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Vol. 73/No. 13      April 6, 2009

U.S. capitalism arose
upon conquest of Indians
(Books of the Month column)
Printed below is an excerpt from Genocide against the Indians—Its Role in the Rise of U.S. Capitalism by George Novack. The pamphlet is one of Pathfinder's Books of the Month for April. The conflict between the European settlers and the Indians was a social struggle between two incompatible systems of production, forms of property, and ways of life, explains Novack. The piece quoted is from the chapter "The Indians and the struggle for possession of the land." Copyright © 1970 by Pathfinder Press. Reprinted by permission.

In their catalogue of crimes against humanity, the spokesmen for capitalism include the expropriation of property without “just compensation,” the use of violence to overturn established regimes, and the resort to extralegal measures. They add, as the crime of crimes, the extermination of entire populations, for which the term “genocide” has recently been coined. These self-professed humanitarians ascribe such aims above all to “Marxist” and “Communist” devils. In contrast they hold up the angelic respect for property rights, love of peace, regard for law and order, preference for gradual change by democratic consent, and other virtues presumably inculcated by American “free enterprise.”

This is a handy set of principles to justify the capitalist regime while defaming its opponents. But all these principles have little application to the conduct of the bourgeoisie in American history. They have been honored, if at all, more in the breach than in the observance.

Historians fired by zeal to indict the opponents of capitalism for these offenses should first direct their attention to the ancestors of contemporary American capitalism. No class in American history invaded the property rights of others more ruthlessly, employed violence so readily, and benefited so extensively by revolutionary actions as has the American bourgeoisie on its road to power.

The precursors of the monopolists acquired their property by expropriating the Indians, the British crown along with its Loyalist lackeys, and the slaveholders, not to mention their continued stripping of the small farmers and self-employed workers. They effected these dispossessions of other people’s property not simply by peaceful, legal, or democratic means, but in extremely violent, high-handed, and militaristic ways. Wherever they could not get what they went after by bargaining or money, they took by main force or direct action.

The conquest of the Indians, as we have seen, takes its place in this series of events as the earliest and crassest case of the rapacity, ferocity, and duplicity with which the bourgeois forces smashed the impediments on the way to their objectives. They themselves committed the supreme crime they falsely attribute to the aims of revolutionary socialists. The extermination of the Indian was the outstanding example of “genocide” in modern American history—and it was the first rung in the ladder by which the bourgeoisie climbed to the top.

The transmission of the continent into their hands was not accomplished by peaceful agreements. It is common knowledge that virtually every treaty made with the Indians for over four hundred years was broken by the architects of the American nation. By brute force, by the most perfidious deeds, by wars of extermination, they settled the question of who was to own and occupy the continent and to rule it. The treatment of the Indians exemplifies to what lengths the owners of private property can—and will—go in promoting their material interests.

The methods by which the white invaders disposed of the Indian problem had far-reaching results. Ancient Indian society was shattered and eradicated and powerful masters placed over them and over North America. The main social substance of that sweeping change consisted in the conversion and division of tribal property in land, owned in common and cooperatively used, into private property. This continent passed from the loose network of tribal communities into the hands of kings, landed proprietors, planters, merchants, capitalists, small farmers, and town dwellers who directed and composed the new society.

The conflict between the red man and the white is usually represented as essentially racial in character. It is true that their mutual antagonism manifested itself and was carried on by both sides under the guise of racial hatred. But their war to the death was at bottom a social struggle, a battle for supremacy between two incompatible systems of production, forms of property, and ways of life. Like all profound social struggles the scramble for the sources and acquisition of wealth was at its root. In this case, the chief prize was individual ownership and “free” disposition of the land and its products.

These material stakes account for the obdurateness of the conflict which persisted through four centuries and for the implacable hostility displayed by white settlers of all nationalities toward the Indians of all tribes. This was also responsible in the last analysis for the impossibility of any harmony or enduring compromise between the two. One or the other had to yield and go under.

That is how the materialist school of Marxism interprets the cruel treatment accorded the Indians and the reasons for their downfall. If this explanation is accepted, prevailing views of early American history must be discarded. Schoolchildren, and not they alone, are taught nowadays that the first great social change in this country came from the Patriots’ fight for independence in the last quarter of the eighteenth century. In the light of the foregoing analysis, this long-standing misconception has to be rejected.

The colonial uprising, for all its importance, was neither the first social transformation in America, nor can it be considered the most fundamental one. It was preceded, interwoven, and followed by the white invasion and penetration which overthrew the Indian tribal network. This process of struggle, undertaken to install the rule of private property and its corresponding institutions in place of communal property and its specific institutions, was an even more radical social upheaval than the contest between the colonists and the mother country.  
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