Decolonization and Communism

14 min readMay 17, 2021
Amauta, vol. 4, no. 26 cover design, by José Sabogal. From Mariátegui Archive in Lima, Perú.

“We have to give life to Indo-American socialism with our own reality, in our own language. Here is a mission worthy of a new generation.”

— José Carlos Mariátegui, “Anniversary and Balance,” José Carlos Mariátegui: An Anthology¹

While the turn towards analyzing ongoing settler-colonialism has finally reached the mainstream of North American political discussions, there is still a lack of popular understanding of the issues involved. Settler-colonialism is, ironically, understood within the framework of the ways of thinking brought by the European ruling classes to the Americas. By extension, the conceptions of decolonization are similarly limited. Although the transition from analyzing psychological or “discursive” decolonization to analyzing literal, concrete colonization has been extremely important, it requires some clarifications.

Settler-colonialism is a form of colonialism distinct from franchise colonialism.The colonizers seek primarily to eliminate the indigenous population rather than exploit them, as in the latter form of colonialism. Decolonization is the struggle to abolish colonial conditions, though approaches to it may vary. Societies formed on a settler-colonial basis include the United States, Canada, Israel, New Zealand, and Australia. For our purposes, we will focus on the United States in analyzing local ideas of settler-colonialism and decolonization.

Among North American radicals, there are two frequent errors in approaching decolonization.

On the one hand, there are the opponents of decolonization who argue that settler-colonialism no longer exists. In their view, to identify specific concerns for Indigenous peoples and to identify the ongoing presence of settler-colonial social positions is divisive and stuck in the past. They believe that settlers no longer exist, and Euro-Americans have fully become indigenous to North America through a few centuries of residency.

On the other hand, there are proponents of decolonization who believe that Euro-Americans are eternally damned as settlers, and cannot be involved in any radical change whatsoever. The most extreme of these argue for the exclusion of Euro-Americans from radical politics entirely.

Settler-colonialism is not over, contrary to the first view. Rather, Indigenous peoples still struggle for their rights to sovereignty within and outside reservations, especially ecological-spiritual rights. Their ostensibly legally recognized rights are not respected, either. The examples of the struggles of the Wet’suwet’en, Standing Rock Lakota, Mi’kmaq, and other peoples in recent memory are testimony to this. Indigenous peoples are still here, and they are still fighting to thrive as Indigenous peoples. Capitalists drive to exploit the earth, destroying ecology and throwing society into what John Bellamy Foster calls a metabolic rift.² This means that the demands of capital for expansion are incompatible with the ‘rhythm’ of ecology, destroying concrete life for abstract aims as a result.

An atomistic, individualist worldview is what undergirds the view of settler-colonialism as over and of contemporary Euro-Americans as being just as indigenous as Indigenous peoples. When settler-colonialism is seen as an individual responsibility or guilt, we are left with a very crude concept of it.

The denialists of settler-colonialism assume that it must be over, because the colonization of the Americas is apparently over. Thus, they think that modern Euro-Americans cannot be blamed for the sins of their forefathers, since individuals shouldn’t be held responsible for things which happened outside of their lifetimes. Guilt in this conception is an assessment of whether an atomistic individual is responsible for extremely specific crimes, such as participating in something like the Paxton Boys’ ethnic cleansing campaign in 1763 Pennsylvania.

The same ideological approach characterizes the other side, which obsesses over the individual status of “settler” and micro-categorizing the contemporary residents of North America within an abstract concept of settler-colonialism. They argue that having the individual status of “settler” means one is eternally damned, one is marked as a specific person by the crimes of a social system always and forever. This hefty sentence has high stakes, thus the obsession with categorizing every unique case within a specific box.

Neither of these approaches offers a successful insight into settler-colonialism. Instead, they project the thinking of European bourgeois liberalism. The individual is defined in an atomistic way, in their characteristics, rights, crimes, and so on. The individual as a node on a web of social relations is totally out of the question here. Yet, that is how we must think if we wish to understand settler-colonialism and, therefore, abolish it.

To focus primarily on categorizing atomistic individuals, instead of focusing on social relations, loses sight of the true engine of settler-colonialism. It is not that individuals choose one day to behave brutally, or that it is simply the nature of a specific people. Instead, it has very concrete historical motivations in the global system and the rise of settler-colonialism within it. For example, North American settler-colonialism was motivated significantly by the land hunger of capitalists who grew cash crops like tobacco and cotton, which were sold on the world market. Thinking in broad, structural terms is important in order to avoid reductive analyses and approaches.

While the side which focuses on damning individual Euro-Americans certainly have land in mind while thinking about this subject, they have a static and simple concept of land. In their minds, settlers are settlers because they are present in a certain place, to which a specific Indigenous group has an abstract, moral right to exclusive habitation in. To put it simply, their thought process is “if X person is in Y place, which belongs to Z people, then they are a settler.”

They do not understand the social relation of Indigenous peoples to their homelands, which extends into the aspects of ecology, history, spirituality, etc. That is, Indigeneity as itself a social relation. Indigenous peoples explicitly refer to their nations and homelands as relations. Their relation to land is not to land as an abstract thing, but to specific spaces that are inseparable from their specific communal lives.

In the context of describing his people’s history, Nick Estes (Lower Brulé Lakota) said in Our History is the Future:

“Next to the maintenance of good relations within the nation, an individual’s second duty was the protection of communal territory. In the east, the vast wild rice patties and seasonal farms that grew corn, beans, and squash demarcated Dakota territory. In the west, Lakota territory extended as far as the buffalo herds that traveled in the fertile Powder River country. For Dakotas, Lakotas, and Nakotas, territory was defined as any place where they cultivated relations with plant and animal life; this often overlaid, and was sometimes in conflict, with other Indigenous nations.”³

Identity and mode of life in communalist societies is specific to spaces, because keeping in the ‘rhythm’ of these spaces is a basic guiding logic of life. Because land is a relative, there was and is significant resistance among Indigenous peoples to the settler seizure of land and commodification of their non-human relative. The European bourgeoisie, meanwhile, was more concerned with what value could be extracted from the land, their worldview being based in abstract concepts of Right, Justice, Liberty and so on.

The faction in question does not understand settler-colonists as part of social relations which seek to negate that communal land social relation for concrete aims. They lack broad perspective, they only see society as a collection of atoms, falling into micro-categories, bundled together.

Having critiqued these two views, we can now give a better idea of how to properly approach the category groupings involved in analysis of settler-colonialism.

Indigeneity is defined by continuity of long-standing communal relations and identities indigenous to a certain region. Relation to a specific homeland or region is important to this, but the loss of direct ties to land does not necessarily negate Indigeneity. Rather, the continuity of belonging to a certain ‘mode of life’ and community is key.

A settler is one who is outside of these relations, and plays an active role in the negation of these Indigenous relations. A settler is not merely a settler because they are foreign. Rather, they are a settler because of this active negating role.

To play an active negating role does not necessarily mean one personally enforces colonial laws. Instead, it means that one directly benefits from their participation in the destruction of these relations, such as by gaining residencies or employment at the expense of those land-relations. An important aspect of being a settler is being a socio-political citizen of a settler-colonial society. This means that, in law and in social practice, one has the full rights of belonging to the settler-colonial nation, and is recognized as such in ideology.

Many analysts of settler-colonialism, such as Jodi Byrd (Chickasaw), use a third category in their analysis: arrivants.⁴ Arrivants are those who are part of social structures which dissolve those land-relations, but lack the citizenship and agency of settlers. An example of this would be Filipino debt peons. They cannot fully belong to the settler structures, in practice or in ideology, but they are still part of those structures. In North American history, these groups have at various times been explicitly excluded from the potential to own property or obtain full legal citizenship. Said citizenship was directly defined around whiteness, first de jure, and later de facto.

These categories should be treated in a nuanced way, as tools to understand a concrete society and history. We should avoid trying to bend reality to fit abstract categories. Otherwise, one assumes these categories are destiny. One assumes that Indigenous peoples cannot be part of settler-colonial structures, or that all settlers are eternally damned and cannot overcome their social role.

In history, there are many examples of Indigenous peoples participating in settler-colonial processes, such as with Tohono O’odham warriors participating in the Camp Grant Massacre against Apaches, or the Indigenous Vice President Charles Curtis sponsoring assimilation and allotment of communal lands. There are also examples of people without full socio-political citizenship participating in these processes, such as with Black Buffalo Soldiers fighting on the front lines of Manifest Destiny.

There are also examples of Euro-Americans defecting to Indigenous societies in order to escape bourgeois “civilization.” Cynthia Ann Parker was abducted and adopted as a child by a Comanche war band. Texas Rangers, who had massacred her adopted relatives, had to force her to return to Euro-American society. While adopted Euro-Americans remained Euro-Americans, inclusion in those communal relations transformed them. Instead of playing a negating influence on the part of bourgeois society, they became participants in Indigenous relations. To be a settler is not destiny, but is a status which can be negated through a revolutionary transformation of society. In a word, through decolonization.

To obsess over policing micro-categories is not helpful for understanding or fighting settler-colonialism. Being conscious of it is important, but the key is to focus on broad social structures. The way we alter individuals is by altering social relations, and the way we fight for Indigenous sovereignty is by abolishing the negating forces in society. To successfully treat a disease, one must keep in mind the body as a system rather than a simple collection of parts. The same applies to society.

Settler-colonialism in North America is the conflict of two social forms, one fighting to negate the other. The capitalist system: private, individualist, focused on expanding an abstract ‘god’ (capital). The Indigenous communal modes of life: premised on relationality, collectivist, focused on viewing the individual as a part of a whole.

The bourgeoisie seek exclusive, private ownership of land as property to be bought and sold as a commodity. They do not recognize communal land rights, or anything like having a social relation with a place. Instead, they seek to cut off the nerves connecting every aspect of communal life in order to box things in as commodities, so that they can be abstracted into an exchange-value.

The 1887 Dawes Act, which dissolved Indigenous communal landholdings in the United States, was aimed at forcing this system on Indigenous peoples.⁵ In the eyes of the ruling class, this was simply “civilization.” The bourgeoisie had to go to war with these communal ways of life to construct a capitalist system in its place. In the communal systems, unlike capitalism: land itself has rights as a relative instead of being merely a vehicle for value, people live off the land as a community instead of being landless wage-laborers, and exploitation is heavily frowned upon.

The first Red Scare in the United States was not during the 1919–1920 assault on organized labor and anti-war activists, but during the struggle of the government and capitalists against Indigenous communal modes of life.⁶

This war of generalized commodity production, capitalism, against alternative ways of being extended to ways of knowing. When forcing Indigenous children into boarding schools, the colonizers worked hard to destroy languages, religious practices, and cultural practices.⁷ In their place, they promoted individualism, bourgeois values, and a future as wage-laborers.

The liberal view of individuals is quite representative of typical bourgeois thinking. Liberalism posits individuals in an atomistic way, without considering them as concrete beings with concrete relationships in a real world. It sees individuals as simply bundles of rights, obligations, and so on. It premises meaning on extremely abstract, albeit universalizing concepts, such as “justice.” The rights of the liberal citizen are rights they have apart from society. Their freedom is a space separate from society, since they see others as fundamentally competitors.

This abstract thinking, individualism, and competitive view makes plenty of sense for a bourgeois. Their well-off conditions and obsession with preserving their private property against others reflect in their lack of concern for positive rights (rights to things, like food or shelter). What they want is to realize their capital, defeat their competitors, and pay as little as they have to for the working class’s living.

They only concern themselves with concrete things as far as they relate to their mission to realize abstract, congealed labor: capital. Capital commands them. If they do not expand their capital through exploitation and investment, they fall behind and decay in the rat race. Thus, the bourgeois is shrewd, atomistic, and anti-social.

By contrast, the communal view of individuals which is characteristic of Indigenous nations is focused on very concrete things. Individuals are part of specific communities with specific histories, who are relatives with specific land-spaces. To preserve balance in one’s real relations is an important value, contrasting sharply to the obsession with satisfying the god of abstract capital by feeding it concrete sacrifices. The key to this worldview is keeping in the ‘rhythm’ of life: the rhythm of one’s human relatives, non-human relatives, the ecology, the spirits, etc.

The latter view has a sibling in the views of Karl Marx. In the sixth thesis from Theses On Feuerbach, Marx said:

[…]the essence of man is no abstraction inherent in each single individual. In reality, it is the ensemble of the social relations.⁸

Further, Marx was very concerned with the metabolic rift wrought by capitalism. In his view, while capitalism had for the first time linked up the whole world and all people into one global social system of production, it had also unleashed forces it could not control. While everyone in capitalism depends on everyone else, the system is controlled by self-interested bourgeoisie, who have no concern for humans, animals, or ecology.

Therefore, there is a need for a working class revolution, where the people who produce what the world runs on establish social control of this social production. Through that social control, they must restore the balance of humanity and nature, using the planning of production to end the chaos and blindness characteristic of capital. Once they have fully developed this system of social control and planning and brought about a world where all people contribute to the social product instead of anyone exploiting anyone else, they will have established a communist society.

The basis for Pan-Indigenism in North America was laid by the proletarianization of Indigenous peoples during and after World War II.⁹ The Federal government explicitly hoped to use this to assimilate Indigenous peoples by removing them from communal life on reservations. Instead, the contact of many distinct peoples in urban workforces and communities led to the development of a new, broad concept of Indigeneity. These proletarians thought of themselves not only as, for example, Standing Rock Lakota or Chiricahua Apache, but also as “Indigenous.”

This had precedence with people such as Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa, the Shawnee leaders of a Pan-Indigenous resistance to settler-colonialism in late 18th and early 19th century Ohio, or Wovoka, the Paiute founder of the Ghost Dance movement in the late 19th century. However, it had never reached this scale before. The same forces which sought to destroy Indigenous identity created means of establishing a new political movement in defense of it.

This universalization of identity from particular to general, without necessarily negating the particular, is something which must be done by social revolution as well. Proletarianization unites many distinct peoples into one class, leading to radical contacts between worlds. It lays the basis for a revolution which for the first time establishes a real community of all of humanity.

Decolonization ties directly into this project of social revolution. Capital attacks communal relations to establish and reproduce itself, yet by doing this it lays the foundation for a more universal form of communal life: communism. To decolonize is not to merely undo history and return to the past. We cannot undo centuries of change, of destruction.

Instead, as advocated by anti-colonial theorists like Aimé Césaire and Frantz Fanon, we must assert indigenous aims on the basis of the world colonialism has brought. This must take the form of the social revolution, because capital leaves intact the negating force against communalism and the relations of domination between groups of people.

In our theorizing of communism, we must avoid the thought patterns of the bourgeoisie. We must not only avoid individualism, but avoid the denigration of communalist ways of life. Indigenous peoples are at the forefront of the defense of bio-diversity. They are staunch protectors of the earth, of their ways of life and of their relation with the earth. They resist capitalist primitive accumulation, defending their sovereignty, daily. Communism cannot be some form of universalized bourgeois society, nor can it carry over the denigrated view the bourgeoisie have of life. Instead, it must be communalism reasserted on a universal scale.

Decolonization does not mean one throws out settlers. It does not mean we send Euro-Americans back to Europe. This belief is premised on a bourgeois, colonial thinking about life. It assumes that behavior is ahistoric, inscribed into the DNA of people. Rather, it is social relations that we must expel, transforming people through incorporation into new ones.

In the past, the adoption of Euro-Americans served as an alternative to their behavior as settlers. A decolonized society can follow this model on a broader scale, while preserving the sovereignty of Indigenous peoples over their homelands. Indigenous conceptions of land are not based on bourgeois exclusive right, but the right of specific people to have an ongoing relation with specific spaces. Abolishing the negating force, capitalism, and asserting these ways of life while working to establish the universalist form, communism, must be our program.

To put it simply, decolonization should be understood as the indigenization of settlers. This necessitates a social revolution in all aspects of life. It does not mean settlers must immediately “play Native.” Within the context of bourgeois settler-colonialism, that is part of a process of dissolving Indigenous communities, destroying their ability to remain sovereign. Rather, it means that we must destroy the capitalist society which drives these antagonisms.

This decolonization also necessitates a conscious revolution in ideology as part and parcel of social transformation. As discussed, communalist societies have a strong sense of concrete locality, of specificity according to a space and the relations of that space. Capitalism seeks to negate that in favor of universalist abstractions. Communism must take the universalizing capitalism has engaged in and place it on a concrete, conscious basis.

We ought to oppose the negation of local life capitalism engages in, while having the universal goal of revolution. That is, unite the particular with the universal, establish the particular as the basis of the universal. The old, European bourgeois ways of thinking, lacking metabolism or relationality with other humans and with ecology, must be overcome.

Communism is the abolition of the present state of things on the basis of existing premises. The emancipatory project of communism should not be hostile to, but a student of Indigenous peoples. When all people are one kin, when they are not divided by class or other social antagonisms, then we will all be free. That is the relation of decolonization to communism.