Revered as the Father of Socialism, in popular conception Karl Marx (1818–1883) is the originator of socialist theory, the creator of a plan implemented thereafter by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and other socialist nations. He remains one of the most cited authors of all time, and his writings are endlessly scrutinized and analyzed. Was he standing on the shoulders of giants?
Without aiming to tear down the legacy of Marx or to minimize his contributions to economics and history — a hopeless task that we can leave up to capitalists — we can examine the historical context in which he arose.
There’s no debate that Marx didn’t invent socialism. As co-editor of a French-German radical newspaper by 1843, a young Marx would have read the term “socialism” used by French author Pierre Leroux (1797–1871) — generally credited with coining the term — or the German Lorenz von Stein (1815–1890). England’s Robert Owen (1771–1858) had bandied the word about as early as 1835. French philosopher Victor d’Hupay (1746–1818) called himself a communist author around 1785, thirty-three years before Marx’s birth, and his colleague Nicolas-Edme Rétif (1734–1806) even used the term to describe a form of government.¹
In Engels’ Socialism: Utopian and Scientific he celebrates “the founders of socialism” Saint-Simon (1760–1825), Owen, and Charles Fourier (1772–1837), and refers to the “actual communistic theories” of Étienne-Gabriel Morelly and Gabriel Bonnot de Mably.²
Gerrard Winstanley, in the 17th century, and Thomas More, who wrote Utopia in 1515, were two other notable Britons who wrote about societies where community came before profit, private property was unknown, and in which workers controlled the means of production.
Incidentally, Marx did not draw a strong distinction between socialism and communism. He implied that communism was a stage beyond that of socialism in The Critique of the Gotha Program, published posthumously in 1891. Lenin and others drew out this distinction in greater detail. In general Marx and Engels used the two terms interchangeably.
American anthropologist Lewis H. Morgan had formed the Order of the Iroquois by 1841. The impact of Morgan’s League of the Iroquois (1851) on Marx has been recorded. Engels praised the “communistic” Iroquois Constitution in The Origin of the Family (1884), although Marx and Engels persisted in referring to Indigenous society as “primitive communism.”³ Long before their time, the political system of the Iroquois Confederacy was borrowed by the union of the Thirteen Colonies.
“It would be a very strange thing if Six Nations of ignorant savages should be capable of forming a scheme for such a union,” wrote Benjamin Franklin in 1751, “and be able to execute it in such a manner as that it has subsisted ages, and appears indissoluble; and yet that a like union should be impracticable for ten or a dozen English colonies.”⁴
“The new Americans gave little credit to the ‘ignorant savages’ from who they learned,” wrote Ronald Wright in Stolen Continents. “They adorned Washington… with the icons of Greece and Rome and put Latin — e pluribus unum — in the eagle’s mouth. Their historians have even tried to deny or diminish the Iroquois precedent, but the truth is that the settler republic took Indian ideas as well as Indian land.”⁵
Let’s cut to the heart of the matter: Columbus didn’t discover America, nor did Amerigo Vespucci even though it’s named after him. America was already there, and just because its inhabitants weren’t called “Indians” yet, they weren’t invented when Europeans first beheld them. Nor was it a coincidence that Thomas More set Utopia in the so-called New World, and wrote it just a few years after the first Indigenous “Americans” were being dragged back to Europe and put on display.
Socialism: Another Colonial Expropriation?
“The laws of gravity are called Newton’s laws, in America,” Kwame Ture succinctly explained, “but you can’t think that Newton invented that a body falls at a rate of thirty-two feet per second squared — Newton cannot invent that. The best we can say about Newton is that he was an astute observer, that’s all. If I’m in Timbuktu, doing any experiment with the laws of gravity, I’d come to the exact same conclusion that Newton came to…
“Karl Marx cannot invent socialism,” continues Ture. “It’s a universal truth. The best we can give him is an astute observer. Because any man, any woman — if I’m sitting in the desert of Libya, in North Africa, looking at the relationship between capital and labour, I will come to the exact same conclusion as Karl Marx: that wherever capital tries to dominate labour, there will be a ruthless struggle against capital, by labour, until labour comes to smash capital, and dominate it!”⁶
Ture points out that the Tunisian economist and historian Ibn Khaldun wrote Muqaddimah in 1377, laying out the principles of modern economics and using many of the same terms as Marx including “surplus labour,” the “origin of the state,” or the “origin of private property.”⁷
When all is said and done it’s not difficult to demonstrate that Europeans took the idea of socialism from what they observed in traditional and Indigenous cultures. They named these ideas and elaborated on them in print, transferring centuries — or millennia — of knowledge to a popular new medium, just like filmmakers did in the 20th century or podcasts and audiobooks do today. Indigenous ways were not protected by copyright. Marx was at the forefront of this observation, elaboration, and analysis.
Socialism: An Ancient History
“I can’t see or think of a system that is more counter to Nishnaabeg thought than capitalism,” wrote Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, “and over the past two decades I have heard elders and land users from many different Indigenous nations reiterate this, and it is part of the elder’s analysis and thinking we ignore… There is an assumption that socialism and communism are white and that Indigenous peoples don’t have this kind of thinking.
“To me, the opposite is true,” Simpson elaborates. “Watching hunters and ricers harvest and live is the epitome of not just anti-capitalism but [of] societies where consent, empathy, caring, sharing, and individual self-determination are centered. My Ancestors didn’t accumulate capital, they accumulated networks of meaningful, deep, fluid, intimate collective and individual relationships of trust. In times of hardship, we did not rely to any great degree on accumulated capital or individualism but on the strength of our relationships with others.”⁸
When Adam Smith proclaimed the benefits of capitalism, he argued that economic transactions are most beneficial when participants act in their own self-interest. He thereby gave currency to the widespread myth that throughout history humans have acted primarily out of concern for their own well-being. This falsehood persists, whereas socialism is weakened by the widespread assumption that it’s only one or two hundred years old at most.
In his influential work The Great Transformation (1944) Karl Polanyi attacked Smith’s myth of self-interest. “To start with,” wrote Polanyi, “we must discard some 19th century prejudices that underlay Adam Smith’s hypothesis about primitive man’s alleged predilection for gainful occupation… We cannot continue today on these lines. The habit of looking at the past ten thousand years as well as the array of early societies as a mere prelude to the true history of our civilization which started approximately with the publication of the Wealth of Nations in 1776, is, to say the least, out of date.”⁹
When anthropologists and economic historians pointed out the importance of gifting in past societies (e.g. the potlatch), or showed that many civilizations, past and present, had built-in cultural codes that forbade avarice and disdained profit, capitalists changed their line of reasoning and argued that these peoples must have been savages or barbarians.
“The tradition of the classical economists,” summarized Polanyi, “who attempted to base the law of the market on the alleged propensities of man in the state of nature, was replaced by an abandonment of all interest in the cultures of ‘uncivilized’ man as irrelevant to an understanding of the problems of our age. Such an attitude of subjectivism in regard to earlier civilizations should make no appeal to the scientific mind.”¹⁰ Seemingly Polanyi’s observations haven’t pierced the mainstream of Western thought.
Standing on the Shoulders of Giants
Twentieth-century socialist revolutions contradicted some of Marx’s assumptions. Marx imagined that a proletarian revolution would follow the most developed stages of capitalism. Instead, Russia and China leapt almost immediately from feudalism to socialism. Socialist revolutions in other nations that were not prototypical advanced capitalist societies, such as Algeria, Ethiopia, Laos, Mozambique, Nicaragua, Somalia, South Yemen, Tanzania, or Vietnam — to name a few — cast further doubt on this aspect of Marx’s thinking.
Marx’s representation of socialism as a post-capitalist phenomenon may have been appropriate to his day, but perhaps it’s time to breathe some fresh air into the relationship between socialism and pre-capitalist society.
Environmental crisis demands our ability to envision a socialist future that meets humanity’s needs without endless industrialization and the continuing extraction of natural resources, and spoliation of land, that this implies. Another popular misconception of Marx is that his vision of socialism didn’t give ample weight to ecological concerns, clearly disproven by contemporary ecological socialists including Paul Burkett, John Foster Bellamy, or Kohei Saito, who demonstrated that Marx “came to regard ecological crises as the fundamental contradiction of the capitalist mode of production.”¹¹
The past is our only source of scientific knowledge. Just as the fossil fuels that we extract from the earth and burn for energy are composed of living beings who preceded us, so our concepts of social organization, politics and economics rest on analyses of past societies. In this sense we all stand on the shoulders of our ancestors.
Marx venerated Indigenous political systems and was acutely aware of slavery and colonialism.
José Carlos Mariátegui (1894–1930) is the best known of countless theorists committed to linking Indigenous ways with socialism in Latin America. Bolivia’s Movement for Socialism (MAS) provides just one example of how this project continues today. Arab thinkers like Michel Aflaq wrenched socialism from its supposed European moorings. Sadly, these texts and many others are rarely translated into English, and their perspective is silenced from popular conversation and absent in much revolutionary discourse in Europe and North America.
Socialism: a Universal Concept
Kwame Ture described Pan-African socialism as a “universal concept,” an objective that “was stopped by capitalism.” Ture argued that the “the very values of socialism come from communalism,” practiced everywhere for centuries.
“We don’t need to read Karl Marx or Adam Smith to find out that neither the land nor the hoe actually produces wealth,” wrote Julius Nyerere, “and we don’t need to take degrees in Economics to know that neither the worker nor the landlord produces land… We must, as I have said, regain our former attitude of mind — our traditional African socialism — and apply it to the new societies we are building today… The European socialist cannot think of his socialism without its father — capitalism! Brought up in tribal socialism, I must say I find this contradiction quite intolerable… We, in Africa, have no more need of being ‘converted’ to socialism than we have of being ‘taught’ democracy. Both are rooted in our own past — in the traditional society which produced us.”¹²
Or, in the words of Felipe Coronel,
“I think that we have to acknowledge something: our people’s revolution doesn’t begin somewhere in the early to mid-1800s, after Marx and the rest of them came out with this ideology, that other people then came and either endorsed or added their own particular stamp to… We didn’t need a European guy to come to us, to the ‘dark jungles’ of Latin America and Africa, and explain to us the ‘complex’ concept of sharing. We knew what collectivism was for thousands of years. It’s the way that all of us stayed alive.”¹³
Marx’s critique of capitalism is integral to creating an emancipatory socialist future and remains more pertinent today than ever. Our task is to strip away any vestiges of settler colonialism from the socialist project and empower all who struggle against imperialism and exploitation around the world, no matter their color of skin or culture. The battle for human dignity, for freedom from iniquity, whether in Zimbabwe or Palestine, Syria or India, or on Turtle Island or Cuba, isn’t fought in the name of a White European invention, but for a universal ideal.
Let’s avoid descending into polemics, and instead encourage fruitful discussion of these critical questions. Why ask what Indigenous movements can learn from socialists, instead of the opposite: What can socialists learn from Indigenous movements, from Indigenous culture, from Indigenous politics, and from Indigenous ways of being?
2. Freidrich Engels. Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, Marx/Engels Selected Works (Progress Publishers, 1970). https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/download/Engels_Socialism_Utopian_and_Scientific.pdf
3. Freidrich Engels. The Origin of the Family, Marx/Engels Selected Works (Progress Publishers, 1970). https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1884/origin-family/index.htm
4. Archibald Kennedy, The Importance of Gaining and Preserving the Friendship of the Indians to the British Interest, Considered (Yale University Library, 1751). https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Franklin/01-04-02-0037
5. Ronald Wright. Stolen Continents: The “New World” Through Indian Eyes Since 1492 (Toronto: Viking, 1992).
6. Kwame Ture speaking, date uncertain, https://www.youtube.com/watch?app=desktop&v=hLKnn_k5jmI
7. Ibn Khaldun. The Muqaddimah (Princeton University Press, 2019).
8. Leanne Betasamosake Simpson. As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom through Radical Resistance (University of Minnesota Press, 2017).
9. Karl Polanyi. The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time. Beacon Press, 1957.
11. Koehi Saito, Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism (Monthly Review Press, 2017).
12. Julius Nyerere. Ujamaa: Essays on Socialism (Oxford University Press, 1968).
13. Felipe Coronel, interview with Ramiro Fúnez, 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7huo8w4IxaI&feature=youtu.be&t=282
● Acosta, Alberto. Buen Vivir Sumak Kaway (2012)
● Amin, Samir. Eurocentrism (1989)
● Biel, Robert. Eurocentrism and the Communist Movement (1985)
● Coulthard, Glen. Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition (2014)
● Foster, John Bellamy; Clark, Brett; Holleman, Hannah, Marx and the Indigenous (2020)
● Nyerere, Julius. Ujamaa: Essays on Socialism (1968)
● Simpson, Leanne Betasamosake. As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom Through Radical Resistance (2017)
● Saito, Kohei. Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism (2017)