Source: Fourth International, Vol.10 No.4, April 1949, pp.125-127.
(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.
In A Suppressed Chapter in the History of American Capitalism (Fourth International, January 1949), we refuted the contention that capitalist America was not based on conquest, by setting forth the real historical facts about the wars of extirpation against the Indians. From their false premise about the virgin birth of bourgeois society the capitalist apologists draw an equally false conclusion. For example, in his anti-Marxist polemic at the New York Herald Tribune forum in October 1948, Harvard President Conant declared that “we have nowhere in our tradition the idea of an aristocracy descended from the conquerors and entitled to rule by right of birth.” This assertion is no better-grounded in historical fact, and is indeed the opposite of the truth, as we propose to show.
So far as the relations between the Indians and the whites are concerned, the subjugation of the natives initiated the distinctions between conquerors and conquered along the racial lines which have survived to this day. From the landing of the Spanish conquistadors through the crushing of the last insurgents among the Plains Indians by federal troops up to the present government policy of “enlightened guardianship,” the American whites have maintained a hostile attitude toward the Indians. They have taken for granted that a paleface is better than an Indian; that the Indian has no rights the overlord is bound to respect; and that the white man is entitled by right of birth to the red man’s submission and humiliation.
The bearers of capitalism introduced on North American soil the cleavages and conflicts between master and slave, exploiters and exploited, idlers and toilers, rich and poor which have flourished ever since. Alongside the degradation and suppression of the Indians by the whites there developed profound antagonisms between diverse sections of the new society.
Since the planting of the first colonies, white America has never been without privileged possessing classes at its head. In colonial days the masses were dominated by aristocrats of birth and money; after the War of Independence, by Northern capitalists and Southern slaveholders; since the Civil War, by millionaires and billionaires. These ruling minorities have all elevated themselves above the common people – not to speak of outcasts like foreign immigrants, Negroes, Latin Americans and Orientals – and subordinated to their narrow class interests whatever democratic institutions the people have acquired.
This darker side, of the social transformation wrought by the impact of European civilization upon ancient America is usually passed by in silence, or at least slurred over without explanation, by bourgeois historians. Yet the emergence of class stratifications formed one of the essential lines of demarcation between Indian collectivism and white society.
Conant’s own mind has been warped by these unspoken traditions and betrays their influence in refined forms. The disdain of the Anglo-Saxon conqueror can be discerned in his dismissal of the existence and struggles of the Indians. What is this but an unconscious – and thereby all the more meaningful – evidence of that racial arrogance and antipathy which induces white scholars to disparage the real role of the colored races in American history? This comes from that white-supremacy prejudice which American palefaces have for centuries aimed not only against the red races but against the black and yellow.
Bourgeois scholars distort and deny the distinguishing traits of tribal equalitarianism, the truly democratic nature of Indian institutions and of the whole net of social relations stemming from primitive communism just as they suppress the motives for the destruction of this system. Both cast discredit on the bourgeois past.
Despite their backwardness in other respects, far more genuine democracy prevailed among the Indians than among their successors. Village and camp were administered by elected councils of elders. The tribes discussed and decided all important issues in common. Military leaders and sachems were chosen for outstanding talents and deeds, not for their wealth and birth. Even where chieftainship was hereditary, the chiefs could not exercise arbitrary authority or command obedience without consent of the community. Military service was voluntary. The Indians knew no such coercive institutions of modern civilization as police, jails, courts, taxes, conscript or standing armies.
The equalitarianism and primitive humanism of Indian relations surpassed the proudest claims of bourgeois society. Mutual assistance was the watchword of the community. The tribe cared for all the aged, infirm, sick and young. Hospitality was a sacred obligation, and the Indian was considerably more generous toward the needy and the stranger than the bourgeois who scorned him as inferior. So paramount was this law of hospitality that even an enemy who came without threats had to be given food and shelter.
William Bartram, the naturalist, noted in 1791 that the Creeks had a common granary made up of voluntary contributions
“... to which every citizen has the right of free and equal access when his own private stores are consumed, to serve as a surplus to fly to for succor, to assist neighboring towns whose crops may have failed, accommodate strangers and travelers, afford provisions or supplies when they go forth on hostile expeditions, etc. ...”
In his description of The Indians of the United States, Clark Wissler, Dean of the Scientific Staff of the American Museum of Natural History and an outstanding authority on Indian life, writes that the Indian “was not really a communist, but he was liberal with food. So long as he had food, he was expected to share it” (p.225). This is a typical effort to obscure the communist character of Indian customs. The bourgeois scientist cannot refrain from trying to convert the Indian into a philanthropic “liberal,” whereas the habit of sharing possessions with others was an integral aspect of their primitive communist mode of life.
Anyone in the tribe, for example, could borrow without permission the belongings of another – and return them without thanks. There were no debtors or creditors where private property and money were absent. William Penn wrote:
“Give them a fine gun, coat or any other thing, it may pass twenty hands before it sticks ... Wealth circulateth like the blood, all parts partake, and ... none shall want what another hath.”
How this tribal solidarity was broken up by civilization can be seen from the following petition by the Mohegan Indians to the Connecticut State Assembly in 1789:
Yes, the Times have turned everything Upside down ... In Times past our Fore-Fathers lived in Peace, Love and great harmony, and had everything in Great plenty ... They had no Contention about their lands, it lay in Common to them all, and they had but one large dish and they Could all eat together in Peace and Love – But alas, it is not so now, all our Fishing, Hunting and Fowling is entirely gone, And we have now begun to Work on our Land, Keep Cattle, Horses and Hogs And we Build Houses and fence in Lots, And now we plainly See that one Dish and one Fire will not do any longer for us – Some few that are Stronger than others and they will keep off the poor, weake, the halt and the Blind, and will take the Dish to themselves ... poor Widows and Orphans must be pushed to one side and there they must Set a Craying, Starving and die.
This pathetic petition concludes with a plea “That our Dish of Suckuttush may be equally divided amongst us,” if it had to be divided.
To this day the traditions of ccmmunal equality are so ingrained among Indians uncontaminated by civilization that they put capitalist society to shame. Recently when oil was found on lands allotted to Jecarilla Indians in northern New Mexico, the individual owners could have legally insisted upon taking the entire income for themselves. This would have meant riches for a few and nothing for the others. However, after deliberation in council, all the Indians made over their mineral rights to the tribe so that whatever was gained should be applied to the good of the whole people. How remote are these “backward” Apaches from the standards of bourgeois “moralists.”
The Indians found incomprehensible many traits of the whites: their disregard of pledges considered inviolate by the native; their fondness for indoor life; their intolerance .of other people’s ways; their lust for material possessions and money, etc. As primitive hunters and warriors, the Indians were accustomed to slay not only wild game but rivals who interfered with their essential activities; they scalped enemies, tortured and burned captives. These customs were justified and sanctified by their religious beliefs. But they could not understand the duplicity of Christians who preached peace and good-will and yet waged relentless war upon them.
The Indian was repelled by the inhumanity displayed by members of the same white community toward each other, the heartless egotism which flowed from class society and bourgeois anarchy. There was greater equality in work and play, in distribution and enjoyment of goods, in social intercourse and status among the Indians than among the whites. Every member of the tribe shared alike in good times or in bad, in feast or in famine, in war as in peace; no one went hungry while a few had more than enough to eat.
“They think it strange that some should possess more than others, and that those who have the most should be, more highly esteemed than those who have the least.” (The Evolution of Property by Paul Lafargue, p.35.)
This spirit of equality extended to women, children and even to those war captives adopted into the clan and tribe. Women not only stood on an equal footing, but sometimes exercised superior authority. The Indian elder’s rarely abused or whipped their children. There was no servant class – and therefore no masters.
The forms of society which displaced Indian tribalism surpassed it in a great many respects – but, we repeat, they were never more equalitarian. The American natives lacked many things known to the white man, but they did not suffer from a ruling aristocracy of birth or wealth. The institution of aristocracy in general is bound up with the growth of property and the concentration of wealth in private hands – and, these were indeed “alien importations” of white civilization.
The contrast between the contending cultures was most sharply expressed in, their attitudes toward the acquisition of private wealth. The passion for property had hardly awakened among the Indians. On the other hand, the quest for riches was the most powerful driving force of the new society, the principal source of its evils and the most conspicuous trait of its outstanding representatives.
The precious metals were the quintessence of wealth, prestige and power in Europe and the Holy Grail of the pioneer explorers in the “Age of Geographical Discovery.” In a letter written to Ferdinand and Isabella from Jamaica in 1503, Columbus rhapsodized:
“Gold is a wonderful thing! Whoever owns it is lord of all he wants. With gold it is even possible to open for souls a way to paradise!”
Imagine his astonishment when the Haitians, who used the metal for ornament but not for money, freely handed over gold to the Spaniards in exchange for trinkets. This served only to inflame their greed. After stripping the natives of the gold they possessed, Columbus and his men drove them to forced labor for more. But the Caribbeans did not yield their liberty as readily as their gold.
These chattel slaves were worked to death. So terrible was their life that they were driven to mass suicide, to mass infanticide, to mass abstinence from sexual life in order that children should not be born into horror. Lethal epidemics followed upon the will to die. The murders and desolations exceeded those of the most pitiless tyrants of earlier history; nor have they been surpassed since. (Indians of the Americas, by John Collier, p.57.)
The Aztec chief Tauhtile thought that “the Spaniards were troubled with a disease of the heart, for which gold was the specific remedy.” What this naive Aztec diagnosed as a “disease” was really the normal mode of behavior of the white invaders. As the subsequent conquests of Mexico and Peru demonstrated, nothing sufficed to quench their thirst for the precious metals.
Although Sir Walter Raleigh and other English colonizers hoped to emulate Cortez and the Pizarros, they found no ancient civilizations on the North Atlantic coasts to plunder. Their conquest of the Indians, although inspired by similar sordid motives, was conducted along somewhat different lines. The traders cheated and debauched the natives; the settlers seized their hunting grounds and massacred the tribes; the governments incited one band of Indians against another while destroying the rights and freedom of all! This despoiling of the Indians by the whites dominates the entire historical record, from the first settlements in Virginia to the recent attempt by the Montana Power and Light Company to deprive the Flathead Indians of their territorial rights.
Belonging as they did to incompatible levels of social existence, both the Indians and whites found it impossible to reach any mutual understanding for any length of time. The Indians, baffled by the behavior of these strange creatures from another world, could not fathom their motives. Not only the Aztecs but the North American tribes had to pass through many cruel experiences before they realized how implacable were the aggressions of the whites – and then it was too late. They may be excused for their lack of comprehension. But the same cannot be said of bourgeois historians of our own day who still fail to understand them after the fact.
The founders of the capitalist regime in North America had a double mission to perform. One was to subdue or eliminate whatever precapitalist social forms and forces existed or sprang up on the continent. The other was to construct the material requirements for bourgeois civilization. The destructive and creative aspects of this process went hand in hand. The extirpation of the Indian tribes was needed to clear the ground for the foundations of the projected new society.
The overthrow of the Indians had contradictory effects upon the subsequent development of American life. The installation of private property in land and the widening exchange of agricultural products at home and in the world market provided the economic basis and incentives for the rapid growth of colonization, agriculture, commerce, craftsmanship, cities and the accumulation of wealth. These conditions fashioned and fostered the virile native forces which prepared and carried through the second great upheaval in American history, the colonists’ revolt against England.
The rise of the English colonies in North America and their successful strivings for unhampered development form one of the most celebrated chapters in modern history. But an all-sided review of the process must note that a price was paid for these achievements, especially in the sphere of social relations.
Last updated on: 6.2.2006