Cherokee removal and Marxist theory: a wrapup

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Thu Feb 28 17:53:43 MST 2002

Before turning to the matter at hand, I want to remind comrades why I
write about such seemingly obscure topics like the Cherokee removal
policy. In fact these questions are not just of historical interest.
They reverberate today and have enormous implications for radicals
throughout the New World.

While posing important strategic and tactical questions, they also
confront Marxism with unresolved theoretical issues that were
inherited from the rather incomplete investigations that Marx pursued
in his Ethnological notebooks. They also stick out like sore thumbs
from Engels's "Origins of the Family, Private Property and the
State." While written entirely in sympathy with the plight of
precapitalist social formations, they carry with them the heavy
legacy of Lewis Henry Morgan's ethnology. Despite his enlightened
attitudes, Morgan could not really transcend his epoch. The notion of
successive, linear stages of barbarism, savagery, slavery, feudalism,
etc. carries the heavy stamp of 18th and 19th century social science.
Marxism still has a challenge before it to fully engage with the
remnants of indigenous societies without the heavy hand of "stagism".
It needs to take into account the kind of work done by people like
Boas, but in addition it has to come to terms with much more profound
questions on the nature of "progress" and "civilization". A fully
developed Marxism will, in my opinion, have to emerge as a critique
of civilization in the sense of Thomas Patterson's 1997 MR book
"Inventing Western Civilization" that I reviewed for Science and

Unfortunately, Science and Society, Monthly Review, Against the
Current, New Left Review and New Politics--the premier general
interest scholarly publications of the left--have not had a SINGLE
issue dealing with indigenous society or struggles in the 10 years or
so that I have been reading them. This reflects poorly on the left.

The final chapter of Anthony Wallace's "The Long Bitter Trail" is
packed with material that helps us to understand the intellectual and
political framework that helped to shape the thinking of Marx and
Engels on such questions. Marx and Engels both valued the work of
Lewis Henry Morgan highly, who represents the best and the not so
best aspects of social science and white progressivist thinking on
the Indian question.

As Hunter Gray pointed out, racism does not create inequality.
Instead, it is the ideological encrustation that grows out of social
inequality. Man feels the need to explain why one group suffers while
another group prospers. It goes against the grain of Christian
morality to say that the Indian had to be treated as less than human
because he stood in the way of white greed. Instead, apologists
figure out a way to explain genocide in terms of a neutral "science".
The Indian had to be kicked out of Georgia because he was lower on
the evolutionary scale rather than because he was sitting on land
that could be used to grow cotton.

In the 1840s and 1850s, one such "scientific" theory was based on
polygenism, which asserted the racial inferiority of both Indians and
Blacks. Philadelphia physician and phrenologist Samuel G. Morton

"Was it not for this same mental superiority, these happy climes
which we now inhabit would not be possessed by the wild and untutored
Indian, and that soil which now rejoices in the hearts of millions of
freemen, would not be overrun by the lawless tribes of contending

Morton's "theory" was based on the examination of hundreds of native
skulls which he rated as more capacious than blacks, but less so than
whites. Harvard naturalist Louis Agassiz, one of Morton's disciples,
asserted that the black cranium housed a brain no larger than the
"imperfect brain of a 7 month's infant in the womb of the white."

With this kind of racism enshrined at places like Harvard University,
the infant science of ethnology would be ill equipped to treat
Indians as equal human beings. We discover from Wallace that there is
a direct lineage between Lewis Cass and Lewis Henry Morgan. While
less disposed to the sort of phrenological analyses found in Agassiz
and company, the early ethnologists all subscribed to the notion that
Indians had to be suppressed because their "hunting" based societies
were a threat to the advancement of civilization.

Henry R. Schoolcraft was an aide to Lewis Cass in Michigan, who
studied Indian languages, customs and traditions in the interest of
scientifically classifying a species that would soon be extinct. In
1845, Schoolcraft gave a lecture at the club Lewis Henry Morgan had
organized in Rochester, New York for the scientific study of
indigenous peoples. There is little doubt that Cass's influence was
transmitted to Morgan through Schoolcraft who published "Notes on the
Iroquois" in 1847. Indeed, Morgan invited Cass to become a member of
his Rochester club of Iroquoianists. Showing Cass's influence, Morgan
wrote in "League of the Ho-de-no-sau-nee or Iroquois":

"The passion of the red man for the hunter life has proved to be a
principle too deeply inwrought, to be controlled by efforts of
legislation. His government, if one was sought to be established,
must have conformed to this irresistible tendency of his mind, this
inborn sentiment; otherwise it would have been disregarded. The
effect of this powerful principle has been to enchain the tribes of
North America to their primitive state."

Where Morgan differed from Cass--thankfully--was over the removal
policy. He believed that as long as efforts were sustained to
civilize the Indian, he could remain in his homeland. Of course, this
assumed that civilization was required. Looking back over the past
150 years, one might say that the Cherokee had a much more advanced
civilization than the white plantation owners who sought to remove
them to what would become Oklahoma.

Whatever differences Cass, Schoolcraft and Morgan had over this or
another question of policy, they were united as members of and in
identifying with the intellectual agenda of the Smithsonian
Institution's Bureau of American Ethnology, which persisted well into
the 20th century. In this edifice, the notion of progressive stages
of cultural evolution held sway.

And it was the theoretical orientation of the BAE that eventually
shaped legislation that would sustain the genocidal practices of the
previous three centuries and which continues today. One Smithsonian
researcher wrote the introduction to a policy study of Indian land
claims, which strongly supported the following words that originally
appeared in an 1823 Supreme Court ruling on Indian land titles:

"discovery [by Europeans] gave an exclusive right to extinguish the
Indian title of occupancy, either by purchase or by conquest . . . We
will not enter into the controversy, whether agriculturists,
merchants, and manufacturers, have a right on abstract principle, to
expel hunters from the territory they possess, or to contract their
limits . . . The tribes of Indians inhabiting this country were
fierce savages, whose occupation was war, and whose subsistence was
drawn chiefly from the forest."

Unless Marxism finds a way to disassociate itself from any
expressions that even faintly reflect such sentiments, it surely has
no future in this hemisphere.

Louis Proyect, lnp3 at on 02/28/2002

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