What Communists Can Learn From Native Struggle: Sogorea Te and Primitive Accumulation

Driving North from Oakland, past West Berkeley’s smokestacks and Richmond’s industrial warehouses, you eventually cross the Carquinez bridge to the first city in what is referred locally as the North Bay – Vallejo, “The City of Opportunity.”  Vallejo is known as the home of Mac Dre, Sly Stone, and E-40 (amongst others), as well as to a sizeable Pilipino population.

The city bears the name of General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo, one of the biggest beneficiaries of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, that piece of paper that codified the theft of over half of Mexican land. That treaty marks the transition from Mexican colonial domination over native american peoples, to an even more heinous form of racial domination under Anglo rule. Indians were the base of the productive system as slaves to Mexican and Anglo ranchers, producing wealth that carried California eventually to become the richest state in the richest country in the world. Today, Vallejo is known internationally as one of the first cities to go bankrupt during the financial meltdown of ’07-’08 and the native community is rising to assert their legacy, reclaim their history and resist capitalist development of one of their most precious ancestral burial grounds:  Sogorea Te, or Glen Cove.

For over 50 days now, members of the native community and their allies have been camped out at Glen Cove in protest of the Greater Vallejo Recreation Department’s (GVRD) plans to develop the land into a parking lot as part of the Bay Trail project.  Now, we’re all for the nature, the “bike revolution,” and recreation, but not at the expense of one of the most important cultural sites of the original peoples of this land we call California.  In the words of the Protect Glen Cove website:

The local Native American community has been outspoken for over ten years about the Glen Cove Sacred Site, and the message has been overwhelmingly: do not further disturb and manipulate this sacred burial ground of our ancestors. It is not a park. Spiritual leaders from Ohlone, Miwok, Pomo and other local tribes consider the proposed park development plans to be an offensive desecration of this holy area that has already seen many years of abuse in the hands of settlers. Furthermore, we consider the manipulation of our ancestors’ burial site without our informed consent to be a violation of our human and religious rights.

Now, the Sogorea Te site is most definitely an important part of the native people’s cultural heritage and history, and it’s the duty of radicals to be in solidarity with anyone struggling to defend their interests against the expansion of capital and its state.  However, in addition to the defense and expansion of native people’s autonomy, there is another reason that this fight needs to be seen in the context of the struggle for a communist revolution.  You may be wondering, what is the connection between religious burial sites and communist revolution?

Well, let’s examine the religion of the Native tribes of the Bay Area and the mode of social reproduction that their religious and cultural practices existed in. The book The Ohlone Way describes how Bay Area native societies reproduced themselves through hunting and gathering food and other necessities for daily survival.  Private accumulation of surplus food and materials (ie, wealth) was not known to these peoples.  Their societies were egalitarian, not stratified by social classes, and free from the domination of a culture of individualism and greed.  Additionally, the native tribes were organized in a de-centralized manner that did not require a state apparatus to maintain a sense of cohesion and co-existence amongst the various tribes and their relation to the land.  Generosity and humility were not considered virtues, they were normal characteristics expected of everyone. This is the first and original type of communism; the basic principles for the future communist society already having been accomplished by humanity, proving that it is not “human nature” to be selfish, violent, oppressive, and out of balance with the earth’s equilibrium, or to enslave womyn as baby making machines.

Karl Marx referred to these communal societies as forms of “primitive communism,” not because he saw these societies as somehow “backwards” but rather “primitive” in the actual sense of the word:  primary, original, first.  Marx uses the word “primitive” in a related context when he discusses the primitive accumulation of capital, or the original methods used to develop capitalist society.  The main form of primitive accumulation which Marx describes is the way in which native peoples who lived off the land were dispossessed of this land in order to make way for capitalist development.  Though the primitive accumulation of capital defeated primitive communism, it also developed the material basis for a new communism to arise out of the ashes of capitalism: the proletariat, capital’s own gravediggers.

Unfortunately, many proletarian movements of the 20th century did not integrate the wisdom of indigenous peoples into their political programs, so they often disregarded their relation to the land, and brushed aside an awareness of equilibrium between past, present and future generations and the sustainable development of production in line with what the earth can provide.  Additionally, many proletarian movements ended up re-building capitalist society and its oppressive state rather than “withering away” towards a stateless and classless communism.  These revolutions ended up becoming more like their original capitalist enemies than they did become more like their communal ancestors.

The remains of native ancestors buried at Glen Cove constitute a sacred site, material proof that generations have walked before us, that we owe a debt to the legacy of our predecessors, and that our own future is rooted in the past, that a rift between life and death is imaginary. The ancestral remains at Glen Cove not only represent a beautiful past, but illuminate our destiny as well: a new communism; the application of the first nations’ principles synthesized with the Marxist dialectic, the revolutionary critique of capitalist society.

It might strike some people as a distortion of both native spirituality and Marxist scientific socialism to assert that the communism of the future is in any way connected to struggles like that for Sogorea-Te. In fact, Marx himself closely studied Iroquois and other societies for insight into what stateless, classless culture could be. The philosopher who reintroduced the dialectic into Western though, G.W.F. Hegel, drew his famed “master-slave dialectic” from the revolutionary struggle of African slaves against French masters in Haiti in the 1790s, a struggle that occurred at the same moment that the Ohlone, Pomo, Miwok, and other California “primitive communist” societies were being dispossessed of their land through the process of “primitive accumulation.”

The struggle of communism vs. capitalism has a long history in California and other colonized lands.  Let’s be sure to integrate the wisdom of native people into a holistic communist program for 2012.

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8 responses to “What Communists Can Learn From Native Struggle: Sogorea Te and Primitive Accumulation

  1. Pingback: What Communists Can Learn From a Native Struggle « Kasama

  2. Beautiful piece, thank you!

    For over 50 days now, members of the native community and their allies have been camped out at Glen Cove in protest

    I understand things slightly differently. On my second visit to Sogorea Te, this Saturday, one of the people who’s been staying there since the beginning, on April 14, told me something interesting: that when defenders of the land learned that GVRD planned to start bulldozing on April 15th, they asked to be able to conduct a religious ceremony beforehand. So they established the sacred fire . . . which, 5o days later, is still burning. The ceremony never ended: it is ongoing. While this was a very clever move (and, as this person explained to me, there are various legal protections for ceremonies taking place in an “open church” like this one), I don’t think it was all about trickery, either: just an excuse to set up an “occupation” or “protest.” The feeling of being there reminds me more of a meditation retreat. (Well, a meditation retreat under seige!) And I think that the spiritual tenor of the defense can teach us something important about struggles over land.

    Part of the wisdom to be integrated into a communist program, it seems to me, may have to do with approaching land takeovers and defenses not as an assertion of ownership, per se (even ownership by the collective proletariat, or the Party, provisional proletariat state, etc.). Instead, we might fight for the ability to care for the land which has been so abused under the class regimes that endlessly seek wealth and profits. Perhaps this seems like a minor or unimportant shift in perspective, from “taking ownership and control of land” to “taking necessary steps to protect, respect, and care for the land.” But speaking for myself, to see this philosophy and spirituality infusing the courageous actions of the defenders of Sogorea Te has made me think differently about land struggles, present and future.

  3. Kloncke, thanks for adding your thoughts. I’m particularly interested in what you write towards the end, about the difference between taking ownership of land vs. taking care of land. In the original piece it states that part of the reason that the proletarian movements of the 20th century became defeated in part because,

    “they often disregarded their relation to the land, and brushed aside an awareness of equilibrium between past, present and future generations and the sustainable development of production in line with what the earth can provide.”

    What do you think of this? Is this similar to what you’re saying when you’re talking about caring for the land? I’m asking because while I ethically agree that taking care of the land is important, I think that there’s a material dimension that forms the base – and this lies in the ability to care for the land being blocked by those whose “ownership” of it is protected by the state apparatus and capital relations.

    So it seems to me that in order to actually carry out our ability to care for and respect the land, we must completely transform the relation of “ownership” which exist, and which need to be asserted. In this sense there is a relationship between the two approaches – and both must be in place in order to carry either one out fully. If we want to actually care, we must communize/socialize the process of production which is way in which humans mediate their relation to land. But if this communization/socialization process is not filled with the spirit of the indigenous relations to the land, if it seeks merely a formal transfer of “ownership” from one small group to another small group, then it is indeed meaningless, or worse. But at the same time seeking to care for the land without having a strategy for approaching the question of state power, and transforming the state into a proletarian dictatorship, cannot meaningfully address the way humanity relates to the earth.

    Ethics/Spiritual sensibility + Material struggle is the formula I would apply, if I had to reduce it to something simplistic.

  4. Yes! Yes that’s exactly what I mean; thank you for expanding on it. The “Ethics/Spiritual sensibility” piece is tougher to quantify than the “Material struggle,” I would say, which sometimes makes it difficult to speak about. Maybe it has more to do with a “line struggle” on relationship to land? Not exactly clear on what line struggle means or how it plays out in most cases, but a conversation happening on Kasama seems to touch on similar themes as this land struggle spirituality question:

    Socialist revolution will not simply or automatically solve problems — unless we actually solve them in specific. Socialism will not automatically emancipate women or end ecological destruction unless our movement for socialism develops specific and determined solutions to the oppression of women and the destruction of the environment.

    It is not enough to say we need a new society — because there are sharp line questions about how a post-revolutionary society will lift such burdens. And the wrong lines will not do so. There are many socialisms possible, and they are not all equally or automatically liberatory.

    Like you say, “if this communization/socialization process is not filled with the spirit of the indigenous relations to the land, if it seeks merely a formal transfer of ‘ownership’ from one small group to another small group, then it is indeed meaningless, or worse.”

    One question that sticks with me, that I’ve enjoyed discussing with a lot of you folks, is how much we need to practice these lines, or communist morality/ethics, right now — before a socialist revolution. On Kasama, the author of the same post writes,

    [O]ur movement needs to develop ways to combat addictions short of a new society. We need to solve problems of addiction within our revolutionary ranks, and we need to (as an integral part of the oppressed) help combat addictions broadly among the people in the course of preparing for revolutionary leaps and a new society.

    I can see how this might seem like a separate question, because it relates to people: sentient subjects who may or may not fully participate as valuable militants in struggle. Land and animals are different, in that they can’t struggle in the same ways (but are essential in other ways). Does this mean that addressing our relationships to land short of a new society takes lower priority? It’s an honest question that I’m not sure how to answer. I’m also not sure what concrete steps people can take right now, in the struggle, to transform our relationship to land. Are such steps worth our time and effort? Are other projects more urgent? Perhaps it’s enough to let individuals pursue their own interests, try to learn from the struggles of others (especially those who have been living in ways more connected to land), and keep evolving the communist program to reflect our best visions.

    Thanks again for the post!

  5. This is a great post, and great comments, thank you. I think the dialectical and nuanced way in which you analyze religion and spirituality in the discussion is way, way ahead of the wooden secular chauvinism of much of the Marxist left. A lot of Marxists assume that religious and spiritual practices and ideas come from feudalism and are just holdovers from a previous mode of production which need to wither away. In many cases, religious and spiritual practices actually have their roots in so called “primitive communist” societies, and have changed over time as the modes of production change. Nevertheless, many religious practices have retained those echoes and traces of how our ancestors lived in a more advanced and more human way than we do as alienated wage earners under capitalism. That’s why defending sacred sites like Sogorea Te is so important. These sites connect us to past generations but also create a sense that other futures are possible.

    I love the idea of ceremony as resistance – not just as a prop of protest, but as a way to cultivate spiritual bonds and build new social relations that can strengthen resistance. It’s ironic that this protest can invoke constitutional freedom of religion protections since the constitution’s protection of “religious freedom” as a “private” matter has been used primarily to take religion out of the public sphere so that it cannot become a source of public, collective resistance to capitalist domination. In other words, “freedom of religion” is often used precisely to discourage the kind of ceremonies of resistance like the one you describe. As good bourgeois individualists we are supposed to freely “worship” in our own ways in our own, separate private lives, at our “de-politicized” places of worship. These private acts make us feel better about our daily public humiliation and exploitation at the hands of our oppressors. When we’re done praying in private maybe we’ll drive in our separate private cars to park on a parking lot built on top of a sacred indigenous burial ground to privately contemplate the wonders of nature at a park. Bourgeois religious freedom defangs resistant religion and facilitates a process of conforming religion to a bourgeois mode of production, fulfilling the role of a private “opiate of the masses” and “heart of a heartless world.’ Many types of post-modern “spirituality” that claim to reject institutionalized religion actually fulfill the same roles. These are not the only roles religion can play though – religion did not play this role in more communistic indigenous societies, and it will not play this role in future communist societies.

    I shared this article with a Native friend who is highly skeptical of Marxism. He is rightly suspicious of how some Marxists seemed to celebrate capitalist “development” as progress, even when that meant the colonization of indigenous societies and the destruction of indigenous cultures. He is also suspicious of the eurocentrism of many Marxists, who seem unwilling to learn from indigenous struggles. I pointed out how ya’ll as Marxists are willing to learn, and in fact so was Marx, in his studies of Iroquois democracy that you cited. However, he argued that nevertheless, Marxists “add on” issues of workers struggle and other modern concerns that are not originally part of Native traditions, and hence he does not consider himself a Marxist.

    Here is how I responded to him. I’d love to hear folks feedbacks/ thoughts on the issues raised here:

    I don’t think Marxists are “adding” modern stuff and workers struggle to indigenous struggles. Capitalism itself is invading indigenous societies and stealing their land, turning native people into workers (whether employed or unemployed). Thus, labor struggle becomes highly relevant for Native folks, especially urban Natives, but also folks on the reservations , which have also been thoroughly dominated by modern capitalist social relations at this point. I’m not saying that this is a good thing. I’m not saying people “should” modernize or beocme workers according to the white man’s logic. I’m saying capitalism has already imposed its vision of modernity, and it’s white supremacist logic on native poeple, and hence Marxism becomes relevant as a way of fighting against that white supremacist, modern oppressive system. I don’t think it’s possible to just turn back the clock to the way things were before colonialism… it’s necessary instead to smash colonialism and the capitalist system that generates it, and to move forward toward a new society, which should certainly draw from and learn from indigenous traditions. I think Marxists do have a lot to learn from native struggles, and do need to be flexible. The peice that Advance the Struggle just posted shows this kind of flexible, open, humble approach.”

  6. Good news! After a successful solidarity action last week at Bay Trail’s offices, they have agreed to withhold funding from GVRD’s desecration until native organizers agree to a new, acceptable plan.

    Sacred Site Protection & Rights of Indigenous Tribes (SSP&RIT) & Protect Glen Cove Committee

    For Immediate Release: Wednesday, June 8, 2011

    Contact: Corrina Gould (510) 575-8408 ** Morning Star Gali (510) 827-6719

    San Francisco Bay Trail Project of the Association of Bay Area Governments Suspends $200,000 Grant to Greater Vallejo Recreation District for Glen Cove Development Due to Impact on Native American Burial Site

    Vallejo, California – In the 56th day of their Spiritual Vigil, Native Americans working to stop destruction and desecration of the burial and cremation site at Glen Cove in Vallejo welcomed the decision by the San Francisco Bay Trail Project of the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) to suspend its $200,000 grant to the Greater Vallejo Recreation District. The statement from ABAG and their Bay Trail Project states: “The issue of concern is that the proposed half mile Bay Trail segment on the Glen Cove property in Vallejo is part of a larger GVRD development that affects sensitive Native American burial sites.” ABAG’s statement says that the grant is being suspended until cultural land use issues are resolved.

    “We are pleased that the Association of Bay Area Governments and the Bay Trail Project have listened to the voices of the Indigenous people and supporters and have made the decision to reconsider funding of the joint project that they had planned with GVRD at Glen Cove/Sogorea Te. We would like to thank them for their support in the protection of our Sacred site,” said Corrina Gould, an Ohlone tribal member and leader of the ongoing efforts to protect the Glen Cove sacred site. “We hope this loss of major funding for GVRD will encourage all the parties involved in this issue to sit down and reach a mutually acceptable solution that protects the burial and cremation sites from destruction.”

    Bay Trail’s decision to suspend funding of the Glen Cove Project follows mounting pressure from their constituents to address their involvement in the controversial plans to develop a recreational park on a sacred burial ground and spiritually important area. Supporters of the effort to protect the sacred site picketed the offices of Bay Trail on Tuesday May 31st, challenging their role in the planned development and urging them to immediately divest all funding.

    Following a meeting between the Native American-led Protect Glen Cove Committee and representatives of Bay Trail and ABAG, last Thursday, the decision to suspend the $200,000 grant comes at a crucial time. This significant loss of funding and political support for the controversial Glen Cove project leaves its future uncertain, placing even more pressure on GVRD regarding their plans to bulldoze a hill that likely contains human remains and to build toilets and a parking lot at the sacred site.

    Sacred Sites Protection & Rights of Indigenous Tribes and the Protect Glen Cove Committee, backed by supporters from all walks of life, have vowed to continue the spiritual ceremony at Glen Cove until an agreement is reached that will protect the sacred site and human remains.

    The historical and cultural value of the site has never been disputed and it continues to be spiritually important to California tribes. Human remains have been consistently unearthed over the years as the area around the site has been developed. The Glen Cove Shell Mound spans fifteen acres along the Carquinez Strait. It is the final resting place of many Indigenous People dating back more than 3,500 years, and has served as a traditional meeting place for dozens of California Indian tribes. Glen Cove is located near the intersection of South Regatta and Whitesides Drive in Vallejo. For more information and directions: http://www.protectglencove.org

  7. Pingback: bfp at Feministe, Indigenous Land Defense at Home « Kloncke

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