Culture

The Intellectual Roots of the War against Columbus

Detail of portrait by Sebastiano del Piombo, 1519 (Photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art)
They go back to Marxism and the Ku Klux Klan.

Bashing Christopher Columbus has long been de rigueur among the liberal elite. Today, it has infiltrated our nation’s classrooms and poisons our public discourse. You know the mantra: Columbus was a greedy and egomaniacal villain who brought slavery, disease, “genocide,” and ecological ruin to a previously undisturbed land. Rather than honor this legacy of “hate,” the argument goes, Americans should celebrate the peaceful indigenous peoples who populated this hemisphere long before their lands were stolen by European explorers.

The war against Columbus is cloaked in the lexicon of “diversity” and the rhetoric of “inclusion.” But what many of its foot soldiers do not realize is that in fact it has its intellectual roots in the not so tolerant ideologies of Marxism and white supremacy.

 Karl Marx, of course, viewed history as the product of a great class struggle between those who control the means of production and those who do not. According to Marx, history should be understood not as the story of humanity’s progress but rather as an ongoing clash of opposing forces, a battle between the haves and the have-nots. Friedrich Engels, who with Marx authored the Communist Manifesto, lambasted Columbus as the godfather of modern capitalism. According to Engels, Columbus’s westward journeys unleashed the era of “big commerce,” the world market, and the birth of the bourgeoisie. “The discovery of America was connected with the advent of machinery,” he wrote in 1847, “and with that the struggle became necessary which we are conducting today, the struggle of the propertyless against the property owners.”

Marx, who ironically was born on the anniversary of Columbus’s sighting of the island of Jamaica, believed that the impetus for the age of exploration was “the primitive accumulation of capital.” According to Marx, the greed of explorers like Columbus led to the development of exploitative capitalism, characterized by “the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population” and “the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production.” From the Marxist perspective, then, Columbus is synonymous with capitalism, imperialism, and oppression of the masses.

Not surprisingly, revisionist accounts of Columbus as evil were common in Soviet textbooks in the 1970s and ’80s. And modern-day Marxists still view Columbus a man driven by a “lust for profit” and condemn the holiday that bears his name as a celebration of “the violent and bloody accumulation of capital for the ruling classes.”

But it is not just communists who oppose Columbus. Here, in the United States, the anti-Columbus movement was sparked by white supremacists nearly 100 years ago. In the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan promoted negative characterizations of Columbus in order to vilify Catholics and immigrants, many of whom celebrated Columbus not only as a source of ethnic and religious pride but also as a symbol of the free and diverse society that resulted from the European presence here. The Klan tried to prevent the erection of monuments to the Great Navigator, burned crosses in opposition to efforts to honor him, and argued that commemorations of his voyage were part of a papal plot. Rather than honor a Catholic explorer from the Mediterranean, Klansmen proposed honoring the Norseman Leif Eriksson as discoverer of the New World and a symbol of white pride.

Rather than honor a Catholic explorer from the Mediterranean, Klansmen proposed honoring the Norseman Leif Eriksson as discoverer of the New World and a symbol of white pride.

Sadly, Columbus-bashing didn’t die with the decline of white supremacy or the fall of the Soviet empire. To the contrary, it went mainstream, thanks in large measure to the work of radical historians such as Howard Zinn. Zinn was a former member of the American Communist party who in his best-known work, A People’s History of the United States, adopts the Marxist perspective that history is the story of an ongoing struggle between the ruling class and the oppressed.

A People’s History has sold over 2 million copies and become the foundational text in many of our nation’s schools. It paints the history of America as a story of exploitation and vilifies most of our historical leaders (in almost cartoonish fashion) as motivated by self-interest, greed, and a deceitful compulsion to oppress the masses. Not surprisingly, Zinn blames Columbus for the “violent beginnings of an intricate system of technology, business, politics, and culture that would dominate the world for the next five centuries.” Although Zinn died in 2010, his radical rewriting of American history, unfortunately, lives on.

In fact, as a result of the campaign against Columbus, more than 30 U.S. towns and cities (including Los Angeles, Seattle, Denver, and Minneapolis) have voted to change the name of Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day. More are likely to follow suit. And five states (Alaska, Hawaii, Oregon, South Dakota, and Vermont) no longer recognize the federal holiday as a day to honor Columbus.

Many of those who favor the change may be well-intentioned. Others, not so much.

Since August, militants have smashed, decapitated, or defaced numerous Columbus statues, including those in Baltimore, San Jose, and New York.

A video posted by a group claiming responsibility for the Baltimore vandalism is steeped in Marxist rhetoric, denouncing Columbus for leading “the initial invasion of European capitalism into the Western Hemisphere” and claiming that Columbus initiated a wave of “ecological degradation and capitalist exploitation of labor in the Americas.” The radical, militant group Antifa, whose Marxist roots are not very subtle, has declared October 9 a nationwide Deface Columbus Day.

 

The modern conception of Columbus as villain is, of course, incredibly simplistic — as is the opposing conception of Columbus as unblemished hero. So too are silly depictions of the native tribes as peace-loving people whose state of harmony was shattered only by the arrival of the Spanish. In truth, the 15th century was a time of great brutality the world over: Some Spaniards did, indeed, commit atrocities. Some of the native tribes desired war with the European explorers; others routinely engaged in human sacrifice and cannibalism. Slavery at the time was practiced across the globe (most notably in Africa, Asia, and the Arab world). But, on balance, the Spanish treated the native people more humanely than did their other European counterparts, and arguably more mercifully than many of them treated each other.

It is true too that Columbus faced challenges we can hardly imagine, and was, by most accounts, a poor colonial administrator, who took sides in battles between tribes, captured enemy combatants, and brought them back to Spain. But warfare was never his intention. In a world where slavery and barbarism were commonplace, it is remarkable that Columbus’s goal remained trade and evangelization of the natives, not conquest or elimination, and that he punished (even executed) those who abused natives against his express orders.

Those who denounce Columbus reflexively or seek to eliminate the holiday in his name may be well-intentioned, but they have allowed themselves to become the pawns of hateful extremists. We must remind them that their one-dimensional perspective has its roots not in tolerance but in both Marxist ideology and the anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic views of white supremacists.

    READ MORE:

    The Left Opens Fire on Columbus Statues

    Jonah Goldberg on Christopher Columbus

    Christopher Columbus: A Tale of Two Narratives

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