Residual Stalinism

Deborah Simmons

[Note: This is the full version of Deborah Simmon’s letter which we were not able to print in its entirety in our print issue due to its length. To see the letter as it ran in the issue, please read the attached PDF file.]

Tom Keefer is to be thanked for exploring the pitfalls of the stagist conception of history that has been dredged up from Stalinist appropriation of the stagist theory of history[1] and jammed onto a distorted conception of indigenous realities in Frances Widdowson’s and Albert Howard’s book Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2008). 

A number of indigenous intellectuals, activists and supporters of indigenous self-determination have countered the enthusiastic responses in the popular media[2] with insights about the racist implications of the arguments in the book, and the poor scholarship on which these arguments are founded.[3] Many others that I have spoken with have deliberately decided, in the words of Peter Kulchyski, to “turn their backs” on the writings of Widdowson and Howard. This is an understandable response to unworthy opponents. Shoddy scholarship and shallow rhetoric drags down the level of debate and discussion, polarizing political ideas such that they are more obscured than clarified and developed. Yet in their prolific writings including numerous articles and conference papers prior to (since 1996) and following publication of their book, Widdowson and Howard, self-identified Marxists, revive the grotesque spectre of our own contradictory traditions on the Left. We bear a certain responsibility to face up to these contradictions and rise to, or better yet, rise above them in order to find a path to solidarity with indigenous peoples, and a fuller understanding of the role of self-determining indigenous movements as a force for radical social change. 

My particular interest here is the way in which science has been reified by Widdowson and Howard and used to legitimate state decision-making on behalf of oppressed peoples. Science is counterposed to indigenous traditional knowledge, which by way of a children’s parable (The Emperor’s New Clothes) is denounced as mere superstition in the service of a corrupt “aboriginal industry.” The state is called upon to harness scientific rationalism in the old colonial interest of “civilizing the savages.” In the words of Widdowson and Howard, “It is not clear how the remnants of Neolithic culture that are inhibiting this development can be addressed without intensive government planning and intervention” (252).

In an article for the special Indigenous Resurgence issue of New Socialist magazine published two years before their book came out in 2006, I pointed out that Widdowson’s and Howard’s work carries through implications of the form of “socialism from above” that gained ascendency during the Stalinist era.[4] During that period, thousands of socialists around the world were duped into believing that Stalin’s dictatorship, forged in the defeat of the Russian revolution, represented the present potential for radical social change. Stalin’s rule was purportedly based on a “scientific” conception of social engineering, structured by a series of five year plans. A “scientific” view of history was the legitimating basis for the stagist theory that Keefer describes, for the subjugation of numerous nations in the Soviet empire (including many indigenous peoples), and for the violent dispossession of millions of peasants. The proletarianisation of land-based peoples and industrialisation of production was considered to be in the best interests of scientifically defined progress for humanity, thus justifying the violent means by which it was achieved. Thus, in the Soviet empire as elsewhere around the globe, the history of primitive accumulation was, in Marx’s words, “written in the annals of mankind in letters of blood and fire.” 

Indigenous activists in Canada have long encountered “I know what’s best for you” politics dressed up as socialism. Negative experiences in encounters with Left politics during the Red Power movement of the 1970s were reflected in writings by Lee Maracle (Sto:loh), Jeannette Armstrong (Okanagan), and Vern Harper (Cree). Now, as we commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Kanien’kehá:ka rebellion at Oka (splendidly reflected in the new anthology This is an Honour Song, edited by Leanne Simpson and Kiera L. Ladner), the time is ripe to reflect upon lessons learned. The Oka rebellion and a variety of subsequent struggles[5] have provoked the Left to come to grips with the implications of indigenous resurgence, as well as differences of perspective emergent from complex and deepening political divisions within indigenous nations. The burgeoning body of writings by a new layer of young radical indigenous intellectuals along with expanding forums for discussion among indigenous activists and supporters (such as the former Wasáse network and more recently Defenders of the Land) are crucial touchstones for socialist thinking “from below” on these issues.[6]

Radical indigenous thinkers and activists consistently assert that ongoing and reciprocal indigenous relationships with the land and the associated knowledge, social relationships and spirituality that have been carried through the generations address the limits of the science-based knowledge marshalled by capital and the state. Indigenous knowledge is far from the institutionalized religion or “opiate” of the masses that Marx so vigorously opposed. On the contrary, as Marx came to realize, persistent indigenous traditions provide us with a glimpse of the kind of relationships that might be possible for the rest of humanity if capitalism were to be demolished. Thus what Glen Coulthard and others term “critical traditionalism,” applied to present indigenous struggles for land and self-determination, has truly radical implications. 

Science and traditional knowledge are not easily counterposed. I’ve seen moments when there is truly a hunger for new knowledge shared by indigenous people and scientists, and cross-cultural barriers are overcome to discuss research questions and interpret results from the two distinct processes of knowledge production. However, both indigenous and scientific knowledge projects are also situated within systemic pressures of cooptation and commodification that tend to undermine their application in strategies leading to environmental and social justice. 

Science, thoroughly rooted in the history of capitalism, the state, and empire, is mobilized through alienated or “objective” ideological frames that are easily turned to the service of profit, dispossession and environmental destruction. This is particularly apparent in northern Canada during the present push to exploit mineral and petroleum wealth in indigenous territories,[7] while at the same time pursuing conservation in any remaining fragments of land. Natural and social scientists alike are being recruited to conduct quantitative impact studies showing how all this might be accomplished, how impacts can be “mitigated.” It turns out that quite a lot of this activity will require “adaptation” by indigenous peoples, another policy term for effective dispossession. For example, indigenous peoples will increasingly have to face the shrinking of their harvesting areas, regulation of traditional subsistence resources (caribou and polar bear) and threats to their resources due to climate change. 

Meanwhile, Coulthard’s critique of the politics of recognition (2007, 2009) also requires us to think critically about the concept of “traditional knowledge” (or in Nunavut, Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit) reluctantly adopted in policy and law as a concession in response to indigenous resistance since the 1970s. The concept is disembodied, commodified and evacuated of content within a state context, albeit incompletely. Indigenous people repeatedly point out that their voices are rarely heard or accommodated, no matter how many obscure meetings stacked with scientists and bureaucrats that they patiently sit through and speak at, no matter how many traditional knowledge studies they participate in. Apparently the qualitative and narrative nature of indigenous knowledge sharing is opaque with respect to scientifically framed decision-making processes; as Nadasdy (2003) points out, it must be effectively dismantled in order to be made intelligible. In “using” traditional knowledge to conform with policy requirements, scientists are thus compelled to subsume it within their own knowledge system, which is thereby reasserted as the platform for decision-making for – rather than by or with – indigenous peoples.[8] It remains a key instrument for reinscribing colonial power in indigenous territories. 

Neither science nor traditional knowledge are historical agents in themselves – people are. When scientific knowledge is detached from its own ongoing processes of inquiry, it soon becomes dogma, a weapon of repression and exploitation. When traditional knowledge is detached from the experiences and narratives of the indigenous knowledge holders, it loses meaning and content and becomes a vestigial shadow of indigenous identity.  An emancipatory politics “from below” must necessarily advocate for the kind of embodied knowledge that allows for truly respectful dialogue and learning.[9] Such dialogue and learning – the opposite of the decades-long offensive launched by Widdowson and Howard – is humanity at its best, the basis for the kind of solidarity and joint action that can counter the savagery of the capitalist system and lead us all closer to liberation. 


[1] As noted by Keefer, Stalinist stagism was not original. On the contrary, it was an adaptation of the theory of historical “progress” made popular by Adam Smith and others in the 18th century. A variant of this theory is still going strong in the reigning Conservative Party in Canada, as evidenced by the likes of Harper’s close advisor Tom Flanagan. Historically as in the present, stagist theory goes hand in hand with racism and the justification of colonial domination as a means of “civilizing the savages.”

[2] In particular the National Post, which reprinted much of the book in serial form, with added commentary by columnist Jonathan Kay. Margaret Wente’s controversial appreciation in her Globe and Mail column appeared on October 24, 2008, a month before the book’s publication.

[3] See the list of 14 reviews and responses appended to this letter, most of which are available online. Frances Widdowson has thoughtfully linked virtually all of these critical responses along with positive reviews and her own (and Albert Howard’s) responses to critique on her blog symptomatically entitled “Offended by Offense” ( The aptly titled blog does on the surface appear to extend tentacles of negativity somewhat beyond aboriginal issues, but a closer look reveals that postings in categories such as religion, ethics, environmental studies, northern studies and advocacy studies are all founded in a single-minded obsession with the “corruption” and “duplicity,” “imposition,” “censorship,” and “disaster” caused by the “aboriginal industry” (and thus by implication aboriginal peoples in general). To be fair, a visit to the home page also reveals diatribes against other so-called “offenses,” including Islam Awareness Week at Mount Royal College (March 19, 2010), and most recently the presence of Down’s syndrome students in universities (July 23, 2010).

[4] Widdowson and Howard responded to the New Socialist article with a 17 page paper presented at the Society for Socialist Studies conference critiquing the “New Socialist ideology” and its ilk (2007).

[5] Notably in the mid-1990s with the Revenue Canada occupation and Zapatista solidarity actions 1994, Gustafsen Lake 1995; and over a decade later with the Caledonia blockade 2006, Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug (KI) protest 2008, and Barrier Lake 2009 to the present, and in 2010 the strong indigenous mobilizations at the Vancouver anti-Olympics protests and Toronto G8/G20 protests – to name a few.

[6] For more on the concept of socialism from below, see Simmons 2006, McNally 2002, 2006.

[7] For a discussion of Canada’s ongoing accumulation by dispossession both within Canada and elsewhere, see Gordon (2010).

[8] Nadasdy provides an example of such a process of subsumption and cooptation with respect to cooperative resources management in the Yukon Territory (2003).

[9] See McNally 2000 for a discussion of the emancipatory aspects of embodied knowledge.


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Armstrong, Jeanette. 1985, 2002 (revised edition). Slash. Penticton, BC: Theytus Books.

Atcheson, Joyce. 2010 (May 13, 2010). “Authors claim racism scholarly.” Wawatay Online 37, 10. Accessed August 29, 2010.

Buddle, Kathy. 2009 (January 25). “Treacherous political path: Look at ‘aboriginal industry’ an inept rant.” Winnipeg Free Press. Accessed August 29, 2010.

Coulthard, Glen. 2007. “Subjects of Empire: Indigenous Peoples and the ‘Politics of Recognition’ in Canada.” Contemporary Political Theory 6, 4: 437-460.

Coulthard, Glen. 2009. Subjects of Empire? Indigenous Peoples and the “Politics of Recognition” in Canada. PhD Dissertation. Victoria: University of Victoria.

Deom, Christine Zachary. 2009 (February 9). “Book excerpts unfair to natives.” National Post.

Doughty, Howard A. 2008 (Fall). Book review: Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry: The Deception Behind Indigenous Cultural Preservation, Frances Widdowson and Albert Howard. College Quarterly 11, 4. Accessed August 29, 2010.

Fontaine, Phil. 2009 (February 9). “Let us be who we are: The head of the Assembly of First Nations has a message for Canadians.” National Post.

Frideres, Jim. 2009 (November 6). “Authors use ‘flimsy knowledge.” The Reflector: Mount Royal College’s independent newspaper. . Accessed August 29, 2010.

Gordon, Todd. 2010. Imperialist Canada. Winnipeg: Arbeiter Ring Publishing.

Harper, Vern. 1979. Following the Red Path: The Native Peoples’ Caravan, 1974. Toronto: NC Press.

King, Hayden. 2009 (April 30). “Book recycles paternalistic native stereotypes.” Toronto Star. Accessed August 29, 2010. 

Kulchyski, Peter. 2009 (March 5, and Comment March 18). “The Emperor’s Old Clothes.” Canadian Dimension. Accessed August 29, 2010. 

Maracle, Lee. 1975, 1990 (revised edition). Bobbi Lee, Indian Rebel. Toronto: Women’s Press.

Marx, Karl. 1867, Chapter 26, “The Secret of Primitive Accumulation.” Capital Volume I. Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling, Trans. Frederick Engels, Ed. Moscow: Progress Publishers, Marx/Engels Internet Archive. Accessed August 29, 2010.

McNally, David. 2000. Bodies of Meaning: Studies on Language, Labor, and Liberation. Albany: State University of New York Press.

McNally, David. 2002, 2006 (revised and updated). Another World is Possible: Globalization and Anti-Capitalism. Winnipeg: Arbeiter Ring Publishing.

Nadasdy, Paul. 2003. Hunters and bureaucrats: Power, knowledge, and aboriginal-state relations in the southwest Yukon. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press.

Richardson, Boyce. 2009 (April 26). “Log 107.” Boyce Richardson’s Paper. Accessed August 29, 2010.

Simmons, Deborah. 2006 (October). “Socialism from below and Indigenous peoples: Reclaiming Traditions. Special Indigenous Resurgence issue, New Socialist 58: 13-15.

Simon, Mary. 2009 (February 13). “Assimilation is no solution.” National Post. 

Simpson, Leanne and Keira L. Ladner, Eds. 2010. This is an Honour Song: Twenty Years since the Blockades. Winnipeg: Arbeiter Ring Publishing.

Simpson, Leanne. 2010 (Spring). Review Essay: Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry: The Deception behind Indigenous Cultural Preservation. Wicazo Sa Review 25, 1: 104-107. Accessed August 29, 2010.

Sinclair, Niigonwedom. 2010 (May 16 and 24). “An Ink-stained Response to ‘Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry’ (Parts 1 and 2)., and Accessed August 29, 2010.

Wesley-Esquimaux, Cynthia. Book review: Frances Widdowson and Albert Howard, Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry: The Deception Behind Indigenous Cultural Preservation. Native Studies Review 18, 2: 159-160. Accessed August 29, 2010.

Widdowson, Frances and Albert Howard. 2007 (May 30-June 2)“Indigenous Knowledge(s) and the Academy: Facilitating Decolonization or Disguising Aboriginal Marginalization?” Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Society for Socialist Studies. Saskatoon: University of Saskatchewan.