ABCs of Decolonization

This article is the first of a series by Ena͞emaehkiw Wākecānāpaew Kesīqnaeh, that first appeared on his blog. The original can be found here. Ena͞emaehkiw is a PhD candidate studying Indigenous Critical Theory and Settler Colonial Studies.

The purpose of this short article is an attempt to put pen to paper regarding a number of thoughts that have been working themselves out in my head recently about the default Eurocentrism of the North amerikan left and the necessity for a genuinely anti-colonial position as a point of correction. I have been attempting to work out these ideas for myself regarding just what exactly such a position would look like, so please keep in mind that this is a work in progress.

Additionally, this article kicked off a bit of a series. Please check out the various follow up pieces here & here.First: Decolonization is NOT a Tendency Subordinate to Class Struggle The general practice of the white and “multinational” left(s) in occupied north amerika has been for some time to submerge the aspirations of Indigenous (First Nations, non-Status Indians, Inuit-Iñupiat, Michif, Xicano, Genízaro & Boricua), as well as Afrikans, for decolonization, the reclamation of land and independence underneath an amorphous “the class struggle.” This struggle we are told pits the proletarian class against the capitalists. This reduces the decolonial liberation movements of those nations territorially engulfed by the imperialist-capitalist-industrialist empire of north amerika to mere tendencies or affinity groups within larger multinational class struggle oriented organizations and movements (Marxist-type parties of one stripe or another, anarchist federations and affinity group networks etc.).

Indigenous and Afrikan people are told over and over again by the Eurocentric left and its agents that it is only through broader “class unity” with the settler working-class that we can achieve our goals of decolonization. We are told that once the settler-led proletarian socialist revolution happens (because let’s be real, “multinational” in North amerika will always be code-talk for “settler-led”) on this continent we will be able to secede from the corpus of the empire if we so please.

However, it is fundamental to understand that the processes of colonization and decolonization has always coloured all of what we might call “the broad class struggle.” This can be most concretely seen in the positioning of settler workers within not just the North amerikan Empire, but indeed within the whole of the parasitic capitalist world-economy. Settler workers are, by and large, an embourgeoisified, non-exploited labour aristocracy, a pseudo-proletariat if you will, with a privileged lifestyle far above the levels of exploited and colonized nations of the world, both outside and within imperial borders. While this is a controversial point for dogmatico-religious class struggle anarchists and Marxists, who continue to be rooted in a political economy now a century out of date, it has been, in my opinion, quite conclusively shown by an array of theorists and writers. There have been a number of attempts to disprove this thesis—displaying varying degrees of ineptitude, abdication of basic principles of revolutionary analysis, and scholastic con-artistry, all fuelled by dogmatic adherence to old ideas—but proof is not just in the numbers, but in the actual pudding (if you will) of 100 years and more of complete settler worker abandonment and betrayal of decolonization struggles in North amerika.

While there have been high tides of radical settler working-class struggle, perhaps most vibrantly seen in the early work of the Industrial Workers of the World, even those movements failed to truly break with general trend of settler labour movements to ignore, submerge and derail decolonial movements arising from within the popular ranks of the territorially engulfed nations. Regardless, even that high tide ebbed nearly a century ago. Since then the settler working-class has primarily functioned outright as a bulwark of colonial and fascist oppression domestically and imperialist aggression overseas (it had previously as well, but it was at least tempered at times by nominal anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist organizing by some strata of the settler working-class movement).

Both the failure of even the most radical expressions of settler labour organizing, as well as the broader historic trend of the settler working class to act as a reactionary bulwark is a result of their class aspirations, which are inherently petty-bourgeois in nature, seeking a greater slice of the imperialist pie, or, in the era of neo-liberal globalization, to re-assert their position on the imperialist pedestal at the expense of heightened exploitation and oppression of colonized people. In the context of North amerika specifically, the goals of the settler labour movement have always inherently trended towards the elimination of the Indigenous population and the control of Afrikan people. Indeed, from the perspective of Indigenous and Afrikans peoples it is difficult to tease apart the broad settler population, including its lowest strata, from the colonial state itself, precisely because the settler population has always been the primary agent for the expansion of the colonial state. This was true both historically in the era of direct frontier homicide (the Indian Wars) and the enforcement of chatter slavery, and still is today in the processes of assimilation (bureaucratic genocide) and territorial population containment (the reservations, reserves, barrios and ghettos).

However, while this remains true, I argue that a true understanding of the processes of settler colonialism must force us to dig deeper. It must force us in fact rethink not only the nature and position of class struggle as it regards our understanding of colonization and decolonization, but even its relevance. This is because settler colonialism, which is the primary mode of Indigenous oppression, is prior to the antagonism between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. Most simply this is because the colonization of Maehkaenah-Menaehsaeh is one of the two pillars that brought the capitalist world economy into existence (the other is the enslavement and oppression of Afrikan people). As the late theorist of settler colonialism Patrick Wolfe put it:

“[A]ll the ostensibly self-sustaining actors in liberalism’s individualist drama—the entrepreneur, the labourer, the investor, the citizen—turn out to be collectively reliant on the continuing violence of colonial expansion. As Manu Vimalassery has pointed out, the nations whose wealth was Adam Smith’s central concern ‘were in fact empires.” Imperialism is not the latest stage of capitalism, but its foundational warrant.”

So simply put our struggle was already in motion before capitalism was even consolidated.

Settler colonialism is fundamentally a project of the elimination of Indigenous nations and sovereignty through various overlapping means. It always was, and always will be. What settler colonialism is not, is a project of the exploitation of Indigenous labour. Settler colonialism will use Indigenous labour while Indigenous people exist, but the goal is always to ultimately replace them. For First Nations in particular, both urban and rural populations, we exist almost en masse outside of traditional capitalist production relations. While we do have to contend with the disciplining of our people to the whims of the capitalist market, and the indoctrination of our nations into the concepts of private property, possessive individualism, and menial wage work, our labour is largely superfluous with regards to the functioning of the capitalist economy. Rather, we primarily experience oppression and exploitation not in the form of traditional capitalist labour exploitation, as envisioned by both Marxists and class struggle anarchists, but rather as ongoing primitive accumulation. In other words through the continued theft of our land and resources. What can traditional class analysis emergent from a European context have to say about this? What does talk of “working class unity” mean in this context?

Another aspect of settler colonialism that we can draw out, working on the analysis of the heterodox Azanian Marxist theorist Hosea Jaffe, is the concept of modal struggle as a driving force, rather than traditional class struggle, in understanding imperialism/colonialism. Modal struggle is the struggle between two fundamentally irreconcilable modes of production. In the context of the settler colonial project of North amerika this is the antagonistic struggle between an ever-expanding and consolidating Euro-Amerikan imperialist-capitalist-industrialist mode and traditional Indigenous lifeways, which many forces, both pro-colonial as well as decolonial, have correctly labelled as inherently communistic/collectivist. Thus, this concept helps us to deepen our understanding of the targeted destruction of Indigenous lifeways in both the United States and Kanada by rival settler lifeways, in a way that orthodox conceptions of “class struggle” simply cannot even speak to in any kind of meaningful fashion.

The key point to take away from all of this is that truly revolutionary struggle within Occupied Maehkaenah-Menaehsaeh simply cannot take the form classically prophesized by Marxists and class struggle anarchists of an antagonistic contest between an amorphous multinational “proletariat” at one pole and the bourgeoisie at the other. To put forth such an analysis, especially one that subordinates decolonization to orthodox notions of class struggle, is to deeply obfuscate fundamental processes and structures at work within the settler colonial context.

Second: Racism is Not the Primary Mode of Indigenous & Afrikan Oppression on Maehkaenah-Menaehsaeh Understanding the role of colonial oppression, especially how it deeply complicates the class struggle, on this continent allows us to also put into greater perspective one of the major planks of the North amerikan settler and multinational lefts: anti-racism. Most of the left on this land has waxed eloquent about the “origins of the white race,” the horrors of racist police abuse and mass incarceration, the dehumanization of non-settler people in the popular media, the irrational fear of third and fourth world migrant people, and the general fact that North amerikan culture is replete with common phrases of a profoundly racist manner. They have talked, and talked, and talked some more about how overcoming racist thinking on the part of settler, especially the settler working-class, is necessary for genuine revolutionary organizing.

However, the point that they miss, again by abandoning the basic tenets of revolutionary analysis, is that racism is a phenomena of the imperialist-colonialist superstructure. What most of the left refers to as “racism” or “racist oppression” in North amerika is in actuality the superstructural element of colonial oppression, which is a real, materialist relationship between the popular masses of the domestic colonies and the settler nation. This is why Patrick Wolfe referred to race as a “trace of colonial history.” Racism is the ideas in the minds of most of settler garrison that have arisen from the material conditions of, and reflectively continue to justify, the colonial oppression of Indigenous & Afrikan People. In other words, we are not oppressed and colonized because they hate us; they hate us because we are oppressed and colonized.

The focus on racism and anti-racism on the part of the majority of Marxist and anarchist organizations in North amerika is an outgrowth of their holding to the faulty premise that views the North amerikan empire as an entity with a unified class-structure and a singular proletarian class. Given that, as noted above, the settler working-class has, more often than not, been the most reliable shock troops of colonialism, the left has had to seek a reason for this seeming contradiction in what they hold to be the fundamental nature of the proletariat. Relying on an array of somewhat brutalized extractions from Gramscian, Lukácsian, Althusserian and post-Marxist thought, they have put forward the notion that the development of white supremacy (white power is a better, more accurate, term) was/is an insidious plot by the bourgeoisie to fill up the minds of the settler garrison with false consciousness and ideology in order to break a supposedly previously unified working-class.

This is bunk (I don’t really have time to explain how it is here, but please see this site’s suggested reading section for works that eviscerate this position at length), but it is important to address the fact that this kind of politics is profoundly obfuscating. The implications of the anti-racist focus in terms of revolutionary direction are two-fold:

1. Because racism is normally placed within a context of restricted access to the largesse of the empire, the macro-level solution is to open up the doors of the empire via a programme of radical integrationism;

2. At the micro-level the solution to the problem then is to combat the ideas bumbling around between the ears of settlers. Since racism is a superstructural problem then we must work to combat racist ideology. When that is done we can organize to achieve the macro-level goal.

This obscures the actual point of colonial oppression. Indigenous & Afrikan people suffer under the heel of a really-existing material relationship rooted in exploitation and the ongoing colonial expropriation of land and resources, the solution to which is full decolonization, not radical integration into the Klan fortress that is North amerika. While racist ideas kicking around the brains of white folks is a problem, it is not the fundamental problem: if Indigenous & Afrikan people are allowed to determine our own destinies then these malicious ideas become of secondary importance. Indeed they are likely to wither away relatively quickly once the tables flip and Red & Black Power become the order of the day, their material basis having been ripped away.

Third: The Belief that Settlers Have an Inherent Right to a Future of Stolen Land Has Got to Go A genuine decolonial politics in North amerika must abandon the idea that settlers have an inherent right to a piece of this continent in any way, shape or form. It’s not that settler class struggle anarchists and Marxists explicitly claim such a position, because they don’t (at least not that I have ever seen), but it is implicit quite clearly in their various lines (other relatively superficial disagreements aside). Here I am not addressing those formations and individuals whose lines are entirely rooted in a politics of pure anti-racism, as how that position (radical integration into the settler colonial empire) leads to this point does not need much explanation; rather I am aiming this at those forces and individuals who have a political line that recognizes, on some level, colonial oppression (often alongside racism as some kind of dual racial-national oppression).

Most of the Marxist-Leninist and Maoist formations in North amerika, as well as some anarchists, put forth a sort of watered down recognition for decolonial struggle, though not necessarily for the same reasons. For both the Marxists and anarchists who support, at least on paper, decolonial demands, their lines are inherently weakened by their being subsumed under the rubric problematized by the first two points I have raised. For Marxist-Leninist and Maoists in particular however their political support for full decolonization is further weakened by a general non-recognition of the liberation aspirations of Indigenous Nations. Many of these formations provide lip-service support to Afrikan, Xicano & Boricua independence, but tend to only provide vague platitudes when it comes to the question of First Nations.

Perhaps I am too much of a cynic, jaded by too many negative experiences working within and around settler-dominated Marxist and anarchist organizations, but I believe that this is because they have a deep psychological unwillingness to confront the consequences of genuine Indigenous liberation. From this their history vis-à-vis the Indigenous and Afrikan nations has been one of decades long false internationalism, parasitism and opportunism in their relations with the revolutionary decolonial movements that have risen to the surface at different junctures, and is directly rooted in their socio-economic positioning within the imperialist pecking order

They can support Xicano, Boricua and Afrikan independence, but only because while they would have to allow the succession of a few (though some quite large) swaths of imperial territory to the colonized, it is a scenario that leaves the bulk of the land in settler hands. Support for the liberation of, and return of land to, First Nations and our Michif and Genízaro cousins, and not just our Xicano and Boricua family, and our old Afrikan allies, would mean the surrender of the entirety of the settler nation’s land base.

Indeed, this the reason that the settler garrison population exists at all: to physically hold down the land against the people from whom it was seized. This is also why the state enacts every kind of juridical tool at its disposal in order to head off Indigenous land claims outside of a revolutionary situation.

The settler left cannot imagine a future where the garrison population does not continue to hold down the majority of the land of Maehkaenah-Menaehsaeh. It doesn’t matter if settler society is re-organized on the basis of a confederation of autonomous anarchist municipalities and industrial collectives, or a federative socialist workers’ republic of the Marxist sort: so long as the land is not relinquished back to its original owners then all that will develop is settler colonialism with a Marxist or anarchist face.

So it must be recognized that all of Maehkaenah-Menaehsaeh is stolen land, and that over the course of revolutionary anti-colonial struggle all of it must be liberated, even if that goes against the material interests of the settler population. The rights and aspirations of those nations that have been territorially engulfed by the expansion of empire will be given primacy.

Conclusion: What is to be Done? So what does all this mean for the actualization of a revolutionary decolonization movement? To answer Lenin’s old maxim of “what is to be done?” we must begin with a single basic premise: the return of land, all of it, and not just symbolically.

This means the return of all land seized via treaty, the overwhelming majority of which are demonstrably fraudulent, and were never signed in good mind on the part of settlers. Many settler anarchists and Marxists propose a line of upholding treaty rights, and the full application of previous agreements such as the Two Row Wampum as the vehicle for what they call “decolonization.” However, this politic immediately falls into the trap of assuming that settlers have an inherent right to at least possess some of the land, which is in fact simply a more insidious form of settler colonialism. Further, the treaties and other like documents are what removed thousands of Indigenous peoples from their lands, sometimes marching them hundreds or thousands of miles to foreign lands, and sequestered all of us, even those of us who remained on ancestral lands, onto reserves and reservations. So all of the treaties must be scrapped, and the land returned that they were used to seize. Decolonization that is restricted to the open air prisons in which one is held prisoner is not real decolonization.

It also goes without saying that this process must also include the return of the enormous swaths of land (including, for example, the vast majority of so-called British Columbia) that were seized without even the slightest pretence of treaty making. Additionally the return of all lands to our nations which continue to exist, but which have no recognition from the state, or were written off as extinct, but whose existences have been continuous, must also be of the highest priority. This includes the lands of many nations in Waabanakiing and the southern Atlantic Coast.

We must also include, as one of our most sacred goals, the right of return for those nations who were pushed west into Wisconsin, Ontario, Oklahoma and other places by the manifest destiny expansion of the United States and Kanada. This means that the garrison population must surrender control of former Choctaw, Cherokee, Oneida, Lenape, Muscogee, Seneca, Munsee, Shawnee, Fox, Kickapoo and others’ land in the southeastern and northeastern woodlands, land to which they are tied to intimately by identity, language, spirituality and culture. Again, we must say that decolonization that is restricted to the open air prisons in which one is held prisoner is not real decolonization.

Finally it must also mean the negotiation, should the Afrikan Nation seek it (something to be self-determined internally by the Afrikan nation without any form of external interference), of an Afrikan National Territory as part of the larger decentralized, bio-regional confederacies that will form in the wake of the breakup of “North amerika.” It must also mean reparations to the Afrikan Nations for five centuries of slavery and colonial bondage.

These goals, once accomplished, would wipe out the material basis for the existence of the settler empire, which only exists by dint of genocide, enslavement and occupation. Only after all of this will it be possible to negotiate a future for the former occupying nation, but such negotiations must take place between the former colonized nations, not necessarily with the consent of the settler population. Indeed, given that the consolidation of the settler nation was dialecticaly tied to the colonization of Indigenous and Afrikan peoples, then the elimination of the material basis of the settler nation via anti-colonial struggle may well result in the dissolution of that entity.

Once all of these things are understood, of the primacy of decolonial struggle, and the fullest understanding of what that portends for revolution on this continent, will it be possible to claim that one has arrived at the most genuine possible decolonial politics.


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