Russell Means, the RCP and Jean Baudrillard
During the Pine Ridge reservation struggle, most US Marxists
responded positively. Their ideology might have preempted such a response, but the demand
for justice spoke louder. Sometimes it is just as well if the heart overtakes the brain,
especially when the brain is not functioning too well. What if they had worked through the
"productivist" logic of Marxism mercilessly? After all, if it was
"progressive" to support the liquidation of primitive societies in the 18th and
19th centuries, what would make the 20th century different?
These issues finally came to a head at a Black Hills Survival Gathering at Rapid City, South Dakota in 1980 when both Indian and Marxist organizations submitted papers. The Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) presented a paper titled "Searching for a Second Harvest" that reeked of dogmatism and racism. A word or two about this group might be in order.
The RCP was an offshoot of the SDS and at one time had thousands of supporters. The SDS had split into 3 factions in 1969. The Maoist Progressive Labor Party led one faction, the so-called Worker Student Alliance. It specialized in a patronizing, workerist "Serve the People" attitude toward trade union and popular struggles. Since Maoism was such a popular current worldwide back then, the other wing of SDS felt the need to compete on the same terms. Those in the know called it waving the red book against the red book. It was all quite insane as those of us in our autumn years can recall.
The anti-PLP wing--the so-called Revolutionary Youth Movement--was itself divided. The left, as we all know, has infinite talents for fragmentation and the late 60s was a classic period for both rock-and-roll and sectarian splits. One wing, the RYM-1, was the infamous Weathermen. The other wing, the RYM-2, was as Maoist as the PLP faction but tended to view the American working class as too conservative to win over to socialism. Of course, implicitly this meant white, male workers.
Now the RYM-1 group did have an orientation to the workers, but this consisted mostly of spitting and cursing at them for wearing short hair and having caused the Vietnam war.
The RYM-2, believe it or not, also split. One splinter became known as the Revolutionary Union. A vainglorious loudmouth named Robert Avakian, who represented himself as an American Mao Tse-tung, led them. By 1980 at the time of the Black Hills conference, the RU had already evolved into the RCP with its current odious persona. This is a combination of ultraleftism, vulgar Marxism and cult worship of whichever avatar of Mao they recognize at the moment. Most recently this has been Chairman Gonzalo of the Shining Path. Meanwhile Avakian worship never goes out of style.
Russell Means, a leader of the Wounded Knee occupation, presented a paper titled "The Same Old Song." It is a challenge to dogmatic Marxism and a powerful one at that. He says:
"Now let's suppose that in our resistance to extermination we begin to seek allies (we have). Let's suppose further that were to take revolutionary Marxism at its word: that it intends nothing less than the complete overthrow of the European capitalist order which has presented this threat to our very existence. This would seem to be a natural alliance for American Indian people to make. After all, as the Marxists say, it is the capitalists who set us up to be a national sacrifice. This is true as far as it goes.
"But, as I've tried to point out, this 'truth' is very deceptive. Look beneath the surface of revolutionary Marxism and what do you find? A commitment to reversing the industrial system which created the need of white society for uranium? No. A commitment to guaranteeing the Lakota and other American Indian peoples real control over the land and resources they have left? No, not unless the industrial process is to be reversed as part of their doctrine. A commitment to our rights, as peoples, to maintaining our values and traditions? No, as long as they need the uranium within our land to feed the industrial system of the society, the culture of which the Marxists ARE STILL A PART."
Now for the purposes of my analysis of the Marxism/American Indian problematic, I will not try to come to grips with what this "industrial process" really means. I will take Means at his word that a certain reading of Marxism would applaud the destruction of Indian culture and society. If there is a clash between the railroads and traditional society, the railroads must triumph. After all, there are those Herald Tribune articles that Marx wrote on India in 1853 that made exactly the same point. How can we disagree with Karl Marx, after all? Onward railroads! Onward telegraphs! Into the dustbin of history Hindu or Lakota villagers.
Instead of addressing Means' concerns, the RCP paper flails away at him for being a counter-revolutionary who strikes "noble savage" poses. By lumping together communism with capitalism, Means is leading the youth of America astray. They also deride his "almost laughable appeals to quit fucking with mother nature." Like all dogmatic Marxists, they are eager to find support in some chapter and verse of Marx that would lend support for their views. They go to the Grundrisse and dredge up the following:
"The individual and isolated hunter or fisherman, with whom Smith and Ricardo begin, is one of the unimaginative fantasies of eighteenth -century romances a la Robinson Crusoe, which by no means express merely a reaction against overrefinement and a reversion to a misunderstood natural life, as cultural historians imagine..."
Since Means celebrates the historical American Indian way of life, which did involve actual hunting and fishing, the RCP lumps him with Daniel DeFoe, Rousseau and other European myth-makers. They say, "Means has in fact adopted some of the insipid fantasies of the bourgeoisie and has capitulated to them. Further, the total backwardness of Means' adoption of this mythical 'noble savage' stance leads to more than a bit of hypocrisy as he attempts to carry it through."
The RCP's paper concludes with what they consider devastating proof of the backwardness of Means' position. This is the phenomenon of the "second harvest," to which the title of their paper refers. What exactly is this? A NY Times article from August 12, 1980 examining stone-age life in the region now occupied by the state of Nevada around 7,000 years ago would explain it:
"In one of the middens (refuse heaps) the scientists found large deposits of coprolites, desiccated human feces. Since it seemed strange that the ancient people would use a storage cave as a latrine, Dr. Thomas said, it is possible that the feces were stored there for what archeologists call the 'second harvest.' Other primitive people were known to have save their feces so that, in time of famine, they could extract undigested seeds and other products for food. Analysis of the coprolites showed that the heads of cattails and other marsh plants were a substantial part of the lakeside people's diet."
Somebody from the RCP must have clipped this article and put in their files for an occasion just like this. What would be the perfect squelch against "indigenists" who had the temerity to believe that their people were better off before capitalism? Of course, it would be irrefutable evidence that they ate their own shit. White people knew better. They flushed their feces down the toilet after using toilet paper with no less than 3 wipes.
The conference organizers invited Dora-Lee Larson and Ward Churchill to provide a rebuttal to the RCP, which they did in the paper "The Same Old Song in Refrain." (You can read the 3 papers in "Marxism and Native Americans," South End Press. Bill Tabb is the only Marxist contributor to the volume and his essay is somewhat lacking since it accepts the "productivist" version of Marxism as legitimate. His tack is to apologize for it rather than coming to terms with what the underlying project of Marxism is really about: human emancipation.)
Larson and Churchill dismiss the amalgam between Russell Means and bourgeois romanticism. One finds sufficient proof in his sweeping rejection of all Western European ideology, from Adam Smith to Marx. The notion that he would make an exception for DeFoe or Rousseau is laughable. More to the point is the RCP's failure to engage with Means' ideas on their own terms. They are utterly incapable of placing his thoughts in any other context except their own. If the RCP is an offshoot of Enlightenment thought mediated through Hegel and Marx, how can we expect Means to find his influences elsewhere? They say, "It is as if to the Marxist-Leninist mind non-European thought itself is an impossibility; any tradition of thought alien to that of Europe therefore remains opaque to the polemicists of the RCP."
And what of the "second harvest"?
Larson and Churchill make some telling observations. First of all, they point out that the bourgeois anthropologist who the Times article cites does not even claim that the "second harvest" was some sort of universal pattern of behavior. It was simply an observation about the behavior of a particular people in a particular time and place. The RCP did the bourgeoisie one better. It was willing to extrapolate from one archeological finding and use it as a paradigm for Indian behavior. The racism of the capitalist class is not as extreme as that of the Maoists.
Yet this "second harvest" phenomenon did not just occur in primitive tribes 7,000 years ago. Larson and Churchill remind us that the same thing happened during famines in the USSR when the rural populace separated corn seeds from horse dung as well as their own for survival purposes. It is only Indian peoples who are barbaric, not citizens of a Marxist state. The only thing I would add to Larson and Churchill's rebuttal is that Marx and Engels never thought that history always moved onwards and upwards. There are sections in the Communist Manifesto that point out that capitalism can thrust humanity backwards unless the workers overthrow it.
It is easy to understand why American Indian activists would look elsewhere besides Marxism for political and intellectual support for their struggle. Ward Churchill describes his own intellectual odyssey in the introduction to the book. A Creek/Cherokee, Churchill made the rounds of all the Marxist groups, including the outfit I belonged to at the time, the Trotskyist SWP. He considered himself a prospective member at one point. Thank goodness, he didn't take leave of his senses and join the way I did.
Churchill does have kind words for Jean Baudrillard's "The Mirror of Production." According to Churchill, Baudrillard reaches many of the same conclusions that he, Means and Deloria have reached. I want to explain why this is so.
Just to refresh people's memory on Baudrillard, he is a leading French postmodernist thinker who has achieved some notoriety in recent years for two of his "interventions." On the eve of the Gulf War, he argued that television had made actual war superfluous. He predicted an unceasing spectacle that would pit Saddam Hussein against George Bush, where television would be an electronic surrogate for combat. When actual war broke out, he appeared a bit foolish. He enhanced his image as court jester for the trend-setting media when he made an appearance at a recent academic conference on "Chance" held at Whiskey Pete's Casino and Hotel in Primm, Nevada. At the keynote session, he made a drunken appearance on a casino stage with a performance artist. This was perhaps the inspiration for the recent movie "Leaving Las Vegas."
I overcame my prejudices and read "The Mirror of Production." I wanted to find out what Ward Churchill saw in him. It certainly is essential reading for those of us who are trying to come to terms with the "productivist" version of Marxism. This evil spawn of Marxism has some credibility to this day because of certain formulations in the Communist Manifesto and elsewhere. Baudrillard, at least in this work, is no clown.
Baudrillard's makes his central argument in the first chapter, "The Concept of Labor":
"Radical in its logical analysis of capital, Marxist theory nonetheless maintains an anthropological consensus with the options of Western rationalism in its definitive form acquired in eighteenth century bourgeois thought. Science, technique, progress, history--in these words we have an entire civilization that comprehends itself as producing its own development and takes its dialectical force toward completing humanity in terms of totality and happiness. Nor did Marx invent the concept of genesis, development and finality. He changed nothing basic: nothing regarding the idea of man producing himself in his infinite determination, and continually surpassing himself toward his own end."
Baudrillard challenges this paradigm. Why should we assume that the liberation of productive forces is justifiable in itself? There is absolutely no question that the Communist Manifesto and Volume One of Capital are replete with such themes. At its worst, this logic permits Marx to write the Herald Tribune articles that are essentially apologia for colonialism. What Baudrillard, of course, does not contend with are the dialectical tensions in Marx and Engels' writings themselves that reflect doubt on such a model of "progress." By the late 1870s, as I have pointed out repeatedly, Marx himself openly disavows this model. Unfortunately he did not write a long tome that spelled this out in detail. He died inconveniently. Thus, it has been up to Marxists to critique Marxism itself. We have been successful to some extent. Lenin's writings, especially on the colonial question, are an explicit rejection of the notion that modernity and capitalist expansion have anything in common.
In the chapter "Historical Materialism and Primitive Societies," Baudrillard argues forcefully that Marxism falls apart when it confronts primitive societies. It tries to project a "mode of production" template onto these societies where it does not belong. Influenced by classical political economy, Marxism tries to find an economic linchpin where it does not belong. Notions of productivity simply do not apply and yardsticks based on them lead to racist conclusions. This is the sort of argument that would obviously appeal to an American Indian activist or intellectual.
The problem with Baudrillard is that he blames this not just vulgarized Marxism, but science itself for the oppression of primitive peoples. In this he is consistent with people like Bruce Robbins, who have added nothing substantial beyond what Baudrillard already said with more elegance. Baudrillard states:
"Western culture was the first to critically reflect upon itself (beginning in the 18th century). But the effect of this crisis was that it reflected on itself also as a culture in the universal, and thus all other cultures wee entered in its museum as vestiges of its own image. It 'estheticized' them, reinterpreted them on its own model, and thus precluded the radical interrogation of these 'different' cultures implied for it. The limits of this culture 'critique' are clear: its reflection on itself leads only to the universalization of its own principles. Its own contradictions lead it, as in the previous case, to the world-wide economic and political imperialism of all modern capitalist and socialist Western societies."
Put in plain words, Baudrillard is saying that by projecting our own "productivist" political economy model on precapitalist or presocialist societies, we are depriving them of their uniqueness and setting them up for exploitation.
This is the problem with postmodernism when you get right down to it. It can not make elementary distinctions between ideas and activity. It is not the ideas of Adam Smith or Karl Marx that oppressed the Lakota or the Hindu. It was rather the capitalist system itself, which operated on the basis of profit. This expansionary system forced itself to travel the globe looking for peoples to enslave and resources to steal. Expand or die is its motto. People like Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill do not cause colonial oppression. They simply reflected upon it and tried to provide an intellectual rationale for the British ruling class. Karl Marx emerged out of this intellectual tradition and was the first to expose the true relationship between ideas and activity. It was the economic activity of class society that served as a seedbed for ideas and not the other way around.
The polarization between vulgar Marxism of the RCP sort and Baudrillard's postmodernism reflects the failure of Marxism itself to come to terms with its own failings. We have a responsibility to amplify the ecological dimensions of Marx and Engels in the manner of James O'Connor. We also have a responsibility to come to terms with how Marxism should regard the seemingly mutually exclusive claims of precapitalist societies and the need to "revolutionize the means of production." This is obviously the subject of these articles. In my next post, I will address the topic of American Indians and energy reserves. It should be clear that Marxists have a responsibility to defend the right of American Indians to defend themselves from the incursions of uranium mining companies. The stakes are quite high, not only from the viewpoint of American Indian survival but from the broader perspective of ecology.