Karl Marx and the Iroquois
An essay on Marx's Ethnological Notebooks

Rosemont, Franklin

Resource Type:  Article
Cx Number:  CX16669

Franklin Rosemont delves into Marx's Ethnological Notebooks and examines their significance and relevance towards today's communist movement.



The Ethnological Notebooks include excerpts from, and Marx's commentary on, other ethnological writers besides Morgan, but the section on Morgan is the most substantial by far, and of the greatest interest Reading this curious dialogue one can almost see Marx's mind at work-sharpening, extending, challenging and now and then correcting Morgan's interpretations, bringing out dialectical moments latent in Ancient Society but not always sufficiently developed, and sometimes wholly undeveloped, by Morgan himself. Marx also seemed to enjoy relating Morgan's empirical data to the original sources of his (Marx's) own critique, notably Fourier and (though his name does not figure in these notes) Hegel, generally with the purpose of clarifying some vital current problem. As Marx had said of an earlier unfinished work, the Grundrisse (1857-58), the Ethnological Notebooks contain "some nice developments".

Some of the most interesting passages by Marx that did not find their 'way into Engels' book have to do with the transition from "archaic" to "civilized" society, a key problem for Marx in his last years. Questioning Morgan's contention that "personal government" prevailed throughout primitive societies, Marx argued that long before the dissolution of the gens (clan), chiefs were "elected" only in theory, the office having become a transmissible on; controlled by a property-owning elite that had begun to emerge within the gens itself. Here Marx was pursuing a critical inquiry into the origins of the distinction between public and private spheres (and, by extension, between "official" and "unofficial" social reality and ideological fiction) that he had begun in his critique of Hegel's philosophy of law in 1843. The close correlation Marx found between the development of property and the state, on the one hand, and religion, their chief ideological disguise, on the other-which led to his acute observation that religion grew as the gentile commonality shrank-also relates to his early critique of the Rechtphilosophie, in the famous introduction to which Marx's attack on religion attained an impassioned lucidity worthy of the greatest poets.

The poetic spirit, in fact, makes its presence felt more than once in these Notebooks. Auspiciously, in this compendium of ethnological evidence, Marx duly noted Morgan's insistence on the historical importance of "imagination, that great faculty so largely contributing to the elevation of mankind," From cover to cover of these Notebooks we see how Marx's encounter with "primitive cultures" stimulated his own imagination, and we begin to realize that there is much more here than Engels divulged.

On page after page Marx highlights passages wildly remote from what are usually regarded as the "standard themes" of his work. Thus we find him invoking the bell-shaped houses of the coastal tribes of Venezuela; the manufacture of Iroquois belts "using fine twine made of filaments of elm and basswood bark"' "the Peruvian legend of Manco Capac and Mama Oello, children of the sun"; burial customs of the Tuscarora; the Shawnee belief in metempsychosis; "unwritten" literature of myth's, legends and traditions"; the "incipient sciences" of the village Indians of the Southwest; the Popul Vuh, sacred book of the ancient Quiche Maya; the use of porcupine quills in ornamentation; Indian games and "dancing (as a] form of worship."

Carefully, and for one tribe after another, Marx lists each each the animals from which the various clans claim descent, No work of his is so full of such words as Wolf grizzly bear; opossum and turtle (in the pages on Australian aborigines we find emu, kangaroo and bandicoot). Again and again he copies words and names from tribal languages. Intrigued by the manner in which individual (personal) names indicate the gen, he notes these Sauk names from the Eagle gens: "Ka-po-na ('Eagle drawing his nest'); Ja-ka-kwa-pe ('Eagle sitting with his head up'); Pe-a-ta-na-ka-hok ('Eagle flying over a limb')." Repeatedly he attends to details so unusual that one cannot help wondering what he was thinking as he wrote them in his notebook Consider, for example, his word-for-word quotation from Morgan telling of a kind of "grace" said before an Indian tribal feast: "It "was a prolonged exclamation by a single person on a high shrill note, falling down in cadences into stillness, followed by a response in chorus by the people." After the meal, he adds, "The evenings [are] devoted to dance?"

Especially voluminous are Marx's notes on the Iroquois, the confederation of tribes with which Morgan was personally most familiar (in 1846 he was in fact "adopted" by one of its constituent tribes, the Seneca, as a warrior of the Hawk clan), and on which he had written a classic monograph. Clearly Marx shared Morgan's passional attraction for the "League of the Ho-de-no-sau-nee?' among whom "the state did not exist," and "Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, though never formulated, were cardinal principles," and whose sachems, moreover, had "none of the marks of a priesthood?' One of his notes includes Morgan's description of the formation of the Iroquois Confederation as "a masterpiece of Indian wisdom," and it doubtless fascinated him to learn that, as far in advance of the revolution as 1755, the Iroquois had recommended to the "forefathers [of the] Americans, a union of the colonies similar so their own."

Many passages of these Notebooks reflect Marx's interest in Iroquois democracy as expressed in the Council of the Gens, that "democratic assembly where every adult male and female member had a voice upon all questions brought before it," and he made special note of details regarding the active participation of women in tribal affairs, The relation of man to woman-a topic of Marx's 1844 manuscripts-is also one of the recurring themes of his ethnological inquiries. Thus he quotes a letter sent to Morgan by a missionary among the Seneca: "The women were the great power among the clans, as everywhere else. They did not hesitate, when occasion required, 'to knock off the horns,' as it was technically called, from the head of a chief, and send him back to the ranks of the warriors. The original nomination of the chief also always rested with them" And a few pages later he highlights Morgan's contention that the "present monogamian family… must…change as society changes...It is the creature of a social system... capable of still further improvement until the equality of the sexes is attained." He similarly emphasizes Morgan's conclusion, regarding monogamy, that "it is impossible to predict the nature of its successor?'"

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