David Harvey and the American Indian


In his latest book, Justice, Nature & the Geography of Difference, David Harvey questions the ecological sensitivity of the American Indian, whom the Greens allegedly romanticize (Harvey 1996). We cannot conclude, he says, that American Indian practices are superior to our own. Referring to a statement of Luther Standing Bear that "We are of the soil and the soil is of us," Harvey writes:


The inference of "better and more harmonious ecological practices" from statements of this sort would require belief in either some external spiritual guidance to ensure ecologically "right" outcomes, or an "extraordinary omniscience in indigenous or precapitalistic judgements and practices in a dynamic field of action that is usually plagued by all manner of unintended consequences." (Harvey 1996: 188-189).


Such unintended consequences can include "overkills." Citing Richard Levins and Yrjö Haila's "Humanity and Nature," Harvey says that stone-age hunters had no way of determining whether they were overexploiting prey. This was the result of their inability to make connections between current and future animal populations. This would account for the disappearance of the mammoth, for instance.


Another problem with Luther Standing Bear's assertion about being connected to the soil is that it is potentially "dangerous." Since Standing Bear is a Lakota, the issue of land claims is highly important: "This land of the great plains is claimed by the Lakota as their very own." Why would Harvey worry that such an identification with ancestral homelands might have "dangerous" consequences? Harvey explains earlier in his text that the danger lurks in "militant particularism," which is the opposite of universalizing politics. Raymond Williams first coined the term to describe struggles in a local arena for particular interests. He viewed it as a key element of the struggle for socialism. Harvey is investigating the possible reactionary consequences of this tendency.


Specifically, the danger exists that well-meaning Green activists and Indians fighting for preservation of community rights can foster "nationalistic, exclusionary, and some cases violently fascistic" elements. Harvey agrees with French philosopher Luc Ferry that the Nazis were radical ecologists (Harvey 1996: 171). The Nazi connection is deemed "helpful" by Harvey since it "raises the question of the degree to which strong leanings towards reactionary rather than progressive trajectories might always in the last instance be implicated in green theories of value."


Let us examine the first of Harvey's concerns, the "overkill" question. There is a rather rich literature on this subject, which Vine Deloria Jr. reviews in the chapter "Mythical Pleistocene Hit Men" of his book Red Earth, White Lies (Deloria 1997). Carl Sauer first proposed this idea a half-century ago. Deloria says, "Sauer thought that through the use of fire drives in which they both cleared large tracts of land for prairie grazing and eliminated the mammoth, mastodon, and a variety of other creatures, Indians had been responsible for the demise of the mammoth and mastodon."


Deloria then goes on to point out that Loren C. Eiseley answered Sauer in two separate articles, showing that: (1) Many other kinds of smaller fauna also became extinct in this period that could not have been killed by fire drives or spears; (2) While the larger bison became extinct, other species lived, including the modern bison, antelope, deer, elk and moose; (3) Many animals were forest dwellers and could have not been affected by grassland fires. It would have been impossible, given forest environments, to have exterminated whole species under any conditions; (4) There is no evidence for any tribe or clan having the ability to exterminate an animal population unless the hunters and prey are restricted to a very small area; and (5) Most importantly, as a reply to Harvey's specific claim, prey-predator ratios always adjust to environmental conditions unless there is a catastrophic decline of predators.


Vine Deloria Jr. emphasizes that these questions are not just of academic interest. There are political considerations involved:


Conservative newspaper columnists, right-wing fanatics, sportmen's groups, and scholars in general tend to see the "overkill" hypothesis as symptomatic of a lack of moral fiber and ethical concern for the Earth among Indians. Some people are offended by the thought that many people believe that Indians were more concerned and thoughtful ecologists than modern industrial users. Advocating the extinction theory is a good way to support continued despoliation of the environment by suggesting that at no time were human beings careful of the lands upon which they lived.


In this connection, Deloria recounts a personal experience. In 1990, he spoke at Stanford University on the occasion of its hundredth anniversary. The topic was the Indian relationship to the land. He tried to outline the philosophical principles that would be meaningful to the audience. During the question period, the first person to speak asked whether "running hundreds of buffalo over a cliff was wasteful." The tone of the question implied that Deloria and other invited Indian speakers had spent the previous weekend in Wyoming slaughtering hundreds of bison. Since the only recent slaughter of buffalo he could think of was the one that took place in the recent Super Bowl, he refused to answer any more questions.


Harvey frets that things can go from bad to worse when the American Indian or their supporters abuse "militant particularism." The next step, if one is not careful, is down the slippery slope into" nationalistic, exclusionary, and some cases violently fascistic" behavior. While it is very difficult to make the case that American Indian activists have actually ever joined skinheads or other fascist gangs, Luc Ferry does point out that the Nazis were enthusiastic about American Indian rights in "The New Ecological Order." Ferry's book, which Harvey cites uncritically, is a general assault on the environmental movement, which tries to draw out every reactionary tendency and place it in the foreground. An affinity between Nazis and the American Indian would be a very serious business indeed. Ferry states:


We have to be ignorant or prejudiced not to see it: Nazism contains within it, for reasons that are in no way accidental, the beginnings of an authentic concern for preserving "natural," which is to say, here again, "original" peoples. In the chapter devoted to this subject in his book, Walther Schoenichen cannot find words harsh enough to condemn the attitude of "the white man, the great destroyer of creation": in the paradise he himself is responsible for losing, he has paved only a path of "epidemics, thievery, fires, blood and tears!" "Indeed, the enslavement of primitive peoples in the 'cultural' history of the white race constitutes one of its most shameful chapters, which is not only streaked with rivers of blood, but of cruelty and torture of the worst kind. And its final pages were not written in the distant past, but at the beginning of the twentieth century." Schoenichen proceeds to trace, with great precision, the list of the various genocides that have occurred throughout the history of colonialization, from the massacre of the South American Indians to that of the Sioux--who "were pushed back in unthinkable conditions of cruelty and infamy"--and the South African bushmen (Ferry 1995: 103-105).


It is unfortunate that Harvey place any credence in Ferry's treatment of the problem, since it stresses speech at the expense of activity. After warning us that anti-ecological activity by the mammoth-destroying American Indians counted for more than Luther Standing Bear's greenish words, should not the same considerations apply to Nazi verbal professions of "ecology" or "concern" for the indigenous peoples? Consider that Walter Schoenichen was an aide to Heman Goering, who in his capacity as Minister of the German Forests supervised the "Germanization" of forests in conquered territories. In 1941, the Nazis took control of the Bialowieza forest in Lithuania and they resolved to turn it into a hunting reserve for top officers (Schama 1995: 71-72). Open season was declared on the Jews, who made up 12 percent of the population in this region and who violated the ethnic purity of the proposed game farm. Five hundred and fifty Jews were rounded up and shot in the courtyard of a hunting palace operated by Battalion 332 of Von Bock's army division. Goring decided that the purified forest should be altered into an extension of the East Prussian forests. An SS team led by Konrad Mayer, who had been Minister of Agriculture at Berlin University, planned a colonization program that would "Germanize" the forest. Poles, and any remaining Jews, were reduced to the status of barnyard animals to be penned up or slaughtered.


Schoenichen jumped at the opportunity to administer this program. This "total landscape plan" would first empty villages and then the unpopulated forest would be stocked with purely "Teutonic" species, including eagles, elk, and wolves. Since there was a painting of a bison on Goring's wall, it was crucial to include this beast in the menagerie.


Any reasonable person would understand that the gangsters terrorizing Jews and Poles in order to set up a "Teutonic" zoo have nothing in common with today's greens, even those who embrace some of the more reactionary aspects of deep ecology. Nazi "ecology" is a contradiction in terms. The Nazis did not want to protect nature, but to transform large swaths of it into something resembling Wagnerian opera backdrops. Furthermore, the murderous assault on peasants who had the misfortune to live in these vicinities is just the opposite of what groups such as Greenpeace or Survival International fight for today. They seek the right of indigenous peoples to live in peace in their natural surroundings. While some conservative, well-financed environmentalist groups have unfortunately neglected the rights of indigenous peoples in campaigns to protect endangered species, the more radical groups have a relatively spotless record.


Furthermore, the notion of importing "Teutonic" animals into the Lithuanian forest is antithetical to genuine ecology, which attempts to preserve the natural balance between indigenous species and their environments. While Harvey does not mention this once in his book, the first and most ambitious state-sponsored ecology program in the 20th century was launched by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, which set aside vast portions of the country as nature preserves. After Stalin consolidated his power, he went on the offensive against this program which he regarded as a foolish waste of resources. One of the first anti-ecological measures he instituted was the importation of muskrats into these preserves, whose fur could generate cash.


Finally, on American Indian-Nazi connections, we should be aware that the top Nazi was not all sensitive to American Indian justice, if we can believe John Toland's account in Adolf Hitler:


Hitler's concept of concentration camps as well as the practicality of genocide owed much, so he claimed, to his studies of English and United States history. He admired the camps for Boer prisoners in South Africa and for the Indians in the Wild West; and often praised to his inner circle the efficiency of America's extermination--by starvation and uneven combat--of the 'Red Savages' who could not be tamed by captivity (Toland 1976: 702).


Harvey offers a possible solution to resolving the nature-society dialectic, particularly with respect to the role of indigenous peoples. He suggests that an "evolutionary" approach can explain the dialectics of social-environmental change. Included in this approach is "competition and the struggle for existence." Although Harvey specifically warns that there have been serious problems in the past with this approach, including "the way social Darwinism founded Nazism," he still believes that Marxism can still benefit from it.


The actual record is much spottier than Harvey seems to recognize, particularly with respect to the way that pre-capitalist societies fit into a Marxist stage-oriented schema, where progress and the development of technology become identified with each other.


The Marxist classic most identified with the evolutionary approach is Engels' "Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State," which embodies a near-Darwinian view of social evolution. Anthropologist Marcel Bloch points out that the work had an enormous impact on the thinking of the first generation of Marxists, who unfortunately tended to emphasize the more mechanical aspects of the work (Bloch 1983: 95-103).


Paul Lafargue, Marx's son-in-law, wrote two books that he intended to be situate in the Origins tradition, but erred on the social Darwinist side. For example, Lafargue argues that women occupied superior places in primitive society and supplies totally fallacious evidence about the relative brain sizes of men and women. Of greater significance is Karl Kautsky, whom the socialist movement regarded as the outstanding Marxist of the age, and intellectual and political heir to Engels. According to Bloch, Kautsky was an enthusiastic follower of Darwin and Spencer before he ever came across Marx. In 1881, Kautsky wrote an article for Die Neue Zeit titled "The Indian Question." The reason the Europeans defeated the Indians, he explains, is that they had not gone far enough in the development of technology. In other words, they lacked Darwinian fitness, or quite possibly they lost the "competition and . . . struggle for existence," in Harvey's words.


Plekhanov's Fundamental Problems of Marxism also exhibits much of the same mechanistic concept of historical change. In the chapter "Productive Forces and Geography," Plekhanov makes the case that the Indians of North America remained at a low stage of development because they lacked domesticated animals (Plekhanov 1975: 48-51). He also claims that the Masai killed all their captives because they had no "technical possibility" of making use of slave labor. Bloch points out that the crude economic determinism of this work was intended to strengthen the polemical stance of the revolutionary Marxist current in Russia. Plekhanov and Lenin were in conflict with a variety of reformism that believed that consciousness was independent of material conditions. What is lost in this undialectical approach is the reality of precapitalist society, which did not really fit into this schema.


Russian Marxism eventually rejected the mechanical "stagist" approach of Kautsky and Plekhanov. Lenin's support for peasant movements was a conscious break with the traditions of the Second International, which posited the need for a society to "advance" toward full-blown capitalist property relations before socialist revolution was attempted. Unfortunately, there is scant evidence of Bolshevik concern with precapitalist social formations like the American Indian. In the pressing demands of the post-1917 period, the Comintern tended to pay attention to worker and peasant struggles and ignore social formations that did not fit into these categories. The closest Lenin comes to addressing precapitalist social formations is in his report to the Second Congress of the Communist International, where he urges Communists to foster independent thinking and action in backward countries like Turkestan, where there is no proletariat to speak of (Lenin 1971).


The unfortunate reality is that revolutionary Marxism has not really adequately addressed the question of pre-capitalist societies since the age of Lenin. What we have seen in the best of cases is an earnest activist support for indigenous struggles coexisting uneasily with a version of Marxism that owes too much to Kautsky or Plekhanov.


In the worst cases, what we get is the Sandinista-Miskitu tragedy. The FSLN's Marxism simply could not provide a theoretical framework for the type of social formation that the Atlantic Coast Indians represented. They were neither worker, nor peasant, and represented some sort of throwback to an earlier "stage" of social evolution in the eyes of the Spanish-speaking revolutionaries. The political consequences for this theoretical failure was a costly conflict that was partially responsible for the FSLN downfall.


Shortly after the arrival of the victorious Sandinistas to the Atlantic Coast, they erected billboards everywhere proclaiming, "The Atlantic Coast: A giant awakens!" The Miskitus probably took one look at this and said to themselves, "I didn't realize we were asleep, did you?" Had the Sandinistas come to the Atlantic Coast to civilize the savages? This must have been the way it appeared. Of course, a "stagist" Marxism is the source of such a chauvinistic attitude.


Such attitudes were bound to backfire. Speaking of the Sandinista-Miskitu debacle, Ward Churchill said that any revolution that attempts to disregard the cultural and economic needs of the Indian is doomed to fail (Churchill 1995). Our challenge as Marxists is to come to terms with precapitalist societies in a way that disposes of evolutionist dogma. The notion that Australian aborigines or North American Indians are at a "lower" stage of evolution is not only unscientific, it is potentially counter-revolutionary. Capitalism has these ancient societies in its gunsight. Ancestral homelands house enormous mineral deposits, including uranium. The attack on these peoples is taking place at this very instant, while the Australian, Canadian and US governments simultaneously attack the labor movement. Marxists must find a way to unite these disparate struggles. Key to this is dispensing with useless baggage from 19th century social Darwinism.


David Harvey's book has already triggered a debate in the pages of Monthly Review with John Bellamy Foster. Harvey believes that Foster has ceded too much ideologically to the Greens, including support for Malthusianism. The debate has helped to clarify issues surrounding the red-green synthesis. We can only hope that Harvey's mistaken views on the American Indian will also lead to a deeper understanding of the relationship between Marxism and the American Indian. In this the 150th anniversary of the Communist Manifesto, discussions are taking place everywhere as to the meaning of progress, civilization and technology for the socialist project. Since the American Indians have only experienced European civilization as a general assault on their cultural and physical survival, it is essential that Marxists distinguish themselves from the destructive aspects of this history.




Bloch, Maurice. 1983. Marxism and Anthropology. : Oxford University Press.

Churchill, Ward. 1995. Understanding Chiapas. In First World, ha, ha, ha!. Elaine Katzenberger (ed.). ,San Francisco: City Lights.

Deloria, Vine Jr. 1997. Red Earth, White Lies. : Fulcrum.

Ferry, Luc. 1995. The New Ecological Order. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Harvey, David. 1996. Justice, Nature & the Geography of Difference. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell.

Lenin, V. I. 1971. Selected Works in One Volume. New York: International Publishers.

Plekhanov, George. 1975. Fundamental Problems of Marxism. New York: International Publishers.

Schama, Simon. 1995. Landscape and Memory. New York: Knopf.

Toland, John. 1976. Adolf Hitler. New York: Doubleday.