Chris Harman


An enemy of empire

(October 2006)

Reviews, Socialist Review, October 2006.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

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

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

“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 nations.”

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 never-ending 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 one.

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.

Last updated on 27 December 2009