The Columbus debate
Paul Thatcher (letters, April)
challenges Paola Martos' characterisation of native American culture as
prehistoric in contradistinction to the progressive development of the continent
following Columbus' discovery ('Columbus:
rediscovering America', Marxist Review of Books, March). Thatcher points
out that the tribes of North America lived in a state of primit-ive communism
before the destruction of their societies by white settlers.
When Lewis Henry Morgan first character-ised Iroquois society as primitive
and communal in 1851, from which Marx and Engels took their classification
'primitive communism', it was not intended as a celebration of native Americans.
Rather he concluded that the absence of 'progress or invention' was the
basis of their communal property, leaving them at 'the zero of human society'.
Progress here means the development of technology and the social and cultural
development arising out of it. Native North Americans were 'prehistoric'
in that they had no written history, only folklore.
Capitalism develops technology at enormous human cost. Not just native Americans,
but Scottish highlanders and German peasants were 'cleared' from the land
so that the ruling classes could monopolise the means of subsistence. However,
it is the technological development that follows which makes communism a
possibility rather than a primitive penury. Thanks to the development of
modern cinematography and the eight-hour day, I too can romanticise the
lives of noble savages without electric light or flush toilets. And, thanks
to Thomas Edison and Thomas Crapper, I don't have to stay bound to nature
when the film is over.
James Heartfield London
The Marxist Review of Books on Columbus
confirms my view that like Marx himself, his followers who are non-black
or non-Afro/Asian approach political economy and history with their minds
clouded over with Eurocentric values and preconceptions.
In Europe capitalism played a progressive role in breaking feudalism and
releasing the productive energies of the peoples, albeit at a cost. When
triumphant capitalism went abroad it wasn't a progressive and enlightening
force but a predatory adventurer intent on plundering and colonising the
New World for the benefit of Europe. At the same time as the Marxist hates
capitalist exploitation at home he defends its inhuman vandalism against
the 'primitives' as liberating and progressive.
If a group of people wish to live in the Stone Age it is no part of your
patronising duty to drag them screaming into the twentieth century in the
name of science and progress. To discover one's true past can by no stretch
of the imagina-tion be described as inventing an alternative past. Such
a view is the result of unconscious racist arrogance and condescension masquer-ading
as progressive Marxist thinking. Euro-centric historiography has falsified
our history by rewriting it in subtle ways, and in the process devalued
and dehumanised us. It is silly to describe a project to debunk deep-seated
myth as itself a process of myth-making.
S Singarayer Plymouth
Paul Thatcher's attempt
to deny the charge that the anti-Columbus lobby is reactionary actually
strengthens the case put forward by Paola
Martos. By trying to prove that 'progress is not exclusively found in
the European tradition', Thatcher unquestioningly accepts what is a meaningless
phrase. There is no such thing as a 'European tradition' any more than there
is such a thing as 'Welsh civilisation'. These terms have been developed
by right-wing propagand-ists to reclaim the moral legitimacy of Western
imperialism at a time when it was discredited by national liberation movements
in the Third World. Their project requires an artificial selection of the
achievements of humanity for the purpose of creating a supposed 'Western'
'Culture' is part of the history of learning of the whole of mankind. Thatcher
would never have known about the Iroquois were it not for the forces which
compelled society to seek out better methods of production. It will take
another step to take humanity further, but one which rejects the backward-looking
outlook of people like Thatcher.
Ann Bradley has a cheek to criticise Survival International's work with
tribal peoples by quoting selectively from our literature ('Why
envy Yanomami Indians?', April). If she had consulted us she would have
realised that far from keeping 'the benefits of penicillin and antibiotics
to ourselves', Survival has been funding doctors to administer medicine
to the Yanomami who are dying from diseases which they have never encountered
before. Many indigenous peoples are not against development. What they do
not need are paternalistic projects which have so often destroyed their
lands. What they want is recognition of their land ownership rights and
cultural freedom - basic human rights.
If Ann Bradley were to visit indigenous communities she could see for herself
the hard reality which belies the romantic ideal she attributes to me. There
are no 'picturesque photos' here - only human suffering, poverty and social
dislocation. Survival International has actively supported indigenous peoples
in their struggle for self-determination and their basic right to control
their own lives. Entrenched and cynical attitudes like Ann Bradley's perpetuate
falsehoods and do a disservice to indigenous peoples who are struggling
just to survive the onslaught of systems which certainly do not herald progress
in their terms.
Fiona Watson Campaigns Officer, Survival International
A few notes on music
A few comments on Mark Reilly's excellent analysis of the 'Western cultural
tradition' and the National Curriculum Council ('A
classic deception', March). First, to claim that the pinnacle of Western
musical tradition was in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries ignores
the achievements of contemporary composers such as Messiaen, Ligeti, Stockhausen
or Feldman. No classical composer of importance has ever claimed intellectual
or musical heritage from Mozart. After all, Mozart hardly wrote anything
original. Most of his famous pieces are 'classical' arrangements of popular
tunes of his time. 'Ethnic' folk songs were his speciality.
Second, Reilly is behaving like a cultural imperialist himself when all
he can come up with in regard to 'ethnic' music is rock and reggae. If you
consider ethnic forms of art as an 'attempt to define an exclusive culture-spirit'
within a much larger, more homogenous society then it deserves no more attention
than is in agreement with the number of its followers. Ethnic music as part
of a world tradition of diverse foreign cultures may someday be in higher
regard and would indeed command an equal place on a curriculum which claims
to be progressive and impartial.
Jeffrey Decker Frankfurt
Fear of the third world
The latest anti-third world propaganda is the invention of the 'Islamic
Bomb'. I agree that 'the weaker the enemy, the more of a threat they apparently
pose to the USA (Frank Richards, 'Invasion
of the third world fanatics', April). These ludicrous Pentagon reports
based on hypothetical scenarios, together with over-zealous Western leaders
willing to point the finger at the victims of imperialism, are obvi-ously
manufactured. Yet there are things that still frighten people, whatever
the US hype about fanatics.
Third world countries are mostly ruled by military dictators who wouldn't
hesitate to use a nuclear bomb if they got their hands on it. This is the
only quick and easy source of power they have in a world system dominated
by Western nations. It's no wonder that people put third world dictators
on an equal par with Western imperialists. They're simply worried about
nuclear war - whatever the source or the aggressor.
Andrew Tarrot Norwich
Scotland's model nationalism
Helene Gold says that Scottish nationalism is 'exclusive and inward-looking'
and merely an expected manifestation of the negative traditions of Scottishness
('Why I am not a nationalist',
April). But why is it that only Scottish nationalism is an attempt to 'tinker
with borders and parliaments?' If it's true that all workers share the same
interests, why is Irish nationalism acceptable to the RCP? To suggest that
Ireland is different because it is some type of third world region subject
to partial colonial rule from London sounds like any excuse to support a
struggle simply because it is a violent one, and therefore more legitimate.
If an independent Scotland would develop into an 'inward-looking' nation,
then this must be even more so for Ireland which is already so introverted
and insulated that any woman looking for an abortion has to leave the country.
Helene Gold's argument against an independ-ent Scotland and Ann Bradley's
description of how backward and poor the Irish Republic has become ('How
much better is British law?', April) seem to suggest that the Irish
Republic would be better off as part of Britain again. They are both wrong.
Maybe the political form of Scottish disillusionment and apathy is at least
benign enough to challenge the authority of Westminster - probably successfully - without
having to kill people. Scottish nationalism should become a model!
Francis Huddy Brighton
Working class women breast-feed
Luckily for Bernadette Whelan the Medical Research Council came up with
some dubious findings regarding the benefits of breast feeding to a child's
intelligence ('The breast-feeding fraud',
April). This made her decision to change to bottle-feeding instantly ideologically
sound. I agree that breast-feeding for the first month or so can make you
feel as if your life blood is being drained. But this passes, and anyway
descriptions such as 'time consuming and boring' could be applied to many
aspects of childcare.
I don't want to get into the breast v bottle argument, and I'm not going
to wax lyrical about the joys and benefits of breast-feeding, which are
many. But I cannot contain myself on the ludicrous claim that it is impossible
for working class women to breast-feed, or indeed that breast-feeding in
a council flat is impractical. I breast-fed quite successfully in my council
flat. A rich woman who breast-feeds is just as likely to get sore nipples
or suffer using a breast pump, as a poor woman. Money won't buy sturdy nipples
and confidence in your ability to produce milk. It is, however, essential
for buying formula, bottles and sterilizers.
I do agree that the 'inclination' to breast-feed is essential for its success.
If you do not want to breast-feed then formula will do fine. But saying
it is 'out of the question' for working class women to breast-feed just
perpetuates the myth of an underclass and would have the formula-makers
rubbing their hands in glee.
E Watkins London SE24
Tyson and stereotypes
Congratulations on your move across the Atlantic. I wonder whether, now
that Living Marxism is operating Stateside, there will be more articles
on American politics and society? The start that you have made with 'The
Rape of Black America' (April) is excellent. The forwarding of racist
stereotypes, which Emmanuel Oliver outlined as typical of British press
coverage of the Tyson affair, was also apparent in the US media, especially
here in the Deep South.
The racist attack was, however, made doubly insulting by the way that stereotypes
of women were used. Compare the Tyson case to the trial of Willie Kennedy
Smith. Smith's victim was portrayed as a bare-legged slut in a miniskirt
who had been out partying until the early hours. Tyson's victim was shown
by the media to be a sweet and naive virgin, who trusted Tyson because she
believed him to be a religious man. These contrasting images of women, whore
and Madonna, do not only denigrate the women involved (and all women by
extension) but were used to serve the vile cause of racism and to reinforce
the establishment's case - in the attack on Tyson to suggest his (particularly
horrific) guilt. Kennedy Smith's victim, on the other hand, clearly asked
for it. The fact that Smith is neither black, nor of the ghetto, may have
been incidental to his acquittal. But I doubt it.
Cheryl Benton Oxford, Mississippi
A steak in the system?
A friend of mine, a Green vegetarian, tried to convince me that communism
would have to be vegetarian. He said that a rationally planned economy could
only feed everyone if it didn't waste valuable land feeding animals, and
grew crops which would yield more food. His argument made sense but I still
have a problem with it.
I am virtually a vegetarian anyway because I'm on the dole and can't afford
to buy meat. Steaks are a rare luxury, and I've never cooked a single roast
since I left home seven years ago. So for me, the best place for a cow will
always be on my plate and I don't think communism would be worth having
without that. Who's right, me or my friend?
Eleanor McKenzie Newcastle
Designs on Living Marxism
Well Bailley, you've come down in the world old boy - Bradford is somewhat
different from Kensington I fear! Now about your letter (letters,
April). Your photographs may have as much life as a dead cat, however
that doesn't stop us real photographers from capturing the irony of life.
Adding photographs and unusual typesetting does not detract from the content
of the articles as you would have undoubtedly found in your comparison with
On the contrary, like any good artist, you would appreciate the experimentation
in magazine design and the sense of dynamism that it brings which is so
sorely lacking in contemporary art. I would like to offer my services to
Living Marxism. If you need any photographs of the royals - don't
hesitate to call me.
Lord Snowdon London.
Is David Bailley a mutant sub-species of the comic freaks who buy 10 copies
of everything, seal them in acid-free bags and lock them in nuke-proof bunkers?
I really like the new wide margins in the magazine. Giros don't stretch
to smart stationary; so I get extra value for my two quid by writing all
over every empty space in my copies whenever I feel like it. And sod the
future resale value.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 43, May 1992