This blog post serves as a supplement to my criticism of the book Settlers: The Myth of the White Proletariat by J. Sakai.
Decolonial theory has many goals and methods in common with Marxism, and due to Marxism’s truth, many decolonial theorists make paeans to Marxism-Leninism or even adopt it as a title. This attempt to obscure the contradictions between the two is what I am challenging here. I fully support the independence of the US’ colonies and internal colonies. Decolonial theory is a reaction to the collapse of communism’s global influence, intensified exploitation of native peoples, as well as right opportunists in the communist movement who deny the right to self-determination of oppressed nations. Communists and decolonial theorists have similar goals in the short term. Tactical unity between these groups should be achieved whenever possible. However, communists do not compromise on principles, and this is why I think it is necessary to criticize the decolonial theory and point out its inadequacies.
The substitution of eclecticism for dialectics is the easiest way of deceiving the people. It gives an illusory satisfaction; it seems to take into account all sides of the process, all trends of development, all the conflicting influences, and so forth, whereas in reality it provides no integral and revolutionary conception of the process of social development at all. –Lenin, The State and Revolution
The philosophic premise of decolonial theory is questioning the universality (or even the possibility of universal truth) of theories of Western origin, including Marxism. For example, Walter Mignolo included Marxism as one of the macro-narratives whose assumptions must be rejected on the grounds that it simplifies the world and projects its own assumptions onto it. In essence, it rejects Eurocentrism, of which Marxism is supposedly a part. But Marx’s writing was, at its core, an elaboration of the objective laws of social development. To believe that indigenous peoples or oppressed people in the Global South exist outside of these laws is to fetishize them as an “other” which is precisely what decolonial theory is supposedly combating! The basis for the theoretical conflict between Marxism and decolonial theory is that decolonial theory starts from a premise of a metaphysical view of race relations, whereas Marx saw colonialism as a consequence of the national bourgeoisie’s need to expand to new markets and conquer more resources. Both sides agree on participating in national liberation struggles, but the different outlooks lead to different methods and different effectiveness.
Materialists believe the world has an objective existence outside of our perception of it, and that our perception of it is a reflection of objective reality. We believe there is one reality, which can be known. Marxism is the most consistent and thorough materialist philosophy, since it encompasses the entirety of human relations. The notion of different « knowledges » is contrary to materialism–either something is objectively true or it is merely a subjective claim or a falsehood. There is not a European truth contrary to an African truth–would decolonial theorists decry the laws of thermodynamics as Eurocentric? That is precisely what they are attempting by declaring Marxism to be a Eurocentric metanarrative. (Of course, Marxism has had its own distortions tainted by Eurocentrism, particularly social democracy and Trotskyism.)
For more reading on the scientific foundation of Marxism, I suggest Engels’ Socialism: Utopian and Scientific and J. Moufawad-Paul’s This Ruthless Criticism of All That Exists: Marxism as Science.
Notion of the Settler-Colonial State
The notion of a « settler colonial state » (used often in the essay Decolonization is not a Metaphor, which I will address later) is opposed to the Marxist notion of the state as the product of a class contradiction and possessing a class character. « Settler colonial » is not a class. The white population of the US is not unified and is in fact extremely stratified. There is only the bourgeois state in the US, dominated by the American bourgeoisie, which possesses its own colonies. (Particularly Puerto Rico and the Pacific colonies, but also the internal colonies, namely the indigenous « reservations. ») At one point, the US was composed of colonies dominated by the British bourgeoisie, but the American bourgeoisie developed to the point where British control limited its profits, and it waged a war of independence against the Crown. At no point in its history was the US dominated by a state representative of the white population as a whole—only the bourgeois and land/slaveowning segment of it. (Let us recall the vote was originally restricted to property-owning white males!) To abandon this concept of the state is to abandon Marxism altogether. In fact, the notion of a « settler-colonial state » forms the complement to the white nationalist outlook on the state. They both see the state as the representative of the interests of the white population and manager of the distribution of the fruits of their conquest.
It is different now: Russia’s capitalist path of development is no longer denied by anybody, the break-up of the countryside is an undoubted fact. Of the Narodniks’ well-knit doctrine, with its childish faith in the “village community,” nothing but rags and tatters remain. –Lenin, The Economic Content of Narodism and the Criticism of it in Mr. Struve’s Book
Narodism was a prominent political trend in pre-Revolutionary Russia. Narodniki had valid criticisms of the treatment of the peasantry, and they played a progressive role in Russian politics. Narodniki even adopted many ideas from Marxism. Nevertheless, at its core it ran counter to Marxism-Leninism, and idealized the feudal peasant life for its communal aspect. In the US now, there is no comparable mass peasant movement, but all of the characteristics of Narodism are present in decolonial theory. Ironically, decolonial theory is mainly an academic phenomenon—one must wonder why a theory that claims to challenge the very core of the US so easily assimilates into its institutions!
One of the principal forerunners of decolonial theory is Franz Fanon. (For the record, Fanon was one of the first anti-imperialist writers I ever read, and in general, I consider his work excellent.) Fanon was strongly influenced by Marxism, but he diverged from it significantly in some ways, to the point of repeating the same errors made by Narodniki. Fanon claimed that, in the colonial countries, the proletariat represented the “bourgeois fraction of the colonized population.” (Wretched of the Earth, page 64) Fanon goes on to describe the peasantry as “the only spontaneously revolutionary force in the country”. (Wretched of the Earth, 76) Fanon splits from Marxism-Leninism here in multiple ways. For one, he is implying that incomes are the determining factor in revolutionary potential, when in reality the revolutionary potential of the proletariat comes from their relationship to the means of production. The proletariat owns nothing other than limited personal property from which they do not derive income, and the content of their work is social in character. It is thanks to these characteristics that they are the basis for a free and equal association of producers. The peasantry, in contrast, is not united in production, and owns land and limited agricultural tools. In the colonial countries, and the modern-day peripheral countries, their plunder by the First World has led to the under-development of industry, and therefore, the under-development of the proletariat. This has led to a dependence on the peasantry for revolutionary action. However, the proletariat grows every day, whereas the peasantry is constantly shrinking as land is concentrated in monopolies. They are forced into the cities where they join the proletariat. Focusing on the peasantry as the main revolutionary force, failing to understand how their circumstances limit their political aspirations and how their influence continues to wane even in the under-developed countries—all this represents a departure from Marxism-Leninism. Marxist-Leninists believe in fighting for the peasants insofar as the peasants support the fight of the proletariat. It should be noted they can be a force for counterrevolution as well, such as in the Algerian Civil War, when many peasants and small proprietors, impoverished by austerity measures imposed by the international community, were brought into the camp of the anti-communist pro-Saudi Islamists.
This is why I compare modern-day decolonial theory to Narodism. Like Narodism, it evades precise description, eschews specific programmes, and is limited to absorbing what it can from other ideologies while promoting an idealized outlook on the peasantry and small proprietors of the colonies. Black Hammer Org (which has the ambitious slogan of “decolonize time itself”), NDN collective, and organizations that support the slogan “land back” (such as this) are all examples of this. What is common across the programs? Defense of indigenous languages and cultural institutions, reparations and community construction, an end to land seizures and pipeline constructions—all certainly valid demands which I support, but does any of this equate to a new theory, or the basis of a revolution separate from the proletarian revolution? In my opinion, no. The tactics of supporting the peasantry and the national liberation movements in the backwards countries as part of the larger strategy of proletarian revolution is explained:
By dealing heavy blows to imperialism in its rear area, by undermining its strength and narrowing down its sphere of domination, this movement aggravates the contradictions in the advanced capitalist countries themselves, speeds up the progress of the revolutionary movement in them and makes it easier for the working class to overthrow capitalism. (The Party of Labour of Albania in Battle With Modern Revisionism pp. 369-70)
From these fundamental premises it follows that the Communist International’s entire policy on the national and the colonial questions should rest primarily on a closer union of the proletarians and the working masses of all nations and countries for a joint revolutionary struggle to overthrow the landowners and the bourgeoisie. This union alone will guarantee victory over capitalism, without which the abolition of national oppression and inequality is impossible. […] In all their propaganda and agitation—both within parliament and outside it—the Communist parties must consistently expose that constant violation of the equality of nations and of the guaranteed rights of national minorities which is to be seen in all capitalist countries, despite their “democratic” constitutions. It is also necessary, first, constantly to explain that only the Soviet system is capable of ensuring genuine equality of-nations, by uniting first the proletarians and then the whole mass of the working population in the struggle against the bourgeoisie; and, second, that all Communist parties should render direct aid to the revolutionary movements among the dependent and underprivileged nations (for example, Ireland, the American Negroes, etc.) and in the colonies. -Lenin, Draft Theses on National and Colonial Questions
Primary Contradiction and Modes of Production
Part of the confusion comes from a failure to understand dialectical development. For example, consider the beginning of the Public Resolutions of the First Conference of the Organizing Committee for a Maoist Communist Party:
Given that: a. the contradiction between oppressor/exploiting nations and oppressed/exploited nations remains the primary contradiction of our era of capitalist-imperialism; b. capital has become a fully realized global system with value chains traversing borders with ease; however the point of origin and point of return and hence accumulation and concentration of capital remains the global north/imperialist country economies; third world/oppressed nation/internally colonized comprador/neo-colonial petit-bourgeoisie remain junior partners of the imperialist nation bourgeoisies; […] d. we recognize that the cause for national liberation remains on the agenda and constitutes the primary force for anti-capitalist imperialist struggle; e. we recognize that the petit-bourgeoisie of the oppressed nations is incapable of organizing and guiding this struggle; the task falls to those class forces most exploited by the imperialist bourgeoisie and their comprador allies: the proletariat, lower petit-bourgeoisie, peasantry, lumpen/proletariat, etc.; f. for the u.s. empire, we recognize that it is composed of many oppressed nations in antagonistic contradiction to the euro-settler nation and its bourgeoisie which commands the state apparatus; among these the New Afrikan nation and its lumpen/proletariat constitutes the vanguard of anti-u.s. imperial struggle; g. we recognize the right of the Chicano nation and the many indigenous nations to struggle for their liberation by any means necessary…[my emphasis]
Why are the oppressed nations and “euro-settler nation” in antagonistic contradiction if it is solely “the bourgeoisie which commands the state apparatus”? The MCP-OC is taking the stance that only a portion of the racial minorities (since they correctly exclude the upper strata) in the First World have any revolutionary potential in those countries—pitting the minority against the vast majority. Not only have they failed to see how imperialism is developing, but they have consigned the revolution to defeat before it has even begun! What did Mao say about contradiction in On Contradiction?
There are many contradictions in the process of development of a complex thing, and one of them is necessarily the principal contradiction whose existence and development determine or influence the existence and development of the other contradictions. For instance, in capitalist society the two forces in contradiction, the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, form the principal contradiction. The other contradictions, such as those between the remnant feudal class and the bourgeoisie, between the peasant petty bourgeoisie ant the bourgeoisie, between the proletariat and the peasant petty bourgeoisie, between the non-monopoly capitalists and the monopoly capitalists, between bourgeois democracy and bourgeois fascism, among the capitalist countries and between imperialism and the colonies, are all determined or influenced by this principal contradiction. […] However, we must make a concrete study of the circumstances of each specific struggle of opposites and should not arbitrarily apply the formula discussed above to everything. Contradiction and struggle are universal and absolute, but the methods of resolving contradictions, that is, the forms of struggle, differ according to the differences in the nature of the contradictions. Some contradictions are characterized by open antagonism, others are not. In accordance with the concrete development of things, some contradictions which were originally non-antagonistic develop into antagonistic ones, while others which were originally antagonistic develop into non-antagonistic ones. [my emphasis]
Indigenous people do not exist as an entity outside of historical processes. They are subject to the same laws of development as anything else, and the primary contradiction in the world is the one between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, which is responsible for destroying the First Nations. At the same time, there is a contradiction between the white population, mainly concentrated in the well-developed suburbs, and the black and indigenous populations, which are concentrated in under-developed urban slums and the reservation system. But is this an antagonistic contradiction? It is for the bourgeois and petit bourgeois sectors of the white population. As for the proletarian whites, however, the success of their struggle against opportunism in the labor movement hinges on their ability to link up with the revolutionary black and indigenous fighters. Similarly, the ability for the black and indigenous communities to win decisive victories depends on their ability to recruit the white workers in the fight against police violence. (I might add, something that has been largely successful. The majority of Americans believe the Minneapolis PD deserved to be burned down!) In the US, the differences among various sections of the population are certainly serious contradictions to contend with, and they have been exploited by the bourgeoisie for many years now. However, to accept them on the level of metaphysics, and assign a counterrevolutionary essence to the white population without understanding how they have developed over the last few decades and years, is to abandon Marxism-Leninism. The struggle of the white proletariat and the struggles of the black and indigenous communities are joined at the hip—they are two different aspects of the principal contradiction, the contradiction between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie.
Why is the proletariat-bourgeoisie contradiction primary? Simply put, the practice of land conquest and forced population distribution was the result of the capitalist need to expand. The land was taken through conquest—is there a single capitalist country this does not apply to? Even Belgium, long ago deprived of the Congo, still holds on to Wallonia, and exists as an amalgamation of the French, Flemish, and German populations. France is a combination of multiple nations, including the Basque, Corsican, and Occitan nations. Italy did not even exist as a unified entity until their bourgeois revolution united the various states through war! Does any of this mean that in Europe, the primary contradiction is “settler colonialism”? On the contrary, “settler colonialism” is not a mode of production at all, but the process of a national bourgeoisie incorporating new lands and populations into its markets. It is on this foundation that the proletariat supports national liberation struggles in which the proletariat must place itself at the head, and not allow the bourgeoisie to put a stop to the revolution.
Decolonization is Not a Metaphor—or is it?
I will briefly mention the essay Decolonization is not a Metaphor. Let me cite what I consider to be the most important parts of the essay:
Settler colonialism is different from other forms of colonialism in that settlers come with the intention of making a new home on the land, a homemaking that insists on settler sovereignty over all things in their new domain. Thus, relying solely on postcolonial literatures or theories of coloniality that ignore settler colonialism will not help to envision the shape that decolonization must take in settler colonial contexts. Within settler colonialism, the most important concern is land / water / air / subterranean earth (land, for shorthand, in this article.) Land is what is most valuable, contested, required. This is both because the settlers make Indigenous land their new home and source of capital, and also because the disruption of Indigenous relationships to land represents a profound epistemic, ontological, cosmological violence. This violence is not temporally contained in the arrival of the settler but is reasserted each day of occupation. This is why Patrick Wolfe (1999) emphasizes that settler colonialism is a structure and not an event. In the process of settler colonialism, land is remade into property and human relationships to land are restricted to the relationship of the owner to his property. […] In this set of settler colonial relations, colonial subjects who are displaced by external colonialism, as well as racialized and minoritized by internal colonialism, still occupy and settle stolen Indigenous land. Settlers are diverse, not just of white European descent, and include people of color, even from other colonial contexts. This tightly wound set of conditions and racialized, globalized relations exponentially complicates what is meant by decolonization, and by solidarity, against settler colonial forces. Decolonization in exploitative colonial situations could involve the seizing of imperial wealth by the postcolonial subject. In settler colonial situations, seizing imperial wealth is inextricably tied to settlement and re-invasion. Likewise, the promise of integration and civil rights is predicated on securing a share of a settler-appropriated wealth (as well as expropriated ‘third-world’ wealth). Decolonization in a settler context is fraught because empire, settlement, and internal colony have no spatial separation. Each of these features of settler colonialism in the US context – empire, settlement, and internal colony – make it a site of contradictory decolonial desires. Decolonization as metaphor allows people to equivocate these contradictory decolonial desires because it turns decolonization into an empty signifier to be filled by any track towards liberation. In reality, the tracks walk all over land/people in settler contexts. Though the details are not fixed or agreed upon, in our view, decolonization in the settler colonial context must involve the repatriation of land simultaneous to the recognition of how land and relations to land have always already been differently understood and enacted; that is, all of the land, and not just symbolically.
For one thing, the very notion of “settler” is deprived of any concrete meaning. Settler is normally a person who moves on to somebody’s land and appropriates it for themselves. But the writers obliterate all contradictions except the indigenous-not indigenous one—equating the immense landholders with the poorest undocumented migrants, who are both “settlers”! In their effort to include every feature, they ignore the most important ones, and in their effort to eschew metaphor, reintroduce wordplay. (The writers use the term “unsettling” as a double entendre, meaning both undoing settler-colonialism and making settlers uncomfortable, as though they are at all comparable processes.) What is the material solution they arrive at? The “repatriation of […] all of the land” which, conveniently for them, is “not fixed or agreed upon.” It would certainly be unsettling for the authors to have to put forward a concrete proposal for land division among indigenous populations, or try to explain how such an agreement could be reached among the indigenous population (which has its own contradictions) and the entire settler population, which encapsulates every single person who is not indigenous! In fact, the writers say that nearly everyone in the US is a settler, but then go on to describe the repressive settler institutions as “prisons, ghettos, minoritizing, schooling, policing […] segregation, divestment, surveillance, and criminalization” – who among us workers has not been subject to one or another of these? The ideological confusion of the authors reaches a fever pitch:
Our intention in this descriptive exercise is not be exhaustive, or even inarguable; instead, we wish to emphasize that (a) decolonization will take a different shape in each of these contexts – though they can overlap – and that (b) neither external nor internal colonialism adequately describe the form of colonialism which operates in the United States or other nation-states in which the colonizer comes to stay. Settler colonialism operates through internal/external colonial modes simultaneously because there is no spatial separation between metropole and colony.
If there is no “spatial separation” between the two things, then perhaps you have failed to adequately differentiate and identify the real content of the thing! The authors have taken all of the attributes of modern capitalist society, and attempted to explain them away as characteristics independent of capitalism, e.g. “settler colonialism” whose contradictions they totally fail to understand. The authors do not even attempt to pass off this analysis as Marxist, and in fact attacks Marxism, yet I see self-proclaimed Marxists such as Rainer Shea referencing this work! (Worth noting that Rainer* does not support the self-determination of Tibet. Perhaps because he recognizes that there are factors that are more significant than nationality?)
The authors say in a footnote,
Colonialism is not just a symptom of capitalism. Socialist and communist empires have also been settler empires (e.g. Chinese colonialism in Tibet). “In other words,” writes Sandy Grande, ‘both Marxists and capitalists view land and natural resources as commodities to be exploited, in the first instance, by capitalists for personal gain, and in the second by Marxists for the good of all’. Capitalism and the state are technologies of colonialism, developed over time to further colonial projects. Racism is an invention of colonialism.
The only agreeable phrase in this footnote is, “Racism is an invention of colonialism.” One might ask, if racism is an invention of colonialism, what is colonialism an invention of? The authors do not oblige is with an answer to this glaring question. How can the state be a “technology” of colonialism if it predates it? If capitalism (that is, generalized commodity production), is a “technology” of colonialism, what is the material basis of colonialism in the first place? (It cannot be racism, since racism is an invention of colonialism!) The authors are unable or unwilling to provide us with answers to these crucial questions. (It is worth noting that Walter Rodney documented the development of feudalism and capitalism and the state outside of Europe well before colonialism.)
The label “settler-colonial”, thrown around so freely in radical circles nowadays, describes neither a state nor a process unique to the US and Canada. The proletariat does not have a country. Right opportunists abuse and twist this line to argue the proletariat should not fight for independence (i.e. carry out a bourgeois democratic revolution against the backwards colonial administration.) These people must be combated, but they can only be defeated on the basis of Marxism-Leninism, not decolonial theory or any other vogue academic jargon. Marxism-Leninism has proven itself in practice all over the world. South America, Africa, Palestine, Eastern Europe (recall that Nazi Germany intended to eliminate the population and repopulate it with German settlers), Korea, all examples of the working peoples rising up against imperialist land-grabbing. If there is no universal theory of liberation, what then is the point of « decolonial theory »? An exercise in constructing a « decolonial » subjectivity–a task which is doomed to failure because, as Maxim Gorky simply explained, « A ‘people’ does not exist–only classes exist. » This lesson, meant to serve as a guide for writers, is equally valid when it comes to fighting for national liberation. Distinguishing allies from foes is not so simple, and the labor aristocracy and petite bourgeoisie are totally incapable of it.
Their attempts to obscure objective social relations, that is the relations under which production of life occurs, and replace it with the subjective colonizer/colonized distinction, prove futile. The rise of decolonial theory is the result of the collapse of reformist illusions. Panglossian odes to capitalism are no longer acceptable to the majority of people. Oppression and exploitation are no longer plausibly deniable, so the bourgeois institutions responsible for ideological production instead attribute it to sources other than bourgeois class relations. The diverse mass of career intellectuals, stuck between servitude to the bourgeoisie and their status as wage workers, come up with ever more complex denials of and alternatives to the dictatorship of the proletariat. (Which represents the core of Marxism according to Marx himself!) As Mao Zedong said,
To oppose U.S. imperialism, people of European origin in the Latin-American countries should unite with the indigenous Indians. Perhaps the white immigrants from Europe can be divided into two groups, one composed of rulers and the other of ruled. This should make it easier for the group of oppressed white people to get close to the local people, for their position is the same.
*Full disclosure, Rainer is a distant acquaintance of mine, although clearly we hold opposing viewpoints on this topic.