[OPE-L] Review of _Karl Marx on India_

From: glevy@PRATT.EDU
Date: Thu Oct 12 2006 - 05:20:27 EDT


An Enemy of Empire

Book Review by Chris Harman, October 2006

Chris Harman is impressed by a new collection of Marx's journalistic
writings on India which helps demolish the myths that Marx was a
supporter of 'progressive' imperialism.

"The Roman divide et impera (divide and rule) was the great rule by
which Great Britain contrived to retain possession of her Indian
Empire. The antagonism of various races, tribes, castes, creeds and
sovereignties continued to be the vital principle of British
supremacy... 200,000,000 natives being curbed by a native army of
200,000 men officered by Englishmen, and that native army in turn
being kept in check by an English army numbering 40,000 only... How
far that native army can be relied upon is clearly shown by its
recent mutinies...

"It is the first time that Sepoy regiments have murdered their
European officers; that Muslims and Hindus, renouncing their mutual
antipathies, have combined against their common masters; that
disturbances beginning with the Hindus have actually ended in placing
on the throne of Delhi a Muslim Emperor; that the revolt has not been
confined to a few localities; and, lastly, that the revolt in the
Anglo-Indian army has coincided with the general dissatisfaction
exhibited against English supremacy on the part of the great Asiatic

These were Karl Marx's words on the first great rising against
British rule in India, in July 1857, known as the Sepoy rebellion
after the name given to the Indian troops, for the bestselling US
newspaper of the day - the New York Tribune. It was just one of many
articles he wrote on India for the newspaper. Iqbal Husain has done
us all a service by going through the files of the New York Tribune
to bring them all together, with notes to distinguish what Marx wrote
from editorial changes made by others in the course of publication
(for instance, often printing the word "Hindu" where he probably
wrote "Indian").

The articles were written to earn Marx the money he needed to provide
for himself and his family while he undertook his research into
economics and conducted his political activity. They were necessarily
tailored to an audience that was, in the main, not revolutionary. As
such they often contained little more than an account of events,
rather than an overall political analysis. Nevertheless, among them
there are some very important pieces of analysis. What comes through
clearly from the writing is Marx's sympathy with the rising and his
scorn at the greed and hypocrisy of the British rulers of India. So
he wrote in September 1857:

"The outrages committed by the revolted Sepoys in India are indeed
appalling, hideous, ineffable - such as one is prepared to meet only
in wars of insurrections, of nationalities, of races, and of above
all of religion... However... it is only the reflex, in a
concentrated form, of England's own conduct in India... To
characterise that rule, it suffices to say that torture formed an
organic institution of its financial policy. There is something in
human history like retribution, and it is a rule of historic
retribution that its instrument be forged not by the offended, but by
the offender himself...

"To find parallels to the Sepoy atrocity we need not, as some London
papers pretend, fall back on the Middle Ages... All we want is to
study the first Chinese war, an event, so to say, of yesterday. The
English soldiery then committed abominations for the mere fun of it;
their passions being neither sanctified by religious fanaticism nor
exacerbated by hatred against an overbearing and conquering race...
The violations of women, the spittings of children, the roasting of
whole villages were then mere wanton sports... recorded by British
officers themselves."

Marx records the atrocities committed by the British army in trying
to put down the Indian revolt and lays into the press coverage:
"While the cruelties of the English are related as acts of martial
vigour, told simply, rapidly, without dwelling on disgusting details,
the outrages of the natives are deliberately exaggerated... The
British rulers of India are by no means such mild and spotless
benefactors of the Indian people as they would have the world
believe." Pointing to official British evidence of the use of torture
to extract taxes from the Indian peasantry, he concludes the article:
"In view of such facts, dispassionate and thoughtful men might
perhaps be led to ask whether people are not justified in attempting
to expel the foreign conquerors who have so abused their subjects."

Echo of the passion

Marx showed how the different sections of the upper class in Britain
used the taxation obtained through such torture to enrich themselves,
with "no part of them returned to the people in public works, more
indispensable in Asiatic countries than anywhere else". But he also
points out that in Britain only one class has gained from its empire,
rather than the population as a whole. The "advantage to Great
Britain from her Indian empire must be limited to the profits and
benefits which accrue to individual British subjects", but the cost
of the upkeep of the empire is being paid "out of the pockets of the
people of England".

A few quotations cannot provide more than a slight echo of the
passion that Marx deploys when tearing into the pretensions and
horrors of British colonialism. It is a passion that remains relevant
today. People like Niall Ferguson continue their attempts to
rehabilitate the empire on prime time television, while divide and
rule policies continue to work out their evil logic in Iraq.
Propaganda about "atrocities" committed by "our enemies" is used to
justify the bombing of villages in Afghanistan and Lebanon.

But the writings also have another value, in confronting myths that
have been spread about Marx's views - like those that suggest that
Marx supported British colonialism in India as "progressive". This
has been propagated by people like the Marxist academic Bill Warren,
who praised Marx for supposedly seeing imperialism as inevitably
laying the ground of capitalist economic growth. It is a myth that
has also been propagated by opponents of imperialism, like Edward
Said, who condemned Marx's writings as Orientalist or Eurocentrist by
taking sentences from the mass of his writings out of context.

In two early articles, written four years before the 1857 Rising,
Marx set out to try to explain how the British had managed to
establish their supremacy in India and to sustain it with "an Indian
army maintained at the cost of India". He had no doubt that "the
misery inflicted by the British on Hindustan is of an essentially
different and infinitely more intensive kind than all Hindustan had
to suffer before", accompanied by the "deterioration of an
agriculture not capable of being conducted on the British principle
of free competition". But this did not explain why the British had
been able to seize the subcontinent in the first place.

Marx's explanation was based on what he could discover from the
material on Indian social life and economic development that existed
in European languages at that time. This seemed to indicate that
Indian society had experienced economic stagnation for "thousands of
years", regardless of the rise or fall of empires or dynasties. He
concluded there must be some feature of "Asiatic society" that led to
such a state of affairs. This he located in a combination of a lack
of private property in land, the organisation of handcrafts and
agriculture without the use of money in virtually self contained
village economies, and the importance of irrigation organised by the
central state. The result was, he claimed, that "all the wars,
invasions, revolutions, conquests, famines... did not go deeper than
its surface", or as he put it in a typically pithy (but misleading)
statement, "India has no history at all, or no known history."

 From this he concluded that the British conquest, however brutal,
might eventually have one beneficial side effect. By breaking down
the old stagnant structure it would open up for the first time the
possibility of real economic and social change. The British, for
their own bloody purposes, would build railways to move troops and
industries to cater for them, and in the process lay the ground for
industrial development.

We now know that Marx was wrong in seeing Indian society and economy
as stagnant - chiefly because of research carried out in the last 50
years by Indian historians influenced by Marx, like D D Kosambi, R S
Sharma, Romila Thapar, Satish Chandra and Irfan Habib. Until at least
the mid-Mughul period (the early 17th century) technical advance in
India roughly paralleled that in western Europe, and India remained
the world's biggest exporter of textiles for another century (as Marx
himself recognised by the time he re-examined India's industrial
record after the 1857 Rising).

But Mughul society had entered into a crisis by the time the British
conquerors arrived on the scene in the late 18th century, so giving
the false impression of neverending backwardness and stagnation.
Through no fault of his own, Marx's account of "Asiatic society" was
a mistaken one. Mistaken too was the occasional tendency of Marx (and
even more Engels) to slip into the prejudice of the time of regarding
the "Asiatic" character to be fundamentally different to the European

More important, however, than all this is what is ignored by those
who claim that Marx praised colonialism. This was his own conclusion
about what needed to happen for the people of India to benefit from
any changes induced by the British presence. "The Indians will not
reap the fruits of the new elements of society scattered among them
by the British bourgeoisie, till in Great Britain itself the now
ruling classes shall have been supplanted by the industrial
proletariat, or till the Hindus themselves shall have grown strong
enough to throw off the English yoke altogether."

It is to debase language to refer to someone who looked to revolution
to emancipate India, and who showed such sympathy with the country's
first great uprising, as a Eurocentrist, Orientalist, or an apologist
for empire.

Karl Marx on India
Edited by Iqbal Husain
Tulika Books, New Delhi

This archive was generated by hypermail 2.1.5 : Tue Oct 31 2006 - 00:00:03 EST