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Socialism and indigenous sovereignty

Evan Johnston

February 8, 2013

How should socialists approach the question of indigenous sovereignty? At first glance, the answer seems pretty straightforward, and on a certain level it certainly is: as Marxists, we believe in the right to self-determination for oppressed nations. In order to build a truly international working-class movement against the capitalist system, we need unity, and the unity we seek can never be achieved while some nations are oppressed.
As Karl Marx once wrote regarding the US South, “Labour in the white skin can never free itself as long as labour in the black skin is branded.” This insight can be equally applied to the relationship between settlers and indigenous peoples in Canada. To suppose that the working-class movement in Canada can be free while the system of settler-colonialism remains in place is a serious error, but one that has unfortunately been all too common.
Political scientist Todd Gordon characterizes the status of indigenous nations as “Canada’s very own Third World colonies, created and managed as part of an intensive, ongoing colonial project, and they bear the scars of that history.”
Therefore, socialists living on the occupied land known as “Canada” must give unequivocal support to First Nations in their struggle against the settler-colonial state, and against the interests of Canadian capital, which continue to displace indigenous peoples from their land in its drive for greater profits.
‘The same old song’?
Having said that, it is crucial not to brush over the rocky history that has existed between, on the one hand, those who have called themselves “socialists,” and on the other, indigenous people from all across Turtle Island (what some indigenous people call North America), who have long been fighting against this racist system and for self-determination on their land.
In an essay entitled “Same Old Song,” Russell Means, a leader of the American Indian Movement during the 1960s and 70s, sums up this rocky history when he characterizes Marxism as a form of “European imperialism” that, due to Marx being a self-described “materialist,” thereby entails a thorough-going dedication to mechanization and industrialization. For Means, Marxism, as a theory that grows out of the European Enlightenment, is inherently alien to indigenous culture and must therefore be rejected.
In Means’ view, Marxism is the “same old song” because, while the capitalists want to steal indigenous lands for profit, Marxists want to steal indigenous lands in order to institute rational “efficiency.” In the end, Means suggests, Marxism is just another ideology of European colonialism.
While many of us who identify as Marxists would view Means’ depiction of Marxism as a highly distorted one, it is not at all surprising, given the highly distorted way that many Marxists have approached the question of indigenous sovereignty. In order to recover Marxism from this caricature, it is critical to understand the historical context in which this view of Marxism took shape.
Following from the official Soviet state version of “DiaMat” (dialectical materialism) that became one of the trademarks of Stalinism, many Communist Parties viewed the destruction of indigenous land, culture and language as an inevitable result of historical “progress.” These so-called Marxists, who followed what is referred to as a “stagist” approach to history (i.e. that all countries must go through certain pre-determined stages before they can reach socialism), believed that indigenous people could only become revolutionary once capitalism destroyed all of their old practices and social structures, and that it was only on the basis of being part of the industrial working-class that they could fight for their freedom. This distorted view of historical change served the class interests of the Stalinist bureaucracy, but bore little resemblance to the work of Marx, Engels and Lenin. Tsarist Russia was a "prison house of nations," and self-determination for oppressed nations was a key component of the 1917 revolution, which along with all the other gains of the revolution was reversed in both Stalinist theory and practice.
Is it no wonder, then, that indigenous activists came to distrust socialists as allies in the struggle against settler-colonialism? While much work needs to be done in order to restore an understanding of Marxism as a theory of self-emancipation, what speaks louder at present is our actions and our orientation toward movements like Idle No More.
Howard Adams and Indigenous Liberation
This brings us back to the opening question: how, then, should socialists approach the question of indigenous sovereignty? And what will be the basis of solidarity between indigenous and non-indigenous people?
At the outset, it is crucial that we build a relationship on the basis of respect, which means that the role of settler allies (be they socialists or not) is emphatically not to tell indigenous people what form their struggle should take. This follows from a recognition that settler-colonialism is the system mediating the basis of our relationship, and settlers need to recognize the position that they occupy in that system.
Critically, that involves learning from the contributions made by indigenous writers to these very questions. For my purposes here, it has been instructive to revisit the classic book, Prison of Grass: Canada from a Native Point of View (1975), by Métis revolutionary activist Howard Adams (1921 - 2001).
According to Adams, in order for indigenous people to challenge the system of settler-colonialism, what is required is a movement of national liberation. But Adams is concerned with what kind of liberation movement it would be; in addition, he is concerned with how to connect that movement with the wider struggle against capitalism.
Inspired by revolutionary anti-colonial thinkers such as Frantz Fanon and Malcolm X, Adams cautions that the anti-colonial movement could be easily co-opted by a conservative Native leadership that would seek to redirect the struggle in a depoliticized and reformist direction (he often referred to these leaders rather cheekily as “Uncle Tomahawks”).
Adams points out that the type of nationalism that fuelled anti-colonial struggles in Cuba and Vietnam is not applicable to the indigenous struggles in Canada. As he argues: “They are simply not numerous enough to be able to overthrow the government of the country and recapture the entire land according to their justified aboriginal claims, nor are they powerful enough to form a separate state within the dominion.”
But if the struggle by indigenous people is still to take the form of a nationalist struggle, what will that nationalism look like?
Adams makes a distinction between radical and cultural nationalism, both of which are possible forms that the national liberation movement can take depending on the level of mobilization from below.
"Since red nationalism is essential to Indian/Métis liberation, it must be a spearhead force for the native movement, and must provide the machinery for educating the masses politically. Since the cultural awakening is only one part of liberation, steps must be taken to ensure that the national consciousness will develop its political aspects as well."
In the process of developing a “red” or radical national consciousness, there is a danger of it veering too far toward the de-politicized cultural nationalism, which he argues is:
"more than behaving as traditional Indians; it is a return to extreme separatism in the hope that colonial oppression will automatically go away ... It perpetuates the racist idea of ‘Indians in their place,’ and does not allow them to develop a radical consciousness or a reorganized culture that would be in harmony with liberation."
However, sufficient pressure from below will be able to break through the layer of reformist leadership, and allow for a radical nationalism to emerge, which has as its goal “economic, social, and cultural autonomy, and control over all political affairs concerning the natives as a nation, beginning with complete local control of Indian reserves, Métis communities, and native urban ghettos.”
Dignity, self-determination and the capitalist system
For Adams, the fight for indigenous sovereignty is a process, not an event, and will involve “native separatism for a temporary transitional period” due to the fact that “dignity to a colonized nation under capitalism cannot be restored as long as a white-supremacist society dominates or influences it.”
That is, the relationship between indigenous peoples and the Canadian state is defined by the racist power relations set in place by settler-colonialism, and must be the primary target of resistance. Economic, social and cultural autonomy is a crucial first step toward liberation, but as long as capitalism continues to exist in Canada, indigenous nations will be continually under threat. “A single community of all people in Canada with true equality and justice,” writes Adams, “may not be possible until a new order emerges, most likely under socialism.”
Adams, as I said, was concerned with how to link the struggle against settler-colonialism to the wider struggle against capitalism. For Adams, it is precisely the process of struggle that will help to spur such a change in consciousness:
"This segregation under radical nationalism will mean greater class consciousness. It develops the understanding that a native liberation struggle is essentially the same struggle as that of the working class and all oppressed people against a capitalist ruling class. In this way, Indians and Métis can build alliances with workers and other oppressed and colonized groups of white society."
While Adams is but one individual in a long tradition of indigenous revolutionaries that we need to learn from, his ability to bring together a Marxist analysis of capitalism with a revolutionary strategy for fighting settler-colonialism is of huge significance for socialists. While we are guided by the rich history of anti-colonial Marxists, including Lenin’s key work on national self-determination, we must continue to learn from the voices that have too often been suppressed as a result of colonial domination. As Adams reminds us: “It is from locally based struggles that true revolutionary theory evolves, a revolutionary theory functional for those people who must liberate themselves.”
Following Adams’ words, this is why activists who identify as socialists should support and defend the demands of the Idle No More movement, and actively build solidarity in their workplaces, in their neighbourhoods, on the campuses, and so on. In addition, socialists must find ways to connect other struggles – like the fight against austerity, for example – to the struggle for indigenous sovereignty. In this way, we can help deepen the bonds of solidarity between settlers and indigenous people, and demonstrate that the fight for indigenous sovereignty is a struggle that concerns all of us.

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