Engels and indigenous peoples

Greg Schofield gschofield at SPAMone.net.au
Thu May 3 10:00:10 MDT 2001

Louis you are quick off the mark, in the time it takes me to scratch my bum
you have a reply - will win no gun fights against you I am afraid.

I think however you may have missed the sting in the tale, of my little piece.

"Of course it had dawned on me that the problem lay not in Engels but my
reading of him, after all we are not really prepared to have a theory of
history waved under our noses, when what we expect to read is just a
history - but then of course I am not the only fool to fall into this trap."

An oblique reference to a statement made by (while in dispute with Julio -
Re: The EU question (Response to Louis - II)  you which inspired me to write.

"I wasn't aware that Marx had a theory of history. "

You see Marx does have a pretty complete "theory of history" once his Modes
of Production thesis is married to his ethnological work - some other parts
- more pertinent to capitalism and under-development were sketched out in
the Grundrisse - part of his more extensive plan for Capital - alas this
was never completed and I am not familiar enough with this material to do
it justice. However, on the more esoteric aspects (the Origin) I feel no
such hesitation.

At 10:58  3/05/01 -0400, you wrote:
>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.

We have always to deal with the problems of anachronism when treating this
material. "Kaffirs" was the accepted term for Bantu related peoples of
Southern Africa, as was "Hottentots" for the !Kung people. Engels had no
problem however, specifying particular tribal nations, you will find his
praise of the Zulu in their victory at Ishwandal (I think my spelling is
amiss) is nothing much to be embarrassed about.

However, I do not believe I have ever read of him or Marx praising genocide.

Contrary to the assert it is crap, I have found it of some little use in
discussions with tribal people in my own country when I was living in
Darwin - but this was not extensive and I do not pretend any expert
knowledge, but it did enable me to better understand some of the things
being said to me and I think you will find that the Morganist system makes
some kinship relations much more understandable than modern anthropology
has been able to do.

Morgan's rendition of the "class" marriage system in Australia, though
short, is clear - Thomson makes it clearer still, none of the modern texts
achieve so much. You may dismiss this all as anecdotal, but you must
recognise the importance of Morgan in establishing all this for Western
scholarship (his world wide collection of kinship terms has not been
bettered to this day).

>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

Absolutely he was a man of his time and Darwin had made such a grand impact
just a decade and half beforehand. As I said in my original post this error
had two sources - the assumed short duration of human biological evolution
and the then undisputed tabulation of brain capacities which dated back to

Anachronistic arguments are not good ones, there was error, especially in
too closely identifying biological and social evolution because of the
state of knowledge at that time - may I ask on what basis you might argue
if you had lived then and knew only what they knew. The superficiality of
these erroneous speculations (for they were more often framed as
speculations rather than given conclusions) can be scissored out with
harming the framework of analysis.

>"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."

Pre-genetics, pre-mendel and looking at the subject matter, as bad as this
stuff is, it rests on common social assumptions of the period(especially in
America, the same logic came up later in Australian history and we have a
living legacy of people removed from their families on this basis). But you
will notice that is one of a number of asides made by Morgan which are not
parts of his theory as such (they touch on what he thought was a material
relationship between society and biology and is coloured by his social
background and what passed for science when he wrote).

I have no problem with this stuff because it is garbage, but history is
history and we get what comes down to us, aside from this there is much
else, but let us leave Morgan, as much (but not all) of this was dropped
aside by Marx and Engels. I might try to understand why such nonsense comes
up, but I do not defend it.

>Boas is not much better.

In these regards he was not and you will look in vain for any
anthropologist up until the post-war period who really escapes this
nonsense, mind you amongst the more despicable specimens there are those
which did treat the people they studied with some respect and sometimes
articulated their interests - it is fairly rare though.

Evans Pritchard wrote classic studies on the Neur while acting as a
military spy in a British war against them - he suggested the strategy of
destroying waterholes which effectively led to the Neur's defeat, but
appeared perplexed when the Neur treated him as a spy when he first
appeared - the bastard actually used their rules of hospitality to plant
himself in their midst. History repeats itself as anthropologists did such
good ground work for operation Phoenix during the Vietnam war - and no
doubt there is many a scholarship paid out for field work in the
Philippines and Latin America for very much the same company.

However, after this interesting diversion let me get back to your main
point which seems to be that because of some contamination of 19th century
stupidities, and the assertion that genocide (I assume cultural genocide as
I do not believe even Morgan condoned anything more - in fact if I remember
correctly he was very much motivated at trying to preserve those aspects of
culture which he thought were to be destroyed and lost) that the whole lot
should be shot.

My only reply is that they are both weak points, if this is to be abandoned
something more substantial is warranted, Otherwise I cannot see why these
neglected works should not be more promoted and the theory they articulated
mobilised (caveats accepted).

Greg Schofield
Perth Australia

More information about the Marxism mailing list