Marx On Trial

Marx on Colonialism

Anindya Sen

[This has referenece to Subhas Chandra Ganguly’s two-part article ‘Marxism vs Science’ (Frontier Vol 47, Nos. 41 & 42, April 14-25, April 26-May 2, 2015 and Biswajit Roy’s rejoinder, Frontier Vol 47, No. 47, May 31-June 6, 2015]

There is no reason to believe that Marx and Engels knew India and China better than lndians and the Chinese, nor is it necessary to take his words as gospels. Limited in scope due to paucity of information, Marx and Engels truly had too little to work upon and also that study of India and Asia for that matter never figured prominently in their scheme of things. His body of works on India and other colonies are far too small and many of them, particularly on India and China were written as part of journalistic despatches rather than planned theoretical studies.

Marx's dismissive attitude towards India and Indians is in evidence in his first despatch for Daily Tribune on India (British Rule In India), where he viewed Indian society as one lacking in internal energy. However, put in proper context it may not seem too derogatory to hurt anybody's national pride. Very clearly he squarely held rampant destruction perpetrated on the Indian producer community by the British intruders responsible for all this lack of energy.

In Future results of British Rule In India, Marx did mention British ushering in a superior system (capitalism) in a rather backward India, which many people find worth questioning. There is no denying that in Marx's paradigm capitalism as a system is superior to feudal system or any pre-capitalist formation including Asiatic Mode of Production. But he was certainly not among the children of euro-communism and India's very homegrown CPI-CPM who advocate that capitalist system should be allowed to build up first, unleash all the vagaries on the people which alone creates socialism possible. Nor by dint of his understanding of systems, Marx ever stopped exposing the brutality and hypocrisy of the British rule in India. Though he envisaged both destructive and regenerative role of British rule in India, a careful reading of the same article would reveal that the destructive aspect that was what he found in full bloom and he found nothing less than a revolution either in Britain or in India imperative for realizing the possibility of regeneration, engendered by political unification of the country and implementation of technology.

For one thing Marx's understanding on the socio-economy of the east and formulation of the theory of Asiatic Mode of Production as opposed to the western feudal system, inadequate and also there is not enough intellectual product to justify such formulation. The idea on AMP, which gradually developed into a concept are to be found in rudiments in the writings on the colonial question in eighteen fifties including in Grundrisse and was used with some authority in the preface of the Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. In Capital Vol. 1, Part 4, Chapter 14, Section 4 (Division of Labor in Manufacture and Division of Labor in Society) he dwelt on AMP at some length, though that can hardly be viewed as comprehensive and sufficiently analytical. Evidently, his treatment was not able to get hold of the diversity and depth of the land and there is no reason to take them as gospels.

Marx's idea that India didn't have private ownership of land, which gradually led him to arrive at his theory of Asiatic Mode of Production was primarily drawn from Francois Bernier, a physician and a traveller who was Dara Shikoh's physician for some time and subsequently was attached with Aurangzeb's court. For obvious reasons this may not be taken too seriously. In his more serious engagement with his contemporary narrators on the colonial question, with the likes of Elphinstone and Kovalevsky he stressed on the difference between AMP and western feudalism in that 'there was no private property of land' which rendered the whole socio-economy stagnatory.

While this assessment of Marx has been questioned by many, in this writer's view it has little relevance for today and there lies hardly any reason to protect those lines and judge Marx's attitude on India in particular and colony in general based on them.

There are still leftist commentators who, for reasons best known to them, refer to those narratives for making a point or two in relation to Indian revolution. But to any serious researcher of Indian history, the maximum utility of those observations, made 150 years back, is in being critiqued, put to rigorous theoretical grilling and may be developed in the process.

More importantly, some leftist commentators find some kind of approval on Marx's part towards British rule as a destroyer of that stagnancy [as cited by Irfan Habib in his article on 'Marx's Perception on British Rule in India" by referring to his despatch on British Rule In India (June 10 1853)).] But how can the fiercest critique of colonialism approve of the dance of death and construe as an approver of the same system? How can one overlook the fact Marx found the role of British as 'inadvertent' and guided by 'vilest' interest, and quite obviously use of such epithets does point to anything but approval.

A reading of the drafts of the letter Marx wrote to Vera Zasulich narrates that he never believed in the theory of historical inevitability nor he was a stage-theorist, privileging one system over another. Though in his system, capitalism indeed is a higher stage compared to pre-capitalist systems, which include AMP, his theory of revolution was never a rigid stagist one. His discussion on Russian agricultural commune is enough instructive in this relation. As a matter of fact he was extremely sensitive to the possibility of Russian agricultural commune being developed into a socialist tool without passing through the vicissitudes of capitalist private ownership. Actually his understanding of Russian revolution was succinctly one to be led against the state and the capitalist intruders who were about to destroy the commune. It is however entirely another matter that his understanding of Russian revolution was not pursued by the posterity in Russia and Vera Zasulich gradually transformed herself into an inert supporter of Russian war efforts in WW-1 and actually opposed the October revolution.

Also untrue is the allegation that he did not consider people of the colonies as drivers of their histories. Despite all limitations and his lack of exposure to Indian history and the peasant struggles under the Muslim rule, he never lost sight of even the minute symptoms of Indian resistance during his lifetime. His treatment of the Indian revolt, on which he had written quite at length, is a case in point which he rated quite highly and termed it the first National Revolt.

Marx and Engel's treatment of the colonial question has two distinctive patterns and phases. One, the narratives written for news papers and the other, theoretically more rigorous to be found in the pages of his theoretical publications such as Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy and Capital Volume 1. The whole thing, however, may be seen in a continuum, from initial observation to mature understanding, while one thing remained unchanged in the whole course: his (their) political stand.

One is free to criticise Marx's theoretical perceptions on colonial question, but while doing so, one can ill-afford to overlook that all his writings on colony, India, Indian Revolt and China etc. were guided by one singular principle and purpose, that of exposing British atrocities in China and India and the phrases and terms used for the purpose make no secret of this overt criticism.

In one such piece of writing [English Ferocity in China], he goes on to criticise the company and the British government for waging the 'most unrighteous war' and blamed the company officials of 'wilful ignorance' or 'criminal knowledge'. Scores of such lines can be quoted from other pieces of theirs. In an article penned by Engels titled The New English Expedition in China, where he found a continuation of the war of 1841-42 [going in the annals of history as the first opium war], he very clearly condemned ‘the old plundering buccaneering spirit which distinguished our common ancestors of the 16th and 17th century’.... Now what he was alluding to? Quite inevitably, his criticism was directed to the whole history of colonisation, beginning from the Spanish invaders of the Canary Island to the Dutch in Banda and obviously to his more contemporary experiences in India and China. Do people fail to appreciate the deep remorse of a European soul towards his own history and ancestors? Could there be any stronger words to criticise their own past? Does anyone find any sense of cost benefit calculation or any kind of approval to 'collateral damage' in any pretext? Clearly it is just the contrary.

In this particular context it is better to read the chapter XXXI of Capital Vol 1 which deals with 'Genesis of The Industrial Capitalist', where Marx exposed in length the role of plunder, racial aggression, extermination of aboriginal people, which ultimately resulted in formation of industrial capital. To quote him: "The treasures captured outside Europe by undisguised looting, enslavement, and murder, floated back to the mother-country and were there turned into capital." It is here one finds Marx coming out in open criticism in his inimitable satiric way, of what went in the colonies in the name of commerce. To quote one such line: ‘‘...wherever they set foot, devastation and depopulation followed. Banjuwangi, a province of Java, in 1750 numbered over 80,000 inhabitants, in 1811 only 18,000. Sweet commerce!" While reading these texts, it is difficult to miss the unmistakable voice of an eternal critique that was directed towards all the mis-demeanour of colonial plunder and exploitations to have taken place in the history, instead of overlooking them.

Also some reading of the chapter of 'Primitive Accumulation' in Capital, Vol. 1, gives a better understanding of their treatment of what they compared with the 'Original Sin'.

Marx (and Engels) traced the moment primitive accumulation in England in the 13th and 14th century and found it essential for a subsequent development of capitalism. Also they identified the same tendency in the colonies to be operative in the aftermath. Neither they welcomed the process of primitive accumulation in the European land, not was there any occasion to do the same in the colonies. Whether he found capitalism as a higher stage doesn't figure at all in this context. Quintessence is that they found the process extremely painful and inhuman from people's point of view, which was reflected in all their journalistic despatches and planned theoretical probes all the same.

In his notes on modern colony, he observes that backwardism and poverty is reproduced in the colonies in order to sustain the capitalist order, which implies nothing other than the fact that primitive accumulation is necessary accompaniment of modern capital. And it is far from being a past phenomenon. It's possible to readily recognise moments of primitive accumulation in Singur, Nandigram, POSCO and many other in recent experience.

All this would lead anyone to believe that Marx was a bitter and consistent critique of colonialism, both as a political activist of Internationalism and as a theoretician. Depth and epistemological understanding of his criticism may be called into question by the posterity, but certainly not his revolutionary intent and revolutionary fervour of his analysis.

Allegation that Marx's internationalism didn't extend to the toilers of the colonies is height of a scandal! If anything that Marx is still invoked for the world over after over 130 years of his death, it is his revolutionary internationalism. Indians should be especially grateful to him, for it was he who first was able to hear the people's voice in the otherwise elitist cacophony of sepoy mutiny. His quite a number of writings on Indian Revolt bear testimony to the fact that he found it to be the first national revolt against British colonialism.

In Further results of British rule In India, he talked of the British ushering in some dynamism with the help of a superior (capitalist) system in backward India and had laid down two conditions for the Indian people to reap the benefit of the dynamism. The conditions were either a take-over of political power by the proletariat in Britain or an overthrow of the British colonial rule by the Indian people. It was how, he did herald the possibility of revolution in the colonies prior to a proletarian revolution in the citadel of capitalism.

If eminent historians such as Irfan Habib gave credit to Marx for 'set colonial emancipation, not just colonial reform, as an objective of the European socialist movement and still more to look forward to a national liberation, attained through the struggle by the Indian people, as an event that might even precede the emancipation of the European working class', it is certainly a product of more intense study of Marx's takes in proper context which stands opposed to fixing blind allegations arising out of context understanding and may be some misplaced expectations.

One may still find his criticism not enough, may be on account of the fact that his overall theoretical framework was MOSTLY euro-centric and that Marx should be extricated from its euro-centric past in order to unearth its revolutionary potential. Such theoretical exercises are welcome and debates and discussions may go on.

But let us not forget that it was he who also found British rule creating the condition of National revolution in India. Perhaps any commentator of post-colonial era wouldn't disagree that among many effects of colonial rule, national integration is one which played some crucial role in the spate of national revolutions in the colonies, which came up in middle two quarters of 20th century. And that some leaders of such nationalist struggles conceived their struggle in continuum with a larger struggle for socialism was just not out of co-incidence.

These struggles and experiences have left their indelible mark in the history of socialism. II Marx's prophesy of anti-capitalist revolution didn't really materialise in capitalist citadels, his assessment of revolutionary situation in the colonies have actually been materialised to play the beacon light for future socialism. This is one truth that his bitterest critics can't afford to wish away.

On his part he paid maximum attention to unravel the possibility of a revolutionary change from the extant situation and not from what should have been. On matters of 'what should have been' he would not disagree with many of the post colonial critiques that all European intrusions in various parts of the world should not have happened; that European settlers shouldn't have butchered the indigenous population in the Americas; they shouldn't have resorted to piracy and buccaneering in India and China etc. etc. & etc. And he had made his position clear in so many writings, which only need to be read by the interested.

One must understand that revolutionaries are not fortune tellers. They make mistakes for the posterity to learn from the mistakes. If Marx's original ideas of revolution didn't actually realise in the land of developed capitalism, the cudgel was taken up in the colonies. And it is precisely because of that Marxism has not slipped into oblivion. And if Mao and Ho found inspiration of a national revolution from Marx it was from Marx as a revolutionary rather than Marx as a theoretician.

Vol. 48, No. 1, July 12 - 18, 2015