I came upon Ward Churchill’s critique of Marxism from an “indigenist” perspective through a friend’s facebook note. I am going to do an anti-critique here, not because I disagree with everything Churchill says, but because I disagree with a lot of it, and because on many counts he’s just wrong. It’s important to take stock of this, because what Churchill is presenting might form the basis of mistaken critiques of Marxism. Now, I have no problem with anyone critiquing Marxism, whether the critic is Marxist or non-Marxist or indigenist or religious or whatever. I’d just prefer that the critic read Marx first and then present a coherent argument (is that too much to ask?).
Having said that, I’d like to point out that Marxism is a many-splendoured thing. To quote my friend and interlocutor, Nathanial Thomas: “Like any Marxist, I have my own opinions on what is closer to Marxism and what is … less so, but I feel inclined to the view that Marxists define Marxism, rather than the other way round.” In this vein, I’m going to examine Churchill’s critique from my own perhaps idiosyncratic Marxist perspective which is nevertheless solidly grounded in Marxian thought and, particularly, Marx’s thought–but it’s certainly not the kind of Soviet (orthodox?) Marxism that Churchill repeatedly conflates with Marxism on the whole. Additionally, I’m going to publish this anti-critique in pieces.
Churchill seems to have delivered this essay as a talk, sometime between 1985 and 1995. That’s all I can tell. The historical perspective is important because it would give us a temporal context in which to place this uneven critique. In that broad period we saw the decline of the Soviet Union and other satellite states. No doubt, there were many Marxists who saw their reified, teleological and schematic approaches to revolutionary politics and theory as universal and necessary.
Dialectics and nature
Churchill begins his essay with describing dialectical thinking, or relational thinking that sees things not as things, but as a set of relations. He finds its roots in just about every indigenous culture in America, certainly, but also all across the world. Churchill doesn’t really define what he means by indigenous culture (are Germans indigenous to Germany?), but that’s okay. The Greeks–who, I guess, are the basis of modern European philosophy for Churchill (and many others, I should add)–got it from the Egyptians who got it, apparently, from the Ethiopians (did he mean Nubians?). This connection–the Greek, not the Egyptian–leads us to Hegel, who revived dialectical thinking in Europe, and from whom (or at least, being mediated by Bauer and others) it got to Marx.