MARX ON NATIVE AMERICANS
>From the Ethnological notebooks
Ed. Lawrence Krader, Van Gorcum, Assen, Netherlands, 1972
Marx's notes on Lewis Morgan's Ancient Society were principally
concerned with family organisation and became the basis of Engels
'Origin of the family, private property and the state'.
Marx and Engels were great fans of Morgan and were particularly
interested in his account of the communal property enjoyed by the
Iroquois. Like Morgan they took this as disproof of the economists'
dogma that private property was a natural institution. Equally the
different family forms were used by Engels against the dogmatic
assertion that the monogamic family was a natural institution.
Marx was also interested in Morgan's comparative identification of
Iroquois social institutions with those of early Europe, in particular
the gens. Marx agreed that Morgan had shown that communal property was
not a peculiarity of Slav communities, but was a common institution in
the prehistory all human societies.
Marx's interest in the communal property relations of the Iroquois in no
sense led him to idealise their existence. Marx adopted the general
model of humanity's progressive advance adopted by Morgan and common in
his time, with the proviso that this advance was by no means given or
linear, only that men inherited the past achievements of their
ancestors, and so were in a position to improve upon them. As he shows,
'progress' takes a bloody and repressive form for the subject classes in
But for all his qualifications upon the Victorian's idea of linear
progression, Marx shared their negative assessment of many aspects of
native American society.
In Particular Marx and Engels both considered native American society
backward technologically and morally, as the blood-ties of kinship
groups (gens) stifled individual personality.
"Die Iroquois pursued a war of extermination gegen [against] their
kindred tribes, the Eries, Neutral Nation, the Hurons u.d.[and the]
"Confederation of Iroquois u. [and] that of the Aztecs were the most
remarkable for aggressive purposes." P163
"Precarious subsistence u. [and] incessant warfare repressed numbers in
all the original tribes, inclus. the Village Indians." P165
'Military. "their [the Iroquois] career was simply terrific. They were
the scourge of God upon the aborigines of the continent."'
"der savages, had finally organised gentile society u. Developed small
tribes with villages here and there ... ihre rude energies and ruder
arts chiefly devoted to subsistence; nocht nicht the village stockade
(Pfahlwerk) for defence, no farinaceous food, still cannibalism."
"In dieser Form ward Cannibalism gefunden in d. Principal tribes der
U.St., Mexico u. Central America. Erwerbung v. Farinaceous food
Ha<u>ptmittel to extricate mankind von this savage custom."
"D. Aztecs. Wie d. Northern Indians, neither exchanged <nor> released
prisoners; the stake their doom bei the Northern Indians unless saved by
adoption. Unter d. Estern ... offered as a sacrifice to the principal
god worshipped. Unter d. American aborigines erscheint organised
priesthood erst im Middle Status of Barbarism [ie Aztecs] , connectioon
mit der invention of idols u. human sacrifices as a means of acquiring
authority over mankind."
(I think it is right to say that contemporary anthropology is more
sceptical about reports of cannibalism than Marx.)
"Marriage hier founded not upon "sentiment", but upon convenience and
necessity. D. Mothers arranged the marriages of their children. ...
Prior to the marriage, presents to the gentile relations of the bride,
partaking in the nature of purchasing gifts, became feature of these
"The ancient practice of blood revenge ... had its birthplace in the
gens. Tribunals for the trial of criminals prescribing their punishment,
came late into existence in gentile society. Unter d. Iroquois and other
Indian tribes generally, the obligation to avenge the murder of a
kinsman universally recognised."
"In some Indian tribes the youth was required to go out on the war-path
and earn his second name by some act of personal bravery."
"All the members of an Iroquois gens personally free, bound to defend
each other's freedom; equal in privileges u. Personal rights. Sachem u.
Chiefs claiming no superiority; a brotherhood bound together by ties of
kin. Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, though never formulated were
At this point Marx departs from Morgan, adding
"Zur zeit der europaischen Entdeckg waren d. [At the time of the
European discovery] American Indian tribes [were] generally organised
into gentes, with descent in the female line.
in this early condition of society, individuality of persons was lost in
In other words the slogans of the French revolution were inappropriate
to the Iroquois society, because the restrictive character of the gentes
militated against the development of individual personality. Marx was
highly critical of Maine's tendency to imagine that he saw capitalistic
institutions in Indian society. Here he would seem to be making a
similar, if friendlier, criticism of Morgan. Engels, who reproduces
these passages in Origin of the Family.. omits Marx's qualification.
"Communism in living seems to have originated in the necessities of the
consanguine family, to have been continued in the punaluan and
transmitted to the syndasminian unter d. [under the] American
aborigenes, with whom it remained a practice down to the epoch of their
discovery - (and the South Slavonians? And even the Russians to a
Quoting Rev Asher Wright on the Seneca
"Usually, the female portion ruled the house ... The stores were in
common; but woe to the luckless husband or lover who was too shiftless
to do his share of the providing."
Here it should be noted that communism meant holding property in common,
and should not be identified wholly with the Communism that Marx and
Engels agitated for. Primitive communism was common ownership on the
basis of scarcity, on a very low level of productivity, whilst advanced
communism was to take as its basis abundance, arising from the
development of social productivity.
"When discovered the Iroquois were in the lower status of barbarism ...
each household practised communism in living; were unacquainted mit
[with] the use of stone or adobe-brick in house architecture u. mit d.
[and with] use der native metals."
Marx's addition to Morgan's schema on stages of civilisation makes clear
that the development of property relations, entailing the end of
primitive communism was a social advance, though one at the considerable
cost of introducing class differentiation.
(To avoid any confusion, this is an empirical observation of Marx's, not
a positivistic schema of historical evolution.)
"It is impossible to overestimate the influence of property in the
civilisation of mankind. It was the power that bought the Aryan and
semitic nations out of barbarism into civilisation .. Governments and
laws are instituted with primary reference to its creation, protection
and enjoyment. It introduced slavery as an instrument in its production.
With the establishment of the inheritance of property in the children of
its owner, came the first possibility of a strict monogamian family."
To modern ears it seems grotesque to hear the introduction of slavery
described as an 'advance', but it should be borne in mind that Marx is
not concerned with a moral advance, but an advance in man's productive
power and social institutions, all of which create the possibility of a
"The custom upon which these rules of proprietry possession and
inheritance depend, are determined by the condition and progress of
social organisation. The growth of property is thus closely connected
with the increase of inventions and discoveries, and the improvements of
social institutions which mark the several ethnical periods of human
"Process constantly repeated that the more advanced tribes lifted up
those below them, as fast as the latter were able to appreciate and
appropriate the means of progress."
Marx shows that the much-praised practice of adoption of prisoners by
the Iroquois arises out of simply practical considerations, principally
the fragility of their primitive division of labour.
"Captives taken in war either put to death, or adopted in some gens;
letzres mit women u. children, taken prisoners, usual. Adoption not only
conferred gentile rights, sondern auch d. Nationality of the tribe.
Slavery, which in the Upper Status of Barbarism became the fate of the
captive, was unknown among tribes in the Lower Status of the aboriginal
period. Captives when adopted were often assigned in the family the
places of deceased persons slain in battle in order to fill up the
broken ranks of relatives."
Adoption was a release for those who were granted it, but just as likely
was the outcome of execution, as the Iroquois lacked the means and the
social insitutions that would allow them to keep prisoners.
There seems to be little evidence of a theoretical break in Marx's
attitude to primitive societies in his Ethnological Notebooks. Certainly
there is a sympathetic reading, but we would expect no less of Marx.
Many years earlier he had expressed similar sentiments about the art of
the ancient Greeks, and its child-like simplicity, in comparison with
our practical loss of wonder.
Certainly, Engels' account in The Origin of the Family... would seem to
be in accord with the notebooks from which it was drawn:
"But we must not forget that this organization was doomed. It did not
go beyond the tribe. The confederacy of tribes already marks the
beginning of its collapse, as will soon be apparent, and was already
apparent in the attempts at subjugation by the Iroquois. Outside the
tribe was outside the law. Wherever there was not an explicit treaty of
peace, tribe was at war with tribe, and wars were waged with the cruelty
which distinguishes man from other animals, and which was only mitigated
later by self-interest. The gentile constitution in its best days, as
we saw it in America, presupposed an extremely undeveloped state of
production and therefore an extremely sparse population over a wide
area. Man's attitude to nature was therefore one of almost complete
subjection to a strange incomprehensible power, as is reflected in his
childish religious conceptions. Man was bounded by his tribe, both in
relation to strangers from outside the tribe and to himself; the tribe,
the gens, and their institutions were sacred and inviolable, a higher
power established by nature, to which the individual subjected himself
unconditionally in feeling, thought, and action. However impressive the
people of this epoch appear to us, they are completely undifferentiated
from one another; as Marx says, they are still attached to the navel
string of the primitive community [reference to CapI, Ch1, Sec4]. "
pp 88-9, Living Marxism Originals, 1994