Ward Churchill & Marxism: Anti-Critique (Part 1)

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.

Churchill points out that dialectical thinking at this point is solidly opposed to the history of European, linear rationality. Yet, the problem with Marx is that he presumes the supremacy of human agency in determining historical reality; this is a supremely Eurocentric presumption:

His impetus in this regard appears to have been his desire to see his theoretical endeavors used, not simply as a tool of understanding, but as a proactive agent for societal transformation, a matter bound up in his famous dictum that “the purpose of philosophy is not merely to understand history, but to change it.” (sic) Thus Marx, a priori and with no apparent questioning in the doing, proceeded to anchor the totality of his elaboration in the presumed primacy of a given relation–that sole entity which can be said to hold the capability of active and conscious pursuit of change, i.e.: humanity–over any and all relations, the Marxian “dialectic” was thus unbalanced from the outset, skewed as a matter of faith in favor of humans. Such disequilibrium is, of course, not dialectical at all. It is, however, quite specifically Eurocentric in its attributes, springing as it does from the late-Roman interpretation of the Judeo-Christian assertion of “man’s” supposed responsibility to “exercise dominion over nature,” a tradition which Marx (ironically) claimed oft and loudly to have “voided” in his rush to materialism.

“The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.” Yes, this is true–and in many ways it forms the core of Marxian discussions on the unity of theory and practice. To take this one quotation, though, and to jump to a conclusion of Marx ascribing some kind of transcendental and transhistorical superpower to human agency is inaccurate. If anything, the typical critique of Marx comes from the other end: that Marx is too deterministic and undermines human agency. I think it’s instructive to take a look at what Marx had to say about this, in a couple of places:

Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.

In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.

From these two quotations we can see, quite clearly, that Marx is looking at the conditions in which humans can act, and he is clear that these conditions are independent of the will of the actors. Having said that, these conditions are eminently historical–they come from somewhere, and they will go somewhere–and, it follows, they are eminently social. That is to say, when Marx talks about the range of action and the range of inaction available to humans in a particular place and time, he is talking about the constrictions of the social reality; this involves the economics (i.e., mode of production), the politics, the religious, the cultural, so on, so forth. All this is social, for Marx.

Churchill contends that Marx does not examine the human being as one relation among several, most notably ignoring the role of nature. But for Marx, even the concept of nature is social, because it is not a given but something that exists only in relation to human beings. Consider that, for a moment: nature is a relation, not a reified and transhistorical category. It exists because humans, or at least, some humans, define it as such. That doesn’t mean that things like hurricanes and earthquakes will bend to the will of humanity, or anything like that. What it means is that the categories and concepts humans use to understand the world are historical and relational. That is to say, dialectical.

Of course, the course of human history is shaped by geography and territory and the various effects that “nature” has–temperature, landscape, etc. But if there’s something that we should realize–particularly in light of recent developments–it’s that we have managed to screw around with temperature and landscape, i.e., nature, at unprecedented scales. It’s still relational, still dialectical, and here, I mean on a practical level and not a conceptual or theoretical one. Where is nature, if by that we mean something separate from humanity? In any case, whatever we define as nature is–as Engels points outs–itself historical, continuously coming into being and changing, and again, not only on a conceptual level but on a practical level. Engels:

In nature nothing takes place in isolation. Everything affects and is affected by every other thing, and it is mostly because this manifold motion and interaction is forgotten that our natural scientists are prevented from gaining a clear insight into the simplest things.

This may, or may not have anything to do with human agency.

Churchill is correct in that, ultimately, Marx is a humanist, and in many ways anthropocentric. Churchill’s critique is that Marx’s humanism articulates itself as a drive to exercise dominion over nature. Indeed, considering that Marx’s vision of socialism was one where the productive capacities of humans had advanced to such a level that all could be fed, clothed, etc. (in other words, the conditions that do exist today), it would seem that Marx had little or no concern for nature. Certainly, many Marxists didn’t after the 1930s. But even Marx’s anthropocentrism is dialectical and does not ignore the myriad flows in which humans exist–and certainly not that of nature. Marx isn’t talking about reigning in nature and beating it about to conform to the will of the humans at all costs. The best analysis I have had access to so far in this regard is that of John Bellamy Foster, who wrote Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature. A summary of this book’s arguments are available in an article here. For the sake of your time–you are already, I suppose, reading this essay of mine–let me pull out some choice quotations from Marx and Engels, emphasis has been added by me. First, Marx on large-scale industry and agriculture:

[…] all progress in capitalistic agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the labourer, but of robbing the soil; all progress in increasing the fertility of the soil for a given time, is a progress towards ruining the lasting sources of that fertility. The more a country starts its development on the foundation of modern industry […] the more rapid is this process of destruction. Capitalist production, therefore, develops technology, and the combining together of various processes into a social whole, only by sapping the original sources of all wealth–the soil and the labourer.

Speaking about the reuse of waste products in industry, Marx points out:

Excretions of consumption are the natural waste matter discharged by the human body, remains of clothing in the form of rags, etc. Excretions of consumption are of the greatest importance for agriculture. So far as their utilisation is concerned, there is an enormous waste of them in the capitalist economy. In London, for instance, they find no better use for the excretion of four and a half million human beings than to contaminate the Thames with it at heavy expense.

On deforestation, Marx:

The development of culture and of industry in general has evinced itself in such energetic destruction of forest that everything done by it conversely for their preservation and restoration appears infinitesimal.

And, perhaps, most damningly for Churchill’s assertions, Engels is quite clear:

Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human victories over nature. For each such victory nature takes its revenge on us. Each victory, it is true, in the first place brings about the results we expected, but in the second and third places it has quite different, unforeseen effects which only too often cancel the first. […] Thus at every step we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing outside nature — but that we, with flesh, blood and brain, belong to nature, and exist in its midst, and that all our mastery of it consists in the fact that we have the advantage over all other creatures of being able to learn its laws and apply them correctly.

And this isn’t a triumphalist declaration, Engels is clearly guarded: “It required the labour of thousands of years for us to learn a little of how to calculate the more remote natural effects of our actions in the field of production….” The quotations speak for themselves, Marx and Engels were not ignorant of the position of human beings as one relation existing dialectically among several others, not separate from nature, but in nature. And that means that nature is eminently social. Additionally, they were concerned about what nowadays would be called “sustainable development”–that is, they didn’t want to screw up the environment; they were, indeed, quite critical of environmental destruction and degradation. And as far as human dominion over nature goes, consider Marx:

Even a whole society, a nation, or even all simultaneously existing societies taken together, are not the owners of the globe. They are only its possessors, its usufructuaries, and, like boni patres familias, they must hand it down to succeeding generations in an improved condition.

When Churchill asserts that Marx and Engels saw the universe, in “Judeo-Christian” fashion simply to be subordinated by humans willy nilly, he is clearly just wrong.

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4 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    Doug said,

    December 6, 2007 @ 11:26 pm

    Thanks for posting this critique. I am in fact procrastinating over a paper for one of my MA courses on Indigenous Thought. I decided to write a paper about the possibility of reconciling Indigenous thought and struggle with Marxism. My starting point was the collected essays in “Marxism and Native Americans” edited by Ward Churchill in 1983. It is entirely maddening. The critiques proferred by Russell Means, Vine Deloria Jr. and Frank Black Elk are facile, distorting, misrepresentative, essentializing – the list goes on. But I suppose Indigenous scholars and activists can be excused for thinking these things about Marxism since this work is an exchange between the “Marxists” of the Revolutionary Communist Party who are incredibly insulting towards Russell Means in particular and the strategies and tactics of the American Indian Movement. Reading the book was incredibly maddening as the Marxism on offer is, in my opinion, anything but Marxism.

    Nevertheless, Churchill’s own critiques of Marxism (like the one you are responding too) are equally facile though somewhat more sophisticated than the nonsense of Deloria, Means and Black Elk. Nevertheless, Churchill relies on the very Michael Albert-esque parachuting in of quotes from this or that Marxist to prove whatever they want. Churchill, like Michael Albert in his exchanges with, for example, Alex Callinicos, is happy to use thoroughly decontextualized quotes to argue this or that. This is the methodology of hired intellectual thugs, not serious scholars. It’s sad that Churchill collapses into this.

    Strangely enough, to add one more thing (sorry if my comments are not well arranged – this is a stream of consciousness), Churchill begins the piece by discussing the Lakota greeting “Hello my relatives” as a preface to a comparison of the dialectics of Lakota knowledge with that of Marxism. He also proceeds to quote Albert and Hahnel’s “Unorthodox Marxism”. Yet Frank Black Elk, in his contribution to “Marxism and Native Americans”, makes almost the same argument and does so based on the same (obscure) book by Albert/Hahnel and engages in the same discussion over the Lakota greeting that discusses relatives and relations. I don’t know what to make of this, whether Black Elk drew his argument from Churchill or vice versa or whether they happened to stumble upon the exact same argument unknowingly even thought Churchill edited the book in which Black Elk’s argument appeared. Neither sources the other. What to make of this? But let’s not get hung up on this.

    Fundamentally, the dismissal of Marxism by Churchill and the Indigenous scholars and activists who contribute to his book “Marxism and Native Americans” are debating the profoundly transformed, corrupted and murdered “Marxism” of Stalinism. Marxism is considered by them to be a uniform and monolithic system of theory and practice. It is anything but.

  2. 2

    Doug said,

    December 6, 2007 @ 11:28 pm

    Apologies for spelling mistakes and whatever else. If the above post is incoherent, I blame my tiredness.

    Great blog. I’m off to read your piece on Marxism and Eurocentrism.

  3. 3

    nomes » Ward Churchill & Marxism: Anti-Critique (Part 2) said,

    December 12, 2007 @ 3:25 am

    […] Here is Part 2 of my response to Ward Churchill’s essay on Marxism. Part 1 is here. […]

  4. 4

    J. Moufawad-Paul said,

    October 8, 2009 @ 4:02 pm

    A pretty thorough critique of Churchill’s bad reading of Marxism. In my thesis project I do some critiquing of Churchill’s position, but only as it relates to my overall goal – a dialectical confrontation between “indigenism” and “marxism” – and i mention that a full critique would be a tangent spanning numerous pages due to how messy Churchill’s analysis is. Noaman, you’ve done that work! [and soon i shall be reading part 2 to see how far you take it]

    As for a connection between Marxism and Indigenous Thought (better yet, “indigenism”), I think Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz is much more theoretically grounded than Churchill. Although “Indians of the Americas” is out of date, the essay she published less than a year ago in Monthly Review demonstrated that she still had the same, pro-Marxist/pro-indigenous position. She uses the Leninist analysis of the National Question as her starting point…

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