Source: Fourth International, Vol.10 No.5, May 1949, pp.139-143.
(William F. Warde was a pseudonym of George Novack.)
Transcription/Editing/HTML Markup: 2006 by Einde O’Callaghan.
Public Domain: George Novack Internet Archive 2006; This work is completely free. In any reproduction, we ask that you cite this Internet address and the publishing information above.
A clear and correct conception of the place occupied in American history by Indian society throws much-needed light upon another fundamental question of this country’s social evolution – the struggle for possession of the land. That struggle begins with the wresting of the tribal hunting grounds from the Indians and the transmission of this land to new owners belonging to a different type of social organization who needed it for new economic activities – agriculture, trade, mining, ranching, city-dwelling, industry, etc.
At various stages along the route this struggle has involved the principal state and clerical powers of Western Europe as well as the various classes transplanted to American soil. Our land has changed hands, several times since the sixteenth century, passing not only from country to country but also from class to class and from person to person. Questions concerning the use, distribution and ownership of the land have played crucial roles in every great American upheaval: in the wars against the Indians, as well as in the fight against British domination (the abolition of crown lands and other royal restrictions, abolition of entail and primogeniture, confiscation and sale of Loyalist estates) and in the Civil War (the Homestead Act, the land question in the Southern states).
The outcome of all this has been to disperse the land among various categories of individual owners and to concentrate the best situated and most productive areas in the hands of a wealthy minority. At no time since the overthrow of Indian tribalism by the bearers of landed private property has the American earth belonged to the inhabitants thereof, even when it formally belonged to the government. For each of these governments, controlled by the propertied classes, served as no more than a temporary custodian before turning titles to the land over to private owners.
The unexpressed assumption of all except the most radical representatives of bourgeois thought on this problem (such as Henry George) is that the land along with the other means of production shall forever be used and abused by private proprietors and any subsequent redistribution will take place within the framework of private ownership.
It cannot be denied that they have what the jurists call a “prima facie” case, since that has been the main trend for over four hundred years and appears to be the unshakable state of affairs today. The monied men with their banks, insurance companies and corporations continue to gather the best part of the land into their hands and reap its benefits. At the same New York Herald Tribune forum, where Harvard President Conant in October 1948 spoke about the blessings of democratic capitalism, cries of alarm were raised by other speakers over the mismanagement and waste of our national resources owing to capitalist anarchy and greed.
What will be the ultimate conclusion of the contest which began with the dispossession of the Indian? Will the American people permit the small fraction of wealthy proprietors to engross the land and its wealth, to ravage the national resources, and exclude the majority of the population from rational management and enjoyment of the land?.
It would be an illusion to think that the struggle over the land which has already passed through so many changes will stop at its present point and at the limits imposed by the interests of the rich. In fact, the fight against their monopoly and misuse of the land is bound to flare up again as it has during every great social crisis.
In his autobiography Oscar Ameringer tells an interesting anecdote in this connection about an Oklahoma cattleman who had firmly opposed socialist ideas until he was ruined by the 1929 depression. In 1932 he approached Ameringer and declared:
“What we got to have is this here revolution you used to preach about.”
“You mean divide up and start all over again?” asked Ameringer.
“No, not divide up,” exclaimed the cattleman angrily, “but own our land and cattle and things in common like the Indians use to do before the government robbed them of everything by giving them title deeds.”
“That’s better,” Ameringer acknowledged, “provided we add railroads, banks, packing plants and a great many other things to those you mentioned.”
The impact of the oncoming social crises will undoubtedly call forth similar responses from considerable sections of farmers who today appear eternally wedded to “free enterprise.”
The actual cultivators of the soil, small farmers, indentured servants, tenants or slaves, never reconciled themselves in the past to the exploiters of labor on the land, to landlordism or absentee ownership. The embattled farmers carried through the fight for independence and democracy against British-backed feudalism during the First American Revolution. Their vanguard in Kansas first challenged in action the slave power, the forerunners of the farmers who filled the Union armies in the Civil War. The agrarian Populists conducted stubborn struggles against the tyranny of the plutocrats in the last part of the nineteenth century. These memorable precedents prefigure how the toilers on the land, whether small owners, sharecroppers, or wage workers, are bound to assert their presence and power as the oppressions – and depressions – of monopoly capitalism drive them to seek a new road. Whatever phases the struggle for the land will go through as class antagonisms become more pronounced, the method of its final solution has already been indicated by Marx:
“From the point of view of a higher economic form of society, the private ownership of the globe on the part of some individuals will appear quite as absurd as the private ownership of one man by another. Even a whole society, a nation, or even all societies together, are not the owners of the globe. They are only its possessors, its users, and they haye to hand it down to the coming generations in an improved condition, like the good fathers of families.” (Capital, Vol. III, pp. 901-2.)
Just as the private ownership of one man by another had to be abolished in this country 76 years ago, so the socialist revolution of our time will have to abolish private ownership of the land.
The destruction of primitive communism based on common land ownership by the Indian tribes was indispensable to the development of American capitalism. The rapid growth of unalloyed bourgeois relations in the United States was made possible by the thoroughness with which the bourgeois forces swept aside all precapitalist institutions, beginning with those of the Indian.
Now this historical cycle is coming to a close and a new one is opening up. The main direction of American society since the crushing of the Indian has been away from primitive collectivism toward private property in more and more developed capitalist forms. In the reversal of social trends now under way, the main line of progress is away from private property and toward collectivism in socialist forms.
When the American people, under the leadership of the industrial workers, succeed in their task of converting capitalist landed property into public property, they will in effect revive on a far higher level and in more mature forms the common ownership of the soil and the collective use of the means of production that we meet on the very threshold of modern American history.
Thus the struggle for the land in America is reproducing, at its own pace and in its own peculiar ways, the basic pattern of development being traced out by civilized society as a whole. This pattern, too, has been explained and foreseen by the founders of Marxism.
“All civilized peoples begin with the common ownership of the land,” wrote Engels. “With all peoples who have passed a certain primitive stage, in the course of the development of agriculture this common ownership becomes a fetter on production. It is abolished, negated, and after a longer or shorter series of intermediate stages is transformed into private property.
“But at a higher stage of agricultural development, brought about by private property in land itself, private property in turn becomes a fetter on production as is the ease today, both with small and large landownership. The demand that it also should be negated, that it should once again be transformed into common property necessarily arises. But this demand does not mean the restoration of the old original common ownership, but the institution of a far higher and more developed form of possession in common which, far from being a hindrance to production, on the contrary for the first time frees production from all fetters and gives it the possibility of making full use of modern chemical discoveries and mechanical inventions.” (Anti-Dühring, pp. 156-7.)
Champions of capitalism such as Conant imply or imagine that, thanks to its unique features and exceptional capacities, capitalist America is set apart from the rest of the capitalist world. All its peculiarities and powers, however, will not suffice in the future, any more than they have in the past, to enable the bourgeoisie in this country to escape the operation of the laws of the class struggle. These laws, which formerly worked in their favor, are now more and more turning against their regime. Although American capitalism may follow paths marked out by the special conditions of its own historical development, these lead toward the same ultimate destination as its European counterparts: the graveyard where obsolete social systems are buried.
The transition from ancient Indian collectivism to the various forms of production rooted in private property also casts considerable light upon the ways and means by which the forces of bourgeois society arrived at their present eminence in America.
In their catalogue of crimes against humanity, the spokesmen for capitalism include the expropriation of property without “just compensation,” the use of violence to overturn established regimes and the resort to extra-legal measures. They add, as the crime of crimes, the extermination of entire populations, for which the term “genocide” has recently been coined. These self-professed humanitarians ascribe such aims above all to “Marxist” and “Communist” devils. In contrast they hold up the angelic respect for property rights, love of peace, regard for law and order, preference for gradual change by democratic consent and other virtues presumably inculcated by American “free enterprise.”
This is a handy set of principles to justify the capitalist regime while defaming its opponents. But all these principles have little application to the conduct of the bourgeoisie in American history. They have been honored, if at all, more in the breach than in the observance.
Historians fired by zeal to indict the opponents of capitalism (for these offenses) should first direct their attention to the ancestors of contemporary American capitalism. No class in American history invaded the property rights of others more ruthlessly, employed violence so readily, and benefited so extensively by revolutionary actions as has the American bourgeoisie on its road to power.
The precursors of the monopolists acquired their property by expropriating the Indians, the British crown along with its Loyalist lackeys, and the slaveholders, not to mention their continued stripping of the small farmers and self-employed workers. They affected these dispossessions of other people’s property, not simply by peaceful, legal or democratic means, but in extremely violent, high-handed and militaristic ways. Wherever they could not get what they went after by bargaining or money, they took by main force or direct action.
The conquest of the Indians, as we have seen, takes its place in this series of events as the earliest and crassest case of the rapacity, ferocity, and duplicity with which the bourgeois forces smashed the impediments on the way to their objectives. They themselves committed the supreme crime they falsely attribute to the aims of revolutionary socialists. The extermination of the Indian was the outstanding example of “genocide” in modern American history – and it was the first rung in the ladder by which the bourgeoisie climbed to the top.
The transmission of the continent into their hands was not accomplished by peaceful agreements. It is common knowledge that virtually every treaty made with the Indians for over four hundred years was broken by the architects of the American nation. By brute force, by the most perfidious deeds, by wars of extermination, they settled the question of who was to own and occupy the continent and to rule it. The treatment of the Indians exemplifies to what lengths the owners of private property can – and will – go in promoting their material interests.
The methods by which the white invaders disposed of the Indian problem had far-reaching, results. Ancient Indian society was shattered and eradicated and powerful masters placed over them and over North America. The main social substance of that sweeping change consisted in the conversion and division of tribal property in land, owned in common and cooperatively used, into private property. This continent passed from the loose network of tribal communities into the hands of kings, landed proprietors, planters, merchants, capitalists, small farmers and town-dwellers who directed and composed the new society.
The conflict between the red man and the white is usually represented as essentially racial in character. It is true that their mutual antagonism manifested itself and was carried on by both sides under the guise of racial hatred. But their war to the death was at bottom a social struggle, a battle for supremacy between two incompatible systems of production, forms of property and ways of life. Like all profound social struggles the scramble for the sources and acquisition of wealth was at its root. In this case, the chief prize was individual ownership and “free” disposition of the land and its products.
These material stakes account for the obdurateness of the conflict which persisted through four centuries and for the implacable hostility displayed by white settlers of all nationalities toward the Indians of all tribes. This was also responsible in the last analysis for the impossibility of any harmony or enduring compromise between the two. One or the other had to yield and go under.
That is how the materialist school of Marxism interprets the cruel treatment accorded the Indians and the reasons for their downfall. If this explanation is accepted, prevailing views of early American history must be discarded. School children, and not they alone, are taught nowadays that the first great social change in this country came from the patriots’ fight for independence in the last quarter of the eighteenth century. In the light of the foregoing analysis, this long-standing misconception has to be rejected.
The colonial uprising, for all its importance, was neither the first social transformation in America, nor can it be considered the most fundamental one. It was preceded, interwoven, and followed by the white invasion and penetration which overthrew the Indian tribal network. This process of struggle, undertaken to install the rule of private property and its corresponding institutions in place of communal property and its specific institutions, was an even more radical social upheaval than the contest between the colonists and the mother country.
The struggle of the eighteenth century was waged between forces and institutions which, although rooted in different countries and in different historical backgrounds, nevertheless shared identical relations of private property at their foundations. The fight against the Indians on the other hand arose from the unbridgeable chasm dividing archaic society from modern civilization, primeval communism from budding capitalism.
The grand course of social evolution on American soil falls into three main stages. It starts with the development of the Stone Age many thousands of years ago. This primitive period reached its peak in the Aztec, Mayan and Incan cultures, and came to a close with the invasion of the white man at the end of the fifteenth century.
The second great epoch begins with the bringing of civilization by the Europeans. It proceeds through the various phases in the formation and transformation of bourgeois society which have culminated in the national and world supremacy of the American monopolists. The third stage, arising out of the second, had its inception with the birth of large-scale industry and the wage-working class.
What are the relations between these three overlapping epochs which mark off decisive steps in the advancement of American society? It is characteristic of the low theoretical level of .bourgeois historians that they do not even broach this question, although it is fundamental in American history. They view capitalism as the sole system of society with solid substance and enduring structure; all others are passing phantoms. Indian tribalism, as we have noted, is to them a forgotten relic; socialism a horrible specter or an impossible fantasy – while civil society in its capitalist forms remains an eternal necessity. Consequently they cannot see or admit that there are distinct stages of American history; that these distinct epochs are interlinked in a necessary chain of connection; or that any significant sequence of development can be discerned in the complex social process.
Nevertheless, behind the sequence of social forms which bridged the transition from savagery to civilization on this continent, there is a lawfulness. Although it had endured for thousands of years, the communal organization of the Indian tribes had to give way before the superior forces of private property. When the feudalists tied up with English rule and later the slaveholders blocked the further development of the productive forces, they, too, were extinguished by the creators of capitalist power.
The bourgeois thinkers concentrate attention upon that side of American historical development whereby precapitalist methods of production and forms of property were displaced by ascending bourgeois relations. They largely ignore other aspects of the same process. It is true that the regimes following Indian tribalism multiplied the powers of production through the practices and passions of private ownership and “free enterprise,” improved techniques, widened culture and opened new vistas to mankind. But these acquisitions had to be paid for by increased inequality and the intensified oppression of the rulers over the ruled. Precious qualities of freedom and fraternity were lost in the shift from primitive collectivism to modern capitalism. As a result of the prevailing class division of society, humanity has remained stunted and defective.
Yet bourgeois thinkers assume that the triumph of capitalism coincides with the highest attainable summit of human existence. History is to be halted while the American people perpetually salute their capitalist commanders in the reviewing stand. How does such an outlook essentially differ from that of the slaveholders who could not adjust themselves to the advent of higher social forms?
In reality, the steps leading to the consolidation of capitalism were only a prelude to the building of a truly civilized life for the American people, and not at all the crowning acts of American civilization. These remain to be taken as the next great stage of our evolution matures and as we move toward socialism.
In the anti-Marxist polemics of spokesmen for capitalism, there is a fatal inconsistency. On one hand, they point to the unlimited potentialities of abundance in -the manufacture of motor cars, atom bombs, supersonic planes, and other things – in a phrase, to the dynamic nature of our productive forces. On the other hand, they demand that these productive forces remain forever encased in capitalist ownership. While everything else is subject to improvement, capitalist control of the productive facilities and the political system which protects it are to be considered immutable. These alone are exempt from radical reconstruction and so close to perfection that they cannot be surpassed, at least not in any foreseeable future.
Whatever changes there may be, they say, must remain within the boundaries of capitalist relations and cannot overstep them. The method of social development must be restricted to small doses of change portioned to the needs of the ruling class.
There is no warrant for such arbitrary assumptions in American history, in the dynamics of our productive forces, or in the present state or prospects of class relations. The forms of property and methods of production in America have undergone at least three vast transformations in the past. When Indian tribalism, British-born feudalism and Southern slavery collided with the new bourgeois forces of production, they were demolished. How absurd it is for the defenders of capitalism to bank for its salvation upon the very expansion of the productive forces which, increasingly stifled by capitalism, must lead to its downfall.
These students of history stubbornly refuse to learn from the past when the slow, steady evolution of social conditions exploded at critical junctures into tremendous upheavals which overturned the old order. American history is full of such sudden transitions and forward leaps. After the Indian tribes held the continent for thousands of years, invaders burst in from overseas, ousted the natives, and built an entirely different type of society here. Mother England dominated her thirteen colonies for over a century and a half until abruptly within a decade a definitive break occurred between the former ruler and the American people. Then, beginning with 1800, the planting power became predominant in national affairs – until the election of Republican President Lincoln in 1860 unleashed the Civil War.
Such reversals of existing conditions, resulting in a radical reconstruction of American society, are not at all restricted to the past. They are inherent in the present situation of American capitalism which faces the same prospect as Indian tribalism, colonial feudalism and chattel slavery. It has become obsolete and opposed to progress. The major evils from which mankind suffers are directly attributable to the outworn institution of capitalist private property. The emancipation of mankind from poverty, tyranny and wars is inseparable from the liberation of the means of production from the grip of capitalist ownership and monopolist control.
At the same time the colossal expansion of socialized production under capitalist auspices has given birth to a new mighty social power. This is the industrial working class which is itself the principal force of production in modern economy. This class heralds the coming age of atomic energy used for constructive, not for destructive purposes. By its ideas, outlook and actions, labor opens up an unrestricted historical horizon for humanity in the socialist future of the free and equal. The material prerequisites for this new form of production and collective life form and ripen within the capitalist structure itself.
This new social power has already announced itself through the swift insurgence of the CIO in the late ’thirties when, after operating like uncontrolled despots in basic industry for many decades, the monopolists suddenly were challenged by powerful unions of industrial workers. These organized workers are now knocking on the doors of political power.
Let us assure both the witch-hunters and the witch-doctors of capitalism that the American monopolists will not be overthrown, like the Indians, by foreign forces.
They are destined to be dislodged from within, like the feudal landlords, the English crown and the Southern slavocracy. This job will be done by social forces generated under their own system and provoked by their own reactionary rule.
The instinctive dread of this prospect accounts for the malevolence of the monopolists toward the workers and the belligerence of their intellectual defenders toward the socialist-minded vanguard. These banner-bearers of reaction do not dread so much the importation of ideas from abroad, for they welcome fascism and other brands of obscurantism. What they fear is the enlightenment and inspiration Marxism can give American workers in working out the ways and means of their emancipation. Hence the irreconcilable hostility toward “the philosophy of Marx, Engels and Lenin” expressed in Harvard President Conant’s call to ideological battle.
When the pioneers of bourgeois society confronted their precapitalist foes, they had both the power and the historical right to conquer. Their plutocratic heirs of the twentieth century have neither. In our time the workers are the pioneers and builders of the new world, the bearers of a higher culture. They embody a more efficient method of production and are fully capable of assimilating, mastering and applying all the achievements of science and technology, including the science of social change and the techniques of struggle for political power.
Uprooting all the abominations of class society, and cultivating everything worthy in the techniques, knowledge, and culture taken over from capitalism, the artificers of the coming society will vindicate the achievements of the past by surpassing them. The “liberty, equality and fraternity” known in America’s infancy, which the bourgeoisie blasphemed and buried, will be regenerated and enjoyed in its finest forms through the socialist revolution of the working people.
It is the capitalist proprietors who are the barbarians in the midst of modern society, resorting in their desperate struggle for survival to the most fiendish weapons and practices. To remove them from the seats of power is the central task of our generation. Mankind cannot resume its upward climb until civilization is rescued from capitalist barbarism.
Last updated on: 6.2.2006