Marxist probematics from an indigenist perspective: the case of the h’Mong
by Francesca Contreras
In “False Promises: An Indigenist Examination of Marxist Theory and Practice,” Native American scholar and activist Ward Churchill offers a detailed critique of Marx’s understanding of dialectics and of the historical tendency of Marxist-Leninist revolutions to apply the right to self-determination selectively. His end goal is to determine what conceptual intersections exist between Marxism and indigenous peoples’ systems of knowing in order to assess the possibilities of coalitions between the two in struggle. He concludes that Marxism in its past forms offers indigenous peoples “far worse than nothing” but that there is sufficient basis to believe that “at least some elements of the Marxian tradition are capable of transcending dogma to the extent that they may possess the potential to forge mutually fruitful alliances with American Indians and other indigenous peoples.” (Churchill 240) Ultimately Marxist thought and practice requires modification – ontologically and practically – if it is to be reterritorialized in a just way that fights against all forms of oppression. After expounding upon his critique we will turn to the historical experience of the h’Mong in Laos as a case study of the destructive impact of communist forces battling with U.S imperialist ones on their community, leaving them stuck, as Churchill writes, “between a rock and a hard place.”
Churchill begins his examination criticizing Marxist theory for perverting the notion of “dialectics,” a worldview whose origins can be traced back from Greece to Egypt and finally to Ethiopia. Embodied in this notion is the view of the world as a single, interactive organism whose beings are both intrinsically valuable and equally interdependent. The human entity is thus “merely one relation among the myriad, each of which is entirely dependent upon all others for its continued existence.” (Churchill 299) Best captured by the Lakota greeting “Hau, Metakuyeayasi,” which means “hello, my relatives,” and refers not just to family members and humankind generally but also to “the ground we stand on, the sky above us, the birds who fly, the four-legged creatures around us, the worms…Everything,” this dialectical worldview is the basis for the indigenist formation of knowledge.
Undermining the very essence of this dialectical approach, Marx elevates the human relation over and above all other “external relations,” revealing an ontological orientation which stands in stark contrast to the abovementioned indigenist one. For Marx, the human species-being (Gattungswesen) is superior because it is uniquely endowed with the gift of “conscious vital activity”– the ability to act consciously upon its life and transform one element of nature into another. In the Economic and Political Manuscripts (1837-1844), he writes,
“the practical creation of an objective world, the working-over of inorganic nature, is the confirmation of man as a conscious species-being… it is in [this] working over the objective world that man first really affirms himself as a species-being.” (Marx 90)
In contrast, while the animal produces as well it does so only “one-sidedly” and unfreely, solely for its immediate needs. Marx’s celebration of “man’s” productive capacity over nature evokes the unchallenged Judeo-Christian assumption of man’s right to dominion over nature and dovetails predictably with one of the centerpieces of Enlightenment philosophical thought – the superiority of and honing in on man’s rationality. (Churchill 229) Likewise for Marx, this rational attribute is a positive one; it enables man to transform one element of nature into another, thereby revolutionizing the forces of production and driving history forward through its developmental stages towards the ideal classless world. Conversely, from a dialectical and indigenist perspective, this rationality is a curse, something to be reined in if humans are to remain in harmony with the universe. Being thus does not emanate from self-activity but from the reality of simply being in the world – a deeply ecological and holistic approach which does not appreciate entities in the universe for their labor use value but for their intrinsic value. Thus it is that these two ontological orientations are profoundly conflictual in nature.
Having established Marx’s major theoretical deficiencies, Churchill critiques Marxist historical practice for its discriminatory application of the right to self-determination, arguing that this discriminatory practice is indeed an extension of Marx’s broader philosophical framework. This right to self-determination here refers to the inherent right of each people (a group sharing a common language and cultural understandings, system of governance and social regulation, and a definable terrtitoriality within which to maintain a viable economy) to decide whether to continue themselves as culturally, territorially and politically sovereign entities or whether to merge with another, usually larger group. (Churchill 234) Despite Leninist and Bolshevik support for the notion in principle – a modification, to be sure, of Marxist theory – in practice they extended it only to those who had been colonized for long enough to have been sufficiently advanced by the experience. This meant having developed “economies of scale” which locate them further along in history’s linear march forward rather than the backwards peasants whom Marx considered an anachronistic, reactionary class. In the Russian context, out of 300 ethnic minorities that had inhabited former czarist Russia, a measly 28 qualified for self-determination – the Irish, the Poles and the Ukrainians among them. Unsurprisingly, from the viewpoint of Marxist-Leninsts, the majority of peoples of Africa, Asia and America were not seen as comparably developed and were thus either repressed or coerced into larger and more efficient economic units – the nungs in Vietnam under Ho Chi Min, the Miskitu indigenous tribes of eastern Nicaragua under the Sandinistas and the h’Mong in Laos under the North Vietnamese-allied Pathet Lao, among them. “(Churchill, 238)
This last case of the h’Mong taken up by Churchill and his colleague Glenn Morris offers an important case study of the Marxist problematic. After years of relative autonomy during Laos’ subordination to French colonialism, the h’Mong found themselves caught in the geopolitical crossfire between the United States and its Laotian governmental collaborators on the one hand and the Ho Chi Minh-backed Marxist Laotian forces on the other. Prince Souvanna Phouma was the head of the Lao Issara government that was exiled by French forces seeking to maintain control of Indochina after World War II. Souvanna assumed power through the 1954 Geneva Accords in exchange for the “acceptance of anti-communist premises and forces including the French, the Thai, and lastly the Americans.” Subsequently, a faction of Souvanna’s government naming itself the Pathet Lao declared the stipulations “a blatant manifestation of neocolonialism, and rejected the legitimacy of the new regime, aligning itself ever more closely with the nationalist/Marxist Hanoi government in the armed struggle against Souvanna’s now pro-U.S government in Vientiane, the capital city of Laos. (Churchill and Morris 333)
By this point, control of h’Mong territory was key for both sides, since it was used by the Vietnamese-Pathet Lao as a supply conduit for North Vietnam, and the U.S considered it a vital barrier to communist penetration, a key site indeed for pulling Laos even further away from neutrality by integrating it into John Foster Dulles’ collective security scheme to ‘contain’ countries such as North Vietnam. Subsequently, the Pathet Lao based itself in the middle of h’Mong territory and brought in Vietnamese forces to the area, forces comprised of cadres who traditionally harbored disdain for tribal groups such as the h’Mong as evidenced by their referral to the h’Mong as “moi” – a Vietnamese epithet meaning subhuman or savage. As Churchill details,
“Programs were quickly implemented in the “liberated” areas that included the strong-arm conscription of h’Mong youth into Pathet Lao guerrilla units, and the extraction of “taxes” from the villagers, usually in the form of food and opium crops…The h’Mong had little option but to see these developments as an outright denial of their right to… autonomy. Consequently, the h’Mong began to actively resist as soon as the Pathet Lao and Vietnamese arrived in their territory. (Churchill and Morris 333)
Prodded by the U.S, the Vientiane government launched operations against h’Mong to destroy the opposition’s infrastructure, “a policy which rapidly built h’Mong resentment of the Lao Issara no less than against the Pathet Lao, and for much the same reasons.” (Churchill and Morris 331) Recognizing this resentment, the U.S responded strategically, telling the h’Mong they would create a h’Mong autonomous state in exchange for help fighting the communists. Caught in the cross fire between the factions, the h’Mong were decimated. It is estimated that by 1970, 250,000 of the approximately 300,000 h’Mong had been displaced from their homeland and scattered among refugee camps along the Lao-Thai border. As Churchill writes, “The culture and society for which they had fought so hard and suffered so much was shattered.”
As the authors note, thus it is that although it has primarily been U.S. actions and firepower which have wreaked havoc on indigenous peoples, they have been at times susceptible to U.S recruitment by U.S. low intensity warfare specialists, an alignment resulting from an assessment of which force posed less of a threat to their continued cultural and physical existence and informed no doubt by experiences under Marxist-Leninist forces.
From these historical recurrences, it would be easy to conclude that there is an insurmountable incompatibility between Marxist and indigenous struggles rooted theoretically in Marxism’s problem of economic determinism and human chauvinism, and practically in the selective and Eurocentric employment of the notion of the right to self-determination. Political ideologies have always traveled and spread far from their original source, producing complex processes of transculturation. While in many instances this has amounted to the destruction of indigenous ways of being and knowing, examples of Latin American movements building upon Marxist concepts to devise their own theoretical models for social justice organizing that respect and include alternative ways of knowing do emerge. Far from perfect, they nevertheless point towards the possibility of a transformative modification of Marxian ontology and practice, a topic to be taken up at another time.
Churchill, Ward, and Haunani-Kay Trask. Since Predator Came: notes from the struggle for American Indian liberation. 2nd . Canada: AK Press, 2005. 229-240, 332-335. eBook.
“ Indigenist” refers to an agenda of indigenous peoples that while not static or absolute in nature, is guided by the traditional vision of humanity within rather than apart from and above the natural order; the principle that all peoples – no matter how small and “primitive” – have the right to freely select the fact and form of their on-going existence; and the rejection of all contentions by the state that it holds the right to dissolve the rights of any other nation (Churchill240)