I first came across this article by Noaman Ali, on his website Comrade Nomesa few years back, read it, thought it was spot on, and then completely forgot where I found it. I’ve looked for it again ever since, and well, now I’ve found it again, so I reposting it here. In this article I think Ali does an amazing job exposing just where and how Churchill is, frankly, full of shit when it comes to his critique of Marxism.
It also seems like fate that I found it again (and quite easily, after many a google search), the reason being that I happened to be talking about Ward Churchill with my Masters advisor (I noticed she had a copy of the Churchill reader Acts of Rebellion on her shelf) and the topic of his critique of Marxism came up briefly. I mentioned that I found his critique to be wanting, and she noted that despite that it was one of the main ones that had circulated amongst indigenous activists and scholars.
In his article False Promises: An Indigenist Perspective on Marxist Theory and Practice, Churchill attempts to lay out his ideas on the incompatibility between Marxism and indigenous liberatory projects. This critique falls flat though because it presents a straw man argument, presenting to the reader a simplistic caricature of Marxist thought. In fact, the way that Churchill presents Marxism is such a ridiculous misrepresentation that it barely warrants a response of any kind. The problem then is not that he presents a straw man argument against Marxism, or even whether or not his ignorance is purposeful or accidental, but rather that Churchill’s “critique” is one of the most widely circulated ones among radical Native forces.
It’s publication in three collections of Churchill’s writings (Acts of Rebellion, From a Native Son, and Marxism and Native Americans) has meant that is has been read and taken up my many Natives warriors. The result being that many now see Marxism as something to be opposed, as much as the evils of settler-colonial society. It’s made worse by the fact that serious Marxist criticism of it is few and far between. For example, well known Metis-Indian nationalist and Marxist Howard Adams wrote a six page critique of Churchill and other’s caricature of Marxism in Marxism and Native Americans, but it is not widely available these days. In that vacuum, Ali’s article fills in nicely.
I came upon Ward Churchill’s critique of Marxism from an “indigenist” perspective through a friend’s facebook note. I am going to do an anti-critique here, not because I disagree with everything Churchill says, but because I disagree with a lot of it, and because on many counts he’s just wrong. It’s important to take stock of this, because what Churchill is presenting might form the basis of mistaken critiques of Marxism. Now, I have no problem with anyone critiquing Marxism, whether the critic is Marxist or non-Marxist or indigenist or religious or whatever. I’d just prefer that the critic read Marx first and then present a coherent argument (is that too much to ask?).
Having said that, I’d like to point out that Marxism is a many-splendoured thing. To quote my friend and interlocutor, Nathanial Thomas: “Like any Marxist, I have my own opinions on what is closer to Marxism and what is … less so, but I feel inclined to the view that Marxists define Marxism, rather than the other way round.” In this vein, I’m going to examine Churchill’s critique from my own perhaps idiosyncratic Marxist perspective which is nevertheless solidly grounded in Marxian thought and, particularly, Marx’s thought–but it’s certainly not the kind of Soviet (orthodox?) Marxism that Churchill repeatedly conflates with Marxism on the whole. Additionally, I’m going to publish this anti-critique in pieces.
Churchill seems to have delivered this essay as a talk, sometime between 1985 and 1995. That’s all I can tell. The historical perspective is important because it would give us a temporal context in which to place this uneven critique. In that broad period we saw the decline of the Soviet Union and other satellite states. No doubt, there were many Marxists who saw their reified, teleological and schematic approaches to revolutionary politics and theory as universal and necessary.
Dialectics and Nature
Churchill begins his essay with describing dialectical thinking, or relational thinking that sees things not as things, but as a set of relations. He finds its roots in just about every indigenous culture in America, certainly, but also all across the world. Churchill doesn’t really define what he means by indigenous culture (are Germans indigenous to Germany?), but that’s okay. The Greeks–who, I guess, are the basis of modern European philosophy for Churchill (and many others, I should add)–got it from the Egyptians who got it, apparently, from the Ethiopians (did he mean Nubians?). This connection–the Greek, not the Egyptian–leads us to Hegel, who revived dialectical thinking in Europe, and from whom (or at least, being mediated by Bauer and others) it got to Marx.
Churchill points out that dialectical thinking at this point is solidly opposed to the history of European, linear rationality. Yet, the problem with Marx is that he presumes the supremacy of human agency in determining historical reality; this is a supremely Eurocentric presumption:
His impetus in this regard appears to have been his desire to see his theoretical endeavors used, not simply as a tool of understanding, but as a proactive agent for societal transformation, a matter bound up in his famous dictum that “the purpose of philosophy is not merely to understand history, but to change it.” (sic) Thus Marx, a priori and with no apparent questioning in the doing, proceeded to anchor the totality of his elaboration in the presumed primacy of a given relation–that sole entity which can be said to hold the capability of active and conscious pursuit of change, i.e.: humanity–over any and all relations, the Marxian “dialectic” was thus unbalanced from the outset, skewed as a matter of faith in favor of humans. Such disequilibrium is, of course, not dialectical at all. It is, however, quite specifically Eurocentric in its attributes, springing as it does from the late-Roman interpretation of the Judeo-Christian assertion of “man’s” supposed responsibility to “exercise dominion over nature,” a tradition which Marx (ironically) claimed oft and loudly to have “voided” in his rush to materialism.
“The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.” Yes, this is true–and in many ways it forms the core of Marxian discussions on the unity of theory and practice. To take this one quotation, though, and to jump to a conclusion of Marx ascribing some kind of transcendental and transhistorical superpower to human agency is inaccurate. If anything, the typical critique of Marx comes from the other end: that Marx is too deterministic and undermines human agency. I think it’s instructive to take a look at what Marx had to say about this, in a couple of places:
Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from thepast.
In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.
From these two quotations we can see, quite clearly, that Marx is looking at the conditions in which humans can act, and he is clear that these conditions are independent of the will of the actors. Having said that, these conditions are eminently historical–they come from somewhere, and they will go somewhere–and, it follows, they are eminently social. That is to say, when Marx talks about the range of action and the range of inaction available to humans in a particular place and time, he is talking about the constrictions of the social reality; this involves the economics (i.e., mode of production), the politics, the religious, the cultural, so on, so forth. All this is social, for Marx.
Churchill contends that Marx does not examine the human being as one relation among several, most notably ignoring the role of nature. But for Marx, even theconcept of nature is social, because it is not a given but something that exists only in relation to human beings. Consider that, for a moment: nature is a relation, not a reified and transhistorical category. It exists because humans, or at least, some humans, define it as such. That doesn’t mean that things like hurricanes and earthquakes will bend to the will of humanity, or anything like that. What it means is that the categories and concepts humans use to understand the world are historical and relational. That is to say, dialectical.
Of course, the course of human history is shaped by geography and territory and the various effects that “nature” has–temperature, landscape, etc. But if there’s something that we should realize–particularly in light of recent developments–it’s that we have managed to screw around with temperature and landscape, i.e., nature, at unprecedented scales. It’s still relational, still dialectical, and here, I mean on a practical level and not a conceptual or theoretical one. Where is nature, if by that we mean something separate from humanity? In any case, whatever we define as nature is–as Engels points outs–itself historical, continuously coming into being and changing, and again, not only on a conceptual level but on a practical level. Engels:
In nature nothing takes place in isolation. Everything affects and is affected by every other thing, and it is mostly because this manifold motion and interaction is forgotten that our natural scientists are prevented from gaining a clear insight into the simplest things.
This may, or may not have anything to do with human agency.
Churchill is correct in that, ultimately, Marx is a humanist, and in many ways anthropocentric. Churchill’s critique is that Marx’s humanism articulates itself as a drive to exercise dominion over nature. Indeed, considering that Marx’s vision of socialism was one where the productive capacities of humans had advanced to such a level that all could be fed, clothed, etc. (in other words, the conditions that do exist today), it would seem that Marx had little or no concern for nature. Certainly, many Marxists didn’t after the 1930s. But even Marx’s anthropocentrism is dialectical and does not ignore the myriad flows in which humans exist–and certainly not that of nature. Marx isn’t talking about reigning in nature and beating it about to conform to the will of the humans at all costs. The best analysis I have had access to so far in this regard is that of John Bellamy Foster, who wrote Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature. A summary of this book’s arguments are available in an article here. For the sake of your time–you are already, I suppose, reading this essay of mine–let me pull out some choice quotations from Marx and Engels, emphasis has been added by me. First, Marx on large-scale industry and agriculture:
all progress in capitalistic agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the labourer, but of robbing the soil; all progress in increasing the fertility of the soil for a given time, is a progress towards ruining the lasting sources of that fertility. The more a country starts its development on the foundation of modern industry the more rapid is this process of destruction. Capitalist production, therefore, develops technology, and the combining together of various processes into a social whole, only by sapping the original sources of all wealth–the soil and the labourer.
Speaking about the reuse of waste products in industry, Marx points out:
Excretions of consumption are the natural waste matter discharged by the human body, remains of clothing in the form of rags, etc. Excretions of consumption are of the greatest importance for agriculture. So far as their utilisation is concerned, there is an enormous waste of them in the capitalist economy. In London, for instance, they find no better use for the excretion of four and a half million human beings than to contaminate the Thames with it at heavy expense.
On deforestation, Marx:
The development of culture and of industry in general has evinced itself in such energetic destruction of forest that everything done by it conversely for their preservation and restoration appearsinfinitesimal.
And, perhaps, most damningly for Churchill’s assertions, Engels is quite clear:
Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human victories over nature. For each such victory nature takes its revenge on us. Each victory, it is true, in the first place brings about the results we expected, but in the second and third places it has quite different, unforeseen effects which only too often cancel the first. Thus at every step we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing outside nature — but that we, with flesh, blood and brain, belong to nature, and exist in its midst, and that all our mastery of it consists in the fact that we have the advantage over all other creatures of being able to learn its laws and apply them correctly.
And this isn’t a triumphalist declaration, Engels is clearly guarded: “It required the labour of thousands of years for us to learn a little of how to calculate the more remote natural effects of our actions in the field of production….” The quotations speak for themselves, Marx and Engels were not ignorant of the position of human beings as one relation existing dialectically among several others, not separate from nature, but in nature. And that means that nature is eminently social. Additionally, they were concerned about what nowadays would be called “sustainable development”–that is, they didn’t want to screw up the environment; they were, indeed, quite critical of environmental destruction and degradation. And as far as human dominion over nature goes, consider Marx:
Even a whole society, a nation, or even all simultaneously existing societies taken together, are not the owners of the globe. They are only its possessors, its usufructuaries, and, likeboni patres familias, they must hand it down to succeeding generations in an improved condition.
When Churchill asserts that Marx and Engels saw the universe, in “Judeo-Christian” fashion simply to be subordinated by humans willy nilly, he is clearly just wrong.
Churchill asserts that historical materialism is a way of looking at society not as a unified whole, but as a mass of contradictions. All of history is simply the course of contradictions in society reconciling themselves to production (i.e., the transformation of nature from one of its aspects into another). Churchill tells us that Productive relations, in [the Marxist] schema, determine all and everything. The orthodox Marxists, according to Albert and Hahnel, assert that Marxism downgrades the importance of the creative aspect of the human consciousness and that consciousness rests primarily on objective production relations.
There is some truth in some of these assertions, but Churchill does not provide a coherent account of historical (or, indeed, dialectical materialism) before he proceeds to criticize it eelying on quotations taken wildly out of context from Althusser and Baudrillard. For this reason I cannot proceed by addressing Churchill’s assertions in turn, but will provide a sketch of what historical materialism means. In doing this, I hope, we will take up Churchill’s criticisms and address them.
The main idea of historical materialism is that history the course of development of human societies, including ideas and consciousness is based on material realities. It is not the ideas in our heads that determine the conditions of our existence; so much as it is the conditions of our existence that largely contribute to the determination of the ideas in our heads. This is not to say that ideas do not have an effect on reality, but they do so when put into material action in whatever way. History is a chronology of changes: institutions, cultures, values and so on change over time. None of these are immutable, all of these are eminently historical they exist, as they do, in particular times and spaces and they are in constant flux.
The Marxian method puts a theoretical emphasis on the role of economics in analysing history and consciousness. What is meant by economics? The term œmode of production is often-heard, e.g., capitalism is a mode of production. Humans need to eat, drink, sleep, etc. To do this they have to produce things, in one way or another. The mode organizes how production is carried out, and this organization is necessarily social, and also has its tremendous impacts on other aspects of society, or, ideology: culture, politics, state, law, etc. That is to say, our social relations of production (and exchange and consumption) play a significant role in organizing our social relations in general.
However, it’s not like a mode of production drops out of the sky, and then on top of this someone sets about to build things like culture and ideas. These things develop together, and develop because of the course of human actions and interactions.  However and very importantly the behaviours and courses of action taken by people are determined by the possibilities, limits, and imperatives of real-historical conditions.
Additionally, the economic is not the only determining factor in the course of human society (i.e., in determining history) other factors can, and do play important roles. The point is that they cannot be analyzed separately from each other, and certainly, one cannot ignore the foundational aspect of the material social realities, i.e., of the economic: the relationship is dialectical. Moreover, modes of production can and do exist at the same time, over the same spaces, but some often, one is clearly more dominant and determining than the others.
Let us consider the example of capitalism, the dominant mode of production today throughout the world. Here, the very first thing that should strike us is that we actually buy the things necessary for our livelihoods with money. Moreover, we rarely know under what conditions the things we buy are produced. On the flip side, we work (for someone else) to acquire the money necessary to buy the things we need or want for our livelihoods. This is just a basic enumeration of capitalist relations of productions, of course, they are far more complicated. The point is that these things are determined by the mode of production: capitalism. We can also see how historically contingent aspects of ideology, such as the theory of free trade and the free market or the legal right of private property, are conjured or developed concurrently with the development of capitalism as a dominant mode of production.
Indeed, if we were serfs living in a fief, under the authority of some lord, in some medieval European place, no doubt the relations of production would be vastly different. How we came up with the means of our subsistence indeed, exactly what would constitute subsistence would vary tremendously. And, how we related to these things culturally and what kinds of legal systems were there to legitimate the existing power relations would also be rather different. To quote my medievalist friend and interlocutor Nathaniel Thomas for the second time: a huge difference in social relations would be the sense of obligation. They could be really greedy, but medieval European lords simply do not run their estates to maximize production and profit in a systematic way and don’t think in those terms. Not that they do anymore, because there aren’t any left, because the capitalist mode of production replaced the peasants with the workers, and changed entirely the social function of the lords, and so on and so forth.
Going back to Churchill’s critiques, a few things should become apparent: Yes, the mass of human society is a set of contradictions, but these contradictions form parts of the whole and are determined by the logic of the whole which really isn’t œunified as such (what does that even mean?). Contradictions don’t have to reconcile themselves to production: production itself is undergirded by a whole set of contradictions (for instance, the contradiction between the actual producer of a product, and the person who appropriates the profit off of that product). Productive relations are not what determines all and everything, but they are fundamental. And yes, the consciousness of human beings is determined by their existence, a great part of which has to do with their productive relations, which are there independent of their wills: existence precedes essence, and not vice-versa. However, that the productive relations people enter into are independent of their wills doesn’t mean it has to remain that way. That’s the whole point of revolution.
Labour Theory of Value
Let’s now focus on Churchill’s critique of Marx’s labour theory of value (LTV), which, as Churchill correctly notes, forms the bedrock of Marxist theory but, I should add, the bedrock of the Marxian economic theory of capitalism as a mode of production. Churchill describes the labour theory of value as meaning:
that value can be assigned to anything by virtue of the quantity and quality of human labor i.e.: productive, transformative effort put into it. This idea carries with it several interesting sub properties, most strikingly that the natural world holds no intrinsic value of its own.
Yes, and no. To really understand the LTV we have to pull back a bit and see what Marx is doing. Essentially, Marx is trying to get at the laws of motion of the capitalist mode of production thus, his analysis is very specific to capitalism as an economic system. This has to be kept in mind. None of Marx’s categories or concepts are transhistorical and universal as such; they are specific to capitalism, and this includes the LTV.
When Marx talks about value he is referring to the value of commodities. A commodity is a thing that has some kind of use, it doesn’t matter how you define that use. The utility of a thing makes it a use value. That is to say, things can and do have intrinsic value of their own when looked at from the perspective of humans, it is to the extent that they can be used by humans. Now, let’s be clear about what is meant by use: if you derive aesthetic, spiritual, or some kind of non-physical use from a thing (whatever it may be), it is still a use; a different kind of use-value, certainly, but still a use-value. That is to say, use-value is subjective. But this is not what Marx means when he’s talking about value.
A commodity, in order for it to be a commodity, has to have an exchange-value. That is to say, how do two disparate use-values find themselves being equated for exchange? There is a medium (money) which facilitates this exchange, but what determines the particular exchange-value of a thing? For Marx, this is the socially necessary labour time required to produce the thing. (I could go into more detail about this, but that’s not the crux of Churchill’s argument. If you’re interested, read Ch. 1 of Capital, Vol. 1.) The point here is that the exchange-value of a thing is determined by the socially necessary labour time required for its production in a capitalist economy. This is what Marx is talking about when he talks about the labour theory of value. In a capitalist economy, value is expressed as and through exchange-value. Exchange-value has nothing to do with a thing’s use-value.
Additionally, we can see that a thing can have use-value without having exchange-value in which case it is no longer a commodity. Or, as Marx puts it:
A thing can be a use value, without having value. This is the case whenever its utility to man is not due to labour. Such are air, virgin soil, natural meadows, &c. A thing can be useful, and the product of human labour, without being a commodity.
And in that vein, we can then understand what he means when he says, nothing can have value, without being an object of utility. If the thing is useless, so is the labour contained in it; the labour does not count as labour, and therefore creates no value.
When he is talking about value here, he is quite specifically talking about social use value that is, exchange-value. If it isn’t useful to someone else, it won’t be exchanged, and hence has no value in a capitalist exchange-based mode of economy regardless of how much labour is put into it.
What Churchill goes on to say, on the basis of the LTV, is dead on in terms of how a capitalist economy and society views value; not only theoretically, but we see it in practice every day. Marx and many Marxists such as myself, would share Churchill’s critique it’s not a critique of Marx or Marxism as such:
A mountain is worth nothing as a mountain; it only accrues value by being “developed” into its raw productive materials such as ores, or even gravel. It can hold a certain speculative value, and thus be bought and sold, but only with such developmental ends in view. Similarly, a forest holds value only in the sense that it can be converted into a product known as lumber; otherwise, it is mere an obstacle to valuable, productive use of land through agriculture or stock-raising, etc. (an interesting commentary on the Marxian view of the land itself). Again, other species hold value only in terms their utility to productive processes (e.g.: meat, fur, leather, various body oils, eggs, milk, transportation in some instances, even fertilizer); otherwise they may, indeed must be preempted and supplanted by the more productive use of the habitat by humans.
As for the Marxian view of the land itself, please see the quotations I pulled from Marx and Engels earlier. I should also point out that Marx is very clear that nature is as much a source of wealth as labour, and was quite vociferous in his criticism of those who thought that labour alone was a source of wealth:
Labor is not the source of all wealth. Nature is just as much the source of use values (and it is surely of such that material wealth consists!) as labor, which itself is only the manifestation of a force of nature, human labor power.
It seems Churchill’s comment on the labour theory of value had little, if any, detailed analysis behind it.