Native People Under the Gun
Gunpowder and mass production of firearms
The scientific-technological revolution has had the most devastating effect on the Native people of North America. The campaigns of extermination and plunder conducted by the North and South could scarcely have assumed the proportions they did had it not been for the weapons of destruction the settlers and colonizers brought with them.
As is well known, gunpowder had revolutionized warfare throughout Europe. Although first developed in China in the 9th and 10th centuries, it was not used as an explosive for military purposes on a wide scale until the 15th century in Europe. The bow and arrow and other earlier weapons could not compete with firearms.
The French had developed the most devastating form of gunpowder, superior to that originally used here by the English-speaking settlers. It was the DuPonts who brought the production of this more powerful type of gunpowder to the New World.
Much has been written about the early settlers and how they employed their guns, especially the Kentucky long-barreled rifles, in hunting squirrels and rabbits for food. But in reality these weapons were used mainly to terrorize the Native people and rob them of their land.
What gave the new ruling class its greatest advantage in the struggle against the Native people, however, and for that matter against all the oppressed and exploited, were the technological advances in the production of arms. The bourgeois state, no matter how much it is prettified, is basically an instrument of repression.
Eli Whitney, whom we mentioned earlier as the inventor of the cotton gin, also introduced into the U.S. a new principle in the production of arms. He originated the use of interchangeable parts for machines and their products, in other words, the first elements of mass production. This was over 100 years before Henry Ford got together the capital to apply this technique to the mass production of automobiles.
"When [Whitney] decided to undertake the manufacture of firearms for the U.S. government, he introduced a new principle--one destined to revolutionize production methods as his gin had revolutionized the social structure of the South, namely the use of interchangeable parts for tools, for machinery and for their products."1
As early as 1798, Whitney's principle began to supplant individual gunsmiths with factories for the manufacture of firearms. In order to have interchangeable parts, firearms now had to be standardized. As Whitney himself said, he had to "substitute correct and effective operations of machinery for that skill of an artist which is acquired only by long practice and experience." This required making the same parts of different guns "as much like each other as the successive impressions of a copper plate engraving."2
All this required the division of labor and the transfer of human skills to special tools and machinery. It took two years to produce and install the necessary machines, after which the production of muskets could proceed on a mass scale. This is what then enabled the European colonizers to defeat the Native people in an unequal struggle.
The standardization of arms production was a very early precursor to the development of the military-industrial complex in the epoch of imperialist wars. When Whitney developed his principle of interchangeable parts, there were no factories for arms production, only individual gunsmiths. However, he persuaded President Thomas Jefferson of the utility of his idea and was able to obtain a contract for the production of 10,000 muskets. He then built an armory in New Haven, Connecticut, to produce this large number of weapons. It was thus the state that was instrumental in revolutionizing this industry from an inefficient, individual enterprise into a much more collective form of production. This helped to bolster the repressive power of the state as it struggled against the oppressed and exploited masses.
The earlier, handcrafted guns had of course been much more expensive. The new principle of incipient mass production enabled the U.S. government to equip large armies and expand the militia. This inglorious aspect of the scientific-technological revolution is frequently neglected by historians, as though the settlers had been born with weapons of destruction.
Expansion of slave plantations onto Native land
Both Northern capitalists and Southern slaveowners learned early on that, notwithstanding the very fundamental and irreconcilable contradictions between them, they nevertheless had a common objective in the suppression of the exploited and oppressed masses.
The expansion of slavery, which we have shown was largely due to increased cotton production, gave even more impetus to the drive to oust the Native people from their land. A path had to be cleared for the expanding plantations, and that meant expelling the Native people from areas where they had lived from time immemorial.
We mentioned earlier how every year the liberals in the Democratic Party pay tribute to Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson as great democrats and men of the people. They don't mention that Jefferson was a racist and large slaveowner, as we said. The historian Arthur Schlesinger, viewed as a great liberal chronicler, wrote a book on The Age of Jackson which viewed the progressive era of Franklin Roosevelt as an extension of Jacksonian democracy. But Jackson's role in the extermination campaigns against Native people needs to be mentioned here.
General Andrew Jackson was one of the most vicious enemies of the Native people, and participated in campaigns to drive them out of their homes in Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee and Florida, all in the interests of expanding the slave plantations. His demand from the Creek nation in 1814 that they yield 23 million acres of their ancient domain was described by an early historian as "unequaled for exorbitance."3
His move from military to civilian politics had no softening effect on Jackson. "Later, when he became President, Jackson finished the job on the Creeks, Cherokees, Seminoles, and others. He forced them off their Southern preserves altogether and across the Mississippi River in 1835. They were finally rounded up, stripped of their hunting grounds, and confined in concentration camps known as Indian reservations. . . . The big planters got the cream of the wide and fertile Southern lands stolen from the Indians by the government."4
Any idea that contemporary imperialism has become more moderate and enlightened and less predatory toward Native people is dispelled by taking a careful look at how the U.S. government and the multinational corporations, especially the huge energy monopolies, deal with the rights of Native people today.
It took a virtual uprising at Wounded Knee in 1973 for the struggle of Native people to finally gain some kind of national recognition. But the desperate conditions highlighted in that heroic struggle continue to persist around the country today. Many of the leaders of that period have been assassinated or imprisoned. One of the most prominent, Leonard Peltier, has gained international support as an eminent political prisoner, but remains virtually unmentioned in the imperialist press of the U.S.
The government in cahoots with the energy monopolies is trying to force the relocation of the Dineh (Navajo) and Hopi peoples from their mineral-rich lands in Arizona. High unemployment, infant mortality, suicide and alcoholism on the reservations all attest to a ruthless disregard of the sovereign rights of the Native people.
Mass migrations from Europe and the Utopians
It was to try and achieve basic democratic rights that many millions came to the New World, fleeing the injustice, cruelty and oppression of the European regimes. However, these migrations, often spurred on by the breakup of the old feudal order, never took into account the rights of the indigenous people.
The character of this migration became a matter of sharp debate in the socialist movement in Europe, even though the controversy did not center on the question of the indigenous people, but rather on the idea that a socialist utopia could be established in the New World, a view that Marx rejected.
Frederick Engels in his celebrated work Socialism, Utopian and Scientific 5 examined the ideas of the great utopian socialists, from Thomas Moore and Saint-Simon to Robert Owen and Fourier. These early social reformers envisioned a variety of communal societies that would abolish class distinctions and bring about justice and equality. As Engels demonstrated, however, their experiments were bound to come to a sad end because they disregarded or were unable to see the development of the class struggle between the working class and the bourgeoisie, which is the driving force of modern society.
While they lacked a scientific analysis of class society, and could not see that the working class would replace the bourgeoisie only through a thoroughgoing socialist revolution, these early utopian socialists nevertheless made a contribution to what would later be developed by both Marx and Engels into a scientific, revolutionary socialist theory.
These early utopian socialists, however, must be distinguished from a variety of others who came along later when there was less justification for their erroneous views and who in fact were harmful to the developing workers' movement. We particularly are referring here to those who saw the Western Hemisphere as a land of great opportunity to build a free socialist society on the basis of mass migration from Europe. It appears that never for a moment did these utopians inquire as to the rights or even the existence of the Native people in making their calculations.
Marx took a dim view of mass migration as a panacea for building a socialist society. A young man named Hermann Kriege, who had worked with Marx for a short time, went to America and started a journal "for the propaganda of communism." But, says Lenin in an essay on this question,6 "he conducted this propaganda in such a manner that Marx was obliged to protest very strongly."
Kriege had said in his journal that "If this immense area (the 1,400,000,000 acres of North American public domain) is withdrawn from commerce and is secured in restricted amounts for labor, an end will be put to poverty in America at one stroke. . . ." Marx had replied, "And who are the Europeans whose `dreams' would thus come true? Not the communist workers, but bankrupt shopkeepers and handicraftsmen, or ruined cottars, who yearn for the good fortune of once again becoming petty bourgeois. . . . And what is the `dream' that is to be fulfilled by means of these 1,400,000,000 acres? No other than that all men be converted into private owners, a dream which is as unrealizable and as communistic as the dream to convert all men into emperors, kings, and popes."
Although in this article Marx didn't refer to the Native population, in Capital he denounced the "extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population" in America which, together with the looting of the East Indies and the slave trade in Africa, signaled "the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production."7
When Marx answered Kriege, he was himself only 28 years old and had not yet fully developed the views which were to appear as matured Marxism in such later works as the Communist Manifesto and The Poverty of Philosophy.
Reactionary schemes of utopian socialism continued to plague the socialist movement almost until the turn of the century. Thus, in June 1897, when the railway union headed by Eugene V. Debs merged with the Social Democracy then being formed in Chicago, "leading the list of the Social Democracy's demands was the colonization plan which proposed to establish a socialist America by organizing a mass migration to a Western state, where cooperative colonies would be formed, from which the movement would spread throughout the nation and in due time create a socialist United States."8
What is striking about this and all other mass migration plans in the Western Hemisphere, particularly in the U.S., is that there was no recognition whatever of the rights of the indigenous people, whose land was to be appropriated.
Later a new wing of socialists more attuned to the teachings of Marx, as then understood and practiced in the U.S., gained greater influence in the Social Democratic organization. The colonization scheme was ditched and a split with these utopian socialists took place. However, in all this the criticism against the utopian socialists was based on the fantastic and impractical character of their schemes, not that the land was to be appropriated from the Native people. Moreover, this was a time when the cruelest oppression of the indigenous people was taking place.
Notwithstanding the inevitability of capitalist development and its triumph over previous modes of production, Engels paid a great deal of attention to the findings of Lewis Henry Morgan, who learned first-hand about the social organization of Native peoples in North America. The significance of Morgan's findings, which confirmed the existence of natural communism and pre-class society, was brought to light in Engels' famous work, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, which was subtitled, In the Light of the Researches of Lewis H. Morgan.9
Marx, too, was enthused by Morgan's discoveries about the communal society of the Iroquois people, and wrote to a comrade in 1881 that the crisis of capitalism would only end "with its abolition, with the return of modern societies to the `archaic' type of communal ownership, or, as an American author [Morgan] . . . says--the new system toward which modern society is tending `will be a revival of the archaic societal type in a superior form.' One should not be frightened overmuch by the word `archaic.' "10
Leninist stand on national oppression
It was not until the arrival of Lenin on the historical scene, however, that the whole question of national oppression, including that of Native people in this country, began to be taken note of by white progressive and working class organizations. It is a cornerstone of Leninism that socialism cannot coexist with national oppression; genuine socialist internationalism can only be achieved through the recognition of the sovereign rights of oppressed people. This is particularly true of the indigenous peoples, who have been uprooted around the globe, not just in North America.
The task of a revolutionary workers' party here is to promote the sovereign rights of the Native peoples. Some white progressives seem to worry about how this can be done in light of the advance of capitalist development, whether such a stand wouldn't mean turning back the wheel of history altogether. They would do better to think about how to fight imperialism's aggressiveness and predatory monopoly character.
The broad progressive movement has unfortunately had for its heroes men like Senators George McGovern of South Dakota and Morris Udall of Arizona, for many years two of the most luminous stars in the liberal firmament. But what about their record in relation to Native people, who have significant concentrations in both states? They are not heroes but rather the executors of the same old policy of colonial conquest. And when both men have run for President, they haven't so much as mentioned Native people.
The right of Native peoples to choose their own form of self-determination, including sovereignty, has not found its way into the programmatic demands of many working class tendencies in this country. Many who never give a second thought to how "practical" it may be for the U.S. to have annexed as its fiftieth state the group of Hawaiian islands far off in the Pacific are quick to declaim on the "impracticality" of sovereignty for the Native peoples because of the modern industrial development of capitalism.
Yet it has proven very practical in the USSR for a variety of forms of self-determination to be exercised by the indigenous peoples there, who belong to many different autonomous republics and regions. From Central Asia to the Soviet Near East to Siberia, there are many Soviet peoples who are not Russian and who since the Revolution have harmonized the development of their regions with their cultures and needs.
As we have shown, the effects of the scientific-technological revolution are more onerous on oppressed peoples. A very firm and clear stand on the rights of Native peoples and all oppressed nationalities is therefore of utmost importance for the working class vanguard in all propaganda and political activity.
References1. Struik, op. cit.
2. Eli Whitney, quoted in Struik, op. cit.
3. Quoted in Foster, op. cit.
4. Foster, op. cit.
5. Engels, Frederick, "Socialism, Utopian and Scientific," Marx and Engels Selected Works, Progress Publishers (Moscow, 1970), Vol. 3.
6. Lenin, V.I., "Marx on the American `General Redistribution,' Collected Works, Foreign Languages Publishing House (Moscow, 1962), Vol. 8, pp. 323-24.
7. Marx, Capital, op. cit., p. 703.
8. Foner, Philip, History of the Labor Movement in the United States,, International Publishers (New York, 1980), Vol. 2, p. 388.
9. Engels, Frederick, "The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State," Marx and Engels Selected Works,, Vol. 3.
10. Marx, Karl, letter to Vera Sassulitch, March 1881, in On America and the Civil War, McGraw-Hill Book Co. (New York, 1972.)
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