Note 4: Frederick Engels: On the Iroquois. 4/12/99
Any attempt to ignore, excuse or justify the innate racism of Marxian theory will always fall on deaf ears where any person of native American heritage is the one doing the listening. Marx and Engels set out to demonstrate that their own contemporary bourgeois society, a society built on the values of the middle class, always at the expense of the worker, the proletariat, had come into existence as the result of a long and determined historical evolution, purely teleological of course, which placed that contemporary society at the highest level of human achievement, as the goal of the evolutionary process, as it were, that could be realized at the time. As time went forward, of course, the evolutionary process responsible for the state of the world during and after the European industrial revolution would continue its progressive momentum bringing about the necessary transformations in society which would usher in the new world of proletarian domination of the means and modes of production. Marx and Engels were articulating the future of the civilization as they expected it to evolve over time into the classless, stateless society of perfect freedom and equality for all who managed to survive the destruction of middle class reality as the workers revolted and overthrew the exploitative conditions under which they labored for their bourgeois masters. This new state of affairs was the ultimate goal of the historical process as Marx and Engels envisioned it.
Writing a criticism of this teleologically centered evolutionary theory from a native American point of view would be as much a waste of time, mine and yours, as it would be to do it from any other contrary philosophical position. Instead of pursuing that course of action, it seems a better strategy to begin and end an evaluation of Engels' position at his point of departure by reviewing his perceptions of the first stage of human society, the first or lowest stage of barbarism and savagery, which he identifies as being best epitomized by and in native American tribal culture. One reason I'm not particularly fond of Marxian theory, as you might well imagine, stems from the fact that I am perceived by Engels as existing at the lowest stage of human depravity and degradation, as a primitive barbarian savage. It is difficult to reconcile myself to that description because I am typing these thoughts on a state-of-the-art IBM computer. At this end of the Marxian evolutionary line, at least, things do not seem to have worked out as one might expect. I still believe precisely the way my most distant ancestors did about the nature of reality. Nothing has changed in that respect. What they saw, I see. I might even be more passionately committed to the animistic world view than they ever were.
Engels begins his discussion of the Iroquois federation (Chapter III, "The Iroquois Gens" in The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State) by inscribing a basic and fundamental contradiction at the ground of his departure. He states that all members of the tribe were "personally free, and they were bound to defend each other's freedom; they were equal in privileges and in personal rights, the sachem and chiefs claiming no superiority; and they were a brotherhood bound together by the ties of kin." The fact that even the "highest" ranking members of the society did not claim "superiority" over anyone else in the tribe suggests, as I have argued elsewhere, that the notion of hierarchy, which is always already connected to the logocentric ideal of creationism, is absent from native American perceptions of reality. Engels goes on to note that "[l]iberty, equality, and fraternity, though never formulated, were cardinal principles" of native society. The reservation expressed here in the phrase, "though never formulated," seems to suggest that, while it might be true that the culture of the Iroquois did indeed embrace and practice these "cardinal principles" in the reality of everyday life, they were somehow illegitimate because they were not "formulated." What I assume Engels means by that withdrawal of credibility for the veracity of his claim is that because the Iroquois did not have a written language until the missionaries of Jesus Christ supplied them with one they were prevented from "formulating" any concept capable of rising to the level of Eurocentric validity as long as they did not formally inscribe their beliefs and practices into a legalistic document of some kind or another. Freedom and equality in Europe have always been legalistic concepts that demanded inscription in documents like the Magna Carta before they were granted common validity, a kind of validity that always seems more susceptible to violation than to compliance.
Engels eventually turns his attention to elements of religious practice among the Iroquois and notes correctly, of course, that it was centered on a belief in the spirit world. He says that "They already embodied their religious ideas--spirits of every kind--in human form; but the lower stage of barbarism, which they had reached, still knows no plastic representations, so-called idols. Their religion is a cult of nature and of elemental forces, in process of development to polytheism." Saying simply what is wrong with this statement requires more eloquence than I possess so I will simply have to muddle my way through the muddle Engels has made of native American spiritual concepts. In the first place, of course, the word "religion," whether or not one can call it a "cult," does not apply in the context of native American culture because religion implies the existence of a worshipful attitude on the part of a subjugated inferior toward a supernatural, and therefore superior, entity who holds absolute power over the life and well-being of the worshiper. Engels commits this error of fact when he suggests that native American spiritualism is "in process of development to polytheism." He also argues, incorrectly, that native American concepts of spirit are "embodied" in some "human form." I hate to be the one to tell Engels so, but Europeans are the only people on the face of the earth, as well as those unfortunate enough to have fallen under their influence, who have the habit of making God over into a "human form"--the Word made Flesh, for instance--in the embodiment of Jesus Christ. Native people don't do that. Coyote has no "human" shape whatsoever. Coyote is coyote: he may sometimes be depicted as pretending to be human but no native American, except the ones coyote fools, ever mistake him for what he is not. The same can be said for every other spirit with the single exception of the clans of ancestral entities that occupy their place in the spirit world. For the most part, ancestral spirits, who are human, do not generally manifest themselves in any form whatsoever. Spirit is essentially formless.
Before going on to the contradiction inherent in Engels' account, I want to comment on the notion of the so-called "process of development to polytheism" that he mentions in this context. This concept, of course, is directly related to the Marxian perception of historical determinism in their theory that human society and culture exists over time in "stages" that are reached and surpassed in an inevitable progress toward a teleological goal, an end result, that is predictable in retrospect from the end backward to the beginning. Since native America is defined as being at the lowest stage of development toward becoming the ideal of Eurocentric consciousness, we are trapped, necessarily, in a primitve, barbaric, savage state that has not yet reached a level of sophistication which allows us to comprehend first many gods and then finally one God. The problem with this view is that the indigenous people of the Americas have been here for a longer period of time than anyone named Engels has been anywhere near Europe. Judaism has existed as such for little more than 5000 years. Christianity for only 2000 years. Marxism only since the middle of the last century. Native American animistic conceptualizations have been in place and "developing" for at least 20,000 years in the Western hemisphere alone. What laggers-behind we are. Look at us: here we are, 15,000 years ahead of Jewish development, and we still haven't managed to become natural monotheists--hell, we're barely on an approach run to becoming polytheists. We've even had the benefit of European master-race training for the past 500 years and still we lag behind. We must be incredibly stupid, even mentally deficient, to fail over and over to elevate ourselves to the level of another version of the master-race. Go figure.
The contradiction in Engels' position concerns his statement that all native Americans honor, though don't formulate, perceptions of liberty, equality, and fraternity. In all this freedom, however, there is a monumental catch, which Engels expresses in these terms: "[m]an's attitude to nature was therefore one of almost complete subjection to a strange incomprehensible power, as is reflected in his childish religious conceptions." How can we be considered free if we are, at the same time, suffering from an "almost complete subjection to a strange incomprehensible power"? Maybe this is a Marxian dialectic. We are totally free in our social relations but totally enslaved by our relationship to nature because it is "a strange incomprehensible power." Europeans are the only people on the face of the earth who hate nature enough to advocate its total destruction. Native Americans don't do that. The point of dealing with nature at the level of spirit-power is to formulate a proper conceptualization of its being the world in which we live. Native Americans have spent thousands of years doing what Engels claims we have not done and cannot do. Spirit is a sophisticated methodology for classifying types and kinds of spirit-power, not because we are in thrall to its incomprehensibility, but because we cannot live properly and effectively in its house if we do not understand the power relations that define its course and our place in it. Anyone who believes that our perceptions of nature are "childish" has little or no knowledge of native American culture and virtually no experience whatsoever of natural force. Native Americans, unlike their European neighbors, don't build houses in the flood-plain of a river and then complain that God has betrayed us when the river carries it off to the ocean.
Engels also argues that native Americans, in their childlike simplicity, as it were, had a high regard for the tribe and the clan structure to which they belonged, believing that these "institutions were sacred and inviolable, [emanating from] a higher power established by nature, to which the individual subjected himself unconditionally in feeling, thought, and action." This statement almost sounds like we are being accused of something unseemly; perhaps because Europeans generally fall into one class or the other of bald-faced hypocrites who claim to honor their own institutions while trying to destroy them or are so fanatically committed to a belief that they murder anyone who disagrees with them about the value of their belief. One hesitates to bring up Stalin in this context for fear of being accused of making a case out of an anomaly but Slobodan Milosevic is doing that for me with his program of "ethnic cleansing" in Kosovo as I speak. As committed as native Americans are to their institutions and belief systems, we have never murdered anyone who expresses a reasonable difference of opinion over issues of value and propriety unless and until the dispute was forced to one of our very survival against the genocidal intent of the Christian invasion of the Western hemisphere. That circumstance arose so soon after the initial contact that it probably seems to most people that we are, and always have been, a murderous and savage lot but the truth is that we accept difference and tolerate the other as long as that favor is reciprocated. When it is not, and when has it ever been, we tend to fight.
A final Engelism that needs a brief comment, just to demonstrate how a wrong-headed idea can persist for centuries in Eurocentric discourse, is his assessment of native American means and modes of production and what they represented in and of themselves to the invading hoards of European greed-merchants even as late as the middle of the nineteenth century. He notes that the "gentile constitution in its best days, as we saw it in America, presupposed an extremely undeveloped state of production and therefore an extremely sparse population over a wide area." This assessment of the state of the Americas in terms of its productive capacity versus its utilization by the indigenous population is so closely the same as Saint Thomas More's explanation of how and why the Utopians perceive their natural right to invade and confiscate any "waste"-land not being properly used by their near-neighbors on the continent from which Utopia separated itself that one cannot even begin to distinguish the Engelism from the Moreism. The Saint argues that the natives of the continent must agree to the invasion of their land or be driven from it by force. He gives the following justification for the inevitability of a war of conquest: "[f]or [the Utopians] account it a very just cause of war, for a nation to hinder others from possessing a part of that soil of which they make no use, but which is suffered to lie idle and uncultivated; since every man has by the law of nature a right to such a waste portion of the earth as is necessary for his subsistence." While it is true that Engels does not pursue the matter of justifying the European invasion of the Western hemisphere in his account of the Iroquois federation, and why would he since it was an accomplished fact already 300 years in the past, he does repeat the notion that More invented (?) to justify the appropriation of anything a European perceives as being wasted by the indigenous person who stands in possession of it.
This parallel in thinking should not surprise anyone, of course, since Marxian political theory is nothing more than a slightly modernized version of a Utopian state. To say that all Utopians think alike is to acknowledge in the simplest way possible that the other has always already been the object of Eurocentric greed. Engels even admits as much in his final paragraph when he says that
"The lowest interests -- base greed, brutal appetites, sordid avarice, selfish robbery of the common wealth -- inaugurate the new, civilized, class society. It is by the vilest means -- theft, violence, fraud, treason -- that the old classless gentile society is undermined and overthrown. And the new society itself, during all the two and a half thousand years of its existence, has never been anything else but the development of the small minority at the expense of the great exploited and oppressed majority."
What this means, of course, is that native Americans should simply stand aside and allow Eurocentric greed, avarice, theft, violence, fraud, and treason to have their way wherever an indigenous population wastes the natural resources under their guardianship. That passivity will allow the development of the middle class, which it certainly did in most of the Americas, so that the glorious Marxian revolution can overthrown the bourgeoisie and take possession of the remaining wealth, if there is any, and be in a position to celebrate the end of time when a totally despoiled nature finally reaches the end of its rope and Europeans learn what native Americans have always known: you cannot destroy your house and expect to go on living in it afterwards.
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