The above is a video recording of Ward Churchill Speaking On Colonialism as Genocide at Concordia University in Montreal last Wednesday, recorded by Maximilian Forte on Vimeo.
i was tabling so i missed the talk, which makes me extra-grateful to have this video available. i certainly don’t agree with all of Ward Churchill’s ideas, but i find them consistently thought-provoking, and he is at least dealing with the real questions: colonialism, genocide, and how to get out of this mess.
Ironically, it is on the former two of these questions that i find myself reticent to fully embrace Churchill’s argument. i’ll go into a bit of detail here as to what my reticence is all about. These are painful, and somewhat disgusting, things to discuss, but i think it’s important to clarify our terms, because when we’re talking about genocide and colonialism, we’re really talking about the capitalist present and future. So we can’t afford a lack of clarity here.
Drawing on French Maoist-existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1967 essay On Genocide, Churchill argues that colonialism always leads to genocide, and that all genocides are by their very evil nature equal.
On the face of it, these propositions seem sensible enough, and to take issue with either one seems to be the height of bad taste at best, if not actually skirting with some kind of holocaust denial. Indubitably, the propositions of “always” and “all are equal” have a strategic use, for the most oppressed are routinely described by the oppressor as being those with the least to complain about. So saying “all our experiences are equal” not only has a nice ring to it, it can also serve as an antidote to the racist double-standard consistently applied to the victims of colonialism and genocide.
But is this enough to make it true? i would say not.
Churchill rhetorically compares the Nazi Holocaust with the Conquest of the Americas by Europeans, daring us to say they’re different. The reason behind this comparison is easy enough to see – the imperialist consciousness industry routinely holds up the Nazi Holocaust as the greatest evil to ever occur, while denying any genocide ever took place in North America. Hypocrisy beautifully laid to waste in Churchill’s own book, A Little Matter of Genocide.
So i grant it, the rhetoric has a strategic logic that cannot be denied.
But does it prove the case? i would argue that the comparison is too difficult to make here, as we’re asked to weigh a genocide carried out between peoples (euro-goyim and Jews) who had lived interpenetrated for centuries, using tanks, machine guns and poisonous gasses – i.e. 20th century tech – with a genocide carried out on not one but on hundreds of nations and peoples, by means of primitive germ warfare, cavalry on horseback and primitive firearms. Not only that, but the genocide in Europe against Jews is no longer going on, while the genocide in North America does continue, albeit using primarily psychosocial and economic rather than military weapons.
The historical and technological gap is so great between these two disasters that any comparison is moot. All any honest observer can say is that these are two tragedies that defy the imagination. Clearly it is not a question of better or worse, but of gaping difference which makes detailed comparison meaningless. Not incommensurable in the sense of “lacking a common quality”, but in the sense of “impossible to compare”.
However, we do have other examples we can choose from. Examples which serve as a better test.
Here in Quebec, we live in a euro-society that is the result of several colonizations, one of which was intra-european: the Conquest of New France, which after decades of brinkmanship and shoving matches occurred in 1763. While most of us have heard of James Wolfe who bested Montcalm on the Plains of Abraham, it is worth also remembering another man, the military commander who captured Montreal: Jeffrey Amherst.
New France was indubitably colonized, and the european people who lived here – some 70,000 christian souls – were certainly changed by the experience. According to Churchill’s definition, maybe they even suffered “genocide” – though it’s worth pointing out that by my (and most people’s) definition they did not. Although a genocidal Durham Report (1839) was commissioned by the British crown after the rebellions of 1837, its proposed forced assimilation was never put into effect aggressively enough to succeed. As for Amherst, as one historian has written of his rule immediately following the Conquest:
Amherst’s kindliness to the French civilians was more than a military gesture. He had a warm sympathy for the countryside, an interest in people and the way they lived. “The Inhabitants live comfortably,” he observed in his journal, “most have stone houses…. ….
This humane attitude was reflected in his rules for the governing of Canada. As its de facto military Governor-General he established a temporary code … a program of tolerance and regard for colonial sensibilities…
Perhaps most statesmanlike of all was Amherst’s recognition of the French law, … a recognition which permitted change of national loyalty without social upheaval.
Two-and-a-quarter centuries later, there is still occasional anguish and anxiety over national identity in Quebec, but as a collectivity people can trace their identities and families and culture back to New France in a trajectory that “makes sense”, that has integrity, that was never extinguished even as it survived at-times brutal exploitation and repression at the hands of the British.
Churchill raised the important component of genocide meaning that a group is “no longer the same people”. This is an essential characteristic, but formulated as such it is open to confusion. No people remains the same people over time, just as no individual remains the same individual, identical today to how you were ten years ago. Indeed, to even create the illusion of remaining permanently unchanged requires ever-increasing social and psychological resources, and eventually proves itself always untenable. Furthermore, none of us – either as individuals, nor as peoples – have even partial control over how we will change, or what things will change us. This is a fact that no appeals to a mythic right to self-determination can broach.
So i would say that genocide is not simply a process that leaves us “not the same people” – because life itself does that – but one that disrupts and extinguishes any thread connecting who we are from who we were. A break that occurs within a discrete period of time. A trauma that inflicts the societal equivalent of grave mental illness, a loss of any sense of self.
The colonization of New France by the British was certainly a crime, and led to immense suffering, but it did not lead to any consistent programme of genocide, nor any such trauma-induced societal forgetting. Those of us (such as myself) who mainly speak and live in english even though we are descended from New France’s colonists are not the results of genocide, just of the chance and variety that makes up life.
Today “colonialism” and “genocide” of Quebecois takes the form of having to tolerate our neighbours speaking different languages and practicing different religions, and of not having an internationally recognized state of our own. Whoopedy-doo. Indeed, the only folks here today that claim that genocide is taking place against Quebecois are members of the far right – our local equivalent of the American neo-nazis who claim genocide is being waged against white people there.
It is instructive – keeping in mind Churchill’s claim that all colonialism always leads to genocide, and that all genocides are equal – to compare the fate of the French following the Conquest to those other peoples that Jeffrey Amherst was sent to subdue. For in 1763, the very year that New France fell, Amherst turned his attention to the many Indigenous nations that remained sovereign in the Great Lakes region. With the other euro-power in the area vanquished, Amherst considered that these First Nations should now be crushed.
As these belligerent intentions became clear, an international peacekeeping force including warriors from over a dozen nations took action in an attempt to forestall or even turn back the tide of British aggression. Soldiers from the Delaware, Shawnee, Wyandot, Mingo, Miami, Wea, Kickapoo, Mascouten, Piankashaw, Odawa, Ojibwa, Potawatomi, and Huron nations all participated in this effort, knows in our history books as Pontiac’s Rebellion.
Smashing these allies and terrorizing their peoples was one of Amherst’s first tasks following the defeat of New France. Besides the obvious immediate threat in the Great Lakes region, the spectre of international cooperation against euro-colonialism posed a threat to the settler enterprise across this continent. Amherst’s weapon of terror was genocide, and his method was blankets infected with smallpox. Biological warfare, aimed at combatants and civilians alike, in an effort to “extirpate” the Indigenous resistance.
Although the Indigenous nations were not defeated by Amherst’s biowarfare – indeed, there resulted a military stalemate and the British crown had to resort to diplomatic and political methods to get what it wanted – the intent and attempt to carry out genocide was clearly present.
i want you to note that although New France was also colonized, i know of no genocidal corollary to the smallpox-infested blankets there.
In other words, not every case of colonization does lead to genocide. It’s always an idea at the back of the colonizers’ head, but it is not always one acted upon. The relationship between the two is similar to the relationship between smoking and cancer – one does not always cause the other, it simply increased the chances of it occurring.
As to the second proposition, that all genocides are equal, again on a gut-level this feels right, but i fear it can be very misleading. For as political activists, the term “equal” meaning “equally abhorrent” must be distinguished from “equal” meaning “equivalent” or the same. In the lived experiences of the oppressed, differences that lead to different capacities of resistance, different chances of survival, different options of accommodation, are all worth keeping in mind.
Again, to best test the statement, i think examples should be chosen occurring in roughly the same historical epoch and cultural-political matrix. This is a fairly standard method used in science to control for various factors (i.e. make sure they are the same or else equally irrelevant) in order to be able to compare what is essential to the question. Comparing the Vendéens and the Moriori – tragic though each case may be – simply involves too many contextual differences to be meaningful.
i will not compare between various genocides experienced by various Indigenous nations in North America simply because i don’t have more than a cursory knowledge, and the nature of the comparison is already extremely distasteful – like comparing different forms of rape or child abuse. Superficially, i will point out that there seems to be a difference between the eventual fate of the Beothuk and of the Lakota, although each certainly suffered (and the Lakota still suffer) genocidal violence on the part of the colonizers. Neither one may be “better”, but nor do the two seem identical.
(Indeed, i would guess that in fact i have less disagreement with Churchill than this post may imply. In his talk about thirteen minutes in he himself does differentiate between the colonization of the Marshall Islanders by the Japanese and the genocidal nuclear tests carried out against these people by the united states.)
Looking at Europe, where i feel more comfortable making my point, using Churchill’s broader definition i would agree that there have been many genocides, but in human and political terms i maintain that they are far from equivalent.
The Basques suffer colonization to this day, but their experience in Spain and France – horrible though it has been, with death squads assassinating independence activists and aboveground political parties banned – is not “as bad as” – as in not as deadly as, not as politically determining as – the genocide that befell Europe’s Armenians or Jews in the first half of the twentieth century.
Similarly, Ireland has been decimated for centuries by English colonialism, often incredibly bloody and murderous in intent. Using the United Nations definition, certainly at certain times a policy of genocide was carried out. But again, the scope of intent, the political centrality of the strategy, and as a consequence the body count at the end, were not of the same order. The Irish people have suffered incredibly at the hands of colonialism, but their experience remains qualitatively different from that of the Armenians, or for that matter the Roma.
None of this is to excuse any genocide. Each case of genocide, indeed each case of colonialism, is an open sore on the body of humanity, and as Churchill so eloquently pointed out, in many places – including North America – genocide remains a crime committed every day with impunity.
But the antidote to the capitalist denial of some genocides is not the liberal insistence that all genocides are equal, or that each and every case of colonialism has resulted in genocide. That’s an intellectual shortcut that glosses over some important, and painful, variations within our common human tragedy.
To take such a shortcut, i fear, would lead to our blunting our theoretical tools, and to confusion in distinguishing the different natures of different claims.