[OPE] Marx at the Margins: A pioneer of anti-colonialism

From: <glevy@pratt.edu>
Date: Wed Apr 20 2011 - 20:04:16 EDT


 Marx at the Margins: A pioneer of
  Thursday, 14 April 2011 21:39
 Written by Chris Nineham
 Chris Nineham reviews *Marx at the Margins*, which reveals Marx and Engels
as pioneers in the struggle against colonialism and racism. Kevin B.
Anderson, *Marx at the Margins: On Nationalism, Ethnicity, and Non-Western
Societies* (University of Chicago Press 2010), xi, 319pp.

M*arx at the Margins* very successfully defends Marx and Engels against
claims that their analysis of capitalism was economistic and Eurocentric.
The charge that the founders of Marxism downplayed politics and reduced
history to economic issues is common. It normally comes from the right wing,
but has been taken up over the years by various figures on the left,
including notably Edward Said. Said argued that Marx ignored the importance
of colonialism, race and identity in the making of the modern world.

The connected accusation of Eurocentrism is partly based on a few instances
of questionable language used by Marx and Engels. It is sustained however by
the argument that Marx saw development through the prism of Western
experience, that he predicted the rest of the world would pass through the
same stages of development as Europe in what Anderson calls a ‘unilinear’
way. Anderson does not just deal convincingly with these charges, he
establishes that the truth is the very opposite. He shows that Marx was a
pioneer of anti-imperialism, and a champion of political causes that many on
the left ignored. Both their writings and the political record show that
Marx and Engels believed the struggle for democracy and national liberation
were crucial components in the struggle for human emancipation.

The case for Marx’s Eurocentrism rests partly on a reading of the *Communist
Manifesto*. The first part of the manifesto famously describes some of the
achievements of capitalism; the way it overcomes isolation, brings
technological advance and generates an historically unparalleled surplus. In
a condescending phrase Marx argues capitalism draws ‘even the most barbarian
nations in to civilisation’ (p.9). Occasional slips like this show Marx did
not always find the language to distance himself from the prejudices that
surrounded him, but they tell us nothing of much use about his politics.

The *Manifesto* has a two-sided take on capitalism. As Anderson notes Marx
leaves *all* his criticisms of capitalism to the second half of the book. It
would be absurd to see the *Manifesto*, calling as it does for the system’s
overthrow, as an apology for any aspect of that system. If there is a
weakness it is one of omission: Marx does not describe the specific
degradations of colonialism.

The second source of criticism is Marx’s early 1850s writing on India.
Edward Said has particularly taken Marx to task for his apparent softness on
the civilising tendencies of British colonialism in Marx’s essay *The
British Rule in India*. Others like Aijaz Ahmed, however, have criticised
Said’s ‘postmodern kind of anti-colonialism’ (p.22), and argued that it
ignored the need to challenge caste oppression, something that Marx and
other progressive Indians supported. As Marx became more engaged with the
question of development, his position quickly became more dialectical. In
1853, the same year he wrote *The British Rule in India*, Marx wrote in
another essay the following:
The Indians will not reap the benefits of the new elements of society
scattered amongst 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 Hindoos themselves have grown strong enough to
throw off the English yoke altogether (*The Future Results of British Rule
in India*, cited p.23).

As Irfan Habib argues, these lines show Marx not just setting the
emancipation of colonial peoples as an objective for British workers,
remarkable enough for the time, but also suggests he thought Indian national
liberation might come before the emancipation of the European working
classes. ‘Such insight and vision’ argues Habib, ‘could come from Marx and
Marx alone’ (p.23).

Marx’s subsequent writing on India shows a growing indignation at the
horrors of colonialism but also a sense of the interdependence of
anti-colonial and anti-capitalist struggles elsewhere. In 1858, after the
great Sepoy Rebellion that shook the colonial administration, Marx wrote in
a remarkable letter to letter to Engels in the same year, that ‘India is now
our best ally’ (p.41). Anderson documents in great detail the fact that Marx
and Engels energetically supported the struggles of oppressed people all
around the world. Such support was not just an add-on to an essentially
class or economics-based worldview. The liberation of the Polish people and
other oppressed nationalities in Russia, for example, was a central part of
Marx’s strategic thinking. He saw their defeat in 1864 as a historic blow:
‘The suppression of the Polish insurrection and the annexation of the
Caucasus, I regard as the two most important events to have taken place in
Europe since 1815’ (p.66).

Similarly, Marx was a fervent supporter of the struggle against slavery in
the US and elsewhere, and was particularly excited by resistance amongst
slaves themselves. In another letter to Engels he wrote: ‘In my view, the
most momentous thing happening in the world today is, on the one hand, the
movement among the slaves in America, started by the death of Brown, and the
movement among the slaves in Russia’ (p.85). It was actually under the
impact of the American Civil War, the movement in Europe in support of
abolition, and the Polish insurrection that the First International was
created. In the International’s inaugural address Marx makes the point that
it was protests against intervention by the working classes of England that
stopped ‘the West of Europe from plunging headlong in to an infamous crusade
for the perpetuation of slavery on the other side of the Atlantic’ (p.108).

The charge that Marx imposed Western development models turns out to be a
travesty as well. Examining in detail some of Marx’s neglected journalism
and notebooks, Anderson shows that Marx spent a huge amount of time and
energy studying the specifics of social relations and the particular
prospects for development in India and Russia and North Africa. Marx
actually suggested the possibility of unique developmental paths from
communal agricultural forms to socialism in Russia (in tandem with the
struggles of the European working class). He polemicised against other
writers who believed feudal relations dominated in Asia. Marx argued for the
existence of a different formation, an ‘Asiatic mode’ with no analogue in
Western history.

There has been a lot of criticism of this notion, but Anderson explains that
Marx’s view of the Asiatic mode and communal relations in India were complex
and changing. While in his early essays for example he judged communal forms
in the Indian village as the basis for ‘Oriental Despotism’, by the time he
wrote the *Grundrisse* in 1857 he viewed them more sympathetically as a
counterpoint to the disempowered and atomized state of the modern working
class. Later, he suggested the destruction of communal relations could
become a flashpoint of resistance to encroaching capitalism.

Marx’s support for national self-determination and his hopes for
path-breaking leaps in the underdeveloped world were not accidental. They
flowed from his hostility to capitalism as a whole. His tireless campaigning
against the British occupation of Ireland, for example, was linked to the
struggle for class unity in Britain. He argued the task of the General
Council of the International in London was to ‘awaken the consciousness of
the English working-class to the notion that, for them, the national
emancipation of Ireland is not a question of abstract justice of
humanitarian sentiment, but the first condition of their own social
emancipation’ (p.150). It was precisely because he was a revolutionary
dedicated to the root and branch overthrow of the system that he welcomed
and supported any movement that challenged the power of its main

Exactly the opposite of the caricature then, is true. Far from leading him
to productivism or a mechanical theory of predetermined stages, Marx’s
analysis led him to a deep understanding of the contradictions and
destabilising unevenness of capitalist development, and to welcome every
rebellion more consistently and enthusiastically than any other western
contemporary. Marx and Engels fought battles in the movement at the time for
this kind of political, global approach, against those like Proudhon who
wanted to reduce the movement to the spontaneous class struggle.

In his inaugural address to the International, Marx argued that the struggle
against slavery, the Polish insurrection and the Russian occupation of the
Caucasus have ‘taught the working classes the duty to master themselves the
mysteries of international politics… the fight for such a foreign policy
forms part of the general struggle for the emancipation of the working
classes’ (p.67).

Andersons’ book is important not just as a refutation of views hostile to
Marx on the right and left. His understanding of Marxism helps us counter
economism on the Marxist left itself, and to chart our way forward in a
complex global situation. To this day there is a tendency to downplay the
importance of struggles against imperialism and struggles for democracy, and
to focus on a narrowly defined class struggle. Our world is shaped by
democratic revolution and imperialist war. Just as in Marx’s day, for
instance, racism and division at home are linked to overseas occupation. Our
movement needs a ‘foreign policy’ as part of our own struggle for

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