Sam Marcy’s defense of self-determination for Native nations

Based on a talk given at the Feb. 5 webinar “Global Class War: Lessons from Sam Marcy for workers struggles today.” James is co-leader of the United American Indians of New England.

Feb. 5, 2023. WW PHOTO

Many things stand out about Sam Marcy, including his brilliant and prescient writings and his dedication to class truth and the world revolutionary struggle. But what stands out to me most about Sam Marcy was his rejection of the idea that the national question — the question of the right of oppressed nations to self-determination — is secondary to the class question. 

In this country, founded on the genocide and stolen land of Native Americans and built by enslaved Africans, many white leftists tend to dance around the national question, as it raises many uncomfortable questions. Chief among them: Can there be unity between white workers and oppressed nationalities? 

It is clear that Marcy grappled with this question extensively, ultimately coming to the conclusion that any revolutionary party was destined to fail as long as it did not have a correct analysis of the national question. 

As Marcy wrote in 1983: “Upon the solution of the national question may very well depend the destiny of the working class in the struggle against capitalism as well as the future of socialism.” 

It is for this reason that Workers World Party has always defended the right of oppressed nations to self-determination, and why Marcy considered the national question to be of the utmost importance.

This idea of the national question being a primary concern was groundbreaking in itself, but Marcy took it one step further by including Native nations in his analysis! 

Despite the fact that hundreds of Native nations are held captive in this “prisonhouse of nations,” our inherent and ancient sovereignty is rarely recognized by many who call themselves “Marxists,” and we are almost always excluded from analyses on class and race in the United States. 

When thinking about the national question in the context of Native peoples, it is important to remember that we are ancient and legitimate nations, and that our sovereignty does not originate from a settler government but is instead inherent. 

It is essential in any future revolution that the concept of “Land Back be respected, that Native nations be able to choose their systems of governance and that the very common, gross, paternalistic view of the “Great White Father” (the government) looking after his children, the Indians, be eradicated. 

National question − ‘the acid test’

Marcy was one of the first Marxist thinkers to grapple with what self-determination might look like for Native nations, and the fact that he referred to the national question as “an acid test of the correctness of [the] general political program” of Marxists speaks to his commitment to the liberation of oppressed nations. 

Marcy’s thinking around Native self-determination continues to influence the Party to this day and has resulted in over 50 years of WWP support for the Native struggle. That support has ranged from the 1973 Wounded Knee takeover, the 1975 Menominee takeover of a monastery on their land in Wisconsin, the 1990 Oka Crisis, work on behalf of many Native political prisoners, including of course Leonard Peltier, and the ongoing decades of support from my own Boston branch for the National Day of Mourning protest in Plymouth, Massachusetts. 

I would like to end my comment with a quote from a 1978 article written by Sam Marcy, which reflects upon the 1973 Occupation of Wounded Knee, which was a watershed moment in the Native American freedom struggle, where the American Indian Movement seized and occupied the town of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. 

Marcy wrote: “The Indian people are not alone in the struggle. They are a great and glorious detachment of a vast and invincible army of the oppressed and exploited that is rising all over the world in the struggle against the fundamental enemy of humanity, with its citadel in Washington and Wall Street. 

“It was not for nothing that Lenin expanded Marx’s slogan, ‘Workers of the world, unite,’ into ‘Workers and oppressed peoples of the world, unite.’

“This union of the working class and the oppressed is the invincible protagonist that will ultimately overthrow the decadent ruling classes and reconstruct society along rational lines without privilege, without oppression and without exploitation of any kind.

“Only this union can spare the world the havoc and destruction the decadent ruling classes will unleash, if they have their way and are not stopped on their reckless, mad road of plunging the world into a holocaust. Only this union can lay the basis for a socialist transformation of society by the abolition of the capitalist system and the casting of its ruling class into the dustbin of history.”

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