive” relation to nature as “dominating” the Subject. As a young man in 1842, he in fact connected two forms of fetishism:
“The savages of Cuba regarded gold as a fetish of the Spaniards. They celebrated a feast in its honour, sang in a circle around it and then threw it into the sea. If the Cuban savages had been present at the sitting of the Rhine Province Assembly, would they not have regarded wood as the Rhinelanders’ fetish? But a subsequent sitting would have taught them that the worship of animals is connected with this fetishism, and they would have thrown the hares into the sea in order to save the human beings.”⁹⁷
Marx’s critique of bourgeois society as having a “second fetishism” is interesting, but limited in his assumption that this “first fetishism” is also an abasement or submission in the same way that submission to the fetish of gold is. This is, once again, a disparaging and unfair concept of “animism” and its relation to nature. For him, the rational engagement of collective humanity — as natural beings — and the rest of nature in a communist society must be very different to this “fetishism.”
Yet, this is where Indigenous “animist” views of the hauntedness of bourgeois society are enriching in a way that is lacking in Marx. In language of motion and morphology, Black Elk (Oglála Lakhóta Oyáte) stated of his people’s engagement with bourgeois society:
“You realize that in the sacred hoop we will multiply. You will notice that everything the Indian does is in a circle[…]
“Everything now is too square. The sacred hoop is vanishing among the people[…]
“Even the birds and their nests are round. You take the bird’s egg and put them in a square nest and the mother bird just won’t stay there. We Indians are relative-like to the birds. Everything tries to be round — the world is round. We Indians have been put here [to be] like the wilds and we cooperate with them[…]
“Now the white man has taken away our nest and put us in a box and here they ask us to hatch our children, but we cannot do it. We are vanishing in the box.”⁹⁸
Black Elk’s morphological thought refers to the rhythms and flows of everyday life. There are those that are harmonic with the way of all living things, and there are those that are disharmonic. A square is machine-like, is rigid and without a smooth, rhythmic flow. It is riven in different directions, it is centrifugal. A circle is a oneness which encompasses all directions in a centripetal force, a harmony. Marx came somewhat close to this in speaking of capital’s disharmonic metabolism with nature, and of the need for human beings to rationally regulate their engagement with nature as natural beings. This, however, is a fuller expression from within an “animistic” standpoint.
To become harmonic with the rhythm of all living things does not mean returning to a static natural order, but a rational and balanced intercourse with other beings.⁹⁹ To become disharmonic harms all living beings in the webs or networks of life, including human beings.¹⁰⁰ Marx’s concept of the human subject as the subjectivity of nature is on the way to this Indigenous knowledge — but he lacked a full expression of the independent liveliness of other living beings. Nevertheless, that he recognized and began to follow this thread is important.¹⁰¹
It is important not to fall into a one-sided concept of Marx and to dismiss him purely as Western, colonial, and useless for the tasks of decolonization. Indigenous critics like Viola Cordova, Gregory Cajete, Glen Sean Coulthard, Taiaiake Alfred, and Vine Deloria Jr. (Íŋyaŋ Woslál Háŋ) have all expressed the need for dialogue and mutual learning between non-Native and Native ways of thinking and critiquing.¹⁰²
To aspire to a form of universalism like Marx does not inherently mean a homogenizing universalism. Capital is already a worldwide system aspiring to become a closed totality — it is already a bad unity or bad universal. We cannot escape the fact that the globe exists as a global society in capitalist society. We can, however, aspire to a good or harmonic unity which does not demand a flat homogenization and is premised on free association.
As a critic of capitalism, Marx also holds value insofar as he is an alternative to fatalism or despair of those deeply infected by the capital-relation. From the European working class, he learned and taught ways within and against capital and pointed the way out and beyond it. Importantly, he spoke of moral indignation against capital as both coming from pre-capitalist sources and from a rational transcendence of capitalism.¹⁰³ That is, a disharmony against disharmony itself.
He also left us lessons which remind us to stay vigilant of how, even within and against capital, proletarians are still themselves of capitalist society and risk projecting this character into visions of communism. He gave very important and insightful warnings on the ways capital can infect our attempts to reach ways of living beyond capitalism — such as through the “factory system” and unchanged capitalist methods of production, through merely “equalizing” a commodity producing system, or by demanding a communism of universal sameness.¹⁰⁴ The second is particularly significant insofar as it is something Laura Cornelius Kellogg advocated and something that many traditionalists like Taiaiake Alfred warn against.¹⁰⁵
While there is a danger of critiquing too much from within and losing the character of transcendence, there is also a danger of the same consequence coming from an attempt to critique entirely from outside. György Lukács said of Ludwig Feuerbach, for instance:
“However, if this genesis, this demonstration of the real roots of the concepts, is only the appearance of a genesis, the two basic principles of his world-view, ‘alienated’ man and the dissolution of this ‘alienation’, solidify into rigidly opposed essences. He does not dissolve the one into the other, but rejects the one and affirms (morally) the other. He opposes one ready made reality to another ready-made reality, instead of showing how the one must arise — in the dialectical process — out of the other. His ‘love’ allows the ‘alienated’ reality of man to survive unaltered, just as Kant’s Ought was incapable of changing anything in the structure of his world of being.”¹⁰⁶
This total apartness, this total concern with something uninfected, in truth implies a pessimism and complacency with the world as it exists. It is not medicine to treat the sickness — it is hallucinating from its symptoms. This view encourages fatalism among those who are penetrated to their hearts by the heart of capital, it tells them that if they are not totally of an Ought, then they are doomed to remain what Is.
This dichotomy of Is and Ought is also what is evident in many settler attempts to critique settler ways of life. They try to critique from an ought, and end up purely within the capitalist settler society they disdain the infection of. This Romanticism can take the form of naturalism, false claims by settlers to Indigeneity, and attempts to establish utopian societies apart from capitalist society itself. They are criticizing from an impotent standpoint of Ought in their absolute, abstract condemnation of Is.
Indigenous critiques which are just as radically against the bourgeois Is don’t repeat the same patterns of an Is and Ought dichotomy. They come from the perspective of real, existing concrete communities and alternative ways of life. Indigenous traditionalist critiques come from the perspective of grounded normativity in living non- and anti-capitalist alternatives. This is a longstanding, deeply internalized ethic from which they critique, where the workers Marx learned from largely critiqued with an eye to possibilities beyond their Is. Though, of course, as an old man he began to re-evaluate living alternatives in their relation to the revolution from within capital.
Fausto Reinaga (Quechua) spoke of this Indigenous alternative as already representing an Indigenous socialism to re-capture the spirit of and avoid the risk of reproducing the capitalist Is:
“If in the future of humanity — as the greatest thinkers, politicians and philosophers point out — the commune awaits us (it is the indigenous community!) and its moral forms of government, it is foolish to look for it in that future, still unknown, if we have it as an exhausted experience in our pre-American past. As the duty of every alienated revolutionary is to shorten paths of pain and sadness, in reciprocity to the pain that torments our peoples, that path is shortened by the task of reunion. What happens in the USSR and People’s China, or within the so-called socialist world, serves as an experience and orientation; but we are better served by the experience and orientation of a socialism with more than eight thousand years of validity in our past.
“This is sparing paths, it is categorically asserting that it’s true: the future of humanity is to be communitarian, communal, ideally identical to that of our ancient indigenous communities. Socialism is very much ours for being a patient product and elaboration of our stubborn and admirable continental reality. Socialism that was a luminous concrete reality, thousands of years before Marx, Engels and Lenin had been born or even dreamed of. Which is better, to see it in reality or to continue looking for it in the dreams of the Marxist-Leninists? Let us go, then, towards the reunion with our true history!¹⁰⁷
Reinaga then spoke of the relation of this living alternative to the modern, Euro-bourgeois world, arguing that:
“The racial struggle precedes the struggle of classes.”¹⁰⁸
“Marx, it was not only that he had not studied pre-capitalist society. The slave who ‘is of a different essence than the gentleman’ Westerner, did not deserve his attention. The brilliant “Moor” had not imagined the racial ravages to which capital led in its imperialist stage. Marx had studied in society nothing more than two irreconcilable classes: the exploiting and the exploited. He did not suspect the extremes that white Western civilization would go, with respect to men of another skin color and another color of conscience[…]”¹⁰⁹
To some degree, we can agree with Reinaga’s critique — Marx certainly expressed a certain haughty Eurocentrism towards “animism” and other Indigenous ways of living and thinking in multiple instances. He, further, certainly dedicated most of his focus to the “exploiting and exploited” of the capitalist mode of production rather than the “slave.”
However, Marx did not understand class struggle as dichotomous. He recognized many classes, even in capitalist society, and in his talk of the famous duality primarily emphasizing the forms of struggle between rulers and producers.¹¹⁰ His dualism of ‘bourgeois and proletarian” was explicitly meant to refer to capitalist tendencies wrought by capital remaking world.¹¹¹ Both the bourgeoisie and proletariat are capitalist — capital, in fact, is labor.
Reinaga’s struggle of races, rather than an antithesis to class struggle entirely unfamiliar to Marx, can also be understood as a struggle between modes of life. There are two “glues” or forms of coherences, thus morphologies, of society at struggle. This is something of what Marx was getting at in his concept of formal and real subsumption to capital. It is a civilizational struggle, if you like.
In the Bolivia of Reinaga, there was certainly a real antithesis of metropolitan or “cholista” official Marxism and Indigenous forms of anti-colonial anti-capitalism. Thus, such an absolute dichotomy was a valid and true expression. In North America, we also have a historical situation which echoes this. Our official Marxism has a history of often being relatively conservative compared to many other countries, in particular in relation to Indigenous traditionalism.
For a large part, this is because settler factions have dominated official Marxism. They live in a world, or “civilization,” apart from Indigenous peoples, and bring the baggage of settler subjectivity when they do engage with them. Here, there has been no equivalent for Marxism and Indigenous peoples to the concrete investigations and learning-by-listening represented by Marx’s worker’s inquiries.
When American Marxists even bother to theorize Indigenous issues, they tend to fall flat. They engage from within a separation of Is and Ought, lacking meaningful knowledge about the everyday lives of Indigenous peoples. Thus, their knowledge is contemplative and distorting rather than the practical, participatory knowledge spoken of by Gregory Cajete (Khaʼpʼoe Ówîngeh).
In the “golden ages” of American Marxism, in the Haymarket generation and that of American Bolshevism, the proletariat was often directly antagonistic to Indigenous peoples because they represented the encroaching capitalist society. As capitalist labor and capital alike, settler labor acted as a force colonizing and scarring ancestral homelands and Indigenous peoples themselves. This is not to express an anti-proletarian position, but to say that the fact that the proletarian is within capitalism has a practical and historical meaning.
Even with the mass proletarianization of Indigenous peoples and the rise of radical Pan-Indigenism from these urban Natives in the 1960s and 1970s, Marxists still tend to express a direct or indirect repetition of the “virgin soil” myth, or claim that settler-colonialism is irrelevant today. The weakness of this official Marxism should be a warning against treating Marxism as a closed system or a closed totality. Marxism becomes conservative when it loses the character of participatory science, a principle with a similar heart to Cajete’s description of Native science.
The North American trope that Marxism is fundamentally incompatible with Indigenous ways of thinking and living, and vice versa, is an infection of the fundamental possibilities of critical theory itself by the current state of things. It is a consequence which must be appreciated as present, but should not limit all possible futures. A practical and theoretical dialogue of Indigenous traditionalism and Marxism is very much possible, and holds fruit for both as distinct bodies.
There is a possible alternative approach to the relation of Marxism and Indigenous tradition in the theory and practice of the Partido Liberal Mexicano and Ricardo Flores Magón (Mazatec). They worked significantly with Indigenous communities seeking to reclaim their homelands, and Magón was himself Indigenous. Of the relation between these two forms of critique, Magón said:
“Four million Indians live in Mexico who, until twenty or twenty-five years ago, lived in communities possessing the lands, the waters, and the forests in common. Mutual aid was the rule in these communities, in which authority was felt only when the tax collector appeared periodically or when ‘recruiters’ showed up in search of men to force into the army. In these communities there were no judges, mayors, jailers, in fact no bothersome people at all of this type.
“Everyone had the right to the land, to the water to irrigate it, to the forests for firewood, and to the wood from the forests for the construction of small houses. The plows passed from hand to hand, as did yokes of oxen. Each family worked as much land as they thought was sufficient to produce what was necessary, and the work of weeding and harvesting was done in common by the entire community — today, Pedro’s harvest, tomorrow Juan’s, and so on. Everyone in the community put their hands to work when a house was to be raised.
“As regards the mestizo population which is the majority of the people of Mexico — with the exception of those who inhabited the great cities and large towns — they held the forests, lands, and bodies of water in common, just as the indigenous peoples did. Mutual aid was also the rule; they built their houses together; money was unnecessary, because they bartered what they made or grew.
“But with the coming of peace, authority grew, and the political and financial bandits shamelessly stole the lands, forests, and bodies of water; they stole everything. Not even twenty years ago one could see in opposition newspapers that the North American X, the German Y, or the Spaniard Z had enveloped an entire population within the limits of ‘his’ property, with the aid of the Mexican authorities.
“We see, then, that the Mexican people are suited for communism, because they’ve practiced it, at least in part, for many centuries; and this explains why, even when the majority are illiterate, they comprehend that rather than take part in electoral farces that elect thugs, it’s better to take possession of the lands — and this taking is what scandalizes the thieving bourgeoisie.”¹¹²
We can agree here strongly with what Magón traces in the relation of communalism and communism. The two can, and should, recognize similar hearts in each other. Magón worked to trace a relation between the practical critique of capital from within and the struggle against the real subsumption of capital which this activity is within. Both of these movements are at the heart of a revolution in everyday life and the need to transform our way of life entirely.
Had Marx followed this thread further, he would have also explicitly recognized the living ethics of a communist society beyond the dead quantification and instrumental reason of bourgeois society. The deep insight Marxists gain by listening to Indigenous peoples cannot be exaggerated — it leads us to think more deeply about how we go outside of and beyond capital from within and against it.
Eric R. Wolf, although influential to Marxists coming to appreciate rural revolutions, warned of the inward, community focus of peasant or traditional revolutions. He saw them as, on this basis, limited.¹¹³ Some Marxists may use this argument to dismiss the revolutionary potential of Indigenous nations confined to rural reservations. This can be responded to by an opposing argument by Howard Adams (Métis), who emphasized especially that the link between town and country made by the relation of urban and reservation Natives makes for a revolutionary potential:
“Realistically, our decolonization has to be developed through our role as revolutionary people in the present colonial system. No longer are we needed as a labor force to meet the needs of economic development Indians and Metis, particularly the young, are a potential revolutionary force inside Canada, yet we have not acknowledged the need for the revolutionary organization, ideology, and action that must be developed if we are ever to be free. We are reluctant to tackle the responsibility of revolutionary politics.”¹¹⁴
Even when they are “no longer needed as a labor force to meet the needs of economic development,” or are not primarily labor-as-capital, they are a revolutionary force by their exclusion, by their desire to defend their homelands against capitalist encroachment, and by the fundamental bondage of colonialism to capitalism. A true preservation of traditional, communalist ways of life means an ultimate confrontation with capital. As Glen Sean Coulthard (Yellowknives Dene) said, “For Indigenous nations to live, capitalism must die. And for capitalism to die, we must actively participate in the construction of Indigenous alternatives to it.”¹¹⁵ He and Adams alike recognize the need to actively struggle against capital to live Indigenous ethics.
Rather than continuing to operate in the dichotomy of the urban working class movement and that of Indigenous autonomy, this points to a need for a coalition of movements, a unity-in-difference including where there are personal overlaps between the two. There are lessons for an approach to this in the traditionalist emphasis on many forms of Indigeneity coexisting even within Pan-Indigenous movements, as by Taiaiake Alfred.¹¹⁶ This means an interdependence and cooperation of many projects against capital, not a total homogeneity.
Of his own political time, Vine Deloria Jr. (Íŋyaŋ Woslál Háŋ) observed:
“The meaninglessness and alienation discernible in our generation results partially from our allowing time to consume space.The shift in thinking from temporal considerations to spatial considerations may be seen in a number of minimovements by which we are struggling to define American society. Ecology, the new left politics, self-determination of goals by local communities, and citizenship participation all seem to be efforts to recapture a sense of place and a rejection of the traditional American dependence on progress--a temporal concept — as the measure of American identity.”¹¹⁷
In his identification of a need for a restoration of a sense of space rather than the quantitative and bourgeois concept of time, Deloria Jr. pointed towards something which Marxists can learn from. He opposed claiming fake Indigeneity, or Pretendians, and deeply resented hippies who treated Indigenous peoples as a Museum of Authenticity. He did, however, advocate that settlers learn from Indigenous ways of thinking and being as a means to realize a new world.¹¹⁸ The universal society, or free engagement of many different peoples, which he sought leads ultimately to Marx’s own concept of communism.
In one of his famous, explicit descriptions of communism, Marx described it as a way of life wherein:
“In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.”¹¹⁹
This is not a homogenous unity, but a unity premised on the right to difference. The bad unity of bourgeois society means homogenization, even genocidal homogenization. We should think of communism as a universal communalism — the ethic of communal societies realized on a universal scale. It is a community of communities, a Gemeinschaft of Gemeinschaften. It is a universal of many particulars, an open and contingent “humanity” rather than a false universal of “humanity” which marks some as inhuman.
Theodor W. Adorno described the very potential for this laying within society in the sense of Gesselschaft:
“The very concept of society requires the relations between human beings to be grounded in freedom, even though such freedom has not been realized to this day, which implies that this society, for all its rigidity and predominance, is a kind of deformation.”¹²⁰
This is the demand for a Gesselschaft which is of the heart of Gemeinschaft. A society of communities, a free association. A society of rhythm and harmony instead of one which lives and moves like a violent, thrashing machine.
For this reason, and seeking this transcendence, we ought to oppose those Marxisms which seek totalization. This leads to degeneration, and mere abstract Gesselschaft at best. Marx refused this method of work and thought time and time again, and instead learned by listening as through his worker’s inquiries. After all, on the relation of Communists to all workers, he famously said:
“The communists do not form a separate party opposed to other working-class parties.
“They have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole.
“They do not set up any sectarian principles of their own, by which to shape and mold the proletarian movement.
“The communists are distinguished from the other working class parties by this only:
“1. In the national struggles of the proletarians of the different countries they point out and bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat, independent of all nationality.
“2. In the various stages of development which the struggle of the working class against the bourgeoisie has to pass through, they always and everywhere represent the interests of the movement as a whole”[…]¹²¹
“The theoretical conclusions of the communists are in no way based on ideas or principles that have been invented, or discovered, by this or that would-be universal reformer.
“They merely express, in general terms, actual relations spring ing from an existing class struggle, from a historical movement going on under our very eyes.”¹²²
This means opposition to any homogenous assimilation, any attempt to preclude anything in a single “objective” plan which despotically forgets its source from a subject. While Marx here speaks only of the working class struggling within capital, we must account for and work with resistances other than just industrial proletariat or the smallholder peasants, independent workers, and petit-bourgeoisie whom Marx called for a democratic coalition with. This popular democratic character must be extended and renewed, and this is done through his own principle of “leading by obeying.”
Re-Enchanting the World
The opportunity for dialogue and relation between the two critiques, that of Marx and that of Indigenous peoples, is a rich one. In following it, we can learn from the many radical Indigenous radicals who have picked up this thread before us—Laura Cornelius Kellogg (Onʌyoteˀa·ká·), Ricardo Flores Magón (Mazatec), Howard Adams (Métis), Nick Estes (Sičhą́ǧu Oyáte), Glenn Coulthard (Yellowknives Dene), Viola Cordova (Jicarilla Dindéi), Leanne Betasamosake Simpson (Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg), Melanie K. Yazzie (Bilagáana/Diné), and many others.
Both of these critiques have related hearts, even if their regional and social-historical origins are quite different. Both denounce the modern bourgeois world, but not from the standpoint of any bad, alienated unities. They denounce from the real potential for disalienation and a way of living which is life-affirming.
Viola Cordova (Jicarilla Dindéi) spoke of the sacredness of everyday life and everyday people in Indigenous cosmologies:
“Everything that is becomes a part of a whole that we deem ‘sacred.’ We live in other words, in a Sacred Universe[…]”¹²³
“The Native American is admonished to maintain the sacredness of the entire whole. It is difficult to explain that the mundane is actually the sacred. But it is even more difficult to explain how it is that Native Americans, despite the many and continuing attempts to eradicate their belief and value systems, persist in thinking, knowing, that their descriptions are the right ones — for this ‘world.’“¹²⁴
What this represents is a vision of everyday life which respects its everydayness instead of trying to mythologize it or subordinate it to something it isn’t. It isn’t taking things as they are, passively submitting to them, but working with their rhythm. It is a free association.
Karl Marx, for all of those criticisms which disparage him as de-spiritualizing life, said as a young man:
“An animal produces only itself, while man reproduces the whole of nature. An animal’s product belongs immediately to its physical body, while man freely confronts his product. An animal forms things in accordance with the standard and the need of the species to which it belongs, while man knows how to produce in accordance with the standard of every species, and knows how to apply everywhere the inherent standard to the object. Man therefore also forms things in accordance with the laws of beauty.”¹²⁵
Here we are reminded both of the differences between Marxist and Indigenous traditions and their confluence. Marx here speaks in an anthropocentric tone, but expresses a vision of humanity as returning to the heart of natural rhythms. Both consider humans — and life as a whole — as an open, harmonic totality. Both express a life-affirming and universal relationality against the spell of the impersonal, vampiric power of capital.