Stabroek News ‘History This Week’ Article

We have come to honour you with the gift of Civilisation

by Christopher Carrico

When Europeans came to the Americas, they came with clearly defined ideas about what was civilised and what was not.  The classical European notion of civilisation was first developed in ancient Greece, where ‘civilised’ meant to be a male citizen of a Greek city-state.  The Greek word for ‘barbarian’ applied to nearly all non-Greeks.

Greeks did recognize some groups as being more civilised than others, so while they believed that they were superior to all other peoples, they did recognize that other state-based and class-stratified societies had more in common with Greeks than they did with ‘barbarians’.   For example, the societies of the Nile River Valley (see the argument in Frank Snowden’s Blacks in Antiquity, 1970), the Near East, and Mesopotamia were relatively civilised when compared to the Germanic, Celtic, and other peoples of Northern Europe who were not yet state-based societies.

The Romans inherited many of the prejudices of the Greeks, and also saw Egyptians, Ethiopians, Mesopotamians, etc. as civilised like the Greeks and Romans, while they had little respect for the culture and way of life of the tribes of Northern Europe.  By sending conquering armies to the north, and enslaving and subjugating the peoples there, the Romans thought that they were bringing the benefits of a civilised life to the wild tribes that lived at the northern frontiers of their empire.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, the business of ‘civilising’ Europe was taken over by the Church, and knights and warriors who had sworn allegiance to kings and queens loyal to the Roman Catholic Church.  A good indication in the medieval European mind as to whether an area had become civilised was whether there was a bishop who oversaw the region.  See The Making of Europe (Barlett 1994).

The feudal states that developed in medieval Europe in the wake of the fall of the Roman Empire were class-stratified tributary states.  Slaves, serfs, and peasants were the common agricultural labourers, while both the aristocracy and the clergy largely lived off of the tribute and the tithes which were paid to them by working people.  Most Medieval scholars believed this unequal division of labour was God-ordained, and part of the natural order.  Peoples who did not live in class-stratified, state-based societies like those of feudal Europe were considered to have an inferior way of life, and to subjugate these peoples was justified because it brought them the gift of civilisation and of Christianity.

Even by 1492, the Spaniards who sponsored Columbus’s first voyage to the Americas were fully immersed in this ideology of the feudal world.  Catholic Spaniards had been involved in a centuries’ long struggle against the Islamic presence in the Iberian Peninsula, a period known in Spanish history as the Reconquista – the ‘reconquest’ of Spain from Islamic infidels.  Immediately following Reconquista was the Inquisition, where the Church used torture to get confessions from suspected infidels.  The Inquisition was aimed at hunting down those who still practiced the Islamic faith, European pagan traditions, or Judaism.  Converting non-Christians to the faith through violence and persecution was not a new idea to the Spanish when they brought this same pattern to the Americas.


Slavery was a fundamental part of the way of life of many of the earliest class-stratified and state-based societies.  The labour that built Egypt, Greece, and Rome as Classical civilizations was largely slave labour.  The idea that democracy was founded in ancient Athens, for instance, needs to be understood alongside the fact that the society was only democratic for male, property owning citizens whose wealth and free time were made possible by slave labour.

Greco-Roman civilisation was founded on slave labour, and slavery was a legal practice in most of Europe until the nineteenth century.  As the main form of labour, slavery dwindled in importance after the fall of the Roman Empire, being largely replaced by serfdom. Like slavery, serfdom was an unfree form of labour.  Serfs belonged to the land that they were born on, and to the feudal lords who were the owners of that land.  Still, serfs had managed to maintain some rights and privileges which had been stripped away from slaves.

While slavery had dwindled in importance during the European Middle Ages, it never completely disappeared.  Slave raiding and trading continued to be a common practice in the areas around the Mediterranean, with Christians and Muslim raiding each other’s territories for the taking of slaves, and each raiding ‘pagan’ groups that had not converted to either religion.  The area where the greatest amount of slave raiding took place was in the Black Sea area, as raiders from the Italian city-states, and from the Ottoman Empire, for instance, took slaves from the southern Slavic areas.  In northern Europe, the main slave raiders were Scandinavians, who raided Russia to take slaves.  Because of how common slave raiding was in Slavic countries, the English words for slave and Slav have the same etymological root.

Columbus came from Genoa, one of the major players in the Mediterranean slave trade.  While it is often emphasized that Columbus came to the Americas in search of gold and other riches, it is clear that he also came with the goal of capturing slaves.

The Amerindians who Columbus first made contact with were the Tainos of the Greater Antilles.  The Tainos were an Arawakan-speaking people who had developed a settled, agricultural way of life, a deeper division of labour than most horticultural peoples, and a system of hierarchy wherein there were commoners, and persons of chiefly status.

Because of the fact that the Tainos were a hierarchical society, with a settled agricultural way of life,  Europeans recognized them as being somewhat more civilised than groups that were more egalitarian, and/or semi-nomadic.

The Spanish along the ‘Wild Coast’

The Lesser Antilles, and the Caribbean and Atlantic coasts of the South American mainland, were of relatively little concern to the Spanish during the early years of their colonisation when compared to their interest in the areas in and around the Aztec and Inca Empires (Mexico, Central America, and the Andes).  However, what are today Venezuela, Trinidad, and islands off of the Venezuelan Coast did become areas for economic exploitation by the Spanish by the first few decades of the 16th century.

Regionally, the Spanish Crown and the Catholic Church had decreed that it was illegal to enslave the relatively more civilised Arawakan speakers of the Caribbean and Northern South America, while it was legal to enslave the ‘savage’ Cariban speakers of the area.  It has long been assumed that these distinctions were based on real cultural differences between the two language families, but what has become clear in recent scholarship is that the categories of Arawak and Carib often shifted in European definitions based on European strategic interests in the area. Let’s look a couple of examples.

The peoples of the Lesser Antilles were mainly speakers of Arawakan languages, but they violently resisted Spanish colonialism throughout the early colonial period.   Therefore, merchants, slave raiders, and prospective colonists wrote letters to the Church and the Spanish Crown convincing Europeans that these peoples were Caribs and therefore fair game for enslavement and violent conquest.

Similarly, all of the peoples of northern Venezuela, Trinidad, and the Guyana coast were initially categorized as Caribs and could be legally raided for slaves.  However, once lucrative pearl fisheries were discovered off of the islands to the north of the Venezuelan coast, the Spanish realised that they needed the assistance of local people for labour and provisions.  The Spanish enlisted the help of the Lokono Arawaks of Trinidad and of Guyana’s Essequibo coast to supply the provisions that fed the labourers in the pearl fisheries of Cubagua, Isla de Margarita, etc.  Peoples living deeper in the interior were still considered to be ‘wild’ Caribs and could be taken as slaves, with some of the most violent and dramatic raids taking place along the Orinoco during the 1530s and the 1560s.

During the 16th century, the Spanish developed a special relationship with the Lokono Arawak of Trinidad, the Orinoco Delta and the Essequibo Coast.  The Arawak provided provisions, mainly the in the form of cassava in exchange for a privileged access to European trade goods.  Ojer and Boomert propose that the Arawak of Aruacy, Trinidad had regional political dominance, but Anna Benjamin (1987) suggests that privileged trading access was not accompanied by political authority, and that political authority did not extend beyond the level of the village or the settlement.  However, the privileged access of some Arawaks to trade might have meant that already existing rank and lineage distinctions were reinforced within Lokono Arawak settlements.  The Spanish also introduced a pattern of awarding slaves to the Arawaks who then subsequently sometimes used slave labour to produce provisions for European colonists.

As we can see, the idea that empires are civilising the victims of their conquest is one that has deep roots in the Western tradition.  It was perpetuated in the past in the name of bringing inferior peoples the gift of Christianity or the gift of Civilisation.  It is often perpetuated today in the name of bringing them the gift of Democracy and Human Rights.



Conquest Abroad and Repression at Home

By Christopher Carrico

“Civilization originates” Stanley Diamond tells us, “with conquest abroad and repression at home.”  Diamond himself had seen both firsthand.  Stanley was a WWII veteran who served in North Africa, and, like many American men of his generation, went to University on the G.I. Bill.  He completed his PhD in cultural anthropology at Columbia University in 1951.  His dissertation, Dahomey: A Proto-State in West Africa, was based mainly on historical research, and dealt with aspects of state-formation in West Africa during the era of the transatlantic slave trade.  Along with Eric Wolf and Sidney Mintz, Diamond was part of a left-wing student cohort at Columbia who had studied under Julian Steward and Ruth Benedict, and who later came to be among the principal architects of North American Marxist anthropology during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.

While his dissertation earned him an immediate reputation for being one of the brightest rising stars on the scene in American anthropology, the quality of his work and his reputation were not enough to earn him a secure place in American academia during the 1950s.  Because of his well known left-wing political commitments he was dismissed from his teaching position at UCLA during the McCarthy Era purges and black listings.  Unable to find academic work in the US for three years, Diamond spent part of this time in Israel doing ethnographic research in an Israeli kibbutz and in a nearby Bedouin mountain village.

Diamond’s best known teaching gig was at the New School for Social Research, where he began working in 1966, and where he founded and chaired the Department of Anthropology.  His best known work, In Search of the Primitive: a Critique of Civilization (1974), was a collection of essays that had been written in the turbulent political atmosphere of late 1960s and early 1970s.  These essays developed a general theory of state formation, and used anthropology in the service of the critique of the exploitation of capitalist and tributary states, and of their imperialist wars of the present and the past.

Well known for his contributions to humanist anthropology, Stanley Diamond was also the founder of the prestigious journal Dialectical Anthropology, and was an accomplished poet — publishing poetry chapbooks Totems (1982, Barrytown, Ltd.) and Going West (1986, Hermes House Press).  The poet Gary Snyder said of him: “Stanley Diamond is an upper-upper Paleolithic intellectual-hunter on the track of the biggest game of all—the State.”

Of the entire post-WWII generation of North American Marxist anthropologists, perhaps only Eleanor Leacock’s work was more ground breaking.  Both Diamond and Leacock were incredibly influential on the theories of state formation emanating from the research of American Marxists such as archaeologist Thomas Patterson and anthropologist Christine Gailey, and the work on primitive communist societies like that of Canadian Marxist anthropologist Richard Lee.  I recite the lineage of this “little tradition”, written against the grain of the dominant traditions of positivist scientism and post-structuralist obscurantism, not only as a way of honoring my ancestors and my elders to whom I am grateful, but also, to call attention to the nature of intellectual commitment in academia, and its inseparability from commitment to one’s concrete politics within the societies and communities where we teach and write, and within the societies and communities where we conduct our research.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, anthropology was still widely thought of as the study of “primitive” societies.  Indeed, among many laypersons and academics worldwide, this is still how the field is generally understood.  The contrast is of course, is with the “civilized” societies in which sociologists and other social scientists historically worked.  Diamond’s purpose when he wrote In Search of the Primitive: a Critique of Civilization was to use the modes of production and reproduction that Marx and Engels had called “primitive communist” as sources of critique of the so-called civilized societies.  Diamond found in anthropology what Marx found in Hegel, the world presented standing on its head, and Diamond’s project was to try to show us the world right-side up.

Diamond’s “primitive” was much like Rousseau’s, whose ideas Diamond believed Marx and Engels carried to their right philosophical and political conclusions.

On any occasion that I have to talk or write about the pre-state societies, about societies without economic classes, about societies that are kin-based and egalitarian, it is the work like that of Leacock’s and Diamond’s, and all of the anthropologists who stood with the party of humanity, that have enabled me to be able to talk more clearly about the inhumanity and oppression of state-base, class-stratified societies that like to think of themselves as being civilized.

Civilization, indeed, began with conquest abroad and repression at home.  And, of course, its ongoing reproduction is still impossible without imperialist wars and domestic exploitation, repression and discipline.

Civilization originates with conquest abroad and repression at home

I sat and reflected on these words from Stanley Diamond on the day of November 13, 2010, as the Black is Back Coalition marched on Washington to demand an end to U.S. imperialist wars.  Anthropological studies such as Stanley Diamond’s dissertation, Tom Patterson’s Inca Empire and Christine Gailey’s Kinship to Kingship help us to understand that the processes of class exploitation at home, and aggressive wars of conquest have been characteristics of state based and class stratified societies since their origin.  These are not separable processes, but rather, interrelated aspects of a continuum of the violent and coercive process of the extraction of surplus value in both tributary and capitalist state-based societies.  Patterson does an excellent job of emphasizing the fact that, since their inception, class stratified societies have used conquest and imperial expansion as one the main ways of attempting to resolve the contradictions that are inherent in the reproduction of all class stratified societies.  When the crises inherent in state-based societies reach their more advanced stages, the intensification of exploitation at home, the escalation of repression of dissent and resistance at home, and the escalation of wars of conquest that bring ever wider areas of territory under a regime of tribute taking or of capitalist exploitation under the control of imperial elites, are part of a single inseparable process.  As the U.S. Civil Rights movement progressed from the demands for reform in the 1950s, to the more radical demands of the 1960s, one of the characteristics of this movement that made it such a threat to the American status quo, was increasing recognition that the fight against exploitation of poor people and people of color in the United States was the same struggle and the same fight as that of the movement against the war in Vietnam, and its subsequent regional expansion into a war in Laos and Cambodia.  Leaders like Martin Luther King, whose original goals were reform-oriented and moderate, came to be ever more conscious that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”  It is for this reason that the violent suppression of domestic dissent embodied in programs such as the FBI’s COUNTERINTELPRO, aimed particularly at the destruction of the African American Civil Rights movement and at the American Indian Movement, intensified as these movements more strongly aligned themselves with the movement against the Vietnam War.  Movements today, such as the Black is Back movement in the U.S. are at the vanguard of the movement to resist attempts to co-opt Black America, and American liberals and leftists, into unconditional support for the America’s first Black President (however exploitative, violent, aggressive, and repressive the domestic and foreign policies of the Obama administration have turned out to be.)

Neo-liberalism, Chemical Warfare, and the Rape of the World by Finance Capital

In some ways, as vile as the programs of repression and assassination of the 1960s were, they by no means reached the scale and intensity of the destruction that has been inflicted upon the Third World and on poor and working class peoples of the U.S. and other advanced capitalist nations during the years since roughly 1980.  While an elite comprador class has thrived in parts of the Third World, this capitalist success has come at the price of the immiseration of millions of poor and working class people, and a regime of thinly disguised genocide by economic and by military means.  Simultaneously, the United States has experienced over three decades of stagnating and declining wages of its working class, and the mass incarceration of its underclass.  The U.S., supposedly the world’s protector of freedom and equality, has now long had, by far, the highest incarceration rate per capita of any country in the world.  The overwhelming majority of these prisoners are non-violent drug offenders, from communities that were deliberately flooded with heroin and crack cocaine by the CIA, the DEA, who worked in collusion with international drug cartels as a way to fund right-wing paramilitary forces and dictatorships in the Third World, as well as a way of destroying historically oppressed peoples living in the internal colonies of the capitalist metropole.  The defeat of national liberation movements, and anti-imperialist insurgency in the world’s poorest countries was intimately connected to the everyday warfare that was taking place on the streets of America’s poor communities.  The warfare at home took the form of systematic police brutality, mass incarceration, and mass murder by means of the deliberate spread of drug addiction and gun violence, and the deliberate failure to take any rational measures to prevent the factors involved in the spread of HIV/AIDS in America’ most vulnerable communities.

These processes are well known in America’s Black and other oppressed minority communities, even while middle class America lives in deep denial and willful ignorance.

The New Danger

Shortly before 911, and the Bush administration’s subsequent wars of aggression in Afghanistan and Iraq, rapper Mos Def wrote a song that seems prophetic in retrospect. The song, entitled “War”, would later appear on his studio album The New Danger.  The ideas expressed in this song show a clear and conscious awareness of the intimate connection between repression at home and conquest abroad, that Stanley Diamond, in a very different way but in the same spirit, was trying to express since the time of his now obscure and relatively forgotten dissertation defended at Columbia University in 1951.  Here is what Mos Def had to say about conquest abroad and repression at home:

Palestine, Kosovo, Kashmir
It’s no different than the avenue that’s right here
An increase in the murder rate each year
Paramilitary unit keep the streets clear
Curtains up on the theater of warfare
Dramatic politics nightly performed here
Worldwide from Colombia to Columbine
Gun holders keep the dollar signs on the line