Engels and indigenous peoples

Louis Proyect lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Thu May 3 08:44:55 MDT 2001

Greg Schofield:
>Over the next three quarters of a year, I gathered every criticism I could
>of the work and those I could find on Lewis Henry Morgan (on which it is
>based). What a mountain of photostats and notes I had, as I settled in to
>begin writing my great critique in latter part of the university year.

While "Origins of the Family" is sympathetic to the Iroquois, based to a
large extent on Morgan's writings, it echoes the kind of prejudices found
in Victorian times about evolutionary stages in human society. While the
Indians and the Africans (whom Engels called "Kaffirs") were democratic and
egalitarian, they could not adapt to changing times. Their extinction was
as necessary in a Hegelian sense as that of the dodo. Unless Marxism
transcends this kind of crap, we will have nothing to say to indigenous
peoples fighting capitalism for whom communal ties often mean much more
than conventional "class" issues.

While most Marxists are aware of the high regard paid to the Iroquois  by
Morgan, there is another more troubling side. Morgan's materialist
conception of social evolution included biological determinants that  often
led him to racist conclusions. Concluding that certain common  cultural
characteristics of various Indian tribes were proof of a  common racial
makeup, Morgan surmised that behavioral differences  between Europeans and
Indians could be explained by blood. In  "Systems of Consanguinity," Morgan

"The Indian and European are at opposite poles in their physiological
conditions. In the former there is very little animal passion, which  with
the latter it is superabundant. A pure-blooded Indian has very  little
animal passion, but in the half blood it is sensibly  augmented; and when
the second generation is reached with a cross  giving three-fourths white
blood, it become excessive and tends to  indiscriminate licentiousness."

>It was clear that I had a wonderful mine of criticism, but even then I
>noticed how much simply duplicated the other and all seem to have origin in
>Franz Boas denunciation of Morgan in the final years of the 19th and the
>early years of the 20th century. This worried me not all for this was only
>fuel for the pyre I intend to build.

Boas is not much better.

Kenn Harper, "Give Me My Father's Body: the Life of Minik, the New York
Eskimo" (Steerforth Press):

Boas never returned to the Arctic, but he maintained a deep interest in it
and its people. From 1892 through 1894, he served first as chief assistant
in anthropology at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago and then as
curator of the museum established there to house its permanent collections.
Eskimos were brought to Chicago from Labrador for "exhibit" at that
exposition. In 1895, Boas joined the staff of the American Museum of
Natural History and became assistant curator there in 1896. In that year,
he asked Peary to bring back from his summer's cruise one Eskimo who could
stay in New York for a year or so. Such a thing had previously been done,
he claimed, without the individual suffering from it. Peary liked the idea
but had not been able to bring anyone back with him that summer.

Louis Proyect
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