Settler-Imperialism and Stolen Lands: Radical Interpretations of United States History

The history of the United States is far from idyllic. It enacted an expansionist land-grab policy which amounted to genocide against Indigenous people, chattel slavery of imported Africans in the southern plantation economy, and beginning around the turn of the previous century, an ever-continuing series of public and covert armed interventions in countries around the world. Yet today, US history is viewed positively by those of a variety of political and philosophical persuasions. More surprisingly, this position is taken up by many on the Amerikan left, i.e. those who claim to be against oppression. How is this accomplished, and why? What underlies a ‘left-wing patriotic’ view of history, and what are the effects and larger ramifications of such a view? 1 Conversely, what does a radical analysis of history entail, what does it tell us about the past, and why is it so important for future revolutionary struggles?

Contending views of history

On one hand, it is hard to pin down what left-wing patriotic history looks like or embodies. Few in the Amerikan left attempt to defend or justify slavery, land theft, genocide, etc. Instead, left-wing patriotic history functions as a sort of deduction. It begins with current disposition to favoring the US and Amerikans and orders past practices like genocide and foreign interventions in a way that minimizes their overall significance.

For left wing patriots, the source of affinity for the US varies. Often, it signifies a limited outlook marked by learned social and cultural identity.  In this case, it is always an appeal bound by one’s national identity.  In other cases, such expressed affinity is a calculated appeal to an audience which is seen as driven by a degree of patriotic national unity. In this latter case, such left wing patriots don’t challenge but reinforce assumptions regarding national unity.  In the more sophisticated left-wing patriotic discourse related to history, affinity with the United States is said to be based on the ideals supposedly embodied by the country, as well as the advantages to be found here relative to ‘there.’  All of these motivations are limited and chauvinistic in some regard. Hence, left-wing historical interpretation is simply that, an interpretation, and less a part of a larger field of radical social interaction and the struggle against oppression. Insofar as left-wing history forms a critique, it is limited by, plays into and perpetuates dominant narratives and paradigms.

Radical history is different. Rather than framing the question of historical analysis in a strictly deductive manner (i.e. US and Amerikans are largely good today, so it reasons that the negative in history is secondary in significance), radical historical analysis operates from a few basic methodological rules. First, radical approaches to history place relations of economic production (along with the physical means by which production occurs) as a basic condition of a given society. That is to say, how the necessities of life and wealth are produced, accumulated and distributed within a society is its definitive feature, and the most relevant in understanding its developmental trajectory.  It is the struggle over these relations which most directly propels social history.  Secondly, radical history seeks to center narrative discourse around those oppressed and exploited within the modern condition of society. Correspondingly, it de-centers it from the perspective of those historically privileged or ruling. Thirdly, radical history presupposes that the world is never static but always in a process of change. Fourthly, radical history as a methodological field seeks to understand historical development in a manner that is relevant to modern struggles over current social, political and economic trajectories. In this sense, radical history, along with radical political economy, is not merely a field of humanities as activism.  It is part of a living theory regarding general trends of social development and the limits and potentials for future struggles against oppression. Finally, as part of a larger radical understanding of underlying roles of social development and how this can relate to culture, radical history in an American context critically understands normative and left-wing patriotic historical narratives of the United States as ideologies rooted in privileged classes and their own stake in the current system.

Left-wing patriotism in A ‘People’s’ History

As a case study into left-wing patriotism, Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States is illustrative. A People’s History, first published in 1980, grew to be a bestseller during the 1990′s and 2000′s, and Zinn was a popular critic of the US presidential administration of George W. Bush. 2 Though Zinn was a popular left-wing critic, his work fails to live up to the standards of radical interpretation and instead falls into into the category of limited, patriotic historical analysis and critique.

Zinn’s work does not indicate an understanding regarding the significance of the relations of production in determining the character and feasible trajectories of society.  While Zinn makes the bold claim of providing a history of the people, this is problematic.  Zinn interprets history and modern society as constantly in motion; he is often quoted as saying, “You can’t be neutral on a moving train.” Hence, he attempts to analyze history in a manner that is relevant to current struggles, but because of his initial methodological deficiencies this is effectively limited. As well, Zinn seems blind to the manner that normative and patriotic historical interpretation acts as ideology limited by the character of dominant social forces.  On the other hand, Zinn’s work operates in a deductive manner arising from his views of modern life in the US.  Singling out the elite of the US for condemnation and casting the majority of Amerikans as righteous and resistant bystanders and victims, Zinn’s work diminishes the deep relevance of oppression and exploitation as part of the overall trajectory of the development of the United States. Zinn’s A People’s History is a work meant to appeal to Amerikans without challenging larger previously held identifications and allegiances. Hence, Zinn’s work, rather than living up to its hype by providing a ‘people’s history,’ can be criticized from a radical perspective as being a part of these dominant ideologies and historical narratives regarding both the US and the world.

On the back cover of the 2005 Harper Perennial Modern Classics paperback edition, A People’s History is described as “the only volume to tell America’s [sic] story from the point of view of – and in the words of – America’s women, factory workers, African Americans, Native Americans, working poor, and immigrant laborers.”  Beyond the obvious question of if this is actually true (i.e., could not another book on history claim to be from a similar perspective and form), one must look at how the claim itself is problematic.

Zinn lumps various people into the broad notion of ‘American.’ Yet throughout most of Amerika’s history, Blacks, Indigenous Americans, Mexicans and other internally colonized nations were not just excluded but actively victimized by the United States. Moreover, despite including into his narrative some of the populations the US previously victimized en masse, he excludes those not counted as part of but oppressed by the US today (i.e. most Americans, Asian, Africans, etc). These people are obviously part of global society today, and any exclusion from historical interpretation is not merely an oversight but an analytical limitation. 3

The front cover of the 2005 edition has a patriotic aesthetic, complete with red, white and blue colors and neo-classical font. This is an example of Zinn (or the publisher’s use of him) appealing to Amerikans through constructed notions of national identity.  In the process, the larger allegiance with the national identity is not challenged, but reinforced. The aesthetic hardly represents those subjected to the US’ past and current aggression, and it does not represents a global ‘people’: those living under the rule and influence of the US yet not part of its national identity.

During the 2000′s Zinn was emphatic that the reason A People’s History was written was to illustrate examples of resistance to tyranny imposed under and by the United States. He hoped to inspire similar resistance on the part of Amerikans today.  Zinn’s patriotic appeals are logical yet his analysis is inherently restricted by this motivation.  By portraying the cases where Amerikans were resistant to oppression (what was invariably more an exception than the rule in US history), Zinn undermines the ways which Amerikans themselves benefited from, supported and perpetuated systems of oppression.

Looking closer at A People’s History, we see these points illustrated. Zinn, for example, provides a detailed account of the genocidal removal of Natives from the southern region of the US in chapter seven and of the seizure of Mexico’s northern territories through war in chapter eight. These chapters may be surprising for Amerikans with little understanding of a history they identify with. Yet, they are not surprising for many of the descendants of the victims of the policies described in these chapters. Nor is the construction of this history particularly telling when it comes to relating these phenomena to larger trends of the US’ social and economic development.

Regarding the lead-up to the forced migration of southern Indigenous peoples in what became known as the Trail of Tears, Zinn notes, “As for the Cherokees, they faced a set of laws passed by Georgia: their lands were taken, their government abolished, all meeting prohibited. Cherokees could not testify in court against any white. Cherokees could not dig for gold recently discovered on their land..”

Throughout A People’s History, Zinn never describes the US’ policies towards Indigenous peoples as a form of genocide. Genocide is defined as acts carried out with the intent of destroying part or all of a national, ethnic or racial group, and it is hard to not view US policy towards Natives in any other light.  Perhaps Zinn genuinely did not believe US policy fit this label, or perhaps he consciously chose not to use it in order to find collegiate acceptance. Whatever the case, in not applying the word genocide to his analysis of US policy, Zinn absolves Amerikans of the collective responsibility associated with the word. Zinn has been known to draw historical parallels when they readily fit into popular culture, likening George W. Bush to Christopher Columbus for example.  Yet much more could be revealed by analyzing the genocidal land-grab policy as part of a historically recurrent trend, something which Zinn fails to do.

Instead of drawing relevant historical parallels, Zinn’s narrative is often centered on the debates this spurred among whites; much of the overall narrative is spun around the Amerikan experience of such oppression, as they supposedly experienced it, debated it, challenged it, etc. This is another example of Zinn’s patriotism and allegiance to national identity.  A People’s History consistently highlights those who rallied against obvious forms of oppression and reaction, despite their privilege and apparent material interest as part of a larger beneficiary group.  Through sifting out and highlighting the exceptional acts of limited or radical resistance on the part of Amerikans, Zinn under-emphasizes the widespread support these policies carried amongst the accepted (i.e. oppressor) citizenry of the US. By drawing out such resistance, Zinn’s narrative implies a further absolution of responsibility for such oppression, overlooks relevant benefits Amerikans derived from it, and ignores the manner it shaped the US’ social, material, and cultural development.

Zinn, rather than attempting to offer a clear explanatory theory regarding the social and material development of the United States, offers the simplistic thesis that oppressed people have resisted and exceptional displays of dissent and resistance have occurred by those from the ranks of oppressor groups.  In doing so, he hopes to appeal (in part through playing up a constructed concepts regarding national identity) to an audience whose resistance he sees as having significant potential today. While his intention is far from malevolent, his analysis is certainly limited compared to a radical perspective and limiting in regards to broader strategies for challenging social oppression and leveraging future trajectories.

Towards a radical history of the United States

Radical historical analysis is not simply a collection of primary accounts to fit a deductive conclusion and larger motivation. Instead radical analysis proceeds in a materialist manner, highlighting the general trends of historical development and its underlying factors in a way that advances knowledge of particular use in the current struggle against oppression and exploitation. Radical historical analysis goes beyond the experiential. It looks at the common cause of experience and relates it to wider socio-historical developments.

For the purposes of radical historical analysis, the act of oppression, such as the genocidal dispossession of Native peoples, is significant unto itself. In this regard, this earlier Zinn quote can be interpreted much differently than in A People’s History: “As for the Cherokees, they faced a set of laws passed by Georgia: their lands were taken, their government abolished, all meeting prohibited. Cherokees could not testify in court against any white. Cherokees could not dig for gold recently discovered on their land..”

From a radical perspective on history, Zinn’s description regarding Amerika’s practice towards Native Americans resembles Marxian descriptions of a ‘primitive accumulation of capital.’ As Marx stated it, primitive accumulation through forced dispossession provided the initial wealth on which later capitalist productive relations were established. In the case of the United States, such benefits of primitive accumulation were diffuse, benefiting all those classified within the ever changing status of ‘American.’ Authors such as Samir Amin have noted that primitive accumulation is a permanent feature of capitalist-imperialism. Indeed, the policies enacted as part of the US’ ‘primitive genocide’ of hundreds of Indigenous peoples seem recurrent, cropping up as part of the colonization of Africa, the Jim Crow-era south, the European Holocaust, Israel’s occupation of Palestine, and today’s neo-colonial rule against Indigenous land-based people in India and around the world.

For the United States, the clearing out of Indigenous people coincided with the mass arrival of immigrants from Europe. During the 1870′s, 70-80% of the US’ population lived in rural areas. They were, as J. Sakai noted in Settlers, the Mythology of the White Proletariat, a garrison community securing the US’ occupation of its seized continental territory.  In many ways, it was the oppression of Natives and Blacks which fused European immigrant communities into whites, doing so both socially and economically. All ‘in’ members of the United States were entitled to some opportunity to advance on the oppression of others.

The dispossession of Indigenous people has had long-term consequences in US and world history. The conquered territory provided the land and resource base on which the US would emerge as an imperialist power by the 20th century. Consider if Cherokee people developed their own national economy on their land and utilized the newly found resource, gold, towards their own development. Or, imagine if the gold discovered in present day California had circulated first through Mexico City instead of New York City. If Mexican and not Amerikan business interests profited off oil found in Texas, and instead if Mexico was twice its present size and the US half. What would the world look like today? Certainly, it is hard to imagine the United States developing into the world’s preeminent superpower if its resource and land-base was initially limited in such ways. Whereas European colonial empires were struggling with each other over different pieces of lands in Asia, Africa and the Americas into the 20th century; by 1848- a mere 72 years following the Declaration of Independence- the United States had seized for itself a permanent continental territory and a number of colonized people under its authority.

The significance of the United States’ expansion on North America cannot be understated. It is the link between the initial settlement of ‘New England’ by western Europeans and the wealth and power the US holds today. It is no coincidence that the ‘closing of the frontier’ inside the United States during the 1890s coincided with the the Spanish-Amerikan War; the US’ annexation of Hawai’i, Puerto Rico and the Philipines; and a wave of interventions throughout the Asia-Pacific region, Central America, and the Caribbean. It is the social relations created as part of such conquest which greatly shaped the US and world as they are today.

The modern world and its ordering of power is merely the reproduction on a grander scale earlier social relations which existed within the US. The slavery, primitive accumulation, child labor, and inherent violence hasn’t ceased to be a feature of the modern social life of Amerikans. It has merely been exported and is embodied in regional structural problems in Africa, Asia, Latin America and other parts of the maldeveloped Third World. Additionally, the benefits derived from modern global oppression continues as well. Most Amerikans and other First Worlders are part of a consuming class within a global society structured under capitalist-imperialism, and they enjoy a certain amount of limited freedoms denied to most others. 4

Another factor often overlooked in the US’s development is the ecologically exhaustive nature of the economic system on which it has been based. Not only is US-led capitalist-imperialism inherently violent towards peoples but also it is inherently violent towards nature.  It is genocidal as well as ecocidal. Operating according to the ends of profit, capitalism will always subject nature to commodification and exploitation.  As capitalism is based on tireless expansion, ecological problems will only grow worse. This is already leading to devastating ramifications for biological resources and a corresponding feedback in social relations.

In addition to occupying much of North America, the United States military officially operates in nearly 150 countries. Models of social relations initially implemented through force in North America by the United States have been imposed globally by a similar means. It is this dynamic between imperialist centers and exploited peoples of the periphery which constitutes the central characteristic of today’s world. It is the struggle over the terms of this relationship which today forms the main force determining the pitch of our shared trajectory.

-Understanding Zinn as limiting ideology

Zinn’s patriotic narrative and a radical methodological approach reveal two different things from US history. According to Zinn, there have always been exceptional Amerikans who have resisted oppression directed against others. 5 According to the radical approach, oppression of others has always been a central feature of US history.  It has in large part shaped its development from a small settler-planter society to the world’s foremost imperialist power. Beyond this, how can Zinn’s left-wing patriotic history be understood through the framework of radical analysis?

Ideologies are systems of ideas imparted to the general masses yet rooted in the experience and perception of historically privileged and ruling classes. Zinn’s historical narrative is largely tailored by the Amerikan experience, and he constructs his narrative to be resonant with Amerikans today. In terms of a global perspective, Zinn’s narrative represents an ideology. In understating the degree to which Amerikans are beneficiaries of an ongoing legacy of oppression, Zinn also obscures the role of oppression as it generally relates to historic economic and social trajectories and future possibilities.

Oppression is recurrent topic in Zinn’s narrative. However, he is unwilling to fully link genocide, slavery, violence and ecological exhaustion of the past and present to Amerikan society as we know it today. In underestimating these linked oppressions in the material and social development of the US, Zinn creates a certain imagine of what is possible for future development generally. Because the conceptual link between oppression and the US’ historical development is broken, it is implied that ‘underdeveloped’ countries can catch up with and emulate ‘developed’ ones without the prerequisite dispossession, forced labor, conquest, expanding oppressive influence via imperialism, and compounded environmental degradation. 6 Despite being a narrative that frequently talks about oppression, there is little to suggest in A People’s History that all people today couldn’t live like members of the Amerikan middle class.

Zinn’s historical narrative is limiting because his deductive premise is flawed. Instead of the US being, as the Zinn depicts, full of exceptional victims and allies, the United States is and has been based on practicing expanding forms of oppression and exploitation. This does not mean no Amerikans fall victim under this this system nor that resistance has bee fully absent, merely that these are secondary aspects to a larger picture of a historical developmental trajectory.

At the heart of radical history is understanding the root cause of historical trajectories to the end of altering future social relations through class struggle. Radical historical methodologies thus aim to provide significant insights of current relevance to those oppressed in modern social relations. In this sense, the understandings derived from radical history and radical history itself are far more significant than deductive left-wing patriotic historical narratives. To wit, radical history places authors like Zinn in context and identifies the limitations of left-wing affinity for the US.

The social terrain of the United States is and always had been shaped by oppression, even if it is exported or its significance is absent one’s outlook. Whereas the people of the United States (especially the old members, i.e. whites) generally have a higher economic standing and relatively more social, cultural, and political freedom and mobility, this is also in part a function of wider forms of oppression from which they’ve historically benefited. In deriving such broad benefits systems of oppression, most Amerikans become invested in them. While patriotic critiques of US policy or Amerika exist, they typically lack depth or touch on fundamental issues. The audience for radical critique is small in the US. Ironically, it is this type of social, political, and cultural atmosphere which many left-wing patriots cite as the cause of their affinity for the US.

Humanity can and must do better than ‘American-style capitalism.’ New ways of organizing ourselves must be devised so that all of humanity can live in freedom, dignity, and with economic security. Yet before this can be realized, humanity must end the system of imperialist domination which binds together the whole world in a series of unequal economic and social relations. The dominating power of the United States and US-led imperialism must be halted globally and the structures of neo-colonial power in Third World countries must be dismantled. This must occur side by side with the active engagement and empowerment of Third World and other oppressed people. And this struggle must be realized globally.

For the purpose of the larger liberatory struggle against capitalist-imperialism and for new empowering forms of economic, social and political relations, a radical historical analysis can offer much. It is imperative to understand the most significant factors in the development of US and world history if we are going to struggle for a truly different trajectory for the future. Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, despite being well researched and written and being decent for reference material, is limited is by its own motivation and deductive analysis.

Footnotes:

1′Amerikan’ is here used to denote those historically accepted as being sole citizens of the United States and Canada. It is in distinction from American: those historically residing in the Americas yet not sole citizens of the United States or Canada.

‘Left’ is here used according to its popular usage in the western, over-developed world, and includes proponents of social democracy and nominally more radical politics.

‘Patriotism’ concerns allegiance and affinity for the United States, Canada or other settler-imperialist nation-states.

2For a previous critique of A People’s History, see “Howard Zinn’s Chauvinism Versus Real People’s History”. Anti-Imperialism.com. Sept. 19, 2011. (http://anti-imperialism.com/2011/09/19/the-white-chauvinism-of-howard-zinn/)

3The use of the word ‘American’ to merely describe the people of the United States is itself chauvinistic, and this is something that Zinn also plays into and reinforces in his ‘people’s history.’

4Inevitably, the greatest freedom Amerikans have is to be ambivalent regarding larger systems of oppression from which they benefit.

5Given this thesis, it stands to reason that A People’s History is mildly ironic and redundant: exceptional individuals would continue to resist regardless of the book’s existence, purported as it is to inspire resistance.

6Of course, any such attempt on the part of underdeveloped countries must either proceed extremely cautiously or extremely boldly, as the US will always act to prevent the development of rivals.