You are here

Shamanic Marxism and the Ghosts of Capital

Leslie Marmon Silko's Almanac of the Dead is a good end-of-the-millenium book: its historical time scale is millenial and its vision is apocalyptic.
Joe Lockard

Issue #45, October 1999

Leslie Marmon Silko's Almanac of the Dead is a good end-of-the-millenium book: its historical time scale is millenial and its vision is apocalyptic. Late in this huge and panoramic novel of the Americas, representing ten years of work, Silko writes:

Poor Engels and Marx!... For Europeans, they had been quite far ahead of their time; they had been close, but they still hadn't got it quite right. They had not understood that the earth was mother to all beings, and they had not understood anything about the spirit beings. But at least Engels and Marx had understood the earth belongs to no one. No human, individuals or corporations, no cartel of nations, could 'own' the earth; it was the earth who possessed the humans and it was the earth who disposed of them.

Bright students they were, Marx and Engels, but they lacked the spirit of their conclusions. Their theoretical incompleteness was due to prevailing European cultural restraints which prevented deeper insight, although they got pretty far for white guys.

I imagine the spirits of Marx and Engels accepting Silko's assessment with grace, wit and a smile, especially because she likes their old beards as much as she criticizes the accomplishments of their storytelling. One also imagines that Marx and Engels' anti-colonial spirits would enjoy the historical justice in some reverse patronization flowing from the Americas to Europe.

Almanac of the Dead deserves far more attention than it has received because the novel embodies Silko's appreciations of Marxism and resistances to it, and because it addresses some prominent questions attached to the Marxist intellectual tradition at the century's end. How did the apparent marginalization of socialist thought come about? Given the global strength of capital and the political abandonment of labor-based ideologies, what new formulation of social ideals will emerge to challenge the accumulated privileges of capital and its elites? Further, has socialism really faded?

When these sorts of questions get asked, the longstanding practice within parts of the historic Left has been to rely on some analytic position or another to derive this teleological certainty: future history will reveal itself along predictable lines, according to a rational checklist. This practice was a hollow sham and a form of political neanderthalism that, as Karl Popper correctly observed, rendered Marxism-as-pseudoscience akin to a religious faith. This whistling in the wind happened so often that any question of current and future situation itself became suspect, one that smelled of intellectual monologism and ideological self-infatuation. There is far less interest at this end of the twentieth century in consistent and systematic elaborations of Marxist thought, in the abstract and forever unfulfilled determinism of its various branches, and far more interest in those of its formulatory concepts that are useful and effective.

Despite its suspect origins, such questioning remains relevant because the exploitation of labor, the intensification of poverty and income inequalities, and the alienation of working people has continued to grow. To abandon questions of the future by shrugging over unknowability is to abandon lives of desperation led among urban underclasses, communities of color, collapsed once-industrial economies, and never-heard-from corners of human existence. That abandonment leads to the Nietszchean dead-end where E.M. Cioran was sourly embedded when he wrote, with an accuracy derived from self-knowledge, "When you have seen a corruption in every conviction and in every attachment a profanation, you no longer have the right to expect, on earth or elsewhere, a fate modified by hope."

Contemporary thought that inherits an obligation to Marxist thought -- and I think here particularly of the intellectual work loosely grouped under cultural studies -- offers such a modification of fate by hope. It makes this offer with profound ambiguity regarding the Marxist tradition that it employs. Analyses of gender and sexuality, of the body, of media representation, and of race and ethnicity reach towards the language of capital, labor and alienation. In their elaboration of alternative anti-capitalist knowledges, and consequently new hope, they base themselves on a preceding consciousness.

An alternate history of the Americas necessarily begins with its native peoples. Silko joins this oppositionalism together with the Marxist tradition, and in so doing simultaneously scourges, adopts and diffuses Marxist analyses. Silko resembles many of her slightly frazzled political neighbors who knock on the door of Marxist intellectual tradition to borrow a cup of conceptual sugar. And she is hardly alone. Marxist analyses aren't the anathema they used to be in the United States: the Republican senators who pushed for regressive tax cuts this past summer laid out neat income and tax contribution tables that would have done the Old Man proud, although they used them perversely to argue that the rich should get richer. While the class-cognizant sociological methodologies of Marxism were mainstreamed generations ago, what has never been acceptable is the sense of sustained rebelliousness that this political storytelling tradition has fostered.

It is this antagonistic quality that attracts Silko as a borrower rather than a believer. Silko is a novelist, not a political theorist, but a novel's narrative carries an implicit structure of political theorization. As readers we absorb or reject a novel's politics, whether at its narrative surface or as a subtextual undercurrent. Embedded in the structure of Almanac of the Dead is a view toward the future of Marxist thought and practice.

Silko's angriest argument is with the Eurocentrism of that tradition, so let's turn to this issue.

The Whiteness of the Marx

With over half a hundred major characters and numerous intersecting subplots, the novel is too sprawling to summarize. Silko's political critique regarding "poor old Engels and Marx," the point of interest here, arrives with the character of Angelita La Escapia, a tribal revolutionary in southern Mexico. She receives her training as an insurrectionist in Cuba, where she encounters Marxism. Just as important, she meets Bartolomeo, her Marxism instructor and lover who ends up as her prosecutorial victim in front of a people's tribunal. She presents him for court-martial, she explains, "for betraying the revolution with capital crimes against history." To prove her case, she needs to explain why there has been a betrayal by "Cuban Marxists and their European totalitarianism."

Angelita admits that she has festishized the very image of Marx, that "billy-goat-bearded, old white man," to a degree that causes laughter in her village. Her fascination with Karl Marx's face comes because "A glint of the man's soul had been captured there, in the eyes of Marx's image on the page." Or again, "the first time she had opened a volume of Das Kapital, she had been amazed by the blazing darkness of Marx's eyes." The fetishization -- in both religious and Marxist senses -- of a political image lures Angelita, promising a new understanding and liberation. Marx's spirit seems to speak from out of that photographic image, almost joining the ancestor spirits who guide her and the native rebellion. So, speaking to the tribunal audience she acknowledges "Rumors about myself and Marxism. Rumors about myself and the ghost of Karl Marx!"

She denies those rumors in her speech:

People have been asking questions about ideology. Are we this or are we that ? Do we follow Marx? The answer is no! No white man politics! No white man Marx! No white man religion, no nothing until we retake this land! We must protect Mother Earth from destruction.

The image of Marx and the conceptual elaborations of Marxism, as attractive as they might be, remain part of an alien European culture. Given that Marxist thought arguably has been the most widely diffused and least parochial secular ideology of the past century, Silko's characterization of these politics as "white man politics" ignores generations of Asian, African and Latin American re-interpretation and elaboration. The whiteness of Marxism is a mythical racialization.

In a more positive reading, since her fundamental concern is for native land rights, Silko categorizes political ideas according to their utility in the pursuit of that goal. In this sense there is no real distinction between European-born ideologies, whether right or left, that endorse or passively accept the alienation of lands from native people. Any diversion via ideological micro-argumentation or internal interpretive division is an anathema for Silko. As with other native writers, 'whiteness' serves as cultural shorthand for European-ness, rather than as racialization.

The political contrariness and ambiguity that Silko invests in Angelita allows her to believe at the same time that Marx was "unlike any white man since Jesus." This is because, as Silko glosses, Marx had gained his insights by studying Native American communal societies: "Marx had learned about societies in which everyone ate or everyone starved together, and no one stood above another -- all stood side by side -- rock, insect, human being, river, or flower." Thus the "crude communism" that Marx describes in 'Private Property and Communism' might be read as an ethnically unspecific analogue for a romanticized native world, where pre-privatization communality and unrestrained communal sexual desires merged in a rather delirious utopianism.

This is not historically tenable. Although Marx covered an enormous range of human territory sitting in the British Library readers room, he was not a knowledgeable student of Native American societies. No evidence suggests that any germ of classical Marxist political theory lies in indigenous America. Engels makes the only substantive reference to American Indians, together with other "primitive and barbarous peoples," in his embarassingly poor analyses of tribal family structures in The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State (1884).

trio There is nothing wrong with inventing an ahistorical Marx. Marxists have done it ever since Marx died, and lots of readers have been more pleased by the new versions than with the original. By attributing to her version of Marx another source of consciousness and intellectual inspiration, Silko argues that the politics of communal ownership and production were an ancient tradition in the Americas. Europe was the latecomer to these debates, arriving in the nineteenth century only after its own forms of primitive communism had been marginalized or extinguished, trampled under by the Industrial Revolution.

In reversing the direction of communalism as an idea, Silko works toward a more accurate and anti-Eurocentric understanding: when Marxism arrived in the Americas it was already post-Marxist, since its predecessors had never disappeared. No less than other European ideologies, Marxist conceptual values that emphasize cooperation, sharing, and economic redistribution need to acknowledge their intercontinental borrowings. To 'discover' such values is no less an expropriation than to 'discover' a peopled continent. Silko reinvents Marx in order to uninvent a cultural exclusivism and recognize the complex economy of intellectual exchange that has benefited Europe.

To liberate a Marx living in historical captivity, the whiteness of Karl Marx must die.

Reifying Ghosts

As one intellectual borrower, Silko recognizes another borrower in Marx and the labor theory of value. She frames Marx's theorization through a perspective that posits a spiritual relation between creator and object:

Marx understood what tribal people had always known: the maker of a thing pressed part of herself or himself into each object made. Some spark of life or energy went from the maker into even the most ordinary objects. Marx had understood that the value of anything came from the hands of the maker.

Silko's account here can be critiqued on two points. First, she draws all native peoples into the rubric of 'tribal' and overextends the meaning and power of tribalism, attributing comprehension to the simple fact of social organization. She erroneously imbues Marx and his abandoned family ethnicity with an understanding derived from this questionable categorization: "Marx of the Jews, tribal people of the desert, Marx the tribal man understood that nothing personal or individual mattered because no individual survived without others." This smacks of Jamake Highwater's nonsensical theory of a "primal mind" endowed with an insight unimpeded by modernity, and privileges Jewishness as a source of special understanding (the cultural antagonism and internalized antisemitism of Marx's "On the Jewish Question" illustrates the contrary).

Second and more importantly, Silko enters the realm of spiritual mystification that so profoundly separates her from Marxism. For Silko, productive acts of creation proceed through a transference of spirit energy. Indeed, truthfully, Marx too finds a commodity "a mysterious thing." In 'The Fetishism of Commodities' he asks 'Whence, then, arises the enigmatical character of the product of labor, so soon as it assumes the form of commodities?" Marx, however, answers his own question by engaging with the secular idea that there is a transfer of value through labor energy. In the above passage and others, Silko comes just short of fetishizing objects as containers of human spirits. A transcendent "spark" of life animates objects, therefore no truly inanimate object exists in this world permeated with spirit presences. Shaman Marx listens to objects and their stories, to the human spirits trapped in commodities.

Despite her radical distance from historical materialism, Silko nonetheless arrives at a conclusion that echoes classical Marxism and the labor theory of value: the basic reference for value comes from human labor added to raw materials. The difference arises in that where Marxist tradition defines value in economic terms, Silko calls upon a tradition that defines value in spiritual terms. Increase or decrease in value depends on the use of an object and its spirit nature, not on exchange relations. Ironically, the derivation of value from an inhabiting spirit does not differ overmuch from the derivation of value via symbolic capital under the canons of postmodern capitalism. The image spirit is all-powerful, a concept very familiar to advertising agencies.

This shamanic Marxism has a certain attraction, especially since rationalism has encountered such frequent confusions in debating the essence of capital. Under corporate capitalism, capital is the ghost of an undead corporate body. Capital is alive yet not alive; the product of materialism yet immaterial; apparent yet hidden; mute yet speaking; plain yet cryptic. Like Silko's visualization of millions of restless ghost ancestors milling unfulfilled throughout the Americas and driving an emergent history, capital transforms an historical energy into a material value. Capital has become the ghost that inhabits global transfers, living in a swirling realm of electronic flow and flux. The entrapped ghosts of labor that create capital's value struggle to emerge into recognition and embodiment; they fight against their own invisibility.

In this world filled with worker spirits, Marx was a tribal storyteller filled with "primitive devotion to the workers' stories." He gathered and wove together British government reports of poverty and suffering among factory operatives in order to create "a powerful, even magical, assembly of stories." As a storyteller, Marx understood that political power lays latent within each individual story and that weaving them into a comprehensible web would generate the power for a new history. At his best, for Silko and Angelita, Marx was an inspirational shaman, one whose immense narrative energies informed the retelling of workingclass stories, so that the stories infused the living with a passion for justice.

In his feverish work with the stories of shrunken, yellowed infants, and the mangled limbs of children, Marx had been working desperately to seize the story of each child-victim and to turn the story away from the brutal endings of the coroners and factory inspectors used to write for the children of the poor.

Despite his abilities as a political shaman, he is ultimately limited in his power to effect change because "poor Marx did not understand the power of the stories belonged to the spirits of the dead." In Silko's writing, Marx remains constrained by an European rationalism where the dead are forever silent, even as the spirits of dead workers energize the collective stories which shape class consciousness among the living. Silko's analysis points to the contradictions of a narrative culture that would seek to revivify and rhetorically ennoble the lives of oppressed and now-dead workers, but deny their invocation as a spiritual presence. The spirits of the English laboring classes that Marx described are no less present in the world than the dispossessed Indian dead of the Americas. Or as Marx wrote in The Eighteenth Brumaire, since the mode of production never changed from the Old to the New World, where "the feverish, youthful movement of material production, which has to make a new world of its own, has neither time nor opportunity left for abolishing the old world of ghosts." In Silko's rendition of the New World, through word-energy and stories, native and European ghosts continue to make history alongside the quick and the living.

Free Marx, Hang the Marxists

Marxist politics in the twentieth century have an atrocious and unforgiveable record of genocide, totalitarianism, anti-democratism, censorship, and cultural oppression. They have generated an antagonism that will not disappear for generations. In the United States, explicitly Marxist political organizations are so insignificant as to give "fringe politics" a new definition of minuteness. This end of the Left, inhabited by snarling political nonentities who think they are revolutionary tigers (see, for example, Deb Kelsh's hilariously strident and verbose calls for a New Sectarianism in the 1998 issues of Cultural Logic), is simply laughable. Except that there are no good laugh lines, and these new-old sectarians fail to recognize that they parody their own history.

In societies that have overthrown the Communist Party, such as in post-communist eastern Europe, the new generation that has emerged is ferociously anti-Marxist, even as it searches for viable progressive politics amidst the Greens, Christian socialism, anarchism, and the rebellious individualism of Beat generation idols. When I taught Richard Wright's Native Son in the Czech Republic, left-wing students were unable to contextualize Wright's Party affiliation in the 1930s and dismissed the novel as "just more socialist realist trash." Anti-authoritarianism flashed in their eyes whenever they spoke of the overthrown communist government, and they saw their lives as having been desperately stunted because of its rule. They recognized and disliked the effects of capitalism (especially the McDonald's golden arches despoiling the medieval town square), but despised far more the oppressive memories left by a political system that failed miserably. The remaining geriatric faithful of the Communist Party are disappearing into the graveyards. An effort to shape a political monopoly based on Marxism hung itself.

There are likely as many answers to what failed as there are theoreticians, and hardcore Marxist theorists of the twenty-first century may well spend most of the new century debating the errors of the last. This sort of debate, which has been the stuff of prolonged exchanges among leftists in the nineties and too often patterns itself after the endless sectarianism of 'who lost Spain' and Trotskyist-Stalinist debates, is wholly irrelevant, even offensive in its obtuseness.

Silko's book is emblematic of the changed terms of Marxist discussion, a discussion in which the search is for inspiration rather than program specifications for achievable agendas. At the turn of this new century, Marxism is simultaneously challenged to be accountable for its political misdeeds and intellectually absorbed for its capacity to challenge. It is now mobilized and driven by underclasses, constituencies, and issues. For Silko, there is a single ideological test: to what degree does Marxism serve or fail native peoples?

When Angelita La Escapia charges Bartolomeo with "crimes against tribal histories" she essentially argues that Native American and African peoples have had their role limited to their utility value, to their political usefulness in European conflicts and ideologies. Marxism, like other European philosophical systems, measured humans by their adaptation to its political schemes. Marxist history remained Europeanized and refused to accomodate an indigenous history. Silko asserts that "Indigenous American uprisings had been far more extensive than any Europeans wanted to admit, not even the Marxists, who were jealous of African and Native American slave workers who had risen up successfully against colonial masters without the leadership of a white man."

In the northern lands of Almanac of the Dead, a United States hiding behind a militarized southern border, the capitalist economy is visibly failing and in retreat. A new revolution swells, following the spirit of Wovoka and the Ghost Dancers. European dominion in the Americas is dying. As a representative of Europe and its failed modern hope, Marxism, Bartolomeo is condemned to hang for crimes against memory. A citation of C.L.R. James as a Marxist historian of Caribbean slave rebellion and the African diaspora, or other examples, would be fruitless counter-argument: it would be a useless apology for refusal to indigenize.

Silko's arguments for ideological indigeneity parallel the rejection of orthodox European Marxist determinism, in which socialism follows capitalist accumulation, in political movements that have emphasized cooperative self-development. The 1967 Arusha Declaration in Tanzania, which pointed to obvious flaws in the indiscriminate application of both liberal and Marxist economic models, notably voiced this trend in postcolonial Africa by calling for cultural self-reliance. What Silko advocates is a far expanded demand for ideology interwoven with familiar culture, which has a fairly limited presence in Marxist thought and even less in practice. That emphasis on familiarity -- or in the Bad Subjects phrase, "the politics of everyday life" -- and on cultural accessibility represents a tenable future.

If such advocacies entail fracture, and the end of political unified field theories where cultural desires outweigh universalistic claims and predictive models, then that result is long past due. Forced ideological integration, denunciations of incorrect thinking and 'false consciousness' (aren't they all false, dearest?), and monopolism have been the downfalls of Marxist political practice. Karl Marx lives in linked concepts, historical adaptation, and good storytelling. The coming century will see whether Marx's ghost will be liberated from the Marxists.

Joe Lockard is a Bennite, Borochovist, and Bad Subject. He can be contacted via

Copyright © 1999 by Joe Lockard. Drawing 1999 by Mike Mosher. All rights reserved.