The controversy surrounding the celebration of Columbus Day notwithstanding, the various radical Soviet avant-garde project submissions for the 1929 international competition to design a memorial to Christopher Columbus in Santo Domingo were pretty incredible.
Engels’ 1847 speech on Columbus’ accidental journey to what would become known as the Americas is appended below. After that, there are a couple excerpts from Franz Mehring’s 1895 text On Historical Materialism.
Minutes of Engels’s Lecture to the London German Workers’ Educational Society on November 30,1847
The discovery of America
Written: November 30, 1847; Source:MECW Volume 6, p. 627; First published: in Archiv für die Geschichte des Sozialismus und der Arbeiterbewegung, jg. 8, Leipzig, 1919.
Citizens! When Christopher Columbus discovered America 350 years ago, he certainly did not think that not only would the then existing society in Europe together with its institutions be done away with through his discovery, but that the foundation would be laid for the complete liberation of all nations; and yet, it becomes more and more clear that this is indeed the case. Through the discovery of America a new route by sea to the East Indies was found, whereby the European business traffic of the time was completely transformed; the consequence was that Italian and German commerce were totally ruined and other countries came to the fore; commerce came into the hands of the western countries, and England thus came to the fore of the movement. Before the discovery of America the countries even in Europe were still very much separated from one another and trade was on the whole slight. Only after the new route to the East Indies had been found and an extensive field had been opened in America for exploitation by the Europeans engaged in commerce, did. England begin more and more to concentrate trade and to take possession of it, whereby the other European countries were more and more compelled to join together. From all this, big commerce originated, and the so-called world market was opened. The enormous treasures which the Europeans brought from America, and the gains which trade in general yielded, had as a consequence the ruin of the old aristocracy, and so the bourgeoisie came into being. The discovery of America was connected with the advent of machinery, and with that the struggle became necessary which we are conducting today, the struggle of the propertyless against the property owners.Continue reading →
Yesterday was Columbus Day. I saw the parade pass by the Museum of Modern Art in downtown Manhattan. People were happy. I am, of course, aware of the controversy that surrounds Columbus Day, and the widespread protests that have taken place since 1992, the 500 anniversary of Columbus’ historic voyage. Many Native American and activist groups have campaigned against the existence of the holiday; I personally didn’t feel too strongly one way or the other.
Now I hesitate to even touch on this subject, since most of the discourse associated with it is so miserable on either side that it tends to swiftly devolve into empty, back-and-forth accusations of racism on the one hand and politically-correct historical revisionism on the other. For those who are critical of the holiday and would like to see it removed, Columbus Day is nothing more than an open celebration of the imperial conquest over native peoples, of the genocidal consequences that followed Columbus’ arrival in the West Indies. Some who have advocated for its removal have even proposed that it be replaced by the observation of an “Indian Resistance Day.” Oppositely, those who remain supportive of the traditional celebration of Columbus Day charge that this is just another hit that’s been taken out on a heroic figure of world history, simply for having been a “dead, white, European male.” They allege that the attacks on Columbus’ personal character are vicious and often exaggerated, and that many of the attempts to diminish the significance of his 1492 voyage (by pointing out supposed contacts with the New World apparently established by earlier explorers) are based on dubious evidence. All in all, the controversy surrounding Columbus Day is incredibly overblown. Still, since it’s become such a popular target of pseudo-leftist critique, it might warrant a brief reinspection.
Not that the stakes of the debate are really all that high, beyond matters of just pure symbolism; rather, what is more significant is the fact that there even is such controversy at all. For those who consider themselves to be part of the Left, the adoption of this critical standpoint with regard to Columbus Day has the appearance of being exceedingly radical, as a challenge to the conventional wisdom of European triumphalist historiography. As one ostensibly Marxist article polemically asserts, “[t]o celebrate Columbus is to celebrate a legacy of genocide, slavery, rape and plunder.” However, the elevation of this supposedly radical critique to the point where it’s become little more than a convenient provocation directed against the Western imperialist metanarrative, is symptomatic of a broader tendency within the contemporary Left.