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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.

'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.

Sinisa Brixton

Survival International

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 early LMs.

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.

Ned Glasgow
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 43, May 1992

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