In Memoriam: Anthony Bourdain on America’s “uncomfortable” encounter with Mexico

Transcript of a monologue by Anthony Michael Bourdain, 1956-2018

Americans love Mexican food. We consume nachos, tacos, burritos, tortas, enchiladas, tamales and anything resembling Mexican in enormous quantities. We love Mexican beverages, happily knocking back huge amounts of tequila, mezcal and Mexican beer every year. We love Mexican people—as we sure employ a lot of them. Despite our ridiculously hypocritical attitudes towards immigration, we demand that Mexicans cook a large percentage of the food we eat, grow the ingredients we need to make that food, clean our houses, mow our lawns, wash our dishes, look after our children. As any chef will tell you, our entire service economy—the restaurant business as we know it—in most American cities, would collapse overnight without Mexican workers. Some, of course, like to claim that Mexicans are “stealing American jobs”. But in two decades as a chef and employer, I never had ONE American kid walk in my door and apply for a dishwashing job, a porter’s position—or even a job as prep cook. Mexicans do much of the work in this country that Americans, probably, simply won’t do.

We love Mexican drugs. Maybe not you personally, but “we”, as a nation, certainly consume titanic amounts of them—and go to extraordinary lengths and expense to acquire them. We love Mexican music, Mexican beaches, Mexican architecture, interior design, Mexican films.

So, why don’t we love Mexico?

We throw up our hands and shrug at what happens and what is happening just across the border. Maybe we are embarrassed. Mexico, after all, has always been there for us, to service our darkest needs and desires. Whether it’s dress up like fools and get pass-out drunk and sun burned on Spring break in Cancun, throw pesos at strippers in Tijuana, or get toasted on Mexican drugs, we are seldom on our best behavior in Mexico. They have seen many of us at our worst. They know our darkest desires.

In the service of our appetites, we spend billions and billions of dollars each year on Mexican drugs—while at the same time spending billions and billions more trying to prevent those drugs from reaching us. The effect on our society is everywhere to be seen. Whether it’s kids nodding off and overdosing in small town Vermont, gang violence in LA, burned out neighborhoods in Detroit— it’s there to see. What we don’t see, however, haven’t really noticed, and don’t seem to much care about, is the 80,000 dead—mostly innocent victims in Mexico, just in the past few years. 80,000 dead. 80,000 families who’ve been touched directly by the so-called “War On Drugs”.

Mexico. Our brother from another mother. A country, with whom, like it or not, we are inexorably, deeply involved, in a close but often uncomfortable embrace. Look at it. It’s beautiful. It has some of the most ravishingly beautiful beaches on earth. Mountains, desert, jungle. Beautiful colonial architecture, a tragic, elegant, violent, ludicrous, heroic, lamentable, heartbreaking history. Mexican wine country rivals Tuscany for gorgeousness. Its archeological sites—the remnants of great empires, unrivaled anywhere. And as much as we think we know and love it, we have barely scratched the surface of what Mexican food really is. It is NOT melted cheese over a tortilla chip. It is not simple, or easy. It is not simply ‘bro food’ halftime. It is in fact, old– older even than the great cuisines of Europe and often deeply complex, refined, subtle, and sophisticated. A true mole sauce, for instance, can take DAYS to make, a balance of freshly (always fresh) ingredients, painstakingly prepared by hand. It could be, should be, one of the most exciting cuisines on the planet. If we paid attention. The old school cooks of Oaxaca make some of the more difficult to make and nuanced sauces in gastronomy. And some of the new generation, many of whom have trained in the kitchens of America and Europe have returned home to take Mexican food to new and thrilling new heights.

It’s a country I feel particularly attached to and grateful for. In nearly 30 years of cooking professionally, just about every time I walked into a new kitchen, it was a Mexican guy who looked after me, had my back, showed me what was what, was there—and on the case—when the cooks more like me, with backgrounds like mine—ran away to go skiing or surfing—or simply “flaked.” I have been fortunate to track where some of those cooks come from, to go back home with them. To small towns populated mostly by women—where in the evening, families gather at the town’s phone kiosk, waiting for calls from their husbands, sons and brothers who have left to work in our kitchens in the cities of the North. I have been fortunate enough to see where that affinity for cooking comes from, to experience moms and grandmothers preparing many delicious things, with pride and real love, passing that food made by hand, passed from their hands to mine.

In years of making television in Mexico, it’s one of the places we, as a crew, are happiest when the day’s work is over. We’ll gather round a street stall and order soft tacos with fresh, bright, delicious tasting salsas—drink cold Mexican beer, sip smoky mezcals, listen with moist eyes to sentimental songs from street musicians. We will look around and remark, for the hundredth time, what an extraordinary place this is.

The received wisdom is that Mexico will never change. That is hopelessly corrupt, from top to bottom. That it is useless to resist—to care, to hope for a happier future. But there are heroes out there who refuse to go along. On this episode of PARTS UNKNOWN, we meet a few of them. People who are standing up against overwhelming odds, demanding accountability, demanding change—at great, even horrifying personal cost.

This show is for them.


Empires of Aid and Compassion: Foundations as Architects of Neoliberalism

They seriously and very sentimentally set themselves to the task of remedying the evils that they see in poverty, but their remedies do not cure the disease: they merely prolong it… the proper aim is to try and reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty will be impossible.

(Oscar Wilde on philanthropists, quoted in Global Justice Now, 2016. Emphasis added.)

The existence of, and significance, of philanthropic foundations and their influence are increasingly becoming part of public discussion. Foundations have come to be significant in US partisan politics after the 2016 election, with criticism from both the left and right being directed towards Bill and Hilary Clinton’s Clinton Foundation, including its scandalous kickbacks schemes in Haiti, and its dependency on donations from the Saudi royal family. Asra Nomani also brought attention to the dominance of organizations funded by one of Clinton’s most generous financial backers at the Women’s March on Washington, George Soros, who also heads the Open Society Foundation, a significant philanthropic actor in its own right. More recently, Donald Trump’s philanthropy has also come under scrutiny.

Perhaps the most critical analysis of modern philanthropic foundations available to the wider public is a report by the UK pressure group Global Justice Now. Their report Gated Development: Is the Gates Foundation always a force for good? (2016), which provides a damning assessment of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMG for short), received little attention in the mainstream media, apart from an article in the UK paper The Independent. The article summarizes the Global Justice report as saying that the Gates Foundation promotes neoliberal economic policies and “corporate globalization” in service of its allies and funders, including major transnationals, agricultural companies, and pharmaceuticals.

Given the Gates Foundations’ significant investments in ExxonMobil, Dutch Shell, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, and McDonald’s, and its significant ownership of pharmaceutical intellectual property (McGoey, 2012), Global Justice’s claim deserves more attention than it has been given by the media. The Gates Foundation purports itself to be at the forefront of improving quality of life in the Global South, yet invests in some of the largest transnationals involved in destructive resource extraction and exploitative labour practices throughout the world, to say nothing of Microsoft’s own exploitative, neoliberal growth schemes (Microsoft is one of the largest funders of the Gates Foundation besides Warren Buffett and the Gates themselves), which provided the surplus wealth necessary to create such a massive philanthropic enterprise.

Transnational Oligarchs, gangsters turned self-appointed Saviors

The Gates Foundation is often seen as the global vanguard of what its proponents call “philanthrocapitalism” – the application of business strategies to the distribution of charity and aid through philanthropic organizations. Such a strategy and ideological fixation has recently come under criticism, even by the “cautious fans” of philanthropic organizations, pointing out how profit-maximizing logics when applied to international development often result in shortsightedness (Youde, 2013; Edwards, 2009)

Looking at history, it is clear that this is by design, rather than by accident. Birn (2014) provides a historical comparison between the Gates Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation. Both foundations have been significant in shaping the development of global health policy, operating on similar models, which the Rockefeller Foundation pioneered and the Gates Foundation claims to innovate upon. Thus, the contemporary hype around “philanthrocapitalism” is more of a re-brand of old-fashioned oligarchic foundations rather than anything substantially new. Both Gates and Rockefeller disbursed charity strategically, as way to secure their for-profit companies’ investments, fend off radical alternatives, and promote development strategies which keep recipients dependent on their aid and their products.

It is difficult sometimes for the public to imagine philanthropic foundations, which spend lots on public relations emphasizing the selfless “good” their work does, are actually doing harm or advancing private interests. I myself remember growing up in an environment saturated with stories of the benevolence of Bill Gates, “the billionaire who wants to give it all away”. Gates in those days, and to an extent still does today, possessed a veneration as a kind of philosopher-king, making it somewhat unthinkable to question in decent company why this one individual should have more wealth than the GDPs of forty-five countries. This is consistent with the capitalist moral ethos which Linsey McGoey (2014), an expert in philanthropic foundations, says that philanthropy helps reinforce.


Yet this humanitarian morality, what Maximillian Forte calls “moral narcissism” (2012), hardly stands up to examination. After all, as the Global Justice Now report points out, the practices of the BMG Foundation are consistently part of a strategy to bolster the investments of its funders and those companies it holds shares in. Funds and resources are often disbursed not to the poorest of the world’s population, but to countries and populations that the BMG can expect a return from (Global Justice Now, 2016). Furthermore, similar programs could easily be funded through state revenue acquired by taxing such large personal fortunes as that of the Gates and Buffets, thus private, unelected actors are taking over what was historically the responsibility of democratic, sovereign state formations (Global Justice Now, 2016; St.-Pierre, 2014). Such philanthropic elites often circumvent their obligations to their fellow citizens in the form of taxes through elaborate tax evasion schemes, such as those uncovered by the Paradise Papers.

Biopower and “Compassionate” Biological Imperialism

Each of these two über-powerful foundations [Rockefeller and Gates] emerged at a critical juncture in the history of international/global health. Each was started by the richest, most ruthless and innovative capitalist of his day” (Birn, 2014)

The use of philanthropic foundations towards the insurance of capitalist ends is particularly evident in global health governance, a sector itself pioneered by the Rockefeller Foundation. Rockefeller’s motivation for establishing global health as a humanitarian sector was primarily driven by his desire to stave off criticism of his business practices and combat the rise of militant labor unions and radical socialist organizers within his US workforces, especially after armed guards massacred striking workers at a Rockefeller-owned mine (Birn, 2014; Youde, 2013). The Rockefeller Foundation represented the entrenchment of philanthropy, as opposed to church charity, which explicitly understood itself as being a defensive investment in alleviating suffering among the masses to forestall said masses from taking issues into their own hands.

Michel Foucault described biopower as “an explosion of numerous and diverse techniques for achieving the subjugations of bodies and the control of populations” (1976) pursued by states and the administrators of various capitalist power structures. In the case of global health governance, the “bio” in biopower is quite literal. The BMG, in continuation of its predecessor the Rockefeller Foundation, is one of the largest players in global health governance, policy, and research development today. It is the second-largest funder of the World Health Organization, second only to the United States government, and owns most of the HIV/AIDS research being conducted in the world today, leading to increasing concern among the scientific community about the independence, accountability, neutrality and purposes of HIV research being conducted (Birn, 2014). Meanwhile, Brazil and India were both served lawsuits for subsidizing the manufacture of cheap, no-name HIV and Malaria treatments (St-Pierre, 2014).

Further exercise of oligarchic-imperialist biopower by Gates Foundation includes reproductive health aid and in agricultural reform, pushing alarming agendas. Research shows that the BMG’s promotion of genetically modified seeds has served as an instrument to displace Indian peasants, as intellectual property ownership over seed DNA is given priority over traditional land rights. Meanwhile, concerns have emerged that Gates Foundation-funded hospitals and medical facilities are performing forced sterilizations and other non-consensual population control operations on African women as part of BMG’s reproductive health programs.

Africa: The Philanthropic Playground

Nowhere is this philanthropic power-grabbing most pronounced than on the African continent. After all, it is usually African children, African cities, and African landscapes that are used as props for philanthropic advertising, a sadistic showcase of desperation if there ever was one. The BMG is of course active in creating these “poverty porn” productions, but these visual manifestations of imperial humanitarianism also enlist the talents of celebrities, such as U2’s Bono, who readily embrace the “private sector” as a solution to “Africa’s problems”. Nowhere do these philanthropists indict colonialism, imperialism, or neo-colonialism in Africa for contributing to the continent’s many problems, because this of course would indict them and their own enterprises in perpetuating Africa’s status as a vast dependency.

The “concern” generated by such imagery, and the push for “innovative” solutions aggrandized by them, is mobilized selectively. For example, Mozambique’s public healthcare system, dubbed a model for the developing world, was gutted after the fall of the USSR (Mozambique’s main financier and ally) and USAID support was redirected to be filtered through NGO’s and Private-Public Partnerships (P3’s), some overseen and lobbied for by the BMG. P3 hospitals poached Mozambique doctors away from the public service with promises of higher salaries, eventually causing the public health system to completely implode, and for health services in Mozambique to be operated primarily by private actors (St-Pierre, 2014). This is consistent with Global Justice Now’s accusation of promoting “corporate globalization” (2016) – using aid as an instrument to force the privatization of robust public services, transforming them into profitable commodities for sale with captive markets of desperate citizens looking for adequate health services.

One should also scrutinize the positions of humanitarian imperialists like Bill and Melinda Gates about issues not immediately within their sphere of influence. The language of humanitarian imperialism has existed quite comfortably for some time now in the circles of militarists and interventionists overseeing US imperialism’s operations on the African continent. It was the same humanitarian imperialist discourse of “saving” that was used in the US-NATO intervention in Libya (Forte, 2012), which after months of indiscriminate bombing and support for jihadi terrorist organizations, resulted in the looting of that countries oil and mineral wealth and the absolute collapse of Libyan society. The fall of Libya’s pan-Africanist, anti-imperialist oriented government also created a power vacuum quickly filled by the US African Command (AFRICOM), which is now waging wars throughout the continent.  Given that statistically speaking, wealthy Americans are the demographic most likely to support foreign military interventions abroad, and often lobby for such interventions, it would not be ridiculous to suspect that philanthropists like Bill and Melinda Gates were quite pleased with the Obama administration’s interventionist strategy in Libya, and the subsequent expansion of AFRICOM, seeing it all as part of the West’s great humanitarian project. A 21st-century white man’s burden.

Image result for sirte us intervention
Sirte, Libya, post US-NATO “Humanitarian” Intervention


While the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are perhaps the most obvious culprit given their foundation’s massive size, one should not let other foundations like the Clinton Foundation, the Trump Foundation, George Soros’ Open Society Foundation, or new entrants like the Zuckerberg Foundation, off the proverbial hook. It should be evident that philanthropic foundations, being extensions of capitalism and of the financial and political dominance of capitalists, operate according to the rules of profit-maximization and continued accumulation by dispossession. Far from being passive entities in this process, they are often its active architects and thus deserve to be regarded and scrutinized in the same way any for-profit corporation performing similar roles should be.


Birn, Anne-Emmanuelle, 2014. “Philanthrocapitalism, past and present: The Rockefeller Foundation, the Gates Foundation, and the setting(s) of the international/ global health agenda.” Hypothesis Vol. 12, no.1: 1-27.

Connett, David. 19 February 2016. “Gates Foundation accused of ‘dangerously skewing’ aid priorities by promoting ‘corporate globalisation‘” Independent.

D’Souza, Dinesh. 2016. “How the Clinton Foundation got rich off poor HaitiansNational Review.

Edwards, Michael. 2009. “Why ‘philanthrocapitalism’ is not the answer: private initiatives and international development” in M. Kremer et al., eds., Doing Good or Doing Better: Development Policies in a Globalising World, 237-250.

Forte, Maximillian. 2012. Slouching Towards Sirte: NATO’s War on Africa and Libya. Montreal, QC: Baraka Books.

Foucault, Michel. 1976. The History of Sexuality Vol. 1. Paris, FR: Editions Gallimard.

Global Justice Now. 2016. Gated Development: Is the Gates Foundation always a force for good?

Greenwald, Glenn. 2016. “Why Did the Saudi Regime and Other Gulf Tyrannies Donate Millions to the Clinton Foundation?The Intercept.

McElwee, Sean, Brian Schaffner and Jesse Rhodes. 1 March 2017. “How Wealthy Donors Drive Aggressive Foreign Policy” in The Nation.

McGoey, Linsey. 2012. “Philanthropcapitalism and its critics.” Poetics Vol. 40, no.2: 185-199.

Morgan, Wesley and Bryan Bender. 10 December 2017. “America’s Shadow War in Africa.Politico.

Nomani, Asra. 2017. “Billionaire George Soros has ties to more than 50 ‘partners’ of the Women’s March on Washington.Women in the World. 

St-Pierre, Emile. 2014. “Iatrogenic Imperialism: NGOs and CROs as Agents of Questionable Care” in Maximilian C. Forte, ed. The New Imperialism, Volume 4. Good Intentions: The Norms and Practices of Imperial Humanitarianism. Montreal, QC: Alert Press, 37-55.

Youde, Jeremy. 2013. “The Rockefeller and Gates Foundations in Global Health Governance.” Global Society Vol. 27, no. 2: 139-158.


Mussalaha (Reconciliation) in Syria

Reconciliation” has become something of a buzzword in Canada, the country of my birth, underpinning much of the mainstream discourse around the historical mistreatment of indigenous people and the future of relations between settlers and natives. One might be surprised to learn that Reconciliation is also a buzzword in Syria, but for rather different reasons. Mussalaha” (تصالح), reconciliation, has been a priority of the Syrian Arab Republic as part of its strategy to end internal strife in Syria since the 2012 constitutional reforms.

There is no denying that the war in Syria has transformed the country, and obviously in many ways for the worse; proud and ancient cities lay in ruins, millions have been forced to flee their residences and the homeland their ancestors have inhabited for centuries, terrorist gangs backed by Syria’s neighbors and by the United States continue to plague the country. Yet, as the war shifts in favor of the Syrian government, there is an ember of hope for the masses of  Syria (though you wouldn’t know it from mainstream media), and that hope is Mussalaha. Mussalaha has played a key role in the Syrian government’s political as well as military victories, and holds important implications that country, and the world’s, future.

The Mythologies of Imperial Divide-and-Conquer

In order understand the significance of this concept, it is necessary to understand Syria’s recent history, as well as to dispel some often-peddled myths about Syria, its people, and its government. Thankfully, due to the tireless work of committed independent journalists, historians, anti-imperialist and solidarity activists, and even some research by traditionally pro-imperialist journals and think-tanks, there is a wealth of evidence to construct a counter-narrative to the one promoted by the imperialists in the US State Department and corporate media.

The narrative which underlies coverage by large corporate conglomerate media usually goes something like this: The government of Syria is a ruthless dictatorship of the Al-Assad family, which hordes power for itself and its political allies in the Alawi religion. In 2011, there was an uprising against this dictatorship by the marginalized Sunni Muslim majority which was violently repressed by the government using chemical weapons and “barrel bombs” (in quotation marks as the term “barrel bomb” has yet to be clearly defined). Faced with great repression, the protesters turned to armed struggle. Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, in an elaborate conspiracy, implanted radical Islamist elements into the resistance which led to the growth of modern terrorist organizations like Ahrar Al-Sham, Jahabat Al-Nusra, and Al-Qaeda and ISIS outfits in Syria.

The most comprehensive and richly historicized rebuttal of this narrative is Stephen Gowans‘ recent book Washington’s Long War on Syria (2017), which I will cite extensively (you can read an excerpt of the book here). The first myth Gowans dismantles is the idea that the 2011 protests were a peaceful “popular uprising”, using sources that would certainly not be considered “pro-Assad” by any standard. For example, Gowans quotes an article by Rania Abouzeid published in Time shortly before the 2011 protests, “Even critics concede that Assad is popular and considered close to the country’s huge youth cohort, both emotionally, ideologically and, of course, chronologically.” Abouzeid added that unlike “…the ousted pro-American leaders of Tunisia and Egypt, Assad’s hostile foreign policy toward Israel, strident support for Palestinians and the militant groups Hamas and Hezbollah are in line with popular Syrian sentiment.” (Abouzeid, as quoted in Gowans, 2017. Emphasis added.). The same article features interviews with Syrian youth whom express support for Bashar Al-Assad’s political coalition, the National Progressive Front, for implementing fully public education and enforcing secularism.

Image result for pro assad rally syria
An almost iconic photo, a pro-government rally in the city of Saba, Syria,  draws thousands (Reuters, 2011).

On the protests which triggered the so-called “Syrian revolution”, Gowans demonstrates that these were in large part riots led by unpopular organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood who have been trying to topple the secular NPF government, with extensive US support, since the 1980s, and were violent from their outset – attacking public infrastructure and innocent bystanders, as well as, interestingly, calling for solidarity with various Al-Qaeda and proto-ISIS militias in Libya. These groups would go on to form the militias which, composed mostly of foreign fighters from Saudi Arabia to Sweden with covert US and Israeli support, would go on occupy and terrorize vast swaths of Syria.

We should also note the not insignificant fact that western media has propagated the idea that the Syrian government has deployed an arsenal of chemical weapons (in particular Sarin gas) during the course of its military campaign against these forces, including on civilians. What coverage of these alleged attacks ignores is that only one of these alleged attack sites has been subjected to an independent United Nations fact-finding mission (as they are required to be under international law) and the results of that mission were that the the Syrian government did not use chemical weapons. Therefore, all allegations of “Assad gassing his own people” and other such sensationalism are by default presumptions of guilt and should be immediately suspect, especially considering that the Syrian government surrendered its chemical weapons stores in 2013 and that the United States and its allies have blocked any independent investigations of attack sites. Prize-winning journalist Seymour Hersh (2017) believes this to be intentional, using insider sources from the US military to demonstrate an active campaign to demonize the Syrian government.

Hersh’s allegations are significant, because they come at a time when the US narrative on Syria is quickly unraveling. Several voices close to the US establishment; namely The Century Foundation, the New York Times, and former UN prosecutor Clara Del Ponte, have all had to make admissions that the narrative Gowans’ and other independent researchers and journalists have dedicated to deconstructing is indeed flawed. Sam Heller (2017), writing for the Century Foundation makes perhaps the most dramatic admission. Commenting on US President Donald Trump’s decision to pull funding from covert CIA support for Syrian rebel groups, he writes:

The program was intended to build a moderate rebel force that could apply serious enough military pressure on the regime to force Assad to step aside as part of a negotiated political settlement. But the latter part of that objective, a compelled transition, was always fantasy. As for the “moderate rebel force,” for the last several years much of America’s support has gone to “Free Syrian Army” (FSA) factions that have functioned as battlefield auxiliaries and weapons farms for larger Islamist and jihadist factions, including Syria’s al-Qaeda affiliate.

(Heller, 2017. Emphasis added)

This admission of funding outright terrorist forces in Syria (not a “moderate opposition” by any stretch) is a significant victory for peace activists, anti-imperialists, and everyone else who has worked to oppose the demonization of the Syrian state and US-NATO interventionism and warmongering. With the facts now established, we can better appreciate the role Reconciliation plays in Syrian state policy as both a political and ideological struggle against US-backed proxies and sectarianism.

 The National Ministry of Reconciliation and Political Reform

Of course, assuming that all is well and good within the ranks of the Syrian government would be an asinine simplification. The unleashing of the war in (or more accurately “on”) Syria revealed the need for state reforms in order to maintain stability and prevent sectarianism from being instrumentalized by the insurgency. These manifested in the 2012 constitutional reforms, which included removing the Ba’ath Party’s exclusive claim to executive office, expanding parliamentary powers, and creating mechanisms for reconciliation between different ethno-religious groups, including the National Ministry of Reconciliation, led by Dr. Ali Haidar of the opposition party the Syrian Social-Nationalists, and the forthcoming Committee of National Reconciliation. Canadian journalist Eva Bartlett interviewed Haidar in 2014. In the interview, Haidar provides an outline of the philosophy and policy objectives of Mussalaha: 

Reconciliation isn’t that we are making a deal with armed insurgents. The idea is to restore the state of security in Syria. In our work towards reconciliation, we look at two main sectors: One, the insurgents, and the other, Syrian civilians living in areas controlled by the insurgents.

Regarding the insurgents, we differentiate between the Syrian insurgents and the foreign militias. The latter refuse any dialogue with the government and are simply terrorists in Syria. And unfortunately, they are large in numbers and are the leaders of the dominant insurgent groups. The only people we communicate with are armed Syrians, not with the foreign militias.

We encourage armed Syrians to cut any ties with the foreign militias. Then, we negotiate with them on how to reconcile. We’ve been very successful, in many areas, having them disarm and go back to their normal lives. We’ve had thousands of successes.

The second focus is on Syrian society. Syrians are suffering in all respects: their security and safety, the economy, social services, education, the large number of martyrs and injured, the kidnapped, the missing, the internally-displaced… We are trying to find a solution to each one of these cases. That is the deepest meaning of ‘reconciliation’: to return people to their normal lives.

(Haidar, as quoted in Bartlett, 2014. Emphasis added)

From this, we can conclude that Reconciliation is a nationalist project. “Nationalist” not in the sense that it is ethnic or volkish but nationalist in what some might call the “Civic” sense, that is Nationalism as the construction of a community around the State – of unifying the religious, ethnic, and national groups within Syria into a coherent Syrian community which neither submerges or emphasizes these differences, but compliments them. This is a vision, according to Syrian state hagiography, that was first expressed in the 1936 Syrian rebellion and is the guiding vision of the  philosophy of Arab Socialism. This necessarily, as Haidar clarifies, includes expelling foreign fighters and insurgents, but is at its heart an inclusive project.

Dr. Ali Haidar, photographed in his office by Eva Bartlett (2014).

This policy stands in stark contrast to the image of the Syrian government, with Bashar Al-Assad at its head, as a divisive force. But understanding that Syrian state policy is primarily about maintaining social unity and preventing breakdown into sectarianism, it begins to make sense why over 50% of the Syrian population supports the Syrian government and Bashar Al-Assad specifically, why refugees tend to be fleeing from rebel-held territory and have a relatively positive view of the government (a fact I can attest to personally in addition to the linked study) and why refugees have started to return to Syria now that the war has shifted in favor of the government.

Syrian Sovereignty and the Reinvention of the Border

Of course, the concept of a “National” (read: State) Reconciliation might seem outlandish in the framework of neoliberalism, which has increasingly overrun the so called “left”, particularly in North America. Compare, for example, the attitude of the Canadian left to the US “humanitarian intervention” in Grenada in the 1980s to attitudes to the recent  interventions in Libya or Syria. There was no debate along the lines we see today; that maybe anti-imperialism should be sacrificed for the sake of “human rights”, that x, y, or z “third world dictator” had “killed his own people” and thus did not deserve our support, or that we should narcissisticly uphold “our” western models of liberal democracy as the only legitimate form of popular rule.

There are, of course, numerous things worth criticizing about the various parties and formations which made up the 1980s left, but one common position which has proved correct over the last thirty years is the understanding that the construction of centralized, yet ultimately pluralistic, states serve as one of the most powerful tools of decolonization in the contemporary era. This is precisely the kind of state that countries which have made some of the most world-shaking strides in decolonization – China, Algeria, Libya, Zimbabwe, Cuba – have all constructed on socialist foundations.

Mussalaha urges us to harken back to this understanding of what decolonization, self-determination, and democracy means, both in the first world left’s defense of third world states in the crosshairs of American Empire, and in our political programs for our own countries. Of significance in the case of Syria, both in geostrategic and ideological terms, is the existence of internationally recognized borders. The dynamics of “border control” have been precisely what has allowed the Syrian state to win victories and repel US imperialism, its proxies, and ISIS forces, and it has been precisely US efforts to either force open Syria’s borders or to fracture the country into various ethnic enclaves which have allowed the US to exercise undue influence there. While this reality’s universal implications are not the focus of this article, it is worth noting the importance of unitary state power and borders in combating imperial terra nullius.

Syrian Government Rebuilding Aleppo City (Photos, Video)
Syrian workers begin repairing streets in newly-liberated Aleppo, a key area of reconstruction for the Syrian state (SouthFront Database, 2017).

What we can say however, is that the Syrian Reconciliation project requires both a conceptual and spatial recognition of “Syria” as a political unit, which both the sectarian projects of imperialist intervention and the neoliberal discourse of left-liberals both seeks to negate in their reiterations of “ancient” Sunni vs Shia rivalries, “Alawite minority rule”, and other overt focuses on the divisions within Syrian society and exploiting them for regime-change ends (often neglecting actual minority persecution, such as the mass killing of Alawites, Christians, and Shia by opposition forces). This overcoming of sectarian division and the misapplied transference of neoliberal identity politics by left-liberals to political sectarianism to the Middle-east will be elaborated on in Part 2.



As the US vision for a fragile, recolonized Syria crumbles and forces like ISIS and Al-Nusra lose ground to the Syrian Arab Army and its domestic and international allies, and the bipartisan warmongers of the US government must begrudgingly concede defeat, I expect that the media of the “international community” (read: US imperialist world order) will produce some combination of weeping and wailing about the defeat of the nonexistent “democratic uprising” against the government and of quiet deflection away from the reality of the failure of a US campaign against another sovereign country. Because, after all, Syria, like Vietnam before it, has proven to the world that the military might of the United States is, in fact, not invulnerable to resistance, and that it can even be overcome. While the rebuilding and reconciling in Syria will take many years to come, the impending defeat of the long war on Syria is an inspiration for the modern age.


ABRAHMS, M., D. Sulivan, et al. (2017). “Five Myths About Syrian Refugees“. Foreign Affairs. 

BARTLETT, E. (2014). “As Foreign Insurgents Continue to Terrorize Syria, the Reconciliation Trend Grows.” Dissident Voice. 

GOEL, T. (2017). “Half a million Syrians return home as Syrian gov’t, allies liberate more areas.” Liberation News. 

GOWANS, S. (2017). Washington’s Long War on Syria. Montreal, QC: Baraka Books

HELLER, S. (2017). “America Had Already Lost Its Covert War in Syria – Now its Official“. The Century Foundation. 

HERSH, S. (2017). “Trump’s Red Line.” Die Welt. 

STAFF (2017). “Future Syrian Reconciliation Committee to Comprise Only Syrians – Minister.” Sputnik. 

STEELE, J. (2012). “Most Syrians back President Assad, but you’d never know from western media.” The Guardian. 

WORTH, R. (2017). “Aleppo After the Fall.” The New York Times. 


Aunque mi amo me mate, a la mina no voy

“Even if my master kills me, I shall not go to the mine.” So go the lyrics of a popular song in the Pacific lowlands. They serve as a reminder of black resistance during slavery times in this region. By withdrawing their bodies – essential tools of capital accumulation  in the alluvial gold mines – from the production process, the enslaved hit out at the source of their oppression. Relatively little is known – and even less documented – of these embodied experiences of resistance in the gold mines. Why is that so?

Resistance formed part of the slavery system from the beginning. As Norman Whitten and Arlene Torres (1998) put it, “Wherever slavery existed, self-liberation began.” In fact, the Pacific lowlands can be regarded as a territory of resistance, dating back to the early stages of colonization which was confronted with bitter and long-lasting indigenous resistance. Alonso Valencia (1991) regards the Spanish attempt at conquest as a failure, considering that for nearly two hundred years the indigenous populations were never conquered. The first conflicts took place in Uraba on the northwestern Caribbean Coast in 1510, and Valencai registers major resistance as late as 1687 without the Spanish Crown able to establish central, colonial control over the pacific lowlands. The lowlands consequently became known as “war frontier” (frontera de guerra), with indigenous resistance proving a major obstacle to the exploitation of the region’s gold resources. West (1957) observes, “Although Spanish mining acitivty in the Choco began on the upper Tamana in the 1570s, Indian hostility prevented intensive placering and the importation of many Negroes for more than a century.”

Indigenous groups in the southern part of the Pacific lowlands became known as indios de guerra, or “warring Indians”, for the ferocity with which they attacked the conquistadores so that Spanish settlements were mostly restricted to the Andean axis of Quito (in today’s Ecuador), Popayan, and Cali. Rebellions in the gold mines too were quite common. Mateo MIna (1975, AKA Michael Taussig) documents one such in Zaragoza, Antioquia, in 1598, which involved four thousand enslaved laborers. in another incident, on January 15, 1684, Citaries indios massacred miners and Spanish missionaries in the town of Negua (in today’s Choco Department). This incident spread like a fire and gripped the whole region, as towns and churches were destroyed (FUNCOP 1996). The Choco rebellion forced Spanish miners and enslaved laborers to retreat into the highlands, thus preventing the exploitation of gold placers for four years (West 1957). According to Valencia (1991) it is only from 1690 onward that we can talk of authentic conquest, and even then resistance remained a daily practice for both indigenous and Afro-descendant populations.

Resistance took on a variety of forms, including escapes, rebellions, killings, and suicides (Friedemann, 1998). Abortion and infanticide were frequent forms of female resistance, as enslaved mothers denied the slave owner control over their children, who would have been appropriated as labor (Spicker 1996). However, many acts of resistance either are not documented or are misrepresented in history. The reasons for such omissions are quite obvious. According to Sabas Casaman (1997), an Afro-descendant elderly political leader in the North Caucra region, “Colombia’s history has not been written…for a very simple reason. Because history is always written by the winners; the losers, we have no part in it, as long as we have this condition of losers.” Remembering a verse passed on in the oral tradition, Casaman reflects on the impossibility of meaningful speech in the context of oppression. Here he refers to the slave owner Julio Arboleda, who was renowned for his cruelty toward the enslaved (briefly discussed in the interlude):

Aqui aunque mas se habla

no habla sino quien pueda

el dueno de la propiedad

senor Don Julio Arboleda 

(Here, no matter what you say,

only speaks who can,

the owner of this property,

Mr. Julio Arboleda)

Historical documents of black resistance, if they exist at all, are often plagued with a racist vocabulary. Black rebellions are not represented as liberating processes by historical subjects, but as criminal acts that betray the enslaved people’s lack of gratitude toward their masters, who saw themselves as having brought Christian redemption to ignorant pagans. According to Arocha (1999), these are “documents in which the Spanish never cease to be heroes while the blacks are rarely anything but cowards and traitors.”

This unequal power relationship is also the heart of the extraordinary Afrocentric novel Chango el Gran Putas, written by the Afro-Colombian novelist, ethnographer, and intellectual Manuel Zapata Olivella (2010). In this unrivalled literary masterpiece – still to be fully acknowledged in literary history as such for its sheer mesmerizing narrative power and sweeping vision – in a section dedicated to the rebellion of the enslaved on Haiti at the end of the eighteenth century, the author addresses the relation between dominant history and international oblivion: “For the Wolf’s forgetful scribes the history of the Republic of Haiti will always be the fanatic and hate-crazed blacks’ massacre of their white brothers, never the slave owners’ genocide against a defenseless people” (the “Wolf” being a metaphor for the white man in Zapata’s account).

It is important to document the myriad historical experiences of rebellion for a number of reasons. First, such documentation challenges dominant versions of history by ascribing agency to the libres that is often missing in the accounts of the “Wolf’s forgetful scribes.” Second, and most important is today’s organizing processes of the social movement of black communities in Colombia, such a focus on agency allows for empowering connections to be made to historical resistances form today’s perspective. The pacific lowlands, once considered a territory of indigenous resistance against the colonizers of the Spanish Crown and of black resistance against slavery, is now seen by PCN [Process of Negro Communities] activists as a territory of Afro-Colombian resistance against dominant development models fueled by the logic of displacement-inducing modernity.

Oslender, U. (2016). The Geographies of Social Movements: Afro-Colombian Mobilization and the Aquatic SpaceNew York: Duke University Press, pp. 100-103.

*Canadian copyright allows the reproduction of one chapter or 20% of a book without having to obtain permission from the author. 





[This essay excerpt was written by Jimmie Durham of the Cherokee nation.  Durham was a member of the American Indian Movement and founder of the International Indian Treaty Council that lobbied the United Nations in favour of decolonization of indigenous peoples worldwide. He is also a sculptor and poet.  The entire essay can be read here.]


“. . . The white left in particular has a tendency to take the words and concepts of revolutionary leaders from around the world instead of participating in the hammering-out of a true understanding of what is going on here, and how to use it.

That is especially true when we consider questions of culture in the U.S, either white culture or some other.

For example, a group of white leftists decides to hold a conference. They know, in an abstract way, that they have been robbed of their culture and that culture is important in revolution. Therefore they set aside one or two evenings during the conference as “cultural evenings.” Songs are sung and poems are read, but these “cultural activities” are not integrated into the conference itself, instead they are isolated as special events. More important, and more to the point, no one really sees and analyzes the ways in which the conference itself is a cultural event. . . . The reason people do not see the conference itself and its interactions as a cultural event in itself is because they have been robbed of their culture.

At the first level, the culture of the society is “Western.” That is, most structures of social action are like those of any other Western country, and are clearly unlike those of American Indians, Lapps, Masai, or even societies that have become “Westernized” in many aspects, such as the black population in the U.S.

But at the second level, the people at that conference are culturally part of a society that has taken the Western tool of “specialization” and changed it to what Paulo Freire has called “specialism” in his study of mass society. (The concept of mass society is not associated with the emergence of the masses in a historical process.) Freire describes this phenomenon in Cultural Action for Freedom:

“Mass society appears in highly technological, complex societies. In order to function, these societies require specialities, which become ‘specialisms,’ and rationality, which degenerates into myth-making irrationalism.”

“Distinct from specialities, specialists narrow the area of knowledge in such a way that the so-called ‘specialists’ become generally incapable of thinking. Because they have lost the vision of the whole of which their ‘speciality’ is only one dimension, they cannot even think correctly in the area of their specialization.

“In mass society, ways of thinking become as standardized as ways of dressing and tastes in food. People begin thinking and acting according to the prescriptions they receive daily from the communications media rather than in response to their dialectical relationships with the world. In mass societies, where everything is prefabricated and behavior is almost automatized, people are lost because they do not have to ‘risk themselves.’” . . .

Our societies, our culture, defines us, in large part, and our way of experiencing the world is through our culture. Politics, economics, science and technology, language, etc., are all cultural phenomena, and finally, of course, political phenomena. Many progressive people in this country, both whites and blacks, are not critically conscious of that process, and are a part of that mass society in one degree or another.

So, when white people look critically at the Indian Movement (as they should), it should be with a critical consciousness that they are looking through their own culture, which is a particularly alienating one and therefore difficult to see through.

As if the problems mentioned above were not enough of a barrier to communication and analysis, there are still two more blocks. The first is racism, which cannot really be separated from the cultural problems I’ve been talking about. Racism is used so effectively and insidiously as a tool of oppression that some people think that it is some absolute of human nature, or at least some absolute of white human nature. Most white progressives will freely admit that they carry some racist attitudes (whereas most Indians, also infected with racism, will not), but will not take the trouble to commit themselves to identifying and eliminating those attitudes, partly because that can be done only by the kind of praxis that U.S. culture makes so difficult. Those attitudes are especially obnoxious and destructive in white people who have the aggressiveness or self-confidence to be in leadership positions of one form or another.

Racism often takes the subtle forms of assuming Indian people to be just like white people, or totally different from white people, or other unspoken generalities, which further blind the people to the realities of Indian culture. It is also the primary cause of the most hateful piece of miscommunication now going on between Indians and white progressives: “political missionary-ism”. Particularly, by young white Marxists who have never been in real situations of struggle in a working-class movement, who in fact have seldom worked with anyone except fellow-students, and who come to us as though we were ignorant “lumpen proletariat” in need of being “taught”, not only Marxism, but the realities of our own struggle. . . .

The second block is the colonial tool that I call “romanticism.” The U.S. has used romanticism more effectively to keep Indians oppressed than it has ever been used on any other people. The basis of that romanticism is of course the concept of the “Noble Savage,” but the refinements over the years have worked their way into how every non-Indian thinks about us, and how we think about ourselves. In the U.S. there is a special vocabulary of English deliberately developed to maintain oppression of Indians. This vocabulary has connotations of “primitiveness,” backwardness, savagery, etc., and affects the ways every Indian and non-Indian in the U.S. thinks about Indians, whether or not people are conscious of them. This vocabulary has become so ingrained that the use of just one of the words conjures up the thought of Indians, and we have come to assume that these are “Indian” words, or at least direct translations from an Indian language into English.

Who decided that the word “chief,” which has the connotation of meaning the head of a land or tribe, is the correct translation of theconcept of the Creek Indian word “Enhomvta”? Did white people decide that was the correct word by studying the Creek political system? No. They decided because they wanted to show the Creek nation as a “primitive” body of people and “chief” carried this connotation. At first, colonists called Indian leaders “kings,” as in the example of King Phillip of the Wampanoag “tribe.”

Compare the two following sentences describing the same event and the reasons for a colonial vocabulary may be clearer:

1. Today Archbishop Tatanka Iotanka, Minister of Interior Affairs of the present government of the nation of Lakota and the most respected religious leader of the Lakota people, was assassinated by paid agents of the United States government.

2. Today Chief Sitting Bull, a medicine man of the Sioux Indian tribe, was killed by another Indian.

Of course, I am not suggesting that the word “archbishop” would describe Sitting Bull’s position correctly or adequately, but I am saying that it describes the Lakota concept for his position just as well as the English phrase “medicine man” in the English of non-Indian people.

The romantic colonial vocabulary serves to dehumanize us, and make our affairs and political systems seem not quite as serious or advanced as those of other people. The English vocabulary used to describe us is designed to prove that we are inferior.

Here is a list of English words used in the romantic vocabulary with parallel English words in normal vocabulary. . . .


Band—State or province

Medicine Man—Doctor, minister, psychiatrist, etc.

Chief—President, prime minister, secretary general

War chief—General

Warrior, brave—Soldier


Band of warriors—Army, regiment

Great council—Cabinet, parliament, central committee

Pow wow—Festival

Great Spirit—God, Allah, etc.

Some words refer to concepts specific to the way Indians are spoken about: “full-bloods,” “1/4, 1/16, 1/64 Indian,“ “mixed breed,” etc. This is a kind of racism that is not used against any other people. And even when white society as a whole has used words like “mulatto,” white progressives have not. But today they do speak of “full-blood” Indians and so on. It is no excuse to say that many Indian people themselves use those terms—many blacks in the South also used words like “mulatto,” “yallah,” etc., at one time and some still do now. . . .

As we in our struggle break out of isolation, we also break that language barrier, usually before the non-Indians know what has happened. Today we have learned what “tribes” really means so we refuse that definition. Non-Indians, including progressive whites, still use it. Tomorrow we will no longer speak of “full-bloods”; whites may still use that racist terminology. Those who are truly committed to liberation, however, will use the advantage of their outside position to begin an understanding of what we mean by certain words and phrases, such as “traditional,” and so work in solidarity with us in the process of coming back into the world. Those whose unconscious racism makes them decide that our specialized language makes us simple-minded or romantic, or Noble Primitives will continue to enhance their own self-image by “helping” us stupid Indians.

It is not an easy situation, nor is it completely one-sided. To add to the confusion there are many young Indians today who have been brought up in cities, sometimes in white foster homes, who have been denied their own culture and the education of their people. Romantic white society gives them their concepts of what “Indianness” is. Because these young people are so alienated, they are in many ways more oppressed than the rest of us, and so their zeal and desperation makes them our “revolutionary vanguard” in many ways. They are the people most articulate and willing to talk to non-Indians. They are also more visible than the “traditionals” on the reservations.

Because they are often in leadership positions and because what they say about our culture and politics fits the romantic stereotype, non-Indians sometimes take everything they say whole-cloth, and then either write off Indians as mystics or embrace Indians as fellow-mystics according to where they, the non-Indians, are politically.

All I have written so far should serve as a backdrop and framework for the main purpose of this paper.

The Founding Fathers of the United States equated capitalism with civilization. They had to, given their mentality; to them civilization meant their society, which was a capitalist society. Therefore, from the earliest times the wars against Indians were not only to take over land but also to squash the threatening example of Indian communism. Jefferson was not the only man of his time to advocate imposing a capitalist and possessive society on Indians as a way to civilize them. The “bad example” was a real threat; the reason the Eastern Indian nations from Florida to New York State and from the Atlantic to Ohio and Louisiana are today so racially mixed is because indentured servants, landless poor whites and escaped black slaves chose our societies over the white societies that oppressed them.

Beginning in the 1890s we have been “red-baited” and branded as “commies” in Congress (see the Congressional record) and in the executive boards of churches. That was a very strong weapon in the 1920s and 1930s, and in the Oklahoma area any Indian “traditional” who was also an organizer was called a communist or even a “Wobbly.”

So we have always defined our struggle not only as a struggle for land but also as a struggle to retain our cultural values. Those values are “communistic” values. Our societies were and are “communistic” societies. The U.S. government has always understood that very well. It has not branded us all these years as communists because we tried to form labor unions or because we hung out with the IWW or the Communist Party but because the U.S. government correctly identified our political system. It did not make that a public issue because that would have been dangerous, and because it has been far more efficient to say that we are savages and primitives.

Marx used our societies as examples of what he meant by communism on two different occasions in his writings. He said that we are “Primitive Communists.” The word “primitive” means “first,” but people who have skimmed through Marx often decide, because of theconnotations of the word “primitive” which come from political manipulation, that Marx meant that we were backward or “childlike” communists. Marx was, nonetheless, very Eurocentric, and he assumed that European history was the main body of humanity’s history.

We do not need Marx’s words to teach us how to live our lives in our own society. We do not need to go through an industrial revolution so that we can come out as communists on the other side.

We do need Marxism-Leninism as a method and system for knowing the human world as it is today and for knowing how most effectively to fight our oppressor. We do need to join forces with world Marxism-Leninism, because that is the liberation movement for the world. But we will not come into that world community as a “primitive” younger brother.

Our struggle has always been not only to maintain our own lands and culture, but to fight the political system of capitalism itself. That is evident in all the speeches and addresses given by our leaders throughout U.S./Indian history. The struggle to maintain culture is in itself a revolutionary struggle. It is a dynamic and positive struggle, not a passive holding action. We speak of our traditions, and because the romanticism of non-Indians always speaks of us in the past tense (What did the Cherokees eat?, instead of What do the Cherokees eat?), it is assumed that we are speaking of things that we used to do, such as “roaming the Plains” or making arrowheads. The traditions that we mean are not the exterior manifestations that are easily identified as “Indian,” not the “artifacts” and objects of our culture, but what we call our “vision”—the value system that makes our culture. In short, we mean our political system (but remember we have been taught a special vocabulary), not our well-made arrowheads. . . .

Taking new ideas that are useful is a very Cherokee activity. It is a very Lakota activity, or Mohawk activity. We took glass beads, horses, wool blankets, wheat flour for fry-bread, etc., very early, and immediately made them identifiably “Indian” things. We are able to do that because of our cultural integrity and because our societies are dynamic and able to take in new ideas. . . .

Another of our valued traditions is to take weapons from the enemy. Thus, in the 1920’s some “benign” branch of the B.I.A. decided that if properly controlled it would be a good thing if Indians sitting on barren reservations in Oklahoma were appeased and distracted by letting them hold a dance or two in the summer months. They reasoned that this would also give white people a chance to see “real Indians” doing “real Indian stuff.” The B.I.A. decided that it would be easier and less dangerous if these affairs were inter-tribal. In those days the different Indian nations which had been forced into Oklahoma did not have much contact with each other, and were relative strangers to each other. Therefore the B.I.A. decided that small groups from each tribe would find it harder to communicate or plan an “uprising” than one nation of people, or two neighboring nations. The B.I.A. named these events “pow wows,” after the word “P’houwah” which means “elder” or “medicine man” (the white trappers a century earlier made the mistaken translation).

To be able to sing together and dance together the Indians invented new dances and songs that did not require words in any one national language. The A.I.M. “song” is a pow wow song, but it should not be thought of as a contrivance because of that. It is a very real, valid and heartening cultural experience for us. The words are the “chant” part—the chorus—common to most Indian singing.

We were not degraded and made to feel like tourist attractions by these pow wows. We used them to create unity among us. We used the English our oppressor taught us as the most available common language. In that language we exchanged information and ideas. Now the pow wows are “our thing.” We hold them all over the country all summer long, and Indians from Maine meet with Indians from New Mexico to hear a political speech from an Indian from South Dakota. This century, pow wows have been our main tool towards forming ourselves into one confederation of people and reorganizing our struggle. What was meant to alienate us we used, in ourtraditional way, to strengthen our will.

Some people get the idea that “traditional” Indians want to go back to the “good old days.” Especially, they imagine that because of our grave concern over the environment we are escapists who want to reject technology and progress. That is another part of the romantic stereotype. We have, and have always had, technology. We accept all technology that contributes to the well-being of our people, whichmust include the well-bring of the Earth itself and all the life upon it; that acceptance is neither a new thing nor an “accommodation”: it is one of our traditions. . . .

Image result for idle no more

Something that few people realize is that our culture and our vision have not remained static during our five hundred years of oppression. Indian nations which were once large (the pre-Columbian population of what is now the U.S., not counting Alaska, was 20 to 35 million) are now comparatively small and are “inside” the illegal boundaries of a giant European settler regime. These nations have had to come together, and such factors make for important cultural changes. Before Columbus we were not “warring tribes” as the history books have it, but neither did we always have a clear and motivating concept of an international “brotherhood” of humanity. Many of us had a national chauvinism which was sometimes very destructive. Also, given that we are speaking of a large continent with many countries, naturally every one of those countries did not have a good political system. No one, of course, was or is perfect. Some nations in the Southeast had very ugly class systems; in other areas some nations had pretty strange “consumer societies.” However, those aberrations were distortions of real values in a political (cultural) vision (concept) underlying all Indian societies, just as the Aztec sacrifices were horrible distortions of a common Indian concept of “society cannot develop without sacrifice.”

Colonization and our struggle for liberation accelerated a process of unification and clarification that had already begun (witness the Iroquois Confederacy and its vision). That political process of welding together, and refining and improving a unified concept of society on the Earth, is a cultural process. It is a process that is going on right now.

But it is a process, of course, that is going on internally and is seldom seen or understood from the outside. Because it is a process in a struggle for liberation, inside the most oppressive colonization the world has ever seen, it is not a smooth, clear road towards an ideal. Remember that oppression is more than skin deep; it is not exterior to a person’s inner life. It gives us confusion, self-loathing, and a natural urge to escape, which in some people takes the form of a “mental” escape—into mysticism, alcoholism, suicide, reactionism. It does that to each of us to some degree at some time or another. Some of us, in our confusion, try to escape the oppression in ways that do not help our struggle but which are not often seen as escapism either by ourselves or by non-Indians.

Some of us, particularly Indians who have been cut off from their own roots (the “urban” Indians mentioned earlier), use guilt-trip tactics on non-Indian supporters. They can easily find valid reasons for verbally blasting white co-workers because those white people have racist attitudes which make such blasts easy and seemingly excusable. But the people who escape by doing that are taking an easy and “self-satisfying” role instead of really struggling with racism, and they also get locked into attitudes that can serve to maintain our isolation; and non-Indians who simply react to those attitudes, by acceptance or belligerence, hinder our struggle.

It is a universal truth that human beings do not exist outside of their culture, their society. A biologically human animal is not fully human without, for example, language which is a cultural/political phenomenon. To speak of an alienated society is to speak of people robbed of their culture, always so that some political system can exploit them. That is what makes culture so important to liberation, and that is why it can never be considered a separate piece of human activity . . . .

Those white people who would “teach” us Marxism should realize that we have come to understand these things because we struggle to break out of isolation. The fact that white people meet us and are in solidarity with our struggle is not because they came to us, but because our struggle to regain our place in the world is effective and successful. The more we struggle the more we learn of the things in the world that we need to know, because we have broken our isolation.

We have made and will continue to make mistakes, as individuals and as a people. We are using those mistakes to further our struggle and to learn more.

Progressive non-Indians in the United States cannot be either teachers or spectators in that process, but must stand with us in true solidarity, which means a commitment to clarity, Marxist criticism and analysis of actual situations. We are, by every criterion, colonizednations of people, whose culture is not Western. Blacks, Mexicans, Chicanos, and whites all have more in common with each other than any have with us.

Our culture and our political systems have many faults, and had many faults in pre-colonial times. We have never claimed to be perfect or to have the “secret of life”. We demand, though, an end to romanticism, paternalism, and racism. We must include in that a demand for an end to liberalism directed against us. We demand to be taken seriously as the people we are, by the world and especially by other peoples on this continent. We must demand criticism of ourselves.


Our “spiritualism” is a controversial issue right now. Marx said that religion is the opium of the people. We agree that for many, religion is a drug that exploits people for the State. That is why we have fought Christianity so vehemently. But we say that our own “religion” is a force of liberation. . . .

The basis, then, of what is called our “spiritualism” is the concept of Mother Earth. That is no more nor less than a formalized realization that we are human beings, whose sustenance and creation comes from the earth. This is not counter to Marxism. From this basis, built into our culture is a critical consciousness that our methods of production coincide ecologically with what is being produced. For this reason, in our farming methods we developed an agricultural technology which has not yet been approached by Western civilization. (The same holds true of our hunting methods in most cases.) So we maintain a critical consciousness and form our political systems by making sure that that relationship and the critical consciousness of it continue. We do this through our “mythology,” our festivals and celebrations, even by our social family structure. We formalize it and ritualize it in a non-static way. The ramifications of this process are what is translated into English as our “religion” or “spiritualism.” . . .

In the system described above there is an overriding value that is also a main ingredient in our “spiritualism.” We apply the same critical consciousness that I have been speaking about to a concept of what I will call the “quality” of things: the quality of actions, changes, systems, so on. We don’t accept ideas of “development” or “economic growth” unless we can clearly see both the long-range and short-range benefits they will provide to human beings. Benefit to some abstract notion of “society” or even “the masses” is not within our framework of understanding. We might also call this value the “spirit of things.” . . .

In our “spiritual” system we have come to know that human beings, to be fully human, must be integrated into society. We’ve also found out that society is nothing without personalized human beings. Our culture denies the concept of “masses” because it carries a connotation of depersonalization. Our culture also denies the concept of an “individualistic” society. “Individual” carries a connotation of objectification of persons. A person is a person, not an “individual”. One ant in an ant hill is an “individual”. Human beings are persons, and that is not the same as “individuals”.

This is an extremely important point. A person in U.S. society who thinks of himself as, or wishes himself to be, an individual will always be trying to prove/achieve his individualness. He will try desperately to be “different” from others in his society (while making sure that his “difference” is socially acceptable to his peer-group). What he is doing is volunteering to participate in his own alienation, his own victimization. It seems to us that the concept of “masses” is just the other side of that same coin.

It is our “spiritualism” that allows us to know that we exist only as human persons, and that our only way to be human persons is through our society. “Our way of being human is to be Indian, and that is our only way.” But we have no culture, no society, if it is not a society of persons. Our communism depends upon persons and our personhood depends upon our communism. We will not compromise on this concept; and there is no friction between this concept and Marxism.


Image result for american indian movementThere are about a dozen American Indians in the U.S. today who say they are Marxist-Leninists. There are quite a few more who are in Marxist study groups. But the very large majority are, to differing degrees, verbally, “anti-communist” whilst their actions are communistic. But we need to be able to use the tools of Marxism-Leninism if we are to see effectively and fight our enemy. I do not believe that we have time to “let nature take its course,” or to have that kind of liberal “faith in the people” which means escaping one’s own responsibility for leadership and action.

Disorganization, lack of perspective and clarity, and everyone “doing their own thing” are American phenomena which are destructive to our struggle. Lack of strategic unity plays right into the hands of the enemy. A Marxist-Leninist analysis of the detailed realities of our situation, I believe, is the only way to combat such phenomena. The greatest weakness of the American Indian struggle is our inability to analyze properly the enemy’s make-up, weapons and tactics, and to figure out how to use them against him. That weakness, of course, is a direct result of, and is part of, our oppression, just as alcoholism is part of our oppression. So it cannot be singled out and dealt with through “special programs.”

Progressive people, Indian and non-Indian, who take our struggle as theirs must have a commitment to see the particulars and take responsibility to engage themselves and others in a battle that will further changes. I have spoken repeatedly in this paper about “real situations,” “details,“ and ”particular situations,” because I am addressing what I have perceived as a serious weakness in the white American left.

A real situation: American Indians as a whole are suspicious of the English language, especially when white people speak it. Rightly so, because we have been deceived by that language. We are also suspicious of non-Indians or even Indians educated and articulate in the white society, who come to us with new plans and new answers. All of the new plans and answers over the past 200 years have been disastrous to us. . . .

These suspicions are well-founded, but they are a sizeable object to be overcome. I repeat, it is not for our few Marxists to overcome them; it is for all of us together to join the struggle that is already effecting changes—the struggle of the Indian people as a whole. And yet, neither am I willing to say that we “play it cool” and so let the government continue its indoctrination unchallenged. I am not going to suggest facile “solutions” to this problem because it does not make sense for one person to come up with solutions. We should commit ourselves to work, Indians and other Third World people in the U.S., and everyone whose goal is liberation, not as one nebulous mass nor as divided groups which cannot communicate with each other. Now is the time when we must begin the process of coming together as the peoples we are. No one group of us can be the student or the teacher of revolution, only the struggle—in unity, clarity, and commitment—can teach.”

Jimmie Durham, “American Indian Culture: Traditionalism and Spiritualism in a Revolutionary Struggle,” in A Certain Lack of Coherence: Writings on Art and Cultural Politics, ed. Jean Fisher (London: Kala Press, 1993).


With the Indigenous population on the rise in Canada, it becomes ever clearer that a key question for the Canadian “left” as it exists today is how to relate to the indigenous struggle and its associated process of “nativisation” and cultural revival. The pressing question is how does the left decolonize itself and its practice? In some ways, the anarchist left leads the charge here ahead of the Marxists, yet traditional anarchist organization and theory is not sufficient for addressing subjects such as the nation question for native peoples, descending into a kind of liberal performative “privilege” politics without being able to articulate how indigenous people will take ownership over their stolen lands and culture in a material way. Durham here proposes something akin to indigenizing political practice, no doubt a contentious and sensitive process.

A related problem is the question of the non-native, working-class population. How does this large demographic, and traditional base of the left, become indigenized? We know that in spite of genocidal policies, there is a growing status-native population in Canada and an even larger “non-status” population. Is this purely a question of land ownership and statehood? What role does acculturation need to play in working-class organization?


Nativistic Movements

This online version was posted on the Zero Anthropology blog, but was originally published as

ralphlinton“Nativistic Movements”By Ralph Linton and A. Irving HallowellAmerican Anthropologist, 45(2), 1943, pp. 230-240 (http://0- 272.pdf)


———-page 230———-

AT THE time that the centennial meeting of the American Ethnological Society was planned, the writer was invited to contribute a paper on nativistic movements in North America. When he attempted to prepare this it soon became evident that there was a need for a systematic analysis of nativistic phenomena in general. Although the Social Science Research Council’s Committee on Acculturation1 had made some progress in this direction much remained to be done. The present paper is an attempt to provide such a systematic analysis and is presented in the hope that its formulations may be modified and expanded by further research.

The first difficulty encountered in the study of nativistic movements was that of delimiting the field. The term “nativistic” has been loosely applied to a rather wide range of phenomena, resembling in this respect many other terms employed by the social sciences. For the writer to determine arbitrarily which of several established usages is to be considered correct and which incorrect is not only presumptuous but also one of the surest ways to promote misunderstanding of the theoretical contributions he hopes to make. The only satisfactory definition under such circumstances is one based upon the common denominators of the meanings which have come to be attached to the term through usage. With this as a guide, we may define a nativistic movement as, “Any conscious, organized attempt on the part of a society’s members to revive or perpetuate selected aspects of its culture.”

Like all definitions, the above requires amplification to make its implications clear. Its crux lies in the phrase “conscious, organized effort.” All societies seek to perpetuate their own cultures, but they usually do this unconsciously and as a part of the normal processes of individual training and socialization. Conscious, organized efforts to perpetuate a culture can arise only when a society becomes conscious that there are cultures other than its own and that the existence of its own culture is threatened. Such consciousness, in turn, is a by-product of close and continuous contact with other societies; an acculturation phenomenon under the definition developed by the above mentioned committee.2

The phrase “selected aspects of its culture” also requires elaboration. Nativistic movements concern themselves with particular elements of culture, never with cultures as wholes. This generalization holds true whether we re-

———-page 231———-

-gard cultures as continuums of long duration or follow the usual ethnographic practice of applying the term “a culture” to the content of such a continuum at a particular point in time. The avowed purpose of a nativistic movement may be either to revive the past culture or to perpetuate the current one, but it never really attempts to do either. Any attempt to revive a past phase of culture in its entirety is immediately blocked by the recognition that this phase was, in certain respects, inferior to the present one and by the incompatibility of certain past culture patterns with current conditions. Even the current phase of a culture is never satisfactory at all points and also includes a multitude of elements which seem too trivial to deserve deliberate perpetuation. What really happens in all nativistic movements is that certain current or remembered elements of culture are selected for emphasis and given symbolic value. The more distinctive such elements are with respect to other cultures with which the society is in contact, the greater their potential value as symbols of the society’s unique character.

The main considerations involved in this selective process seem to be those of distinctiveness and of the practicability of reviving or perpetuating the element under current conditions. Thus the Ghost Dance laid great stress on the revival of such distinctive elements of Indian culture as games and ceremonial observances, elements which could be revived under agency conditions. At the same time it allowed its adherents to continue the use of cloth, guns, kettles and other objects of European manufacture which were obviously superior to their aboriginal equivalents. In fact, in many cases the converts were assured that when the dead returned and the whites were swept away, the houses, cattle and other valuable property of the whites would remain for the Indians to inherit.

All the phenomena to which the term nativistic has been applied have in common these factors of selection of culture elements and deliberate, conscious effort to perpetuate such elements. However, they differ so widely in other respects that they cannot be understood without further analysis. At the outset it is necessary to distinguish between those forms of nativism which involve an attempt to revive extinct or at least moribund elements of culture and those which merely seek to perpetuate current ones. For convenience we will refer to the first of these forms as revivalistic nativism, to the second as perpetuative nativism. These two forms are not completely exclusive. Thus a revivalistic nativistic movement will be almost certain to include in its selection of elements some of those which are current in the culture although derived from its past. Conversely a perpetuative nativistic movement may include elements which had been consciously revived at an earlier date. However, the emphases of these two forms are distinct. The revivalistic type of nativism can be illustrated by such movements as the Celtic revival in Ireland, with its emphasis on the medieval Irish tradition in literature and its attempt to revive a mori-

———-page 232———-

-bund national language. The perpetuative type of nativism can be illustrated by the conditions existing in some of the Rio Grande Pueblos or in, various Indian groups in Guatemala. Such groups are only vaguely conscious of their past culture and make no attempts to revive it, but they have developed elaborate and conscious techniques for the perpetuation of selected aspects of their current culture and are unalterably opposed to assimilation into the alien society which surrounds them.

There is a further necessity for distinguishing between what we may call magical nativism and rational nativism. It may well be questioned whether any sort of nativistic movement can be regarded as genuinely rational, since all such movements are, to some extent, unrealistic, but at least the movements of the latter order appear rational by contrast with those of the former.

Magical nativistic movements are often spectacular and always troublesome to administrators, facts which explain why they have received so much attention from anthropologists. Such movements are comparable in many respects to the Messianic movements which have arisen in many societies in times of stress. They usually originate with some individual who assumes the role of prophet and is accepted by the people because they wish to believe. They always lean heavily on the supernatural and usually embody apocalyptic and millennial aspects. In such movements moribund elements of culture are not revived for their own sake or in anticipation of practical advantages from the element themselves. Their revival is part of a magical formula designed to modify the society’s environment in ways which will be favorable to it. The selection of elements from the past culture as tools for magical manipulation is easily explainable on the basis of their psychological associations. The society’s members feel that by behaving as the ancestors did they will, in some usually undefined way, help to recreate the total situation in which the ancestors lived. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that they are attempting to recreate those aspects of the ancestral situation which appear desirable in retrospect.

Such magical nativistic movements seem to differ from ordinary messianic and millennial movements in only two respects. In the nativistic movements the anticipated millennium is modeled directly on the past, usually with certain additions and modifications, and the symbols which are magically manipulated to bring it about are more or less familiar elements of culture to which new meanings have been attached. In non-nativistic messianic movements, the millennial condition is represented as something new and unique and the symbols manipulated to bring it about tend to be new and unfamiliar. Even in these respects the differences are none too clear. New elements of culture often emerge in connection with magical nativistic movements, as in the case of the distinctive Ghost Dance art. Conversely, messianic movements may lean heavily upon the familiar symbolism of the culture, as in the case of most

———-page 233———-

Christian cults of this type. The basic feature of both messianic cults and magical nativistic movements is that they represent frankly irrational flights from reality. Their differences relate only to the ways in which such flights are implemented and are, from the point of view of their functions, matters of minor importance.

What we have chosen to call rational nativistic movements are a phenomenon of a quite different sort. While such movements resemble the magical ones in their conscious effort to revive or perpetuate selected elements of culture, they have different motivations. What these are can be understood more readily if we reintroduce at this point the distinction previously made between revivalistic and perpetuative nativistic movements. Rational revivalistic nativistic movements are, almost without exception, associated with frustrating situations and are primarily attempts to compensate for the frustrations of the society’s members. The elements revived become symbols of a period when the society was free or, in retrospect, happy or great. Their usage is not magical but psychological. By keeping the past in mind, such elements help to reestablish and maintain the self respect of the group’s members in the face of adverse conditions. Rational perpetuative nativistic movements, on the other hand, find their main function in the maintenance of social solidarity. The elements selected for perpetuation become symbols of the society’s existence as a unique entity. They provide the society’s members with a fund of common knowledge and experience which is exclusively their own and which sets them off from the members of other societies. In both types of rational nativistic movement the culture elements selected for symbolic use are chosen realistically and with regard to the possibility of perpetuating them under current conditions.

It must be emphasized that the four forms of nativistic movement just discussed are not absolutes. Purely revivalistic or perpetuative, magical or rational movements form a very small minority of the observed cases. However, these forms represent the polar positions of series within which all or nearly all nativistic movements can be placed. Moreover, it will usually be found that a given nativistic movement lies much closer to one end of such a scale than to the other if it is analysed in terms of the criteria used to establish the polar positions. If we combine the polar positions in the two series, the result is a fourfold typology of nativistic movements, as follows:

1. Revivalistic-magical
2. Revivalistic-rational
3. Perpetuative-magical
4. Perpetuative-rational

Forms 1, 2, and 4 in this typology recur with great frequency, while form 3 is so rare that the writer has been unable to find any clearly recognizable example of it. The reason for this probably lies in the conditions which are usually responsible for magical nativistic movements. The inception of such movements

———-page 234———-

can be traced almost without exception to conditions of extreme hardship or at least extreme dissatisfaction with the status quo. Since the current culture is associated with such conditions and has failed to ameliorate them, magical efficacy in modifying these conditions can scarcely be ascribed to any of its elements. Nevertheless, a perpetuative-magical movement might very well arise in the case of a society which currently occupies an advantageous position but sees itself threatened with an imminent loss of that position. It is highly probable that if we could canvass the whole range of nativistic movements examples of this type could be found.

An understanding of the various contact situations in which nativistic movements may arise is quite as necessary for the study of these phenomena as is a typology of such movements. There have been many cases of contact in which they have not arisen at all. The reasons for this seem to be so variable and in many cases so obscure that nothing like a satisfactory analysis is possible. The most that we can say is that nativistic movements are unlikely to arise in situations where both societies are satisfied with their current relationship, or where societies which find themselves at a disadvantage can see that their condition is improving. However, such movements may always be initiated by particular individuals or groups who stand to gain by them and, if the prestige of such initiators is high enough, may achieve considerable followings even when there has been little previous dissatisfaction.

Although the immediate causes of nativistic movements are highly variable, most of them have as a common denominator a situation of inequality between the societies in contact. Such inequalities may derive either from the attitudes of the societies involved or from actual situations of dominance and submission. In order to understand the motives for nativistic movements the distinction between these two sources of inequality must be kept clearly in mind. Inequality based on attitudes of superiority and inferiority may exist in the absence of real dominance, although situations of dominance seem to be uniformly accompanied by the development of such attitudes. As regards attitudes of superiority and inferiority, two situations may exist. Each of the groups involved in the contact may consider itself superior or one group may consider itself superior with the other acquiescing in its own inferiority. There seem to be no cases in which each of the groups involved in a contact considers itself inferior. The nearest approach to such a condition is the recognition of mixed inferiority and superiority, i.e., the members of each group regard their own culture as superior in certain respects and inferior in others. Such a condition is especially favorable to the processes of culture exchange and ultimate assimilation of the two groups. It rarely if ever results in the development of nativistic movements.

The type of situation in which each society considers itself superior is well illustrated by the relations between Mexicans and Indians in our own South-

———-page 235———-

west. In this case factors of practical dominance are ruled out by the presence of a third group, the Anglo-American, which dominates Indian and Mexican alike. Although the two subject groups are in close contact, each of them feels that any assimilation would involve a loss of prestige. The transfer of individuals from one social-cultural continuum to the other is met by equal resistance on both sides and the processes of assimilation never have a chance to get under way. Under such circumstances the life of each of the societies involved becomes a perpetuative-rational nativistic movement. Each group is conscious of its own culture and consciously seeks to perpetuate its distinctive elements. At the same time this consciousness of difference is devoid of envy or frustration and produces no friction. The members of each group pursue their own goals with the aid of their own techniques and, although the situation does not preclude economic rivalries, witness the constant quarrels over water rights, it does preclude social rivalries. It seems that the establishment of such attitudes of mutual social exclusiveness, without hatred or dominance, provides the soundest basis for organizing symbiotic relationships between societies and should be encouraged in all cases where the attitudes of one or both of the groups in contact preclude assimilation.

Contact situations comparable to that just discussed are not infrequent but they seem to be less common than those in which both groups agree on the superiority of one of the parties. It must be repeated that such attitudes are not necessarily linked with conditions of actual dominance. Thus the Japanese during the early period of European contact acquiesced in the European’s estimate of his own superiority and borrowed European culture elements indiscriminately although maintaining national independence. Again, the disunited German states of the eighteenth century acknowledged the superiority of French culture and were eager for French approval even when no political factors were involved.

When two groups stand in such a mutually recognized relationship of superiority and inferiority, but with no factors of actual dominance involved, the contact will rarely if ever give rise to nativistic movements of the magical type. The relationship cannot produce the extreme stresses which drive the members of a society into such flights from reality. On the other hand, the contact may well give rise to rational nativistic movements, but these will rarely if ever appear during the early contact period. At first the superior group is usually so sure of its position that it feels no reluctance toward borrowing convenient elements from the culture of the inferior one. Conversely, the inferior group borrows eagerly from the superior one and looks forward to full equality with it as soon as the cultural differences have been obliterated. During this period impecunious members of the superior group are likely to turn their prestige to practical advantage by marrying rich members of the inferior one and, for a time, genuine assimilation appears to be under way. In such a

———-page 236———-

situation the nativistic trends will normally appear first in the group, superior which is naturally jealous of its prestige. The movements inaugurated will generally be of the perpetuative-rational type, designed to maintain the status quo, and will include increasing reluctance to borrow elements of culture from the inferior group and the increase of social discrimination against its members and those of the superior group who consort with them.

When such a nativistic movement gets well under way in the superior group, there will usually be a nativistic response from the inferior one. Finding themselves frustrated in their desire for equality, with or without actual assimilation, the inferiors will develop their own nativistic movements, acting on the well known sour grapes principle. However, these movements will be of the revivalistic-rational rather than the perpetuative-rational type. The culture elements selected for emphasis will tend to be drawn from the past rather than the present, since the attitudes of the superior group toward the current culture will have done much to devaluate it. In general, symbolic values will be attached, by preference, to culture elements which were already on the wane at the time of the first contact with the superior group, thus embodying in the movement a denial that the culture of the other group ever was considered superior.

We have already said that attitudes of superiority and inferiority seem to be present in all cases of contact involving actual dominance. Combining these two sets of factors we get the following possible situations for contact groups:

1. Dominant-superior
2. Dominant-inferior
3. Dominated-superior
4. Dominated-inferior

These situations assume agreement on the part of the groups involved not only with respect to dominance, readily demonstrable, but also with respect to attitudes. The frequent lack of such agreement makes it necessary to add a fifth situation, that in which the dominant and dominated group each considers itself superior. The other possible combinations, those involving attitudes of inferiority on the part of both dominant and dominated and those involving attitudes of mixed inferiority and superiority on both sides, may be ruled out from the present discussion. The first of these possible combinations simply does not occur. The second occurs rather frequently but, as in the cases where it occurs without domination, normally results in assimilation rather than the production of nativistic movements.

The idea that nativistic movements may arise in dominant as well as dominated groups appears strange to us since most of our experience of such movements comes from the contact of Europeans with native peoples. However, we must not forget that Europeans have occupied a singularly favored position in such contacts. Even where the European settles permanently among a

———-page 237———-

native population, he remains a mere outlier of white society and, thanks to modern means of transportation and communication, can keep close touch with the parent body. This parent body is shielded from contact and assimilation and is thus able to send out to its colonial ruling groups constant increments of individuals who are culturally unmixed. Moreover, the technological superiority of European culture has, until recently, rendered the dominance of colonial groups secure. The nativism of Europeans has, therefore, been largely unconscious and entirely of the perpetuative-rational type. It has manifested itself in such things as the practice of sending children back to Europe to be educated or the Englishman’s insistence on dressing for dinner even when alone in a remote outpost of empire. Most dominant groups have been less fortunate. They have found themselves threatened, from the moment of their accession to power, not only by foreign invasion or domestic revolt but also by the insidious processes of assimilation which might, in the long run, destroy their distinctive powers and privileges. This threat was especially menacing when, as in most of the pre-machine age empires, the dominant and dominated groups differed little if at all in physical type. Among such rulers the frustrations which motivate nativistic movements in inferior or dominated groups were replaced by anxieties which produced very much the same results.

Returning to the contact situations previously tabulated, we find that dominant-superior groups tend to initiate perpetuative-rational nativism as soon as they achieve power and to adhere to them with varying intensity as long as they remain in power. Thus the various groups of nomad invaders who conquered China all attempted to maintain much of their distinctive culture and at the height of their power they issued repressive measures directed not only against the Chinese but also against those of their own group who had begun to adopt Chinese culture.3 It seems probable that revivalist-rational forms of nativism will not arise in a dominant-superior group, at least as regards elements of culture which were moribund at the time of their accession to power, although this form of nativism might develop with respect to culture elements which had fallen into neglect during the period of power. It seems possible also that, under conditions of extreme threat, some form of brief revivalist-magical nativism might arise in such a group, but information that might verify these conjectures is lacking.

The situation in which a dominant group acknowledges its cultural inferiority to the dominated is one which must arise very infrequently. However, examples of it are provided by such cases as that of the Goths at the time of their conquest of Italy. Such a group immediately finds itself caught on the horns of a dilemma. It can remove its feelings of inferiority only by undergoing cultural if not social assimilation with the conquered society, while such as-

———-page 238———-

-similation is almost certain to cost it its dominant position. It seems probable that such a society might develop nativistic movements either when its desire for cultural assimilation with the conquered was frustrated or when it found its dominant position seriously threatened, but again information is lacking.

There is abundant information on nativistic movements among dominated groups and in discussing these we stand on firm ground. A dominated group which considers itself superior will normally develop patterns of rational nativism from the moment that it is brought under domination. These patterns may be either revivalist or perpetuative but are most likely to be a combination of both. One of the commonest rationalizations for loss of a dominant position is that it is due to a society’s failure to adhere closely enough to its distinctive culture patterns. Very often such nativism will acquire a semi-magical quality founded on the belief that if the group will only stand firm and maintain its individuality it will once again become dominant. Fully developed magical-revivalist nativism is also very likely to appear in groups of this sort since to the actual deprivations entailed by subjection there are added the frustrations involved by loss of dominance. These frustrations are somewhat mitigated in the cases where the dominant group recognizes the superiority of the dominated group’s culture. Such attitudes strengthen the rational nativistic tendencies of the dominated group and diminish the probabilities for magical-revivalist nativism of the more extreme type. Lastly, in cases where the dominant group concurs with the dominated in considering certain aspects of the latter’s culture superior but will not grant the superiority of the culture as a whole, this attitude will stimulate the dominated group to focus attention upon such aspects of its culture and endow them with added symbolic value.

A dominated group which considers itself inferior, a condition common among societies of low culture which have recently been brought under European domination, is extremely unlikely to develop any sort of rational nativism during the early period of its subjection. It may, however, develop nativism of the revivalist-magical type if it is subjected to sufficient hardships. The threshold of suffering at which such movements may develop will vary greatly from group to group and will be influenced not only by the degree of hardship but also by the society’s patterns of reliance upon the supernatural. A devout society will turn to nativism of this sort long before a skeptical one will. If the hardships arising from subjection are not extreme, the inferior group will usually show great eagerness to assume the culture of the dominant society, this eagerness being accompanied by a devaluation of everything pertaining to its own. Nativistic movements tend to arise only when the members of the subject society find that their assumption of the culture of the dominant group is being effectively opposed by it, or that it is not improving their social position. The movements which originate under these circumstances are prac-

———-page 239———-

-tically always rational with a combination of revivalist and perpetuative elements. In this respect they resemble the nativistic movements which originate in inferior groups which are not subject to domination and there can be little doubt that the primary causes are the same in both cases. These movements are a response to frustration rather than hardship and would not arise if the higher group were willing to assimilate the lower one.

Rational nativistic movements can readily be converted into mechanisms for aggression. Since the dominated society has been frustrated in its earlier desires to become acculturated and to achieve social equality, it can frustrate the dominant society in turn by refusing to accept even those elements of culture which the dominant group is eager to share with it. Dominated societies which have acquired these attitudes and developed conscious techniques for preventing further acculturation present one of the most difficult problems for administrators. Passive resistance requires much less energy than any of the techniques needed to break it down, especially if the culture patterns of the dominant group preclude the use of forcible methods.

One final aspect of nativistic movements remains to be considered. The generalizations so far developed have been based upon the hypothesis that societies are homogeneous and react as wholes to contact situations. Very frequently this is not the case, especially in societies which have a well developed class organization. In such societies nativistic tendencies will be strongest in those classes or individuals who occupy a favored position and who feel this position threatened by culture change. This factor may produce a split in the society, the favored individuals or groups indulging in a rational nativism, either revivalistic or perpetuative, while those in less favored positions are eager for assimilation. This condition can be observed in many immigrant groups in America where individuals who enjoyed high status in the old European society attempt to perpetuate the patterns of that society while those who were of low status do their best to become Americanized.

In a rapidly shrinking world the study of nativistic movements, as of acculturation in general, has ceased to be a matter of purely academic interest. As contacts between societies become more frequent and more general, the need for an understanding of the potentialities of such contact situations becomes more urgent. The troubles which they usually involve can be traced, with few exceptions, to two factors: exploitation and frustration. The first of these is the easier to deal with and may well disappear with the spread of modern science and techniques to all parts of the world. The second is more difficult to deal with since its removal entails fundamental changes in attitudes of superiority and inferiority. Without these there would be no bar to the assimilation of societies in contact situations or to the final creation of a world society. However, this seems to be one of those millennial visions mentioned elsewhere in this report. Failing assimilation, the happiest situation which can arise out

———-page 240———-

of the contact of two societies seems to be that in which each society is firmly convinced of its own superiority. Rational revivalistic or perpetuative nativistic movements are the best mechanism which has so far been developed for establishing these attitudes in groups whose members suffer from feelings of inferiority. It would appear, therefore, that they should be encouraged rather than discouraged.



Professor Linton has not only given us an illuminating analysis of the conditions under which nativistic movements among primitive peoples have been observed; his conceptualization of the problem offers a program for a much more systematic study and comparison of such movements than has been heretofore attempted. The social functions of these movements in particular need careful study. Perhaps today under the impact of Nazi-Fascist ideology, implemented by armed force, those of us living in the democracies can better appreciate the situation in which primitive peoples have found themselves when their fundamental cultural values have been threatened. Viewed in the broadest terms, the attempts on the part of any group to “revive or perpetuate the society’s distinctive culture” is not, after all, such a far cry from the reaction to the threat that menaces a large sector of western civilization today. In America we are finding fresh virtues in Democracy and there are more and more vigorous assertions of the values of our way of life being expressed in various ways. Potentially, this trend has some of the same elements and performs some of the same functions as the nativistic movements that Professor Linton has treated in his able paper.


———-end of page 240———-


1. R. Redfield, R. Linton, M. J. Herskovits, “A Memorandum for the Study of Acculturation” (American Anthropologist 38, 1935), pp. 149-152.

2. “Acculturation comprehends those phenomena which result when groups of individuals having different cultures come into continuous first-hand contact, with subsequent changes in the original culture patterns of either or both groups.” Redfield, etc., op. cit.

3. Karl A. Wittfogel and C. S. Feng, History of Chinese Society, Liao, ms.

About ZA:

Maximilian C. Forte is a Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada. He is the author of numerous books, most recently Slouching Towards Sirte: NATO’s War on Libya and Africa (2012) and Emergency as Security (New Imperialism) (2013).

See his publications here; read his bio here. He writes at the Zero Anthropology website, which is described on the  About page :

Anthropology after empire is one built in part by an anthropology that is against empire, and it need not continue, defensively, as a discipline laden with all of the orthodoxies from which it suffers today. Indeed, the position taken here is that there can be no real critical anthropology that is not simultaneously critical of (a) the institutionalization and professionalization of this field, and (b) imperialism itself.

Anthropology, as we approach it, is a non-disciplinary way of speaking about the human condition that looks critically at dominant discourses, with a keen emphasis on meanings and relationships, producing a non-state, non-market, non-archival knowledge.

Max’s interviews by various news media are listed here.

For select listings of his online essays, see:

See his page.

For more, please see the main site for the Zero Anthropology Project.

He can be reached at