The Oppressed and The Oppressors

Marx’s Reflections on the Arab World

Marcello Musto

[When he lived in Algiers, Marx attacked—with outrage—the violent abuse of the French, their repeated provocative acts, their shameless arrogance, presumption, and obsession to take revenge like Moloch in the face of every act of rebellion by the local Arab population.

“A kind of torture is applied here by the police, to force the Arabs to ‘confess’, just as the British do in India”—he wrote.
Marx: “The aim of the colonialists is ever the same: destruction of the indigenous collective property and its transformation into an object of free purchase and sale”.]

In the winter of 1882, during the last year of his life, Karl Marx had a severe bronchitis and his doctor recommended him a period of rest in a warm place. Gibraltar was ruled out because Marx would have needed a passport to enter the territory, and as a stateless person he was not in possession of one. The Bismarckian Empire was covered in snow and anyway still forbidden to him, while Italy was out of the question, since, as Friedrich Engels put it, ‘the first proviso where convalescents are concerned is that there should be no harassment by the police’.

Paul Lafargue, Marx’s son-in-law, and Engels convinced the patient to head for Algiers, which at the time enjoyed a good reputation among English people to escape the rigours of winter. As Marx’s daughter Eleanor Marx later recalled, what pushed Marx into making this unusual trip was his number one: to complete Capital.

He crossed England and France by train and then the Mediterranean by boat. He lived in Algiers for 72 days and this was the only time in his life that he spent outside Europe. As the days passed, Marx’s health did not improve. His suffering was not only bodily. He was very lonely after the death of his wife and wrote to Engels that he was feeling “deep attacks of profound melancholy, like the great Don Quixote”. Marx also missed–because of his health condition–serious intellectual activity, always essential for him.

The progression of numerous unfavourable events did not allow Marx to get to the bottom of Algerian reality, nor was it really possible for him to study the characteristics of common ownership among the Arabs–atopic that had interested him greatly a few years earlier. In 1879, Marx had copied, in one of his study notebooks, portions of Russian sociologist Maksim Kovalevsky’s book, Communal Landownership: Causes, Course and Consequences of its Decline. They were dedicated to the importance of common ownership in Algeria before the arrival of the French colonisers, as well as to the changes that they introduced. From Kovalevsky, Marx copied down: “The formation of private landownership–in the eyes of French bourgeois–is a necessary condition for all progress in the political and social sphere’. Further maintenance of communal property, “as a form which supports communist tendencies in the minds, is dangerous both for the colony and for the homeland”. He was also drawn to the following remarks: “the transfer of landownership from the hands of the natives into those of the colonists has been pursued by the French under all regimes. (…) The aim is ever the same: destruction of the indigenous collective property and its transformation into an object of free purchase and sale, and by this means the final passage made easier into the hands of the French colonists”.

As for the legislation on Algeria proposed by the Left Republican Jules Warnier and passed in 1873, Marx endorsed Kovalevsky’s claim that its only purpose was “expropriation of the soil of the native population by the European colonists and speculators”. The effrontery of the French went as far as “direct robbery”, or conversion into “government property” of all uncultivated land remaining in common for native use. This process was designed to produce another important result: the elimination of the danger of resistance by the local population. Again, through Kovalevsky’s words, Marx noted: “the foundation of private property and the settlement of European colonists among the Arab clans would become the most powerful means to accelerate the process of dissolution of the clan unions. (…) The expropriation of the Arabs intended by the law had two purposes: 1) to provide the French as much land as possible; and 2) to tear away the Arabs from their natural bonds to the soil to break the last strength of the clan unions thus being dissolved, and thereby any danger of rebellion”.

Marx commented that this type of individualisation of landownership had not only secured huge economic benefits for the invaders but also achieved a “political aim: to destroy the foundation of this society”.

In February 1882, when Marx was in Algiers, an article in the local daily The News documented the injustices of the newly crafted system. Theoretically, any French citizen at that time could acquire a concession of more than 100 hectares of Algerian land, without even leaving his country, and he could then resell it to a native for 40,000 francs. On average, the colons sold every parcel of land they had bought for 20-30 francs at the price of 300 francs.
Owing to his ill health, Marx was unable to study this matter. However, in the sixteen letters written by Marx that have survived (he wrote more, but they have been lost), he made a number of interesting observations from the southern rim of the Mediterranean. The ones that really stand out are those dealing with social relations among Muslims. Marx was profoundly struck by some characteristics of the Arab society. For a “true Muslim’”, he commented: “such accidents, good or bad luck, do not distinguish Mahomet’s children. Absolute equality in their social intercourse is not affected. On the contrary, only when corrupted, they become aware of it. Their politicians justly consider this same feeling and practice of absolute equality as important. Nevertheless, they will go to rack and ruin without a revolutionary movement”.

In his letters, Marx scornfully attacked the Europeans’ violent abuses and constant provocations, and, not least, their “bare-faced arrogance and presumptuousness vis-à-vis the ‘lesser breeds’, [and] grisly, Moloch-like obsession with atonement” with regard to any act of rebellion. He also emphasised that, in the comparative history of colonial occupation, “the British and Dutch outdo the French”. In Algiers itself, he reported to Engels that a progressive judge Fermé he met regularly seen, in the course of his career, “a form of torture(...) to extract ‘confessions’ from Arabs, naturally done (like the English in India) by the police”. He had reported to Marx that “when, for example, a murder is committed by an Arab gang, usually with robbery in view, and the actual miscreants are in the course of time duly apprehended, tried and executed, this is not regarded as sufficient atonement by the injured colonist family. They demand into the bargain the ‘pulling in’ of at least half a dozen innocent Arabs. (...) When a European colonist dwells among those who are considered the ‘lesser breeds’, either as a settler or simply on business, he generally regards himself as even more inviolable than the king”.

Similarly, a few months later, Marx did not spare to harshly criticise the British Presence in Egypt. The war of 1882 made by the troops from the United Kingdom ended the so-called Urabi revolt that had begun in 1879 and enabled the British to establish a protectorate over Egypt. Marx was mad at progressive people who proved incapable of maintaining an autonomous class position, and he warned that it was absolutely necessary for the workers to oppose the institutions and rhetoric of the state.

When Joseph Cowen, an MP and president of the Cooperative Congress–considered by Marx “the best of the English parliamentarians”–justified the British invasion of Egypt, Marx expressed his total disapproval.

Above all, he railed at the British government: “Very nice! In fact, there could be no more blatant example of Christian hypocrisy than the ‘conquest’ of Egypt–conquest in the midst of peace!” But Cowen, in a speech on 8 January 1883 in Newcastle, expressed his admiration for the “heroic exploit” of the British’ and the “dazzle of our military parade”; nor could he “help smirking over the entrancing little prospect of all those fortified offensive positions between the Atlantic and the Indian Ocean and, into the bargain, an ‘African-British Empire’ from the Delta to the Cape”. It was the “English style”, characterised by “responsibility” for the “home interest”. In foreign policy, Marx concluded, Cowen was a typical example of “those poor British bourgeois, who groan as they assume more and more ‘responsibilities’ in the service of their historic mission, while vainly protesting against it”.

Marx undertook thorough investigations of societies outside Europe and expressed himself unambiguously against the ravages of colonialism. It is a mistake to suggest otherwise, despite the instrumental scepticism so fashionable nowadays in certain liberal academic quarters.

During his life, Marx closely observed the main events in international politics and, as one can see from his writings and letters, in the 1880s he expressed firm opposition to British colonial oppression in India and Egypt, as well as to French colonialism in Algeria. He was anything but Eurocentric and fixated only on class conflict. Marx thought the study of new political conflicts and peripherical geographical areas to be fundamental for his ongoing critique of the capitalist system. Most importantly, he always took the side of the oppressed against the oppressors.

Back to Home Page

Vol 56, No. 21, Nov 19 - 25, 2023