Saturday, February 9, 2008

Why revolutionaries should honor past achievments and indigenous cosmovison

Introductory Note

I am helping to sustain an initiative in Canada to offer financial and moral support to Peruvian indigenous and campesino leader Hugo Blanco and the newspaper he directs, Lucha Indígena. Part of this effort has been translating and finding vehicles for publication of articles by Hugo Blanco.
[ If you would like to help out on this modest effort please contact me offline at ]
In the course of this work a Marxist friend wrote, in the framework of an internet discussion list, a posting that expressed a concern that solidarity with indigenous struggles often passes over into idealist and ineffective nostalgia for a “return to nature,” for times past that cannot ever be again. He was concerned that we would end up denying "progressive" aspects of the history of imperialist expansion (such as the current revolutionary impact of the Black minority in the United States) by an misdirected effort to turn back the clock of history.
I responded with the following message, now obviously edited to remove references to other individuals involved in a multi person exchange.

Felipe Stuart C.


Neither Hugo Blanco nor I have argued for a nostalgic return to the good old days of an imagined primitive communism or even to the pre-Conquest days.

Hugo is very explicit on that question.
He says we do not want to return to the past. We want -- he explains --to know and honor our past and take from it essential elements to struggle today for our future.
The essential elements he points to are the communistic traditions of social organization and the respect and love of nature – an integral cosmovision whose essential core can lay the basis for a new morality and cultural mode in the socialist transformation of our continent.
Mariátegui was one of the first Marxists in the western hemisphere to break from schematism and to appreciate the contribution that indigenous traditions and culture could make to the anti-imperialist and ant capitalist struggle in Indo-America, and to social transformation beyond capitalism.

I think Eurocentric Marxism and to some degree the Marxism taught by George Novack (a longtime leader of the U.S. Socialist Workers Party in the decades before its degeneration into an ultraleft cult) lacks the benefit of Mariátegui’s contribution. We should recall that Mariátegui made this advance without the benefit of Marx’s ethnography notebooks and recent discussions of his nuanced and dialectical appreciation of the potential role of the Russian peasant commune. But he did have before him the revolutionary shift in Bolshevik policy on the nationalities question when they broke completely with pre-1917 schemas and embraced the national minorities, Islamic religious and cultural rights, autonomy for Soviet Jews, and so on.

Don’t get me wrong -- I deeply respect George Novack’s contribution and consider his writings to be indispensable tools in ongoing socialist educational work. Some of his writings on combined and uneven development are crucial to unraveling some of the tightest knots in understanding Indo-Afro-Latin American history, especially the false debate about feudal or capitalist social relations in colonial times. But a good dose of Mariátegui would have enabled George to avoid some pitfalls [a Google search for George Novack and/or Pathfinder Press will turn up quite a number of his books and essays].

The notion that the defeat of the ancient commune and the rise of class society were inevitable and progressive is one sided and ultimately false.

Ernest Mandel addresses that question in the Chapter on Labour, Necessary Product, Surplus Product of his major two-volume work Marxist Economic Theory. After describing the progressive functions of the “new possessing classes,” he makes the following observation:

“The technique of accumulation has been used to justify the appropriation of extensive material privileges. Even if it be historically indispensable, there is no reason to believe that it could not have been applied eventually by the collectivity itself” (p. 41, 1971 Merlin edition).

The shattering of the ancient commune and the forging of class society, exploitation and oppression, and the rise of the state were not inevitable.

Mandel also notes:

“The Marxist category of ‘historical necessity’ is moreover much more complex that popularisers commonly suppose. It includes, dialectically, both the accumulation of the social surplus which was carried out by the ancient ruling classes, and also the struggle of the peasants and slaves against these ruling classes, a struggle without which the fight for emancipation waged by the modern proletariat would have been infinitely more difficult” (p. 42, 1971 Merlin edition).

[We might now want to change his sentence to read: “the fight waged by the modern proletariat and subjugated semi-colonial and indigenous peoples would have been infinitely more difficult” (FSC)].

No serious modern thinker would express nostalgia for the conditions of existence of pre-class communal tribal life, or yearn for a return to such days. But, as Blanco argues, elements of that tradition survived and became central to indigenous cosmovision in Abya Yala (the Americas) and today are central to their resistance to imperialist and capitalist domination, and to their defense of nature against capitalist depredation.

Mandel makes an interesting point that relates to this discussion:

“It is only when the division of society into classes begins, when the social division of labour, and the need to justify exploitation appears, that ideology in the sense of ‘bad conscience’ can arise. The old mentality, based on primitive clan communism, slowly dissolves. But its vitality remains very great, and thousands of years have to pass before the last traces of these feelings of elementary solidarity disappear. It is, moreover, by utilizing these feelings of solidarity and co-operative discipline within a communistic society that the first ideologists in the service of the ruling classes endeavour to persuade the working classes to accept their situation of permanent inferiority. This is the ‘organic’ conception of society, which is worked out in order to justify a social division of labour identified with the division of society into rich and poor, privileged persons and producers, those who give orders and those who obey them.”

[At that point, Mandel offers an insightful footnote about Karl Polanyi’s fascination with naturalism. A curious echo of this ‘organic conception of society is to be found in the writings of certain modern critics of economic liberalism, such as Karl Polanyi. The latter treats even slave owning society as a society which ‘integrated the individual into society’ and makes no distinction between the way a free member of a village community saw his position and the way this position appeared to a slave or a serf.” [I have seen writings on the Southern Cotton Kingdom that soft pedaled the ‘peculiar institution” with the same “naturalistic” line of social apologetics – (FSC)].

We should also note that this line of thought is directly related to the historical role of religion. The rise of Christianity is propelled both by a social movement against slavery and oppression, and in a dialectical progression, the imposition of the naturalist ideology discussed by Mandel. But it remains to this day, also the “sigh of the oppressed”. Ditto for the Muslim faith, and many others.

The spiritualism of indigenous peoples is different. It is not ideological. It did not arise to justify or to camouflage exploitative and alienating social relations. Mandel also explains this difference very succinctly and well by in the opening paragraphs of Chapter 18, The Origin, Rise and Withering Away of Political Economy (Op cit., p. 690).

In today’s world of imperialist subjugation and capitalist destruction of the very material conditions of life (the environment), indigenous spiritualist cosmovision takes on a revolutionary potential when integrated into the international proletarian and plebian struggle for socialism.

I was puzzled by your court summary of how the Aztec empire was supposedly destroyed by a couple of hundred Spanish soldiers. Similar arguments are made about the defeat of the Inca, although it took the Conquistadores a bit longer and cost them much more to occupy the Andes. However, the military relationship of forces is only part of the explanation of the historical catastrophe of the European conquest, as seen from the point of view of the original inhabitants of Abya Yala. The main factor was not force of arms, but disease.
Four million people lived in (the land that is today called) Nicaragua, on the eve of the Spanish invasions. Within one hundred years that population had been reduced to less than 100,000. Most died from disease, not slaughter or transport and enslavement in the mines of Peru and Bolivia. Most of the slaves died “in passage.” Those entered into the mines never surfaced. The birth rate declined sharply as women chose abortion or infanticide to resist turning over their children to the slavers.
It is important to recall that the Spanish colonizers proved unable to conquer the Miskitu Coast. It ultimately became a British protectorate. The Miskitu formed an alliance with the British Crown to achieve arms and supplies necessary to shield them from Spanish encroachment from the western side of the lands separating the Caribbean Sea from the Pacific Ocean.
We do not weep or even sigh about the conquest, although sighs can be healthy and positive, and even weeping at times. But we do rejoice at the great and powerful resistance struggles. We do celebrate 500 years of Indigenous, Black, and Grassroots Resistance (I was one of the central organizers of the huge conference on that theme held in Managua the week of October 12, 1992 attended (it now seems ironic) by a young indigenous militant from Bolivia by the name of Evo Morales, and by Rigoberta Menchu who had just received the Nobel Peace award).

So I would like to turn your apparently ambiguous attitude towards indigenous tradition into an active pursuit of a great tradition, a cultural “rescate” (recovery).

I am reminded of the assertive words on the license plate in Quebec -- Je me souviens (I remember); or Longfellow’s poem Evangeline, A Tale of Acadie. It has been put to song in dozens of interpretations and formed the basis of novels and stories (see

Is it reactionary for the Quebecois or the Acadien to yearn for the times before the British conquest?
When we do that are we yearning to go back to feudalism, indentured labor, and survival farming in a climate and geography we poorly understood? I don’t think that is what characterizes these cultural expressions, any more than Hugo Blanco’s arguments are part of a movement to go back to a “Native” world of times past. They are assertions of pride in and for the oppressed and suppressed culture, for the language and song of the oppressed, for our traditions, for our elders and ancestors, for the blood of our resistance to conquerors and imperialists then and now. For our liberation!

I think you know all this…but you wrote what you did. As our teachers remind us, "the moving finger writes, and having writ...."

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